‘Where is he?’ I asked the guy standing in front of me. He took me through a doorway and before me spread a small, bare amphitheater. In the evening grey, shadowy figures were arranged on the cement benches that spread in a semi-circle before me. They all sat, completely idle, hands in their laps, eyes staring into the dusky darkness in front of them. ‘Kevin?’ I asked, hesitantly, into the mist. He stood up, and looked at me. ‘He can’t leave’, said the guide. Kevin came up, and put his arms around me. He was insubstantial, almost nothing but smoke. But I could feel his arms encircle me. I could feel my cheek on his chest. ‘Why is this?’ I asked the guide, infuriated. ‘He can’t have to stay here. It’s not fair.’ I turned back to Kevin, my heart full of sadness and pain and misery. I’ll get you out of here, I promised him silently. All the other dead, all the other ghosts, arranged on their cement benches, gave hardly a glance in our direction as we separated and Kevin returned to a spot on the bench, hands on his lap, eyes staring forward.
Almost fifteen years before, on an April day near Easter, the church was almost full by the time we got there. I had driven for 12 hours for the funeral, dropping off my one-year-old son at my mother’s house on the Oregon Coast, picking up my best friend Liz, and driving across the top of Oregon, across eastern Washington, traversing Idaho at almost its narrowest point, and finally landing in western Montana, which I had called home less than a year ago. Had it only been one year? Everything felt different. For starters, at the front was Kevin’s picture, instead of Kevin in real life. Overwhelmed, confused, I sat down for the service, and tried to remember the Kevin who had been my friend for two years, but my best friend and best support that last year in Montana when, young and occasionally frightened, I had been pregnant and totally alone.
How did we even meet? I couldn’t remember, except that we both took classes at the very small tribal college, and one knew pretty much everyone else there. Still, something must have been the precipitating factor that led us to start talking and hanging out. It must have been my friend Rayna; cheerful, outgoing, and gregarious, I bet she met him in a class and introduced us. However it happened, we began hanging out more in earnest. With Kevin – although completely different from myself, in almost every way – I could be myself. We joked with each other, talked with each other; he heard much of my relationship woes as I dated one guy or another, then finally ended up with the ultimate gift – a baby.
Even before the pregnancy, Kevin would stop by frequently, with a six-pack or case of beer and a can of chew, and we would sit – me smoking, him chewing and spitting – while we talked about whatever. We talked about Montana, Oregon, gays, politics, gun laws, abortion. I’d rage at him for leaving cans of chew-spit in my house, he’d bitch about my smoking. I was still not 21, and so he’d often – being a few years older – head to the bars or head out with friends to go driving the back roads. He’d tell me about the trail he and his brother – who was as often as not with him in everything – were scratching out up in the mountains behind their house. They wanted their very own spot in the woods, which were tribally owned; some secret place that only they knew about, only they could get to. We’d go out to his family’s cabin on the lake, play cards and drink beer. He’d complain when it was a bad fire year, that kept him from the easy money of fighting fires in the summer. He wore his Forest Service green Nomex firefighting pants year round. “They wear well”, he told me with utmost seriousness once, when I asked him why on earth he was wearing something that felt like cardboard reinforced with aluminum foil.
After the service, we all trucked over to a building further out, out in the fields, out near the woods. I had met his parents only briefly, in passing once at their house – Kevin had still lived with them when he fell into the lake that night just over a week ago and never came back up. I was frightened now, to face them, to see them. What would they think of me?
His mother turned to me, all sweetness and sadness, “I’m so glad he loved before he died.” And she held my face in her hands, and smiled at me, as I cried. “I really mean that,” she said.
Rayna pulled me aside. My last year there, we had stopped hanging out as much as we once did. She had a child of her own, a year older than mine, and had become thoroughly absorbed in being a pot-smoking wife and mother.
