“The Bridge” by Kerry Muir


Found in Willow Springs 66

Back to Author Profile

CAMMY TUTTLE IS THE SMARTEST, toughest girl in our whole fifth grade. She has red hair, straw-straight, and wears boys' clothes. Her trademark is a tweed Englishman's cap she got at Hinks department store in downtown Berkeley. She rode the BART train there all by herself, an adventure to Berkeley, to Hinks, and this is what she picked out as a treat—this hat, this Englishman's cap. She wears vests, too. It's 1973 and vests are in, especially corduroy ones with buckles, in earth tones like rust and olive green, colors that look good on Cammy Tuttle—but then, everything does, it seems.

On the playground when we play dodge ball, Cammy slings the ball at whoever's in the middle, hard, with gusto, with glee. But she's good at being in the middle, too. To watch her, you'd think being in the middle is a fabulous place to be. Cammy dances, leaps, and flies in the air. She skids sideways on worn-out tennis shoes. She sings at the ones who try to whack her with the ball: Missed me, missed me, now you have to kiss me. She teases and taunts them, actually tries to make them mad. If they throw the ball at me, I cover my face with both hands. I don't want to see that thing hurtling through the air at me.

Sometimes Cammy's mom subs at the school. Mrs. Tuttle. Her hair is firebird red, whereas Cammy's is more like a fox's. Mrs. Tuttle's hair is not straw-straight, but curly, bushy, and cut in a chic afro. She has spidery, spindly, white-as-moonlight legs, with just the lightest smattering of varicose veins that look like someone drew them there with a toothpick. On her feet, Mrs. Tuttle wears strappy high-heeled red sandals that make her long legs even longer. She wears them in wintertime even when it's cold, wears them with sheer white stockings and a big woolly fur coat.

Mom says Mrs. Tuttle is very ill—that she won't live more than a year. She tells me this because she wants me to be friends with Cammy Tuttle, to play with her, spend time. I think, Cammy is perfect, popular, wins at dodge ball—what does she need me for? But Mom says we should reach out to Cammy Tuttle. Our next door neighbot Mrs. Papini told Mom that Cammy is having a hard time, needs to have fun, needs friends. So Cammy has been invited to my house to play.

I see her in the distance from our kitchen window, crossing the old bridge. The bridge is long—about a quarter mile across. It's wide enough that an automobile could cross it, and probably did, many years ago. But now our house sits at the end of the bridge; if you drove across it now, you'd just end up in our backyard.

I am not allowed to walk on that bridge. Actually, no. one is. The bridge has DO NOT ENTER signs on the chicken-wire fence blocking it off at each end. In the spring, hundreds of ladybugs hatch and spread themselves all over that fence, covering it entirely in red. It's gorgeous. The bridge has holes in its asphalt surface big enough for even an adult to fall clear through. You can look down into those gaping holes and see the brown creek trickling, and rocks, like stepping stones in the water, hundreds of feet below. In bad weather, the bridge swings and creaks, sways on its feeble foundation of long, wobbly wooden stilts clamped to an ancient brace. The brace is corroded and tarnished, rusty and weak—oozing with thick, wet, green pads of moss. I've climbed down the steep slope into the creek many times, sometimes alone. It's a favorite place, of mine. There's a rotting one-room shack down there, just about the water, with the Devil's head painted in red on one side. Long, sloppy drips of paint leak out, dribble down from one of the Devil's horns. In pencil, scrawled along the walls of the shack: Asshole. Fuck. Fuck you. There's wildlife down there, too. My dog Ginger once came home without her collar, wet and muddy, covered in blood and shaking. Puncture wounds from claws covered her neck and throat. Hornets' nests hide in the tall weeds. Once, me and Joanne and Susan Papini happened to step on one; we all got stung in the most terrible way. The bridge used to be painted white, but now only flecks and chips remain. Parts of the railing have crumbled away, so you could fall off the bridge if you aren't careful—or if you had a mind to fall, like Mr. Koshland did.

Back in early October, just about a month ago, Scott Koshland's dad, Mr. Koshland, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was in all the papers. Our parents told us to be nice to Scott Koshland because his dad had jumped off a bridge. This haunts me because Scott Koshland's father is like my father—they both have bad legs from polio. Both walk with metal braces on one leg. Both use long metal canes. I saw Dad talking to Mr. Koshland once, on the playground at the school spring fair. They both stood balancing their metal canes, hips jutting out, shifting their weight every now and then—two asymmetrical bookends in loose-fitting khakis and blue plaid. Not even a year ago. Mr. Koshland had seemed normal then—fine. Just like my dad: Normal. Fine.

These days, my normal, fine dad is glued to the Watergate hearings on our black-and-white TV. When the hearings are on, you are not allowed to talk. He sits close to the box, holding the antenna, fiddling with the brown contrast dial. He mumbles things to the TV: Oh for crying in a beer. Good question, Sam. You numbskull. You knucklehead! He turns the volume up loud. You can hear Watergate blaring through every room in the house. You can hear it in the kitchen, where I'm standing, watching Cammy come closer and closer, as she crosses the old bridge.

Cammy walks like an athlete, half skip, half normal walk. She kicks things—dead walnuts, dried-up branches, broken twigs—kicks them like she's kicking a soccer ball. Using two fingers in her mouth, she whistles a boy's sharp whistle that cuts into the air above the creek. She does funny little elfin moves on the bridge—a shuffle hop, a grapevine step, a juggling move, a twirl. A bow to the uppermost branches of a giant walnut tree. She walks up to a pothole and sways over the lip, looking down to see below. With her toes touching the edge, she lifts one leg, balances for a moment, and stretches out both arms. Eventually, she hops over the hole—a hopscotch-type hop—landing on the same leg. When she gets to the end of the bridge, she reads the DO NOT ENTER sign, then flicks it like a booger or a fly.

I open the sliding glass door of the kitchen and walk out. Behind me, the sounds of Watergate: men's voices, tapping on microphones, throats clearing, papers shuffling, southern drawls. It's summer, and my dad, a teacher, is mostly home these days. My mom and sister are out somewhere.

What to do now? Cammy Tuttle is here. What to say? We wander around the backyard, kicking walnuts and twigs, looking at the ground.

You wanna take a walk? 

Cammie shrugs. Suits me. 

I've had two bad secret habits for a while that nobody knows about. One is shoplifting from grocery store. The other is breaking into people's houses and taking a poo or a pee. I don't flush. That's my criminal trademark, not flushing, so they'll know I was there. I never steal from the houses—I just like to look around, see their things, what stuff they have, see their secret lives.

I take Cammy to Craig Wingett's house. An older boy, Craig goes to Alcalanes, the big high school. After knocking on the door a couple times to make sure that no one's home, we enter the Wingetts' through the side door and step into the kitchen. I've never been here before. My face, my arms, the hair on my head feel coated with electricity. My legs are prickly, bursting with energy. I feel wiry, capable, sharp, alive. Things look vivid, dangerous, frightening, bright: the gleam of pots and pans on the wall, the glint of knives in the rack. An old-fashioned was tub sits in the sink, filled with water and suds. Bras dry on a string in the air about the sink. Two plastic angels stand next to a row of containers that say: Sugar, Flour, Salt, Rice, Tea. Cammy finds a round blue tin of butter cookies, takes one for herself and tosses one to me. It's good. We look around, touching everything: the bowl of red apples on the kitchen table, the two place settings on rubber olive-green place mats. I go down the hall—the carpet is gold shag—past photos of Craig at age five, six, seven, eight, nine, until he's about sixteen. I can tell they're school photos because they all have that same swirly blue wall behind his head. There's Craig—or someone—as a baby. Mr. Wingett in Buddy Holly glasses with Mrs. Wingett, beehive hairdo, rays of light beaming behind their heads. A smooth golden Jesus nailed to a smooth golden cross, with a smooth golden crown of thorns upon his head. To my right, a bedroom door is the tiniest bit ajar. I peek in and see a long glass-topped dresser, silver hand mirror, silver brush, comb, perfume bottle with round rubber squirter, golden-cased lipstick. I walk in with my eye on the perfume, give myself a squirt, look at myself in the mirror. I decide I hate my overalls and short hair, wish I'd never let Mom cut off my braids. In the bathroom, I don't turn on the light when I pee.

Back in the kitchen, Cammy's twirling her Englishman's cap on one finger. She throws it up in the air, lets it land back on her finger, keeps it spinning round and round. Says to me, Hey. Come here. 


You have to see the masterpiece. 

Like Carol Merrill on Let's Make a Deal, Cammy points to the center of the kitchen table, between the place mats. The tin wash tub, still full of suds, now has Mrs. Wingett's laciest, blackest bra stretched around it, fastened in the back. There's a big red apple in each cup. Cammy takes suds from the washtub, dots bubbles on the places where nipples would be. We crack up, take bites from the apples, put them, bitten, back in the bra, and crack up all over again.

It takes about five minutes to find Craig Wingett's stash of Playboys, a stack under his bed. We sit on the floor, we crouch, we kneel, we curl up. We open to the centerfold, Miss Whatever-month, an oiled-up blonde on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire. From what I can tell, she's in a cabin in Alaska somewhere. She's wearing a diamond choker, black spike heels, and nothing else. Her boobs are bigger than her head. We read the blurb about her in the bubblegum-pink box: her name is Kimberly. She likes warm smiles, riding horses bareback, swimming naked at the beach. Dislikes negativity. l look at Cammy. She is staring at Kimberly the way my dad stares at the Watergate hearings on our black-and-white TV. Leaning forward a little. Not blinking.

There's the sound of a car pulling into the driveway outside, and the squeak of brakes. The electricity in my body wakes up again, shocking me down to my toes. There's a scramble of Cammy and me pushing, stumbling, knocking into Craig's doorway, bumping each other, getting tangled, grabbing, clawing at walls.

Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! God! Go!

We shove each other down the narrow hall, losing our balance, hitting every photograph and tchotchke on the wall: Craig as a baby, Craig as a teen, Craig at eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, and five, the golden Jesus, the kitchen table, kitchen door. Just as we're almost free and clear, Cammy stops, turns on her heel, and runs back in the house again.

Cammy! Cammy! Cammy! Cam!

I dance back and forth on my toes, pounding the frame of the doorway. In a flash, Cammy is back, now clutching her Englishman's cap.

Go! Go! Go!

Sound of car doors slamming. The trunk door opening. Paper bags. Words.

We fly out the back door, clutching each other's sleeves, each other's hands. Cammy shoves me into a hedge, skids down next to me on the ground. I'm on my butt in the dirt, squashed in the space between house and hedge, hand over my face. I want to laugh so bad. I peek out through two fingers at Cammy, who stares straight through the leaves of the hedge. Whenever I start to lose it, she digs her fingernails into my knee. I bite my knuckle, twist my hand. I try to think of something serious and sad, to keep from laughing out loud. I think of Watergate and southern drawls, throats clearing, papers shuffling, microphones tapping. I think of Scott Koshland's dad, the air rushing fast and hard against his face; I think of a wish he might have had, just moments too late, to fly back upward, as if he had wings, to the place he'd stood only seconds before, there on the Golden Gate Bridge. I think of Mrs. Tuttle's high-heeled strappy sandals, her black coat, red hair, long legs, varicose veins, of Scott Koshland at the desk next to me, staring straight ahead. I think of anything, anything to keep from exploding and laughing and screaming and blowing it, getting caught, getting punished, getting put away. Meanwhile, goddamned Mrs. Wingett and Craig are taking about four hours to get the groceries out of their silver-blue Chevrolet. Finally, finally there's the sound of a screen door slamming shut, banging twice. Then silence, a few seconds—and Mrs. Wingett's high-pitched, wailing shriek.

