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Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2

Fiction

 

James Barbour

Categories of Refusal


James Barbour (M.F.A., Arizona State University) is currently teaching English at Arizona State University. His fiction has appeared in
Cimarron Review, Quarterly West, and others.  See other work by James Barbour published in Weber Studies: Vol. 15.2Vol. 17.1, and Vol. 22.2.

 

We're in the den of a house overlooking the Mackenzie river. Beyond the picture windows, the water almost seems to circle us, cutting a jagged silver parenthesis out of the night. Sweet river smells carry up from below. When a river is a hundred feet away, the night is never still, though its rushing water, which seemed loud in daylight, is now hushed. Quieter than ashes falling over coals in a fireplace; as quiet as Leslie, sleeping on the leather couch in front of me.

I can't sleep. Nights in the summer are like that for me, so I make lists, trying to pull sleep across my eyes as you might try to fit into an out-of-season garment that remembers your shape from last year. I arrange everything I've seen and done in the last two days. Leslie sleeps through all the compilations. Watching a woman sleep, depending on the kind of tired you have, can be nearly as restful as sleeping yourself.

It's August, the month when farmers burn off the grass stubble in the Willamette valley. We've been house-sitting, Leslie and I, getting away from the smoke. I examine real estate and development loans; I'm a land flip ethicist, adjudicating some honest dreams, and many hoaxes. I meet with loan officers, men and women who wear dark wool suits in mid-summer, and ask them to explain the loans they've made. We do this in the sixth floor office, which has a view, so in the background above their heads, columns of smoke ascend from the fields. The loan officers don't face that direction.

"How many ways can you cross-collateralize a single property?" I ask.

"…Has this loan been soundly grandfathered? Have any of them?"

"…How do you define a 'good risk'?"

I want to know about the character of their investors; and also see if these men and women of the booming eighties have any themselves. The air conditioning is blowing cold when I leave, but they're sweating.

Loan summaries are organized in an alpha-numeric system, which is a code of letters and numbers. These code marks don't seem so different from words, and it's no stretch having thought of them as words to sense their meaning. Some loan reports are filled with yearning.

 

I met Leslie at a New Year's eve party out in the suburbs. Nice place: split level on a quarter acre, with three bedrooms and two baths. Month end was over, and many of us had cut into our vacations to push it through on time, so I'd seen Leslie a lot in the last few weeks. Leslie was friendly and professional, but new to it, a recent graduate. Sometimes she wore glasses, sometimes contacts.

I took a green-frosted cookie off a plate. I'd already eaten two. Leslie was standing nearby.

"Yours?" I asked.

"My roommate and I made a batch last week," she said. "Trying to talk ourselves into Christmas."

"Did it work?" I asked, finishing the cookie. She shrugged.

"I know what you mean," I said. "It's those Irving Berlin songs," then crooned "The fire is so delightful …" more or less on key. Some people laughed.

Leslie clapped politely. "Yeah," she said, "all that togetherness."

In the kitchen they were complaining about the snow at Willamette Pass. I stuck close to the celery and helped with the corkscrew. Leslie came up for a refill.

"You don't ski, do you?" she asked, pouring some blush wine.

"Oh, I do all the usuals: running, skiing, fishing. Land of Nike. You a native?"

"No," she said, holding the glass just in front of her chin. "I went to school here. Are you a Duck, or a Beaver?"

I was close enough to smell both her wine and perfume, and see the smears of lipstick on her glass. We talked; along the way I drank a glass of wine, then we danced in the sunken living room. Leslie gave me a glare when I started talking, loudly, about the snow at Hoodoo Bowl. It was hot because of the fire in the den. Leslie had lifted the hair away from her neck, then let it drop like a curtain down her back, an unconscious gesture, that observed, made me stop and put down the wine bottle in my hands, because otherwise I might have dropped it. It was a glasses day for Leslie, but she'd stuck them into her belt, which was jaunty-looking, and at the same time left her eyes very open when she leaned in to hear a punch line. Someone in her group must have decided to leave, because everyone swirled away towards the door. Her pose shifted, and she put her glasses back on, then folded her arms, suddenly vulnerable.

