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from maile meloy’s upcoming book of short stories:
“red from green”
by maile meloy
The summer she turned fifteen, Sam Turner took her last float trip down the river with her father. It was July, and hot, and the water was low. Hardly anyone was on the river but them. They had two inflatable Avon rafts with oaring frames—Sam and her father in one, her uncle Harry and a client from Harry’s new law firm in the other. In the fall, she would be a sophomore, which sounded very old to her. She’d been offered a scholarship to a boarding school back East, but she hadn’t accepted it yet. Applying had been her father’s idea, but now he looked dismayed every time the subject came up. Everyone said what an opportunity it was, so much better than the local schools, but she couldn’t bring herself to fill out the forms, and neither of them could talk about it.
Sam had been down the river every summer for as long as she could remember—in a dozen rainstorms, and in hot sun that burned the print of swimsuit straps into her shoulders. Harry, her father’s younger brother, sometimes brought his friends, who passed the bottle of schnapps to her when her father was away from the campfire. She liked the smell better than the burning taste. She knew all the campsites and the cliff-shaded turns of the river, and the long, flat stretch through pasture at the end. It was a four-day float trip, or five if you dawdled, or three if her father had to get back to work.
Her uncle’s client was the reason they were on the river so late in the summer, when it was all sandbars and rocks. Sam hadn’t been told that, exactly, but it was the feeling she got, that they were going for this client. He had come from somewhere else, and was staying in Montana only for the case. She met him at the put-in, unloading the gear. Harry introduced her as his niece.
“You got a name?” the client asked.
“Sam,” she said.
“Layton,” the client said. He was younger than her uncle, and he wasn’t tall, but he was big in the chest and arms. He set a full cooler on the ground and put out a hand to shake hers.
“God, I like being up here,” he said. “I’m part Crow, part Blackfoot, part Sioux, I think. Part Jewish.” His eyes were blue. He let her hand go. “You have perfect teeth,” he said. “Did you have braces?”
“No,” she said. She was awkward at fifteen, and praise made her suspicious.
Layton said, “This is gonna be fun.”
Her father and Harry drove both empty trucks downriver to the place they’d take out three days later, to leave one and bring the other back. Sam stayed with the rafts, and Layton volunteered to stay with her—to keep her safe, he said. They sat on the bank with the gear, sliding the coolers along the grass as the sun moved, to keep them in the shade. Sam was reading “The Thorn Birds,” bought at the supermarket along with the ice and groceries on the way out of town.
“It’s not on your reading list,” her father had said, dropping it in her lap in the truck. “But it’s the best thing they had.”
The boarding school had sent her a summer reading list with thirty books on it, books like “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Tender Is the Night,” but in her reluctance she’d forgotten to bring one along.
Layton took out a shotgun to clean and oil it. “I bet you’re a crack shot,” he said. “Montana girl like you. I bet you’ve got your own guns.”
Sam shook her head and kept reading, and he brought the gun over to show her the sight, which was just a notch of steel on the barrel. He crouched close to her shoulder,and she could smell the oil on the gun.
“You don’t need a fancy sight for a shotgun,” he said. “You ever fire one?”
“No,” she said. Her father had guns, but he hadn’t been hunting since her mother died. Sam barely remembered her; she’d hit black ice driving to Coeur d’Alene when Sam was four. She sometimes wondered if her father had quit hunting because he’d been busy taking care of her, or if he’d just stopped liking to shoot things.
“Ho, boy,” Layton said. He stood up. “We gotta take care of that. Get you a pheasant.”
“It isn’t bird season.”
“No one’ll know out here,” he said. He ran a cloth over the barrel.
“There are houses on the river,” she told him. “It’s not very remote.”
Layton laughed. “Re-mote. That’s a good word.”
She felt her cheeks heat up, but didn’t say anything.
“I don’t need very remote,” he said. “Just a little remote.”
Sam knew that her father wouldn’t tolerate poaching, so she left it for him to take care of. But when he and Harry drove up, her father just looked hard at the shotgun and started loading his boat.
