The Cedar River Watershed

STORY — Bret balanced on the outermost oily wooden trestle ledge looking down the thirty feet of girders and columns into the rushing gully cut into the mountain side. The cataract coated the uppermost trestle timbers with spray. A fine film of algae grew on the creosote and mist. Moss grew on the pillars. Bret liked the sound of the water coming down the mountain side. He gyrated on the slippery wood and shouted back at Cindy, “You gotta cross if you’re going to cross.” He slipped for a second, after he turned back from calling her. His worn tennis shoes didn’t have any tread left on the soles. They were just a sheet of pitted rubber floating on the layer of brown algae. Bret felt himself slide. He had his weight on one shoe and the sole slipped toward the gully but before he even thought about tripping and flying out into the mist and the space and falling into the stony creek way below, he shifted back and landed in the middle of the tracks. His legs shook. Bret tried to stop their quivering, but the muscles contracted and expanded over and over again on their own.


“I’m not crossing,” Cindy said. “I saw that. Why don’t you come back here? We’ll eat our picnic up here, on this bluff.”

Bret didn’t understand why Cindy had asked him to go for a walk with her today. He still felt like he did when he was nervous on the first day of school. He never slept the night before school started and when he went, he knew it was the first day of school because there was dew in the lawn and the cobwebs had water dripping from them on the walk to school and when he came to school he didn’t say anything to anyone. He dried the palm of his hands off all day on his thighs in case he had to shake hands with anyone.

Cindy kept her hair short, peroxides frizzy, pulled back with a rubber band from the Sunday Edition of The Seattle Times. She worked a paper route to help her housemate, Edwin, with the money. Bret thought maybe they were married, but then maybe they weren’t. Edwin had forbidden Cindy to work a regular job because he said he had old fashioned values. She didn’t mind because she liked being at home during the afternoons. Cindy had always stood a little too close to Bret in the morning when they picked up their papers from the delivery shed near the freeway. First, Bret thought it was because she didn’t know any better, and then Bret thought it was because she liked him. “You’re too old to be a paperboy, ain’t you?” she asked him the first time they met. Most of the other paper delivery boys were twelve or fourteen. “What about you?” Bret asked. Cindy stood right next to him, and he could smell Ivory Soap and baby powder on her. She had short hair, and he could see that it had been dyed because the roots had just started to show. The hair on the back of her neck was a completely different color. She saw him look at the hair on the back of her neck, and the next day he didn’t see those hairs. He didn’t see them again. Bret didn’t understand really why she liked him. She had Edwin. So when she asked him, “What do you like about me?” And he was thinking that well, he’d like to have sex with her, Bret knew at least enough not to say that. He felt his face heat up and knew she understood.

Bret curled his fingers over his eyes. He looked out over the alder trees growing on the muddy slope. Their leaves had already turned yellow, and most of them lay on the ground. Through the trees he could see the wide South Fork Valley of the Snoqualmie. On the distant wall, Interstate 90 ran toward Snoqualmie Pass. A truck fog horn sounded on the freeway, and he became aware after hearing it that he could hear the rush of the cars, a faint steady white noise he’d taken for granted. “Let’s just get around the corner,” he said.

“I’m not wearing the right shoes,” Cindy said. She wore heavy leather hiking boots Edwin kept oiled for her. She hadn’t slipped once on the damp wooden sleepers of the tracks she and Bret were walking on. She wore faded blue jeans she’d owned since she she’d been in high school.

Bret stood on the other side of the trestle. “This is the longest one. Just around this hill we’ll be in the watershed, were nobody is allowed. So there will be nothing there, but us.”

“I don’t know,” Cindy said as she started to cross the trestle. She stood directly in the middle and kept her eyes on the next trestle. She stood directly between the two railroad tracks. The diesel engine that carried lumber down from the spurs along the South Fork of the Snoqualmie had scrapped the rails into two long, sparkling steel lines. Down the tracks, they faded into the shadows under the boughs. “You don’t think a train will come?”

