Winner : Terrain.org 6th Annual Fiction Contest Selected by Luís Alberto Urrea
A brief summer shower had just passed through. I walked outside onto the patio that fronted the lake. Its fieldstones were wet, but still warm. Mist hung about midway up the Selkirk Range across the lake, and the late afternoon sunlight had broken through the clouds again along the shore. Slowly, it crept through the trees until I felt it on top of my bare feet. A rainbow stretched towards the Canadian border. If there was a prettier place on earth, I hadn’t seen it.
The phone rang, and I went inside to answer it. When I heard my wife’s voice, I sat down on the edge of a chair. Gwen was moving out of our house in Seattle that weekend while I was over at the lake.
She said, “I called to say that I left all the plants. If you’re going to be there long, maybe you should have that neighbor girl come and water them.”
I said, “All right.”
“Does she still have a key?”
“I think so.” I could hear chamber music playing in the background.
“I could call her. Do you want me to?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
She was quiet then. We both listened to the music, I suppose, or to each other breathing.
Finally, she said quietly, “Well, then.”
I waited for her to hang up, then did the same. I got a bottle of beer and walked down to the beach. I sat there, tossed pebbles in the water, and watched the sun dip behind the Selkirks and the evening light descend. A full moon emerged over Sundance Peak. A family of ducks swam by near the end of the dock. I wondered about where they were going and what Gwen might be doing, and then became aware that the crickets had started. Some stars poked out over Cavanaugh Bay where the moon hung low. A few bugs flitted about, not many. The water lapped at the shore.
By the time I walked back up to the cabin, the sky had grown completely black with a full canopy of stars. I didn’t bother with dinner. I got into bed and tried to read a mystery until I thought I could fall asleep.
The next day was hot. I worked again on the old wooden sailboat in the woodshed all morning until the sanding was finally finished. Then I rode my mountain bike to the lookout and stood up pumping harder than I ever had for the last half-mile. Afterwards, I went for a swim and lay on the dock. I hoped to nap, but wasn’t able. So, I just thought some more. Every now and then, clouds moved past the sun and I’d roll off the dock into the water’s coolness.
A little after seven, I showered, dressed, and took the skiff across the lake to Hill’s Lodge. The inside portion of the L-shaped bar was dark and fairly crowded. I stood at the end closest to the lake doors where they opened next to the bar’s short outside portion. I waved to Kevin who was at the other end pouring draft beer into a pitcher. Behind him, I could see that the dining room was almost full. Country-western music was playing quietly on the jukebox.
Kevin came over smiling. We shook hands, and he asked, “When you get in?”
“Yesterday. How’s the family?”
He nodded, as if considering. “Fine. All the same. Fat and happy, like me. Beer?”
“Maybe just some cranberry juice. I took the skiff over.”
“Sure,” he said and went to get my drink.
It was good to see him. We’d grown up together, summers, on the lake. His family had one of the biggest cabins down the beach from ours next to Hunt Creek, and they’d owned the lodge since long before I was born. We’d gone to the University of Idaho a couple of years apart and had sat at the end of the bench together for the basketball team. That had been almost a decade earlier.
There was only one person on the outdoor stools, a woman next to me who was lighting a cigarette. I looked at her and at the last of the sun on the lake behind her. I suppose she was 60 or so, with a flowered blouse, pinched face, and graying hair I could see through. There were two short glasses with ice in front of her, one empty and the other full and yellow that she raised and sipped from. She squinted at me through the smoke and said, “This bother you?”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it.”
I nodded. Kevin brought my drink over along with two shots of tequila and slices of lime.
“Hey,” I said.
“You drive a boat fine. Except the time after that bar-b-que when we were calling at those girls and you drove over the float logs.”
He chuckled and raised his shot glass. We drank, squeezed our eyes shut, then sucked limes. He smiled at me with his round, sun-browned face.
I told him, “I can’t drink like that anymore.”
“Me either.” He paused, then said, “But I noticed you were missing something.” He nodded at my left hand. “That an accident?”
I closed the fingers on that hand and looked at him. I shook my head.
“Want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” I shrugged. “Separated for now. She’s found someone else. But I was no picnic towards the end.”
He nodded his head slowly. We looked at each other until he said, “Everything okay otherwise?”
“Sure,” I told him. “Everything’s fine.”
Someone called for drinks and he left. I followed the sound of children shouting on the lawn that led down to the beach and met the gaze of the woman next to me. She took another sip, smiled, and said, “I like the way you look. You look nice.”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “You look all right.”
