Rik Barberi 3800 words
180 Farnam Road
Lakeville, CT 06039
860 435 0231
copyright© Rik Barberi 2009
Roland had discovered the small park by the Hudson River when dropping a friend off at the Henrytown railroad station. The tracks from New York to Albany closely paralleled the banks of the wide river and here ran no more than one hundred yards from it. The park was between the tracks and the water. He had lingered to watch the barges being pushed upriver to Albany. There were a few picnic tables, some benches, and a boat launch. This was the first time Brenda had accompanied him to the park. They watched from their bench as two fishermen slid their boat off a trailer and into the water.
“Remember learning in high school about the tides reaching all the way to Albany?” he asked.
“Oh sure. And I remember what I had for breakfast the day I learned it,” she replied, mocking his habit of coming out with obscure facts. “You're like a third grader stretching his hand into the air to give the answer.”
He was aware of his tendency, but you can't control your memory. Brenda encircled him with her arm and moved closer on the bench.
“I already know how smart you are,” she said.
“Well, no need to show off then.”
Henrytown was a hundred miles from the Statue of Liberty - the Atlantic Ocean - and Albany was another fifty miles upriver. He was still amazed that a tide could move so far in from the ocean.
“The tide is like a slow pump,” he said. “In and out. It's the heart of the ocean. It has the rhythm of everything that's alive.”
Brenda kissed him on the cheek.
“I'm lucky to have a philosopher for a boyfriend.” He knew her smile to be sincere because she often said he was a good contrast to her practical nature. “I don't know how you can just pick a metaphor out of the air.”
“Here's another,” he said. “It's like a baby, sloshing around in a womb. Back and forth.”
Brenda sat up straight. “What makes you think about babies?”
“It's the beginning of life.”
“Besides, in the womb it’s not a baby yet. It’s a fetus.”
“What could be more alive than just starting out on the big adventure?”
Brenda didn’t answer. Roland followed her gaze downriver to a barge passing under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Containers were stacked so high on the barge it was a wonder it didn't sink under the weight. Barges seemed big when they passed in front of the park, but appeared minuscule when they first came into view under the high bridge which was a mile away.
“Let's rent a motorboat sometime,” Brenda said. “I'd like to go under the bridge after passing over it so many times. It'll look high as a skyscraper from the water.”
While they talked Roland watched a little girl ride a bicycle up and down the road that passed in front of their bench. She would build up momentum and, with a squeal, sail over the speed bump that spanned the road in front of them. In a few years she would be hurtling down trails on her mountain bike. She pedaled to another bench where a woman was calling to her. Probably her mother, Roland thought. The girl had a blond ponytail like the one his sister Katy had often worn. When she pointed toward an ice cream truck her mother shook her head. After the girl's third request her mother said in a loud voice that she didn't have enough money. Now Roland saw some rust spots on the bike's fenders and several bent wheel spokes.
“Roland,” Brenda was saying to him.
“Sorry. Doesn't she look like Katy?”
His sister had died the year before in a freak accident near their house in Cooper's Mill – a twenty minute drive from the park. She had been riding a bicycle home ahead of a storm when the wind blew a tree down on her. If she'd been ten seconds faster or slower she'd be riding around like this girl. Roland had taught Katy how to ride her first two-wheeler. He'd already picked out a mountain bike for her and had expected to take her on her first trail ride. Then he would teach her to paddle a canoe. And shoot hoops. Her death had made Roland an only child once again.
“Well, she's not exactly like Katy, but she does bring her to mind,” Brenda said. “It's the mother I feel for.”
“I almost want to buy her some ice cream.”
“I'd never have a kid before I had a house and a job,” Brenda said. “I want to be ready for it. When I think of how it’s been for my mother…. Shotgun wedding at eighteen, husband gone who-knows-where a year later, still working at the mill because she never went beyond high school. I’ve got nothing but sympathy for a mother who can’t buy her kid ice cream.”
Roland brought his canoe the next time they came to the park. It was Brenda’s last day before going to Washington, D. C. for the summer. She had gained a congressional internship, which was part of her long-term plan to go to law school and eventually become a judge. She and Roland both had one year left at college, but his future after graduation was as uncertain as hers was settled. He had already begun his summer job teaching swimming at a camp on Hamilton Lake in Cooper’s Mill. One of the counselors at camp had told Roland about Digby Marsh, only a short paddle downriver from the park. A narrow opening, spanned by a low railroad bridge, allowed the marsh to fill and drain with the tide. At low tide the passage under the bridge was too shallow to enter or leave, which could mean being caught in the marsh until the water rose again. He had timed their trip by the tide schedule on the Internet. After they returned to the river from the marsh they intended to paddle down to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.
