Old people, as we are now getting to be, are prone to various kinds of equipment failure. I made a lunch date with a new friend, then fell a bit ill and took to my bed on the day of the date, and when I next checked my email, there in all its glory was a note from her, rather graciously asking if I was all right -- she had sat in the restaurant, alone, people-watching and wondering why I hadn't turned up.
There's nothing that frightens me quite so much as simply forgetting to show up like that. I've done it only three times, and each of these inauspicious occasions have taken place in the last decade -- since I turned about forty-eight, in other words.
Beloved noted as much. "Oh, you stood someone up? Well, you are over fifty, you know."
But -- still. And if the person who does remember the date is older than I? But I suppose all things are relative. Somewhere ahead of each of us there is an unremitting darkness. Some pass into more of the shadows sooner, some at the last moment. I'm experiencing dappled shade.
We have discovered deer damage in the garden -- bean plants nipped off, and an eggplant and a couple of tomatoes. Beloved, who likes to sleep outside in the summer, has moved her bed nearer the veggies, in the area I like to call the orch-yard, and I have been pounding in fence posts all around the outer margins of the garlic border. There are now 11 of these, in a more-or-less concentric circle, and I can tell you that setting iron t-posts at midsummer is work. I drove a stout piece of rebar first into each spot, working the iron bar round in each hole to provide a starter hole for the t-post, then stood on an upended plastic bucket and hammered the post with the flat face of a sawed-off splitting maul. Tomorrow we'll go shop for some appropriate fence material.
Beloved has found the ducks, chickens and geese to be a lot to do. Not that they aren't cooperative, but she has so many and each kind has its own requirements. She's been moving a pen round the place with the geese in it, for example, to give them a fresh spot of grass to work on every day, and to keep them from chasing down the other fowl and nipping at them.
It's fun to lie down next to the fence and stick a finger through the mesh at grass level, wiggling it like a worm, and have the chickens run up one by one and inspect the possibility of a quick, fat meal. The Barred Rocks spraddle their feet out and lean forward, craning their necks to one side and then the other, trying to make out whether the finger is a danger or a goodie. They've never seen a snake before, yet they seem to have some notion of snakiness, just as they all run pell-mell for the barn when the shadow of a crow passes over them -- yow, could be a hawk! How do they know that? Amazing.
The Araucanas, who look, from up close, like a cross between a hawk and an owl, all quite handsome in burnished bronze plumage, stand diffidently at right angles to the finger, judging it from a right or left eye held steadily on target.
I came out to an old friend a few days ago (surely the last one! Who is there left that doesn't know?), and have been in steady email communication with him and his fabulous wife of thirty years, getting caught up, ever since. It's been an intense week for us all.
Beloved came and sat with me while I was reading and responding to this vivid correspondence, in bed, doing my "medical bit" at the same time, as I often do -- being post-op requires that one lie in bed for twenty minutes immobile from time to time -- and she noticed I was in tears.
"He's depressed. It seems to have come as a bit of a shock."
"He's in mourning. I went through that. We all do."
"I'm hard on all of you."
"Well, but it's necessary. You have bottled yourself up for a long, long time."
"So, what in particular has got you so -- so wrought up?"
"I'm not sure. Neither is he -- I mean, about him. He says it's kind of weird to be hit so hard by this because we haven't seen much of each other in thirty-five years."
"Well, you must have meant a lot to each other."
"Mm-hmm. He says so right here. That we were both different from most of the others around us, and that getting through school would have been even more of a hell for him if I hadn't been there."
I looked at her.
"You know, I always thought it was kind of the other way around. He always mentored me on the manly stuff. He gave me more than one rifle, and a revolver, and made a custom holster for it, and leather belts for the holster -- I still have that brown one with the brass buckle -- and a watch pocket for my pocket watch that my mom gave me -- Daughter has those now -- and that wonderful backpacker's fly rod, and the handmade pipes from Chicago, and even picked out my pipe tobacco for me.
"In fact, just the other day, on campus, a guy went by smoking a pipe, and I ran back and stopped him and said, "Latakia!" And he was startled and said, "yes, ma'am -- I see you know your tobaccos" and so we had a lovely conversation, and I remembered my friend, for this man was so like him -- I'm realizing that I measure all men by him, and the more like him they are, the more I like them.
"And, best of all, he built my unadilla-wood clarinet -- 'Martin Freres action on a Buffet body, best of both worlds' -- or something like that. I'm not worthy of such a clarinet; cheeze, you couldn't get one like it now."
"I know," she observed, "that's what they said when I took it in to be reconditioned for you. Their jaws dropped when they saw it."
"And he tried so hard to help me become, you know, a man to be reckoned with among men, just like my mom and dad did. I was a lost cause to them all."
"Not entirely. You had a good life in the woods, you haven't been entirely unhappy. You got my full attention when I was looking for someone to give me children. And -- I do have my standards!"
"Mmh!" The tears ran down again. "This was so right for me, though, in the end. And I'm just grateful for everyone coming through for me the way you all do."