I'm not a bitter-ender at parties, so after the ball dropped in Times Square, and "Auld Lang Syne," had faded away, I walked to the bedroom to get my coat. Passing the bathroom I heard the snow hitting the skylight, a sad sound, the crystals almost loud against the plexiglass. I walked through the den. Leslie was stretched out on the sofa, watch ing the snow.

"Hey," I said, "you OK?" wondering if she'd overdone it.

"I'm fine," she said. "Just getting the feel of the house, now that it's quiet."

"Well, Happy New Years."

"You too. Thanks for asking."

I smiled, knowing exactly what she meant. I have a feeling for houses, too.

 

That was in the winter. Now it's the end of summer. Leslie is sleeping, and even the fire has gone to rest beneath a cover of ashes. But I still haven't found sleep. Leslie's bathrobe has fallen open. She rolls on her side, all the loveliness that she is turned to the now dying fire. I close her robe and she murmurs, gliding deep in dreams of her own.

 

I don't remember much from my first visit to this house. There are too many other things competing for room in my memory: my mother had died in the spring, and we'd moved again. It was in the summer. A graveyard screened the house from the road, and that was scary. Driving up, Dad and I bounced over the cattle guard, and I saw shadows already creeping across the headstones. Then we bumped onto the driveway and a garage filled with interesting junk was in front of us. On one side was a wall full of fishing poles and nets. My Dad and I poked around for a while, then went through the kitchen door onto the terrace in the back yard. The "yard" was a shelf of pepper-colored granite, which by stages dropped down to the river, coursing white and loud among the boulders thirty feet below us.

A small heated pool was scooped out of the rocks. I remember being surprised that the water felt warm. Broad-leaf maple trees spread their branches above the terrace. Five pointed, plate-sized leaves floated in the water, their seed pods spiralling down like miniature helicopters. I gathered a handful and gave them a toss.

The Mackenzie river had carved an oxbow out of the bank a hundred feet downstream from the house. My dad and I could see it below us, a muddy colored cul-de-sac, darkened by fir trees growing on the bank. Looking closer, I saw that there were fish gathered in a hollow ring. I counted, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the oxbow, realized that there were dozens of fish staring at each other around this circle. It seemed too orderly, like the headstones in the graveyard. I wanted to mess it up.

"Speckled trout," my Dad said. He had fast eyes. Baseball was a big part of my life then, and I was a good center fielder. I picked up a pebble and began to rear back to throw it. My Dad put his hand on my arm.

"Look," he said, pointing downstream from the oxbow.

Like a crack appearing in the filament of our vision, a golden-lit fly line cut across the water not far from the trout. My dad pointed to two other lines in the river.

"We shouldn't disturb the water," my Dad said. "The fishermen are having enough trouble with the trout.

I've remembered that circle of dark trout for years. We didn't go to the house every summer. I always run out back to see if the trout circle is still there. In the times my father, brothers, and I visited, and the times I've gone as an adult, it's always been waiting.

 

Two days ago, Friday after work, Leslie was waiting outside her apartment as I pulled up.

"Tell me about this house again," she said.

"It's an inheritance," I said. "Hello to you, too."

"Oh, hi. That sounds legal somehow. I'll just be a sec."

"Need a hand?"

Leslie smiled, shook her head no, then, dodging a sprinkler, hurried back to her apartment. I'd been to her place a few times, always at night. It looked different in the daylight, with joggers tramping down the sidewalk, and an old woman on a bicycle walking her bandannahed dog. The sky was still dirty from the burning. Eugene is this way every summer: hot, sticky, ashes collecting in strange places. They grow ninety percent of the country's grass seed in the Willamette Valley, which makes for a lot of chaff to burn after the seed is harvested. It's like living next door to an incinerator.

Leslie threw a beach bag of clothes through the open window. "I travel light," she said, swinging into the passenger side. "How many other people have you brought to this place?"

"You're the first."

"Really?"

"The very first. When I was a kid we would house-sit in the summer. We moved a lot, usually in July, so this was our vacation. It's about the only good thing I can remember about summertime, except playing baseball."

"So we're going to recapture your childhood," Leslie said. "That's kinky." Leslie took off her glasses, snapped them into a case, then put on some Ray-Bans. She looked at me in that instant when her eyes were undefended by lenses. "Just kidding," she said, then touched my elbow.

