The waitress is 81; the lakes are eternal.
Kit and I have come to Twin Lakes, 13 miles west of Bridgeport, California, and to Mono Village, where the road runs out. The village and the land around it have been owned by the same family for six generations, something almost unheard of in the modern world, where almost everything—land, money, love—dwindles away.
My father owned a house on an acre of land outside Petaluma when I was in high school, then he had a house in Livermore, another in Rodeo, then a trailer in Petaluma. Then the trailer was gone. He and my mother ended up in a one bedroom apartment in Rohnert Park, and now they’re gone. It is not something I like to think about.
I tell Bonnie, our waitress at the Mono Village Café, “The people who own the place obviously aren’t guilty of age discrimination.” I’d guess the youngest waitress is in her 50s.
Bonnie says, “They tried hiring some younger women, but they were always phoning in sick or something. Their car broke down, their kid had a runny nose, they had a fight with their boyfriend. Me, I’m here, no matter what. I’m dependable.” She shrugs and pours ice water into our glasses. It must be a hundred outside.
Bonnie has huge liver blotches on her arms, but she’s trim, and I suspect she likes her life, likes what she does, unlike my father, who feared life and who said he was “just waiting to die” for years, but that is something else I don’t like to think about.
I considered ordering a Mono Burger, which consists of a beef patty, a hot dog and cheese, but it seemed too weird so I ordered a Club Style Croissant, which also seemed weird, but not as weird as the Mono Burger. The croissant consists of turkey, Swiss cheese, tomato, bacon, mayo, 1,000 Island dressing and avocado. I’m surprised at how good it is.
The lower lake is the bigger of the two, according to Bonnie. It’s about 2 ½ miles long and half a mile wide, and it’s 160 feet deep. Both lakes were formed by glaciers, and they’re separated by a waterfall and a short creek.
Kit and I walk beneath the huge pines when we’ve finished lunch. There’s no breeze, so the pine needles are still as stone. People on the lake are boating, fishing, swimming, water skiing, while people on shore walk their dogs or lull the afternoon away. Some rent housekeeping or motel units, while others park their RVs or camp out, sleeping beneath the stars. Kit and I still hold hands, after 30 years. Difficult to imagine, but the flashes of sweet light, the love, the kindness of hope will never die. I used to be a cynic.
We go out onto the dock, so I can put my hand into the water, feel how cold it is. Kit’s balance is precarious so I hold her hand, tightly, although her balance has been precarious since the car hit her 36 years ago and she was in a coma for nine weeks. Maybe my cynicism began to go away when I dated her. Kit’s first word, coming out of the coma, was, “Yes.”
The water isn’t as cold as I imagined when I dip my left hand into the lake. I’m kneeling, like some kind of penitent, but I hold my right hand up, behind me, so Kit can steady herself.
Matterhorn Peak, 12,281 feet high, hovers above us, and there is still snow on the mountain, although it is late July. Bonnie told us the terrain is similar to that of the Swiss Alps, but I wouldn’t know since I have never been to Switzerland.
An Indian lady with five chins and a dog hums “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I know less about Jesus than I do about the Swiss Alps, but I know Twin Lakes is a special place. The light comes through the trees and turns the dust to gold when we walk back onto the land, and the blue-green water shimmers.
A group of high school girls did the cancan in the Alamo Saloon. Kit and I watched them as we sipped sarsaparilla. It seemed like a bad joke, like something from a Roy Rogers movie, adults having to drink root beer. I thought it should be illegal not to serve liquor in a saloon, but Kansas had repressive liquor laws.
We went out into the hot sunlight to watch the gunfight in front of Wild Bill’s Hang Out. Six men approached each other, three in each group, their hands resting on the butts of their holstered six guns, then they began firing, the blanks loud in the still air, puffs of smoke coming from the barrels of their pistols.
Two men fell to the dirt street, clutching their stomachs. They looked upward as if they expected to see God at any moment. It was the way people died in the movies, beautifully, not at all like the way it was in life. I remembered my last wife screaming as the doctors performed a bone marrow test. I could hear her all the way down the hall.
Kit’s cheek was swollen and I touched it, gently. A tooth was bothering her.
“Are you all right?” I asked. There hadn’t been any swelling the day before, and I wondered if she’d make it to California, where she could see a dentist. I’d grown up on the west coast.
“Do I have any choice” she asked.
Kit and I stood in the bleachers at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Stadium, watching the sky explode. Eisenhower grew up in Abilene.
Kit’s cheek was more swollen than it had been that afternoon. She said, “The pain’s terrible.” She spoke slowly, the way she did when she was very tired, her words broken. She’d been in a coma for nine weeks after she was hit by a car, and she’d had to learn how to speak all over again. Sometimes I could read her lips before she spoke, watching the words form as she tried to get them out.
