Above my mantel hangs a print of an original work by an artist named William McNamara. I gaze at it and remember standing near the spot depicted by the delicate strokes. I recall visiting Billy in his home; the crinkle of his eyes when he smiled, his quiet spirit. I did not know him long or well. But his picture takes me back to the Boston Mountains, to the headwaters of the Buffalo River, to a summer spent struggling to make sense of rural life.
We stand on a path that would be a road, Chester White and I. Sweat pours from his brow; dirt streaks either cheek; an Ozark warrior. His jeans sit loose on his hips; his shirt bears the heavy rings of stain that only real labor can induce. Badges of honor here in the country, where work-outs involve not treadmills but tools, and calories fall into the furrows plowed each morning.
Chet and I are city folks. My knees creak as I walk from truck to tree, set the thermos and cooler on a stone, and turn to survey our morning's work. Chester has kept five or six feet ahead of me, with spade and shovel, digging smooth the ground on which I have begun to lay the river rocks. He stands in the roadway with his legs spread wide for balance, bending, digging, pitching dirt, while I trudge to and from the site where he has piled the rocks. He's hauled them from various places on this mountain: from creek beds, from the river, from the left-overs of others' endeavors.
It takes a lot of rocks to make a road.
We gingerly ease our bodies to the ground and rummage in the cooler for our lunch. I pour cold water from the thermos and Chester drinks greedily. He's done by far the bulk of the labor. All week while I pushed paper in my home office, working my two or three cases in the small town where we live, he's dug, he's hauled, he's pitched piles of stones rounded by centuries of water from the truck bed. My part pales next to his effort but my legs ache nonetheless. I've never done manual labor other than the year that I worked as a maid in our parish convent. Hot waves of pain course through my muscles but I smile at the man beside me. We envision this road as being the driveway down which we will one day walk, to the home we will build, to the porch on which we will rest in lovely hand-carved chairs.
As we eat our meal, I think about the first time that I camped on Reynolds' Mountain, about the flying snakes which Chester had convinced me threatened my long hair. I had tied my braids under a bandanna and furtively glanced at the towering branches, wondering what made their leaves shudder. I had not seen the glint of humor in Chester's eye as he walked behind me.
A year later, we've started building this road together. I feel an ache in the foot which I broke doing the Chicken Dance at the Murray Church, the day this man and I got married. The shooting pain disturbs me more than the burn in my legs. I think that maybe I need better shoes; I loosen the laces and rub my arches. We talk in lowered voices; mostly we sit in silence. Then Chester stands and gathers the wrappings from our sandwiches. He walks towards the place where we've parked the truck and for a brief second, the light of a thousand summer days surrounds him.
The glow startles me. At almost the same instant, a shot rings out and Chester freezes. I leap from the ground. I see his body fall but no: I am imagining that; the shot is far away. My heart slows; I pause. Chester shakes his head, annoyed with the hunters who've broken our calm. He continues on toward the truck, bathed again in sunlight. Just as I start to follow him, a cloud passes over the sun and a chill runs through me. I stop again and raise my face skyward, thinking that we have a lot to do before the rain.
Twenty-seven years later, here in Kansas City. I think about the road we did not finish; the house we did not built. I look around me, at the wooden surfaces of this home, at the beautiful porch which Chester created, years later, another summer, another situation, with his daughter and my son playing together in the yard. I reach no conclusions other than to realize that my coffee has grown cold and the sun has risen. It is time for chores. From another room, I hear my alarm telling me to rise but I've been awake since five. I listen to its notes and find myself smiling.