That does it, we're gone, Cammy and me, running wild down Nordstrom Lane, screaming, laughing, crying, panting, sprinting through backyards. In a vacant lot where someone's starting construction, cement mixers and cinder blocks scattered everywhere, we bend over, grab our knees, hit the ground, roll, laugh, pound the dried-up earth, hold our stomachs, scream and scream and howl and cry and scream all over again.

We lie in the dirt, breathing hard in the sun. Cammy presses her forehead into the earth. Laugher bubbles up, recedes. I make a snow angel in some loose dirt. Cammy stands up, walks around. Takes off her Englishman's cap. Stares at it. Puts it back on.

I feel like an excursions, she says. I feel like going to Hinks. 

Right now? 

Yes, now. 

By yourself? 

No, stupid. With you. 

And so, less than an hour later, I follow Cammy across the old bridge, away from my house, toward the road that leads to the BART. The bridge sways and creaks, a great gray elephant's back under our feet. We look into potholes and see clear down to the bottom of the creek. I see the roof of the Devil's fuck-you shack, the muddy curve of the creek, water barely moving. I see the tall, tangled weeds, plants with red berries, thorns. Giant trees loom around us, their branches waving in the wind, forming a lacy veil of leaves over our heads like a canopy.

I follow Cammy across the bridge.

And for one moment it occurs to me, It's possible we might die.

Our odds could be that bad, our timing so crappy, our luck so slim that today might be the very day the bridge collapses and crumbles, the day the bridge falls.

But it's only fear.

Soon Cammy and I will be on the other side of the bridge, walking down Happy Valley Road. We'll ride BART to Berkeley, get off at Shattuck Avenue, go into Hinks and look around at the tall, pale walls. Cammy will get to buy one thing (a gift from her mother, perhaps?). She will choose her one thing from the men's department: a bright red paisley bow tie. I will go next door and shoplift a halter top for JCPenney's, with pale blue and white checks, its neckline a plunging V. We will ride BART back home, her wearing her new bow tie, me fidgeting with the halter top, looping it round and round the knuckles of one hand. The station in suburban Lafayette will be almost empty, the sky yellow, getting ready to turn dark.

Walking home along Happy Valley Road, Cammy will let me wear her tweed Englishman's cap. I'll let her wear the halter top, which she'll pull on over her olive-green sweater. She'll wiggle her hips as she walks and fills the cups of the halter with her thumbs, pretending to have boobs like Kimberly in Craig Wingett's Playboy magazine. By the time we get to the bridge there will be no light in the sky at all. I'll stick very close to Cammy when we walk back across. I will ask Cammy, Don't you feel cold? And she'll say, Nope, not me. I will feel tired, trying my best to keep up. Sometimes Cammy will be a step or two ahead of me, but other times I'll catch up with her and walk next to her, side by side. Every once in a while she'll say Look out. . . or Watch it there. . . , pointing to a gaping pothole. I'll tell her if I see one, too—I'll say Cammy, there's one over there. Over here, Cam. It will take us a long time to cross, but eventually, we'll get to the other side. We'll pick our way carefully, deliberately, down the bridge's pockmarked asphalt center, tiptoeing around all those potholes, so many potholes, floating in the dark.

“International Cooking for Beginners” by Katie Cortese


Found in Willow Springs 66

Back to Author Profile

At first, I couldn't help but think of him as the criminal. He chose an apron striped black and white, like the other men in the class, though there were other stripes to choose from: red-and-white, green-and-white, blue-and-white. The class was made up of YMCA junkies, all but the criminal. Last month ceramics, this month me.

The criminal shared a counter with the Norman newlyweds, and his quick hands were good with a knife. He could reduce a stalk of celery to little green commas in seconds. Fresh out of maximum security at Sing-Sing, he told us during registration, the day before the start of our six week course. Just a guy looking for his straight and narrow.

Mrs. Norman stood her ground next to the criminal. She was chatty and slight and looked about my age. Early thirties, with hair the color of a cast iron pot. Also, she was full to bursting with the first child. That was the main difference between us.

During registration I showed them how to make smoothies. Together we watched the criminal feed bananas to his blender one sickle-shaped fruit at a time.



"First the hollandaise," I said, moving between counters with green granite tops.

We'd begun with a guacamole base instead of egg yolk. Husbands mashed avocado cubes while wives apportioned mayonnaise and lime juice, tossed in Tabasco to taste. The criminal hummed while he worked, something bluesy that made me think of dark nightclubs filled with smoke.

"We'll have to remember this for Cinco de Mayo," Mrs. Norman said. She was pert and pretty and I doubted she'd ever made it out to Saratoga Springs, never mind to Mexico. To her left, her husband stirred dutifully; to her right, the criminal grinned down at his bowl.

"You know what's funny," the criminal said. "Most Mexicans don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo." His teeth were even and yellow, a mockery of perfection. His voice ground out like a tire in gravel. "Most people think it's their Independence Day, but that's really September 16th."

For a few seconds there was only the symphonic plunge and release of spatulas urging mayonnaise mixtures toward liquidation. The room smelled of vinegar.

Mr. Norman turned his head energetically, leaning across the counter so Mrs. Norman was forced to move back. "That's real interesting, bub," he said. "Where'd you hear that?"

"Call me Arthur," the criminal said.

We thought of adobe jail cells. Drug cartels. We don't need no stinkin' batches.

The criminal held his sauce up for approval. He gripped the sides of his bowl, instead of allowing his fingers to hand over the rim. The sauce within had the bubbly appearance of primordial ooze, but on the tongue it was smooth and tangy, an excellent first effort and the best in the class. He smiled like a kid with a gold star while I held out a hand for his paring knife. He gave it to me handle first and our fingertips met at the base of the blade, a quick, rasping touch.

Later, I fed my husband the leftovers. We sawed at canadian bacon, dry from the microwave, while a summer sun set behind the lake. "Have you ever been to Mexico?" I asked.

He looked up from his paper, the reading of which was his main occupation in the summer months when he was not required to profess. A web of blood vessels had burst on the apples of his cheeks since we'd met half a dozen years ago, a change that made him appear permanently jolly. In the last year, his fingers had started to swell after eating, so he'd take off his wedding ring for meals. It gleamed next to his plate now, silver and full of refracted light.

"What?" he said. The Life & Leisure page waffled in the breeze of his breath. Once, he'd been my professor at the college down the road. Our courtship had been a thrilling trespass. He'd order wine by the year and variety without looking at the menu, and tell me stories from his studies of Freud in Vienna, Rorschach in Switzerland. He'd promised to take me back there, to show me the world. But first there wasn't money and then there wasn't time.

I thought of thick blue corn tortillas smothered in queso and chiles so hot my tongue would pulse in waves. Posole topped with sprigs of cilantro and spiked with a freshly squeezed lime. Hearty bowls of albondigas. Tacos al carbon. A sweet caramel flan.

The summer stretched out before us. I said, "Don't you ever want to get away?"

He reached for my hand across the table and brought it to his lips. "Maybe next summer," he said, and then released me.



"Start your engines," I said, and thirteen index fingers pushed purée.

Twelve belonged to half a couple. Just one to a criminal.

I circulated, watching chickpeas turn into paste and encouraging experimentation. A handful of sun-dried tomatoes here, sprinkling of feta there. Another garlic clove. Pinch of salt.

The test kitchen filled with the smell of lemon juice and olive oil, paprika and garlic and mint. I'd wanted Greece for a honeymoon. Spanakopita and baklava. Lamb souvlakis and carafes of piney retsina. Instead, we flew to Buffalo for a long weekend so he could give a paper on Jung. It snowed the day we planned to see Niagara Falls and we ordered room service at the Ramada instead, feasting on chicken fingers and licking hot sauce from each other's fingers. I told myself Greece could wait.

"I bet this will be yummy," Mrs. Norman said. She scooped up a dollop of hummus and licked it, pink tongue darting blink-and-you'll-miss-it fast. Her eyes closed in appreciation. The baby was getting a taste too. She was shaping its likes and dislikes, its cravings, before it ever took a sip of air. She scooped again and held it to her husband, who swallowed, nodding.

"I'll take that bet," the criminal said. His hummus was dished up already, garnished with a pool of tahini and a pair of kalamata olives.

Mrs. Norman faced him, her smile stuttering.

Then she dipped the spoon back into her bowl and fed him, watching his lips drag over the place where hers and her husband's had been, and set the spoon clicking to the counter. He closed his eyes when he swallowed, a smile etching lines like parentheses into his leathered face.

"Now that's good," the criminal said, Arthur, his name was. Licking his lips.

Then, "Fair's fair." He pushed his bowl her way.

Mrs. Norman turned to her husband, her hands gone again to her stomach.

"Oh, no," she said, smiling wildly. "Thanks, but I've had enough."

"What's the matter, Lily?" Her husband reached over their own bowl and picked up the spoon, thrice used. "It looks delicious."

She blinked rapidly, the whites of her eyes seeming to swallow the all the blue.

Mr. Norman jabbed the spoon into Arthur's bowl and brought it to his wife's mouth.

"Go on, honey," he said. "Try it."

It hovered before her lips, which remained closed while her eyes reddened at their rims.

"Forget about it," Arthur said, smiling with deep wrinkles ringing his eyes. He took a new spoon from the supply drawer and tasted his own handiwork. "Could use some more salt."

I was distributing storage containers for take homes, coming to the Normans' table last.

"Christ on a carousel, Lilith," Mr. Norman said. He thrust the spoonful she'd refused into his own mouth and swallowed violently. "Oh, you're missing out, Lily. That's out of this world."

"A little bland, actually," Arthur said, studying his hands splayed on the counter. Hands that had hurt someone, maybe, wielded a gun, counted a wad of money from some illegal transaction. Hands that were capable of anything, everything, as far as we knew.

His dark eyes glinted from a face almost the color of brink. When he pushed the arms of his pilled brown sweater up nearly to the elbow, you could see the tattoos on his forearm. One a Red Cross snake; one the sight of a rifle. One a bulldog with teeth like a mountain range.

He kept his nails neat, his hands clean, and they were strongly muscled, the veins and bones working in concert with the slightest flex. I watched him fingering his spoon, wondered what those fingers would feel like tripping up and down the vertical crevasse in a woman's back. My back. I inhaled slowly through my nose to clear y head and move to an adjacent table.

The Normans prepared to leave without speaking to each other. She dumped their hummus into a plastic container while he washed his hands halfheartedly at one of the communal sinks. After they left, Arthur and I were alone in the kitchen. He removed his apron.

"May I?" I said. He smelled like sun-soaked sawdust, clean and sweet.

He pushed his bowl toward me and stood from his stool, knees cracking like gunshots.

He was right. It was bland. "I'd try some sesame oil and a little black pepper," I said.

"In the Middle Ages, in England, they thought birth defects were the mother's fault. Pregnant chicks weren't supposed to look at cripples or think about the devil, or else their kid would turn out half-monster." He set his backpack on the counter and unzipped it to slip in the hummus. The bag was filled with towels and boxers, razors and travel tubes of toothpaste.

I forced myself to look back at his face, that sun-crisped expanse. Close up, he seemed a bit careworn, but you'd never guess h'd lived fifteen years behind razor wire. I wondered where he'd been before that. Why he was here now.

"But then you've got your Ottomons," he went on, drifting toward the door. "And they used to say if you keep a mother from eating something she craves, the baby comes out with a birthmark on its head in the shape of the food. So there you go."

Assault. Battery. Rape. What had it been? He had such neat hands.

"Do you have somewhere to stay, Arthur?" I asked. It was the first time I'd said his name.

"Best Western's putting me up. Work release thing. They give me a room, I work in the laundry." He smiled. "Just like at home."

I had no way of knowing if that's what he'd done before prison or in it.

"It's lunch recipes next week," I said.

"Sounds good, Mrs. M.," he said, the "Mrs." rolling awkwardly in his mouth, and then he took off up West Avenue towards Washington. I noticed he wore no wedding ring.

