He stepped in the shower and began to run the soap down his chest, over his heart that didn't have one goddamn bit of sense and was still beating too fast. Four or five days to live, like hell. What was he supposed to die of, not being able to keep down some cold cereal? Another fucked-up fever dream, thoughts swimming around in his head at night and bumping into each other like blind fish.
He and Jack had caught one single fish in all their years of saying they were taking off to go fishing, a sorry-looking half-starved trout that seemed to let a sigh of relief through its gills when it stopped flailing on the end of the line and died. "Damn ugly fish," Jack said, prying open its mouth and pulling out the hook. "Reckon we put it out of its misery." Ugly or not, though, it tasted good cooked over the fire and settled in Ennis's stomach like it was finally at rest.
He was ill at ease. It had been his idea to get some use out of the poles, hearing You didn't go up there to fish! as they cast their lines and sat and waited. It ain't true, it ain't true, see, Alma, it ain't true, damn you.
"Lureen ever wonder about you not bringing home any fish?" he asked Jack.
"Hell no, I just tell her that we ate 'em all, or that I gave 'em to you because I didn't wanna bother to keep 'em packed in ice all the way back to Texas." Jack ate the last bite of his half of the fish and set the plate aside on the ground. "T'tell you the truth, I don't think she's even half listening to me when I tell her, she's – " he raised both his shoulders and his eyes " – on the phone, or adding somethin' up, or sitting on the couch paintin' her fingernails."
Ennis made himself swallow what was left in his mouth, lit a cigarette and stared off down the mountain.
Jack Nasty – like Alma could talk, how'd she manage to get married again so damn fast after the divorce? For all he knew there'd been some kind of nasty going on in Monroe's office after work…it was no good, he knew damn well that she'd been faithful to him the whole time, too worried about supporting any more children to risk it, even if she'd wanted to.
Hell, there hadn't been much for her to complain about, he'd worked more or less steady all the years they'd been married and always been good to the girls, never hit them when he drank too much or even hollered at them. So every once in a while he'd took off to the mountains for a few days to be with Jack. Wasn't like he had some other woman in Riverton where everyone could see him going in and out of her place and talk about it over some beers.
"Ennis?" Jack had moved over to sit beside him, blue eyes searching Ennis's face. "Hey, you all right?"
"Fine," he grunted.
"Look like you – "
"I said I'm fine, Jack, now will you fuckin' let me be?" He went off into the tent because he knew Jack would follow him, knew it would be a couple of minutes or less before Jack would come in and rest Ennis's head on his chest, stroke his hair, whisper to him, and storming off and away was the only way he knew how to get it. Sex he could get easy – barely had to look at Jack that way before the two of them were shoving down their jeans and kissing like they were trying to eat each other – but this he couldn't ask for, had to wait until Jack came to give it to him, in tents and under trees and once in the room of a cheap motel when they'd been apart from each other for the last four years. The only way he could ask was to leave.
It smelled like damp inside the tent, and like the sex they'd had last night.
Jack opened the flap a minute later, took off his hat and kicked off his boots and lay down next to Ennis. "You know I can't let you be, friend."
Ennis held his breath, and a second later he felt his head being gently lifted and set down on top of Jack's heartbeat. He felt the thick fingers running through his hair. "Alma knows 'bout us."
He could feel Jack tense beneath him. "You sure?"
"Started yellin' at each other last Thanksgiving – she put some note on my fishin' pole once, t'see if it was still there later. 'Course it was. Called you Jack Nasty."
"Shit." The finger stopped running and he felt the palm rest above his ear. "Shit, Ennis, she gonna tell the judge?"
"They can stop you seein' your girls if they know 'bout us – maybe they can make me have to move away from Bobby, too, I don't know. If Alma goes into court and tells the judge, they can say you ain't fit to parent your girls and make sure you stay away from 'em."
Ennis sat up. "How do you know?"
"I – I heard it somewhere, I don't remember where." He was looking at Ennis like he was looking straight into his eyes, telling the whole truth, but it was the forehead he was looking at, Ennis could tell. He didn't want to think about why that was, and didn't care, until later on that night when he couldn't sleep. He could see his girls away from him, getting bigger and grown-up without him, Monroe hovering around like he was their real daddy.
"Jesus, Jack, they're my girls. I don't know what the hell I'd do without 'em. What'll I have left if some judge takes 'em away?"
It was the wrong question to ask, and the answer was lying in front of him, but he couldn't take it back, like he couldn't ask for Jack to hold him.
"Look, bud, forget I said it. Alma ain't gonna take your girls away. If she was gonna do it, she'd a done it by now. Besides, you could just tell the judge that she was lyin' and makin' up stories because she hates your guts. How'd he be able to say that she was the one tellin' the truth? Only people who can say she's right are you and me."
He sat up and pulled Ennis to him, lay the two of them back down, stayed still until Ennis was falling asleep.
"Hey, Ennis?" he could hear Jack say as sleep began to cloud what was real.
"She won't do it, but if she does, and if you can't get 'em back no matter how hard you try, say you'll come away with me somewhere."
"Hell, fine, 'll come 'way with you s'mewhere," he muttered, and fell asleep with his head still on Jack's heartbeat.
Of course, Alma never did try to take his girls away, and all these years later he knew that had been his blessing and his curse. Mostly he knew that if she had, he'd have kept seeing Jack in the middle of nowhere a couple of times a year, but every once in a while something tugged at his mind and he wondered if it would have been the final push into the life he wanted and had never, ever, let himself have, for fear that the tire iron would descend upon him and knock him into a world sure to punish him for his sins.