It scares me how close I came to not opening the door. I thought it would be Mrs. Gateson complaining I'd left my laundry in the washer. And my tooth was killing me. But when I answered my door, it was the kid from Wyoming.
I could smell the rain on him. "Thought we should get acquainted a little better before I take off tomorrow," he said. No smile, no hello. Not a "sorry it's so late."
"You never opened your store today," he said. His front teeth had a ragged look, but still, he was cute. I'll admit something pulled at me.
"I don't remember giving you my address," I said, a joke in Kelwood, where everyone knows everyone else's brand of deodorant. This wasn't flirty. I had a good 20 years on him, and I knew how I looked. I'd been home hurting all day and never managed to change out of a saggy pair of sweats and a T-shirt from my softball team, the Radio Shack Waves. It's possible I hadn't brushed my hair since Friday morning.
Framed in my doorway like he'd just jumped off the bucking bronco on his license plate, his head tipped to one side and a thumb hooked into the pocket of shrunk-to-fit jeans, he stalled 20 or so beats while his mouth shifted a toothpick from one side to the other.
I almost laughed.
This guy took himself way too seriously. In other words, young. Get acquainted better? I didn't even know his name. I'd talked to him a few days before when he wandered into the frame shop. He inspected some needlepoint Bible verses and the framed O'Keeffe prints I had ready for Jackie Dillard and asked if I handled family photos. I was standing at my table cutting glass, and when I looked up I felt my cells wake up and zing around in my body. "Sure," I said.
"Have any around of your own tribe?" he asked, and I told him no. Without a word, he walked out. That was all.
He'd been in town a week. Before he walked into the shop, I'd noticed his truck -- a boxy old Chevy, its faded red the color of a chamois shirt I used to wear until it disappeared somewhere. Marie knew him because he'd been eating at her cafe. "As nice as they come," she'd told me. Marie believes waiting on people gives you all the information you need about their character. She and I own adjoining businesses on First Street. In short, we're both going broke.
Here he was at my door, almost 10 on a Saturday night. I was still deciding if I wanted company when my tooth kicked in again, shooting pain through the side of my face.
"I'm the Son of Big Chief," he said, as serious as cast iron. "Call me Son for short."
I wanted to slam the door and head back for my couch, but he stood planted like someone ready for an earthquake. Is there much that's as bad as a toothache? I wondered if he'd catch me in his long arms if I passed out.
"Sorry, Chief," I said. "I have to be alone so I can start banging my head into the wall."
"If you call me Chief, you'd be talking to my dad."
"Look," I said. I clamped my hand hard against my jaw and the throbbing muted a little. "Thanks for stopping in, but what I need right now is a dentist."
The boy studied me, his stare hard like construction workers' when you walk past during their lunch break. Under his pearl-buttoned shirt, I noted the outline of pectoral muscles. His legs canted out at the knees and met again in a pair of rubbed-raw boots, their pointed toes riding above the wooden threshold.
"What I'm talking about here is my dad and my mom."
He said this, mocking, with a closed mouth grin that could have felt threatening, but it only irritated me. Nothing about him scared me. His shoulders squared into his plaid shirt, a shirt so soft and old I wanted to rub my forehead back and forth on the wide place between his shoulder and breastbone.
I was a mess and things were falling apart. When my kindly landlord of 12 years died, I lost my sweet little farmhouse to a subdivision and ended up here in the moldy Superior Arms Apartments, packed in too close with people like Mrs. Gateson. With the estimate Swede's gave me for new bearings, I might as well not even own a car. My Datsun rotting and now my teeth.
First things first.
"Did you drive over here?" I asked Son of Big Chief and he nodded. "Come in," I said, and I grabbed the phone book to look up Dr. Peters' number. I got her at her house, dinner party laughter and glasses clinking behind her professional voice. She'd meet me at the clinic in 15 minutes.
Something about his driving me through the dark, our conversation on hold, opened up my misery. I cried all the way up Forest Street, hiccoughing directions through sobs. For three days I'd been sitting on that toothache, a jabbing pang that came then disappeared. Sometimes these things go away on their own. One thing I didn't need was another bill.
