"There it is," Libby Melton pointed across her husband’s nose.
"Honey, I’m driving," Jack protested. "There is what?"
"The turnoff to the Gorge."
Jack continued to pilot the BMW Z3 up the mountain road toward the lodge. "Uh-huh."
"Let’s go there tomorrow."
"Ummm….there are better places. That one is pretty rugged."
"Oh, come on. We have our hiking clothes. Rugged is good. Help us to walk off some weight."
Libby ran her hands down over her belly and on to her hips, squirming in her seat belt and managing to look sensuous in a way much more distracting than the pointing finger had been. Jack, watching out of the corner of his eye despite his efforts to concentrate on the road, cracked a smile.
When the two had connected at the reunion years ago, Libby had been deep-bosomed and leggy. She still was at fifty-three, although she fretted over a slightly spreading rump more than she should. Well, he could sympathize. Despite three days a week in the gym, his pants were getting tighter than he’d prefer.
"What’s funny?" she asked.
"You. You’re gorgeous and you know it."
"You’re sweet. But I still need exercise. Let’s hike down in the Gorge tomorrow."
"No. We can find a better trail. There are lots of them."
"No. Not there." His voice had the tone he used with their daughter Samantha when she was trying to wheedle her Dad and getting nowhere.
"Jack…" Libby began, but said nothing else.
They drove on without speaking for a while as Jack negotiated the curves in the asphalt road. The roadster’s top was down and the wind whipped Libby’s still-dark hair across her face and about her shoulders. Trees shaded much of the road, and shafts of late afternoon sunlight breaking through made the landscape flicker like an old film. In late May, the Southern Appalachians showed their true character as a highland rain forest.
Finally, Libby flipped open her cell phone and Jack could hear the clicking of texting.
"Texting Sam?" he asked. Samantha, just finished with college exams, was spending time (and hopefully, behaving herself) at a house on Atlantic Beach with classmates while her parents took a weekend trip to the mountains.
"Yes. A mother worries."
"And a father." Jack’s eyes stole a half second from the road so he could grin at his wife directly. "But she won’t do anything you haven’t done."
"Why don’t you say something that will actually make me feel better?" They both laughed, the silence following the mention of the Gorge broken, and they chatted idly about this and that the rest of the way to the Highlands Lodge.
Dinner at the Lodge was delightful, taken outdoors on the patio in a spot shaded from the setting sun. The river was just below them. Shallow at that point, it hurried over rocks on its way to the waterfall at the Gorge and then down to the dam, making its own gentle music while they ate.
As darkness grew, they decided to move down to the cocktail lounge at the other end of the patio for a nightcap. The mountain air at night has a chill, even in May, so Libby went to their room for a sweater, while Jack visited the lobby restroom.
Libby found Jack at a small table in the bar as close to overlooking the river as their dinner table had been. He had already ordered for them. A single malt in a snifter for him, a Campari-rocks for her.
"What are those?" She pointed to a small pile of brochures on the table.
"Brochures for hiking trails. I found them in the lobby. …You said you wanted to hike tomorrow. Some of these look promising."
Libby reached for the brochures. "I know. But most of these we have done before. You know where I want to go."
"I told you. Not there."
"But I’ve never been."
Jack hesitated. "I have," he said finally, tapping his snifter in unease.
Libby’s brows lifted. "You never told me."
They weren’t really very far from home. The lodge was just up the mountain road from where they lived in Brainerd County. They had visited the mountains frequently, had stayed at the lodge before.
But in all the years of their marriage, after Jack had moved back to Brainerd County to a smaller law firm and a happier life, they had never visited the Gorge, never hiked down into it, never spoke of it.
Libby was suddenly more than just curious. "When?"
Jack drank scotch. "Once when I was a kid. Once in college."
Libby put her hands on the table, her drink now untouched. "Were you alone?"
Jack sipped scotch again, and signaled the waiter for more. "The first time was with Scouts. The second time, I was with Susan. It was not long after we met."
Susan was Jack’s first wife. She had divorced him not long before his reunion connection with Libby. She now lived in Charlotte, re-married with her own kids. They never saw her, never spoke of her. Well, Libby didn’t talk about her own failed first marriage either.
But this…Whatever was bothering Jack was something she wanted–needed–to know.
