Read an Excerpt
MY NAME IS Logan Pyle. My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange. I’m thirty-six years old. My life is nothing like I thought it would be.
The three of us plus one dog, Jerry, live in my childhood home, a sweet and sturdy Craftsman-style bungalow on a quiet block in a tree-lined section of a small Western city that was until the end of the last ice age the bed of a glacial lake. We sit at the confluence of three rivers, two of which — the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot — come together just east of town. A few miles downstream they receive a third, the Bitterroot, and the three persist across the Idaho panhandle and into the great Northwest as one. The scenery — the natural world in general — gets a lot of attention here. We’re ringed on all sides by mountains, and the sugar maples that line our streets turn outrageous shades of red and orange and gold every fall.
So here we are, autumn. Another early morning, this one a Saturday, which means swimming lessons at Owen’s school. I’m up in his room, digging through his top drawer with one hand, balancing him awkwardly on my hip with the other.
“Where’s the blue, Jules?” I shout in the direction of the stairs. “It’s a blue day, but I only see red. Julie,” I shout once more. A sudden pain clutches at my spine. “Fuck. Four is too big to be carried,” I tell Owen, depositing him a little roughly on the bed. Right away, his thumb is in his mouth.
“You sure it’s blue?” asks Julie, rather dreamily, from downstairs.
“It’s the twentieth,” I shout back. “Odd, red, even, blue.”
“Four and three-quarters,” he says, showing me the fingers of his free hand.
“Exactly my point. Now come on. Take that thumb out and help me look.”
He frowns. “I don’t want to.”
“Julie,” I shout again. I give up on the top drawer and start in on the middle. “Sometimes in life we have to do things we don’t want to do,” I tell Owen. “It builds character.”
“What’s character?” he asks, around the thumb.
“Pardon? I can’t understand you with that thumb in the way.”
He takes the thumb out and says, “What’s character?” then pops it right back in. Flipping over, he buries his face in the pillow and sticks his rear end in the air.
“Sit up like a big kid, please,” I say.
He shakes his head, squeezes his eyes shut. “Shh. Baby sleeping.”
“Christ, Owen, now? We have to go.”
“Baby sleeping,” he says again. I sit down next to him and rest my hand on his rump.
He’s been carrying on this way for weeks now — “regressing,” according to one or another of the myriad parenting books Julie’s perpetually reading half of, then quoting to me. Besides the thumb, he’s gone back to the bottle and climbing into our bed in the middle of the night, and he even insists on wearing a diaper some days under his pants. And now and then he’ll slip into an odd, German-sounding baby talk it pains me to hear. Julie insists it’s normal, or at least common — “‘a phase many children experience,’” she read aloud to me last week, while we were getting ready for bed. “‘It’s incumbent that the parents of the distressed child recognize his or her behavior as expressing a critical emotional need and react accordingly,’” she said, laying the book down. “What that means is that we have to act like whatever Owen does is okay.”
“But it’s not okay,” I said, right before she turned out the light.
Now I reach up and pluck his thumb out of his mouth. “Julie,” I shout once more. “Could I get a hand up here?”
“Just give me a sec, babe,” she calls back.
I hate yelling between floors; it’s no way to communicate. I tell Owen to stay put, but he follows me down the stairs anyway and into the kitchen, his bare feet slapping the terra cotta tiles. Julie is not here. She’s not in the living room, either, or at the built-in desk we share under the stairs, where she sometimes works in the mornings, before Owen and I get up.
I find her in the dining room, standing in a square of sunlight by the picture window, braiding and unbraiding her hair, looking out. I pause in the doorway. I can see she’s deep in thought, and I wouldn’t be hard-pressed to guess about what. She’s a lawyer, and to say the case she’s working on at the moment takes up all her time is a gross understatement of the facts.
I watch her take her braid in one hand and reach for the teardrop-shaped prism that hangs in the window with the other. She gives it a spin, sending shards of colored light racing around the room. Bennie, my father’s widow, hung it twenty years ago, when she first moved in. She used to say that the way the sunlight went into a prism and came spilling out in every direction was like God’s love in our hearts. Bennie is always proffering this brand of hokey/deep spiritual wisdom, which doesn’t bother me but drives Julie up the wall. After Gus died, Julie wanted to take down the prism and everything else Bennie left here, but I said no. I’m not a sentimental man, per se, but some things you just don’t feel right tossing in the trash.
