Dennis Vannatta

On Puget Sound

                Irene Post and and her good friend Jeannie Clement died almost one year apart, Irene after a long bout with cancer but Jeannie suddenly, of a stroke. At Irene’s funeral they played “Amazing Grace” and at Jeannie’s “Ave Maria” as their husbands, Paul Post and Roman Clement, wept hard and bitterly. Each had seen himself walking happily hand in hand with his lady love into a golden if hazy old age, husband and wife to pass from this world simultaneously of a painless contretemps yet to be determined. It hadn’t happened that way, though, and in their early sixties the husbands found themselves grieving and alone. Well, they had each other.
                The wives had been close but the husbands closer yet. Paul and Roman were both Midwesterners, about the same age, taught literature together at the local university, loved bourbon, the blues, and Woody Allen films. They thought of themselves as best friends but never voiced that opinion, fearing the term was a bit adolescent for men of their steadily advancing years. Widowers now.
                For almost a year Roman and Jeannie had helped Paul deal with his mourning, and then one day Roman got a call from Jeannie’s boss at the health clinic where she worked. Jeannie had collapsed. She was being loaded into the ambulance as they spoke.
                She died on the way to the hospital. Even before calling his daughter, who lived in Arizona, Roman called Paul. He was so used to comforting Paul that even now he tried to ease the blow, announcing with an attempt at a sort of jocularity, “Well, old buddy, now you have someone to spend your lonely nights with.” Paul didn’t laugh, of course, but came straight over with a bottle of Gentleman Jack.
                They had spent their professional lives bitching about their lot at “No Raise U,” the indifferent students, and the arrogant and incompetent administration, and both had spoken of retirement with something approaching a carnal lust. Now, though, their loneliness was manageable as long as they had classes and grading and committee work to distract them. The holidays, which they’d dreaded, weren’t so bad after all. They’d be with their kids and grandkids then. It was the weekends that were tough. They helped each other through them, having dinner together, watching a movie, taking in a concert or play at the rep.
                The summer, though, dear God, three months to do nothing but brood and listen to the echoes in their four-bedroom-plus-office homes. They spoke wistfully of travel, a major recreation for Roman and Jeannie and something the Posts had always wanted to do more of but had never managed much due to their three children, the boys’ soccer tournaments, Clare’s swim meets, then Irene’s deteriorating health. Why not take a trip together that summer, Roman suggested. “You betcha,” Paul, from Wisconsin, said.
                Somewhere north to escape the blistering heat of their adopted southern state would be nice. They agreed on Seattle. Paul had never been there. It wasn’t until they were landing at Sea-Tac that Roman disclosed that Seattle was where he and Jeannie had gone on their honeymoon, thirty-five years ago.

                Standing in line at the rental-car counter, Paul made a half-hearted attempt to talk Roman out of this particular walk down memory lane. Trust him, it didn’t do any good. It only brought more pain, savagely ripping open only partially healed wounds.
                “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Roman said.
                Paul had had his “I’m fine” phase, too, and his “walk down memory lane” phase (one weekend with a generous supply of cabernet sauvignon and the thirteen fat photo albums the Posts had compiled over the decades of married life that in retrospect looked to him to be almost surreally happy). Neither phase did anything to assuage the pain. The only thing that helped was turning the pages on the calendar. Time didn’t heal but it did mask, it did deaden. Paul wasn’t convinced that even that was a good thing, though, because if he didn’t have Irene, and he didn’t have the pain of losing her, what else did he have on this earth? On this earth.
                Roman wasn’t to be talked out of Seattle, though, so they completed the paper work for the rental car and then drove north into the city.
                They’d traveled together before to conferences, but now, as they pulled into the Holiday Inn where Roman had booked them a room, they grew strangely shy with one another.
                Paul wouldn’t even get out of the car. “They’ll think we’re a couple of sad old fags.”
                Roman went in to the office and told the girl behind the counter there’d been a mistake, they’d booked two rooms, not one. The subterfuge was unnecessary. Plenty of rooms were available. Paul was mollified, and after they’d unpacked they walked across the street to a sports bar and drank more beer than they were used to, talked loud, laughed at everything and pretended the waitress was coming on to them, “two wild and crazy guys.” They argued over who would show her the best time in the sack and resolved the dispute by agreeing that either one would give her more than she could handle, being the experienced men of the world that they were and primo studs to boot.
                Then Paul began to develop a mild headache, so they left the waitress-who’d-never-know-what-she-missed-out-on a 25% tip and went back to the motel. Both were asleep by ten o’clock, Central Standard Time.

                The next morning Paul’s head felt fine, but Roman’s stomach was a little queasy, and he couldn’t handle the complimentary breakfast. He sipped coffee and watched Paul eat sausage, bacon, and biscuits and gravy. “Irene would kill me if she could see me now,” Paul said, chuckling like it was a good joke on somebody.
                Then they went to explore the neighborhood. Roman had chosen this particular Holiday Inn because it was in the same area—on the edge of the University of Washington campus—where he and Jeannie had stayed on their honeymoon, but he was damned if he could remember what motel it was.
                “I can’t believe you could forget something like that,” Paul said. “On our honeymoon in the Dells, Irene and I stayed at a Motel 6. It was all we could afford.”
                Roman shook off a slight sting of irritation at the “how could you forget” business. Paul could probably remember every detail of every vacation because they’d taken so few. Whereas the Clements had family money, Paul had grown up “poor as a church mouse,” in his words, and his and Irene’s salaries had gone mostly to their children. And then the medical bills, of course.
                Roman knew he was fortunate in many ways compared to Paul, but not all. Oh, how he envied Paul’s being with his wife at the end, envied Irene’s long hard dying, her husband at her side. Was that perverse? No. To be with Jeannie every second, every single second . . .
                They walked up and down the street of motels, restaurants, and shops, but Roman couldn’t recognize the place where he and Jeannie had stayed. Probably it was no longer there. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say that, though.
                They crossed over into the university campus and walked around for close to an hour. They agreed it beat the hell out of “the factory,” the mostly concrete, brick, and asphalt commuter campus where they taught.
                Roman and Jeannie had also toured the campus, all those years ago. It’d been a rainy day, and they’d linked arms under an umbrella and walked and walked, half the day it seemed like. “But I swear to God I don’t recognize a thing now, not one single thing. Nothing looks familiar.”
                “Well, things change a lot in thirty-five years,” Paul said sententiously.
                “You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion.”
                An hour of it was enough, more than enough, for the two of them. Roman looked at his watch. It wasn’t even ten o’clock. “What are we going to do now?”
                “Go back to the motel and take a nap,” Paul said.
                “I’m hungry. I need food,” Roman said.
                The breakfast buffet at the Holiday Inn was closed by then, so Roman bought a Honey Bun and a Diet Coke at the Seven-Eleven next door, and they went back to Roman’s room with their complimentary USA Todays from the motel office.
                Roman sat on the bed eating and reading the sports page while Paul worked the crossword puzzle at the little desk. After a couple of minutes, Paul got up and disappeared into the bathroom. He was in there awhile. It didn’t sound good.
                When he came out, he looked green around the gills.
                “You OK?” Roman asked.
                “OK now,” Paul said. “That sausage and gravy, wow, all of a sudden, it came right back up.”
                “Ah, so Irene had her revenge after all.”
                Roman instantly regretted saying it, but Paul looked pleased to imagine that that had been the case.

