- Alida Dean
My mom drives the truck along the road that hems the bluff. We're searching for the perfect job site, messy and still. It's Saturday or Sunday, January or February. It's cold and we're out of firewood. At home, the stove eats wood like it's starving, like it will never get enough, and it won't, not till spring.
Ice boats race each other across the lagoon, a red dog chasing after them. I want that dog to play with me. I say, "Can we stop?" It wouldn't be weird. Other people are out on the ice already, watching, adults and kids in bright coats. "Sure," my mom says, "on our way home," but I don't trust her. I turn in my seat to get a last look at the dog leaping and sliding, its tail high in the air, catching the wind like a tiny sail of its own.
We aren't finding the right sort of job site on the main road, so my mom takes a chance on a smaller road headed inland. We're looking for a higgledy piggledy job site, preferably still in the framing stage, a job site where the men were too cold to tidy up on Friday. Their fingers ached, they were too excited for their first beers. We're looking for scrap lumber everywhere, and please not pressure-treated. Pressure-treated wood makes smoke that's bad to breath and gives my mom a rash if she touches it; she's sensitive about materials.
"Tell me a story," I say, "about when you were little." I love hearing about how cheap candy was in the fifties, everything you could get for a nickel. One time her mother gave her money for bread and milk and she spent it all on candy. She had to eat everything on her way home, and even thought to scratch up her cheek with a rock so she could say she'd been robbed. She might have gotten away with it if she hadn't thrown up in the kitchen sink. Bright, regurgitated candy sliding down the dirty plates. Her mother spanked her. I wouldn't mind that story again.
"I don't know," she says. "I'm sleepy."
"The one about stealing the bread money," I say, but she only yawns and shakes her head. I roll my window down to wake us up. The road has transitioned from pavement to dirt and we still haven't seen a single job site, just big, finished houses, salt-whipped shingles, shutters closed tight for the winter. She sighs. "I hate to have to call Carl," she says. Carl's the wood guy. He doesn't like to sell less than half a chord but he'll make an exception if she flirts with him, if she mentions how cold we get at night. Will Carl let us owe him? The unemployment checks arrive in our post office box every other Tuesday. We'll have the money soon.
She pulls into a narrow driveway to turn around, and that's when we see it, a neatly stacked woodpile on the covered porch of a cottage. Just sitting there, teasing us. No cars in the driveway but the shutters aren't closed. The owners might live here year-round. "What d'you think?" she says.
"We'll only take a little." Her eyes are shiny. "Where's your adventure spirit?"
I wish the woodpile was bigger. I wish it belonged to a fancier house. Stealing is wrong, I know, but it isn't as wrong when nobody misses what you take.
She backs the truck up close to the porch. "You don't have to help me," she says. "You can sit right here and take a nap for all I care."
"Fine," I say, but I don't stay in the truck. Adults don't get in as much trouble for this kind of thing when kids are involved. I let the tailgate down and we load about a week's worth of wood. "That's enough," I say. She throws in two more pieces, we get back in the truck, and she guns it down the driveway, then drives slowly again once we're on the dirt road, careful not to get caught in an icy pothole. We're in the clear, we're laughing; there's no denying it feels good to get away with it.
As we round a curve we see a blue station wagon coming at us. My mom squeezes the truck politely into a pull-off to let it by. Faux-wood panel along the side of the car, rusty fenders. The driver, an old man with a neat white mustache, rolls down his window. "Don't see many folks down here in the winter," he says. "You looking for someone?"
"Nope," my mom says.
"Bird-watching? There's an osprey stand at the end of the point."
Why not use the osprey stand as our alibi? But she says, "We're just out for a drive."
The man nods. "Guess you got the vehicle for it. Road's getting pretty bad, eh?"
We're pinned against a cedar tree. We can't move until he moves.
"I don't know," my mom says in her serious voice, "I've been down worse roads for less."
Why's she being like this? Why isn't she flirting with him? Can he see the wood in back of the truck or is he positioned too low?
"Well, you gals have a good afternoon," the man says, easing his foot off the brake.
I say, "Do you think that was--"
"It doesn't matter," she says. "Even if that was his house, even if he pressed charges, it'd only be small claims court."
True. And don't we know how to charm a judge? If we get a summons, we'll take cat baths over the sizzling wood stove. We'll comb each other's hair out. She'll put barrettes in mine, I'll give her a French braid, she'll wear her silk underwear, I'll wear my gray thrift-store dress, and how could we not get off?
Alida Dean is a graduate of the University of Montana's MFA program and a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Her short fiction has appeared in Nashville Review, Ninth Letter, Soft Punk, and is forthcoming in Big Fiction. She lives in upstate New York where she works at Plenty of Posies, a flower farm, and at the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts.