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The Presence of Fact

by Alex Faletti

John’s up to his shoulders in the fireplace. He drops ashes on the floor. They hit in a rush and puff out. “This will do,” he says.

“Keeping it in the house?” Hatly says.

“No. Shoveling it out,” he says, “keeping the flue clean.” John rests the shovel against the mantle. He pulls his shirt over his stomach, and slaps the dust from his hands.

“Lunch?” Hatly says. She washes her hands at the kitchen sink. Chives and oregano grow in terra-cotta pots above the double basin.

“A Coke,” he says.

“We’re out,” she says, watching a hawk ride thermals above the canyon facing the house. A ripple of heat scatters the color, and the manzanita and sage look brown.

“Anything else?” he asks.

“Only cream soda,” she says. “I’ll go to town.” She dries her hands and helps a black and white cat onto the couch with her foot, but it jumps back down.

“Don’t bother,” John says. “I can wait.”

“No, I’ll go. I want to.”

“Fine,” he says, “but put Coke on your list.”

“It is,” she says.

Flatly plays The Cure. The Jeep’s parked on a hill and she starts it without using the key, only coasting. It’s eight miles from Davenport to Felton, and the first three are dirt. A plume of dust kicks up behind her and settles after she’s two turns down the road.

Hatly drives Main through Felton. The sun warms the street and dries the pine needles lying thick on either side of the road. Redwoods push up dense and the sun browns the ferns and mule ears at the base of the trees.

In Donnell’s General Store, Hatly moves her cart slowly through the aisles.

“You need some help?” Greg says from behind the counter.

“I’d love some help,” she says from the end of an aisle. She moves down the next aisle, talking over the top.

“How about a sun hat? They’re straw,” Greg says. He pulls a hat from a stack and hands it to Hatly.

Hatly pulls her hair over one shoulder. It drapes across her chest to the belt. She adjusts the hat in three or four directions, watching herself in a silver mirror. “I look like a grandmother,” she says.

“You’d be the youngest one I’ve met,” Greg says. “Try this one.” He hands her one with a blue ribbon.

“This is cute. I like it.” She tilts the brim up and walks toward the meats. A white cooler holds fresh fish, beef, and boneless pork chops. She lifts a package of shark from the ice. It smells of kelp and reminds her of the pier in Santa Cruz where fishermen hoist sharks with block and tackle. “Oh yes, we need a smoke detector. It’s for the house.”

“Makes sense in a drought,” Greg says. “I got a ticket last week. Hosed off my porch.” He walks over an aisle. “They’re over here, in the hardware.”

“They’re water Nazis,” Hatly says. She comes into view from behind the aisle. “And paint. I need a can of paint,” she says. “Black enamel.”

Greg leaves the aisle and walks to the back wall. “Plenty of paint back here,” he says. He pulls a can from a steel cabinet.

“I don’t suppose you have any Haagen-Dazs? Vanilla on a stick, coffee chips, dark chocolate?”

“What’s that?” Greg says.

“Decadence. The best ice cream made.”

“No. Just popsicles up here. Never heard of Hogging Days. Must be rich.”

“It’s okay. I’ll get them in the city. I’ll get a box,” Hatly says, making her arms wide to show the box’s size.

“Sounds like cabin fever,” he says.

“Just work, and commuting to San Jose,” she says. She stops pushing the cart and puts her hat next to a can of oysters.

“You’ve bought a nice place,” Greg says from the back of the store. “One of the few that still has full growth timber.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Hatly says.

A one quart can of paint rises from behind an aisle and then falls. It reappears farther down the aisle where Greg throws it over his head again. “Here it is,” he says.

She takes it and a brush, pays for her goods, and walks to the Jeep. Greg lugs the bags and thanks her.

By the shed, John cuts four feet from the end of a four-by­six. It’s rough-cut redwood and a splinter jabs his hand.

“Damn,” he says, and pulls at it with his teeth. The sliver swells under the skin, but he keeps cutting, gives a hard cut down and then lightly lifts the saw up. His gold chain bounces against his chest, in rhythm with the saw, and he hears Hatly coming up the road, the Jeep in low gear.

She sprays dust and dried pine needles, parks between a pile of shingles and a neat stack of lumber. “Hey carpenter,” she says.

John keeps after the post. He has about an inch to go but stops. “Redwood’s a bitch,” he says.

“No, I’m a bitch,” she says. She slips her sunglasses to her head and spits from the Jeep.

“You’re funny,” he says and walks to her.

“And you’re no carpenter,” she says. “You belong in the city with a car phone. But I’ll kiss you anyway.”

