The women in his life all seemed to come and go in the winter. Every time it snowed, he could see the shapes of them in the drifts.
When the old man wakes up, he’s in a panic. He can’t bounce back from sleep like he used to and the fog of his nap will not lift. It’s dark and he’s moving and he’s half asleep and he doesn’t know where he is. Instinctively, he feels around for the little girl. When he finally feels his granddaughter’s head on his lap he begins to remember and breath more easily.
They are on an overnight bus somewhere, diving deeper into the northwest desert, somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
He doesn’t want to wake Louisa so he gingerly pulls a can of Copenhagen out of his shirt pocket and, with dexterity that surprises even him, pinches some out of the tin and tucks it into the hollow behind his bottom lip. He luxuriates in the shock of fiberglass and tobacco and focuses past his own reflection on the glass of the Greyhound window.
It’s still the middle of the night. Maynard can’t remember, now, what woke him. Not a dream. Dreams are the curse of a young man. The bus must’ve veered onto the highway strips.
Outside, he can tell it’s cold. Alfalfa and Cascade Hops poke up through a dusting. Across the plane, a grain escalator and a refinery; a cone of light against the sky.
Maynard moves uncomfortably in his seat, trying not to wake his granddaughter. His ass is sore from sitting and his curved back aches against the upright seat. He shuffles a little, winces, grunts and clears his throat. He spits black, spent chew into an empty water bottle and Louisa pulls her legs up into her chest.
She fits perfectly in that chair next to him. Her world begins at the messy crop of sun-colored hair and ends at the tip of her tiny-sized gollashes.
He looks at her and wishes it were any other life she were born into; any other life he could’ve given her. But by the time she arrived in his small and damp home, he’d already conceded his life to the past.
Her clothes are dirty because Maynard was never much for the washing, she’s too skinny because he’s never been much of a cook. Her teeth are crooked and will probably stay that way.
For miles, the bus rambles forward on that straight line of I-90, clanging imperceptibly downward toward the Columbia basin. The river threads itself through the alpine desert like a suture tying the Rockies to the Cascades. He tries to go back to sleep but can’t. His knees ache from not moving; the low rumble of the bus on pavement shakes sleep away like ice off a thawing pond.
Instead, Maynard sits awake and runs his fingers through Louisa’s hair.
He thinks of the bus driver. All these people: what would it take? One single miscalculation of the wheel.
He doesn’t realize he’s holding so tightly to the girl until she stirs.
“Poppa,” she says. “It’s still night.”
“Sorry. Go back to sleep. We’ve a long way to go,” he tells her.
She ignores him and looks up and down the isle of the bus. The safety lights on the floor leave the fusillade an ugly green. Everyone else’s head bobs to the rhythm of the road.
Maynard regrets that he wasn’t able to afford plane tickets, that they have to travel so long just to go the short miles between Montana and Washington, between Helena and Olympia, from one capitol to another.
Elsewhere on the bus, a man violently coughs; the man across the aisle opens his eyes briefly and takes a slug from a flask; a woman a few rows back gently cries with her head against the window.
Maynard realizes now he shouldn’t have brought her. There’s probably nothing to see in Olympia; Louisa’s mother won’t just wake up because her daughter’s in the room. It’s too much for his granddaughter. It’s selfish of Maynard. He thought, maybe, Louisa could wake her mother up. But for who? And why? She wouldn’t come home and Louisa would, again, cross the states motherless.
Louisa climbs into Maynard’s lap and wraps her arms around his neck.
“Poppa,” she says. “I want to go home.”
He scalds himself, quietly. Another mistake, he thinks, in a cascade of wrong turns.
“Don’t you want to see your mom?” he says.
“Why can’t she come to us?”
“We’ve talked about this,” he says and slips his hand under her bottom to reposition her.
“She’s afraid of heights.”
“The real reason.”
She nuzzles his chest and buries her face in his flannel shirt.
It’s as close to the truth as he’s allowed Louisa to get. He doesn’t know what else to say, what else he should; wants her to know everything but wants to say nothing; knows only that the greatest joke ever played on anyone was when he allowed himself to think that taking Louisa was a second chance with his family and not just another opportunity to make a mess of it.
He had once told Louisa her mother couldn’t come home to the mountains because she was afraid of heights. In a lot of ways, this was the truth.
His first attempt at parenting, he’d had Constance. It was just the two of them after Verna left them for a horse breeder out of Tahoe a mere six weeks after Connie was born. They were never married and Maynard had only ever went so far as to agree that Verna was a good woman with sturdy knees and sharp eyes. When Connie came and Verna started to complain of the cramped space and the mess in Maynard’s trailer, Maynard assumed Verna would take the baby and leave him just the way it’d been before either of them showed up.
