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The Lookout, by Lisa Norris.

by Lisa Norris

For the first time in our five years of marriage, my husband Jim and I had agreed that I would spend several weeks of that summer on my own, driving to Colorado to drop my son Shane with his father, my ex-husband, then camping out of my small truck, rigged with its miniature camper shell. Although Jim was invited and had tried going west with me before, he couldn’t really relax on those trips. He needed his rituals, his showers, his cappuccino maker.

We were in bed when we made our decision. It was a Saturday morning in the spring, blustery weather finally giving way to daffodils and cherry blossoms. A golden light slanted in through the Venetian blinds, illuminating the deep reds of our cherry furniture, the plush recliner on Jim’s side of the room. On my side, the night table was cluttered with books, magazines, colorful stones and feathers. Jim, with his back to me, was looking at an attractively framed Victorian print of a boatman ferrying a woman down a Venetian canal. The woman trailed the fingers of one hand in the water and held a ruffled umbrella over her head with the other. Jim yawned, stretched, and turned toward me. “Why don’t we go to Europe this year? Do something different while Shane’s with his dad.”

I stiffened. “What if something happens to Shane? It would take forever to get from Europe to Colorado.”

Jim rolled over, put an arm across my belly and moved closer. “He’ll be okay with his dad, won’t he?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m sick of the Rocky Mountains,” he said. “I need more culture in my life.”

“We live in Washington, DC. What more do you want?”

“Art. Cafes. A different language. Different kinds of people—”

“We’ve got all that here. What we don’t have is open space. Solitude.” I turned over and raised up on one elbow. “Jim, I admit. I’m an addict. I need my Western fix.”

He lay on his back, elbows jutting, hands laced under his head. The silhouette of his nose, broken in a car accident, gave him the look of an Irish middleweight, though he was the least athletic man I’d ever known. He smelled of soap and wore soft cotton, freshly laundered pajamas.

He rolled toward me again, kissed me lightly, pushed a warm hand under my sweatpants so it rested on my bare hip. “Go on out there. I can go to Europe by myself.”
“Are you serious?”

“Why not? We’re grown-ups. We have a commitment. But we don’t have to share everything.”

I turned on the light so I could see his face. The white spot showed at the hump of his nose, a sign that he was serious. “Are you trying to tell me you want out of this marriage?”

“No.” He touched my face. “Jesus Christ, no. I just don’t want one of us to chop off an arm or a leg so we can fit together.”

Later that summer, driving further west after I left Shane at his father’s house in Colorado, the conversation came back to me. I missed Jim, but I didn’t miss having to line up an expensive motel with a clean shower every night for him. I loved building my own campfires, my mind empty except for their flames. Yet there were long nights, too, when, alone in my sleeping bag, I wondered whether Jim’s refusal to come along meant he really didn’t love me. Whether my insistence on going West meant I really didn’t love him.

I traveled from Utah up into Idaho, west to Boise, then north to a little resort town named McCall, where on the map I’d seen the Payette National Forest dotted with high lakes. I liked to fish, but that day I was hiking just for the view. As the trail steepened, it turned to granite. Small rock cairns marked the way. Not only was a blue lake visible below, but further away still, I could see a long narrow valley with the Payette River meandering through. Huge clouds built over the valley to the south, some perfectly white, others with dark undersides, flashing distant lightning. As I rounded a final curve, the lookout tower appeared.

A staircase zig-zagged to the floor of a catwalk, surrounding the square tower. In the roof, there was a small chimney like the type to vent a woodstove. As I made the final pitch toward the summit, gradually I came to see even further: to the west rose the Seven Devils Mountains, jagged peaks including a wilderness area that I knew plunged into Hell’s Canyon, where the Snake River separated Idaho and Oregon. From the ridge where I stood, something about the peaks, in all their youth—rocks not yet worn smooth like the Appalachian range closer to home—moved me to tears, and I stood on the edge of the summit, weeping.

