The bridges of Madison County (Chapter 7)

Ashes

Night had come to Madison County. It was 1987, her sixty-seventh birthday . Francesca had been lying on her bed for two hours. She could see and touch and smell and hear all of it from twenty-two years ago.

She had remembered, then remembered again. The image of those red taillights moving west along Iowa 92 in the rain and fog had stalked her for more than two decades. She touched her breasts and could feel his chest muscles sweeping over them. God, she loved him so. Loved him then, more than she

thought possible, loved him now even more. She would have done anything for him except destroy her family and maybe him as well.

She went down the stairs and sat at the old kitchen table with the yellow Formica top. Richard had bought a new one; he’d insisted on it. But she’d also asked that the old one be stored in a shed, and she had wrapped it carefully in plastic before it was put away.

“I don’t see why you’re so attached to this old table, anyway,” he had complained while helping her move it. After Richard died, Michael had brought it back into the house for her and never asked why she wanted it in place of the newer one. He’d just looked at her in a questioning way.She’d said nothing.

Now she sat at the table. Then, going to the cupboard, she took down two white candles with small brass holders. She lit the candles and turned on the radio, slowly adjusting the dial until she found some quiet music.

She stood by the sink for a long time, her head tilted slightly upward, looking at his face, and whispered, “I remember you, Robert Kincaid. Maybe the High-Desert Master was right. Maybe you were the last one. Maybe the cowboys are all close to dying by now.”

Before Richard died, she had never tried to call Kincaid or to write, either,though she had balanced on the knife edge of it every day for years. If she talked to him one more time, she would go to him. If she wrote him, she knew he would come for her. That’s how close it was. Through the years he never called or wrote again, after sending her the one package with the photographs and the manuscript. She knew he understood how she felt and the complications he could cause in her life.

She subscribed to National Geographic in September of 1965. The article on the covered bridges appeared the following year, and there was Roseman Bridge in warm first light, the morning he had found her note. The cover was his photo of a team pulling a wagon toward Hogback Bridge. He had written the text for the article as well.

On the back page of the magazine, the writers and photographers were featured, and occasionally there were photographs of them. He was there sometimes. The same long silver hair, the bracelet, jeans or khakis, cameras hanging off his shoulders, the veins standing out on his arms. In the Kalahari, at the walls of Jaipur in India, in a canoe in Guatemala, in northern Canada. The road and the cowboy.

She clipped these and kept them in the manila envelope with the covered-bridge issue of the magazine, the manuscript, the two photographs, and his letter. She put the envelope beneath her underwear in the bureau,

a place Richard would never look. And like some distant observer tracking him through the years, she watched Robert Kincaid grow older .

The grin was still there, even the long, lean body with the good muscles. But she could tell by the lines around his eyes, the slight droop of the strong shoulders, the slowly sagging face. She could tell. She had studied that body more closely than anything else in her life, more closely than her own body. And his aging made her long even more for him, if that was possible. She suspected— no, she knew— he was by himself. And he was.

In the candlelight, at the table, she studied the clippings. He looked out at her from places far away.She came to the special picture from a 1967 issue. He was by a river in East Africa, facing the camera and up close to it, squatting down, getting ready to take a photograph of something.

When she had first looked at this clipping, years ago, she could see the silver chain around his neck now had a small medallion attached to it. Michael was away at college, and when Richard and Carolyn had gone to bed, she got out a powerful magnifying glass Michael had used for his stamp collection when he was young and brought it close to the photo.

“My God,” she breathed. The medallion said “Francesca” on it. That was his one small indiscretion, and she forgave him for it, smiling.

In all of the photos after that, the medallion was always there on the silver chain.

After 1975 she never saw him again in the magazine. His byline was absent as well. She searched every issue but found nothing. He would have been sixty-two that year.

When Richard died in 1979, when the funeral was over and the children had gone back to their own homes, she thought about calling Robert Kincaid. He would be sixty-six; she was fifty-nine. There was still time, even with the loss of fourteen years. She thought hard about it for a week and finally took the number off his letterhead and dialed it.

Her heart nearly stopped when the phone began to ring. She heard the receiver being picked up and almost put the phone back on the hook. A woman’s voice said, “McGregor Insurance.” Francesca sank but recovered enough to ask the secretary if she had dialed the correct number . She had. Francesca thanked her and hung up.

