Featured Story for the week of 05/27/2015

Baby

by Gabriel Urza

In the second summer after I left home I’d made it as far north as Mendocino. When I arrived at Russian Gulf I stashed the bicycle and my two pannier bags before walking into town for coffee and a maple roll from a diner called Adelle’s, then made the weekly call to my mother and sister, let them know I’d hoped to make Corvallis in a month or two. When I returned to the beach there was an empty spot where my packs and bike had been stashed, just a couple tire tracks braided through the sand and marram grass leading back to the road.

I spent that night in the lobby of the Greyhound station leaned up against a soda machine, one eye on an old junkie lurking in a corner. In the morning I walked to the edge of town and stuck out a thumb; twenty minutes later I was in the back seat of an old Volvo, listening to the southerly lilts of the man and his teenage daughter in the front. I was tired and damp and thought I’d just take the Five straight up to my sister’s place in Corvallis, but when the man said they were heading east on twenty I took it as a sign and made up my mind I’d spend a few days in Cedarville.

My last ride, a trucker with his left arm in a sling, dropped me in front of Paige’s grocery ten hours later. Cedarville is a one-stop-sign-town just on the right side of the Warner Mountains, where we’d lived until my mother moved us to Redding when I was fifteen. I thought about using the payphone at Paige’s to call ahead, but then thought better of it. I walked the half-mile down Country Road 19 to Jackson Finley’s place.

Jackson was my brother’s age, and the three of us spent the better part of ten years causing trouble in between his place and ours, so it didn’t seem natural to call over now. Jackson’s mother had left Cedarville with a new boyfriend when Jackson turned eighteen, leaving him the house, the mortgage, and forty acres of alfalfa fields. I was just about to knock on Jackson’s front door when I heard a woman’s voice call his name from the upstairs window. I stood on the step for a moment, listening to Jackson huffing away and the sound of bed legs scratching across hardwood. I went over to the old swing in the front yard and waited, smoking a cigarette and throwing a chewed-up old doll for their German wirehair. When I finished the cigarette I knocked on the door. The drapes in the upstairs window parted just a bit and then I heard Marlene say my name to Jackson, and a couple seconds later he was opening the door, still buckling his pants.

“The hell are you doing here?” he asked, slapping a hand on his shirtless belly. He was thicker than I remembered him five years earlier, when he was a senior at Unified High with my brother Jack. In my year on the road I’d met plenty of people, but this was the first time since I’d left home that I’d seen anyone that came close to looking like family. It felt damn good just to hear someone say my name out loud. “I talked to your brother a couple months back. He said you were spending the year riding your bike across Africa or Alaska or some damn place.”

I shrugged. “Nope. Unless I took a wrong turn back in Medford. But this doesn’t look much like Africa to me.” I turned so I was facing the green square of alfalfa behind Jackson’s place. “Don’t see many black folks. Just a few Mexicans and some white trash is all.”

Jackson laughed. “That’s how we like it around here, T.J.” Behind him, lit up by the light over the kitchen table, I saw the new baby in a little plastic pen set up near the woodstove. Jackson looked around his driveway, and when he saw I didn’t have a car or even my old bike he picked up my daypack from where I’d left it over by his little girl’s swing, and I followed him into the house.

+

I was helping him dig out the stops in the irrigation ditches a couple days later when he told me about the women.

“If you’re looking to make quick money there’s something up in Lake City.” He said it like someone about to unload his lemon of a car onto some chump. “Marlene’s aunt moved into a place on Soldier Creek a few years back, lives with this old Indian woman from Bidwell. They’re — you know….”

I threw a couple of football-sized rocks from the ditch into the five-gallon bucket between us. Already I was getting sick of Jackson’s ass-backwards way of saying things, the way he’d just walk past Marlene and the two screaming babies on his way to get us a couple cans of Pabst.

“Nope,” I said. “I guess I don’t know.”

