When Love Was Young
by Nels Hanson




In memory you hold a lovely polished stone in your palm and when you start to grip it you feel it turn to a dull, jagged-edged rock—


Sometimes, and sometimes it stays as smooth as a round diamond dropped from another planet, more beautiful and precious than you remembered. You realize that the wonder hasn’t faded, cracked or turned to dust, even when you set it down and stare at your empty palm like a Ghost Dancer who’s returned from heaven and awakened.


This morning I went out to feed Sally and Bob but I couldn’t find the scoop for the new sack of oats. From a shelf I lifted an old baking soda tin and inside was Jodie’s shiny black ball of obsidian she’d kept under her pillow.


Before the riches and fame—


—the President hummed our song as he waited to deliver his “Dead or Alive” speech aimed at Osama Ben Laden, and the astronauts crooned “Current of Love” from the shuttle as it orbited the Earth—


—there were just the two of us, miles from anyone, alone on the ranch, after Slim Frye put Jodie out on Nevada 33 and I’d taken her home.


Last night on the radio I heard Slim Frye had been killed, in a car crash in West Texas, and the Reno DJ played several of his songs as I remembered his red Porsche rushing past the sage and leaving the trail of fancy dresses and guitar before I found her walking alone in high heels along the desert road.


That first night after the chicken dinner Jodie made—after I’d joked, “So we’re going to be famous?” and Jodie had turned over my palm and showed me our hands were the same, the little star where the life and heart lines met—we went out into the summer yard.


I carried the lawn chairs from under the dusty branches of the cottonwood and Jodie sat back, looking up at the sky while I played the guitar and we sang the songs Jodie was sure would change our lives and those of a million strangers.


“Trust me,” Jodie said. “We can’t miss.”

Then she was quiet, temporarily calm about our budding career as sure-fire country stars. When we’d brought in the groceries from town she’d found the pile of lyrics on the table and later taken up my guitar while I was out irrigating the pasture.

“Home was always a place I wanted to leave.”


Jodie gazed at the scattered distant stars, as if her real home was a distant world and on Earth she was a stranger.


“Sounds like you had good reason,” I said.

At dinner she’d told her story of the drunken father and helpless mother, the brother and sister Jodie had raised until they’d graduated school and she’d boarded the bus for Nashville.


“So you’re going to stay here? You don’t get lonely?”


As she spoke, a breeze rustled the dry cottonwood leaves. From a high branch the mourning dove cooed its night lament.


“Sometimes,” I admitted. “Maybe that’s why I make up the songs.”


Jodie nodded. “I know that feeling.”


“When I get around people I start to feel small.”


“I don’t know. With all this I could get to feeling pretty tiny.”


“You weren’t born here. Sometimes I feel I could reach up and touch one of those stars.”


“Everybody’s a star. That’s what my mama said.”


“Where is she?”


“Up there. Somewhere.”


I waited but she was silent, looking steadily at the black Nevada sky.


“Come on,” I said at last. “It’s late. Let’s fix your bed.”


“That’s what my mother used to say—”


“What’s that?”


“‘You make your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.’”


There was hurt, a private bitterness in her voice, and I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for the woman I’d known since noon. I figured Jodie had her ghosts, Slim Frye the most recent, and suddenly I felt both innocent and lucky, grateful for my unsuccessful but slender love life.


The different stars blinked white and red, blue and green, and I remembered by its color you could tell a star’s age, whether it was young and new or dying, burning out, though I couldn’t remember what colors showed youth or age, birth or death.


“Sing ‘Travis Jackson’ again,” she said.


“You sing it. I’ll play.”


“‘Travis Jackson was a friend of mine,


“‘Cowboy heart born out of time . . .’”


She got up and we moved through the cottonwood’s shadow to the porch. I held the screen door and followed her in to the house that smelled sweet, of night air crossing grass.


