Beautiful Country

I’m pruning trees in the front yard when I see her come down the driveway, a tall girl with long brown hair.  I keep working until she comes closer and then I walk over to meet her.  She smiles at me.  She has a mouth that looks like it’s used to smiling, it’s wide and takes up most of her face.    

Hi, she says.  

Hi yourself, I say.  What can I do for you?  

She looks around at the lawn and at the house and says, I’m looking for Steven Pierce.  A guy in town said he lived here.  
Stevie? I say.  He’s not here right now.  I look at her.    

Oh, she says.  She stands there with her thumbs in her beltloops and looks out over the trees.  Her clothes are dirty, the collar of her t-shirt frayed and the knees of her jeans wiped out.  She has the general smudged appearance of a drifter.  She says: you know when he’ll be back?

Don’t know, I say.  Sorry.

Do you know where he went?

I study her for a moment and stick out my hand.  I’m Greil Johnson, I say.  

Sorry, she says, and smiles her big smile and shakes my hand.  Yeah.  The guy said he lived out here with another guy.  She laughs.  

And who are you? I say.  

She looks me square in the eye.  I’m Sara, she says.  Then: Steven’s daughter.  After a moment she bows her head.

Oh, I say.  Well, I say. What do you know.  I look at her.  I say, Well you sure can hang around until he gets back.  

Thanks, she says.  She squints over my shoulder.  This is nice. She nods to the orchard.    

Yeah, I say.  Hey: Are you hungry?

Not really, she says.  

Are you thirsty? How about some iced tea? Coffee?

She hesitates.  Okay, she says.

I show her inside the house.  She grasps the doorframe and wipes her feet on the mat before entering.  In the mudroom she takes little darting looks everywhere and bends over to unlace her shoes.  

Don’t bother, I say.  Stevie’s not here, and I don’t care.  My laugh echoes in the small room and I feel strange.  

In the kitchen I tell her to make herself comfortable.  She sits down in a chair at the table carefully, as if she’s afraid she’s going to break it.  

I make egg salad sandwiches.  She eats two of them, and some baked beans I heat up on the stove.  She eats with her elbows poised over the tabletop, her cheeks ballooning.  She seems to go inside herself for a while, eating, and only after she’s finished does she sit back and give me a bashful smile.    

You were hungry, I say.  

Yeah, I guess so, she laughs, and delicately licks egg salad off her thumbs.  She glances at the room.  It’s small and dim like the other rooms in the house, the walls bare, the grey linoleum curling at the seams.  The window near her elbow is open and the gauze curtains billow dramatically every once in awhile.    

We talk about the weather as I heat water for coffee.  I carry the mugs to the table, and as she reaches out I notice the track marks on her arm.  She sees me looking and blushes, and takes the mug.  

She says quickly: I sure didn’t mean to interrupt your work out there.  

No, I say.  It’s fine.  I had been working for three days and was running out of things to do.  I don’t tell her that.  

We drink our coffee in silence.  

She stands suddenly and goes to the refrigerator and looks at the two snapshots on the freezer door.  There’s Stevie at Lake Chelan, crouched near the water and holding a trout by the gills.  Another is a picnic at Waterfront Park, Stevie standing by a barbecue pit and talking to my sister Jill-Ann, who’s smoking and scowling at something beyond the scope of the camera.  

Sara turns to me.  He ever tell you about me? she says.  

I glance at her, then look out the window.  Sure, I say.  There is a small silence, and then I say, Where’d you say you’re traveling from?   

You don’t know? she says.  Her voice is different and so is the look on her face.  Hard.  She looks out the window and the expression leaves her in a way that’s difficult to describe.  When she speaks again she sounds sorry.

I’m just traveling around, she says.  I was living in Seattle for awhile—

The phone rings.  I stand up to get it.  She crosses her arms and goes to the window.  

It’s the construction foreman again, asking for Stevie.  When I tell him he isn’t here, he begins to yell at me.  I replace the phone gently in its cradle and stand there.  

Behind me, Sara says: Look.  

I walk over and stand beside her.  Outside the window a cardinal hops in the branches of the dormant plum tree, cocking its head.  

Pretty, she says.  

I look at the side of her face.  I thought she was sixteen, maybe seventeen years old.  But she’s older than that, maybe twenty.  