“Earth to Jules,” I say. “Come in, Jules.”
“Mm-hm?” she says.
She’s a knockout, my wife — by far the most attractive woman I’ve ever been with. I thought so the very first time I saw her. She was twenty-four then, an intern at my father’s firm, and she was hiding behind some holly outside the offices of Mayfield and Pyle, sneaking a cigarette. I watched her through the window while I waited for Gus. She’s a petite woman, almost a whole foot shorter than me, with long red hair that tends toward the wild, and dark, lake-water-blue eyes. And when she smiles — something she used to do regularly — she shows the sexy, sweet gap between her two front teeth, a feature she loathes no matter how many times, or in what manner, I protest.
Watching her now, though, I’m mostly aware of how thin she’s gotten. With her hair pulled to the side, I can see the outline of her shoulder blades perfectly through the thin cotton of the old T-shirt of mine she wears, and her formerly snug Levi’s hang off her hips. When I’ve told her how skinny she looks, she smiles and says flattery will get me nowhere. “Too skinny,” I say, but she just rolls her eyes and says with everything going on with the case, she forgets half the time to eat. Meanwhile, I seem to be remembering for the both of us. Last week on the scale in the men’s locker room at the pool, I had the pleasure of learning I’m pushing two hundred pounds.
Her mug of green tea rests on the windowsill, its paper tag hanging down one side. She picks it up to take a sip.
“The suit?” I repeat.
“What about it? Did Stan call back?”
“The swimsuit, Jules, Jesus,” I say.
“Right, of course.” She takes a Mayfield and Pyle pen from behind her ear and, leaning over the dining-room table, scribbles something on a yellow pad. When she finishes, she taps the pad with the pen, which she tucks back behind her ear. From the doorway Owen says, “Morning, Mama,” and holds up his arms.
“Morning, baby,” she says.
I wish she wouldn’t call him that. I shoot her a look, but it’s lost on her as she scoops him up under the arms and sets him on her hip. She may be scrawny these days but she’s still very strong. I forget how strong, sometimes. She carries him through the kitchen into the laundry room, saying, “Who’s my favorite little boy in the whole, wide world?”
Stepping into the sunny spot she abandoned, I pick up her mug and look out at the yard (my yard, I keep having to remind myself). It’s November, but you’d never guess. Not only are the mountaintops around town still bare, we haven’t had a single hard freeze yet — barely even a frost. Fall crocuses are blooming, birds are singing. Julie takes her morning power walks in shorts. I’m not a superstitious person, I never have been, but sixty-five degrees and sunny, five days before Thanksgiving, in this part of the world? It’s just not right.
From upstairs I hear Jerry migrating from Owen’s bedroom to the hall, his nails clicking on the hardwood floors. You know those dogs who stay right by their master’s side, every minute of the day? Who follow you from room to room, sleep under the table with their head on your feet, never let you out of their sight? Well, Jerry isn’t one of those.
I watch a squirrel chase another up the old crabapple tree’s trunk. When Julie first moved in, five falls ago, she was enchanted (her word) with that tree. She grew up in the city and always fantasized, she told me, about having a yard with a giant apple tree. She used to talk about hanging a swing from its branches, baking pies with its fruit. But she used to talk about a lot of things. That very first October, when she actually went out and filled a bucket, she found the apples were sour, like I’d told her, and a nightmare to peel, and every year since we’ve let them fall to the ground and rot.
This morning, I notice what a disaster the yard (my yard) has become: a muck of dead leaves and fallen fruit atop unmown grass that should have turned brown by now but has not; my father, Gus, would be appalled. He was a fanatic about the yard. If he wasn’t working, or in his workshop building or fixing things, then he’d be out here — mowing, weeding, mulching, planting vegetables every spring, waxing philosophical about the value of dirt under one’s nails.
A not-so-minor celebrity in these parts, Gus spent the first twenty years of his career as a wunderkind systems engineer, designing and building state-of-the-art gold mines all over Montana, until one day he shocked everyone — including me — and quit. He’d been getting a law degree on the sly, and he set up shop with his old friend Stan Mayfield. Together they spent the next twenty years working to shut the gold mines down.
