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Stumps of Mystery: Stories from the End of an Era

Stumps of Mystery 159

 

Stumps of Mystery

Stories from the End of an Era

By Susan Wickstrom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

1. Who’s Your Caddy?……………………………………..………4

2. Stumps of Mystery…………………………………………… .17

3. Alienpalooza..…………………………………………………..30

4. Quatro de Julio…………………………………………………41

5. The Meadow……………………………………………………54

6. Skittles…………………………………………………………. 64

7. Love Among the Treesitters……………………………….…..77

8. The Season of Tiny Yellow Leaves……………………………89

9. U-Cut……………………………………………………………100

10. Groundhog Day………………………….………………..….112

11. Election Eve 2008…………………………………………….156

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woodhill, Oregon

This former logging town, population 17,300, has a quaint history that is continually augmented by the modern world. The paper mill is closed, but Northwestern Oregon University provides a somewhat stable economy, along with a burgeoning tourism industry: wineries and restaurants crop up almost daily. The refurbished Woodhill Hotel (365 Main St.) is an interesting starting point; the lobby is crammed with old photos that tell the area’s story. The dining room offers state-of-the-art cuisine starring locally vinted wines. Each year, the town hosts a whimsical festival to commemorate the supposed 1957 UFO landing on Lost Mountain west of town. The real heart of Woodhill is Mack’s Diner (serving breakfast all day since 1906) where blue-collar workers and college professors rub shoulders at the counter.

-Lonely Planet Guide to Oregon, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Who’s Your Caddy?

 

Mike Burke leaned back in his recliner with a cold sweating can of Bud Light in his hand. The television was tuned to an afternoon Mariners’ game but he couldn’t hear a thing over the roar of his wife Kathy vacuuming the living room carpet. He watched her waltz back and forth, her face flushed, her short frosted hair curling with perspiration. She was graceful despite the middle-age plump that seemed to have snuck up on her in the last few years. She was always on some sort of diet lately: Slimfast, Atkins, South Beach, the Hollywood Fast. But she still looked like a girl to him, especially on that day when she was so excited about their dinner guest.

The oscillating fan on top of the oak entertainment center scanned the darkened room with its broad dusty face. Kathy had pulled the blinds early that morning against the freaky late-April heat wave. For years, Mike had planned to install an air conditioner, but there was never quite enough cash. After the logging company went tits up, he had bounced around the job scene for years, yet nothing quite took. The state retrained him as an x-ray technician, then the Woodhill Hospital closed down. He often thought about taking classes up at the state college, but he could never bring himself to look into it. So he worked when he could—driving wine tours, treating outdoor decks in the summer, cutting firewood in the winter.

Truth be told, he had never really liked logging that much. The first time his dad took him to work in the woods when he was 15, he was overwhelmed by the manic buzz of the chainsaws, the smell of gas mingling with fresh sap, the thunderous crash of huge firs as they fell to the ground, men shouting, winches whining, trucks grinding—it scared the hell out of him. His dad was a chokesetter, one of the most dangerous jobs in the business. Once the tree was felled, he chained up the trunk so the winch could drag it onto the sled. The logs were often unstable; Dad’s dinged-up hardhat was evidence of many near misses. For 11 years, Mike worked for the same company his dad and uncles and brother and grandpa had worked for, but when he finally got laid-off, he was more relieved than angry. A lot of the guys moved away, up to Portland, out of the Willamette Valley altogether, but Mike didn’t want to. Woodhill might be a piss-poor little town, but it was his piss-poor little town. Economic disaster wasn’t going to force him out.

Kathy, thank goodness, had worked her way up from checker to day manager at Norm’s Thriftway. She had been there since high school and never complained once. It was a good job with benefits, vacation, discount on groceries. She liked the work, liked seeing everyone in town.

Mike fought feeling like a failure—he figured he was enough of a Pacific Northwest cliché—by pitching in around the house and with the girls. And there were many, many days when he was extremely contented, after the kids were dropped off at school, the house was cleaned, the laundry was tumbling in the dryer and he settled down in his recliner with a new library book or rented video. Or he’d head down to Mack’s Diner to drink coffee with the other unemployed philosophers while rain beat against the plate-glass windows. Who in his right mind would rather be out in the woods cutting trees for some corporation?

Some of the guys resorted to illegal tactics to support their families: kiping game, growing pot. Mike had poached trees out of the national forest until a guy up in Silverton got popped and was sent to the Sheridan pen for six years. He couldn’t stand the thought of his girls visiting their daddy in federal prison. His brother Gary still bagged trees (“This land is my land,” he believed) and slipped Mike a few bills every once in a while. But it was never enough to buy central air.

 

“Mom!” Mike’s youngest daughter Michaela burst into the room. “Mom!“ she shrieked, and Kathy turned off the vacuum. Michaela’s usually placid face was blotched with rage. “Aimee totally stretched out my new top.” She held up a shapeless white garment, then clutched it to her chest. “That cow!” she cried.

“For cripes sake,” Kathy walked over to comfort the girl. “We have plenty of time to wash and dry it.” As bellowing Michaela stamped her feet, Kathy looked at Mike and rolled her eyes. He shook his head and walked the carpet’s well-worn path to the kitchen. It seemed like just a few weeks before, Michaela would have been sitting there watching the game with him—not standing in her bathrobe on a Saturday afternoon, bawling over some shirt. It was all that Ricci kid’s fault.

Mike opened the fridge and checked out the salmon—a whole fresh king that Kathy had brought home from the store. He then began mixing his special barbecue sauce: catsup, vinegar, sugar, a secret blend of spices. He should have done it the night before to let the flavors get acquainted, but a part of him hoped the meal would never happen.

Ren Ricci. He‘d first heard that name the previous winter when he drove Michaela and her teammates home from a basketball tournament during Christmas break. Michaela was one of just three sophomores on the girls’ varsity team; the trio naturally stuck together. Mike was often called upon to cart the three around since Woodhill High’s booster club rarely had enough funds to hire a bus. For the boys’ football team, no problem, but the girls’ basketball team had to get to the games on their own. And when Mike was driving, his three passengers sat in the Aerostar’s back seat and pretty much forgot he was there—after the predictable argument over which radio station to tune in (their rap vs. his classic rock). They were three disembodied voices that he listened to with an anthropological interest, sort of like tuning in to NPR, which he preferred when driving by himself. He loved to follow their dramas, though he had to admit there were a few times, usually when Conchetta was chattering on about the details of her impending quinceanera, that he wanted to speed head-on into a semi.

“Have you seen that new kid from California?” Heather had asked way back in December.

“Oh my god,” replied Conchetta, “Ren Ricci? He is so hot!”

“His hair is actually styled,” observed Heather. “I am so tired of mullets and buzzcuts.” Then she gasped. “Oh, oops! No offense Mike.”

“None taken,” Mike answered, flipping his long hair between his fingers.

“And his eyes,” Conchetta gushed on, “Have you checked them out? They’re like warm maple syrup. Oh my god.”

Mike strained to hear Michaela weigh in, but she said nothing. He liked to imagine she wasn’t all that interested in boys yet, especially after what had happened to her older sisters.

“I like how he walks down the hall with his head down when all the girls are staring at him,” Heather said. “His cheeks get so red.”

“Ruddy,” Michaela mumbled.

“What?” The other two asked in unison.

Michaela cleared her throat. “He has a ruddy complexion.”

There was a deep silence, then Conchetta and Heather burst into raucous laughter. “Dude,” Heather shrieked, “I’m ruddy for you, baby!”

“Ruddy or not, here I come,” Conchetta added, panting.

Mike waited for Michaela’s retort. She had a sharp tongue that always swiftly cut down anyone who dared tease her. He waited for it—waited—waited. He moved his rearview mirror and saw she was gazing out the window, serene, her chin resting on her fist. He wondered about this boy who could inspire such poetry in fifteen year olds. That name alone: Ren Ricci. It was enough to make him want to rap—a lame old white guy rap. Yo y’all, listen up:

Ren Ricci, Ren Ricci,

I think you’re just peachy.

 

The refrigerator rattled as the motor kicked on. All the kitchen appliances needed to be replaced. Mike took a whisk to his sauce. Kathy came in winding the vacuum cord on her arm between her elbow and thumb. “That girl is a bundle of nerves,” she said, blowing some wisps of hair off her forehead.

“She’s too young for this,” Mike grumbled.

“She can’t be your little tomboy forever.” She stuffed the vacuum into the broom closet and muscled the door shut.

“Let’s hope she doesn’t end up like our other lovely daughters.”

Kathy snorted. “Come on. She has more sense than both of them put together.” She took a broom to the kitchen floor, scowling at a brown stain on the linoleum. “What time are you putting the potatoes in?” she asked.

Mike stopped whisking. “Oh. So I’m making dinner.”

She squatted to scrub the stain with a wet paper towel. “You always make dinner.”

“Well maybe I don’t want to make dinner tonight.”

She straightened and stared him down. Her manager face. “Fine. You can do the cleaning.”

Mike went back to whisking, double-time. “Why the hell does the place have to be so spic-and-span? Who is this kid, Prince William?”

Kathy looked around the kitchen as if she were taking in the shabby cupboards, the marred floor, the aging appliances. Then she looked back at Mike and nodded. “Yes,” she replied, “He is Woodhill’s Prince William.”

Ren Ricci, Ren Ricci,

My wife’s getting screechy.

  • * *

Two hours later, not long after Mike put the potatoes in the oven, he doused the briquettes with lighter fluid and threw in a match. The whoosh never failed to thrill him; it reminded him of his childhood, Boy Scouts, the occasional weekend fishing trips with his dad and uncles. Those were the times that made him truly appreciate the woods: the silent chilly mornings when bits of fog hung over the perfectly still water, the earthy scent of decomposing cedar, the hollow sound of his boots crunching over the blanket of brown fir needles on the forest floor.

He and Kathy had gone camping quite a bit before the girls were born. In high school, they had attended countless all-night keggers deep in the trees. That was about all there was to do in Woodhill. The forest was just part of growing up and he tried to get his girls out there as often as he could. Michaela loved it; Lacey and Aimee were a bit too prissy. Ironic that Lacey was now rumored to be living out in the Lost Mountain campground with her meth-freak boyfriend.

He sat back in his lawn chair and waited for the coals. The late afternoon was at its most stifling but a prickly holly tree shaded the backyard deck. The grass was wilting; he saw no point in watering. There would be about two more months of rain before true summer kicked in around the Fourth of July. He sipped another beer and smoked a Marlboro Light from the pack he’d confiscated from Aimee’s purse—not that it stopped her. They all did whatever they wanted. He had always felt somewhat ganged-up on by a house full of women—even the cat was female. But lately it seemed worse than ever, like he was Superman and estrogen was kryptonite. Even Michaela had been distant all spring, ever since she began hanging around with that damn Ricci kid. They hadn’t been camping once.

The screen door slid open and Michaela stepped out on the deck with a plaid tablecloth that Mike had never seen before. She shook it out over the wood picnic table, then spent a minute straightening it before she noticed him sitting there.

“Dad! Why are you smoking?” She glared at him with unspeakable disgust, looking just like her sisters. “He’s going to be here any minute.” She stood with her hands on her hips, wearing the shirt formerly known as stretched-out. It was now tight as bark, the bottom ending a good three inches above where her low-riding miniskirt began.

“Then you’d better get dressed,” he told her.

“This is what I’m wearing.” She looked down at herself. Her long hair, the color of cedar pitch, usually tied back in a ponytail, spilled over her shoulders and covered her chest. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Your belly’s hanging out.”

She laughed, lovely again. “C’mon, Dad, everyone’s belly hangs out anymore.” She pointed at his beer gut. “Even yours.” She flounced back in and slid the door shut again.

“Hey!”

She pressed her face against the screen.

“Have time to shoot some hoops before he gets here?” he asked.

“Get real,” she scoffed, turning away. “Not that I’d get sweaty playing you.”

Ren Ricci, Ren Ricci,

Don’t make me get preachy.

Mike took a deep drag and exhaled mightily. Michaela had been an awkward child, more comfortable in overalls and usually sporting a dirty face. She wasn’t conventionally pretty like the older girls, but Kathy often predicted she would be the most beautiful: “She’s a late-bloomer,” she had said many times. “Just you watch, she’ll turn out gorgeous and she won’t even know it.” And Kathy was right, as usual.

 

When Ren Ricci finally arrived, the salmon was cooked perfectly: moist and pink with a crackling skin. Mike heard the females exclaiming inside and sat, trying to remember the last time they exclaimed over him walking in. Then the screen door slid open to reveal the boy. He was as tall as Mike but not nearly as heavy. His black hair was crisply styled, just as Heather had described. He walked forward and stood before Mike, hand extended. “Hi. I’m Ren.”

Mike took his time shaking the kid’s hand, which was surprisingly strong and rough with calluses. His neatly trimmed nails had a vague shadow of dirt beneath them. He wore a spotless white sportshirt and khaki shorts that were fashionably long but not too baggy. The scent of soap and clean laundry overpowered the smell of barbecued salmon for a moment. Then Mike remembered to ask him to sit down. Ren perched on the edge of the picnic table bench and held out a bottle of wine.

“My dad sent this for you. He says he knows you from the golf course.”

Mike took the bottle and rubbed his thumb over the gold “Ricci” on the label. It was a 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve.

“It’s from my grandpa’s winery down in California.” He smiled at Mike.

“That’s where you used to live?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you drink wine?”

“No, sir. I taste it but I’m not allowed to swallow it.”

Mike nodded. He had met Tommaso Ricci at the new golf course all right, a few months before when he hired on as a caddy. His buddy Bob Johannson had been talking it up down at Mack’s. “It’s a piece of cake,” Bob had said, “even if you don’t know a thing about golf. Just carry the guy’s clubs or drive the cart. Hand him whatever number club he asks for. Look for his ball in the weeds. Say “nice shot” a lot. It’s okay money, especially if you get a big tip.”

Mike’s very first caddy gig was with Tom Ricci and three wine distributors. The elder Ricci was tanned with silver hair; he couldn’t have been much older than Mike. Compact and graceful, soft-spoken with a mournful look about him. His swing was beautiful, but he was obviously deeply bored by the game as well as with the distributors he was supposed to be schmoozing. He sort of latched onto Mike, riding in his cart and chatting with him when the other guys popped open cans of beer about every other hole. By the seventh tee, he was confessing his fears. “I don’t know if I should have moved my kids up here,” he murmured to Mike. “I guess we just needed a change after my wife passed away.” He looked straight into Mike’s eyes, like he was searching for some kind of validation, until Mike finally had to look at the ground—freaky Californian. He felt bad for the guy but he didn’t want to discuss it.

Mike walked away from that golf game with a $100 tip—having offered up his youngest daughter as a babysitter for the seven-year-old Ricci girl—and the firm decision to quit caddying. Christ, he thought, it was worse than bartending.

“Thanks.” Mike stood up. “I think I’ll go open this.” Ren stood as well. As Mike entered the house, Michaela slipped out past him with two sodas in her hand. He glanced over his shoulder and saw them standing close together.

In the kitchen, Kathy, wearing her best yellow blouse, took the potatoes out of the oven. A kettle of sweet corn from the deep freeze rattled on the range. Mike opened the gadget drawer and rooted around for a wine opener. They never drank wine, but it seemed impolite not to since a guest had brought it. He finally found a rusty old corkscrew that looked unusable, but the cork slid out of the bottle with ease. He poured an inch in an orange juice glass, tasted it, and handed it to Kathy. She took a sip and shuddered. “It’s kind of sour,” she said, “or should I say dry?” She carried the wine over to the fridge, took two ice cubes out of the freezer, plopped them in the glass and topped it off with her Diet Sprite. She stirred it with her finger and drank again. “Mmm, that’s better,” she said, grinning slyly. “Do you think the wine police will come?”

Mike looked through the cupboard until he found a champagne flute from a pair they got on their fifteenth wedding anniversary. He filled it with wine and returned to the back deck. Ren and Michaela were sitting on the bench; they moved apart and Ren stood up again when Mike stepped out.

“What did you do today?” Michaela asked Ren.

“I worked.” Ren turned to Mike. “We’ve been thinning grapes all day.”

“Sort of a family business?” Mike asked. He took the salmon off the grill and placed it on a platter.

“Yes, sir. My great-grandfather had a vineyard in Tuscany. Then my grandfather brought some starts over to Sonoma.”

“And your dad brought some starts up here?”

“Well, he brought some but it takes a few years for them to get established. He bought some acreage that already has grapes.”

“Sounds like a good life.”

“Yes, sir. But my dad says the market’s flooded with wine at the moment. He’s afraid he made a big mistake starting a new winery—starting a new business.”

“Heck,” Mike answered, “things tend to go in cycles around here.” He laughed to himself. He was supposedly waiting for George Dubya to open up the roadless forests so they could log above Woodhill again, but all the men young and dumb enough to log seemed to be over in Iraq. “People will always need booze.”

Kathy called Michaela from the kitchen. She stood up and Ren stood with her. “Can I help?” he asked.

“No, that’s okay.” Michaela went in and Ren sat back down. He wiped his palms on his thighs and smiled at Mike. His teeth were perfect.

“So.” Mike said. “What kind of name is Ren? Mexican?”

“It’s short for Lorenzo. It was my great-grandfather’s name.”

Mike nodded. “You going to college?”

“Yes, sir. OSU. They have this great bachelor of science degree that’s half agriculture and half chemistry, so you learn how to grow grapes and then how to make them into wine.”

“Is that right.”

“Yes, sir. The only other school that offers it is U.C. Davis where my dad went.”

“You don’t want to go to school down there in California?”

“No, sir. I don’t really want to leave my dad and sister.”

The screen slid open once again and Mike watched Ren stand up once again. Michaela brought out a plate of baked potatoes. Kathy followed with a platter of steaming corn on the cob. They then made a few quick dashes in and out with butter, salt and pepper, sour cream—that flurry of activity before any meal. When it was all situated, Mike pulled his lawn chair over to sit at the head of the picnic table. Ren and Michaela sat to his right, Kathy to his left. He cut into the salmon and served up portions on paper plates. He passed them out and watched as the others prepared their potatoes and corn. “Aimee!” he bellowed, startling Ren into dropping his knife.

“Mike,” Kathy reproached him as Michaela protested, “Dad!”

“Where is she?” he asked, “Does she know we’re eating?” Ren sat, looking at his plate. “Dig in, boy,” Mike said. “What are you waiting for, Christmas?”

“Thank you,” Ren said, picking up his fork. He began eating with gusto, like a boy who had spent the day working in the fields, but he paused between every other bite to wipe his mouth with his paper napkin. “Excellent salmon, Mr. Burke,” he said. “The best I’ve ever eaten.”

At that moment, the door slid open and Aimee sauntered out. She wore a string bikini top and tiny red shorts; her pregnant belly hung out like she had swallowed Michaela’s basketball. Her eyelashes were heavy with mascara and her lips looked sticky with a shiny maroon gloss. Her bleached white hair was tied in ratty ponytail on top of her head. There was a raw hickey, about the size of a dog paw, on her upper right breast.

Kathy turned around, saw her barely 17-year-old middle daughter and gasped. Without a word, she charged into the house. Aimee sat down in the spot next to Kathy’s place, directly across from Ren. “Hi, Ren,” she purred. “Weren’t we in the same geometry class?”

Ren nodded, looked down, and his now-famous ruddiness crept up his neck and blazed his cheeks.

“That’s so random,” Aimee said.

Michaela smiled at Aimee, a personal warning to her sister that Mike had witnessed countless times. “It’s hardly random,” she said. “Wasn’t that like the third time you took geometry?”

Kathy came out and put a zippered sweatshirt over Aimee’s shoulders. “Mom, it’s hot out!” Aimee shrugged the wrap off and Kathy put it back on. Michaela looked at her dad beseechingly, but he pretended to ignore her. What did she expect him to do? Once they started sniping at each other, no one could stop them. And he could tell Michaela was about to blow.

Michaela pretended to cough: “slut!” Mike caught Kathy’s eye, mostly to stop himself from laughing out loud. Aimee sighed noisily and served herself up some food. She then stared at Ren suggestively as she licked butter off her corn on the cob. Ren just continued to eat, looking at no one.

“So Aimee,” Michaela started in. “Have you been up to Portland to see Darryl lately?”

Aimee glared at her.

Michaela turned to Ren. “Aimee’s boyfriend is a jackass. Literally. He’s the guy who lit himself on fire and ran around his backyard while his gomer friends videotaped him instead of helping him.”

Mike suspected Ren had already heard this tale, but if he had, he wasn’t letting on.

“Now he’s up in the hospital in Portland getting skin grafts. He looks like Skelator.” Michaela laughed.

“Shut up,” Aimee said. “When was the last time you were on national television? He’s been on 20/20, the Today show and Dateline.”

“They use him as an example of stupidity.” Michaela answered.

“You’re the stupid one,” Aimee countered. “When he gets his settlement from MTV, we’re moving to Las Vegas.”

“I’ll help you pack the car.” Michaela said.

“We’re going to fly.” Aimee sneered.

“Then I’ll drive you to the airport.”

“Ha! You don’t even have a driver’s license.” She leaned back, obviously feeling the winner.

“And your baby’s father is a bacon-skinned moron who actually thinks MTV is going to give him money. If he really is the father. Maybe you should go on Maury and find out.” They glared at each other.

Kathy cleared her throat. “So, I wonder if it’s going to be this hot all summer?” No one answered her.

Mike saw Ren give Michaela a sympathetic look; she shrugged in return, like she didn’t care. But Mike knew she cared.

Aimee threw off the sweatshirt again and Kathy replaced it, tying the sleeves around her neck. “Stop it, Mother,” Aimee growled, then turned to Ren and changed her tone to fakely sweet. “So Ren, it must be really cool not having a mother to piss you off.”

Abruptly as a saw hitting a knot, Michaela stretched across the table and socked Aimee hard upside her head. Aimee tried to stand up to retaliate but Kathy grabbed one arm, Mike the other.

Michaela jumped up. “You suck! Have fun with lizard boy.” She pulled Ren up and they both stepped over the bench. “We are so outta here.”

Ren glanced regretfully down at his unfinished meal, then reached over and shook Mike’s hand. “Thank you very much for the great dinner,” he said. He nodded at Kathy. “It was very nice meeting you.” He gave a half-hearted wave to Aimee.

“Be home by ten,” Mike called after them.

 

Ren Ricci, Ren Ricci,

I’d like to ice that son of a bee-atch-ee.

 

They sat in silence—except for Aimee shoveling food in her face—until they heard Ren’s car drive away. Mike took a long drink of wine. It was smooth and rich sliding down his throat.

“This crazy family is going to drive him away,” Kathy hissed.

Mike swallowed hard. “Good,” he said, though he knew it was just wishful thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Stumps of Mystery

 

Ellen Greenstein‘s thigh muscles screamed. The rural Oregon terrain seemed flat, but the roads were full of evil invisible inclines, impossible to notice unless you were riding a 40-year-old Schwinn. Evidently, a year of spinning classes at the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday failed to conditioner her for actual bike riding.

She stopped to rest for a minute. Though her compact, trim body was in pretty good shape, her backpack and the bike’s front basket were heavy with groceries, library books, new socks. Highway 13 stretched before her, past the Woodhill High School campus, a strip mall and some condo complexes, then the turn-off to Arbor Heights, the newish development where she had recently moved. Beyond that, the Coast Range rose up green and ragged, blighted by bald spots Ellen had learned were called clear cuts. And on the other side of those low mountains lay the Pacific Ocean, the western edge of the country, which she still hadn’t seen though she’d lived there almost two months. The sky above the hills was gray, many more shades of gray than she had ever seen in the city.

There was no mass transit in Woodhill, a small town on the banks of the Willamette River. Portland loomed 50 miles to the northeast—it may as well have been the Emerald City. Back in New York, when Basil first suggested moving out West, she’d had romantic notions of a cozy log cabin nestled in the woods where she’d sit reading in front of a crackling fire. Or a quirky small hamlet where everyone talked to each other in witty, caring dialog—like the places on the television shows she liked: Cicely, Alaska and Stars Hollow, Connecticut. But reality was a cramped, treeless subdivision on the outskirts of an economically depressed town that was praying for some kind of miracle—as long as it didn’t involve any type of change.

Basil was bringing change anyway. He was a European-trained chef who had paid his dues in some of New York’s finest and trendiest kitchens. Yet he was always a heartbeat away from running the show, continually working in the shadow of bigger egos. For several months, he had been searching and longing for an executive opportunity. Then, just when he thought he was doomed to sous hell, the Pitzer Group offered him a cherry position out in Oregon wine country, opening a bistro in an old hotel they were renovating. The glacee on his gateau was their philosophy of sustainability: relying on the local agriculture for their products or even growing their own. It was a concept that had always intrigued him in New York but one he hadn’t had the chance to fully execute. “It’s like a candy store out there,” said Basil, who grew up on a Washington coast cranberry farm. “Dungeness crab, Willapa Bay oysters, hazelnuts, huckleberries, geoducks, wild mushrooms galore.” He was excited about going home.

Ellen, raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was somewhat happy in her position at Justin & Lucien, a Midtown public relations firm that specialized in the high-end health care industry. It was fast-paced work that suited her, and she could finally afford to move out of a Brooklyn studio into a one-bedroom with Basil in the Meat Packing District. But since she had taken the job two years before, she had started feeling increasingly unenthusiastic about promoting Botox parties and collagen lip implants. The sight of stiff-faced, fish-lipped liposucked matrons began to disgust her. After 32 years in New York, moving across the country seemed like an appropriate adventure. After all, she could always come back—and bottom line: she loved Basil. He was the first guy who seemed to get her, and get along with her. She had given herself six months in Oregon to decide if she should stay, but after just a few weeks, Basil was too busy and she was thinking more and more often about hopping on a plane back to New York.

 

She rubbed her forehead with two fingers; the clean moist air scoured her sinuses raw. She climbed back up on her bike just as the shower started. To hear people around Woodhill talk, there was great shame in getting in out of the rain. “My dear,” the owner of Mack’s Diner had told her, “if we waited until it stopped raining to go out, we’d never go anywhere.” April had been lovely and warm, but since May Day, it seemed to have rained constantly. And according to the geezers down at the diner who discussed the weather incessantly, the rain would continue until mid-July. June-uary, they called the upcoming month, cackling. She would mind it a lot less if only she had the equipment. Like a Gortex rain jacket with a hood or a bike with tread on its tires. She had finally just purchased a pair of thick wool socks at Norm’s Thriftway. Basil promised her that she could buy a new bike—a tricked-out Trek—next payday. In New York, she had walked miles every day but walking just didn’t feel right in Woodhill. As the rain fell, her curly black hair quickly grew heavy like a wet sponge, dripping in her face and down her back.

She pedaled past the high school without incident. She avoided that stretch of road when students were around since that carload of baseball-capped boys had slowed down to yell “Schaaaa-win, Schaaaa-win!” at her over and over and over. It was terrifying, they were like wild animals. Basil had called them harmless kids, but still, it was worse than being in the Bronx.

For the first few weeks after they moved, Ellen felt as if she were on some kind of gentle downers, like there was Valium in the water or nitrous oxide in the air. Basil was completely absorbed by his new job, from developing the menu to hiring and training the staff to helping with the kitchen renovation to planning an herb garden. He was never around, but this was expected; they were trying to get the place open for the summer tourists. Ellen understood.

She prowled about the house, which was huge compared to any place she had ever lived. All the homes in Arbor Heights looked alike: two-stories with a prominent garage. Snout houses, they were called, painted taupe or ecru or just plain beige. When the garages were open, they looked like big mouths sucking up SUVs. She fixed up the place as best she could. They bought a new couch,
bed and dining room set before their moving money ran out. Then she hit some nearby yard sales for the odds and ends—a couple ugly lamps, some sad houseplants that were already dying, an old Hoover vacuum cleaner, her bike. Sometimes she’d recall how in New York she plunked down $65 for dry cleaning or $175 to have her hair cut and conditioned without a second thought. It was frustrating to be broke, but oddly freeing too; she had never realized how much time she had wasted deciding what to buy.

Starting her new PR business was much more difficult than she anticipated. She knew she could count on the Pitzer Group as a client once the hotel was closer to opening, but it seemed impossible to get anything else going. A few times she had suited up and caught a ride downtown with Basil. She stopped in at least a dozen businesses to talk to the owners, but not one of them seemed remotely interested in her or her services. “Lady,“ the lizard-skinned, big-haired owner of Annabee’s Nails and Tanning had demanded, “who are you?“ They didn’t believe that some advertising or media buzz about their businesses could bring in more customers.

So when she grew discouraged, she watched television, took naps and spent far too much time on the internet, Googling everyone she ever knew and taking silly Facebook quizzes. Since she’d grown up without easy access to laundry facilities, she grew fond of washing and drying every piece of clothing in the house, dirty or clean. She vacuumed the oatmeal-colored carpeting for long periods of time. Sometimes she watched the other at-home neighbors who were mostly young parents or retired—not the most exciting people to watch. There were also a few college students and working folk living there, but they were never around during the day. The lack of interesting street life made her sad and homesick. When she couldn’t stand hiding inside another minute, she rode her bike.

Mack’s Diner became a frequent stop. She perched at the U-shaped counter, reading the Oregonian, drinking hot tea and watching the aged waitresses barge past her to the regulars seated in booths by the large windows or at the rows of tables that filled the large room. The old men always sat by the front door, sipping coffee, deep in conversation. There were chubby housewives with scrawny toddlers, young businessmen in cheap suits, hungover college students, teenagers stuffing their faces—to her, they were all a bunch of pasty bumpkins. She found it surreal that everyone was white except for a few Latinos. No one talked to her for the first few weeks, and she had absolutely nothing to say to them. In New York, there had been people talking to her constantly at the market, the subway, the coffee shop. Yet in Woodhill, she sat alone, disoriented, stunned by this strange place and the gomers who lived here.

But soon she got to know the diner’s owner, Herman Hoffmeister, a fortyish guy who loved to talk about New York. He looked different from anyone else she had seen in town, with blackened hipster hair and retro black-rimmed glasses. On most days he wore a bowling shirt and letterman jacket, pegged black jeans and red converse hightops. Herman made a “pilgrimage” to Manhattan once a year to check out the new restaurants, stroll the museums and see some shows. He often slipped her a plate of the daily special to “get her take” on his experimental cooking: Mexican bento or vegan chicken-fried steak. He was the one who advised her to approach only recently opened businesses in the area like the new wineries and restaurants. “Some of the shopkeepers around here,“ he said, leaning over the counter, “think PR is a hospital show that comes on Thursdays after they go to bed.” Herman was her best friend at the moment. Her other friends worked in the grocery store—they were the only people in town who would speak to her.

 

Now the rain was pelting her face and soaking her jeans. Cars whizzed past, spraying a fine mist of water and road dirt on her. It made her furious. She hated the weather, hated Oregon, hated the stupid people who lived here. She pedaled harder and harder, her ass burning. Pump, pump, pump, pump, pump, pump. Faster and faster until suddenly she was flying through the air. She had hit some loose gravel on the shoulder and the big old bike simply skidded out from under her, throwing her down on her left knee, then her arm and shoulder. The rain fell on her face as she lay there gasping for a minute, traffic rushing just a few feet from her head. “Shit!” she yelled. A huge white SUV slowed next to her, then pulled over and backed up. She recognized the truck—or “rig” as people out here called big vehicles—by the bumper stickers: “Stumps of Mystery: An Oregon Experience” and “Hillary 08.” It was her next-door neighbor, Candy Ruiz.

Ellen had spoken to Candy just once, briefly, when they first moved in, but she often spied on her, peering through the blinds as Candy prepared for her daily run. Every morning, she strapped her twin toddlers in the huge-wheeled jogging stroller, then stretched her legs by lunging forward with one knee bent. She wore her gleaming blonde hair gathered into a long ponytail that hung out the back of her bright pink cap. Her calf and thigh muscles strained as she bounced against the brick front steps. She was tall and cut, the kind of female that made Ellen feel squat and swarthy instead of sleek and petite.

On Easter, Basil had taken the day off. They lounged in bed all morning, something they hadn’t really done since they moved in. Basil had been looking quite haggard from working so hard; his normally boyish face had developed lines and shadows from lack of sleep. He was letting his thick brown hair grow out a bit; sort of a modified mullet with sideburns. Ellen was skeptical about the look, but she didn’t really see him enough to mount a campaign against it. At that moment, she was satisfied leaning against his hairless chest as they dozed and read the paper and chatted about his menu. But when they heard activity from the driveway next door, Ellen slipped out of the covers to watch Candy and her family leave for church.

“They’re going to worship Jay-zus,” Ellen said, eying Candy’s lavender sleeveless dress, which was actually quite stylish—it looked like an Ann Taylor. “Happy Rebirthday, Jay-zus.”

“Why do you always mock Christians with a Southern accent?” Basil asked from bed.

“It’s just how I imagine mindless sheep would talk.”

“How would you like it if people dissed Jews like that?”

“Like people don’t?” Ellen replied, still looking down at the neighbors. “Maybe they’re Mormons.”