“Then I’ll court you,” he says, stooping like a chimp and skipping around her. He flexes so his biceps show their veins. “And I do math.”

“My renaissance man,” Hatly says. She kisses him on the forehead and walks to the house, kicking up dust with each step. “Ook, ook,” she tells him.

“Ook, ook,” he says, picking up his gloves and the Coke Hatly left him.

Hatly carries two bags up fourteen steps. The deck squeaks under her, and she notes it. Another thing to fix.

John yells after her. “Bring an old paint can, please!” She tries to nod, but the groceries shift and she yells “Okay” into a bag.

John cuts the last of the four-by-six and sets the four-foot piece on sawhorses. Hatly brings the can and they take turns painting the bottom end with one brush.

Hatly stops John’s hand in midmotion, holds it until he looks at her. She has both his hand and the brush in one hand. “I’ve had enough,” she says.

“Enough?” he says. He kisses her and she steps back. The smell of creosote burns her eyes.

“Enough fixing. Let’s do dinner, a nice dinner, in Los Gatos?” she says.

He lifts the post and sets the oiled side down. It drips small drops in the dust. “Sounds good. Maybe after the traffic dies down. We’re pretty much done for the day,” he says. “I’ll call Tim, and we’ll bury the post. We’ll do it right,” he says. John pours the creosote in its can and taps it shut.

He wipes the can clean, and the rag sticks to his hand. So he peels the rag away, but it sticks to his other hand. “Here,” he chucks the rag to Hatly. His nails are hand-rubbed walnut. “Put it by the hose in the back,” he says.

“I’ll wet it before I toss it,” she says.

“Do the woodpile too,” he says. “Tim and I’ll do a dump run tomorrow, get them out of the yard.”

Hatly throws the rag at the base of the shingles and sprays a fan of water from the hose with her thumb. Steam rises from where the shingles lie in the sun, and evaporating rivers run from under the pile.

Tim meets them at the gate, a quarter mile from the house. He parks his truck next to the jeep, just off the road. “Today’s the day,” he says.

“Today we do it,” John says.

Tim leaves the road, walks a yard or two and finds the hole. “That will do,” he says. John slides the post from the Jeep and cradles it across the road. Tim and Hatly wait on the far side.

“Watch out,” John says.

The post drops with a thud, vibrates the earth below them. It rests at an angle. John straightens it while Tim wedges rocks be­tween the post and the hole. Hatly and John take turns hammering rocks deeper with a steel bar until the post stands on its own.

“Let’s point it in the right direction while it’s still moveable,” Tim says. Tim and John wiggle and twist the post while Hatly directs them. They aim one side toward the road.

“A little more,” she says, “just a little more.”

Hatly steps back while John and Tim set the post with rocks and clay and steel.

“It’s supposed to be over a hundred tomorrow,” Tim says, driving a rock deeper.

“We’ll load the shingles this evening when it’s cool,” John says. “We can drive out early, before it gets hot.”

“That should do it,” John says. He says a word or two between each thrust and then stabs the bar into the ground a few feet from the hole.

“Get the sign,” Hatly says.

“Let’s see it,” John says.

Tim carries it from the truck. Eighteen inches cut from a two-by-twelve. Eight letters carve the surface in V-shaped grooves. The letters show Tim’s handiwork, his router’s blade. “The Walls,” it says.

Tim drills two holes in the sign and then the post. He joins them with two bolts and a socket wrench. Backing away from the sign on his knees, he reads it aloud. “The Walls,” he says. “Looks good. You’re official.”

“The Walls,” they say, and smile.

Hatly backs the Jeep down the road. She turns on the lights and drives backward. The sun has set, but the headlights show the road.

“You can’t really see it against the tree,” she says over the sound of the motor.

“It will be fine with some paint,” Tim says. He stands back and imagines the letters in black. “Black’s not going to catch it. You’ll need yellow, or white, I think. You can’t see the letters well.”

“We can paint it at the house,” John says. “We’ve got lights in the garage now.” He walks toward the Jeep.

“Sounds good,” Tim says. He loosens the bolts on the sign and takes it down. “We can do the swamp cooler, too.”

“Hold on a bit,” John says. “Put it back up for a second. I want to see it.” John squeezes next to Hatly in the Jeep and closes the door, but it won’t latch shut. He puts his arm on the seat above her shoulders. They press together. The bucket seat holds them together, and John clicks the high beams.

“What do you think?” she says. Their faces are close, almost touching, and John answers her quietly. “White will do it. White will make it perfect.”

Alex Faletti, after getting a B.S. in math and an M.A. in English, is currently a ski instructor at a local resort.