The Road to Clara by Cate Stevens Davis

When the boss whistles, Hub Ackart stops for the day and straightens his hunched back. Every day, a little more work. Boss's policy is to stop at dusk, but it's nearly June and the days are stretching. Hub and the other men are being gypped out of their fair pay, they allknow it, but even without the extra dollars, they make more building the cabins than they're used to. Nobody complains. All the same he's decided to leave. Hub's hands bleed, cracked and dotted with slivers of wood like porcupine quills.

They shiver when he flexes his fingers, popping crimped knuckles. He gathers his tools and slumps toward the boss's tent, where everything gets stored in locked boxes at night. Except for the rich man paying their wages and his family -- wife, two kids, brother and sister-in-law, dowager nanny -- they're alone in the woods, but the boss doesn't like to take chances.

It only takes one night of mischief to lose all your gear, he says. Hub thinks it's probably happened before, saws and axes left unattended and gone the next morning, but he doesn't ask. It won't happen anymore and that's what matters.

Inside the boss's tent, Hub drops his tools in the box with the others, metal pinging against metal. He's the last to come and the boss is vibrating with impatience. Hub wonders if he knows that he's about to lose one of his men.
The boss is a short, bow-legged Italian. Hub has never seen him without a ring of grime around his neck, dirt and sweat shoved in between folds of skin. Doesn't talk a lot, the boss, not to the working men. Mostly he talks to the rich man about the cabin's walls and floors and windows, and to himself, in Italian, about anything. Hub thinks he is probably cursing them all, but without knowing how to speak Italian he can't be sure.

His hands are bleeding where the saw blade was swiped too close, where he tore splinters out. Hub nods to the boss before elbowing the tent flap open to head deeper into the woods to his own temporary home. The other tents are set away from the building site, a drab green colony rising up among the young saplings and unfurling ferns. They keep a fire in the center for cooking and bullshitting, but Hub passes it, ignoring the other two men as they coax a pile ofwood to light.

He sits in the dark for a few minutes with his eyes closed. It's a foreign feeling, stillness, and sticks in him worse than the pine shards in his hands and fingers. He reaches for a book ofmatches and strikes one, lighting the small lantern that dangles overhead. Light wobbles across canvas as the lantern swings. He touches the lantern to stop the dizzy dip and sway.

He isn't unhappy with his work, Hub thinks as he studies his skin, gripping a splinter between blunt fingernails. It's not unhappiness that makes him want to leave or pride in his job that would make him stay. Blood blossoms in the wake of a deep sliver. Hub sucks it away, tasting metal and sweat and wood, the taste of a man.

There's something in the air that tells him when to go, a bird song or the scent of water. It's what brought him north, to these woods, to Michigan. He followed it for the better part of a month, hitch-hiked north from Florida and hopped a train in Kentucky. When he reached the shores of the lake, Hub ran splashing into water stained blue by the sky. He couldn't swim, but it didn't matter. He didn't sink into the lake. He could have drowned but he didn't and
that's something.

But he feels the itch again, like something trapped in his gut trying to get out, clawing at his belly. He doesn't know where he's headed this time, just knows that he must get to the road and stretch his legs. His feet know the way, his head will follow.

The wounds on his hand burn, his blood sings. The road calling him -- away, away.

The next morning, a letter comes. Somewhere far away Hub hears the boss shouting, but he focuses instead on the scrip-scrap of bark pulling away from timber. He doesn't pause until the wrinkled page is thrust under his nose. The wiry black hairs on the boss's fingers waft back and forth.

“Got something for you," the boss says. “It come with the rest."

The paper is worn thin as a spider web, dirty and slick from passing hands. Hub doesn't recognize the slanting scrawl, but that doesn't surprise him. Only a handful of people in his life would take the time and trouble to write to him and none of them could do it without help. He folds the paper very gently and slips it into his pocket.

“Well?" the boss says. “Good news?"