The first time Maynard could ever remember being truly surprised by anything in his entire life was when, on a morning that the power had gone out after a heavy snow and a copse of downed trees laid across his property like they’d been arranged by giants, he walked into the small living room with a candle to find the double-wide empty save for a gently mewing Connie loosely swaddled on his floor.
Maynard was already forty-one years old and felt twice that the first time he ever picked up his newborn daughter.
The bus has been gently rolling downhill for over a mile. The land here tips itself like a hot bowl of soup brought to gently blowing lips. Down in the pit of the earth, the Columbia slowly slides across bedrock. It’s still the middle of the night, though. The river is more a breath, an arrhythmia of the terrain, than what its might may suggest in the daytime.
Maynard has never been this far outside of Helena. It’d been since before Verna that he’d even left Montana.
Age has made him soft. He wishes it hadn’t taken so long. Louisa has her favorite songs and sings them tirelessly; she swims in the creek during summer and rolls through the snow in winter; she comes off the school bus like lightning cracking a tree. But the terrible comedy is that he’s stuck with his own, brittle bones. He watches his granddaughter grow up from behind his own rheumy eyes and can do nothing but trace her movement through time the way the blind trace braille.
From the bus, Maynard watches the light crack open the sky one inch at a time. Louisa eats a granola bar. He can tell she’s tired and cranky.
“What is that, Poppa?”
He sees that Louisa has stood up on her seat and pressed her face to the window.
“Sit down, Lou. Be careful.”
The Columbia is a gray, dead finger in the dawn. Fed by every drop of water falling west of the Divide, it is the zenith, the collected achievement of everything on this side of the Rockies. And it hardly moves. Maynard has never seen a more desolate, a more arid riverbed.
“Is that the ocean?” She asks.
“You know that’s not the ocean. We’re not there yet.”
“Can we see the ocean from Mommy’s?”
“I don’t know, Lou. I haven’t seen Mommy’s.”
Maynard has a vague understanding that Olympia is near the Pacific Coast but doesn’t quite know, to what extent, a man can be on the Pacific. Taking care of Louisa makes him embarrassed for what he does not know.
The bus rounds a massive bend in the highway and crawls, carefully, down toward the bridge. Louisa is awestruck. Her hands are pressed against the window like an animal in an exhibit.
“Louisa,” he says again. “Please. Sit.”
“I can’t see, though.”
Maynard can’t blame her. The rivers outside of Helena are debris-stuck and gaunt; they are wild, rabid things limping out of the woods. This: this is no river. This is a dark rift ready to swallow the continent.
He’s proud that Louisa is so fearless but Maynard shakes as the bus enters the bridge. He’s been having dizzy spells, bouts of vertigo. Maynard closes his eyes. Years of smoking, his doctor told him, and drinking and stress and loneliness. Get some rest. Get a hobby. I have a granddaughter, he told his doctor. That won’t help, his doctor had told him.
He hadn’t known just how quiet his trailer had been until the dust settled again. It never felt this big before Constance, before Verna. But in both their absence, he felt its rooms as cavernous and unending.
Constance had left, too. She was seventeen, too smart for school, she skipped two grades and graduated the previous spring. She didn’t get it from him, he knew. The only thing they’d ever said to each other was hello and goodbye. Goodbye, he’d said, when she took his Dodge Dart out of the shed – she’d fixed it herself – and out to the highway.
That’s not entirely true. No more lies, Maynard. Not with the little one, now. He’d called her a slut once, for making it with an Indian from Missoula on a school trip to the college. He remembered her laughing at him. It made him feel impotent. Useless. Antiquated. He hit her: curled his fist, sucker punched her in the jaw. She was fifteen. He was fifty-six. And it made him feel even older, weaker, sloppier. She laughed and cried at the same time. He was small, so small, that when she curled into a fetal position, he kept wailing until he disappeared.
Someone’s saying something.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.”
He opens an eye. Looks for the voice.
He opens the other, turns to the row behind him. The bus has crossed the bridge and is pulling off the highway. Louisa is standing and leaning over the back of the seat, trying to catch views of the river as the bus slows.
“Can you please tell the girl to sit down?”
The man behind them, reading a magazine, is leaning around the aisle seat, trying to get Maynard’s attention.
“Grandpa,” Louisa says. “Come on.”
“Louisa, you have to behave.”
“Listen to your grandpa,” the man says.