At home, my husband's face turned pink with pleasure at seeing me. I curled into the armchair with him, crinkling the newspaper he'd been reading and kissing a star-shaped pattern against his cheek. "Well, hello yourself," he said, then wiggle out from beneath me and went into the kitchen to dip a triangle of pita into my concoction.

"Too much pepper," he said, and coughed to prove his point. But it didn't stop him from finishing the bowl and licking his pink sausaged fingers.

Later, lying in bed, I watched the streetlight seep in though the window blinds, painting our room with narrow bars of gold that I usually counted, slowly, as a mnemonic for sleep. Tonight, my husband kissed my shoulder. Testing the waters and tasting the salt of me. I turned to him and lifted one of his heavy hands, placing it on my hip where I warmed immediately. He'd kept his nails long once upon a time to pick the banjo in a bluegrass band. I hadn't asked him to quit playing after we were married, but he had anyways. The instrument had been caged in our attic going on five years. He'd never seemed old to me in college, strutting in front of the blackboard in cargo pants and tees, but now I saw the wrinkles gathered in the secret place where his ear nestled into his hairline, and couldn't help feeling the eleven years between us.

A strip of light fell across his nose, another over his forehead, leaving his eyes in shadow. We'd planned to go to London one year, for our August anniversay, but terrorists blew up those Tube trains that summer and he'd convinced me we should cancel our tickets.

"What's so attractive about English cuisine anyway," he'd said.

Steaming plates of Sunday roasts and airy Yorkshire puddings. Fish and chips served in grease-soaked sheets of newsprint. English breakfasts with baked beans and toast fried crispy in bacon fat. Tea and crumpets with clotted cream. Dense, sweet spotted dick.

"Most people would say nothing," I'd said, wondering what was the point of marrying a psychology professor if he couldn't interpret his own wife's mind.

And I wasn't such a mystery. Every place had its own taste. I wanted to sample them all.

"Let's go to Italy," I said now, his hand inscribing slow circles on my lower back, our torsos perfectly aligned. "We could have white truffles in Alba, Tuscan chianti, gelato in Venice from a sidewalk stand."

"Neither of us speaks Italian," he said, laying his lips against my throat, blinking his eyelashes against me in a feathery tickle like what precedes a sneeze. We'd had a five-year plan. See the world, then start a family. But Buffalo wasn't enough for me. It wasn't even out of our home state.

"I know," he said "Let's go down to the city this weekend." To a native Saratogan, The Big Apple was the only city that mattered. "We'll cruise by Little Italy."

He rolled over then, on top, driving me further into the mattress, working both of us further beneath the covers, and I pictured the vars of light and shadow drawn across the white expanse of his back.



In mid-June, the heat of summer settled in Saratoga, and with it the tourists, though racing season wouldn't start until the middle of July. In another month the city would double in population and its roads would seem to shrink by half. Saudi sheiks would stride the streets in their white thobes, cotton ghutras swaddling their heads in pure white or red-and-white checks.

Other foreign visitors would be harder to pick out, until you heard them speak at the Price Chopper, lovely elongated vowels and clipped consonants. Ireland and Australia. Germany and Spain. South Africa, Japan, India and Egypt. For two months in summer the world would come to Saratoga Springs, and then, as if we'd woken from a dream, it would leave.

I wanted to follow the world to its four corners, then bring it back home in my recipe book. Each taste better than a photograph. Proof of a thousand possible lives waiting to be lived.

In class, Mr. Norman was without Lily. Arthur noticed before I did. He asked after her over their pans of simmering sausage, the two men catching olive oil splatters on their black-and-white aprons, gabbing like a pair of referees at halftime.

"A little under the weather," Mr. Norman said. "The heat really gets to her these days."

"Tell me about it," Arthur said. "When my wife was pregnant, she sent away for brochures on Alaska. Until the winter hit, and then it was Texas. Somewhere that never cooled."

I lingered by their counter. But their talk dried up with me there. I inspected the contents of their pans, standing between them so Arthur's body heat was a felt presence.

"Very good," I said to him. "You can take them off now. Slice them into thin rounds."

Mr. Norman's sausages actually looked better, but I remember him last week, trying to force feed his wife to assuage his own embarrassment. "You're burning them," I said.

The two men sliced in companionable silence while I handed out premade pie crusts settled into disposable aluminum pans. Two older ladies at the rear counter called me over and I helped them get the body of their quiche started cracking four eggs into the mixer, adding the heavy cream, the pepper, the rosemary, the salt.

When I turned to the Normans' table, their talk had moved on to other things.

"I grew up in the city," Mr. Norman was saying. "Now I've got skiing at my doorstep, horse racing every year. I'd never go back."

"It's a little hoity-toity for me," Arthur said, mixing in cheese and broccoli. I wondered where he'd been born, how far he'd roamed in between. "But my daughter's here, so here I am."

The ovens had reached prime temperature and it was time to put the quiches in, but I wanted to hear a little more. I strolled over with my arms behind my back like a science fair judge, looking down my nose at their counter. I wore a silk scarf around my neck, purchased at the Fashion Bug for class because it featured Pisa's famous leaning tower.

"What's your daughter do?" Mr. Norman asked, dusting his pie with a blend of provolone and mozzarella, a snowy layer of parmesan. My mouth watered at its acrid scent.

"She's at the college," Arthur said. "Studies Asian countries, religions too, it said in her last letter. She doesn't know I'm here yet."

The college only had twenty-five hundred students. My husband would know her, maybe. I could arrange a reunion. They'd both be grateful and Arthur would get back on track.

Arthur looked up, saw me lingering. If he'd been in jail fifteen years, I wondered when his last time with a woman had been. If he'd grown priestlike in there, celibate, or if there'd been conjugal visits, magazine pictures taped to the wall by his bed.

"Time to pop them in?" he said, wiping his hands down the length of his apron.

He was proud of his handiwork. Garnering a repertoire so when he got his own place, he could cook for his daughter, make up for what he'd missed out on in prison. He wore a long-sleeved polo shirt, pushed up to mid-forearm, and I noticed even through the shirt that his upper arms were small, but carved into hard muscles the size of naval oranges. More tattoos covered his neck above and behind the collar of his shirt. One was a woman's name: Claire.

"Is that your wife's name?" I asked, though I'd only meant to think it.

He followed my gaze and brushed at the spot with his fingers as if trying to rub it away.

"She's more like the reason I don't have a wife anymore, Mrs. M.," he said, curt enough for me to walk away, face burning. We loaded the ovens and before long the rich scent of cheese and egg, and flaky, buttery pastry, took up all the space in the room. The students sniffed and smiled, kneaded their knuckles, anxious for a taste.

Later, cleaning up, I apologized. "It's none of my business," I said.

"Don't sweat it," he said. His area was spotless, and still he swabbed the counter with a paper towel as if trying to clean it at a molecular level. "It's all water under the bridge."

I stopped mopping then, gearing up to ask him finally. But he crossed the floor between us swiftly and my mouth snapped closed. I thought he would embrace me, push me roughly against the smooth plaster wall, or come at me with a knife concealed in his apron pocket, the very paring knife he'd used to hack apart an avocado on the first day of class. But he only paused in front of me.

"Excuse me, Mrs. M," he said, tossing his paper towel in the trash behind me.

I began mopping again to hide the flush in my cheeks. "Can I give you a ride home?"

He hoisted his backpack and we moved toward the doorway where I clicked off the lights, plunging both of us into the dim. He dropped one of his hands to the doorknob and held it.

"You have such wild eyes," he said, his free hand kneading the strap of his pack. I couldn't tell if it was just factual, what he was saying, or something else, but my heartbeat picked up and I swallowed with a dry throat. He leaned closer and closed his eyes, then breathed me in. I felt him doing it. My perfume, or just me. I breathed him in too. I felt ready for anything.

"You know, I think I better walk," he said with the flicker of a smile. And then he turned the knob and we both walked out into the dying light. That night, I searched for flights to Italy. I could fly into Rome for $450. Work my way north through Tuscany and the Piedmont region, hook south again and hit Venice, Parma, Bologna, Florence. Give myself a month and do it right. But even hosteling, there would be food to pay for, and there I wanted to spare no expense. I went into the bedroom where my husband snored already in bed, his striated with light.



"I wonder sometimes, who was the first person to eat a potato. They're not exactly appetizing raw," Mrs. Norman said. Her pretty voice, like her pretty hands, was flitting and sweet. She seemed fully recovered, yet bigger than ever, as if in the next second she'd boil over.

Both Normans stood slicing potatoes thin, as I'd told them to, and tossed them into a bowl without any contact of their elbows or hips, maintaining a cushion of air between them.

Arthur had seemed distracted at first, quiet and self-contained, his elbows held close to his sides as if he were trying not to take up space. Still, he spoke up now, producing a smile like a magic trick. "It had to be some kind of American. North or South. In the Chiloé Archipelago of Chile, they put potatoes in everything. You ever had curanto? They cook it in a hole in the ground. Lots of fish and potatoes. Delicious. Europe didn't even see one until the 16th century. Can you imagine the Irish before potatoes? Or the Russians without vodka?" He shivered theatrically as if the very thoughts were death.

"Pardon my asking, but how do you know all that?" Mrs. Norman said, her voice as high as a schoolgirl's. Anyone listening to them went on slicing, but the noise level sunk right down.

He winked and dropped a handful of potato slices into his wok.

I couldn't imagine him in prison. All that surfaced were movie images of men in orange jumpsuits lounging on metal bunks. Killing each other with shanks in the lunchline. Plotting escape in the exercise yard. Bragging about their crimes.

The frying stage took longer than I'd planned.

"No, no you have to leave them until they're browned," I said, putting all of Mr. Norman's chips back in oil.

"Last week, I'm burning everything. This week everything's supposed to be burnt. No wonder I'm hopeless at this," he said, looking to his wife for rescue.

"Maybe if you'd listen for once," Mrs. Norman said, turning to her right so her back was to her husband, her front to Arthur. But her voice reflected strain, as if she were forcing herself to speak to the criminal. "I hear you have a daughter," she said. "Ours is going to be a girl too."

Arthur went on turning his potato slices in the hot oil. "Her name is Melinda," he said.

"Lily, I need your help over here," said Norman, indicating the pan where the slices really were burning now. Before she could turn, a splattering of oil connected with a superheated metal coil beneath the pan. A grease fire flashed to lief and died out in the next second. Lily stumbled into Arthur, who had his hands up to catch her before she fell.

It all happened so fast, but then, as soon as she recovered herself, Lily screamed—an ice-pick-in-the-ear sound. I half-expected the juice glasses to shatter on their shelves. As it was, several students raised their hands to their ears.

Arthur released her immediately, then let his hands fall empty to his sides. Lily had clamped one hand over her mouth and now stepped backward, bumping into her husband and flinching when he brought a hand to her shoulder. She turned to him and buried her face in his armpit, her back heaving with sobs.

"I should go," Arthur said, shutting off his burner.

"Arthur, wait," I said, reaching for him. The fabric of his polo snagged on one of my fingernails as he passed.

"See ya, Mrs. M," he said, pushing past me and out the door into the wide world.

In his absence, his potatoes continued to fry toward golden brown.

"We don't know anything about the guy," Mr. Norman argued, his face strained as if someone were tugging it from within on a complicated system of ropes. Both hands ran up and down his wife's bare arms where she heaved against his chest. "Or what he's capable of."

The class was a sea of blank faces.

"Now they're burning," I said, removing his wok from heat and fishing out the crispy rounds with a slotted spoon. Mrs. Norman excused herself and returned seconds later, makeup and smile reapplied. She went on slicing, changing the subject to breastfeeding.