They found a current flowing under the railroad bridge and into the marsh, which would have startled anyone unaware of the tide.
“I'm impressed with your scheduling,” Brenda said.
The marsh consisted of many small islands covered with green reeds that grew above a very distinct contour line. Below this line was mud, six inches of which was now exposed. Roland assumed it would be high tide when the water level reached the line. Their goal was to find a place to picnic. There were scores of channels to choose from among the reeds.
“Let's head for those trees,” Brenda said, pointing with her paddle. “Trees should mean high ground.”
Reaching the trees meant threading a maze of channels. Roland let Brenda, with her ability to stay focused, pick their way through the puzzle. In the end, the grove of trees was a good choice because it offered the only dry ground they had seen. They tied the canoe next to a fallen branch and were able to walk along the branch to land without stepping in the mud. Under a tree they found a place to sit next to each other. Once they were settled on a blanket, bird calls became audible. A chipmunk darted under some brush. Roland and Brenda didn’t say much as they unpacked the food.
“Today's a year since Katy died,” Roland said finally. His parents had reminded him at breakfast. They hadn't changed a thing in her room since that day.
“You seemed unusually quiet.”
“All those kids at camp. She should be one of them.”
“I know it's not much help, but when my cousin died I decided it had already happened and there was nothing I could do to bring him back. But he was in the Army, so it wasn't as hard to understand. Katy's death had no rhyme or reason to it. Still, it’s useless to try and make any sense out of death. You have to think about life and the future.”
Roland didn't disagree. “Life is what I am thinking about. It's all we have.”
While they ate, Roland watched the rising water lift the top of the canoe above the fallen limb. Eventually the water reached the mud line. When he was finished with lunch he stretched out on the blanket with his head in Brenda's lap. She sighed heavily, which usually preceded a comment, but she offered none. The bird sounds became more prominent in the silence. After a minute Brenda began to stroke Roland's hair. Her hand passed lightly over his ear, down to his shoulder and slipped under his shirt to rest against his skin. He closed his eyes, enjoying her familiar touch, and dozed off.
He awoke with a start when she spoke. “Think the birds will complain if we take off our clothes?”
“I'm not going to ask them,” Roland said as he took her hand from under his shirt and kissed it. He sat up and began to untie his shoes but stopped when he saw how much mud had again become exposed in the marsh. “The tide's going out,” he said and kissed her other hand. “I'll take a rain check. We don't want to get stuck in what’s about to become a mud hole.”
He began to stuff the picnic items into his backpack. Instead of rousing herself, Brenda now stretched out on the blanket and looked up into the trees while Roland finished.
“Now you're the one who's quiet,” he said. Perhaps she felt slighted by his hurry to pack up. “Our next chance to leave will be in the dark.”
“Do I look any different?”
Roland didn't know the purpose of the question and could detect no change in her appearance. He considered a humorous reply, but Brenda's earnest manner made him think twice.
“A day older.” He knelt down and kissed her again.
He was halfway up to a standing position, but let himself fall back to his knees. She nodded. He questioned her with his eyes. She shrugged her shoulders. He was sure it was accidental – there was no need to ask. But what should he say? Something reassuring? Now he knew why she had seemed so preoccupied. He lay down next to her and wondered exactly where in the tree tops she was looking. Though they had never spoken of marriage, Roland had considered it, and he assumed Brenda had as well. Whenever it entered the conversation in a general sense, Brenda always listed financial security as a top priority.
“Married?!” she exclaimed as he mentioned it now. “I love you dearly, but set up housekeeping and tend to a family? I need to finish college and law school and get a job and save some money before I ever get married. For sure before I have a kid.”
“You make it sound like a chore.”
“It is. When I raise a child I want to do it right. And at this point I don't have the time.”
Notwithstanding their somewhat dissimilar personalities, Roland had always felt they understood each other, but they now seemed on different wave lengths.
“But this changes things,” he said.
“You don't have to tell me. I've got this thing growing inside me trying to change my whole life. I don't know what I'm going to do.”
