The Clearing


Thirty feet past the power company building the road stopped abruptly before a clearing in the woods, as though the road crew had suddenly run out of pavement and gone home. The clearing stretched about two hundred feet, bordered on either side by tall spruces and worm-tattered pines, and then veered off to the left.

It looked to Daniel like a little world, a grand naturescape in miniature, complete with rolling, snow-crested hillocks and white fields, and an ice-covered stream meandering through its center. The naturescape sloped gently towards the stream.

Daniel glanced at his watch and relaxed. It had been years since he’d walked by himself in the woods and he felt an urge to explore, to recapture the magical quality of solitude in a natural setting. The sky was thinly overcast with a cream-colored hint that the sun was melting its way through the other side of the clouds.

Daniel stepped forward and his boot sank a few inches into the snow with a muted pumf. He smiled and made his way into the clearing. Mounds of frozen brown- and white-capped soil jutted through the even white layer of snow. Snow surrounded everything. It stuck like frozen milk to dense boughs of evergreens, pulling the trees into a winter-huddled droop. On leafless trees, it piled like smooth putty filling. In the soft light, the snow appeared warm and comfortable, a glaze molded flake by flake and shifted by wind and the contours of the land into a snug white blanket.

Daniel breathed deeply, savoring the freshness of the winter air untainted by odor, though its absence was a fragrance itself composed inoffensively of the frozen landscape. Another deep breath and he shouted.


And the woods called back to him.


His echoing name scattered his presence into the woods, bouncing off trees and careening into unseen snow banks, giving him a solid sense of affinity with everything that surrounded him. He shouted again.

“I love you!”

And the woods called back to him.


And he saw in his mind, the woods tucking his words into the beads of crystal water dripping from the trees.

“I am your voice!”


“I speak for you!”


“We are one!”


Filling his lungs deeply, he broke into a slow run through the snow and down the slope towards the stream. He laughed and shouted.

“I am free!”

And the woods acknowledged.


He stopped at the stream, amazed and breathless. The stream was no more than two feet at its widest point, but the shallow gully it twisted through suggested another six feet on either side during the spring runoff. Walking along the edge of the gully, Daniel followed the stream as it wound through the center of the clearing.

A sheet of wafer-thin ice covered the stream a few inches above the trickling water. There was a hint of ochre in the tiny glints of reflected cloud light that gave the ice a sense of warmth. In places it fluffed up, sagged further on, and then slanted from one side to the other like a long curving pane of glass.

Ahead, Daniel saw a section of tree trunk imbedded sideways beside the stream, and he felt this was the place to sit, that sitting on the trunk was a significant part of being in the woods by the stream and in the center of the rolling field of snow. It was what the trunk was for. He yelled: “I will sit here!”


And he made his way clumsily to the trunk and sat down with his feet a few inches from the stream. A long crack split through the center of the ice and portions of the glistening sheet slumped into the water. Where the ice was perched just above the water, the edges melted from sun and wind into jagged fingers so thin that the slightest breeze might snap them. A few inches below them, crystalline water gurgled over pebbles and rocks and reflected light to the underside of the ice, creating smooth patches of iridescence shimmering with lambent life.

From where he sat, Daniel could see that the clearing continued for another fifty feet to the left and it occurred to him that he was at the center of the little world of the clearing. He imagined the stream was a vein coursing through the heart of the clearing, nourishing and sustaining it, and with the snow and ice melting, the stream was beginning to flow again and to pump life into the bushes and trees and the dormant seeds. Daniel opened himself to the lucidity of the moment, a comprehension of something vital, and he was in the center of it.

He pulled the glove off his right hand and scooped up a few grains of coarse snow from the top of the trunk. They sparkled in his palm like miniature diamonds. He reached his arm out and sprinkled them onto the fingers of ice. Their small weight broke a long knobby splinter off with a plick and it fell into the water and dissolved.

Daniel picked up more grains and let them fall onto the sheet of ice, where they bounced lightly and settled like transparent pimples. His hand reached mechanically for more snow, and he scattered the tiny beads until the fragile ice clicked and sagged with a small frozen sigh. Then, he picked up a larger piece of snow and poised it over the ice and let it drop. It punctured the ice, and the sheet trembled and collapsed into the water like a two-foot blade cutting into the stream.

Where it had been attached, there was now a long, straight edge that looked out of place to Daniel. He felt remotely guilty, as though he had done something ineffably wrong. His hand was cold and he put his glove back on. A shiver passed through his body and he zipped up the turtleneck on his parka.

He stood up and looked with dissatisfaction at the blade of ice breaking apart in the water, beyond his power to repair it. He looked at his watch and remembered the forecast for snow later in the day. The cream color was lost in the sky and the clouds were beginning to thicken as he scrambled up the gully and began to retrace his steps out of the clearing.

The darkening sky cast a gloom over the woods as another breeze rippled across the ground, and Daniel hunched his shoulders. His boots were wet and his toes were numb with cold. He began to jog awkwardly to keep himself warm, and his breath came in gasps. To his right he noticed a long discarded section of power line, snaking in and out of the snow, over and around the hillocks, twisting indiscriminately through the little world of the clearing.




(This appeared in a small collection my stories published by Short Stuff Books about 15 years ago. It’s one of the stories I thought I’d lost in successive computer crashes, but found recently – along with a few other stories – in a folder hidden in layer after layer of folders.)

Hot sun and high water, perfect for a day trip down the Nashwaak.

The four of us had a serious itch to relax and commune with beaver and alders, eagles and backwaters, and whatever Indian gods still cast their spell on river-goers and danced naked with moose and field mice. Not that we were planning to take our clothes off. Hell no! More like hats off to crows cawing from the banks and rocks jutting up from the riverbed, trying to trip us.

I was in a plastic Coleman with my girlfriend, Debbie, later to be my wife, then ex-wife, and finally, good friend and mother of my children. Dylan and Maura were in a wooden Chestnut. Dylan was a friend of mine before I met Debbie. Maura was a friend of Debbie’s before she met me. Dylan and Maura weren’t aware of this connection until a full month after they started dating.

Small world.

A light but pushy breeze shoved aside waves of heat pouring down like crystal gravy from the electric blue sky. Sunlight etched silver castles on the pinnacles and precipices of cumulous mountains. They were the kind of castles that fill your imagination with jumping off misty towers into sticky white pools of marshmallow icing.