After everyone had gone, I swabbed a bleach mixture under each freestanding counter. The mop's saturated gray head encountered some small resistance in the Norman's area, Arthur's backpack, slumped against the rear wall. It smelled of sweat and cigarettes and road dirt, and had been oft-repaired, judging by the paperclip zippers and swaths of duct tape.

The Best Western was out of my way home, but I swung by anyway, carrying Arthur's backpack on my hip like a baby. The lobby had a thin beige carpet underfoot and a clerk who watching something with a laugh track on his boxy computer monitor, reaching occasionally into a bag of Cheetos balanced on his lap.

"I have something for one of your guests," I said, transferring the pack to the counter.

The clerk used a long, orange-stained finger to click his mouse, silencing the laugh track, then typed Arthur's full name in slow, hesitant keystrokes. I watched his gaze jitter over the results on his screen. "322," the clerk said, yawning. "Want to leave it for him?"

The elevator made a sing-song chiming and I turned to face it. "No, thanks," I said, remembering Arthur's hands on Mrs. Norman's white arms. The way his touch had scared her.

Aerosmith played in the elevator, a blast from my husband's childhood, tinny in the small mirrored space. My husband would be getting hungry by now. I could see him in his armchair, scanning the evening news and listening for the sound of my car in the driveway. In our early days we'd gone skiing in the Berkshires, hiking, camping; we'd traveled to Vermont or New Hampshire or Pennsylvania for concerts on a moment's notice. He'd sing to me, his voice high and pitch perfect, and we'd make love on a blanket in our backyard. These last few years though, he'd stopped wanting adventures, except the one I wasn't ready for.

He was full and satiated with experience, and I was endlessly hungry, a bottomless pit.

The third floor was deadly quiet. Arthur's bag weighed on my hip like an actual child, one grown too heave to be carried around. It was a smoking floor and the ceilings had yellowed, the carpets losing their red. I had an urge to cover the peephole with my hand before I knocked, though I knew he'd see me anyway when he opened the door.

"Arthur," I said, knocking softly. I'd expected to wait a minute or so while he roused himself from bed, stubbing out a cigarette on the way over. I'd never seen him smoke a cigarette and it made him seem more romantic somehow, a poor, put-upon James Dean type, misunderstood by the world. Maybe he'd been wrongly convicted of whatever it had been. Maybe he was really an innocent man.

The door swung open almost before I'd finished knocking, but his face—open and inviting before he saw me—arranged itself into a mask of politeness. "Mrs. M," he said, "Won't you come in," as if I'd arrived just in time for tea.

I'd expected tube socks flung everywhere, clothes draped over chairs and surfaces, an unmade bed. I'd expected him to have stripped to a wife-beater and jeans, feet bare, hair rumpled from sleep. But he wore the blue polo shirt and Nikes he'd worn to class, and his room didn't look occupied. A fully packed suitcase stood off to the side and every surface was clear, from the desk to the bathroom counter to the hospital corners intending to stay. The scent in the air was of lemon air freshener. I spotted the can on his bedside table on top of the evening paper, the same one my husband read daily, which was neatly folded along its original lines.

"Your bag," I said, holding it out with two hands.

"Much obliged," he said, taking it from me and setting it next to the suitcase. There was no place to sit but the bed, so he sat on one side, creasing the flowered comforter, and I perched on the other.

This hotel room was made for encounters like this, and had seen stranger couples than us. I hated to think about what might be living microscopically on the comforter.

"I'm sorry about today," I said. There was a good three feet of space between us, as if we'd left from for both my husband and Claire, whoever she might be.

He waved the incident away as if it were a fly. "Don't blame here. For all she knows I went away for rape." He looked me full in the face, leaning slightly over his straight arm, a blue vein pulsing through his inked bulldog.

"You didn't though," I said, feeling confident now, feeling I had him figured out.

He fiddled with the bottom hem of his shirt, staring down. "I didn't," he said.

I wasn't going to get a better window to ask than this one, but he looked so private, sitting there. So remorseful. I picked at a loose plastic thread in the bedspread.

"You didn't have to bring my bag," he said. "It's just crap in there anyway. Just contingency plans." He leaned back on an elbow and lifted his legs onto the bed.

I curled my own legs up so the two of us were on an island. I wished I'd finished his chips and brought them to him now. We could have fed them to each other, crispy and salty and greasy between our fingers and tongues and teeth.

"It was unfair, what Lily did," I said. "I wanted to make sure you were okay."

He cocked an elbow behind his head and lay back into the bed. "You're a beautiful woman. Don't get me wrong," he said. "But I know what I look like, so what I"m wondering, is what's so wrong with your life that you're here with a fuckup like me."

"Does your daughter think you're a fuckup, too?" I felt braver now, sitting higher than him on the bed, the door closed but unlatched behind me.

"She's smart. She says away," he said. "I got some pretty bad habits. They left me in a pretty bad way." He held out an arm across the bed and I thought he was reaching for me so I took his hand, turning the willing victim. Our palms brushed against each other and I felt my heartbeat spike. The country of infidelity was one I"d never thought to visit, a place with no taste—only texture and temperature, pure sensation.

He held his arm stiffly though, curling his fingers tight over mine and turning his elbow toward me so I could see the healed-over track marks, scars so many and deep they'd been made permanent over a decade ago.

"Don't get tangled up with me, Mrs. M.," he said, letting my hand hit the comforter.

I stood and darted for the door, though he wasn't pursuing, was barely getting himself to standing. And standing there, breath coming fast in a painful whistle, I felt stupid, cheated somehow. But also free. Freed. "I'll see you in class?" I said, an attempt at brightness.

"Sure thing," he said.

I took the stairs down to the lobby and stopped at Boston Market on the way home for food to feed my husband, though for once I couldn't imagine eating a bite.



It was normal to drop a few students during the course, but this week only half the class showed up. I'd have to freeze the rest of the pork loins and come up with something creative to do with a dozen extra beets. Arthur was one of the missing.

Mrs. Norman was also absent, and Mr. Norman set about his preparations as if readying for war. While his pork loin simmered, he dashed an onion into a thousand tiny pieces, and peeled and chopped beets until his fingers were stained crimson. He kept swiping his hands across his apron, drawing red streaks against the black and white.

At the end of class, Mr. Norman asked for extra Tupperware. "The wife is staying with her mother a few days," he said. "Pre-baby jitters."

His borscht smelled rich and delicious, and when I inserted a wooden spoon in the center of the pot, so many vegetables were crowded in that it stuck straight up and down, the sign of a very good batch. I helped him split it into two separate containers.

"You're starting to get it," I said. It was hard to stay angry at a good cook.

"Do you have kids?" he said, tightening the lid down on one container and marking it "Lily" with a permanent marker. They'd been married barely a year and it would only get harder. I had no wisdom for them.

"I'm not cut out for motherhood," I said, and felt another burst of freedom.

Even though we'd parted awkwardly, I missed Arthur at the front counter, his efficient, nimble fingers peeling the paper jackets off small, white onions and working a whisk with brisk, efficient strokes. I felt I'd been stood up, as if he'd broken a promise more tangible than his presence in class. I cleaned up quickly and shut off the lights.

Out in the hallway, a familiar backpack had been dropped by the test kitchen's door.

He'd come after all, without intending to stay.

At home, my husband looked up from his Chomsky, while on the television a weatherman waved his arms frenetically in front of a giant cartoon rendering of the continental United States dotted with clouds and sun and rain.

"What's that?" he said, marking his place with a finger still pre-dinner thin.

A student left it. Want to heat this up?" I handed him my tub of borscht and slung Arthur's bag to the coffee table, reached for the much-mended zipper.

"Do you think you should be doing that?" he said. I looked up from Arthur's bag, the mystery contents. He'd left it for me, but there'd be no note on the outside, no explanation.

My husband clutched the tub of soup to his chest, face white and slack in the twilight creeping in across the lake. "I'm looking for an address," I said, "so I can send it back."

He looked at me a minute longer, then slipped like a shadow into the kitchen.

The zipper parted easily, releasing the odor of hard-used socks and undershirts. I pushed aside hotel towels crumpled into damp balls and half-used trail-sized bottles of Suave two-in-one shampoo and conditioner, feeling like a pickpocket as I fished for a wallet or an address book or a prepaid phone. My fingers landed on something boxy and slick, thick as a textbook. I pulled it out, spilling a pair of boxers and a handful of disposable razors onto the hardwood floor.

Instead of an atlas or a novel or a dog-eared Bible, I held a Let's Go Guide to Vietnam.


I knew they used a lot of noodles and rice, seafood by the coast, and in other places turtle meat and dog. But I couldn't name a single dish. Another country I'd never thought to dream of.

Feeling like a thief, I opened the cover, which was new and stiff, through paperback. I was looking for an inscription, for the corners of pages to be turned down, for any sign that he'd read it, or purchased it for me. There was nothing until the pencil scrawl on the inside of the back cover: Melinda's name, her address at the college down the street, and an email.

"Didn't you hear me," my husband said, emerging from the kitchen with a dishtowel threaded through his belt. "It's ready." Outside the window, a seagull skimmed low over the lake, calling out harshly, an ocean bird that had somehow lost its way.

"Thanks, honey," I said, flipping through the thick paperback, feeling the breeze of its pages on my face. It smelled of glue and laminate.

My husband wiped his hands on the towel, then unthreaded it and spread it on the table like a trivet in preparation for our meal.

It was nearly racing season now and traffic would be humming on 87 up from the city. I pictured Arthur walking that four-lane highway, but heading north toward Glens Falls and Niagara and Montreal and Quebec, where he'd eat candied ginger beef with a side of fiddlehead ferns. Caribou steaks. Fresh venison and sockeye salmon. Saskatoonberries in cream.

He could travel the world again. Go back to those places he'd spoken about. Maybe he would. He was a free man. But I was a free woman too, and here I was, right where I'd begun.

Maybe some cages were harder to shrug off than others. Maybe he hadn't gone anywhere at all.

Through the windows opened to the lake, the birds struck up a chorus now, those seasoned travelers. On the television, the weather had given way to local news.

"I'm not very hungry tonight," I said. My husband held his hand out for the book, then took a seat in his armchair to thumb through it.

He flipped the pages more slowly than I had, his plump face sober and pasty. I watched him puzzle out the complicated city names, heard him whisper their syllables like the mystic words of some ancient incantation. Then he closed the book.

"What happened to our five-year plan?" he said.

I knelt between him and the television, which droned of accidents on the highway, a small fire started and snuffed in a n abandoned home. He wore a pair of old cords soft from may washings and I ran my thumbnails between the worn ribs.

"I'm not ready," I said. "I want to see the world first."

He let his head drop and slid the guide toward me down the length of his thigh.

"Then that's what you should do," he said.

I went to the kitchen to dish out the borscht, though I knew he'd prefer something simpler, something more American, something to his taste.



She was still in town for a summer program. Melinda Brown, daughter of Arthur, Asian studies major, journalism minor. I asked her to meet me before my last class, explaining that I had something that belonged to her. Best case scenario: Arthur returned for his backpack and Melinda arrived in the same moment. A joyous reunion would ensue.

In truth, I didn't expect her to show, but I was alone in the test kitchen, prepping the counters with bowls and spoons and ingredients when she stepped through the door, big blond curls bobbing with every step and a purse gripped white-knuckle-tight on her shoulder.

She was fair and unlined. I saw nothing of Arthur in her.

"Melinda," she said, with a hand out. Professional and brisk.

I didn't know how to begin. "Your father wanted you to have this, I think." I handed her the Let's Go guide, waited for her face to break and crumple.

"I already told him I don't want it. Twice," she said, thrusting it back without ceremony. "I don't want anything from him."

I felt betrayed somehow, as if he should have told me he'd already been to see her.

"What about his belongings?" I toed the backpack, which sat at my feet like the last kid at summer camp waiting to be picked up.

