The Stone Hut
Jody first saw him in the road staring hard at the ground. She saw the same boy later with a boxy camera on a strap around his neck. He was lugging a stepladder to the same spot.
She went out. “Can I help?”
“Don’t stand in my light,” is all the boy said.
He climbed the ladder and leaned across its top to focus his camera on lace-like cracks in a puddle’s pane of ice. Jody’s shadow would have marred his shot. From her place at the side of the road, she studied the boy, who looked about her age, eighteen. She saw goose bumps on his hairless arms. His butt, she guessed, would be downy.
Jody was a visitor for Christmas week at her great aunt’s home in Alaska. Her great aunt was Missy Trane, whom Jody thought of, sarcastically, as The Famous Author. Until she saw the photographer boy the only thing Jody liked about her visit was her flight from the Seattle airport—Jody’s first flight ever—and the landing on a speck of island, then the transfer by seaplane to a splashdown on the water in front of the city of Boon.
In the overheated seaplane terminal, while she’d waited for her luggage, Jody had watched her great aunt flash her plaid cape and heard her speak in a hearty voice to people busy with their luggage or examining their tickets for details about their flights. It was during her wait for luggage in the steamy, crowded terminal that Jody had begun to think of her aunt as The Famous Author.
Christmas morning, at church, Missy had attracted more attention than the baby Jesus, but at home she had napped, and her husband, Thad, napped with her. His loyalty—plus a kind of dogged goodness that made him chop wood and run errands without complaint—had brought about a revolution in Jody’s teenage thinking. She could no longer mentally call her aunt The Famous Author. In fact, she was ashamed she had ever been that sarcastic.
It was while the older people were napping that the boy with his box camera had photographed the puddle. When Thad got up to stoke the fire, Jody asked him if he had a neighbor who took pictures of puddles. Missy had married late in life, and her husband had the same bulk and shagginess as a bear. To many of Missy’s remarks he grunted. His grunts were not incomprehensible, but Missy—for Jody’s benefit—elaborated on them, fleshing out a grunt into a family history or whatever else she thought the noise implied.
“Slender build? Brown hair?” Thad forced another log into the woodstove’s hungry maw.
“He didn’t even wear a jacket.”
“Loren.” Thad spoke as if the fact of forgoing a jacket proved who the boy was.
“He went somewhere and came back with a step-ladder.”
Thad straightened up, satisfied with the fire’s performance. “I used to know a joke about a step-ladder,” he said. He frowned in concentration, summoning his joke.
Jody let a polite moment pass but when Thad’s strained look remained unchanged she asked where Loren lived. Thad blinked away his concentration. He described the route to Loren’s house. He said to go downhill and follow the road along the beach till it turned uphill again. “There’s where his house is; right at the corner. It’s going to be a stone house when it’s done.”
When Missy got up and began dinner Jody asked if she could help. She did not expect a simple answer, and she was not surprised when the answer she got included the lengthy singing of what Missy said was a Scottish Christmas carol.
The upshot of the answer, though, was no, Missy did not need help in the kitchen.
Jody said she’d take a walk.
“Bundle up,” her great aunt cheerfully told her, plunging her hand into a capon’s gutted belly and pulling out a bloody bag of organs.
On her way down the hill Jody would have to pass a house with a mean dog. She picked up two rocks. The dog had chased her into retreat the only other time she’d tried to take a walk. He was a black mongrel with a sharp snout and what looked like dirty, gray slippers on his front feet. He guarded a territory that stretched up and down hill from the unfinished porch of his owner’s house, which was separated from Missy’s by a wooded lot. Armed with rocks Jody hoped she could get past the beast if she walked as far from his porch as the road would let her.
Her precautions turned out to be not necessary. The animal gave her a Christmas pass. He lay on the porch like something melted, only lifting his head to let her know she had been observed. After a slow look, he rested his head back on his paws, and Jody, who had noticed all this cautiously, out of the corner of her eye, passed downhill with a lighter heart. The dog’s manners struck her as a good omen. Her imagination fed on scenes in which she and Loren became friends.
She found his house easily enough. All she had to do was follow the dirt road around the corner at the bottom of the hill. The road paralleled the rocky beach and where it turned up again, on a lot so recently cleared it still bore a burden of stumps, sat a half-finished house. Its upper story was wrapped in black tarpaper, the paper peeled back at one high corner to show the shiplap siding underneath. Around the lower story someone had begun a wall of muddy-looking stone. Jody tried to imagine how the finished house would look. Much like a fortress, she thought. She was picturing a fortress in her mind when the front door opened and a pot-bellied man wearing suspenders waved to her to step his way.
She stood at the edge of his yard and heard him yell, “Loren isn’t here. He’s at the cabin.”
It struck Jody as natural that the pot-bellied man should know what interest she had in his house. She nodded as if he had given her the information she had come to get. She would have turned to go but the man in the doorway yelled, “Come see what he’s done.”