The atmosphere had shifted. She was upset. Not at him, he didn’t think – just at being pregnant. Anything he said would be inadequate. Roland was certain they were no longer looking at the same spot in the tree canopy. He searched for a woodpecker that was attacking a tree somewhere nearby. Failing at this, he stood up.
“We need to get going. The...”
“I know, I know,” she said, moving to get up. “The damn tide.”
Brenda took the seat in the bow. Roland threw his backpack into the bottom of the canoe and settled into the rear seat. There was no pattern that determined who sat where when they went for a paddle. It depended more on the whim of whoever was first to the canoe. Roland liked the front because he could be the first to see what was ahead, but he also liked to watch Brenda from behind. Her form settled onto the seat with easy grace and her body spoke determination with every stroke. It gave him an opportunity to stare at her undetected. He always wondered if she watched him with the same intent when their positions were switched. Now, his eyes didn’t leave her. She didn't look changed. He wondered how big the baby was.
A strong current carried their canoe under the railroad bridge, back into the Hudson. A fisherman was casting into a spot under the bridge. Roland asked what he was fishing for.
The short conversation pulled them out of their silence as they made their way along the shore toward the boat launch. They had already decided to paddle to the big bridge over the Hudson another time.
“Babies cost money,” Brenda said. To ensure he heard her, she half-turned her head and spoke loudly in the direction of the shore.
“I'll get a night job. We'll manage somehow,” he replied.
“You make it sound like a skate.”
“People have had babies before.”
“I still don't want to get married yet.”
“That's all right,” he said. “No rush.”
He didn't see the sense in avoiding marriage when you couldn't avoid having a kid, but Roland knew Brenda would figure it out for herself once she stopped denying the obvious.
Several speed boats - one pulling a water skier - went up the middle of the river, forming wakes that eventually reached them and sent their canoe rolling side to side. They had to concentrate on stabilizing the canoe with each wave that hit.
“You're coming to see me in a month,” Brenda said. “We'll talk over the phone until then.”
A month seemed like ages, but Roland knew it was the wrong time to be pushy.
Brenda had arranged for a dorm room at Georgetown University for the summer. She phoned soon after arriving on that first night. She was excited, but also lonely.
“I drove from the Capitol Building all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial,” she said. “Majestic is the word. But I wish you could be here instead of me telling you over the phone.”
Roland didn't mention the baby. At summer camp he taught swimming to kids as young as seven and spent a lot of time imagining which one theirs would most resemble. He realized he was always looking at the girls and eventually settled on a specific girl. Roland didn't kid himself. He knew she had Katy's blond hair and dimpled smile.
He waited two days before calling Brenda. She talked about seeing all the people in Washington that she recognized from the news, and the fascinating life in the nation's capital. Her sense of fulfillment was plain.
“What are we going to do?” he finally asked.
After a long silence she said, “I haven't been thinking about it.”
“It's not something we can avoid.”
Now she raised her voice. “I'm reminded every time I puke.”
Roland had heard of morning sickness, but it was the first she'd mentioned nausea all this time. And she obviously had been thinking about it.
“You shouldn't be going through this alone,” he said. “Maybe I should go down there.”
“I need to think this out. By myself.”
“What do you mean? We love each other.”
“I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that.” After a pause, “Look I can't deal with this over the phone. I'll say something I don't mean. Let's just e-mail for awhile.”
He wrote her about canoing on the lake at camp and how he didn't want to go back to Digby Marsh until he could do it with her. When he mentioned the girl that looked like Katy, he expected to be chastised for already deciding it was a girl, but her emails weren't much of a response to his. Instead she went on about her job and always listed the names of the politicians she had seen since her last email. Her negative reply when he asked - after two weeks of emails - whether she had seen a doctor finally prompted him to phone her.
“I haven't had time,” she said.
“It isn't just you and me anymore. There's a third person. We have to make time.”
“You mean I have to make time.”
He offered go down for a visit sooner than he had planned even though he didn't have time off - or even quit his job to be with her - but she said no to both.
“Did you meet someone else?”
It was an emphatic no, but he wasn't completely reassured. He sent an e-mail reaffirming his desire to get married and, if it didn't happen, restating their “equal interest” in the baby. He would always provide for it and be part of its life.