I pulled out clean sheets and pillowcases from the hall cabinet, and Jodie took them from me and there was a second of awkwardness as our hands brushed. We said good night, Jodie thanking me for putting her up until Johnny Black’s band came to Waverly in two weeks, me thanking her for dinner and liking my music.


“You wait,” she said. “Those songs are something special—”


She sounded wistful, as if she were fighting a future disappointment or regret, but then she’d had a long day that could have turned scary. I held my arms at my sides so they wouldn’t reach to hold her close. I felt that she noticed, sensed the electric tension in my open, down-turned hands that would spark if they touched her.


Then she went into my parents’ old room and closed the door and I shut off all the lights and lay back in bed, looking up through the dusty screen at the sky beyond the cottonwood.


“Which one’s yours?” she’d asked.


As I closed my eyes I remembered the touch of her fingernail as she traced my palm that was like her own, that her mother had read when Jodie was a girl, telling her that someday she’d sing for the President.      


I woke up hearing Jodie singing “Travis Jackson.”


I blinked, confused. I’d dreamed about the Branding Iron in Waverly, where once a week I played at Amateur Night.


We were on stage singing together, “Travis Jackson” and “Secondhand Lace,” “Current of Love” and all the rest Jodie had sung for me last night when I’d driven up from the pasture before dinner. The audience stood and swayed, clapping time, and Jodie and I stood side-by-side, each playing a guitar like the one Jodie’d lost.

The pearl frets gleamed under my fingers as my hand moved through green, yellow, blue, then red light from the shifting spot, Jodie’s auburn hair like a sudden flame as she sang at my shoulder: “Travis Jackson was a loving friend.”

I got up, pulled on my shirt and pants, and walked through the house. It felt exciting, strange and good, having a woman in the house singing your song to herself as the day began.


In jeans, Western shirt and boots, and her hair pulled back, Jodie was cooking pancakes at the stove.


“You’re up early.”


Jodie turned with a full plate, smiling.


“I’m going with you,” she said. “I want to see where this Travis Jackson lives.”


In the morning light at the window we ate pancakes with hot syrup and bacon and drank our coffee among circling, rising red and gold dust motes.


“You sleep okay?” Jodie asked as she took my plate.


“Like a baby,” I said. I was half-tempted to tell her about my dream.


“Me too. Without a pill.”


She stood at the sink with her back turned, humming “Current of Love” as I got up to go out to the barn.


I had one horse saddled when she came through the barn door with something wrapped in one of my mother’s old blue plaid tablecloths.


“What’ve you got there?”




I got down a saddlebag from a peg and set it behind the saddle of Jodie’s horse. Jodie stroked the mare’s nose.


“Let me help you on. Just grab the horn.”


“Horn?”  She looked around.


“On the pommel—that thing like a doorknob. Now put your foot in the stirrup.”


I stood behind her as she raised her boot. I put my hands around her slim waist and gave her a boost.




“I guess.” She held a rein in each hand. “How do you say ‘go’?”


“Squeeze her flanks with your legs and lean forward.”


Jodie dug her heels in sharply and the mare bolted past Bob before I could grab the bridle, galloping down the road past the house.


“Hang on!” I caught up with Jodie halfway to the bridge. I pulled alongside her, ready to take her reins. Sally’s eye rolled.


“Where’re we going?” Jodie’s face was flushed.


“Toward those trees—”


“See you there!” Again Jodie gave the mare her heels, lifting the right rein and leaving the road, her red ponytail swinging across the back of her white blouse.


We raced across the high pasture toward the creek and Jodie beat me by ten yards as we reined in.


“You tricked me!” I said. “Where’d you learn to ride?”


“One summer my mother was the cook at a cattle ranch.”


Jodie reached back and took the barrette from her hair, then shook it out loose.


“It smells like real air.” Jodie was looking up at the cloudless sky. “It’s all coming back. Ready?” She hunched forward like a jockey about to rise up in the stirrups.


“Not so fast this time. You’re liable to find a gopher hole.”


“We don’t want that, do we, Sally?” Jodie leaned forward to stroke Sally’s neck.