“Why didn’t you love him?” she started. I had thought we were going to exchange condolences, but she was full of grief and anger. “He would have made a great father for your baby! He loved you! Why didn’t you just love him back?”
I was sobbing anew now, full of grief of my own and pain and guilt. When had it occurred to me, what she said? When had I realized that he loved me? Sometime after I had moved away, sometime after I had returned to Oregon. Certainly not when he told me, which was surely one of the bravest things he’d ever done. My son had just been born, at a hospital an hour and a half north of where we both lived, and Kevin was on his way to Alaska to work for the summer. I had been completely enraged by this – that he would plan to leave, just days before my due date! After being my companion the past long nine months! But the baby came a few days early, and had just been born when he was leaving. On his way to Alaska, while driving the route north, he and his brother stopped by the hospital room.
I was standing in a cabin, a national historic landmark, and it needed a caretaker and it didn’t matter if the caretaker was a ghost or not. And Kevin was standing there, smiling. He could show people around, keep watch over something…and he was becoming more substantial as I looked at him. He realized that he needed to start a fire in the small wood stove, for even if he wasn’t cold, I was – cold in the Montana winter.
There I was, with Liz and Rayna, my mom and stepfather all around me, dazed from delivering the baby just a few hours earlier. Quiet, early spring snow was falling in April. He came in and we talked a bit, with everyone arrayed around us. But he had to go, get on the road to Alaska. He was sitting on the other bed in the room, when he stood up, and said, while on his way out the door, “Well, I love you.”
Just like that. Just like that, it didn’t register. Didn’t ever occur to me that he’d never said that before. That we didn’t have the kind of friendship where we told each other how we felt. In fact, we talked about everything but that – even though we spent so much time together. I had lots of girl friends who would say that, lots of Oregon sensitive-boy friends who could say that. Why did it not occur to me how incongruent it was to hear that coming from Kevin, tough, solid, gruff, dismissive, Montana boy that he was, through and through? I looked up at him, the baby in my arms, and smiled wearily. I was moving back to Oregon in six weeks. When he came back from Alaska, I’d be gone.
We hadn’t always been so close. We’d mostly just been buddies, hanging out, drinking, talking with a group of friends. It was that last year, when I was pregnant, that we really got close. My two other closest friends had issues of their own. My cowgirl roommate was drinking most of the time, while my other dearest friend was off in detox in another state. Many surficial friends had no interest, suddenly, in hanging out with a pregnant girl who was, most definitely, going to remain single for the foreseeable future.
Enter Kevin. We started spending a lot more time together over that winter. We were both taking classes, and I was still working at McDonalds, encompassing my ever-growing belly in a shapeless manager’s smock that I donned tearfully one day, feeling like a complete cow. I was only 21, and some days it felt like my life was over. My body was ruined, I was working at McDonalds, had no college degree, no boyfriend, no family nearby.
No matter how bad I felt, no matter how much I whined, Kevin didn’t care. He came over and kept me company. We played cribbage, we played – when there were others around – pinochle. There wasn’t a lot to do in the evenings in this remote Montana town of 3,000 people. We started going to the small local movie theater once a week, no matter what was playing. There was only one screen, and mid-week, when we went, only one show time – and as often as not, we were the only two people in the theater. He even badgered me into going to the bars with him a couple of times, though I couldn’t drink. And there are few places more depressing to be sober than a small-town Montana bar in the middle of winter.
“Honey, is he your boyfriend?” one frightening, half-toothless woman who looked to be in her 50s, drunkenly asked me one evening, as we sat at the bar of the Wild Horse.
“Nope,” I said, grinning at Kevin.
“Do you mind if I kiss him?” she slurred eagerly.
“Nope,” I said, laughing into my 7-up. That’s what you get for dragging a poor pregnant lady to the bar! I thought.
Once Kevin was able to semi-politely disengage, he glared at me. “Fuck you”, he said disgustedly, turning back to his beer, while I continued laughing.