In part this was grief for the loss of the life I had lived in Colorado with my ex-husband Gary. There were times when I missed that life and missed Gary, who had shared my passion for views like these. Gary had been the one who’d wanted out of the marriage, saying he felt suffocated by domesticity. In the end, he’d literally disappeared into the woods, coming home only as long as he needed to replenish his supplies or take an occasional shower. Finally I’d moved east to be closer to Shane’s grandparents, people I knew would be glad to spend time with him. I’d met Jim after a couple of years—a man who didn’t need wilderness and therefore, I’d thought, wouldn’t wander.

The breeze faltered, and a cloud passed over the sun: the still air brought out the mosquitoes. I slapped them on my bare arms, as if slapping away my grief and self-pity. I was smashing one on my cheek and brushing away the blood when a man came up over the rise. The aluminum frame of his backpack jutted above his head, making him look even taller than he was—he was tall, all right, over six feet. His brown hair grew over his ears, but it was neatly combed, and he had a full beard in which there were shades of copper. He wore jeans and a T-shirt over his thin body. I think it was his boniness that kept me from feeling threatened—that and his way of maintaining distance between us, as if he were aware that a woman alone on a mountaintop with a strange man might need some room to move away.

“Hi there,” he said. Then, glancing at the blood on my cheek and the look on my face, no doubt, of someone who’d been crying, he said, “You okay?”

“Oh.” I brushed at my cheek. “Just slapping mosquitoes.”

“They can be fierce up here.”

“You come up a lot?”

He pointed to the tower at the top of the rise. “I’m the lookout. Charlie.”


He said he’d just come back from town, where he’d had a shower and picked up supplies.
I glanced at the darkening sky. “I wonder if I ought to get down before that storm hits.”

“Typically they start in the south and move east to those ridges over there.” He pointed.

They’ve been skirting this area ever since I’ve been up here.”

“Not much action for you then?”

He shook his head. “You want to see the tower?”

The stairs were almost as steep as the steps on a ladder. Where they reached the catwalk, a square hole had been cut. We lifted our bodies through. Then we were on the balcony with sweeping 360 degree panoramas.

He pointed out the peaks and valleys, naming them. Together we watched the sky. We were quiet, but it was comfortable, a silence the place seemed to request. I liked his careful manner. I liked the fact that he read—not grocery store novels but good literature—he said he liked Tim O’Brien, Robert Stone. The Stone novel he’d read was “incomprehensible in parts,” he said. “Just like his movies.”

“You like reading about war?”

“From here I can tolerate it.” He looked out at all the space around us. “From here I can tolerate just about anything.” He gestured toward the glass enclosure. “Want to see the rest?”

A bunk rested in one corner, the sleeping bag pulled up, clothes neatly folded on top. A low counter was affixed to one wall. There was a clean pot in the sink. Another clean pot had been placed on the burner of a small propane stove. Next to the stove were two big containers of water. It was primitive, all right—I had already noted the privy below, a long walk in the middle of the night, I’d thought.

A circular podium covered with a map dominated the exact center of the room. “What’s that?”

“Fire finder.” We stood looking at the map with its latitudes and longitudes marked. “It doesn’t really find the fires. I do that.” A voice blared out of the radio clipped to his pocket. He turned it off. “I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniels.” He rubbed his eyes, then looked at me in a way you look at something you want.

The bourbon made me dull, it’s true, but I’m not blaming the alcohol. I made my decision the minute I let Charlie know I was married, and he said, “There are no rules up here.” Even so, it took a few hours before we moved our stools close together, thigh against thigh, and he put his hand in my hair. Eventually I unbuttoned his shirt. His long torso was bony, and he smelled of wood smoke. I moved my palms across his chest, his belly. He kissed me deeper, harder. I took his hand and led him to the cot. He sat on the edge, hesitating, but I kissed him again and then pushed him down. I slid his pants off and saw that he was ready. Then I was on top of him. The lightning, by now, was closer in, all around us, sometimes so bright I could clearly see Charlie’s face, eyes closed, mouth working with pleasure. I bit his shoulders, licked his throat, pressing my tongue into his mouth and moving on top of him until his fingers dug into my back and he jerked hard into me. Afterwards, I nestled into the crook of his arm on the narrow bunk, listening to the thunder move down the valley.

