Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
I’d seen it coming. I’d seen those clouds. I’d known it could mean trouble. Why didn’t I act or react or do something?
I still can’t answer.
“It’s okay, Levi. All is well. We’re dry, we have shelter, we have food. Jerky. We have lots of jerky. And think of the story we’ll be able to tell Barbara and your family when we get back. Men alone, lost in the foreboding Montana mountains, fighting against the beastly elements.”
“We might be here all night.”
“We might. And that’s fine too. All is well.”
I think of my cell phone. I doubt, considering that I was in the middle of a wilderness and my closest neighbors likely were bears, mountain goats, wild chickens, vultures, and elk, that I would be able to get in touch with anyone up here. I had actually thought of trying to call someone when we first got stuck, but there were two problems with that idea: one, I am a male and don’t like to ask for help, especially from strangers, and two, I am a male and don’t like to ask for help, especially from strangers.
But now it’s worth a try. Thankfully, I had the sense to take my cell phone out of my pocket before I decided to take a swim in Mud Lake. I reach into my backpack, where I had set it, flip it open, and see the low battery sign flicker once before the phone shuts down. I had forgotten to charge it after my call last night. I was out of juice and out of luck.
“We’re stuck,” I report. Again.
“Yes. I know that.”
“Well. Here we are.”
“Yes. Here we are.”
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, if the weather is good, I’ll hike down to the road and flag someone down, and we’ll get some help. But I can’t think of anything to do right now.”
“Nor can I. We have a plan, Levi. Always good to have a plan.”
Outside, the rain has slowed to a patter. Off to the west, the sky is lighter, and I can even see a few yellow rays of sun peeping through the jumbo gray clouds. The storm is almost over. I know that the chances of having a good day tomorrow are in our favor. Summer storms come and go quickly. That only leaves the problem of how to spend the night.
“One of us can sit up front, and I suppose the other one can curl up in the back. We have extra clothes, so we’d better layer up,” I suggest. “Gonna get cold up here tonight, summer or not.”
“I’ll just lean the seat back and spend the night here,” Uncle Loyal says. “You can take the backseat. You can stretch out some there. I have a few extra clothes in my suitcase. A sweater or two, a jacket. If you can get to the trunk, we can put on the extra clothing. It might be well-advised. I have a suspicion that you are right; it will be cold up here, even in August.”
Extra clothes was an offer I can not afford to pass. I take off my dry socks before going back out into the rain and slowly making my way to the back of the car, where I pop the trunk lid and rummage through Uncle Loyal’s large suitcase. I find the clothing he mentioned then slosh and slide my way back into the car. There isn’t any need for the waders because I’m already covered in mud. Once again, I’m feeling cold and muddy and mad at myself for getting us into this mess.
I check my watch. That old familiar gray light of evenings in the mountains is overtaking us. It is a little after eight. It would be pitch black in twenty minutes, and stone quiet, too.
To my surprise, I begin to feel drowsy. I climb into the backseat and stretch, as best I could, across it. Not a four-star lodge, but for a night, it might do. “I’ll leave the keys in the ignition, and the heat on high. When it gets cold, one of us can reach over, start the car, and let the heater blast on us for a few minutes. At least we won’t freeze to death. And we shouldn’t starve, either. We’ve got a ton of food. Heat. Food. Water. We have a lakeful of that. So we’re okay. More than okay. Maybe I’ll fish that little lake in the morning. From the car window.”
“You are very resourceful, Levi.”
“Promise me this, Uncle Loyal. I get to tell this story, not you. And you can’t mention a word about it to Rachel unless I give you the wink and nod. Promise. My eternal well-being might be in your hands. Little Levi babies are depending on you. We don’t want Rachel to know until after the wedding that she is marrying a klutz. Let’s just say it’s our little secret.”
“You have my solemn promise, Levi. You sound confident of your choice and chances.”
“But I’m not.”
“And why do you think that is? If I may ask.”