I forced a smile.
“This cigarette bothers you, just say.” She snapped her fingers. “It’s gone.”
“I appreciate that.”
Kevin came back, took away her empty glass, and slid it under the bar. “This is Helen,” he told me. “Helen, Drew.”
“Hello, Drew,” she said. “Kevin, I like Drew.”
“So do I,” he told her. “Your husband home?”
Helen shook her head and gestured with her hand like she was shooing away a fly.
Kevin said to me, “Helen’s husband drives truck for the mill in Priest River. He’s gone a lot in the summer.”
“Good riddance,” she said and took a swallow from her drink. “Good riddance and bon voyage.”
Kevin and I looked at each other, then at her. She emptied her glass and snuffed out her cigarette. She climbed down from her stool and walked off across the wide porch, lurching a bit as she went. We watched her turn the corner of the building where it met the parking lot.
“There she goes,” Kevin said. “God help her. See what you’re missing in the big city.”
Shouts from the children trailed away down the beach. The song on the jukebox ended.
“Any of the trout fresh?” I asked.
“I think so. I believe so. Saw Kenny come into the kitchen with his cooler after he tied up this morning. He goes straight to his truck if he gets skunked.”
“All right, then.” I finished my cranberry juice. “Think I’ll see if I can find a table.”
I put some money on the bar. He pushed it back at me.
“Stop back after dinner and buy me a drink,” he said.
I did my best to make my grin match his, and he took away our glasses and Helen’s. I stopped at the restroom before going into the dining room. On my way out, I glanced into the parking lot and saw Helen trying to raise the rear end of her pick-up truck with a jack. Her back tire was flat, and the spare was leaning up against the side of the truck. She turned the handle of the jack, which tilted momentarily, then tipped over in the gravel. Helen sat down next to it and swore.
I sighed and looked into the well-lit dining room. I rubbed my forehead twice, then walked out to her. She looked up at me as I approached.
I said, “Give you a hand?”
“Obliged,” she muttered and stood up away from the jack.
She lit another cigarette and watched me with her arms folded while I worked. It didn’t take long. When I was tightening down the lug nuts on her spare, she tossed the flat tire into the back of the pick-up truck, dropped the cigarette butt in the gravel, and stepped on it.
I climbed to my feet, put her tools in the back, and brushed my hands together. She was staring evenly at me. The late evening light was falling, but I could see that her eyes were glassy and her head wobbled a little.
She said, “I could’ve fixed that myself ‘cept I had a cocktail.”
“But I’m grateful for the help. I knew you were nice.”
A busboy came out of the backdoor of the kitchen and threw a bag of trash into the dumpster. The lid banged after he dropped it in. The screen door swung slowly shut behind him.
“Well,” she said, “I guess I better get going.”
“I don’t think you should drive.”
She smiled and pointed. “It’s just up the road.”
“Maybe a mile. Up towards Nordham.”
I looked over her shoulder at the stretch of blacktop disappearing into the trees. “Let me have your keys. I’ll give you a lift and walk back.”
“Suits me.” Her grin showed brown-stained teeth.
We got in and drove down the straight road that was surrounded on both sides by forest. The flat tire and tools bounced in the back when we went over potholes. I turned the headlights on and the dashboard displays lit green. There was a cavity where the radio should have been.
Helen looked out her window. I watched the odometer pass one mile, then another before she said suddenly, “Here.”
I turned and parked in a little dirt turnaround facing an old mobile home. In front of it sat a rusted tulip-backed chair and a stack of snow tires. The place was surrounded by a thick undergrowth of bushes and trees, with a trellis and the remains of what looked like it might have once been a garden on the side.
We climbed out of the cab and she came around to my side. I handed her the keys and said, “Get some sleep.”
“Wait,” she said. “I want to give you some jam. To thank you.”
“Yes, it is. Matter of courtesy.” She took me by the elbow and led me to the front door. “Don’t argue with this old gal. I mean to repay, then you’re on your way.”
She guided me through the door and sat me on a worn brown couch. I watched the back of her rummage around in the kitchen and shook my head. I felt my shoulders sag. The narrow space was cluttered and smelled of cigarettes and fried bacon. I saw hardened grease in the iron skillet on the stove.
She said, “I heard you tell Kevin that things had gone south for you and your wife. Tsk, tsk. I’m sorry about that.” She brought over two juice glasses filled with whiskey and a dusty jar of jam. “That’s strawberry from a few summers ago,” she said, handing me the jam. “It’s good. I don’t like it too sweet.”