"Burn them," she said, lifting solid, swimmer's shoulders in a rough shrug. "You know what he did, right? What he's like? Do you know who you're helping?"

At first, of course, I'd wanted to know, like everyone, what Arthur's crime had been. I couldn't imagine he'd gotten locked away for fifteen years just for being a heroine addict. But I distinctly didn't want to know now. I just wanted to pass the last of him onto the last person likely to care. But now I knew there was no such person.

"Maybe he'll come back for it," I said, trying to laugh. "If he's not back in Mexico yet."

"You must be kidding," she said. "He's never left the states. He never left his state. But I hoped you're right, and I hope he stays down there."

She turned to leave, heels clicking brightly toward the door.

"Are you studying Asia in school because he was in Vietnam?" I said.

She stopped halfway to the door and hung her head, shaking it slightly. "Did he tell you that?" she said. "Well, maybe you can explain to me how he got PTSD from driving a desk at the recruitment center over in Glen Falls. It's just another of his bullshit excuses. Maybe if he'd ever actually been deployed—" She turned to face me and I saw her eyes had gone shiny, though no tears fell. "Actually, no, there's no excuse for some things."

When she turned to go this time I let her, but I stored Arthur's backpack in the supply closet. Just in case Melinda had underestimated him. The Let's Go guide I kept.

And this week only one counter was empty.

I like to think Mrs. Norman woke before dawn and reached over to shake awake her mister. He carried her bag to the car and secured the belt over her stomach. It was dark and they had forty minutes to drive, all the way to Albany, as her contractions spun out faster and faster.

While I led my students in peeling sweet potatoes and rinsing handfuls of screwpine leaves, I imagined Mrs. Norman sweating and swearing and sucking on ice chips, crushing them between her teeth and letting the shards melt on her half-frozen tongue.

I knew how that ice would dissolve slowly, wetting her throat but tasting of nothing.

“Slackwater” by Heather Brittain Bergstrom


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

Winner of the Willow Springs Fiction Prize

Jill checks in to the Pioneer Inn under a fake name, shaking her head in the dim light of the office when the manager's son, Clayton, asks if she's from around here. The next night, as they share a few beers beside the motel pool, Jill lies again, telling Clayton she was born and raised across the mountains in Seattle. When he still insists she looks familiar, she swears that she's never even stayed in Eastern Washington before, only flown over it on her way to other places. The third night, thanks in part to the bottle of whiskey Jill bought to speed things up, they migrate from the pool to her room.

The weight of Clayton feels comforting on top of Jill. Her fiancé hates sex missionary style, preferring it standing and not in bed. The slight smell of the potato factory on Clayton's skin, like wet cardboard and dust, also comforts Jill, as does the creak of the motel bed beneath her and the way he holds her hand as if they're dancing or taking a walk together instead of having sex.

"Let's go for a drive," Clayton says as Jill slides from bed to retrieve the pint of Wild Turkey off the table.

"In your king-cab truck?" She laughs before taking a swig. It's the first bottle of hard liquor she's bought in a while.

"Why not?" He shakes his head when she offers him a swallow. "You got a problem with king cabs?"

"Not if you have kids."

He pulls his jeans on under the covers. She remains naked. "How do you know I don't have kids?" he asks. She knows Clayton still lives with his dad in the manager's cottage, probably so he can afford the payments on his four-wheel-drive, king-cab truck. She also knows most men in the area pay almost as much for their pickups as they do the trailer houses they buy for their wives. "Or that I don't want a litter someday?" he continues, sitting up. "I'm only twenty-one."

When he reaches for the lamp, Jill says, "Don't." Clayton works the day shift at the potato factory and hasn't seen her yet in bright light. "Let's smoke in the dark."

He gets out of bed. "It's a nonsmoking room."

"You won't tell your daddy, will you?" She takes another swig. She purposely chose a nonsmoking room so she wouldn't be tempted to light up. Her skin is dry enough without adding cigarette smoke. She's not yet thirty, but probably looks a decade older in the wind and dust of Eastern Washington.

"Let's get out of here," he says. "It's a nice night."

"No, it isn't. It's hot. And there's nothing to see around here but canals and crop-dusters."

"There's enough to see for one drive," he says. When she doesn't argue or agree, he walks over to her stack of books by the phone and asks, "Are you a teacher?"

"Someday, maybe."

He picks up the top book. "Is your real name written inside?"

She almost drops the bottle. How does he know she used a fake name? "The book's not mine," she replies. "None of them."

"I've never been to bed with a woman whose name I didn't know."

"You're young," Jill says, and he puts the book down as if she called him stupid. She's trying not to be mean. That's why she didn't tease him the second night after she asked him what people around here did for fun besides hang out by motel pools—she was hinting they should have sex—and he replied that he didn't know about anyone else, but he stopped at the bowling alley every day after work to shoot darts. "How about driving me out to where you work," she suggests now.

"You got nose plugs?" He laughs. "Turning spuds into fries is stinky work."

"I just want to sit on the lawn is all."

"You mean if it has a lawn." He moves closer.

"Don't all spud factories?" she asks, trying to sound nonchalant, though she suddenly feels lousy. Shit, she even feels like crying. She never cries in this town. She should've packed her bags this morning instead of waiting around for Clayton. She'd intended to stay only one night at the motel before heading out to her parents' trailer to surprise them with the long-hoped-for-news of her engagement. She takes another swallow of whiskey, a guzzle, like she used to chug beer at fourteen when she first started sleeping with boys and men, thinking they were her ticket out of here. And they had been. One man anyway. Though the others surely led to him, or that's how she reasons it now.


The sprinklers are on at the factory where Clayton parks his truck alongside the road. With a front lawn as green and spreading as a golf course, the industrial-sized sprinklers run all night, as they do in the alfalfa and potato fields throughout the county. In fact, Jill hates to admit, the steady far-off ticking of irrigation sprinklers has helped her sleep better at the motel than she has anywhere else in years. Up close, though, there's nothing lulling about the sound of the sprinklers. At least they mute the factory's eerie hum, or almost.

When a stench starts to fill the cab, as Jill knew it would, Clayton hurries to roll up the windows. "Don't," Jill says. "I can handle the smell."

"Scoot over here by me," he offers, as if that'll help.

The factory is the largest building in town, larger than the silos and grain elevator by the truck stop. It has lights and gates all around it and five smokestacks sometimes billowing all at once. Jill used to come out here with her mom to bring her dad lunch, until she turned eleven and started complaining that the place made her sick. The factory seems small tonight. It seems smaller each time Jill returns, and usually she likes that, hoping maybe one day it will disappear completely, or she will, never returning to her hometown. But tonight she wants the factory to seem huge—like the skyline of some eastern city she's never seen.

The rows of poplar trees planted to block wind look blurred and spooky in the dark, half lit by the artificial light of the factory. Or maybe it's the Wild Turkey distorting her vision. When Jill was sixteen, she had sex with a guy in the parking lot during his half-hour dinner break and stared at those same trees. He was the one who informed her that scalding steam exploded the skins off the potatoes. Then his crew dug out the black spots with short knives. Clayton told her that he's a loader. Her dad, before becoming supervisor, also did assembly-line work, using his wrists mainly. That's why he slept with Velcro braces on. Jill used to wonder if he took them off to touch her mom.

"Big deal, huh?" Clayton says. "Why'd you want to come here?" She doesn't answer, but when the stench overtakes her other senses, she scoots close to him. He places his arm around her shoulder. Pointing to the parking lot, he explains how during any other season the lot would be full, all three shifts. Sometimes over sixty semis a day deliver trailers of potatoes, but summer is slow. He's lucky his supervisor likes him or he'd be laid off like most of the young guys.

"So, your supervisor's a nice guy?" she asks,, almost certain it's her dad.

"What's his name?"

"Why?" he asks. "You need a job?"

She laughs. "This is no place for women." She begins to rub the inside of Clayton's leg.

"Plenty of ladies work here."

"I bet." She unbuttons his jeans. "And I bet your supervisor has a few favorites among the ladies as well."

"The hardworking ones, sure."

"Willing to stay late," she says, tracing the band of his underwear, "but—in his office."

He grabs her hand. "Things might operate like that in Seattle."

"Oh, please." She scoots away from him, then opens the passenger door.

"Where're you going?" He buttons his pants. "You're drunk."

"No, I'm hot. It's fucking hot." She wants to jump out, but it's along way down. "Don't you hear that humming in your sleep?" she asks.

"Sometimes. Now shut the door."

"Have you ever run through those sprinklers?"

"Let's go." He starts the engine.

"Go where—to the bowling alley?" He doesn't answer. She feels dizzy and irritated that she can't hold her whiskey worth a crap now that her fiancé prefers her to "appreciate" wine instead. Trying not to slur her words, she asks Clayton to help her out with his truck or she'll fall. She says she doesn't know why he needs such a big truck unless he plans to get fat or buy a farm. He kills the engine, walks around the front of his truck and helps her out. "You coming?" she asks, teetering toward the lawn.

"No," he says. "the lawn's off limits to employees." She knows that already and almost turns back to tell him so. As a little girl she always wanted to flip cartwheels on the grass. It was the greenest place in town. A few people came to fly kites. Mostly they stayed away because of the odor of the wastewater pools hidden behind the factory.

The pressure from the sprinklers hurts at first, but the water is icy cold, as Jill hoped it would be. Relieved when her skin goes numb and her nausea momentarily subsides, she lies flat on the grass. If it weren't for the chilly temperature of the water spraying above her, she'd have a hard time believing it's river water—siphoned from the Columbia and pumped through more miles of canals than there are paved roads in this desolate part of Washington.  When she was a teenager, Jill used to borrow her mom's car on summer days and drive to the canals, though her mom thought she was cooling off at the public pool. As Jill swam, she liked to pretend the channels led somewhere other than to the slackwater reservoir and seep lakes south of town where the ducks rested in winter and men fished year round. Sometimes she pretended the larger canals—though they scared the hell out of her and once she almost drowned—were the actual Columbia River, not just fake branches of it and that natural rapids were pushing her along.

When Clayton shouts her real name—"Hey, Jill!"—instead of the name she used to check in to the motel, she sits up quickly. Her head spins, her pulse clunking like the sprinkles. "Jill McKinney!" He must've looked in her purse. Stomach lurching, she throws up, but manages to stand and rinse off before Clayton makes it over to her. She shoves his hand away, but he insists on helping her to his truck. He pulls a flannel shirt form behind his seat. She refuses to wear it, though she's shivering. He's drenched from trying to help her. His arms drip water as he starts the engine. She rests her soggy head between her knees.

"Are you Sid McKinney's daughter?" he asks after they pull into the parking lot of the Pioneer Inn. "My goddamn supervisor's long-lost daughter?" When she doesn't answer, he clicks on the overhead light in his cab. "No wonder you look familiar," he says, "there's a picture of you in his office." All that's left of Jill's drunken state is her nausea and it's suddenly worse. She didn't eat lunch or dinner, though she bought a sandwich earlier at the gas station. The though of turnkey and warm mayonnaise makes her gag. "Shit," he says, still staring at her, in disgust, maybe, or just curiosity. She's too embarrassed to meet his eyes. "I'll be seeing your dad in a few hours. You want me to tell him hello from you?"

She grabs his arm. "No!"

"I'm joking," he says. "It's none of my business."

Walking her to her room and unlocking the door, he asks if she could stay another day, just one more. He apologizes for looking in her purse, claiming he only wanted to confiscate the Wild Turkey so she wouldn't get sick.

"And my driver's license—it just fell into your hands?"

"Yeah, I guess." He grins.

He helps her into the bathroom and sits her down on the floor by the toilet, rubbing her back. He seems too good at this, helping a drunk woman. She wonders where his mother is. She shouldn't wonder. She should tell him goodbye. She shouldn't be inviting him to take a shower with her, asking him to sleep beside her, promising that if he does, she'll stay another day.