"Tell me about it." Her voice was low and gentle, but a command and not a request.
Jack decided to obey. "I guess it’s time I did."
We entered the gorge about noon. I remember standing on the ledge where the path began, holding Susan’s hand, looking down the hundreds of feet to the river that twisted rope-like between wooded green ridges splashed with yellow and orange where birch and hickory broke the pine and laurel. The sun seemed equidistant from the two ridges, east and west; there were shadows only in the woods–not on the water. The river ran silver and blue at midstream, a muddy gold near the banks. On the slopes above the rocks glinted with silver. El Dorado, I thought. Or Band Day.
It was good to see the gorge again–not like the first time, never like that, but good. I hoped Susan would like it.
"Ever see anything like that?" I. asked her.
"In Augusta? Don’t be silly." She pushed a few wisps of leaf-gold hair behind her ear. The day was warm but windy, so she wore a sweater over her blouse, and faded blue jeans. The shoes she had intended to wear, slick-soled, would never have done for the gorge. I’d borrowed my little brother’s tennis shoes for her. Too big, of course; Susan was a small girl–short, well-built without being dumpy, the kind that made me feel like a weightlifter. "It’s not far, is it?"
"No, the falls are just down this path. You can hear them, now." She cocked her head to one side. I wondered if she were really listening or just pretending. "I thought that was the wind."
"No…it’s the falls. Let’s go." I tugged her hand.
The walk through the trees went by too quickly. The path was a little cluttered, but the slope was gentle. We ducked branches, scraped laurel and dogwood, stopped once to watch a woodchuck and twice to kiss. Then the path ended abruptly at the cliff. There was a short drop to a ledge, then a chasm with a footlog. Then the path, rockier now, picked up again, followed the face of the cliff to the falls.
Susan stopped at the edge of the laurel, clutched a branch. "I won’t climb down that thing," she said.
I laughed–chuckled, rather. "Look, it’s easy. Lots of handholds. I’ve done it a dozen times, at least. Watch me."
I turned and descended, using the projecting rocks as I would a ladder. When I reached the ledge I grinned up at her. She was only a few feet above me. "Try it. I’ll catch you."
"Well…" She was being deliberately finicky. "All right."
She had no trouble. I reached up and steadied her for the last few seconds. I started to say, "That wasn’t so bad, was it?", but who wants to sound like a doctor? I didn’t, not with Susan. So I said "You looked like you
were used to doing it."
"I don’t think I could get used to it… and I don’t like that footlog, either."
The footlog across the inlet was scary. It was just long enough to bridge the distance between the rocks, with no room to spare. Never take a jolt; can’t run over it like I used to.
"Hmmm," I said looking back to Susan, "tell you what. If it scares you, we’ll just slide over this thing nice and easy." Safer this way, but I didn’t tell Susan that.
We sat down and slid across the log. She didn’t seem to mind as long as I went first.
The falls were just around the bend. It was child’s play to follow the path over the silver gray rock and stand watching the clear stream splatter over the gray stone and widen to form the river below.
"This is the place," I said, smiling.
"Is this all?"
"All?" My voice choked a little. "Don’t you like it?" I knew she didn’t. "Look…look above you. Don’t you feel it’s like seeing the sky through the bottom of a funnel. Don’t you–oh, I can’t explain what I’m talking about if you can’t feel it." I sat on a rock, heavily, letting gravity pull me down.
"Jack." She sat beside me, took my hand– realized for the first time, I think, that I’d thought it important for her to like the falls. "Jack, of course it’s beautiful. But from what you’ve told me, I…Well, I don’t know what I expected. King Tut’s tomb, maybe? You know how you can talk."
That made me feel better and I kissed her. I kissed her more than once. In fact, we were so preoccupied with one another, we didn’t think about the falls or the gorge, or anything for a long time.
Finally the breeze from the river grew a little chilly.
"Jack," Susan said, pushing me gently from her, "I don’t know about this place. It’s nice…lovely–but to me there’s something scary about it, like I was a kid dreaming something bad but I wasn’t sure what. I know you think there’s something special here, but you haven’t really told me…Why did you bring me here?"