“Why don’t you just get to know her?” Basil recommended. “You might get along. Mark is cool.” Candy’s husband was the manager of the new golf course; he was gone as much as Basil. He had lent them their lawnmower, which was far too loud and scary for Ellen to even consider learning how to use.

“I feel enough like a housewife,” Ellen had said. “I don’t need to start hanging out with one.”

“Well, if you’re bored, you should do something.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Grow a garden, write a novel, bake a cake, learn Chinese, take a hike. Shoot, when did you ever have time to do anything you wanted?”

A flare of rage coursed through her—patronizing bastard—it was her job to put a positive spin on things. What Ellen really wanted was a friend, a real friend with whom she could discuss more than the superficial things she talked about with her new acquaintances downtown. Someone who wouldn’t think she was just bored. Someone like Christine, her life-long best buddy who had moved to London the year before, who would understand how frightened she was by the huge trees she had to ride next to on Gun Club Road, or how scary it was at night when she was alone and it was so freaking quiet, or how she was afraid she would never find anyone to give her a decent haircut or how terrifying it was to think she had made the biggest mistake of her life.

“Hey.” Basil had raked his fingers through his messy hair and beckoned her back to bed. “It won’t always be like this.” Later that afternoon, he took her mushroom hunting on Lost Mountain. What started out as a leisurely hike turned into Ellen’s worst nightmare as Basil led her deeper into the woods, climbing over moss-covered logs, through prickly stands of huckleberry bushes, under creaking cedar boughs that nearly touched the ground. He found a cluster of chanterelles and nearly wet himself with excitement. Ellen had stood with her hands on her knees, panting and recoiling at the grubs he had unearthed as he harvested the mushrooms. This is so not me, she thought.

Then he took her through a broad meadow of grass and wildflowers, which was lovely until she had seen three garter snakes lounging in the sun. “They’re everywhere!“ she had screeched as she jumped on his back. He had instinctively twisted away so she didn’t crush his backpack and the mushrooms inside. Although he had apologized, they had walked back to the car in silence. That was the first time she had thought about charging a ticket back to New York; her brother would put her up for a while. She was reluctant to admit defeat, but knew that sometimes you just had to cut your losses.

  • * *

Ellen untangled herself from the bike and stood up. Her bag of groceries was strewn across the road. She watched a blue Suburu wagon run over her new pair of socks. “Ellen?” Candy climbed out of her white Expedition and crunched over to the scene of the wreck. She was dressed entirely in immaculate powder-blue polarfleece. “Are you okay?”

Ellen bent her knee a few times. It was already stiffening and she didn’t know if the wetness against her shin was from rain or blood. She rubbed her left shoulder. “Yeah.” She shook her head and raindrops flew from her springy hair. “I’m fine.”

Candy began gathering up cans of tuna and soup. She picked up a crumpled package. “It looks like your cookies got crushed.”

Ellen felt oddly embarrassed that Candy had seen her Oreos. She whisked them out of her hand and stuffed them back in the plastic grocery bag.

“I’ll take you home,” Candy said, opening the back of her truck and hoisting Ellen’s bike in like it weighed seven pounds, not 70.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Ellen protested.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Candy answered, taking the bag of groceries out of her hands. Ellen shook off her backpack and threw it in with the rest of the stuff. She walked around to the passenger side and scrambled up. The truck was warm inside and smelled like graham crackers. She snuggled into the sheepskin-covered seat, comforted and safe inside the shuddering vehicle.

“This thing is huge,” she said, buckling her seatbelt. “It’s about the same size as my first apartment in New York.”

Candy laughed. “It was my father-in-law’s. He sold it to us last year after I wrecked the Volvo.” She pulled smoothly back into traffic, completely unruffled by having just scraped Ellen off the pavement like roadkill. “My husband calls it a Ford Valdez. It’s in love with the number four pump down at the Shell station—they fuck in public.”

Ellen’s eyebrows shot up. Had Candy just made a raunchy joke? Maybe she hadn’t heard her correctly. “You were in a wreck?” she asked. “Was it bad?”

“Yeah. A carload of drunk teenagers plowed into me. Thank god I didn’t have the kids with me.” They cruised to a stop at a red light. Candy turned to Ellen. “Most of the windshield landed in my head.” She pointed to several spots on her seemingly perfect face. Her nails were frosted with pink polish. Ellen leaned forward and saw tiny silvery red marks marring the finely grained skin. Their noses were just inches apart; Ellen could smell Candy’s plum lipstick, feel her warm breath. The word “luscious” popped into her mind. Luscious Candy.

“Wow,” Ellen said, looking into Candy’s blue eyes, “you can barely tell.”

“Neosporin.” The car behind them honked politely. Candy leaned back in her seat and accelerated. “Volvos and Neosporin. They do what they promise.”

“What happened to the teenagers?”

“Dead. All six of them. Their car rolled three times, slammed into a tree, then burst into flames. Happy Prom Night, kids.”

They sat there with that between them for a few blocks, past the strip mall with the crafting center, video store, recently closed low-carb shop and recently opened payday loan store.

Ellen looked over her shoulder into the back seat at the toddlers sleeping side-by-side in their carseats. They both had curly dark brown hair and chubby cheeks that could only be described as rosy.

“They’re so cute,” Ellen said. “What are their names?”

“Sierra and Dakota. We named them after pick-up trucks,” Candy said, then snorted.

The two women looked at each other and smiled. Candy rolled her eyes. “That’s another one of my husband’s jokes.“

“No, they’re cool names.” Ellen looked back at the children again. Was the boy Dakota and the girl Sierra? Or the other way around?

“So I noticed you guys only have one car,” Candy continued. “If you ever want to borrow my truck, it’s fine. No one should have to bike to buy groceries.”

“Oh, thanks, but I don’t drive.”

Candy swerved slightly. “You don’t drive?” She sounded incredulous, like Ellen had just announced she didn’t eat.

“I’m from New York,” she said, “we just take the subway or taxis. I want to learn but the driving school is booked up through summer.”

“Yeah, we’ve got to make sure those teenagers learn to drive,“ Candy said. “Well, if you ever need a ride somewhere, let me know.”

“Thanks.” Ellen thought of the airport. “Do you work outside the home?”

“Not really. I teach a course up at the college during winter term. And I have an in-home scrapbooking business.”

“Scrapbooking?”

“Yeah, I know, it sounds cheesy. My husband calls it crapbooking, but it sort of runs in the family. I’m an Applewood.”

Ellen nodded knowingly, then laughed. “I’m sorry. I have no idea what that means,” she admitted.

“I’m from hearty pioneer stock. We’ve been here forever. There’s even a trail named after us. The Applewood Trail? My mother published my great-grandmother’s illustrated diary back in the 1970s—it was a feminist cult hit. It paid for my college.”

“Oh I get it. You’re helping create scrapbooks for future generations?”

“I guess. Though the world will probably be flooded with these corny new millennium scrapbooks by then. They’ll be as common as old pictures are now. And then some women actually get addicted to it. They spend so much time scrapbooking their families they don’t have any time for them.” She shrugged. “Ah, the irony.”

“What do you teach?” Ellen gazed out the window, imagining Scrapbooking 101. Or pioneering.

“Constitutional Law for the poli sci department.”

“What?” She spun around to look at Candy, who seemed amused by Ellen’s reaction.

“Yeah. I used to work for the ACLU in Portland.“ She smiled and nodded dreamily. “It was brutal. I really miss it.”

Ellen had to work to keep her jaw from dropping. “You’re a lawyer?”

“Not at the moment. I’m dedicated to babyhanging now. Isn’t that hilarious?” Candy asked. “I read it in Harper’s or somewhere. It’s the term career women use to describe raising kids instead of working. Like, you’re hanging out with your baby. Or you’ve got a baby hanging off you all the time.”

Ellen turned back to the window and smiled. Okay, this chick was so not Mormon.

They turned into Arbor Heights; the sight of the bland houses always brought Ellen down a bit. She shivered.

“Are you still cold?” Candy asked. “I’ve got an old jacket right there.” She reached across Ellen, pressing into her for a moment, to pull a gray sweatshirt out of a compartment that was built right into the SUV’s mega-door. Ellen draped it over herself and inhaled the scent of something soft, not quite baby powder but clean and sweet just the same—probably a fancy dryer sheet.

They pulled into Candy’s driveway and waited for the garage door to open. Ellen looked at her own house, slightly dizzied by viewing it at a different angle. She glanced up at her bedroom window, wondering if Candy could have seen her spying. They drove into the garage and Candy shut off the engine. Ellen didn’t want to move. Her knee hurt like hell and she felt so relieved sitting there.

“So Ellen,” Candy turned to her. “Basil mentioned that you do PR. Are you going to do that out here?”

“Yeah, I’m working on that.” Ellen reluctantly folded the sweatshirt and placed it next to her.

Candy stretched back to unbuckle her kids’ seatbelts. They both stirred in their sleep. “You should talk to my husband,” Candy said. “I bet he would love some help promoting the golf course. He has to do all that stuff himself.”

“Oh. Thanks.” A splinter of hope pricked her.

“There are tons of new businesses cropping up: wineries, restaurants, a lavender farm, the golf course. I heard someone’s even opening an olive oil bar.“ Candy turned and climbed down. The rain had stopped and the sun was breaking through, causing steam to rise out on the street. Ellen met her at the back of the truck and helped her pull her bike out. “There’s a world of opportunity out here.” Candy said, gingerly patting Ellen’s sore shoulder.

Ellen felt as though she were grinning like a freak on one of those antidepressants she used to push. “So I keep hearing.“

Candy nodded and smiled. “Well, I’m glad we finally had a chance to talk. Take care.”

“Thanks. And thanks for the ride.” Ellen threw her backpack over her other shoulder and watched Candy take one of the sleeping twins out of the backseat, then walk to the other side of the truck and scoop up the other one and shut the heavy door with her foot. The kids nuzzled into her neck.

“Babyhanging,” Candy whispered, flashing her a brilliant smile.

Ellen hung her grocery bag over her wrist and limped her bike next door. She felt like she’d been whomped in the head. “Wow,“ she whispered, looking back, craving one more glimpse of her neighbor, but the garage door was already closing.

Inside, she dumped all her stuff in the front hallway and headed straight upstairs. After taking a hot shower, she wrapped up in her red flannel robe, went down to the kitchen and fixed an ice-pack for her skinned and swelling knee. In her sparsely decorated living room, she plopped on the sage chenille couch—an island in an acre of beige carpeting—and opened her laptop. Expedia had a pretty good fare from Portland to JFK, but she really wanted a non-stop. There was a non-stop every morning to Newark. But what day to go? Her thoughts kept returning to her neighbor and how freaking nice she had been. And warm. And funny. The doorbell rang.

Ellen set her laptop aside and limped to the door. Through the high fan-shaped window, she saw that it was Candy.

“Hi!“ She nearly bellowed when she opened the door. When had she been so happy to see someone?

Candy held up a sparkly pink bike helmet by a strap; it swung hypnotically in front of Ellen’s face. “I don’t know about you,“ Candy said, “but I can’t afford to lose any more brain cells.“

Ellen blushed. “Oh, you don’t have to do that.“

“Please! I have two more in the garage.“ Candy smiled that beauty queen smile. “If you don’t take it, I’ll have to give it back to Barbie.“

Ellen laughed and took the helmet. “Thanks,“ she said, “I’ve been meaning to get one of these.“

“Speaking of killing brain cells, want to come over for a glass of wine? Mark has to work late again and I’ve got a big pot of lentil soup cooking.“

Ellen looked down at her robe.

“Oh, fuck it,“ Candy said, “Come as you are. I don’t care.“

“Just let me throw on some sweats. I’ll be over in a minute.“ She closed the door and returned to the living room, her heart beating hard. Tossing the helmet on the couch, she looked at her computer screen, poised to purchase her plane ticket. She hesitated, her hand hovering above the keyboard. But instead of buying it, she logged out of Expedia and shut her laptop with a hard click. She didn’t need to book a ticket just yet. Maybe she’d try to stick it out in Oregon for a bit longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Alienpalooza

 

The kitchen was hot, even though the dinner shift was just beginning. Jessie Springfield wound her long straw-colored hair into a knot, tucked in the split ends and stuck a pencil through it. She paused at the sink and popped a tiny cube of ice in her mouth, then wiped perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. She was cute, with a slightly snubbed, freckled nose and full lower lip—the kind of girl that other girls liked because she was never completely put together.

“Yessie,” the line cook called, “order up.”

She turned and smiled at Javi. He grinned back, his front silver tooth gleaming in the light of the heat lamps. As usual, he had tied a white napkin like a headband over his forehead, which made his warm brown eyes stand out—Jessie thought he was extremely hot. He reached over the aluminum shelf, the muscles in his forearm dazzling her briefly, and handed her a coffee cup stuffed with garlicky scampi swimming in melted butter sauce—buerre blanc, she had recently learned. Then he winked at her, his neck already shiny with sweat, and she carried her snack to the back door so Basil, the head chef, wouldn’t catch her eating something so expensive. Javi always slipped her something delicious when she first came on, but she was careful to not let the other waiters know.

She had learned a lot about restaurant culture at her last job, Mack’s Diner, where she had worked the 5-to-11 am breakfast shift. There, she discovered that successful servers have quick reactions, darting around with each movement efficiently planned. But hard as she tried, she just couldn’t get with it; her brain simply took a bit longer to process information. The veteran waitresses at Mack’s had no patience for her. They made her wait on the worst customers, like the decrepit grouches from the nearby “senior community.” She’d even seen Geri, the raspy-voiced server with strange orange hair, lift tips from her tables a few times. Jessie was pretty sure they didn’t like her for being slow, and despised her for her youth. Herman, Mack’s owner, was nice though. His great-grandfather had opened the diner in 1906, and it had stayed in the family since. He had given her a job in the middle of her ill-fated freshman year, even though her only experience was working at a Dunkin Donuts back home in Ashland. Okay, she had begged, but as grateful as she was at first to have a job, those crabby old waitresses had really brought her down.

 

The hotel kitchen’s back door looked out over Broadway and the Town Square beyond. The Square was a huge expanse of green lawn ringed by massive oaks. Four giant Douglas Firs stood sentry at the corners; it was trees like those that built the town, literally and figuratively. Jessie leaned against the wooden doorway. It was solid, built in 1893. The hotel had turned seedy in recent decades—housing transients, drug addicts and impoverished elderly—then it closed altogether after a meth-cooking fire in one of the rooms. But after two years, the Pitzer Family swooped in with a truckload of money to refurbish the building to its original splendor, and more.

The Pitzers, two brothers and a sister originally from Seattle, were famous in the Pacific Northwest for taking over venerable but dilapidated structures for cheap and turning them into tourist attractions. In Salem, they revamped the old state poor farm into a sort of destination spa with a restaurant, movie theater and sleeping quarters. The establishment grew most of its own vegetables, made wine and brewed beer for the customers. Jessie hadn’t been there, but she heard it was fun, though it still had kind of a grim poor-farm vibe. One of the best things about the Pitzers was that they employed artists to refurbish period art and create new stuff with a twist. That Salem poor farm dining room was famous for a huge kitschy mosaic of the state capitol building made out of dry macaroni, spray-painted gold.

When the Pitzers advertised for help at the historic Woodhill Hotel, Jessie had nearly burned a hole in the application filling it out so fast. After a couple weeks of training, the hotel opened with a gala celebration where guests were asked to wear turn-of-the-century garb. It seemed like the whole town turned out for the ice cream social in Town Square where an old-timey brass band played in the bandstand and a barbershop quartet roamed the hotel hallways. Yvonne Pitzer, working temporarily as the dining room manager until the crew was on its feet, had noticed Jessie sneering at her own reflection in one of the hotel lobby’s ornate mirrors.

“Don’t like the lace cap?” Yvonne had asked.

Jessie shrugged. In her frilly white apron, she looked like a little child next to Yvonne’s sophisticated pinstripe suit and perfectly cut, prematurely gray hair. Jessie was sometimes surprised by how thin and insubstantial she looked. No wonder people never took her seriously.

“It’s kind of corny, huh?” Yvonne checked out the long black skirt she had made Jessie wear.

“Yeah,” Jessie answered. It reminded her of her mother, an American Lit. professor who lived and breathed corn. “It’s totally Huck Finnish.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

Jessie wished she could explain it. “I just got force-fed this stuff when I was a kid.” She shook her head. “Americana sucks.”

Yvonne hooted. “Well, that’s ironic. Americana is providing your paycheck.”

Jessie blushed and looked down. Yvonne chuckled. “Don’t worry. We’ll have some events that are more twenty-first century for young missy‘s pleasure.”

“Thank you, m’lady.” Jessie had curtsied and rushed off. That was the kind of woman she wanted to be! Someone grounded in the real world, doing real things with real people. Turning neglected buildings into cool places. Not like her mother and her precious ideas.

In her first few weeks at the hotel, Jessie had found an easy way to make up for her slowness. She simply smiled—and it worked because she was genuine. She truly liked service work. Customers could tell she was thoughtful and kind, taking a moment to brighten their day. They thanked her and overtipped her. Her co-workers thought she was sweet, if slightly dim—she always did more than her share of sidework. Most of her fellow servers were young, unlike at Mack’s. Jessie, at 18, was the youngest of them all.

 

Still gazing out the kitchen’s screen door, Jessie watched two people dressed in shiny purple cloaks and rainbow Afro wigs walk arm-in-arm down the sidewalk. The hotel was hosting a big alien invasion celebration that night. According to local legend, in the summer of 1957 a U.F.O. had crashed right outside of town, on Lost Mountain in the Coast Range. There were some blurry photographs hanging near the hotel elevator. Jessie laughed and waved at the aliens. Finally, some Americana that didn’t make her cringe.

“Yessie,” Javi called. She left the doorway and returned to the line, toasting him with her empty cup before placing it in a bus tray by the dishwasher. The waiter station was filling up with other servers: Amber, Troy, Brianna and Claudia. They all wore spotless black-and-whites. Jessie glanced down at the gray edges of her cuffs. She needed to use some bleach, she needed an iron, she needed a new white shirt. In the meantime, she rolled up her sleeves and hoped Yvonne wouldn’t say anything.

“Do you want to hear the especials?”

The servers half-turned to Javi as they continued their set-up tasks of filling tartar sauce sides and making coffee and folding napkins into three-dimensional triangular shapes. Jessie stood by the whiteboard, a marker ready.

“We have braised rabbit with a marionberry sauce for $18.75,” Javi announced. “King salmon filet with a hazelnut crust for $20.00. The pasta is angelhair with plum tomatoes and pinenuts. The soup is cream of sorrel. And we have a Space Prawn appetizer for $8.99.”

“Dude. What the hell is a space prawn?” Troy asked, flipping his blond dreds out of his eyes.

“It’s for the aliens,” Javi answered. “I put the crunchy coconut on it.”

“You mean they’re the Pacific Rim Prawns from the lunch menu?” Amber asked.

Javi nodded.

“Do they come with the jalo-pineapple chutney?”

“Yeah,” Javi stirred something in a big pot.

“Hey Jessie,” Brianna walked up behind her. “I think braised is with an s, not a z.” Jessie grabbed a dirty napkin out of the bin to use as an eraser. Every time she wrote out the specials she spelled something wrong. She thought back to her fourth grade spelling bee. Chief. C-H-E-I-F. She could still see her mother shaking her head in the audience. But her parents had talked about the event for years after: “Remember the time Jessica made it all the way to the fifth round in the spelling bee?” There had been like six rounds. They were like that, latching on to her pathetic victories and trying to turn her into some scholar or artist or athlete. She couldn’t blame them; the kid of two college professors should have some sort of talent or gift.

Brianna was still right behind her, nearly a head taller with broad swimmer’s shoulders. “Hang on, Jessie, your hair is freaking out.” Jessie stood while Brianna tucked an errant strand back into her tangled knot. “There.” She squeezed Jessie’s arm before smoothing her own sculpted brown do. “When are you moving into Amber’s?”

“Next week,” Amber, an anorexically skinny redhead, called across the kitchen, “But I think she should stay with me now, don’t you?” Jessie had been living in room 12 at the Twin Fir Motel since the dorms closed. It was within walking distance of work and had free HBO, which was particularly exciting because she wasn’t allowed to watch television growing up. But the room smelled like disinfectant, the window wouldn’t open, the bedspread was crusty and a woman with four noisy little kids lived next door. Still, it was fun living in a motel; she had never stayed in one before. Their interminable family vacations were “educational” car tours—presidents’ birthplaces, covered bridges, authors’ graves—where they stayed in supposedly charming bed & breakfasts. Jessie always seemed to end up sleeping on a dog-hair-covered cot.

The Twin Fir was all right, but even though she ate well at work, living on her own was spendy. She paid a weekly rate of $120. Amber had a two-bedroom apartment with her sister, whose National Guard unit was recently deployed. When she heard Jessie needed a place to live, Amber invited her to move in when her sister shipped out; her rent would be only $250 a month.

In the past year, Jessie had often felt like she was bobbing down the river of life, no raft, barely keeping her head above water. And just when she thought she couldn’t take any more, someone would pull her out; give her a tow. Herman. Yvonne. Amber.

Yvonne walked in with a small cardboard box. “Here, crew, put these on.” She handed out flexible glowstick necklaces in various bright colors. Claudia, a NOU student who would drive anywhere—even San Francisco if necessary—to attend a rave, squealed and grabbed a handful.

“Whoa. Put them on where?” asked Troy.

Yvonne laughed and placed a glowing red stick on her head like a crown, turning her cropped hair pink. “Figure it out, dude.”

Troy wound a green one through his locks. “Sweet!”

“Yessie,” Javi called. “Will you take these up to the roof?” He held up a large flat pan of Space Prawns. She took it from him and swung out the door. The dining room was still empty, tablecloths gleaming white in the early summer evening sun that slanted through the long windows. The lobby, however, was full of aliens arriving for the party. After the cocktail reception, there were several activities from which to choose: a poetry slam with a U.F.O. theme, a screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a lecture and slide show from the college’s astronomy professor, or a U.F.O. coloring contest. Then the whole thing culminated in a big rooftop buffet ball with live music and a costume competition.

The outfits were impressive. There was a lot of silver lamé, aluminum foil and metallic make-up. Others went Martian green. Quite a few used kitchen tools as accessories; she saw several strainer hats and one very uncomfortable looking wire-whisk tail. Some people were inspired by the movies. She saw a Wookie with a sad costume made out of what looked like an old van carpet; an elderly woman with an Alien monster popping out of her chest was more successful.

There were too many aliens waiting for the elevators, so Jessie decided to take the stairs. The thing about the three-story hotel was that it wasn’t exactly logical in its design. There were stairways that led to nowhere; hallways that curved and ended abruptly. Of course there was a ghost in residence; a rumor often exploited by the Pitzers. Jessie knew it was a marketing ploy—a totally Huck Finnish one at that—but there were still times when she felt spooked in the hotel when she was walking by herself in a secluded spot. And she often became confused, sort of lost, though she had never had a great sense of direction.

She carried the big aluminum pan up to the second floor, then had to walk to the other end of the building to get to the stairway to the third. Halfway down the deserted hallway, she thought she heard someone call her name. “Jessica!” She whirled around and saw no one. It had sounded like her mother. Weird. She would much rather confront a ghost than her mom. She hadn’t even called her parents since school ended and she moved into the motel—now they were haunting her. One evening the week before, while she stood eating at the hotel kitchen door, she could have sworn she saw her dad driving his gray Camry slowly down Broadway, looking at all the high-school stoners sitting in the square. She hadn’t called them because she knew they would use their evil powers of persuasion to get her back to Ashland. Did other people have this much trouble getting out from under their parents?

She paused at the bottom of the next staircase, resting the pan on the newel post, and gobbled down a few of the crunchy fried prawns. She had gained about 15 pounds since she started working in restaurants, which was a good thing since she had lost about 20 during her first six months of college.

“Jessica!” She jumped, then turned around to see E.T. coming toward her. “Jesus Christ,” E.T. said when it reached her, then took off its head. It was Herman, her former boss at Mack’s. “I’ve been chasing you for five minutes.” He was dressed in a black tuxedo with a short cape, sort of like E.T. starring in Phantom of the Opera.

“You look awesome,” Jessie exclaimed, awkwardly hugging him without spilling the prawns. “I didn’t know you were into this kind of stuff.”

“Are you serious, child?” Herman mopped his brow with a white handkerchief. His dyed black hair was matted down from the full-head mask and, to Jessie, he looked weird without his trademark horned-rimmed glasses. “I will go to the ends of the universe for a costume contest. Those Pitzers are the best thing to happen to Woodhill, even though they’re stealing my business—not to mention my favorite waitress.”

“This is a fun place to work.”

“I can only imagine.” He dragged his three green E.T. fingers through his damp hair. “Listen, sweetie, your mother called a few times. She’s frantic. She thinks you’re dead or you’ve joined a cult or something.”

Jessie sighed. “Aw, man. Did you tell them I’m working here?”

“Of course not.” Herman eyed the Space Prawns and she held the pan out for him. “It’s none of my business if you’re on the lam from the fam.”

“It’s not like that,” she said. “Well, not exactly. I meant to call them, I just don’t have a phone right now.”

Herman shrugged as he swallowed a mouthful of shrimp. “Tell it to Dr. Phil,” he said. “These are delicious, by the way. Not too tough.”

It was just like her mother to hunt her down even though she had informed them at spring break, repeatedly, that she planned to stay in Woodhill for the summer. She loved the town despite her dismal experience at NOU. The first time she had told her parents she didn’t want to go to college, way back when she was a high school junior, they looked at her like she had decided to try cannibalism. Then her mother started in on her about options and the importance of education and life-long learning and responsibility. Her dad had simply shaken his head sadly. After months of arguing, Jessie finally agreed to try it for a year.

Her roommate in Sitka Hall, Tiffini, was up to her ass in the Campus Crusade for Christ. She was a local girl who had been born again after her older brother was incinerated in some hideous prom night car wreck. Every time Jessie was indecisive about something—which class to take, what topic to write about, how many Red Vines to eat—Tiffani would say “Ask yourself: What would Jesus do?“

At Christmas, Jessie’s mom had read her grade report—all Cs—and nodded, smiling her tight little smile. “Well, this is just fine, dear,“ she had said. “You’ll just have to apply yourself a little more.”

“Face it, Mom,” Jessie had replied, “I’m completely average.” She still cringed when she remembered how her parents had hired an admissions consultant to help her get accepted by a good school. They had focused on second-tier private Liberal Arts colleges in the Portland area: Linfield, Lewis & Clark, Willamette. It hadn’t worked because of her low grades and SAT scores. She ended up at a second-tier state school in the toolies. But she knew her mother couldn’t complain because she taught at Southern Oregon, another second-tier state school in the toolies.

After struggling through half of winter term, Jessie was so depressed she had to do something. It wasn’t that classes were that hard, she just wasn’t interested. Who cared about the omniscient voice in Middlemarch or Newton’s second law? She felt she was wasting time doing nothing. So she got herself a job at Mack’s. And even though the bitter waitresses were difficult, she liked many of the people who hung out in the diner. Real people with real jobs doing real things.

In the middle of spring term, she had cut class more and more. Then she finally stopped going altogether. As guilty as she felt, it was a tremendous relief when she realized she had dropped out. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in weeks; they must have finally received her final grades—or nongrades. But she had stuck with her promise to try it for a year and that year was up.

 

She followed Herman up the stairs and emerged on the roof, where about 50 people had already gathered to sip wine or microbrew or a weird fluorescent green alien punch and gaze at the Willamette Valley vistas. The sun was still pretty high, and the aliens looked out of place in the harsh light. She imagined that later, the scene would look more like the bizarre Star Wars bar. Yvonne said the crew could attend the dance after the dining room closed, provided they changed out of their uniforms.

Next to her, Herman busted out in song, something he was prone to doing when the mood struck him. When Jessie worked at the diner, it was weirder when Herman wasn’t singing. All the aliens turned to look as he sang “Moon River” in his rich baritone, their odd faces reflecting a range of reactions from embarrassment to bemusement to delight.

Jessie set the pan on the buffet table and stood a moment as Herman finished his number. It was bound to be a busy night for her; she’d make some serious tips. She planned to come up later when the twinkle lights mirrored the stars and the air cooled her skin. She would drink a little wine out of a coffee cup, eat Space Prawns until she was full, maybe slow dance with Javi as the aliens whirled around them. What would her co-workers think? Yvonne? Rumor was Javi was an illegal with fake papers. That he had a wife and kids back in Mexico, but he’d never mentioned them to her. He seemed much too young to be married—and so much stronger than those wussie college boys. She imagined resting her head on his shoulder, eyes closed, smelling the sweat on his neck.

As she trudged back downstairs with a tray of dirty glasses, the thought of calling her parents nagged at her. What would it take to convince them that she didn’t want to live in some fantasy book world? What was wrong with living in the present? She told herself yet again that the next day, for sure, if she remembered, she would try to call them.

A herd of tall, pony-tailed high school girls in skintight glow-in-the-dark rubber suits scampered up the stairway, all carrying huge rubber alien heads with slit eyes. Jessie recognized Brianna’s sister, who was on the WHS girls basketball team. She paused on the staircase landing to let them pass, pressed against the window. “Hello you freaky aliens,” she called.

One alien stopped and pointed to Jessie’s foot. “Your shoe’s untied,“ she said, squatting. “I’ll get it.”

Jessie smiled. “Thanks.”

“You bet.“ The girl stood, smiled back and continued on, her ponytail swinging.

Jessie turned around and looked out the window at the Willamette glittering in the sun. She did not want to go to Ashland. She did not want to go back to school. She was taking care of herself for the first time ever. She asked herself: What would Huck Finn do? Huck Finn never let any parents stop him. He sailed on down that river with N-word Jim and never looked back. Fuck you, Mom! she thought, Huck you, Mom! She continued downstairs with a lighter step, rehearsing the words she would say to her parents: I live here now. I live in Woodhill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Quatro de Julio

 

Dante Gutierrez was nearly done mopping the dining room floor when the catering van pulled into the parking lot. He looked out the diner’s plate glass window at the lightening Eastern sky for a moment—steely gray giving way to a clumpy band of red stratocumulus clouds stretching across the horizon. The oil soap’s astringent scent gave him a slight headache as he swabbed the last corner of the worn fir floor. He’d cleaned it nearly every morning, before Mack’s Diner opened at 6 am, for the past four-and-a-half years, since he’d turned sixteen.

“Good morning,” Herman called from the kitchen.

“Good morning,” Dante replied, pausing to rinse and wring the mop before going over the entry area one more time. He was tired because had been up late the night before, working on an English paper that was due the next day—he hoped he could find enough time to finish it.

“You hungry?” Herman asked when Dante rolled the mop bucket through the kitchen.

“What’re you making?” As always, Dante was impressed by how put together Herman looked at the crack of dawn. His trimmed jet-black hair, still damp from the shower, was perfectly combed. And his black-rimmed glasses gleamed in the dim kitchen light. On that day, Herman wore a crisp red-white-and-blue snap-button cowboy shirt and black jeans—along with his red Chuck Taylors. Dante could barely struggle into shorts and a t-shirt at that hour.

“A Mack’s Special Scramble.” Herman whisked eggs in a stainless steel bowl.

“I forget, what’s in that?” Dante asked.

“Whatever’s leftover in the fridge.”

“Actually, I gotta bounce.” He walked to the back of the kitchen, emptied the mop bucket in the slop sink and rinsed it out.

“But you’re helping at the booth later, right?” Herman called.

Dante dried his hands on a paper towel and walked back to the line where Herman was cooking. “Yeah, I’ll be there. Right after the parade.”

“Are you marching?”

“Yeah. My MEChA group.”

“Oh, you’ll be the one draped in the Mexican flag?” Herman flipped the eggs with a jerk of his wrist.

“No, we don’t want to get shot.”

“Ah, the land of free,” Herman replied. “You know, unless you’re Native-American, you came from somewhere else. Apparently, my Hoffmeister ancestors were hated through both world wars because they were krauts.”

“Yet people still ate their food.” Dante headed toward the dining room to finish up. He always did another chore while the floor dried, like washing the glass on the front door or scraping the used gum from under the counter or replacing the urinal cakes in the men’s room.

“I’ll get the chairs and mats,” Herman said, sliding his breakfast onto a plate.

“Really?”

“Yeah, go on.”

“That’s okay, I can do it.” Dante looked toward the dining room.

“Take off. I’ll see you later.” Herman ground pepper over his food.

“No, I’ll do it.”

“Go on, Dante.”

“It’ll just take me a minute.” Dante edged to the doorway.

Herman laughed. “You freak. Get the hell out of here.”

Dante laughed with him. “Okay, thanks. I’ll see you at the parade.”

Outside, the day was already heating up. Dante hopped on his longboard for the short ride home through Woodhill’s nearly empty streets. It felt like a holiday, still and sleepy, except for a few firecrackers already popping far away somewhere. The soft morning air was fresh with cut grass and dew. He breathed deeply to get the cleaning taste out of his lungs as he cruised past the Twin Fir motel and the Post Office, then turned onto Mill Street.