Clayton is gone from the motel room when Jill wakes with a terrible thirst and stiffness in her joints. The phone rings loudly. She heard it earlier, or dreamed she did, but she has no intention of answering it. She has yet to call her fiancé in Seattle, where she currently lives and works, to let him know she arrived here safely. Maybe it's her mom calling, but Jill hasn't talked to her mom—in person or on the phone—since the last time she was in town two years ago. It was late summer then, like now, which happens to be her least favorite season in Eastern Washington: the sky a smoky gray, the soil crumbled to dust and too easily stirred by wind, the sagebrush not yet bloomed. It keeps her from ever being tempted to stay.

Clayton must've crept out of bed early this morning—as her dad used to get up at the crack of dawn to leave for work, her mom rising even earlier to cook him breakfast. Jill used to wake for school to the lingering smells of coffee and bacon. When she started sleeping with boys, barely making it home some nights before her parents woke up, her dad quit looking her in the eyes. By then Jill no longer believed that her dad actually worked late all those evenings when she and her mom ate dinner on TV trays in the living room—Jill thinking it a treat.

As far as Jill knows, her mom has never said a word to her dad about his affairs. She's rarely comments on Jill's behavior either, other than to say, "If only we'd gotten you a horse, dear. It would've kept you from chasing boys." Jill never wanted a horse, not even when her parents bought a double-wide land so they'd have room for one. Instead, bad times came at the factory and year of layoffs and then years of worrying about layoffs. Now she thinks that a few books, not a horse, might've saved her as a girl.

It was in a bookstore in Seattle where she met her fiancé, Adam. She had just started working there and felt terribly out of place in the old Victorian with three floors of used books, velvet sofas, and a mildew smell. But soon she started reading books during slow hours, and then after work, before going to her evening waitressing job. Next thing she knew, Adam was checking out philosophy books for her from the university library. He wasn't discouraged when twice she was denied admission, but he didn't like it when she finally enrolled herself in junior college, deciding to major in liberal studies and teach elementary school. He said it was below her, but actually Jill worries it's above her, considering how she struggles in her classes. Perhaps her high school counselor was right in advising her—and similar girls—to stick to cosmetology or typing classes.

She'd been a regular shit in high school. She was an even bigger shit to her mom during her last visit home. First she refused to sleep in her canopy bed, saying the pastel ruffles made her feel silly. Then she started poking fun at the Tupperware her mom had been buying for Jill for years with her bonus points. She complained that the view from the windows was nothing but ugly sage and that the wind was drying out her skin. When her dad left one evening for an "employee appreciation dinner," Jill took a good look around the trailer's interior, as if for the the first time. Noting the paneled walls, the shelf of JCPenny and Sears catalogs, the cookbooks and craft magazines, the dusty rack of TV trays in the corner, she told her mom, "I wanted more for you."

"I wanted more for you, too," her mom said, not glancing up from her crocheting. "You were so pretty."

"No, Mom, I was just as plain as everyone else in this town—only more willing."

Her mom looked up. "Honey," she said. "We all make choices."

"Or," Jill said, "your husband makes them for you." Her mom frowned. "Is Dad afraid you'll discover a world out there and never come back?"

"Why do you come back?" her mom asked.

"Why does he?"

Her mom threw aside her crocheting and stood, knocking over her yarn basket. Jill bent down to gather the mess. "You look older, Jill," her mom said, "but you're not. You're as spoiled and fidgety as ever. That's what your dad says every time you call home with a new boyfriend and a different address in Idaho or Tacoma or Bend or—"

"Dad can go to hell." Jill shoved the last unraveling balls of yarn into the basket.

"You know he's always provided."

"I work ever day too, Mom."

"Your dad made supervisor at thirty-one."

"He's a supervisor at a potato factory, not a CEO."

"You can make fun of me, honey, all you want, or this land," her mom said, lips trembling. "But don't you dare mock your dad again in this house." Turning, her mom hurried down the hall, shutting her bedroom door, but not before Jill heard a choked sob.

Jill packed suitcase that night. She didn't leave until her dad returned home and she met him at the door with enough whiskey on her breath and stagger in her step to get him to follow her out to car, asking, no, begging her to stay.

She'd intended never to come back.


The knock now on the motel door startles Jill. She must've drifted back to sleep. Surely Adam hasn't traveled over the Cascades after her—not she she repeatedly told him she wanted to tell her parents the new of their engagement in person and alone before they set an official date. But she's been promising Adam this for months. Probably he no longer believes her. Though he believes her about so many things. And he asked her to marry him despite his philosophical and social arguments against legal contracts as proof of love.

Jumping out of bed, she forgets she's naked. A buzzing begins immediately in her head, a humming like the factory. Maybe if she stands perfectly still for a second, the humming will go away and so will the person at the door. Maybe if she closes her eyes and imagines she's on a ferry crossing Puget Sound. Another knock, louder. She grabs the first garment from her suitcase, hoping for her bathrobe. It's her black dress, cut low in the front and back, but long, almost covering her ankles. She's worn it only once and isn't sure why she packed it. She scrubs her teeth with her finger. What if it's her mom at the door?

It's the motel manager, Clayton's dad. He's a small man with a turquoise bolo tie and looks old enough to be Cayton's grandfather. "Clayton called and wanted me to bring you this," he says, handing her a plastic bucket of ice. There another one of the ground by his feet. She tries to open the door further, but the sunlight burns her eyes.

"I'll give you money for the room," she says realizing it must be long past checkout time.

"Not to worry." He smiles. "You can still choose the weekly rate."

"No," she says quickly and his smile fades. "I'll need the room for just one more day." He bends to pick up the other plastic bucket. "Come in," she says. They carry the ice to the table.

"It's Clayton who's been trying to call you," he says.

"Oh." She laughs nervously.

Gesturing toward the bed, he says, "Housekeeping has already made the rounds, but there's clean sheets"—he clears his throat—"and towels in the office." He heads for the door that Jill left ajar, but then turns back towards her. "My boy likes you," he says. "He's called me twice to come see if you're okay. Do you like him, too?"

"What's not to like?"

"Good, then." His smile returns. "He's been pining after that gal at the bowling alley for too long. She doesn't love him." He looks her up and down. "You look like the kind of woman who could love a man real proper."

"Sure," Jill says. "But I'll be staying just one more day." She needs to shower and brush her teeth. She needs the humming in her head to stop. So Clayton has a girlfriend at the bowling alley. Playing darts, is he? She needs to put on lotion.

"My son's awfully lonely for twenty-one," he says.

"It's this town."

"I reckon he'd kill me if he knew I said anything." He winks. "But you seem the type who can keep a secret." She thanks him for the ice, locking the door after he leaves.


Jill sucks on ice cubs while she waits for Clayton to call again. When he does, he invites her to dinner. He knows a nice restaurant in Ephrata with great grub and dim lighting. He chuckles as he says the part about the lighting. When he asks if she packed a dress, she tells him she's wearing one now. "I wish I were the," he says. "This place stinks and my supervisor's a real ass." Jill laughs. "Six o'clock," he says. "No, I'll be there at five."

After getting of the phone, Jill considers driving to the Columbia River. Even though it's only twenty minutes away, she's never actually walked along its shores. She's only seen the Columbia from the tops of dams and highway bridges. Maybe she'll ask Clayton to driver her there after dinner. For now she heads out to her parents' trailer.

Her mom's car is parked in its place, where her dad's truck usually dwarfs it. He drives a truck with six wheels and though he's never hauled hay or even groceries. Her mom's car looks dirty, not just dusty, and there's a dent on the fender. The blinds are all closed. Even on the hottest days her mom prefers natural light. She hopes her mom isn't sick. So many married women in the area—including Jill's aunts and cousins—retreat into illness to give themselves something to think about and do while their husbands are off fishing or whatever. Jill has always been proud that her mom's end tables aren't crowded with medicine bottles, or that she hasn't given up and gotten fat. She should've told her mom that last time. They've never gone this long without talking.

Why can't she just be brave now and pull her car in beside her mom's? The news of her engagement will mend things between them. Her mom will start right away on Jill's wedding afghan. They can go to Kmart together and pick yarn colors. Jill will even act excited about the Tupperware saved for her in the hall closet. She drives past the trailer again, thinking of the sculpted wooden bowl she bought in Seattle for her mom, the bags of gourmet coffee for her dad. No, she can't. She'll leave in the morning or tonight after dinner. Unless, maybe, Clayton asks her again to stay another day. She's felt a strange tugging at her chest all afternoon sensing he might. Though the tugging could just be this town, staying it it without her parent knowing, as if she's never been part of it, or them. She turns her car around and drives past the trailer one last time, slowly. If her mom feels the same tugging, she'll open a blind or even the front door—then Jill will have to stop.



Clayton looks surprised when she opens the motel door at ten to five without him having to knock. She wears the black dress and a sheer scarf tied loosely around her neck. He steps inside. "I'd say you look too nice to take out and shar," he says, "but you've probably been told that before."

They eat at the dimly lit restaurant with maroon walls, small framed pictures of cowboys, and wagon-wheel chandeliers. The waitresses wear suede miniskirts and tight fringed vests—and Jill teases Clayton that their uniforms are the main reason he likes this restaurant. He says he likes how she looks in her black dress better. She drinks two glasses of red wine before dinner—red and white being the extent of the list. He orders them thick-cut sirloins and baked potatoes and with the works. She doesn't have the heart to tell him she never eats potatoes and rarely eats beef. Halfway through the meal, the tugging in her chest returns, and she excuses herself to use the restroom. What she really wants to do is visit the bar for a quick shot or three of whiskey.

Clayton stands when he sees her walking back toward their table. He wears pressed jeans and a checkered long-sleeved shirt. He's also wearing cowboy boots that Jill is doing her best to ignore. Apologizing, she tells him she can't eat anymore, though she could use another glass of wine. He finishes her steak and then orders them both a shot of Wild Turkey.

Taking her hand across the table, he asks, "You all right?"

"I drove past my parents' place. My mom's car should have a tarp on it." He squeezes her hand. "This is boring stuff," Jill says. "Thanks for tonight."

"It's not boring." He plays with the tips of her fingers. "And tonight's just beginning."

"You think so?" she says and he grins. She waits a second before asking, "Do you ever see my mom at the factory?"

"She stops in," he replies. "Sure."


He shakes his head. "If you want," he says, "I'll go with you to your folks' place."

"It's too late." She pulls her hand from his and drinks her entire glass of water, though it's tepid, the ice melted.

"What do you mean too late?"

"They go to bed early, is all," she says. "Or my mom does."

"We could go tomorrow." He reaches up to brush her bangs from her eyes, but she scoots back. Flushed and cranky, she considers telling Clayton for the first time that she's engaged—just to see his reaction.

"I'm heading back to Seattle in the morning," she says.

He studies her a moment without saying anything, then signals for a waitress and requests more water. "It felt weird today at work," he says, "with your dad. He never hurt you, did he? I mean—touched you or anything?"

"He never came near me."

"You look like you're from Seattle tonight in that dress," Clayton says, and she wants to ask him if he's ever been there. Her mom never has. Seattle might as well be Chicago or New York City.

"I'm glad I didn't wear my cowboy hat," Clayton says. "It would've embarrassed you worse than my boots do." She tries to smile. "Let's go," he says and stands up. "I want to show you something."


They drive for a while, first on the highway and then on county roads. She hopes he's taking her to the Columbia. Clayton brakes and turns onto a gravel road. Dust billows all around as he pulls off and shuts down the engine. He's parked in the middle of a field of sagebrush, next to a stack of hay bales. "Paradise," she laughs.

"Don't laugh," he says. "It's mine."

"What is?"

"I just bought this land to grow potatoes. I've even got a canal."

