Nick Hogue met his girlfriend on the day the Oregonian reported a grizzly inside the miniature golf course. Apparently the bear had climbed a covered bridge over the third hole, bathed in a water hazard, and snapped off an enormous rotating windmill with a single swat of its paw. While the golfers stared with their putters frozen, the grizzly ambled behind a trailer park and disappeared.
That evening, at Alcoholics Anonymous, Nick met Angie. They broke AA’s rule against relationships. For fifteen weeks straight, they hadn’t spent a night apart. It was a cold Saturday morning in October when he was the first to wake up. He lay flat on his back with his face turned toward her, and he watched Angie sleep in the early light. She had her arm thrown across his chest, and her hand twitched along the base of his neck. The fingers were nicked with the blades of carving implements.
Her hips rose under the sheet, as if she’d been stirred by his staring. Angie was Cayuse. She had a wide smooth forehead and eyes set far apart. She sat up naked in front of him with her long black hair forming a curtain across her face.
“I like you like that,” she said, as he lay motionless under her. “Cowering.”
She got out of bed. His tee shirt hung off the back of a chair and she laughed as she pulled it on, stretching it tight over her broad shoulders and breasts. “This is made for a child,” she said, taking it off again and flinging it into the corner. “You need to eat more.”
He joined her at the full-length mirror while she combed out her hair. Nick was forty and looked too scrawny beside her, too old. His face was a collection of sharp bones drawn in against a small mouth. He didn’t eat much, it was true—a self-deprivation she threatened. At thirty-two, Angie suffered few of his blemishes.
“I want a drink,” she said.
He took her hand and brought her back to bed. He made love to her with all the vigor he could muster, as if to convince her that he was the bear. Then he went to the window over Moore Park and kept his face turned. He dreaded the inevitable point when their long courtship was over and their natures became exposed.
Down in the park, a boy ran across the grass, his arms stretched out like wings. Not long ago Nick had all the basics in order—his job teaching English at Silt High School, his books, his daily tally of sobriety nearing nine years. He hadn’t minded spending evenings alone. He survived the weekends by taking long walks and cultivating azaleas.
“I want a drink,” she said again.
“Think of what you can do if you don’t.”
“If I don’t get drunk I can collect a tamarack,” Angie said. “Tonight, up on Kettleman Point.”
He could tell she was watching him from the bed. He kept looking out the window at the boy running across the grass. “Only Douglas fir up on that hill.”
“I’ve already spotted it. Come with me tonight and see for yourself.”
Angie coated slices of tree trunks in lacquer and sold them as coffee table art. She ran a studio out of her house on Highway 24, just outside of Silt. She was a chain saw artist and had recently taken first place in the “Animals” category of the semi-pro carving championships in Reedsport. Nick had watched her compete. The only woman in the field, she’d entered the sawdust pit in overalls with her hair coiled inside her hardhat. In a little under four minutes, she’d turned a chunk of Sitka spruce into an osprey catching a salmon.
They dressed and went downstairs. Nick had filled his house with books from the various clearance sales across the Willamette Valley. Everything decent was closing, it seemed—the public libraries, the bookstores—and he’d been snapping up what he could. Boxes of books lined the staircase and covered the living room floor.
A breakfast bar divided the kitchen from the living room, and Nick sat on the stool so he could watch Angie cook. She took a carton of eggs out of the fridge and started cracking them into a mixing bowl.
“I could use a Bloody Mary,” she said. “Real spicy, lots of horseradish.”
“I used to have beer for breakfast.”
“Beer? I want vodka. Or wine.”
She’d only been sober for as long as they’d been seeing each other—one of the many red flags he’d chosen to ignore. “What I used to do, to take my mind off of it, was exercise.”
She gave him a look. Her hands, thick and strong, were shaking a little. “Save the advice.”
“Just one morning,” she said, “I’d like to wake up thinking of something else.” Egg whites dangled from her fingertips. “Something other than the Bloody Mary I want.”
“Wait it out,” Nick said. She’d had moments like this before. He reached for her arm, but Angie pulled away and knocked the bowl to the floor.
“Fuck!” On the linoleum, the eggs lay in a puddle amidst broken shards of glass.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nick said. “I’ll clean it up.”
“I’m not worried. I want a fucking drink!”
“Deep breaths,” Nick said. He left the bar and went into the kitchen.
Angie grabbed the dishtowel that hung from the oven. She got down on her knees and wiped up the eggs and glass using slow, circular motions. “This is bullshit,” she said.
Nick stayed where he was, reluctant to come nearer. He remembered the episodes she described in AA, the arrests she’d had for assault.
“I’m done,” Angie said. She stood up and opened a cabinet. She swept aside the spices and reached toward the back. When she turned around, she held a bottle of wine.