They put in that afternoon, and in spite of the low water they got to the first campsite before dark. Her father had a two-man tent for himself and a burrow for her—a waterproof sack just big enough for a sleeping bag, with a mosquito net at the top. She set up the burrow with her sleeping bag inside, and Layton and Harry built a fire and talked about the case.
Her uncle Harry was childless, and had been jobless on and off. He had always seemed to take pride in being the wild younger brother—Sam’s father was a district judge—but something had come over Harry a few years ago, and he had gone to law school and managed to pass the bar. He was a big man with a belly, and everyone liked him. He was trying to get out of debt, and the lawyer he had joined up with had given him Layton’s case.
There were four other plaintiffs, all lab workers with neurological damage from exposure to organic solvents. One of them couldn’t remember her children’s names if someone nearby was wearing perfume. Diesel fumes, bathroom cleaners, scented soaps, new carpet—anything could set it off. Another had stopped driving, because she didn’t always know whether a red light meant stop or go. Layton was a key plaintiff, because he had nothing in common with the women except the lab, where he had worked for a month on the wiring, and his tests matched all of theirs. It was good, too, to have a man involved; people were less likely to assume that he was inventing his symptoms. But his symptoms were milder than theirs, and he’d had to be cajoled into joining the lawsuit, and then into sticking around to go to depositions and have more tests. Sam guessed the river trip was part of the cajoling.
“I dunno,” Layton said, standing over the fire ring. “I lose my car keys sometimes, but I did that before. I’m not very litigious. I might just take that job in Reno and scrap this whole thing.”
Harry frowned at his tower of twigs. “When you could be here?” he said. “Fishing and hunting?”
“It’s not even bird season yet,” Layton said, and he winked at Sam. “If this thing drags out much longer, I’ll go nuts.”
Harry said nothing, but worked on the fire.
The next morning, Layton was in the water before breakfast, fishing in waders, which no one ever brought in a boat on the river—you just waded out in shorts. He caught a little brown trout, clubbed its head, and threw it in the raft. Sam’s father held the fish to the marks on the raft’s rubber bow, and said it wasn’t big enough.
“Pull on the tail a little,” Layton said. “It’ll stretch.” He was already moving back into the current, and the fish was dying. Sam saw Harry give her father a look, and her father put the fish in the cooler.
They packed up early and got on the river. Sam rode in the front of her father’s raft, lying across the cooler that slid into the metal frame. She read for a while and then fell asleep with the sun on her back, waking to jump in the water and drag the raft over sandbars when it got low.
At camp that afternoon, her father went fishing and she walked away from the river, up toward the hills. The grass in the open was pale yellow, and the path through the trees spiked with sunshine, but she was thinking about boarding school. She had a sense that she wasn’t equipped for it. And she was wondering if she really had perfect teeth, and if anyone but adults would ever care. When Layton came through the trees, she knew she’d wanted him to show up, though she hadn’t known it before. His attention was different from other adult attention.
“I brought you something,” he said.
She waited, but he kept on up the trail, and she followed him. They got over the first hill from camp, and up a second, higher one, and down again into a clearing. There weren’t any farms or houses, and they were a long way from the river. Layton reached under his shirt and pulled out a small pistol, dark gray, with a short, square barrel. There was a fallen tree ten yards away, with small branches sticking up, and he stood an empty beer bottle upside down on one of the branches. The last of the beer stained the bark of the tree. Then he walked back and gave her the pistol. It was still warm from his skin, and heavy.
“Nine-millimetre Ruger semiautomatic,” he said. “My pride and joy.”
“Can they hear it?”
“I don’t think so, with those hills,” he said. “Anyway, we’re legal. We’re not killing anything.”
He took her right hand and shaped it around the gun. “One hand like this, arm straight, just like the movies,” he said. He reached around her shoulders and positioned her left hand. “The other underneath.” He kicked the instep of her right foot. “Bring this leg back.”
Sam stepped back and pointed the gun at the bottle, not really breathing, with his chest against her back.
“Close one eye,” he said. “Cover your target with the barrel. The gun’s going to kick up, but it’ll drop right back where you need it. You only need to squeeze a little.” He let her go and stepped away.
