The tourists have gathered thickly today, Walter thinks. Brightly raincoated little ducklings all huddling under their umbrella mothers, trying to escape the muggy mist sifting from the sky. Though he has been watching them do this for forty years, it never fails to surprise him how many city slickers show up every day, rain or shine, to watch this one anomaly of nature.
At the center of the field where the onlookers have gathered, an anthill-like mound slopes gently upward from the grass turned yellow-green by the heat of summer. From the mound’s mouth, steam puffs steadily, like smoke from a dignified old gentleman’s cigar.
Walter leans his head back to check the sun’s position in the sky, forgetting that it is covered by the low-hanging quilted gray clouds. Flustered, he checks his watch instead and smiles when he sees the time.
She’s bluffing them today, Lizzie-girl.
From somewhere just over his shoulder, he hears Lizzie’s throaty chuckle. Of course she is, Walt. Whoever said faithfulness meant timeliness?
For a moment, the image of a dancing young woman passes before his eyes, its edges fuzzed from time. The woman’s red curls spring wildly from her head, spraying outward like fiery sparks, and her blue eyes, set above generously freckled cheeks, laugh at him. Come on, Walt. Let’s go climb a tree. Get lost in a cornfield. Steal apples from Mr. McCutcheon’s like when we were kids.
We’ll be late for dinner. They’ll miss us.
I miss us. When was the last time we did something crazy?
Last week when we skipped church to go fishing in Old Lady Raymond’s pond.
Exactly. Eons ago. Now come on!
The dancing image passes through a whimpering toddler and dissipates into the mist. Walter shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Lizzie…where is she? He turns around but doesn’t see her.
Behind him, multiple tourists begin to exclaim, and he turns back to see the geyser spray a gush of water five feet in the air before returning to a steady six-inch high bubbling. A sigh of disappointment sweeps through the crowd, and Walter smiles inwardly, knowing the age-old question they are beginning to ask themselves. What if this time – this time that I come – is the time she stops being faithful? What if this time she doesn’t erupt?
But she will, he knows. She always does.
His gaze settles on a little tyke, no more than five, wearing a red raincoat and splashing through puddles in her yellow rain boots. A giggle jumps from her throat, and he grins. All around her, grown men and women wait, eyes glued to the hole in the center of the field, holding their breaths for the big event, yet she is thrilled by a simple puddle.
Daddy, watch me! Watch me! Another little girl dashes past, this one with crinkly auburn hair and deep brown eyes. She darts toward the open field and spins into a series of cartwheels. Are you watching, Daddy?
I’m here, Anna. I’m watching, baby girl.
She laughs and flings her head back, lifting her face to sunlight that isn’t there. He feels Lizzie take his arm. Sorry I’m late, she says. She watches Anna for a moment and then squeezes his hand. She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Walt?
Yes. Yes, she is, Lizzie-girl.
“Sir? Excuse me…sir?”
The auburn-haired little girl disappears, and Walter can’t feel Lizzie’s hand on his anymore. He turns to find a park ranger staring at him quizzically.
“Sir, I’m going to need you to come back to the sidewalk.”
Walter looks down and is surprised to see he has wandered past the barrier onto the grassy field. “I-I don’t know…what happened.”
The ranger looks worried now and climbs over the barrier to approach Walter. “Come on, sir. Let’s find a spot for you to sit and rest for a minute.”
Walter lets the man take his arm and guide him back toward the sidewalk.
“Are you here alone, sir?”
“No…my wife. She –” But he doesn’t know where Lizzie went. He looks around but can’t see her anywhere. The ranger’s hand tightens, and Walter glances down at the arm the man holds, his left arm. His left hand…his wedding band. Where is his wedding ring?
“I work here, you know,” he tells the ranger distractedly, as he tries to remember where he left his ring. “Have for forty years.”
“That’s a long time, sir.” The man helps him sit down on one of the benches. It is wet with rain, and Walter feels the moisture seep through the seat of his pants.
The voice comes from behind, and Walter and the ranger both turn to see an elderly woman with flyaway gray hair hurrying toward them. The tight belt of worry around Walter’s chest eases. Lizzie.
She takes Walter’s face between her two warm hands and shakes him lightly. “Where did you go, old man? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
“Just here, Lizzie,” he says contentedly. “I went just here.”
She shakes her head, sighing, and turns to the ranger. “I’m sorry. I turned around just for a minute, and then he was gone.”
“He’s your husband, ma’am?”
“Yes.” She takes Walter’s hand affectionately in hers. “Yes, he’s mine.” She smiles at him before turning back to the ranger. “We’ve been married forty years today. This is where he proposed to me, you know. Promised to be forever faithful – just like her.” She nods toward the geyser.
The ranger smiles too, relaxed now. “Forty years…mighty long time, ma’am. Congratulations.” He tips his hat to them both and walks away.
Walter remembers the missing ring and struggles to his feet, panic rising in his chest again. “Lizzie! My wedding ring. I can’t find it.”
To his surprise, she laughs. Reaching toward her throat, she draws a long gold chain from beneath her shirt. At the end dangles a golden wedding band.
She lifts the ring for his inspection. “Don’t you remember? It’s right here. Right next to my heart for safe-keeping.” She searches his eyes before lacing her fingers through his. “I’m not going anywhere, Walt. Don’t you worry.”
Behind them, a hissing sssSSSHHH sound grows, and the crowd bursts forth with a cacophony of laughs, hoots, and exclamations. They both turn to watch the geyser spew its fountain a hundred feet into the misty air. Walter sneaks his arm around Lizzie’s waist and draws her close.
That’s my girl.