"Good for you," she says, trying to sound sincere instead of annoyed. He has a canal and some tramp at the bowling alley, and she has a fiancé who reads her poetry and likes sex standing and preferably in public places like the university library, museums, and every floor of the used bookstore.

Clayton opens his truck door, but tells her to stay put and close her eyes. She hears him climb out of the cab, then open the utility box in the bed of his truck. It takes him a good five minutes before he returns for her. "You ready?" he asks, a bit breathless. He's taken off his checkered shirt and wears a plain white T-shirt now and a cowboy hat that almost makes her wince—as do the ratty sweaters Adam wears trying to look like he's the immigrant from Eastern Europe instead of his great-grandparents.

Clayton helps her walk toward the hay bales, which he's made into a bed with a flowered comforter identical to the one in her motel room. Two battery-operated lanterns burn low, one on each side of the bed, and there's a picnic basket. She feels like Ma Ingalls, but decides not to say so. After they climb onto the bed, Clayton pulls a bottle of Wild Turkey from the picnic basket. Instantly cheered, she says, "My best friend", and reaches for the bottle.

But he won't let go of it. "Don't say that, Jill."

"I'm kidding," she says. "Come on, you're my best friend."  She stands. "This land is my best friend." The wind lifts her dress and almost blows off her scarf.

"Sit down," he says. She does, spreading her legs and climbing onto his lap. They have yet to really kiss all evening. "Wait," he says after they make out for a while. "Listen." He takes a deep breath. "You're quite the kisser."

"I've had lots—"

"Don't," he says, putting his finger to her lips. He hands her the bottle of Wild Turkey, which she quickly opens. "Listen," he repeats.

"There's nothing to hear out here," she says, taking a swallow. "Nothing but wind and jackrabbits. And, oh, wait, do I hear the water in your canal—loud as Grand Coulee Damn?" He starts to push her off his lap, but she clings to him. "Sorry," she says. "I'm sorry." God, why does she act so mean? "I like your property,," she lies.

"I wanted you to be the first person," he says, "to spend the night here with me."

She takes another swallow and hugs him. It feel nice being this close to him again. She missed him today, this morning when she woke up. That's why she's being cruel now. Why doesn't she miss Adam? Why doesn't her mom miss her anymore? "Do you love me?" she whispers into Clayton's ear.

She feels like a fool. She stayed far away from boys like Clayton in high school. She feared they would keep her as ordinary as they were, with their John Deere ball caps and clumsy-looking hands and dusty boots that had never left the Columbia Basin. She didn't want to be understood or loved by any one of them. But Clayton is different. He knows more, somehow, has seen something more, maybe in the rooms of his dad's motel. Certainly he knows more than he lets on—probably saw right through her bullshit on the first night.

Maybe not, she reconsiders as he starts playing with her dress, tracing the low neckline with his fingers, the tips of which feel rough like burlap. She hadn't noticed before. "That's some dress," he says.

"I think your dad liked it, too, this morning."

He moved his hand. "Why do you say things like that?"

"You don't have to love me," she says and takes the bottle from him. "I'm old. Just pretend. I won't hold you to it tomorrow."

"You're not old, Jill," Clayton says. "You have your whole life ahead of you. You'll be a teacher. You'll meet—" He pauses, looks confused, as if not quite believing what he's saying. "One day," he continues, "you'll meet some nice Seattle man and—"

"No," she interrupts. "I am old. I have a hard time concentrating when I'm trying to read books or even when  I'm having sex with nice Seattle men." He sighs, puts both his hands in her hair. "Just say you love me," she says, feeling suddenly as scared as she did the time she almost drowned, unable to find the ladder of rusty metal rungs she'd used countless times before to pull herself up the canal's slippery concrete side. "Please," she says.

He hugs her tightly instead. After a few moments he unties her scarf, unwinds it slowly from her neck. "This is pretty,"  he says. "Can I keep it?"

"Sure," she replies. "Give it to that gal at the bowling alley who doesn't love you."

He pushes her off his lap. "You're something else." He takes another long swallow of Wild Turkey before standing and throwing the bottle as far as he can into the dust and darkness. She hear it thud on the ground. He still has her scarf. He holds it out now in the wind with just his fingertips, as if to let it go. It looks like a ghost or a trail of smoke.

He sits back down, fold the scarf, and places it in the picnic basket. Jill reaches for his arm, asking him to tell her about that other woman. "I'm just jealous," she says, but also she feels more wasted than ever for the amount she has drunk.

"Sounds like my dad already told you," he says.

"I'm sorry."

"Her name's Darlene. She has two great kids. I'm going to build them separate rooms both facing south towards the canal."

"Are you guys engaged?" Jill asks, mouth dry. She thinks of her own engagement ring in the velvet box in her suitcase and wishes it were from Clayton, or that she didn't have one at all. Years ago she got pregnant by a longshoreman and decided on abortion. She wishes she had that baby now so Clayton could build a room for it.

"We're getting married," he says. "Soon."

If only Clayton had known Jill when she was younger, before the longshoreman, before the Hutterite farmer who first got her out of Eastern Washington. He'd been as eager as she was to put the place behind him, but then wound up taking it all out on her in bed, all those years confined to his family's fields, mumbling Bible verses as he bit her thighs.

"Do you love her?"

"I want to provide for her," he says. "She's had a hard go. She needs me. And she doesn't drink like—like my mom did."

"Or like me," Jill says. She lies on the pillows, turns her back toward him.

"No, Jill. I didn't say that." He lies beside her. "Shit," he says and scoots closer. "I care about you. You have to believe me." He rests his hand on her hip. "It was you I though about all day today, not Darlene."

"Then don't say her name anymore."

"It's you, Jill McKinney, that I want to be with tonight."

"And tomorrow?"

He doesn't answer, but after a while he says, "You were right, you know, Jill, about this being no place for women—the factories or the fields. Your mom probably wanted you to stick around here after high school, huh? Stay and keep her company?"

Actually, her mom never asked her to stay.

"I'd stay with you," Jill says, and she would stay with Clayton. She's known it all day. She'd help him grow potatoes. She'd stop drinking. "I'd stay," she repeats.

Not taking his hand from her hip, he says, "I'd never ask."

They lie there a long time, side by side. Jill is afraid to close her eyes, to fall asleep and waste the rest of the night, but neither does she wish to stare any longer into the darkness beyond the lantern light. Halfway closing her eyes, she pretends she and Clayton are resting now on the porch of their new farmhouse. She pretends his hand on her hip feels like enough, feels complete. And it does, almost. Ignoring, for the moment, the lonely sound of the wind through sage, she hears instead the river in the canal, rushing past her on its way to the sea.


Two Poems by Todd Boss


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

Still We Like to Imagine

that behind the front
desk of every Quality
Inn and Cracker Barrel
in every hamlet in

America there's a girl
just waiting for some
handsome stranger
to linger after the ring
of her cash register,

look into her eyes and
croon Darlin', this town
is too small for a woman
like you, 
but it's just not
true, some women and

their towns are in fact in
perfect proportion to
one another, and some-
times Who you callin'
is the only real

answer to such a question
—never mind what one
would rather do, or who,
if she did go, would
look after mother.


Weren't You a Kid Once, O'Brien

is the question on this sunny
summer Sunday morning
here in the middle of our
block in big block letters in
chalk on the sidewalk in
front of the front walk that
leads to the house of

An indictment,
almost a condemnation,
a sharp stroke of passion,
it was apparently written
by a parent of neighborhood
children whose practical
antics were enough to anger
one or another elder O'Brien.

It's a rhetorical question,
as those of us who come
to this concrete chalkboard
apprehend without having to
know what mishap happened
under the elms or ceilings, in
the presence or the absence
of O'Brien.
We need only
heed the tone of the accuser
to know that no number of
excuses for bad behavior can
out-shout this dustiest one,
this final appeal for a justice
that must—one feels certain
—inspire, as it does in every
one who comes across it, a
curiously human feeling in
our good man O'Brien,
just as his judge had planned,
will have no choice but to change
into a pair of worn chinos
from church clothes,
to its furthest reaches the garden
and stand in the afternoon
hear, in view of us, the members
of his generation
and spray—
till the day's pink neon lesson

is washed into the street and away.

“Labor” by Kim Chinquee


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

I got off at four, he'd come on at three, we overlapped a bit, but he'd be there until eleven. He worked chemistry, I worked phlebotomy, drawing blood all day, mostly veterans on Coumadin, pregnant wives and babies.

He'd come say hi when he got there, looking fresh in camouflage or whites, smelling like the cologne I'd bought him.

This day he told me our dog was probably hungry, and I kissed his cheek, asking what he wanted. He gave me the keys, said he'd parked in the usual.

I went home, meeting Burster, who barked first. I put his food down, then unloaded groceries, feeling the baby in my tummy. Easy, I said, stroking my middle.

I lit the burners, opened windows. It was a hot March in Biloxi. I put the beef on the pan.

I got back in our Camaro.

There were enough helpings for him and his co-workers. I was never big on food, especially what he ate, so I dropped it off and watched them. He was there and a guy he partied with, and another guy who worked hematology. They were tight. And also the supervisor, who was in her forties, who was into nude beaches and swinging with her husband.

They all ate my food, and then said thank you, and my husband kissed me, telling me what a good wife I was. Our baby kicked, so I said, Honey, feel this.

They went back to work, and I cleaned their plates, then left the keys to my husband, since he needed a way home and didn't want to have to wake me. He said he'd bring the plates.

It was a couple miles, and I got to walk along the flightline. The sunset was pretty, shining on the lake, the moon. I liked to smell the fumes, watch the planes landing and descending. I could barely see past my tummy. I tried to watch the tips of my shoes, kind of counting, like in basic training. I kind of started marching.

Halfway, my baby started doing more than kicking. I told my baby easy. I said it wasn't time yet.

When I got home, finally, I sat on the toilet, seeing more than blood, the plug. So I called work, asking for my husband.

The woman answered, saying he'd left early.

"Where is he?" I said.

I went down on my own and breathed hard.

“The Waves Were Low” by Kim Chinquee


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

My neighbor chartered out his boat, catching shark in his net. Days before, he'd taken out my husband.

Now the neighbor's boys sat at the pier with rods and us women sat on benches. The fisherman's sisters and his oldest girl had babies, and so did I. Children ran on the boat and my neighbor told them easy. One woman spoke about delivery and I gave my baby to another, held my stomach, and I tried not to remember my husband on the way to the hospital, his constant scent, the smell of whiskey. Now he was on top of the boat, drinking beer and grilling with the men, and some were lighting sparklers.

It was a long time until dark. The night before, I'd run to the neighbor's with my shirt ripped. Barefoot, and my stitches weren't closed up yet. My baby cried and the fisherman's wife said hush. Hush, as if she were the mother to us all. I had curled over, and my husband banged the door, saying let me in now, and the fisherman neighbor got up and stood there in the doorway. He was big, taking all the door frame.

Now a dog ran in an Elizabethan collar. The waves were low. The men drank more and I heard them laughing. I had no other family. Finally the men came, bringing down the brats and all the corn dogs. My husband sat next to me and I sat rocking.


“Goose” by Kim Chinquee


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

He said he'd gone to the dump to find a cheap ignition. But no luck and now the baby was crying. Duck, duck, goose, he said and I said that was for children, and he ate the corned beef and cabbage. I lulled the baby and wondered who the woman was who'd come by looking. Wrong place,, I'd told the woman, and the baby was feverish. Now the baby was asleep, my husband's plate empty, him laughing at the TV, and I sat opposite him and asked what he'd been up to. The dump, he said again, but it was past midnight and I was about to ask about the woman—I closed my eyes and pictured my son lovely, awake, jumping with only a whisper.