“You know…” he said, and then he stuck out his two fingers and wagged his tongue between them.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t give him the laugh he was looking for. I was starting to regret coming back to Cedarville, instead of just continuing straight on to Juliette’s house in Corvallis, where there was a spare bedroom and a fridge full of food waiting for me. Part of me was embarrassed to show up at her and Nathan’s place like I was: broke, run down, most of the things I’d owned in the world taken from me in Mendocino. But the other part of me wanted to go back to the Cedarville we’d left when I was fifteen. And the funny thing is that it was the same town. Jackson was still the same asshole that would beat on fat Indian kids at the bonfires after football games, and Marlene was still the girl that everyone in town used to say, “she could do better than that one.”

The only thing different was that there was someone else living in our old house. I walked past it on my second day back. It looked the same as we’d left it, except the front grass had died and there was and old Mexican that waved hello from the front stoop. It seemed like the only thing that’d changed in Cedarville was me. I threw another rock into the bucket and wiped the mud from my hands on my jeans.

“Can’t be worse than slopping in this ditch all day,” I told Jackson. “What’s the work?”

+

Marlene’s aunt Carol was working a spade in the fenced-in garden out front of their place when Jackson dropped me off, where Soldier Creek meets CR 17. It could have been any place off any of the country roads between Cedarville and the Indian reservation in Bidwell: a two-story ranch house with a square footprint and a wood porch wrapped all the way around. Carol looked like a lot of the women that lived in the valley — like someone who had worked outside her whole life. A lean, strong frame, like she was cut out of the mountain mahogany that grew in the canyon behind her place. Hair half-silver half-rust, pulled back in a long braid. She stood up from a row of beanpoles, brushed off the knees of her jeans with a pair of leather work gloves.

I could feel her look me over when Jackson introduced me. I knew what she was thinking: skinny kid, barely old enough to drive a car. Not much of a worker but harmless enough, which was saying something up here near Bidwell.

“You’d be working long days,” she said, feeling me out. “You can see the place’s gone to shit lately. I need someone to help bring everything up to speed. Garden, a little ditch work, maybe some painting.”

“Sure,” I said.

After Jackson left she took me inside the house, which would’ve been pretty nice if someone put a few days work into it. She left her work gloves on a windowsill in the kitchen, old white paint peeling up against the glass. A pile of dishes leaned against the side of the sink. She started to gather some of the scattered white wrappers and boxes that occupied the countertops. I picked up a few of the boxes and brought them over to the black garbage bag that leaned in a corner of the kitchen. They were medical supplies, packages labeled “for intravenous use,” or “four sterile pads.”

“She’s sick,” she said, as if I knew the woman she was talking about, and I remembered what Jackson had said about Carol and the Paiute woman from Fort Bidwell being a couple of old bulls. She told me the Paiute woman, Iris, had been smoking since she was eleven and that it caught up to her. “She got sick three years ago. We were taking her to the hospital at Bidwell until we figured out I could take better care of her at home.” That’s all Carol ever said about it; nothing more than sick. Like she’d had the flu for three years, is all.

“Up there?” she said, pointing to the set of stairs that led up out of the kitchen to the second floor. There was a faint scratching sound, like a dog’s claws on hardwood, and then it stopped. “You don’t go up there. You’ll be down here and outside. Right?”

“Sure,” I nodded. There was a quiet in the house like after a man slaps his woman the first time. I took a step away from the stairway, just to make sure she knew I understood. “Down here and outside.”

Not that it bothered me any, what these old women did out here or if they thought it was a good idea for the Paiute woman to die upstairs. I was just glad to be out of Jackson’s place, to be able to make a little money before I moved on. Carol set me up in the busted fifth-wheel behind the house, gave me an old camp bag and ran an extension cord so I could plug in the catalytic heater at night. She gave me a twenty, told me she could give me that much a day plus meals and the place to stay.