You want to see Stevie’s garden? I say.

The day before I cut the grass, and the back yard is damp and sweet smelling.  I lead Sara to the rows of cucumber and lettuce.  She leans over them, holding back her hair.  I show her the cherry tomatoes growing on the scaffolding Stevie rigged himself.  I tell her to smell the peppery air above the radish beds.  Smell that? I say, and she sniffs, and scratches her arms and says, Yeah.  She looks over the garden. The raised beds are constructed out of railroad ties and lie in a spoke pattern centered around a quince tree.  

The quince tree is one of Stevie’s experiments.  Last spring he grafted a Japanese plum scion—a limb sample—onto the regular quince, which by itself bore sour, almost inedible fruit in the fall.  When we first moved to the place, when Stevie took up the garden as his special project while he was working at staying sober, he had sent away for fruit catalogs and gone to the library and got chummy with one of the old men who worked there.  This old man told him what to check out and study: books on grafting and topworking.  He told Stevie about a guy who successfully grafted a plum to a quince and made the best damn fruit he’d ever tasted.  Made the sweetest damn jelly too, the man said: this guy would make jelly and give it to his friends at Christmas.  This sounded good to Stevie, and so he checked out all the necessary books and went to see a man about some Japanese plum scions, and when Stevie told this man what he was up to, that he was going to graft the plum to a quince tree, the man looked at him and said, Son—this was another old guy, so he could call Stevie son—he said, Son, that’s like trying to breed a dog and a cat.  But he gave Stevie what he wanted—he was a nice guy, Stevie said, only he lacked imagination—and Stevie came back and got to work.  I tell all this to Sara, and while I’m talking I pull weeds from the beds.  She stands near the quince, listening.  

So? she says.  

So what, I say.  

So, did it work? she says.  

Well, I say, not yet.  But these things take time.  We have to see about it.  I do not tell her that I too, like the plum man, was skeptical.  But Stevie has a way of making you believe in something and get excited about it.   

I stand up and arch my back.  I tell Sara: Me, I take care of the apples.  That’s what I like.  Apples.  Simple.  And some cherries.  We got a few cherry trees up by the road.      

I saw them, she said.  Are they any good?

I turn to look at her.  Well yeah, I say.  

She sits down on one of the railroad ties, beside the radishes, and scratches her arms and looks thoughtful.  The man, she says.  The man who gave me a ride from town? He says—Stevie—works construction.  

I pull the weeds.  Yeah, I say.  He does that off and on.  

What about you, she says.  

I have the fruit, I say.  I sell the apples to a warehouse downtown.  The cherries, some of this stuff here, we sell at the market on the weekend.  

Is that enough?

Don’t need a lot, I say.  It’s enough.  

She doesn’t say anything for awhile.  You have kids? she says.  

Not that I know of, I say, and laugh.  It’s what I always say, and don’t think.  I stand up straight and pretend to stretch, and look at her.  She’s looking out at the grass like she didn’t hear.  The phone rings in the house.  I listen to it for a moment, and then bend over a particularly tough weed in the lettuce bed and yank on it.  

She says, Are you going to get that?

Naw, I say.    

It might be him, she says.  

Naw, I say again.  He’s not much for telephones.  

She doesn’t say anything.  

A long, soft cloud passes over the sun and afterwards the light is different.  The wind gets into the aspens near the house and rustles the leaves.  I go to the side of the house and uncoil the hose and turn on the spigot and walk across the grass.  I put my finger over the mouth and shag the water back and forth over the leaves.  Sara stares at the water.  After a minute she takes off her shoes and socks and flexes her toes in the grass.  She has long white feet.  I turn off the water and recoil the hose and when I come back she is putting on her shoes.  

I should go, she says.  

I was just going to pick some cherries, I say.  I watch her tie the laces.  You want to pick cherries with me? You won’t stay a little longer?

No, she says, and stands.  

Well, I say.

She looks away at the radishes and says, Can I see his room before I go?

I wipe my hands on my pant legs.  Sure, I say.  

