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Dry River (excerpt)

© 2013

Part One: Mill Valley, California

Chapter One: October 2007

Five Years Ago

That business about my marriage; it went something like this: I decided to walk to the library, up the winding hill and in the shade of redwoods, where it was lovely and cool and the ferns had not yet faded. It was mid-October and the season had changed. The kids were in the stroller; Mark was two, Jacob not yet four, just young enough that it was maddening having him walk. He still had a penchant for running ahead, which had me on my guard after that last incident. So I insisted Jacob stand behind Mark on the back end while I steered that tank-of-a-stroller up the hill. A man overtook us. He smiled, taking in my load and said, “Well, that’s a haul up the hill. Where on earth are you going with that?” This made me laugh.

“To the library,” I said.

“Do you want a push? I could just push it. I mean, I’m going up there too. It’s not like it’s a problem.”

“Nah,” I said. I didn’t let just anybody hold onto my kids’ stroller.

He fell into step with me all the same. He was dressed in jeans and a short jacket and had close-cropped hair. I was thirty-eight and he looked my age or younger and not like the typical Mill Valley lawyer or banker type. His stride was quick, his pace energetic, and I liked that about him, instantly.

“You live around here?” I asked.

“Yeah, down by the old library.”

“Sure, I know the area. What takes you to the new library?” My world was obvious, the stroller said it all. But I was curious about his world.

“I’m a builder,” he said. “But I do my own design. Like an architect but a lot cheaper.” He grinned. “I’m taking a look at the library—they’re thinking about expanding.”

“Oh? Like another wing, or something?”

“Sort of. I’ll find out what they’re thinking in about fifteen minutes. I’ll let you know what they say,” he said. “These your kids?”

“Yeah,” I said with a laugh. “Why, have any kids of your own?”

“Ah! No, I know better than that madness.” He said this, but then he couldn’t take his eyes off my boys. Jacob turned around to face him. His eyes narrowed; the man narrowed his eyes right back at him. He didn’t do all the usual things like ask what their names were or pretend to engage them just to get my attention. Just then Jacob leaned his belly against the strap designed to hold him in, but the snap was jammed.

“Hey, don’t lean too hard on that, cowboy, or you’ll fall out. You need to fix that strap,” he said, reaching forward to free it and re-fasten it. “You okay with this?”


Jacob held the strap beside the man’s hand, the big hand and the small one together. His hand was tanned, the fingernails neat. Jacob said, “Who are you?”

“My name’s Zeke. Ezekiel.”

“What kind of name is that?” Jacob said.

“Jacob, honey,” I said.

“That’s okay. I get that a lot. It’s a Biblical name,” he said. “Who’s your brother?”


“And your mom?”

“Sara.” Jacob liked being the little big man, calling me by my name.

“Sara.” Zeke turned to me just as the breeze picked up. The sun was warm, the air deliciously cool. “Sara—anything?” he said.

I smiled. “Sara Greystone.”

“Greystone, that’s a nice, strong name. I’m Zeke Harris.”

That night when Tye, my husband, came home I didn’t mention Zeke, but Jacob did. “He was nice.”

“Oh?” Tye said, raising a brow. “And who is he?”

I hid my smile. “A new neighbor,” I said. “A builder doing some work for the library.” I tore up the lettuce, tossed it into the spinner, but pulled the string too hard. It broke. “Drat,” I said, dropping it in the trash; there was no fixing it, and it meant another expenditure. “Yeah, it was really a hassle getting the stroller up the hill to the library. I won’t do that again.” Actually I was already thinking about doing it again.

“Okay day?” Tye asked. He leaned against the counter, and stared past me to the magnolia tree outside. It was holding onto a few blossoms still.

“Sara?” he asked, to my silence.

Because by then we’d become increasingly silent. Whole days would pass without our saying anything of real import. It was all logistics: the kids’ day at preschool, Jacob’s dental check, Tye’s IT boss, insisting the client had 54 new requirements they’d missed.

Jacob was bouncing around in front of us, though Tye didn’t see him. He was watching my face. I looked away. I didn’t say that this chance encounter made my day because there was no sense to it. There was no isolating this feeling, there was no knowing if there was any deeper feeling there at all. Or just curiosity.

The next morning, Tye got up at 6:00 am, which he had been a doing a lot of recently for work. I followed behind, trying not to wake the boys. We were still getting up together at that point. The mornings were always rushed, because we had to fit in what we could: “Are you getting the dry cleaning, or am I?” “I made the appointment but had to cancel; Jacob had a field trip that day.” Sunlight cast shadows on the wood floors. As he padded down the staircase in his slippers, Tye kicked some of the toys at the base of the staircase by mistake.

“Shhh!” I said, as if he’d just dismantled the entire house.

“Sara, it’s not going to wake them.”

Tye began making his lunch to take to work, while I fixed his eggs. He scanned the fridge. I pointed him toward last night’s leftovers. We were in the California economy now: we recycled food daily. He poured his coffee, took a seat in the alcove by the window, and stared out of it. I slid the plate of eggs across the table and took a seat opposite him, so he would have to look at me. I remembered my folks talking things over when I was growing up, my dad hunched over the table, his face steadily watching my mom’s. But Tye seemed so distracted all the time.

I’d been thinking about money lately—or the lack of it. We were making it, but barely. “Do you think I should go back to work?” I asked. It wasn’t just the income. I hadn’t practiced law in five years. I missed the PD office, missed the intellectualism of the East. Since coming back West, I couldn’t seem to find a strand of it embedded anywhere out here in this granite rock.

“I don’t know, Sar. I think it would be more difficult. Can we do more difficult?” He took another sip of his coffee and turned to watch the hummingbird outside as it fluttered and dropped from sight.

