Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Other People's Lives

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Other People's Lives

Article excerpt

That spring, Ben called home each evening before he left work to convince his wife he would arrive safely within the hour and to assure himself that she was all right. Emma never answered the phone. If she had, he would have been startled. But its ringing-tinny and buzzing on his end, jangling through the house for her-was enough to convince them both that all was fine.

He loved to drive the back roads home because they let him breathe. If he veered onto 1-64 instead, his ride would fly past him in a rush of wind and speed. But the back roads leading out of New River Gorge, especially if he was down river, like today, allowed him a good forty minutes between a busy day at the state park and an evening with his wife and the baby they waited for.

Now his battered VW bounced pleasantly over the road at dusk, past trees leafy and low enough to brush the hood of the car. Glimpses of sky flashed behind the budding branches, showing the expanse of mountain he headed toward. It was an early, unusually warm spring this year. With the windows down, air flooded the car, heady and smelling of the snowflake blossoms that skated across his windshield.

Ben's body fell into the roll of the ride-leaning into turns, sinking back as he braked-feeling everything twice, like always after a whitewater trip. It was the way you rode a river, slipping into its natural glide and letting it take you in full, all the while keeping your seat and your grip on the paddle like steel.

Today had been a family-a young couple and their two daughters. "Girls swim like beavers," the father had sniffed when Ben handed him the disclaimer to sign. But the water, true to its nature for April, was running high. The mother nearly panicked when the front end of the raft went down, water crashing over them, at the first big rift. Ben had to scream at her above the rushing current to keep paddling, hard and fast. People always forgot that. It was just human nature, he supposed, to give in to things bigger than yourself.

He would miss the raft rides these next few weeks. According to their midwife, Emma was due any time now, and he had promised to stick close to the visitor's center at the gorge, where the road led quickly to the interstate, and the drive out could be as fast and frantic as you pleased.

His hair was still wet, and he pulled free the band that had held it all day beneath his ranger's hat, letting it fly loose in the breeze. A happiness, stronger on each drive home these days, breathed full inside him. Why, he wasn't sure, given the uncertainty of the time. Emma could be in any state when he arrived. It had a been a tough winter for her, the greenhouse she'd worked in having closed for the season. And now, so close to her due date, it seemed silly to start back again. Ben had always called her his "moody soul," but the pregnancy and her days home alone made the term a sad understatement. Their evenings now consisted of endless consolations, questions, and promises, punctuated by the ringing phone that was never answered except by him-friends and family checking on their "progress." Most nights found him meandering his way carefully toward the moment he could finally make Emma laugh. That sunny laughter, which had always brought to mind water tumbling over rocks, would signal the end of the drama, the break in the spell that bound her.

At the turnoff, he saw their redwood A-frame and, not for the first time, thought how the house appeared planted. It was as if it had grown, decades before, inside the deep cleft of hillside overlooking the valleys below. The patchwork spread of brown and green sprawled beneath a placid crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Off to the east, the first twinkling cluster of lights gave the only indication of other lives nearby-- the buildings, roads, and jumble of Dawson, West Virginia. He and Emma had grown up there, in a life now worlds away.

He parked beneath the beech tree next to the driveway. …

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