Armand Tollbar remembered everything Clara said, on and off the pillow, in the bedroom and out of it. These days that had become a tough assignment for him, for while the memories were rich and repetitive, he now knew, deep down in his body, without a paucity of doubt, that the river was getting polluted. For the two of them there had always been a minor division: she loved the house, he loved the river.
Nothing was inordinate about either love, except on both sides of the equation it was full and fulfilling. Now she was gone, that small, lively and ebullient body of hers ravaged suddenly by disease, and the river, a surface scum the first tell-tale sign, along with an indefinable aroma he was more apt to say in explanation was an odor, was changing. Life would gang up on him if he let it; the arguments and the happenings like railroad tracks coming up behind him out of his past, keeping time, matching hits.
“You’ll die with your boots on,” Clara had once said as she bade him goodbye from the wide porch she loved, his wading boots rubbing at inner thighs, the rod tip high, the empty creel hanging on a shoulder strap and swinging at one hip, and the river, downhill and in spring rapture, a prize for the taking, curving off into the shadows of trees.
“Outbound,” he always said to himself as the river sought its way to the Atlantic a dozen or so miles off. They had talked about salutations and valedictions on many occasions, the ones said and those unsaid, or the whispered ones they knew were shared, fully understood. And when he uttered “Outbound,” even unto himself, he knew she heard. The sharing was as complete as two people could make it. Even as death made primal its division.
Now, on this day, Armand looked over his shoulder, rapt at the slight splashing sound sifting a music under the trees, the ripples coming downstream at his knees, waning at his boots, and heard in the limbs above the screech of a daylight owl slamming through the hunchback oaks and stately elms. All of it admittedly setting his bones at radical comfort. “I’ve seen you motionless for long moments,” she had offered softly one late morning on his return,” as if you did not want to cast a shadow into the water, did not want to disturb the fish, lulling them into security, setting them up for the barb.” She had, he agreed again, impeccable eyesight and knockdown reasoning.
On the river he was, fishing he was, with the sun slipping new needles down through the titter of morning leaves. Of course he loved the house (the argument almost coming aloud in him), every corner of it, the soft messages he’d find hidden in corners, in rooms, old smells coming at him he thought might have been forgotten (like the hint of morning cocoa in the kitchen), shadows playing games with his eyes. Oh, God, she could be anywhere! Anywhere!
Yet he had to get out every day so that he could go back to it, revel at arrival, almost expecting her to be there on the porch, the apron yellow as her Swan River daisies, hair neat even in that random way she wore it, as if meant for pillows forever; he’d never told her that because it was something she would know, could generate without trying.
Fishing took him away and brought him back, the small sense of worms at his fingers, their survival’s soft linking at work, working for the small freedoms. Understanding such a frail message as that was like knowing each room of the house could expel him if he lingered too long, absorbed too much, drew down from its walls the ideas and sounds and movements pasted there in some indelible function; Clara’s hand prints, Clara’s fingerprints, Clara’s rush at things painted, open, western in message and color, the walls of the hall her bastion.
“This is my museum,” she had offered another time, leaning back against the hall wall, her hair he noticed against the wall the same way it spread against her pillow, promise in it, supposed innocent portrayal, a language without words. “This is my great romance other than you,” and that brought up without the slightest pause. Always she had a way of bringing him into everything important in her life. “The impact of words often lasts well beyond the sound of them,” she said, not in qualification but as fact. “Words are irrefutable in that way. The energy of them is sometimes indestructible. They carry themselves. Mark that.” The pause came, her eyes focused and she added, “ Remember that I love you always.” Now, brought back in liquid memory, the words were present tense forever.
All of it so marked except the day she died; that day she had sent him on an errand. The last call by the doctor had been one of “some months now.” And she had known the doctor was wrong again.
Days now he kept going back over his life. For such a prolonged part of it there had been the river, and not far from it, paramount as the flush of spring the river brought him, was the house. It was Clara’s house. Down in a wholly formulary part of his body, in a wholly secretive but controlling place, he knew it would always be Clara’s house. As children, as part of Mrs. Beckman’s second grade class, and all up through those young years, until dates became real dates, until the idea of flesh sumptuously but slyly imposed itself, she had steadily said that the house one day would be her house, that she would live there in happiness for her entire life.
One of those days in particular came upon him fully; they were on a hay ride, snuggled form to form, frame to frame, chest to chest, against one side of the hay-filled wagon, noise and cluster and soft gaiety and whispers and new mysteries coupled around them. And the assault of a perfume he would remember forever and could never bring back, as if June nights would always hang around, teasing, on a piece of horizon.
The wagon was passing the house again, on the way back to the barn at Peterson’s farm, the lights glowing in all the windows of the house, the porch lights on and glittering through the house-wide screening, bodies active on the porch, talk and music riding the night air incessant as bugs. His hand was dangerously close to one breast he had only recently noticed blossoming behind fabric. “One day I am going to live there and have nights like this on the porch, with music and friends, and my husband by my side.”