“Things just got away from me this last year,” she told me the next morning at the kitchen table. “Spending more time in here than outside, keeping things where they should be.”

In the first three days I was busy from seven in the morning until six in the afternoon, tilling out a quarter-acre of the garden for planting winter vegetables, doubling up the chicken wire fencing so it was almost ten feet tall to keep the does from stripping the vegetable vines and ripping the leaves off the apricots and apples. Iris had a bad run during the first hard freeze last winter and Carol forgot to drain the irrigation system, so that now the PVC was broken into about a thousand Dixie straws. She’d been watering the place by hand all summer.

By the time the week was out we’d got into a little rhythm: me working outside like she said, and Carol going back and forth between the upstairs and the downstairs, starting to clear the piles of clutter and old seed catalogues out of the place. Every once in a while I’d see her take a couple garbage bags worth of stuff from Iris’s room upstairs and into the back of her truck to drive to the dump. Carol carried ten times the amount of things out of the Paiute woman’s room than she ever brought in, and I wondered what she lived off up there. It didn’t seem she ate anything at all. But Carol would wave me off whenever I’d offer to help with the bags, telling me to stay outside where I belonged. She’d say it like she was joking, but there was something behind it.

Fixing fences and trenching irrigation can only keep your attention for so long, and on my third day there I tore a little hole in the bottom of one of the bags in the back of Carol’s truck to figure out what was so important in there. I pushed aside a couple of the empty medical boxes and reached in until the back of my hand brushed against something soft and familiar feeling. I closed my fingers and pulled out a half dozen light brown bird feathers. When I cut open the bag there were more feathers, and deeper in behind the garbage lay three dead hawk chicks. Their feathers were still slick, dark, their spines still slightly curved, as if they’d hatched in the last day or so.

+++

On Sunday afternoon she drove me down to Jackson’s place in Cedarville. Jackson was waiting on his little girl Maddie’s swing in the front yard when I arrived, smoking an American Spirit and grinning that way he does that gets me nervous. Carol waved hello to Jackson and headed towards the house to see Marlene and the kids. Jackson jangled the keys in front of my face and motioned over to his Ford. He had almost reached the truck when he suddenly turned around and jogged into a patch of sage and wildflowers that separated their place from one of the alfalfa fields. He leaned over into the brush to pick a handful of purple lupin and Indian paintbrush, then ran back to the house. Through the window I saw him divide up the clump of wildflowers — giving one to Marlene, one to Maddie, and one to Carol — before coming back out where I was waiting by the truck.

“Got a hall pass tonight, Hoss,” he said.

Hall pass only meant one thing in Cedarville: drinking at Golden’s. When we got there it was the usual mix: a half dozen Mexicans from the ranches, a couple Indians down from Bidwell, some local kids working the fire engine crews for CDF. It’d been almost four years since I’d been in the bar, since sophomore year when Al Johnson’s kid would unlock the back door after hours so we could have at the bottles of schnapps behind the counter.

I didn’t recognize the girl working behind the bar, a young thing that was all tits and ass, her hair walking the fence between blonde and red. She put a glass in front of Jackson and filled it up with yellow tequila before he said anything, and Jackson winked at her and said “Hey, baby,” in a way that made me think of Marlene and Maddie and the baby in that small house alone in the middle of the valley.

We stayed at Golden’s for almost three hours, Jackson having two drinks for every one of mine. I got caught up in a talk with the Fermi kid about his brother’s last DUI, and it took me fifteen minutes to realize that Jackson hadn’t come back from his last trip to the bathroom. Outside the bar I lit a smoke up and walked up and down Main until I finally found him in the lot behind the bar, sitting on the bumper of Al Johnson’s work truck with the little blonde on his lap. His pants were down in the dirt around his shoes, and out in the dark behind them was only the alfalfa fields and the busted crags of the Warners that were filled with cougars and rattlesnakes. I threw my butt into a planter box in front of Paige’s grocery and headed back to Golden’s.