She missed the bottle completely on the first shot, and the kick surprised her: the gun’s explosion shot through her hands and shoulders and down into her legs. The second time, she blew away the upended bottom. The third time, she hit the broken-off neck. Then there was just a little triangle of glass sticking up from the tree.
“Go for it,” Layton said.
She did, and hit it, and there was nothing left but a stub of branch.
“Hit the branch,” Layton said.
And she did. She’d never been so proud of anything. Layton reached out and rubbed the top of her head, quick.
“She’s a sharpshooter,” he said. “You’re not afraid of the kick yet, so you’re not anticipating anything. You’ve got to keep that.”
“O.K.,” she said. She could feel herself grinning like an idiot.
“Those perfect teeth,” Layton said.
She closed her mouth and looked at the scarred tree where the bottle had been, which made her want to smile again, but she didn’t.
“I’m sorry,” Layton said.
“That’s O.K.,” she said.
They walked back to camp, and Layton veered off as they got close, so they came from different angles. They said nothing, and her father and Harry asked nothing. Sam thought they must have heard the shots, but she figured it could have been Layton shooting alone. She had hit quarters propped in the tree bark, and made a smiley face in a piece of paper. In the pocket of her shorts, she carried an exploded hollow-point, which Layton said wasn’t legal to buy anymore, and a warped quarter. Layton slipped the folded smiley face into the camp garbage bag, and told Harry he didn’t think there were pheasants out here at all.
Sam’s father was making enchiladas in a Dutch oven, and chipping ice for margaritas with a pick. He made one without tequila for Sam. Layton asked for a virgin, too—alcohol made him nauseated since the work in the lab—and got out a little stereo with batteries. Sam’s father said it would ruin the silence of nature, but pretty soon he was dancing at the cookstove, singing along to reggae covers. It was still light, and the swallows dived in the canyon. Her father two-stepped over with a big plastic spoon and a chip full of salsa, singing in falsetto, “No you ain’t—seen—nothin’ like the Might-y Quinn.” He gave her the chip and kissed her on the forehead.
Her uncle Harry had too many margaritas and started talking about the case, about those poor, sick people with their lives ruined, and the gall of the people who said they were making it up. When it got dark, he went to bed. The other three sat close around the orange coals of the fire, and her father made up blues songs on the harmonica.
After a while, Layton said, “I need someone to walk on my back if I’m gonna row tomorrow. I’d ask you,” he said to Sam’s father, “but I’m guessing you weigh about two-fifty.”
Her father didn’t say anything; he kept playing harmonica.
Layton looked to Sam, who looked at the fire.
“It just takes a minute,” he said. “I threw it out on a job, and rowing that boat messed it up.”
Her father kept his eyes closed, the harmonica wailing. Sam stood up.
“Shoes off,” Layton said.
She slipped off her sandals and left them by the fire. Layton lay on his stomach on the ground. “O.K., step on careful,” he said. “Right in the middle.” She stepped, squeezing the air out of his voice. “Now the other foot,” he said. “Keep your balance.” She could feel his ribs beneath her toes. “Now walk forward, slowly, then back.”
She did, and her father got up from the fire. “I’m beat,” he said. “We should get an early start tomorrow.”
Sam looked at him, and he nodded, as if agreeing with himself. He put away his harmonica and disappeared into the dark, where his tent was pitched. She could hear the rustle of nylon and the whine of the zipper, and then the night was quiet.
“One more time,” Layton said. “That’s so great. Now if you kneel with your knees between my shoulder blades, that’s all I need.”
She knelt like he said, lowering her hips to her heels, looking down at her bare knees and the short hair at the back of his head. “Now hold it there,” he whispered. “Oh, God.”
Then he didn’tsay anything. The right side of her body was warm from the fire, the left side was cold. It was too cold at night to be wearing shorts. She heard her father roll over in his sleeping bag inside the tent, nylon against nylon.