His family had lived in the same apartment for almost his entire life: a three-bedroom close to downtown, about a block from Woodhill Elementary. It was a small complex, just 12 units arranged in a big U, surrounded by tall maple trees. Most of the families had lived there a long time, and the landlord was something like third-cousins with Dante’s father, Luis. But the noise got to Dante, especially on hot nights like last night when everyone had their TVs cranked up to different stations and then the babies started crying. It was hard to study and impossible to sleep.

Dante’s mother Sarita had had a baby, Joaquin, the year before. He was a cute kid, but soon he would have to move into Dante’s room—Papi said he was getting too big to sleep with the parents. Joaquin was a surprise. His mother had always said Dante and his sister Conchetta were all the children she needed, and Dante was thankful. Having a gardener dad and a mother who cleaned houses was cliché enough—they didn’t need a mess of kids too.

Dante skated into the parking lot just as his dad was loading the lawn mower into his pickup. Dante hopped off his board to help. He and his dad looked alike, sort of short and stocky with serious faces, but his dad was about five times stronger with a barrel chest and massive shoulders. They hefted the mower into the truck bed (though his father really didn’t need any help) and Dante slammed the tailgate closed.

“Why are you working today, Pop? It’s a holiday.”

“Es Martes,” his father replied. It’s Tuesday. They stared at each other in the predictable game of chicken they’d been playing for years. Dante waited for his dad to ask him to help; his dad waited for Dante to offer. But Dante was wiped out and he’d be up late again that night finishing that stupid paper—-he really wanted to catch a nap before the parade. They stared at each other. Yet Dante knew his dad was marching in the parade with his mariachi band and it would help him to be done with work as early as possible. They stared at each other. Dante needed the money; he shouldn’t refuse any opportunity to work. And his dad paid him minimum wage, even though he didn’t have to. They stared at each other. But he was so dang tired. They stared at each other.

Then Luis pulled his keys out of his pocket, the signal he was leaving.

“Need some help today?” Dante asked.

“That would be great,” Luis replied. “Just for a while.”

Dante sighed, tossed his skateboard into the back of the truck and climbed into the passenger seat. His dad was the master of the stare-off. Throughout his childhood, if Dante got caught in a lie, Luis could stare at him until he’d dissolve into a puddle on the floor. Dante had seen him stare an irate customer into silence. The only person not affected by Luis’ stare was Conchetta, the little princess, who made faces at her dad until he finally smiled.

They pulled out into the street and Dante rested his elbow out the open window. The day was turning bright and hot though there was still hardly a soul about. Dante looked at the fat gloppy white cumulonimbus piled up against the Cascades. They looked clean against the pale sky, like they would taste sweet if only he could take huge bites of them. Like they would envelope him in safety if only he could dive into them. His limbs felt heavy and his paper on Moby Dick weighed on his mind. He tried to take the liberal arts core classes that he didn’t like during the shorter summer term so he could get them over with. But the work was always more intense, especially when the rest of the world seemed to be on summer vacation. He promised himself, for the gazillionth time, that someday there would come a day in his life when he would be able to sleep whenever he wanted.

Luis pulled over behind the roach coach across from Home Depot and got out. Dante watched him joke with the guy in the window and burst into hearty laughter. Everyone loved his dad. Everyone. Sometimes Dante couldn’t even stand to watch it. He turned away.

Home Depot was just opening. Dante looked at the cluster of Mexican guys on the corner, smoking, drinking coffee out of paper cups, waiting for someone to come by and hire them. He had stood with them plenty of times. Most of them had families they were trying to support and some of them would make comments about Dante taking food out of their babies’ mouths. But Dante felt he had every right to be there too—he had tuition to pay. In a while, if those guys were lucky, some dude would come by in a pick-up truck or minivan and take some of them somewhere to work for cash.

Dante had cut wood, painted houses, spread asphalt, spread gravel, spread manure, baled hay, pulled insulation out of a crawl space, cleared brush, mucked barns, built fences, dug holes in places that heavy equipment couldn’t get to, cleaned construction sites, cleaned moss off a roof, cleaned roof gutters, washed windows and helped many many people move stuff. The “employers” ranged from decent people like Mr. Ricci, the winery owner, (who paid good money, usually brought food in and made his own kid work alongside Dante) to the rat-faced lavender farm guy who called them all “Manuel,” as in “manuel labor” and paid a measly $5 an hour. Dante was proud that Mr. Ricci now called him directly whenever he needed help in the vineyard. It was much better than standing in front of the Depot, where a black van parked across the street could mean a raid.

His dad got back into the truck and handed Dante a breakfast burrito and coffee. Dante unwrapped the waxed paper and took a bite of scrambled egg and chorizo. A dribble of grease rolled down his chin and he cursed himself for not eating when Herman had offered.

 

Four hours later, Dante returned home on his skateboard. He and his father had worked at a huge newer house in a fancy neighborhood on the west side of town. The Costellos were having a big barbecue and wanted the yard perfect. Dante had been there the day before, cleaning with his mother. She was doing her Tuesday houses along with her Monday ones so she could take the holiday off. Dante had helped her get it all done, though he didn’t like working with her. She was too intense and always double-checked every thing he did. At the Costellos, Dante had been vacuuming the beige carpeting on the long upstairs hallway when the youngest Costello daughter, Fiona, had walked out of her bedroom in a bathrobe, her head wrapped in a white towel. If it had been anyone else from his high school, Dante would have been mortified. But he and Fiona had been on the debate team together, traveling all over the state. They had always been simpatico. They stood there, catching up, Dante with his hand on the vacuum cleaner and Fiona leaning against her doorway, close to him, clutching her robe closed under her chin. After Woodhill High, Fiona had gone to Princeton and Dante hadn’t seen her since the summer before.

“You haven’t started yet?” Fiona exclaimed, talking about studying for the LSATs. “You’d better get busy.”

“I’ve got a ways to go,” Dante said. “It’ll probably be years before I even get my degree.”

“Dante!” Sarita’s sharp voice startled them both.

“Hi Sarita,” Fiona said, smiling.

“Hi Fiona.” Sarita nodded, all business. “Keep moving, Dante, we have a lot to do today.”

“Okay.” He shrugged at Fiona, who wrinkled her nose back. He had always liked the freckles sprinkled over the bridge of her nose; she had told him once that you had to have Celtic blood to have freckles.

She smiled. “We should have coffee.”

“Yeah.” Dante nodded, knowing it would never happen. Fiona closed her bedroom door and Dante switched the vacuum cleaner back on.

Driving to the next job, Sarita had torn him a new one for being so familiar with the customers.

“She’s my friend, Mom,” Dante had protested. “We grew up together.”

“I don’t care,” Sarita had replied. “She’s a customer. Keep your distance.”

Dante had kept silent, but he was annoyed with his mother. She was so old fashioned. Cripes, almost everything Conchetta wore had once belonged to Fiona.

That next day, Dante and Luis trimmed and mowed and raked and edged and swept and bagged the yard debris on the Costellos’ lawn. Dante kept a lookout for Fiona, but didn’t see her before he left. Luis stayed to help set up some rented tables and chairs and a shade tent, but told Dante to take off.

The streets were much more lively by the time Dante cut back through downtown. He saw marching bands gathering and people setting up floats, kids decorating bikes, beauty queens, drill teams, horses and clowns. Every year, Herman always joked that there were more Woodhillians marching in the Fourth of July parade than watching it. But already there were people lining the parade route, taping out their turf on the sidewalk, lounging on lawnchairs and cooking hotdogs on little Smokey Joe grills. As he rolled through the Town Square, Dante saw Herman setting up a food booth with the other vendors. When he passed a group of three cops talking in a tight cluster, he hopped smoothly to the sidewalk, placed his board under his arm and walked until the cops were far behind him.

He entered his family’s apartment and his sister Conchetta instantly started shouting. “Mom! Mom! He’s home. Let’s go.” Dante carried his skateboard through the living room to his bedroom. Sarita was in the kitchen feeding the baby who waved his fists at Dante. The apartment was tidy, freakishly tidy, almost like no one lived there. Sarita was very strict about clutter; Dante’s dad said it was because she grew up in squalor back in Mexico—she needed her house super clean. He passed his parents’ bedroom; Luis’ red charro suit, gleaming silver roosters running up the seams, hung on the door under a clear plastic bag.

“I need to take Connie to Wal-Mart,” Sarita called. “Will you feed Joaquin?”

Dante’s shoulders slumped and he looked helplessly at the ceiling. “Aw, man,” he moaned. He set his skateboard under his bed and returned to the kitchen. His mom was spooning some bright green muck into the baby’s mouth. “I need to take a shower and get ready,” he pleaded.

“We’ll be right back.”

“I need a red t-shirt for the parade.” Conchetta bobbed around the table on the balls of her feet, her black ponytail swinging. Her long skinny legs made her seem like a colt

Dante looked at Joaquin, green stuff dribbling out of his mouth and stuck in his curly black hair. “Why can’t you take him with you?”

Sarita set the bowl of food down hard on the table and sighed angrily; she had a very short fuse. “He needs to eat, okay?” She stood up, small and neat, her own dark hair cut very short. In her tanktop and cutoffs, she almost looked like Dante and Conchetta’s little brother.

Dante plopped down in the wooden chair she had just vacated. “Okay. Just hurry up.”

Sarita grabbed her car keys from a hook hanging by the back door.

“At least go to Target, not Wal-Mart,” Dante said.

Conchetta whirled around. “Why should we listen to you? You can’t even drive, you stupid wetback.”

Sarita reached back and pinched Conchetta’s upper arm hard.

“Oww.” Conchetta pulled away and rubbed the sore spot.

“I told you not to call him that,” his mother said as they rushed out the kitchen door.

Dante sat in the silence of their wake. Sometimes he hated Conchetta. She had it so easy and got everything she wanted. Her quinceanera had cost their parents a fortune; he couldn’t even afford to go to his high school prom. She was taking driver’s ed that summer. And she was already planning on going off to some fancy college since she could get financial aid. But she had a point: Why should anyone listen to him?

He was so tired, so weary, all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep for about two months. He looked out the window above the sink into the courtyard. Later, all the families would be out there barbecuing. The adults would drink beer and the kids would run around screaming, waving sparklers and throwing firecrackers. His dad would play his guitar, but not Mexican music, more likely Grateful Dead songs. How was he going to get his Moby Dick paper done?

He looked up at the sky. A set of altocumulus clouds was lined up in long rows like ribs. Like whale ribs. He particularly liked the contrast of white against blue sky. When he was little, he thought the clouds were a secret world where everything was clean and fresh and everyone was happy. If he lived there, his mind would be clear and his soul would be filled with light. And even now, he loved to look at the clouds, especially when he was working outside. They never failed to calm him and give him hope.

Joaquin babbled at him.

“Goo goo gaa gaa,” Dante replied, picking up the bowl of baby food. But his ringing cell phone interrupted him; it was his friend Claudia from MEChA. He was supposed to help paint signs up at the student union.

“No problem,” she said, “I’ll paint yours. What do you want?”

Dante considered. Amnesty now? Fat chance. Tuition equity? Their club had been working to get undocumented students who graduated from Oregon high schools to pay in-state tuition ($1500 a term) instead of out-of-state ($5000)—like the law in California.

“You still there?” Claudia asked.

“Yeah, I’m thinking.” What did he really want? He was tired of paying the highest tuition rate with no hope of financial aid. He often wondered if it was even worth it.

What did he really want?

“Da-nte?” Claudia’s voice sang into his ear.

“Okay,” he said, spooning spinach into his little brother’s mouth. “I know what I want.” Joaquin smiled at him and pounded his highchair tray.

 

After Joaquin finished eating, Dante put him into his play-yard and took a shower. As the hot water pounded onto his shoulders, Dante thought about just last term when he had nearly dropped out of school for good. He was flunking biology and had a nasty cold that had turned into a sinus infection lasting about a month. And he was working every spare hour to save up for the next term’s tuition. He just couldn’t get his act together; one thing went wrong after another. He was the biggest loser ever. When he decided to quit, his favorite poli sci professor asked Dante to talk to someone at the health center before she’d sign his drop form. The counselor had him write a list of options:

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Finish my degree, work my way through law school, help change the system.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Return to Mexico and wait to re-enter the US legally (which would take about a dozen years, if I ever got back in).

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Wait for immigration reform or visa amnesty (which could be forever).

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Marry an American (like I could even get a girlfriend).

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Drop out of school and join papi’s gardening business.

 

The next morning at work, Dante had been sitting in a booth at the diner, perusing his list, thinking about adding suicide to it, when Herman came upon him. Herman had encouraged him to keep going. He even promised him: “When you graduate and get into law school, come to the B of H. The Bank of Herman is an equal opportunity lender.”

Dante had stayed in school. He was grateful to Herman for his encouragement, but he was still depressed. Even if he did finally get his B.A., even if he if did get into law school and finish, even after passing the bar, he still wouldn’t be able to get a real job without a social security card.

 

The parade staging area was in the elementary school parking lot, just down the block. He got there as his MEChA club was arriving from the opposite direction. Claudia was already at the registration table, standing strong and imposing, a hand on her hip. Dante stood next to her.

“What is your group?” the matronly woman behind the table asked. She wore a red-white-and-blue cardboard top hat over her curly gray hair. Dante thought she looked like an owl, the way she blinked behind her thick eyeglass lenses.

“MEChA,” Claudia answered.

“What?” Blink, blink.

“MEChA,” Claudia said slowly, overstressing a Latina accent. “M-E-C-H-A. “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.” She turned her head and murmered “moron” toward Dante.

The woman looked up and blinked at Claudia’s “Immigration Reform” t-shirt. “This parade is for Americans, dearie. It’s Fourth of July.”

Dante heard a Claudia make a small growling noise in her throat. She raised the US flag she had rolled up in left hand and waved it in the woman’s face. “Ma’am, we are Americans. Do you have a supervisor or something?”

The woman wrote hard on a pad of forms, her ballpoint pen digging into the paper. “Well, you’re late.” She ripped the page off savagely and thrust it at Claudia. “Give this to the coordinator over there.” She pointed off to the left.

“Gracias,” Claudia said, smiling sweetly, then muttered, “bitch.” They walked away from the table and joined the other students in their group. They weren’t all Latino; there were white, Asian and black kids too, members of the Multicultural Student Union and the rabble rousing Sociology Club. Tyler Stewart, a pitcher on the NOU baseball team, came up to him with a stack of signs. “Which one is your’s, dude?”

“Pass the Dream Act.” Dante answered.

“What’s that mean?” Tyler asked as he looked through the signs.

“It stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. It’s a federal bill that’ll let undocumented students become citizens if they go to college.” Dante frowned and shook his head. “It’ll never get passed.”

“But there aren’t any illegals at NOU are there?” Tyler asked, handing Dante his sign. “They couldn’t afford the out-of state tuition.”

Dante merely shrugged and took his place in line. It was almost time to go. He watched as the Woodhill High band, sweltering in their forest green uniforms, marched forward playing “God Bless America.” Dante sighed, exasperated. When was someone going to sue that dumb-ass school for all their God shit? He remembered when he was finishing high school and how some of the kids would pray under the flag pole to get into the college they wanted. He’d been thrilled to be accepted by the U of O, no praying required. But then he’d been shocked when he figured out he wouldn’t get any financial aid to pay for it. And enraged when he found out that U of O wouldn’t let him in after all without papers. It still made him mad.

Following the band, the sports teams filed past in ranks of red, white and blue. He saw Conchetta with other members of the girls basketball team forming a line of red—that’s why she needed that red t-shirt so desperately—drop everything, Mom, so the little princess fits in.

He thought about what Tyler had said. Who knew that Dante was undocumented? His family, of course. Herman. The registrar’s office because he couldn’t produce a social security number. The people who hired him off the corner? Working for them didn’t necessarily mean he was illegal. What would Tyler think if he knew? Dante was so tired of hiding his status. It exhausted him. He was ashamed of his dirty secret, yet he was proud of all he’d accomplished in spite of it. Sometimes he thought he should just “come out” as an illegal and become an activist—like Herman and the gay guys. But he was scared of being sent back to a country he hadn’t been to since he’d left as an infant. And he could put his parents at risk too—even though they paid taxes with a Taxpayer ID number, they still didn’t have green cards. They’d had fake green cards back in the ‘80s—that was how they got driver’s licenses—but his father told him it was different back then. Nobody seemed to care if you were documented or not.

He saw his dad run up to his group of six other musicians, guitar in one hand, sombrero in the other. The mariachi laughed and clapped him on the back. They were all from Jalisco, like his dad, and after playing together for 15 years, those guys were like uncles to Dante. They got into their formation and joined the parade as the trumpet bleated out the familiar opening notes of their trademark tune, “El Son de la Negra.” His dad was so happy to play, even after a really long day of work.

Finally, it was Dante’s club’s turn to join the parade. He walked next to Claudia; somehow, he felt safe next to her, and not just because she was bigger than he. She was a solid girl from Portland who loved to argue. She also planned to be a lawyer, like her mother, a goal she could actually achieve. He often wondered what she would think if she knew he was illegal—how stupid that he couldn’t even tell his best friend. People along the street cheered. The sun beat down on them as they continued on, waving and throwing Jolly Ranchers. Dante felt sweat trickling down his back as the sun beat down. He was proud to be in the parade; he hadn’t marched since Cub Scouts.

Little kids ran into the street to pick up candy. Senior citizens peered from under big umbrellas that shielded them from the sun. Dante could smell meat cooking and acrid firecracker smoke.

“There’s your mom,” Claudia said. Sarita, Joaquin in her arms, was standing in the shade of a tree. He waved his US flag at them and his mother smiled and waved back. She pointed for Joaquin and he waved his arms at Dante. They continued down Main Street past the library and the Woodhill Hotel, then headed toward the Town Square where the festivities would continue in picnic form. The warm breeze blew back his hair and he laughed for no reason. He didn’t feel tired for once.

But suddenly he heard angry shouting: “No way, Jose!” and “Dream on!” They walked past a small group of angry white people who were screaming and shaking their fists. They stepped off the sidewalk, leaning toward the marchers, a tight knot of rage aimed right at them. One man kept screaming “Go home! Go home!” Dante was shocked to see it was the guy from the lavendar farm who paid $5 an hour. His rat face was bright red and he was pointing right at Dante. “Just keep going,” Claudia said in his ear as she slipped her arm through his. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it coming for him, a huge hocker of spit flying from the lavendar farm guy’s mouth. Dante searched the hot sky for a cloud to look at, even a wispy cirrus or a patch of white anywhere, but all he saw was endless blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The Meadow

 

The mornings were finally getting a bit cooler, the promise of fall in the tired forest air. Olivia Bradford allowed herself a tight little smile as she pulled out of the ranger station. She much preferred working in the winter, when she could sit in her truck—alone—drinking coffee, nibbling cookies and answering radio calls. To her, August was pure hell, especially at the Lost Mountain Campground. It was the month all the idiots came out to play.

She was working with Duane that morning, just starting a twelve-hour shift. He slumped in the passenger seat, clearly stoned as usual. Mr. Wake and Bake. A tribute to federal employees everywhere. Actually, he was just a summer temp, but the public didn’t know that. During the rest of the year, he was a shop teacher over at Woodhill High. She hoped he was more dedicated to that job—though judging by the half finger missing from his left hand, she doubted it.

Olivia thanked God every day for her position. The benefits alone were more than most people dreamed of, especially the folks back in the neighborhood. Some of her old Roosevelt High classmates in North Portland had done well for themselves in the ten years since they graduated, but most of them, people of color like herself, were unemployed or working poor. No health insurance. No job security. Toiling away at some crappy job with no future. She looked over at Duane. His thinning gray hair stuck out from under his cap and his khaki uniform shirt had some sort of brown stain running down the front.

“The wife still visiting out of town, Duane?”

He grunted and looked out the window.

Olivia always made sure her uniform was clean and pressed; it annoyed her that Duane apparently couldn’t even work a washing machine. Her height and broad shoulders intimidated people and because of this, she felt it was her responsibility to be especially well-groomed.

The Lost Mountain Campground was nestled into the side of one of the Coast Range’s tallest peaks. Its main road, coming off Highway 13, looped through the trees, past the 26 campsites, three outhouses and a parking lot for daytrippers and backpackers. At the farthest point from the highway lay the famous meadow where, supposedly, a UFO had crashed in 1957. A deer hunter had taken some blurry pictures, and the area was launched into one of those wacky mid-century rural legends-in-the-making. Olivia wasn’t sure if she believed a UFO had actually landed there, but it wouldn’t surprise her. The place had an eerie vibe, attracting freaks and criminals.

She pulled into the parking space next to the first bathroom. The year before, a couple of prisoners from the county work crew had escaped while cleaning the campground and were still at large. Since then, because of the so-called “security issue,” the rangers had to do the maintenance themselves. “I’ll go first,” she told Duane, “You can check the fee box.” As she climbed out of the truck, she looked pointedly at the Tupperware container that sat between them on the seat. “I counted those,” she warned. She knew it was dangerous leaving her baked goods alone with Duane when he was stoned. But after the last time—well, Olivia was pretty sure he wouldn’t try anything again.

“Don’t worry, Oscar,” Duane said, “I’m not going to steal your cookies.”

“Who’s Oscar?”

“That fuzzy dude on Sesame Street who steals all the cookies.”

Olivia shook her head. “That’s Cookie Monster, you fool. Oscar’s the grouch.”

Duane spread his hands. “Well, there you go.”

She nodded her approval to Duane, signifying that she thought his wisecrack was pretty funny. Even when something tickled her to no end, she rarely allowed herself to laugh at work. At the back of the truck, she took out the cleaning caddy, donned some latex gloves and a paper surgical mask, and entered the bathroom, holding her breath against the oppressive stench. It was a pit toilet with a cement floor and screened window high above the hole—the largest outhouse in the campground. They called it the Ritz. Olivia kicked a few wads of toilet paper toward the throne, then pitched them down the hole. Even though her hand-printed sign clearly said “Keep lid closed when not in use,” no one had bothered to close the lid. She sprayed the toilet with disinfectant, then replaced the empty roll of paper. She glanced around; the floor was okay, no one had barfed. She barged back outside, wrestled off her mask and stuck it and her gloves in her pocket.

At the truck, Duane had already emptied the fee box and figured out who still hadn’t paid for the previous night. “Let’s collect now,” she said. Usually they cleaned all the bathrooms first, then collected fees. But on her last evaluation, her supervisor Vance gave her a less than perfect score on “flexibility,” so one of her goals for the year was to be more flexible. She was working toward a grade increase to GS-10 level; the pay bump would help her save for a remote mountain cabin in which she planned to spend her retirement 40 years in the future.

At the first site, she stood back while Darryl approached a dented blue pickup with a rusted canopy over its bed. It was the kind of vehicle that could carry anyone inside: a retired farmer, a tweaker, a serial killer, a couple of nuns on a nature retreat. Duane looked through the windshield, then made a notation on his clipboard. He pounded on the side of the canopy a few times, but it was pretty obvious no one was there.

Olivia bent down, picked up a cigarette butt and threw it in the campfire ring. That is what she hated about summers. All the mundane chores. She was a glorified custodian. Her sister, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, always complained she was a glorified waitress. As if being a ranger or flight attendant was better than being a custodian or waitress. It all came back down to benefits. She had gone through four years at Northwestern Oregon University, with a double major in forestry and recreation, and here she was picking up other people’s trash. Yeah, winter would be sweet.

She was distracted by a metallic clinking. Duane appeared at her side and they walked toward the sound. In the next site, they found a boy who looked to be about five or so. He wore a grimy white hoodie and no pants; he was attacking a huckleberry bush with an axe. A vintage green canvas tent, probably purchased from Sears back in the sixties, leaned at the edge of the clearing. Olivia put her hands on her hips. Good lord, she thought.

“Hey buddy,” Duane called softly.

The kid turned around. He was barefoot, his toes nearly black with dirt. “I’m chopping wood,” the boy yelled.

“I see,” Duane said. “That’s a very cool axe. Can I take a look at it?”

The boy looked up at him, skeptical. “You a police?”

Duane squatted down. “No way.” He smiled “I’m a ranger. I’m here to check out your equipment.”

The boy frowned. “Why?”

“Well, we need to know it’s in perfect working order. Let me see it a minute.” He beckoned to the boy.

Olivia strode over to the pair. “Oh for Christ’s sake.” She yanked the axe out of the kid’s hands. He instantly started wailing. Duane rolled his eyes. “Where are your parents?” Olivia demanded.

She heard the unmistakable sound of a tent zipper and watched a rumpled skinny man crawl out into the day. He stood slowly, like every muscle was sore, and squinted at Duane and Olivia. “What the fuck?” he mumbled. The boy ran to him, sobbing, and threw his arms around his legs.

Olivia held up the axe like the thunder god Thor. “This yours?” she asked.

“What about it?” He ran a hand through his tangled brown hair, then rubbed his stubbled chin.

“Your kid was playing with it. He could have cut his foot off.” She leaned the axe up against a tree. “You should keep a better eye on him.” She walked off, leaving Duane to check on the fee. “Freakin’ Sasquatch,” she heard the man say. She pressed her lips together so she wouldn’t laugh out loud. Good one.

She looked over her shoulder and saw Duane laughing with the guy. Vance paired them up that summer because, according to her last evaluation, she was sometimes “brusque” with park guests. That was one goal that she wasn’t focusing on too much; some guests deserved to be treated brusquely. Hell, they came out in the woods and thought they could do anything. Like they didn’t have to follow the rules or obey the laws, and it was up to her to look after their kids. Where was the glory in that?

Back in the truck, she opened her container of cookies and took one out. It was a new recipe that she had created over the weekend: she called it a Hazelnut Butterdrop. She took a small nibble and closed her eyes, letting the cookie melt on her tongue. She tasted it carefully, gauging the texture, then swallowing and breathing shallowly to judge the aftertaste. Next time, she wouldn’t grind the nuts quite so finely, and she might increase the butter ever so slightly. But yes, it was one tasty cookie. She would bake another batch, then tweak the recipe and maybe elevate it to her “Favorite Local Ingredients” file.

She took another bite and looked off into the forest. Sasquatch. Oh how she would love to see one. She thought about it every once in a while, usually when she was out alone on a logging road. She imagined touching one’s fur, looking into its eyes. What would it feel like? What would it smell like?

“Hey,” Duane slid into the passenger’s seat. “Gimme one of those.”

Olivia snapped the lid shut. “Why don’t you learn how to bake your own damn cookies?” In the two months they had worked together, Duane hadn’t shared a single thing with her, except some bad jokes. They drove the several yards down to the next bathroom.

While Duane cleaned the crapper, Olivia walked back to the meadow. She was never sure what she would find there: a drum circle of patchouli-soaked hippies from the college, a bunch of kindergartners from the rich-kid academy dancing around a maypole with streamers in their hands, a teenage couple on Ecstasy screwing their brains out. Back in the seventies, someone had constructed a life-size replica of Stonehenge out of cinder blocks there. Legend was it appeared overnight. The thing had been slowly dismantled by folks who needed to prop up a fifth wheel or wanted to build temporary steps up to their truck canopy or needed a hard surface to crack nuts with a hammer. But there was still a circle of blocks remaining, and that was where she found about six women seated around a smoky campfire. They were all fiftyish, ranging from ropey, tanned, brittle ones with tasteful red rinses in their hair to soft pasty ones sporting menopausal backfat and frizzy manes of natural gray. Olivia paused and watched them.

“I honor the spirit of the fire,” a tall woman with a boy’s haircut pronounced, “and your power to transmute. To you I willingly give this symbol of my daughter’s education and ask you to transform it into something—better.” She smiled at the sky. “Dare I say Yale?” Then she threw a piece of paper into the fire; it looked like a photograph, like a school picture. Great, Olivia thought, shaking her head and moving toward them. White bitchcraft. Some kind of twisted sunrise ritual.

“Morning ladies,” she called.

The women all turned to her and froze. Olivia imagined raising her arms, stomping her feet and roaring at them; she frowned to keep herself from chuckling. The tall photo-burner stepped forward; she was nearly the same height as Olivia. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Nora.”

Olivia kept her hands clasped behind her back and stepped past Nora to the edge of the fire. “This is a no-fire zone,” she said, turning back to the women. “You need to put this out. Now.”

The women stood silent, looking at each other. One of the puffy women whispered to Nora, who then smiled at Olivia. “We are so sorry,“ she said. “We’re almost done with our ceremony, then we’ll make sure it’s thoroughly extinguished.” All the women smiled and nodded like a set of middle-aged bobblehead dolls.

“That fire needs to go out now.” Olivia spun around and walked quickly back toward the road. “Bye!” the women called after her. “Thank you.”

Some people, she thought, shaking her head. They could burn down the state with that measly fire. She thought of the ranger a few summers ago who started a huge wildfire when she burned some old love letters—hundreds of thousands of acres were destroyed. That ranger later killed herself.

At the truck, she pulled a bucket out of the back and filled it with water from the faucet near the bathroom. Duane was collecting a fee about two sites down. She marched the bucket back to the meadow and doused the fire as the ladies gasped. One yelled “hey!” Olivia watched the sodden smoke rise. Then she picked up a nearby stick, squatted and stirred the mucky ashes. Satisfied, she stood and turned around to see the coven staring at her in various stages of hurt. Once again, Nora stepped up to Olivia. This time not so friendly.

“Look,” Nora said, her voice low and trembling with anger. “I really respect you as a woman and I respect you as an African American—”

“Ma’am,” Olivia interrupted. “I just want you to respect the rules of the U.S. Forest service.” She picked up the bucket and left them there.

“You just don’t get it,” Nora spat after her.

They are so stupid, Olivia thought as she walked back to the truck. She understood they were looking for something, but there was a different kind of magic there that they obviously couldn’t see.

City people were always sniffing around the woods for something mystical; Olivia had been a clueless city dweller herself until the summer before her sophomore year in high school. She and a group from her church had attended a two-week Outward Bound program deep in the Siskiyous. It was weird. The other kids were nervous and sulky but Olivia, for the first time in her young life, felt completely at ease. It was as if the smell of the woods was nitrous oxide—it made her inexplicably happy. The next seven years of education were just an extended pathway that would eventually return her to that place that could still her anxiety and douse her worries.

Although Portland was just over an hour away, she went back only occasionally to see her relatives, get a decent haircut or attend a decent church service. She felt like a stranger in her hometown anymore. She often felt like a stranger in whitebread Woodhill too, but at least she had a job that got her out into the woods.

Back at the truck, Duane was stowing the cleaning caddy. She threw the bucket in next to it. “Let’s take a break,” Olivia said, grabbing her thermos and cookies from the truck cab.

“No argument here,” Duane replied, and settled with a sigh in the passenger’s seat. Olivia walked back through the meadow, nodding at the huddle of glaring women, then entered the woods at the Lost Mountain trailhead. It was a well-traveled path—especially in August—that looped 12 miles around the mountain crest, past a waterfall, old growth groves and several viewpoints offering astounding vistas of the valley to the east and the ocean to the west. Most people never hiked up that far. Olivia walked in a few hundred yards and sat on a flat log that she liked. She opened her thermos and poured a cup. She took great care in grinding the beans and brewing her coffee, unlike Duane who always brought the swill from Mack’s Diner. She opened the container of cookies and took one out.

Sitting there, with the aroma of strong coffee and the feel of her butter cookie between her fingers, a stand of massive cedars looming above her, soft dry moss beneath her ass, Olivia felt an overwhelming sense of contentment. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and melted into the log. She exhaled and felt the tension drain from her upper back. Summer was almost over.

A few yards away, a branch snapped. Olivia thought squirrel or deer or bird, but the image of a bigfoot flashed through her mind. She looked toward the sound, but saw nothing. Blowing on her coffee, she watched a flicker drill into a Doug fir. Soon, the fall fruit would be in season and she could bake some apple cookies. She half-turned again toward the noise behind her, then considered trying some pumpkin cookies with lots of ginger—that could be tasty.

But soon the strange sound became so loud, she set her cup on the log and stood up to investigate. Dried needles crunched beneath her boots, and the pungent odor of skunk cabbage wafted up. She stepped through the ferns, past a huge salal bush. The noise was so loud, Olivia was pretty sure it was a person, maybe a brush picker or mushroom gatherer. She hoped it was someone benign; the only things in the woods that frightened her were people. Walking around a huge, hollow cedar snag, she saw a pair of bare feet sticking out of the rotted-out stump. She had seen snags as big as Volkswagens that had neat little rooms inside, like where a Keebler elf would live. They were always the first places they searched when a child went missing.

The feet were filthy, hard and black on the soles. “Hello,“ Olivia said, “You want to come out of there?” When she didn’t get an answer, she nudged a foot with her boot toe.

The person slowly backed out of the snag. Olivia was expecting either a kid or a deranged hermit, so she was startled to see a young woman, maybe 20, with long tangled brown hair—the bottom half bleached blonde. She wore a faded blue sweatshirt and cutoffs. Her pretty face was streaked with dirt and tears, and she sneered at Olivia who regarded her silently, then realized she was the girl who had been hanging out at the campground all summer. A tweaker. Olivia had wanted to call the state cops on her long ago, first when the girl gave her stringy boyfriend a blow job right in the middle of the meadow, and then a month later after a camper caught her ripping off his ice-chest. But Duane always cut the poor guttersnipe a break because she was the daughter of one of his high school buddies. Her name was Lacey something.