Helen set one of the glasses in front of me on the coffee table. She sat down by my side with the other and said, “Me and Roy just about separated a half-dozen or ten times. But we didn’t. Wouldn’t know what to do without the other, I guess.” She took a sip. “He’s gone a lot. We live pretty much separate lives anymore. Didn’t used to.”
I nodded and held the jam in two hands in my lap. She picked up a framed photograph from the coffee table and turned it so we could both see it. In it, she and a heavy-set man with snaps on his plaid shirt stood in a carefully tended garden holding rakes. There was sun behind them. In the background, I recognized their mobile home, climbing roses bursting on the trellis, snap peas staked well, and a younger, rosier-looking Helen.
“That’s Roy,” she said smiling. She sipped her drink again. “We used to have quite a few things growing over to the side there. We even took some watermelons one year to the fair. That was a long time ago. Oh, well.” She replaced the photograph on the table and leaned back. “Now I don’t grow a thing anymore.”
Helen took another sip, then closed her eyes and put her head against my shoulder. I listened to a clock tick in the back of the trailer. An owl hooted nearby. In a moment, I could hear her snoring quietly.
I took her drink and stood up slowly. I set her glass on the table, then lowered her gently so she was lying on her side on the couch and covered her from the waist down with a crocheted afghan that was on the floor. I took the jam and stopped at the door to look at her. She wore a small smile as she slept. I closed the door quietly and began the long walk back to the lodge.
When I got there, I didn’t stop to eat, but started over to the cabin in the skiff. A breeze had risen and there was a regular chop. The sky above Chimney Rock was the color of Indian ink and just enough light remained to cast the mountains surrounding it green-black. On the way, I passed several first places: the first place Gwen and I camped on Kalispell Island, our first fishing spot, the first place we went huckleberry picking, the first deserted beach where we went skinny-dipping under a moon like the one above me. I could hardly believe that those times had happened.
Back at the cabin, I made myself a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. I sat on the patio eating and watching the lake, the stars above it, the moonlight on it. Frogs in the creek had joined the crickets’ soft chorus. A motorboat went by very slowly a couple of hundred yards out on the lake and I could hear two voices from it talking quietly but very distinctly across the water, a man’s and a woman’s. Hearing them made it even harder not to think about Gwen and how we’d gotten to wherever it was we were.
I finished re-doing the sailboat’s hull that next afternoon. It wasn’t really much of a job—just a little 12-foot sailfish. It was something to fill that needed stretch of time. I’d started it in the spring, the last occasion my wife and I had been there together. Now it was re-sealed and re-varnished and perched upside down on sawhorses under the eaves of the woodshed. I didn’t close the cabin down because I knew I’d be over again when I could manage another long weekend and later for two weeks when my vacation came at the end of August. As I had every year growing up while my mother and father were still alive, and then afterwards, not quite so often.
I stopped in Coolin before starting the drive back to Seattle to buy gas and a few other things. The general store wasn’t very crowded at four o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and no one else at all was in the hardware section. At Nordham, I turned off the highway and drove a little out of the way to Helen’s mobile home. The place was still, the door open, no truck. I called her name from the front step, but no one answered. I wasn’t surprised; I had a pretty good idea where she already was. So, I put the paper bag I’d bought with the packages of vegetable and flower seeds just inside the door and up against it. The iron skillet on the stove held the remains of pork chops.
I didn’t pass another vehicle on the way back to Nordham. I knew that if I drove straight through, I’d be back home by ten o’clock. I wondered if Gwen had taken things like the coffee maker. I wondered which photographs she’d chosen, or if she’d taken any at all. The shadows on Highway 11 had a liquid quality as I drove in and out of the mottled sunlight through the corridor of trees. The road into Priest River was smooth, recently repaved. After a while, fields began along the roadside with big spools of newly mowed hay sitting in them. I put in a CD of Zydeco music, turned up the volume, rolled down the windows, and tried my best to sing along with it.
[toggler title=”Fiction judge Luís Alberto Urrea says…” ]”Contrition” stands out as a real piece of fiction. Something you’d read in a lauded collection. It has a calm sorrow and subtle effects. Real emotion, surprising turns. But never over-reaching or artificial. I couldn’t find a false note. It has a good Tom McGuane flavor and promises to stick with me for a long time.[/toggler]
William Cass has had a little over 90 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Recently, he was a finalist in Black Lawrence Press’s chapbook contest, received a Pushcart nomination, and won The Examined Life Journal’s writing contest. He lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California.