+

A late summer heat set in that week, as it usually does around that time in the valley. I’d get up at five-thirty, work until it got too hot, then fish the small pools in the shade of Soldier Creek with an old setup I found in one of Carol’s outbuildings.

The heat seemed to stir something up in that house. When I sat down to dinner on Tuesday night with Carol in the kitchen I heard a long, high whimper that reminded me of the sound a coyote makes after it’s been caught up in a spring trap. Carol kept staring at her plate of macaroni elbows and vegetables, and I wondered for a while if I’d heard the sound at all or if I’d just been out among these women for too long, until the sound came again, followed by a heavy crash that sounded as if a bucket of forks had been dumped out onto the floor. We both stood from the table, looking at the ceiling.

“Stay here,” Carol said. She put her napkin on her seat and started toward the stairs. “I don’t care what you hear from up there. You stay down there.”

I heard the door to the Paiute woman’s room open and close, and then the whimpering sound again, followed by the sound of another bucket of silverware dumped out. And then I heard the voice of the Indian woman. Not just the whimper, but two words. Her voice was deep for a woman’s. She said Carol’s name, and then she said the word, “baby.”

Carol’s voice came down the stairs, none of it words, just coos and low tones, whispering under the door jamb and down to the kitchen, and the soft sound of someone for whom crying had become more common than talking. Then these noises trailed away until even the crickets seemed to stop their racket in the hot late-summer night, and there was nothing but quiet in that old house at the foot of Soldier Creek. I stared at my plate of macaroni elbows and cooked-down summer squash and wanted, for the first time in nearly a year and a half, to be home.

+

The next day Carol didn’t come down from the Paiute woman’s room until almost one in the afternoon. The heat must have been miserable up there, and when she finally did come out onto the shade of the porch a dark sweat stain spread out across the back of her shirt from under her thick braid. She handed me the keys to her truck and a handful of orange prescription bottles and gave me directions to the reservation hospital in Bidwell, instructing me to swing by the dump on the way to throw out the bags she’d loaded up the day before.

“If they say anything at the hospital, tell them that everything’s the same with Iris. Tell them I wasn’t feeling well myself today, but that I’ll be in next week.”

When I drove by the dump on the way back to Soldier Creek I couldn’t help it when I emptied the contents of the bags out. I wondered just how bored I must have been to go looking through a couple old ladies’ trash, but the hawk chicks had stirred up my curiosity. I’d thought about it for days; the only thing I could imagine was that a hawk had nested in the rafters above the Paiute woman’s window and abandoned the nest, but I couldn’t ask Carol since that’d mean admitting that I’d gone through her trash.

The first bag held the usual mix of medical supply boxes, some old TV Guides. I was just about to toss the second bag whole, until I felt a strange movement at the bottom of the bag. I cut the yellow tie at the top of the bag and spilled the contents into the pit of garbage. More boxes, and some bloodied linens, and several small, pink balls that looked like shrimp. When I dropped down off the tailgate for a better look, I saw that they were baby mice. Nine total, all dead. Above their pink noses were dark disks where their eyes had yet to open.

I noticed then that one of the clumps of linens was moving, but just barely. I put a foot on one side of the sheet and kicked with the other, unrolling the white cloth to reveal a coyote pup, not a day old, its fur matted with a thick fluid. I sat down next to it and draped the stained linen over the torso to keep it warm, but within a minute or two it had stopped breathing.

+++

After the night that I heard the Paiute woman say, “Carol, baby,” I noticed a change in our routine at Soldier Creek. I only saw Carol for an hour or two each day, when she’d come out to the yard just after noon to squint at the sun and check on my work, and then for a bit around dinner time. Each time I’d ask how Iris was doing she’d just shake her head as if the whole world were about to die on her. Whatever was happening up in that room, I wanted no part of. But it didn’t scare me either. It’s strange to admit, but I felt more at home with these women than I had in my year and a half on the road, maybe even since we left Cedarville for Arizona. I took to picking zucchini and heirloom tomatoes from the yard, thawing a package of lamb or beef from the freezer in the garage to make dinner for the two of us. When Jackson called on Friday to come pick me up I told him I didn’t have money to spend at Golden’s.