My dentist, a gray silk blouse tucked into perfectly fit khakis, was unlocking the front door when we drove up. She's one of those women with a tiny waist and slender hips. Without a word, the kid picked up a magazine and blended into the waiting room. Dr. Peters switched on a path of lights, and I followed, feeling huge and hunched and wishing I'd brushed my teeth. Competent women like Cynthia Peters always make me wonder just when I went wrong. She sleuthed inside my mouth, tapping each tooth, pushing it, jiggling and probing. She snapped my x-rays onto a light box. Precise, she inserted a needle as long as an antenna into the epicenter of my pain and, like that, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir burst into echoing hallelujahs. I wanted to swivel the stainless steel table away, rise up, rip the blue paper mask off my dentist's face and kiss her on the lips, but I knew that would freak her out.
"Looks as if we found it," she said. She explained how she'd stripped out the nerve, and I'd have to call an endodontist in Spokane for the root canal.
I didn't care. I slid out from under the heat of that high-powered lamp with gratitude and love. All my troubles were nothing.
here was still the boy, sitting on one of the chrome and leather chairs near the front door. His hair was almost shoulder-length and black, thick as oil, so straight it would never stay where it was put.
Back at the Superior Arms, he parked where my car would sit if it weren't dry-docked at Swede's. I bounded up the stairs ahead of him, giddy with the sweet absence of pain. So what if I was old enough to be his mother? Carpe diem, I told myself.
The minute we stepped into my kitchen, he continued with his quest -- getting us on a first name basis.
"Son's my name," he said. "To you I'm Son."
Now that Dr. Peters had zipped out my nerve, I was more equal to this pushy kid.
"Cup of tea?" I asked.
"I'd take a beer if you had one."
We settled for a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy, the only booze I had in the place. Too many nights alone with a book and a glass of something had cleaned me out. I cleared the used dishes and a stack of paperwork off my table. Like someone checking a fence for gaps, he roamed my kitchen's perimeter. At the fridge, he studied postcards from Baja and Greece as if he could read the words on the other side. I admired the Montana quality of his butt, tight and slim, the round embossing of a snoose can in the back pocket of his jeans.
"Mind if I use your facilities, ma'am?" he asked, the "ma'am" precise, a blunt-nosed bullet aimed at my thoughts.
His undershot cowboy heels clunked across the linoleum and I pictured Mrs. Gateson below us scowling, her retired music-teacher ears as sensitive as her mood was testy. The kid turned before he disappeared into the bathroom.
"You remember my father, don't you? Tall, slim dude who played guitar at the Ptarmigan Room. Big Chief -- the folksinger you screwed 20 years ago."
His voice was cold. The door latch clicked.
It couldn't be happening, this night of toothache, relief and now a wide screen drama in my three cramped rooms at the Superior Arms. No way could what he said be true. It was coming at me too fast, and I scrambled for footing. My mother did such a job burying that part of my past, she could have set up witness protection programs for a job. Nobody knew.
Could he be? I stuffed the thought as soon as it came. Maybe he'd sniffed some old rumors around a Colorado bar, did some snooping and came looking for me with his made-up history. I had to be careful. But what could he want -- my pile of Visa bills? My brain seesawed between hope and dread. It made me so dizzy I felt blurry.
The requisite amount of suffering, was that it? The requisite amount of suffering for how I treated Jake 20 or so years ago, how I slammed the door on him?
Only Craig called him Big Chief. Craig, the bar manager, made a specialty of insults. When he interviewed me for a cocktail waitress job, Craig toyed with my application, throwing it down, picking it up, throwing it down.
"I'm not so sure you told the whole truth about your weight on here," he said.
"That's what I weigh," I told him. "One-fifteen."
"OK. I can let that go." His finger flicked the paper into a spin on the glass table top. The Ptarmigan pulled in the highest tips in town, and the valve job on my Falcon had cleaned me out. It was the first time I'd gone in debt over a terminal car. It was the first time in my life I felt fat. I hated the guy, and I needed the job.
"We'll see how you do tonight," Craig told me. He nodded his head at Jake, who was setting up a microphone at the other end of the bar. "Don't serve Big Chief any alcohol while he's on shift."
Bars, drinks, cigarette smoke -- all of it was new to me, and I was lost. We weren't allowed to write down the drink orders and had to call them into the bartender in a certain order that was determined by the type of liquor in each. From his stool on the corner stage, Jake played guitar and sang through the crowd's noise. That first night he quietly saved my ass.
