A Good Man and The Gorge

By: Lauren Calderella

Simmons College, Massachusetts, USA

 

By my third holiday with Jane’s family, Oregon wasn’t verdant anymore, but it was green. I remember how it felt to see Oregon for the first time. I went out to visit my aunt in Northeast Portland and watched the sun set over the ocean rather than rise, stood under evergreens that towered over me like giants from a storybook. When we hiked through Multnomah, I took a drink from a spring that trickled down the mountain. Later, driving along the gorge to her home, I sat in the backseat and stared at the green mountains reaching into the sky, sweeping down to the edge of the Columbia River.  I determined, in that moment,  that this land was the most beautiful I had ever seen, and I took pictures with my digital camera because I thought I’d never see it again. When I returned to the East Coast, I saw the world as a verdant place, full of growth and meaning.

I was twenty when I met Jane. She said that she was from Oregon, and I told her that I’d been there two or three times to visit family, so we had something in common right away. We were soon going together, and I was spending part of the holidays with her family each winter. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I became a part of something larger than anything I had known before.

I never thought that I’d lose the image of Oregon as a flourishing, prosperous place. I didn’t account for the possibility that my perception of the Pacific Northwest would continue to change in drastic ways, shifting each time I flew out for the holidays, or for the reality that Jane’s father, Richard, would soon lose his battle with esophageal cancer. When Richard was first diagnosed, the doctors didn’t give him a number, but they soon gave him a mere six months and, during the final winter, seven days.

Jane and I were visiting for the holidays. Like every other winter, we fell into a routine. In the mornings, or by noon at the latest, we got into the car. Sometimes we knew where we were going, other times we didn’t, but we drove all the same because we had to. If we stayed home, we would spend the day wishing that there was something we could do to stop Richard’s decline. There wasn’t anything to do except drive, so we backed out of the driveway each day, and that’s when Jane would start smoking, and I would start drinking, and we’d go along like that, in between and underneath the trees tall and dark. Jane would then remind me that her town is in a valley, that the mountains were all around us.

“It doesn’t feel like a valley,” I’d say. And she’d reply, “That’s because we’re in it.”

“Elizabeth, honey, you just make yourself at home,” Irene said one afternoon during my stay.

“Thank you.”

“This is your home too, you know.”

“Thank you,” I said, grinning this time because I hadn’t the first.

We were seated on the couch. Jane lifted her hand and set it on my thigh, her eyes still on the TV screen. Richard was asleep on a bed in the living room. His hospice nurses had set up the space a week before. Every so often, when Irene said something loudly, he would startle a little and scan the room weakly before drifting off. His hands, gaunt and blackened, were limp at his sides. The blotches of discoloration that covered his body looked like bruises, blood blisters, or something that I’d never seen before. His jeans hung loosely on his legs, their waistline crunched together like an accordion with an old belt that someone had stabbed extra holes into.

“Well, I’ll let you girls be,” Irene said.

She turned and started out of the room, then stopped in the doorway to face us again.

“Are you girls comfortable here? Has the bed been alright?”

“It’s great,” I said. Irene bent over and poked her head out toward us.

“Are you sure?” Her southern voice elongated her final word.

“Yes,” I said.

She looked at us narrowly for a moment, then straightened up and said, “Well, alright, you just let me know.”

Jane and I smiled. I looked at Richard on the other side of the room.

“Hey, how about some chicken for dinner?” Irene said. “Elizabeth, I got the best recipe. Richard used to love it.”

“We’re going to make something later,” Jane said.

“Alright, well just let me know if you change your mind.” Irene walked over to Richard’s bedside and positioned herself in the line of our vision.

“You need anything, Papa?”

Richard groaned faintly.

“The nurse said we can do another dose of morphine at five. Just a little while longer.” She looked down at Richard, who was quiet, “It’s almost four now.”

Jane peered around her mother like a child. My heart quickened, stomach tightened, and the room grew hot. After a few minutes at his side, Irene left and let Richard rest.

I put my hand on Jane’s, which was still resting on my thigh, and she turned her gaze towards mine. She wasn’t looking at me, though— her eyes were merely open. Tracing the shape of her hand to hold her attention, I sent a message to Jane with my eyes. It went unreceived. Jane looked through me, through the wall behind me, and into the other side of reality. Her mouth and eyes were open and unmoving. Tears fell slowly over the edges of her eyelids, but her face remained frozen. I shook her arm gently, and she blinked for the first time in minutes, then nestled her head into my arm.

Trudi, Jane’s sister, walked out of her room and into the kitchen. She looked at Jane as she passed. For a moment, I thought that she was going to speak, but she instead continued on, her presence undetected by Jane and altogether unbeknownst to Richard who was asleep across the room.

It was good to be alone with Jane, but the silence that ensued when everyone retired made it hard for us to run from reality. Nights were still and dark, lacking the noises of day that helped to keep the truth concealed. We held each other and spoke very little.

Later that night, Jane and I still seated on the couch, I gestured toward the door with my eyebrows raised. Jane nodded. Closing the door gently behind us, we carried our things outside and got into Jane’s car, though it was hidden underneath a thick layer of snow. As the engine started, music resumed playing— a half-finished song on an old CD that we only listened to while in Oregon. Jane leaned back in the driver’s seat and shut her eyes. A blanket of snow blocked the glow of streetlights and kept her car perfectly dark. We sat there with the music playing, unable to see through the windows or into anything else.

“I feel like we’re in a submarine,” I said. Jane smiled, her eyes still closed, then sat up and looked at me.

“I like it,” she said.

I finished swallowing, then handed her the bottle. I watched Jane as the music played. “Sweet little baby in a world full of pain. I’d like to be proud, but somehow, I’m ashamed.”

The orange flicker of a lighter illuminated Jane’s face for a couple of seconds. She looked vibrant and beautiful, but then it went dark. In our submarine, Jane handed me a blunt. It sizzled as it pulled, and when I handed it back to Jane, I found her staring out the window at our wall of snow.

“I just remembered,” she said. “We still have that champagne leftover from New Year’s.” She reached into the backseat and moved things around, revealing an open bottle of rosé Mumm Napa.

“It’s so cold,” she said between sips.

My world was spinning. I listened to the sound of the champagne splashing back to the bottom of its bottle as Jane set it down. We switched back and forth as the song sang “Mama, there is only so much I can do. Tough for you to witness, but it was for me too.”

“I can’t remember which way the car is facing.”

“Me neither,” she said, handing me the champagne.

“What are we celebrating?”

“Life,” she said. She was holding in smoke, and her voice sounded funny. As she exhaled, she looked directly at me with bloodshot eyes. Minutes went by. She continued to stare at me through the darkness of the car, and I watched as her eyes glazed over.

“Jane,” I whispered. She was looking straight through me. “Jane,” I said.

 

* * *

 

Jane’s face glowed green as we laid on the air mattress in the middle of her room, shelves of servers and routers and monitors blinking around us.

“What did he do with all of this stuff?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “When I was in high school, I always saw him playing with his computers and gadgets, but I never knew what he was doing.”

We looked up at the machines.

“A lot of these are just spare parts from Intel,” she said. “My mom will probably donate them.”

“You should save them,” I said.

“And do what?”

“I don’t know,” I said after a moment. Jane laughed, and then I laughed too. She rolled over and rested her head against my chest. We closed our eyes and listened to the hum of the machines as they worked relentlessly into the night. Defeated, we fell into a heavy sleep.

In the morning, I asked Jane to take me to the gorge.

“Make sure they’re not calling for fog,” she said.

“It won’t be foggy.”

“Can you just check?” Jane said.

They were calling for some fog—an unsurprising prediction given that clear days are few and far between in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’ll be clear,” I called from the other room as I got my things together. I hoped that once we got to Vista Place we would see far down the river to the jutting cliffs. Most of all, I hoped that the height would allow things to seem better than they did on the ground.

The car was quiet as we drove along the highway. It was daytime, but we spoke very little. Jane and I passed a blunt back and forth, and I tried to think of something to say that would make things better, but instead I said nothing. Jane took a pull from the blunt as she looked ahead at the road, and the burning end glowed. Along the highway, the evergreens wept under heavy, wet snow. The wind whooshed past the body of the car and made its way through the cracks of the doors. As Jane accelerated, the wind grew louder, concealing the fact that neither of us had said a word in over an hour. We were heading so fast down the edge of the water that it felt as if we were in a speedboat ripping through waves, going straight out to sea.

From Vista Place, we watched the waves in the gorge crash violently. Amid the choppy water, the whitecaps were still visible, and as I looked down at them from the top of the mountain, it felt like I was in the middle of the river, struggling to keep from going under.

“That’s Washington,” Jane said.

“Right there?”

“Yes.”

“It’s like the inlet,” I said. She laughed.

“I guess that’s what they ought to call it.”

“I just mean it’s like the inlet in Point,” I said. “Point’s on one side and Squan is on the other.”

Jane looked out over the gorge.

“It’s like a big inlet,” I said after a moment, and she agreed.

We sat in the car, which shook powerfully from the wind, looking ahead to the split in the earth that separated one state from another. The winding turquoise water shimmered brilliantly with the image of the afternoon sky, and we could see cliffs jutting out into the river for miles. The sun shone brightly, and the undulating earth made me feel small.

Jane and I watched as a man walked forcefully against the wind and up to the ledge that overlooked the water. The wind swept his cap right off his head and into the gorge.

“It’s a long way down,” I said.

 

* * *

 

Later, on Jane’s couch, it felt as if we hadn’t gone up to Vista Place at all. From behind us, her mother walked out.

“What did you girls do today?”

“We went to the gorge,” Jane said.

“Oh, Jane,” Irene said. “Did you take her to see the waterfalls?”

“No.”

“You didn’t take her to the waterfalls?” she asked.

“No. I forgot. We’d already gone up to the mountain anyway.”

“Oh Jane, it had to have been just a little bit further.”

Jane said nothing.

“We went to Vista Place,” I said. “It was beautiful.”

Her mother turned around and started back into the kitchen.

“What’d you have to go and do that for?”

“What?” Jane said.

“Forget it. But you couldn’t have taken me?”

“I didn’t know you’d want to go,” she said.

“I didn’t know they existed until a second ago.”

Jane looked out at me quietly. As I studied the sloping shape of her eyes, I knew that the gorge hadn’t changed anything and that the waterfalls wouldn’t either. But maybe they would, I thought.

“Have you seen the waterfalls before?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What were they like?”

“Like Wahkeena and Latourell and all the other ones I’ve taken you to.”

I looked off to the side, blinking rapidly, thinking back to all of the beauty Jane and I had experienced together over time, in the Pacific Northwest, but in other places too.

“Next time,” Jane said. “I promise.”

“I don’t care if we go anymore.”

“My mom will be mad if we don’t,” she said after a moment, and we both laughed.

 

That night, I came out to find Jane in the living room kneeling at Richard’s side, her hand across his stomach and her head on his chest, saying something softly which I could not hear. I stood there for a moment, then backed out of the room and sat down on Jane’s bed, my feet on the ground, my head heavy in my palms.

“Let’s get a drink somewhere,” Jane said in the doorway. I agreed, and she began to collect her things.

“He’s a good man, Jane. But he’s suffering so much,” I said.

Jane looked up as she slid her arm into her coat and looked carefully at me before speaking.

“I know,” she said.

On the outskirts of Portland, we approached a stone building with a sign outside that read “Joe’s Cellar” in block, capital letters, and I asked Jane to pull in.

“Let me take you somewhere nicer,” she said.

“This looks nice enough.”

Inside, after we’d settled at the bar, a man asked what we would like.

“Two Glenlivets,” I said.

“We’re out of Glenlivet right now.”

“Glenfiddich?”

“That we do have.”

The man turned to the counter behind him, looking up at the high shelves.

“We have twelve and eighteen,” he said.

“Twelve, please.”

“Ice okay?”

I nodded. Jane looked around the bar at the photographs hanging on the walls. The man set two glasses down in front of us, filled them halfway with ice using a small, silver shovel, and poured Glenfiddich, not Glenlivet, into each one.

“Is there anywhere else you’d like to go tonight?”

“No,” she said, swinging her legs back around. “I don’t think so.”

Jane and I sat in silence with our arms on the counter, looking ahead. The scotch was both warm and very cold.

“We’re going to spread his ashes over the gorge,” Jane said without turning to face me.

“Why the gorge?”
“I don’t know. Is there a reason to anything anymore?” She took a long sip from her glass, and I looked down at mine, a shimmery mirage of melting ice forming swirls in the scotch. I shook my head, which hung heavily over my glass, and I shook it still, having not replied, as Jane swallowed the last of her scotch and looked ahead with her eyes merely open.