“My treat, Hoss,” he said. “I’ll buy. No shit. I busted ass this week. I need to get away from this house for a bit.”

I knew the real reason he wanted me to go so badly was Marlene wouldn’t give him the hall pass if he wasn’t with me. I was in the kitchen mixing flour and eggs and baking soda to make pancakes for our dinner, and Carol was lying out on the porch, just at the edge of the light, with her eyes closed and her head resting on her work gloves.

“Well,” I said. “Maybe it’s not just the money. Guess I just want to stay around here, get an early start tomorrow.”

“Those old bull dykes turning you, T.J?”

“Fuck you, Jackson,” I said. I added some milk to the bowl and turned on the gas under the skillet. “Next week. I promise.”

+++

The Paiute woman’s howls kept up for the next three days. On Wednesday evening Carol came down the stairs while I was half-asleep in the sofa chair watching TV, her arms full with bed sheets.

“Get a garbage bag, T.J. Quick.”

I pulled a black bag from the roll under the sink and went out to where she was standing in the yard. A terrible smell came up from those sheets as I got close.

“Just leave the bag and go back in the house.”

But for whatever reason, I held open the bag and came up to her. We were both breathing out our mouths. I used my elbow to make a triangle at the opening of the bag, and when she dumped the sheets I saw long yellow and red and coffee-colored streaks falling in over my arms, and then I pulled tight the draw string and the smell of death seemed to get closed up inside. I heard a gagging sort of sound and when I looked up from the bag I saw Carol with her hand over her mouth, and I realized she was crying. I realized then that she didn’t know what was happening any more than I did.

I’ve never been good at knowing what to say in that sort of situation, so I just put my arm around her, like you’d do with your girl at the football games when it started to get cold. We stood there like that for a long time, me with my arm around her and Carol leaning up on my shoulder. When she was done crying I took the bag over to the truck, then held out two smokes. I’d never seen her smoke before, but she took one and sat down on the black lawn. I sat down next to her and we lit our cigarettes and looked out on the couple streetlights shining up from Cedarville a few miles down the road, from just outside Golden’s Bar, and didn’t say anything at all.

+++

By the end of the third week I’d made more than enough to get myself up to Corvallis, where I could stay with my sister Juliette and her family. But I told Carol I’d keep working another few weeks, until the end of September, to finish up with the irrigation and split some wood for her winter. That weekend I kept my promise to Jackson to go out to Golden’s again, too. Carol offered to drive me down to his place midday on Saturday; she had to go to Paige’s for groceries anyway, she said.

Marlene was in the yard with Maddie and the baby when we pulled up the drive. Carol honked the horn and Maddie dropped whatever toy she had been playing with to run to Carol as she got out of the truck. Carol got down on a knee to scoop the girl up. In two weeks out on Soldier Creek I’d never seen Carol light up like that.

“They treating you OK out there, T.J.?” Marlene asked.

“Sure they are,” I said. Marlene took a step closer and lowered her voice.

“How’s Iris doing?” she asked. “I worry about the two of them out there. Carol won’t tell me a thing.”

Carol was lying on her back in the grass holding Maddie up over her head, the girl’s arms spread out like an airplane. Maddie’s laughter rose up above the hum of the dragonflies and the whirr of the grasshoppers in the brush.

“How’s she, compared to what?” I said. “I’ve been there three weeks and haven’t seen her once.” I wanted to tell her more — about what I’d found at the dump, about the cries that I heard from the upstairs and the way that Carol would wander around the house for hours as if she were looking for something she had misplaced a long time ago. Maddie squealed loudly as Carol dropped her down to her chest and then lifted her up towards the sky again, and I wanted to tell her about the bartender at Golden’s, but instead I picked a piece of gravel off the driveway and pitched it towards the empty rope swing.

