Since June, I’ve been working a sawmill job forty miles south of the place I’m living. There’s nothing to rent out there, even the single-wides eaten up by folks who’ve been in the mountains twenty years or more. But the mill pays better than waitressing, or bagging groceries at the A&B. It’s a temporary thing, the way I see it. A means of getting out.
It’s an hour to the sawmill and another hour back. I drive the state highway, gone quiet and haunted since they cut the interstate through. Winter has sunk down the sky, so both ways it’s dark. I drive with my high beams on. There’s only a broken tape deck in the pickup, so I listen to the radio. Half of what I catch out there is static. It swells whenever the pickup takes those mountain turns, quiet then loud then quiet again, like the sea.
I know I’m not sleeping enough, but I’ve got tricks to keep myself awake. I drum the steering wheel with the heels of my palms, and drive with the windows cranked down, even in the snow.
I’d been in Oregon before. One of those building-block seaside towns they put on postcards. I lived with Theresa. She had a bad leg from a car accident and a spiderweb tattoo on her left shoulder. She made a living painting ocean scenes: purple starfish, striped umbrellas stuck in the sand. “Tourists love this kitschy shit,” she said. She never signed her name.
She painted me too. I didn’t like laying naked in front of her, not because I was ashamed, but because I was afraid she’d see something in her careful inventory of my body, all its hollows and folds, something that would turn me inside out.
We were working our way through the classic movies, renting them from a holdover brick-and-mortar place that stayed open by selling weed out the back. We drank supermarket wine like college girls. At night, we fucked with the windows open.
“You ever think about kids?” I asked her once. She was at the sink, peeling the skin from a clove of garlic. I’d left the back door propped open. You could see the pollen hanging in the air, could see every tiny hair on her arms in the soft light.
“Sure,” she said. She didn’t look up. “Once. Guess I figure it would’ve happened if it was supposed to.”
And I didn’t tell her about the ache in me that lived there like a growing thing; didn’t tell her that it throbbed every time I saw some wide-eyed kid clutching an ice cream cone on the boardwalk, or running chubby-legged and laughing into the surf. Because it felt silly, I guess. A small and predictable thing to want.
Because it felt silly, I guess. A small and predictable thing to want.
There’s a river that runs alongside the old highway. I don’t know its name. But there’s a whispering in it, a cold urgency. If I look close enough, I can see the white parts of it glinting through the trees.
If I save up enough money, I’ve been thinking, I could get out of here by the time next winter comes around. I could go south, some big-sky desert place. Drink gas-station beer on my porch, get a dog. A dog so big that men won’t talk to me anymore, won’t even try.
It happens when I’m driving back from a shift run three hours too late, deep night, Hank Williams on the radio. Frost tips the high grass. The high beams make ghosts of the road signs. I drum the steering wheel, counting the mile markers until bed.
When my left leg starts cramping up, I pull onto the shoulder. I shut off the pickup and the engine ticks down into silence. There are no other cars on the road. Nothing but a shriveled-up moon hanging over the pines.
I shove my hands in my pockets and walk fast through the grass. I crouch low and stretch, forcing the pain out. Already the little hairs around my ears are curling, turned white from the cold.
And it takes me a minute, there at the roadside, to hear it. A high, far-off sound coming from the hidden river. A fox, I think at first, but it isn’t. Then all at once, I know.
A boy. It’s a little boy, laughing.
And even though I can’t see him, can barely hear him over the sound of the river, I know just how I’ll find him. Sitting by the shore, his face red from the cold. I’ll wrap him up in my jacket, drive him someplace where the heat works. We’ll stop at the gas station outside Orofino and drink cups of hot chocolate fresh from the machine. I’ll share my heat until he’s warm.
And even though I can’t see him, can barely hear him over the sound of the river, I know just how I’ll find him.
So I get up from the ground and I start walking. Slow at first. Then I stretch out my arms and I run.
Once, in Oregon, I told Theresa about that ache in me. I said, “I’m not too old yet, you know,” and she said, “Let’s talk in the morning.” But in the morning she hollowed out two papayas and made coffee, and we sat at the table and talked about painting the kitchen white.
The river whispers through the trees. I say, “Are you there?” and at first there’s only an owl call, soft and low. Then the boy says, “Come on,” and I step forward and think, I will. I will come.
Olivia Haberman was born in northern Idaho and recently completed her MFA at the University of Virginia, where she served as the editor-in-chief of Meridian. She now lives in Brooklyn, and is a Coney Island enthusiast.