Hub ignores him, bends low to the log to continue scraping bark. It's probably not good news, he thinks. He wonders who's died, wonders how long he'll have to wait before he can find out.

One of the brothers, passing by to sharpen his blade, reaches out as though he's going to tap Hub's arm. The hand hangs in the air between them. Hub's eyes follow the dirty fingers to the rolled-up sleeves to the lined, tanned face.

“The woman in the house will read it, if you need her to."

Hub nods. The hand falls. The brother continues on his way. Bark slides off the log.

The rich man and his family are staying with the man's brother. That cabin already long finished. There are even rugs laid across the polished wood floorboards. Hub stands just inside the kitchen door, brushing at the fine wood dust that coats his pants. His fingers shake, hands feel empty without a tool, a purpose. His skin prickles. Just standing. Waiting.

The rich man's nanny is peeling apples, their green skins looping in girlish curls under her knife. She avoids looking in his direction, pretends that he has not been allowed inside the house. Hub listens as she mumbles to herself and the cadence is familiar, like a song not
heard for years but remembered fondly.

“Swedish?" he says. The word dies almost before it's out of his mouth.

“Yes." The nanny looks at him finally. She doesn't stop working the knife, doesn't need to keep her eyes on her work. It makes Hub feel warm towards her. “You?"

“My mother's people," he says.

“Don't look like a Swede."

“No," he says. “I take after Pa's side. German." Hub is short and compact, dark of skin and hair, like his father. He remembers his mother, her brothers and sisters. Tall and lean, all of them, with skin that blazed red in the winter cold. “I don't speak it anymore," he says and the woman laughs to herself.

“No," she says. “You wouldn't." She cocks her head to listen to something, though Hub hasn't heard any noises. “She's ready. In the sunroom."

Hub isn't sure he'd recognize a sunroom if he saw it, but he leaves the nanny and her apples and continues deeper into the cabin. In the next room, lined with tall windows, he sees the rich man's wife. She sits very straight and tall on a small sofa, elegant fingers curved around a teacup. Hub feels very tall before her. He tries to take soft steps, to avoid rattling the windows.

“Hello," she says. “Would you like to sit?"

Instead of answering, Hub holds out the letter. He looks past her, off to one side at a fat robin perched outside the window. After a long pause, the folded paper slides from his fingers. He listens as she opens it, waits as she scans whatever's written there.

“It's from Clara," she says. She puts the letter down and smiles. “My name is also Clara. Did you know that?"

“No, ma'am."

“Your wife?"

“My sister. Ma'am." He lies without guilt. None of this woman's business, him and Clara. They were married a long time.

The woman makes soft clucking noises as she reads. The robin flaps away.

“She's getting married. They've having a baby, she says. That's good news, isn't it?"

“Ma'am." Hub nods. He doesn't mention Clara's other children, their babies dead the first year.

“He's taking them to California." She purses her lips, leans forward to hand the letter back. “I'm sorry. That's very far away."

Hub passes the nanny again as he leaves, feels her eyes on him but keeps his head down. His skin is tight and hot over his bones. He knows the rich woman is lying. He knows she left out the part of the letter where Clara, his Clara, asked him to follow.

That night Hub leaves. He is certain that the rich man's wife skipped that part of the letter so that he would stay and build her house. Why would Clara write without asking him to follow? The betrayal is not a surprise but it fuels his anger and drives him further away from the building site, the cabin, the woman's pale skin and expensive china.

The night is cold and the wind sings in his ears. He takes his time, picking his way through the dark, following the shoreline. Though the chill burns his face, so used to the warm breath of summer afternoons, it is better than waiting until morning. He wants to say goodbye to the water. He wants to throw himself into it and soak his skin and his clothes, everything tucked into his pack, and carry the water with him, a friend to share the journey.

He walks almost the same path that brought him to the north woods and stops as close as he can remember to the spot where he first saw the lake. He'll miss the work, he thinks.