I open the door to his bedroom.  Any moment now I expect to hear the front door whoosh open and Stevie lumber through the house and come upon us in the hallway and say, in his exaggerated way, What’s this? I stand for a moment in the doorway of his bedroom and then move inside.  Sara comes in behind me.  I watch her look over the room.  There is a single bed and a nightstand and a bureau and a ladder-back chair.  Above the bed is a window overlooking the yard.  Seed catalogues are stacked on the nightstand.  Above the bureau hangs a collection of arrowheads pressed in cotton and covered with a pane of glass.  Above the nightstand, his AA certificate.
I reach over to turn on the overhead light but Sara says quickly, This is fine.  
I leave her alone.  
When I get back from picking cherries—I pick a half-peck in a paper sack, for her to take where she’s going—she’s sitting on the porch.  She stands up when I come up the driveway.      
Well, I say.  You scootin’ off?
Yeah, she says.  We stand there smiling uneasily at each other.  Then I realize she’s planning to walk to town.  
Let me give you a ride, I say.  
Oh no, she says.  I couldn’t ask you to do that.  
Why not? I say.  Just wait one minute, I’ll get my keys.  
No, she says.  Really.  I like to walk.  
I look up at the sky.  It’s going to get dark in a few hours, I say.  
Town ain’t that far, is it? she says.  I’ll make it.  
Sure is a long walk.  
Well, she says.  I like it.  
Well, I say, and then offer her the bag of cherries.  I picked these here for you, but if you’re walking you probably don’t want to cart them around.  
She laughs.  No, I guess not, she says.  
Take a few anyway, I say.  What about a sandwich? You want a sandwich to take with you?
I’ll get something in town, she says, and that’s when I see she’s going to cry.  She looks past me into the orchard.  
You tell him I stopped by, she says.  And tell him, good luck with that quince tree.  She smiles and wipes her eyes and gives a low wave and turns and starts up the driveway.  
Okay, I say.  Will do.  
Take care, I call after her.
I watch until she turns onto the main road and then disappears from sight.  
I go inside the house and put on the kettle for coffee.  I turn off the burner and go into Stevie’s room and sit on the bed.  After awhile I lie back with my hands behind my head and close my eyes.
When he was a kid Stevie and his grandfather collected arrowheads during hunting trips on the Okanogan.  I don’t move anywhere without these arrowheads, Stevie once told me.  His collection was fifty or so arrowheads pressed in cotton and covered with a pane of glass.  He wanted to hang the collection in his room at the drying-out facility where we met but the doctors said no, because of the glass, and—the doctors’ words—the artifacts contained therein.  But they allowed the arrowheads to be displayed in the common room, under supervision.  Every day Stevie pulled a stool over to the corner where the arrowheads hung and sat by them.  He got to talking about where he and his grandfather had found each one, as if he could remember, and he talked about the Okanogan highlands and the upper Columbia and bobcats and steelhead trout as long as your arm, and wild horses that escaped from the Nez Perce around the turn of the century.  Most everyone appreciated his stories—there wasn’t anything else to do but play cards and write long letters to people you had wronged—but sooner or later Stevie failed to entertain the others and they moved away.  I stayed, though, and listened to him.  There was something about him that during the worst days kept me from wanting to die.  
When we get out of here, he said to me, We’ll take a long trip up the Okanogan and see what it’s all about.  That’s beautiful country, I’m telling you.  He studied me. Where you from? he said.  
Wenatchee, I said.  
No kidding, he said.  He thought for a moment.  All those orchards, he said.  That’s beautiful country too.  
An hour after the girl leaves it begins to rain, a slow warm rain.  I wait for it to let up, but when it doesn’t I get in the truck and go looking for her.  These late summer rains are unpredictable.  I drive for two miles when the clouds roll in soft and soot-black and it rains harder.  I roll down the window and drive slow, scanning the sides of the road.  The rain hits the dry ground and gives off a mineral stink.  I get all the way to town but don’t see her.  I tell myself she must’ve gotten a ride from someone else.  I don’t know where she’s staying, where she’s going.  I didn’t get a phone number, address, nothing.  I hadn’t even asked.  
Without realizing it, I drive straight to Roy’s.  From habit, I guess.  I roll up the window and sit there in the parking lot deciding what to do.  Finally I get out and go inside.  Roy’s behind the bar wiping out some shot glasses, and when he sees me his eyebrows nearly shoot off his face.  
Hey! he says.  Look who’s back, everyone, he shouts, and a few people look over at me boredly.  Roy laughs.  
Take a seat, he says.  What can I get you?
I sit down at the bar.  Roy, I say, and he looks at me.  
Oh, he says.  Jesus, I forgot.  You’re on the wagon, he says.  Then: What the hell are you doing here? He laughs.  Just kidding, partner.  A coke, then.  
A coke, I say.  He opens a can of coke and pours it into a frosted glass.  
A sweat breaks out over my body.  
There you go, he says.  He turns to the tier of alcohol behind him.  He says over his shoulder, Say, how the hell is Stevie? I heard he raised hell over there in Yakima the other night.  
Yakima, I say.  
Yeah, says Roy.  Disturbing the peace, something.  Got thrown in jail for a night.  He pours bourbon into two shot glasses for a couple of cowboys down the bar.  He chuckles and glances at me.  You bail him out? He sleeping it off?
I take a drink of the coke.  It’s like water.  Yeah, I say.  I had smelled the bourbon and felt my whole body become something else.  
Greil? says Roy.  Greil, you all right? You don’t look so good.  
I’m fine, I say.  Then I say: Hey, what’s a guy got to do to get a drink around here?
Roy laughs and then smiles nervously at me.  You serious? he says.  
Serious as a heart attack, I say.  
He looks at me.  I don’t know, he says.  
A man comes into the bar with rain spilling off his cowboy hat.  Behind him is a world full of rain, drumming.  Purple skies hang over his shoulder.  The fresh air hits my face and I start to come back to myself.  
The man says: Flooding down by Wilner’s farm.  
A few men grab their hats and head to the door.  
Don’t you live down that way? says Roy. 

