Thursday, October 14, 2021

New Fiction: Into the Canyon

                  by Daniel Cano                                                 

                   "and the truth is that all veterans pay with their lives. Some pay all at once, while others pay over a lifetime." (Jim Storm)                                                                                          

The spirit of the canyon 

        He drove from his home in Los Angeles to Fresno, turned east, and headed up Highway 180 into the Sierras. At 6,000 feet, he entered the pines, spotted the ranger station, and pulled alongside to pay the park entrance fee. The last thing he heard before lowering the radio’s volume was Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait.

     She greeted him. “Good afternoon, sir.” Pretty, he thought, and young for a ranger. She said, “If you’re 65 or older….”

     “No, not quite," he said, "still got a few years to go.”

     “Are you a veteran?”

     “I am.”

     “Veterans can purchase permanent passes, good for as long as the park is here.”

     “Really. Been coming up for years and nobody’s ever told me. Thank you.”

     “Just doing my job.” She smiled and handed him the park material, newsletter and map.

     Cautiously, he slid into the line of cars heading into the forest, his radio nothing but static. There would be no more contact with the outside world for four days.

     As a college professor, he needed to keep up on the news, whether he liked it or not, and usually he didn’t, too depressing, and now, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. had supported Saddam during his war with Iran in the 1980s. Old Saddam had fallen out of favor with Washington, the Iraqi leader owing the Yankee government billions of dollars in unpaid loans to fight his war, and here was, at it again.

     The saber rattling in Washington had already started. Many in this administration were hawks and wanted war, to show the president was no wimp. The 55,000 dead Americans in Vietnam teaching nobody anything, and Eisenhower’s prediction of the U.S. military industrial complex now a reality.

     He reached the dead end, and looked south towards Sequoia and the Giant Forest. No cars coming. He turned north, onto the winding two-lane asphalt road, into the thick pines, slow going for the next hour, up and down, thousand-foot cliffs in some places. Only hardened campers made the long, hazardous drive to the canyon floor, twisting and turning around curves and bends all the way down to the river.

     In 1960, the first time he visited Sequoia, he was a twelve-year-old Boy Scout. His friends and he, mostly Chicano kids from the L.A. suburbs, had spent seven days at Camp Wolverton, four days in the backcountry, on foot. They humped their supplies on wooden pack frames they built in their parents’ garages. Pack mules carried the food and cooking equipment, a precursor for what awaited most of them a few years later when they received their invitations from the draft board.

       As he drove deeper into the forest, he recalled the mountains outside Duc Pho, in Vietnam’s central highlands, the morning a sniper got Joe Sanderson, a kid from Kentucky who always made everyone laugh with his Gomer Pyle act. They’d covered him with a plastic poncho and waited for the medivac. Sanderson wouldn’t be the last guy in the squad killed. In the Rear, they smoked a lot of weed and drank bottles of whiskey to blunt the savage images.

     He kept his eyes on the road, maneuvering the curves down into the canyon. He slipped his favorite CD into the player, the Buffalo Springfield taking him right back to the 70s, when he first started camping in the Canyon with Beverly, his wife, and high school sweetheart, when music, love, and revolution were in the air, the pungent odor of the good herb everywhere and young, long-haired campers visited each other’s sites and shared coffee, beer, and tall tales of life on the road. He never mentioned the war.


The roar of the falls

     The kids were still in diapers when the young couple first brought them into the canyon. Once they grew strong enough, they’d hike past Road’s End, make a nine-mile round trip trek to Mist Falls, explore the meadows, river, and creeks then start back before the forest turned dark. For a couple of days after, they’d rest, hang around the campsite or swim in the cold, swift water of the mighty King’s.

     He lost Beverly to cancer in ’82, and he barely pulled out of his nosedive, blaming himself for her having to take the worst of his long silences and rejection of reality. He never remarried. Fellow vets taught him to cope. With family help, he guided his children through their teenage years, and watched them blossom into young adults. Occasionally, as a family, they’d still come to the canyon. His daughter preferred taking the grandkids to Knotts Berry Farm, Disneyland, and Magic Mountain, the long drive into the canyon a hardship, but he continued making the trip each year, alone, same ritual, year after year.  

     He’d come here to make difficult decisions, like the time he decided to forego a lucrative job and remain in the classroom, or when he chose not to remarry, even though he and the woman were a perfect match and the kids adored her. Something about the sounds of the river and breeze rustling the tree tops spoke to him more clearly and succinctly than family, friends, or therapists ever could. The wilderness cleared his mind, and the reality of surviving, just like in the war, on life’s bare necessities, gave him perspective.