We crossed the shallow ditch and trotted across the pasture toward the dry hills that came down in spread fingers.


“It feels like hair.” Jodie trailed her hand through the tall stalks of bleached grass as we started up above the last pasture.


With Jodie in the lead we took a game trail up the spine of the longest hill until we reached the high wall of mountain.


“Where do we go?” Jodie said, turning in her saddle.


“Right on up,” I said. “If you want to—”


We let the horses pick their way up the steep broken slope, through rock and manzanita toward the pines along the ridge.


At the top, we turned the horses and looked back at the valley.


“It’s something,” Jodie said. “Look how tiny the house and barn are, like toys. What are those mountains?”


To the west the granite scarps were still streaked with spring snow. Each peak showed close and clearly etched.


“The Sierra Nevada,” I said. “That’s California.”


“Look at that one, like a cone.”


“It’s Jenny Lind.”


“Gosh, it’s pretty!” Jodie raised both arms, arching her back. “You can almost hear God breathing.”


“My dad used to say he could hear the Ghost Dancers.”


“Who’re they?”


“The Indians went to heaven when they danced. They’d go into a trance and the white eagle would take them. Their songs were messages, like letters.”


“Letters?” Jodie sat up straight.


“From the other world.”


“What’s over there?”


Jodie pointed toward the far edge of the pasture, at the lone pine and the small square of iron picket fence with white stones inside.


“Family cemetery.”


“You ever go there?”


“Not very often. Like you said, about your mother.”


“What about her?”


I nodded toward the sky.


“They’re all up there.”


“That’s right.”


We started the circuit of the bowl, moving in and out of the scattered line of pines on the curved narrow mesa. We rode side-by-side.


“It’s flat,” Jodie said, “like a paved road.”


“The mountain rose,” I said above the horses’ hooves against the stone. I put out my hand. “The valley sank down, because of the river. Then the silt ran off and added to the topsoil.”


“Look how red the rock is.”


“Farther up I’ll show you some obsidian.”


“What’s that?”


“Volcanic glass, for arrowheads.”


“Maybe I’ll make a necklace.”


“It’s pretty sharp.”


We rode another mile, moving through blue pine shadows and hot sun. I motioned ahead at the glinting wall.


I held Jodie’s hand as we walked gingerly across the twenty yards of arrow chippings and splintered fallen rock.


“It’s like walking on broken glass,” Jodie said.


“I know,” I said. “It’ll cut you.”


I showed Jodie the grooves where the Paiutes had chipped off the rock in sheets. Jodie placed her hand in one of the deep channels.


“Right here,” she said, “a brave touched. It’s strange, isn’t it? All that separates my hand from his is time. Just time.”


She turned, squinting as she looked back at the bed of glittering shards.

“They knew this place,” Jodie said. “They got their arrows here, to hunt deer for food.”


I leaned down and picked up a smooth chunk of rock. It had a soft curve, like it had just cooled and hardened after bubbling up from the center of the Earth.


I placed it gently in Jodie’s palm. She looked at it and closed her hand.


I took her other hand and we crossed the carpet of glass, then rode on, looking east away from the valley, toward the broken buttes and towers beyond the mesa.


“Pretty desolate,” Jodie said.


“There’s a cup here,” I said, nodding back toward the valley. “The rest is rough. And dry. There’s interesting spots.” A white salt spire shone in the sun.


“You go over there?”


“Collecting rocks. Geodes.”


“What’re they?”


“Dinosaur eggs. You cut’em in half and they’re full of crystals.”


“But then they’re broken.” Jodie smiled. “Anyway, I’ve got mine.” She lifted her closed hand.


We rode on for half an hour, following the valley side of the ridge, until I saw the big Jeffrey pine. I pointed fifty feet up, at the black line along its trunk.


“It got hit by lightning last spring.”


“Did you see it happen?”


“No, but I heard the boom. I looked up and saw it flame. The rain put it out.”


She looked down toward the yellow house.