Not the rich man or the boss or the brothers, but the smell ofwater in the air and the pliant wood under his hands. He thinks of Clara, her smile when he comes walking into California.

Maybe there's no husband, no baby. Just a clean start for them both.

He would have liked to see the cabin come to life, from the raw wood dragged by the mules to a finished structure. Still it will bear his touch, in some small way. Not anywhere the rich man and his family will notice, but inside the wood, in the heartbeat of the place.

Hub stops to sift his hands in the heavy sand that rings the shore, digging out the small rocks that lay half-buried in it. He puts a handful of stones in his pocket and presses the cold rounds against the muscle of his upper thigh, their weight a comfort and a prod. The hushed wind through the birch trees beckons him and Hub turns to follow its trail.

Hub makes it all the way to Illinois before he runs out ofmoney. He stops at a little roadsid stand, asks if anyone nearby is hiring. Realizes he's glad at the prospect of working again, not just riding the trains and hitching and walking and walking.

The man selling vegetables strokes his bristly beard while he considers Hub's question.

The man's middle rounds out before him like a boulder, but Hub bets he's hard muscle despite the big belly. The farmer types always are. Hub wishes he'd taken the boss's tools, so he'd have something to trade for food.

“Lumber operation down the road a spell," the man says finally. “Cutting, clearing, that sort of thing." He stares at Hub's hands, tan and scarred. “Ever drive a mule team? You got the paws for it. Tell 'em you can."

“Sure," Hub says, the lie slipping easy and slick over his tongue. He's seen mules work anyway. “Of course I can."

He reaches the lumber yard as the sun is beginning to set, throwing long shadows off the storage buildings and the slumped men that make their way around him. Hub finds the manager and asks for work. The man looks him up and down once before offering him a job.

“I can drive mules," Hub says. He'll have to learn quick.

“Good," the manager says, but in such a voice that Hub knows he's being excused.

The lumber mules are brown brutes, bigger than any horse he's ever seen and built for power.

The tensed muscles under their skin and the way they surge forward at the slightest urging makes him nervous. The mules are full of get-up-and-go, chewing and straining against the heavy bits when he tries to hold them back, frothy spit flying from their gaping mouths.

He works with a team of men, waiting while they attach cut logs to the hooks the mules drag from their harnesses and then look to him before they leap away, leaving Hub and the mules to careen down the bumpy hillside, logs bouncing and rolling behind. Hub runs himself to exhaustion just trying to keep up with the mules, forgets trying to control
them. There's no stopping a mule who wants to run, even if he is dragging a tree. No one has to tell him men have died doing this work. If he trips and goes down he'll be dragged to death or crushed.

It's only mid-morning when the manager pulls the reins out of Hub's hands, smug smile on his face. He knows he's been caught in a lie, but maybe he's passed some sort of test by not dying. The manager sends him off to cut wood, something he really does know.

The work is soothing, the saw solid and calm in his hands. A tool that listens to what he tells it.

Hub stays a month cutting down trees, longer than intended but he likes the work.

Likes having something to do. On the day he decides will be his last before slipping away into the hills, he pulls out the letter and asks one of the other lumbermen to read it for him.

“Married Stanley the sailor, knocked up, headed west," the man, Hank, tells him, handing the letter back almost immediately. “Your wife run off?"

“My sister," Hub lies again, feeling a hot flush creep up the back of his neck. Stanley.

The rich woman hadn't told him that either.

“Well Goddamn," Hank says. “Better off without her, once less fool bitch to look after." Hank and the others laugh, but Hub ignores them. More lies. He should have known better than to ask a lazy lumberman, who'd have more work to do if he revealed the truth: that Clara sent for him, asked him to find a way to California.

Clara, he thinks. Clara, I am coming.

He folds the letter along its creased lines and slips it back in the pocket of his shirt, warm and heavy as a hand over his heart.

