PETEY Ray J Harding
I had driven within a mile of Conway, New Hampshire, at the point where the Kankamagus highway intersects with Route 16, French-kissing my coffee cup, trying to find the hole I had torn in the lid, when I saw the kid sitting on the guard rail at the side of the road, and on impulse, I pulled the van over and stopped.
I had been meditating on the human assumption that everything that happens to us is linked with some previous action. When something unpleasant happens, no matter how a traumatic or insignificant the incident, our first impulse is to wonder how we could have changed the course of fate, if only – If only I hadn’t had that second doughnut, then I wouldn’t have backed into the milkman’s truck, because he wouldn’t have been there when I left..—that sort of thing. Maybe the fact that I’m approaching my thirty-fifth birthday, which to me spells middle-age, had a lot to do with it or maybe it was just the fact that my radio wasn’t working that caused the depression. Whatever is was I stopped.
Now, I think my train of thought was prophetic. If I hadn’t bought the used van from my brother and rigged it for a camper; if Barbara, who hates camping, fishing, and mosquitoes, hadn’t had her sister with two teen-aged daughters coming for a visit on the last few days of my vacation; then Barb would never have said: “Why don’t you take the van and go on a fishing trip for yourself. Gloria and the girls and I plan to destroy every mall in the area. Go. Have fun.” If all that hadn’t happened, I would not be where I was, and I wouldn’t have stopped for the kid.
When the van came to a halt, I realized that I had made a mistake, a bad one. I had expected a boy. The loose khaki shirt, hiking shorts, long brown socks and high boots had me thinking male. This kid was definitely female. In those cloths she didn’t seem to have much of a figure, but she did have a shock of short, curly golden hair that caught highlights from the sun and set off a pretty face with high cheek bones, a good nose and a small, but perfectly shaped mouth. As she walked to the passenger’s side of the van, she took off a pair of aviator-style sun glasses, and looked me over with the biggest, bluest, wide-set eyes I had ever seen. Behind the look, I could sense her computer eliminating pervert, rapist, weirdo, and so on, probably settling for nerd, which is what I felt like. Barb would have my head for picking up any hitch-hiker let alone a girl. I thought of stepping on the gas and blowing out of there, but it was too late. She had the door open and was placing the backpack between the seats. “Where you headed” she asked
“North,” I said. My first guess was that she was about twenty.
“Good direction,” she said as I pulled back onto 16 and headed into Conway.
Not being up on hitchhiker driver protocol, I decided to introduce myself. “Bob Rollins,” I said.
She turned her head and looked at me for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the sight trace of a smile. She had a very nice face. “My friends call me Petey,” she said. “Thanks for sharing the ride.”
I spent the next few minutes concentrating on the traffic and trying to figure out what kind of name could be shortened into “Petey”. When we moved into North Conway amid the hordes of summer tourists and bargain hunters along the “outlet strip”, she asked, “Is that an Orvis fly rod you’ve got hanging back there”
“It is,” I said. It was my one extravagance, but it should last a lifetime.
“My dad has one,” she said in reply. “You on a fishing trip?”
“Yeah. A friend of mine told me there was some good trout fishing just north of here. You a student?”
“Just finished up at UNH. I needed to get away for a while so I’ve been up on the Presidential Range trying to get my perspective back.”
“What was your major?” I asked. By now we were clear of the center of town and I took another glance at my passenger. If she had finished college, she must be older than I first thought
“Pharmacy.” I was sick for a while so it took me an extra year. That’s another reason I wanted to get away. Would you like me to show you a great fishing spot?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s what I’m looking for.” I didn’t have any particular place in mind when I started out. I had planned to wander down some back roads and try my luck wherever I found running water.
“OK, there’s a road about two miles ahead, take a left there. About three miles down, we’ll come to an old farm. My dad used to take my sister and me there when we were kids. If it hasn’t changed and the same old guy owns it, I’ll show you the best trout stream in New England.
I followed her directions until she told me to pull up and stop in front of a white, wood frame farmhouse. “Wait here,” she said as she jumped down and headed for the barn. I could make out the figure of a man in overalls just within the cool darkness of the barn door. While she talked to the man, I listened to the buzzing of the insects and watched the corn stalks clattering against one another in the field across the dirt road. I could almost smell the heat.
She came back in a few minute, smiling as she climbed into the van. “He remembered me. Said it would be alright for us to camp down by his creek as long as we cleaned up after ourselves. Turn down that dirt road just past the stone wall.” She pointed ahead.
