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Those tiny feet weren't Ralph's feet at the end of Ralph's bed. I knew that before I'd pushed Ralph's door all the way open and stepped inside his room, the smell of rainbow trout coming strong up off my hands. Ralph's feet were so big he had to feed them Purina Dog Chow. These feet were little feet, tiny as the Chinese women's feet in National Geographic, tiny as a kid's feetthe size of Jason's feet when Jason was still a boy. But I went on into Ralph's room, through that doorway I'd been through hundreds of times over the last couple of years, past the silver letter B and the silver number 24 nailed to the door at eye level. I kept going, knowing already it wasn't Ralph in the bed, but somehow hoping that maybe they'd just moved Ralph to another room, or another wing, or were helping him to the shitter or the shower.
The walls around Ralph's bed were stripped bare of the waterfalls and mountains and rivers I'd cut out of magazines and off of calendars and brought in. The snapshot of me and Ralph fishing was gone. Ralph and Eileen's black and white wedding picture was gone, too, and so was the framed picture of their farm taken from an air plane. The only things left on those blank walls were a couple of yellowed pieces of Scotch tape and a handful of thumbtacks somebody'd missed. The only color in all that white was a short piece of purple yarn hanging down from one of the thumbtacks. Yarn I'd used to tie up a bunch of lavender I brought in for Ralph last summer and hung on his wall. The end of the little piece of yarn was all frayed out where somebody'd yanked Ralph's lavender off the wall.
I didn't know that those tiny feet in Ralph's bed were what was going to startthe whole thing, turn my life upside down and dump it out, the way you'd empty an old wooden nail keg, all the crap inside tumbling out onto the floor around my feet, all the people I'd seen die during my life coming out, too, me standing there all alone eighty years old and at the end of the line, standing on the riverbank.
I didn't know about the circle either. The circle came later, after Grace showed up soaking wet on my new front porch that Saturday morning just before Thanksgiving and started talking about spirits and sagebrush and telling strange stories.
Those tiny feet in Ralph's bed were what was going to make me do stuff I never thought I'd ever do. Loony stuff like buying a run-down mansion in the middle of town with money I'd never earneddeath money's really what it was. Those tiny feet were why I got hauled in for kid napping, too. Those feet and that promisethe second promise I made to Ralph because I broke the first promise all to hell, the one about not letting him die alone.
I looked again at the feet in Ralph's bed, then at the head on the pillow. Not Ralph's head. An old woman's head, maybe, but it was hard to say just looking at the face and gray hair, everything else covered except those feet. I wanted to grab the stainless-steel railing and shake the whole bed, yell at this person to tell me where the hell- they'd taken Ralph off to. But I didn't, because right then Ralph's door swung open, the knob bumping hard into the plaster where the rubber stopper was missing. There she was. The Ad-ministrator. Breathing hard. That red dress with the big black buttons down the front filling Ralph's doorway. The Ad-ministrator swallowed so loud I could hear it. She glanced over at Ralph's bed, then back at me. I could tell she wanted me to step out into the hall so we could talk, but I wasn't budging out of Ralph's room. She must have sensed I wasn't, because she started in talking at me full throttle.
''I'm sorry, Mr. Castor," the Ad-ministrator said. "I planned to tell you the moment you came in, before you made it down the hall here. But today's Wednesday, so we weren't expecting you. You never come in on Wednesdays. And in the evening instead of midday? You never visit Mr. Pollux in the evening. Right after it happened, we tried calling. A couple times. But there was no answer."
She stopped to get breath. The buttons on her dress pushing out toward me, swelling bigger. Then she kept going, words flooding out of her again, the black buttons shrinking back down.
"Bingham & Bristol handled the arrangements. Every thing went fine. We contacted some distant relatives who reside in Atlantic City. They said they didn't even know where Mr. Pollux was and were overjoyed to learn where he'd been living. Said they'd always wanted to see Oregon. Had heard the coast was just marvelous, but the timing for a trip out now was bad. So I personally tied up the loose ends over the phone. And Bingham & Bristol took care of the rest."
"Loose ends?" I said.
"Oh yes," the Ad-ministrator said. "You wouldn't believe how much there is to take care of when this happens. You know, even the little details add up. Paperwork and possessions. Of course, it's much more involved if there's no family around to help out. Which in this case"
"Horseshit!" I said, and then my boots were taking me out of Ralph's room, the silver B24 on the door and those black buttons blurring past, me stomping down the hallway and out through those sliding glass doors that didn't open fast enough. I hit the right door so hard with my hand a spiderweb bloomed deep in the tinted glass. The four stacked words painted in silver on the glass cracked, too. Then the toe of my boot caught on the other door, popping it out of the track and setting off the loudest goddamned security alarm I'd ever heard. I stumbled outside, the clouds tearing open overhead, the smell and taste of rain corning in through my nose and mouth.
The gravel parking lot was a river boiling silver in the evening light, a river flowing past. Max was floating at the far side of the river, all the falling water and night coming on making Max's faded red paint dance and shimmer, making that old Ford truck of mine look new and shiny.
I had to get the hell away from the Gardens and back up to my farm in the foothills. Get away from that Ad ministrator beating her gums at me about how she'd tied up Ralph's loose ends long-distance, how Ralph was al ready buriednot only dead, but already in the god damned ground.
But what I really had to get away from was the promise I'd just broken all to hell. The promise I'd made to Ralph that day two years back when I found him in his muddy bathtub, just his mouth moving.
And what was I doing while I was breaking the promise? While Ralph was dying all alone here at the Gardens? I was fucking fishing for rainbow trout up at Odell Lake. Fishing!
Then those tiny feet kicked the hell out of meas I was stomping across that parking lot flooded full of mud puddles, the sun already gone to coals behind the clouds somewhere out over the Pacific, rain coming down all around me in fifty-gallon drums busting open as they hit, soaking my boots and bad back, soaking my socks slid down inside my boots, soaking me clear through to the marrow. Those feet kicked me so hard I stopped stomping. Stopped splashing. Stopped breathing. I stood still in the darkness and water falling. Stared at the end of the line, at the river going by all around me, rain hammering the surface silver. The silver water already up to my ankles. Only a step or two away from floating on down myself. The river ready to take me away. Me next. Not another soul around anywhere. No Jason. No Dora. No Mama and Pa or baby brother. Nobody else on the bank. No Uncle Bill back in Omaha. No Bud. All of them gone on down the river. And now Ralph gone on down, too.