“I’m not doing anything.”
“Please,” Maynard says.
“Little lady,” the man says, “you have to sit down.”
“Please,” Maynard says again. “I can’t do this right now.”
She plops into the seat in a huff.
“We’re taking a rest stop, I think,” Maynard says. “We’re probably close.”
It’s in a town called Vantage at a bend in the river. The wide Columbia sluices past it and carries a breeze that bites like ginger. Maynard tries to carry Louisa to the bathrooms but has to put her down in the snow. His back still hurts. She sprints ahead to the toilets.
He sits down on a bench, thankful to simply be off the bus. He breathes the bitter air in, lets it sting his throat and lungs like cigarette smoke. He pulls out a large finger-full of tobacco and tucks it into the pouch beneath his teeth. He sucks hard against his palate, trying desperately to squeeze as much nicotine tar into his gums as possible but finds it unsatisfying; hardly enough anymore. He pulls the black glob back out and tosses it to the ground, nothing but a bitter taste and a coat of sludge.
Maynard checks his watch. Louisa will not be quick in the bathroom and the bus driver had planned to stay a full fifteen minutes before the last push over the mountains and down into greater Seattle, then Tacoma, then Olympia. He scans the group of other bus passengers milling around the vending machines and bathrooms and finds the man who’d been sitting behind them. He’s smoking a cigarette, taking long breaths and staring ahead, toward the river so Maynard stands up and walks over to him, trying to stay out of his periphery, to remain undetected as long as possible.
“Sorry about the girl,” Maynard says. “She means well.”
The man who Maynard notices now is wearing a thick, pilled pea-coat slathered in cat hair has severely cracked lips which bleed tiny drops onto his cigarette.
“You’ve got to discipline her, is all. Can’t let her get away with it.”
“With what, exactly?” Maynard asks.
He’d come to apologize for Louisa’s behavior and to bum a cigarette but now wonders if the man, younger, sturdier, and handsomer than Maynard is, can offer something else; even a handshake and a wink, something to show Maynard that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself. But Maynard knows now that he will not get off that easy and that his age, his exhaustion, his desperation is no excuse for his failure. Maynard likes the man right away.
“I’m Maynard,” Maynard says.
The man nods and shakes his hand. Maynard doesn’t find it odd, at all, that the man doesn’t introduce himself back. Doesn’t even register it.
“Listen,” Maynard says, “I’d hate to do this, but is there any way I could have a cigarette? Been with the little one for so long, I haven’t been able to sneak one in and I’d love a drag or two before she’s out of the toilet.”
“Been hard on you?”
Maynard nods, hoping to see the man’s hand slip into his pocket where he keeps the Pall Malls.
“I’m just too old. You don’t happen to have an extra smoke, do you?”
“Where’s the girl’s mother?” the man asks.
“Olympia, Washington. We’re going to visit her. She’s been living there. But she ended up in the hospital and it doesn’t look good. Want to give the girl one more chance to say bye to her mom.”
The man is tall and towers over Maynard. He’s extremely skinny and has the jawline of a classroom skeleton. Maynard tries to stay in his eye line but the man just keeps staring over Maynard’s head, out and up the giant river.
“Seems a bit much for a kid, doesn’t it?”
“I honestly thought it was the right thing. But now?” Maynard sighs deeply and watches his breath curl and coil. It’s hardly mid-day now but late winter weights the sun down like an anchor to the earth. Its long light casts the river in subtle pallor.
“It was her boyfriend, you know. Threw gas on her when she was asleep and then lit the bed.”
He doesn’t know why he’s telling the man any of this. He hasn’t even told Louisa her mother’s full condition: just that she’s sick and wants to see her. Of course, Maynard can’t know whether or not his daughter wants to see Louisa. His daughter’s been in a medically-induced coma for over three weeks and, before that, hadn’t so much as got on the phone. Not since the day she came back in a brief, delirious afternoon, to drop off her newborn daughter, the second and last time there would ever be a baby girl in Maynard’s trailer.
“I just thank god Louisa wasn’t with her when it happened.”
The man nodded.
“God thanks you.”
“Her name’s Louisa,” Connie said. “She’s six months and if you want her to be safe, you’ll take her. Just please, don’t bother with questions.”
Maynard looked at the bundle of flesh in his daughter’s arms. So this was his granddaughter. He was a grandfather. He chuckled, inwardly, thinking how he hadn’t really ever gotten to be a father, first.
“I think we should talk,” Maynard said.
“There’s nothing to talk about, Maynard,” Connie said. “Take her, and maybe I’ll be able to come and get her in a few months. But right now—“ she trailed off.