We didn’t run into Zeke again until a few weeks later. The boys and I saw him at the market, perusing the blood oranges at the fruit stand. When Jacob spotted him, he called out, “Hey, Zeke! It’s my birthday!” It was days away from Jacob’s birthday, and he was obsessed with it. Zeke looked over and lifted back his sunglasses. Strips of morning sunlight fell across his face from the lattice awning above us.

“Hey,” he said, meeting my gaze. A buzz shot through me. “Which one?”

“It’s my fourth.” Jacob said and continued to chatter. Zeke listened patiently, while Jacob described his upcoming climbing party at the park. He ended his monologue with an invitation.

“Jacob,” I said, “Zeke probably has other things to do.”

But Zeke said, “When is it?”

I laughed, blushing. “It’s this Saturday at 1:30. Really, you don’t have to come.”

“Are other adults coming? Or is it kids only? Do I need to rent some kids?”

“No, my brothers are coming, and my mom and dad. A couple of old friends, a few neighbors.” I trailed off, thinking, What would Tye make of Zeke being there?

“So it’s a climbing party,” Zeke said. “What else do the kids like to do?” He seemed genuinely interested.

“Well,” I said, “one week they play ‘store’ and the next ‘bank’ and recently it’s been ‘park,’ making a park in the backyard.”

“The boys right down from me play Iraq,” he said.

“You’re kidding, right?” I hadn’t heard about kids playing ‘war’ in ages, not since moving to Marin—the land of the politically correct. Largely white, heavily moneyed, the county was a Democratic stronghold. I couldn’t believe he’d just said this. We’d only been back a few years, but I’d already grown accustomed to the homogeneity.

“That was a joke. Actually, though, I think their father is in the Army.”

“Like that makes it all right?” I said with a laugh.

Jacob pulled at Zeke’s jacket. “Are you coming to my party?”

Zeke didn’t answer, but he didn’t say no. Then I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I scrawled my number on a piece of paper and handed it to him.

He shoved the paper in his pocket, holding back a smile, “See you later, Sara.”

I was out running errands on a Saturday morning a month later when I saw Zeke at the bank. I was standing a few people behind him in line as he was finishing his business at the counter. He leaned forward in his jeans, set down his sunglasses, and ran a hand through his hair. He sported clothing well, effortlessly. But he radiated more than this: a sense of intelligent containment, of quiet control. He pulled out his wallet and slipped out his ID, his movements precise. When he spoke to the teller, he didn’t flirt as much as engage and pay attention. I was tingling like I was fifteen again.

Zeke walked past me toward the exit. Perfect, I thought. I am free, no need to engage. I am over this.

“Sara,” he said, turning.

“Zeke. Hey, how are you?” I said, as casually as I could.

“Good. Where are the kids?” He scratched his head, looked away, then back at me. He studied my face, standing quite close to me.

“At home,” I said, and stopped there. It was obvious they were with their dad.

He stayed beside me as the line progressed. “I didn’t call you about Jacob’s birthday. I had to be away that weekend.”

I nodded. “Well,” I said, “I mean, he’s four. He invited a lot of people to the party.” Jacob, at least, had long since forgotten about it.

He looked at me steadily with almond brown eyes. I tried to look away.

“I’ll wait for you up front,” he said, as I stepped up to the counter.

He held open the door as we stepped out into the cool December air. At the edge of the parking lot, I stopped beside a tree, its branches stripped bare of its leaves. I felt bare; I had no children to cover and protect me.

“The library gig didn’t happen,” he said. Through a friend, he’d had jobs out in Chicago and had been traveling the past month. He said it was cold there right now and he liked it, in a way, but then coming back to California, he knew he really couldn’t handle that sub-arctic weather. The man had the gift for gab, and I was partially enthralled, but partially wondering what the hell we were doing.

“What about you? What have you been up to?” he asked.

“I’ve been studying for the bar.” I had told no one this, not even Tye.

“You’re studying to be an attorney?” He raised a brow.

“No, I am an attorney. I practiced for years and then we moved out here.” I paused, because the “we” made things very apparent. “And now I’m facing the music on taking the California bar.”

“Is it hard? I mean, how hard is it?”

“People fail all the time. I failed the North Carolina bar the first time. It was mortifying.” I laughed and then pulled back, painfully aware of how hungry I was for adult conversation. “And, of course, I can’t blame it on just being out of law school this time.”

“So you can’t take it again if you don’t get it—pass—the first time?”

“Well, I can, it just doesn’t look great. It wouldn’t feel great, either.”

“So you’re ready to go back to working?”

“It’s either that or another kid,” I said. It was a nervous joke, and now I didn’t know where I was headed. “But I don’t think my husband will go there.” I gave an uncomfortable laugh. “So it’s the bar for me.” It was anything but funny. This was the crux of my crisis: a marriage on its edge, my children’s departure from infancy, and the fact that I wouldn’t be having another child, as much as I wanted one. I knew then that I was deeply in trouble with Zeke. I had just laid out how I felt without working out my defense ahead of time. I was completely exposed. He nodded and listened, and told me stories about the Windy City that made us both laugh. I was sharing what I was because of who Zeke was. I’d broken my own silence. Even I wasn’t fool enough to miss what that meant.

–from The Manchester Anthology (Manchester: Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester, 2013).

“I Was Content and Not Content”: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry

(SIU Press, 2000)

with Cedric N. Chatterley and Stephen A. Cole.
Foreword by Michael Frisch; essay by Carolyn Chute.

“[A] compassionate and sorely needed book.”
–Anthony Walton
The New York Times Book Review

For more blurbs, click on title