Story of the Month: Getting to June Lake

They don’t call it Oh! Ridge for nothing, he thought as his car topped the hill, June Lake coming suddenly into view below him, an expanse of cold blue, with the mountains rising behind it, silver gray granite and pointed evergreen trees and long, falling waterfalls.  The sky was blue, too, a softer blue than the cold, deep lake, a soft blue studded with large, white cumulus clouds.  How did something as intangible as clouds take on such bright whiteness?  It hurt his eyes to look at them. 

He’d forgotten his sunglasses.  They’d been ridiculously expensive.  She’d said they made him look sexy, like a suave, sexy secret agent.  He wondered if he’d left them in the diner or in the motel room.  He’d flung them down when they entered the room.  Flung down his keys, too.  He couldn’t recall where they’d landed.  The room’s furnishings were generic, reaching for a sense of almost-luxury rather than a sense of homeyness, and achieving neither.  Not that he’d noticed.  Not while she was screaming at him and he back at her.  Not while her face was twisted that way, and he could feel that his face was twisted, too.  The argument had been near its peak then.   

There were the usual complaints, the usual defenses and counter-defenses, the accusations by her of his aloofness, the accusations by him of her tendency to melodrama.  What was not usual was the sudden, mutual silence.  They stood close to each other in that coiled silence like two boxers before a bout when the referee is outlining the rules of the fight, except that their fight was over, and somehow they both knew it at the same moment. 

“We’re not happy,” she said quietly through clenched teeth.  “Neither of us is happy.”  The truth of the simple statement flooded his mind and drowned all objections.  When she saw he wasn’t going to reply, her frown smoothed out and she walked to one of the beds and lay down.  He was reminded, madly, of a queen’s tomb they’d seen in a cathedral somewhere once, the queen’s reclining body carved in stone.  Then she turned her head to the side, and he knew he had to leave the room, had to get out of the gloom of that shuttered room and into the fresh air.

He found the keys on the other bed.  Wouldn’t he have seen the sunglasses if they’d been there, too?  Seen them and not left them behind.  So he must have left them in the diner.  But he couldn’t remember wearing the sunglasses during the drive from the motel to the diner.  He couldn’t remember driving at all, how he’d gotten to the diner, how a plate of eggs and toast and a steaming cup of coffee had come to be sitting in front of him at the counter.  He drank half the coffee, but he couldn’t touch the food. 

He couldn’t remember making the turns that took him to Oh! Ridge and June Lake either.  It must have been muscle memory that had gotten him from the diner to the lake, where he’d spent part of every childhood summer swimming in its frigid water, lying on his back on its gravelly beach to look at the Milky Way, netting crayfish from under the wooden swim raft, fishing for trout at small Gull Lake next door.  But muscle memory couldn’t have taken him to the diner.  It was a new place, a few blocks in from the main route, not in plain sight.  Had there been roadside advertising signs?  And a big red arrow at the turn?  Or maybe it wasn’t red.  Or even there at all.  What did it matter?  None of it mattered now. 

He could still see how she looked lying on the bed when he’d looked back over his shoulder, stopping for a moment at the doorway.  He could still see the full stretch of her lying there, her face turned away from him and away from the door and away from the parking lot outside and the potato-brown Alabama Hills beyond the parking lot and the craggy Sierras looming behind the hills.  Her brown hair was spread across the pillow.  Her dress was dark blue like the lake, dark blue and still like the lake at dawn, like June Lake waiting for them up the road a way yet, Oh! Ridge waiting to surprise them with the sudden postcard perfect view, the ridge and the lake waiting, finally, only for him.  Her dress was still and dark like the lake, but she herself was quick and bright, like the flash of a quick, silvery fish in shallow water on a calm, sunny day.  Which was why her stillness and her turned-away face wounded him so.  Was she resisting her own nature just to spite him?  He didn’t like thinking of her as spiteful.  She’d never been spiteful before.  Maybe, like him, she just didn’t want to see the ruination.  Maybe she was holding still in order to hold herself together, waiting for his exit so that she could grieve properly.  Or exult.

And now he was here.  But what was here without her?  Only a place where he’d been a boy in summer and once for a week at Christmas with snow and ice.  He’d wanted to show her June Lake as a way to show her something of himself, a pure piece of his story.  Surely, somewhere inside him was something kept from those days, kept as he used to keep dried cicada skins in a wooden cigar box.  Precious to him in their mystery, definitive for each cicada of what it had been and what, larger, it had become.  But he felt smaller, not larger, shrunken from those brimful boyhood days in the sun and under the stars.  A wide-minded, wide-ranging boy grown to a narrow man.

He would have to go get her.  He couldn’t leave her marooned in Lone Pine.  But what would the long ride home be like?  Would she keep her face turned towards the window, pretending to be absorbed in the passing scenery?  Certainly, there was nothing left to say on either side.  Maybe he’d stop in Bishop on the way back to see if there was a bus service she could use.  She wouldn’t like it, but she wouldn’t complain.  He could take her to the small airport at Mammoth Lakes, but that would mean more time in the car together than getting to Bishop, like convicts on a chain gang.   

Yes, he would have to go get her.  But first he’d get another coffee.  He’d take it to the shore of the lake and sit and listen to the wind sigh in the pine treetops, a sound he’d always loved.  Others coming over Oh! Ridge might see him down below, a small figure in the beautiful, peaceful landscape, a figure, they’d think, mesmerized by the beautiful landscape.  But he wouldn’t be at peace.  June Lake wasn’t his any longer.  It was just a place he used to know and that he used to feel knew him, now impersonal and impervious, as perhaps it had always been.  Impervious to the oh’s of the delighted drivers on the ridge above.  Impervious to the man who’d been a boy on its shores and in its icy waters and who sat on its shore again, sorrowing.    


1 Comment

  1. What a beautiful juxtaposition of emotional loss and physical beauty. Perhaps inspired by a time long ago, when you helped me with a very sick baby


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