Next she tried the Information operator in Bellingham, Washington. Nothing listed. She tried Seattle. Nothing. Then the Chamber of Commerce offices in Bellingham and Seattle. She asked if they would check the city directories. They did, and he was not listed. He could be anywhere, she thought.

She remembered the magazine; he had said to call there. The receptionist was polite but new, and had to get someone to help her with the request. Francesca’s call was transferred three times before she talked with an associate editor who had been at the magazine for twenty years. She asked about Robert Kincaid.

Of course the editor remembered him. “Trying to locate him, huh? He was a hell of a photographer,if you’ll excuse the language. He was cantankerous, not in a nasty way, but persistent. He was after art for art’s sake, and that doesn’t work very well with our readership.

Our readership wants nice pictures, skillful pictures, but nothing too wild.

“We always said Kincaid was a little strange; none of us knew him well outside of the work he did for us. But he was a pro. We could send him anywhere, and he’d deliver,even though he disagreed with our editorial decisions most of the time. As for his whereabouts, I’ve been checking our files while we talked. He left the magazine in 1975. The address and phone number I have are…” He read off the same information Francesca already had. She stopped trying after that, mostly because she was afraid of what she might discover .

She drifted along, allowing herself to think more and more about Robert Kincaid. She was still able to drive well enough, and several times a year she would go to Des Moines and have lunch in the restaurant where he had taken her. On one of those trips, she bought a leather-bound book of blank pages. And on those pages she began recording in neat handwriting the details of her love affair with him and her thoughts about him. It required nearly three volumes of the notebooks before she was satisfied she had completed her task.

Winterset was improving. There was an active art guild, mostly female, and talk of refurbishing the old bridges had been going on for some years. Interesting young folks were building houses in the hills. Things had loosened up, long hair was no longer cause for stares, though sandals on men were still pretty scarce and poets were few.

Yet except for a few women friends, she withdrew completely from the community . People remarked about it and how they often would see her standing by Roseman Bridge and sometimes by Cedar Bridge. Old folks frequently become strange, they said, and contented themselves with that explanation.

On the second of February 1982, a United Parcel Service truck trundled up her driveway. She hadn’t ordered anything she could recall. Puzzled, she signed for the package and looked at the address: “Francesca Johnson, RR 2, Winterset, Iowa 50273.” The return address was a law firm in Seattle.

The package was neatly wrapped and carried extra insurance. She placed it on the kitchen table and opened it carefully. Inside were three boxes, packed securely in Styrofoam peanuts. Taped to the top of one was a small padded envelope. To another was taped a business envelope addressed to her and carrying the law firm’s return address.

She removed the tape from the business envelope and opened it, shaking.

January 25, 1982

Ms. Francesca Johnson RR 2

Winterset, IA 50273

Dear Ms. Johnson:

We represent the estate of one Robert L. Kincaid, who recently passed away….

Francesca laid the letter on the table. Outside, snow blew across the fields of winter. She watched it skim the stubble, taking corn husks with it, piling them up in the corner of the wire. She read the words once more.

We represent the estate of one Robert L. Kincaid, who recently passed away….

“Oh, Robert… Robert… no.” She said it softly and bowed her head.

An hour later she was able to continue reading. The straightforward language of the law, the precision of the words, angered her.

“We represent…”

An attorney carrying out his duties to a client.

But the power, the leopard who came riding in on the tail of a comet, the shaman who was looking for Roseman Bridge on a hot August day, and the man who stood on the running board of a truck named Harry and looked back at her dying in the dust of an Iowa farm lane— where was he in those words?

The letter should have been a thousand pages long. It should have talked about the end of evolutionary chains and the loss of free range, about cowboys struggling with the corners of the wire, like the corn husks of

winter .

The only will he left was dated July 8, 1967.

His instructions about having the enclosed items delivered to you were explicit. If you could not be found, the materials were to be incinerated.

Also enclosed inside the box marked with the word “Letter” is a message for you he left with us in 1978. He sealed the envelope, and it has been left unopened.

Mr. Kincaid’s remains were cremated. At his request, no marker was placed anywhere. His ashes were scattered, also at his request, near your home by an associate of ours. I believe the location was called Roseman Bridge.