"You're welcome, dear."
The next morning, I packed Little Eva, the Micro Poke Boat, with a fly rod and the reel my friend had given me over thirty years ago with the old Herters rod, and headed for the mountains. It was a risk -- the Saturn wagon is dying, and has been pronounced dead, in fact, by the mechanics. But when you must go, you go, trusting to the gods of the streams and the Naiads of the trees.
Having learned my lesson last year, I open-carried my equalizer on my right hip, in case of -- well, predators. A girl can't be too careful in beer-gut country.
I hiked in to the Wilderness, to a twelve acre lake of my acquaintance, carrying the boat on its pack frame, not a soul in sight the whole time -- still achievable up in there, if you go on a weekday.
The place might be void of people, but it was chock-full of life. A tremendous mayfly hatch was in progress. They twittered on my nose and fingers and eyelashes, and crawled in conga lines along the fly rod, paddle, and gunnels, ultimately falling to die on the water by the hundreds of thousands.
There was little likelihood I would catch anything, for the fish were all sated. Only a half-hearted rise or two every half hour. But I tried anyway. All afternoon I trolled a variety wet flies on a sinking line along the edge of the drop-off, where the green shallows slide into blue.
As expected, none of the giant rainbow trout for which the place is known paid the slightest attention.
But one hefty sixteen-inch brookie took, and fought well, and was landed, cleaned, and wrapped in wet canvas to provide a dinner for two. I packed out, reasonably satisfied with the day, but still in a brown study, musing on my friend of long ago, and what we must have meant to each other.
Granny-gearing back down the mountain, I had a spell of oncoming sleepiness, as I often do after a day of keeping up the skills and interests I had cultivated in the "lost" years -- and so pulled over onto a one-lane concrete bridge, high above the leaping river, and parked in the shade of the mountain hemlocks on the opposite shore. I walked back and stood in the middle of the bridge, in the one patch of sunshine left so late in the day between the steep basalt walls of the canyon.
What anyone would see, passing by: a statuesque, young-elderly lesbian grandma out running around solo in the South Cascades, in her green corduroy jeans, grey tank top, and kayak shoes. Don't Tread On Me. I Have Business Here. Etc.
Watching the rapids below, and marveling at the variety of colors of the boulders in the impossibly clear pools, I suddenly realized why I was here -- I was doing some mourning of my own.
Not for the person I had been, that I have left behind in so many ways -- my former self, so carefully cultivated by my family and friends, has, after all bequeathed to me intact the hiking, the mountains, and this one especially nice fish.
Nor for my friend, of whom I had seen perhaps not nearly enough, over the years, considering the depth of feeling that had been between us. After all, many things have turned out well for him. As they have for me. But ...
It's like this: back when I was seventeen or so, and my dad had despaired of teaching me to drive --we always became really frustrated at such times, because there was something -- sissy would be the word, then, about me -- I was freaking him out, and neither of us could come to grips with why.
So, my friend offered to take me away for a while and return me to the family a skilled, test-ready driver. We packed a tent and a lot of bacon and eggs in his Volkswagen and headed for the Georgia hills, somewhere north of Kennesaw Mountain and south of Resaca, at the cold-snap height of an Appalachian winter.
A really nice old biddy in a park keeper's house ungated a closed state campground for us, and we had the entire place to ourselves for a week. During the days I sat in the driver's seat, shifting gears and clutching and braking, signaling right-and-left-hand turns on the frozen, empty intersections, and practiced parallel parking between steel-post-mounted barbecue grills.
No one saw my mistakes but the frosted long-leaf pines.
I began to gain confidence.
Ever at my right side, my friend, my didactic, freckled, sandy-haired, crusty, tobacco-stained and testosterone-laced friend, gently and quietly and patiently coached me, as all good teachers everywhere always do. At considerable sacrifice to his gearbox, I might add.
At night, we sacked out, tired and cold, and told stories. In the mornings I would rise, make fire in a grill, melt coffee ice, and make breakfast. When it was all ready, I'd go over and shake the tent, and the hibernating beast within would emit a lovely assortment of indignant grunts and howls, and eventually appear, squinting, snorting, and scratching, to reach for his cuppa, which had to be done just so.
I was flat-out deliriously happy.
Nowadays one might be tempted to make something of all this, bad or good, depending on your point of view. Neither of us thought anything of it at the time. What didn't happen, couldn't happen and would not have occurred to either of us, and we were both married to good women within the year.
But now, standing on the bridge in the last dollop of canyon daylight, I could see from the perspective of the dappled shade of age. A pattern emerged. A missed appointment of sorts, one might say. I'd been stood up by the universe, you see.
I'd known since I was six that I was supposed to be a girl. And had buried that knowledge, in fear and self-loathing.
So that when this so deep a friendship came and, in a way, went, I did not see then what I saw now, looking down at the passing water.
I was the young wife.
And this was the husband I would never have.