I wait for Wiley on the bridge over the dam where two beavers swim figure eights in the quiet water before gravity pulls it down to the brook we call Sugar Run, our place since that first night. We ignored the Keep Away signs, the way a cigarette dropped through the grey-worn slats that buckled like Grandma Mimi’s cancerous teeth. I tasted that wood with my tongue more than once when he held down my face by the back of my neck. I asked Wiley to love me like a tough boy. Still, he was gentle, a lamb. The bridge felt smooth on my cheek and tasted sour from rain.
We met at the Mud Fling, three years ago this spring. I swigged Mimi’s cooking sherry from a jam jar. He grabbed the jar out of my hand, stuck his nose in it, and chucked the booze without asking. Said, “I don’t drink or dance. I’d like to take you to the bridge under the moon. You look like you might like it, too.” I didn’t know. I nodded and followed Wiley into the chill air to the dam. Sure enough, the Sugar Moon shined off the skin of our shoulders as if we were straight out of a story.
Despite a fast beginning, the middle slowed way down. Mimi made me pay attention to school, wait until Saturday nights to see him. We’d stroll on out to the bridge.
“Did you pack a rubber?” I’d ask.
We laughed over that, called ourselves retarded in the reproduction department despite the leaflets from the government and the school nurse. So we had Phoebe, and Wiley moved in to Mimi’s house, growing our small family large. He finished school. I didn’t.
Phoebe died, right here, under this cock-eyed bridge. We only stopped watching for a second. A minute. Mimi told us not to bring her here. She saw things. We just waved her off, wanting poor sweet Phoebe near us.
Just like that a kid can go from looking for minnows nearby in the shallows to sliding down a muddy creek bed in her sagging underwear. Through the gaps in the bridge, I saw a flash of Phoebe’s skin. At first I thought it was a brook trout jumping mayflies. I pushed Wiley off me, pulled my skirt into place, and scrambled. Wiley flew down the bank and waded into frothing water up to his knees and he’s a tall one. No use.
I can’t think about the rest.
For weeks, I thought we made the whole thing up. For months, I re-wrote the story out loud. I drove Mimi and him crazy with all of my what-ifs.
This one sheriff stopped by our house, every day, looking for a new twist that would send our sorry asses to jail; it was too much. So Wiley, he busted the cop’s face. Three teeth. Blood. I took the sheriff into the kitchen to patch him up. The sheriff took Wiley to jail. Later, Mimi, bone-tired and retching her lunch, tried to scratch the cherry-red stains off the porcelain sink with Brillo.
Then Mimi was gone. They wouldn’t let Wiley out to come to her funeral. That’s when I really let go. Stayed in bed. Covered my face with a pillow. Ripped the cotton with my teeth. I saw a road to peace, but I didn’t have the guts.
Weeks later, a neighbor brought a hand delivery, a letter from Wiley, telling me to hold on until he came home. We’d figure stuff out. I read the letter six times. When I looked up from bed, I saw April-high sunlight through slats in the blinds. I thought about the beavers at the bridge, the ice melting into patchy chunks. They’d be out by now, and him, soon.
He’ll look for me, here. So I come to the bridge and wait.
Our baby girl’s here, somewhere–in the tree branches, in the ferns, in the thin spring air that smells like syrup. Soon we’ll all three sit on the bridge together.
Beavers know what’s what in this world. They swim calm, the same loop-de-loops, work hard, grow fat until winter when they disappear beneath the ice and grab gulps of air through crisscrossed saplings. They come back in spring.
When Phoebe was brand new we’d sit on the porch and talk about the beaver–Wiley, Mimi, me–about what we saw and knew. Phoebe slept in her cradle. Wiley rocked her with his foot. Sometimes, Wiley rubbed my neck, then Mimi’s.
Once, Mimi said, “I knew your father. He was a good man. Good men breed good men.” So there’s that, too. How Mimi knew things.
God, we’d named her after a bird. Her spirit hovers in the trees, a little angel. I wait. He’ll come. He’s what I’ve got and the spring songs of birds. I’ll tell Wiley to change out that stained kitchen sink and he will. He will. He’s a lamb.
My body aches for his hands like those beavers clawing for oxygen.
Photo by Larry McGahey