Back on earth, cool wavelets flirted brazenly with our gunwales and mingled with the splish of paddles dipping lazily into the water.

Half an hour downstream, we encountered a series of alder-ringed islands, spliced by three channels. Debbie and I took the channel to the right. Dylan and Maura took the channel to the left. The river laughed: “HA!” and went straight down the center.


There’s a kind of reality game I play when I’m in a canoe. I stare at the water and blank out the passage of trees, canyons and abandoned cars until time turns into molasses. Beer helps a lot with this illusion. I reached into the cooler and asked Debbie if she would like another.

“Um?” Her voice was slow and dreamy, faraway somewhere, no doubt, bobbing in the molasses of her own reality game. I used my paddle to pass her a can of beer. Tears of condensation trickled over its frosty label.

She snapped the cap on her can with a foamy crackle, a sound that was almost thirst-quenching itself. She asked: “How much longer to the end of this branch?”

“Oh, a ways,” I said.

Twenty minutes later, she introduced a new mood into the flow of river and beer. “Are you sure Dylan and Maura are okay? We haven’t seen them in ages.” This was a mood peopled with what I called the Worry Marchers–stark little men that appeared as columns of tiny dark shadows deep in Debbie’s eyes, where they marched and marched until the tromp of their little boots became louder and louder and channeled their sound through her brain and down to her mouth where it manifested itself as: “Carman?”

“They’re fine,” I said. “The river flows downstream. It’s the only place they can go. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”

Minutes passed.

“I’m getting worried.” Debbie brushed a bang of blond hair out of her eyes. The bang said: “No way.” and immediately fell back, almost covering her eyes. But for the few seconds that her eyes were completely uncovered, I caught a glimpse of Worry Marchers tromping and stomping in a panicky melee deep behind the irises. “Maybe we should go back to the branch they took and see if we can find them. They’ve never been on this river before.”

I looked back in the direction we’d just come and figured, oh, maybe three long bends in the channel, a couple of miles paddling against the current.

“No. They’re fine. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”

“But what if their branch goes into a dead end. What if–”

“They’re fine.”


More minutes passed with the lap-lap of water lap-lapping and the occasional ba-bump of the metal keel bumping against the plastic hull. Wind tickled the hairs on my forearms. I lifted a cold brew, wet-fresh from the ice, and soaked my throat with a rush of bubbles.

Debbie looked back quickly, the stomp of the Marchers cracking the corners of her eyes with lines and shadows. Tension swelled her shoulders, pushed her arms into the unnatural act of paddling forcefully in an already quick current. Waste of energy. Better to just drink some beer and use the paddles as rudders, to steer only.

“But this is only your second time on this river. Have you ever been down the branch they took?”

“No. But it can only flow one way.” So obvious, it seemed to me.

“Unless it comes to a dead end. What if it comes to a dead end? What if it flows away from the river and takes them–”

Why couldn’t she grasp a concept that was so much like life itself? “It all flows downstream. We’ll meet them at the end of the channel.”


Splash. The Worry Marchers had changed tactics, trading stomping and tromping for slow, perfectly synchronized jumps telegraphed through Debbie’s tensed shoulders, funneled through her arms and hands and into her paddle and–


Her head had become granite–


with opal eyes–


and pumice ears–


She opened her soapstone mouth: “I’m getting really worried, Carman. We should have seen them by now. Can you at least call out their names?”

“And scare the wildlife?”

“We haven’t seen any wildlife. We haven’t seen anything.”

“Hm, yeah, wonder where all the beavers are today.”

“Just call!”

“Okay.” I cupped my hands around my mouth. “HEY, ASSHOLE!”


“Just joking. DYLAN! MAURA! You guys still alive?”

Alders and sky gobbled my voice. Not even an echo burped back, a blank response from river, land and sky, almost like Dylan and Maura had been absorbed into the tangle of roots, rock and water that was nature, dissolved into its ineffable void.

I was becoming a bit concerned. Like Debbie had said, it was only my second trip on this river, and the first one had been with a drunken armada of ten canoes full of beer and madmen. To tell the truth, I couldn’t even remember the river forking into three branches. I didn’t say this, but thinking it was enough, all that Debbie needed to pick up on it.

“DYLAN! MAURA!” she yelled.



Mother Nature, always empathetic to the moods of river-goers, nudged the biggest of the creamy white clouds right across the path of the sunlight. Shadows winked from under the crests of wavelets and smiled eerily from stands of evergreens. A cool breeze raised goose bumps on my forearms. And worst of all, my beer had gone flat.

I lengthened and quickened my paddle stroke, a useless exercise since almost no power is generated once the paddle is parallel to the body. I was working against the natural flow of the current, forcing my intent to be downstream before the river’s time.

“Dylan! Maura!” Debbie’s voice cracked the air with lesions of panic. “Carman! Where are they?”

“There’s only one place they can end up, Debbie.” I pointed ahead. “Downstream.” But my tottering certainty was no match for the genuineness of Debbie’s paranoia.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Just go forward, to where the channels merge back into the main body of the river.”

Debbie dug her paddle into the water.




We raised a high white wake as we paddled vigorously, her muscles and my muscles throbbing blood to the same heavy rhythm. It seemed that we gulped the same deep breaths, filling our lungs with the same energized air, and then expelling it through our arms and into the paddles and into the water and into our intent to be downstream. And the rhythm droned with a




until the inevitable call of the Great God of Paddling clamored in my throat.

“Time for a brew,” I said. Debbie, panting, agreed, and I passed her a beer on my river dripping paddle. We lay down our paddles and snapped open our beers. The smell of pine drifted into my nostrils as we rested and floated, sipped and thought.

“It’s beautiful out here,” said Debbie. The big cloud had passed and the sun was back, the shadows gone, and mercy be, a beaver slipped into the water to our right with a splash of its tail.

“Wildlife,” I said, pointing with my paddle.

“Was that a beaver?”

“Yeah. Big one.” We looked for a couple of minutes to see if we could spot it swimming, but it was long gone. Debbie looked back at me and smiled. “Is that why you come on these trips?” she asked.

“Part of it,” I said.

I was about to say more, but Debbie, satisfied with my answer, turned her eyes back to the shore, the blue spruce, the sun glistening on late afternoon wavelets, the melody of an endless procession of water molecules sliding over each other in a single direction beyond the march of any beat. The rest of it.


