The sun was rising as Jake drove up Highway 3. There wasn’t much light at first, just a deep amber glow that warmed the pine trees along the far hills. But slowly the light appeared, giving shape to the trunks and the branches and then the needles, to the semis that earlier had been pairs of floating lights. It blinded Jake as he drove east. He’d left behind his sunglasses, and when the light hit his speckled windshield the glass became a murky filter. He ran the fluid and the wipers but that just smeared the grime across the glass, thickening it. Of course there was no shoulder, so he kept going. He leaned forward, reached out the window, and used his sleeve to scrub a sliver in the dirt at eye level. Not great, but it would get him to Meg’s. He could wash the car there.
Or maybe he would just wash the windshield. There weren’t any carwashes between his home and Douglas City, where Leanne thought he was driving to reroof Don Wilson’s house. Coming home with a clean truck would raise questions. Better to just clean the windshield. If Leanne asks, say he did it at a gas station. But then he’d have to make sure the tank was full, or at least mostly full. He looked at his gas gauge and saw he’d need to fill up soon anyway. He was safe.
Then there was the roof. He was actually doing that job in two days, but he couldn’t stop thinking that for some reason Leanne would end up at Don’s house before then. He pictured her looking up at the patchwork of mossed-over tiles, arms crossed, lips pursed, shaking her head. Steaming. He should have made up a customer.
He shook himself and said out loud that Leanne had met Don only once, maybe twice, so why would she ever end up at his house, half a mile down a fire trail?
Seven months in and he was still getting used to cheating.
Meg was the opposite of Leanne. She was tall, muscular, had hair cut well above the shoulders. When Jake reached the end of her gravel driveway she was leaning against the doorway in an oversized snow jacket, her brown hair knotted and splayed, her gaze cold and unmistakable. Jake admitted that by every measure he knew she wasn’t attractive. But there was something about her.
Without saying anything she turned and went inside. He took three cans of sealant from his truck bed and found her in the kitchen, turned away, stirring something into her coffee.
Happy to see me? he said.
I think three cans should do the job, but I have more if we need it.
You didn’t call she said.
He’d figured this would come up. At least they could get it over with.
Leanne was home all week he said.
You know I can’t call when she’s home he said.
It was true. With no cell service in the area any call had to be over the landline. He used to call Meg that way, taking the receiver into the grove of trees behind his house. But once, after joking about her mattress being too stiff to sleep on, he heard the faint click of another phone on the line hanging up. He ran inside and found Leanne at the dining room table, struggling with a crossword puzzle. The phone was on the charger in the kitchen.
After a minute she looked up from the newspaper.
You look tired she said. Did you sleep okay?
He spent the next few weeks studying his wife, looking for proof that she’d listened to the call. At first he found it everywhere. She rolled away from him when he climbed in bed. She yelled at him for coming home later than usual. She asked him if he still loved her. He felt nervous, and then he felt guilty, and then he had the faint but unmistakable feeling that he needed to end things with Meg.
He never did. The weeks wore on and nothing changed at home and he began to convince himself that he’d been imagining things, all the way back to the click on the phone. He went to Meg’s more often now. But he wasn’t about to call her when Leanne was around.
Meg sipped her coffee.
What do you expect from me? she said. I’m just supposed to go three days with no contact and assume you’ll show up when you said you would?
Jake nodded thoughtfully.
I’m out here on my own, no way to reach you she said. Always waiting. The least you could do is call when she’s in the shower.
Jake nodded thoughtfully.
Meg sighed and turned toward the back door.
Come on she said. We’ll need to hurry if we want to have time before you leave.
Jake grabbed the cans.
He was still amazed every time he stepped onto Meg’s back deck. The redwood panels started six feet above the ground and reached thirty yards in each direction. No fixtures or railings, the deck just stretched into the forest. Three pine trees rose through holes in the wood and gave just enough shade to cover the entire surface. Stepping out of Meg’s small, cluttered house and onto the deck reminded him of the time he visited San Francisco as a kid, when his father led him from the cigarette-strewn Market Street sidewalk into a gilded hotel lobby.