I slept. But sometime during the night, when I reached for the man I thought was Jim, I was surprised awake by the bony feel of him. I tried curling into his back as I would Jim’s, but Charlie’s sharp spine repelled me. When I tried turning away from him, I found the bunk was too narrow.

My stomach began to lurch. I tasted bile. I got up once, thinking I would be sick, pacing around the small room. I imagined grabbing my pack and running down the trail in the dark, returning to the familiar truck. I imagined this was all a dream from which I would wake up, but then I looked at Charlie’s form in the bed and wrapped my arms around my naked body and remembered the feel of his mouth on my breasts, the stickiness from our lovemaking still between my thighs.

By morning I was dressed, sitting by the window. When Charlie woke up, he asked, “You okay?” His hair was flat on one side of his head, his eyes cloudy from fatigue. The blanket still covered his lower half, but I was struck again by the sheer length of his torso. Jim was a much smaller man—a man in miniature, I often thought privately.

“I’m not feeling too good.” I stared at something solid, the window ledge, something neutral that wouldn’t bring back the previous night’s passion. “My stomach hurts.”

He sat on the edge of the bunk, now, penis tucked between his thighs, holding his head. “Hell. We should’ve drunk some water after we had all that bourbon.”

He pulled on his pants, then filled one of his pots with water and put it on the stove. It was early morning, the sun’s rim just showing over the peaks. The tower was filled with a gray light. He went out the door and stood on the catwalk until the water boiled. The sun rose higher, and the sky was a deep blue. He handed me a cup of tea. “You’re not regretting it, are you?”

“It’s not you. You were great.” I waved my hand toward the view. “I liked the way we shared all this.”

“Past tense?”

I looked into my mug. “I’m thinking about my husband. I’ve been a faithful wife both times, until now.”

He pulled a stool close to mine. “You haven’t done anybody any harm.”

“I’m not so sure.”

As we sipped our tea, the sun rose higher until the tower was illuminated with yellow light. Charlie went outside onto the catwalk again. He looked out over the empty mountains into the cloudless sky. I could see the ligaments in his neck relax. I could see his entire body unclench.

I gathered my things, then waited for him to come inside and say goodbye. I made up his cot, smoothing the blankets so they looked as they had when I first entered his tower. Still Charlie stood there, his profile as natural a part of the sky as the spire of any spruce tree on the mountain Finally I went outside and touched him on the back, but he didn’t move. So I walked down the stairs and away from the tower. I walked down the trail, then stopped and looked back. He didn’t turn around.

Hiking down the trail, I didn’t see the lake or the flowers; didn’t notice—as I had on the way up—the way the aspen leaves shuddered in the wind, catching the light. When I got to my little truck, it didn’t comfort me the way it usually did, waiting there like a faithful dog. My stomach still hurt. My mouth tasted stale, and my arms and legs ached.

As I drove back down the mountain, then south toward Boise, where I’d turn east again and head for Colorado, then home, I thought again of the way Charlie had touched me. I said to myself, You let that man enter you. You let him into your most private space. Jim’s space. I turned it over in my mind until I convinced myself that somehow, Jim had figured it out. From his room in Paris, he’d felt it. And when I imagined this, I had to know if it was true. So I stopped at a pay phone. When Jim answered, he sounded tired. I listened hard for the sound of a woman in the background. “It’s midnight here,” he said, “but I’m glad you called. I wanted to tell you I had café au lait where the Lost Generation used to hang out—you know, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all those guys. I got you a postcard. You can show your students.”

“The Lost Generation. Wow.” I stood on the rickety porch of the Mountain View General Store, next to the newspaper dispensers. To the north, lightning slashed down toward the Payette mountains. Had it ignited a fire, maybe in Charlie’s jurisdiction? Jim’s tone sounded the same as always. He didn’t know anything, not at all. I imagined him in his clean cotton pajamas breathing sleepily into the phone. His room would be tidy—shoes polished and lined up, suits pressed and hanging, T-shirts neatly folded in the drawer. He’d be smelling clean, as usual. Maybe it would be a different kind of clean, though, with those European soaps.

