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A kid’s tour of the West, part two

(This is the second part of a series of stories that compose a larger travel memoir. It stands on it’s own. If you’d like to read the previous installment, see it here.)

Bill, a middle-aged former CEO and company owner, stood about a little over five and a half feet tall. He still had all his hair and looked younger than his 58 years. He gave us a tour of the house. It’s 30-foot atrium was the center of a sprawling 4,000-square-foot complex with outdoor spa, guest apartment, and a finished basement as big as the house upstairs. He took us into the guest apartment. The grand suite outfitted with fine furniture and the best materials spread out as large as a small house. The bathroom was luxurious in tile, carpet, and chrome. The bed felt like heaven.

After we’d set down our bags, we walked down through a open hall and into the atrium. On one side, generous couches and armchairs stood before a wall of windows the width of the house. They reached up to an apex at the roof. Outside, the meadow reached up into pine forest. The forest dissolved into bare rock at the tree line. Clouds shrouded the peaks but the day was clear. Syd and I stopped to take in the scene. I could see Bill out of the corner of my eye, smiling at us. I could tell he’d seen people struck dumb at his view before.

He was working in the open kitchen, which took up a good portion of the room. He bade us sit down at the long granite counter facing the stove and working space and have some sandwiches he’d whipped up for us.

“You must be hungry after your drive,” he said. “These will hold you over until tonight. Do you like chocolate milk, Sydney?”

Sydney nodded her head. She was usually shy on meeting people she didn’t know or hadn’t seen for a while. She sunk into her cheese sandwich with abandon, coming up for air long enough to gulp down her chocolate milk. “This is great,” she said. “Do you have a dog?”

When Bill said no, she showed a little disappointment. But the soothing jets of the hot tub soon washed away whatever regret she felt at the absence of canine companionship. The spa stood on a patio outside the atrium windows. The day was cool even on the cold side. Our breath hung in balloons that floated up toward the meadow. I could tell Sydney thought this was great, almost as good as swimming.

Bill and I had a lot to talk about. After we’d showered the hot tub and whatever was left of Yellowstone off of us, we spent the rest of the day lounging in the living room area, chatting, Sydney drawing and coloring in books Bill brought out of his office for her. We had dinner and went for a drive through the subdivision, up past the trophy houses and onto gravel road that lead farther up toward the peaks. When we reached the end of the road, we walked a trail into the forest and came to a little trout stream.

“I don’t have my dad’s fisherman’s bones,” Bill said. My grandfather spent a great deal of time with his kids and grandkids fishing slow Missouri creeks and lakes. “If I did,” he said, “I’d get myself a fly rod. I’m sure there’s got to be some trout in here.” He looked out over the lively stream. The air smelled of rosemary and pine resin. “Tomorrow, you and I are going snowshoeing up on the mountain. I’ve arranged for Syd to go fishing for kokanee salmon that are running between two manmade lakes just north of here. She’ll be with my housekeeper, Martha. She’s a solid woman and looks forward to teaching Sydney how to catch these fish.”

Syd went to bed well before Bill and me. We stayed up talking into the night. When I came into the room and slid into bed next to Syd, I felt tired and good. She shifted a little and turned toward me. She opened her sleepy eyes. “This is a great trip,” she said and fell right back to sleep.

The next morning, Sydney was excited about her fishing trip. She wanted to know why I wasn’t going and I told her that Bill and I had other things to talk about, that she would be bored with our chatter. In truth, Bill had only two pairs of snowshoes, neither small enough for Syd. He’s also wanted to spend some time alone with me. “I bet you are going to catch a big fish today,” I said. “Be sure to take a picture.”

“It’ll be a big fish,” she said. “I’ll bring it home and you can eat it.”

“I think probably that you’ll throw it back. Bill really isn’t set up for us to cook up a big fish. Besides, would you eat any if you brought it home?”

“Probably not,” she said.

“Just make sure you get a good picture of it so I can show it to your mom and Virginia.”

Bill introduced Sydney to Martha. She already had the lines rigged and in her jeep. They drove off and Bill and I jumped in his car and drove deeper and higher up in the mountains. We parked where the road disappeared into the snow. “The snow here won’t last much longer,” he said. “Another couple of weeks of this weather and it will all be gone. Good enough for us to get it today.”