He felt the deck was his best work, though he couldn’t take sole credit for it. They’d built it together. When they first met and she led him into the sloping backyard, sweeping her arm outward as she explained her vision, he couldn’t picture it. The foundation alone would cost thousands he told her. The lumber tens of thousands. She understood that. He told her he was short-staffed. She said she would help. She and her father had built the house, after all. That’s when he really looked at her for the first time. Her strong arms, her scuffed boots, her thin and knowing smile. Just maybe.
From the start everything went smoothly. Meg said she wanted B-grade redwood for the deck and merchantable heart for the posts, and Jake admitted they were the right choices. When he came to drop off the support beams she’d already dug the holes for their foundations, so they mixed and poured the concrete that day. They measured and sawed and hammered next to each other, wordlessly in lockstep. It was the easiest big job Jake had ever done.
Almost right away there were passing touches on shoulders and backs, lingering eye contact, glances up and down bodies. He didn’t think anything about it at first and by the time he caught on he wasn’t sure which of them had started. That’s how he knew they had something. Meg was self-sufficient and spontaneous and passionate. She was different than his wife.
They took breaks more frequently. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, wine, movie. In the evenings they’d sit on the perimeter of the deck, legs dangling twenty feet above the forest floor, drinking. Once, after a couple glasses, Meg suggested they do away with the railing they’d planned to put around the edge. Jake looked down at the shrubs and leaves and pinecones beneath his feet and nodded. Of course the deck didn’t need a railing. Why had they ever thought otherwise? He raised his head and they looked at each other and then Meg was on top of him and he was on top of her and they rolled right up to the ledge and then back toward the center and then back to the ledge again. The unsanded wood burned their skin, made it come alive.
After three months the deck was done, but they agreed that they couldn’t stop, not now. And so it kept going, stretching further into the woods, the support beams that plunged down into the slope growing taller and taller. It kept going until Meg ran out of money and they’d built a monument.
In Jake’s mind it was flawless. But for the past few months Meg had been noticing stains and discolorations and streaks of gray cutting through the crimson, so she asked him to help reseal the deck. And now here he was, standing with one foot in the house and one on the deck, thinking about that Market Street hotel while Meg retrieved a can of oxalic acid from her garage. They diluted the acid and used brooms to sweep the murky fluid across the surface. By the time they’d wiped the deck down and hosed it off and wiped it down again it was already three in the afternoon. They made sandwiches and ate them on the ledge, and while he was gazing down at the forest floor Jake noticed fresh bleach stains on his pants.
This sort of looks like roof coating, right? he said. I mean, if you didn’t know any better?
I’m supposed to be roofing right now he said.
I know she said.
They went back to eating silently for a while.
I’m going to ask you something she said.
Jake slowly turned to face her.
I don’t like the sound of that he said.
You don’t? she said.
When you have something on your mind you always just say it.
Is that what you think?
Jake turned back and looked off into the trees.
What is it? he said.
How often do you have sex with her? she said.
How often do you have sex with your wife?
I sort of have to. She’s my wife.
Do you enjoy it?
Do you enjoy it?
I don’t know. Not nearly as much as—
Don’t compare us please.
Okay. Well. I suppose it’s enjoyable at times. But mostly it’s stale and repetitive and tedious. There’s no passion in it.
It’s just something that happens. I don’t look forward to it. And I don’t think she does either.
So neither of you wants to but you do it anyway?
Where is this going?
Please don’t get defensive.
I’m not the one who’s being defensive.
Don’t I have the right to be, every now and then?
Jake didn’t say anything for a while. He just sat there, looking down at the ground. He could tell that Meg was on the verge of tears.
I’ve been thinking about ending it he said.
You’ve been saying that for months she said.
I’m closer to doing it now. It just takes time.
You know I’m not the jealous type. But it can be hard.
Everyone gets jealous. I’m amazed you’re not more jealous, actually. And it’s unfair for you to have to put up with my double life.
He took a bite from his sandwich.
And more than just that he said, his mouth mostly full. It’s unfair to everyone involved.
Meg didn’t say anything. She just looked down to half-conceal her disappointment.
The next day was Sunday, and like every Sunday Jake and his father took their small boat onto Trinity Lake at five in the morning. As they cut across the lake the boat’s headlights bathed a slice of the still black water in a shimmering glow. On the other end they landed at Stoney Point, where they tied the boat to one of the emaciated stumps lining the lake and hiked along the terraced red clay to the mouth of the river. They fished for trout with silver spinners at daybreak and switched to copper ones after the light had spread across the water.
