The cab of my truck stinks like a forest
burning, my clothes, beard, and hair thick with the charry stench. Add to that ten days of
hard-work sweat with no shower. I'm dead tired and still pissed off about how long the
drive home was, following a line of slug-slow RVs over the pass.
But when I pull in and park next to the shed, I get a
rush from the lushness of it all. Our hillsides busted out in green tiers and the
broccoli's tall enough to see from where I sit. I'm staggered by how the garden's grown in
the two weeks I've been gone. Plants are as crazed for Gina as I am. Tepees of beans wind
up their poles, garlic tops bend over to tie knots in themselves, carrots stand so thick
and ferny I want to strip down and roll in them, let them tease the tired out of my bones.
I like the way the new cabin looks sitting above all
this, finished enough to get the idea but not cluttered up yet by us living in it.
I'm ready to kick back and be with Gina, to completely
forget about fighting fires for a couple of days.
Then she walks out of the shed, tall and clean,
looking even better than the garden with her clingy black camisole and broad tan
shoulders, wild hair pulled back from her face like a promise.
"I quit" is the first thing I say.
"Those fires can burn just fine without me." I lick my little finger and hold it
up in the air. "I swear not to ever leave this place again."
She smiles and I make a circle around her with my
chimney-sweep arms, not touching her anywhere. It feels good being together long enough to
have a few routines like this, long enough to know Gina actually thinks I'm sexy when I
come home this dirty.
My experience with women is we start out fine but then
something goes wrong and they take off. They arrive, their cars jam-full of plants,
teapots, and books. Always amazed how much it weighs, I sling a pile of clothes over my
arm, their hangers upside down. We carry this all up the hill and squeeze it into my
one-room cabin. They start living the good life. Every woman sees first-hand how simple it
is out here, away from the rush and not buying the stuff the rest of the country is
breaking its back over. But next thing I know, I' m helping another woman carry boxes down
to her car and then I stand watching the dust cloud hang over the road where shes
It's where I live, the hard work of it, the outhouse
in January when you come down with the flu, the axle-deep mud in March where the culvert's
washed out. It's the mosquitoes in June and all year hauling everything up forty-three
stone steps to the cabin. My place looks beautiful at the beginning, but it doesn't grow
on them. It goes the other way.
Gina, however, gets into it as much as I do, even the
winter, packing groceries and laundry on our backs and snowshoeing up the thigh-deep road
at midnight, the moon out and snow diamonds glittering along Miller's fence line.
Generally I get by pretty well not working for anybody
else, but this time, with Gina, I'm working like a goddam ant, putting in overtime and
raking in the cash. With the dry summer and bad winds, my checks have been fat. We put
them right into pipe, lumber and insulation. We got a well drilled, 160 feet down and
eight gallons per minute, and we'll get water up the hill as soon as the roof's on so we
can rig up a holding tank and generator. Every week the place improves.
I grin at Gina and tell her what a knockout she is.
And I admire the garden. I've put in a lot of gardens here over the years but never gotten
much of a harvest until now. Animals, bugs, frost, weeds---some pestilence gets it first
every damn time. But this season it looks like we'll have to build more shelves in the
She's good with plants, no question, and she works on
the place like crazy. Gina is really something and I'd do just about anything for her.
"Soon's I scrub the top three layers off my hide,
let's give these vegetables something to talk about." I wink so hard I think my
lashes won't come unstuck from my cheek. This is the way we kid around, coming up on ten
months living together and still flirty.
She's staring up at her crops like a proud mom. I
crouch to unlace my boots and pull off my cruddy socks, admiring the shape of her calves.
"This garden should keep us out of the grocery
store all winter," I say. I stand and splay my toes out on the cool stone of the
walkway. "We'll hunker in and never go to town. Sleep late every morning and make
love every afternoon."
"We'll see about that," she says. She
crosses her arms and they make a little shelf under her breasts. The hairs on her forearms
are sun-bleached against her tan.
Gina's not likely to slow down even when the windows
ice over, but lying low sounds good in the middle of all the work we're doing. Last winter
she made a quilt, her first one. She got pissed off a thousand times at the treadle sewing
machine and the Aladdin lamps that flare up whenever they get too hot, but she finished it
"Tonight's all ours," I say. "I don't
report in until tomorrow evening." I walk over to a tomato plant with branches so
heavy Gina's had to build scaffolding to hold it together and I pop a sun-warmed cherry
into my mouth. The explosion of juice and seeds is a taste you forget until that first one
"Let's hike up at sunset and serenade our babies,
tell them to hurry up and grow so we can start smoking our own," I suggest.
