May 24th

William Cass

The young woman was playing with his dog. It was a bright, sunny May morning. Mt. Juneau loomed across the Gastineau Channel, all new green. The snow on top of it was diminishing grudgingly in long, thin crevices along the sides. It looked like the negative of a big ice cream sundae that someone had left out on a counter. A scattering of pink, green, and red houses sat among the spruce trees at its base, and then the small shelf of land that constituted the state capital’s center spread down to the channel’s edge.

There was no breeze. It was quiet, already unseasonably mild. A huge, white tour ship was docked across the channel at the Alaska ferry pier, the first of the season. Its towering white sides had thin blue piping just above the blue-green water line. The old gold mine burrowed in the side of Mt. Roberts behind the ship was red-brick, crumbling. The sky was the blue of a moth’s wing. She was smiling. He was in the cabin making breakfast. She tossed the stick for the golden retriever. He bounded after it and caught it in mid-air. She clapped her hands and put them between her knees as he trotted back to her. She was tall and slender and pretty. Her dark hair was a mess of long, wet curls. She wore old blue jeans, sandals, and one of his big work shirts, unbuttoned, with the sleeves rolled up.

He came to the door with a tray of food and a basket. On the tray were a coffee press, two ceramic mugs, a half loaf of thin, crusty bread, a serrated knife, scrambled eggs and a tomato on a plate, a chocolate bar, a small thermos, a box of waxed paper, and two oranges. He set the tray and basket down on the hood of his truck. She came over behind him, put her arms around him, and kissed the back of his neck. She kept her arms in that embrace, her head resting against his back, rocking slowly, while he poured two mugs of coffee. He poured the rest of it into the thermos and screwed the lid down tight. The dog had the stick in his mouth and was nudging her legs.

The young man’s short hair was sandy-colored, disheveled, and also wet. He wore a thick blue sweater, hiking shorts, and tennis shoes. He cut the bread and tomatoes into slices, made sandwiches with the eggs, and wrapped them carefully in waxed paper. He stacked the sandwiches in the basket, put in the oranges and chocolate bar, laid the thermos on the side, and closed the wicker lid. While he worked, she remained behind him with her eyes closed, the small smile never leaving her face. He took her hands in his. The dog ran in front of him, dropped the stick, sat down, wagged his tail.
A bald eagle flew off down the channel above them and landed in the top of a charred tree at the water’s edge. The sun’s light was white. Here and there, dust drifted in it. The air was still crisp and tart-clean. The channel sat completely still; a sailboat tacked back and forth across the far end of it.

He separated her hands and turned around. He handed her the two mugs, opened the driver’s side door, and put the basket on the seat in the middle. He kissed her on the forehead and put his face down into the wet hair behind an ear. Her shoulders shivered, and she closed her eyes. He picked up the tray and went back into the cabin. She reached inside the open truck door, set the mugs of coffee on the basket lid, went around the other side, and climbed inside. She took one of the coffee mugs, set it between her legs, and kept her hand around the other.

The dog dropped the stick in the small bed of flowers in front of the cabin. The young man came back outside and laid the plate with the leftover eggs next to the door. He checked the hitch where his Boston Whaler was hooked to the truck, made sure the tips of the fishing rods weren’t sticking out in back, and then got in and closed the door. He started the engine, smiled gently at her, and they drove slowly down the gravel road. The dog came over to the front step and began eating the eggs on the plate.

***
The old woman who had been watching them wiped her eyes. She lived on the hill above the cabin and stood in a housedress looking out her living room window. At her ankles, her big calico cat had fallen asleep. She turned around and looked at the old photographs on the fireplace mantel. One was a picture of her husband in his uniform before he was discharged from the Korean War, not long after they were married. In it, he wore a pressed cap and all his decorations; she didn’t know where it had been taken. There was an old photograph of him cooking hamburgers over a grill out at Echo Cove in which he wore a T-shirt, cooking mitts, and a chef’s cap. And there was their wedding picture in its gold-flecked frame, an old black-and-white, faded with age.

“Hello, Tom,” she tried to say. They were the first words she’d spoken in two days. The sun had not yet crept up the hillside, so the house still held the night’s coolness. She wrapped the housedress around her. As she did, the cat stirred and sauntered off. She sat down on the edge of an armchair. It was May 24th, the anniversary of their first date together. That had been another rare sun-filled day. They’d left later in the afternoon and had borrowed his grandfather’s skiff from the other end of Douglass Island. They went up around a few bends to a cove, trolled a while there, but caught nothing. When the sun began to go down, he puttered them up onto a beach and made a fire. They roasted hot dogs on sticks as the red and orange hues of the sunset slowly widened to purple-pink over the channel. He’d brought chocolate, too: a package of malted milk balls that they passed back and forth.

Darkness gradually fell, and he kept the fire stoked, eventually, he took a blanket out of his knapsack and shook it out over his back. He looked at her and said, “You cold?” She lied, “A little.” He opened the arm closest to her, holding the blanket like a cape behind it. “You can come over here if you want.” She slid over. That had been forty-nine years ago. Thinking of it, of the warmth of his arm and the blanket as they wrapped around her, she closed her own eyes.

The cat came back a few moments later, curled itself in and out of her ankles, and then padded away silently towards the back hall. She waited a while longer before opening her eyes. Gazing out over the wide channel and the bridge and the mountains, at the vast beauty and wilderness that she’d somehow been graced to call home all of her life, she forced herself to consider the possibilities ahead of her for the day. She could work on the quilt she was making on the front porch. She could sit out back and begin one of the new books she’d gotten from the library. There were letters to write. She might take a walk up the trail behind the house, up towards Mt. Adams. She could go into town for something to eat; she could cast reason to the wind and have enchiladas for brunch on the Mexican restaurant’s covered patio. She had nothing but time ahead of her, and no one to infringe upon it.

It was a perfect day. In that part of southeastern Alaska, with its everlasting rain and cold, those were few and far between. She wouldn’t watch the young couple when they returned, and she wouldn’t look at the photographs again. She didn’t know how many days like that she had left, and she didn’t want to waste it.

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