Ex-lovers reunite out West, he a cop, she a scholar. Have they changed? Will it last?
“Both Sides of the Canyon”
A short story
She picked up the phone. “Katherine Fletcher.”
“Hi Kate.” The voice was distinctive.
“Yep,” he said, “How’ve you been?”
“Good. Good. God, I guess it’s been-“
“Two years,” he finished.
“Yeah, two years,” she repeated.
An uncomfortable pause. “So, what’s up?” she asked, breaking the lull.
“Well,” he said, “I’m in Flagstaff, actually.”
“For a funeral. My grandma passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Pete. About your grandmother, I mean.”
“I know. It’s okay. She lived a full life. Besides, she had cancer for years. It’s probably for the best.”
“I’m sure,” said Katherine, not knowing what to add.
“So,” she stammered, “how on earth did you find my number?”
“It was easy. I figured you still had your assistantship, so I called up Arizona State’s main directory. They connected me to your extension when I gave them your name.”
“That was smart,” she said. She hesitated. “It’s- it’s good to hear from you, Pete. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “it really has.”
She twiddled the cord between her fingers. What to say next?
“So, anyway, since I’m out here,” he said, letting her off the hook, “I figured I’d look you up, see if you wanted to get together, maybe catch up on things.”
“Yeah. Sure,” she said, hesitating, “sounds good.”
“Great. I’m here for four days. I’m staying at my aunt’s til I leave.”
“Yeah, in Flagstaff. So maybe I can swing on down after the funeral and meet up with you for dinner or something?”
“All right, that would work. Or if you’d prefer, I can drive up there, and we could go visit the Grand Canyon, if that would interest you. It’s close enough. I was planning on hiking there this weekend, anyway.”
Besides, she thought, it’d be more comfortable than dinner. There’d be something to do other than talk. But she needn’t tell him that, of course.
“Hmm, yeah, the Grand Canyon,” he said, “That’d be nice.”
“Great then,” she said. She wondered if it was, remembering their last encounter. They made plans to meet and finished their call.
Two days later, Katherine arrived at the home of Pete’s aunt. She parked her white sedan by the curb and walked up to the door. Pete greeted her enthusiastically. Wrapping her in a great bear hug, he lifted her from her feet. Typical Pete, thought Katherine. Smiling reservedly, she smoothed her blouse when she landed.
“Come in, come in,” he said.
They sat at the kitchen table. From the backyard came the splash of a swimming pool. Children giggled and screamed. “Cannonball!” they yelled, and “Can opener!”
Katherine smiled. “Your cousins?”
“Yeah,” he said, gazing out the window.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said quickly, “You want something to drink?” He rose from his chair before she could answer.
She smiled, and agreed to have water. He poured her a glass.
“What about you?” she asked, taking a sip.
“Not thirsty,” he said.
“Oh.” She avoided his gaze, glancing around the kitchen. “Your aunt has a nice place, Pete.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Has she lived here long?”
“As long as I can remember.”
"Hmm." She took another sip, and heard a splash from the pool.
“The swimming pool is new, though. They’ve only had it for two years. My aunt says that snakes like to nest around it in winter.”
“Yeah, this one time, when she took off the cover, a snake went right up her pants leg. She said she jumped about a mile high.”
“That’s horrible! Was she okay?”
“Yeah, luckily it didn’t bite her or anything. It crawled right out. She refused to go near that pool for another six months, though.”
“I can imagine.”
“She says this place is surrounded by snakes. She can’t get away from them. But they only bother her, that’s the thing. This other time, on Christmas morning, she and the kids were opening their stockings. Well, when my aunt opened hers, she already knew what was in it –- she’d stuffed it herself the night before. Somehow, though, a snake had found its way inside overnight. It stuck out its head, hissing, and my aunt sprinted out of the house screaming, still in her pink bathrobe and curlers. She ran all the way down the block. It took an hour before she’d come back in.”
Pete smiled. “Yeah, but the worst part is, my cousin was the one who put the snake in, just to scare her. He found it hilarious. The snake was harmless, just your common garden variety.” He chuckled. “Needless to say, when my aunt found out about this, my cousin was grounded for weeks. He couldn’t go anywhere. She even refused to feed him for a month. He lost twenty pounds.”
“Oh my God! You’re kidding?”
“Well, yeah, about the last part I am.” He smirked.
She couldn’t help but laugh. It was classic Pete. He’d set you up with a long elaborate story, only to pull the rug out from under you at the end with the punch line. It was sophomoric, it was juvenile, but it was endearingly charming. It was endearingly Pete.
He told more stories, more jokes. Katherine found herself growing increasingly comfortable in his presence. She laughed easier. Soon she was in stitches.