She had taken his hand and placed it on that breast and said, in words so faithful in his life he’d remember them perpetually, not caring if she might have measured and calculated them for that purpose, the way some women might want a man to remember special words forever, “Promise me that you’ll love me every day of your life.”
Those words echoed on every one of his days; he could not recall a day that he hadn’t heard them coming at him, ringing in him their slow combustion of feelings, at work, driving, out on the slow part of the river when fall came and water started its trickling move towards winter, at her side drifting off to sleep, seeing her striped in the kitchen in the slanting rays of the sun.
Now the river, his once glorious river, was moving, oh so slowly but assuredly, into a polluted state, and the house, his house now but always Clara’s house, was lonely and quiet. The mysteries abounding in each of those elements came at him continually, an elaborate and rich collection of yesteryears flooding him. He lived on the ripeness of memories, as if they were food; they sustained him, brought him push and shove, made dawns come up with expected elegance.
There were days he was sorely convinced she was only off visiting, would appear over the bridge along with the sunset, both at revelation. More than once he had turned to look at the bridge for her, found just the sunset glinting off nail heads, losing itself in the trees. Some days he could be crushed down to his toes, and was only able to shake it off with stern concentration on something utterly physical about him, a jay at jangle, a quick squirrel at its scurry, a cloud like a blossom in the sky.
“Come to the senior center,” some friends had urged. “Plenty of company. Lots of motion and commotion, people talking in your ear. The food is good and cheap. The women are lonely, ever so lonely. It’s cheaper than shopping, you can bet.”
He didn’t have time for such a breakout, and he kept studying the river, seeing again the green-yellow scum that rode it some days, a filmy discoloration of all things loved, all things pure. The last few fish taken (how long ago was that last one?) had not the good flesh to them, not the near snow white flesh of holdovers he loved to sear fry, or place with cornmeal or bread crumbs and a bit of butter in an open pan on an open fire. Life could be so simple; but the river was different now, and it kept telling him so in many ways.
One day, he vowed, he would move all the way up the river, tour it, search it, make his own determinations as to the causes of the pollution. It would not be hard he assumed; she had said, “Most things are so evident. You have to find what is contained. Look at my paintings. They are so readily evident, but every single time I look, I see something else. Even though things appear evident, you never know them completely.”
There was, for a sudden moment, as he stood up to his crotch in the river’s water, a red wing blackbird uttering at disturbance, a fingertip tingle from the rod. The small charge rode his frame like a surge of glory. It must have been real, he thought, to be so electric. He had not dreamed it. Not this time. Not again. For months now there had been no bites, no suggestive nibbles, no electricity to send his heart pumping. The river was making its own statement. One leg ached in its stiffness, demanding he move it, shift his weight, ease that pain. Stock-still he stood, in a contest, wagering himself in this battle. Again, slight as a tremor, a piece of Earth in movement, a touch came along his fingers.
“What is it that draws you back so often?” she had said another time, bringing him back to the river in a way only she could. “You have never explained that to me all the way through.” She had placed the trout in the pan, and turned at the stove, the apron as yellow as he’d ever seen it, the sun slanting a new stripe across her bosom.
“Is it like my other world, the cowboys, the Indians, the buttes and mesas standing like clocks in the face of time? Is fishing like that? Supposedly intricate but not.” The words were whole. Her mouth formed them anew for him, her eyes lighting them up as apt as punctuation, the slight tilt of her head another punctuation mark. Behind her the butter in the pan made other small noises, the fish hissed along its flesh, cornmeal aroma rode the air.
He could not think of how he had answered. His own words would not come back, only hers. The one-way of memory could stun him at times; another time it might not be worth a single fret of worry.
If it was going to be uneven this way, he wondered how long it would last, how long he would last. In no manner did he want to start on the Time thing. It was so inappropriate, so disloyal. “Carry on,” once came down the hallway to him, almost a tune, almost musical, but he could not bring back why she had said it, where they were in some distant conversation.
There! It came again! The nibble was alive, moving along the length of leader, the whole run of the floating fly-line, the length of the rod, to his left index finger quivering like a tine of a tuning fork. To his toes he swore he knew it. Oh, she must have known all of this without his telling her. For the moment he convinced himself that he was never able to tell her, that she must have known as she knew everything else. “Everything is so evident, and so new.”
A jay screamed nearby. A leaf tittered in the air beside his ear. From the road he could hear the pounding of a heavy diesel engine, and a back-up alarm blaring. Everything usual and new at once.
Bang! The rod jumped in his hands. He leaned with it, pulled the rod tip up high, moved to regain his balance. The Earth fell away under him, under one foot, and only beckoned with a deep sense of nothing.
He weighed the water cresting over the top of one boot, knew the Earth under that boot, still in orbit, had moved away from him. The rod jerked upright as he tried to set the barb, keep the keeper on the hook. From a distance, in that thinness of voice making it across some great divide, he heard her say, “You’ll die with your boots on. The cowboys said that.”