                    •    •    •

I’m sitting in the truck looking at the flooded irrigation canal when Old Man Wilner jogs over hunched against the wet, his overalls soaked through.  I roll down the window.  
Flooded, he says.  
Yeah, I say.  Can I get through?
Wouldn’t risk it, he says.  I thank him and he nods and heads back into the rain.  
I roll up the window and turn around and drive towards town.  I remember asking for a drink and squeeze the steering wheel and curse.    
I drive to my sister Jill-Ann’s house and park on the street. When I knock on the door Jill-Ann answers in her bathrobe.  She looks at me.  
Look what the cat drug in, she says.   
I come inside.  Nate sits on the couch watching TV.  He glances up at me.
Hey Uncle Greil, he says.  His voice sounds like a rusted faucet.  He has acne all over his face.
Hey yourself, I say.  
Greil? Is that you?
I walk through the narrow living room into the kitchen.  Rodney, Jill-Ann’s boyfriend, sits eating fried chicken at the table.  He’s dressed in blue jeans and a flannel button-down shirt.  He’s as fat and balding as ever.  He grins at me.  
Rodney, I say, and shake his hand.  
Raining, is it, he says.  
Jill-Ann has come in behind me and goes to the counter and picks up a cigarette held crimped and burning in the ashtray.  She leans on the countertop and smokes.      
What kind of question is that, she says.  Is it raining.  She motions to the two dim and splattered windows above the sink.  
Rodney eats his fried chicken as if he doesn’t hear her.  
Goin’ to work? I say.  
Rodney nods, swallows.  Yep, he says.  He works two jobs, one of which is graveyard shift at the aluminum plant by the river.  
What brings you here? he says.  
Canal by Wilner’s farm flooded out.  
Takes a natural disaster for him to come see us, says Jill-Ann.  
I look at her.  Why you in your bathrobe?  
She takes her time blowing out smoke.  I don’t feel good, she says.  
Rodney leans down and gnaws on a chicken leg and then says to me, Hey, what’s going on with Stevie? There’s all sorts of people bent out of shape about him, about this new job.
What do you mean, I say.  
What do you mean what do I mean? says Rodney.  He hasn’t been showing up.  And I feel kind of responsible, you know, cause I sort of got him that job in the first place.  
Jill-Ann and I look at each other.  Rodney used to work construction like the rest of his friends until he got promoted to assistant to the foreman and now works in a heat and air-conditioned trailer where he comes to work in a tie and does paperwork all day.  Jill-Ann keeps him around because he helps her with rent on the mobile home, and he’s halfway decent to Nate.  But both of us know he has more say than a pig fart when it comes to getting people hired.  
You still living out there together in that orchard bachelor pad? says Rodney, and laughs and struggles up from the table.  Seriously, though, he says, tell him to start showing up.  I don’t know how much longer I can vouch for him.  He puts on his jacket and kisses Jill-Ann on the cheek and says, Good to see you, Greil.  
Rodney leaves and I go into the living room and sit down beside Nate.  He’s watching basketball.  Jill-Ann comes and leans in the doorframe and smokes.  After awhile she says, You staying the night?  
Yeah, I say.  If that’s okay with you.  
She smokes.  Nate’ll sleep on the couch, you can have his bed.  
Nate looks up at her hatefully.  
That’s all right, I say.  I’ll take the couch.  
Jill-Ann goes into the kitchen and a moment later I hear the water running.  
Nate mumbles, Bitch, and I say, Hey.  We watch basketball for awhile and he says, Where’s Stevie.  
At home, I say.  
Jill-Ann appears in the doorway.  You all want something to eat, she says, come get it.