"CC and Seven for the man with the bolo," he slipped into the middle of a song when I passed near his knees, and twice he plucked up his crutches and wandered over to the bartender to clear up a mistake I'd made. Jake, even with the way he dragged his feet across the room, was in full control. And Craig, sitting like a big shot at his back corner table, didn't catch any of it. Through the first week, until my brain had a chance to come around, Jake and the bartender took up the slack. They were my friends right off.
Two mornings before I got the job, I'd spotted Jake at a cafe in town where I was scanning the bulletin board for places to rent. He looked interesting, the red Hudson Bay blanket fashioned into a capelike coat with a hood, the long mustache and straight black hair, the metal crutches. He pulled it off. It was the way he carried himself, his command.
The boy and I sat on either side of my kitchen table, the brandy between us and matching glasses.
He couldn't be that baby. First, he had Jake's name wrong and there were all the other reasons. Like the fact that Jake never knew I was pregnant. Like the sheer impossibility of this scene. Still, I started to watch for Jake in him, the same long hands made for wrapping around the neck of a guitar, the gentle, intelligent fingers. The shoulders, broad and flat as shelves. This smooth-faced kid with haughty eyes -- eyes that I hoped couldn't see into me like Jake could. Twenty years ago there were better things in me to find.
Like Jake, this one barged through small talk like a buffalo.
"Is there a corner I can throw my gear?" he asked. "I want to lock up the truck, bring my things up now before we start in drinking."
He walked out my door, and I knew I wouldn't lock it behind him even if his story was nuts. I guess I could see under his bluster how he was scared too.
I used the time to reason with myself. The minute I opened the door, even through the toothache, I wanted to screw this guy. Not a motherly reaction. On the other hand, I could have been seeing his dad in him even then.
Jake loved my body. In the tipi, with a candle inside its glass chimney painting my nakedness, he devoted himself to each part of me. The light stretched the shadows of the poles across the canvas. My legs were long and cheetah-like, my body lean and languid. All that shifting chaos of sheepskin and flannel. The cumulus of down sleeping bags and the quiet winter outside. Jake named my breasts, and these names aren't words I would tell because saying them would make me foolish. What I will say is that Jake whispered to my nipples and they loved him back. After his paralysis, Jake learned to study and adore a woman's body. He had learned the science of skin and nerves.
When the boy returned, I sensed how he fit into the room. I wished everything could stop while I got used to the idea. He stuffed his duffle bag and bedroll between my butcher block and a nailed-shut door leftover from when this place was built to house railroad workers. I wished we were in my farmhouse. I missed that meadowed place so much that I hadn't been able to climb out of my slump, feeling as dingy as this apartment at the Superior Arms, otherwise known around town as Separation Suites for the people who usually moved in.
The boy turned a kitchen chair backward against the table and straddled it, facing me. "You look a heck of a lot better when your face isn't green," he said. With exaggerated flourish, he splashed brandy into our glasses. I was relieved to see humor come through in him. In spite of everything, I still felt light, high from the absence of pain. I started to think about an old saddle that hung in one of the outbuildings at the farm and how if I had it now, I'd sling it over his chair for him. A grin loosed itself from me at the thought.
"He told me I'd like you," the kid said. "But I had to hang around a few days to see for myself."
"I'm glad I passed," I said, lifting my glass in the fashion of a toast. I didn't ask him about Jake.
He raised his glass.
"Mom," he said, so softly it was like lip-reading. Again he stared at me hard.
My head wasn't connected to my body. It was detached, nudging along the ceiling. "What makes you believe I'm your mother?" I couldn't hear my voice carrying the words; I wasn't sure I said them.
"A few years after you left Steamboat, one of your old Utah friends drove through and stopped in at a bar where Jake was playing."
The sound of Jake's name coming like that, hearing the kid's voice say it, gathered up the jangly parts of my mind and dropped them into a space always there, always dark. I felt it, the filling in, the certainty. But I sat there with my poker face and listened.
"It was just after Jake and Lorna had their oldest daughter and Jake had given up drinking. He said if Lorna could go through labor, he could do that. Anyway, Jake asked if this guy knew about you, and that's how he got the story of how you were pregnant when you got back to Utah."
