By J. Hartman
James and Margaret Dawson came home to Los Robles Valley in the early dusk. They had to walk over the pass from Forest Hills, through the woods; they couldn’t use the road, because men from the Army Corps of Engineers were guarding it. In the morning, the new dam would go into operation, and Los Robles Valley would become Los Robles Reservoir.
James and Margaret didn’t speak as they walked. James glanced over at Margaret every now and then. She always had her eyes on the ground, picking out her steps, avoiding the twigs and stones. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a severe bun that made her look forty instead of twenty-four. Her clothes. . . . She never complained, but James knew she wished they could afford something nice once in a while. Maybe they could use some of the government money from the house, from the relocation, for a new dress. Hard times. If he’d been laid off from the lumber yard sooner, he might’ve gotten a PWA job, working on the dam. . . .
At last they came to the little house at the end of Aldercroft Lane. It looked bare, barren. The flowers in the front yard had been trampled; the shutters on the front window were broken. The front door stood ajar.
They hadn’t bothered to take all of their things with them when the Corps had forced them to sell the house and land. They’d figured on making a fresh start in Los Perros.
But Margaret had insisted that they come back. “Just for tonight,” she’d said. “One last night.” Her chin had been high, her face impassive. The same stony mask she’d worn ever since. . . .
James held the door for her, even though it was already open. Useless, he thought. What am I doing here? What are we doing here?
Margaret looked around in the gloom of the front hall. James unclipped a flashlight from his belt, flicked it on, handed it to her. He took off his hat, moved to hang it from the hat rack, remembered they’d sold the hat rack with the rest of the furniture. He hung the hat from a doorknob. He lowered his heavy rucksack—bedrolls, a little food—to the floor, leaned it against the wall.
Margaret stood uncertainly, shone the light across a wall covered in now-grimy floral wallpaper. She took a step toward the living room, then stopped, turned around, and walked into the kitchen.
James imagined the floodwaters rising, coming in through the front door, covering the wooden floor here in the front hall, muddying the wallpaper. He imagined the water filling the house, filling the valley, suffocating.
Margaret gave a little shriek. James darted through the doorway into the kitchen and stopped dead behind her.
A tall narrow man stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. A dirty tramp, tattered, filthy; he squinted and averted his eyes as the light hit him squarely in the face. He had several days' growth of beard. His clothes were old and torn; his hat was battered and, like the rest of him, caked with dirt.
James started forward. By God, nobody was going to come into his house, walk around like he owned the place. “What the—” He glanced at Margaret. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
The man had put a grimy hand up, blocking the light from his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought this place was— I’ll leave. Sorry.” His voice was quiet but clear.
James said, “Get out.” His fists were balled at his sides. Say something, say anything, and I’ll hit you, I swear to—
“Wait,” said Margaret. She shifted her flashlight a little so it wasn’t directly in the hobo’s face. “Don’t you know they’re going to flood the whole valley in the morning?” she said. “It isn’t safe here.”
The man looked at them, a flash of curiosity brightening his eyes, but then looked away. “I know,” he said. “Just hoping there was some food left behind, maybe something soft to sleep on tonight before I move on. But— Sorry to intrude.” He started past them. Margaret stepped aside to let him pass; James stood his ground. The man turned sideways to pass James and go through the doorway.
“Wait,” said Margaret again. James glared at her. The other man stopped, still looking at the floor. Pausing for a moment before moving his heavy load on out of there.
“What’s your name?” Margaret asked.
“Cody,” said the man. “Richard Cody.” He glanced up, sidelong, past James at Margaret, then down again. “They call me Professor,” he offered. “Down at the jungle by the train yard.”
“Look, just—” James began, but Margaret cut him off.
“Cody,” she said. “Mr. Cody, the pump in the back should still work. If you go clean yourself up, I’ll see if I can make the—the guest room a little more comfortable.”
When Cody was gone, James said, “He’s a bindlestiff, Margaret. Like as not slit our throats as we sleep.”
“He’s a man in trouble, James Dawson.” She glared at him. He looked away, tight-lipped. She said, “Go make yourself useful—go out to the shed and see if you can find any of those jars of preserves. I think I might have left some behind.”