Two Poems by Denver Butson


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

drowning ghazal

first line by Vicente Huidobro

I am absent but deep in this absence
asleep but asleep in this absence

glass rattle a tongue remembers rains
how long can one keep in this absence

the waves from far off lisp her name
the brooms of dusk sweep in this absence

rain on the driveway stones is my one morphine
forget counting sheep in this absence

last night I woke in some hotel outside Denver
tried but couldn't weep in this absence

drowning ghazal

first line by Claire Malroux

then to return with your pittance of sky
to bow deeply and bid good riddance to sky

there is a cafe outside the dream station
threads of avenues    ribbons of sky

this is the kind of rain that cities drown in
notice the flooded streets    witness this sky

a can collector woke me this morning
screaming twenty fracs for love    sixpence for sky

in one arrondissement there is rue Denver
a few moments of tree   an instance of sky

Two Lists by Blake Butler


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile

Hair Loop

  1. My father used to tell me that he'd gone bald from holding the hair dryer too close to his head.
  2. That the gleaming bulb of his flat scalp skin had been burned free into the light.
  3. For years in the barber's chair I cringed, fearing the same, and often asked to go home sopping.
  4. The several dark brown hairpieces my father wore in rotation, stored in his closet on Styrofoam heads. Their features formed but slightly muted—noses without nostrils; skin without wrinkles; eyes with no pupils, lashes, lids.
  5. The short weird rip of adhesive as he pulled the hair off in the evening and sat in the living room in front of the TV wearing a denim hat my mother'd made.
  6. How self-conscious and incensed he'd become when as a stupid child I'd snatch the hat from his head and squeal in glee.
  7. The average human head has 100,000 follicles, each of which can grow 20 individual hairs over a lifetime, and from which an average 100 hairs are lost each day.
  8. Increasingly, in my frustration, and even without thinking now, I pull my hair out at the front.
  9. The damage becoming more apparent in the wispy frittered fragments of my bangs.
  10. Hair as the body's slow expulsion; as a set of fuses from the brain. .
  11. The strange arrival of the new hair during puberty, which as a somewhat frightened child I immediately extracted one by one until I could no longer keep up.
  12. The single long mutant black hair on my left forearm that continues to grow back no matter how many times I rip it out.
  13. Hair as a pack of multiplicity. As a signifier of demeanor, rank, intention.
  14. In that same closet with his fake heads, my father hid a stack of old porn under a T-shirt, which on the evenings he was not home I would sometimes steal into my room.
  15. The hair those women had or did not have. The soft width of their papered flesh.
  16. From certain issues I snipped certain pages and hid them in a purple folder in my desk.
  17. Some I reinforced with paste onto cardboard to extend longevity, like enormous trading cards. Others I traced on paper in fear their absence would be noticed.
  18. The graphite outline of that blonde-headed woman in the orange bikini top pulling her thong down as if to make sure she was still all there.
  19. The now ridiculous myth of hair growing on one's hands in retribution for dirty acts.
  20. Hair of Samson, Medusa, Rapunzel.
  21. During fetal development, a fine hair known as lanugo grows to cover the entire body as a form of insulation. 
  22. As the lanugo is shed from the skin, it is normal for the developing fetus to consume the hair since it drinks from the amniotic fluid and urinates it back into its environment. 
  23. Numerous times throughout my teenage years I allowed my hairdo to be determined by the ladies at Great Clips for $9.99.
  24. The old women's fingers in my output.
  25. Their breath against my neck.
  26. The smell of disinfectant from the combs soaking in blue fluid. The bristled tickle of the brush.
  27. Perspiration. Spritz and rinse. Snip of metal scissors. Rare spot of blood.
  28. Afterward standing in my bathroom mirror sometimes crying and pleading for god.
  29. Yet returning to the same place the next time my locks had grown out, as if with my hair they'd taken my memory, or pride.
  30. All those pictures of me ruined and blustered, preserved in yearbooks, hung in Mother's hall.
  31. Relax— You're at Great Clips. 
  32. Hair as a trophy, token, as in a bounty hunter's bag of scalps.
  33. Hair as a mold that grows across the face and in the nose and ears.
  34. As in the way hair can be anticipated, I often sense the residual presence of whoever rented my home before me.
  35. Their fingerprints and oils and output in the places where I now sleep and eat and shower.
  36. What surfaces we've shared without intention. What cells we've taken in our mouths.
  37. Clogs of long hair yanked up from my apartment's bathroom sink and the shower drain.
  38. Strands of dead cells snaking their way down, encased, drawn out with a coat hanger to stink and glisten in the light.
  39. The inevitable layer of loose hair on almost any floor. A constant carpet. Fodder for the roaches, feeding protein.
  40.  35 meters of hair fiber is produced every day on the average adult scalp. 
  41. Hairpin, hair turn, hair rigger, hairnet, hair tonic, hair lock, hair care, hair shirt, hairbrush, hair trap, hair band, hair remover, hat hair, hair on fire, hair of the dog, win by a hair, lose by a hair, let your hair down, splitting hairs, hair up your ass, angel hair.
  42. Combing. Braiding. Shaving. Teasing. Crimping. Regeneration. Rinse and repeat.
  43. The crudded crowd of prior selves stored and expelled, still hanging on, styled and combed and cleaned, worn in dreadlocks, braids, and perms.
  44. The sudden whitening of one's hair after significant trauma.
  45. The bits of other's shedding unknowingly consumed— hair in the has browns, coleslaw, orange juice.
  46. The hair found in the mouth while kissing.
  47. The single strand of her hair I kept for years after she was gone.
  48. The slow recession of my scalp as I molt like my father, my head flesh opening unto the light.
  49. The way hair evaporates immediately when touched with flame.
  50. And, burnt, such sharp stench blooming.


Word Count

  1. My mother in the kitchen asking me to count backwards from 100 by 7's with the Alzheimer's book clutched in her hand.
  2. A pot of water boiling for broth soup, as this week I weigh more than I have in years.
  3. My father gone for the evening to spend what might be the last year he is able to go to Deer Camp. 
  4. Deer Camp an annual vacation my father has taken with his friends and brothers for as long as I can remember, where they do not hunt so much as watch racecars and drink beer.
  5. The first time I saw porn, on accident, when I came with Dad to camp for a day.
  6. Penthouse, I think, which I age 5 found on a sofa half sunk into mud.
  7. Seconds of women spreading, their weird hair and eyes.
  8. More than tits I remember how the men laughed as my father took it from my hands.
  9. The metal in the fire.
  10. The aging framework of the cabin, the camping beds: decaying cells.
  11. The dead among that group of men increasing by the year.
  12. My father some days getting lost now going places he's been so many times.
  13.  My mother calling camp to make sure his brothers help with the medication.
  14. Behind the cabin, a minor flood hold of old collecting rain, known among my father's friends as Lake Hoonie, where he's said he'd like to be sent floating, Viking-style, when he dies.
  15. Ashes on water. 
  16. How each time I see him shirtless his skin seems different, stretching, reupholstered.
  17. Home from camp, when I ask what they did, my father's long gone-out stare, his looking off.
  18. My reiteration of the question. His eyes again. "We ate."
  19. The bowl of cereal under Saran Wrap in the refrigerator.
  20. How I feel scared writing this down.
  21. My father sitting in front of the turned-off television in the afternoons, hours that in other years he would have spent building with his hands.
  22. The hands inside his hands.
  23. His going to bed at 8 p.m., at7, at 6:30.
  24. My mother up alone evenings in the twin chairs they brought matching, writing her journals in longhand.
  25. The lists and lists of days she can not hide.
  26. How some days my father seems not there inside him, or sometimes transfixed in a loop. The hours spent cleaning the pool. Sleeping in from of the TV. Walking from room to room and standing.
  27. The number of words I have left speak or write before I die.
  28. An invisible word count fixed to my head at birth, as to my father's, my mother's— a count one won't know until it's completed counting down.
  29. That count shifting downward line by line and list by list.
  30. What words will remain labored inside us when the tally has been depleted.
  31. I feel reckless.
  32. Trying to imagine the percentage of language I've used on ordering fast food or on customer service hotlines. Talking shit to god alone inside my car.
  33. The words I could have made instead, or said another way.
  34. Words I could have given to my mother, to coax my father into me.
  35. Other things that might be counted down to death: footsteps, tacos, hours sleeping, orgasms, dental visits, inches of cut hair.
  36. Or worse: things we ruined, how many cheated, the pounds of consumed unhuman flesh, hours a loved one spent suffering— each by years or hours counting down.
  37. How many times in my life I've said the equivalent of: I'm tired or I'm hungry or Please stop. 
  38. We wouldn't need that many words if we could just learn to say the right ones at the right times.
  39. Another count to consider: the number of words you'll take in during your lifetime.
  40. This list killing us both with every line.
  41. Miscrosoftcountsthisasonewordbutyoucan'tcheatdeathsoeasily.
  42. The average adult takes between 12 and 20 breaths for each minute.
  43. 125 words per minute per person outputted in ordinary conversation; while at the same time, encased in bone and flesh, the brain spools on burning closer to 500 wpm.
  44. As well, on average, in a minute, per person: 15 blinks, 42 mL urine output, 600 thoughts; 50 million body cells dying and being replaced.
  45. Counting down and counting down.
  46. 162 babies born; 1.3 rapes; 16,000 Google searches; 8,500 McDonald's hamburgers sold.
  47. The average housefly lives 10 to 25 days.
  48. The average human lives much longer but in the end it probably feels the same.
  49. My father in the living room trying to turn on the TV.
  50. My father.

Two Poems by Kim Addonizo


Found in Willow Springs 86

Back to Author Profile


Your wooden leg stood beside the bed
in its tennis shoe & sock, trailing its fasteners,

its amputated man leaning invisibly against the wall.
You pulled back the sheet so I could touch

your stump, the small hole in your left foot.
I touched everything. I was curious. I was eighteen

& ignorant. You told me the little
you thought I could handle.

Thirty years gone since then
to wives, meth, government checks...

Last year they took a kidney
& a few inches more of your right thigh.

Your two sons were fed to a different war
& spit back out. Now

they induct the nervous teenagers of Phoenix
into the intricacies of parallel parking,

the number of feet to trail the car ahead.
You & I are a late-night phone call.

You stretch out beside your drained pool,
shirtless in the heat

with a bottle of Jack, I cradle my California wine.
When your new prosthesis topples

to the cement by the lounge chair
I try to hear

what the fallen man says
as you set him upright.


Forms of Love

I love you but I'm married.
I love you but I wish you had more hair.
I love you more.
I love you more like a friend.
I love your friends more than you.
I love how when we go into a mall and classical muzak is playing,
you can always name the composer.
I love you, but one or both of us is/are fictional.
I love you but "I" am an unstable signifier.
I love you saying, "I understand the semiotics of that," when I said,
"I had a little personal business to take care of."
I love you as long as you love me back.
I love you in spite of the restraining order.
I love you from the coma you put me in.
I love you more than I've ever loved anyone, except for this one guy.
I love you when you're not drunk and stupid.
I love how you get me.
I love your pain, it's so competitive.
I love how emotionally unavailable you are.
I love you like I'm a strange backyard and you're running from the cops,
looking for a place to stash your gun.
I love your hair.
I love you but I'm just not that into you.
I love you secretly.
I love how you make me feel like I'm a monastery in the desert.
I love how you defined grace as the little turn the blood in the syringe
takes when you're shooting heroin, after you pull back the plunger
slightly to make sure you've hit the vein.
I love your mother, she's the opposite of mine.
I love you and feel a powerful spiritual connection to you, even though
we've never met.
I love your tacos! I love your stick deodorant!
I love it when you tie me up with ropes using the knots you learned in
Boy Scouts, and when you do the stoned Dennis Hopper rap
from Apocalypse Now!
I love your extravagant double takes!
I love your mother, even though I'm nearly her age!
I love everything about you except your hair.
If it weren't for that I know I could really, really love you.