The kid stopped talking and stared at me. I was probably blue-faced from not breathing through all this. I wanted him to touch my hand so my head wouldn't float away. I made myself breathe. He tipped his glass, and I watched his Adam's apple move up his neck.
"Please go on."
"Remember how if he wanted something, he went out and got it?" the boy asked. "He tracked me down, starting from Cottonwood Hospital where my aunt had worked as a nurse. She'd been watching for the right baby for my mom to adopt."
All these years I lived not wanting to think about this boy, and now I felt a jealous sting when he said "my mom." A series of jabbing shocks leapt from his story and my mind traced them backward.
Lorna. Oldest daughter. Cottonwood Hospital. I tested the idea that I was looking at my son.
It wasn't as bad as I thought.
"I grew up in Wyoming. Jake kept track of me from the time I was about 5, but never told any of us. He'd bring his family up to Fremont Lake for summer vacations, and he'd kind of snoop around and see if I was doing alright. Everybody knew him. As a joke, he told the kids in town his name was Big Chief and that's what we called him. Three summers ago, I got work wrangling horses for a dude ranch near Pinedale and that's when he contacted me. Said he didn't want to interfere, but he was there if I ever needed him."
"Three years ago?"
"Guess he wanted to see how I turned out first." He shrugged then, a boyish shrug. I knew I'd be sobbing next if I didn't watch it.
"Looks like you turned fine," I told him. I finished off my drink to even my glass with his and poured out more for us. The cheap brandy had burned a path and was going down more smoothly.
"I'm doing alright," he said and grinned. This was his show to run. He was good company, his chip-toothed smile like an odd taste that makes you want another. As if some delicate balance in my apartment had been tweaked, the heap-topped garbage sack fell over with a slow groan and a sudden crash like a downed tree. A wine bottle wobbled in an arc to stop at his boot. His face twitched into a wider grin.
"I hope you don't think you're going to reform me," I told him and we started in laughing then, like two kids, the laughter releasing from my throat, from between my shoulder blades, from my ribs and my womb.
"This might call for a party," he said. He was self-possessed, fun. Maybe this was how we'd start out; sneak into our knowing of each other; leave the heavy stuff for later.
I touched my fingers to his knuckles, as lightly as you start out with a colt.
"I don't know your name." If I waited longer, it would be too late.
"What did you call me?" he asked.
"It was never mine to give you a name." I would take nothing from his life, his family that raised him, all the days I didn't see.
"Glenn is what they named me," he said. He caught both sides of his hair and pulled it up and back behind his ears, elbows splayed. "But everyone calls me Len -- that's how my sister pronounced it when they brought me home."
"Your sister was right," I said. "Len is a good name for you."
did give him a name. I called him Peanut because of the woman I watched in the elevator on the way down from the OB ward. We both sat in wheelchairs on our way to get discharged. She held a baby on her lap and I held a plastic bag of hospital stuff my mother insisted we take home. I watched her lift the corner of a pale waffled blanket to see her baby's face.
"I'm taking you out into the big world now, Peanut," she said. I loved the private, grown-up way she talked to her baby. Secretly then, I started to call my given-away baby Peanut. Because that was how I would want to be if I were a mother -- natural and easy like the woman in the elevator.
After a while, I got over it. I mostly stopped keeping track of his birthdays and what grade he would be in. I went on with my life.
After his horse accident and the pneumonia that crept into his spine, the doctors told Jake to forget ever having children. No possibility, they said. For him, that was the worst part of it all. So when I figured I was pregnant, I knew he had to be kept from it at any cost or he'd go ape. Jake was old-fashioned about that stuff -- marriage, babies, family lines. That's why I left. I packed up my car and didn't give Jake any explanation other than restlessness. They say a clean break is the best way. The thing that has bothered me most was how I could do that to someone who loved me so well.
Back then I shut out my guilt and moved on. I wasn't ready for family life. Jake was intense and true, but he wasn't the one. His life was with his music, and that meant lots of bar time. I didn't like the smell of his Camels. I wanted to be wild in a different way. I wanted to play frisbee on a nude beach on Maui, ski powder at Jackson Hole, climb mountains in Nepal. I wanted to hop a freight to Seattle.