“Debbie!” A woman’s voice. It was Maura, waving madly from the river bend ahead of us, where the channels merged.

“Debbie! Carman! Where have you two been? We’ve been worried sick!”

Fishing the Moody River

Trees 8(Found a folder with stories I’d thought I’d lost. In fact, I’d forgotten some of them completely. Like this one, published about 10 years ago in Projected Letters Literary Magazine.)

Each morning she stood on the bank casting her line into the water and reeling it in slowly as white smoke curled around her nose from a cigarette lodged between her lips. She never puffed, just let them burn away as she stared into the deep brown water. Butts, burned down to the filters, littered the grass at her feet as though they’d just been dropped from her mouth after the tobacco had burned away. Her face was the color of life winding down into a small gray door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign nailed into the center. Even her void black hair, short as it was, emanated neglect and uncaring like oil dripping from untended follicle taps.

Those were pretty much all the details he could make out from this distance. That was pretty much all he knew about her. That, and the fact that he was crazy in love with her.

She was there every morning for about ten cigarettes of fishing time, from nine till eleven, enough time to catch one or two pickerel … an amazing feat considering that she never used bait, just silver spinners and rubber worms. She hooked the long skinny fishes with the flaring mouths onto a large metal hook that clipped in at the end like a safety pin. The hook was attached to a chain that was moored to the ground with a long metal spike. She eased the dazed fishes into the water where they floated in fish-eyed disbelief.

After ten cigarettes, she reeled in, looped the spinner around the reel and tightened the line. She pulled the spike out of the ground, lifted the fish out of the water, turned and walked along a path up to her apartment building a couple of hundred feet from the riverbank.

Just one fish today.

Dale loved the way she walked, slow and easy, lazy-like and sexy. And yes, she was definitely sexy with her faded blue jean cut-offs and thin, well-tanned body. She was tall, but there was nothing lanky about her: every square inch of her body appeared hand-forged in the Fires of Worldly Lust. But her face…he imagined seeing her face against the river. Only her body would be visible, and her face would be indistinguishable from the river behind it, a deep river flowing out of a bog of haunted waters populated by dour things that had walked the earth long before the Indians and their Gods had set the power of myth loose in the bulrushes and bracken.

But he loved that face, even though he didn’t have a clue what color her eyes were, or if her nose were crooked at the end, or if her eyebrows needed plucking. If her brows were anything like her hair, they did.


Dawn laid the pickerel on a sheet of newspaper spread on the kitchen counter. She used a paring knife to cut open the center of the fish’s stomach. It made a “pluck” sound. The fish was dark, stiff and sticky. She shoved two fingers into the open stomach and pulled out a mash of red and white organs and fleshy tubes. She cut off the head. Just before she threw the head into the garbage, Dawn’s eyes and the eyes of the dead fish connected. For an instant, they exchanged what could almost have been a look of recognition.

She wrapped the fish in a clean sheet of newspaper and put it in the freezer. She stared into the cold darkness of the freezer for nearly a minute before closing the door. Then she sat down at the table. There was nothing on its dull wooden surface except a package of cigarettes, a green plastic lighter, and an ashtray half filled with cigarette butts smoked down to the filters.

She lit a cigarette and stared into the clouds of smoke that billowed from her mouth.


Dale hated his job. It was boring. There was no challenge to the work and absolutely no variation. It was the same thing every day, day after day. He entered data from hand-written reports filled out by field agents into the Wahberg Mutual Assurance database. They read like police reports: no colorful words or expressions, no opinions or poignant observations, no indication whatsoever that the person filling out the report had ever had an original thought. They were straight fact stripped of ownership: The house was seen to display smoke at approx 6 PM. Some were pared to fact so concisely that they ceased to make sense: Bar’d in row 8 to sembl w wat damage perim.

He hated his job. It reminded him of his life: going nowhere, coming from nowhere, and settled into a smooth, bump-free, never-ending ride down the slow lane to carbon copy days and notes-to-self to do something someday. His social itinerary was the TV Guide. He read his junk mail, with interest. He hated his life.

But now he was in love. He was in love with a woman he’d never met, a woman who fished by herself from a swamp-fed river every morning, who smoked cigarettes like a stick incense holder, and who never appeared to smile. She walked easy but looked hard. Maybe it was the discrepancies that attracted Dale to her; she was so much unlike anything that had ever touched on the unvarying days of his life.

“Off on another one of your tangents, Claw?”


It was Pat Duncan, his boss for the last three months, three months of pure hell, of humiliation and slow burning anger. She was a big woman who towered over most men and she knew it. She loved it. She played it up, standing as close to men shorter than herself as the edges of political correctness would allow, looking down on them, bullying them with her size. And she had the girth to match the height. She was mountainous. But she drew attention away from the abnormality of her size – except, of course, when she was using it to intimidate – by dressing in nothing but plain slacks and patternless business jackets over white blouses. It was like a uniform she wore at home and at work. She had a bloated Betty Crocker face and neck-length spray-stiffened brown hair.

One other thing: she hated Dale as much as he hated her.

Dale had a flaw she couldn’t stomach. She’d told him as much soon after she took over the office: “You look like a preening pigeon when you scratch your nose with it.” She was referring to Dale’s left hand. The inside and outside fingers were missing, severed by a lawn mower when he was a child. It gave Pat the willies so badly that she used it as an excuse to spend most of the day out of the office, leaving Dale to do most of the work. She was a bad boss and a bad worker. Dale assumed that she’d been promoted to manager of this office probably to get her out of somebody else’s hair, somebody higher up the company ladder but shorter than Pat in staff meetings and around the water cooler.

She called him Claw.

“If you’d spend as much time working as you spend daydreaming, we wouldn’t be so far behind on these reports. They want that database ready in three weeks, Claw. I want that database ready in three weeks.”

So sit down on your fat butt and do some work, thought Dale. He nodded agreement, but didn’t say anything.

“Three weeks! That’s all the time we have. You’ve been on this project since before I got here, and you’re still not up-to-date. What’s wrong with you?”

I’m all alone, he thought. I’ve got nobody helping me on this damn project, especially not you. He nodded as he entered data, eyes on his computer screen. Pat watched the two fingers of his left hand race over the keyboard faster than most people could type with a full hand of fingers. She frowned.