They stared at each other for a moment. Then Olivia looked past the girl and into the snag. There was a backpack and a grimy blanket—a magazine picture of Johnny Depp as a pirate stuck up on the wood wall. Oh my lord, she thought, she’s living in there. She looked back at Lacey, who was chewing her bottom lip. “Where’s that guy you hang out with?” Olivia asked.

Lacey shrugged.

Olivia put her hands on her hips, considering what to do. Then she noticed, beneath the dirt on the girl’s cheek, a raging blue and green bruise. And there was an infected-looking bald spot next to her right temple. Olivia stared into her jumpy eyes. The strange thing was, there was something about her that reminded Olivia of herself: like if she were a teenaged tweaker, she’d be doing the exact same thing. Burrowing in a stump in the woods made sense to her because it is obviously the safest place to be. Living in an old tree snag might be pretty wonderful. Olivia shook her head slowly. She should turn the girl in, help her get into a program. But more likely the girl would end up in county lockup for a few days, put on a year-long waiting list for rehab, then bounced right back out on the street with a bad case of jailcrabs. There was nothing Olivia could do for her, yet there was something that touched her. Something that poked at her under-used heart. The girl was headed for prison or death. Why not let her commune with nature a while longer? She stared at her, thinking.

“What?” the girl finally demanded. Her eyes were red-rimmed and runny, yet still defiant.

“Nothing,” said Olivia, handing Lacey the precious Hazelnut Butterdrop that was still in her hand. “Nothing,” she repeated, walking away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Skittles

Jared sat upstairs at his big brother’s desk, playing just one more game of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Since Kyle had been deployed, Jared had free reign of all his stuff: TV, hunting rifle, PS2. If his mom caught him at the computer, he just said he was checking for an email from Iraq. Little did she know that Kyle had bookmarked all the good porno sites; the ones that gave you an eyeful without having to sign up or pay out.

He leaned his cheek against the window, hoping for a glimpse of the girls next door. They were college students, five of them, and Jared thought they were very hot—even in hoodies and flannel pajama bottoms. He spent many hours parked at Kyle’s window, digging his toes into the light-brown carpeting, eating Cheez-Its. On that night, he also kept an eye on the street. His parents were hosting an Arbor Heights Homeowners Association meeting, and people streamed up their front walk.

Though it was late September, the hot summer had lingered into the school year. The evening was very warm and his mother had the air conditioner cranked. Jared didn’t mind the heat. He was 13 and an eighth-grader at Woodhill Middle School. He had other things on his mind. Like avoiding killing himself.

“Hey!”

Jared looked down and saw one of his neighbors staring up at him. It was the one with long black hair who worked some nights at a restaurant. The one who often wore a Hooters Las Vegas t-shirt with her shiny red track pants, who drove the old white Sentra with the OBAMA ‘08 bumpersticker, who seemed to use the garage as her bedroom. He slid the window open.

“What’s your name kid?”

He cleared his throat and hoped his voice wouldn’t crack. “Jared.”

“Hi Jared. I’m Claudia. Do you plan on spying on us all year?”

Jared gaped at her. He felt the tips of his ears burning and wondered if she could see them flaming through the screen. “Uh, no?” he muttered.

“Good answer, Jared.” Claudia laughed and Jared flopped down flat on the floor. “Shit,” he whispered, whacking his forehead with the heel of his hand a few times. Then he heard another voice from below and struggled against the rolls of fat around his middle to sit up and peek through the window. It was his best friend Chuy, clad in a black doo-rag, baggy skater shorts hanging low on his hips and a Raiders t-shirt ripped off above the waist to show his flat stomach. He had drawn a barbed wire tattoo around his upper arm with blue ballpoint pen. Jared wished more than anything that he could be Chuy, standing there looking like a senior (okay, a really short senior), his tanned arms smooth and almost cut, talking to a college girl like it’s nothing—instead of the fatty geek he was. It’s not like he wasn’t used to being around girls—there had been plenty when Kyle still lived there—it was just that Jared didn’t know what to say to them.

He heard the rumble of his father’s voice from downstairs, then sprang up and shot out of his room, flying down the stairs to get to Chuy before his dad did. He dashed through the front hallway into the kitchen and nearly took out his mother, Dottie, who carried a tray covered with glasses of iced tea. She gasped, her plump arms quivering with the weight of the tray.

“Oops, sorry,” Jared said, reaching up to steady her load.

“My goodness, dear.” His mother’s forehead was shining with sweat in spite of the frigid air conditioning. She was wearing one of her church dresses, the one with the colorful stripes that made her look like a picnic table. Her bland hair was sprayed into crisp curls close to her head. “Did you take your Ritalin today?”

“Yes,” he groaned. He had taken his Ritalin all right—taken it to school two weeks before to trade for Oxycontin and weed, which did him a lot more good. He had quit taking the ADHD medication back in fifth grade; it was much more useful to him as barter material. His mother always helped herself to the Ritalin before she handed the prescription bottle over to him. He ducked past her, cringing at the flowery smell of her perfume and perspiration, and made it to the back door without running into any of the grownups milling around the house. Chuy was still talking to Claudia; they both looked up as he emerged through the back door.

“Hey Jarhead,” Chuy called.

“Hey Jesus,” Jared replied, pronouncing it ‘Geez us’ instead of the properly Spanish, ‘Hay Zeus.’ When they met, the first day of sixth grade, their new social studies teacher Mrs. Quinn had pronounced Chuy’s real name the New Testament way. The entire class had laughed and she couldn’t figure out why, which made them laugh more. They had become friends in that class, though Jared knew the only reason Chuy hung out with a dork like himself was because Chuy was Mexican, but not like the other real Mexicans in their school. He was too white for them and too brown for the white kids. Jared didn’t care either way; Chuy cracked him up.

“Ha,” Claudia said, “Jesus and Jarhead. You guys could be an MTV show.” Jared remembered Kyle watching a show that sounded something like that. “Heh, heh, heh.” he chuckled.

She raised her eyebrows in appreciation. “That’s pretty good,” she said. He ducked his head as his eartips tingled.

“Claudia’s in one of my mom’s classes,” Chuy reported.

“She’s a great prof,” Claudia said. “What’s she like as a mom?”

“She’s a tough grader,” Chuy said, and he and Claudia cracked up together. Then she turned to Jared, suddenly serious.

“What’s going on at your house?” She motioned at all the cars lining the curb.

“Homeowners meeting,” Jared replied.

“Homos’ meeting.” Chuy smirked until Claudia shut him down with a scowl. “My bad,” he mumbled.

“What do they talk about?” Claudia asked Jared.

Jared shrugged. “Mostly they talk about, uh, like how, you know, how some people are ruining the neighborhood.”

”You mean people like me?” Claudia asked. “Students?” Jared didn’t answer.

“They’re plotting! Like in Julius Caesar,” Chuy said gleefully, rubbing his palms together and hopping from one foot to the other. Because of his mother, he knew all Shakespeare’s plays and referred to them often, even though the other eighth-graders didn’t know what he was talking about.

Claudia looked around at the inane landscape of cookie-cutter snout houses, cul-de-sacs and poorly planned shrubbery “Whatever,” she said, swinging her long ponytail. She grabbed her gym bag out of her car and flounced into the house.

Jared and Chuy stood staring at the door she had just slammed until Jared’s dad Bill yelled out the back door. “Come in here and help your mother.”

“IM me later,” Jared said to Chuy before jogging back to his house.

His father waited in the kitchen and thumped him on the head as he tried to duck past him. “What’re you hanging out with that gangbanger for?” he asked.

“He’s not in a gang,” Jared mumbled.

“What?” Bill grabbed the back of his shirt to stop him.

“Nothing.” Jared wrestled free.

“How did you do on your math test?”

“79.”

His dad shrugged. “I had trouble with algebra myself. As long as you don’t get left behind.”

Jared stumbled off to find his mom. His dad was getting all up in his kool-aid now that Kyle was gone—those two had fought like crazy. Kyle had called him Daddy Dementor and did anything he could to make him mad. Like join the Army. Even at 13, Jared knew it was a slammin’ move. Dad was crazed with anger over Kyle giving up his football scholarship for the military, but he couldn’t say a word about it because he “supported the troops” and the president. And the best part was Kyle got away from Dad for good. Jared thought Kyle was wicked genius.

In the front hallway, the tall blonde lady from Hemlock Street entered through the front door. “Hi there,” she said. Jared stopped dead and stared at her chest until she crossed her arms. He looked up and saw her glaring.

“Uh, hi,” Jared said. “Mrs. Ruiz, right?” She was the one who helped his mom with her scrapbooking. His mom had about six huge scrapbooks documenting his entire family’s history. She was now working on one for Kyle’s service; she always tied it up fancy with a yellow ribbon, as if it would keep him safe and bring him home, as if Kyle was living between those dry scrapbook leaves instead of in Fallujah or Tikrit or wherever the hell he was.

“Right,” she said. “Where’s the party?”

He gestured into the living room and watched her walk away, her flowered skirt swishing back and forth. She cried, “Herman!” and rushed over to sit with the guy who owned the diner.

“Oh great, it’s ‘Tits for Brains,’” Bill murmured behind him. His mother shushed him. “And what’s that tired old faggot doing here?” he whispered as they both walked past Jared into the large living room, which was filled with about 25 people.

Jared followed them a few steps closer to the arched entry, then slipped up the staircase to the landing where he had a perfect view into the sterile room (white walls and carpeting, puffy brown leather furniture) that his family never used unless there was company or it was a holiday.

He was suddenly struck by how his parents looked alike, shapeless and beige. His dad reminded him of a thumb, his mom a moist piece of vanilla bundt cake wrapped in a tablecloth. They both had downturned mouths; his mom’s showed just her bottom row of teeth when she smiled but his dad just frowned a lot. They both had drab, crinkly hair threaded with gray. They looked like characters in a video game; he imagined their heads blowing up.

There were plenty of other people Jared recognized from the neighborhood like the Neals from down the street, who also went to his church. Mr. Neal was famous among the high school girls for driving babysitters home, then talking a little too earnestly to them about joining bible study before they fled, creeped-out, into their houses. Next to them sat Mrs. Braun who stole $3000 from the Woodhill High PTA about five years before and had to pay it back. Everyone pretended like it never happened, but Jared watched Mrs. Neal move her big red purse to the other side of her feet, out of Mrs. Braun’s reach. And on the loveseat by the fireplace, Mrs. Ruiz was deep into conversation with Herman. Jared stared at Herman and wondered what it would be like to be gay. He didn’t look like the other old guys in town: he dyed his hair dark and wore those freaky old school glasses like he was in a “Twilight Zone” episode. Jared had known him practically his whole life; Herman always added a free cinnamon roll to his plate whenever the Pratts ate breakfast at the diner.

Herman’s boyfriend worked at the library. Jared and the other kids made fun of him sometimes, even though he was a pretty nice guy. He had helped Jared find that book about the Atkins Diet and didn’t even laugh at him. Jared imagined doing it with a guy, and although it was supposed to be a sin, the thought didn’t really gross him out. But then he imagined doing it with Chuy and instantly banned that idea from his mind: don’t think about that, don’t think about that, don’t think about that. It’s a sin. It lit the tips of his ears on fire.

Then he stared at Candy Ruiz and wondered what it would be like to be married to her. To kiss her. To sleep with her every night. To have constant access to her huge boobs. Her husband Mark looked like a movie star or something. They both resembled movie stars. She looked as bootylicious as some of the women on the internet porn sites, but with clothes on, of course. His pants suddenly felt tight and he changed positions on the stair landing.

Jared’s dad began speaking while his mother stepped back against the wall. “Thanks for coming to this informal meeting of the Arbor Heights Homeowners Association, or AHHA!, as we like to call it. I know most of you, but for you newcomers, my name is Bill Pratt. I’m the local Farmer’s insurance agent here in Woodhill and I’m also a member of the Woodhill City Council. I’ve lived here all my life. My wife Dottie and I were one of the first families to buy a house here five years ago when the development first started Phase One. We have two boys, Jared—who’s here somewhere—and our oldest is Kyle, serving the country over in Iraq.” He paused a moment so people could murmur their sympathy, say a silent prayer like the pastor asked them to at church every week. Bill continued: “We like living here because it’s clean, quiet and safe—and we want to keep it that way.”

“Excuse me?” Candy Ruiz waved her fingers.

“Hi Candy.” Bill sighed.

“Where is Trip?” Trip Jurgenson was the president of Arbor Heights Homeowners Association.

Jared watched his dad clear his throat; a sure sign he was annoyed. “Well, Trip and Janine are on a cruise, celebrating their 25th anniversary. But I feel like we have an emergency situation here that can’t wait until he returns. Calling a meeting is completely within my authority as vice president. Where’s your husband?”

Candy rolled her eyes. “He’s with the kids. Continue.”

“I’m sure you’ve all noticed how noisy the neighborhood has gotten since the first of September. It’s because there are so many college students moving in.”

An elderly woman sitting on the puffy ottoman spoke up. “I haven’t noticed it getting noisy.”

“Well,” Bill reported smugly, “on our street, there have been wild parties until all hours, kids parking their junky cars at the curb. Just last Friday there were a couple of students running each other down Spruce Street in a shopping cart in the middle of the night.”

Jared hid his grin. Those weren’t college students, they were the Hoskin twins who were in the tenth grade. They were the noisiest kids anywhere, and they lived right behind the Pratts.

The girls next door had had a party when they moved in, but there were only about 15 people there, barbecuing and playing hackysack in the backyard. Everyone left about 9:30, probably to go to a better party.

“Have you spoken to any of these students?” Herman asked.

“Yeah, to tell them to pipe down.”

Herman shook his head. “Maybe if you got to know them, invited them over for some of these lovely miniature quiches from Costco.” He indicated the snacks Jared’s mom had set out on the glass-topped coffee table. “Respect them and they’ll respect you.” Somebody snickered.

Bill began to pace back and forth in front of the white-brick fireplace that remained spotless except when he threw a Presto Log in on Christmas Eve. “Herman, can I ask what you’re doing here?”

“Why, I’m a homeowner, Bill, just like you. My partner and I now have a couple investment properties in this neighborhood, including the house next door, which we rent to college students. Lovely young women, I might add.”

“So you know there are five of them living there?”

“Yes.”

“But there are only four bedrooms.”

“Maybe two of them are sharing, like in the dorms.”

“No. One’s living in the garage.”

“So?”

“I propose we get the city council to pass an ordinance limiting the number of unrelated people who can live together.”

“Are you nuts?” Candy stared at Bill, incredulous, her hands spread wide. “That’s like something out of Nazi Germany.”

“He’s got a point,” said a grizzled old man in the puffy recliner. “We want to preserve our property values, and we don’t want a bunch of communes turning Arbor Heights into hippie central.”

“Yes!” Bill practically jumped for joy, his big gut shaking a little. “That’s what I’m talking about.” Jared imagined his dad turning into a quivering heap of Jello, then melting into the floor.

Candy threw her head back and groaned. “What about foster kids?”

“Well, we’ve thought this through, Candy. If a family wants to take in up to three foster kids, that’s fine. More than that, well, these houses aren’t big enough for a boatload of kids.”

Candy shook her head, clearly exasperated. “How do you plan to enforce this?”

“There are still some details to work out.”

“Why is this such an emergency?” she asked.

Jared watched his dad glare at Mrs. Ruiz like he often glared at Jared when he did something stupid, like not put the garbage can lid back on tight so the raccoons got into it. Then he looked down and picked at white carpet threads as his dad continued in his droning voice.

“Timing is crucial because I’ve talked to all the other city council members and most of them will support us. But three of them are up for re-election so we have to push this through in case they’re replaced.”

“If they support this asinine idea, they deserve to be replaced.”

“Let’s leave politics out of this, Candy.”

“This is all about politics, Bill.” She stood up—a presence with her gleaming blonde hair and lean, muscled limbs. “Raise your hand if you think this is a good idea,” she dared the others and watched as about half the neighbors raised their hands. She whirled around and sat down. “Okay. If you can convince the city council to pass this ordinance, I will guarantee you it will get challenged in court.”

Jared’s dad smiled grimly, his mouth a straight line with drooping corners. “Isn’t that how we do things in Oregon? We make new laws, then the judges ignore them. I think in this case, the will of the people will prevail. Those of you who want to can stay and talk about our proposal. Meeting adjourned.”

Jared watched Candy and Herman with their heads together on the couch. Then they laughed. Weird. How could people be mad as anything one second, then act like they don’t care the next? It was obvious they didn’t like his dad. Jared and Kyle spent hours bugging about their old man—but it always shook Jared up a bit when he realized other people thought his father was a bastard too.

He looked for his mother, but she had vanished. No, there she was, right next to the lamp. She had been invisible for a moment. Mommy House Elf and Daddy Dementor. People began to file into the entryway and he fled upstairs.

 

Later, after he and Chuy had IM-ed each other their plans for the weekend, Jared lined 24 shiny red Coricidin tablets up on the windowsill and gazed at them, wondering what it would feel like when he and Chuy took them the next night. It was usually easy to get real pills at school, but they took over-the-counter cold pills when they couldn’t get anything else. Would it make them laugh their guts out? Or mess them up so they couldn’t think straight? Or take them someplace far away? All of the above, he hoped. They took Robitussin quite a bit, but they hadn’t tried the Coricidan before. Jared was careful to get the kind that doesn’t make people die when they take a bunch. He wondered what it would be like if had gotten the wrong kind and had died.

The door swung open and his mother walked in. He didn’t have time to pick up the pills. She stared at him like she’d never seen him before. “Oh,” she said.

“What?”

“That was really strange,” she said, crossing the room to stand next to him. “For a second I thought you were Kyle. I thought it was about five years ago.” She shook her head as if to clear it. “I just wanted to check the email.”

Jared stood up and moved behind the chair. He wished he could stand between her and the window to block the pills, but her bulk was too great, and so was his. She sat down and began tapping on the keyboard. “I applied for a job at the bank,” she said.

Ever since Kyle was deployed, his mother had been looking for a job like crazy. It was weird; he didn’t think she had ever worked before. “Hey Mom?”

“Hmmm?”

“Have you ever had a job before?”

She stopped typing and looked at him. “Your dad and I got married when I was 18. I never had to work.” She went back to the computer. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to do anything. I keep this house running. I’ve been secretary at the church for seven years. I volunteered for the PTA and the Cub Scouts and was a Pink Lady at the hospital until it closed. And then there’s my scrapbooking of course.“ She jabbed at the keys, her fuschia-painted nails clicking. He could see drops of sweat roll down the back of her neck.

“I didn’t mean you couldn’t do anything,” he mumbled.

“Well, I have to do something or I’m going to lose my mind.” Then she became engrossed in her email. He read over her shoulder: “We received a number of applications from highly qualified individuals. We’re sorry yours was not selected for interview.” The words vanished as his mother deleted the message. She sighed and bowed her head. Jared backed away quietly, hoping to slip out.

“What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the windowsill.

His ears burned. “Um.” He looked at the Coricidan. “Skittles.”

Her hand reach toward them, like she was going to pick one up and eat it. His breath caught. Her fingertips hovered over them, then she snapped her hand back and stood up. “You’re not sleeping in here, are you?”

“No.”

“Because I don’t think you should.”

“I’m not sleeping in here, Mom.”

“It’s still Kyle’s room after all.”

“Okay, okay. I’m not sleeping in here.”

She paused at the doorway and looked back at him. “Don’t stay up too late. And don’t forget to say your prayers.” She smiled her droopy smile/frown before closing the door behind her. Jared realized he was tremendously relieved his mother didn’t discover the pills. He was extremely tired. He wondered if he could even get to his own room. He stepped over to Kyle’s bed and sat on the edge. The springs creaked slightly, but the mattress was much firmer than Jared’s. He laid his head on the pillow and it smelled like Kyle, like his shaving cream and shampoo. Like his sweat. Jared buried his face and thought of his mother in her room, watching the news. When Kyle first went over there, his mother would cry every time they reported a soldier getting killed. Now she just sat there, like nothing, like they were telling her it was going to rain tomorrow. He thought of his father, still downstairs with his hatoraids. Plotting.

He lay motionless, as if he were in a coffin, and imagined himself dead. His mother weeping, his father wringing his hands guiltily. Chuy gazing at him with his mouth hanging open in disbelief; the neighbor girls swooning. What would Kyle do?

He shifted and pulled the navy blue ribbed bedspread over himself, and the sheets smelled like himself, since he did sleep in there often, among other things. He grasped for some happy thoughts: One more day of school and then the weekend. He would spend Friday night at Chuy’s, eating Coricidan, maybe running around Chuy’s neighborhood downtown where nobody seemed to care how noisy you got. Or they could ask Chuy’s mom to drive them out to Lost Mountain so they could camp one last time before it got cold. Maybe he would borrow Kyle’s hunting rifle and they could shoot some cans out in the woods. Maybe he would grow up and move away and marry someone who looks like Mrs. Ruiz. He wouldn’t care if the neighbors were noisy.

Then, like he did every night, he closed his eyes and cried. And he prayed, like he had every night he could remember. He prayed for President Bush, like the pastor had told him. He prayed for Kyle, like the pastor had told him, like it would keep him safe and bring him home.

 

The next night, Chuy’s mother dropped them off at the Lost Mountain campground and they ate “skittles” and cruised about the meadow, pretending they were soldiers doing recon while actually checking out who else was in the campground. They passed a closed-up Vanagon on one site and a sagging green canvas tent with no vehicle on another. They set up the Pratt’s Coleman four-man at the site farthest from the others.

The cold medicine kicked in, making them feel energetic, almost jittery, fueled by Chuy’s crazy dancing to a Fallout Boy song he couldn’t stop singing. At dusk, Chuy built a campfire in the middle of fake Stonehenge. Jared sat on a cinderblock wall and took several boxes of rifle ammunition out of a long dufflebag.

“Holy shit!“ Chuy exclaimed. “Where’d you get all that?”

“I ordered it off the internet with my rents’ VISA card. My mom pays all the bills; she’ll just think my dad ordered it.”

Chuy doused some cedar kindling with lighter fluid. “But didn’t it come to your house?”

“I had them ship it to me at school. I told the secretary I was expecting some materials for industrial arts.”

“Props!“ Chuy threw a match on the wood and they both savored the hot whoosh. “I wish I could get away with that sort of stuff.”

“You should try it.”

“Are you kidding? My mom would go postal!” He poked at the fire with a long stick, sending a shower of sparks into the air. “Double, double, toil and trouble,” he chanted, “fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Jared, not knowing what Chuy was talking about, walked to the edge of fake Stonehenge to pee. As he stood there, he thought about Kyle in Iraq. Did Jesus really watch over him and protect him? What about all those dead guys? Didn’t Jesus care? He imagined God as a scary dad with a long white beard, glaring down from a gold throne. Jesus was more like a cool big brother, but with magical powers. Jared was afraid if he didn’t pray hard enough, Kyle would get killed and it would be all his fault. He zipped up his pants and screwed his eyes shut. Jesus!, he cried silently, please don’t let Kyle get killed. Please Jesus! Please! Don’t let Kyle get killed. Please Jesus. He prayed so intensely, when he opened his eyes, he almost expected to see Jesus nodding and smiling. Instead, he could have sworn he saw Herman Hoffmeister trudging into the woods carrying two brown paper grocery bags with handles. He squinted and stared, but the vision had vanished. Wow, he thought, was that a message from God? Or just a hallucination? He went back to Chuy and the campfire, sure of one thing: skittles rock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#
p={color:#000;}. Love Among the Treesitters

 

Dr. Sarah Takeda had been out in nature before—Yosemite, Big Bear, the Stanford Camp up near Lake Tahoe—but this was much more primitive. Where was the lodge? The rustic cottages? She pulled her rental car into the Lost Mountain Campground parking lot. The guy on the phone had said he’d meet her there, but she hadn’t been able to estimate the exact time of her arrival. She was to fly into the Portland airport, then rent a car and drive for nearly two hours on strange roads out into the middle of nowhere.

“Don’t worry,” he had told her, “we’ll know when you get here.”

She parked in the empty gravel lot, turned off the car and stepped out. The air was so fresh it hurt to breathe. At the edge of the lot, huge trees blotted out the October sun that had seemed quite warm when she drove down the freeway. The campground was silent. Not peaceful silent, but creepy silent. She walked to the rusted barrel trashcan and threw out her foil protein bar wrapper. Now what was she supposed to do? A vehicle approached and she instinctively moved back to the car. As if a white four-door sedan could protect her.

A green truck, old but immaculate, with the USDA Forest Service emblem on the door, cruised slowly past her. The large black woman driving it scowled at her, then nodded. Sarah gave an anemic little wave and the ranger went on her way.

Okay, Sarah thought, that was weird. She looked down to see if her outfit looked suspicious, but she had dressed as inconspicuously as possible: jeans and an old sweatshirt from college. She considered jumping back in the car and peeling out. But of course she had come too far. It hadn’t been that easy to find someone to cover her practice, and it had been much too long since she’d seen her sister.

She heard a noise in the woods and whirled around. A young man trudged toward her, his hiking boots crunching loudly on the rock. He was one of those guys whose head was disproportionately huge compared to the rest of his body. It made her think of a Mardi Gras parade.

“Sarah?”

“Yes. Are you Randall?”

“My forest name is Roebuck,” he said, completely serious.

He was better looking close up; somber brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, curly black hair that could have used a good cutting. “Thanks for coming.” He stuck out his hand. “You guys look alike.”

She tried not to cringe when she took his hand, but he smelled of deeply embedded dirt, like the transients she had treated at the free clinic in the Tenderloin when she was a resident at the University of San Francisco. “We’re twins,” she said.

He smiled and nodded. “I know, but it’s still kind of freaky. How was your flight?”

“Shorter than I thought. It’s just a little over an hour from the Bay Area.”

He looked around the parking lot. “Listen, you’d better pay the fee. Some of the rangers are sticklers.”

She took her handbag out of the car. “I saw one drive by. She looked scary.”

“No, she’s okay. And if you pay the parking fee, she’ll keep an eye on your car. There are a lot of tweakers hanging out here.”

She walked to the fee box and read the directions. Roebuck looked off into the forest as Sarah fished three dollar bills out of her wallet and stuffed them into an envelope. She tore the receipt off and slipped the envelope into the metal fee box.

“I guess I’m supposed to put this on my dashboard.”

She returned to her car and placed the parking receipt inside, then locked the door.

“Ready?” Roebuck asked.

“Let’s go,” she answered.

He led her to the trailhead and they stepped into the forest. The air instantly cooled. Roebuck glanced down at her shiny black Stuart Weitzman boots, then at her sweatshirt.

“Brown, huh?” he asked.

“I did my undergrad work there.”

“Did you know John Kennedy, Jr.?”

Was this guy a moron? “He was about 15 years ahead of me,” she said.

“Oh, that’s right. You and Hummingbird are the same age. You seem older.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. Hummingbird. Oh, please.

They marched along the dirt path, past moss-covered stumps and giant ferns and thick bushes with green leaves so shiny they looked waxed. As they hiked farther into the forest, the trees grew bigger and the trail seemed darker and chillier. After about fifteen minutes of walking, Roebuck led her off the trail, over a small rise and into a stand of old growth Douglas fir. Sarah heard creaking above her head and looked up. The trees’ limbs moved in the wind, like they were waving at her, beckoning.

“We’re in Abuela,” Roebuck said.

“Pardon me?”

“The tree named Abuela.” He pointed ahead. “It means grandmother in Spanish.”

“I know what abuela means,” she snapped, following him through the brush. A figured emerged from behind Abuela’s massive trunk, and Sarah gasped. The green-clad person spoke quietly into a radio clipped to his or her collar; Sarah hadn’t yet determined whether it was a man or a woman.

“That’s Dervish,” Roebuck said over his shoulder. “She’s guarding tonight. The timber company hires climbers to harass us. We try to keep them on the ground.”

Sarah extended her hand to Dervish.

“You’re Hummingbird’s sister,” Dervish stated, holding Sarah’s hand but not shaking it. She was a fragile-looking dredlocked blonde with light blue eyes and, at that moment, a very red and runny nose. She’d be cute if it weren’t for those hideous dreds, Sarah thought, her forest name should be Medusa. “Is that all you brought?” Dervish tapped Sarah’s purse.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll take it,” Roebuck said.

Sarah hesitated a moment before handing over her bag.

“It’s okay,” Dervish assured her, “We’ll send it up in the basket. You’ll be reunited with it as soon as you get up there.”

Sarah suddenly realized she was going to climb a 150-foot Douglas fir. She looked up again, and way way way way up there, spotted a wooden platform. “God,” she whispered, then cleared her throat. “How do we do this?” she asked.

He opened a large backpack that leaned against the tree trunk and pulled out a handful of straps and buckles. “This is a harness,” he explained. “You attach yourself to that rope and pulley, then hoist your ass up.”

She stared at him until he laughed.

“How did you think you were going to get up there?” he asked. “An express elevator?” He handed the harness to Dervish who began fastening it around Sarah’s shoulders and thighs.

An inkling of panic rose within her but she quickly squelched it. Nothing had scared her in a very long time. She’d had all the fear beaten out of her when she was a resident—or so she thought.

“You look like you’re in pretty good shape,” Roebuck said, appraising her boyish figure.

Sarah shrugged. “I work out.”

“You shouldn’t have any trouble. Just use your legs as much as possible.”

“Women don’t have a lot of upper body strength,” Dervish added, pulling a strap tight. “Don’t fight it. Relax.”

Sarah looked up again at the platform. “How high is that again?”

“About 12 stories.” Roebuck answered.

“Holy crap.”

“No worries,” he said, “You’ll do fine. I can tell when people aren’t going to make it.”

“How?”

It was his turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I can just tell.”

Dervish clipped her onto the rope. “Check it out,” she said. “If you start to fall, the rope pulls tight. Kind of like a seat belt. Just lean back and climb on up.” She handed Sarah a pair of stiff climbing gloves and smiled. “Good luck,” she said, wiping her nose on her sleeve as she returned to her guard post.

Sarah took their advice and relaxed; if her sister could do it, she certainly could too. After a couple deep breaths, she started up. It was surprisingly easy at first. She hadn’t spent much time climbing trees growing up in Pasadena, but she’d been pretty agile on the monkey bars. She grabbed branches and hand-holds that seemed very well used, like a million people had climbed the tree. Up, up, higher and higher. Don’t look down, she advised herself, though she’d never been particularly afraid of heights. This is nothing, she thought, yet her arms were tingling a bit and sweat ran down her neck.

But suddenly, the piece of bark on which she had planted her foot gave way and she slipped. The rope jerked taut, just as Dervish had promised, and Sarah swung out slightly. She looked up to see how much farther she had to go. Quite a ways yet. Then she disregarded her own advice and looked down. Her heart, already pounding from the adrenalin rush of slipping, began crashing around in her chest. She knew it was really bouncing too, because she had seen plenty of echocardiograms. She’d also seen plenty of head trauma from falls and broken spines and shattered limbs and brain damage and just plain corpses. What the hell was she doing up there? She couldn’t move. Her mind was sprinting like a hippie to free hummus, but her body was absolutely paralyzed. These, she knew, were the beginning symptoms of a panic attack.

Sarah closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and blew out several times. Cleansing breaths, just like she told her patients who were delivering. She should be back home with them. Elena Rodriguez was probably going into labor right this minute and furious because Sarah had gone out of town. She’d probably get stuck with a male doc—that would truly fry her hormonally challenged ass.

“You okay?” Roebuck shouted from below.

Sarah swallowed hard and cleared her throat. Thinking about work had calmed her. “Yeah,” she called back, “I’m okay.” She looked up and saw a head looking over the platform. Emily? Damn her anyway. Sarah had thought she was done rescuing her. Okay, if wimpy little Emily could get up there, she could too. With determination, she quickly climbed the rest of the way, probably moving too fast to be safe, but she was completely juiced and just wanted to get off that rope as soon as humanly possible.

Finally, she reached the top and pulled herself up. The platform was made of cedar boards, built doughnut-shaped around the tree trunk, about eight feet wide. Her sister reached for her arm and pulled her toward the trunk. Then Emily unclipped her rope and reclipped it to a metal ring screwed into the tree. Sarah sat gasping, staring at her twin. They hadn’t seen each other in three years, since Grandpa Takeda’s funeral.

“Sarah?” Emily looked shocked to see her.

“Hi.”

“What are you doing here? Are Mom and Dad okay?”

Sarah nodded and touched her throat. “Do you have any water?”

“Of course.” Emily crawled over to a cooler and pulled out a metal bottle. Sarah drank deeply, then moved a little farther away from the edge. “Are you all right?” Emily asked.

Sarah nodded again, though she was jarred by her sister’s appearance. It used to be like looking into a mirror, but now they couldn’t be more different. Emily’s skin was glowing and plump, like Sarah’s had looked ten years ago. Sarah had always sported some version of the classic Asian-girl pageboy haircut—now it was chopped bluntly but artistically at the nape of her neck—and Emily kept hers long. It had helped others tell them apart. But now, Sarah was stunned to see Emily’s head shaved with just about a half-inch of thick new growth sticking up all over. What was it about the woods that made women mutilate their hair? “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, reaching over and petting her sister’s hair. “Mom and Dad are fine.”

Emily smiled. “Then why are you here?”

Roebuck had just reached the platform and climbed aboard. Sarah nodded toward him. “He called me.”

Emily’s face suddenly turned hard and she glared at Roebuck. “What is this?” she asked “Some kind of intervention?” She spat “intervention” like it was a highly contagious disease. Sarah was amazed to see her timid sister lash out like that. “How dare you?” Emily growled.

Roebuck shook his big head, clearly exasperated. “You can’t have a baby up here, Hummingbird. It’s time to leave, regardless. Winter’s coming. It’s hunting season. I thought she might talk some sense into you.”

“You know what, Roebuck? Fuck off!”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” he answered. “Say it louder so our fetus can hear it.” He crawled over to the other side of the platform.

Emily turned back to Sarah. “Well,” she said, “I’m glad to see you anyway, as long as you don’t try to talk some sense into me.”

“Who me?” Their eyes met and they grinned identical grins—sisters again. “How far along are you anyway?”

Emily opened her jacket. “Five months.” She looked down at her lap. “I’m fine.”

“You should at least have an ultrasound. Some blood work.”

“Good grief.” Emily laughed. Sarah noticed she still covered her mouth with her hand. “Billions of women have had babies through the ages. It’s a completely natural human function.”

“Yes,” Sarah agreed, “but I’ve seen what happens when things go wrong. It’s the twenty-first century. There’s no reason to take any chances.” Emily mocked her by wiggling her head in that infuriating way that made Sarah want to deck her. Instead, Sarah sighed. “Will you at least let me examine you?”

“Maybe later,” Emily said gaily. “Tell me how the folks are doing.”

“They are virtually unchanged.” Their parents had both been born in relocation camps during World War II and spent the rest of their lives flying well below the radar. They had lived as straight and narrowly as a Pasadena accountant and housewife could. Sarah was their golden child; Emily, they pretended, was “studying up north.”

For the next hour, the sisters caught up on the last three years. Sarah was full of gossip from their fifteenth high school reunion. “The women looked great,” she reported.

“And the men looked like hell,” Emily finished.

Sarah was relieved to know they were still two halves of a whole. Growing up, Sarah was good at math and science; Emily excelled at English and writing. Sarah was competitive and aggressive; Emily preferred to watch and listen. After high school, Sarah went back east to college and on to medical school in the Bay Area, where she stayed. Emily went north to the University of Oregon, where the treehuggers of Eugene had made her one of their own. She had told Sarah it was the first time she felt as if she belonged somewhere. Sarah had been too busy with her studies to pay much attention. And when Emily emailed that she was working to protect the environment, Sarah thought it involved going door-to-door for donations or something, not becoming a human shield. Their parents seemed to think Emily was a member of a cult. Sarah just figured she was hiding, like she used to do when they were little. She didn’t see that much difference between the upstairs linen closet and a tree. Still, it was quite disturbing to see the way Emily lived. Sarah realized she had slipped into her objective scientist mode so she wouldn’t start freaking out.

But it was nice sitting up there chatting with her sister. The setting sun warmed them and the branches moved pleasantly in the late afternoon wind.

“So what’s with Roebuck?” Sarah asked, lowering her voice since he was sitting just a few feet away, working on his laptop. She suddenly understood why treesitting was so well-documented—there wasn’t much else to do up there.

Emily shrugged. “It was fine for a while, until I got pregnant. Now he’s gone control freak on me.”

Sarah was impressed by Emily’s seemingly newfound ability to stand up to a guy. She’d apparently gotten over her chronic habit of being some guy’s bitch. “So, where do you pee here?”

Emily handed her a plastic jug and discreetly went to the other side of the tree so Sarah could have some privacy. The harness was a little unwieldy; she had to undo her leg straps to get her jeans down. It was very undignified, but at least she didn’t have to go Number Two. As she zipped up her jeans, the radio crackled and Emily murmured into it.

“Woo hoo,” she hooted. “Herman’s bringing us dinner.”

“Who’s Herman?”

“He’s the guy who owns the diner. He brings us food every once in a while. You timed your visit perfectly.”

It was nearly dark. Roebuck and Emily lit some kerosene lamps and offered Sarah a greasy sleeping bag to wrap up in. As they waited quietly, Sarah looked out into the indigo sky where stars began to appear. There was no noise except for the wind ruffling branches, an occasional truck on the distant highway, the creak of the tree as it rocked slightly. Sarah knew her body was experiencing the after-effects of that massive adrenalin rush, but she couldn’t remember when she‘d felt so utterly relaxed.

The radio crackled again and Sarah heard a pulley squeak as Roebuck pulled their dinner up. At home, she usually grabbed takeout from one of the little restaurants in her Noe Valley neighborhood. Then she read or watched television and went to bed early. She kept telling herself it would be different once her practice was established and her student loans were paid off. Then she’d have time to pursue other interests of some sort. The air was getting cooler by the minute. Sarah leaned back against the trunk. She felt slightly nauseated from the smelly sleeping bag, but she could eat. As long as the food wasn’t too funky.

Emily opened up an aluminum food container and inhaled. “Ahh,” she said blissfully. “Ravioli.” She handed it to Sarah. “Herman makes awesome vegan dishes.”

Sarah sighed. Vegan. Great. She expected it would taste like bark dust, but it did smell heavenly. She took a bite. “Mmm.” She nodded at Emily. It was delicious, despite not having any animal grease whatsoever. Tender, with a variety of fresh flavors and textures filling her mouth: tomato, oregano, perhaps a hint of cayenne. Vegan. Who knew?

Roebuck began stuffing his huge head. “So,” he asked after an enormous gulp of a diet Coke, “why are you a doctor?”

Sarah snorted. Was that the best he had? “That’s what I am. Why are you a treesitter?” She looked at Emily, who winked. Just like old times: Sarah beating up on Emily’s boyfriend.

“Once these old growth trees are gone, they’re gone.” He looked down at his food, clearly torn between delivering a political diatribe and macking down. “Do you have any idea what the logging corporations are doing to the environment?” he continued. “When you fly back to your cushy life in San Francisco, try looking out the airplane window at what’s left of the forest. All I can do is protect one tree, but they really need to stop clearcutting, man. The ground is bleeding silt into the rivers. It causes massive flooding and erosion. It’s killing the salmon. It’s killing the birds. It’s killing the freaking earth.” He finished with a deep belch, then patted his chest. “And you can quote me on that.”

The women chuckled, but Sarah was moved by his vehemence. When was the last time she felt so passionately about anything? After so many years of preparing to become a physician, now that she was actually practicing, her career seemed anticlimactic. She was completely consumed with work, but sometimes she had brief moments of lucidity when she clearly saw that she had no personal life whatsoever. She finished off her ravioli and sat back, digesting. “That was great,” she announced.

“Yeah,” Emily answered. “Herman’s an awesome chef, but his customers just want diner food. If you ever go there, order the special.”

“Are you a vegan now?” Sarah asked.

“Nothing with a face,” Emily answered. “Or eggs or dairy. They’re gross.”

“That’s quite a change from the girl who could eat her own weight in spare ribs.”

Emily got a dreamy look on her face. “Mmm, Mom’s spare ribs were the best.” She laughed. “Remember in fourth grade when I started feeding that homeless guy who hung out at the park? What was his name? Jimbo?”

“His name was Bingo and I had to go tell him to quit taking food from you because you were giving him your lunch every morning and you finally fainted in Girl Scouts that one day.” She turned to Roebuck. “This is how our childhood went: Emily’s big heart got her into trouble and I bailed her out.”

“Come on!” Emily protested.

“It’s true. Doing Mark O’Donnell’s homework? The feral kitten you tried to hide in the attic? Letting Jennifer Nguyen borrow dad’s car?”

“Okay, okay.” Emily leaned back and rested her hand on her tummy. Sarah knew that her sister, pumped full of bliss hormones, had felt her baby move. She’d seen that look on countless expectant mothers. She stared at Emily’s ragged nails and suddenly missed her desperately. Emily opened her eyes. “Want to feel?”

Sarah crawled over and placed her practiced hands on Emily’s belly. She felt the familiar bump of a big old fetus kicking about.

“Everything okay in there?” Emily asked.

“Near as I can tell. But what’s it going to take to get you out of this tree?” She sat crossed-leg next to Emily, her fingers still pressing on her twin’s tummy.

“We’ve been here off and on for almost two years,“ she said. “I feel like it’s my home and I want my baby born here. If we leave, I may never come back. The minute we abandon her, Abuela gets whacked. I don’t want that kind of sap on my hands.”

Sarah thought of “The Sopranos” for an instant. “But I thought they didn’t even log in winter; there’s no reason for you to stay up here. Haven’t you done enough?”

“At least I’m doing something important with my life,” Emily replied.

Sarah had to swallow a laugh. “And I’m not?”

“Bringing more people into an overpopulated world?”

Sarah pointed at Emily’s swelling belly. “Uh, hello?”

Emily shook her head. “Oh, I don’t count because I’m saving the earth.”

They both laughed, somewhat hysterically, mouths uncovered for the world to see. Roebuck stared at them like they were a load of plastic bottles dumped in a landfill.

“You two are a couple of freaks,” he muttered, “in stereo.” He then began gathering their food containers to send back down in the basket. When he was finished, he took out a battered guitar and began strumming quietly.

“If you play Kumbaya I’m jumping,” Sarah warned, gathering the stinky sleeping bag around her against the bracing air. She rested her head on her sister’s lap, which smelled of wet wool and vegan ravioli. She suddenly felt a familiar rage against her sister and wanted to pummel stupid Emily’s belly with her fists. She released the urge with a low groan, then sighed. Her sister was such a nitwit to get pregnant in a tree. She really hadn’t changed a bit.

Sarah felt movement beneath her cheek. The babies in her patients’ wombs were sort of science projects; she viewed them with a clinical wariness. But this fetus was her future niece or nephew. She would see it grow up, past infancy into a baby, a toddler, a kid, a tween, a teen, an adult. It was barely believable. It was the best thing ever. It was the half of her that she had been missing.

“We usually get buzzed by the logging helicopters at about 3 a.m.,” Roebuck said. “It will probably scare the hell out of you. Big noise; bright light.”

“That’s okay. I’m used to my pager going off at all hours.” The tree rocked slightly, almost as if it were breathing. Sarah was drenched in peace. So what if Emily has a baby in a tree? She’d be okay. Sarah would find some kind of treeclimbing midwife to send out; there had to be at least one kicking around the woods. And Emily would quickly realize the impracticality of caring for a newborn on cedar slabs in the dead of winter. And if she didn’t, well, what the hell? There was something so powerful about being up above it all. Life goes on. “Hummingbird and Roebuck sitting in a tree,” she chanted. “K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

Emily poked her in the ribs and they giggled again. “Freak,” she whispered.

“That can be my forest name,” Sarah replied. She snuggled down drowsily and fell asleep until the helicopter buzzed the tree and scared the hell out of her.

 

 

8. The Season of Tiny Yellow Leaves

 

“Hey ref,” the man bellowed at him, “get your head out of your ass.”

Marshall Magruder turned around to see his accuser, an abrasive boat salesman with a cell phone glued to his ear. “Just looking for you, Norm,” he yelled back, clowning with his arms a bit to lighten the moment. Youth Football. He had to watch the parents as closely as the game—a rumble could erupt and they’d all be on the Today show the next morning.

Some romping dogs caught his eye and Marshall scanned the clump of damp spectators on the sidelines for his wife before he remembered she was out of town. Pauline sometimes stopped to watch games if she was driving past a field and had a few free minutes between appointments. She liked football; that was how they had met. In college. She played in the annual Homecoming Powder Puff game when they were seniors. He was the assistant coach for the off-campus team. He smiled at the memory of her covered in mud, baggy sweats and war paint. She was so tough—and unbearably hot. She still looked the same, though her tomboy figure was a bit curvier, and she needed to have her blond hair “brightened” every six weeks or so. He didn’t look too different himself: still average height, average build, average brown hair (though less of it). It still surprised him he had hooked a babe like Pauline.

The November drizzle turned into a biting spit. Marshall wanted to kick himself for being there. Monday was usually his day off with Pauline; they should be cuddled up on the couch, taking a nap. On the occasional Mondays when she drove the 50 miles up to Portland for the day, he liked to sleep late, work hard in the yard, then kick back, have a few cold ones and watch the game on TV. He had been right in the middle of burying some tulip bulbs when his best friend Larry called from some meeting that wouldn’t end, begging him to officiate the 3:30 match. Marshall had agreed. With Pauline in the city, he couldn’t think of an excuse not to help out. But he was hating it at the moment. And he greatly preferred soccer moms over football dads any day of the week.

The boys bobbed in their padding like buoys down on the river. They were eleven, that agonizing tween age when everything is so important and nothing really matters. Two players from opposing teams squabbled after the ball was dead. He knew them both—they were good kids from decent families. All puffed up in their pads. “Retard,” one said.

“Faggot,” the other replied.

Marshall stepped over and broke it up. “Hey guys,” he said, “no name calling.” The boys stared up at him. “You knuckleheads,” he added, smiling.

The two players’ anger seemed to evaporate into the thickening fog. One rapped the other’s helmet, “Knucklehead,” he crowed. They both busted up and took turns knocking on each other’s headgear before splitting to go to their respective huddles. It was much easier to defuse the boys’ bickering than to step between their dads. There’s nothing more disheartening than watching an irate dentist and Wal-Mart manager argue about their children in front of their children.

The parents were the worst part of his job, but he loved the kids. They were so happy and unspoiled. Since Woodhill was a relatively small town, he had the opportunity to watch them grow and leave and return. He had worked for Woodhill Parks & Recreation for 18 years, which seemed unbelievable when he thought about it. Some of the kids he had met when he started now had children of their own in the program. Marshall still felt like a kid himself—even at 40—like he was never going to grow up. That’s why he and Pauline were such a good match. She was adult enough for the both of them.

The players lingered in their huddles, stomping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Marshall was about to hurry them along when he heard someone call his name. He turned around to see a Gortex-clad figure frantically waving both hands at him. It was Trevor Applewood, the Special Olympics kid he’d coached for the past four years. Marshall waved back. Trevor always lifted his mood. Every time he watched him running his heart out around the track, Marshall experienced a sense of pureness that never failed to move him.

The teams finally lined up for another play. It was nearly dark, but before the ball snapped, he saw a defensive player move in. He blew his whistle and threw up a flag, signaling offsides. Boos and cheers. Cheers and boos. He didn’t care; he was a good referee. Confidence, that’s all it took. He made calls from his gut—he just knew. And when he didn’t, he called in favor of the team he didn’t favor the last time he wasn’t sure. Confidence. Officiating was one of the few areas where he had it over Pauline.

She was well known for being right. She got phone calls constantly; of course he only heard her end: “Use Fleur’s if you’re sending lilies. Seriously, it costs but it really makes a difference.” Or, “Oh please, he is such a loser. There are plenty of other fish to fry.” Or, “Wear that tight black skirt with a thong. Did you hear me? A thong. Panty lines are death.” She was Woodhill’s go-to gal.

He liked having a competent wife, yet he also liked having his own realm at work where he was the expert. He was organized, able to register 857 kids for fall sports singlehandedly while dealing with the control-freak parents who were way too concerned about to which teams their kids were assigned—how horrible this coach was, how wimpy that one was. Over the years, he was increasingly cooped up in the office on the phone, so on that particular night it should have felt good for him to get out in the field, so to speak. But he was relieved when the timekeeper gave the two-minute warning. He couldn’t wait to get back home.

Marshall and Pauline had lived on Lukiamute Road for over ten years. It was not the type of house Marshall had ever imagined living in. He had grown up downtown in a crumbling bungalow with a deep porch and worn fir floors. After months of looking, Pauline had found a brand new contemporary on the outskirts of town with vaulted ceilings and miles of ecru carpeting. He had balked at first; it was simply too sterile, too white. A McMansion, super-sized. But in the end, he deferred to her expertise as a real estate broker. And he felt he had to make up for keeping a big city girl in this tiny burg, though anyplace had to be better than where she had grown up, in the felony flats section of Portland’s outer eastside.

It turned out she was right. The location was ideal: on a dead end street next to the wooded county park. The house was warm and snug in the winter, with lots of light from the massive windows. In summer, a breeze blew over the back deck where they watched the sunset. He hoped they’d fill it up with kids someday. And there was a lot to be said for a shiny new place with no costly repairs to worry about.

But it was the yard that finally won Marshall over. It was private and well-established by the couple who had lived half-a-century in the old farmhouse that had stood there before. His first year there was a treat, not knowing what would come up next. He now had his own yearly calendar based on what was flourishing out back: first the bright pink camellias and snowdrops in February, daffodils in March, then the glorious flowering plum tree and bluebells in April, the array of roses coming out in May and June, huge hydrangeas all summer long. Spectacular dahlias in August. The purple fall crocus came up about Labor Day, a bittersweet reminder that winter would soon be upon them. And when the rain started in October, that weird birch tree by the side door shed tiny yellow leaves that wouldn’t come off the bottom of their shoes—they tracked them all over the house. At Christmas, he cut holly and fragrant cedar boughs for wreaths. The house was Pauline’s domain, and the yard was where he truly felt at home.

The football game ended, mercifully, and the two teams lined up to shake hands. Marshall pulled off his soggy black-and-white striped pinny as he watched the ritual. “Good game, good game, good game,” the boys chanted to each other as the lines snaked across the field. They took sportsmanship so seriously at that age. It broke his heart. He noticed Larry’s black F-350 pull into the parking lot. Maybe the two of them could get a burger at Mack’s and watch Monday Night Football.

Just then, the dogs he had seen earlier, two rugged rottweilers—one brown and one brindled—raced onto the muddy field, chasing and nipping at each other. One bounded into the crowd and he heard a small child scream. A young, fleece-wearing preppy couple strolled up past Marshall and the guy whistled at the dogs, which completely ignored him.

“Those your dogs?” Marshall called.

They turned around. “Yeah, they’re mine,” the man said. The woman smiled like the animals were too precious for words.

Marshall had never seen the guy before—maybe he worked up at the college—but he certainly knew the type: perfectly tousled hair, impeccably casual sportswear, a look of well-rehearsed disdain on his face. Pauline could have dressed him. He looked like one of those Polo models, except his nose was pinched with annoyance, like he’d just stepped into a steaming pile of polo pony shit.

“I guess you didn’t know there’s a leash law in this park.”

The guy rolled his eyes. “C’mon, man, there’s plenty of room here.” He looked Marshall up and down. “Who are you anyway, the leash law patrol?” He smirked at Marshall before turning away.

“Excuse me?” Marshall called after him, even though he knew he should walk away. The couple stopped and turned around.

“What’s the big deal if I let my dogs run?” The guy stepped forward slightly with his girlfriend still clinging to his arm. “They need exercise.”

“So you think it’s funny that they’re scaring little kids?” Marshall asked. “You can’t even control them. This is a neighborhood park.”

“Oh yeah? Well, I’m here every fricking day.”

Marshall shook his head. “So that gives you the right to break the law?”

“It’s a stupid law.”

What a prick, Marshall thought as he leaned forward and pointed his finger at him. “You know what? It’s because of people like you that I see little toddlers on the playground get terrified when a huge mutt runs up and knocks them over: ‘Oh, he’s friendly,’” he added in a goofy tone. As he filled with uncharacteristic rage, he could clearly tell he was losing control. It was like he was listening to someone else rant. But he hated those people. He wanted to knock their pretty little heads together. He wanted to kill them. “I’m so glad you raise dogs because you’d be terrible parents,” he shouted. “I hope you’re both sterile.”

The couple’s reactions were nearly identical: stunned, as if Marshall had just slapped them both across the face. Or actually knocked their heads together. Marshall was shocked as well. He had crossed the line of civil disagreement between strangers. He wanted to rush away, to get far from the hideous scene as quickly as possible. The dogs went flying past and the couple turned their heads. Marshall took the opportunity to hurry off, but remembered his position with the parks department. He called back to them: “Have a nice day.”

Then he walked right into Larry’s massive chest. “Whoa, bro.” Larry grabbed his arms. “What was that?”

Marshall looked back at the retreating couple. “I don’t know,” he said, feeling a little sick to his stomach.

“I’ve never seen you yell at anyone like that.” Larry grinned. He wore a large black cowboy hat over his bushy auburn hair. “That guy must have really pissed you off.”

“It was stupid,” Marshall said, his hands shaking a little. “A stupid dog thing.” They walked back over to the parking lot.

“What did he say to you?” Larry tugged on his full beard like he was making sure it was still there—a nervous habit he’d had since he’d grown the thing 20 years prior.

Marshall didn’t answer. He and Larry had been friends since the first grade and played golf every week, rain or shine. Yet he was terribly embarrassed that Larry had seen him lose it like that. Plus, his throat had tightened too much to talk. Larry didn’t ask again and they crossed the field in silence. The wet grass smelled moldy in the darkness. Finally, Marshall spoke. “So,” he said, “can you go to Mack’s?”

“Where’s Pauline?”

“She’s spending the night with her sister in Portland.” They reached Larry’s rig and paused by the driver’s side door.

“Getting her hair brightened again?”

Marshall snorted. “Something like that.”

“How’s she feeling? Still throwing up?”

“Oh.” Marshall twisted the wadded up pinny in his hands. “It didn’t work out after all.” He stared at the wet asphalt.

Larry put his thick arm around Marshall’s shoulders. “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”

Marshall nodded, feeling comforted and utterly alone at the same time.

“The same thing happened to Nadine,” Larry said, “in between Jack and Minna.”

Marshall nodded again. “Yeah. I guess it happens all the time.”

They nodded at each other, nodded, nodded, nodded, until Marshall broke the silence. “Look, I think I’m just going to go home.”

Larry clapped him on the back. “You want to come over for dinner? I’m sure Nadine’s defrosting something tasty.”

“Naw, I’m just going to order in a pizza.” He gave Larry a half-hearted wave. “See ya in the morning.”

“Thanks for covering,” Larry answered.

Marshall walked down to his station wagon, another Pauline decision. He had wanted a pickup truck his entire life. But when he finally had an opportunity to buy his first new vehicle, she had quickly pointed out how impractical a truck would be. “How are you going to haul stuff in it?” she had asked. “It’ll get all wet. And where will you put your golf clubs when you and Larry have breakfast at Mack’s? They’ll get ripped off. Are you going to put a camper shell on it or something? And gas isn’t getting any cheaper.” Marshall had nodded sadly. She was right. He had settled for a silver Ford Fusion wagon; it turned out that he liked it just fine.

On the drive home, with the windshield wipers and heat cranked, Marshall tried to shake off the bad feeling from his encounter with the dog people. He never ever lost his temper like that; people called him Mellow Marshall or, predictably, Marshmellow. But he was even more disappointed by his inability to confide in Larry about Pauline. He needed to talk to someone about it—someone other than her. Maybe tomorrow on the golf course.

They had put off having kids until the last minute. Pauline had to get working out of her system; she said she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom without worrying about money. But she became more and more successful at selling real estate, making incredible commissions; one was even more than Marshall’s annual salary. She stashed much of it away, but they also had an obscene amount of stuff and took several trips a year to exotic places: Italian ski resorts, golf courses in Scotland, diving at the Great Barrier Reef. “We need to travel while we have the chance,” she had explained. Marshall was certainly down with all that.

When Pauline turned 39, they finally quit using birth control. She was convinced she would have no problem getting pregnant, and of course she was right. Just three months later. But she insisted they keep it to themselves until after the amnio results came back. The ultrasound was amazing. Marshall smiled when he recalled watching the monitor in the darkened room, seeing his son make weird jerky motions, his tiny hands flailing about. The next day, he had told Larry that Pauline was pregnant; he couldn’t help himself.

 

The highway was crowded with commuters. Rain pelted Marshall’s car and a gust of wind shook it. The oncoming headlights glared against his wet windshield. Marshall realized he was gripping the steering wheel so hard his fingers hurt. Lukiamute Road finally appeared. When he turned off the highway, he pulled over and sat for a few minutes, listening to the storm howl and trying to calm down.

At home, he wiped his feet and looked down to make sure he wasn’t tracking in the tiny yellow leaves. Then he remembered the tree wasn’t even there any more. Pauline had it “removed” the previous summer when he was on a fishing trip to the Deschutes. He didn’t even bother to confront her, though the raw stump, bleeding sap, had almost made him cry. The house was so still, he regretted not going home with Larry. The great room was where he spent most of his time, but on that evening, the big black leather couch looked like a cold dead animal. He pawed through the basket of remote controls until he found the one for the television. He switched on the game and stood watching it for a second. The Steelers vs. the Jets. Who the hell cared? His lower back ached from the damp cold.

He wandered into the kitchen. Pauline had recently bought a stainless steel Subzero refrigerator that chilled him just to look at. He opened it, rummaged past the bottles of microbrew and grabbed a can of Bud. Then he noticed she had made a pan of chicken enchiladas for him. His favorite. He stared at the plastic-covered dish before slamming the refrigerator door. He wasn’t hungry after all.

Marshall walked back to the game, pausing before the fireplace to switch on the gas flames. He gazed at the photo gallery on the oak mantelpiece, stopping at the silver frame that held their college graduation picture from 18 years before. They looked so young with their big eighties hair: Pauline fair and cool, Marshall hale and hearty—with a mustache and mullet. He rubbed his hair, lately cut very short to hide the looming baldness. They had been so happy that day, newly in love and about to embark on adulthood. Pauline was actually pregnant in that picture, though they didn’t know it at the time. She had had an abortion a few weeks later, which was absolutely the right thing to do, they had both agreed.

But this time. The genetic counselor had seemed so overtrained to him. She simply laid it out there, literally, pointing to the extra chromosome on the test result card. Marshall and Pauline had stared at it as they listened to the woman talk about statistics and studies, options and odds. Then Marshall looked up, right into her eyes, mentally beseeching her to tell them what to do. Counsel them, for cripes sake. But she simply provided them with the information and told them to take it home and talk. As they walked out of the hospital, he had wondered what made people become genetic counselors anyway. He was a recreation supervisor because he liked sports. Pauline was a real estate broker because she liked money. Does a genetic counselor like telling prospective parents their fetus is fucked up?

Pauline knew what to do instantly, it seemed. “I can’t,” she had said in the car on the way home. Marshall looked at her face, strained, her expensive custom-blended make-up filling in the fine cracks at the corners of her eyes and mouth. At first, he thought she meant she couldn’t terminate the pregnancy. “We can try again,” she continued. He then realized that she didn’t want to have a child with Down Syndrome.

They sat silently for several minutes, Marshall working hard to fight the panic rising within him. He didn’t want her to rush into anything; when she made up her mind, there was no changing it. The fall colors hurtled past them as they drove through the perfect autumn sunshine. Finally, he reached over and took her hand. “It’s a boy,” he said, “Just consider Trevor for a minute.”

She squeezed his fingers. “That’s who I was thinking of,” she had murmured.

Well, he had always admired her honesty. He looked over at her again. Tears streaked her cheeks and she turned away to look out the window. At the time, Marshall had thought she was crying for their baby. But standing alone that night in his empty house, he realized she was crying for herself.

In the end, he knew it would be her decision. And that’s where she was: in Portland, the same clinic, coincidentally, where she had had her first one nearly two decades before. Maybe not so coincidentally, since he was pretty sure it was the only provider in the state. She had seemed surprised when she realized he wasn’t going with her, but she didn’t get angry about it. Apparently they had both learned how to pick their battles.

Marshall drained his beer and lobbed the can across the room to the sink, missing it by a mile. The phone rang and he ignored it as he walked back to the refrigerator. “Marsh?” It was Pauline on the machine. “Are you there, hon?” He pulled another beer out and shut the fridge door. “I’m back at Char’s now,” she said. “Everything went fine. We’re just going to watch movies and eat Thai food. Call me when you get in. Love you.”

He stared out the kitchen window at the tree branches whipping around. The motion-sensitive floodlight kicked on, startling a fat raccoon running through the yard with a big earthworm hanging out of its mouth. Marshall looked back to the dark patch of earth where the raccoon had been digging, the spot where he had planted the bulbs earlier. The rain was turning to sleet. Marshall took a long drink from his beer and wondered if he would still be there when the tulips bloomed in April.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. U-Cut

 

Lila and Bert Hoffmeister’s U-Cut X-mas Tree Farm was easy to find. You just followed Highway 13 west out of Woodhill into the Coast Range foothills until it got snakey, then looked for the faded spraypainted sign at their driveway turn-off. They sold Doug firs for fifteen dollars and Grands for twenty. There was neither a gift shop loaded with crafts nor a machine that shook the needles off the trees and baled them tightly for the ride home, like at the fancy tree farm south of town. But there was often a high-school boy who dragged your tree up the hill for tips, and Lila usually fired up her deep-fat fryer to make crisp little doughnuts rolled in sugar, three for a buck. Nothing tasted better on a cold day.

 

One chilly Saturday morning, the first weekend in December, Lila was preparing for the onslaught. It was early for most folks to get their tree, but Lila knew that U-cutters were often hardcore Christmas fanatics. They bagged their trees early and had to harvest a fresh one themselves so it wouldn’t dry out before New Year’s. Lila wasn’t that into Christmas herself—never had been, though she’d faked it for the boys’ sake when they were little. To her, it seemed an endless season of useless tasks such as wrapping gifts that would soon be ripped open and hanging up decorations that would then need to be taken down. And the expense! Buying gifts and booze and fancy food; it cost a fortune. When they had had the diner and the boys still believed in Santa, December seemed a nightmarish breakfast rush that just wouldn’t end.

Lila and Bert moved up to the tree farm when they turned Mack’s Diner over to their son. Herman Hoffmeister, like many Woodhill youngsters, had left town the first chance he got. He went to a fancy cooking school in California (paid for by Bert with no complaints), then worked in Silicon Valley as a chef at goohoo.com, one of those start-up internet companies that offered its employees all sorts of benefits like yoga classes and nap rooms and a free lunch every day. When the company went public, Herman got rich (or what Woodhillians consider rich). He kicked around San Francisco for a while, cooking in different restaurants and doing God knows what else. Then he got mixed up with those gays.

When Lila and Bert decided it was time to hang up the aprons, Herman, well over thirty, returned home to Oregon with his “partner in tow.” Lila and Bert moved out to the farmhouse in which Bert had grown up. Bert’s folks had added the tree farm when they retired from the diner. It was a sweet tax shelter: work three weeks a year and write-off your property with an agricultural deduction.

But those three weeks!

Lila pulled on a pair of long underwear, then an ancient pair of wool pants that smelled like mothballs, mildew and cedar. She glanced over to the bed to see how Bert was doing. He was still tugging at the blankets with his good arm, trying to sit up. She sighed and went over to help him, yanking down the covers and swinging his legs out of the bed. She knew he should do these things himself, but sometimes they just didn’t have the time. Bert combed through his white hair with his good hand and made his garbled noise, like his mouth was full of marbles, his only form of verbal communication.

“Good morning yourself,” Lila answered, as she helped him get his pants on. He was excited to open the farm, just as he was every year. He was the more gregarious of the two—the front man, Herman called him—always entertaining the diner crowd with jokes and stories. But now, whenever he said anything, people just stared at him for long awkward minutes. He was impossible to understand; only Lila and Herman knew what he was saying. For example, when they went to the diner for lunch every Wednesday, they’d sit at a table, then one of Bert’s old cohorts would walk in and stop next to them: “Hey, Bert you old coot,“ he’d say. And Bert would reply something like, “Nhiughee ac.” Then his friend would stare at him with a frozen smile while Bert repeated “Nhiughee ac,” over and over until Lila finally stepped in to say “Ugly hat?” Bert would nod and laugh and slap his knee with his good hand while his friend chuckled with relief and got the hell out of there before Bert said anything else. Lila hated translating for him, especially since lately it seemed the remarks he made were off-color or insulting comments that only he thought were funny.

 

There he went making his noises again, asking who was coming to help that morning. “That Ricci kid,” she answered. “He said he’d be here about 7:30.” She gave him a pull up off the bed and made sure he had a good grip on his cane so he could toddle off to the bathroom. She finished dressing, bundling up with a turtleneck and sweater so being outside all day would be tolerable. At 78, she was still spry, but spending time in the damp cold left her stiff and achy. It would be worse for Bert since he couldn’t move around like she did. If it was busy, she hopped about, handing out saws, collecting money and selling doughnuts. It was exhausting, really. Good thing she had a neighbor kid coming to help, since all Bert could do was sit there and make bad jokes that no one could understand. She wished again for grandchildren, though it was futile—damn Herman.

In the kitchen, she cranked up the heat, started the coffee and turned on the griddle. Bert liked pancakes, which were her specialty. She had worked the morning shift line at the diner for 50 years. It seemed impossible that the time had flown by so quickly—her life had passed in a snap. She and Bert had planned to travel in an RV after they retired—first stop Arizona to warm and dry their old bones—but four months after they moved up to the tree farm, he had his stroke. That was eight years ago.

Lila whipped up the batter and poured it onto the sizzling griddle. She usually fed him something healthier, like Raisin Bran, so he wouldn’t get all bound up or get too fat. But she also figured what the hell? He might as well get some enjoyment out of life. As she waited for the cakes to rise and brown, she looked around the room. The old farmhouse was a little drafty and in need of some updating, but she liked it just fine. Bert’s parents had built it before the war, when the diner was doing well. The diner was still doing well, in spite of some serious lulls, especially during the late eighties when the bottom fell out of the timber industry.

She sipped her coffee, looking out the window, and got lost in the view for a moment. Their property was situated above the town, though in late fall the view was often enshrouded in fog. But this day was dawning bright and cold, the sun rising strong. She could look down into the valley at the fields and farms and the new subdivisions that were cropping up like crazy. Her mood lightened some. The soon-to-be-slaughtered trees glittered in a geometric pattern, the color of money. “So long, suckers,” she muttered, flipping the cakes. It would be a busy day.

Bert came shuffling into the kitchen. His shirt was misbuttoned and he had yet another blood-dribbling nick on his face from shaving. “Why don’t you just grow a beard?” she asked, pouring him a cup of coffee. He waved his good hand at her before collapsing into a chair. She set a plate of steaming pancakes in front of him and his face lit up like he was in kindergarten—it tickled her. She rummaged through the cupboard and found a little glass pitcher, poured in some maple syrup and stuck it in the microwave for a few seconds. It was the little things.

Bert dug into his breakfast with gusto. She loved to watch people eat her food, always had. That was probably why she lasted as a short-order cook for so long. It took a delicate touch to make an over-medium egg or fry bacon until it was completely crisp but not burnt. A bad breakfast could ruin someone’s day.

Bert shoveled pancake into his mouth with a fork in his good hand, syrup running down the side of his mouth. It was odd, he had always been so concerned with his appearance before the stroke. She wasn’t sure if the vanity part of his brain had been damaged or if he’d just decided it didn’t matter what other people thought. It was one of many ways the stroke had changed him. He was more emotional, bursting into tears whenever the notion struck him, like just the week before when Herman stopped by to talk about his wedding plans. Lila was so mad about it she could spit, but Bert was crying like a little girl.

A light tapping at the back door startled her. She turned around and saw the Ricci boy through the window. “Come in,” she yelled.

Ren Ricci stepped in, his cheeks blazing red from the cold. He took off his stocking cap and sort of bowed and shuffled at them. “Good morning,” he said. Lila, as always, was stunned by how handsome the boy was: tall with thick black hair and high color. She thought of her kids at that age, pimply and pudgy and pale from hanging out at the diner.

Bert told him to sit down. Ren cocked his head and smiled. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.

Lila was impressed by his manners; most people just ignored Bert’s gibberish. “He wants to know if you want some breakfast,” she murmured.

Ren smiled, perfect teeth flashing. “Oh, thanks very much, but I’ve already eaten. What do you want me to do?”

Lila went over the list: get the handsaws out of the shed, set up the table and chairs for her and Bert to collect the money, scatter the brightly painted measuring sticks around the fields so people wouldn’t take a tree 3 feet too tall for their livingroom. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She found the hand-printed sign she had made the night before. “Hang this up in the parking field, under the ‘Park Here’ sign. There’s a hammer and nails in the shed.” She held up the sign to Bert and read: “Lock your car! Not responsible for lost or stolen articles!” Bert frowned and gave a wookie-like howl.

Lila shook her head. “In case you haven’t heard, this state is crawling with meth addicts. Would it kill you to read a paper?”

“Bah!” Bert roared at her. The stroke had taken his ability to read.

Ren took the sign and dashed out the back door. He was a helpful kid, despite being raised in California. The Riccis lived just down the hill; they were good neighbors. Lila and Bert had sold his father some acreage that adjoined the vineyard he started up the year before. After the last big wind storm, Lila called them to help her clear some fallen tree limbs—the boy wasn’t afraid of hard work.

Bert finished his breakfast and Lila took his plate. She moistened a paper towel and wiped his face for him. She looked into his eyes, red-rimmed and fading blue yet still alert, at least one of them. “Are you ready Bertie?”

He smiled his lopsided smile and slurred “Yes!”

She often dreamed he could talk again, just as clearly as before the stroke, but in the dreams he never said anything important: “put pudding on the grocery list” or “time to clean the gutters again” or “Ordering!” She always awoke wondering if it meant he would regain his speech, but of course he wouldn’t. Maybe if he had continued his therapy. He had been doing well for about eight months until the day his physical therapist told him it was his last session—Medicare wouldn’t pay for anymore. He bawled all the way home. She told him Herman would pay for more therapy, but Bert seemed to have given up. It was like he realized he would never be the same and was just tired of working so hard. Every time she asked him about doing his exercises, he’d wail, “Ahn eearrrr.” I’m retired. Every year he seemed to get weaker. Now he needed someone to help him walk on the uneven ground outside. He’d fallen twice and she’d had to call 911 for help getting him up. Soon, he’d need a wheelchair.

She plugged in her deepfat fryer, which she had filled with fresh oil the night before, and took her doughnut batter out of the fridge. She had to admit she felt excited too, preparing to make her first batch of the year. Some people came just for her doughnuts.

Just as Lila predicted, the parade of vehicles started right at 8 am. A string of SUVs and pickup trucks crawled up the long driveway to park in the big dirt field. Good thing it was dry; after the next good rain the parking lot would turn into one huge sea of mud. Not that anyone cared, or even noticed. Winter in Oregon was all about mud.

She brought an aluminum tray of hot doughnuts to the outside table and set it in the electric food warmer that Herman had bought them a few years before. There was a long orange extension cord running over the balding lawn into the house. She handed a doughnut to Bert, who was stationed at the table, sitting on a metal folding chair. He took a bite and mumbled his approval, sugar sticking to his lips and chin. Ren Ricci appeared at her side and she offered one to him, too. He took a bite and nearly swooned in pleasure. “Wow, Mrs. Hoffmeister, these are awesome.” She narrowed her eyes. Males who looked like Ren were usually cruel or dumb. He was neither. Sometimes it sounded like he was Eddie Haskelling her, but Lila had a pretty accurate bullshit detector. He seemed genuinely sincere—and she knew her doughnuts were awesome.

Lila had learned a lot about people just by silently observing them for years through the order window at the diner. She knew which couples would eventually divorce, which girls would develop eating disorders, which boys would grow up to be bums. Funny, she hadn’t predicted how Herman would turn out, not consciously at least.

All morning long, families and couples and even singles scoured the acreage for their perfect tree. Lila was thankful for the Ricci kid. He busted his butt dragging trees up and throwing them in the back of pickups. Helping dads tie them to the roofs of SUVs. Retrieving saws, herding kids, pointing the way to the port-a-potty. She was able to sit back, sell doughnuts, collect tens and twenties, and observe while Bert held court. It was sort of like watching television. And nearly everyone was familiar to her as they walked down the barkchip path from the parking lot.

There was Pauline, that skinny real estate agent who had sold their house when they retired. She was tanned and blonde, even in December, and her forehead looked suspiciously stiff and smooth, like she was using that newfangled Botox crap—she couldn’t be much more than 40. Lila laughed to herself; women these days didn’t realize that wrinkles were badges of honor. As usual, Pauline was leading her husband Marshall around like he was her puppy. She was dressed in a shiny black track suit with pink stripes down the side, like those aging pop stars in People magazine wear. “Hi there Bert,” Pauline exclaimed, like Bert was a five-year-old. “How’s retirement?”

Bert slurred some nonsense, terribly pleased by her attentions. She patted his hand and smiled patronizingly.

“Hi Mrs. Hoffmeister,” Marshall said. “Are your doughnuts still three for a buck?”

Lila nodded, noticing he lost more hair every time she saw him.

Pauline sighed. “Oh, hon, you don’t need any doughnuts.” She patted his tummy.

Bert spoke and laughed. Lila understood he said “fat and bald,” but refused to translate.

Marshall took out his wallet and laid down two dollars. “I’ll take six.” Lila took half-dozen of the mini-doughnuts out of the warmer, tucked them into a little brown paper bag and handed them over. “Enjoy.”

Marshall took one out and popped it into his mouth whole. “Mmmm,” he said with a full mouth, “You could charge more for these, you know.”

Lila, fully understanding garbled speech, nodded. “I know.”

“So Lila,” Pauline said, “Where are the tallest Grands? We want at least an eight-footer.”

“No. We’re getting a Doug this year.” Marshall smiled coldly.

Pauline turned sharply to glare at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “Hon, Grands look so stately and you can see the ornaments better.”

“I like Dougs. I want a Doug.”

“But Dougs are so messy with those long needles.” Pauline’s face seemed to tighten with each word. “They look so shaggy. Besides, we always get a Grand.”

“Not this year.” Marshall popped another doughnut and licked the sugar off his fingertips.

Pauline shrugged, seeming a bit less confident than usual. “We’ll see.”

“We’re getting a Douglas fir,” Marshall said sharply.

Bert was watching them like a ping-pong match. He wiped a bit of drool from his lower lip with his good hand. Lila smiled at Marshall. “Try the lower field down there to the left.” As the couple walked away, she thought: well, that marriage is doomed. Lila had never thought much of Pauline because she had never ordered cooked food at the diner: just coffee, iced tea, occasionally a salad or fruit plate. Lila didn’t trust anyone who wouldn’t eat a little grease. When Herman took over, he created fancy specials that the young people seemed to like, but he still offered the traditional diner fare. He was smart in some ways.

Then Ren Ricci appeared with that youngest Burke girl, Michaela. “Hi Mr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister,” she said, as polite as the Ricci kid. Almost as good-looking as him too, maybe not quite as pretty in the face. She had grown tall with long long legs, a WHS basketball star if Lila remembered correctly. “I’m going to help Ren,” she said, “Is that okay?” Lila nodded and shoved a couple doughnuts at her. Those two older Burke girls hadn’t turned out worth anything, but Michaela had always seemed a bit brighter than her sisters.

Lila saw the Burke parents, Kathy and Mike, holding hands and strolling through the trees. Straggling behind was the middle daughter, the slutty one, carrying her infant in one of those baby frontpacks and looking sulky as all get out. Lila always wondered how kids with good parents could turn out so badly—but she was a fine one to talk, look at Herman. Of course she had never been that great of a mother.

She remembered how Herman, as a child, had become obsessed with the 1957 UFO landing up on Lost Mountain. One of the Applewood brothers, Chuck, was camping up there and took a fuzzy photo of it. She remembered him rushing into the diner the next morning, telling anyone who would listen about the flying saucer. Of course most people didn’t believe him at first, but he just wouldn’t let up. And he was the smarter Applewood brother (Applewoods were either really smart or retarded), so eventually people in town began to believe him. Suddenly there were scads of other believers crawling out of the woodwork. Lila was skeptical at first, but she grew to believe too, for three reasons: Chuck had always been a trustworthy guy; strange things often happened in the meadow at the Lost Mountain campground; and even if it were an elaborate hoax, she was pretty sure they weren’t alone in the universe. Besides, true or not, a UFO legend brought tourists into town—it was good for business. So when Herman was in kindergarten and became interested in the whole incident, she joked that his father was a Martian, which he took much too seriously.

And just as she was thinking of the Applewoods, Candy, daughter of the UFO spotter, came by wrangling those little beaners. She was a smart Applewood, though she had married a Mexican. That Jewish gal from New York was with her, the one who sat with Herman at the diner for long hours last spring. Looked like she finally found another friend. They resembled Mutt and Jeff, one tall and one short, both were wearing track suits too, but polar fleece ones, which were a bit easier for Lila to take.

“Hi Bert. Hi Lila.” Candy waved as she stooped to pick up one of her kids. “Do you know my neighbor Ellen?”

Lila nodded.

“We’re going to hunt down and kill a tree,” Ellen said, giggling like crazy. “Looks like they move pretty slowly.” She nudged Candy, who giggled too. They looked at each other, laughing, their faces just inches apart. Lila, shocked, thought they were about to kiss. But of course they didn’t. They tripped on down the hill, swinging the babies around and bumping into each other.

“Well, if it isn’t the Christmas tree moguls!” Lila saw her son Herman heading toward them with Matthew, his partner. “Hi Ma,” he leaned over the table and kissed her hair while sneaking a doughnut out of the warmer. She slapped at his hand. “Still full of piss and vinegar,” He said as he split the doughnut and put half of it into Matthew’s mouth. She looked away.

Herman hugged Bert, who blathered on about something. “What’s that dad?” Herman asked, “Mom’s trying to kill you?” Herman and Bert hooted and pounded each other while Lila sat there burning. Matthew gave her a sympathetic smile and she busied herself straightening the money box.

“He needs to use the john,” she said. “Will you walk him in?”

“Sure, Pop,” Herman helped Bert up and held his arm as they made their way to the house. Matthew shifted on his feet, looking around. After years of awkward conversation, he and Lila had pretty much given up on small talk. He was a quiet man, Filipino or Hawaiian or something. His almond-shaped eyes were fringed by long lashes, and Lila had always thought his hands were quite elegant. But then she would think of what he did with those hands and grow disgusted.

His mother Bo had called Lila from Southern California back in 2004 when the Portland courthouse was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Herman and Matthew went up there in a flash and got married right on the street. Of course all those 3,022 marriage licenses were declared a sham after the next election. What a chatterbox Bo had been; Lila barely got a word in, not that she had anything to say. At the time, she had been quite startled to realize that Matthew was to be her son-in-law. She wasn’t looking forward to actually meeting Bo at the so-called wedding reception in February. As far as she knew, Herman wasn’t even gay until he met Matthew.

“Nice weather today,” Matthew said.

“Yes,” Lila replied.

He stood silently, eyes darting desperately toward the house, until Bill Pratt and his family showed up. Lila sighed. Bill and Herman had been in school together and he was the biggest bully Woodhill had ever produced. He had terrorized Herman all through middle school.

“Hi there Lila,” he boomed. “Another Christmas. Time sure flies.” His wife Dottie stood there like a lump, wearing a dull brown ski jacket and stocking cap. She looked like a mushroom. Lila was willing to bet that underneath Dottie’s jacket was a hideous Christmas sweater covered with Santas or snowmen. Their youngest boy, the fat one in middle school, eyed the doughnuts. “Of course Kyle is in Iraq this year.” He paused, looking expectantly at Lila, apparently waiting for something. She stared back at him. What did he want her to say? I hope he doesn’t get blown up like my oldest did in Vietnam?

“Haven’t seen you in church lately Dottie,” Lila said. “Been feeling okay?” Dottie nodded, her face flushed and shiny with sweat. Must be going through the change, Lila thought, passing a bag of doughnuts to the kid before he ate his own arm. The tips of his ears turned bright red.

“So Lila,” Bill continued, looking sort of sideways at her. “I hear old Herman’s getting hitched.” Matthew was apparently invisible.

“Well, don’t hold your breath for an invitation.” She said, then turned sideways in her chair and pretended to re-tie her boot.

“That’s one function I don’t think I’d attend anyway,” Bill said, his wife jabbing him with her elbow. Matthew turned and walked toward the house without a word. “I guess it has to be a “domestic partnership” anyway,” Bill continued, “am I right? Since Oregon voters decided marriage is something for a man and a woman only?”

Lila straightened back up and pointed down the hill. “Dougs to the left, Grands to the right.”

“Fair enough,” Bill replied, and ushered his miserable looking family away. She was burning with humiliation and anger. What kind of person would rub another’s face in it? And he called himself a Christian. She was glad Bert hadn’t been there to hear that. Turning back toward the house, she saw the old man shuffling back between Herman and Matthew. Herman was talking animatedly as Bert howled with laughter. They were two of a kind. She shook her head. That damn Herman. She wanted to kill him, but how could she not love him?

“I see you have that Ricci kid working this year, Ma,” Herman said when they reached the table. “I have just one word: yum!”

“You stop that,” she snapped.

Herman helped Bert sit back down, then rubbed Lila’s tight shoulders. “C’mon Ma,” he said, patting her back, “I may be perverted but I’m not a pervert.” She watched as he and Matthew walked down the hill arm-in-arm to choose a tree. When Herman broke into a loud and twangy rendition of “Grandma Got Runover By a Reindeer,” Bert slapped his knee with his good hand.

Shaking her head, Lila looked around at all the other families milling about the trees. They were all so unique, but content or dysfunctional, they were sticking together. Her family may be tainted, but what really mattered was that she loved Herman. Period. He was good to her and good to Bert. He was a good boy, always had been. She grudgingly decided she would attend Herman and Matthew’s wedding with her mouth shut. But there wasn’t any law that said she had to have fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Groundhog Day

 

The sky above Woodhill, Oregon was crystal, for the moment. The frosty cold seemed to amp up the stars’ twinkle. Someone circling above the town in a helicopter or a flying saucer would see the concentration of lights that was downtown giving way to the spattering of the neighborhoods tied together by the major thoroughfares like Highway 13 and Gun Club Road. To the north, east and south lay the rest of the Willamette Valley, flat with similar-sized towns placed up and down the river. To the west rose the low and ragged Coast Range, guarding the valley from the moist ocean air—for a while at least. And the more substantive Cascade Range lay due east, the huge mountains standing like ghost sentries along the edge of the high desert. Sometimes in winter, if the schoolchildren got lucky, the cold mountain air might creep down the valley to commingle with the wet coastal action and produce snow. Big wet glorious flakes that piled up quickly, but even an inch completely incapacitated the town, much to the amusement of the folks who had moved to Western Oregon from Minnesota or Wisconsin or North Dakota or even Eastern Oregon.

On that particular night, the first of February, the kids slept soundly, not knowing the next morning would bring a huge dump of snow that would confound their parents and paralyze the work schedules of people throughout the valley. Then it would melt in the afternoon leaving just a puddle of memories with the youngsters and a score of insurance claims for fender benders.

When the first flakes began to fall in the foothills west of town, at the Hoffmeister’s Christmas tree farm, Lila snored softly, pressed against Bert’s good left side. She lay buried under the mountain of blankets that warded off the drafts in the old house, unaware that in a few short hours, their peaceful retirement was going to change forever.

Their closest neighbors, the Riccis, were also asleep. The father, Tommaso, alone in the master bedroom, thrashed about in the big bed, still reaching for his wife who had passed away two years before. His daughter Sophie, a first grader at Woodhill Elementary, crept into the room clutching her Furby. She climbed into the bed, patted her daddy’s shoulder, then put her thumb in her mouth and fell back to sleep. In the next room, Tom’s handsome teenaged son Ren lay face-down, motionless, spread-eagle under the covers, dreaming pleasant dreams that he wouldn’t remember when he woke up.

Farther down the hill in town, Ren’s girlfriend Michaela Burke stirred as her teething niece screamed from her sister’s bedroom. She listened until she heard Aimee’s bed squeak, then she put her pillow over her head and thought about the sweetness of kissing Ren. Aimee Burke pulled her baby Misty out of her crib and cuddled her close. She slipped one of the homeopathic teething tablets that her mother had brought home from the store into the baby’s mouth, then rocked her until they both fell asleep on the bed. Downstairs, Michaela and Aimee’s parents slept through it all—one of the advantages of being grandparents.

Downtown, in the Woodhill Hotel kitchen, the crew cleaned up after an unusually late private party—a “business” dinner for a bunch of developers and politicians thrown by Woodhill’s new economic development office (which consisted of one guy from California with big ideas). Jessie Springfield carried a greasy gray tub full of dirty glasses back to the dishwasher. After heaving it onto the counter, she pulled from it a half-full bottle of Oregon pinot noir and waved it at Javi, the head line cook, who was leaving the next day for six weeks in Mexico. He grinned and winked as he scrubbed the grill with a wire brush. The executive chef, Basil Wolf, had just gone home. It was time for the real party, though Jessie was pretty much over Javi. They’d had some fun over the past six months, but it had run its course. She decided she should break it off with him that night.

Basil maneuvered his Suburu station wagon east along Main Street toward Arbor Heights, the subdivision where he rented a two-bedroom two-bath house with his girlfriend, Ellen, who finally seemed to be settling in since they had moved from New York. She had started a public relations business in their spare bedroom, developed a friendship with their next-door neighbor, even learned how to drive, although badly, in his opinion. He had been worried at first, bringing a New York City girl out into the middle of nowhere—and then he was working 15-hour days getting the restaurant open. And she had seemed hopelessly unhappy at first, but was finally doing a lot better. He turned on the windshield wipers. The snow was starting to stick.

Ellen Greenstein gazed out the bedroom window at the flakes floating down onto Hemlock Street. The snow made her nostalgic for her childhood in New York. Oregon seemed hideously green sometimes; the soft white was restful. She smiled and wished she could call her neighbor Candy, but across the driveway the windows were dark. Then she tried to stop herself from slipping into her own little secret dreamworld. In the past year, her feelings for Candy had pitched her into the craziest ride of her life.

A car came up the street and turned into the driveway, startling her. It was Basil; she’d forgotten all about him.

A few blocks over on Spruce Lane, thirteen-year-old Jared Pratt lay shivering on his brother Kyle’s bed. Kyle was still in Iraq, serving in the Army. Jared wasn’t supposed to sleep in Kyle’s bed, but he was home alone; his dad Bill was at some dinner downtown and his mom Dottie was working at the Riverview nursing home. Graveyard shift. She was trying to become a certified nurse’s aide, taking classes over at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. Jared rolled over on his stomach and cried. He missed his brother more and more every day. He didn’t know that just outside the window, snow was blanketing the town in a silent shroud.

 

  • *

Dawn arrived slowly in the Lost Mountain Campground. The snowfall brightened the darkness, which then lightened as the sun rose behind the cloak of clouds, turning the sky a silvery white. Ranger Olivia Bradley of the United States Forest Service drove her green truck over the winding gravel road, chains crunching through about six inches of snow. She was delighted; snow made everything look so clean and organized. She crawled past the meadow, looking for anything unusual. Olivia didn’t believe or disbelieve the rumor that the campground was the site of a supposed 1957 UFO crash. However she did agree the meadow had a unique vibe.

All was quiet. She parked the truck and stepped out into the stillness. The silence was eerie and the fresh chill made her nose run. She tried to remember the last time it had snowed. A couple of years at least. Her boots squeaked as she made her way into the meadow toward the big trees. A few stray flakes spun past her, but the weather service said the snowfall was pretty much done and would probably melt by evening—sooner if it started raining.

She decided to walk into the forest a ways. The woods were as gorgeous as she’d ever seen them and the sharp cold heightened her senses. But halfway to the trees, something made her stop. She stood very still and scanned the meadow, listening. There. Toward the trailhead. About 50 feet in front of her. Something.

She hesitated a moment, wondering if she should radio the station. To tell them what? That she was creeped out? Walking slowly across the flat, she felt her scalp crawl. She thought of that tweaker girl who sometimes slept in the woods. She thought of those crazy treesitters who were sticking it out all winter for some stubborn reason. She thought of those timber goons who acted like they owned the woods. She thought of those criminals from the prison work crew who had escaped the summer before last. She thought of the aliens. She thought of Sasquatch. Placing her hand on her chest, she could practically feel her heart beating through her heavy parka. “Hello?” she called, the sound of her voice jarring. When she reached an odd lump in the snow, she stopped, then reached out her foot and nudged it. She squatted and brushed the snow away. Just as she feared. It was a body.

 

The news reached Mack’s Diner first when a utility worker named Howard, checking WG&E power lines out in the county, had passed a line of law enforcement vehicles snaking up Highway 13—everybody from the sheriff to state troopers to Woodhill’s finest. His curiosity got the best of him—how could it not?—so he pulled a u-ee and followed them to Lost Mountain Campground where he learned about the dead body. When he returned to town, he stopped at Mack’s to fill his thermos and told Geri, the eighty-year-old waitress.

“Man or woman?” she had asked. “A local?”

He had shrugged. “They wouldn’t tell me a thing. Not even how long it had been there. Hours? Weeks? Years?”

Marshall Magruder sat in a nearby booth with his best buddy Larry. Their weekly golf game had been cancelled by the snow, so they’d stopped for a leisurely breakfast before reporting to work at Woodhill Parks and Rec. and the local Ford dealership, respectively. A Denver omelet for Marshall and a large stack of buttermilks for Larry. “Hey Howard,” Marshall stopped the WG&E guy on his way past. “Who do you think it is?”

“Probably some tweaker would be my guess,” He answered. “Or maybe a drunk transient.” He shook his head, looking thoughtful for a moment, then replaced his hardhat, hoisted his thermos and left the diner.

“A bumsicle,” Larry said, and they both groaned. “Remember that time, the summer between fourth and fifth grade I think, when your mom brought us camping up there?”

Marshall laughed. “That was so lame. Sleeping in the station wagon? And that disgusting undercooked food? She couldn’t even build a fire.”

Marshall’s mother, while very sweet, was completely inept. She was the opposite of Marshall’s wife—soon to be ex-wife—Pauline, who was now managing their separation with the precision of a neurosurgeon. The holidays had been tough on Marshall, staying with his folks while Pauline obsessively divvied up their stuff. Larry had picked him up for golf one day right before Christmas to find a box of tree ornaments on the porch, neatly labeled with a list of the contents pasted to its top. “That your stuff?” he had asked.

Marshall had shrugged. “According to Pauline. I’m sure she has some chart or graph or affidavit to prove it.”

Sitting in the diner, Larry was relieved to see Marshall getting back to his old self. Divorce was rough for anyone, but he was glad his friend had finally grown a pair. Pauline had led Marshall around on a short leash for 20 years. It was a definitely a good thing for his buddy. And the news from the campground, though grim and disturbing, had finally set everyone buzzing about something other than Marshall and Pauline’s divorce or Herman Hoffmeister’s wedding.

Spry yet brittle Geri stopped to refill their coffee. “Is Herman here?” Larry asked.

She shook her head, her orange hair not moving a millimeter. “I have no idea where he is. He probably had some god damn wedding appointment and forgot to tell us.”

Lila Hoffmeister watched from the kitchen window as Roger McElroy eased his cruiser up her long gravel driveway. What now, she wondered. She knew Roger well but wouldn’t exactly call him a friend. He had been sheriff for nearly 25 years and had certainly got more than his share of free cop coffee at the diner. He was a fairly decent man, though could be somewhat of a jerk in her estimation. He didn’t have the degree of compassion that Lila thought people in his line of work should have. She remembered once when he arrested some guy in the diner right in front of his little kids. He could have at least stepped outside before Bert had asked him to.

Bert was still eating his breakfast. Raisin Bran with a chaser of plum juice. He had milk dribbling down his chin as he shoveled cereal in his mouth with a spoon clutched in his good hand. Lila walked to the back door and opened it. Roger approached the house, stony faced, and took his hat off when he saw her. Lila noticed his strawberry blonde crewcut was as thick as ever.

“Roger,” she said. “What brings you up here?” Behind her, Bert said something in his garbled language that only she and their son Herman could understand. She turned around. “It’s Roger McElroy.” Bert made a slurred choking noise. “I have no idea,” she answered. She wondered if it was something to do with that god forsaken wedding reception Herman was planning for Valentine’s Day. That’s all anybody wanted to talk to her about lately.

McElroy walked slowly to the back porch. He rarely encountered work tasks that he found difficult anymore, but this one was going to be tough. He hadn’t seen Lila in a while, not even at the tree farm; his wife had purchased an artificial tree so she could keep it up for three months. He knew the Hoffmeisters didn’t get out much since Bert’s stroke. He’d run into them eating down at the diner a few times. He climbed the porch steps; Lila stood blocking the door as much as a little old lady could. He looked at her warily; she still seemed as sour as she’d always been. “I’m afraid I’ve got some hard news, Lila,” he said. “Is Bert in there?”

She stepped aside and he entered the warm kitchen. It was cluttered with the kinds of things old people leave out: newspapers, an unfinished game of solitaire, a bowl of butterscotch hard candy, a furniture-size package of paper towels from Costco, a flashlight that needed a new bulb. “Coffee?” she asked as he nodded at Bert.

“No, thanks. Sit down Lila.”

She perched on a wooden kitchen chair next to Bert’s and took his good hand in hers. “Out with it then, Roger.”

He fingered his drab brown hat. “It’s Herman. A ranger found his body up at the Lost Mountain Campground this morning. He was shot dead. Sometime last night, they say. I’m sorry for your loss.”

There was a moment of deep silence, then Bert began wailing like a hound dog. For some reason, Lila didn’t even think of Herman. She thought of her other son, Bobby, who was killed in Vietnam, 1971. Herman had been in preschool. She remembered when they got that visit—all she could think of then was Herman and how he’d never really know his brother. And now all she could think of was Bobby and how she had truly believed if one of her kids had been killed then God would always keep the other safe. Bert continued to howl next to her, clawing at her with his good hand.

“Shut up, you old fool,” she snapped. He wailed harder, the tears streaming down his face and drool dribbling into his lap. “Shut up!” she screeched. “Shut up!”

 

Tommaso Ricci shoveled snow off his front walk, thinking about his plans for the winery. The grapes were sleeping, so this was the time of year when he could catch up on the business end of his vineyard. In just two months they would start construction on the new winery building. He was using an old barn to store his casks at the moment; his initial crush was quite small and experimental. But the new building would have plenty of cellar space and a tasting room. The trick was to make it look old, like it had been there forever.

He turned at the sound of a vehicle and saw the sheriff’s rig pass his house on its way up to the Hoffmeister’s place. He didn’t think much of it because the Hoffmeisters knew everyone in town. They were getting a bit more traffic than usual lately because of the wedding coming up. The big fat gay wedding. It amused Tom to think about it. Back in Northern California where he was born and raised, plenty of straight couples didn’t even bother to get married. In Santa Rosa, which had a lot of conservative people, a gay wedding wouldn’t get a double-take. But here in Woodhill, it was the talk of the town. Tom had received an invitation and was looking forward to it. He liked Herman. Who didn’t? Herman was the most positive guy he had ever met. Everything was an adventure to him, from cooking to local politics to helping someone out. Herman was the one who had told him about his parents’ property that adjoined Tom’s acreage—it was perfect for more grapes—and helped facilitate the sale. Sure it was a win-win deal, but Herman was the one who had engineered the whole thing.

He heard a window open and his 16-year-old son Ren’s voice called out: “I’ll do that Dad.”

He looked up and waved. “I need the exercise.”

“Just don’t have a heart attack,” Ren replied. “It’s supposed to melt in a few hours anyway.”

“Why aren’t you out here enjoying it? Sophie’s been up for hours.”

“I’ll be down soon. Hey, no shadow. Guess winter’s almost over.” The window slammed shut and Tom returned to shoveling. He thought of his wife, just like he did about 10 times a day. Every time something new happened, like Sophie making snow angels in her own front yard or Ren getting dressed up for his first date, he wished she were there. Like the three of them cutting down a Christmas tree. He had thought getting away from Santa Rosa and all those old memories would make things easier. But it was even harder making new memories without her. He frowned and leaned against the shovel for a moment. Still, it had been a good move. He had gotten away from his father, finally out on his own at age 48. The kids seemed to love Oregon—they’d both made nice friends and settled into school. He didn’t know what he’d do without his kids.

Ren came flying out of the house, then bent down, packed a snowball and hurled it at Tom, beaning him squarely on the side of the head. “Hey,” he yelled, “now I’m enjoying it.” Tom threw down his shovel and responded in kind. The two tossed snow at each other, getting closer and closer, until Ren and his dad were face to face, the boy about half a foot taller than his dad. “Hey shorty,” Ren said, then dumped two handfuls of the heavy wet stuff on Tom’s head.

Tom attempted to push Ren over: “You’re not too big to spank.”

“Oh yeah,” Ren replied, laughing, “I’m shaking, old man.”

They roughhoused and laughed in the snow until Ren suddenly stopped and stood up. “Dad,” he said, “check it.” Tom turned to see what Ren was staring at. It was a news van from the Salem channel heading up the road to the Hoffmeisters. And close behind it, a bigger news truck with a satellite dish on its roof. From the Portland NBC affiliate. “What’s going on, Dad?” Ren asked. “What’s going on?”

 

Later in the morning, Ellen and Candy sipped strong black coffee in front of the fire in the Ruiz’s great room, sitting close together on the nubbly blue couch. Candy often remarked on how she didn’t particularly care for the gas flame log; she preferred a real wood fire. But the gas was convenient and clean, not that she minded chopping wood—it was good for the upper body strength.

Ellen didn’t care. She was just happy to be there, sitting in front of the cozy fire with Candy. This was the type of scene she had envisioned when she decided to move west with Basil. Candy’s two-year-old twins, Dakota and Sierra, had exhausted themselves playing in the snow, popping up and down like groundhogs. They lay sleeping on a white flannel blanket in their play-yard, their cheeks still impossibly red.

“What about ‘Woodhill: It’s not easy being green?’” Candy asked.

“I’m pretty sure Portland uses that,” Ellen replied. “For real.” She was working on branding Woodhill for the new economic development guy the city had hired. She wanted something that could complement the state advertising motto: Oregon: We love dreamers. “How about ‘Woodhill: Red wine and rednecks?’”

Candy laughed and added, “‘Woodhill: Come for the meth, stay for the unemployment?’”