“Oh, that’s hilarious,” she said at the end of a story, wiping tears from her cheek.
“Yeah,” he shrugged, “but like I said, what can you expect from a man in an armadillo costume?”
She laughed again.
They sighed in unison.
“So, you want to get going soon?” he asked.
“What? Oh, the Grand Canyon. Yeah, sure.”
They stood up, and walked out of the house.
Katherine entered her car, unlocking the passenger door from within. Pete lowered himself in beside her.
“Know the way?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said, turning the key in the ignition.
They drove out of town, and onto the highway.
“Nice scenery, huh?” she asked, passing a mesa.
“Yeah, um, nice.”
She turned, trying to read his expression. She couldn’t, and looked back at the road.
“So, how’s the police academy going?” she said.
“I graduated. A while ago.”
“Yeah, I’ve been officially keeping scum off the streets of Philadelphia for over a year now.”
“Really? Well, that’s… good. Do you enjoy it?”
“It’s okay,” he said abruptly.
He glanced out the window.
Oh well. So much for that conversation, Katherine thought.
A long moment passed.
“So much brown,” Pete said.
“So much brown,” he repeated.
Katherine nodded. “Well, yes,” she said, “there is a lot of brown here.”
“So different from back home.” It was more a judgment than an observation.
“Yes, Pete. It is different.” She felt she should add something, but didn’t know what.
“So, how’s school?” he asked, turning to her.
“Fine. It’s going well. With any luck, I should have my doctorate by the end of next year. I’m almost finished with my dissertation.”
“That’s great,” he said, “You must be excited.”
She glanced at him. He seemed genuine. “Well, yeah, actually I am,” she said, turning her attention back to the road, “It’s been a lot of work.”
“I can imagine,” he said, “It must’ve been difficult at times.”
She turned to him again. Was this empathy she was hearing? Was this really Pete?
“Well, yes, it has been,” she said, sighing. “At times, it seems like my whole life has revolved around this dissertation. I feel like I’ve been putting the rest of the world on hold while working on it.”
“Yeah, but look at the progress you’ve made,” he said, “If you didn’t do it this way, you’d never be as close to finishing as you are.”
She nodded. “True.”
Katherine squinted in thought. This was odd: she found herself agreeing with him. And not only that: he was supporting her. Who was this man? What had he done with Pete?
“Something on your mind, Kate?” he asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, eyes wide, feigning innocence.
“That’s odd. Usually when you squint like that, it means you’re thinking about something.”
“What?” How did he still know her this well? It made her defensive. “No, I wasn’t thinking. Really. It’s just the sun. I should’ve bought sunglasses, is all.”
“You mean you don’t have any? In Arizona?”
“I used to. I sat on them a few days ago by accident.” This much was true.
Pete nodded and gazed out the window.
They drove on, passing the first sign that mentioned the Canyon.
“So, what did you say you were doing your dissertation about again?” asked Pete.
Katherine smiled. “I’ve been doing field research on the adaptation patterns of cacti to varied environmental stimuli. At this point, I’ve collected all the data. It’s just a matter of drawing up the conclusions and putting them in a somewhat literate comprehensible form.”
“Um,” said Pete. He swallowed and turned back to the window.
Silence permeated the car, making them uncomfortable. Pete decided to take care of it.
“Hey,” he said, upbeat, “You remember Allie and Jordan, right?”
“Well, let me tell you what happened to them...”
Pete spun anecdote after anecdote about mutual acquaintances of theirs from back east. She laughed the whole time. Kate began to realize just how much she missed Pete’s simple and unique way of looking at things. He was so… direct. There was no bullshit with Pete. It was a trait she had never truly appreciated until now.
Another thirty minutes of laughing and stories passed. Kate steered her car into a parking lot, and stopped at the first tourist point along the South Rim of the Canyon. She turned off the ignition. “Mind if we stretch?” she asked.
“Not at all.”
They walked into the visitor information building. There they disappeared into their respective restrooms, reemerging outside with maps in their hands. Together, they walked along an uphill trail, Kate a step ahead of Pete. It was early in the tourist season; there were few others around.
“So,” Pete asked, looking down at his feet, “You seeing anybody?”
Kate’s pace slowed. She turned around. “Huh?”
“You know, dating. Are you seeing anyone?”
“No,” she said. She faced forward again, resuming her normal pace.
From the corner of her eye, she could see him nod. Pete sighed softly and continued to hike.
“How about you?” asked Kate, over her shoulder.
“I said,” she said, glancing around sideways, “How about you? Are you seeing anyone?” She faced forward again before he could answer.
She nodded, trying to keep her smile from him.
Together, they arrived at the top of the hill. The view was breathtaking, what they’d come to see.