     He drove across the bridge, the river raging beneath. He pulled into the Sheep Creek, the first campground--tradition. It was a Sunday afternoon, so he wasn’t surprised to find his favorite campsites empty. Most weekend campers vacated by 2:00 P.M. He pulled into spot number 47, under the shade of the pines and cedars, where he could hear the river, a short, five-minute walk away.

     He placed his tent beneath the thick branches of a redwood, even though he’d sleep on a comfortable air mattress in the back of his Ford Explorer. It wasn't a campsite without a tent. As he unloaded the rest of his equipment, he noticed two women, late thirties, early forties, and three children in the next campsite. One woman was striking, thin, short blonde hair and a serious expression on her face. She wore camouflage fatigues and a green t-shirt. The other had silver hair, shoulder length. She had a tanned, plain face, too young for graying hair, bright blue eyes and a large, friendly smile. She wore tight shorts and fitted blouse, her body firm and athletic.

     The campsite on the other side of him was vacant, but he knew within a few days it would be taken. His usual practice, he walked to the river and knelt on one knee beside a fallen tree that had been in the same spot for thirty years. He whispered, “Well, Beverly, here I am again, another year.”

     It had rained more than usual this past winter, rare for California. The river was high, angry, and loud. He listened to the different sounds created as it tumbled past rocks, boulders, and fallen tree trunks. The more he listened, the more he heard a symphony, nature’s harmonics, mingling with the sound of the wind.

     He walked along the bank. He recognized gullies and rivulets, offshoots of the main river, an island, a fallen pine used as a footbridge, and huge boulders his kids had loved climbing in their adolescent years. After an hour, he returned to camp.

     In the canyon, evening came early. Instead of the lighting his Coleman stove, he took his hatchet and split wood to start a fire. He dropped the heavy metal grill attached to the pit over the fire and took a small sauce pan from a cardboard box and placed it on the grill.

     He opened a can of beef stew and a can of corn, poured them into the saucepan and stirred. When it all came to a boil, he moved the pot to the side of the grill and let it cool. He placed two slices of bread onto the grill and let them toast. He took a spoon from the bag of utensils, wrapped a cloth around the hot saucepan handle and ate.

     After he finished, he sat back and observed his surroundings. He recalled the times his kids had run up and down the road, Beverly’s voice warning them to watch for cars, the memories no longer painful, more matter-of-fact, like companions.

     He picked up the empty saucepan and dirty spoon, walked up a hill to a metal basin attached to the outside of the bathroom wall and washed them. He moved back down the hill, darkness closing in, lights shining in the other campsites.

     He cleared the top of the heavy wood table, organized his camping gear, and placed the food in a metal bear container. Back at the table, he reached for his cup that said, “Best Grandpa in the World.”  

     He poured about two shots of Seagram’s with a spot of water. The first drink was always the best. He swirled the liquid in his mouth and swallowed slowly, feeling the alcohol rise to tickle the nerve-endings, euphoria.

     He sat back and looked up into the shadows and stars overhead. He thought about the night Pete Saldana killed two VC, only to learn the next morning they were village women carrying jugs of water on bamboo poles. He’d always remember the look of surprise on the one woman’s face.  The captain reported them as two enemy KIA because they wore dark pajamas.

     Like erasing writing from a whiteboard, he wiped away the image. He’d already dealt with guilt or pain. He was beyond that. It was just too soon to ponder the other side. Afterall, that was one reason for camping. The outdoors always helped him remember.

     Among his group of basketball-buddies, other Vietnam vets and college educated like himself, he was of the opinion that remembering helped with the healing, and trying to forget was useless. That was just hiding the pain, like after Beverly’s funeral when he disappeared for a month.

     “You forget long enough,” said one of his veteran buddies, “you forget forever.”

     Even in those early days when his kids laughed and fired-up marshmallows in the campfire, they saw a beautiful glowing fire and heard the sounds of crackling wood. He saw muzzle flashes, sparks from grenades, and heard the cracks from M-16s and AKs. During the rare times summer rain fell in the forest and thunder roared in the canyon, he heard full-on battles and remembered exactly what the drops sounded like striking his plastic poncho.

     He finished his drink and placed the cup on the picnic table, grasped his shaving kit, soap, toothbrush, towel, and made his way back up the hill to the bathroom to wash. He returned to the fire, doused it with water from a plastic bucket, and with an entrenching tool, he tossed dirt over smoldering embers. He climbed into the back of the Explorer, dropped onto the thick mattress and waited for sleep, which came quickly, unlike home, where he struggled with the night.