“All those writers,” I said. “Hanging out in Paris. Sleeping with each other, sleeping with the locals. Getting into fights. Marrying, divorcing. I don’t know. I bet there are a lot of unwritten stories.”


“Sounds great,” I said. “The stuff of imagination. Sitting where they sat. Thinking about their lives.”

“Like I said, I thought of you here.”

“I’m thinking of you here as well.”

“You okay?’ Jim asked.

The storm clouds came closer, thunder rolling toward me across the valley. “You hear that?”


“Thunder. I should probably get off the line.”

“But you’re okay, right?”

“Yeah. It’s just—McCall wasn’t what I expected.”

“What’d you expect?”

“Something a little less wild.”

“I thought you liked wild.”

“I don’t know.” I looked toward a distant ranch house, where the yellow lights came on as the sky darkened. It was probably dinnertime. They’d be sitting together around a table of steaming food—husband, wife, children.

As I continued down Highway 95 toward Boise, the sky moved like a series of veils tossed into the wind. The fabric to the west was clear, cloudless, the slanting light of dusk turning it purple. To the east, high anvil-shaped clouds gathered, some gray, others pure white. To the south, toward the desert, a half-rainbow arched across a newly washed sky. But to the north where I had come from, in the rearview mirror I could see gray-black fingers connecting the sky to the earth, and I could see spectacular lightning.

All across the high desert of Idaho, east along the Snake River under the relentless sun of midsummer, I imagined the worst: I was on the birth control pill, but I would get pregnant or get AIDS; or I would be all right physically, but the experience would form a wedge between Jim and me whose origin Jim would never understand; or Charlie would find me somehow and confront Jim; or Shane would find out and hate me. As the sun lowered and the air cooled, the light slanting from among the clouds softened the harsh angular buttes and jumbled lava rocks. The speed limit was 75. I went 85 or 90 through Idaho, then Wyoming, until I reached the Colorado border and made camp. By flashlight there, I wrote about Charlie in my journal, then tore out the pages and threw them into the fire. The smoke from the paper, damp from my spilled coffee, was thick and unpleasant.

In Colorado, Shane burst from the door of his father’s house to meet my car. He looked wonderful—tan, blonde and fit from his time in the outdoors, the muscles in his arms hard from paddling. He looked older than his twelve years, I thought. When I hugged him, I had the feeling there was ground under my feet again, ground I hadn’t quite realized was missing.

Gary waved to me from the doorway of his house, a 1920s white clapboard with a deep front porch in a neighborhood of similar boxy working class houses. His kayaks were hung on one side of the house; he’d parked his battered van, with its racks for the boats, in the weedy driveway.

“Have a good trip?” he asked as I came up the sidewalk with Shane. His blonde beard needed trimming, I noticed, and his fingernails were still bitten to the quick. His legs protruded from beneath the fringes of his cut-offs. His legs were long and bony, I noticed, not unlike Charlie’s.

When we reached the Virginia border, Shane and I began singing a made-up song—“We’re almost home”—in screeching, tuneless voices. We exited from the Beltway and followed the Potomac River for a while before we entered our quiet neighborhood of two-story brick houses with gleaming windows. I was struck again, as I am everytime I return to the east from the small towns of the Rockies, how much money Easterners—including Jim and me—spend on their houses. No RVs parked in these driveways. No kayaks here. Not a shred of unwatered grass browning under high altitude sun. No views of the snow-capped mountains, either. There was instead a feeling of luxurious comfort and of safety. We could see nothing from here that was not manmade except our carefully landscaped yards.

In the house, I collapsed on the rug in front of the cold fireplace, belly down. Jim straddled my back to rub my shoulders while Shane pounded up the stairs to see what Jim had put there, a gift from Paris, he’d said.

