At that Thanksgiving reunion, Tim had said he loved lamb; now I unwrapped five chops. They looked beautifully red on the paper, which I used to clean smut from my grill, then I flipped them into the fire.
Tim wolfed down three chops and half of my second. I was still a bit hungry, even after eating a shiny store-bought doughnut, and if too much pathos hung on the scene for me to feel happy, I did at least feel successful. I smiled as a full moon cleared Moosilauke. Tim was half asleep, so I roused him. Early moonlight's the best of it. "Toss your bones way out over the ledge," I told him.
"Isn't that litter?" he mumbled.
"Not to the bears." He sat up. "Don't worry. They'd sooner run clear to your house than get near us."
After a moment's hesitation, Tim threw the bones. I could hear his garbage break the canopy below us. Not a bad arm, in spite of all. He sat back by the fire, a little breathless, closer to me than before. The moon, erasing the mountains' shadows, flushed some marsh fowl below, but the bird instantly disappeared into another shade, heading who-knows-where. Mist crowded the river, and I could just see a canoe there. I imagined Uncle George poling downriver, my father spotting; I felt a pang as they slipped into fog, these men who had protected me.
Now ducks poured through a yoke north of the Lookout, gabbling, music in their wings. I tried to watch but dozed off till my retriever woke me, leaning on a thigh. No, not my retriever, a year dead, but Tim, asleep in my lap. I heard his breath, the whistle and pop that I had taken in dream for bird flight. As I improvised an ungainly prayer for people I had been loved by, for humanity in general, for animals, too—all the world's fragile flesh—a freight train hooted up-country. I checked my watch. After nine. The Sox would have batted once already. Tim's face was pellucid with moon as I fitted on the mask, inserted the medicine cup, flipped the switch. Even in slumber he gulped by habit. I hated the contraption's mere look, plastic transforming soft moonbeams to an ugly glare. My arms loose around his brittle ribs, I finally helped the boy to the tent and worked him into his bag, lingering until his breath settled back into a steady rhythm, full of rustles and hinge squeaks.
By the time I poked up the coals and tuned the radio, the Sox were down by three, so I shut it off. I heard the freight train again. Why did I treasure a train's sound here, where a minute of radio babble had made me uneasy, not to mention the noise of Tim's damnable inhalator? That mournful whistle held romance; I could almost see the train snaking over knolls. A physical force, but a benign one.
A barred owl began its eight-note chant, was answered by another and then by a couple of coyotes, the valley full of animal descant and birdy decrescendo. My coffee tasted better than it probably was. Tim was lost to this world, and I guessed that that was fine. When you fail to thrive, you need a lot of rest just to stay even. And yet, how rarely life opens onto such a domain. Within the moon's aureole, a star opened and closed its eye; Moosilauke fused with the sky, the mountain extending heavenward. The night was so liquid I thought I might float on it. I fretted for a spell over the possibility of rain; the ledge would puddle up quickly in a shower. If it came to that, I would move Tim out in the dark. The gear would be safe if I had to leave; I had seldom seen another human on the Lookout. The thought settled me. Good riddance to humans and their machinery—to my own truck, parked downhill, to my radio, to my household furnace, oven, water pump, lamps.
And the machine that kept Tim alive? That was a hard decision, nostalgic as I was for an age I never knew, in which you traveled into God's country on foot or at worst by train. What trade-off would I make if those were my lungs over there in the tent, full of fog and labored song?
Answers can present themselves too easily. A car came burning up the road, and I winced to hear its snarl, its tires chirping with each shift, hard rock caterwauling from its open windows. The driver was perhaps some native son, happy that he had never spread manure on skinflint pastures as his father and grandfather had. With his girl beside him, the boy, no doubt, thought he would never die. To hell with him.