“When it storms,” I said, “the valley’s like an echo chamber.”


“I guess so. This mountain is like a speaker.”


“You getting hungry?”


“I can’t even remember breakfast.”


“Let’s eat here.”


“Is it safe?” Jodie looked again at the pine. “A limb won’t fall? What’re they called?”


“Widow-makers?” I said. “Lightning never hits the same tree twice.”


“Who says?”


I got down and held Jodie’s rein as she dismounted. The horses lowered their heads to graze the buffalo grass. I lifted the saddlebag and walked over under the tree, kicking a few cones from a cool bed of needles.


“It’s nice in the shade,” she said.


“The sun’s hot. We had quite a ride.” We’d ridden five or six miles, climbed right up the slope of the bowl to the top.


I took out the wrapped food and together we spread out the tablecloth.


We sat down and Jodie served the chicken and the mashed potatoes she’d fried in cakes onto paper dishes. There were dill pickles and sliced green apples.


“I didn’t bring any drinks,” Jodie said. “I thought they’d get warm. I couldn’t find a thermos.”


“We’ll stop on the way back,” I said, “at the creek.”


I leaned back on one elbow, stretching out with my plate at my side. I took a bite of cold chicken. “Good,” I said.


“Mama’s recipe,” she said, smiling. “Works every time.”


“So what else did you learn on this cattle ranch, beside riding and cooking chicken?”


“That I wanted to get far away.” Jodie bit into a slice of apple.


“Were you singing then?”


“In the kitchen, to myself. One Saturday they had a dance and my mother pushed me to go up and sing with the band.”


“What did you sing?”


“‘Crazy.’” Jodie smiled.


“You must have been a hit.”


Jodie nodded. “I was.”


She didn’t sound smug, just matter-of-fact. I felt a twinge of envy at her self-confidence, then let it go. Jodie had talent, and she’d paid some dues. She’d taken a hard fall the day before and had to gather her clothes and fancy red shoes from the sage and tumbleweeds.


“I’d like to have seen it,” I said.


“No.” She shook her head, so her loose hair moved on her shoulders. “This is better. Here now.”


Jodie leaned back on the cloth, looking up at the pine boughs. She sang softly:

“Travis Jackson was a loving friend—”


And when she waited I sang:

“Taught me not to break but bend—”


Then together:


“Like the willow growing by the creek.


"He showed me I was strong, not weak.”


“It’s sort of sad,” Jodie said.


“What is?”


“Your song. That’s why it’s good.”

“The West is going, going, gone,


"You can hear it fade when you hear his song—”


In the moving shadows of the pine needles we looked at one another. Jodie turned her gaze to the valley.


“It’s so nice here,” she said and lay back. “Remember nap time, in kindergarten?”


I remembered the one-room, tall-ceilinged schoolhouse like a small church. It had a belfry and a bell. “You brought your own towel.”


“Mine was blue,” Jodie said. “My mother sewed my name in white letters.”


She closed her eyes. I turned on my back, looking up at the blue sky beyond the branches, listening to the needles move in the soft breeze. I felt happy.


I must have drifted off. Except in the dream we were still lying under the pine. Jodie held the black stone.


“You touched this,” she said, “where I’m touching it now. Think of it. All that separates us is time.”


“No, don’t. Don’t!”

 Jodie’s talking woke me up. Her head was turned to one side, her face contorting.



I touched her shoulder and she opened her eyes, staring at me, ready to pull back.




“Oh.” She sat up, looking scared.


“You have a bad dream?”


“What’d I say?”


She breathed fast, like she’d wakened from a dead run.


“You said, ‘Don’t.’”


“Don’t what?”


“You didn’t say.”


She shook her head.


“I was with Slim Frye.”


“It’s okay.”


“No, it’s not—”


“You feel like heading back to the house?”


“Okay.” She was still upset.


I got up and held out my hand. She stood up and I wrapped the containers and empty plates in the tablecloth and pushed it into the saddlebag.


