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Sleeping Out

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. Canteensflashlights, comic books, smuggled candybars
        When he got home, Barbara was at the stove, stirring spaghetti sauceShe 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 legssmoothing 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  
        "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  
        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 lightHe 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
        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 bagThey 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  
        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  
        "Where were you?" she asked.  
        ''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 roomBut 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 teand salmon.  
        Frank took off his sandals and laid them next to the sleeping bagHe 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 houseIt 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 backbut 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 slopeShe was warm against him. At the gazebo, he knelt with her on the bagS
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.