I moved back to Logan, Utah, into the two-story wooden house full of dogs, stereo speakers and rice and veggie dinners, where my college friends still lived. I loved how active and quick we were with our bodies. We drove Moondog's micro bus down to Arches National Monument where we climbed over the gates at night and sneaked into the Maze. We all got lost and never stopped laughing all night. At sunrise my friends dropped mescaline, but the idea of what I carried inside me kept me from taking any. Just in case, I thought, even though I knew I'd end my pregnancy. I guided them through the twisting sandstone walls, enjoying their visions, a contact high. I wasn't even sick that morning.
When we got back from the Arches trip, Jake's battered station wagon was parked in front of the big house. He had slept in his car for two nights, waiting. Inside, he sat on the bay window shelf in the kitchen, bent over his guitar. He sang every love song he knew, his music filling the high-ceilinged rooms. I let his songs bounce against me but didn't let them enter. He didn't fit into my life. Later my roommates would tell me they'd never heard anything so intense and beautiful. I hated the clank of his metal crutches, the humiliation of his climb, backward, pulling his butt up step by step to my bedroom. I dashed up the stairs and made my bed. His dog Strider came to me to be scratched, and I told him to go away. Scared Jake would see the life growing inside me, I treated him like the dog, knowing this was the last time he would come, that if I kept all my doors and windows shut he would leave in the morning. I was shameful.
Living in Utah again was too close to Malad, the town where I grew up. I felt my parents there above the Utah border. One night I jerked awake to my dad's voice calling "Ellen," his church voice, his Mormon bishop's voice. I couldn't be pregnant. My parents would die.
Most of that time I felt sick. I decided to stop eating and starve the baby out of me. After the first four days, it wasn't bad. It felt pure. I possessed a thready energy, a purpose.
That was September, and a group of us drove through Sardine Canyon into Brigham City for the Peach Days Parade. Families edged away from us, and we, in our long hair, our patchouli oil, our braids, beads, and bongo drums, nabbed a curbside spot. Batons cartwheeled into the desert sky, slide trombones pumped, and a marching band boomed past us, uniformed in red and white, the tuba like a great eye above it all. The piccolo, a dancing fish, raced over the scales of "Stars and Stripes Forever" and I felt a fluttering, a flicker of life inside me. The next time my eyes opened, I lay on a table in the emergency room of Cooley Memorial Hospital. A nurse with rhinestone dots in her glass frames pressed my hand between hers.
"We've called your folks dear. They're on their way down."
The gig was up. I stared at the IV plugged into the hollow of my arm, delivering food they gave me no chance to refuse.
Things got better between my mother and me before she died five years ago. The year I got pregnant, they were at their worst. None of it was my choice -- being pregnant, moving in with the Bergens in Salt Lake which my parents thought was far enough from Malad for secrecy, working at Alta in the little ticket booth, fat and pale, selling lift passes to skiers who never looked at me. More than anything, it wasn't my choice to go through my one and only labor with my mother at my side, her stern disapproval, how she made everything awful. She carried shame into the hospital with her, sat by my head crocheting a white acrylic sweater and cap for this family member we would be rid of. I was too cowardly to argue with any of it.
This was years before my friends were having home births, nursing their babies at potluck parties, carrying barebottomed infants through their raspberry patches. Their children were beautiful, and I became their "Auntie Ellen," but I never longed to have one of my own. Nobody ever tried to talk me into it.
Things came to me early. Like Jake. I was too young to take hold of that kind of love. Like having a baby. I wasn't ready.
"Is it too late for coffee with this brandy?" I asked. I moved to the stove.
Something slapped on the table. I was at the sink filling the teapot, concentrating on its level. At the whack, I turned to see him, hair hanging over his eyes, a challenge in his smile.
I turned up the flame under the pot and set mugs at our places. Len stared at me, one hand flat over a bill, the 100 visible on its corner.
Something wasn't feeling good, the way the fridge lurched into its humming noise, the way we waited, the way money can be scary. He pushed the bill across the wood of the table, a berm of toast crumbs rolling toward me.
"This is from my father," he said. "I came to deliver it to you. He said he wished it could be a thousand, but the check might bounce."
I remembered Jake's deep voice exactly as it was.
I would not take a gift from this man I'd hurt. I didn't want more memories grabbing at me. The "I wish" game we played after making love, exhaling daydreams like after-sex smoke. I wished for immediate things: Craig replaced with a nicer boss, a sunny day, a stranger to walk up to me on the street and hand me a hundred dollar bill for no reason. Jake's wish was always the same -- to fill up a big log house with his own kids. In the last days I wished I'd get my period, but I said other things -- always money wishes.