If we may be of further service, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Sincerely yours,

Allen B. Quippen, Attorney at Law

She caught her breath, dried her eyes again, and began to examine the remaining contents of the box.

She knew what was in the small padded envelope. She knew it as surely as she knew spring would come again this year. She opened it carefully and reached in. Out came the silver chain. The medallion attached to it was scratched and read “Francesca.” On the back, etched in the tiniest of letters, was: “If found, please send to Francesca Johnson, RR 2, Winterset, Iowa, USA.”

His silver bracelet was wrapped in tissue paper at the bottom of the envelope. A slip of paper was included with the bracelet. It was her handwriting:

If you’d like supper again when “white moths are on the wing,” come by tonight after you’re finished.

Her note from the Roseman Bridge. He’d kept even that for his memories.

Then she remembered that was the only thing he had of hers, his only evidence she existed, aside from elusive images on slowly decaying film emulsions. The little note frommRoseman Bridge. It was stained and curved, as if it had been carried in a billfold for a long time.

She wondered how many times he had read it over the years, far from the hills along Middle River. She could imagine him holding the note before him in the thin light of a reading lamp on a nonstop jet to somewhere, sitting on the floor of a bamboo hut in tiger country and reading it by flashlight, folding and putting it away on a rainy night in Bellingham, then looking at photographs of a woman leaning against a fence post on a summer morning or coming out of a covered bridge at sundown.

The three boxes each contained a camera with a lens attached. They were battered, scarred. Turning one around, she could read “Nikon” on the viewfinder and, just to the upper left of the Nikon label, the letter F. It was the camera she had handed him at Cedar Bridge.

Finally she opened the letter from him. It was written in longhand on his stationery and dated August 16, 1978.

Dear Francesca,

could when I hope this finds you well. I don’t know when you’ll receive it. Sometime after I’m gone. I’m sixty-five now, and it’s been thirteen years ago today that we met when I came up your lane looking for directions.

I’m gambling that this package won’t upset your life in any way. I just couldn’t bear to think of the cameras sitting in a secondhand case in a camera store or in some stranger’s hands. They’ll be in pretty rough shape by the time you get them. But, I have no one else to leave them to, and I apologize for putting you at risk by sending them to you.

I was on the road almost constantly from

1965 to 1975. Just to remove some of the temp- tation to call you or come for you, a temptation

I have virtually every waking moment of my life, l took all of the overseas assignments I

find. There have been times, many of them, I’ve said, “The hell with it. I’m going to Win- terset, Iowa, and, whatever the cost, take Fran- cesca away with me.”

But I remember your words, and I respect

your feelings. Maybe you were right; I just don’t know. I do know that driving out of your lane that hot Friday morning was the hardest thing

I’ve ever done or will ever do. In fact, I doubt

if few men have ever done anything more difficult

than that.

I left National Geographic in 1975 and have been devoting the remainder of my shooting

mostly to things of my own choosing, picking up a little work where I can get it, local or regional stuff that keeps me away only a few days at a time. It’s been tough financially, but I get along. I always do.

Much of my work is around Puget Sound.

I like it that way. It seems as men get older they turn toward the water.

Oh, yes, l have a dog now, a golden retriever.

I call him “Highway,” and he travels with me most of the time, head hanging out the window, looking for good shots.

In 1972, I fell down a cliff in Maine, in

Acadia National Park, and broke my ankle. The chain and medallion got torn off in the fall. Fortunately they landed close by. I found them again, and a jeweler mended the chain.

I live with dust on my heart. That’s about

as well as I can put it. There were women before

years you, a few, but none after. I made no conscious pledge to celibacy; I’m just not interested.

I once watched a Canada goose whose mate had been shot by hunters. They mate for life, you know. The gander circled the pond for days, and more days after that. When I last saw him, he was swimming alone through the wild rice, still looking. I suppose that analogy is a little too obvious for literary tastes, but it’s pretty much the way I feel.

In my imagination, on foggy mornings or afternoons with the sun bouncing off northwest water, I try to think of where you might be in your life and what you might be doing as I’m thinking of you. Nothing complicated— going out to your garden, sitting on your front porch swing, standing at the sink in your kitchen. Things like that.