“I need a coffee,” she said, and she walked out of the office. Dale’s shoulders relaxed. He stopped typing. He looked out the window. There she was. Standing on the bank by the river, smoke curling around her head, right hand circling as she reeled in the baitless spinner. His heart pounded.

Some day, he thought, some day.


“Unfit,” they’d said. “Unfit to raise a dog let alone a child.” She’d known what was being said behind her back, the whispers and the knowing looks. And worst, most of it was coming from people she called friends, from family, people she’d grown up with, and people with whom she’d eaten Christmas dinners. They were people who knew her past. Some even knew her secrets. And suddenly, they were turning their knowledge of her against her.

“Two men at the same time in the back of the car. That was in grade ten.”

“Sat right down on the couch without a stitch of clothing on, beer in one hand, joint in the other, dozens of people around, most of ‘em men, just talkin’ away as though everything was normal.”

“Stealing things from stores ever since she was seven. Amazing that she hasn’t ended up in jail by now.”

“She was my sister’s best friend. Or so she thought so … until she found out that she was screwing my sister’s boyfriend. And helping my sister with her Math homework at the same time.”

“Unfit,” said the judge, and that was that. She’d be lucky if she ever saw her daughter again, and even then, it would likely be with someone appointed by the court or, God forbid, her ex, watching every movement, listening to every word, monitoring the situation because, let’s face it, the judge had said: “Unfit.”

Her line tugged … a muscular, resistant movement, a movement of sudden shock, of realization and running. She gripped the reel tight, and began to reel in the line in spite of the frenzied pull in the water.


That night, Dawn was sitting on the couch watching the test pattern on the television. She had no idea what time it was. She had no idea that she was watching a test pattern. The ashtray was filled with butts, bent in the center from having the fire squashed out of them. Behind her, pictures hung askew on the wall. In the pictures, people smiled. Dawn smiled. She held a dark-eyed girl – barely visible under a mass of red snow suit – in her arms. The girl laughed as she pushed both her mittened hands into Dawn’s face. Behind them, a wooden toboggan lay on the brilliant white snow under a flawless blue sky.

Staring at the television, Dawn’s eyes were as empty as the pattern on the screen.


In his dream, Dale stands at the riverbank. In his dream, the woman he loves casts her line into the water and hooks onto Dale and begins to reel him in. Dale swims away from the tug of the lure and feels pain. Then, in his dream, he stops fighting the tug toward the shore … and the woman, along with the pain, disappears.

And then Dale woke up and said: “That’s it! That’s it!”

He wrote a message to himself on the pad by his bed and went back to sleep, smiling and strangely calm for a man who’d just dreamed of being a fish hooked on a lure.


Dale was late for work, and for the first time ever, Pat was early. Early. On a Friday morning. Normally, she wouldn’t come in on Friday morning, showing up maybe an hour or so into the afternoon. But there she was … big and Betty Crocker-faced, white blouse, business jacket and all. She was frowning. She was always frowning, but today her frown took on new significance.

She actually had something to frown about as she stood by her desk, all starched collar and heavy perfume. This was a frown of self-righteous, better-than-thou, caught-you-in-the-act legitimacy.

Dale would have balked, but he was too excited about the large plastic bag he had in his hand. That was why he was late. He’d stopped off at the hardware store to buy something that, if everything went well, might just change his life.

“Whatcha got there, Claw? Hope whatever it is, it’s worth coming in late and putting your job on the line for.” The frown changed to a scornful smile.

“Sorry about being late, Pat,” said Dale. “I just thought … it being Friday and all … and I put in some overtime this week …”

“Stow it, Claw. What’s in the bag?”

Dale smiled immediately, his eyes neon with excitement. He lay the bag on his desk and pulled out a long clear plastic package. “Going to take up a new hobby,” he said. He turned the package so that Pat could see a complete angler’s set: rod and reel, fiberglass line, spinners and sinkers, two lures, an assortment of tiny black hooks, and a small plastic box to store the equipment.

Pat stared at the plastic package. Then she looked at Dale, and then back to the package.

And she burst out laughing. She laughed so hard her face turned red. She laughed for at least two minutes before the laughter started to break up into quick gasps for air and gurgling sounds that could have been strangled guffaws or screams from her stomach. She pointed a thick finger at Dale and smiled meanly while she brought her breathing under control. “You … you wouldn’t be able to catch a cold if it bit your nose.” Her eyes widened and she fell into her chair, shrieking with wild laughter.

Dale just stared at her. She laughed and she laughed, pointing her finger at him, slamming her fist onto her desktop. Not a muscle on Dale’s face moved as Pat laughed until she’d exhausted her stockpile of vindictive mirth. Then she shook her head, stood up and walked across the office to Dale. She took the fishing kit out of his hand, stared at it a moment, smiling even more scornfully now, and shook her head again. She tossed the kit on his desk, snapped around quickly and walked to the office door. Before leaving, she turned to Dale and said: “Have a great weekend with your new hobby, Claw.”

Dale could hear her laughing all the way down the hall, until finally, the elevator doors smothered the sound.

He looked at the fishing kit on his desk and smiled.


“She was the bad one in the family,” her mother had told the judge. “The others all turned out good. Don’t know what happened with her.”

A small gray cylinder of ash dislodged from the cigarette in her mouth and fluttered to the ground, shedding flakes and ash bits all the way down. She stared into the moody water as she reeled the line in slowly. A movement to her right caught her attention and she looked.

She saw a skinny man in a white short-sleeve shirt about fifty feet downstream. He was wearing a tie. For some reason, this irritated Dawn.

It just … irritated her.


Dale tried to keep his eyes off the dark-haired woman. His hands shook as he cast his line into the water. He was terrified. What am I doing here? he thought. What the hell am I doing?

He stared straight ahead, his head and body immovable like a stump of wood hammered into the riverbank. Whatever color he’d had in his face had drained into the ground around him like white blood.

What the hell am I doing?


There it was: the tug of muscle, so distinct from the snag of reeds or submerged logs. This was the feeling of instant, horrifying realization, telegraphed right up the line and into Dawn’s hands. She had a fish.

She let the line out a bit, playing the fish, and then reeled in slowly, played the fish again, and reeled in slowly. Each time she reeled in, she brought the fish a bit closer to her than before she played it. Now, she could almost see the swimming shadow just under the surface of water. And then she felt a strong tug and the line went slack. She reeled in a spinnerless, fishless line.