After a few hours they loaded the trout in the boat and sped off to the marina for coffee. They drank half and then poured in whiskey and went back onto the lake, trolling with downriggers at forty feet. They were hoping for salmon, though they rarely caught any.
Like always, once the coffee was gone they split a twelve-pack of Coors and talked into the afternoon. Rick knew all about Jake’s affair. He offered lots of advice. Back when things were starting with Meg, Jake had asked him if going further with her was wrong. Jake was expecting and perhaps hoping for him to say that he was crossing a moral boundary, that he needed to end things with Meg and save his marriage. But that didn’t happen.
When you get older you’ll see that the years of your life end up blurring together Rick had said. You try to recall a certain point in time, the details of what you did on a certain day or at a certain place, but you can’t tell one day from another. Everything’s just a hazy mess.
All the sudden Rick started coughing heavily. He didn’t stop until he spit something large into the lake. Then he went on.
Every now and then, though, something comes along that can bring things into a sharp focus he said. All the sudden every moment has meaning. Every choice you make, good or bad, is vital and life-changing and will stick with you forever. When I look back, I keep returning to the same four or five stretches where I was perched on an edge, where things could have gone wildly wrong or wildly right, where I truly felt alive. It’s almost like those are the only times that mattered. And I can say now that I wish I’d lived through more of them.
The answer stunned Jake. He’d grown up knowing his father to be dogmatic, stern. And in the months that followed, whenever they talked about Meg, Rick would always listen carefully and then offer sound advice that seemed to sanction the affair. Jake kept waiting for a rebuke, but it never came. He kept waiting for him to ask about Leanne, but he never did. Finally, after months of surprising encouragement, it dawned on Jake that his father must have cheated too. Years ago, back when his mother was alive. But Jake never brought that up.
Rick turned the boat into a cove adjacent to Trinity Dam. They pulled up to shore, tied the boat off, set their feet in the warm water, and leaned back in the boat, facing the angled wall of gravel and stone.
I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with it said Rick, nodding toward the dam.
Probably not said Jake. You haven’t come to terms with it in fifty years.
I mean, three towns. Gone forever. All for a reservoir and some electricity.
He took a long swig of beer and went on.
I’ve never told you this, but seeing that dam always reminds me that when I die, and the handful of other folks my age die, the memories of those towns will disappear. It’ll be like they never existed.
Rick said this every time they came out here.
I know I’ve told you this story before, but I’ll tell it again he said. My dad was the last one to leave Stringtown. The whole town evacuated days before the flooding, including the rest of our family. But he wouldn’t go. He just sat in the living room, cigar in one hand and glass of whiskey in the other, until the water was up to his knees and he let us drag him away.
Jake had never heard this story before.
Old fucker was as stubborn as they come said Rick. But he had a point. Some bureaucrats uprooting the lives of real people for a shadowy greater good. There were a hundred places they could have built the lake, but none of us had a say at all. You know, I’ve always sympathized with the Indians.
Rick paused and looked up. Two towering semis were driving toward each other on the narrow road that ran along the top of the dam. It seemed impossible that they would both be able to get by. Rick watched expectantly and then sighed and took a drink when they passed each other without incident.
And I was only a kid he said. I had an easy enough time moving on to another town, another house. But I’m pretty sure that seeing his home get flooded killed my father. He’d done everything right, you know. Built a family, built a house. And it still ended up a hundred feet under water.
Rick leaned back to get the last drop of his beer and then he hurled the can into the lake. He reached behind him and grabbed a fishing pole from the boat, leveled it out like a rifle, closed one eye, and took aim at a spot on the water in front of them.
Right about there he said. That’s where we lived.
Jake switched off his headlights as he took the final turn in his long driveway. There was some light from the front porch and some from the stars, but mostly he was driving blind. Feeling his way through the darkness, he turned the wheel just so, moved at just the right speed, waited to brake until he could sense that he was a few feet in front of the garage door. He always was.