“When did you bring that into my house?”
“What does it matter?”
“Don’t do this,” Nick said. “Not here.”
“You want to try and stop me?” With her teeth, she unpeeled the plastic around the bottle’s neck.
Nick backed away. He stared at the cracks in the floorboards where the spiders lived. When he heard the cork pop he bolted out the front door. No way was he going to watch the drink happen, even if it had been inevitable. He crossed the park with no direction in mind and landed on the dirt logging road that circled behind town.
Split wood lay scattered amongst the weeds. On both sides of the road, mounds of sawdust rose like anthills. It was an unnamed access road where Silt’s garbage got dumped and drifters sometimes turned up dead. In the distance, Nick spotted two of his ninth-graders. They were sitting on their skateboards smoking cigarettes. When he passed, he pretended not to see them and they did the same.
Kettleman Point loomed above the valley, half bald. The lumber outfits had been hustling to get the old growth off the mountain before the state’s new restrictions went into effect. The summit wasn’t that high, but you felt like you were flying when you got up there at night in the blowing wind. Back in high school, Nick used to drive to the top with Ellen, the woman who became his wife. They’d park off the road in the shadows of the trees, get drunk, and have sex among the wolves.
A branch of the logging road turned north, winding above the valley to the high timber. Nick didn’t feel like climbing. He paralleled Main Street toward a derelict bridge and landed in the dry riverbed underneath. It was the lowest point in Silt. Under the cement archway, surrounded by graffiti and empty beer cans, he squatted in the shadows and cursed himself for falling for someone so volatile. It was why there was a rule against it—addicts were even more dysfunctional in love.
Against the horizon, two grain silos glinted in the sun. If not for the dam upstream in McMinnville, a river would have been swirling around his ankles. A river would have meant homes along the waterway and money for the schools. A place like that wouldn’t have been called Silt.
Nick scrambled up the bank. It was time to go home and face what he’d brought into it. He surfaced at the tail end of Main Street and headed home through town to avoid running into his students again. He walked by Matt Stinson’s Tire Extravaganza and the Lucky J Convenience Mart with its drunks half asleep outside the door. He passed the gray, rain-battered Vista Apartments. Behind the door at the top of the stairs, in the middle of his divorce, he’d taken a room there with only a bottle of gin.
Across the street from The Harvester, Nick stopped. The bar had been converted from a grain depot, and it still had the original corrugated metal roof and grain chute. The door was open, and he could hear the clink of bottles inside.
On the sidewalk he stood motionless. It had been a long time since he’d felt this ruptured and uncertain, needing a drink to fill the gap. He’d wasted his twenties to alcohol, then after his parents died, his early thirties went the same way—in a continuous sinking, an immersion. There were nightly sessions in The Harvester, The Green Frog, The Alibi. He drank his inheritance from the family wheat farm, followed by Ellen’s savings, then gnawed at the scraps of her love until nothing was left.
In the street a logging truck loaded with timber drew up and aired its brakes. The chains under the chassis jangled, the front wheels turned, and the driver started backing into Stucky’s Lumber.
Wait, Nick thought as the driver nodded hello, just wait. His face burned red hot. He gazed vaguely into the lumber yard, disoriented by the whine of the cutting blades, the flying splinters, the hills of pulp. He wished the dam would break and flood Silt to the rooftops.
The man in Moore Park looked like a drifter. He stood by the rusty child’s roundabout in heavy boots, a backpack, and a raincoat zipped to the neck. Nick threw up his hand and hurried over. It was Tom, his son.
The near miss at The Harvester had left Nick ragged and raw, unprepared for this visit. Tom wasn’t due for another month, when high school broke up for Thanksgiving. He usually took the Greyhound to McMinnville and walked. After the divorce, Ellen had resettled in Phoenix. She was supposedly seeing an air-conditioning salesman.
“Aren’t you missing classes?” Nick asked.
“I’m homesick,” Tom said. He was seventeen and had a habit of flinching after he spoke.
Nick had lost control with Tom twice when he’d been drinking. He’d thrown him to the ground for talking back. The second time he’d slammed the boy’s head into a wall, and there had been blood. It was the shame of this that had eventually made him stop drinking, but the guilt had never completely gone away. Nick gave him a hug and held him out. Tom had grown in the past year—for the first time, Nick had to look up.
“You want to tell me what you’re doing here?”
They started off in the direction of the house. “I had to get out of the heat,” Tom said. “Hundred-degrees in Phoenix, and everyone’s crammed inside the malls to keep cool.”
On his last visit, Tom was panicking about the end of the world. He insisted he needed to see Oregon right away before something dropped from the sky and flattened it. Nick never discouraged the boy from coming home, but lately Tom had been using it as an excuse to get out of schoolwork. They came to the edge of the park and stopped in view of the house.
