By Lance Larsen
Frank got the idea driving home from work. He crossed the ravine and was turning into Applewood Estates when he saw it-an orange pup tent set up under a willow. The ropes that kept the sides from sagging were pulled taut, and the flaps were open. Two rolled-up sleeping bags lay inside. It was McMichael's place, probably his twins pretending they were in the mountains. Frank was thinking how it would be for them bedding down in sleeping bags lined with cotton pheasants. Canteens, flashlights, comic books, smuggled candybars. When he got home, Barbara was at the stove, stirring spaghetti sauce. She had her hair in a bun and was wearing bermudas. He kissed her as he always did, a dry kiss on the mouth. "So how was the meeting?" she asked. "It was okay." He picked up the stack of mail and the newspaper and went into the living room. Kerri was on the floor talking on the phone. She had on her suit from swim practice, a navy Speedo with yellow stripes up the sides. Trapping the phone against her shoulder, she rubbed lotion onto her legs, smoothing the blobs until her calves and thighs were lathery white. She was only twelve, but already she was mimicking the teenage girls on the team: bobbed hair, nail polish, her mother's rouge and eye shadow. She laughed, rolled over on her stomach, then onto her back, her lips curling over her braces. Suzie was on the couch coloring. "Hey, how are you guys?" Frank said. Kerri pointed to the phone, then started laughing again. Suzie looked up. "I'm coloring," she said. "It's a picture of the sky." He bent low to admire the purple and orange swirls. Dinner went smoothly-no spilled food, arguments, or dead silences. Kerri and Suzie cleared the table, and Barbara brought in cheesecake. The phone rang, and Barbara went back to the kitchen to answer it. A moment later she stuck her head in. "It's Janet," she said. "She and Bob want to know if we want to see Rampal tonight. They've got box seats.'' Frank looked up, took another bite. "I was going to mow the lawn," he said. ''Mow it tomorrow,'' she said. He shook his head. "I really don't feel like a concert." She gave him a long look and went back into the kitchen. Frank heard the phone slam, then Barbara went upstairs. He looked at the cherry poised on his fork. The girls finished eating and slipped away from the table. He took the dishes into the kitchen, then went into the laundry room and changed into his running shorts. The mower was in the shed. He checked the gas and oil and wheeled it out. He liked the smell of mowed grass and the way it felt prickly and even when he walked across it. He would sleep near the fence. He mowed the backyard last because he liked to watch the sun going down across the gulley. Beyond the hedge, deep grass dropped off into the ravine. There was a creek there, and across the ravine, aspens and a few pines. In the evenings it looked as if the trees were pulling the sun into them-they flared red, then cooled into purple outlines. He had never taken Barbara camping, never slept out with her. They always intended to camp by the lake where he had gone with his dad every October for the deer hunt. But Barbara got appendicitis, and by the time she was better, school started. He thought about how it had been when they rented the studio apartment. At night he would pull the curtains together, turn the lights out, and the street lamp would filter through the space between them. The floor and the chair where his Levis hung would glow with dusty light. He liked it then, when the room was so cold in the mornings that when he woke he could see his breath; and Barbara, if she were up first, would step from the shower, a steamy goddess, wrap a towel around her, then sit by the space heater rubbing her hair dry. Sometimes she would pick him up for lunch at the library, drive him home, and before they would eat, sometimes before he was in the door, she would start peeling off her clothes. There was none of that now. When he had flown in last week, after being in Houston for nine days, she had hurried home, but not for him-one of her shows was being rerun. From his den he could hear gunfire and sirens, and when he had gone to get a drink of water, she hadn't looked up. He made one last pass with the lawn mower, switched the engine off, and unhooked the grass catcher. The silence surprised him. His head felt light with the quiet, his hands tingly from the vibrations. He carried the catcher across the lawn, knowing the springiness of the grass, and passed through the hedge to the compost pile. The sun was going down. He couldn't see the creek because of the scrub oak. He could barely see the gazebo, just a corner sticking out from the foliage. He hadn't checked it in years. He shook the clippings free from the catcher and followed the path down. His sweat cooled on him, and he felt the breeze blowing past his thighs, the grass tickling his calves. He looked back at the house and watched the lights being swallowed up. When he got to the bottom he saw that the pond was flooding the trees. A dozen or so trunks were sticking up from the water. Maybe the McMichael boys practicing with a hatchet. Then he saw how each trunk tapered to an uneven point. Frank walked along the creek to where he could cross. He stepped on a rock and jumped to the other side. The gazebo was the same: just three posts sticking up and a two-by-four across the top. That first summer he and Barbara had