As the story was told, they had met in a hot tub and he had asked her to marry him twenty minutes later; they had eight kids, and after another fifty years, he had died only a month after her own passing. It was the kind of thing you hear and don’t believe for a minute longer than it took to tell.
Gene pulled his jeep over to the side of the road—what there was of a road to be seen beneath the texture of fallen leaves—following a graveled path a dozen yards above the creek. It was nothing more than hardpack but it was clearly raised enough to be dry for most of the year. On a hot Southern California day in June, the shade of the live oaks was water cool.
This was an extraordinary site. As if he had driven into an enormous room in a great ruined palace. The small dark leaves above were thick enough to have kept almost all undergrowth at bay. There was the sense, looking out across the property, that horizontal perspective was lost only to the wide bodies of the trees. And it was a good piece of property for size. The seasonal flooding was a problem but some landscaping would help with that and the rising slope to the east was plenty dry for foundations.
Just to the west of the road, on a lower rise that was visible beneath the oaks, there were the remains of the home where the family had lived. It had burned the year before. Arson. But the family was already gone by then, and the children scattered, evidently living as far away as Boston. The clerk had received a letter from the Boston daughter, offering her advice concerning what could be done with the property to save the trees.
That would be difficult. He could see that. There would have to be a proper road through. Gene had gone to the municipal building in Fallbrook to check on that. There was no question a road was necessary if it was to be developed.
It was there that the clerk had offered him a little more detail. This didn’t add a lot to the story but at least it was some context.
They had met and married in 1965. She was the daughter of an avocado farmer. He was just out of a hitch in the Marine Corps following active duty.
The clerk indicated there might be more to tell, but Gene had to get going. Another time perhaps.
Leaning at the side of his jeep and looking across an elbowing of bottom limbs that nearly reached the earth, he studied the pastel undulations of bared soil at the far side of the creek and with it the layered history of a hundred thousand years. This place must be as old as that.
The creek was silent, shallow and clear, but running dark as well, as if from a trick of the shade and the play of shatter reflection from the bright sandy soil across.
The near black of the canopy above offered stars of sunlight that illuminated the brown crust of leaves surrounding him in small fires. The smell, tart and clean he thought, must be the slow rotting of the leaves. A slight breeze moved in the tops of the live oaks and brought a brief rain of small acorns.
For a moment he felt calmed. Almost at peace.
A large red Ford SUV bumped it’s way up the road behind him. Gene stood and watched the progress with a frown as if worried it would fall off on the sandy shoulder toward the creek. It didn’t but stopped right there behind him.
The woman driving, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt too warm for the day, got out and walked around to him.
“I saw you down at the town offices. You left before I could say anything.”
He put his hand out. She took it, a bit reluctantly he thought.
“Gene Fulton. What’s up?”
He had his suspicions. The red SUV was a giveaway.
“Connie James. I’m a broker. And a developer. Just like you.”
He supposed that was right. He was just like all of them now. But competitors on a site like this were a pain in the ass. He smiled and looked around in a sweep of the space beneath the trees.
“Interesting piece of land. Not many left like this. Essentially the way it always was.”
She shook her head. “It’s fantastic. It’s going to be difficult to do justice.”
He looked at her eye to eye for a brief instant. There was no way to avoid the confrontation. He jumped into the contest feet first.
“With the environmental impact studies and the zoning hearings and all the rest—we’re looking out a couple of years at least before the first shovel.”
She raised her shoulders
“Maybe. But I don’t think so.”
She did not want to be contradictory so soon, but he was begging for it.
“How do you figure?”
She wasn’t sure. She had been up late several nights with this already and felt a little loopy. There was a map of the property in her car with half finished notes all across the blank side. But there had to be a way.
“I’ve been out here a couple of times since it came up. I have some ideas. I’m not sure I can handle it all on my own. But—“ Connie could not help but look at him full face. Brown eyes were always more difficult for her to read. “I was talking to Elle, the clerk you spoke to this morning, and she was telling me a little of the history.”
“What about it?”
He had found the property during a weekend leave while at Camp Pendleton—had basically just wandered onto it while hiking in the low hills on the west. She had grown up just to the east, and had ridden her horses up along the creek through the live oaks there for all her life.
When he returned from Vietnam, he went directly back and inquired. The twelve thousand dollar asking price was everything he had, but he didn’t hesitate. She had assumed until then that the land was hers—her father’s.
He had no skills beyond what was useless to him now. He could get an engine to run again if it wasn’t too far gone. He had no college. But he had good sense. He knew what he wanted when he saw it.
Connie looked away from the scowl.