My middle name, Augustus, comes from him, but that’s where the commonality ends. I’m nothing like Gus. I have no aptitude for science or math, I don’t garden, I’m no good at fixing or building anything, and most of all, I have no interest in fame. I always wanted to write. I was supposed to live a life of the mind. I was going to be a professor; when I met Julie, I was just a couple hundred pages away from my American history PhD. But then she got pregnant with Owen and, like I said, here we are. Now, instead of hallowed halls, fawning students, and microfiche, my days consist of folding laundry, shuttling Owen to and from his pricey private school, and spending what’s left of the money Julie makes, lawyering, on cruelty-free cleaning products and organic food.
I turn away from the window just as Julie emerges from the kitchen with Owen still on her hip, only now he’s wearing his blue swimsuit, goofy yellow rain boots, his Superman cape from Halloween, and nothing else. I glance at him and quickly look away. Though he’s had it his whole life, his scar, a ragged, dark red S that runs from sternum to navel, still has the power to catch me off-guard. I’m ashamed of my squeamishness, but thankfully neither of them is focused on me.
She puts him down and squats to his level. “Now scurry upstairs and get your backpack, quick like a bunny. Mama’s got to make a stop on the way.” Once he’s gone, she stands, smoothes down her jeans, rests her hands on her jutting hips, and looks at me. “You coming with?”
“I can’t. I have to go to the store first. Fall inventory’s three weeks late, and we can’t open back up until it’s done.”
“Mm,” she says, and turns to check her reflection in the ornate, gilt-framed mirror that’s been hanging on the dining-room wall since I was a kid. “Isn’t that Bill’s job?” She pulls back her hair, inspecting one side of her face and then the other. “I hope he’s paying you overtime,” she adds — a barb, since we both know Bill doesn’t pay me at all. Technically, I pay him. Bill Hawks is my oldest friend as well as my business partner; together, we run an outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine, though I’ll admit that in the four-plus years it’s been open, it’s been anything but.
“Time and a half,” I say, to lighten the mood. I don’t tell Julie that I haven’t spoken to Bill in days — that Bill and I seem not to be speaking to each other — because then I’d have to tell her about the most recent offer to buy the store and the land it sits on (both of which, as of Gus’s death, belong to me), and then we’d have to devote a portion of the increasingly paltry slot of time we spend together these days not arguing, to argue about that.
“Can you be back by noon?” she says. “Stan and I have to do phone interviews this afternoon and I haven’t prepared anything yet. I’m totally swamped.” She goes to the counter, leans on her elbows, and starts thumbing through a thick file. Her hair falls forward, hiding her face.
That I’m not jealous, by nature, has served me well these past two months, because the fact is there’s another man in my wife’s life; or rather, there are upwards of thirty-five other men — the plaintiffs in Thomas Edgar Kowalski et al. v. Holliman Industries, some of whom are alive and many of whom are dead. Since September, when Stan promoted Julie to the case, these men have ruled our lives, or ruled Julie’s life, which in turn rules mine. I’ve tried to make her understand what it’s like, taking a back seat to these admittedly unfortunate vermiculite miners, but she isn’t particularly sympathetic. She tells me sometimes people need to put their own needs aside for a greater good, and that Stan thinks this might go all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s not only me I’m worried about, I explain; Owen’s suffering, too. “You know who’s suffering? Those poor men. This is about getting justice for them,” she says. And her ace in the hole: “Causes like this one are why your father founded Mayfield and Pyle in the first place.” The fact that her long hours mean more money, in which we’re not exactly awash these days, does little to bolster my case.
When Owen comes back downstairs, he’s got his Mickey Mouse backpack over his cape, and he’s changed into sneakers, but still no shirt. I want to tell him to get one but a stern glance from Julie stops me cold. “Say ’bye to Dad,” she tells him, digging for her keys in her purse.
“’Bye to Dad,” he says, and comes over to hug my legs.
“Give ’em hell, champ,” I say, palming the top of his head. He has Julie’s blue eyes and fair skin, everyone says, and my mouth and disposition, but his dark gold curls came straight from Gus. “Remember, paddles,” I say, holding my hands up and pressing my fingers together.
“Right, Dad, paddles,” he says, and does the same.