picnicked there. He sat down on the edge closest to the water. The evening noises were just right: frogs, crickets, the stream's gurgling, and a meadow lark calling for morning. He looked at the gnawed-off trunks-the bark still green. At the far end of the pond, the chewed aspens dammed the place where the water used to fall between two rocks. In his mind Frank followed the brook up through the subdivisions: Willow Creek, Tanglewood, Briar Estates. It was at least three miles to the mountains. Four bridges and a dozen culverts. Frank looked back up the hill. He couldn't remember looking at his house from here. The lights were on in the girls' room and in the master bedroom. He would sleep down here tonight, instead of in the yard. Just throw down the pad, his sleeping bag on top. He smelled Indian Paintbrush. He had smelled it as a boy when he went to the city pool. Standing on the board, he could smell it through the fence-stronger than chlorine. He would hold himself still, inhale the raw air, feel the sun on his back--everything still but the slap of the water. Then he would raise his arms, launch himself up, push back, piking, stretching for the water. After, drying on the cement, he would roll onto his back and watch the sun lick up his water image. Once when he was lying there, a shadow crossed his face. He looked up. It was Jamie. She lived three streets over. He looked at her body, glistening with coconut oil and water. He felt small beside her, skinny. Up on the board he felt okay, but not here, not with her dripping water next to him. "You're really good." ''Just practicing,'' he said. "Me and Monica are sleeping out tonight," she said. "I usually sleep out." "Who with?" ''By myself. Sometimes Travis comes over.' ' "Why don't you come see us tonight-to talk." He shrugged. ''After eleven,' ' she said. "Yeah--okay," he said. She smiled at him and walked away, her wet hair bouncing along her back, just the ends drying, a crescent of white showing at the top of each brown thigh. He was at her backyard fence just before midnight. At first he didn't see them. He checked the backyard and the sides close to the house. Then he saw them between the flowers and a boulder. He went in through the gate. He could see Jamie's hair fanned out on the pillow, the curve of her body under the bag. When he was fifteen feet away, she sat up, turned toward him, whispered his name. ''Frank-hi.' ' He looked at her. In the moonlight her face looked dark. Monica never woke up. They talked quietly, and when a calico cat jumped into the yard, Frank went and got it for her and brought it back to her sleeping bag. They sat there petting the cat together as it arched luxuriously under their hands. When the cat left, they both felt awkward, knowing it was just them again. They talked for a while, then Jamie reached out to feel the scar on Frank's chin from when he hit the board the summer before. She left her hand there. He didn't know what to do, so he took her hand and rubbed it along his face, tracing slow circles on his cheek. Then she guided his hand to her face, and he traced her jaw, then her lips, the line where her hair met her forehead, her narrow nose, the mole at the corner of her mouth. At first she guided his hand, then she let hers fall back. And all the time her eyes were closed, her head back on the pillow, her throat exposed. She moved her face toward him, then away. He touched her ears, her eyes, the hairs that lay in curls on her cheek. When he told her he had to go, she opened her eyes but said nothing. From the other side of the fence, he looked back. She was still sitting up. Sitting in the gazebo, he understood something he had forgotten that the night was for touching the way the water touches the sand, the way the moon and stars burn circles in one's memory. Frank went up the hill slowly. He paused where the tall grass met the hedge. He stood there a long time, looking at his backyard and patio. The glass table, the chairs, the lounger, the speaker he had set up so Barbara could listen to the CD player when she was watering. Above the table hung a Japanese lamp that attracted fat hummingbird moths when they played bridge with the Jespersons. If he had said yes, he and. Barbara would be with them tonight. He looked at the house, shuttered and painted, immaculate, not like the studio apartment with its stained brick and faded wallpaper, her Monet prints thumbtacked to the wall, his pictures of the Uintas. He looked in the kitchen window. The dishes were still on the counter, along with crumpled napkins. He went to the window of the living room. The lights were on, but no one was there except a bald man advertising macaroni on the television. The girls were in their room; Kerri sat cross-legged by the door, talking on a phone she had pulled in from the master bedroom, and Suzie thumbed through Dr. Seuss. He looked at them. They were long-limbed like Barbara. Then he went to the bedroom window. His wife lay across the bed diagonally, one leg pulled up, the other hanging off the side, swinging back and forth, kicking the bed. She was reading a mystery novel. Frank went around to the front of the house. He stood by the mailbox that had his name on it, and looked at the front door, the step bright from a 100-watt bulb. The house reminded him of the homes you see on a tour on a Saturday afternoon when a realtor is promoting a neighborhood. He went inside. "Where were you?" she