Just like my life, she thought. She glanced over at the skinny stranger, and caught him looking at her. He immediately made a face and turned away.

Was that anger in his eyes? she thought. Or was that disgust, or something? Does he know me from somewhere? She picked up her things and looked in his direction again. His head pointed stiffly at the river, as though he were deliberately trying to avoid eye contact with her, to ignore her.

Screw you, she thought. And she walked, without fish, up the path to her apartment building.


Not a single muscle in Dale’s body failed to shake. He felt like his stomach was somewhere at the back of his lungs. Lines of sweat streaked his face. The armpits of his shirt were soaked.

She caught me looking at her! he thought. She looked right into my eyes! And I didn’t even smile or nod or anything. In his mind, he reenacted the entire eye-brushing incident, each time with a different scenario: smiling at her, nodding to her, waving to her, calling out something about how’s the fishing, or nice day. All the things he didn’t do. All the things he could have done. All the things that haunted him as he packed up his things and walked back to the office.


That night, Dale made up his mind that he would approach her first thing Monday morning, even if Pat were in the office and he had to just get up and walk out right in front of her, he would do it. He had to do it. He would apologize for not being friendlier on Friday morning. He would tell her that he’d watched her … no, that sounded almost like stalking … he would tell her that he’d seen her fishing a number of times and it made him think that he hadn’t been fishing since he was a kid and so he bought a fishing kit, and here it was, thanks to her. That’s what he would do … he would approach her and thank her for inspiring him … no, too slick-sounding … he would thank her for reminding him how much fun he’d had fishing as a child. And that would probably lead into something to talk about, maybe into fishing in general, or childhood experiences, anything.

I should have said something.


It’s not a cold feeling at all, thought Dawn. Kind of warm and relaxing. If she kept her arms still in the soapy water, she couldn’t even feel the pain in her wrists. And then her thoughts turned to fishing. She stood by the bank of the river with a beautiful little dark-eyed girl. They laughed as they cast their lines into the water under the flawless blue sky.


He checked his watch again. Ten o’clock. Where is she? thought Dale. She was like clockwork, on time every day, Monday to Friday, out on the riverbank at nine and there for ten cigarettes … eleven o’clock. Except for last Friday. But maybe he had had something to do with that. Maybe she liked to fish alone. Oh jeez, he thought, what if she doesn’t want me out there fishing at the same time as her. Would she leave early again today as soon as she saw him? Would she move farther down the riverbank away from him? Dale was already starting to sweat when Pat walked in.

She looked at the fishing kit leaning against the wall by his desk and smirked. Trust her to be the only person alive who could put the devil in Betty Crocker eyes. “Catch anything this weekend, Claw?”

“Not yet. But I’ll try again today. I …” He realized suddenly that Pat wasn’t listening to him, she didn’t even seem to be aware of him as she walked over to the window and looked at the building where the dark-haired woman lived.

“I think that’s the building,” said Pat.

“What building’s that?” said Dale, puzzled.

Pat shot him one of her looks and said: “Where the woman killed herself. It’s been all over the news all weekend. Don’t you listen to the news, watch television?” She smiled a smile that twisted the right side of her face into something clouded and brutal. “Or have you been fishing all weekend?”

Dale just stared at her.

“Something wrong, Claw? Cat got’cher tongue?”

He looked out the window at the building. He knew that it was her, that it was the dark-haired woman who fished. He’d known it since the first time he’d seen the life-drained outline of her face, as though her body moved around carrying on a daily ritual of deception.

She moved on.

And it was time for him to do the same.

He stood up and grabbed onto the fishing kit. It wasn’t until he was almost out the door that Pat noticed him leaving. “And where do you think…?” The door closed on her voice and the skewed Betty Crocker face.

Outside, the day was clear and the sky cloudless. It didn’t matter to Dale whether he caught a fish or not. No, just casting the line would be enough; in fact, it would even be a big improvement.

Finishing – Part 2: The Nickel


(Originally published in Projected Letters Literary Journal, 2004)

Shards of sunlight flickered off the car’s bumper as it disappeared over a rise in the road. Josh stared at the bright bursts of light and breathed deeply, winded from his run through the woods behind the shack where he lived. As though it had been hiding until the car left, the silence crept back from the woods, oozed from the wild grass and shrubbery pushing through cracks in the pavement where the two highways intersected.

Josh wondered who would be driving out this far from town so early in the morning. With the exception of a few hunters in the fall, burly old Ned Wilkins, the grocer from town, was the only person who ever drove out to the mill road when he dropped by twice a month. Gruff-spoken as he was, he was company–something Josh had little of since his father’s death–and Ned always brought a box of supplies: things like soap, cornmeal, salt, and Josh’s favorite, comic books. Josh could not read, but he enjoyed looking at the pictures of brightly costumed heroes and villains. The villains, he knew, were the ones who were zapped in the end because good always won out over evil. On Ned’s visits, Josh and Ned played checkers. Sometimes Ned let him win. But Ned had not dropped by in three weeks and Josh was running low on matches.

He walked across the weed-patched pavement of the station drive-in and stopped at the concrete stand where the gas pumps used to be. He glanced at the box and looked down the road. The dust had settled now, but a faint odor of exhaust fumes still lingered in the air. It was a rare smell these days, far from the days when Josh was young, when the mill was open and the mill workers streamed through the junction, stopping for gas from his father ‘s pumps. They were happy days, when his father, a big man with a round, red face, brought his sleepy-eyed customers in with a big smile and a good word and sent them off with a full tank and a friendly glow. Josh cleaned window shields while his father pumped gas. And no one ever made fun of Josh for not being too bright, mostly because everyone loved his father, Calvin Wright. They loved the boom of his laugh and the smile that never left his lips.

Then the mill closed. The woods had been stripped by budworms and fire. The stream of cars and trucks dwindled to a tickle and stopped altogether. But Calvin never lost his smile, even when he had to close down the pumps and travel to town for construction work or whatever else he could find. “Things will get better,” he used to say. “Things can only get better.”

One day, about two years after the mill closed, Josh’s father coughed up some blood. A month later, he was dead.

Ned had driven Josh to see his father in the hospital in town a few days before he died. Josh was scared at the sight of his father, withered and stark like a dead tree in a big hospital bed that had seemed as though it would swallow him up. Ned and Calvin exchanged a few words, almost whispering, and then Calvin asked if he could speak to Josh alone. His voice cracked, his breath coming in gasps. “You’ll be looking after yourself from now on, son, but Ned’s agreed to drop in from time to time. I wished it was different. You’re young yet, but strong.”

“You’re gonna be alright, Dad,” Josh said, but he knew from the hazy film over his father’s eyes that the life before him was nearly spent and ready to sink forever into the big hospital bed.

“Yes, I’ll be alright now, Josh, but I won’t be around to take care of you. I figure you can take care of yourself. You’re not smart the same way others are, but your heart is good. An’ what they got in schooling, you got in living your days in the woods, learning about living.” He broke into a violent fit of coughing and Josh’s blood froze. It didn’t seem that his father’s shriveled body could withstand the rack of the cough. Panicking, Josh cried: “I’ll get the doctor, Dad.”

“No, stay here. It’s gone now.” He wheezed a few times, his face gaunt but determined. Grabbing Josh’s arm with fleshless fingers, he said: “You might think my life is finished, but nothing’s ever finished, Josh, nothing.”

Even though his father’s hand was shrunken, Josh felt it tightening powerfully on his arm. “You got to start things with a mind to do ’em, but you can never finish. Like keeping with the box. It goes on. You try to finish up, but you never will. Never.”

Something deep and incomprehensible thrashed about in his father’s eyes. “Never.” The word was barely audible, the last thing Josh had heard his father say as he drifted into a deep sleep, his lips curling into a soft smile as though he had known something all along and found out he was right.

Fifteen years had passed since then and Josh had grown into a bulking and contented thirty-three-year-old man. Ned had offered to take him in and let him work in the store, but Josh had refused to leave the junction. The small shack, the woods and the quiet were his home. Fishing the streams, snaring rabbits and watching the clouds were his life.

And the box. The box tied it all together.

Gray and weather-beaten, the box perched on a post by the road. A tattered cardboard sign hung from the front like a piece of shredded skin with a few faded gray letters: D NAT ONS. It had been there since Josh could remember. He was never sure what it was for exactly, but he was vaguely aware that it had something to do with helping people, and that gave it an air of respectability in Josh’s eyes. He used to watch his father snap open the huge padlock with a skeleton key and remove coins and paper money, which he kept in a cotton bag under his bed. Once a week, a long black car pulled up at the station with silent, unsmiling men who took the money from the bag and drove away.

After the pumps closed, Josh’s father stopped going to the box each evening because there was never anything in it, and the black car had long since stopped coming. One day Calvin saw Josh eyeing the key on its hook by the door.

“Got eyes for that skel’ton key, Josh?” the trace of a smile lined his lips. Josh became flustered. He didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the key that was important or all that interesting; it was the box. The key was part of the mysterious act of opening the box and helping others.

“Take the key, Josh, it’s yours.” Josh stared at his father. “And the box, too. They’re both yours.”

Ever since then, Josh had worn the key around his neck, tied to a ratty old shoelace. Each evening, like his father had done, he marched dutifully to the box, opened it ceremoniously, looked in and, finding nothing, locked the emptiness back inside.

Now, something moved inside Josh like the smell of gasoline fumes reaching deep into his memory. His hand moved to the key around his neck. His breathing slowed. He walked toward the box and began to hum. It was a low hum, a sound that rose, trailed off and rose again, and the pattern of the hum was the pattern of his life, and he seemed to flow more than walk to the box. Standing before it, he removed the key from his neck and placed it into the padlock, turning it slowly until the lock snapped open with a clunk. He removed the lock, lifted the lid and looked inside. Lying solemnly on the bottom was a shiny new nickel.

He stopped humming.

His first inclination was to drop the lid and leave the coin lying there like a riddle with no answer. He was not used to anything new touching his life. But the coin was there, real and demanding to be acknowledged. He picked it up gingerly and rolled it between his thumb and fingers, studying the relief picture of a beaver hunched on a log on one side and a picture of an expressionless woman on the other. He ignored the letters and numbers. The coin had a nice heft at the end of his fingertips. There was something enjoyable in the weight that seemed so big for an object so small. He was fascinated by the precise edges of the coin, the circularity that came back on itself so smoothly. The roundness pleased him. He closed the lid and locked the box.

Later, sitting on his stool by the wood stove, still gazing raptly at the nickel turning on his fingertips, Josh wondered what to do with it. The men in the black car had not been out to the junction in years, but Josh’s father had never kept any of the money in the box. Josh remembered a time when money was short and he suggested they use money from the box.

“Stealing’s not right,” Calvin said, his eyes icy. “‘Specially from folks that are needier than ourselves.”

“But it’s s’posed to help folks an’ we need help, Dad.” The reasoning seemed apparent to him.

“Then we’ll get our help elsewhere, son.” The ice in his eyes softened. “The money from the box belongs to others.”

Josh knew what he had to do. If the coin was not his to keep, and the box was his responsibility, then he must take the coin to the right people. But he had no idea who they were or where to find them.

An idea crossed his mind. Ned would know how to find them. All Josh had to do was go to town and find Ned. He hadn’t been to Ned’s store since his father’s funeral, but it hadn’t seemed like a long drive in Ned’s truck, and there were lots of streams and trees along the way. And maybe he could get some matches. And some comics.

It was still morning and he reasoned that if he started right away, he would be in town before dark. Humming again, he draped his jacket over one shoulder, left the shack unlocked, and started down the road toward town with big, purposeful steps.


The noon sun spilled invisible fire onto the weather-beaten pavement. Josh had been on the road for hours and his stride was beginning to totter. Walking to town no longer seemed like a good idea, especially without a jar of water. The streams and brooks he had seen as a child had dried up, leaving sun-scorched beds of rock and pebbles. He feet were sore and his head ached from the heat. Horseflies, attracted by the pungent odor of sweat, buzzed around him, zipping in to land stubbornly on his neck, his face and his clothing. He brushed them away, arms flopping back to his sides. And they came again. He no longer hummed, his throat too dry to sustain a note. Hot sweat drenched his clothing and stung his eyes, seeping acridly between his lips and into his mouth. He fantasized plunging into the wavering mirage on the road ahead until the mirage dissolved. Then he fantasized on the next one, and plodded on. The sky was cloudless; the air, windless. Nothing moved but the flies and Josh. He dared not look at the woods lining the road fifty feet from each shoulder. Though sparse and tinder-dry, they might tempt him with shelter from the sun and he would sink into a bed of crinkly leaves and stay there forever, shrouded in budworm webbing.