“You’ve got company,” Tom said.
Across the road, Angie’s truck stood in the driveway. “There’s this woman,” Nick said. “We’re sort of on an extended first date.”
Nick opened the gate and walked past his azaleas in their white painted boxes. He rang the doorbell. “She might not be presentable,” he explained to Tom, and he opened the door slowly and peered inside. Facing them, Angie lay reclined on the sofa with a glass of wine in her hand, her bare feet hanging off the armrest.
“Afternoon,” Nick said. He put his arm around Tom’s shoulder and brought him inside.
Angie passed the glass under her nose. “Thanksgiving come early?”
Tom shifted in his boots. He wandered the living room, as if trying to claim a place in it. “Been buying more books,” he said, half-heartedly opening one of the boxes. He took out a novel and put it back.
“You like art?” Angie asked. She pointed at one of her pieces, a massive slab of varnished walnut on the coffee table, the stumps of its branches curled inward like broken arms.
Tom blinked at it. He picked up the wine bottle by the sofa and took a swig. “I wonder what Mom would think of this arrangement,” he said.
Nick noticed the bottle was practically full. “She might actually be happy for me,” he said. Ellen was about as different from Angie as any woman could be—dyed-blonde, thin as a human nerve.
“Tell me what you’ve been learning in school,” Angie asked Tom.
“Not a lot.” Tom sat in the armchair. He took another swig of wine and stared at Angie while he drank. It was the kind of look a man gave a woman before sex.
“That’s enough,” Nick said. He went over and took the bottle out of Tom’s hands. Then he took Angie’s glass away.
“I only wanted to smell it,” she said.
In the kitchen he poured the wine into the sink. It glugged down the drain with a heady aroma. When he returned to the living room he had nowhere to sit. “You should be concentrating on your grades, Tom,” he said. “Call your mother, too. She’ll be worried.”
Tom picked up a book from the coffee table and pretended to read. Nick drifted to the sofa. He perched on the armrest next to Angie’s feet.
“You have a girlfriend, Tom?” Angie asked.
“That’d be a nice trick,” Tom said. “You ever spend much time in Phoenix?”
“No. You ever been up to Kettleman Point?”
“Once when I was a kid. With Mom.”
“Sounds romantic,” Angie said.
“We had to get out of the house for a while. It was somewhere to go.”
Nick kept his eyes on the wall as Angie kept trying out topics of conversation—sports, the history of the Cayuse people, the debatable upsides to Greyhound bus travel. There was a framed photo on the wall. It showed Tom fishing, no taller than his pole. The photo was taken before the apologies for drinking began, followed by the busted therapy sessions and divorce proceedings. Each year, even after Ellen took Tom to Phoenix, the boy kept coming back for his scheduled visits. There was no way to understand it, no way to explain Tom’s faith in him.
Empty cans of lacquer littered the floor of the pickup. Angie had the heat blasting. As she drove, she used a rag to keep the windshield from fogging up. They left the outskirts of town, and wheat fields appeared on both sides of the road. As they approached the site of the old family farm, Tom sat forward in the middle seat. The sun had begun to set.
Nick knew the boy still held the farmhouse in his mind as an anchor. Each time he visited, they would drive out into the country to see the property owned by Hogues for over a century. Tom would ask about the days they lived on the farm, the days before he could quite remember. They’d eat their sandwiches inside the car and stare at the house as if hoping the new owners would pity them and give it back.
Angie swung around the bend, and they came up along the old property line. Grapevines stretched across the fields where their wheat used to grow.
“What the hell?” Tom’s voice cracked. “Where’s our house?”
A vineyard ran right over their former land—where the house and barn had been, and the combine shed, and Grandpa Hogue’s cherry trees. “Pinot noir is worth more than wheat these days,” Nick said. “A couple from California came and razed the whole thing.”
Even in the dusk, Nick could see traces of Ellen in Tom’s stricken face. He remembered how shocked she’d been when he said he wanted to abandon the farm for good, to sell it along with the house, to cash out. All across Oregon it was the same—wheat turned into wine, and families gave way to imposters, tourists, Californians.
Angie laughed. “You guys think you lost your land? One farm?”
She gunned the pickup out of the farmlands, and they rose above the valley. They climbed into the high trees as the night came and the temperature fell.
“You only have a year of high school left,” Nick said, wanting to regain some vestige of authority. “If you study hard…” The smell of whiskey made him turn. Tom was holding a flask.
“I got expelled, Dad,” Tom said, unscrewing the cap.
Nick’s voice dropped almost down to nothing. “How long ago?”
“Couple of weeks. They said it was drinking.”