She still held her rocks. They were the right size for hiding, one in each hand. She threaded her way to the stairs and climbed. The man, Loren’s father she guessed, stepped aside so she could look past him into an unfinished room with studs that awaited sheathing. Hanging all over the studs were paintings, none of them framed, some on canvas and some on boards. The room’s dim light made it hard to see what the subjects were. The pot-bellied man must have realized that. He retreated inside and came back with one of the pictures. He displayed it for Jody to enjoy. Whoever had painted it, probably Loren, had captured the beach when the tide was low and the khaki-colored, curly kelp glistened in a silver light. The picture looked severely honest, as if the artist had set his mind to avoid any compromise with conventional ideas of what was beautiful.
“He’s done a lot of them,” the man in suspenders said. “Think they’re worth anything?”
“How would I know,” Jody told him.
Her rude answer made him turn the picture toward himself so he could form his own opinion.
While he studied it, Jody asked, “What cabin?”
The potbellied man pointed to an island about a mile distant across a stretch of choppy waves. In the fading light, the water was already turning black. Evergreens covered the island’s modest hills. Nothing like a cabin showed. Jody, as if she’d received the information she had come to get, turned and made her way back down the steps.
The door closed behind her.
She halted by the beach and spent a moment studying the opposite shore. She thought she saw a curl of white smoke, and a picture grew in her imagination of the boy alone on Christmas day. The Christmas part would have been sentimental if she’d allowed a sentimental feeling to take hold. Her feeling was not sentimental. It was different than that, although she could not say exactly what it was.
She climbed the hill again, hoping the mean dog would attack so she could hit it with her rocks, but the animal showed no interest. He lay in his holiday stupor and didn’t even lift his head to challenge Jody’s passing.
Jody didn’t think she would take another walk down the hill but on the day before she left she felt called by the brisk Narrows. Thad had told her how to manage the mean dog. He balled up a slice of bread, dipped it in capon gravy and gave it to her. When the dog came charging, Jody tossed the soaked bread at his head. It worked exactly as Thad said. The dog forgot his duty to attack. He gobbled up the bread and trotted wearily back to his post on the porch. For Jody, it was like paying a toll.
The boy was on the beach, painting. He didn’t turn to see who was coming when Jody crunched across the curly kelp to reach him. After a moment of watching, she said, “Won’t your paints freeze?” The boy wouldn’t turn to see who had spoken. His thin hair, the color of beer, followed the curve of his skull, starting from a whorl on the left-rear of his crown and seeming to grow in circles all around his head. He may have been Jody’s age but from the back he looked like a little boy’s. She noticed he wore knit gloves that covered only the palms of his hands. His naked fingers were free to paint. His picture was of the bow of a skiff pulled up on the rocks. After a long silence Judy said, “That’s nice.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Loren spoke without glancing around.
She left at once, exultant, as if he had turned and passionately kissed her and forced her down to the wet kelp to grope off her confining clothes.
She knew next day, when she was telling Thad and her great-aunt goodbye in the waiting room of the seaplane terminal, that she’d be back. She had in mind the hairless nape of Loren’s slender neck.
* * *
Jody’s father cut hair at a barber shop in downtown Anacortes. Her mother was the secretary to the superintendent of schools. On a shelf behind the TV in their living room, her parents kept an autographed copy of the book that had made Missy famous. Jody’s mother had spent a month reading her the story when she was in fourth grade. After she’d been home a couple days, Jody leaned over the TV and pulled it out to read again, but she quickly lost interest.
When time came for the grandest dance of the school year, the dance called the Senior Prom, she told her parents she wasn’t going. From her room, she heard her mother and father talking below. She turned off her radio to listen. Her mother said, “I can’t believe she won’t go. Everybody’s going.” To that, in his drawling voice, her father said, “Don’t make it a big deal.”
She knew after that they wouldn’t fight her about spending the summer in Boon, although, to justify the trip, she told them she could make a lot of money in a cannery.
Thad met her at the terminal. He explained that Missy couldn’t be there because she’d twisted an ankle. Jody volunteered to be the one who helped at home. “Cooking and cleaning up and all that.” Secretly, she was glad about her great aunt’s accident. She hadn’t really wanted to find work gutting fish. Nor had she known how she’d manage the daily trip to town.
“Invalid’s house. Probably smells like a toilet,” Missy shouted from the living room when she heard Jody come through the back door. Jody couldn’t see her aunt until she’d set her suitcase down and walked out of the kitchen. Missy sat with her injured leg resting on a hassock. A beige-colored bandage, held tight by a safety pin, wrapped most of her foot. Above its soft folds her toes showed like mushrooms. She had wrapped a white towel around head like a turban. “I let my husband wash my hair,” she said. “I’ll never do that again. You’re the one who’s going to have to brush it.”
She wore a nightgown and a man’s wool bathrobe. “Come kiss me first. Then tell Thad I want my hairbrush. My whole head itches. I’m going to shave off my hair.”
“It doesn’t smell like a toilet. Not too much, anyway,” Jody told her.
Missy laughed. “What does it smell like?”
“Liniment.” Jody touched her lips to her aunt’s wrinkled cheek.
“Exactly. Liniment. Exactly.”
The bathrobe Missy had wrapped around herself was woven with wilderness scenes. Deer stood sentinel, and bears sat to scratch their backs against the trunks of trees. Geese flew in perfect V formations over lakes as round as plates. Missy tugged at the bathrobe’s collar. “This itches.”
Thad had brought her hairbrush and a hand-mirror with a lacquered back, then he’d retreated. Jody could hear the steady thumping of an axe outside. A painted peony decorated the hand-mirror’s black back. Missy contemplated it while Jody brushed her hair. She said she couldn’t stand to look at her old face; it had gotten too ugly.
“Hold still,” Jody told her. Her aunt’s thin hair was bobbed to a Dutch-boy length. There was almost no point in brushing it, but Jody understood her aunt wanted the intimacy.
“If my foot was okay we could take a walk down to the beach.” Missy reached up to guide Jody’s hand and soften the pull of the brush. If she meant to imply something by what she’d said she was skillful at masking what it might be.
“I’ll go later,” Jody said. She was making an admission about the real reason she had come. Her aunt nodded understanding. She spent a moment lost in thought, then she said, “Dennison lost his dog. I’ll bet somebody poisoned it. The neighbors hated it.”
“There aren’t too many neighbors,” Jody said.
“I see your artist going by.”
Jody let the pointed sentence slide.
“He carries lots of junk downhill.”
Jody kept her concentration on the rhythm of the brush.
Her aunt spoke in a sour tone. “He’s probably the one who poisoned that damned dog.”
“Probably,” Jody said.
Thad, smelling of wood, brought Missy a cup of tea but it cooled on her side table because in the midst of telling a story about breaking a high heel on one of San Francisco’s hills she fell asleep. Her sleep was devoid of dignity. She was propped up on pillows and when she drifted off her head lolled to one side and her mouth fell open.
Thad came back for the cold tea. He rested his big hand atop the cup to keep it from rattling. The look he gave Jody thanked her. His gratitude brought guilt because she hadn’t been thinking of the kindness she’d done her great aunt. She had been annoyed by Missy’s endless talk. With her eyes, she followed Thad out of the room, and when she turned back to the window she saw Loren, trudging through the rain with a gallon jar underneath one arm. All his concentration was on his thoughts, and whatever they were made him frown.
Jody slipped out the front door and waded through the muddy yard. “I can help you steal stuff,” she said. Her reward was a smile, the first she’d ever won from him. She had thought, during her flight north, about something daring she might say. She’d gambled on saying steal. A football player she’d let grope her in Anacortes would have told her she was crazy if she’d said such a wild thing to him.
In the silvery part of the night, before darkness had established its complete command, Loren came boldly to the front door. Thad was helping Missy limp to bed and Jody answered. Loren tossed his head just enough to challenge her to do what she had said. She whispered “Wait,” then she turned to her elderly hosts, “Loren needs help. I’ll be right back.”
Missy broke her litany of moans to say something indistinct. Jody stepped out into the cool night. Clouds capped the quiet hillside and a diffused light lent a sheen to the dirt road’s many puddles. Jody followed Loren downhill and turned with him into the Dennisons’, where the mean dog would have charged them if he hadn’t been poisoned. A rough shed with an open front awaited them. Inside the shed, along with hand-saws and a peavey and the kind of chains that people put on tires when it snows, were several sheets of plywood. Each sheet was four-feet wide and eight-feet long. Jody knew their size and weight because she’d helped her father carry plywood to their house when he’d built their recreation room. A grown man might have the strength to carry one all by himself, but she could not have done it. Two were needed, and Loren, when he tilted the outermost sheet away from its fellows, nodded at her to skirt around him and pick up the other end.
Jody gripped the board’s rough edge. Together, they lifted, but even with two they staggered. And the driveway skirted so close to the house Jody had to plan which way she’d run if she heard Dennison shout. On the road, with the house behind her, she wanted Loren to gallop, but at the other end of the heavy sheet Loren plodded at a workman’s steady pace, as if it was his job to steal plywood and he’d been doing it so long he didn’t hurry. When he came to the beach he rested the sheet on a rock. For Jody’s sake, he pointed to his skiff, floating on the glassy surface about two dozen yards off shore. “It won’t fit.” Jody guessed he meant to load the plywood aboard. Loren ignored her. He left her holding up the board while he found his tie-up line and pulled his skiff in close.
Jody had to wade into cold water to hold the skiff while Loren wrapped a line around the plywood. He dragged the board to where the tide lapped the shore. He floated it and handed Jody its line. At his direction she took her seat on a plank bench in the small skiff’s stern.
Loren rowed standing up, his eyes on his cabin destination, a point too far off in the dark for Jody to see. She trained her eyes on the towed plywood and never spoke except to say, “Oh,” one time at the sparkle of some phosphorescence their passage stirred in their black wake.
The bump of the boat on the shore surprised her. She hadn’t known they were close. She had been watching the water for more of the star-like sparkle. Loren leaped out with the tie-up line. He vanished into the dark screen of trees. The line flopped while he tied it, and then he reappeared out of the darkness to tow the plywood in. Jody helped him untie it and together they carried it over the slippery rocks to a lip of dirt and roots at the high-tide mark. “Here,” he said, stopping when they’d climbed the lip and gone about six steps. Jody saw an unfinished hut gleaming dully in the dark. The hut, with a canvas roof, looked as tiny as a fairy-tale house. Part of it was stone, like Loren’s father’s house, Like that house, it was unfinished.
Loren dragged the plywood further in. Jody followed through the hut’s opening. It didn’t have a door. Beyond the threshold, the canvas roof cast a deeper shadow. Jody had stepped under its shelter prepared to be charmed, but she bumped her knee on an unseen obstacle, and she smelled turpentine.
He painted here. He was building a studio. He came here with sketches after he’d tramped the beach. Morning sun would flood the place. “I want to see this in the light,” Jody said. Loren brushed against her. He would have pushed his way outside but she grabbed his arm. “Stay,” she said. His bones were as thin as a boy’s. He stopped because she made him stop but not with any thought that Jody could discern about what stopping in the dark might mean. His passivity was compliance and resistance both. He let her squeeze his arm. After that, he shook her loose and dodged outside.
When Jody caught up with him he was coiling the tie-up line as he wound his way to the skiff. He nodded her to take her seat again, he rowed back without speaking.
Back in Missy’s house, Jody slipped her wet shoes under the wood stove. She would thump them in the morning to take the stiffness out. Thad slept on the couch because he didn’t want his turning in the night to add to Missy’s pain. Jody took care to be quiet but while she was stooped at the side of the stove she heard him say, “I can build the fire up.”
Jody had returned from Loren’s island keen for more adventure. She had stolen a sheet of plywood, and the excitement of what she’d done made her impatient. Sleepy Thad’s politeness struck her as too ordinary. “Loren’s got a cabin,” she told him. “We took a sheet of plywood there.” She waited to hear if he’d asked where they’d gotten the plywood. She was prepared to lie. That also took daring. But Thad didn’t show any curiosity. He rubbed his tousled hair. “Loren doesn’t like me,” Jody said.
“He’ll come to his senses,” Thad told her.
* * *
Loren tapped on the door next morning while Thad was helping Missy wash. Jody had to slip through the warm living room with her eyes averted. Her great aunt stood half naked by the woodstove, her breasts hung down in the shape of grenades.
Jody cracked the door and slipped out to the sun. She was laughing when she pulled it shut behind her. Loren’s mask of distance changed. He showed wonder about what was making her laugh. “I’ll be ready in a minute, Loren. Wait here.”
Thad had draped a white towel over Missy’s shoulders. Missy clutched it together for modesty’s sake. Her eyes followed Jody’s rush back through the living room. She said nothing, but when Jody returned, now wearing her jacket, Missy said, “You haven’t eaten yet.”
Jody hesitated at the door.
“There’s cinnamon rolls,” Thad said.
The kindness of his words made Jody turn and tread back to the kitchen. She separated two sticky rolls from their mates. She put them in a paper bag along with two bananas.
Loren had filled his red skiff with treasures. One of them was the gallon jar. Its label said Heinz Pickles. It sat atop a folded blanket and was partly filled with nails. Jody rested it on her lap after she had taken her seat again on the stern’s bench. While Loren rowed in his standing up style she kept her eyes on a raspberry-colored patch on his right ankle. He wore no socks and his ankle patch looked like a lamb’s face. She wished she had a similar mark, and that seeing it would make Loren think about her leg. She touched the folded blanket as if it were a talisman.
With one last lunge on the oars Loren propelled the skiff toward shore. He braced himself for the bump, and then leaped out with the tie-up line. In the confined space of his small cabin, Jody looked through his canvases, tilting them out from the wall for study. Courtesy required her to speak. She had complimented Loren on a picture once. She wasn’t going to make that mistake again. “You ought to paint people,” she said when she had looked at every canvas.
Loren, who’d been arranging the supplies he’d brought, answered with a noise of dismissal. He stepped through the low door and strode to a tidal pool, where he hunkered down to pluck up a crab the size of a quarter. The ill-tempered creature scuttled for the edge of his palm. He poked it back to the center.
Jody touched one of the crab’s pointed claws. “This is his toe,” she said. “On his toes he dances on the sand,” she said.
Loren put the little animal down and it hurried out of sight beneath a rock.
Back at the cabin, they shared the cinnamon rolls, then Loren, his hands sticky, led the way to wash at a small creek behind the hut. He knelt at the water’s edge and scrubbed. Jody had pulled off her shoes. She waded so close she touched his fingers with her foot. He moved his hand, but she took a step that put her close again. “These are my toes for dancing in sand.”
He looked up with understanding. She helped him rise and at her prodding he raised his arms so she could pull his shirt off.
Loren’s second toes, Jody was to learn, were longer than his big toes. His belly hair was light enough to sway at Jody’s breath. He had freckles near the nipple on the left side of his chest and red spots on his ass, one at four and one at 10 o’clock.
All these were things Jody learned all this in the next three weeks. She also learned she could make Loren laugh by tickling him. He was so ticklish she only had to shape her fingers for attack and he’d skitter away, coltish and giggling. But he never skittered very far. He let himself be caught, submitting to Jody’s playful aggression. Why he wasn’t aggressive himself puzzled Jody, and she was haunted by the thought—at nighttime when such thoughts come—that there was something wrong with her.
On the first morning of August a man in a 14-foot skiff followed Jody and Loren to the island. The stranger had slowed his outboard to perfectly pace Loren’s rowing. At the sound of a motor following him, Loren turned to stare. He frowned but turned forward again to resume his stoic work standing at the oars. The other boat veered off and its drone died away. Jody convinced herself the man had only followed them to satisfy his curiosity about the odd way Loren rowed.
She and Loren continued to the shore and she was carrying a bag of rags up from the beach when the engine noise came again. She stopped and watched the stranger cut his engine to glide his boat to a landing. He hopped out with his tie-up line. When he’d cinched the line around a driftwood limb, he swept off his hat. The sun broke through his thin, yellow hair and struck highlights on his scalp. “Name’s Sullivan. You building here?” He waved his hat, a fedora, in the direction of Loren’s hut.
“No.” Loren stood on the lip of dirt that defined the border between his hut and the beach.
Sullivan smiled at Jody but his expression was pre-occupied, as if he were thinking of what to say next. “If you build you need a permit from the Forest Service. This is all Tongass Forest. The Forest Service has to say okay.”
“You Forest Service?” Loren asked.
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
“As a matter of fact?” Jody said. Her words made fun of what she’d heard, and Sullivan played with her mockery. “As a matter of fact, do you mind if I look around?” he said. The look he fired Jody’s way let her know he liked the fact she had spoken in a teasing way to him.
The man’s pale skin looked starved for sun. His whiskers were heavy. He probably shaved twice a day. Jody wondered how old he was and guessed, though he was starting to go bald, he was not much more than thirty.
Loren stepped aside to show he would not object to Sullivan looking around. The visitor put his hat back on and smoothed its brim between pinched fingers, giving it the slant he liked. He finished that grooming without self-consciousness and shot Jody a grin that caught her unprepared. It was as if to let her know he had exaggerated his preening to make it a joke between them.
Jody didn’t try to meet his eyes again until she stood next to Loren in front of the hut. She watched Sullivan stop a half a dozen yards away and take in the unfinished structure behind her. In a thoughtful voice, sounding as if he were offering advice and not issuing an order, Sullivan said, “I wouldn’t do more work on this until you’ve got a permit.” He flashed his agreeable smile. He’s probably thirty-four, Jody thought. He turned back to the hut. “Mind if I look inside? Is it private? You don’t have to say yes. You can tell me I’m too nosy.”
Loren, with a sour look, shrugged.
Before he stooped through the door Sullivan took off his hat again and ran his hand through his hair. “I see,” he said when he stood up straight beneath the roof, now partly canvas and partly plyboard. “It’s like a studio.”
Jody joined the visitor inside. Loren stayed out of sight beneath the trees but made his presence known by scuffing at pebbles.
Sullivan pointed at the stack of paintings. “You mind if I look?”
“They’re his.” Jody nodded toward Loren.
Sullivan hunkered down to give each painting an examination, not saying anything but nodding approval now and then. “They’re all nature, aren’t they,” he said midway through. “People like nature. You sell these?” He looked up, his face open and friendly, and sought out Loren, who stood slouched against the doorway. Loren turned away without speaking. His reaction cued Sullivan to stand and dust his hands off. “This isn’t an official visit. It’s Saturday so I’m not even officially working. I poke around when it’s nice. This country is really beautiful, isn’t it. I mean when the sun comes out.” He spoke with a smile he directed at Jody. She followed him when he ducked outside, and she stood tongue-tied while he told Loren, once again, about the permit.
* * *
Missy, when she learned over dinner about the visit from the Forest Service man, said it was intimidation. “They have their regulations, all their do’s and don’ts. They come with their book of rules and tear your cabin down. Preserve the forest’s sanctity and everything like that.”
Because of her ankle Missy had to eat sitting sideways, her foot on a stack of cushions. Jody saw her mostly in profile, working her jaw in a furious way at whatever required chewing. Missy swallowed and said she knew the Forest Service superintendent and she’d call him up. “You have to talk to them person to person. If he knows you, he’ll listen. I can nip that Mr. Sullivan right in his monkey-business bud.”
She had Thad help her to the phone. He gave his gentle aid the way he always did, but he protested that the call would do no good. “The phone,” Missy commanded, leaning on her husband with her napkin still squeezed in her hand.
Jody agreed with Thad. She’d said before that Sullivan had not come on an official visit. But when she said they should wait, Missy snapped, “They could take it in their mind to come with kerosene. They do that when they’re mad at you. They burn a place right down.”
Thad had eased her into the chair beside the phone. He bent over a magazine rack looking for Boon’s slim telephone book.
“His first name is Stuart. What’s his last name?” Missy drummed her fingers on the dusty phone table, summoning to mind the superintendent’s name. “His wife had some ceramics in the art show, Thad. Remember?”
“What art show was that?”
“How many art shows are there?”
“Well, there you are,” Thad said in his conciliatory way.
Jody stirred the fire and put another log on. She was learning the art of keeping a woodstove crackling. She would do the dishes once she had listened to Missy make her call. She liked her moments in the kitchen with suds up to her elbows and the older pair who hosted her settled down around the stove.
“The name will come to me.” Missy slapped the phone book Thad had handed her as if she thought she could beat the slender volume into giving up the name she couldn’t remember. “He’s a fussy little man. He keeps you waiting.” Concentration made her frown. “Ellison? Is his name Ellison? Is it Elliot?” She opened the phone book and whipped through its pages. Around the middle she gave up. “I’ll sleep on it, and in the morning it will come to me. It always works that way. It’s waiting to speak but you’re not ready to hear.”
Loren missed two days of visits, and he shrugged off Jody’s questions when they walked down to his boat. At the hut a surprise awaited them. A box with six peaches in it sat on Loren’s paint-splattered work table. Jody found a note pressed between the two middle peaches. “I’m working on that permit.” The note was signed, “Frank Sullivan.”
“What does that mean, Loren? Did you ask for a permit.” She had read the note aloud but Loren took it out of her hand to silently read it himself.
The box exactly fit the peaches. The one Jody lifted out was heavy with ripeness, and when she bit into it a freshet of sweet juice soaked her chin. She was wiping the drip off with the back of her hand when she handed a peach to Loren. “He should have told you he was bringing these,” she said. “They could have rotted.”
Loren accepted the peach. He stepped outside. A spruce tree cleared of its lower branches stood to the right of the hut. Loren cocked his arm and threw. His aim was perfect. The peach splattered on the trunk, with some pulp dripping down like gore. “This is shit,” he said. “It takes me from my work.”
He had never called what he did work before. He had never even spoken about it. Jody didn’t know if he meant the peaches were shit, or if it was the permitting process he meant. He strode away without saying more. Maybe he meant the shit was her. His violence had been startling.
Two days passed when Jody didn’t hear from Loren. She spent time reading Pilgrim’s Progress to Missy, who frequently dozed. Those interludes let Jody’s thoughts wander, and they wandered mostly to Loren. She wondered if she talked too much. He was a silent person. He might like silence in others. She made a vow to talk less, but then she overthrew that vow. Why should she change to suit him? She wondered if she should ask him point-blank if he thought she talked too much. But maybe he didn’t even hear her. He might not think about how much she talked. Maybe he stayed away because he was sick. Or maybe he had friends she didn’t know.
When Loren did show up—late in the afternoon and not at his usual morning hour—he said, “I have something for you.” He led Jody downhill, past the Dennisons’ and past the beach, bare at low tide. In his father’s house he made her wait at the dining table while he disappeared to his room. From the silence of the house Jody knew his father wasn’t there.
Loren returned with a manila envelope, unsealed. When Jody tilted it a photograph slid out. The photograph, big enough to frame, looked at first too abstract to have meaning, but after she had turned it different ways to determine what it was she said, “Oh!” in surprise. She had discerned, all of a sudden, a puddle frozen over, with lace-like cracks across its pane of ice.
“From that first day,” she said.
Loren gently took the picture and turned it so the bottom and the top were where he thought they ought to be. He and Jody studied it a moment, then she said, “Your father isn’t here.”
“He’s coming,” Loren answered, and he led her out the door.
When Missy gushed about the photograph and said it looked like a Modigliani, an artist Jody didn’t know, Jody said, “I want to find a job.”
Missy told her right away she’d help. She said she’d read a test in a recent magazine—she thought it was McCall’s—that helped a person psychologically determine what jobs their personalities best suited them for. She sent Jody to look for the magazine but that search failed. “Nevermind,” Missy said. “The questions aren’t hard. I remember most of them. You have to answer one to five. One for what you like the most, and five the least. When we’re done we add the score up and know what strengths you have.”
She said the question she remembered best had to do with eating breakfast. “Are you the kind of person who always eats a hearty breakfast? Answer one to five.”
“What about lunch? Is there a question about lunch? The answer to breakfast is five, Missy.”
“The answer is we can’t be serious about such silly questions. Simpletons make up these tests. If you want to find a job the better thing for you to do is ask for Loren’s help.”
Missy’s suggestion surprised Jody. “He doesn’t have a job himself.”
“Odd jobs. He gets odd jobs,” Missy told her. “Where is he when he isn’t moping up and down the hill? Someone’s paying him to clean their attic or repair their stairs. Where else would he get money for all his expensive paints?”
What Jody heard brought a picture to her mind of Loren bending with a hammer over somebody’s steps. The mental image brought a lift of joy. She had assumed when he was absent he was with someone she didn’t know.
She asked Loren, the next time they visited the island, what he did to make money.
He said he didn’t need money.
“You have to buy canvas. You have to buy paints. Missy thinks you help people fix their stairs.”
A surprised look came to Loren’s face. He widened his eyes when Jody said, “I wish you’d help me find a job.” He stared at her as if he didn’t understand, then he lifted a rock and carried it up the beach to add to the wall he was building. He came back for another. Jody made a point of not helping. She sat on the lip of earth the tide had carved and surveyed the Narrows and the mountains across it as if the only reason she had come with Loren was to enjoy the view. She hoped he’d speak, but after he’d made a half-dozen rock-collecting trips the drone of a motor interrupted the silence.
Sullivan, their Forest Service visitor, was steering toward them. He shut down his engine just in time to coast up to the beach. He’d come, he said, with a little bit of hope. Jody had stood to watch him beach his boat. Loren stood beside her on the lip of earth. Sullivan, below them, said the Forest Service had no specific prohibition against artists’ studios. “That doesn’t mean they allow them. All it means is that they don’t specifically forbid them.”
“They don’t even know I’ve got one,” Loren said.
Sullivan, out of an old-fashioned sense of politeness, had taken his hat off. He maintained a determined cheerfulness. “Officially, they don’t. That’s very true. Officially, no one knows you’re building your studio here. So, officially, they look the other way.”
“What happens when they find out?”
Loren snapped an answer to Jody’s question before Sullivan could. “They come and tear it down.”
Jody snapped at him in turn. “Let him talk.”
Sullivan swung his hat. She wondered if she made him nervous.
“Kids build cabins all the time.” Sullivan shrugged when he spoke. Kids? Jody thought, but to Sullivan she said, “Help me find a job,” and immediately had the satisfaction of seeing his surprise. Jody sat down on the lip of earth so she and Sullivan, on the beach, could be on the same level. “I can type. I took that course in school.” Sullivan moved closer. He asked how he could contact her. When she began to give him Missy’s phone number he stopped her long enough to pull a notebook out of his back pocket. He wrote the number down.
“He likes me,” Jody said when the Forest Service man had gone.
“No he doesn’t.”
“Maybe I’ll fuck him, Loren, and maybe if I do he’ll let you keep your cabin.”
Loren groaned. “Oh god.” In mute agitation he strode into his fire pit and kicked charred remnants out, a display of temper Jody inwardly applauded.
* * *
Climbing the hill toward home that afternoon, Jody waved at Dennison, the man she and Loren had robbed. He stood glaring from his porch, and she hoped that meant he was lamenting his dead dog.
That night Sullivan called and talked more about what kind of work Jody hoped to find. He kept her on the phone to talk about himself. She learned he’d grown up in Wisconsin, and after she had said goodnight she turned with a smile to Missy and Thad and filled them in on the conversation, her half of which they’d heard. When Missy learned about Sullivan’s home state she sang a song in a comical dialect about a Swede who had come from Wisconsin and had worked in the lumberyards there.
The next day, a day when Loren didn’t come for her, Sullivan called to say he knew of a possible job.
“Typing. I can take you there and introduce you.”
Jody pressed him for details but he said to meet him at his Forest Service office and that he’d explain when she got there.
When Thad pressed his keys in Jody’s hand he said, “Good luck.”
At the Forest Service office, Sullivan reached for his fedora and said at once, “Let’s go.” He guided Jody to the newspaper office, a walk of two blocks, holding her elbow and talking all the time about how he had brought a legal notice to the paper and had learned from the woman at the front desk about an opening. The job was setting type using a new machine for offset presses. Jody took a typing test a tall, blonde woman named Marie administered. She passed it easily, and then the publisher, a bird-sized woman who said to give her best to Missy, explained the job’s hours and what it paid. She asked when Jody could start, and Jody said, “Tomorrow.”
Sullivan had waited while she had her interview. When he heard she’d been hired he gripped her shoulders and planted a kiss on her forehead.
Missy, as soon as Jody reported her news at home, picked up the phone to call a neighbor who drove to town every morning. “His name is Stan,” she told Jody. “He makes deliveries.” She dialed, and then, speaking in a loud voice as if she didn’t have a phone and had to shout, she told Stan Jody’s story and made arrangements for him to meet her the next morning at the junction of the road she and Thad lived on.