She’d shown up that morning in the same Dodge Dart, almost a full decade after she’d driven it away. He’d heard it coming up the drive, its old Diesel engine rattling the wildlife out of the trees. She kicked the door open, hair plastered to the side of her head with sweat and oil, holding a tiny package. It was only when she arrived at the front door that Maynard realized it was a human baby. She’d driven through the night to get back here and didn’t say a thing when he opened the door. She simply slid through, lied down on the old wicker couch with the baby on her chest and went to sleep for, nearly, a full 24 hours. Not even the baby made a sound.
It snowed the whole time. A deep, quiet storm that dropped enough to pile up to, almost, the bottom of the trailer’s windows. Once, the infant began cooing and, gently, he stroked her near-bald head. He slept on the floor until they all stirred again and he woke up like he was coming to life.
Once it stopped snowing, though, Connie was gone and Louisa kicked her impotent feet at the empty space beyond her blanket.
He’s come back from the convenience store down the road. In two minutes, he smokes a cigarette to the filter and lights another one. Halfway through, he flicks it and boards the bus. Louisa isn’t there, though. He thinks she must still be in the bathroom. Then he notices that the man with the cigarettes is gone too.
As he rushes up the aisle and out the bus, the driver warns him he has two minutes.
“Have you seen my little girl?”
The driver shrugs.
He wrote Connie a letter once. And Verna too. There was also a letter inside his dresser for Louisa when the time came.
In it, he tried to explain why he’d been so angry; that having them in his life had made him to feel fear. But he couldn’t quite explain it. They remained unsent and, so, he remained alive.
He’s knocking on the door firmly but patiently. If she’s in there, he doesn’t want to sound angry.
“Louisa? Doll? Little one?”
He opens the door to a cold and empty, tiled bathroom. The water runs in one of the sinks. He turns it off. He listens carefully. Outside the bathroom, behind the concrete structure, the Columbia River takes its wide turn north beneath a large bluff.
It’s full morning daylight now but the desert is a joyless gray. Patches of snow twirl with the wind over shredded islands of ice. A wind has asserted itself and is erupting out of the river canyon.
Maynard scans the ridge above him and the slope below him, hoping to spot Louisa somewhere on the skyline. But there’s nothing. Nothing but the river. Its unhurried, carefree tumble to the Pacific is an insult to the old man. Nothing is ever that easy, he thinks. Nothing can ever be as sure as the water in its satisfied advancement downward. A river—this river—is a belief: that where it ends is incontrovertibly greater than where it began and that, no matter what it does to get there, the river is justified in its unapologetic breach.
He hears a voice. Underneath the wind, like shadows behind a curtain. It comes off the canyon wall and he follows it back around to where the man is sitting on a picnic bench, smoking yet another cigarette.
“In over your head?” he says.
“Anybody would be.”
The man doesn’t move except to bring a cigarette to his mouth and then back down again. Over and over. It’s an unholy silence. A wrong note on a church organ.
If the river is so sure of itself, Maynard thinks, I’m the boulder in the middle that it barrels past in its unceasing movement. Battered by its passage until I am nothing.
“So. Did you see where she went?”
“You lost her?”
“She has a tendency to wander.”
“No, I didn’t see her.”
“She’s not lost,” Maynard assures the man.
“What’s going to happen when you find her?”
Maynard startles at the sound of the big bullhorn blowing from the bus and then the hydraulic release as it lurches forward. The old man is numb watching it crawl onto the highway. Then all the worried thoughts warm him: Did I look in the right row? Was she on the bus, after all? She could’ve been asleep in the wrong seat. He pictures her waking up twenty, fifty, one hundred miles onward. He wonders what protocol there is to return a missing grandchild to her useless grandfather. What reason, after all, would anyone have to return her to him, of all the people deserving of her.
“What now?” Maynard says to no one in particular.
“Wherever she is,” the man says, “I hope she’s not too cold.”
Every woman in his life came and went in the winter. And for years he’d always blamed the weather, the cold. The constant crush of low atmospheric pressure in the mountains around his trailer was like the feeling of slowly drowning. Any sane person would attach themselves to the first warm thing they saw and then, again, leave when the light went out.
What did this man know of the cold?
“I think you know where she is,” Maynard says.
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “But, I don’t. Could you blame her for running away?”
“Then help me find her,” Maynard says.
The man shakes his head.
Maynard looks at the man. Sees, for the first time, his beak-like nose, his claw-like fingernails.
“Why weren’t you on the bus?”