Jodie swung up onto Sally.


“Which way?”


“Let’s go back,” I said. “I know a place to go down.”


Jodie touched Sally’s flank and the mare started forward.


We rode a mile the way we came, not talking, Jodie a few yards in front of me, until I found an easy slope. We went down through broken ground to a bluff, then through the white grass to the east pasture and across it toward the line of trees.


I stopped among the cottonwoods where the water bubbled up and pooled behind the stone weir before it curled down the creek bed. We got down and let the horses drink.

From the wide trunk I lifted the tin dipper from its nail, ran it through the water, then dipped it full and handed it to Jodie.


“Mmmm,” Jodie said, holding the long handle. “That’s good. I was thirsty.”


She handed me the dipper and I scooped it full and drank.


“It’s sweet, isn’t it?”


“Where does it come from?” Jodie watched the ring of bubbles out toward the middle of the round pool, where the sun came down beyond the branches of the trees.


“No one knows. There’s a tunnel. Under one of these mountains the water must collect. Maybe there’s a vacuum or pressure from another stream that brings it up. It flows a quarter mile, then goes underground again.”


“And it never goes dry?”


“Not so far.”


Jodie squatted down on the sandy bank, running her fingers through the shady water.


“The water cools the air here,” I said. “I think it sets up a little breeze. Like a swamp cooler.”


“You ever go swimming?”


“Now and then,” I said.


“I haven’t been swimming in a creek since I was a kid.” Jodie watched the bubbles farther out.


“You want to go? The tunnel’s like a chute. It’ll push you along.”


“I wonder if I still know how.”


“Sure you do,” I said. “It’s like riding a horse.”


“You’ll watch me?”


“I will, but you won’t need a lifeguard here.”


“Don’t be so sure.”


I remembered Slim Frye’s red Porsche as now Jodie stood, looking at the trees that circled the pool.


I held out the dipper.


“You can hang it on that nail.”


Jodie took the dipper, moved to the leaning cottonwood and hung it up. She stepped behind the trunk. I sat down and pulled off my boots and socks, then my shirt and Levis.


I walked in, feeling the shock of the pure cold pool, and dived, pulling down through the strong upwelling water. I gripped the stone edge of the dark square-ish door, then turned, looking up toward the froth rising toward the light.


Gold specks drifted down like dust, past the three bright slanting bars that always looked like searchlights hunting for treasure. I let go, leaning into the current, and with a kick and one arm-stroke let the water take me straight to the surface.


I treaded, looking over at the cottonwood as Jodie stepped out in a white lace bra and panties.


“Is it cold?” she asked, hanging back.


“It feels good,” I said. “You’ll get used to it quick.”


“It’s cold—” She put in her toe, then drew back, gripping her arms.


“You’ve got to dive in,” I said. “All at once.”


“Where have I heard that before?”


“Trust me.”


She giggled. “I’ve heard that too.”


Then she made a quick dive with fingers and toes gracefully together, came up saying “Brrrrrr” like a kid and working her shoulders in a shiver, then breast-stroked out toward the middle.


“It’s not cold now, is it?” I said.


Her hair lay in a red and gold mat across her bare shoulders. She lifted a hand to clear a swath of wet strands from her forehead.


“No,” she said, “it’s perfect.”


“Take a breath and follow me.”




“I’ll show you.”


I put my head down and stroked toward the rock door. I gripped the rock’s edge and looked back to see Jodie pulling hard against the current, moving down through the column of light, her long hair yellow now and flowing out behind her.


She came down to me and I held out my hand as she turned her head from the dark door. She hesitated, then gave me her hand.


With a quick push I steered her out into the center of the opening and let her go. With a kick she rose up, her shapely slim hips and legs and feet slipping from the darkness that turned green and then lighter green and finally yellow.


I pushed myself into the rising water and floated straight up.


“Huh?” I said. “That’s something, isn’t?”


“It’s weird.”


“I didn’t mean to frighten you—”


“No,” Jodie said. “I trust you.”