asked. ''Nowhere.'' ''Mr. McGuire called. And I went out in the yard to get you, and you weren't there. Just the lawn mower." "I went down to the gulley," he said. "There's a beaver. I saw the trees chewed off.'' He took off his running shorts and pulled on his surgeon greens, which he wore for pajamas. ''I'm going to sleep out tonight," he said. "Suit yourself.'' she rolled over and started reading her book. He put on his sandals, then brushed his teeth. She didn't say anything when he went down the hall. He went downstairs, changed the channel of the television, then flipped it off. A little later he heard his wife moving upstairs, the toilet flushing. He turned off the lights so that he was looking outside on the grass, silver in the moonlight. He went to the garage and took down his sleeping bag from the shelf, then his pad. He took them outside. He felt silly walking across the lawn, leaving behind his house with five bedrooms, his two daughters, his wife curled alone in a dark room. But when he got beyond the hedge, he felt okay. The gulley was changed from the hour before. It seemed like a different country. The wind was blowing warm, and he could smell a muddy smell. He unrolled the pad. The ends curled up as if it were a boat floating on the wood. He undid the sleeping bag, rolled it out, and from habit unzipped it all the way and checked it before getting in. Down in the bottom he found a balled-up sock, one of Kerri's from a slumber party. The noises made him forget he was alone. The aspens were quivering in the breeze, and the water was smooth, except when the wind blew across it. He thought of the fish. Did they see the moon through the layers of shifting water? He heard a splash near the bank, saw a ripple moving across the water. It was the beaver, its triangular head cutting the water like a prow, the fat tail fanning behind. Halfway across, it slapped and dove. He watched, but he knew that the beaver could stay under for a long time, in secret places under the bank, where it would wait, resting, curling in on itself until it was ready to come up. He knew a story of a beaver that had saved some lost children, invited them into its den, served them tea and salmon. Frank took off his sandals and laid them next to the sleeping bag. He could feel the coldness of the night, his arms and chest prickling. He wadded up his T-shirt to use as a pillow. When he lay down, the stars pulled at him until he felt himself falling into the darkness between them. Then he was following the beaver, bellying along the bottom, nosing under a log, bursting past pale fishes, through moss, into the narrow channel, the warm wet den. He woke with a start. The moon was overhead. He sat up, could see his shadow in the moonlight. He unzipped the bag. Kerri and Suzie would be snuggled in a room full of cloth animals and pictures of trees and aqua oceans that never moved. And Barbara would be in the bedroom, her arm thrown out, her fingers touching his pillow. He went up the hill shirtless. At the hedge, he looked at the house. It was dark now. He walked across the stiff grass and eased the sliding door open. The house was warm. He walked up the stairs without turning on the lights. But he didn't know this wall as he knew the walls of his house when he was a boy. He had to move slower. The door to the girls' room was open. He could see them there-Suzie curled into a ball, Kerri sprawled like her mother. He could see the clean faces, the smooth skin stretched over bone. He wanted to touch them. Barbara was lying across the bed, corner to corner. If he were there, their legs would be touching. The single sheet was pulled down halfway across her back. She was wearing the peach-colored night shirt. One of her shoulders was pointing up, a hand dangled over the side. He lay down carefully, curled himself to her. He put his hand on her tummy and pulled her hair away from her neck. She turned. "What time is it?" "I don't know," he said. He snuggled her to him and rubbed his hand up and down her back, but she kept her arms to her sides. Sitting up, he pulled the sheet down to the bottom of the bed. Barbara pulled her legs in. "What?" she said. He took her hands and pulled her until she was sitting up, then draped the sheet over her shoulders. "It's okay," he said. "What are you doing?" "Don't say anything," he said. He leaned toward her and took her hand. On her knees, she crawled across to his side of the bed. When she stepped off, he led her out the door and down the hallway. The sliding door to the backyard was letting in cool air. With his free hand, Frank pushed the door wider and stepped onto the porch. Barbara let go of his hand, pulled her arms in. "Come on," he said. He held her hand across the lawn, the sheet dragging in the grass. At the hedge, he lifted her, hooked one arm behind her knees, the other around her shoulders, then carried her down the slope. She was warm against him. At the gazebo, he knelt with her on the bag. S he rubbed up and down his arm, then took off the sheet, began to lift her shirt. He stopped her, took her hands gently, and laid her down. She looked around but didn't say anything. She was looking at the aspens and the water. She looked around for a long time, and he held her hand. He pulled the sleeping bag over them, felt it cover them like a layer of night, felt the moon washing them. He traced circles on her cheek, explaining with his fingers exactly what it meant.