Two days later Brenda called, saying she had just arrived home for a week's vacation. Roland was more than a little surprised that she would take any time at all away from Washington. She asked Roland to meet her at the boat launch that afternoon with his canoe.
When they kissed it felt no less detached than blowing kisses over the phone. He felt a slight bulge when they hugged.
“Can you feel it kick?”
“It's barely two months Roland.”
They put in the canoe and paddled silently toward Digby Swamp. From behind, watching her paddle, Roland could detect nothing that divulged her pregnancy. She still had her strong paddle stroke. Her presence and motions were the same he had observed before from many different angles. When they reached the railroad bridge, he realized he hadn't checked the tide schedule, but it appeared to be high tide. The water was up to its high marks and there was no current under the bridge. They managed to find the same spot under the trees and settled down on the blanket.
“I'm going to have an abortion,” Brenda said.
This was so far from what he had expected. Now he understood her reticence to discuss the pregnancy. She had sensed his probable reaction to an abortion.
“It's our baby,” he said.
“Not quite yet.”
“How could you decide this without even talking to me? It's all so sudden.”
“Sudden? You think it's something I concocted on the train home? Every time I felt this thing inside me....”
“It's not a thing. It's a baby.”
“I know what it is, because it's right here.” Brenda put her two hands on her stomach. “And every time it makes me aware of it, I see my dreams fading into just that - dreams. But I don't need a dream to know my future with a baby because I've already lived it.”
“But your mother was all alone.”
“Well, I'm not ready to get married either.”
Roland closed his eyes. Maybe Brenda did sense the ground moving under her feet, propelling her in the opposite direction from which she was pointed. But he sensed something slipping away from him too.
“It's a brand new life,” he said. “Something only you – a woman – can do.”
“You sound jealous.”
“Well, maybe I am.”
“You wouldn’t hear my mother boasting about the ability to get pregnant.”
“That was her. This is you.” Then, “Who talked you into this?”
“I know what you think, but there's no other man in my life. You lost your sister, but bad things happen. You can't let one disaster affect your whole life.”
“Why not? It's part of my life. I don't get why you need to have your whole life figured out first. You don't doubt I'd do my share?”
“I know you would, but you can see for yourself my mother never recovered from having a kid at eighteen.”
Roland almost said you can't let one disaster affect your whole life. But he had another idea.
“I'll take it.”
“I'll raise it. Alone, if that's what you want.”
“Who ever heard of that?”
“Who cares?” he said. “I want it.”
“I couldn't. Just give it away?”
“Only your half.”
“You don't understand. It's in me, not you. And I need to do it before it starts kicking. The longer I wait the harder it'll be.”
“I don't have any say?”
He was on his feet. She jerked back, a little scared. But he wasn't like that - more helpless than angry.
“It's my decision to make,” she said. “Ask anybody.”
Roland didn't have to ask. “You probably even researched the law about fathers’ rights.”
The mud was becoming exposed again. They had to leave before the outgoing tide made the channel under the bridge too shallow.
“What time?” he asked.
“The abortion. Can I at least be there?”
After mulling it over that evening, Roland called to say he wouldn't be at the hospital in the morning. Brenda seemed relieved. They both knew it would be a mistake for him to be sitting there with her mother during the procedure. She allowed him to arrange for a funeral home to pick up the remains, something she hadn't considered.
Two days later he picked up the ashes. Over the phone Brenda had told him she was doing well, but would leave it to him to deal with the remains. He hung up wondering if he would ever see her again.
At the Rip Van Winkle Bridge he parked on the side of the road and walked out onto the bridge until he was standing above water. Below him, the railroad tracks made their way along the river. To the north he saw Digby Marsh and, beyond that, the boat launch. A barge loaded with coal was being pushed toward Albany. He found it impossible to guess the distance to the water's surface. A breeze stirred up the air, but he couldn't gage its direction, and it raised a fear that the ashes would blow back into his face. He took out his handkerchief and held it in front of him between his thumb and forefinger, beyond the steel railing. The air current pulled it away from him, upriver.
When he opened the container, revealing barely a spoonful of a powdery substance, tightness gripped his throat. He had named the baby Katy, though he hadn't heard - and perhaps it wasn't known - whether it had been a boy or girl. He turned the container upside down and watched the contents disperse into the air as they fell to the water. He imagined the tiny grains becoming part of the river, moving back and forth with the tides twice a day while gradually progressing toward the ocean.