“You may ask. We’ve been through a lot together, Uncle Loyal. No secrets, eh? We both fell in love with Evelyn. Or was it Vicky? Something with a
in it. We survived the biker bar together. We went fishing. We climbed a mountain. We got caught in a roaring, rain-swollen torrent and swam to safety. We rescued a van load of Girl Scouts from the raging flood. We changed the tire for a bus filled with nuns on a field trip to the mountains. We fought grizzlies with our bare hands. We sunk a pirate ship in a battle on the lake. We did all of these things, or something close to them. All that. So, yes, you can ask why I am not feeling confident.”
“Very well, then. Why?”
“It’s like this . . .”
And then I couldn’t think of a thing.
Not a thing.
Other than I am muddy, tired, and lying down in the backseat of a rental car wondering when we’d get out of this nightmare. “Last night I felt on top of the world after talking with Rachel. Now I feel like the whole world has landed on me.”
“Understandable. We are very harsh on ourselves,” Uncle Loyal says. “You especially seem to have that tendency. You set high expectations for yourself. Look at it this way. Into every life a little rain must fall. We happened to have more than just a little today, eh? We had a flash flood, something I’ve experienced a time or two in North Dakota. I think what you’re feeling is normal and to be expected.”
His voice, as usual, was soft, calm, and comforting. I think if a nuclear bomb ever went off, Uncle Loyal would look at the mushroom cloud and say, “My. That was a loud explosion. Now. See. Look at that cloud forming. How interesting.”
I think for a while, maybe five minutes. Levi having quality time with Levi. The gears of my mind engaged. Uncle Loyal seemed to sense (Doesn’t he seem to sense everything?) that I am in deep thought, at least by my standards, and was waiting for me to speak. Finally, I come up with just the right thing to say, something that describes my feelings, my outlook on life, my psychological and emotional profile at that instant. I reach way down, way back. This was important. I clear my throat. I want Uncle Loyal to hear what I am about to say.
“You see, Uncle Loyal, I have
“Yeah. Issues. You know, issues.”
“Yes, I said ‘oh.’ I’m not entirely sure what you mean by issues.”
“Issues. They are, well, you know. Problems, I guess. But not quite problems. They’re issues. Problems with a mental twist to them.”
Bet that explanation cleared it right up for him.
“I see. Or at least I believe that I see,” Uncle Loyal said. “And what might these issues be?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. Wait. I do. How I feel about things.”
“Everything. Life. Love. Career. What I want to be when I grow up. My struggle with trying to be mature. Those kinds of things. Nothing big. Just those things. Trivial matters.”
I sit up in the back of the car. The sun, in its last-ditch effort of the day, once again breaks through the gray clouds far to the west, scattering rays of light on the tops of the ridges and partway down to the lake. For a moment, the rock bowl we are stuck in takes on a rosy color and the waters of the small lake appears crimson and gold. The few trees on the other side of the lake take on a dark, dusky shade of green. It is a beautiful sight, and I have a crazy thought: the view at that moment was almost worth the whole misadventure of getting stuck miles from nowhere.
“Tell me more about Rachel,” Uncle Loyal suggests.
“I can’t. It’s funny. The truth is I don’t know that much more about her. It’s all a feeling and, I guess, an attraction at this time. She wants to teach elementary school. I know that. She’s from Arizona, where I served my mission, but we met back at school.”
“A school teacher. A noble profession,” Uncle Loyal says slowly. “Something that Daisy once considered. Tell me this, if you can. How do you feel when you are around her?”
I think a bit on this. He said “around” her, not “about” her. If he said “about,” that would be easy—she’s pretty, not big, not small, I like her a lot, she’s fun, she has dimples. But that’s not
what he asked. I think about what I might say, what could come tumbling out of my mouth, that I felt happy, smart, handsome, worthwhile, or any other number of adjectives when I was around her. I think about it, and then I say something that surprises even me.
“I like myself when I’m around her. I feel all right about things. I feel good. I feel content. That makes no sense, does it?”