“Elle knew them both. And she’s on the zoning board. They have their own ideas down there. This land was never farmed. It was always an oak grove. They’d like to see it stay that way if possible. And they understand the town needs the revenue. But they can’t afford the expense of a park—not with all the problems that come with that.” She looked out toward the ruins on the rise. “The house was evidently a real treasure. Hand built. Terrible loss. But it’s unincorporated out here and they can’t afford to police it without tax revenue. That simple.”
Gene wasn’t happy with where this was going.
“So, what’s your idea?”
She smiled and then laughed at something that seemed to come to her with a second thought. It hadn’t occurred to him until then, but she was a good looking woman, especially when she smiled. What did it mean when it took you five minutes to appreciate a woman’s looks?
As if reading his mind, she said, “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
She had come upon him while he was sitting in the hot tub he’d made for himself from a kit he had seen in a shop window in La Jolla. All his worldly goods were still in the back of his pick-up truck, tied down beneath a brown canvas tarp. She had seen the blue truck first and wondered what it was doing there. He had built the hot-tub close to the creek because he had no plumbing and pitched his tent on the higher ground at the west.
The oaks in this place were not young but they were not tall either, only forty or fifty feet high, but very wide, and seemed to be naturally spaced out across the rough flood plain of the creek. The morning was still cool and the smoke from the fire curled immediately into the darker shade of the leaves above. She had smelled this but did not see him there in the tub until she was right above him.
He had said, “That’s sure a nice sound.”
She was startled at the sight. Cicadas buzzed in the trees. She was so used to that she hadn’t noticed them until then.
“No. The horse’s hooves on the sand. That’s a good sound.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Trying to get three years stink off.”
“I mean, here?”
“It’s my place.”
“It’s my father’s.”
“I suppose he’s the one who sold it to me. Tall gentleman with glasses.”
“Yes! When? He didn’t tell me.”
“He said the taxes were up again and he couldn’t keep it.”
“I was away. Until yesterday. I didn’t know.”
She straightened, defensively, “Yes. Why?”
“You have the look.”
“What look is that?”
“Smart. You look smart.”
She dismissed that with a wave and looked again around the camp to avoid staring at him. Her horse bared it’s teeth to pull at the sparse tall grass close by.
“Is this the first thing you’ve built? This tub?”
The skepticism in her voice was clearly put on; mocking for the humor of it.
“It was the most important thing I could think of. I guess. I’m not as smart as you, but it sure is nice. You ought to try it sometime.”
She looked down at the naked body again. There wasn’t much she couldn’t see. He did not seem to care.
“What are you going to do?”
“I was thinking of just sitting here for another hour our two, until the wood runs out. Then I might go find some more wood.”
“I mean, for a living?”
“I am living, now. But work? I don’t know yet.” His eyes scanned the march of dark bodied oaks in all directions as if looking for an answer.
“I’m thinking—I was just thinking before you came, that I should learn some carpentry. If I like it, maybe I’ll be a carpenter. What do you think?”
Why ask her?
“Sounds good. Useful.”
“What do you do?”
That was a matter, wasn’t it.
“Four years of college has taught me how to do nothing very well.”
“Where did you go to school?”
He whistled. “A young woman from Berkeley threw an egg at me once.”
“I don’t know. But I was in uniform. That wasn’t you, was it?”
“No. . . . But it could have been. They taught us how to do that.”
“Why don’t you grow avocados like your dad.”
“I guess I could. But it’s hard work. Frankly, I was hoping for something easier.”
“Nothing good is easy. What did you study?”
“Then you could do that.”
“Do literature? How do you do that?”
The skepticism was back in her voice. He wondered if they taught that tone at Berkeley as well.
“Whatever literature does.”
“It doesn’t do anything. That’s why I said, I do nothing.”
“Well, you could change that, couldn’t you? Why not do good literature and everyone will want to get some of it and then you can do more.”
“You mean write?”
“Maybe. Whatever good there is in it.”
He was not smiling. She could not be sure if he was joking with her or not. The horse whinnied for another better place to find a little greener grass, which was sparse there in the shade.
She sniffed at the thought. “The best I can tell, there isn’t a lot of good there to find anymore. But I ought to learn how to do something useful. What do you think?”
He nodded at the question.
“Well, my mother’s a seamstress. She mostly makes children’s clothes because there’s always a need for that. And she likes that.”
“And what does your father do?”
“He’s a mechanic. Mostly trucks.”
Gene Fulton shook his head. There was no fooling here. If Connie James was serious she had to confront the realities. The sooner the better.
“You can’t put houses in here on the flood plain. In order to get up to the rises though, you’re gonna haft’a have a road. A good road.” He scuffed his foot at the gravel beneath them. “That’s expensive. And the drive-ways up to the houses as well. To cover that cost you’re going to need to make more houses. It’s simple math. If the property is going to be developed, you need the road. And the road has to be compatible with whatever environmental issues that are going to come up. It’s just the way it is.”