“Well, she’s sure glad to have you out there,” she said, nodding to Carol.

“I’m glad to be there,” I said. As I said it, I was surprised by how true it was. I took a step back from Marlene and turned toward the front door. “Jackson in the house?”

“He’s got the quad stuck in the mud down at the irrigation pond,” she said. “He told me to send you down when you got here.”

I gave a wave toward Carol and started off down the dirt road that went through the grass hay pasture to the irrigation pond.

“T.J.,” Marlene called after me. She hiked up the baby on her hip. “Take Maddie down with you, would you? I want to talk a bit with Carol.”

Carol gave Maddie a pat on the backside to send her off in my direction. When Maddie caught up with me she was panting from running so hard. I held down my hand and she took it automatically, like she was picking an apple off a tree as she walked by.

Jackson was leaning under a juniper smoking when we got there. The quad was dropped up to its axles in slop, and the lower third of Jackson’s work jeans were covered in mud.

“Took your sweet ass time, didn’t you.”

I sat down against the tree next to him, and Maddie sat in her father’s lap. “You figure if you smoke enough cigarettes this thing’s going to get itself unstuck from the mud?”

Jackson handed me the cigarette and I took a slow drag. The heat had finally broken the day before, and a good little breeze came across the valley to where we sat. It took the two of us twenty minutes to dig out enough of the muck to be able to push the quad out. Maddie played with a couple branches over by the pond, tracing pictures that only she knew existed into the dust. When we finally had the quad back on the dirt road we each leaned against a tire and split another cigarette.

“How’s the squaw?” he said. “She ain’t dead yet?”

“No. She’s alive, I guess.” I kicked at the dirt, watched Maddie over by the pond. “I’ve been there almost three weeks and haven’t seen her once.”

Jackson shook his head. “Can’t believe you made it three weeks with those two. Figured you’d of been gone a long time ago.”

“Pay’s OK,” I said.

“Get to see any of this yet?” he said, and he made the gesture again with his tongue between his fingers.

It was the combination of things that set me off. Being back in Cedarville, picturing him on the tailgate of Al’s truck with the bartender on his lap. The little bit of cool to the wind that said fall would be here soon enough, and the three nights of the awful sounds coming from Iris’s room, and the way that Marlene had hiked the new baby up on her hip when we’d pulled into the driveway. All of these, I guess. He hadn’t even started laughing when I landed my fist on the side of his head.

I had my hand cocked back again, aiming for a place about two inches behind his cheekbone, when Jackson jumped on top of me. He had three years and thirty pounds on me, and it didn’t take him twenty seconds to finish kicking my ass. When he stopped I was on my back in the mud, and Maddie was holding the leg of her father’s jeans and crying.

“The fuck is wrong with you, T.J.?” he yelled down at me. “The fuck is wrong with you?”

I got myself off the ground, spit towards the quad. I pointed down at Maddie. “Your daddy’s an asshole, sweetheart.”

I immediately wished that I hadn’t said it. Maddie slowed down her crying and stared at me. She was afraid of me. Jackson made a move like he was going to kick my ass again, but I set off away from him, across the middle of the field of tall grass hay. I walked away from the house, back towards Cedarville.

+

Carol picked me up on the highway heading towards her place about a half hour later.

“The hell was that about?” she said. But it wasn’t something I felt like discussing. Eventually, she let up. Maybe she knew what the fight had been about, in a way, or maybe she just knew to leave someone alone once they’d had their ass kicked. She reached over my lap and took a new pack of cigarettes out of the glove compartment, then handed them over to me. She pushed in the cigarette lighter on the old truck.

“She’ll die this week, I think,” she said.