I remember everything. How you smelled, how you tasted like the summer. The feel of your skin against mine, and the sound of your whispers

as I loved you.

Robert Penn Warrenonce used the phrase

“a world that seems to be God-abandoned.” Not bad, pretty close to how I feel some of the time. But I cannot live that way always. When those feelings become too strong, I load Harry and go down the road with Highway for a few days.

I don’t like feeling sorry for myself. That’s not who I am. And most of the time I don’t feel that way. Instead, I am grateful for having at least found you. We could have flashed by one another like two pieces of cosmic dust.

God or the universe or whatever one chooses to label the great systems of balance and order does not recognize Earth-time. To the universe, four days is no different than four billion light years. I try to keep that in mind.

But, I am, after all, a man. And all the philosophic rationalizations I can conjure up do not keep me from wanting you, every day, every moment, the merciless wail of time, of time I can never spend with you, deep within my head.

I love you, profoundly and completely. And I always will.

The last cowboy, Robert

P. S., I put another new engine in Harry last summer, and he’s doing fine.

The package arrived five years ago. And looking at the contents had become part of her annual birthday ritual. She kept his cameras, bracelet, and the chain with the medallion in a special chest in the closet. A local carpenter had made the box to her design, out of walnut, with dust seals and padded interior sections. “Pretty fancy box,” he had said. Francesca had only smiled.

The last part of the ritual was the manuscript. She always read it by candlelight, at the end of the day. She brought it from the living room and laid it carefully on the yellow Formica, near a candle, lit her one cigarette of the year, a Camel, took a sip of brandy, and began to read.

Falling from Dimension Z

ROBERT KINCAID

There are old winds I still do not understand, though I have been riding, forever it seems, along the curl of their spines. I move in Dimension Z; the world goes by somewhere else in another slice of things, parallel to me. As if, hands in my pockets and bending a little forward, I see it through a department store window, looking inward.

In Dimension Z, there are strange moments. Coming around a long, rainy, New Mexico curve west of Magdalena, the highway turns to a footpath and the path to an animal trail. A pass of my wiper blades, and the trail becomes a forest place where nothing has ever gone. Again the wiper blades and, again, something further back. Great ice, this time. I am moving through short grass, in furs, with matted hair and spear,thin and hard as the ice itself, all muscle and implacable cunning. Past the ice, still farther back along the measure of things, deep salt water in which I swim, gilled and scaled. I cannot see more than that, except beyond plankton is the digit zero.

Euclid was not always right. He assumed parallelness, in constancy, right to the end of things; but a non-Euclidean way of being is also possible, where the lines come together, far out there. A vanishing point. The illusion of convergence.

Yet I know it’s more than illusion. Sometimes a coming

together is possible, a spilling of one reality into another. A kind of soft enlacing. Not prim intersections loomed in a world of precision, no sound of the shuttle. Just… well… breathing. Yes, that’s the sound of it, maybe the feel of it, too. Breathing.

And I move slowly over this other reality, and beside it and underneath and around it, always with strength, always with power,yet always with a giving of myself to it. And the other senses this, coming forward with its own power, giving itself to me, in turn.

Somewhere, inside of the breathing, music sounds, and the curious spiral dance begins then, with a meter all its own that tempers the ice-man with spear and matted hair. And slowly— rolling and turning in adagio, in adagio always— ice-man falls… from Dimension Z… and into her.

At the end of her sixty-seventh birthday,

when the rain had stopped, Francesca put the manila envelope in the bottom drawer of the rolltop desk. She had decided to keep it in her safe deposit box at the bank after Richard died but brought it home for a few days each year at this time. The lid on the walnut chest was shut on the cameras, and the chest was placed on the closet shelf in her bedroom.

Earlier in the afternoon, she had visited Roseman Bridge. Now she walked out on the porch, dried off the swing with a towel, and sat down. It was cold, but she would stay for a few minutes, as she always did. Then she walked to the yard gate and stood. Then to the head of the lane. Twenty-two years later, she could see him stepping from his truck in the late afternoon, trying to find his way; she could see Harry bouncing toward the county road, then stopping, and Robert Kincaid standing on the running board, looking back up the lane.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: