“Slackwater” by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

Issue 64

Found in Willow Springs 86

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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.


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