I didn’t say anything. I’d still never met the Paiute woman, but this isn’t why I didn’t say anything. I wanted to ask about the animals that came from the Paiute woman’s room, to demand to see Iris, to talk to her. I had been at the house for nearly three weeks now. I had held Carol on the lawn that night with the bag that smelled like death. Part of me thought it was owed to me. But I knew what the answers would be. I knew that Carol didn’t have an explanation for the animals any more than she had an explanation for what would happen to Iris after she died, or what had happened to her before she was born. And I knew that she would not let me see the Paiute woman, that until her death Iris would see only Carol and an endless litter of stillborn animals. The lighter snapped out and I held the glowing element to my cigarette, then passed it to Carol.

“Her family’s all up in Bidwell, but they won’t have anything to do with her,” she said, nodding her head back towards Jackson’s place. “Some of the Indians hate dykes more than the rednecks in Cedarville do, if you can believe that.”

I found myself thinking of the three of us as some sort of backwards family, alone in that house out on Soldier Creek halfway between Cedarville and Bidwell. “It’s strange, isn’t it?” I said.

“What’s that?”

The truck carried off the asphalt, onto the washboard gravel of CR 10, putting the entirety of the Nevada desert behind us, the Sheldon Range, and beyond that the Smoke Creek Desert. I tried to put it into words, but it was impossible to explain. “Even if he’s a son of a bitch, Jackson was about the last friend I had in Cedarville.” I started. “There’s only this handful of us up here, in Bidwell or in Cedarville. All this land, and it feels like the loneliest place on earth. You’d think we’d try to fight against it, but we don’t.”

She laughed — a sudden, genuine laugh — and threw her cigarette out the window onto the gravel road. When we got back to the house she thawed out a couple cuts of lamb shoulder and made mashed potatoes and talked about the next day’s work like nothing ever happened.

+

I woke up about four that morning, when it was still well dark out. I sat on the front step of the fifth wheel and just watched the house for a bit. The light in Iris’s room was on behind the lowered blind. The wind had died at sunset, and now there was a perfect stillness that was only broken by Iris’s quiet whimpers and Carol’s low coos. I heard the gargle of a newborn badger, the slithers of a hatch of rattlesnakes, the grunts of a black bear cub, all winding their way down from the Paiute woman’s room. When the sun started to come up from over the desert mountains on the east side of the valley I went back into the trailer. I rolled the sleeping bag up and tied it with the old shoelace that had been around it when Carol gave it to me those few weeks before that now seemed a hundred years off. I started to write a note, but all I got out was “Dear Iris and Carol,” before I folded up the paper and put it back in my pack. I took my bag from off the bed in the fifth wheel and closed the door behind me, then walked the quarter mile down to the highway and waited for a ride. “They’ll be fine,” I told myself. The irrigation was practically finished, and if Carol was right the Paiute woman would be dead within a few days. Carol would have all the time in the world to work on the place.

The first car came a few minutes later, an old couple driving an expensive-looking sedan, and I’ll bet their speedometer didn’t even twitch when they passed me. I wondered what they saw out their window as they passed. Was this a local boy, a child of the Warner Mountains, a newborn coyote pup? Or did they see an outsider, a drifter, a new species entirely that was passing through the valley? I sat down on my pack at the side of the road. I imagined the warmth of my sister’s home nestled in the hills in Corvallis, the way she would be making mashed parsnips or cutting strawberries in the sink, and how my two nieces would pull me by the hand into the backyard to pick red currants off the brambles along the fence, and how these things might take the place of the house on Soldier Creek and the women that lived there. I rubbed my hands over the knees of my jeans to shake off the morning cold, and waited for the next car to take me north.

+++

Gabriel Urza received his MFA from the Ohio State University. His family is from the Basque region of Spain where he lived for several years. He is a grant recipient from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and his short fiction and essays have been published in Riverteeth, Hobart, Erlea, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, Slate and other publications. He also has a degree in law from the University of Notre Dame and has spent several years as a public defender in Reno, Nevada.