By Carla G. Harper
A ribbon of black asphalt stretches across the Navajo Reservation and dead ends in a big lake created when engineers flooded a canyon so humans could live better in the desert. John and Cindy drove in late August, fishing boat in tow, with the windows down, toward the big lake.
Cindy had moved in with John in February of that year to “save money.” He gave her an old class ring, while sitting around a campfire in April. He made an effort to sentimentalize the fact that it was not a real engagement ring with a bullshit story about how he’d found the ring on some train track in 1979. “I kept it all this time, knowing it was for the girl I’d marry.”
The oversized, tarnished ring sat on a bedside table throughout the spring and summer with no impact at all what so ever on John. Thanks to Cindy’s travel schedule with her job, John continued to enjoy his life of fishing, hunting, and driving around in a state-owned truck. As a bonus, he joined every other man with a badge in Southwestern Colorado for several weeks that summer in a manhunt for some crazy kids that shot and killed a cop.
An hour remained in the drive toward the big lake when Cindy broke the wordless journey. “I’d like to get married in North Carolina,” she said. “There’s a little island with no cars and the largest patch of maritime forest remaining on the East Coast.”
John pretended like he didn’t hear her over the wind. “What do you think,” Cindy prodded.
He spit an old wad of “dip” out the window and gauged out an extra large helping from the burgundy and black Copenhagen can sitting on the custom-carpeted dashboard cover in his 1987 F150. After situating it between his lower lip and gums, he said, “I have a better idea.”
The wind could not drown out the long silence. Cindy sat sideways in the seat staring at him until he continued. “Well, I’ve always wanted to get married up there at the Guard Station, you know by Rico. I want to be buried up there too, you know.”
“There ain’t nothing up there but that old shack and I doubt it even has running water. Will the Forest Service even let you use it?” Cindy said turning back to face the road. “Besides, my family is not going to fly 3,000 miles and then drive another nine hours to get to the top of a mountain without even a damn commode.”
John reached for his empty Mountain Dew. “I thought we could save money on the wedding and do something really special I have in mind for the honeymoon.”
John did love a lot about Cindy. The cooking was good, she could bait a hook, shoot turkey, grouse, and pheasant, made more money than him, but he drew a line on church weddings in North Carolina. Nothing was worth that.
In less than fifty miles, John convinced Cindy to not only get married at a rundown old Forest Service shack in the woods, but also to take whatever money her family gave for the nuptials and pay for a honeymoon fishing at the Arctic Circle.
John eventually presented Cindy with a small diamond on bended knee that fall. The cubic zirconia shone bright on her hand while John planned for his dream honeymoon.
The ring and a wedding date relieved her distant Southern family, who said, “Thank the Lord. You know she comes from a long line of Old Maids.”
John became legend in hunting camp. “And she’s gonna go fishing for the honeymoon and her daddy’s paying for it? Shit. Man,” they all said.
Cindy’s friends withheld comment.
On June 2 the following year, the snow pack stood at two feet near the wedding shack. John had trouble getting his state truck up to the site. Cindy behaved like a mother bear days before the first snow. The wedding was less than two weeks away. A horde of family and friends from North Carolina had taken the dare and agreed to come watch Cindy marry some guy they’d never met up on top of a mountain.
“Who in the hell would miss this circus,” Cindy’s brother said.
Aunt Joan insisted on bringing live Magnolias to decorate. Cindy’s mother had worked out something borrowed and something blue. Her loyal friends from a big city back East flew out four days before the wedding wearing linen and nicely manicured nails. They gazed upon Cindy wearing 501 Levi’s and logger’s boots and cast each other wary glances.
“Where do you shop,” they asked on the drive through miles and miles of wilderness.
She swept them away to a hunting cabin near the wedding site and they ensured she stayed just drunk enough to keep laughing for the next two days.
Among themselves they worried about Cindy. Her wedding dress fit her like a sack. She’d ordered it but never tried it on till they got there. Cindy no longer talked to them about philosophy and politics, but regaled them with adventures of shooting game birds and canoeing white water.
“Didn’t she come out here to get a master’s degree of some sort,” they all said.
“But will she be happy with this guy, way out here in the wilderness with no people, no where to shop,” they wondered.
A light rain-snow mix fell the morning of the wedding. The winter pack had melted – miraculously. Cindy’s mother said, “We can’t get married outside in this weather. You’ll freeze in that hideous dress. We’ll all freeze. Lord, why did you ever agree to this. What were you thinking? How will Granny get up there in her wheel chair…”
Cindy attempted to hot roll her hair, but the moisture made it limp. Her father tried to console her as they drove alone the few miles up to the wedding shack about an hour before the wedding. “John and the groomsmen have put up a funeral tent. He apparently was smart enough to think ahead on that. It will be fine. You look nice… Don’t cry.”
A gaggle of Southern women attempted to turn her sow’s ear into a silk purse that afternoon in the shack. They waited in a little room with metal cots and a million dead flies. Cindy could see people arriving through a gauzy, moth-bitten curtain hanging in the window. “It’s stopped snowing and raining,” one of the women proclaimed.
“Look here honey, it’s gonna be okay,” said Aunt Joan as she tucked a bouquet of flowers in Cindy’s hand. “I made this up for you last night. Those people at the airport said they’d never seen somebody pack flowers in a cooler to Colorado; usually it’s dead animal, going the other way.”