James returned with a jar of preserved peaches he’d found under some timber in the shed.
With his face and hair washed, in a worn old nightshirt of James’s that Margaret had found in the bottom of the closet, the hobo looked almost presentable. He’d somehow managed to shave. He had a nice firm jaw, and keen blue eyes.
He gobbled peaches from the jar with his fingers, and some of the beef jerky James had brought along for breakfast. The man kept a wary eye on James and Margaret as he ate.
None of them said much. When the man was done, Margaret showed him to the guest room.
James and Margaret bedded down on the floor in their old bedroom. James reached for Margaret, but she turned her back to him. Again. He lay restlessly for a while, but the day had worn him out, and eventually he slept.
He woke to the sound of sobbing.
Margaret wasn’t lying next to him. He stood, still sleep-fuddled, and drew on his trousers. He buttoned the suspenders as he walked unsteadily down the hall in the darkness.
The sound was coming from the living room; he paused just outside the living room doorway. Moonlight splashed in through the big front window. Margaret was there; it was Margaret who was crying. Margaret who hadn’t shed a tear for six months, Margaret who—
There was someone else in the room.
Two figures, sitting on the floor, backs to the wall, in the moonlight: Margaret was clutching the tramp, and he had his arms around her.
James took one step through the doorway, raising a fist, preparing a bellow that would shake the roof, would make the hobo take to his heels. He’d had about enough—
Margaret was still wailing, in great gasping sobs.
And the hobo was . . . comforting her? He was holding her, encircled in his arms, and he was saying soothing nonsense, There, there, and he had no right, no right at all—
But the tears, the grief, were flooding out of Margaret, finally released. That stone face had collapsed. James hadn’t been able to reach her, hadn’t been able to help; he’d stood by, helpless, useless, watching her, waiting, praying that one day she would come through that valley. . .
But not like this. Not with another man. James stepped further into the room. “You—” he tried, but he didn’t know how to go on. “What are—”
The man looked up. His eyes widened in guilty fear; he pulled half away from Margaret, but couldn’t extricate his arms from around her. Margaret looked up, bewildered, and saw James.
The anguish on her face was more than he could bear. He moved toward her, reflexively, forgetting everything else. She put her arms out to him, and he sank to his knees and enfolded her in his own arms. And she continued to cry, onto his shoulder now.
James felt a slight motion, and looked up, and realized that the hobo—Cody—was still caught, his arms pinned around Margaret by the wall and by James’s arms. James began to shift, to give Cody room to pull away and clear out, but Margaret, still crying, moved one of her arms, drew Cody in closer. Cody gave James an embarrassed half-shrug.
They sat there, awkwardly, the three of them, as Margaret cried herself out.
And then, as the sobs died away into hiccups, Margaret looked up at both of them, and half-smiled through the tears. And then she kissed James.
It was so sudden, after all these months, that James didn’t respond at first. When after a moment he did respond, it was as though his whole body was waking up from a sleep.
Margaret sank down to lie on the old rug. She pulled James down next to her, kissing him, stroking his head. “James,” she said. “James, I need you.” The urgency in her voice brought him fully erect. He pulled her to him—and stopped. The other man was still there.
Cody was pulling away, standing up. “I’ll— ah— I’ll just leave you to—”
But Margaret said, once again, “Wait.” And sat up, and looked back and forth, from Cody to James and back again.
Both men froze in place. Guarded. Wary. Uncertain.
Margaret held a hand up to Cody. “Please,” she said. “You too. Let’s—be alive. Together. This one night, before the morning.”
James’s eyes narrowed. He drew in a breath—but Margaret put her finger to his lips. Her eyes caught his, pleading. “For me?” she said. “For—I need this. To—to prove I’m alive.” James lay there, looking up at her, and past her at the other man. “Please?” she said, and he thought his heart would break.
A long moment passed.
At last, James half-nodded. If this was the price of getting Margaret back. . . “Once,” he said. “Tonight only.”
She nodded. “Tonight only,” she said.