Angie’s eyes darted sideways. The boy took a long pull. He stopped to get a little air and went back for a second drink. Nick seized the flask and rolled down the window.
“That’s all I got left,” Tom cried. He tried to grab the flask back, but Nick elbowed him hard against the seat. The windshield steamed.
“You’re no drinker,” Nick said. He flung the flask into the dark. There wasn’t any sound—the whiskey simply got swallowed by the woods. Nick rolled up the window and tried to calm down. He hadn’t been too rough with the boy, but the heat of it lingered. He could hear Tom breathing hard, almost victoriously, as if he’d come all this way just for this.
“Expelled? And nobody thought to let me know?”
“What do you want to know, Dad? You’re here, I’m in Phoenix.”
Angie floored the truck to make the steep grade. “No more liquor,” Nick said, shaking his head. “You can’t be an alcoholic at seventeen.” Nick squeezed the bridge of his nose. There would be other schools, he told himself, other opportunities. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we’re going to call your mother and go over your options. You might have to move to another school district for a year, you might have to move back to Silt. And another thing. Stay sober as long as you’re in my house, or I’ll put you on the next bus to Arizona.”
They approached the top of Kettleman Point. They were on the green half of the world, with a sliver of moon and plenty of starlight. Angie came through a couple of switchbacks then swung off the road without warning. She pulled in front of a metal gate, left the engine running, and jumped out.
“What’s going on?” Tom asked.
“She’s taking us up that fire road.”
Angie untied a heavy chain from the gate. Her shirtsleeves were rolled above her elbows, and she handled the chain like a piece of twine. She dragged the gate toward them. Then she got back in the pickup and began slowly up the fire road, leaning over the dashboard to see what the headlights revealed. The road was scattered with limbs. Douglas fir rose high around them. They went banging along until the truck felt like it was breaking into pieces.
“There,” Angie said, stopping. She pointed up the mountain and cut the engine. “On that ridge is where I saw my tamarack.”
They piled out of the truck and confronted the wall of wind. Angie headed into the woods. Nick and Tom continued up the road until they reached a shelter. The only sound came from their boots crunching the gravel. Trees swayed overhead with their branches colliding. There were bears up on Kettleman Point, and Nick wondered if the golf course grizzly had family.
“Back in Phoenix,” Tom said, “I always pass these old guys outside the bars. Fighting each other, fighting themselves. Each time I see them I think of you, Dad.”
“Hell.” Nick laughed nervously. Tom stood only a few feet away, and his outline was a smudge. “I still have my moments, I admit it.” He kicked at the ground. “Angie had me turned around this morning…”
Tom wasn’t listening. He was facing the ridge. “I thought she only cut pieces out of the fallen trees. She’s bringing that one down, Dad.”
The roar of a chainsaw filled the canyon. Nick searched the woods along the side of the mountain. Angie stood on the lowest ridge in her hardhat and headlamp, beneath a tree maybe twenty feet high. It was a tamarack all right—its gold leaves flashed in the starlight.
Nick hurried Tom back to the truck. They ducked under the open tailgate, just as the chain saw cut out. There was a sharp crack and the golden tamarack floated across the sky like a wand.
The road filled with dust. Damp clouds rose up and down the length of the tree like dying gasps. Soon Angie’s headlamp came bobbing down the ridge. They stood and watched as she made a second cut on the trunk. Then she dragged the piece over by one of its branches. She lifted with both hands and heaved it over the tailgate.
“You just cut down the only tamarack in this valley,” Tom said. In the bed of the truck, the slice of the tree looked like road kill.
Angie took off her hardhat. Sweat beaded on her temples and little gold leaves circled her neck. “This area’s zoned for logging. Next month, the whole canopy will be gone. If people want to see a tamarack, they can come to my studio.”
She kicked the tailgate shut and shone her headlamp at Tom’s face. He was shuddering and pale in the cold. “Check it out, Nick,” she said. “He’s scared sober.”
Nick put his arm around Tom and turned toward the mountain. The boy was where he belonged now, back in Oregon. Up on the ridge where the tamarack had grown, the surrounding trees lifted their branches in the wind, filling the gap.
Rob Magnuson Smith is the author of The Gravedigger (Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Award) and Scorper (Granta Books). In addition to The Clearing, Rob’s short stories have appeared in the Australian Book Review, the Guardian, The Literarian, Fiction International, and The Reader. He has won the Elizabeth Jolley Award and been longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Recently he was Writer-in-Residence at The Eden Project for a short story published by Guillemot Press.
The images come from Matthew Crabbe, a chainsaw artist based on Exmoor. Matthew has won the English Chainsaw Carving Championships, as well as the Sandringham Cup. For more information about his work visit his website, and to see more images of his extraordinary carvings take a look at his Facebook page.