Just two weeks before my due date, when the snow had melted in the late-March sun but the air still felt like winter, Kevin and his best buddy and Kevin’s cousin all showed up at my door. “We’re going camping down by the river,” Kevin said. “You’ve got to come along.”
“Are you fucking nuts?” I exclaimed. “Look at me. I’m like a fucking cow. I could go into labor at any moment.”
Kevin shrugged. “So what?” he said. “If you go into labor, I’ll take you to the hospital. It’s no big deal.”
“Kevin,” I said, incredulous, “you can’t be serious. I’m 38 weeks pregnant. How can I go camping? I’m serious, I could go into labor any minute, like AT ANY MINUTE – do you understand?”
Kevin looked at me, completely nonplussed by my argument. “Real Montana women go camping when they’re pregnant”, he said, and turned slightly away, as if he had no use for me if that wasn’t the case, or if I wasn’t a real Montana woman.
And yes, calling chicken on me worked like a charm. Furious at the insinuation that a girl from Oregon would be one modicum less hardy or woodsy than some Montanan, I threw my camp shit in a bag and climbed into his cousin’s car, extracting many promises on the way that someone would be sober enough to get my huge ass back to the hospital, should I happen to go into labor.
In his cousin's old, rusty, holey Subaru, we bounced across fallow fields, Kevin and his friend leading the way in Kevin’s truck. I kept one hand on my belly as we vaulted up so hard that my entire body rose up and I cracked my head on the roof of the car. His cousin cranked the wheel left and right, trying to navigate the clearest path through the riverside ruts yet still keep up with Kevin, who was stomping along speedily in his high-clearance truck.
That night down among the pines near the river, sitting up under the stars while his cousin played guitar and sang, while we cooked hamburgers over the fire, was the last really good night Kevin and I had together. And I didn’t even go into labor. I woke up warm, rested, and refreshed from the crisp cold fresh air. Kevin had been right all along. Real women do go camping at 38 weeks along.
A few months earlier, he had given me a mixed tape. We had completely different tastes in music, but we had realized, at some point, that we both liked Simon & Garfunkel, and this must have given him the inspiration to put together the mix, which must have taken him forever. He knew how much I loved music, how important it was to me, even if he found my selections repugnant compared to the classic rock and country he liked; with the mix tape he was, I think, trying to speak my language. Smack dab in the middle he had stuck in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ by Madonna. Listening to it the first time through in my quiet little house in our little downtown, I laughed out loud at the tape player. That shithead! Madonna pranced around me and my swollen belly, gaily singing: “Papa don’t preach/ I’m in trouble deep/ Papa, don’t preach/ I’ve been losing sleep/ but I made up my mind, I’m/ keeping my baby”. I knew, without a doubt, that he did that to rile me up, and it made me happy, in that way that only a good friend really trying to get your goat does. Buried in the tape was a song of no particular significance at the time – James Taylor’s Fire and Rain.
Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
At the memorial service, his parents didn’t know the half of it, as I cried in his mother’s arms. How the last letter I had received from him – after he came to Oregon to visit me as soon as he was done in Alaska – said he didn’t want to be friends with me anymore. How my response to him still languished, unsent, in an envelope in my house. How all my chances to repair what had happened – how they were all gone. What was left, after all this? A few letters, the gifts he had sent me for my baby while he was in Alaska, the memory of his weekly phone calls to check up on me when I was in an apartment in a new town in Oregon, alone and with a crying baby. Dreams. Only dreams left.
He sat on the wooden bench in the cabin, and I sat on his lap, resting my head on his shirt – it was flannel – and I could feel happiness in my heart, and tears in my eyes. I circled my arms around his neck, and I could feel his smoky arms becoming more solid, the longer I sat there, the longer his father stood there. We had saved him, I had saved him, I had found a place in this world for him, he would never again fade away, he would never be forgotten, and I could visit him whenever I wanted to, I could talk to him all day and all night and for the rest of my life, if I wanted to…