He’d done this as long as he’d lived in the house. His first dates used to get interesting right around this turn, when he’d suddenly cut the lights, stop talking mid-sentence, and keep driving around the bend. Every time, his date would scream and cling to him. He’d finish driving, park the car, flick on the lights, and calmly explain that if she wanted to squeeze his arm, doing so while he was trying to steer them through total darkness was hardly the best time. They all loved that. When he tried it with Leanne, though, she threw open the door and stormed out. She sat silently on the ground for twenty minutes, looking off into the night at nothing. Finally she said that if he ever treated her like all the others again she was leaving.
All these years later, pulling into the driveway still made him think of her expression that night. A pretty scowl. And tonight, when he walked in the house, he saw the same frown on Leanne as she carried a pot roast to the table. Then he looked closer and saw she was just concentrating.
She set the pot roast next to plates of Brussels sprouts with bacon and baked beans and French-roll garlic bread.
You can take the leftovers to work tomorrow she said.
Jake looked at her with her checkerboard apron and her matching oven mitts and her hair tied back and he wondered if she’d ever looked so beautiful. He stood frozen in place, staring at her until she caught him staring. She smiled and sat down and he sat down too and they started eating.
I can’t promise there’ll be any leftovers he said.
Where are you tomorrow, again? she said.
The roof. Don Wilson’s roof.
I thought that was yesterday.
Jake choked on a Brussels sprout and took a hasty pull from his wine glass.
There’s still a bit left to do he said.
Leanne nodded and chewed her food.
How was your day? he said.
Fine. Quiet. Called my mom, so there’s half the day gone right there. Did the laundry. Mopped the floor. Dusted. Walked Maxwell to the fire station and back. That tired him out. He was napping all afternoon until he heard you at the door. And now he’s back at it.
She nodded over at the black lab. He was sleeping at the base of the sliding glass door, where the wood floor was still warm from the sun.
How’s your dad doing? she asked.
He’s fine. I had to hear another rant about the flooding of Stringtown. You’d think that after all these years...
Some people have an easy time moving on she said. Others don’t.
Just then Maxwell let out a sudden, deafening bark. Jake and Leanne both jumped and looked over. He was asleep, spinning himself in circles on the wood floor, kicking both his legs, panting. He barked again, quieter this time. Jake and Leanne both relaxed and laughed and took a drink and smiled at each other.
He thinks he’s chasing something she said.
Maybe he’s being chased he said.
Before he left for Don’s the next morning, Jake called Meg.
What a surprise she said. Is the wife out for the day?
She’s in the shower he said.
Wow. You’re really taking my advice to heart.
Don’t I always?
Where are you?
In the living room. Looking toward the hallway for when she comes walking out.
Does she take long showers?
Yes. But she’s already been in there for ten minutes.
You’d better hope I don’t talk your ear off.
Well lucky for you I’ve got a lot to say. After you left on Saturday I started watching Lost. Martha lent me the DVDs. Have you seen it?
It’s a little complicated but I’ll do my best to catch you up. A Boeing 777 is flying from Sydney to Los Angeles, and over the Pacific Ocean they hit turbulence. It gets really bad and the plane breaks in half and the central cabin lands on an uncharted tropical island. There are lots of survivors, and they’re all quite different. There’s Jack, the dashing back surgeon. There’s Charlie, the fallen rock star. There’s Kate. We don’t really know what her deal is yet but she’s pretty—
Oh my god. This is actually happening.
Is there a problem? Are you not interested?
If you’d called right when she got in the shower this wouldn’t be a problem.
It took me a while to find the second receiver.
Okay, then I’ll get right down to business.
What does that mean?
What are you wearing?
A plaid shirt.
Mmmm, a plaid shirt. What else?
Oh yeah baby.
There’s just no way to sound aroused by argyle socks. I can’t do it.
I was kidding about wearing those.
I can hear you pulling them off right now.
Well Meg, Leanne’s coming out now. I’ll see you Thursday.
Hold on. First let me tell you about the flashbacks. Everyone on the island has them—
You’re welcome Don. I’ll see you in an hour.
Jake hung up the phone and hugged his wife.
Later that week Jake and Meg made love on the back deck. Then they stayed out there, lying on their backs, their pale skin dappled with the light that seeped through the trees. Every so often a breeze would rush through and they’d pull each other closer, tighter. Jake told her that he lived for afternoons like this one.
