She was a goddess. She had a nose that never ran, teeth that food couldn’t stick to, sweat that didn’t stain her clothes. She never got gas. And she was smiling at me.
I hadn’t been in the Bright Angel Lodge since 1978; four years since I’d saved some guy who was having a heart attack a quarter mile down the Bright Angel Trail. There he was, half sprawled on a rock, his hand to his chest, his wife and daughter fretting over him in the heat. Chuck and I were on the last stretch of a twenty-mile hike down into the canyon. We had been stupid and had run all the way to the bottom, laughing the whole way. Our first canyon. It had been so easy until we had to climb back out again. It was one hundred and twenty-five degrees down there. The cheese in our sandwiches had melted all over our packs. The baloney had turned gray. Donkey dung dust coated our bodies, giving us a greenish tinge. The wife asked us to please help. The Bright Angel Lodge loomed at the top of the steep trail. The guy was gasping for breath in the sun, his face dry and red. Chuck offered to stay with them while I went to the lodge and reported it to the concierge. It was the wife’s eyes that did it. I ran the whole way.
Even then I’d only made it as far as the lobby. This was the first time I’d been in the lounge. Varnished logs and amber lighting. It was January now, four and a half years later, and I was much cleaner. There was an inch of snow along the rim of the canyon and nothing but darkness beyond that. Aside from the goddess and me, there were only three other people in there, including the bartender.
I watched her walk to the lady’s room. She was wearing a dress that melted away every bad feeling I’d ever had about anything. When she came back she smiled at me again as she sat down. I had my elbows on the bar and a beer in my fist, as I gave her my best one-sided grin. After that I didn’t know what to do. I never really had.
A little time went by while I kept trying to catch her eye so I could smile at her again. I could tell she wanted me to come over, but I guess I wanted her to do the work, for her to slide into the barstool next to me and ask if I came around here often. If I could get her to do that, everything would be all right. Then I would know what to do. I was even preparing a conversation:
“Do you have a name?” I would say.
“Does it matter?” she would say.
“Only if it’s your birthday and I need to decorate a cake.” That would turn her smile into laughter and I would have everything I ever wanted.
After the fourth or fifth smile exchange, she started adding a furrowed brow to hers. That’s when I knew we were done. I’d taken too long, smiled one too many times. I’d confused her. If I went over there now, there would be this hesitation to consider, this profusion of smiles, either to explain or to ignore. The question would be in her eyes and I would get embarrassed either way and I didn’t want to get embarrassed, at least not any more than I was already.
Besides, I was married now, newly married. What could I do? I was powerless. I’d made promises. It was true that my new wife was two thousand miles away and that the goddess and I were just passing through. One nighters. Nobody would ever know. Except me.
The goddess began to ignore me, looking down at the bar in the vicinity of her drink. Waiting. After a few minutes she got up to leave. I had another smile ready for her as she walked past, to show her I was still in the game, but she never looked at me again. I gave her a chance to escape, while considering the missed opportunities in my life so far, then went to my room. I didn’t finish my beer. I didn’t finish anything.