 

In just a few miles we gained a lot of elevation and came to the alpine-like farms around Vida. We rushed through dazzling patches of sunshine and passed through shadows, then the road went beside a narrow meadow, and we could hear the river. I crossed the shoulder onto the access road. Leslie saw the old headstones next to the pasture, tracking them with her eyes, as we clanged over the cattle guard.

"Great camouflage," she said.

The house was a blue-gray two-story building, with a row of dormer windows pointed up from the second floor. I pushed the garage opener. The double doors swung up revealing all the old mysteries. Leslie got out.

"Look at the shake roof," she said, pointing at the moss-covered wood shingles. "I didn't expect Cape Cod out here."

"Way back when, this was a ranch house," I said, picking up our luggage and groceries. Leslie's eyes were caught by the fishing gear, examining the nets and reels like she knew what she was doing. There was an old gray fisherman's hat hanging on a peg next to the poles that made her smile.

"Come on, I want to show you something," I said. I cut through the kitchen, dropped off our stuff on the counter top, then stepped onto the terrace. The afternoon sun had kindled a fire of its own across the dark water of the oxbow. I shaded my eyes, trying to see if the trout were congregating in their ring.

"What am I looking for?" Leslie said. She was standing behind me, looking at the trees, the pool, the river crashing beneath us. I squinted, my eyes full of bright spangles.

"Nothing right now. Wrong time of day," I said.

"This is all very beautiful," Leslie began. I heard a "but" in her voice, and turned around.

"I feel questionable about this," she said, tossing her hair. She'd used a word from work. At the bank, we say "questionable" if a loan hasn't been properly underwritten; or it's anything that's too good to be true. The other categories of refusal are "doubtful" and "in default."

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"…I feel like I'm being swept off my feet. It's so important to youall these childhood memories." The river's noise was all around us, and we both had to raise our voices.

"I guess."

"Never mind," Leslie said, looking at the trees and white water below. "It just felt kind of creepy for a second. Let's go look at the graveyard."

In a corner of the meadow a line of barbed wire fence kept cattle out of the graveyard. We picked some weedy blooms along the fence, then I pulled one of the rusty wires up and Leslie slipped through. There were about ten headstones, some nearly covered by grass, dating from the turn of the century. I still thought that the place was a little spooky, but the cows were reassuring. In the best mown corner, five stones spread out like a pyramid from a husband and wife's marble tombstone.

"Jorgenson," Leslie read, "Jon and Sara."

"Scandinavians," I said. "Maybe it seemed a little like home. The trees and mountains."

"Just warmer," Leslie said, dropping some of blossoms on each marker. "Haven't you ever been here?"

"I always stayed away from it."

"Look, here's a Chinese name. No date. Just some Chinese characters." She studied the other headstones and read the names and dates out loud.

"Think they all worked for the family?" I asked, looking back at the Jorgenson graves, and the house beyond, now dark behind the windbreak of trees. "It's like boot hill."

Leslie looked at me. "You're not a very accepting person," she said. She dropped the last flower on the Chinese headstone, and looked around the meadow. "It wouldn't be so bad out here," she said. "A few people you worked with. Not crowded."

The light was going fast, the way it disappears in the mountains. We strolled back to the house, and Leslie gave me her plant-sticky hand.

"You always make people prove themselves," she said. "I wonder what you think about me."

We had to fumble around to find the lights, then every light bulb blazed throughout the house.

"That's the automatic timer coming on," I said.

"Burglars beware," Leslie said. She walked as if she were touring a museum. We entered a room filled with crystal sculptures, then another with an antique roll-top desk, and Navajo carpets. The next room was crowded with gun cabinets and weathered duck decoys mounted on stands.

"I feel like I'm a pin-up for the N.R.A.," she said, then pantomimed a duck hunter shooting himself in the foot. Leslie drew a bead on me with her finger. "How can you really find out about a house?" she asked. I thought of about thirty ways, most having to with escrow. "Don't know," I said.

"Look at the books and the bathroom."

The bathroom was first. Leslie opened all the cabinets and counted the toothbrushes.

"Smells like 'Old Spice,' doesn't it?" I said.

"Yeah, boring," she said, opening the linen cabinet. White Turkish towels, nearly an inch thick, rose in white stacks on the shelves. She whisked one against my cheek, and whispered "Rich people towels." Four long bathrobes, made of the same plushy terricloth as the towels, hung inside the linen closet door. I picked one up. It must have weighed two pounds.

The den was bigger than my apartment, and its floor-to-ceiling windows made the room seem even bigger. Dozens of over-sized coffee table art books were scattered around. Leslie began to pour through one. A free-standing fireplace was surrounded by leather furniture. The river smells and leather came together, and I remembered when I was little, smelling them sweet. In the corner near the windows an antique saddle stood on a saddle stand. I played on it when I was seven.

"Good book," Leslie said, closing the covers with a thump. "Goes with the lariat," she said, running her finger along the brass nails on the saddle.

"Do you like this room?"

Thinking about it, she climbed into the saddle, and put her feet in the stirrups. "Well, it's great looking," she said. I thought I heard another "but" hanging in the air. The saddle stand creaked, and she made a face and slid off.

The den is my favorite place. It must have showed.

"Don't be so serious all the time," she said, mussing my hair. "This is fun."

Our faces were close, so when I looked into her eyes I saw her laughter begin. She sprang up the stairs, and I followed.

Upstairs there were three small bedrooms, with white-painted radiators standing like cold sculptures beneath the window ledges. I called Leslie's name. She sprang out from behind a door. "Got you," she said, leading me across the hall.

"Will you keep me?"

"Might throw you back."

We peeked into the studio. There was a drawing table, easel, boxes of paint and pastel chalk, and jars full of brushes. The balcony hung far above the river bank. "Let's go outside," she said.

We stepped onto the balcony and the river sighed its night song to us. Around our heads the tree branches played slap and tickle with the night air.

"It's cold," I said, rubbing my arms.

"Yeah, it is. You know, once you get used to the river, it's so quiet." She drew her fingers along the rough wood of the balcony rail, then hugged her arms tight. We waved to the neighbors and went inside.

"There's only one room left," Leslie said.

"We could start all over downstairs," I said, enjoying the game.

"That's a ski lodge," she said, opening the last door, which led to the master bedroom.

I knew what she would do as soon as she saw the bedwhich is the biggest bed I've ever seena four-poster of dark wood, all covered in quilts. She jumped onto the mattress with a whoop and bounced high, stretching her long body in midair, like a girl who'd jumped on trampolines in school, then fell across the center of the quilt. Her hair flew for an instant longer, then it too tumbled to a stop, and she threw it back from her face.

"What are you thinking?" she laughed, the mattress springs squeaking. Leslie rolled over and put a hand on one of the posts, which was carved with spiralling patterns of wheat shocks and the heads of barley.

"I'm tired of your nostalgia. Bet you never did this before," she whispered, then stood up and kissed my ear. My hands were around her waist. "We'll be like your parents," she whispered in my other ear.

"No, it won't," I said, my breath gone, my hands moving.

"Why?"

"My mother died when I was six," I whispered. "She was never here with us."

"I'm sorry," Leslie said, and without moving in any way, she was holding me differently. "Let me give you a new memory," she said, then took my hand and led me onto the center of the quilted bed.

I'm not a late sleeper, particularly in the summer, so I was surprised in the morning when I felt across the big mattress and didn't find Leslie. I checked every room, to see if she'd stolen off to be by herself. She did that sometimes, but the house was empty. I changed clothes, getting worried, when I saw her striding up the path which led from the river. She was carrying a fly rod and wearing hiking shorts and that old fishing hat from the garage. I waved and met her on the terrace. "You had some luck," I said. Leslie had three trout on a line.

She held up the fish for my inspection, the pole in her other hand, and for an instant I saw how she must have been when she was young; tall for her age, and gawky perhaps, but eager.

"They're good ones," I said.

"Have I paid for my trip?"

 

We took a long walk on a path next to the river, turning back when we came to Mackenzie Bridge, then followed the road home. We were soon rooted in the Adirondack chairs on the terrace, the sun like a narcotic, our legs tired. Leslie and I turned our chairs to the light and let the river and the afternoon unroll before us.

After a while, I sensed more than saw motion beneath the surface of the oxbow. I slowly discerned the ring of trout, its outer fringe a quavering line of fish tails.

"There they are," I said, touching Leslie's arm. She was dozing. I stood up. Leslie shaded her eyes, scanning the shadows of the oxbow.

"Oh, yeah," she said, as I pointed out the trout ring. "Look at the size of them!"

"I've always wanted to do this," I said, looking around the terrace for a pebble.

"Do what?" Leslie said, still watching the fish.

I found a rounded stone, smooth from the river. I wound up to throw the rock.

"Don't."

"What?" I asked.

"Don't throw that. How would you like someone throwing a rock at you?"

She'd hooked three of their friends a few hours before. I let the pebble drop.

Leslie got up. "Time for a shower and a change," she announced, stepping inside. I heard the pipes working in the bathroom. My eyes travelled from the oxbow and fish to the loose bits of granite on the terrace, and I thought about it hard. But soon I was riding deep in my chair, and the fish went unmolested. Leslie returned, looking refreshed, carrying a stack of art books. I inched my chair around so I could watch her as she read about the Fauvists and Renaissance painters. The river stirred the air, cooling my skin, and the rapids' long-held booming note soon lulled me to sleep. When I woke, Leslie had polished off five books and was immersed in a sixth. The shadows were stretching for the east. It was time to clean Leslie's trout.

I opened a bottle of wine and put the fish under the broiler. Leslie carried some citronella candles outside. When the fish was ready we ate on the terrace. Later I went into the den to build a fire. Strange to come all the way up here to get away from the smoke, only to make so many fires of our own, I thought. The logs were apple wood, probably from one of the dying orchards we'd passed on the way, seasoned wood, so it would smell like fruit when they burned. I heard a thumping sound from the terrace, then remembered the compressor next to the pool.

"The heat control is to the left," I shouted through the window.

"Thanks," Leslie shouted back. I watched the flames grow, thinking how welcome the fire would be; it was a cool night to use the pool. The couch was near the fireplace, but I shoved it closer.

I walked back into the kitchen and filled our glasses again, then went on to the terrace. I saw Leslie's slender arms draped across the tile, as she let the bubbles from the aspirator run up and down her body. I didn't recognize her bathing suit, which was something strapless. I came closer, then wondered if she had one on at all. I took another step, setting the wine glasses down on the table. She lolled over in the shimmering pool.

Leslie saw me out of the corner of her eye, and crossed her arms, but smiled too, now that I'd caught her naked.

"You do travel light," I said.

"There was only so much room in my bag." She sank down to her chin. "Besides, the water looked too good to resist."

I wanted to ask her the most basic questions: how did you become who you are, and what do want from life? But instead I laughed.

"What's funny?

"I was thinking about work," I said, then laughed again.

"Just happy I guess."

"I was a minute ago, too," Leslie said gathering herself to the side of the pool.

"Happy, or thinking about work?"

"Work—my specialty is liquidity," she said, splashing water at me. "I was thinking about how you scare all those branch managers."

"I'm the official scarer," I agreed, feeling like a loan officer myself, after I've asked them to explain their world of mismanagement. All they do is babble, or make embarrassed shrugs.

"I used to admire that," Leslie said, "that you got so upset, like you were looking out for people. But it's different."

"What's different," I said, pulling my shirt loose.

She splashed some water again. "No, houses to you are, I don't know, sacred or something." That stopped me. "They're a trust," I said.

Leslie turned up the compressor on the water circulator, and the blue-green water boiled white. My eyes were all over her. I was going into that pool. I pressed my heels together and pulled my right foot out of its shoe.

"I'm getting out in a minute," Leslie said, grinning. "Could you get me one of those big robes from the bathroom?"

I was stumped, standing there with one shoe off. Then she laughed, pushing herself off the side of the pool with her feet, foam engulfing her long body.

I pulled one of the heavy robes off the hook, then ran back. Leslie was still pressed against the side of the pool.

"Getting cold?" I asked.

"Not yet," she said. "Do you think of this place as your home?"

"I've spent more time here than in a lot of places I've called home. Your family was settled," I said, envying her.

"Dad was a banker. They stay put. Then later he sold real estate; they don't move around much either." Leslie plowed a trough in the water, then stopped against the opposite side. She brushed the water out of her eyes.

"—He wasn't one of those…" she said, meaning the kind of real estate people I deal with. "He wasn't a crook," she said, very quietly, in a way that cut through the pool and river noise.

I didn't say anything, and that was the worst thing I could have done. Leslie tried to get out of the pool, but missed her footing and slipped back. When she got out, a lot of water came with her.

"I know what you think of realtors..." she said, madder than I'd ever seen her. I stood holding the robe for her, and she fought into it, fought me.

"He wasn't like that at all," she said.

I tried to hold her, so she would listen, but instead it was almost a dance, with me trying to make her stop, and Leslie pushing away. We went on like that, slipping in the splashed water, me sliding in one shoe, and a wet sock. We moved through the kitchen in this angry tango. I tried to catch her eyes with mine, which is about the only strong grip you can take on a naked woman. Finally I found her eyes.

"I know he was honest," I said. "You're honest. He must have been."

I took her other hand. We were standing next to the couch. I felt her breath pounding the hollow of my throat. Leslie lost her balance and fell onto the couch. I still held her fingers. For a second it was as if we were about to love each other, our postures were exposed in that kind of wayme leaning over her; Leslie splayed out on the leather cush ions. She must have felt it too, as she loosened her grip, gathering her disarray of robe around her legs.

"He wasn't a bad man," she said, no longer angry, but lost-sounding, her eyes fixed on the fire. "That's important to me."

I pulled a chair next to the couch, watching as she watched the fire. The logs crackled and then fell in on each other. Perhaps an hour went by.

"You still angry?" I asked. Leslie looked at me, then shook her head no, but she didn't make room for me on the couch.

"When did he die?" I asked, but I'd already guessed.

"It was early in November," she said, eyes still far away. "That's why I worked through Christmas. I couldn't face all that closeness."

The firelight made her seem as young as she must have been in her thoughts, curled up in a corner of the couch. The fire cracked. We smelled the apple wood. Soon she was asleep.

Funny how people without parents find each other.

 

It's an hour to dawn, and I'm still awake. I walk out on the terrace to look at the remains of the night. To the east, it has grown light enough to put an edge on the mountains. The trees seem unreal. Mist blankets the gorge the Mackenzie has carved out from the rocks, hiding it, and smothering its roar. It reminds me of the smoke we've come here to avoid. I look down and imagine what it must be like, struggling among the boulders, and damp fog, the river noise surrounding me like the howl of a fire. It would be easy to get lost.

That's what I've done. You cannot secure a relationship with a borrowed past. You cannot cross-collateralize your loves, as I've wanted to; this house with this woman, my childhood with her future. Was it questionable—certainly. Doubtful? That too, arranging too much, manipulating; the worst kind of default. No wonder Leslie felt creepy.

I look where I know the oxbow lies, thinking of Leslie, and my Dad. I'd heard that people try and find their parents in the people they marry.

It's grown cold inside. Leslie is trembling in her sleep, wrapped in her wet robe, so I gather her in my arms and carry her up the stairs to the big bed. She doesn't protest as I strip off the damp bathrobe. Her hands welcome me, and I think she is awake, then her eyes blink, and she turns away.

 

In the morning I go through the house making lists of what we've used. Leslie is cleaning up the bedroom. I pause for a moment and hear the bedsprings squeaking upstairs.

Passing the kitchen, I see Leslie's beach bag of clothes packed and ready to go. She's standing on the terrace, her arms folded, looking in the direction of the oxbow. Seed pods fall from the maple trees, and I hear them rustle on the terrace stone. A breeze lifts her hair. She smoothes it back into place, then turns toward the river, and I see how the wind outlines the long curve of her body. Leslie won't look at me.

I go into the kitchen. When I come out, Leslie's beach bag is gone. She must be waiting in the car.

I step onto the terrace. Below me, the oxbow is in deep shadow, but I can see the fish swimming, glimmers of color showing as their bodies move back and forth. There are hundreds of them, more than I've ever seen.

I hear Leslie beep the horn of my car. She'll have to wait a minute. I stoop down and pick up a rock that fits in my hand just right. I heft it once, then tilt back and throw. It's a good throw, I know as soon as I release the stone. I watch as it hangs in the air, waiting for the splash, and the trout to scatter.

 

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