“That feels great,” I said as he worked the kinks out of my shoulders. “Your touch is magical.” By then I couldn’t even remember Charlie’s. I could barely recall the sound of his voice, the expression in his eyes. I had only a vague memory of the shape of him, the angular feel of his arms. The surprising difference between his kisses and Jim’s, Charlie’s mouth so much smaller, his lips thin.

Jim said, “I really missed you.”

“Me too.”

He leaned down to kiss me, then slid his hands under my blouse to touch my breasts. “I missed this, too.”

“No buxom Parisienne girls?” I said.

“No. No well-endowed cowboys?”

“No.” I kept my face turned away from him.

A few weeks later, we went to a faculty party in the home of Gil Thorpe, an art professor who had a passion for the French countryside. Jim kept pointing out scenes from the paintings on Gil’s walls, delighted because he recognized the places. Overwhelmed, finally, by Jim’s enthusiasm for the pastoral, I escaped to the back patio. I was sipping my chardonnay, watching the late-afternoon light over the rooftops of the other townhouses, when I overheard Jim talking with Gil through the open window.

“No,” Jim was saying a bit sadly. “She had to be out west with her son.”

“Well, next time give me a call,” Gil said. “I’m in Paris every summer.”

“You know who else you might run into?” Jim asked. “Leslie Payne.” His tone was warm. I missed a few sentences as a colleague greeted me, then caught, “Right, she’s in Languages.”

I knew Leslie—not well—only enough to recognize her. She was not unattractive, but for my taste she was too well-packaged: her hair streaked blonde, her nails painted, her legs always stockinged, her feet in heels. Probably she was the type, though, to enjoy museums and tidy foreign countrysides. Jim hadn’t told me about seeing her.

We drove home along a parkway that felt like a tunnel—trees arching over the roadside, their leaves forming thick barriers of deep green. Afternoon thunderstorms had kept everything wet and growing. Outside the car window, the humidity hung in sheets. My head felt heavy, my mouth dry from too much wine. I dropped my head into my hands, pressing my fingertips against my eyelids. I imagined Jim across the table from Leslie in a sidewalk café, reaching across the table to touch her hand.

“Did I hear you saying you saw Leslie Payne in France?” I lifted my head to look at him.

“I told you about that, didn’t I?”


“Oh. I thought I had.” He drove steadily, guiding the car around curves that made my stomach lurch.

“What happened with you two?” I asked.

He frowned, the white spot showing at the hump of his nose. “How much wine did you have?”

We rode in silence, the tension between us thick, until I said, “I need to know, Jim.”

“Nothing happened, all right? Nothing!” He punched on the radio, and for a time we listened to the placid voices on National Public Radio. Finally he turned the radio off. “Don’t you trust me anymore?”

When we got home, I drew a bath, then slid into the hot water, letting it work into my neck. I’d had enough wine, it was true, but I wasn’t drunk. This was a different kind of ugliness. I looked at my naked body. It was mine to do with as I pleased, mine to share with whomever I chose. And Jim’s—a body I knew almost as well with its moles and freckles, scars, patches of hair and pockets of loose flesh—Jim’s was his. As were all his experiences and memories.

I stayed in the tub until the water grew tepid and my skin pruned. Finally Jim knocked on the door to see if I was all right.

“Come on in,” I said.

He stood in the doorway.

“I’m sorry. It was the wine talking.”


“Let’s forget it ever happened.” I got out of the tub. Jim took a towel from the rack and patted my face, then wrapped the towel around my body and held me. I knew we would make love. When we did, I would think again of Charlie—not so much from the outside as from the inside, as if I were Charlie. When Jim touched me, a part of me would lean on the catwalk railing to gaze out at the view. The landscape would still be vivid—big-bellied clouds holding all that electricity; the Seven Devils mountains rising, then plunging, toward Hells Canyon. The sky would feel so close I could almost touch that first star, burning faintly in all its isolation.


Lisa Norris's book of short stories, Toy Guns: Stories, won the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize and was published by Helicon Nine Press. Other stories, essays, and poems have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Notre Dame Review and Southern Poetry Review. She presently teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech.
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