Water Thoughts

by Ryan Shoemaker

She fires off questions whenever she calls.

She says, "Have you heard back on those jobs?"

I say, "Crickets, Anne. Not a word. Bad time to be out of work."

She says, "And what about that temp agency on Auburn Way?"

I say, "Called this morning. They'll let me know when they have something to match my incredible talents. Their words. Truthfully, I think they're all pricks down there."

She says, "And that Work Today, Paid Today place in Kent? At least it would get you out of the house."

God, how do I explain the gloomy waiting room there, the scuffed floor and grimy lawn chairs, the sour smell of desperation, and all those sad, hungry faces? I can't.

I say, "Anne, I'm telling you. Nothing. God's truth."

She says, "Eventually, things will get better, right?"

I say, "It's in the cards." And I believe it.

She says, "You want to take a walk in Flaming Geyser Park during my lunch break? Noon?"

I say, "Sure."

* * *

When we married three years ago, I worked for a land developer in Algona. I could take pasture, nothing but field grass and blackberry bushes, grade it, put in sewer and drainage, measure out sidewalks and streets, and then lay asphalt and pour concrete.

I'd say, "This is temporary, Anne, just until I get enough money for some equipment and a piece of land. I won't have to work for anyone."

She'd say, "I can do temporary."

Back then she was at Green River Community College all day and waitressing nights at Mitzel's. Sometimes I'd stop in after work. She'd pretend she didn't know me, hand me a menu, fill my glass with water.

I'd say, "What would you recommend? The salmon? The steak?"

She'd say, "Sir, for you, the salmon."

I'd say, "No. The steak. Medium rare."

I'd wink and run my hand down her thigh if she was close enough, give her breast a squeeze when she'd lean over to fill my glass.

She'd say, "Sir!"

I'd say, "Pardon me, Ma'am."

After all day up to my knees in water and muck, I thought I deserved her attention. It seemed like the proper order of things. Someday there'd be a nice house on a nice piece of land, a covered place for my equipment next to a big workshop, kids running around. I'd give Anne everything she ever wanted.

But then ten months ago my boss dies, heart attack right in his pick-up truck on the 167. His wife sold everything, gave us a little bonus, cried a lot and told us how sorry she was.

Now I can't even seem to get a foothold. But Anne's moving forward and I don't know if I can catch her. She finished her Associates and dropped all those credits into getting a Bachelors of Business Management. She works for a software company company now, and they're talking about paying for a weekend MBA program.

But nothing for me. And all this time at home I've been thinking about when Anne worked at Mitzel's. I can't shake the image: me sitting there in a muddy Carhart jacket and Danner boots, tipping back a beer as I watch Anne winding through those tables with a pitcher of water in her hand. She's moving toward something, real slow but moving. And then I see myself there, touching her thigh as she brings my steak, and I think, "He has no right. None at all."

It's not a race, I tell myself. Just life's ebb and flow.

* * *

At Flaming Geyser, Anne stands near the jungle gym. The trees above her are like a yellow canopy, and the leaves are falling, leaves as big as my hand.

I say, "Warm. We probably haven't had a fall like this in four years."

I can taste the air in the back of my throat, the earthy rot of leaves and grass, and for a moment I'm lightheaded.

She says, "It's quiet here. I can hear the leaves falling through the trees."

I listen, but hear only the click of the car engine as it cools.

She says, "Sad to think there won't be many more days like this. The rain will come and it won't stop until July."

We walk a narrow trail along the river and stop at a bend where the deep water hits the shallow rocks. Anne stares at the water.

She says, "Beautiful water."

I kick a stone and send it skipping down the bank.

She says, "It reminds me of something I read in a humanities class. Something like water and meditation are forever wedded. You ever think of water like that?"

I consider this. What I know of water is how it boils up when you dig down three feet and have to bail it out to lay sewer pipe. I know its rotten smell when it collects on a field and heats up in the sun. I know its sting when it's beating down on me all day. But I don't tell Anne this.

I say, "Water and meditation. It's a nice idea."

I kick at another rock. Anne turns to me.

She says, "I couldn't say anything over the phone, but I'm getting promoted. Communications Manager. Can you believe that? I'll be over the company's advertising."

I try to feel it. I really do. But I have this thought. Anne's face is pale and beautiful, flushed with excitement, and I can almost picture her dissolving, growing paler and paler until she's no longer there. I kiss her, as if that might keep her with me a little longer.

I say, "Wonderful news. You deserve it. If anyone deserves it, you do. We should celebrate."

She says, "There will be some long hours and weekends, especially for the next two months. Are you all right with that?"

I say, "It's fine. I mean, this is what you've worked for, right?"

She says, "It's like finally arriving some place."

We stare at the water. I feel its sound soaking into me, grating at my nerves, running through me, separating me from Anne and from everything else in the world. Water and meditation? I can barely think.

Suddenly Anne grabs my arm.

She says, "You see that? In the water."

I see nothing but gray stones and foam, but then catch a flash of black and silver that disappears and then reappears. A slick fin and silver tail break the surface. The revelation comes suddenly, and I tell Anne: salmon moving up river to spawn.

We say nothing, only watch the color beneath the water, and I see that the whole river bottom is alive with salmon. I fix on one in the shallow water near the bank, suspended in motion, kicking its tail madly. The tail stops and the fish disappears into the deep water, quickly replaced by another salmon.

She says, "What happens to them?"

I say, "I don't know."

We stand on the bank a while and say nothing. Anne looks at her watch.

She says, "I have to get back."

Anne walks and I follow behind. I turn to look at the salmon one last time. I wonder how far they'll go.

BIO: Ryan Shoemaker's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Gulf Stream, Santa Monica Review, Booth, Word Riot, and The Fiction Desk (UK), among others. Recently, his short story collection, Beyond the Lights: Stories, was a semifinalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. Ryan lives in Burbank, California. Find him at RyanShoemaker.net.