Josh’s thoughts traveled back to his childhood, back to a blustery winter night when the wind had pounded against the walls of the shack, making it tremble and creak. Inside, it was warm with heat from the wood stove reaching into every corner of the room, and Josh was comfortable and sleepy in his bed as he listened to his father and Ned talking quietly and playing checkers. He stared through the slots of the grill at the flames, and the smell of burning wood was sweetened as it mingled with the smoke from his father’s pipe.

Ned talked around his chewing tobacco: “Nope, Cal, I surely did not want to go over there and shoot up the Kaiser’s army. T’tell ya the truth, I was scared so that I pissed my pants the first time I heard shells boomin’ miles away, an’ we was headin’ for all that noise.”

“No shame in that, Ned,” his father said as he jumped two of Ned’s pieces and removed them from the board. “Fear’s a natural feeling. Keeps a man alive.”

“Right you are, Cal. But that’s not what bothered me so much at the time as wonderin’ what the hell I was doin’ headin’ for all that noise an’ not wantin’ any part of it. But we was all tired, worn down from a long march with full kit, an’ I kept walkin’ towards that boomin’, liftin’ one foot in front of th’ other an’ wonderin’ why.”

A gust of wind battered the far wall and the entire shack groaned.

“There was wounded men bein’ brung back all shot t’ hell,” he said with a distant look. “An’ I wondered if they had any idea why they was wounded, why they’d gone into that boomin’ to get themselves all shot up. An’ I thought about patr’ism an’ protectin’ folks back home, an’ lots of things, an ‘ before I knew it, we was smack in the middle of the boomin’, lookin’ over the tops of trenches at land that looked like it’d bin ripped an’ torn by some giant plow gone haywire.” Rolling the tobacco wad to the other side of his mouth, he added with finality. “Still don’t know what the hell I was doin’ there.”

Josh was beginning to wonder the same thing.

Now, he took the coin from his pants pocket and studied it closely. Turning it slowly between his thumb and two fingers, fascinated by the clean edges and the pleasurable heft. He flipped it a few inches into the air and caught it. He flipped it again, this time a few inches higher. Before long, he was flipping it several feet into the air and the heat and the flies were forgotten. He was humming again, his eyes transfixed by the flipping coin. He watched it tumbling through the air, throwing off sparkles of sunlight as it came spinning down into his palm. Soon, it was as though his mind were spinning with the coin, his being merged with the being of the coin, shooting up and tumbling down. Everything but the coin washed out of his vision, and then the coin disappeared in a flash of brilliant white. Nausea churned tightly in his stomach as he felt his body dropping, his mind still spinning and his ears filled with humming.

He was uncertain how long he’d been unconscious but, judging from the position of the sun, it was not long. He felt rubbery as he raised himself to his feet. He shook the dizziness from his head and stooped to pick up his jacket. As he did so, he saw the coin on the pavement a few feet away. Surprised and elated at the same time, he snatched it up, inspected it closely, apologetically, and put it back in his pocket.

Every exposed part of his body was bright red. He was getting hot and cold flashes, and his body tingled with the imminent danger of not finding water soon. He could not understand how he could have misjudged the distance to town by so much. Nothing was as he remembered it.

He draped his jacket over his head and continued walking.


The sun moved slowly across the sky and Josh was no longer walking a straight line. Several times his wobbly legs carried him onto the shoulder of the road and twice he had tripped and fallen down only to struggle back to his feet and continue walking. The road seemed endless; the town, unreachable. All that was real was the heat, his thirst and the steady shuffle of his boots across the burning pavement. Horseflies bit into unresponsive flesh. The temptation to drift in the scorched woods gnawed at his will, tied itself to his legs.

Then, on the road ahead, he saw the faint outline of a bridge. He quickened his pace and soon the faded green girders were distinct and promising against the blue sky.

He mustered his energy into a slow easy run and, even before he reached the bridge, he could smell the water, hear it crinkling through the woods. He arrived at the bridge breathless and stood by the steel railing, gazing jubilantly at the lively stream, silvery under the early evening sun. A path led from the edge of the railing down through bushes to the stream. He picked his way carefully down the steepest part of the path and then ran with a joyful bellow and belly-flopped fully dressed into the water. He splashed about wildly until his energy left him and then he just sank, neck deep, and savored the cool, life-restoring massage of water.

Half an hour later, propped on an elbow on a patch of grass, Josh finished his sixth raw frog leg. He licked his lips contentedly as a fly darted by collecting air. It was a pleasant spot with healthy trees and alder bushes. Uneven grass, dotted by large rocks left by years of spring high water, sloped gently down to a narrow, pebbly shoreline, and the air was sweet with the smell of water and plants. A crow cawed from the distance upstream. Josh cawed back to it.

A few beer cans littered the area, but these were heartening to Josh, a sign that he was close to town. That would come tomorrow though. Tonight, he would rest by the stream and tomorrow he would finish the trip into town to see Ned about the coin. Remembering the coin, he reached his hand into his pocket and clenched it around nothing.

Something thick and ugly curled inside his stomach.

His hands snapped to his other pockets, rummaging and throwing their small contents onto the ground. No coin. He scanned the ground around him. Nothing. The small shore area grew expansive with merciless glints and glitters from rocks and broken glass. The water sparkled mockingly under the lowering sun.

It would soon be dark.

The last time he could remember having the coin was on the road by the railing when he brushed his hand on his pocket and felt it there before he descended the path to the stream. He retraced his steps to the road and from the road back to the stream. Nothing.

He glanced at the sun. About twenty minutes of useful light. He put his boots back on and waded into the stream. Water ran swiftly around his pant legs, and Josh began to fear that the fast flow would wash the coin down to where the stream deepened. He crouched down close to the water, his gaze trying to penetrate glistening wavelets as his hands slid nimbly over rocks and pebbles. Long shadows of trees crept over the water towards him.  Mosquitoes attacked him hungrily. He moved faster, lost his footing on a slippery rock and toppled into the water with a shallow splash. Cold shudders racked his body, but he ignored them as he propped himself onto his knees and stared at the endless flow of water rushing into the imperfect distance.