Now I looked at this stranger who was the child I never held. Shivering cold in that white and chrome hospital room back then, I only wished that my misery wouldn't be catching, that the baby wouldn't come out stunted and sick. After, a nurse brought me a form to sign so they could give me the shot to stop my milk from coming in. They said it was best if I didn't hold him.
"He'll go to a good home," my mom told me. "With people who know how to be responsible," she added.
Back then we were all making mistakes, making them fast and hard. We said we moved on past them into more of our lives.
And now here was my son, and it was no mistake to have had him.
"You keep the cash," I told him. I folded the bill in half, hiding its face. I lifted the pearl-buttoned flap of his shirt pocket and slid it in.
"That's not how it's gonna be," he said. He walked over to the fridge and attached the money with a magnet. "I went through a lot to bring this to you, and I'd be obliged if you take it."
So polite. Was it real, the way he talked? I wondered what his family was like.
"You're not going to ask what it's for, the hundred bucks?" he asked.
"No. I don't want to know. I'll take it but only because it's something important to you."
Len laughed then, a sound so unexpected it shook me up, sent me to the stove to check the water.
"He said that's what you'd do. He told me you wouldn't want more information." I heard Jake in the way Len's words came tapping soft at my back. The words twined around me from other nights.
Jake's long fingers on his guitar, his large warm hands in the tipi, the candles and puffed-up goosedown bags, the apricot color of our skin.
I slipped my palms against each other over the warmth of the kettle. I wasn't liking this now.
"Hey," I told him. "All this stuff happened too long ago, and I've been too many places in between to pull it out again now." I faced him. "Take the money. Buy yourself a pair of spurs."
"He said you'd talk mean but not to believe it."
"What he said about me isn't true anymore. That was then."
I wasn't sure anymore, wasn't cocky, wasn't the way I had been. Jake sent this kid and he was our baby, but I wasn't his mother, not the same person I was in Steamboat Springs.
"I don't need spurs anyway," he said, lifting my hand and closing my fingers around Jake's gift. "I'm heading for Alaska first thing tomorrow -- salmon fishing."
I felt the edges of the folded bill against my palm. I thought of how Jake would reach into his wallet to give it to Len and how he remembered the details of our conversations. Jake would still love talking to a woman, sharing codes and inside secrets.
"OK," I tried to say. But all around and inside me the tension loosened, and I started in crying. Again.
"Now don't start that." Like most guys, Len would be uncomfortable with my tears, as if something was required that he couldn't give. So I stopped just like that, taking control with a deep breath.
I slipped the bill under the clock and we set in to get serious about the brandy. We enjoyed each other then and talked like new friends, Len telling me about hunting and fishing trips he'd taken with his adopted dad, about a raft trip on the Green River.
"That's when Dad told me I was born in Salt Lake," he said. "When we floated into the state of Utah."
"I've been on that river," I said. "A pretty unremarkable ride."
"You got it exactly," he agreed, laughing, and I knew we'd be OK. I'd never had a conversation with a son before. It felt charmed, like the beginning of romance, but different because I was completely on his side.
Len swung out of his chair and slotted one of his tapes into my stereo. Country western, of course.
"Don't think you've come here to reform me," I said again, and we laughed. Len fiddled with the tape deck, searching through a couple of tracks and I studied him. He was very young. He came to me and bowed, holding out his left hand, palm up. We danced. Like figure skaters on the linoleum, we swirled and stalled, hitting the beat every time, his hand a perfect guide on the small of my back. Would Jake have been so gracious with legs that worked?
"Did you learn this from riding horses through the herd?" I asked him.
I loved this way we could hold each other. I was me, a woman and his mother. Two dizzying songs, and then we slumped on the couch in the living room, snorting giggles like adolescents.
"I don't think you need too much reforming," he said. Hot from the movement, I twisted to kneel on the couch and hoist the heavy window sash. The sky was still at it. Elbows on the sill, I thrust my head into the cold drip, let it run down my cheeks and over my nose. Outside, the tangy scent of cottonwood trees, the fresh ozone smell of rain, the sound of the storm pelting the tin roof on the eave above, and inside, my grown-up kid.