“It’ll be all right,” I said. Kit held onto my arm because her night vision was terrible.
I watched her tears change color as the fireworks burst above us. I unlocked the car and helped her into the front seat.
I’d never seen anyone cry red and blue tears before.
* * *
No other patients were in the emergency room when a nurse examined Kit. It was so quiet we could hear the fireworks exploding in the distance.
The nurse phoned Dr. Johnson, a local dentist, and he told her he’d see Kit in the morning, even though he’d planned to take the day off. Meanwhile, we were supposed to pick up a prescription for codeine; one pharmacy in town had stayed open for the holiday.
The druggist told Kit, “Take one tablet every four hours, or as needed, for pain,” although it said that on the label. He was wearing a pale blue smock and the backs of his hands were freckled. He looked as if he should be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. I knew he must have a last name like Friendly. The name tag he wore identified him as Herb, and it said he’d been serving customers since 1952, the year Kit was born. He handed her a paper cup filled with water so she could take the first pill immediately. Her hands were shaking so badly I thought she’d spill the water, but she didn’t.
“You’ll be all right now,” I told her when we got back to our motel.
* * *
The road shimmers in the morning sunlight as we head west. Kansas is flat, dull. Sunflowers line both sides of Highway 70.
Dr. Johnson prescribed an antibiotic after looking at the X-ray he took. He told Kit she’d have to get the tooth worked on once the infection subsided and charged us ten dollars. He was in his early thirties and wanted to run for Congress someday. If I lived in Kansas, I’d vote for him.
I have the windows down, but the wind’s warm, hot. I listen to a country-western station because I like songs about broken hearts. There’s an integrity to sorrow, but I don’t want to be sad anymore.
Kit spends most of her time sleeping, knocked out by the codeine. She has no sense of time, no sense of the passing miles.
Kit awakens and dozes. Dozes and awakens.
I drive on, under the bleached sky.
Kit rubs her eyes, looking at the unchanging prairie.
“No wonder Dorothy went to Oz,” she says.
The hills in the high plains have gullies that sink like despair and ridges that rise like hope, but one is more hopeful than not. This, as a sign in the area notes, is Pioneer Country. People are resilient, if not tough.
There are clusters of rocks and beer bottles that have been rearranged to form circles, pentagrams, hearts and the initials of lovers alongside the road as Kit and I drive up Six Mile Canyon toward Virginia City. Aspen leaves flutter in the wind, then drift like frail broken pieces of china toward the rocks below. The air smells of greasewood, sage, juniper and pinon, and a white horse stands in an abandoned storefront.
Kit and I see two men and a woman standing beside a grave in a small cemetery at the edge of town. One of the men plays the bugle, his eyes closed, as if he’s afraid the afternoon light will blind him. Tears glisten on his tanned cheeks.
The other man cradles a violin. He has silver hair that comes below his collar, and he’s wearing a blue three-piece suit with a bow tie. He must be 80, but his posture is perfect.
The woman plays a flute. She fingers it effortlessly, watching Kit and me approach when I park the car. She’s a strawberry blonde, probably in her late 20s, and her eyes are blue and unblinking. They are all daunting figures, but the man holding the violin is the most imposing.
The three play the strangest rendition of “Taps” I’ve ever heard. They could be burying the last of the Union soldiers, but he’s been gone for a long time already. The notes seem to hang in the air, wavering, as if someone struck a tuning fork against crystal. For a moment, I think the sky is going to shatter and that pieces will come raining down on us, but they don’t as we walk across the cemetery.
Someone has placed tin flowers next to the grave of Flora, a nine-year-old who’d died from diphtheria during the gold boom in Virginia City. It was more than a century ago, so the flowers have rusted so badly they crumble when Kit picks one up; it stains her hand a reddish-brown. The Washoe Mountains are lavender with blue creases where the ridges are, and the leaves on the trees are a bright yellow against an apricot sky.
When we leave the cemetery, we go to St. Mary’s in the Mountains, because Kit wants to light a candle for Flora, even though Kit was disillusioned with religion, and had given up being Catholic, before I met her.
Kit asks an old man, “Why would anyone put flowers made out of tin on the grave of a child? On anyone’s grave?” after she’s lit the candle.
The old man has pale blue eyes and delicate white skin, and the blue veins on the backs of his hands bulge, as if someone had squirted ink into them. He’s probably in his late 70s and I have no idea why he would know anything about flowers made out of tin but he tells Kit, “Nothing would grow here much of the year, given the inclement weather, so they made flowers out of tin, the way we make them out of paper or silk now.”
“I guess we all have to deal with grief the best way we can,” Kit says, “I’m glad someone remembered,” then she goes back into St. Mary’s and lights another candle for Flora.