“No,” he said. So then Cindy put out the toe of one boot, as if testing the strength of the trestle. She gingerly put her weight on her foot and then began to walk. She didn’t look down. A breeze eased with the cold air down the mountain. When she finally crossed, Bret grabbed her and kissed her forehead. A thin layer of salt coated her forehead. He was taller than her but very skinny.

“You smell like lemon-rinds,” she said.

“Do you like it?”

She lifted her chin and made a sniffling noise. “You can smell it on yourself?”

“Yes.”

“They say if you can smell it, then you have too much on.”

“Do you think?” Bret asked. “Too much?”

“Edwin would have held my hand if he’d been here.”

“Is Edwin here? He doesn’t seem to be here.”

Now that they were on the other side of the trestle, Cindy cupped her hand over her eyes and looked down into the gully. The water rushed and sent mist all of the way to the lip of the gully. “Edwin once fell out of a three story window. He just stood up after the fall and dusted himself off and came back inside where we were. He was hardly even drunk.”

“A person shouldn’t drink too much.”

“Do you think you’re that strong?”

“I’m not jumping down into the bottom of this gully. I’d crack my skull open.”

They walked along the tracks, then, not saying any thing. Cindy whistled softly to herself. She asked him what time it was, and Bret told her. They kept walking and after making their way around a gradual bend in the tracks and up a long, steep grade, Cindy said, “I think today is a special day. I can feel it.”

“What is special about today?”

“What time is it?”

“Why do you keep asking that?”

“I’m just watching the time.”

“It’s five minutes after the last time you asked me.”

“What time was that?”

“Five minutes after the time you asked me before that. Why don’t you wear a watch?”

“I’m just asking the time. I don’t need a lecture.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s ten-thirty.”

“You said it was ten o’clock last time I asked.”

“If you knew what time it was, why did you ask me? If you’re not up for this, that’s all right with me, I guess.”

“You want to go back?” She down on the long track, that went for a mile down the grade they had just walked up and then around turned into the trees.

“Are you worried about Edwin?”

“I’m worried about Edwin. He’s insane. I’m as worried as much as I can be. He’s not here right this minute, and you are here.”

“Why don’t you just kill him and get it over with it?”

“That’s not funny,” Cindy said. “Wouldn’t fix anything anyway.”

“Then let’s move, just you and me. We could go to someplace where Edwin would never look for us.”

“He has a computer. He could find us. Did I tell you how he found his father’s brother on the Internet? He just started searching one day and he found a list of six email addresses and one of them was a Cochran from Ohio.”

“We won’t have an email address. We won’t have a listed phone number. We can change our names. We can live on the Oregon Coast and drive an old beater car and walk on the beach when we’re not at our crappy tourist-trap jobs.” Bret said this as he walked down the tracks. He saw a rabbit dart over the ditch and into the bracken fern. “Did you see that?”

“Is Edwin following us?”

“A rabbit. There’s a million of them along the tracks. Now that we are in the watershed, we’ll see all kinds of wildlife.”

“I didn’t see a rabbit.”

Up ahead there was a rabbit eating grass growing along the side of the track. It nibbled on the grass and then looked up at the two of them coming down the track. It’s nose took in their scent — a damp black cherry — wrinkling and pulsing as it chewed the grass. It half turned ready to jump into the blackberry bushes.

“Stop,” Bret said. “It’s about to jump into the bushes.”

“You’d kill that rabbit if I asked you,” Cindy said.

“I’m not going to kill a rabbit. Unless you are planning on eating it. Nothing should just get killed.”

“What’s the difference? If I want to eat it or I just want you to kill it, it’s the same thing. From your end, it’s still killing the rabbit.”

“With one, you want to get yourself some food. And with the other you just want to me to kill something. And anyway the rabbit heard us talking about killing it, and took off.”

They walked further down the tracks not saying anything, now. The sun had risen high enough that it fell down between the fir on either side of the tracks. Heat began to hang in the air. As the creosote railroad ties warmed they filled the dusty air with a heavy oily odor. Occasionally, some insect that Bret had always known the sound of but didn’t know the name of whistled in the forest. They passed a sign nailed to a tree. Cedar River Water Shed. No Trespassing. Violators Will be Prosecuted. Another rabbit chewed on some grass in the shade of overhanging bushes. They were just about up to it. It hadn’t seen them out in the bright sunlight. “Kill it for me, please?” Cindy asked.