“’Woodhill: A clearcut above the rest.’”

“’Woodhill: What happens here…is nothing!’”

“’Woodhill: Party like it’s 1987.’”

“’Woodhill: Even the aliens won’t stay.’”

They leaned against each other, laughing, Candy’s silky blonde tresses contrasting with Ellen’s tight black curls. Ellen wiped her eyes and pressed a little harder into Candy’s shoulder.

Perhaps it was because she had been so lonely when she moved to town and Candy had been so fun, so interesting, so crap-free. The more time they spent together—going to yoga, swimming with the twins at the pool, cooking dinner, taking daytrips to Portland—the more Ellen started craving her next-door neighbor. She’d never had those kinds of thoughts about a woman before. She couldn’t even remember feeling that way about Basil, though she must have when they first started out together. Candy filled her head so thoroughly that it frightened and titillated her. Every night that hot summer, when she was sitting alone waiting for Basil to get home from work, she would construct scenarios in her head: Skinny-dipping with Candy, Candy giving her a massage, Candy kissing her, slipping out in the middle of a warm night to meet Candy in the side yard. Eventually, the pressure made her dizzy and awkward. Something had to give.

One sultry August day, they had taken the twins down to the Town Square for a home-spun carnival thrown by Woodhill High Sports Boosters—Ellen had never seen anything so cheesy. She and Candy lounged on a blanket in the shade, feeding the kids after they had ridden ponies in a circle and before they had their faces painted. The Woodhill Hotel stood just across the street. They would probably stop and say hi to Basil in the kitchen on their way home. “Did you go out with many people before you and Mark got together?” Ellen had asked.

Candy rolled her eyes. “Hell, yes,” she answered. “I had tons of boyfriends all through high school and college. I wasn’t really serious about any of them, though. It was more for the sex.” She bit down on a baby carrot.

Ellen stared down into her melting blue sno-cone. “Did you have any girlfriends?”

Candy turned to take the remaining half of Sierra’s peanut butter sandwich out of a plastic bag. “I guess. Yeah, there were girls that I hung out with, like my roommates.”

“I mean a girlfriend girlfriend.”

Candy turned to her and grinned at her mischievously. “Are you asking me if I’ve ever done it with another woman?”

Ellen shrugged, nodded and tried to smile too, though she was on the verge of an anxiety attack.

Candy got a soft-focus look in her eyes like she was remembering something, “Oh yeah, I’ve done my share of freaky stuff.” Then she leaned over and kissed Ellen full on the mouth, deep and wet, for a good long time. Her lips were hot on Ellen’s, which were cold from the icy sno-cone. The bottom fell out of Ellen’s privates and she flushed, her heart thumping hard.

Candy leaned back and smiled at her. “Of course I don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’m a happily married woman. I won’t do stuff like that anymore.”

Ellen was speechless for several seconds. She looked around to see if anyone had seen them, then finally blurted out “Jesus!”

Both women had laughed, the tension broken. But Ellen had gotten her answer. She knew what to do, which was nothing. Candy had made herself perfectly clear: She was all about Mark. But for weeks after, Ellen questioned herself; perhaps she was a lesbian. No. The thought of being with a woman other than Candy wasn’t appealing—she couldn’t imagine dating one! When she considered her future, it was with a husband and perhaps some kids—Candy would stay her best friend, of course. She would be content with that life.

Yet months later, like last night, sitting alone watching the snow fall, Ellen allowed herself to remember that kiss and fantasize about loving Candy a bit, though she knew it would never happen—she must be satisfied with a platonic friendship. But sometimes, when she was feeling especially dreamy, she hoped someday she and Candy might get together, maybe as old widows, living out their days in a beach cottage or something, just the two of them.

The phone rang in the kitchen; Candy hopped up, hurrying so it didn’t wake the kids. “Christ,” she said, wobbling a bit, “Mark fucked my brains out last night.” Ellen signed and stretched her feet toward the fire. But when she heard Candy gasp “what?” she sprang up and stood in the doorway. Candy’s back was to her, head bent. “Oh my god!” she muttered into the phone. “Are you sure?” She stood there hunched against the wall. “No. No, I’m not that kind of lawyer but I know someone. I’ll call him right now. Where are you?” As she listened, she turned around and saw Ellen standing there. She shook her head, shock in her eyes. “Sit tight. God, I am so sorry.” She turned the phone off and rifled through a drawer. “Oh my god, Ellen.”

“What?” Ellen rushed over and put her hand on Candy’s shoulder, pink fleece soft under her fingertips. “What’s going on?”

Candy stared at her. “Herman Hoffmeister is dead.”

“What?” Ellen shrieked.

“They found his body up on Lost Mountain. That was Matthew. They’re questioning him. Can you believe it?” Candy reached into the drawer and pulled out the slim Woodhill phonebook. She turned back to Ellen with tears in her eyes. “Oh my god!”

Ellen watched Candy’s beautiful face crack into a grotesque grimace, and for a moment she forgot the shocking news that Herman was dead. She stared at Candy and glimpsed into a deep aspect of her friend she hadn’t seen before—she suspected very few people had. Ellen felt a thrill, though she knew it was inappropriate. Still, it was like learning a delicious secret. The moment passed and she remembered her friend Herman was dead. She threw herself into Candy’s arms and they cried together.

 

Jared Pratt stirred slightly and pulled the covers over his head. No one had woken him for school that morning, and when he got up to pee, he looked out the window and realized why. Snow. His mother hadn’t come home from the nursing home—she was terrified to drive in the snow. Just as well. He usually got up in the middle of the night and moved back into his own bed, but the night before he had taken two of his mom’s sleeping pills. And when he woke up alone in the house, he took three more. He wanted to stay in Kyle’s bed forever.

 

Woodhill restaurateur found dead in campground

A well-known Woodhill resident, Herman Hoffmeister, was found dead from a gunshot wound in the Lost Mountain Campground early Thursday, Feb 2. A US Forest Service ranger found Hoffmeister’s body during a routine early-morning check of the campground. It appeared to have been there just a short time, according to River County Sheriff Roger McElroy. “We’re pursuing a number of leads,” says McElroy, “but a hate crime motivation hasn’t been ruled out.” He asks anyone with information about the case to phone the River County Sheriff’s Office at 503-555-5000. An autopsy is scheduled for Friday.

Hoffmeister, 41, was the fourth-generation owner of Mack’s Diner, a popular Woodhill gathering spot, and active in local politics. He and his partner Matthew London were one of over 3,000 same-sex couples who applied for Multnomah County marriage licenses in spring of 2004. Those licenses were revoked after the following November election when Oregon voters narrowly passed Measure 36, which defines marriage as a contract between a man and a woman.

“They were planning one of those domestic partnership weddings,” says Trudy Lister, a waitress who has worked at Mack’s Diner for 43 years. “They were going to have a huge reception on Valentine’s Day. Half the town was invited; the other half was up in arms about it.” Hoffmeister’s parents, Lila and Bert, declined to comment.

From the Willamette Daily Times

 

 

Mack’s diner was packed, steeped in the aroma of an all-American breakfast: fried grease and hot coffee. All the regulars were there because they were always there; everyone else gravitated there because there was nowhere else to go to process Herman’s death. They passed the newspaper’s front page around. The news was unthinkable on so many levels. A local murdered in cold blood. Violence in their own back yard. Herman Hoffmeister gone forever.

“They spelled my name wrong,” Trudy Lester complained as she delivered a plate of biscuits and gravy to Bill Pratt. “Damn paper.” It seemed like everyone was exceptionally hungry that morning, like they were trying to stuff their gaping hole of grief with food. Trudy thought it inconsiderate to the diner’s crew. They were more shocked and saddened than anyone, yet they all had to work twice as hard as usual. But really, what else were they going to do? Sit around and cry? A small clog of people waited at the door for a table. The mood seemed somber, yet people were talking.

Pratt, a local insurance salesman and Woodhill City Council member, sat at the counter between Tom Ricci and Ellen Greenstein. He was especially annoyed that morning because his wife Dottie never cooked him breakfast since she’d started working. And she couldn’t get their lazy son out of bed that day—Jared claimed he was sick. And the dinner he’d attended the other night to influence the new economic development director had gone badly—they hadn’t hit it off at all. “Sad business,” he mumbled before digging into his breakfast, talking as much about himself as the murder.

“How well did you know him?” Tom asked, stirring his granola around in his thick white bowl.

“Herman?” He paused to drink some coffee. “I knew him all my life. We went to school together. Went to the same church too.”

“He went to church?” Ellen stabbed at a plate of melon.

Bill turned to look at her. “When we were kids. Hadn’t seen him there lately, of course.”

“Why do you say ‘of course?’” asked Ellen.

Bill didn’t answer. He continued eating his breakfast.

“Maybe he meant that gay people don’t go to church,” offered Tom, who was not a big fan of Bill Pratt.

“Or he meant his church doesn’t allow gay people.”

They leaned forward and gave each other knowing looks. Bill tried to ignore them.

“They’re saying it’s a hate crime,” Ellen continued.

“Matthew Shepard all over again,” Tom replied.

“I heard he was tortured too,” she said.

“How long did you know him?” Bill asked, glaring at each. They leaned back on their stools and went back to their meals. God damned interlopers, he thought.

 

Across the room, Mike Burke sat in a booth with his wife Kathy, their middle daughter Aimee, and Aimee’s baby Misty sleeping in a carseat next to her. Between bites of her Meatlover’s breakfast—fried eggs, bacon, sausage, Canadian bacon and ham—Kathy wept silently, off and on, her eyes and nose leaking like her bathroom faucet. Like many Woodhillians, she had known Herman forever. In high school, he certainly wasn’t part of her crowd. She’d liked him though because he was so funny. She remembered one time Herman convinced a substitute teacher that he was a foreign exchange student from Iceland, then started speaking fake-Icelandic. She would never forget that.

The only person who couldn’t stand Herman back then was Bill Pratt, the asshole she went out with briefly before Mike. She watched him eating at the counter, his butt cheeks lapping off the stool, and wondered if he felt guilty for being so cruel to Herman. Oh yuck. How could she have ever gone out with him? Even though she had been only fifteen, what was she thinking? She shuddered and shook her head.

“What?” he husband asked.

“Pratt.” She pointed with her soggy tissue.

“Grossing yourself out again?” Mike said. “He probably killed him. I heard Herman was going to run against him in the next City Council election.”

“Herman would have would have beat him by a mile,” Kathy said, dabbing her eyes and stuffing bacon into her mouth.

Aimee rolled her eyes. Her parents were so stupid. Herman had probably been in one of those internet scams where he was supposed to meet some hot young dude but instead got robbed and killed by a tweaker. She knew her meth-freak sister Lacey hung out up there. Thinking about Lacey made her sadder than did the old homo being dead. She missed Lacey, even though they used to fight so much. Aimee liked to wear Lacey’s clothes without asking, but now that she was gone, Aimee could use her left-behind things whenever she wanted. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying. It was so messed up that her parents never even talked about Lacey anymore; it was almost like she had never existed.

Her baby gurgled next to her and she cursed Darryl. He had finally gotten out of the hospital after months of skin grafts following his Jackass wannabe stunt, and his lawsuit against MTV had been dismissed. He was currently broke, unemployed, drowning in hospital bills and seriously scarred. Plus he took no interest in Misty.

Aimee was taking a GED class at Chemeketa. After breakfast, her mom would go to work at the Thriftway and her dad would drive her over there, then watch Misty for three hours. She hated the class but it was nice getting a break from the baby. And once she got her GED she could get a job somewhere better than BK or MickyD’s. Her sister Lacey had worked downtown at a beauty parlor before she got hooked on meth. Aimee hoped she would get a good job too, and she swore she wouldn’t screw it up like her older sister had.

 

Lila knew she’d get through it—she did the last time. You wake up in the morning feeling normal for a few seconds. Then you remember. Then you think you won’t get through the day. But you do. And the next day and the next until 35 years has gone by. The biggest challenge would be all the people coming up to her, reaching their hands out to pat her arm, saying “I’m so sorry” and “such a shame” and “if there’s anything I can do.” What a load of crap. Nobody wanted to do anything for her. Last time, with Bobby, she could hide in the diner’s kitchen behind the line and do her work. This time, she couldn’t hide. The newspeople had camped out in front since the sheriff had announced the terrible news. All she could do was not answer the phone or the door.

But when Matthew came calling, damned if old Bert didn’t shuffle all the way across the kitchen and living room to open the door. They both sort of fell into each other’s arms, Bert wailing like a stuck elephant and Matthew’s face all screwed up and tight. She retreated back into the kitchen and was considering hightailing it out the back to the shed when they appeared in the doorway. Matthew, normally perfectly groomed, had grayish-pink smudges beneath his wide-spaced eyes and his chin was covered with black stubble. His wrinkled flannel shirt was untucked over a pair of sweatpants. “Hello Lila,” he said gravely.

“Matthew.” She nodded at him, then fidgeted with the coffeemaker. “Did they find out who did it?”

Matthew shook his head. Lila knew the police had questioned him for quite some time but it didn’t look like he was going to mention it. Matthew didn’t want to talk about it because he was still furious. His partner of the last 13 years was brutally murdered two weeks before their wedding and the cops acted like a bunch of pricks. Insinuating that he did it. It was the worst day of his life, compounded by the humiliation of having to defend himself. And then he had to come over here to settle the arrangements with scary Lila, who on a good day despised him. Fuck, Herman, how could you?

He helped Bert over to a chair, then sat next to him at the table. They both looked at Lila expectantly.

She stood, caught in their glare like a deer out on the road. What in God’s name was she supposed to say? “What?” she asked.

Bert slurred at her. “Service?” she asked. “We’ll have it at the church, just like with Bobby. I already called the Rossi Brothers.”

Matthew shook his head. “No,” he said dully, “Herman would not have wanted that. He wanted to be cremated. He wouldn’t have wanted a funeral, he would want a huge raging party with people drinking and dancing and wearing crazy clothes and laughing—“ his voice broke and he covered his eyes with his hand. Lila noticed, as always, how elegant it was, even trembling.

She poured Matthew a cup of coffee and set it on the table. Then she sat across from him. She knew he was right but just couldn’t make herself agree. This was her decision, not his. It was Matthew’s fault Herman was dead. He was the one who made Herman gay. And if they hadn’t been so out there, flaunting their proclivities all over town, her son would still be alive. She pursed her lips and looked out the window. Did Matthew shoot her boy for some gay reason? Maybe they had disagreed on the wedding colors or what wine to serve.

The melting snow was falling off the trees in icy clumps, hitting the roof with big thumps. Each time, Bert jumped. His startle reflex had been kicked into high gear by the stroke. As had his crying one. Since Roger had come with the news the day before, Bert felt like he had cried the proverbial river. When Bobby died, it was a shock but it wasn’t a surprise. He had been in Vietnam for Christ’s sake. But Herman. Not Herman. No. Bert still hoped the phone would ring with someone saying there had been a terrible mistake—but Lila refused to answer it. And there were minutes at a time when he forgot all together that Herman was dead. Then he’d remember and the pain would be fresh yet again.

He kept wondering what it had been like for Herman at the end. Was he frightened or did he go without realizing what had happened? Was he alone? Was he afraid? Did he think of Bert?

He sobbed, saliva running out of his slack mouth. He had eight years of unsaid things crashing against the inside of his brain. He hated his stroke, hated all the things he never got a chance to tell Herman because it was so damn hard to talk. Hated that Herman was gone forever. He howled. Matthew put his arm around him and held him close.

Lila watched the two men across from her. Poor old Bert. Herman was everything to him—the gregarious fool Bert couldn’t be anymore. She suddenly knew, with a certainty that she had rarely experienced in her oddly unpredictable life, that this was going to kill Bert once and for all. And the diner would go out of business because there were no more Hoffmeisters left to run it. And then she’d truly be alone. Herman and Bert were the only people who loved her. Of course Matthew didn’t kill Herman. He’d never been anything but gentle. And she knew, though she was reluctant to acknowledge it, that Herman and Matthew adored each other. She hoped they’d find the guy who shot her son and find him quick.

Matthew looked up at her and reached out his hand on the table. She gazed at his long slim fingers. Thought of them knitting the matching wool stocking caps with earflaps he had given her and Bert for Christmas. It was a thoughtful gift. He was a thoughtful man. It had always bothered Herman and Bert that she treated Matthew so frostily. She looked at her own hand, gnarled and spotted, covered with tiny silver and pink scars from grill burns and chopping cuts. All her life, she had cooked for other people, feeling so holier-than-thou like she was feeding the masses. But she felt a slap of shame when she realized she was acting as unchristian as Bill Pratt. She thought of just last Sunday at church when Pratt had turned around and said “peace be with you.” She had ignored his outstretched meathook and pretended she hadn’t heard him.

Matthew’s hand trembled slightly and Herman’s mocking voice rang in her head: “Sheesh, Ma, have a heart.” No wonder Herman was dead. No wonder Bobby was dead. No wonder Bert had a stroke. No wonder she didn’t have a friend. God was punishing her.

She looked at Matthew and poor old Bert, both of them barely hanging on, then reached out her hand and laid it on Matthew’s. “Why don’t we have a small family service at the church,” she said, “then a public memorial Herman style?”

Matthew smiled sadly—it was like the sun coming out after 27 days of rain. Bert hooted his approval and burst into fresh tears. “I’ll take care of the first one,” she continued, raising her voice above Bert’s yowling, “you take care of the other.”

Matthew nodded.

“But he’s going to be buried up at the Pioneer Cemetery with all the other Hoffmeisters through the ages.” She frowned at him, daring him.

“Agreed,” he said, “thank you, Lila. I know that wasn’t easy for you.”

“Nothing about this is easy,” she replied.

 

 

Herman August Hoffmeister

A private funeral will be held for Herman August Hoffmeister on Sunday, February 5. A public celebration of his life will take place at 7:30 pm, February 14 at the Woodhill Hotel.

Hoffmeister died on February 2, 2007 in Woodhill at age 41. He was born August 13, 1966 in Woodhill. He graduated from Woodhill High School and the California Culinary Institute. He lived and worked as a chef in the San Francisco Bay Area before returning to Woodhill to run Mack’s Diner. Hoffmeister was active in local politics, and enjoyed traveling and entertaining. He is survived by his parents, Lila and Bert, and his companion, Matthew London. His brother, Bobby, preceded him in death.

From the Willamette Daily Times

 

 

Saturday morning at the Pratts’ was about as depressing as family life can get. While their neighbors were either sleeping late or gearing up for a busy morning of grocery shopping or car washing or art class or sewing or yard work or housecleaning or working out or playdates, the Pratts were trying very hard not to kill each other. Bill, in a rage, swiped Dottie’s scrapbooking supplies off the kitchen counter onto the floor, then kicked them into the dining room. Patterned paper, stickers, scissors that cut decorative borders, markers, cellophane-wrapped packages of charms, all of it swirling in a furious scrap-crap whirlwind. He had woken on that cold morning with the warm idea of making chili and letting it simmer all day. But when he attempted to execute his plan, all hell broke loose: they were out of tomato sauce, the only ground beef in the house was frozen hard and apparently you’re supposed to soak the kidney beans overnight. “Why is all this shit in here?” he bellowed, tearing the leaves out of a new, unused photo album.

Dottie, in the laundry room off the kitchen, put her hands over her ears and wept silently. She had worked four 12-hour graveyard shifts in a row at the nursing home while attending her CNA classes during the day. And the snowstorm the other night had forced her to stay at Riverview for most of the next day. She was beyond exhaustion, bordering on hysteria. It was her fault the kitchen was a mess, but gosh, couldn’t they do anything for themselves?

“JARED,” Bill roared.

Dottie scooted into the kitchen shushing him. “He’s been sick for three days. He needs to sleep.”

Bill turned to glare at her, imperious, like the bull back home in Tillamook on her dad’s dairy farm. “That’s a load!” he spat. “The kid’s just lazy. If someone was making breakfast in the morning, he would have gotten up and gone to school.”

Dottie was trying to compose a reply when the doorbell rang.

Bill gave the scrap-crap one last kick and stomped off to the front door. Dottie knelt to examine the damage and pick up the mess, but she paused to listen to Bill speak. “Good morning, Roger.”

She was wearing her after-shower turquoise chenille bathrobe, which was quite modest—a floor-length zip-up—but she wasn’t in any shape to be seen by anyone without her hair done and her face on. So she crept forward to hear more clearly.

“That belongs to my son Kyle,” Bill was saying. “He’s serving in Iraq.”

The Roger to whom he was speaking was Sheriff McElroy. “Do you know where it is?” the Sheriff asked.

“Of course,” Bill answered. “It’s locked in the gunbox in the garage.” He walked out the front door and closed it behind him. Dottie scurried forward to peek out the front door’s high half-circle window. The sheriff’s black SUV was parked in the driveway. She stood on her tiptoes to see the men, but they had already rounded the corner to the garage that stuck out of the front of the house. She landed back down on her heels and swayed slightly, reaching out to the door to balance herself. Then she turned around to see Jared sitting in sweatpants and a t-shirt at the top of the staircase, his face pasty and creased. They stared at each other for a full 10 seconds. Then they both turned and went their separate ways without saying a word.

 

Over on Hemlock, Candy rapped on the front door of Ellen’s house to pick her up for hot yoga—she hadn’t worked out since she heard about Herman and needed to regain some balance. Basil swung it open. “Hey Candy.” He stepped aside to let her through, then closed the door. He held a steaming cup of coffee and looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. “She’ll be down in a second.” He sat on the bottom step and gave Candy an appraising look—how could you not check out her ass in those clingy yoga pants—but she was much too glacial for his taste. Too blonde, too tall, too Viking; she could crush him between her thighs. He preferred a more earthy type with a lower center of gravity, like Ellen. Yet he liked Candy very much for her salty language and sense of humor and smarts, but mostly because she had befriended Ellen. “Have you heard any news?”

Candy frowned and shook her head.

“What was he doing up there anyway?” Basil asked.

“I guess he was feeding some treesitters.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Are you surprised?” Candy, warming up for yoga, caught her right ankle in her right hand and pulled it up over her head.

“No.” Basil said, watching her like she was some kind of wildlife passing through his backyard. “I got to know him while they were planning the wedding reception. He was definitely hands-on with the menu.” They both smiled. “But he wasn’t an asshole about it,” Basil continued.

“So they’re having the memorial service there instead?”

“Yeah,” Basil answered. “It totally makes sense. They had everything arranged just how they wanted it. It’s got to be sadder than hell for Matthew.”

“No shit,” said Candy, stretching her other hamstring to impossible heights.

“Who do you think did it?”

“Yahoos,” she answered without hesitation.

“Who?”

“Yahoos. You know, dumb guys who get drunk and do stupid things like shoot people. I’m related to some of them.”

“Huh.” Basil sat ruminating about yahoos until Ellen came clomping down the stairs and klonked him in the head with her rolled-up yoga mat. “Ow.” He rubbed his ear.

“Oops,” she said, “Sorry, hon. Didn’t see you there.”

 

After Sheriff Roger McElroy left the Pratts, he drove his Blazer slowly through Arbor Heights back out to Highway 13. He’d pulled up every license for a Remington 700 hunting rifle, then gone to each house to check them out. Nothing. In his 25 years as sheriff he’d only had a few homicides and they were clear-cut: husband-wife/murder suicide, a drunken bar fight, several vehicular homicides by drunks who made some very bad choices. This was the first case that had him truly baffled. The State Police were taking over, with help from the FBI because of the hate-crime possibility and Herman’s notoriety. But Roger thought it would be ever so sweet if he could solve the crime himself. He reached over for his cigarettes, like he did several times a day—but of course they weren’t there. He’d quit four years before. So he concentrated on the road, which was wet but not slick. The snow had melted Thursday afternoon as predicted, and there was no freezing rain on Friday as sometimes happened the night after snow. Freezing rain was the worst.

As he made his way back up to the campground where they had found Herman’s body, he thought about how annoying it was to have the State Police and FBI take over his case. He knew he wasn’t the best sheriff in the world, maybe not even in the top 10 percent, but that was no reason not to give him any respect. They didn’t respect him because he had never had a chance to prove himself—nothing ever happened in Woodhill. But of course that wasn’t true anymore. The meth epidemic had changed all that. Problem was, Roger hadn’t realized how bad the problem was getting until it was completely out of control. It was like FEMA and Katrina. Now the town was thinking he was the worst sheriff in the world because citizens were getting robbed of their mail and identities and scrap metal and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. It was overwhelming. But if he solved a high-profile crime like Herman’s murder, maybe he could be redeemed—and re-elected.

Turning at the Lost Mountain Campground road, he figured that if he walked around the scene a bit, he might see something everyone else missed. But when he pulled into the parking lot, he was stunned to find it crammed with vehicles. He walked the path back to the meadow. According to the medical examiner, Herman had been walking on the same path out of the woods. There was just one bullet that had pierced his heart, probably killing him pretty much instantly, which was what he told Lila and Bert after the autopsy. Bert seemed relieved by that information.

When Roger cleared the first stand of trees, he saw why there were so many cars—a silent group of about thirty people were huddled next to the path. They turned and stared at Roger with vacant eyes. On the spot Herman died lay candles burning in glasses, flowers, teddybears, cooking utensils, notes to Herman and notes to God. He stepped closer. There was a large, framed, arty photo of Herman in the middle of it all. Roger gazed at Herman’s gleaming black hair and glasses, his easy grin, that vintage Woodhill High letterman’s jacket he always wore—Bert once told Roger it had belonged to Herman’s dead brother Bobby.

Roger recognized a few of the people there: a couple timber activists who’d been in county lock-up and a few folks from around town, but the majority were men he’d never seen before. Roger suspected they were gay because of their mustaches, and from Portland because of their impeccable clothing. He nodded at the crowd.

“You can’t make us leave,” someone said loudly.

Roger reared his head in surprise. “I have no intention of making you leave,” he replied.

“Because we’re staying until you find the bastard who did this.”

Roger touched the rim of his hat with his finger and turned away. He walked across the meadow to where the shot supposedly came from, avoiding the bigger patches of mud. A light rain was falling and the swollen gray clouds seemed close enough to touch. At fake Stonehenge, he entered the ring of cinderblocks and turned back to look at the vigil. He hadn’t been close to Herman; in fact, being around him made Roger feel uncomfortable because he never knew what to say to him. But it bothered him that one of Woodhill’s own was shot in cold blood. He looked down. The area had been picked clean by the State Police investigators, but he knew they‘d found shell casings from the rifle. The killer had likely stood right there. He looked back to where the mourners stood. Roger had missed enough deer in his life to wonder who could have gotten off such a good shot from that distance in the dark.

As he was leaving, he stumbled upon a young woman in a filthy coat with her nose pressed up against a car window.

“Lock yourself out?” he called.

She jumped and looked at him. Her hair clung to her scalp and she had a raging damp scab above her right temple. Covering her head wound with her right hand, she backed away, staring at him with pink jittery eyes, her chapped lips twitching. A tweaker; one of the Burke girls. Her face looked to be about forty, which was impossible because her folks were forty. As she turned around to run into the woods, Roger yelled, “Catch you later.” He saw a television news van pulling into the lot so he jumped into his rig and hightailed out of there himself.

 

Lila and Bert had both attended Woodhill Community Church their entire lives. It was the oldest church in town, founded in 1890 right in the middle of downtown. It had always been non-denominational, but Lila thought the new pastor, Morgan Meany, was pretty heavy on that Evangelical crap. She’d never discussed it with anyone; Pastor Meany had been there less than a year and she didn’t like to get involved with church politics. But Meany’s sermons had been sprinkled with references to the rapture and accepting Christ as a personal savior blah blah blah. He even had them praying for that moron George W. Bush, who she’d voted for but didn’t feel a need to pray for. She wouldn’t be surprised if one Sunday he pulled out some snakes to handle or started speaking in tongues. It was all that Bill Pratt’s fault. He had been the deacon to push Meany through, even flying him in from Tennessee on his own nickel to interview for the job.

The church was built from huge old-growth logs. The interior, a collage of gleaming varnished wood, was the most beautiful room in town, Lila thought, especially when the sun streamed through the stained glass window high on the slanted east-end ceiling; the glass depicted a forest scene with lush green trees and a wandering stream under a vivid blue sky and brilliant yellow sun. The pews were worn fir, covered with a patina of smudges from five generations of Woodhill hands. She’d attended countless weddings there, including her own, and scores of funerals as well. Her folks, Bert’s folks, her brother Jim when he passed of lung cancer in ’94. Bobby. And now Herman.

Bert had asked for the wheelchair that morning. And he needed extra help getting his suit on. She had thrown on her good dress and brushed her hair. Looking in the mirror, she was shocked by how old she was. Her face was dried up like a mushroom in summer and her hair completely white. When had that happened? She had never paid attention to her looks, and gazing into her own tired old eyes, she didn’t give a beaver’s butt that she was ancient. In fact, she was relieved. She was ready to leave this hard cold earth, the sooner the better. She just had to wait for Bert to go first.

Herman’s funeral was scheduled to follow immediately after the regular Sunday morning service. Lila, ever efficient, thought it would be easier on Bert to travel to church just once that weekend. The Rossi Brothers hadn’t put any notice in the paper, at her request, so the only people attending the funeral would be members of the congregation who chose to stay. After the regular service ended, most of the crowd streamed out. She wasn’t surprised; Herman hadn’t been to church in 20 years. She knew that most of them disagreed with his lifestyle, and she understood. If it had been someone else’s gay son, and she didn’t have a gay son herself, she probably wouldn’t have stayed either. On the other side of the aisle, the Pratt family stayed. Lila glared at Bill, the fat old bully. How dare he? He had to have some sort of hidden agenda. Dottie was wearing some hideous green thing that looked like Omar designed it for Sears. And their youngest boy was positively catatonic.

She wasn’t sure Matthew was going to show up, but he did, dressed in a somber gray suit. He hung back in the doorway until Lila beckoned him forward. “Help me move Bert up front,” she said, gathering her purse and coat to move to the front row. Bert had dozed off during the sermon. Even the closing hymn, a lackluster version of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” didn’t stir him. She wiped the drool off his chin with a tissue and let him nap a while longer while she stewed on the fact that all the hymns Meany chose had an annoying Southern twang.

Al Rossi pushed in the casket. She had chosen a natural oak with brass handles. It looked right. She had seen Herman at the funeral home, lying in the coffin, wearing his letterman jacket. He looked like a wax figure, and after a moment, she realized what was wrong. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. She thought about asking Al to set them on Herman’s face, but then realized she was being silly. No one else was going to see him. Bert didn’t want to, Matthew didn’t want to. Now, standing in the church with the coffin sealed, she wished she had told Al to put Herman’s glasses on him.

 

In the back pew, Olivia Bradford sat perfectly still in her navy blue suit, her hands folded neatly in her lap, a box of assorted homemade cookies next to her. She had attended Woodhill Community until the new Pastor started getting on her nerves, then she switched to Grace Methodist. But she had made a point to find out when Herman’s service was.

Sitting there waiting, she thought back to when she had found him. It was such an unexpected thing. The feeling of nudging his cold body with her foot had stuck with her: hard and stiff with a little give—it was like kicking death itself. She was still completely shocked by the torrent of emotion that had coursed through her when she discovered it was Herman, causing her to burst into tears in the middle of that silent meadow. She had hardly known the man. Yet she was oddly relieved that her body had reacted that way. All her life she had felt abnormal, like she didn’t have any feelings at all. She was almost proud that she had grieved over another human. In a way, Herman’s death had changed her life.

 

Pastor Meany returned to the pulpit dressed in a shiny black robe, his acne-scarred face impassive; his greasy brown hair ridged with fresh comb marks. He had never met Herman and Lila had asked him not to give a eulogy. She just wanted him to pass the body over to the great beyond so they could plant him in the ground and get it over with. He cleared his throat. “Friends and neighbors. We’re here today to deliver the soul of Herman Hoffmeister into the everlovin’ arms of our almighty savior Jesus Christ.”

Lila sighed. Bert began to stir. “Mreghee!” he nearly shouted.

Lila shushed him. “We’re at Herman’s funeral!” she whispered. He wailed, and then wailed louder when he saw the casket in front of him. Matthew jumped up and squatted beside Bert’s chair, patting his good arm.

Pastor Meany cleared his throat. “Jesus loves all his children, regardless of their, ahem, sins,” he pronounced.

Matthew’s head snapped up to look at Meany.

“Jesus died for our sins,” he continued, “When you invite Jesus into your heart, you’re cleansed of your sins. When you choose Jesus Christ as your personal savior and give your life to the Lord, He places you in God’s book of life. Let us pray for our brother Herman so that after death he may find peace in the hands of Jesus. Let us pray for our brother who strayed in life so he may be found by our shepherd. Let us pray that he is no longer tempted by sin. Let us pray he is in the arms of our Savior.”

There was a black woman Lila didn’t know crying her eyes out in the back pew. Bert was yowling like an injured seal. The Pratts were kneeling with their eyes closed; Bill had a constipated look on his face. Matthew craned his neck to look behind Bert’s wheelchair and catch Lila’s eye. They stared at each other for a moment, then she snorted and they both burst out laughing, trying hard to keep quiet. The harder she tried to stop, the more uncontrolled her laughter became. She felt something dislodge deep inside her and it all came tumbling out. She covered her face with her hands and laughed and laughed and laughed. The louder Bert wailed, the harder she laughed until she was doubled over, tears streaming. She laughed until she heard Herman’s voice clear as water: “It’s so nice to see you having fun, Ma.”