Gina takes in a deep gulp of mountain air and sighs.
Unlike most females, she likes getting high as much as
I do. Other women I've known tend to get paranoid when they smoke weed. At parties they
worry about every word they say and when they smoke a joint at home, it puts them to
sleep. Not Gina. She says ganja helps her notice how beautiful the world is, .the details.
Peeling logs, for example, she calls me over to see the orange and white brought up in the
wood or points at the wandering track of worms. Digging the footings, she studies soil
And if we've been getting a little tense around each
other, a reefer will smooth everything out and we're on again: low-cost, organic couple
I pinch my thumb and pointer together and mime taking
a big hit off a doober. "No more of this leftover shake from Branny," I say. My
voice has that faraway sound from me holding in the air.
"We've got to talk, Jackstraw," Gina tells
me and it sounds like what I've heard before, a simple request, a little point of rock you
think you'll move and then there's a car-size boulder underneath.
"But take your shower first. I'll rustle up some
grub," she says in a cowpoke accent. I step back and look down at the filthy,
soot-charred sight of myself like I'm surprised at her suggestion and Gina laughs that
way, her eyes almost closed. Her laugh is throaty, an invitation that makes anyone around
want to join in.
"Seemed too hot to start a fire," she says.
"The water'll be like ice."
"Cold is just fine," I say. "I want the
kind of cold only you know how to warm up."
"I could probably oblige you on that."
Gina and I are still as hot for each other as we were
the first month. Maybe it isn't so bad, that "we've got to talk." It could be
marriage or even kids she's got on her mind. Gina's father is a Mormon bishop but she
dropped out of all that and avoids religion altogether now. If she spots a pair of
suit-and-tie missionaries riding their bicycles in town, she makes a show of diving for
cover. But she did grow up with their rights and wrongs. Who knows? I think I could handle
a wedding, maybe. A kid could be the ultimate garden trip.
So I stand under the earth-cold water of the shower
we've set up down by the well, a fifty-five gallon drum sitting high on a platform where
you can build a fire if you want. Cold feels good after working at the spike camp, living
with heat and smoke, the constant presence of exploding trees. I lather my hair and beard
into a thick foam. It's starting to feel like Friday night.
"You bet your life,
your sweet wife
will catch more fish than you-ou-ou-ou!"
I sing in my best Taj Mahal voice, loud enough for her
to hear up in the shack. We've started calling my old cabin, the one-room rathole,
"the shack" and calling the new place, the one we're building, "the
"I'm losing it," Gina tells me later, after
we've eaten a stew with new potatoes and thumb-sized carrots. We're outside on a munching
tour of the garden, the day cooling off and nighthawks diving through the dusk.
I wait for what's next.
"We need to go up and destroy those pot plants,
Jackstraw. Otherwise I know for certain we'll get busted."
I try to catch her eye here, to see if she's teasing,
but she looks out over the tree tops below us, her back to the cabin and her face as
stubborn as some little kid's.
She turns to me with a clamped-lips smile, tipping her
head up and back in the direction of the cliffs.
"We have time tonight," she says. "Time
to get it over and done with."
A bat could fly into my mouth, I'm so surprised. Where
is this coming from? As I said before, Gina and I both enjoy a smoke now and then. We
agreed about growing our own weed so we don't support any mafia types or end up with stuff
that's been sprayed with poison.
She acts like it's settled, like it's signed and
"It won't get dark until ten. If we get rid of
them, I'll be able to sleep tonight."
She's twisting a cucumber off its prickly stump, the
first one we'll eat this summer, our dessert.
I try to be reasonable.
"Gina, that's nuts," I tell her. "Those
plants are our winter stash, our secret ingredient for the burrowing in. They're the
entertainment budget. Our private store of wackiness and fun."
She doesn't even hear me.
"Three nights in a row I've had nightmares.
They're warnings, Jackstraw, omens we can't ignore." Her head shakes back and forth
to punctuate the part about the omens.