Uncle Loyal turns around and looks directly at me. In the dim light, I can barely make out his features—the high, smooth forehead, the arched eyebrows, the folds of skin hanging limp from his chin. But I can see something in his eyes, something that tells me my answer made a good impression on him. I’ve read and heard about eyes that sparkled my whole life, and it never made much sense to me. I always figured it was a writer’s trick because eyes don’t sparkle; they can’t, there’s no electricity hooked up. Or so I believed. But here I am, at dusk, stuck in the mountains in a fairly dark car, about to spend my night in the backseat shivering, and I can see his eyes, and his eyes are definitely sparkling, little flashes that catch the last of the day’s light.
“A very fine answer, indeed. I always liked myself when I was around Daisy. She brought out the best in me. Little else matters when one is considering matrimony. If you are content and she is content and you bring out the best in each other, then all will be well with you, my young nephew.”
Content? That’s not what the world would have you believe. I need an appointment with Dr. Phil to talk about this one.
I had never really thought about being just content around Rachel all the times we hung out. It seemed as though I always had to prove myself around the girls I dated. I had to be and wanted to be
. I wanted them to have
. I wanted to promise them
. And look at what it had accomplished so far. No missus in my life, no diamond ring on her hand, no gold ring on mine, no little sons and daughters of the tribe of Levi to spice things up. I wanted
but all I had was
Is there a message here for me?
All of the people I knew my age, they all seemed to have
while I didn’t. They all seemed to be on their way to
, but I wasn’t. They all seemed to be on the up escalator for a very long ride, express ticket to the top, while my way up was more a rickety ladder with not many rungs. They knew things I did not. And what I have accomplished, the good things I had going for me, it almost seemed as if I
to get them. Even my paltry, humbling job as a grocery store bagger came only as a result of intensely begging the store manager to hire me.
Uncle Loyal, from the gathering dusk, asks me a question, a question that startles me a little. “What does your father do for a living?” We were talking about me and my issues, and then he asks me something off the track. Or so I thought.
“He’s a photographer. He takes family portraits. You can’t believe how many families have one of his shots hanging above their mantels back home. Thousands. I mean, literally thousands. He’s really good at what he does”—and here I pause, and I think,
good at what he does
. He’s a fine photographic technician, he works hard, he treats everyone fairly, and he puts genuine feeling into each photo he takes. He is a perfectionist about his photos, not for his own sake, but because he wants his customers to be happy with what he provides them. Just about then, the little guilt buzzer went off about Dad after about a dozen years of relative silence. Okay, I admit it. When the conversation came around to “What does your daddy do?” I tended to gloss over it, and I had since a long time ago, way back to junior high when my dad came to take our class photos. For some reason (and here I pause to insert a note to myself—
it was pride, Levi, just plain pride, deal with it.
) I tried to get in and out of conversations about him as fast as I could. My dad is not a doctor, lawyer, engineer, dentist, accountant, businessman—heck, he’s a lousy businessman, we all know that—and it seemed a little embarrassing to say, when asked what he did for a living, “He’s a portrait photographer.”
Uncle Loyal turns around in the front seat and seems to be looking at the dark black hole just to the left of us, the now-still lake bed.
“Ah. What a beautiful and honorable profession. What a wonderful thing to do with one’s life. To make people happy. To freeze them in a moment of time when they were joyful, when they looked their best, when they were together. That we all could be photographers. Your father, I imagine, is a good and gifted man.”
I don’t say anything. At least at first. Uncle Loyal’s words were pounding like big ocean waves into my skinny little soul. For some reason, tears well up in my eyes, and all of those times when I was reluctant to talk about what my father did for a living seemed to burn a hole right through me. I’m thankful it’s dark so that Loyal couldn’t see me. I’d never heard my father complain about his job, what he earned, the occasional families who were rude to him or who stiffed him on their bills, and I’m sure he had more than a few of those through the years.
My dad was just a nice guy who was good at what he chose to do.
This was starting to sing to me. I didn’t need to beg. I didn’t need to ask for forgiveness or approval for who I am, who my father is, the way we are. It is time to say something to Uncle Loyal, who seems to be staring into the heavens, looking for the first great evening stars. Loyal and his stars. He had to be looking for his stars. He is a man who, given the choice of looking into the heavens or looking into the mud, would always cast his vision upward.