“Wow,” said Kate, “I’ve been here at least ten times, and it still blows me away. It’s still as beautiful as ever.” She sighed dreamily. “Isn’t it spectacular?”
She turned to him.
Pete swallowed. “Yeah. It’s real nice,” he said. He opened his eyes wide, pretending to be impressed.
She recognized his mannerisms as well he hers. I knew it, she thought: nothing’s changed at all. She drooped her shoulders.
“What?” he said.
“You don’t like it, do you?” she asked.
“Of course I do.”
She frowned at him.
“No, really,” he said, “I mean, it’s cool and all that the wind and water could carve out something like this. And…” He hesitated.
He stayed silent.
“And?” she repeated.
“Never mind,” he said, glancing at his feet.
“No, what is it? Tell me.”
Their eyes met, displaying disappointment.
“Well,” he said, “If you want me to be honest…”
“Of course I do.” She crossed her arms.
“It’s just that, well, it’s still only a bunch of big rocks, that’s all.” He added quickly, “To me, anyway.”
Katherine shook her head – half in amusement, half in disgust. In a rising whisper, she asked him, as much as herself, “Pete, here we are gazing upon one of the seven natural wonders of the world, a miracle of nature, really, and all you can say is that it’s only a bunch of big rocks?”
He squirmed, and cleared his throat. “Well, you know I’m from the city,” he said, “I’ve never really been an outdoorsy sort of person.”
Pete contemplated a way to save face, and came up with one. He pointed to a rock formation to the northwest.
“Hey, that looks kind of cool,” he said.
“Oh yeah? You think so?” she answered, more resigned than hopeful.
“Yeah. It reminds me of-” He hesitated. “It reminds me of the block of row homes I grew up on.”
Katherine frowned, and sighed again. “Yeah, like a block of row homes,” she said.
They stood there, silent, each with their hands in their pockets. His pants were denim, hers khaki.
Pete knew he had disappointed her. He wanted to compensate.
“Say, maybe there’ll be a better view somewhere down the road,” he suggested, “Maybe if we drive a little further, we’ll get to see something nicer.”
“Sure,” she replied, “Whatever.”
They walked back to her car. When they arrived there, she flipped him the keys. “You drive,” she said, apathetically.
Pete nodded, and put the car into gear.
“Where to?” he asked, driving out of the lot.
“Wherever you want,” she answered.
Without a word, they drove on for twenty minutes, passing three tourist points along the way. When they arrived at the fourth one, Pete broke the silence. “How ‘bout this one?” he asked.
“Sure,” she replied.
They parked. After exiting the car, they walked, silently, along a path that bordered the canyon. They did so for some time. They could see no one else.
Eventually, they arrived at the edge of a cliff, encountering a waist-level fence. It was all that separated them from the valley below. They leaned over, fists clenched upon metal, and gawked: a full three hundred-sixty degree panorama of the Canyon.
“Wow,” said Kate. “Wow,” she repeated. It was all she could muster.
This was art –- there was no other way to describe it. Picture perfect, portrait perfect, this deep blue serpent, the Colorado, piercing through a backdrop of crimson and gold, was captured in time, frozen forever –- even the river’s surging current seemed caught in the moment, framed within this eternal landscape.
Awed by this spectacle, Kate’s heart thawed. She gazed at Pete with wonder. “What’s that?” she thought, “A tear?”
It was. Pete had tears in his eyes!
She remembered then, remembered how much she once loved him. But it was more than remembering –- this was something new. She felt a love for him now, a love that far surpassed what she had ever felt for him, or anyone, before. At last, she had reached him, she had touched him. Pete had finally allowed her to peek into the very core of his being. It made her want to cry.
Kate gushed. Her smile widened, displaying her laugh lines, her first sign of aging. And maybe of wisdom, she thought.
He looked on, oblivious to her. It didn’t matter to Kate, though: she could see in his heart now. She understood.
Was it really important, she thought, that he didn’t appreciate nature quite the way that she did? Did it really matter that he preferred watching Monday Night Football to reading a scholarly journal? So what if he had no fancy letters after his name, no designation of advanced learning. He was Pete. It was all that mattered. It was all she’d need.
At last, he turned to her, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
“The wind,” he said, blushing.
“Uh huh,” she said coquettishly, knowing better, still grinning.
He returned her smile. “What?” he asked.
Kate sighed sweetly. “Well,” she said, gesturing to the beauty before them, “What do you think of this now?” She felt the urge to kiss him.
Pete hesitated, swallowing hard. Sliding his foot along the sandy ground, he answered, “What do I think? Hmm. Well, big rocks… from a different angle.”
She gazed at him blankly
They doubled over with laughter.