                After a nap and lunch at Wendy’s down the street, they were back at the motel by 1:00 to catch the bus for the Grey Line city tour. It would give them a good overview of Seattle, and they could decide where they wanted to return to in the rental car and spend more time.
                It’d been Roman’s idea, another sentimental journey thing since he and Jeannie had also taken a bus tour on their honeymoon. He remembered their tour-guide—perhaps suspecting something from their manner—asking if there were any honeymooners on the bus, and when they had sheepishly raised their hands, everyone had laughed and cheered. It was a good memory.
                Not much that he saw now was familiar, though. “I don’t remember this, I don’t remember this at all,” he kept saying with a curious mixture of amusement and consternation.
                He’d begun to get just a little on Paul’s nerves, in fact, when Paul started imagining that he was with Irene. What would she say? What would she think? He decided that she’d like Seattle a lot.
                One of the stops on the tour was at the fish ladder at Ballard Park. Paul thought that Irene would love this, too. “Irene liked to fish. Did you know that?” he said. He was actually talking to himself more than Roman, for the first time in many years thinking of their trip, pre-kids, up into the lake country of Minnesota, where they rented a cabin and canoed from one limpid, ice-cold lake to another, and Irene, squealing in delight, had caught the only fish, a walleye, eating size, and immediately demanded that Paul release it.
                “No, I didn’t know that,” Roman said, shaking his head in wonderment. Irene had always been the artsy type, small and delicate. He couldn’t imagine her with a fishing pole in her hands. Jeannie, now, although she hadn’t fished, she loved the outdoors, liked hiking and camping, played tennis a couple of times a week with “the girls” at the racquet club and played golf on weekends with Roman. She was every bit as much a fan of the NFL and college sports as Roman. The irony was that Paul, tall and broad-shouldered—“hulking” came to mind—didn’t really like sports much at all, yet had three children who lived on fields, courts, and diamonds. Roman and Jeannie’s only child, Mandy, played piano and rolled her eyes at the mention of sports. Life is funny, hey?
                “It’s a real riot,” Roman said.
                “Nothing, never mind. I was just thinking aloud.”
                The tour took over three hours. At the end of it, despite the fact that they’d mostly sat and listened to the tour guide, both were tired and strangely out of sorts. They had dinner at the same sports bar as the previous night but couldn’t recapture the high good humor, even if it had been more than a little forced. They drank just as many beers, though, drank as if drinking were serious business, as their heads moved back and forth like windup dolls’ from the TV monitor high up in one corner of the bar to the TV monitor in the other corner.
                Back in the motel, Paul said defiantly, almost confrontationally, “I’ll be damn if I’m going to be asleep by ten o’clock tonight.” And he wasn’t. He was asleep by 9:30.

                Roman couldn’t get comfortable in the king-size bed. (They had a full at home. Jeannie had liked to be close enough to push her toes under his legs on winter nights. What need did they have for a larger bed?) He slept badly until he began to see dawn light outline the curtains, then slept hard, not waking up until after 8:00.
                He threw his clothes on and went to Paul’s room and knocked on the door. No response. He knocked again, harder, then harder yet. He pressed his ear to the door and listened. Nothing. He recalled Paul’s black mood last night. Remembered the phone call he received—that day, that day—from Jeannie’s boss.
                He tried not to break into a run as he went down the hall, then stairs, toward the office. They needed to come open the door to his friend’s room, he’d tell them. His friend had been despondent. No. His friend hadn’t been in good health. Roman was worried. They needed to open the door.
                Paul was sitting in the breakfast area reading the USA Today and chowing down.
                “What’s the matter?” he asked when he saw the look on Roman’s face.
                Roman was trying to think what to say in reply when Paul laughed guiltily and said, “Oh. Yeah, I know. Sausage and gravy again. But don’t worry, I won’t foul your bathroom again today. My stomach feels fine. I think it was just jet lag yesterday.”
                Roman shook his finger at him. “Irene won’t like this at all,” he said.
                He knew it was what Paul wanted to hear. Sure enough, Paul grinned and forked a whole link sausage into his mouth.