I ducked back inside. "I used to call you Peanut," I told him.
"I'd have a hard time getting used to that," the Son of Big Chief said, and I thought about those tall school tablets with the brave's profile surrounded by red, their flannel-soft pages and wide-spaced lines.
Maybe we were avoiding things we should have said, but what we did that night was party. Len cranked up the music and steel guitar twanged through the rooms, a style that had never rubbed against my woofers and tweeters before. The floorboards bounced under his boots, bound to take out two shelves of Mrs. Gateson's Hummel figures in her apartment below. When you start out halfway propositioning your own son, everything must go backward from that point on, returning to innocence. Innocence, pure as a waterfall with cushiony moss on every ledge, the blue and yellow of forget-me-nots, the whole package, I felt it that night. Jake's boy, now kicking higher than my kitchen table in some Wyoming clog, slapping the hips of his blue jeans, turning, jumping, never banging into cupboards, not bashing the lamp with his head. I wanted that controlled abandon in my life. And I wanted this, this one night of time when we didn't know each other and we drank straight out of the bottle.
He didn't hate me. He wasn't mad, hurt, deranged, damaged, abandoned. This boy had his life, his history, his own ways.
We opened to the rapping on the door and sprayed out our story.
"This is my long lost son," I bellowed at Mrs. Gateson in her quilted robe and hairnet. Until that night, I had no idea women still wore pincurls. "You'll have to give us this one night."
"We'd certainly be obliged, ma'am," he said, and I think she looked at the tiny space on his eyelid where his lashes didn't grow because grouchy Mrs. Gateson said, "Alright, alright." And she left.
"Wait, Mrs. Gateson," I called before she reached the staircase. "Wait a minute." I grabbed my treasured lustreware sugar bowl off the kitchen table and presented it to her.
"He got your smile, dear," she said and steadied the bowl of sugar between her breasts, grasping the bannister with her other hand. Mrs. Gateson called me "dear."
The brandy was gone.
"OK if I throw my bedroll out on the dance floor in there?" Len asked, pointing to the living room's faded carpet, flowered like the one at my grandma's house and one of the few good things about my place. I grabbed a pillow off my bed and slipped it into a clean case, moving fast before I started telling stories about grandparents.
"Do you need an alarm?"
"Don't need a thing. I'm just fine."
"You're wonderful," is all I said then. We'd lost the grace of our dance and tried some awkward half-hug. We both said good night.
So the next morning my "kid" left for Alaska. He refused breakfast or coffee, saying he liked to stop a couple of hours down the road for that. All I could think to send off with him was my grandfather's silver cigarette case, way too slim to carry today's cigarettes and Len didn't smoke anyway.
"I can keep my flies in it," he said.
"The monogram is your great grandfather's, from Cincinnati."
He slipped it into his chest pocket. "A perfect fit," he said. "Thanks."
"Send me a postcard," I said, and maybe the Wyoming ranchers taught him honesty because he answered with no sense of apology.
"I'm not much good at sending letters and stuff like that." He shouldered the lumpy duffle bag, hitching up that chipped tooth grin. I studied my craving to push a flag of hair away from his face and comb my fingers back from his hairline. I thought I really could have a mother inside me because, truly, I'd never wanted to touch someone that way before.
Instead, I followed him outside. He was in a hurry now, ready to be off to the next thing.
"I want to get to the coast and over the border before dark." He sorted through a homemade plywood box in the bed of his pick-up and I saw a leather Dopp kit that reminded me of Jake's, a graduation gift from his dad that had looked too new and adult-looking on the tipi's birch branch shelf. Now it was old, the leather darkened by two generations of men's hands.
In the pie cherry tree next to the street a hummingbird whirred, zooming in for a blossom, curving out and off to the next branch. Other than that, it was Sunday morning quiet, the sun finally arrived, and we stood under a May sky, a few rabbit tail clouds dancing through its blue. Mrs. Gateson's nightdark cat, Halfnote, entered from the vacant lot, parting the tansy ferns like stage curtains. All nonchalance, she crossed the gravel and bumped her head against Len's boot, shrugging past him, smoothing her length against the back of his pants.
I began to get maudlin, wondering why women always waited and watched. Why are the women left?
But of course I wasn't being left. I left him 19 years ago, and he was simply checking in.