 

After the service, which was mercifully short, Al Rossi wheeled Herman out to the hearse to take him up to the cemetery. Bert and Lila had planned to go up there by themselves, but she decided to ask Matthew to go with them. He seemed to be a comfort to Bert.

Matthew pushed Bert to the rear of the church feeling purged in an odd way. The service was something out of a Fellini movie. He hoped that Herman, wherever he was, was watching with glee. Matthew’s mother Bo had arrived the day before from Encino and instantly began cooking Thai food. She was a tiny woman with sharp features that hadn’t softened with age. She moved liked a whirlwind dressed in a hot pink pantsuit. Matthew ate gratefully; it was the comfort food of his youth and he had been utterly empty. “The spirit sticks around for three days,” she told him as he shoveled in pad pet, “maybe longer if he wasn’t expecting to go. Maybe he’s still around.” Matthew hadn’t told Bo about the funeral. She would have wanted to come and he knew Lila wouldn’t have needed that extra strain. He was the first to admit his mom was intense.

As each day passed, Matthew felt slightly less raw. Having his mom there was good. The laughing fit he had in the church had served to slightly lift the numbness. As they approached the church door, the weeping black woman stood and spoke softly. “Mrs. Hoffmeister,” she said gravely, “my name is Olivia Bradford. I’m the ranger who found your son in the meadow.” They stood silently; Lila eyed Olivia’s impeccable outfit. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” Olivia continued.

“Thank you,” Lila said. Olivia handed her the box. “I made you some cookies.”

“Thank you,” Lila said. “I like cookies.”

Bert said something garbled.

“Bert likes them too,” Lila said.

They all walked out of the church to watch the Rossis load the casket into the hearse that was parked at the curb, but they were completely unprepared for the news people lying in wait—weirdly, they were silent. The video cameras were on and some still cameras flashed, but no one said a word. Then they noticed the picketers: a small group of mostly young and a few very old men carrying signs that carried such slogans as “Thank You God For Killing the Gays” and “The Only Good Queer is a Dead Queer.” Matthew gasped and Lila frowned. “Ignore them,“ she muttered, “they’re trash.”

The Pratts came out behind them followed by Pastor Meany. They stood in a quiet clump while the Rossis stowed the casket and opened the limousine’s back door for Lila and Bert. Matthew wheeled Bert over and helped him into the car, as Al Rossi folded up the wheelchair and stashed it into the trunk. “Come with us,” Lila said. And Matthew simply climbed in after them.

As they pulled away, Matthew saw Bill Pratt head over to the news crews, then he noticed a state trooper crossing the street to talk to Pratt. He pointed out the scene to Lila and Bert. “Pratt should be arrested on principle,” Lila said. “Him and his fat ass.”

 

The rain continued all through the night and into the next morning with no sign of letting up. Ellen woke to the thrumming on the roof, a sound that had become very familiar that winter. Basil stirred next to her, then rolled closer and slid his warm hand along her hip. She lay perfectly still and hoped he would fall back asleep. When his breathing became deep and regular again, she slipped out of bed and padded downstairs. She wore what she imagined every woman in Oregon wore to bed in the winter: flannel pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and heavy cotton socks.

After starting the coffee, she went out front to get the paper, not even bothering to put on a coat. She had grown so used to the rain, she hardly noticed it anymore. Candy said she would be a true Oregonian when she could drive in the rain without a second thought, but Ellen knew that would take a while, like years. She dashed out to the end of the driveway, picked up the plastic-wrapped paper and made it back inside within just a few seconds. She whacked the paper against the door jamb to knock the water and slugs off, then decided to just peel the sopping plastic bag back and leave it on the front stoop like a used condom. She shook the rain from her fingers and wiped them on her pants as she walked back to the kitchen. She liked getting up early and enjoying the silence; it was so different from Manhattan where you knew everything about your neighbors including their bowel movement schedule.

She spread the paper out on the table and got a cup of coffee though the pot hadn’t finished brewing yet. She found she liked it good and strong—she’d gotten that from Candy. But when she sat down and read the front page she gasped. The lead story was really the last thing she expected.

Youth arrested in Hoffmeister case

Police arrested a 13-year-old boy Sunday in connection with the death of a Woodhill restaurateur. Herman Hoffmeister’s body was discovered in the Lost Mountain Campground on February 2, 2007. The River County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed Friday that Hoffmeister died of a gunshot wound to his heart. The detained youth is a Woodhill resident and apparently knew Hoffmeister. He was booked into the Calapooia Juvenile Detention Facility and his arraignment is scheduled for Monday, February 6. Sources close to the case say River County prosecutors may ask the court to try the minor as an adult due to the nature of the crime. “We’re confident justice will be served,” said River County District Attorney Elena Mendoza.

Hoffmeister, who was 41 at the time of his death, was the proprietor of Mack’s Diner, a popular Woodhill gathering spot that has been in the Hoffmeister family for a century. A celebration of Hoffmeister’s life is scheduled for February 14, 7:30 pm at the Woodhill Hotel.

 

Ellen stood up and walked to the front hallway to look at the Ruiz’s house, trying to determine if Candy was up yet. At that moment the phone rang and she flew into the kitchen to get it.

“Did you see the paper?” Candy asked when she picked up.

“It makes it sound like he was some sort of child molester.”

“No.” Candy sounded utterly exasperated. “It makes him sound like he was gaybashed, ‘the nature of the crime?’ What could have happened? Who could have done it?”

“I don’t know any 13-year-old boys.”

“I’ll bet it was a yahoo,” Candy declared. “A stupid little yahoo-in-training.”

Basil entered the kitchen, blindly stumbling for the coffee pot. Ellen stopped him and pointed at the paper on the table. “Can you find out anything?” she asked Candy.

“I’ll call you back.”

Ellen turned off the phone and watched Basil read the article. He shrugged and returned to his quest for caffeine.

“Can you believe that?” she demanded. “Some kid killed him.”

“There’s obviously more to the story,” Basil said quietly.

“Well, what do you think happened?”

He shrugged again and sat down at the table with his cup.

Ellen shook her head and went to the fridge for some juice. How could he not be outraged? Of course there was more to the story. She wanted to discuss it in detail, pick apart theories, speculate, gossip, debate possibilities. Damn him. Why wasn’t he Candy?

 

Calapooia Juvenile Detention Facility sat on the eastern outskirts of Woodhill. It was built as a state women’s prison in 1959, then turned over to the county in ‘89 when they built an even larger women’s prison. Jared Pratt had heard about it of course. It had quickly become a legend among Woodhill teens and a joke among his friends: “Watch out, you’ll end up as some dude’s bitch at Calapooia.” And suddenly there he was, about to become some dude’s bitch at Calapooia. There was no dude there at the moment, but Jared knew it would only be a matter of time. He sat on the hard twin bed in the empty room where he had sat since the state trooper had brought him in during the night. He hadn’t slept at all. He hadn’t even used the toilet.

The day before, after sitting through church for what seemed like hours, through regular church and Herman Hoffmeister’s funeral, the cops were waiting for his family when they walked out. He and his mom sat in the car, watching his dad argue with two state troopers. There were reporters everywhere, pressing in on the scene like they were trying to eavesdrop. Jared thought at first they were going to arrest Bill and take him away, but after some discussion, his dad got in the car and slammed the door. He sat breathing heavily. Jared sank lower into the back seat of the Explorer.

“What’s going on?” Dottie asked.

“We’re going over to the police station,” he said tersely. “For some reason, they think Jared was up at the campground Wednesday night. They say he shot Herman Hoffmeister with Kyle’s hunting rifle.”

Jared flushed so deeply he thought his ears were going to ignite. Dottie gave a small squeal and instantly started weeping. “Why? Why?”

Bill turned around to glare at Jared. “Apparently his gangbanger pal told his mother they were up there shooting, and she told the police.” He reached into the back seat and knocked Jared hard on the side on his head. “What the hell did you do?” He hit him again.

“Stop it,” Dottie shrieked.

Jared tried to scrunch into the corner and Bill leaned farther, punching him, again and again. “I didn’t know,” he yelped, “I didn’t do anything.” But Bill kept whacking him until a sharp rapping on the window caused them all to freeze. Bill looked over at the sheriff standing there, motioning him to roll down the window.

“Bill,” he said, looking at all three of them. “Why don’t I drive the boy over?”

Bill slumped against the steering wheel. “Get out then.”

Jared climbed out of the back seat. His mom stared at him, tears running down her face, but his dad wouldn’t look. As soon as he shut the Explorer’s door, his dad roared off.

“C’mon, son,” Sheriff McElroy said. “They’ll meet us there.”

For the next ten hours, Jared had told them over and over what had happened. Chuy’s mom had gone to Portland for some conference thing. They had taken some speed and borrowed her car—Chuy driving. Then they decided to go up to Lost Mountain to shoot Kyle’s rifle. Then they came home. Chuy dropped him off. Neither of his parents was home. He put the rifle back, locked the gunbox and went to bed by 11pm, just like he was supposed to.

Then they asked him tons of weird questions about Herman and if they knew each other and if Jared was gay and if he knew any other gay people and what he thought about gay people. Did he hate gay people? Did he think being gay was a sin? Did he ever go to internet chat rooms? Did he ever go to gay porn sites? On and on until finally Jared broke down: “I’m sorry!” he yelled, “I’m sorry! Herman was nice to me. He always gave me a cinnamon roll.” Then he had sobbed into his hands.

The cop who had taken him to Calapooia said his parents would probably bail him out within a couple hours, but he’d also said something about juvie probably being the safest place for him—a lot of people were upset about Herman’s death, he said. Jared felt like he had been in that cell forever. What if his folks didn’t post his bail? What if they made him stay in there for the rest of his life? He was cold but the blanket was scratchy and smelled like medicine. He hugged himself and waited, wishing he could talk to Kyle. Wondering if he would ever see Kyle again. Wondering if he would ever see daylight again. Wondering whether Chuy was in trouble, too. Wondering if his mom was starting a scrapbook about him. Thinking about everything except the fact that he had killed somebody.

 

By the time Sheriff McElroy stopped into Mack’s Diner for breakfast Monday morning, everyone already knew that Jared Pratt was the kid arrested for Herman’s death. The television news cameras had caught Bill Pratt pounding his son in the back seat of the Explorer the afternoon before and the morning news couldn’t stop playing it—even the national shows like Today and Good Morning America had got hold of it. Jared’s image was pixilated of course, but everyone knew it was him. All the people sitting at Mack’s counter were mesmerized by the television up in the corner.

“You look good up there on the small screen,” Marshall Magruder said to Roger as he sat on the next stool.

Roger watched himself standing in the rain, knocking on the Explorer’s window, getting Jared out of there. The newscasters were asking why he hadn’t arrested “the father” for beating his child.

“I guess it isn’t good enough that we solved the mystery,” Roger said. “If I’d just found out my kid had shot a local hero, I probably would have reacted the same way.” He was still feeling burned that the Woodhill Police were getting all the credit for solving the crime merely because the other kid’s mom had dragged him into the police station instead of the sheriff’s office.

“Are they calling it a hate crime?” Geri asked, briskly slapping down a new place setting and pouring him a cup of coffee.

“We’ll know today,” he answered.

“What’s your feeling?” Marshall asked.

“I’m convinced it was an accident,“ Roger answered. “I don’t think the kid had any idea Herman was even up there.”

“Pretty convenient for Bill Pratt,” Geri said, arching a painted-on eyebrow. “He got rid of his campaign rival and a homo in one fell swoop.”

“Wow, Geri. You are so cynical,” Marshall said.

“Tell me you weren’t thinking the same thing,” Geri replied.

 

Oregon was like a huge sponge that became sopped and squishy through the winter into the spring and by fall was dry and hard. Year in and year out; wet to dry, dry to wet. And once in a great while, when it got really wet, it overflowed. It had rained hard in Woodhill for nine days straight, and every little stream and creek was gushing like an open faucet. The Willamette River was as wide and muddy as the Mississippi. Mud prone to sliding was mudsliding. Basements prone to leaking had leaked. People prone to depression were depressed. It was well on the way to being a record rainfall for February, and everyone in town was feeling the effects.

 

In the Woodhill Hotel Ballroom, Jessie looked around one last time. The room, which had been refurbished to look turn-of-the-last-century, was beautiful, filled with red and white roses and flickering candles. The gas log in the fireplace cast a warm glow against the sparkling glassware set up at the bar. Bo had come in earlier and hung strings of colorful tissue paper Buddhist prayer flags above the dance floor. Jessie and the waitstaff had set 30 round tables with eight place settings each. There were tubs full of champagne bottles on ice, as well as cases of red and chilled white Ricci Reserve shipped up from California. Back in the kitchen, the crew frantically prepared food for the evening. Not only was the hotel having its biggest private function ever, it was Valentine’s Day, the busiest night of the year.

Jessie had asked to work the private gig, Herman Hoffmeister’s Celebration of Life, though she may have gotten better tips working the dining room with its special overpriced menu. Herman had meant a lot to her. He had hired her at the diner when she’d had hardly any work experience at all. She didn’t do too well in that busy environment, but Herman had always been very sweet to her—much nicer than those hideous old lady waitresses who hated her. He wished her well when the Woodhill Hotel reopened and she went to work there.

She paused to look at some of the photos placed around the room: Herman’s senior picture, his face pale and pimply, dark hair a feathered mullet; Herman in a toque working behind the line at a San Francisco bistro; Herman and Matthew sunburned and tipsy at a Hawaiian Luau. She turned as she heard the huge stained glass door from the lobby open and saw Dante Gutierrez, a guy she knew from the diner. He was the janitor, she remembered, a sweet guy.

“Hi,” she said. “Dante, right?”

He nodded, tugging at his collar. He wore a V-neck blue sweater over a white shirt and red tie.

“I’m Jessica,” she continued. “I used to work at the diner.”

“I remember,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. She moved toward him and put her hand on his arm. At that moment, Matthew London came in, dressed in a perfectly cut tuxedo.

“Wow,” she called to him. “You look positively dashing.”

He grinned shyly and looked down at himself. “It’s Armani,” he said. “Herman insisted.”

“I can see why,” she replied.

Matthew experienced another stab of grief. Since Herman died, those brutal moments had been endless, like earlier that evening when he went to the closet to get dressed and saw their identical wedding tuxedoes hanging side by side. It took all his will to be there at the hotel, ready to greet the others. Two weeks was not enough time. He was still mad as hell at Herman for leaving him, and he was still unspeakably sad to be without him, and furious at the stupid kid who had shot him.

By 8 pm, the room was filled with people in formalwear, or as formal as it gets in Woodhill. During excessive rainy spells, many locals didn’t even bother to get dressed—they just headed on out to Norm’s Thriftway in their pajamas. Nobody cared. It wasn’t the fashion capital of the world. But most people did get gussied up for important events, such as Herman Hoffmeister’s Celebration of Life.

Marshall Magruder wore his good blue suit; he‘d had to dig through Pauline-packed boxes in his parents’ garage to find it, then rush it to the cleaners for pressing. He scanned the room. There were many people from his and Herman’s class at Woodhill High, and many people he didn’t know. The mood seemed conflicted, somber and festive at the same time. His best friend Larry towered by the fireplace with his wife, Nadine. Marshall made his way over.

“Did you save me a seat?”

Larry nodded. “This is the most fucked-up high school reunion ever.” Nadine elbowed him.

“Hi Marsh,” she said.

“You look nice, Nadine.” Marshall recognized her emerald dress from countless other functions. He thought Larry had totally lucked-out with his wife. Nadine was very easy going, a soccer mom satisfied with family life, and carelessly cute with countless freckles and ginger coloring. He had been spending a lot of time over at their noisy house lately.

“Thanks,” she replied, “you too.” She looked over his shoulder. “Did you see who just walked in?”

Marshall turned to see Pauline in the doorway. She was deeply tanned from her recent Caribbean cruise with her sister. Her blonde hair was styled in a stiff pageboy and her electric blue satin sheath fit her just so. He shook his head, wondering why it had taken him so long to see her for what she was. “Let’s get a drink,” he suggested.

 

Pauline scanned the crowd; it seemed like everyone in town was there. And all looking so glum. Her first thought when she heard about Herman getting killed was that the freakshow of a wedding was not going to happen after all. She didn’t really have anything against the gays—she even had a few as clients—but they didn’t have to shove it in everyone’s faces. She had decided to come to the Celebration of Life because it was the biggest social event of the winter, and a public event at that. It was time for her to move on after the separation, find a new mate. There were plenty of gorgeous men there, but Pauline wasn’t sure which of them were gay. Her eyes rested on a nice looking silver-haired man across the room. Tom Ricci. She had met him once at some function or another. And he was a widower with two kids—he might not want any more. Yes, she thought, he would be very suitable indeed. She really didn’t like being single one bit.

 

Two hours later, dinner had been served—Beef Wellington or king salmon in parchment—and the wine had flowed freely. The crowd was getting well lubricated. Servers prepared to circulate the dessert cart: plates of Red Velvet cake or heart-shaped chocolate truffles. Ellen was stag because Basil had to help in the kitchen that busy night. She sat at a table with Candy (of course) and Mark, as well as Mike and Kathy Burke, Tom Ricci, Pauline the real estate agent and a gentlemen from Portland who knew Herman from the Cascade Aids Project, a charity that Herman had supported for years. The table had been cleared; just wine glasses and crumpled napkins remained.

Matthew passed by and Candy grabbed his arm. “Is that your mom sitting with Lila?” He looked over and saw Bo and Lila with heads together, deep in conversation. “Yeah,” he told Candy. “They’ve bonded over cooking. Not recipes, but theory.” He sounded slightly toasted.

“What’s going to happen to the diner?” Pauline asked.

Matthew shrugged. “It went back to Lila and Bert. They’re thinking about selling it to the Pitzers.”

“What?” Ellen exclaimed. She was more than slightly toasted.

“Yeah,” Matthew continued. “There isn’t anyone else to run it. The Hoffmeisters are all gone.”

“Oh man!” Candy groaned, looking around the table, her blue eyes wide. “The Hoffmeisters are all gone.”

“They could do worse than the Pitzers.” Mark observed. Matthew nodded, moved aside for the dessert cart and continued on to the next table.

“Did you hear the Pratt kid pled out today?” Candy leaned forward.

“I saw that on the news,” Tom Ricci said. “Involuntary manslaughter. A year in Calapooia and probation until he’s 21.”

“I was there,” Candy said. “Bill Pratt completely lost it when they took the kid away. He was crying like a woman.”

Kathy Burke scooted her chair in. “Really?”

“Yes,” Candy said. “Sobbing. It was sad.”

Mike and Kathy looked at each other, amazed by Candy’s report.

“He was crying?” Mike asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes!” Candy nodded. “I was there.”

“Wow.” Kathy shook her head. “Wow, I would have paid to see that.”

Ellen saw the dessert cart next to her. “Oh yeah,” she cried. “Chocolate candy. I love candy.”

 

After dessert, Matthew took a place at the microphone and tapped his champagne glass with a spoon. He was usually quite nervous when speaking in front of people (Herman had been their front man), but on that night his nerves were tempered by wine and grief. When the room quieted, he spoke. “Thank you all so much for coming tonight. I really feel Herman’s presence and I appreciate all the kind thoughts and funny stories you’ve been sharing with me all night. Karaoke will begin soon, but first, I know many of you wanted to say something about Herman, so I thought we could all take turns up here. I’ll start with a toast.” He raised his glass. “Herman was a good son, a good businessman, a good friend—just an all-around good guy. That’s how he rolled, with that crazy retro look of his. He loved his parents. He loved me. He loved this town. And he loved life. So, here’s to Herman!”

The crowd cried “cheers” and applauded. “Okay, who’s next? And if anyone mentions the rain or says ‘Heaven is weeping for Herman’ I will throw you out on your ass.”

 

An hour later, Mike Burke finished his brief story about the sixth grade field trip to the state capital when Herman rushed up to the senate floor podium and began singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and it seemed he would be the last to speak. The celebrants had heard that Herman was generous, flexible and creative. He was a good singer, good tipper, good joke-teller and good impressionist. He was a careful driver. He was interested in others and meticulous about his grooming. He liked entertaining and campaigning and collecting money for charities. He knew a lot about outer space. He was a kind landlord with a humane late-rent policy. He was here and he was queer, he was a uniter not a divider.

“Shit,” muttered Pauline, her elbows on the table and chin in her hands. “Even I’d marry him.”

It seemed as though there was nothing more to say about Herman, but then a scruffy young couple came forward. The woman was hugely pregnant and her head was shaved; unlike her legs. The man had an abnormally large cranium, but looked otherwise normal. They were dressed in wrinkled wool clothes that seemed even more grubby against the fancy twinkle lights and tablecloths. “My name is Emily Takeda,” the woman said softly, “and I’m the reason Herman is dead.” She finished the sentence in a high shriek and the somewhat drunken unruly crowd became silent.

The guy leaned over and quickly said, “Actually, that’s not really true. We’re forest activists and Herman brought us food.”

“They’re the treesitters!” someone shouted.

“I’m Randall Stine,” he said. “Herman was just helping a pregnant woman. Isn’t that just like him?”

The group seemed to grudgingly agree, but Candy had seen crowds go bad when she worked for the ACLU. She knew many people blamed the treesitters for Herman’s death: If they hadn’t been up there, Herman wouldn’t have been at the campground. She had the wherewithal to hustle up there to shut them up.

“Herman did what no one else could do,” Emily said tearfully. “He got me out of that tree just like everyone’s been telling me to do since I got pregnant.”

Candy reached the podium just as Emily gasped loudly, eyes wide, and covered her mouth with her hands.

“Oh boy,” said Candy, looking at the floor, “looks like your water broke.”

Kathy Burke, the day manager at Norm’s Thriftway, shouted tipsily “Clean up on aisle five!” and everyone laughed.

 

At midnight, Basil returned to the hotel after he had taken the treesitters to the hospital amid much excitement on their part: “If it’s a boy, we’re going to name him Herman,” Emily cried giddily on her way out. “And Hermione if it’s a girl.”

He looked in on the party to find half the celebrators of life had gone home. But the remaining 100 or so were getting funky on the dance floor while they took turns at the Karaoke machine. He was shocked to see Ellen singing a breathy version of “Close to You,” then even more surprised that she was singing it to Candy and Mark who were tango-ing around her. But then he realized Ellen was uncharacteristically drunk off her ass. He stood there a minute, watching her sway, knowing how impossible she was going to be the next day.

Jessie rushed up to him, her face flushed and eyes nearly glowing. “You are not going to believe this!” She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him out to the front lobby where about 20 costumed teenaged girls milled about. One of them approached Basil and asked, “Can you help us?”

“Uh, maybe.” He squinted at her. She was a tall skinny girl, her brown hair in a ponytail on the back of her head, her face long like a colt. “What’s up?” Basil asked.

“We’re the WHS girls basketball team,” she said. “Herman hired us for his big finish.”

“Right on,” Basil said.

 

The party was breaking up. Bert Hoffmeister, wheelchair parked in the corner, snored. Lila yawned and looked for her purse. Ellen threw up in a garbage can behind the bar, trying not to attract any attention. Tom Ricci considered going home with Pauline Magruder for a half-second, then winced. Pauline scribbled her home number on the back of one of her business cards. Kathy and Mike Burke continued to dance though the music had stopped; they were celebrating some earlier news that their daughter Lacey was in jail—they had seen her and finally knew where she was. Marshall and Larry stood by the fireplace and watched Pauline hand Tom Ricci her card, then laughed when she turned away and he crumpled it in a ball. But Marshall noticed a strained look in Pauline eyes. He wondered if she was about to crack.

Matthew helped his mother into her coat. He dreaded going home, even though Bo was still there. She had to go back to Encino sometime and he had to go back to work. Life would continue. People had been asking him all night if he planned to stay in Woodhill, when he couldn’t even plan to eat breakfast. And where was he supposed to go? His home was Herman. He looked around for another glass of wine.

Suddenly, the lights turned back down and a spotlight hit the giant disco ball hanging from the ceiling, sending shards of light over the group. The DJ’s disembodied voice echoed over the PA: “Ladies and gentleman, and now, the highlight of the evening, a final farewell from Mr. Herman Hoffmeister.” Herman‘s inimitable voice rose in the darkness, “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars.” Twenty glowing aliens bobbed in: very tall, thin, shining figures with huge heads and weird eye slits. The crowd gasped, then broke out in enthusiastic applause. Two aliens took Matthew by the arms and danced him into the group. His mouth was hanging open. Herman sang on: “Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.”

Lila stood stock-still, staring as the music and aliens swirled in front of her. “In other words, hold my hand. In other words, kiss me.” Then she realized that Herman had arranged the entire spectacle before he died. It was one of his favorite songs—she’d heard him sing it a million times—he must have recorded it ahead of time. If the wedding reception had gone forward, Herman and Matthew would be leaving for their honeymoon at that moment. It was so like him to want to end the party with a surprise bang. No one had cancelled it. Thank God no one had cancelled it.

Bert woke up and roared. Lila grabbed his good hand and squeezed. “Fill my heart with song and let me sing forever more.” Candy and Mark joined the Burkes on the dance floor. An alien pulled Bo into the group and whirled her about. “You are all I hope for, all I worship and adore.” Tom Ricci wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Marshall crossed the room and put his arm around Pauline. She had never, in the 20 years they had been together, looked at him with such relief. Jessie, clearing dirty glasses from the tables, saw Dante sitting on the sofa next to the fireplace, sobbing with his elbows on his knees. She went over, sat next to him and patted his back. “In other words, please be true.” Lila felt her heart open with gratitude, washing away a painful dark crust of regret. Bert was bawling like a baby. And Matthew smiled like he had just torn open the best most unexpected gift ever. The rest of the crowd swayed together as they sang the final line with Herman: “In other words, I love you.”

 

Outside, the rain poured; how could heaven not weep? Someone circling above the town in a helicopter or a flying saucer wouldn’t see a thing because of the thick layer of water-swollen clouds. But even so, Woodhill was there. Woodhill would always be there

 

 

11. Election Eve 2008

 

I know I’m going to lose some people here, because dead guys tell no tales. But who really knows what goes on in the astral plane, especially when you’re yanked aboard so unexpectedly? This is me, haunting the diner. It’s the place I loved the best, so no surprise there. I was shot nine months ago and I come back here once in a while, though less and less as time goes on.

After my brother Bobby died when I was a kid, I swear I could feel him around me sometimes. Now I know it was true. But it wasn’t “Bobby” Bobby. Just like I’m not “Herman” Herman. I’m just energy. Pure energy. Good energy. And I’m gradually getting integrated into the energy that fuels life. I’m going back to where I came from before I was born. But today, I’m part of a positive manifestation that’s kicking ass. It’s quite remarkable and I’m just along for the ride.

My hometown, Woodhill, is being battered by negativity right now. The diner itself is a pit since the Pitzers bought it from my folks. Dante used to keep it incredibly clean, but since he’s undocumented, the Pitzers wouldn’t hire him. It’s just the little things, like smudges on the windows and gum stuck under the tables that no one else would even notice. But I don’t feel sad—I just don’t care. (I know everything and I feel nothing. Is this heaven?)

The whole town seems depressed. Just look at the regulars who are crowded into the diner, including my old high school buddies. Poor Larry, sitting in booth seven, just got laid off from the Ford dealership; his lifelong friend Marshall is consoling him. But what did he expect? Gas prices went insane and then the economy tanked. You spend years selling fuel-guzzling SUVs and it’s bound to come back to bite you. Marshall’s such a sweet positive guy—his ex-wife Pauline’s real estate business has plummeted. It’s like she went running full-bore into a cement wall and she doesn’t have Marshmellow to soften her crash. Sad. She’s set her sights on Tom Ricci, who couldn’t be less interested. His dead wife still hangs around him and those gorgeous children. Can you blame her? Tom is worried about his winery, but he’ll survive because he’s sensible. He postponed his plan to build a new structure until the panic is over, and he’s helping out at other grape crushes, building good will.

It’s like Mike Burke over at the counter says: People will always need booze. His girls are driving him crazy, as usual. Lacey is back on the crystal, in really bad shape losing teeth and all. Olivia, the forest ranger who found my body, has tried to help that girl. When Lacey’s headscab got infected, Olivia took her to the ER in Salem—now Lacey’s permanently scarred and working on a new sore. Aimee is on the verge of lighting out and leaving her baby for Mike and Kathy to raise. And Michaela is in love with Ren Ricci, which bothers her father to no end. But she’s sensible and Ren’s a good kid—that romance couldn’t be sweeter.

Sitting a few stools down is Bill Pratt, my nemesis in life. Stupid homophobe—he’s completely alone: one boy in Afghanistan, another in juvenile detention. His kid Jared killed me but it was truly an accident. Pratt’s poor wife finally left him—she’s living in a studio apartment and working at the old folks home. Her entire adult life, she did whatever her husband told her, including who to vote for. But today, she woke up and prayed for Obama to win. And tomorrow, she’s going to start praying to Obama. What she’ll actually pray to is that same positive force of which I’m a part. She’s going to be just fine. Bill, on the other hand, is losing the City Council race to the lovely Candy Applegate Ruiz. After I died, Candy decided to run and never looked back. It’s really no contest. Her campaign manager Ellen Greenstein is very competent—and completely in love with Candy, I must add. I saw it from the beginning. Candy did too. Now Ellen is pregnant with Basil’s baby. They’ll end up married, I’m sure. And reasonably happy, though Ellen will always have Candy in her secret heart. Candy, of course, will be an excellent councilor; probably do a better job than I ever could. Pratt? Who knows? Who cares? Though good often comes out of bad.

Look at Table 10: Jessica and Dante are sitting with their mothers, planning their wedding. They hooked up at the celebration of my life and fell in love. Jessica is amused by her mom’s forced cheeriness, when she knows the woman is completely devastated by her 20-year-old daughter marrying a Mexican janitor (the kids haven’t told her he’s illegal). Dante’s mother isn’t too pleased herself, but she’s never pleased. She gets that Dante will be able to become a citizen if he marries an American. She gets that the two of them are in love. And she doesn’t even care that their union will water-down their Latino bloodline. But Dante is her first-born and she wants to hang onto him as long as she can. On the plus side, Jessie isn’t very close to her mother; maybe they’ll spend holidays with the Gutierrez side. And Dante’s mom likes Jessie—everyone does.

If I could feel, my heart would break looking at Table 17, the two-top by the door. It’s my mom and Matthew; they finally get along. My bitter old mother, full of piss and vinegar, was all by herself after Dad died (he blew right past me a few weeks after I died, by the way, couldn’t wait to leave that world). She rattled around that old farmhouse for months; it was so sad, she didn’t have a single friend. Matthew, on the other hand, had tons of support, a gazillion people to take care of him. He was pretty methodical in his mourning, doing all the right things like journaling and getting counseling and staying busy. Still, he was lonely without me—can you blame him? Then one day they ran into each other at Norm’s Thriftway, had a chat, and before you knew it, she was joining him on Candy’s campaign! Can you believe it? My mother voting for a liberal? And she despises Sarah Palin so I’m thinking she might even vote for Obama—wouldn’t that beat all? Look at the two of them sitting there, laughing. True friends. That’s something I thought I’d never see, and I might not have, had I stayed alive.

If I hadn’t died, Jessica and Dante may have never gotten together. My mother wouldn’t have learned how to open her heart. Ranger Olivia wouldn’t have learned how to feel. That crazy treesitting chick would still be up in that tree. The Pratts would still be hideously miserable. And Candy wouldn’t have run for City Council.

Good forces, bad forces; it sounds so black and white. But it is. That’s the nature of the universe. Tomorrow, the citizens of Woodhill will awaken with a new hope[ in their hearts, and for a while, goodness will prevail.

 

 

The End


Stumps of Mystery: Stories from the End of an Era

If you believe the New York Times and the indie television show “Portlandia,” you might think Oregon is a magical place where people ride their bikes to the gourmet food carts, dine on organic quinoa, then make their way to the alternative film festival. Of course those of us who live here know that Oregon is a great place to live, but not everyone is happy with change---or interlopers. Stumps of Mystery: Stories from the End of an Era is a novel of stories set in Woodhill, a fictional Willamette Valley town, in the year before the 2008 presidential election. These stories explore such contemporary and relevant Western themes as land use, immigration, same-sex marriage and environmental issues. These issues seemed insurmountable at the time, and some still are today. The range of characters includes a former logger, a California vintner starting a new winery, treesitters, an illegal Mexican college student, a forest ranger, a meth freak and a retired short-order cook. The book culminates in the untimely death and aftermath of one of Woodhill’s leading citizens that brings the residents together in unexpected ways.

  • ISBN: 9781311896278
  • Author: Suwick
  • Published: 2015-11-12 06:20:10
  • Words: 55138
Stumps of Mystery: Stories from the End of an Era Stumps of Mystery: Stories from the End of an Era