When the river speaks

     He woke early, the sun still hiding behind the tall canyon walls. He split a few logs, put them into the firepit, and got a good fire going to warm him. He poured water into the same small saucepan from the night before—keeping it simple. He placed the small metal pot, its bottom burned, at the edge of the grill. The flames rose, darkening the sides of the pan.

     He put two teaspoons of instant coffee into a cup, poured in the hot water, and watched it bubble. He took a milk carton from the ice chest and dropped a little into his coffee until the black liquid turned light brown. He spilled in exactly one spoonful of sugar and stirred. He first sip raced through his body. Yellow rays shone through the trees.

     By the time he was on his second cup, he heard commotion from the campsite next to him. The youngest child, a girl about five, was crying. The blonde woman, a bandana tied around her hair, tried consoling the child. No good. The other children, a boy and a girl, hollering, ran around the campsite chasing each other. They scaled a large bolder. The silver-haired woman, calmly, herded the kids to the picnic table, sat them down, and gave them each a bowl of cereal, the kids arguing over who got to read the back of the cereal box.

     She nodded at him when she saw him watching. He smiled and raised his coffee cup. She returned his smile.

     Once the kids had settled down, the silver-haired woman walked towards him. She stopped at the edge of his campsite. He said good morning to her. She returned the greeting and told him she envied his quiet. He said his children were grown, his daughter with her own toddlers. "I started early."

     “Lucky you,” she answered. “I started late. I should have been like you.” She laughed.

     “It goes by fast, enjoy it.”

     They let the words linger.

     Instinctively, he offered her a cup of coffee, and a little quiet. Surprising him, she asked if he’d wait, give her a few minutes.

     When she returned, she said, “My friend said she’d watch the kids. I can use the escape.”

     He opened a folding chair for her. He wasn’t sure what to say as he made her coffee. “It isn’t Starbuck’s, but I enjoy it, the simplicity, you know,” he said. “It’s the reason I’m here.”

     She took the cup from him and thanked him.

     The words came easily.

     She and the other woman were friends since high school. They lived in Redondo Beach and had gone to Redondo High. Her friend’s husband encouraged the two of them to take the kids, get away for a few days, and rest. “Not so sure we’re getting much rest, though.” 

     They both laughed.

     When she laughed, wrinkles formed at the corners of her eyes and mouth, brightening her blue eyes. She had full eyebrows and long lashes, smooth, clear skin and no makeup.

     She told him the boy was her son, twelve. She finalized her divorce five years after her son was born. He wanted to ask why she divorced but knew better. As if reading his thoughts, she offered, “He wasn’t the marrying type, even in his 30s, I still had hope. He couldn’t settle down. Anyway, I figured this little outing would give my son and me some quality time.”

     “I married young,” he said. “My daughter has two little ones. My son just finished college.” He didn’t wait for her to ask. He said, “My wife died a few years back after a bout with cancer.”

     “My god, I’m so sorry,” she uttered.

     “It’s been a long time.” He sighed. “I won’t lie. It was hard at first, but I managed.”

     The morning air was still. He could hear voices, slight echoes, coming from the other campsites.

     She was direct. “My ex-husband never wanted to be tied down. In the early days, he’d call from Montana, or Wyoming, or some interesting place telling me he wanted to make it work. I believed him. I’d take him back. Then, he’d take off again, with guys or girls, it didn’t matter. He told me I needed to accept him as he was. He comes from money, always spending it on one project or another, never on us. He’s gone through most of his inheritance, but when his parents die, he’ll come into a whole lot more.”

     “So, I guess we’ve both had our challenges.”

     She laughed. “Like the proverbial roller coaster.”

     “Where’s your ex now?”

     “Alaska, last I heard. Either way, he’s out of the picture. He writes my son on occasion, promises to visit but never does, unless he needs something from me, if you know what I mean. He still tries to beg. I learned the hard way.”

     “Tough, uh?”

     She looked over her shoulder to her campsite. “Hey, maybe we can talk tonight when things quiet down.” She looked at the thick tome on his picnic table. “Anthology of English Literature…looks like some intense reading.”

     He smiled, “I call it my heavy-lifting. I teach college.”

     “A professor?”

     “Not the khaki-tweed type. Please call me Ray. Yeah, come by if you’re up to it.”

     “We’ll see how it pans out. I’m Marion.”

     They both stood and shook hands.


A different voice 

     The night moved in fast. Once he finished his dinner, washed dishes, and cleaned up the table, he walked to the bathroom and gave himself a sponge bath. He settled in under a lantern and read the anthology, trying to figure how he would make Henry James’ story, “The Real Thing,” interesting to today’s students, who struggled with James’ language and ideas. The story was about illusion and reality, and which was the real thing.