                        •    •    •

After we eat we sit in the living room and watch TV.  Nate and I sit on the couch opposite the TV and Jill-Ann sits in the recliner beside the couch, her eyes closed, her legs tucked beneath her.  When Nate falls asleep I touch his shoulder and he jerks awake.  
It’s late, I say.  He stares at the TV screen for a few more minutes, then gets up.      
’Night, he says in the hallway.  
I get up and turn off the TV.  Jill-Ann opens her eyes.  She sits there for a moment and then leans over to the end table for her pack of Pall Malls.  
I sit on the couch.  After a few minutes I lay my head back.      
Jill-Ann smokes.  She says, How long’s he been gone.  
I lift my head.  
She draws hard on the cigarette and squints at the wall across from her.  
Who, I say.  But it’s no use pretending with her.  You hear anything? I say.  
She ashes into the ashtray and brings the cigarette to her lips and inhales.  A little, she says, and exhales.  Something about Yakima.  
I stare at the dark TV screen.  I say, He has a daughter.  
She glances at me.    
She came to the place today.  Just showed up.  
She smokes for a minute in silence.  Well I’ll be, she murmurs.  Then: You know he had a kid?
I shake my head.  
We sit there not saying anything.  She finishes her cigarette and stubs it out in the ashtray.  She gets up and comes around the back of the couch and stands behind me and bends down.  I think she’s going to kiss me, but she puts her nose near my collar and takes a few quiet sniffs. My spine goes cold.  She straightens up but leaves her hand on my chest.  
You got to promise, she says, he goes bad you won’t go with him.  Ain’t no friend worth that, she says.  Ain’t no man.  She withdraws her hand and walks down the hallway and goes into her bedroom and shuts the door.  
After awhile I turn off the lamp.  I take off my boots and lie down on the couch and pull the afghan over me.  I stare at the ceiling.  It’s still raining off and on in bursts.  After a long time I hear, far off, glass breaking, and the shouts of boys.  I close my eyes.  
When I wake the clock on the VCR reads six o’clock.    
I get up from the couch and go to the window.  Outside is silver and feather-light.  The drops on the windowpane sparkle.  I open the door and step out onto the porch.  It’s cold and smells like the inside of irrigation pipe.  
In three weeks will be apple harvest and the whole valley from Wenatchee to the Tri Cities will be full of people come to pick fruit.  Mornings like this will carry the scent of apples, which I can’t describe, but maybe if you are lucky you know what I’m talking about.  I think for a moment that the girl, Stevie’s daughter, could work around here, maybe in a packing warehouse.  At the end of the day she could come home and have dinner with us.  Maybe I could find her and tell her about it.  Maybe she could stay with us.      
I turn to go back inside the house, but stop.  Across the street at the Rodriguez place a man lays on the lawn, curled in the fetal position.  Drunk.  I see a row of kids in the big picture window—I count five—staring out at him.  An older girl is braiding another’s hair, and they all watch the body on the lawn.  A boy stands inside the screen door, shirtless, his arms crossed.  He’s the oldest boy, Nate’s age.  I’ve seen him, I’ve worked with him in the trees.  He sees me standing on the porch and starts to go outside.  A voice within the house screams, Jaime, don’t you dare! Jaime! Don’t you dare go outside, you hear me? Leave him, you hear me? The boy hesitates, slowly withdraws back inside the house.  The children in the window all stare at me.  On the lawn, the man begins to swim with one leg.

Facebook Comments