Layton’s hand came back and touched her hip. “You’re tilted to this side,” he said. She straightened. “There,” he said, but his hand stayed on her hip. She thought about what to do. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to have forgotten the hand. After a minute, it slipped under the back of her thigh, touching her skin. She took his wrist and moved it away. The hand paused in the air, then slipped back under her thigh, over her shorts, touching between her legs with a shock like the jolt of the gun firing in her hands. She put her hands on the ground to stand up, awkwardly, but he found her calf and pulled her back down. “Stay,” he whispered.
She was on one knee, half-straddling his back in the dust, and he rolled over, facing her. His hand slid up her leg to the small of her back and held tight. His eyes were cloudy and intent, focussed and unfocussed all at once, and she’d never seen a man look that way before.
She pulled away then, and he let her go, and she left the fire and climbed, trembling, into her burrow. She lay awake long after the moon rose, listening to the sounds in the camp: to her father snoring, and Layton finally putting out the fire, and the unzipping of his tent, and the rustle of his going to bed. She kept her hands between her thighs for warmth, and the feeling there was sharp and aching, but she didn’t know what to do about it except lie awake breathing until it went away.
When she woke up, Layton was out in the river again, walking downstream and casting at the banks. It was the brightest day yet, and a mayfly hatch hovered over the water, the current dimpled with the open mouths of rising trout. Her father poured the last of the hot water into the oatmeal in her cup, and she ate standing. In her shadow on the ground, she could see her hair, three days uncombed, sticking out on one side. She smoothed it down with her hand.
On the long, flat stretch to the takeout, Sam rowed for a while. Her father pointed out a kingfisher in the brush along the banks, an osprey nest perched on the top of a tall tree. When she got the boat stuck on a rock, her father didn’t say anything, but took the oars backward and pried them off. Layton and Harry stayed well ahead. It got hot, and she slipped off the raft and dropped under, feeling the cold current in her hair and clothes.
Layton didn’t look at her at the takeout. They deflated therafts and packed up the truck with the drained-energy feeling of a trip being over, and she changed into dry shorts in the trees. Her father drove and Harry had the other window, so she was squished with Layton in the middle, his left leg pressed against her right.
They dropped her uncle and Layton at the put-in with Harry’s truck, and drove home in silence. Sam tried to keep her eyes open, but fell asleep. At the house, they unpacked the truck and hosed out the coolers, and when she gathered up her book and her river shorts the hollow-point fell out of the pocket onto the grass.
Her father picked up the bullet, rolled it in his hand, held it between his fingers. It was copper-cased, splayed out in a blossom of dull lead where the tip had been.
“Where’d you find this?” he asked.
“I shot it.” She waited for the next question.
He said nothing, but held out the slug to her, and she took it.
He picked up one of the dry-boxes and carried it into the shed. For a while, she listened to him unpacking, putting pots where they belonged, not noisily or angrily, just putting them away. Then she went into the house and filled out the acceptance form for the scholarship to boarding school, and in the morning she put it in the mail.
She said nothing at first, and life went on as usual: she finished “The Thorn Birds” and saw her friends and ate dinners with her father. They talked about the weather and the cases he’d heard, and then, after a week, she told him that she’d accepted the scholarship.
He frowned at the table. “Oh,” he said. “I mean, that’s great.”
She wanted to ask why he had left her by the campfire, but instead she said, “Orientation is the last week of August. I should get a ticket.”
“Sure,” he said. “Right.” He looked straight at her, and his eyebrows knit together. “I’ll miss you here.”
She felt a flood of warmth for him, an overwhelming feeling that it was a mistake to go away. He hadn’t meant to leave her there. He hadn’t known what would happen. He definitely hadn’t meant for it to happen. Again she wanted to ask, to make sure, but instead she took her dishes to the sink, and the moment was over.
A few days before she went away, there was a legal brief on the kitchen counter, with the names of her uncle’s other plaintiffs but without Layton’s. When she asked about it, her father said Layton had left for a job in Reno, and had taken himself off the case. He’d decided his symptoms weren’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth it. He got little rashes under his eyes and he couldn’t drink—so what? He’d needed to stop drinking anyway, he said. There wasn’t anything keeping him in Montana, and it was too much of a hassle to stay involved from Reno.