Cody, beyond her, chuckled softly. “For a limited run,” he said wryly, and somehow that was funny, and they all laughed, and then before anyone could say anything more Margaret was standing and unbuttoning her nightgown, there in the white moonlight, and her dark hair was loose, cascading over her shoulders. It took James’s breath away.
Margaret shrugged out of the shoulders and sleeves, and the nightgown slithered down her pale body.
Her breasts were still fuller than they’d once been, and there were wrinkles on her belly. But in the moonlight James could see echoes of the girl he’d courted, at the county fair that summer, back before the Crash, before everything had turned sour.
He was filled with a fierce need to take her, right there, heedless of the stranger in the room. He stood, reached for her. She danced back a step, a half-smile playing around her lips. It had been so long since he’d seen her smile. . . He lunged forward, grabbed her. He managed somehow to lay her down on the floor, as she laughingly protested. He knelt beside her, fumbling with his suspender buttons, trying to get his trousers down.
And then Cody was beside them, kneeling on the floor. “You’re lovely, ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying so,” he said. His voice was still quiet, but teasing now, challenging, questioning.
Margaret pulled the man down to her, kissed him. Jealousy flared in James. He managed to get his trousers down around his ankles, and lay down and pushed Cody away from her. He leaned in and kissed her himself. A long kiss, to make her forget the other man. What could she want from him? And after a moment, Margaret began to kiss back more urgently, and to make little noises in the back of her throat. He felt a moment of satisfaction, then confusion as the noises grew louder—she couldn’t possibly be enjoying a few kisses quite that much—
He shifted, looked up. Cody was down between Margaret’s legs, and his head was bobbing up and down at her groin. . .
James broke away from the kiss. “That’s disgusting,” he said. Cody paused, looked up at him, raised an eyebrow. But before Cody could say anything, Margaret grabbed his head with one hand and shoved it down there again.
“That’s. . . ,” said James, but he knew when he was beaten. He shook his head. If this was what she really wanted. . .
He guessed it was time for him to go. He would leave Margaret here, with—
She grabbed him and pulled him in for another kiss. A deep, passionate one. She moaned around it.
James remembered other times when she’d moaned, nights in the bedroom when their passion had made her scream with pleasure. The thought aroused him again.
He shifted an arm and began to stroke her breast. He’d learned she liked that. She responded, moving to press against his hand. Her moans into his mouth grew louder, her breathing faster.
James risked breaking the kiss long enough to glance down her body. The other man’s head was still moving there. James lay perfectly still for a long moment, hand frozen on Margaret’s breast, and then slowly moved his head. He paused again with his mouth an inch from the dark bud that tipped her breast, then reached with his tongue to touch it.
Margaret gasped and arched her back. James licked again, more firmly this time, and then, gathering his courage, took her nipple into his mouth.
Margaret screamed, head back, body convulsed. For a moment James thought he had somehow hurt her terribly, but then her hand was behind his head, clutching him to her breast. He sucked and licked at it, struggling to breathe through his nose, and then she went limp.
All was still for a moment. Then James pulled away from the awkward position Margaret had pulled him into, sat up a little. Cody’s head came up. He was grinning, and his mouth and chin were wet as if from eating ripe fruit. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and said to James, “You oughtta try it sometime.”
James looked down at Margaret. Her eyes were closed; her mouth held an expression of perfect bliss. Two of her fingers rested gently against the other nipple, the one James hadn’t touched.
James swallowed. His trousers were still tangled around his ankles; he pulled them the rest of the way off. He was erect, insistent. He shivered.
Cody, standing, stripped off his nightshirt. Without clothing, he was thin and pale. Probably never worked a day in his life, James thought. James touched his own arm—the hard muscles from wrangling lumber all day for ten years—and smiled a little to himself.
Margaret opened her eyes. “More?” she whispered.
“I—” James’s mouth was suddenly dry. He swallowed. “I want you,” he said.
She understood. She drew him down to her, pulled him close.