“Oh Jesus,” he said. “You better eat it.”

Bret leaned forward and then sprung in front of the rabbit. The startled rabbit jumped toward the cover of the bushes, but Bret had already jumped there. He caught the rabbit by the ears and flung it against the tracks. The rabbit bounced against a railroad tie and then slid up against the track. Bret jumped after it. He picked the stunned rabbit up and whacked it quickly against the smooth metal surface of the rail. Blood jumped out of its ears and eyes. “Oh Jesus,” Bret said. “Now I’m covered in blood.”

Cindy looked at Bret leaned over the rabbit carcass. “You did it,” she said.

“Here’s your rabbit.” He held the rabbit by the feet. It dripped blood like a wash rag dribbling water.

“I don’t want that rabbit. It’s been in the dirt and it’s all bloody and it’s raw. Besides, I don’t know where that meat has been. Suppose that rabbit has worms or something?”

“Well, I killed it. I smashed its skull in because you said you wanted it. You said you’d eat it. This is your rabbit.”

“I don’t want it.”

“What am I supposed to do with it? I can’t just carry it around with us.”

“You should’ve thought of that before you killed it.”

“You asked me to kill it. I didn’t want to kill it.”

“Would you do anything for me?”

“It just about looks that way, doesn’t it?”

“Throw it in the bushes. Some animal that’s hungry will get it.”

“If I do that, then I’ll have killed it for the hell of it.”

“No you didn’t. I asked you to. You killed it to prove that you love me.”

In the watershed they swam in a river pool. It was chilly and clear and lay under gigantic Douglas fir trees. The sun filtered down through the boughs and cut through the flowing water to the gravelly bottom, sparkling with chipped granite and quartz and mica. While in the water, they could hear the sound of bushes breaking and then a stampede of elk, the size of horses, passed through the stream. Their skin was brown velvet. Moss hung from their antlers like banners. Cindy stood up in the water to watch them charge around them, through the shallow parts of the river. Water riled off her breasts. Bret couldn’t believe his pornographic good luck. He stood out of the water listening to the crash of the animals fade as they trampled through the salmon berry bushes.

They walked slowly back over the trestle out of the watershed. The sun had set a little while before, but it was still hot and dusty on the tracks. The cool air came down the gully and felt good to Bret. They crossed the trestle and then finally came to the first paved road and walked along that holding hands until they came back into town. Bret let go of Cindy’s hand when the first car came toward them. It had its lights on. The man inside of it, Bret, figured, probably knew Edwin. The car kept driving. Finally, they walked down the street of small, old houses. They had been building gigantic mansion sized houses on lots about the same size out on the hillsides of North Bend. Bret delivered pizza to them one summer. He drove his the old Chevy Celebrity. The car made a rattling noise as he drove in the shadow of these huge houses, and there weren’t any trees or bushes, just rookeries that looked like they had come wrapped in plastic. Spindly Japanese maple trees grew in beauty bark islands. Down in the old town, people grew corn in their front yards. String beans hung from a web of strings running up the side of a garage, and people sat out in their yard now that it had cooled off. They sat in lawn chairs and drank lemonade from plastic cups and beer from bottles.

The door to Cindy’s house was open and Edwin’s truck, a battered four-by-four Toyota pick-up with roll bars and gigantic tires sat on the lawn. Edwin stood in the middle of the lawn spraying soap suds off the hood with his thumb over the garden hose.

Bret stopped before Edwin had turned and looked at him. “I should go,” Bret said.

“I’m going to go with you,” Cindy said.

“Now?”

“Come on,” she said.

Edwin saw them, then, standing at the edge of the yard. “Hey Cindy. Where you been?”

“Out hiking and thinking,” she said.

“How are you doing Bret?”

“Fine, Edwin. Amazing weather isn’t it?”

“Shit,” he said. “Amazing isn’t the half of it. First we have El Niño and then we get La Niña. What were you doing, son, with my wife all day.”

“I don’t think she’s married to anyone.”

“The hell she ain’t. She’s living in my house. Way I see it, that makes her a married woman.” He turned off the hose. Water dripped from the truck. The door to the house was still open. Bret could hear music then, coming out of the house, guitars and howling, and then it stopped and Bret saw Cindy through the front window at the stereo cabinet, putting CDs into a brown paper Thriftway bag.

Edwin walked across the lawn and stood, then directly in front of Bret. Bret stood on the slight slope of grass coming off the road and down into the yard. Even so, he was a lot taller than Edwin. But Edwin had a hard round stomach with his T-shirt stretched taught across it. His shirt had long sleeves but they only came half way down his forearms. Motor oil stained the shirt in crusty, black patches. He wore a pair of khaki shorts and didn’t have any shoes on. His face was covered in short, wiry hair and his beard ran halfway up his cheeks. His hair ran all of the way down his neck. He rubbed one of his callused hands over his eyebrows, across his face and down his neck. It made a noise like a heavy object sliding across a rug. “I have half a mind to break your legs.”

Bret shook his head. “I can understand that. I really do.” Bret stood over Edwin. Although Bret was smaller than Edwin, he looked over the top of his thinning scalp. “If someone wants to leave someone else, there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. We are all free to do what we want. Land of liberty.”

“She doesn’t want to leave. You’re talking her into it; and your bloody lips will talk her out of it.”

“She doesn’t listen to me. She’s the one who tells me what to do.”

“Why don’t you just smack me in my face. Because I am sick of you kicking me in the balls. She’s staying here.”

“I’m going with Bret,” Cindy said. She stood on the porch. She had several bags slung across her back and a garment bag in her arms. A couple of brown bags sat on the porch steps. “I just came by to get my things. Bret came by to give me a hand.”

“I didn’t know she was going to do this,” I said.

“Fuck you,” Edwin said. “I’ll fucking give you a hand, bitch,” he said. He took several short, mincing steps toward the house and then ran at full title. Bret jumped after him. Bret’s long legs carried him across the lawn, and he tackled Edwin in the damp and soapy yard in front of the truck. They dropped into a tangle of arms on the soggy lawn, wet grass slicking their shirts to their bodies. And then Edwin has his arms around Bret’s shoulders, and he folded Bret’s head into his chest. Bret slide out and hit Edwin in the face with the heal of his hand. Edwin grunted and blood came out of his nose. Bret captured Edwin in a headlock. Edwin grabbed Bret’s crotch and twisted. They both struggled and howled.

“Nobody asked for you two to fight over me,” Cindy said. She put her things in the passenger side of the truck.

Edwin and Bret broke away from each and took a couple of steps back from each other. Their hands were on their knees and they breathed in and out. Edwin felt his nose and then Bret climbed into the truck. Cindy told him to get out of the car. He stood, confused, and she picked up the floor mat and lay it down on the seat. “You’re dirty,” she said. “I don’t want you ruining the upholstery.”

“Sorry,” Bret said.

Edwin whacked the side of the truck with the palm of his hand. “Cindy,” he said. “Where are you going?”

She drove away. They didn’t say anything while she drove through town, past all of the houses that Bret liked, and then down the highway to the little apartment he lived in at the top of a brick apartment building at the edge of a corn field. Bret followed Cindy up the stairs. She hurried up them, and then she took off her clothes, and he took off his clothes. They showered. They stood in the steamy bathroom, and he was aware she was there with him then. He felt like crawling into bed and sleeping, but she was there with him now. She sat down on the toilet, and he went out into his bedroom and kitchen and sitting room, and he sat down on the chair looking out at the Snoqualmie River over the wrecking yard full of broken cars. There was something about the orderly bins of smashed car parts that Bret found comforting, that even after an accident a kind of order was reestablished in the junk yard. When she came out of the bathroom, naked, she smiled at him and looked around. “There’s only one chair.”

“Sorry,” he said. He stood up and sat down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling.

“Good God, you have a horrible view,” she said and closed the curtains and the room was dark now. He could see between the curtains a bright sliver of the outside daylight, but there inside, the room was dark.

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