                They drove downtown and took the Seattle underground walking tour. It started in a small auditorium next to the ticket office with the MC doing a twenty-minute standup routine marked by jokes so corny “you could eat them with salt and butter,” Paul said. That didn’t prevent Paul from laughing uproariously, or Roman laughing at Paul.
                The actual tour, though, was mildly interesting at best, and they were ready for it to be over with long before it reached that happy point. Still, there was now a heavy mist falling outside, and at least they’d been dry underground. And, “Well, it helped pass the time,” Roman said. “That’s a truth nor grave nor bed denied,” Paul, a Yeats specialist, said.
                The mist changed to a light rain. Sharing Paul’s umbrella (Roman hadn’t thought to bring one even though it’d been he who warned that it rained every day in Seattle), they walked from the tour office to the first café they came across, a little Italian place on a corner. It had barely a half-dozen tables and served the best Italian food, they both agreed, they’d ever eaten. They drank an extra glass of wine apiece as they watched the rain, then tipped the waitress almost 50% of the bill. She was “cute as a bug’s ear,” Paul said, but beyond that they made no suggestive comments or jokes about her. She was too young, and they were too old and hadn’t drunk enough wine for that kind of joking.
                The rain let up, turned back to a mist light enough that Paul closed up his umbrella as they walked on down to the Pike Street Market.
                “I remember this, I remember this!” Roman said as they approached the entrance.
                They walked through the crowded stalls marveling at the displays of food and gorgeous flowers as Roman kept enthusing, “I remember this,” to which Paul would reply, “Irene would have loved this.” They each bought a cup of Mt. Rainier cherries and ate them as they browsed through the market, grins of wonder on their faces. They felt like giving each other congratulatory high-fives, as if the Pike Street Market were a long-sought vindication of something.
                It was hard for the rest of the afternoon to measure up to the Pike Street Market euphoria, though. They had a beer at a brew pub, then stood in line for the Space Needle. Once on top, they wondered why they’d bothered.
                “I don’t like heights,” Roman said.
                “Neither did Irene. Hated heights.”
                They stood for a moment looking down, down at Seattle as if distance itself were a great sadness. Then they got back in line for the elevators.
                They weren’t going to eat at the sport’s bar again that night, both swore. Anywhere but there. They drove around the edge of the campus looking at toney little cafés, then finally stopped at a Pizza Hut. Neither was particularly hungry. Two glasses of wine plus a beer in the middle of the day—they weren’t used to it, too old for it.
                When the pizza came, though, Paul ate his share and pronounced it “Not bad. Really pretty good.”
                “No, it’s not,” Roman said.