I'm not prepared for this from Gina. She's an
intelligent, no-nonsense woman and now she's receiving crank calls through a dream
"I wake up with my heart flapping around inside
my chest and my hair plastered to my face. Then I lie wide awake, dead certain that it's
Gina's voice gets soft, like she's afraid one of the
cabbages will listen in. "There's a topo map stretched out flat on top of a truck
hood. It's our section with the brown lines running close together in the left-hand
corner. They drew a circle there, Jackstraw, a red noose around the eagle cliffs."
"Guess that proves you dream in color," I
say. I'm stalling for time, hoping to defuse her paranoia so it'll go away. My pal Branny
brought those seeds over from Hawaii, a handful of aloha stashed in his skivvies, DNA
descendant of palm trees and tropical breezes.
"This isn't a joke, Jackstraw," she says.
She comes in close to me and grips my biceps with her strong hands, glaring straight into
my eyes. One of the things that attracted me to Gina is how big she is, large-boned,
straight-backed, and perfectly beautiful. She's as tall as I am and can really look
"Laughing this off could be the dumbest thing we
ever do," she warns.
"Dumber than me asking a hitch-hiking gypsy to
run a chain saw?" I ask. I'm still hoping to turn this thing around. I want to hold
her and kiss these stupid dreams away but she's got me in that grip.
Instead of our song, Gina and I say we have our own
mile marker, number 112. That's the spot where I first met her out on the highway into
town. She wasn't really hitch-hiking; she was standing next to her worthless Chevy
Citation, a car that her dad gave her like a curse. Per usual it was broken down. Turned
out to be the timing chain, but she was hoping we could jump it. When that didn't work I
offered her a ride to MacManamie Draw where she was house-sitting for a teacher's family.
She'd moved up from Sacramento, a college type who decided to bail out and try life in the
mountains up north. In a magazine called Mother Earth News that ended up in the
waiting room of her mom's office, shed read a few articles about living close to
nature and knew right then it was for her. In the MacManamie driveway we sat in my truck
talking and I fell in love with the little space she has between her two front teeth.
Finally I turned off the engine and asked her if she wanted to put up a cabin. That's
actually how it happened. I cut the ignition and said, "How'd you like to build a
cabin together?" Came out of nowhere.
The next Saturday we went to a potluck in Brannigan's
meadow where we got high on his homegrown and hiked the ridge above Branny and Lynne's
house, and she said yes. The woods up there were magic, late sun shafting through the
lodgepole pines and yellow arnica flowers facing us like they approved. We were exploding
with ideas for the cabin, Gina especially. I knew she was smart and I saw she was
beautiful and I realized I didn't have a chance of not falling for her.
My friends said they'd seen it before, too many times.
But Gina and I slid right through the winter together. It's been almost a year, which is a
record for me, and now we're ready to lay the last course of logs on our cabin. Once we
figured out our roles, me driving in the big spikes and using the draw knife to flatten
the logs, Gina on the saw and chisel, notching and fitting them at the corners, we were
cooking. It turns out that Gina is a whiz with a chain saw. I always say if times get
tough she can make chain saw sculptures to sell at the flea market.
But tonight won't turn around the right way no matter
what I say. I can't convince her we're not about to get raided by a sheriff's posse.
Through dinner, through sitting on the porch watching for the August night's crop of
falling stars, through games of cribbage pushing match sticks up and around the board,
Gina's dream crowds at us, an unnecessary third in our company. At midnight, burned out
from looping around the same conversational circle, I make one last try.
"Think of them as vegetables," I say. We're
leaning out over the railing on the shack's porch, brushing our teeth and spitting into
the marigolds. "You've got to think positive. Those few scrawny plants are for
household use. They don't make us criminals."
But that's exactly how Gina's picturing herself, a
criminal in scratchy clothes, locked up in a women's prison somewhere while her life
outside falls apart.
"I keep imagining my dad's voice saying, 'You
knew better.' And I could have sworn I heard helicopters this morning." Her voice
wavers like she might start crying.
Some day Gina's going to have to stop worrying about
what her dad thinks. If I'd listened to my father's warnings, I'd be sitting in some law
office or accounting firm, my ass mushy as cooked squash and my lungs sucking up
"We've got our carrots and spinach on this
land," I say. "We're growing lettuce and kale, pole beans and cabbage. Plants
with foreign names like arugula and kohlrabi. What's wrong with a little cannabis amongst
"Marijuana is definitely not a vegetable,"
she says, an angry space between each word.
"Well neither are apples," I answer, which I
know doesn't make sense but it comes out anyway. I am exhausted, after all, digging
endless fire lines and now this.