Her father drove her to the airport and carried her bag right up to the gate before saying, for the first time, that he didn’t really want her to go. She cried all the way down the jetway, and the man in the seat beside her gave her a packet of Kleenex to stop her nose from running, and patted her shoulder when they landed in Salt Lake.
Someone from the airline told her where to change planes, and from Boston she took the bus she’d been told to take, though it seemed impossible that it could be the right one. She was red-eyed and nervous, but had decided that she didn’t know anything, and the idea of going away was to learn.
The bus took her to a staggered group of brick buildings set back in the trees in a little town. She read “The Portrait of a Lady” that fall, and also “The Beach House” and “Candy.” Fifteen was old at boarding school. Most of the kids’ parents didn’t want them at home, and, knowing that, the kids seemed to know everything. A girl down the hall had done Ecstasy with her boyfriend back in Maryland, and had sex for three hours straight. Sam’s roommate, Gabriela—whose last roommate got the Latin teacher fired—was surprised and impressed that Sam was a virgin.
There was a phone in the hall, and when Sam’s friends from home asked for her, Gabriela said, “They sound so western.” One of them, Kelley Timmens, had just sent Sam a letter about a boy they knew: “We didn’t have sex,” she wrote, “but imagine as sick as you can imagine—without having sex.”
Gabriela had laughed, reading the letter. “What does she mean?” she asked.
When Sam called home to say that she was going to New York with Gabriela for Thanksgiving, her father said, “I’d get you a ticket home.”
“I know,” she said. “But it’s two days of flying, for two days there.” That had been Gabriela’s argument.
“Where will you stay?”
“With her mom.”
There was a silence on the line, and she imagined the quiet, empty house around him.
“What happened to Harry’s case?” she asked.
“Oh, it got dismissed,” her father said. “They needed that guy. What was his name? On the river.”
“Layton,” she said.
“Layton,” he said. “You can’t blame him. He wasn’t really sick.”
“And the other people?”
“They can’t work,” her father said. “They have these awful headaches, all the time, and they can’t go out.”
“It was a tough case,” he said.
He asked a few questions about school, and then they said goodbye and Sam hung up, thinking about the woman who couldn’t drive, because the chemicals in everything made her forget which light meant stop and which go. She lay back on her bed under Gabriela’s Charlie Parker poster, and stretched her leg up to her face so her nose touched her knee, which was something Gabriela did. She brought the leg down and stretched the other one up.
She thought about the parties there were supposed to be in New York, and the boy from Exeter Gabriela was thinking about sleeping with, and the dime bag Gabriela was trying to get. She thought about her father eating dinner alone on the dark winter nights, with no one to talk to. And her friends—Kelley Timmens and the others—laughing in the hallway of her old high school, with its rows of lockers and the fluorescent lights reflected in the shiny floors. She thought about the pink cleaning stuff the janitors used, the smell of it in the mornings when she got to school, and the shampoo dispensers on the walls of the girls’ gym showers that said “Montana Broom and Brush.” She thought about her father nodding to her, after saying good night by the campfire, and about the aching feeling later as she lay in her sleeping bag, and how she hadn’t understood what it meant. She smelled Gabriela’s soap on the back of her wrist, and then her roommate walked in.
“Where are you?” Gabriela asked. “You’re doing that spacey thing again.”
Sam smiled. “No, I’m here.”
“You’re not. You’re off in Montana or something. Do you have any letters from sick Kelley?”
Gabriela looked disappointed, but then she brightened. “I have to tell you what just happened in the library,” she said. “You know that reading room you can lock?”
Sam nodded and rolled over to listen, tucking her pillow under her arms and her chin. The detergent on the pillowcase was Mountain Fresh. Gabriela flopped down on the new rug, and tossed back her long, conditioned hair. The rug was cream-colored and Gabriela ran her hand across it, smoothing the fibres down. She looked a little flushed. “O.K., here’s how it started,” she said, and the story, full of longing and intrigue, began.
—from The New Yorker, April 14, 2003
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