Snowshoeing was new to me and it took a couple hundred yards of stumbling around for me to catch on to it. We talked as we hiked up a saddle between two peaks and through the woods. Around the middle of the day, we stopped where a big pine had fallen and cleared the snow off the log so we could sit. I broke dead twigs and branches off the sides of some of the pines around us. We built a small fire to warm ourselves. I sat down and smoked a cigar. Bill reached into his pack and pulled out sandwiches he’d made for us and pulled out a jug of coffee. We listened to the wind in the pines, talking from time to time, mostly about my job and how he was getting along in his retirement. He’d owned a media insurance company for a number of years and had gotten out when he could get a good price for the company. He said that for the first time in his life, he didn’t have to worry about money.

“It’s everything you can imagine,” he said. “They say money doesn’t solve your problems. But I can tell you it solves the problem of being poor. All those years of insecurity when I was growing up . . . well, that’s behind me. You’ve seen the house. You know about what I might have at my disposal. It’s all very good.

We talked about Virginia and me. We had been married just over a year. It was a new situation for me. I’d spent eight years as a single father. Having another hand around the house relieved me of the constant fear that I was going to do something to screw my daughter up for good. We talked about my new job working as a book editor for a publisher after years of being a journalist.

“There’s something missing,” I told him. “Working as a journalist had me out I the city with different people all the time. I did a great deal of show-leather reporting and investigation—sneaking into law firms at night, poking around court case files, and that sort of thing. The new job is comfortable. I can tell it would lead to a good career. It’s a good income and sort of a sinecure. But it doesn’t do the same thing for me that being on the street did. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to make it.”

“Be patient and play the game,” he said. “You might find you like it. The income. That’s the most important thing. Knowing that that’s there is a great deal off a guy’s mind.”

“Plus, Bill, I’m scared shitless that I’m going to screw Syd’s life up. I’ve lived with that fear for eight years now. I regret most when I get made at her and raise my voice. I’m always on the verge or uncertainty. Things are better monetarily now, but I’m always waiting for the bomb to blow up and take it all away.”

“Listen,” he said. “You’re never going to live up to your own expectations. So, you’ve got to do one of two things: Accept that fact or lower your expectations. The whole time I owned my company, I was under extraordinary stress. I expected either the company was going to go broke or that I was screwing up my kids’ lives by trying to make it work. After a while, I decided to take it easy on myself. After all, I was doing my best. Are you doing your best?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think it’s enough.”

“Get used to it,” he said. “You will never think it’s enough. Syd’s a good kid. Her mother loves her. Virginia loves her. She has a pretty good life. Considering where you’ve come from, you’re doing very well.”

It felt good to have a little affirmation. I never sought it out, but when it came, it went a long way. We finished eating and drinking our coffee. I felt a new sense of confidence.

We buried the fire in snow and hiked farther up toward the tree line where the snow became powder and much more difficult to tread. After about an hour, we turned around and returned to the car.

When we arrived home, Syd and Martha had been sitting in the family room in the basement watching cartoons on Bill’s expansive television. They had played a couple rounds of on Bill’s authentic wooden shuffleboard, the kind I remember from being in bars with my dad when I was a kid. They both looked very happy, sipping sugary drinks and eating popcorn.

“Dad,” she said as I walked into the room. “You should’ve seen my fish. It was this big.” She spread her arms.

“I showed her how to cast the hook,” Martha said. “You don’t catch kokanee with bait, you have to snag them. She gave it a couple of tries and caught her first fish. It weighed about four pounds. Look here, I already had the pictures developed.”

In the photo, Syd stood on a gravel bank in a thermal jacket far too large for her. She held the fish in both hands, leaning back a little. She was laughing, he eyes at a squint and her mile big and open smile.

“We put the fish back in the water,” Syd said. “It was a good fish. It wouldn’t stop wiggling. I thought about what you said about eating the fish. I couldn’t eat the fish. It needed to live some more.”

After Martha left, Bill, Syd, and I watched more television and ate pizza delivered from the town. Sydney fell asleep and I took her up to bed. I was exhausted after our long hike and went back out to tell Bill it was time for me to hit the bed too. I pulled the blanket up over me and listened to Syd sleeping for a long time. Staring up at the ceiling, I thought, yes, Bill was right. Having some security was much better than living without. For years, Syd and I had lived on the edge, sometimes not knowing where the next meal was coming from. With Virginia now and with a better position for me, we had plenty. An expansive feeling took hold in me. Nothing, I thought as I was falling asleep, could stop us now.

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