                The next morning at breakfast Paul said maybe they should just “cut their losses” and head for the airport, get an early flight home. When Roman didn’t say anything, Paul took his silence as hurt feelings, since it’d been Roman who suggested Seattle and was responsible for their itinerary. In fact, though, Roman’s failure to respond was due to distraction: he’d suddenly started trying to remember exactly how many days he and Jeannie had spent in Seattle and what their activities were each day. He would like to have gone off by himself to chart it out with pen and paper, but of course he didn’t do that. Besides, Paul was talking again, enthusiastically now, it seemed. Roman tried to pick up the thread of the conversation.
                “Come on. It’ll be fun. Boat ride. Salmon bake. Dancing girls. It says right here,” Paul said, waving a brochure: “‘Dancing girls.’”
                “Dancing girls?” Roman said. “How can I resist?”
                Paul phoned for reservations for the ferry to Blake Island plus salmon bake at Tillicum Village. Then they drove back down to Pike Street Market and killed time until the ferry’s departure from the docks.
                The ferry plowed slowly but irresistibly out of Elliott Bay into Puget Sound. They stood at the stern of the ferry, then went around to the bow, then returned to the stern and stood at the railing watching Seattle recede into the mist.
                Roman looked down at the ferry’s wake, a huge fat quivering muscle beneath the surface of the slate-gray water. Then he said, “We could go on in.”
                Paul hesitated long enough that it was obvious he knew exactly what Roman had meant, then said, “What?”
                They both knew. But Roman explained anyway: “We could just go into the water. End it here.”
                Paul didn’t say anything. Even he wasn’t sure if he didn’t say anything because he didn’t know what to say or only because he didn’t know how to say it.
                Eventually Roman sighed and turned away from the rail, and Paul followed him back into the enclosed passenger section of the ferry where they sat out of the chilly wind until the ferry docked at Blake Island.
                The passengers disembarked and immediately filed into the main lodge at Tillicum Village where they ate baked salmon and watched a performance of song and dance by people young enough to be the two widowers’ grandchildren. Afterward they had almost ninety minutes to explore the island.
                They wanted to get away from the other tourists, so they walked up a broad path that ran alongside the sound before winding up into the forest, cool and shadowy and silent.
                “Look!” Paul whispered, pointing up the trail ahead of them.
                It was a deer, standing broadside across the trail, its head turned as it watched them with mild curiosity.
                “That’s a scene in a movie,” Paul said. “Some movie. There’s a deer standing just like that, very still, looking right at the camera.”
                “What movie?”
                Paul thought a minute. “Can’t remember.”
                Roman snorted. “Alzheimer’s will do that. Anyway, I think you’re thinking of a book. That’s in a book somewhere, a novel. Heavily symbolic.”
                “What novel?”
                Roman thought a long moment. Then: “I can’t remember a goddamn thing any more.”
                Paul laughed, and just like that the deer was gone. They walked on down to where the deer had stood, and then Paul said, “Damn.”
                “What’s the matter?”
                “I think I’m getting a blister. It hurts like hell.”
                He sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree, took his sneaker and sock off, and with both hands cranked his foot around until he could see the sole. “Yep. Big damn blister.”
                He put his sock and sneaker back on and stood up, wincing when he took a step. Roman moved closer and said, “Lean on me,” or rather tried to sing the line from the Bill Withers song for a joke, but Paul waved him away. Hell with that, he said, because if someone saw them they’d think they were a couple of old fags for sure.
                “Paul, I don’t think anyone cares what we are.”
                Paul found a tree limb in the underbrush which, after breaking off a few twigs, he was able to use as a sort of a crutch. Roman walked beside him and twice grabbed Paul’s arm when he seemed about to lose his balance, and both times Paul jerked away, but not until he’d steadied himself.
                On the ferry ride back to Seattle, in the middle of the Sound Roman banged Paul playfully on the knee with his knuckles and said, “You know, if you hadn’t been here with me, I would have been in that water.”
                Paul said, “I’m glad you didn’t do that because then I would have had to go into the water, too, and I’m not that good a swimmer”—meaning that he would have tried to save Roman. It was the right thing to say at the moment, even if it wasn’t true. No, if Paul had gone into the water, it wouldn’t have been to save Roman.

                The next day they flew back home, and, afterward, when they mentioned their “Seattle idyll,” as Roman dubbed it in an essay he began but never could finish, they talked of it as if it had been a fine thing indeed.
                They were kidded a little. Stan Koch, the arrogant assistant prof with the Harvard degree, said, “So you two are an item now? All I want to know is, am I invited to the wedding?” Even Paul wasn’t much bothered by the teasing, though. It was a blessing at their age, after all, to have a good friend.
                Although they never took another trip together, they’d still meet occasionally for dinner or a movie or concert. And so time passed, and as it did, they’d often speak of their three days in Seattle. They’d recall what they did, what they saw, as if it were all a great lark, an adventure. Even though they never mentioned it, though, what both thought of most frequently, and a little wistfully, as of an opportunity missed, perhaps, was the ferry ride across Puget Sound.

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Otoliths, Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV; five collections (This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press, and Rockaway Children: Stories and Flamboyan: Tales of Love and Other Mysteries, by Rising Star Publishers); and a novel, Around Centralia Square, by Cave Hollow Press.
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