Excerpt from The Distance

Crossing the street in front of Serrano’s, Lee stepped over a wide puddle in the gutter, then turned and extended his free hand to April as she took the large step. He slid an arm around her waist, then stood, unmoving, eyes to the sky. A thick blanket of clouds lay over Uinta Street, so low above their heads that the light from the street lamps lit the clouds from beneath, casting a warm glow on the sidewalks and people and the occasional pickup truck rolling past.

This is incredible, she said softly. I’ve never seen anything like this.

I bet it’s going to snow, probably before we finish our dinner. Those clouds look ready.

Really? Already? She couldn’t see what he could read in the clouds, but she could feel something was about to happen. And she knew without putting it into words that she might never feel exactly this way again, or stand under such an extraordinary sky. So she just went on looking up into the otherworldly glow and listening to the soft crisp sounds of the street around her.

There were a few other people on the sidewalk, men in rancher hats and down vests and flannel shirts and their wives in long coats, on their way to a Friday night date at the movies or a steak dinner, but their voices didn’t carry and even the crunch of their boots on the gritty sidewalk was captured, muffled, by the low clouds. The hush felt to April like a movie theater just after the lights go down and all the voices tail off to nothing and everyone holds their breath at once.

I hate to go inside, she finally said, but she could feel him leaning away, peeling his arm slowly from her waist. But I am ready for some enchiladas and a Negra Modelo.

Lee smiled at that, because she’d arrived from southern California a year ago with a taste for syrupy cocktails and nachos and chimis, the kind of happy hour food that masquerades as Mexican at the chain restaurants that ring every mall in Los Angeles. Lee introduced her to the real thing, to the Serrano family, to their recipes carried across the border a century earlier and migrated to southern Colorado over generations and now served the same way from their small restaurant on Uinta for at least 30 years. And they’d discovered dark Mexican beer together, Lee trading up from his Coors and April from her pitchers of margaritas.

Lee led her inside and greeted Kelly, the oldest of the Serrano girls, as she passed by with a tray of steaming food balanced on her arm.

Hi, guys. You want that table by the window?

Sounds good, Lee replied, already moving that direction. Maybe we can watch the snow.

Is it snowing? Kelly turned eagerly to look out at the street.

Not yet. But it’s about to. Maybe even before we get our beers.

Two Negra Modelos, she asked, and Lee nodded. Well, grab your seat and I’ll grab those beers and some menus. She headed off toward the kitchen.

April moved to her chair, leaving the seat facing the door to Lee. He stepped around and behind her, trailing one hand across the small of her back as he pulled her chair out with the other. This courtesy had struck her as almost laughably quaint when she’d first met Lee and they’d begun dating, but she quickly realized that every rancher and store clerk and blue collar guy in this town did the same, holding doors and pulling out chairs and walking to the street side of their wives and girlfriends, and now just a few months later it felt as natural to her as her California life had been. She slid into her chair and picked up a menu as Lee moved to his seat.

When Kelly arrived with their beers, Lee ignored the menus and ordered their usual, bistek ranchero for him and chicken molé enchiladas for her. Lee took a pull from his beer and watched the people walk past on the other side of the glass. April sipped her beer and watched Lee, sensing a shift in his mood. After a minute, she set her beer down on the table and said softly, like she was waking a sleeping child, Are you okay?

Lee turned to her quickly, not startled but surprised, maybe, and his face opened into a sheepish smile. Yeah, I’m good. He took another sip. I got a call from Meredith this afternoon, and I’ve just been thinking it over.

Thinking it over? What’s going on?

Gordie might be coming to stay with me.

April’s face lit up. At Christmas?

No, sooner. And for a while.

Oh. Is everything okay?

Well, it is and it isn’t. She’s not sick or anything. He took another sip of beer. But she’s pregnant.

Pregnant? Really? April studied Lee’s face, the lines at the corners of his eyes and the lines across his forehead, looking for a hint of how he was dealing with this news. It wasn’t delight, that was sure, and it didn’t look like disappointment, but something closer, she decided, to concern.

How far along is she?

She just found out, I guess, last week. She’s around six or seven weeks.

April thought for a moment before she said the next thing. I assume this wasn’t planned.

No, it didn’t seem to be in anyone’s plan. And that’s the deal. That’s why she wants to bring Gordie up here for a while.

April dropped her head toward her right shoulder and squinted slightly. Lee knew this as her thinking about what she should say face, and he waited.

But, she’ll be okay, right? It’s early enough that it’ll just be an outpatient thing.

Lee was already shaking his head slowly before April had finished. Nope, she wants to have it.

April leaned back in her chair. Why would she…I’m sorry, this is going to sound terrible…

No, it isn’t. I’m right there with you. But listen, she doesn’t want to keep the baby, and she doesn’t want Gordie to…

Lee was cut short by the arrival of their dinners. They both leaned away so Kelly could put their plates down. Hot plates, she said. Do you want a couple more beers?

Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Kelly.

No problem. I’ll be right back with those.

As soon as Kelly had turned away, April leaned in so she could say quietly what she felt like she wanted to shout.

She wants to have the baby and give it up?

That’s what she’s thinking.