     He recalled reading a study where baby birds were trained to accept food from wooden beaks rather than their mother’s beaks. In the experiment, the baby birds knew the wooden beaks carried more food than the mothers’, so the baby birds rejected their mother’s food and relied solely on food from the wooden beaks. They accepted illusion over reality.

     By 9:00 PM, Ray sat at the table reading. He saw the shine of a flashlight coming through the narrow footpath leading to his campsite. Marion stepped out of the darkness into the light of his fire, her face bright, and friendly. “I’m back.”

     Normally, he liked his solitude. He avoided strangers, playing host, and having to think of something intelligent or entertaining to say. As a teacher, words were his tools, and like any laborer, he tired of his job and needed to put away all the tools, but not tonight.

     “Hello, welcome,” he answered. “Get the kids to bed alright?”

     “Yeah, yeah. Hey, I really hope I’m not bothering you. I mean I see you’ve got your book open and all.”    

     He pointed to a folding chair near the table. “Just reading a story I haven’t read in years. You’re actually giving me some down time.”

     “That’s good, right?”

     “It is.”

     “Can I ask how you prepare, like, I mean, is there a process you follow? Good teachers make it look so easy.”

     He could tell she was genuinely interested.  “It’s a good question. Most jobs, I’d guess, you pretty much follow a manual, or a system that’s already prescribed. I research then read a story many, many times. I try not to lecture but listen to the students.”

     She chuckled, “Oh right, tell me about it. I could write insurance policies blindfolded.” She reached for the anthology. “Do you mind?”

     “No, no. Be my guest.”

     “’The Real Thing,’ Henry James.” Her eyes settled on the words, “A painter is sketching a woman who wants to work as his model. She and her husband are from the upper classes and think they are perfect for his painting, a portrait of a royal couple. They’ve fallen on hard times and need money. In this scene, the narrator, an illustrator, is sketching her with a pencil, kind of trying her out.”

     Marion shifted the book so the lantern’s light brightened the page. Surrounded by darkness, she read, her voice falling into a slow, steady rhythm, stopping at each punctuation mark. She came to the passage, “’She sat with great intensity, giving the whole of her mind to it, and was capable of remaining for an hour almost as motionless as if she were before a photographer’s lens.’”

     When she stopped reading, Ray said. “Go on, please.”

     Trance-like, Marion continued reading, her soft voice rising, an echo in the night. “’I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine.’” Marion turned her blue eyes towards Ray who remained silent, his lips barely touching. He saw a look of consternation cross her tan face.

     “Marion,” he said, “Are you alright?”

     She blinked. “Yeah, I, uh, think so. Should I keep going?”

     Her voice made the words breathe and gave Ray an entirely different take on the story. “Yeah, please.”

     She read, “’At first, I was extremely pleased with her lady-like air…. But after a few times, I began to find her insurmountably stiff; doing what I would with it, my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph.”

     Marion’s voice lilted in the air. The fire in the background crackled. Her eyes met Ray’s. Tears welled. “Is that me,” she asked, “the woman in the story, artificial?”

     Her question stumped him. All he could answer was, “That’s all of us, the woman and the man.”

     “I don’t understand.”

     He spoke slowly. “Well, it’s like we go through life always searching for who we really are, not who people say we are, or who we think we are. Maybe illusion is more powerful than reality.”

     An hour passed. As the fire dimmed, she rose from the chair and sat next to him at the table, her arms and thighs lightly touching his. She felt nice. As they talked about the story and about their lives and the people in them, she slid down and sat on the ground, leaning her shoulders into his legs, for support.  

     Their dialogue was interspersed with brief silences. She raised her eyes and looked deeply into his. He returned the gaze. The fire illuminated her face below her nose, brightening her full lips. They stayed that way, talking and listening until the last embers of the fire died.

     She rose, the constellations lighting the night. She said, as they both stood looking at each other, “The couple in the story, they were royalty, the real thing, but the artist couldn’t capture it, them. Then, the cleaning woman comes in to model, and he turns her into a princess.”

     Ray thought for a moment, and answered, “That’s right. The real thing.”

     They stood but feet apart. Marion said, “Oh, it’s late. I should be getting back.” She placed both hands in his. Their fingers fit neatly together. She moved closer to him, her eyes on his. They remained that way for a moment, quiet. She offered a quick hug, and she thanked him for a beautiful evening. He did the same.

     She turned on the flashlight and made her way back to her campsite. She called in a low voice, as if asking a question, “I will see you tomorrow?”

     He smiled.

     The next morning, he woke early, before the sun rose and broke camp, making sure he left the site as clean as he had found it. Few campers stirred as he drove up the road, alongside the river, and out of the canyon.

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