Cindy and John got married under a blue hole that opened up in the cloudy skies that day in front of nearly 100 miscellaneous family and friends. John’s big hunting dog, Gus, stood with them too. The wind came up just before the “I do’s,” blowing Cindy’s full-veil up around her head like a Hijab. The crowd howled when she yanked the veil off and allowed the saucy wind to take it up, up and away.
Some girls that Cindy played poker with on occasion agreed to sing a cappella as guests filed past the newly weds. By the time they finished taking photos in a light drizzle with relatives John didn’t know he had and all those poor souls that trekked across the country for Cindy, most of the food at the reception was gone and all the friends were drunk.
Cindy’s father got choked up saying a toast. John rubbed cake all over Cindy’s face and hair instead of feeding her a ceremonial first bite. Just as a few people began to dance on the deck and Cindy’s brother brought out another mason jar of moonshine, John said, “Let’s go.”
They overnighted in the honeymoon suite of a once famous hotel in Rico; the only hotel in Rico. Cindy put on the gorgeous silk gown her mother had given as a gift the night before. When she came out of the tiny bathroom, John snored peacefully on top of a vintage bedspread covering the double bed. A ticking wind-up clock read 10:25 pm.
The next day Cindy had a farewell breakfast with friends and family. The newly weds drove to Denver for a flight to Edmonton, Canada where they stayed in a Motel 6. Cindy bought a pack of cigarettes at a gas station next to the hotel. She’d been smoke-free for two years. John hated smokers more than poachers.
From Edmonton, they flew to Yellow Knife, a place where punch drunk flies floated in the moisture laden air and the buildings were made of corrugated metal – no one ever planned to stay long.
“The Fishing Lodge” had made their reservations in Yellow Knife. Cindy insisted that surely a mistake had been made when the van that had picked them up at the tarmac pulled up to a pale green cinder block building with a Bud Light neon sign in the window. A man wearing only Bermuda shorts and flip flops opened the door to their room. Inside a small oscillating fan fluttered on a table between two single beds.
John looked at Cindy and asked, “Which one you want?”
Cindy consoled herself that night smoking a cigarette in the parking lot of the cinder block hotel while John watched Cops on TV. Surely, “The Fishing Lodge” would be luxurious and the honeymoon would start in earnest, she thought to herself.
“The Fishing Lodge” promised the fishing experience of a lifetime. It sat just a few miles from the Arctic circle in international waters, where the sun never set and Northern Pike grew to the size of black bear and would bite on anything. The brochure depicted cute A-Frame cabins surrounded by Subalpine fir. A smiling chef held out a platter of broiled fish that looked delectable.
After all, the lodging and airfare cost double what the entire wedding cost, including Cindy’s dress. John had cleaned out his savings and Cindy contributed her father’s offering. “This means so much to John,” Cindy had explained to her friends. “He’s dreamed his entire life of fishing for Northerns at midnight in the Arctic.”
The van took them very early to a dock where they waited two hours sitting on their luggage. John held carefully onto a borrowed ski bag that contained his best fishing rods, including a new fly rod he’d just ordered from Cabela’s catalog.
The float plane destined to take them the last leg sounded a lot like John’s old boat motor. The pilot let Cindy co-pilot after she mentioned almost getting her pilot’s license in college. Bantering about flying and cloud formations with the pilot lightened Cindy’s mood. When he said, “There it is, up ahead,” Cindy squinted to make out the dark shape in the indigo water surrounded by a few tall, skinny evergreens.
As they dropped in altitude, Cindy squinted to make out what she hoped to be a mirage. The pilot sat them down, pretty as you please, on placid water. Cindy stared at “The Lodge” – a red and white trailer, circa 1970, floating on tires with a small wooden dock attached.
The pilot killed the engine and after the quiet became uncomfortable said, “You folks fish up here often?”
“No, it’s our first time. It’s our honeymoon,” said Cindy.
The pilot looked away and cleared his throat. When no one emerged, he began unloading their luggage. John talked like a girl, admiring everything about the place – the still water, the brilliant light, the fantastic flight.
Inside, a guy much like the one running the green cinder block hotel in Yellow Knife, except he was wearing a heavy flannel shirt and jogging pants, watched Jeopardy on a tiny black and white TV behind an old teacher’s desk. “Hello, we’ve got a reservation to be with you for ten days,” John announced.
As the guy fumbled through papers on the desk, John asked, “How’s the fishing?”
The guy shrugged and said, “You Smith? Gonna pay the balance with cash?”
He handed over a key attached to a piece of plastic that said Howard Johnson’s Inn. Cindy had not said a word since stepping off the plane. John walked fast, carrying all the bags down a winding trail through the forest of sick looking fir trees. Cindy swatted at tiny bugs that bit when left unmolested on bare skin.
“Wow,” John exclaimed as they approached the cabin.
Just like in the brochure, a tiny A-frame with a narrow porch sat in a thicket. John turned, “Hey, I’ll carry you over the threshold, like in the movies.”
Cindy smiled and let him. Inside sat twin beds covered by thread-bare bedspreads and separated by a small table, just like the Yellow Knife hotel. A director’s chair, the canvas faded, decorated a corner. A print of two black Labs watching a flock of birds hung on a wall.
Cindy said, “I thought we told them this was our honeymoon. Don’t we get at least a double bed?”
John stood in the middle of the small room, hands on his hips, and looked his bride in the eyes. His voice contained only a minuscule trace of agitation. “We gotta a lifetime for loving; this is about fishing.”
Cindy walked outside, sat down on the step, and lit a cigarette.