April considered this. She rested her elbow on the table and leaned her chin against the palm of her hand, her slender fingers pressed against her freckled cheek. She reached for her beer, checked the level, then tilted the bottle and drank the last of it. Lee picked up his bottle and did the same, just as Kelly returned with two full ones.

Everything okay with your food?

Oh, yeah, we’ve just been talking. We’ll get to it in a minute.

Okay, good. I’ll take those empties. She collected the bottles and knelt to pick up a fork that was lying on the floor under the table, then she was away.

Finally April took in a deep breath and let it out in a long measured exhale that sounded almost like a sigh. It’s a tough choice to make, any of them.

Lee nodded. It is. I feel bad for her. She could really… He trailed off, looked over at his full beer, and picked it up. We better eat, he said, then took a long drink from his bottle.

April watched Lee cut into his steak, take a bite, then another, without looking up. Finally she spoke, softly, tentatively, knowing full well he wanted to be done with talking for a while.

Listen, Lee, she’s a strong woman. Headstrong, but strong, too. She smiled, but he didn’t look up. I don’t know why this is what she wants, but if it is, she’ll need you to be behind her.

He finally looked up. I’m not worried about that. I know Meredith can take care of herself. He paused and a smirk curled the corner of his mouth. At least, I thought she could before this. He shook his head and April saw the concern wash over his face again. It’s the rest that I’m worried about.

What rest?

Gordie coming, and me and you.

April looked down and saw that she still hadn’t taken a bite of her enchiladas. She picked up a fork and sliced off a bite, twirled the fork a bit to break off the string of melted cheese that clung to the food, and brought the bite to her mouth. As she chewed she watched Lee eat and thought about the two weeks when Gordie had visited in the summer.

So, Gordie’s gonna stay for a while. I don’t see how that does anything to you and me.

You don’t?

No.

Lee put down his fork and his knife, slowly, like he wasn’t sure he wanted to let them go, then he looked right at April, his eyes locked on hers for five, ten, fifteen seconds. Finally he looked down, looked around the table, searching for a safe place to cast his gaze. Finding none, he just looked back at April again and started talking.

I think we ought to take a break. He paused for her to respond, but she said nothing, just pushed at the pile of shredded lettuce on her plate. I feel like it’s gonna take me some time to figure out how to handle Gordie.

What’s to handle? That kid was born a grown-up. He could take care of you. She tried to laugh at her joke, but the emotion rising up her throat made it sound more like a child’s sob. She swallowed hard and held his gaze.

Yeah, that’s mostly true, but I’ve got to figure how to get him registered for school, and how to get him to school and back home, and set up a room for him… Lee trailed off. The list had seemed a lot longer in his head.

And those are all things I can help you with. I still don’t see why it changes things with us. First of all, I’m pretty sure he can get to school and back. How did you do it with Meredith?

I don’t know if he ever rode a school bus.

Christ, Lee. Even if he hasn’t, how hard is that?

Well, sure, but it’s a lot harder when you don’t know anybody.

Yeah, he’ll need to make some friends. Gordie’s a sweet kid. It won’t take him long.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Either way, I want to be able to help with it.

And you will. Lee, this doesn’t have anything to do with you and me. Or not much, anyway.

I just feel like I want to do a better job than I did with Meredith. This last he said quietly, and turned back to his food. April watched him cut off another piece of the bistek and eat it without looking away from his plate.

You did just fine with Meredith, and you’ll do just fine with Gordie. It’s just for a few months, anyway, right? This isn’t a permanent thing?

I didn’t do fine with Meredith. After Colleen died I sat in my goddamn chair and stared at the TV and she went off and got pregnant.

Lee, that could have happened even if you were father of the year. Stop blaming yourse…

Before she could finish the sentence, Lee slapped his fork down on the table. The diners at the table across the aisle looked up, but Lee ignored them and glared down at his plate. When he finally spoke, he spoke softly, but the tensed muscles in his face and his hands made it look like he was shouting. Goddamn it, April. Will you just let me do this my way? He paused. Just let me be.

April took a slow measured breath. She looked at Lee, at the top of his head, and she looked around at the other diners, who had turned back to their meals. She sat up tall in her chair and exhaled. Then, in almost a whisper, she spoke to Lee’s bowed head.

You always do things your way. That’s the only way. And I’ve never had a problem with that, even when you’re being a stubborn ass.

That amused Lee, just enough for him to give a small shudder of a laugh, but he wasn’t ready to release his anger yet. He kept staring at his food.

And this is one of those times, Lee. This is one. You need help. I’m willing, but you just can’t let me. You just have to keep building this goddamn wall.

Abruptly she plucked the napkin from her lap, dropped it on the table, stood from her chair and walked away, one continuous motion.

It took him a moment to realize that she hadn’t walked toward the ladies room but the other direction toward the front door. He raised his head and looked around the restaurant, but she’d gone out the door. From the kitchen Kelly had seen her leave, and she came through the swinging doors to check on Lee. Is everything okay?

Well, I guess not. No. I better go find her. Can I settle this up later?

Oh, of course. Sure. Go ahead. She looked out the window at the first fat flakes of snow beginning to fall. Is she okay?

Lee nodded as he stood and began to pull on his coat. She’s okay. He looked at Kelly and grinned. Can’t say the same for me.

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