Stan’s hands were as big as puppies and the cab of his truck, littered with candy bar wrappers, smelled like oil. He didn’t roll his windows down and Jody thought for a few minutes she was going to be sick, but the big man’s homely manners and his habit of speaking whatever came into his mind eased Jody out of her most critical thoughts. By the time he let her off at his workplace, a warehouse on the docks, she knew his son was quitting high school to join the army and that Stan collected stale bread from Boon’s two bakeries to give to a neighbor who raised pigs.
Jody arrived at the newspaper office flushed from running, and Marie, the tall, blonde woman, instructed her on the coral-colored typing box that produced columns of justified type. Marie had three young children but her miserly husband had taken his savings back to Poland and written her from Warsaw to ask for a divorce. “He was an asshole anyway,” Marie told Jody. The other part of their work, beside typing, was pasting down columns of type. Marie, while she and Jody did that, cheerfully described her former husband’s failings. He came as quick as a rooster, and he wore his dirty socks to bed. Whenever Russell, a skinny reporter, came from the front office out to the back shop, Marie stopped work and flirted with him. She confided to Jody she’d lure him into marriage. “First you fuck them till their eyes bug out, then you cut them off and make them beg.” She wore mini-skirts to work. She told Jody she should do the same.
On the last day of Jody’s third week at work Sullivan came and asked her to lunch. He’d brought another legal notice and came in the back shop to chat with her about how she liked her job. He chatted with Marie, too, but Marie soon excused herself to go to the bathroom, explaining to Jody, after Sullivan had gone, that she didn’t want to crimp him if he was going to get romantic.
“I brought a lunch,” Jody said, speaking emphatically, trying to squelch the idea of romance Marie was teasing her about.
“Give it to me, Jody. I’ll give it to Russell, the little dick.”
Her funny answer was one of the things Jody talked about when she sat across from Sullivan in a tiny diner. He had guided her downhill and around a corner to a place with a fried-onion smell. Their booth was next to the window, and people passing on the street could glance at what was on their plates. Sullivan’s knees touched hers under the table, and even when she moved her legs to be out of his way he shifted so they touched again. When he walked her back to the newspaper office he stepped close to peck her cheek with his lips. As he did, he let his hand rest across her breasts.
She pulled away. “You think that’s fun?” It wasn’t a question. It was a rebuke, and she had the satisfaction of seeing Sullivan blush.
Marie, when Jody told her later what Sullivan had done, hooted laughter and ran through a whole repertoire of foul names for men who make unwanted advances, the way Sullivan had Jody laughed till tears came. First they came as tears the strain of laughter brings, but when she felt them on her cheeks her gasps of laughter changed to sobs. “How do you know when you’re pregnant?” she asked when she had caught her breath.
Marie hugged her a long time, and then, in a voice much quieter than her usual bray, she detailed folk remedies for ending pregnancies. Jody knew she wasn’t going to hop up and down until the fetus loosened. Nor was she going to dose herself with castor oil. She nodded to her friend’s advice, though thinking all the while, I’ll go back home.
* * *
After dinner, she started downhill in the pearl light of the lingering evening and knocked at Loren’s door. She heard words exchanged inside. She kept her eyes on the beach, where Loren’s red skiff rested on rocks the tide had left exposed. Almost a minute passed before Loren yanked the door open. His father, with his bulging belly and his tan suspenders, stood in shadow. He glanced like lightning in Jody’s direction and then turned and disappeared. A sudden conviction she had interrupted a quarrel kept Jody silent. Loren, scowling, brushed past her, and she fell in step behind him as far as where the beach began. From the road, she watched him tread out toward his skiff.
“I’m going home,” she yelled. “Anacortes,” she added, in case he’d assumed she meant a simple trek back up the hill to Missy’s.
Loren stopped to pry a rock out of the muck. Jody watched him carry it to his skiff. It was the right size, she saw, for the wall he was building around his hut.
His skiff rocked on the tide. Loren had wrapped the line securing it around a driftwood log. The log was near enough for Jody to touch with her foot. She stepped down to the beach and undid Loren’s loose knot. Coiling the rope, she moved toward his skiff. He was a couple dozen yards away, eyeing the ground for more rocks suitable for his stone hut. He kept his back to her.
She threw the coiled line over the gunwales and shoved the skiff seaward as hard as she could. Loren yelled, “Hey!” but she kept pushing, wading out up to her thighs until the boat caught a current and began to float away. “Home,” she yelled, as if that was the skiff’s destination, and if she had only thought to step aboard it could carry her to Anacortes.
Loren plowed past her, not saying anything, floundering with flapping arms when the water rose above his waist. When he stopped to watch his skiff float off, Jody climbed back to the road. She climbed toward Missy’s without looking back until she came to Dennison’s. She stared at the dim outline of the porch where the mean dog had waited to attack. An intense conviction came to her. She picked her way through the yard’s debris and climbed the worn stairs. When she knocked. Dennison, in a sweaty-looking tee shirt, his face darkened by a scowl, opened his door and demanded, “What?”
Jody had to dredge up nerve to speak but when she did she didn’t flinch. “I know who killed your dog,” she said, and she pointed down the hill.