It was dark when he fumbled, cold and drenched, back to the shoreline. Water squished in his boots, weighing down his steps. He slumped on a patch of grass and tugged his boots off, poured the water from them, and thumped them on the grass a few times. His frustration mounted and he pounded his boots onto the ground, and pounded them again.

“Darn!” he cried.

And then he saw it, outlined faintly by the dim glow of moon and starlight. The coin. Rolling out of his right boot.

He dropped both boots and reached forward slowly, cautiously. His right hand closed around it. Blood throbbed in his forehead as he raised his hand, opened it, and saw the coin lying in his palm, the small heft so familiar. He closed his fist around it and felt a cool spread of elation throughout his body.

After a few minutes, he checked his pocket again. There was a small hole near the bottom where the coin had fallen through, and then had fallen down his leg and into his boot.

“I’ll sew you when I get back home,” he said. He walked wearily back to the tree where his coat was hanging, draped the coat around his neck and, after making sure the coin was still tucked safely in his left pocket, he sat with his back to the tree and fell into exhausted sleep.


The morning sun was still laced with night chill when Josh, muscles and joints aching, lumbered back to the road. His face was red and grizzled and his damp clothes sent chills through his body as he moved. But Josh was humming. The nickel was secure in his pocket and he was twirling the key on its shoelace in slow circles. The movement pleased him, the roundness of it. From the bridge, he looked down at the stream, sparkling in the morning sunlight. It occurred to him that he should retrieve a few empty beer cans and fill them with water for the remainder of the trip. But looking down the road, he could make out the scattered buildings of town about two miles away. He bellowed happily, almost dancing on the pavement and, twirling the key, he was soon passing the first small bungalows, their graveled driveways spilling onto the road where metal mailboxes leaned at odd angles.

The road turned just ahead of him, and Ned’s store, with its two big windows and white, balustrade porch, sat on the outside of the turn. Josh ran awkwardly to the gravel parking lot that fronted the big white building. He bounded up the three sagging steps and opened the screen door.

Behind a long, wooden counter laden with jars and display cases, he saw a weasel-faced man with a balding head stocking wall shelves with tin cans. The man turned his head inquiringly towards Josh as he approached the counter. Josh asked for Ned.

“What d’you want with Ned?” the man asked, looking up at Josh suspiciously.

“I–uh–” Josh had no idea how to explain. The box, the coin, the stream, the road all crowded his mind at once. He thrust out his fist. The weasel-faced man jerked back. Josh opened his sun-reddened hand slowly and the nickel gleamed coolly on his palm. “From the box–” he said with a deep, dull voice. “–the men from the charity.”

The man behind the counter relaxed slightly, but still looked uneasy. Leaning forward to look at the coin, he asked: “Charity? What chari–” He leaned farther, looking at Josh thoughtfully. “Aren’t you Calvin Wright’s boy? The one livin’ by himself out to the old junction?”

Josh nodded, feeling easier at the mention of his father’s name.

“Well, I’ll be,” said the man, pulling at his chin with a thumb and forefinger. “You look like hell. You all right?”

Josh nodded again and said that he was thirsty. The weasel-faced man smiled and took a bottle of orange pop from the cooler at the end of the counter. With a single movement, he opened it and handed it to Josh. “On the house,” he said, and watched silently as Josh downed the pop with a long, noisy guzzle. Josh handed the empty bottle back, burped, and thanked him.

“I guess you were thirsty,” said the man, staring at the bottle. “Now, what ‘s this ’bout a charity?”

“The box to the junction. I brung a donation. Is Ned here?”

The man puckered his lips and parted them with a muted pop. “No. I’m afraid not. Ned passed away last week. Heart attack, while he was unpackin ‘ a box of pickles, an’ was dead the next day. I’m his nephew, Ernie.”

Josh’s mouth opened slowly as he realized why Ned had not been out to see him.

“An’ if you mean the old donation box to the junction,” Ernie went on, “well, that charity ain’t around no more, not since the mill closed down. Hell, that money was for laid-up workers from the mill. Ain’t no laid-up mill workers without no mill. Why don’t you just pocket that nickel.”

Josh looked dumbly at the coin, now a strange enigmatic thing without purpose, lying in his hand.

“Say, now, just hold on a second,” said Ernie, pulling hard at his chin. “Seems to me there was somethin’ here for you. Out back. A box. Just a second now.” He rushed off to a door at the end of the counter and reappeared a few seconds later carrying a large cardboard box, which he placed on the counter in front of Josh. He tore off a strip of paper that was taped to the top and read it: “Josh Wright. I believe this is for you.”

It was the same size as the boxes that Ned had brought on his visits. Josh lifted one of the flaps and saw the glossy cover of a comic book. Inside, there were four more comics, a box of book matches, a bag of flour, cornmeal–all the things that Ned used to bring for him–placed tightly, carefully, in the box.

“I was gonna drive this out to you this week,” said Ernie. “Had no chance so far, with just takin’ over the store, gettin’ settled into things. Hope you didn’t need any of that stuff too urgent.” He thought a moment, and added: “Ned an’ your daddy were pretty close friends.”

“They was,” said Josh, shifting his eyes down the counter. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing at a clear plastic container with coins and a few bills in it. A small, black and white picture attached to the top showed two children who looked as though they were in pain.

“Oh, that’s a donation box for muscular dystrophy victims.”


“Sure, like the one out to the junction, sort of.”

Josh looked at the coin still tucked in his left hand. He picked it up with his right hand and dropped it into the slot of the plastic box. The nickel landed with a clink and settled in its place among the other coins.

“Say, Josh,” said Ernie, “things are usually pretty slow ’round here this time of day, an’ I wouldn’t mind a break from the store. How ’bout if I drive you home. It’s a long walk to the junction an’ it looks to be another scorcher today.”

Josh accepted the offer, and Ernie, untying his smock, said: “Fine. Let’s head out there right now.” He hung the smock on a nail and took two bottles of orange pop from the cooler. “These’ll take some of the bite out of the heat on our way there. You want to grab onto your box of goodies?”


As they pulled away from the store in Ernie’s green van, Josh fingered the key that hung from his neck. He was grateful for the ride home as he listened to Ernie talking about the store. He wondered if Ernie played checkers. But most of all, he was glad that he would be home soon to open the weathered old box by the road and gaze into its splendid emptiness.