Bartlett House by Patricia J. McLean and Duane Poncy ©2004, 2010

Rain came in sudden downpours between Eugene and Portland, transforming Interstate-5 into a shallow wash. Heavy sixteen-wheelers funneled road-water at Will’s windshield. The world was water. Everything was distorted. In the fields wavy sheep bleated soundlessly and grazed under a soggy sky beneath low hills crowned with dark green water firs. After a few minutes, the downpour stopped, drops beaded on Will Adelhardt’s windshield, the pavement turned dry and blobs of whooshing color regained their edges, became cars with passengers and drivers.
     Will leaned back and let his hands slide down to the bottom of the steering wheel. It was Wednesday, not really a heavy traffic day and, during the frequent sun-breaks, the drive was pleasant. Lines of trees, living windbreakers, separated fields. By early June, the Willamette Valley’s generous soil was already lush with crops grown into a broad quilt of banded greens. Barns, farmhouses, and clumps of trees formed islands in the fields and crowned the mounded hillocks.
     Lebanon. Sweet Home. The first time he had seen those signs he had thought it was a queer mixture of the exotic and the familiar like baba ghanoush and apple pie. Thinking back to those early days and why he chose the University of Oregon, instead of some California college, and why he hadn’t even applied to the ivy leagues even though his grades and S.A.T. scores were high enough, he felt the chasm of his choices and might-have-beens opening. He stopped at the edge. The pit was really not giving him the thrill it used to.
     That would be Emmy’s fault.
     The U of O and Eugene had been Vietnam’s fault, had been his anger and frustration at burying friends on the poor side of Providence. A scholarship to Yale would have been, for him, a further trip than the 3,000 miles cross country; the Ivy League was a different dimension. And it wasn’t burying school buddies, he’d tried to tell his dad, it wasn’t how they died, but why. That the why was all tangled up with arms manufacturers and fear of losing markets and cheap labor, and misguided patriotism. And Eugene wasn’t Berkeley, wasn’t California and Beach Boys. Eugene was working class and flannel. It wasn’t all brown and hard-edged. It was moss and ferns, fecundity, primal. Primal compared to Providence.
     This visit to Eugene – the reason for it – brought back a rush of memories from those years of marrow-deep purpose. Those long nights of Ripple and hashish, filled with intense discussions about the military-industrial complex, racism, women’s rights; planning The Revolution; marching down rain-soaked streets to chants of “the people united, shall never be defeated.” And for all that, Eugene remained a small university town, full of idealism and small town neighborliness; its veins not yet hardened by heroin tracks like San Francisco or Boston.
     This is what had attracted him, and what had shaped his youthful mind in those years of turmoil. Years he had returned to document.
     Since then, his whole life had changed, at least on the surface. His hair now was short and gray, deep lines arced from his nose into his cropped beard, his belly was rounded. Until recently, he had tended to feel his fifty years in the joints of his body rather than note it in his face. Since meeting Emmy, he had begun to see it, but not feel it. If he caught sight of himself next to her in a window they passed, he would think how much like a father and daughter they appeared to be, but he felt like a lover when he looked at her.
     The smell of rotten eggs drew his attention to the Albany pulp mill hulking along the west side of the freeway. Miles of pipes, conduits, tanks and towering exhaust stacks. Will shivered, the plant always made him feel like he’d entered a science fiction diorama of the future gone terribly wrong. But his life was paper. His two books, dozens of articles, and the reams of syllabi, streams of student papers – he should be worshipping. The pulp mill was the robe and surplice of his religion.
     Albany and the mill disappeared behind him. Sun poured through holes in the clouds and triple rainbows arched over the valley. He should have brought Emmy with him. She could have taken a couple of days off from the bookstore. Old Orville was a pushover. Will was impatient to get back to her. How long had it been since he’d felt like this?
     Traffic was thicker, boxing him in. Will could see Salem in the distance coming up fast. Only an hour’s drive to Portland now.
     Was their relationship fair to Emmy? At twenty-eight she was at an age of decision. Most of his decisions were behind him. She should find a young man, start a family. But Emmy had an answer for that. “What makes you think that’s every woman’s dream? And how can I start a family? I barely know what one is.” There had been a tone in her voice as if the question were more than rhetorical, as if it demanded an answer. He didn’t have one. He had taken her hand in his and kissed the pink tips of her fingers, stared into her wide-set hazel eyes. Those eyes took up too much of her face; overwhelmed her pointed chin and narrow nose. They were hungry. They consumed her face. They consumed him.
     The clouds were leaning in close again, darkening the landscape, which had flattened out north of Salem. Will and his fellow travelers were rushing toward a curtain of rain at 65 miles per hour. Then they were enveloped in the indistinct world. Will slowed, his companions hurtled past. He flinched as a suburban monster vehicle flung water over his window, leaving him momentarily road-blind. He cursed at the driver’s rudeness, but he did not curse the rain. Lying in bed just three days ago, tangled in the sheets, listening to the rain running through the gutter pipes, trying to guess what time it was by the amount of light squeezing through the clouds, Will and Emmy had surrendered the possibility of summer to the endless river of rain.
     Emmy said, “The sun is an illusion. It doesn’t really exist.”
     Summer might not be waiting for spring to loosen her hold, but Emmy is waiting for me, Will thought. She’s perched on one of Orville’s tall wooden stools. She’s hunched over a book and I can see her shoulder blades making narrow ridges in the back of her sweater, her black hair curling around the base of her skull. I could live to be eighty. I could give her thirty years of my life. If she wants to leave in the middle after ten or fifteen years, it won’t be the first time for me.
     The rain ceased again and, on his right, a half-mile ahead, Will could see the spires of the Mormon Tabernacle rising like brittle white needles above green-black Douglas Firs and the freeway began to curve. After nearly two hours of straight road, these were warm-up curves. The real ones, the Terwilliger curves, lay beyond the caution sign, deceptively wide, sweeping; they were killers that had been partially subdued by the detour, which siphoned off truck traffic.
     Portland slammed into view, its skyscrapers bunched together on the river bottomland, boxed in by the West Hills, which formed a green, house-studded backdrop. The Willamette lay serene and wide. He passed by the Ross Island Bridge and held to the left, slipping out of the freeway stream, he came to a stop on Naito Parkway. Will laughed out loud. It wasn’t more than a year since his last divorce and here he was hopelessly in love and thinking about starting it all over again.
     Then he realized his mistake. He shouldn’t have taken Naito, it was Rose Festival and the carnies were setting up on Waterfront Park. A navy ship, ghostly, menacingly gray, loomed between the Morrison and Hawthorne bridges. The spans of the first bridge were closing; the span of the second was fully raised. Traffic entered the Hawthorne by a right turn, the Morrison by a left, so there was no movement in either lane. It was fully fifteen minutes before he was sliding into his parking spot in the apartment lot.
     Will dropped his travel bag on the floor and set his briefcase on the dining table. He noticed the blinking red light of the telephone answering machine. Two messages. The first was Emmy. “Hi, Will. I miss you. Hope your trip to Eugene was great. Doug says he’s got good news for me. Call me as soon as you get back, I’ll know by then. Did I leave my beret at your place? (pause) Will, we’ve really got to talk. Bye.”
     Something in Emmy’s voice made him uneasy. Will stopped the tape, he could listen to the other message later. He dialed Emmy’s number. After two rings, he remembered that she was at work and started to hang up. Then someone lifted the receiver.
     “Emmy?”

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