The rest of the day they hardly said another word. They just lay there holding each other until Jake had to leave. He dressed slowly and mentioned that he didn’t think he’d be able to make it back until late the following week. He winced, waiting for Meg to protest, but she didn’t say anything. She just smiled and looked at him longingly. Her eyes showed only the faintest hint of regret.
She walked him through the house, still naked. Until next time she said, and she kissed him passionately and stood in the doorway and smiled and waved as he drove off.
The next time they were out on the lake, speeding into the wind, Jake told his father that he needed to do something, that he felt torn in two, that he had to choose between the woman he’d married and the one he loved. The oncoming breeze seemed to pull the words out of him.
Rick nodded calmly and pulled the boat off to the side of the cove and cut the motor. There was no one else around, and once their wake died out the water became glass all the way to the far shore. Rick reached back and grabbed himself a beer.
Here’s my advice he said. Go with the one you love.
I know said Jake. Straightforward enough. But where does that leave Leanne?
She’ll be fine. She’ll take half of what you own and maybe move in with her sister and then she’ll meet someone else and go on living. She’s pretty and young and smart and won’t have a hard time of it.
I just keep wondering how she’ll manage.
She’s not helpless, you know. If you were leaving behind a kid that’d be one thing, but she can take care of herself. She survived before she met you.
Look. If you love someone else then you’re doing Leanne a disservice by staying with her. She’s living a lie and she doesn’t even know it. The only way to fix that is to let her go.
Rick had been saying this for weeks now, and Jake knew he was right. At this point the questions that were really on his mind were practical, not moral. How do you tell your wife that there’s someone more important than her? Should you hold your head up when you do it? When she asks how long you’ve been cheating, should you lie?
He reached into the cooler. Maybe another beer and he could start asking those.
Marriage is a funny thing Rick said. You know that by now, but what you don’t know is the way it changes when you become a parent. All your problems and disputes and achievements suddenly seem petty and embarrassing. All the sudden the two of you are living vicariously through another person. Your lives become so close you’re practically choking on each other, and you both know it’ll stay that way for years.
He finished his beer, tossed the can in the back of the boat, and went on.
What I’m saying is, whenever you decide to have kids, you’d better be damned sure you’ve got the woman of your dreams.
He hadn’t planned on it, and he was already running late, but after he left the lake Jake drove to Meg’s. She answered the door looking confused and surprised and worried and relieved all at once. Before she had a chance to say anything he started talking.
I’m going to do it he said. I’m going to tell Leanne. Tonight.
Meg’s body relaxed.
Oh really? she said.
Yes. I’m going to tell her and end things with her and then I’ll drive over here. Then we’ll just take things one at a time. This has all gone on long enough.
Meg stood there for a while, watching his face become more and more nervous as the seconds passed in silence. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and grabbed his hair and buried her head into his shoulder and held him tightly for so long.
It’s going to be okay she said.
There’s no going back now he said.
It was perfectly dark when he pulled into his driveway. The wind had changed direction and was blowing hard from the north, bringing in smoke from a fire near Weed that blocked out the stars. Leanne had turned off the front porch light and was probably in bed. When he reached the last turn Jake switched off his headlights and drove through the pitch black night. Just before he made it to the garage there was a thud.
Right away he knew it was Maxwell. He dove into the space behind his seat and came up with a flashlight and got out of the car and shined the light on the driver-side front tire. There was nothing there. He heard the faint jingle of Maxwell’s tag against the collar, and he wheeled around and shot the flashlight in the distance just in time to see the dog sprinting away, terrified. Jake took off after him and ran through the trees for a quarter mile until the Maxwell was out of sight and the jingling had died away. Jake yelled his name over and over but he didn’t come back.
The wind had shifted again and the smoke was starting to clear. Jake turned off his flashlight. Under the moon and stars he could see perfectly well that the forest around him was empty.
As he walked back to the house he realized that if Maxwell ever came back he might not be his dog anymore. Admitting that he’d hit Maxwell sure wouldn’t help his case. But he would do it. He would tell the truth. All the time. Starting right now. Starting with Meg. It was the only way forward.
So he took a deep breath and closed his eyes and stepped through the doorway with purpose, walking straight down the hallway to the bedroom, where Leanne jumped up from the bed and ran to him and hugged him tighter than she ever had before and pulled him close and whispered in his ear that she’d missed her period again and taken a pregnancy test and would he guess what it said?