I didn’t answer right away, but keeping hold of her hand stared away at the browns and greens and silvers of the slopes and the water. "I don’t know," I said finally. "Unless…it was because this place is such a lonesome place you can’t see how pretty it is by yourself.."
"Who was with you that first time?’ A trace of edge to her voice.
"Oh, Randy and some of the guys…I was just a kid. I reckon because we were a crowd we were sort of blinded to–whatever you don’t like now. And I don’t like, either."
She kissed me this time, and I didn’t really understand why.
We sat for a few minutes watching the shadows creep across the rocks and water, turning the one black and the other gray. Sunset comes early in the gorge because it’s so deep. The breeze was even cooler now, and we huddled a little.
"This place is like you said. But there’s more. Everything changes so fast… like those shadows in the falls. Moody. That’s it. A moody place in the forest." She laughed–without much conviction, I thought. "Moody," she repeated softly.
"You’re right," I nodded. "I couldn’t think of it before but that’s it. So sunny at noon, then–it’ll be dark soon. I guess we’d better go." The sun was about to sink below the west ridge.
"Okay. But Jack, let me go first. Please. I-I don’t want my back to the falls."
I made myself grin. "You won’t be scared of the climb?"
We picked our way back along the path; and all the while, I dreaded crossing that footlog. I dreaded crossing it after Susan. I didn’t know why.
I watched her slide across it–faster than before; she wanted to be home.
Then it was my turn. For the first time I noticed the brown rock under each end was worn smooth, that crossing it this way was no safer than walking. I slid slowly, slower than necessary. I knew I shouldn’t, but I looked down at the still-golden water lapping lazily one hundred feet below. Only a couple of feet deep. I’d die if the log slipped; I’d drown in two feet of water with four broken limbs. I was sure I would.
But I make it all the way across; then, sweating, I sat down and…just stared at the log and at the water. The gold was shading rapidly into gray and silver now; at midstream the water was almost black. I had the damnedest feeling a trap was closing after me.
"Jack, what’s the matter with you?" Susan was already on the ledge above me. She was almost as scared as I was–not quite as scared, because she knew less.
"Nothing;’ I lied, and she knew it. I stood, saw her white face just a few feet above me. I practically leaped for the ledge. A mistake. I went too eagerly…not deliberate enough. I clawed at the handholds. My fingers slipped back; my toes barely clung to the projections below me. One move and I would lose my balance; no moves and I would slip anyhow.
"Susan–oh, God." She was clutching a branch of laurel, grabbed my wrist with the other hand. She’s not strong enough… God if I get her killed, too.
But I needed just an instant. I had another handhold… all it took. I reached the ledge as she let go, pushed both of us back tumbling into the moss and leaves and safety.
I sat up, pulled her to me. She was crying. I looked back at the water. It was all black now–all that I could see, anyhow.
"Are you all right?"
She nodded. "Jack, I don’t ever want to come back here again."
"But I’m glad we came."
"Why?…Lord, it hurts to think about it–we almost killed ourselves."
"But it’s our place now. We won it."
"And that’s what happened," he finished.
Jack realized he had been staring down into his empty snifter during the last part of his story. He looked up to see a brilliant half-moon had risen over the trees to reflect off the river. The same moonlight reflected a tear on his wife’s cheek.
The waiter, noting the empty glasses, moved toward their table, but seeing her tears himself, retreated in silence.
"Darling…" he began, his voice suddenly hoarse.
Libby managed at once a little laugh mingled with a sob. She fumbled in her purse for a tissue, and giving up, used a cocktail napkin instead.
"You know," she said. "All these years, I’ve never been jealous of Susan at all. She gave you up. I had you. And we have Sam. So I wasn’t jealous of anything. But now I am. She still has this part of you I don’t have."
She stared down at the dregs of ice-melt and Campari. Their silence somehow magnified the sound of the river rushing over the rocks close-by. Over Libby’s shoulders, Jack could see the waiter, discretely distant but obviously curious, watching while he pretended to wipe a table in front of the bar.
At length she raised her head, her eyes glistening in the moonlight while she batted away the last of her tears.
"But you’re right," she said, summoning a smile from a place only a woman could find one. "We’re not going there tomorrow. We’re not going there ever. We’ll find another place. Our place."
The smile turned from wan to wry. "I don’t want to disturb those memories–or too much encourage them."
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