The dirt road, two sandy ruts, led downhill past another cornfield, past a stand of white birch, and ended up in a clearing surrounded by tall pines. A few yards from where I stopped I could see the bend in the creek and the moving water. “This is it,” she said as we climbed out. “You were good enough to share the ride; I’ll share dad’s favorite fishing hole.”
I was moved. It was a beautiful spot. The water was crystalline, so clear I could make out the rocks and the sand bottom in the shallows, until it dropped off into the cold and dark of the deeper holes.
As I stared at the water, I became aware that Petey was staring at me. When our eyes met, she looked away. “It’s called Wilson’s Creek,” she said. “It runs down from the Mt. Washington water shed and joins the Saco a few miles from here. You going to use flies?”
“I should,” I said, “but I also have some crawlers in the cooler. If the flies don’t work, then I shift to the heavy artillery.” It turned out that I didn’t need the crawlers. Within the hour I had netted three good sized rainbows on streamers. Petey watched for a while then pulled a book from her pack, sat with her back against a tree and read.
When I walked up from the stream with the fish, I said, “I don’t know what your plans are but I’d like to camp here for the night. I’ve got the makings of a good supper in the cooler, and w can cook these upon my handy-dandy camp stove: peas, potatoes, and pan fried rainbows with a bottle of domestic white wine to wash it down.”
“That sounds good to me,” she said. “If you do the cooking, I’ll dress those out for you.” Then she added, “I’m not going anywhere until tomorrow. Besides, I like it here. I’ve got a small tent in the pack, that is if you don’t mind sharing the site?”
“Hey, Petey” I said, “It’s your site. If you hadn’t shown me this place, I never would have found it.”
So we cooked and ate our dinner. Petey set up her small tent, and later, with the sun dropping below the tree tops, she gathered enough driftwood and windfall branches to make a campfire. “We always used to have a fire when we camped here,” she explained. “Sis and I would watch the sky for satellites. Ten points for the first to spot one. Five for a shooting star.” She plunked down near where I was sitting and sighed, “Won’t see much tonight,” she said.
How come?” I asked.
She gave me a long look then said, “You really are a city boy, aren’t you? There’s a full moon tonight. Comes up when the sun goes down. The only stars you’ll see are a few planets and maybe some of the brighter stars.”
“Oh,” I said.
We didn’t talk much. Petey watched the flames and occasionally
dropped another branch onto the glowing embers. She thought her own deep thoughts and kept them to herself. I didn’t have much to say, either. I felt guilty just sharing the night with another woman, a stranger, and I was tired. I had put a lot of miles on the van and I was tired. She had been right about the moon. By the time it cleared the hills to the east and the tree tops, I excused myself and set up my sleeping bag and pads inside the van. It was a hot night but I was asleep in minutes.
It was hard to tell how long I slept before I was awakened by a series of quick, loud splashes. I was out of the van in seconds reaching form my fishing rod where I had left it propped against the rear-view mirror. That much noise could only be one thing: a big brown trout working his way upstream and feeding in the shallows. Petey’s fire was out; she had shoveled sand over the ashes, but the moon was high, and there was easily enough light for me to find my way down to the pool. I stopped about a dozen yards from the water’s edge. There was no brown trout, there was only Petey, like an ancient marble statue come to life. As if transformed by the moonlight, she was no longer the sexless child I had imagined her to be, but in this new reality, a slender goddess rising from the dappled water. Her steps were deliberate as a bride’s as she emerged, one foot placed in line before the other, on the balls of her feet, showing her long shapely legs to perfection. The soft curve of her hips gave way to a narrow waist and then flowed upward to her breasts, each nipple stiffened by the cold water. I stood for a moment awed by this midnight vision of beauty. There was, for me in that first glimpse, no sexual arousal; it was the same feeling as when one unexpectedly encounters the magnificence o f a work of art by a great master. She stopped when she saw me, and our eyes met. It was then that I realized that her hair was gone. Like some new military recruit, her scalp was covered with a short growth of fuzz no long enough yet to curl. The same peach-fuzz shadow appeared where her pubic hair should be.
There was no trace, in the pallid moonlight, of the blue luminosity of her eyes, but instead, a hint of deep sadness looked out at me, the sadness of suffering and hopelessness. Then, in an instant, it was gone, and anger blazed. “I heard you snoring and I thought you were sound asleep. I didn’t want you — I didn’t want anyone to see me like this.” She passed a hand across her head as if she were at once signifying her loss, her frustration, her shame.