“This is my stop,” the man says.
“There’s nothing here,” Maynard says.
“Sure there is. You just don’t know what you’re even looking at. It’s why I like living by the river. This river, at least. It’s got a certain way of hiding itself.”
“Do you know where she is?”
“Kids like to play on the jetty,” he says and nods toward the leg of land kicking into the river, water chased up its sides by the current and the wind.
He’d heard it from Connie a few years after she’d left him with Louisa. He ignored her calls for months at first, worried she was trying to get her daughter back. It was too late, though, he’d fallen in love with the little one.
Finally, he answered, guilt slipping through the cracks his baby granddaughter had opened.
As it turned out, though, it was that Verna had been found in an overturned pickup in the bottom of Lake Tahoe. Her husband had gotten it into his head she was stealing from him.
“I had to identify her,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Maynard said. “I didn’t even realize you two had been talking.”
“Once or twice a year,” Connie said. “How’s Louisa?”
“She’s beautiful,” Maynard told is daughter. “But after everything? Why me?”
“You’re the least cruel man I know,” she said.
It made his heart hurt for the little girl asleep on the couch, the world he couldn’t protect her from.
The two men were sidestepping carefully down the bluff crossing under the highway where the noise of the river collided with the throng of cars passing above.
What didn’t move past him?
“I never had kids,” the man says, kicking some loose, icy gravel down on Maynard’s shoulders.
“Could you hurry?”
A small trail wound down under the bathrooms. The two men had found it, littered with empty beer bottles, wrappers, empty packs of cigarettes.
“They were always too disapproving of me,” the man says. “The women I ended up with. Could never make them happy. Got to the point where their disapproval made me feel like it was my fault.”
“Maybe it was.”
“All I’m saying is, maybe, it doesn’t do any good to chase them.”
Maynard thought that, if anything, he’d never done enough chasing. He’d let them all go, convincing himself he was better off without them; that they were better off without him. In time, though, they all disappeared into the arms of people much worse, even, them him. And now, his granddaughter, somewhere, the youngest yet, lost into the arms of the slow-moving violence of the current.
He’d written all the letters on the same night. They all said the same thing: I wouldn’t have saved you even if I could.
She is out on the very tip of the jetty. The highway bridge rises above her like the sky waiting to fall to pieces. She is stuck on a water-slick stone. Her hood blows off her ears and her tears off her cheeks.
“I can’t,” he tells her. “You have to come to me.”
“I want to go home,” she says.
“Leave her be. She’ll come back,” the man tells Maynard.
“Why would she?” Maynard says.
“Mommy’s dying,” Louisa yells over the current.
Maynard looks around at the man.
“You told her?”
“Someone had to.”
“All I wanted was a cigarette,” Maynard says.
The river piles up against the stone, beaten to froth by submerged shoals, and grasps violently for Louisa’s tiny galoshes.
“And look what happened,” the man says. “This girl’s better off without you.”
Up above, Maynard sees the bus pulling out of the parking lot, lurching onto the highway, up over a gentle grade to nothing among a field of unmoving wind turbines.
“Shit,” Maynard says.
“No need to curse,” the man tells Maynard. “Especially in front of the child.”
“Shit shit shit,” Maynard says.
His fear swings into desperation into panic and back to fear. His old heart cuts a youthful rhythm in his chest as the River pulls around him and threatens to swallow his granddaughter.
“LouLou. Please. Please come back.”
“You lied. Mommy’s dying. I want to go home.”
“I’m sorry,” Maynard yells above the wash. “It’s dangerous out there.”
The man yells out over Maynard’s shoulder: “Good girls listen to their poppas.”
Maynard turns around to catch the man winking. He nudges Maynard. “Am I right?” he says.
Maynard feels it before he sees it, his fist connecting with the man’s beak-nose, his chapped lips. The man stumbling back and slipping on a rock, going over the breaks and into the River.
It feels right. His panic subsides a little as the man struggles against the current. The River will carry the man away and leave Maynard clean.
The man’s words are gurgled and useless as he bobs above and below the Columbia. Maynard watches the man’s coat billow up around him and the green murk carry him to the center of the gorge and then, away. Away. Away.
“Grandpa,” Louisa says.
“It’s ok,” Maynard says. “Trust me.”
He finds a footing and she slides closer.
He pulls her in. First the mittened hand and then her tiny body. He wraps her in his coat, turns his back on the wind and curls himself over her. He stays like this for as long as he can, even amongst the debris and the billows.
“It’s ok,” he says again. But knows that she’ll be gone again if he ever lets go.