She studied him for a moment. She had know men like him all her life. He had done his homework. He had thought it through. He was set for battle.
“I think we can keep the road that’s here. It’s done a fine job so far and just needs a little love. As for the houses—I’m thinking half a dozen at most. All up there on the rise and looking southeast.”
“Ha! That would mean higher taxes per house. That would mean houses for the rich. Great. More houses for the rich—“
“No. I’m thinking, maybe, leases. Restrictions on house size. Some kind of lottery.”
“Jesus! This is the real world here, Ms. James! A Lottery! You’ve got to be kidding. And that still doesn’t net the tax revenue the town will be looking for.”
She looked up again and around at the open space that ran off with the eye beneath the trees—a bright dappled cave with no end. She had to stop looking down at him. At first, it had been part of her own aggressive complaint at his being there. Now, she was realizing it was something else.
“You won’t cut all these trees down, will you?”
There was a plea in her tone.
“No. What would be the good it that? It’s why I fell in love with this place when I first saw it. I’m thinking I’d like to spend the rest of my life here, in the shade of these trees. . . . And I’ll bet they’re exactly why you come this way yourself.”
“Yes. . . .” She looked down again. “But not Iowa? You don’t want to go back?”
“No. I’m thinking now that I belong here.”
That caught her breath and she looked away again, chin up, as if to keep from looking back. He could see she was upset.
But she said, “I think that’s my problem too. I think I belong here and I don’t know what to do.”
He shrugged—just a shift of the freckles on his bare shoulders—then looked up at her and smiled.
“Then why don’t you stay? Something will come up. Just give it a chance.”
At that request, she sat still in the saddle for more than a minute, staring away beneath the trees as if she could see a great distance, and until her horse whinnied again, and at that she dismounted and led the horse over to the grass closest to the creek and tethered her there.
Then she walked back to the tub and undid the belt to her jeans.
Connie stood her ground at the challenge, chin raised to meet his eyes.
“What is it you want in life? Just to build a bunch of houses? Honestly!”
He let out a tired breath. He figured she was younger than him by ten years or more. She had the energy for this. He had to wonder about himself. There were too many compromises on too many projects through the years. He had started with one house while working a second job. A rehab. He had sanded the floors and replaced the windows himself. Then a second and a third. He finished two houses the first year and four the second. With that, he had hired a crew and built his first house from scratch. Twenty-six years old and he had a crew. Those were the good years. But you can’t keep a marriage afloat if you’re working sixteen hours a day. He was proud of what he had done but not so much about what he had become.
“No.” He looked around. “No. Honestly, it doesn’t matter anymore what I want in life. It’s just a job. I try to do it the best I can.”
And this was suddenly the saddest thing that Connie had ever heard from a man’s mouth.
He scowled again. What kind of real estate talk was this? What did she want from him?
“I don’t know you? . . . That’s a big question to be asking.”
“Sorry. I’ve always been that way. A little forward. It’s a good trait to have in the real estate business. But it can be difficult on friends.”
He stood there in place and looked once again across the property and the dappling light through the oak leaves, to the creek that ran silently on its way. And in that moment he saw exactly why it was still the way it had always been. And he knew something else.
“What I think is that in a more perfect world I would buy this land and live here myself. Like those people did years ago. It doesn’t get any better than this. But that’s beyond my means now. It always will be, I guess. So now I have to settle for the best I can do. Not good enough, but . . .”
She stared a him with her jaw open for just long enough to realize it was hanging. There was no doubting his sincerity. That much was in his voice.
“What happened to you? What happened to you along the way?”
Her question seemed incomprehensible.
Her voice insisted, “I’m sorry. You don’t know me. But, I want to know. How did you get here?”
“Why are you asking this? What does it have to do with this place?”
She stole a breath of air—after not breathing for too long.
“Everything, I think. The first time I ever came here I thought exactly what you just said. In a more perfect world I would live in a place like this. It’s why I became a broker. To find it, I think. I see that now. This is where I want to live!”
She had never actually thought it before but she meant it! This and more he could see in her eyes.
“That would be good.”
Her arms suddenly flew upward at her sides.
“We could do that! There’s no law that this property has to be developed. It can just stay the way it is.”
What had just happened?
He said again, “You don’t know me. I don’t know you.”
“Yes, I do. We do. A little. Enough I think. You have to take a few risks in life to get what you want. Isn’t that right? . . . And I’m not so bad, really, when you get to know me. At least I don’t think so. Just a little pain in the ass at times. Honestly!”