She made no attempt to cover herself although her towel was lying at her feet. Her eyes locked on mine as she said defiantly, “Hodgkin’s disease. They mop it up. MOPPS treatment they call it. They don’t even say chemotherapy anymore. “M” is for mechlorethamine, “O” is for oncovin – that’s where MOther stops. The “P” stands for procaravine and prednisone. Put them all together and the spell – maybe – remission. Two years, three years, five years. If you’re lucky. If you’re a girl, they kick the shit out of your periods; they cause fetal abnormalities if you’re pregnant and they also result in alopecia, which means your fucking hair falls out.” She reached down and swooped up the towel, but instead of wrapping it around herself, she flung it over her shoulder and marched toward her tent.
From the time I first saw her emerging like Venus from the water until she finished her tirade, I don’t think I had taken a breath. I let the air out in a long sigh, turned and walked to the van, where I replaced my Orvis extravagance against it’s post by the rear view mirror. Then I heard her footsteps behind me.
She was tugging her blond wig into place like a swimmer adjusting a bathing cap, and she was still carrying the towel over her shoulder. “Look,” she said, as she stopped an arm’s length in front of me. “I’ll tell you something. I didn’t pick you out; you found me. I didn’t ask you to join me for a midnight swim –“
“I thought you were a fish…” I said lamely.
The anger blazed up again. “I am, damn you, I’m a fish flopping around on the bank sucking up the wrong element, and I don’t know how to get back into the water. All my life I’ve done the right thing, everything that mommy and daddy and the teachers wanted. I studied; I worked and sweated my brains out to get an education, and now—now goddamn it, I’ve got this, and I haven’t even started to live. I’m a freak, you realize that, a freak! I’m a twenty-five year old virgin and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to die without knowing, and I want you to make love to me. Right here, and right now.”
And then she was in my arms as if the space between us had vanished the way the stars had vanished as the moon rose higher in the night sky. I don’t know if Barb would understand or forgive, maybe someday a hundred years from now I’ll ask her, but I made love to her, to Petey, whoever she was, as tenderly and gently as I knew how. And as I felt every movement of response she made to me, I tried to understand the meaning if it all, the injustice, the right and wrong of what we were doing, the right and wrong of what had happened to her, to hundreds of other kids like her, but nothing that night made sense, for me or for her. Once, between love-making, she pressed herself against me, and I could feel the beating of her heart. To me, that was the most intimate moment of the night.
The sky was turning light in the east, and the moon was almost down, when she fell asleep in my arms. As gently as I could, I eased myself up and found a blanket in the van to cover her until she awoke.
I wanted to walk down to the water and maybe take a quick dip, but first, I thought, I’d just prop myself up against the front wheel of the van and think about things. Just think about things…
She shook me awake an hour or two later with a cup of coffee in her hand. She had set up my camp stove, an as my head cleared and my eyes began to focus, I could smell the bacon she had found in my cooler, sizzling away in my cast iron frying pan. “You’re having scrambled eggs. I don’t do fried, poached, or benedict.”
We didn’t say much to each other during breakfast, and neither of us mentioned what had happened between us. It was, it seemed, that she wanted it that way, and I, certainly, was in no position nor inclination to have it any other way. Perhaps it was her way of making it easier for me. I honestly don’t know.
When we had finished eating, she took the dishes and utensils down to the stream to wash them while I struck her tent and cleaned up the area. When everything was done and we were ready to leave, she walked up very close to me, took off her dark glasses, searched my soul for one or two long seconds with those blue eyes, then she reached up and kissed me gently on both cheeks. “Let’s go” she said softly.
An hour late we parted just north of Gorham, New Hampshire, where route 2 splits from route 16 and heads west toward St. Johnsbury, in Vermont. “I want to head up toward Montreal, I’ve never seen Montreal. After that I think I’ll go home. Mom must be pretty worried by now. I’ll call her today,” she said as I pulled the van to the side of the road. Before she got out, she reached across and took my right hand in both of hers. I started to say something but she put a finger to her lips and said, “You know,” she began, “It was nothing that you did, really. It wasn’t love, and it wasn’t sex; it was just an experience – I know that’s a cold word, but I don’t mean it to be cold; what happened between us was anything but cold.” She was quiet for a few seconds, thinking, making her thoughts ready for words before she went on. “When I was up there a few days ago on the high peaks, I though a lot about ending it, letting go of life because of what I still have to go through. Now it’s different. Not because of you, but you were a part of it. I don’t know if you understand what I’m trying to say. I’m not sure that I understand what I’m trying to say, but now, because of last night, things look different to me. I know I can take whatever shit life has left to throw at me.” She smiled at me, opened the door, and said, “Take care of yourself.”
And she was gone. I watched her walk down the side of the road, across route 16, headed for another state, another country, another world, a world that all of us have to face someday.
I put the van in gear and swung north on 16, heading for Berlin and points north. Where the trout were.