This is the first time we can't talk ourselves around
to agreeing. Finally we climb into bed where I nuzzle my beard in under her ear and say,
"Gina, Gina, Gina." She lies with her back to me, as still and rigid as one of
our logs outside.
Sex is out of the question, I know that much. She
keeps readjusting the covers on her side of the bed and sighing. She's fretting, her worry
vining through my jagged sleep.
When I open my eyes at six, she's staring at me.
"You awake?" I ask.
"Every time I doze off, I'm in the middle of that
I'm tired of the nightmare subject and I know we'll
eventually trash the plants but somehow I don't speak up yet. I don't want to think about
pulling up those plants we've nurtured. It's a terrible waste. Branny maintains that wine
relaxes your body but pot feeds your soul. That could be a little dramatic but the smoke
does tune up your perspective. It clears out the petty stuff and lets the smartest part of
your mind think, opening it up in unexpected ways to what really is important.
So that's how it is and it's a grim and gray morning
for us. We can't lay the last logs on the cabin without help and neither of us moves to
walk over to Miller's place or down to Branny's.
"I guess we should get someone to come up and
help today," I say, breaking into an hour of silence. Gina's hulling strawberries,
slicing them into a big pot for jam and I'm in and out of the shack as I pick the ripe
berries and fill the colander. There's no industry or heart to what we're doing. Even the
taste of a fresh berry doesn't help. "They said they'd be happy to."
"Misery doesn't love company," Gina says. So
for the first time I remember, we don't hurry out to work on the cabin. This fight has
paralyzed us and we pass back and forth in the shack, careful not to brush against each
Finally I say it.
"Let's go on up there and yank them out if that's
the way you want it." I have to leave for work in an hour and a half and I'm feeling
so pessimistic I wonder why I should even be earning more money. It's not giving up the
dope, I tell myself, it's the whole long list that's starting, all the things Gina will
want to change. First a jangling phone and an orange plastic tube down by the mailbox so
the paper can come every day, eventually a satellite dish to invite a daily bombardment
from the world outside. Visits from her parents when the baby is born and me having to get
the beer out of the house before they get here. A reliable car, curtains over the windows,
maybe going to church. Who can say?
I recognize this negative space I can get sunk into
but I don't stop it. I put on my boots and she grabs a pile of kitchen matches from the
holder behind the stove like maybe she's thinking of death by fire. The ravens, at least,
can enjoy the smoke. Taking the familiar path, a thready game trail through the northern
edge of our land, we hike up through the Douglas fir behind the cabin. Above, it gets
steeper and drier, with outcroppings of lichen-spotted cliffs. I'm following Gina,
enjoying the sight of her buns in spite of what we're about to do, but when I see her
march past a waist-high huckleberry bush, its fat berries grazing her right hip, I'm
jolted back to the seriousness of it all. Before this instant, I would never imagine Gina
passing ripe hucks.
When we get to the five ponderosas, we automatically
split up and weave through the kinnickinnick to avoid carving out a trail. I find myself
wishing everything were the same as last time I was home, that we were carrying jugs of
water up to the plants, anxious to see how much they've grown. But I keep quiet. I really
like living with this tall, strong woman. I like our laughing and touching, our plans and
how we work together. Maybe this is how it feels to be a grown-up.
We come to the spot, well hidden in clumps of
snowberry and a stand of young pines, and I'm hoping she'll notice how you can barely see
the plants. I've kept them pinched back so they're bushy and low. I want her to tell me
let's forget it, let's leave them growing. I want her to say let's keep on with our life
forever just the way it is.
But Gina's gotten more nervous, her head swiveling
around like natural predators are ready to swoop down on us.
"Relax," I say. "There's no one around
for miles. You know we'd hear them coming with just the one road."
She looks up into the sky, a dull streaky blue. Smoke
from the fires has smeared over most of the state.
"Any helicopters they can get their hands on are
being used to fight these fires," I say. I'm trying to comfort her but my heart's not
I don't think I can waste those plants. Im
starting to wonder if Gina really had those dreams or if she made this all up.
Maybe Gina's not going to last out here. Maybe the
excitement of building the cabin and growing a garden, things changing and getting better
every day, is what's kept her around, not the idea of our future. I'm recognizing the
signs, the way it is before a woman leaves, folding the quilt she made last winter and
packing up her stories, anecdotes she can tell at a party . . . . another three pages in
Mother Earth News.