He tried to lie on top of her, but she turned on her side, away from him. What—
She reached back, pulled him close up against her back. And then lifted her upper leg, and reached with one hand to guide him in from behind, to guide him home. She was slick and wet, and James tried not to think about Cody’s mouth down there, his tongue licking. She was tighter than usual from this angle. It felt strange not to be facing her, not to be lying atop her as he thrust into her. He reached around in front of her and caressed her breast; his other arm had somehow ended up trapped under her neck, immobile. Inside her, he moved slowly at first, trying to take things slow, to savor the moment, but he was going to have to speed up any second now, as she began to push back against him—
And then Cody was there. Lying on his side too, facing Margaret and James. He kissed Margaret, and then shifted down to nuzzle her breasts. She gasped again, and began to moan. Her back pressed harder against James as she took him even deeper inside. James lost control, slamming hard into her, and was only vaguely aware that Cody had moved again and was lying full-length against her front, thrusting against her as if he too were entering her, only he was holding himself with one hand. They all rocked together, back and forth, faster and faster, as Margaret’s keening wail went up and up and up, and with one final thrust James felt himself spurting deep inside her, his body hit by one jolt after another, and she was still screaming and bucking, and then James’s hand on Margaret’s breast was spattered by something sticky, and Cody grunted once and lay still.
And Margaret’s breathing slowed into ragged gasps, and James realized sleepily that she was crying again. Not the body-shaking sobs of before, just quiet weeping. And both men had their arms around her, and James wasn’t sure which of them said “It’s okay, it’s all right” and which said “It’ll be all right, don’t you cry.”
And slowly her tears tapered off, and her breathing slowed, and then she was asleep.
James raised his head slightly, a little befuddled, uncertain. Cody looked him in the eyes from a couple of feet away. Cody quirked the corner of his mouth, a little sadly, and then leaned in to kiss Margaret gently on the forehead, and then he pulled away and sat up.
He looked at James again, and said, in that quiet voice, “Margaret told me about your loss. I’m sorry.”
James blinked back unmanly tears and bit his lip. “They moved the graves,” he said. “The PWA men. All the graves, they moved them to higher ground. All but one.”
Cody was silent for a moment, then said, “I think I’d best be going now. I—” He stopped, and stood up. The moonlight was still bright on his skin.
James almost said, “Stay.” But caught himself.
“Tonight only,” Cody said. “I’ll find somewhere else to sleep. I— Thank you. And thank her, in the morning.”
“Thank you,” James said, unsure even as he said it why he was saying it.
“Take good care of her,” Cody said. He seemed about to say something more, but thought better of it. He picked up the nightshirt he’d been wearing, and disappeared through the doorway into the hall.
James thought about going after him. About thanking him, or hitting him, or something—he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. But before he could figure it out, he was asleep, still embracing his wife.
The birds outside woke them in the pre-dawn gray. Margaret stretched and yawned, and smiled. James’s heart thudded hard for a moment—her smile had always been one of his favorite things. Neither of them said much as they dressed and ate a little beef jerky.
When they were ready, hand in hand, they went out into the back yard, and over to the oak tree.
Underneath it, propped up in the dirt, was a piece of cardboard. A pencil scrawl read:
James Dawson, Jr.
Margaret squeezed James’s hand tighter, and he moved to stand behind her, to put his arms around her. They both cried a little then.
And then the sun came up. The dam would be going into operation soon, flooding the valley, covering up old hurts, washing away the past, making everything clean and new again. It was time to go.
The PWA, or Public Works Administration, built a lot of dams in the 1930s. (It’s not to be confused with the better-known WPA, the Works Progress Administration, which funded various arts projects as well as construction projects.) They occasionally flooded a valley to create a reservoir, and sometimes those valleys had towns in them; the fictional setting of this story is loosely modeled on the town of Alma, California, which is now the Lexington Reservoir, near Los Gatos. I have no evidence that they ever flooded a town without bulldozing it first, but I figure if the Coen Brothers can say it happened, I can too.
After the story was published, a friend pointed out to me that people who wear suspenders generally pull the straps on and off over the shoulders, rather than buttoning and unbuttoning them. Oops. I suppose I could’ve fixed that in the above text, but I’m leaving it alone for now.