Jackson’s silver hair glinted under the full moon. His boots crunched the gravel parking lot in front of the ramshackle apartment building, long ago a hotel, where I shared an apartment with my mother. Jackson shared our space a few nights a week. He cursed and cast a black trash bag into the bed of his truck. It landed with a soft thud. He hadn’t noticed me yet, standing on the sidewalk, but his presence allowed me to soften my grip on the house keys poking through my fingers. My white, work button-down was stained and reeked of the whiskey spill from an overserved guest at the Angler’s Inn.
Jackson had secured the job for me when I turned seventeen. “Save some,” he’d said. “Money gives you choices.”
“Oh, hey, darlin’.” His voice rasped like the crushed stone beneath our feet. Along the side of his pickup, his initials and Fly Fishing floated beside an outline of trout swimming, not caught. His truck was the first and only car I’d driven. He’d taught me to drive narrow mountain roads, how to downshift on steep hills, how to look out for wildlife like deer, coyote, and rattlesnakes.
I took silent steps toward him. When I was little I’d discovered silence allowed me to go unnoticed. Now it was habit. I peered into his truck bed; flannel shirts, threadbare boxers, and one gray wool sock spilled from the bag.
“Laundry?” I hoped. But he was leaving. My mom’s growing demands for his money, time, and space made his escape inevitable and obvious.
He lifted dark eyes to the moon. I closed mine and listened to the slow, gentle whisper of the Yakima River behind me. Jackson sighed, rubbed the gray scruff on his jaw. “Your mom, she’s a smart, beautiful woman, smarter than me, that’s for sure. But it’s all fight, all struggle, even when we’ve wanted the same thing. I waited it out long as I could. I’m sorry. Wish I could stay.”
She’d pulled tighter instead of giving him room to run. She’d raged against his cabin, high up the ridge above the Inn, and how he refused to give it up and wouldn’t discuss moving us in. His wife had left with their son twenty years ago. He’d told me she couldn’t stand our remote canyon town, that she needed more than he could give. They moved to Spokane, where she worked—indoors—in an office. He’d said, “I wish I could’ve left with them. My boy grew up without me.” My mother clung tight and dug in, as if she hadn’t known this story.
Jackson had always given me space, and he never once hugged me, but that night he took my hands in his. They were rough, scarred from decades of fishing line and barbs. I stood close enough to catch his scent of river and wet rock and believed him when he said, “I’m here when you need me.”
His taillights swam up the mountain, and I climbed the wobbly, peeling steps to our third-floor apartment. The lights were off and the wide gap between my mother’s closed door and the floor was dark. Shattered glass and dishes—the sets Jackson had bought for us—pooled in the deep sag of the faded, vinyl floor. I dragged the broom through her wreckage, again.
The next afternoon Jackson texted me, Got a minute?
I rushed the last two blocks to work and met him outside the Inn. In late August tourists still crowded the sidewalks, bragging about fish they caught, boasting even more about the way they threw them back. In front of Jackson’s adjacent fly shop, men sporting expensive fishing clothes and haircuts circled him. When he noticed me he said, “Excuse me, gents. My daughter.”
* * *
Last fall Jackson had scheduled an appointment for us with my guidance counselor.
“Are you her guardian?” Mrs. Kinney asked him.
“I see.” She twisted her mouth sideways.
“I need your help with her college applications, with all this.” He dropped financial aid forms on her desk and produced reading glasses I’d never seen before.
She stared at him, then tapped her keyboard, squinted at her computer screen. Mrs. Kinney slid the forms toward herself, touched the tip of her tongue with her ring finger, and paged through them.
He turned to me. “Step outside for a minute while I talk to Mrs. Kinney.”
“I’m almost eighteen, Jacks. I’ve done it all on my own so far—”
He held up his hand and shook his head. “It’s not about that.” He nodded toward the door. “Go on, now.”
I paced the hall, stewing about Jackson sending me out. I froze when the JV football coach spotted me. He’d just left the gym, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, but even at that distance I could see his smirk. I kept one eye on him and backtracked toward the guidance office.
He called, “Hey! Stop! What’re you doing here after hours? By yourself?”
This man had a gift for finding girls raised by young mothers with two jobs, with addictions. He could sniff out those pushed off on grandmothers or who’d landed in the shaky custody of distant relatives. In the parking lot behind the school, when we’d been forgotten for an after-school pick-up, he’d pull up next to us, rev the engine of his tail-finned sedan. He would swoop in when we sat alone for an awards ceremony. He’d insist on tutoring the unguided, the unattended.
“Mrs. Kinney,” I whispered as he closed the distance between us. I stumbled a backward retreat toward her office. “I’m meeting with her.”
He swiveled his head, looking up and down the empty hall, then moved in too close. I glanced behind me toward Mrs. Kinney’s door. As I turned back, he breathed hot in my face. I closed my eyes and forced out, “Jacks!”
Mrs. Kinney’s door swished open. With three quick steps back, the coach contrived an appropriate distance between us.
Jackson’s sturdy boot steps approached; he took my elbow, guided me forward. We passed the shrinking JV coach; Jackson cast a hard look at him and said, “Son.”
The coach swallowed, nodded, and said something about me needing a pass from the guidance counselor.
Jackson stopped. He stood—stretched to his full height of six-foot-three—between the JV coach and me and growled, “Aren’t you Tom Reptin’s boy?”
The coach slid backward. “Yes, sir.”
Jackson glared at Mr. Reptin but squeezed my elbow. “Let’s go home. I’ve got your college forms right here.” Post-It Notes covered with Mrs. Kinney’s arrows and loopy cursive lined the edges of Jackson’s paper pile. Outside he started his truck and met my eyes. “Speak up,” he’d said. “Always speak up.”
I didn’t know how to pray or who to pray to, but as Jackson drove me back to the apartment that was once a hotel, I asked the mountains, I asked the river to please, please let him stay.
The next day Mrs. Kinney called me to her office, said she’d made me an appointment with the school social worker. She’d said Jackson, though she’d called him Mr. Elliot, had said that “things were tough at home,” and he’d asked for me to receive “some extra support.”
I knew Jackson had never uttered the words “extra support” in his life.
* * *
He glanced back at the men outside his fly shop, removed his wide-brimmed hat, rolled it up, and shoved it into a vest pocket. “Hey, darlin’. Off to school day after tomorrow?” We would never discuss it, but he’d timed his exit from my mother’s life with my move to college.
From another vest pocket he pulled a set of keys and tilted his head toward the staff parking lot. As I followed, Jackson looked up toward the mountains, pointed to the river. “This place—it’s my buoy and anchor. You get to decide if it’s either for you.”
He stopped at a small Honda SUV, neither old nor new. He placed the keys in my hand. “I’ll pay your insurance, your gas until you’re done with college and on your feet.”
“Thank you.” I spun the keys through my fingers, opened and closed the jackknife key chain logoed with his business name, address, and phone number.
He grinned. “In case you forget.”
“Thanks, Jacks, for all of it. For everything. Can I visit you at Thanksgiving? Maybe Christmas?”
He rubbed his mouth and chin, hiding a smile. “Well, sure. I’d like that.”
Two days later, alone, I drove along the river. The canyon’s cliffs cast shadows on the fast-moving water. Hawks nested on the basalt rock face. It all disappeared behind me. My university stood at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. The Yakima spilled into something bigger, wider. Something far from its origin. My river didn’t disappear into the Columbia, rather became part of it, carving its banks, shaping its floor, guiding its current.
Jackson’s gentle whisper had pushed me forward, away, and down our river. “You’ve got a home base, darlin’, but I won’t tie you to it.” He’d gestured between us. “There’s no line attached. Go on, now.”