“You want to try it again?”


We swam down and this time I stood to the side, holding out both hands. Jodie swam up close and I put my hands on her waist, turning her back to me, then with my feet pushed off from the rock, lifting her out and up into the rush of water and letting her go.


Jodie went straight up into the light and I followed after her.


“I went fast! Did you see me?” Jodie was shivering.


“My dad used to do that, when I was kid.”


“It’s great. It’s like you’re getting born.”


Under her excitement Jodie was breathing unevenly, splashing a little raggedly at the water.


“You getting cold?”


“A little. The water’s colder down there.”


“It is,” I said. “Straight from underground. You want to sit in the sun?”




We swam to the bank and clambered out. I went to Sally and took out the tablecloth from the saddlebag, setting the leftover food and plates at the foot of the tree. I shook out the cloth and Jodie stepped into it as I wrapped it tight around her.


“Let’s get into the sun,” I said.


She sat down on the warm grass beyond the trees.


“Aren’t you cold?” she asked.


“I’m okay.”


“Come on, there’s room for two.” Jodie opened the tablecloth and lifted it over my shoulder.


We huddled together. Jodie’s skin was damp, cool and soft against my arm.


I turned and she dipped her head and pressed her face against my chest. I put my arms around her. The tablecloth fell to the grass.



“I’m afraid.”

“Of what? Me?”








“Don’t be,” I said, pressing tighter. “There’s no reason.”


“You don’t know what I’m like—”


I drew my cheek along her hair and she lifted her chin. I touched her lips with mine, lightly at first, then more against their warm fullness. She opened her mouth the same instant.

I leaned down and didn’t know Jodie’s sweet scent from the crushed sweetness of the grass as I felt her shoulder for the thin strap. I pulled it down, touching her pretty freckled breast. She held a hand behind my neck, with the other stroking my hair. I closed my eyes and gathered her closer.


Holding Jodie as we made love in the valley where I was born, I felt everything I’d held back for so long give way and rise like our bodies in the river rushing from the rock toward the sunlit water and the speckled shadows of the shifting leaves.


Later we waded into the pool until the water came to Jodie’s chin.


We glided forward underwater, kicked up, took a breath, turned and stroked down through the green light to the open door that whispers things and glints with quartz from the dark walls beyond it. We held hands, moved out into the pushing water, and together drifted without kicking to the surface.


We swam to the bank and got out. The sun hung above the western ridge, shining at a lowering angle across the valley, and a quicker breeze stirred the flashing two-colored willows. I picked up the tablecloth and we dried each other off.


“You get your things,” I said. “I’ll get the horses.”


“Okay.” Jodie stepped toward the cottonwood where the silver dipper hung.


I went down to the bank and slipped into my clothes and boots, then walked back and picked up Bob’s reins from the grass, leading him over to Sally. I waited in the sun for Jodie.


She came running and vaulted up.


“Come on—” she said.


Jodie started off and I jumped into the saddle. Her white blouse ballooned in the wind. She threw me a quick look and turned forward as we raced across the grass as far as the dirt road, where Bob pulled even and we brought up the horses.


“Let’s call it a tie,” Jodie said.


“You’re being generous.”


“No, you’re the one.”


She opened her hand and something shone like a dark sun.


“I’ve got my rock. I’m going to put it under my pillow, for good luck.”


Jodie held out the smooth black obsidian, then closed her hand and held it tight.


“Remember now,” she said. “Remember this.”


“I will,” I said. “I won’t forget.”


As I answered, I saw Jodie’s green eyes were closed, that she’d spoken to herself.




She smiled now, looking at me.


“We’ll remember.”


“It’s a deal,” I said and Jodie nodded.


Then she swung back her wet ponytail and lifted the reins as we left the grass. Bob and Sally’s hooves hit sharply against the road and the man and woman who would sing “Travis Jackson” to millions and the foolish President and like a stone cut in half to show its pretty crystals would never be the same started toward the yellow house by the cottonwood.