In Kansas Hub stops again to join a troupe of dusty farmers. He comes across the little band on the road as he walks, the truck idling next to an empty field. The men, riding in the back platform of a truck, their legs dangling reed-thin over the edges, stare at him from under the broad rims of their hats. Finally one calls out, as if he recognizes something of himself in Hub: “Looking for work?"

Hub can barely hear him over the rumble of the engine, but he reaches for a hand up and climbs onto the truck bed without making the man repeat himself.

The one who spoke, Decker, explains the men have been working all day, harvesting and plowing and tilling. There's three others besides him, all of them agreed to travel and work together until they reached Texas -- and it's my own Goddamned nevermind when we get there.-- Decker has a habit of punctuating his speech with nudges of the elbow that another time might annoy Hub enough to shove off, but he's too glad to be off his feet to care.

He rides with the men to their makeshift home, two tents behind a hardware store in town. No need for a fire in the late summer heat, so the five of them lean up against the back wall of the store and stretch their legs out. They share their beans and jerky, more than Hub expected.

“Try your luck in St. Louie?" Decker says, nudging at Hub and slobbering beans.

“Headed the other way," Hub says. “California."

“Why the hell would you want to go there?" One of the other men speaks finally.

Decker smiles. Hub thinks it might be nice for him to hear a voice that isn't his.

“My sister." Hub pats his bad where his letter rests but doesn't offer it to any of them.

“She picked up and went and now she's waiting for me."

None of the others have anything to say to that, soon they begin to feel the length of the day and slip away to their tents. There's enough room in the tents for one more and Hub stretches out next to Decker and another, happy to be laying down, asleep almost before he's aware of his eyes closing.

He wakes in the night to a rustling noise and knows without fully waking that it's his bag being rustled. Hub sits up and the noise stops. He lights a match and watches a slow smile crawl across Decker's narrow face.

“Can't fault me for being curious," he says.

Hub knows there's nothing worth stealing in the bag, but he doesn't want to explain why he's carting around handfuls of rocks. He holds out his hand and Decker passes it to him, laughing a little breathlessly. Hub gives the bag a shake, hears the rocks clatter inside.

He blows out the match and flicks it in Decker's direction.

Let that be over, he thinks. He's too tired to hit the road just yet.

By the next evening, he doesn't care about tired or not tired, but Hub knows he has to leave
Kansas. His clothes are gritty with sandy dirt and dust that sticks to his skin and hair, clumps
in his eyelashes. Harvesting is shit work. Makes his back ache and his legs go numb. He sleeps one last night in the tent, breathing dust, and leaves before dawn. Kansas is no place for a human being.

He heads west, hitching a ride on a cargo train into Utah. Hub likes the way the word sounds, the weight of it on his tongue. Utah. Like the cry of a wild bird or his own sigh of relief. Utah. As he walks he says it out loud to himself again and again. He practices the story he's going to tell Clara about the place, the red rocks and the warm wind.

He spends some time in the desert, helping an old man with a name he can't pronounce or hardly remember dig up bones. Hub does the brute digging, throwing big shovelfuls of sand and dirt to the side. While he digs the old man talks, tells him about his research, all of it in words Hub doesn't understand. When the heavy digging is done, the man lowers himself into Hub's holes and removes the rest of the dirt with soft brushes and delicate little shovels.

Hub squats down next to him and pretends to listen, but the bones don't interest him. After two weeks he begins to wonder if the old man is crazy, digging up cow bones and pretending they're important. Just bones in the dirt. Could be anything.
Before he leaves, Hub digs in his bag for the letter from Clara, but it's gone. He holds the bag upsidedown, gives it a good shake. The lake rocks scatter. He goes to the man emptyhanded, the few details like secrets he aches to share.

“California," the man says, chuckling. “Feel the pull of the ocean, do you?"

“My sister sent for me," Hub starts to say but the man waves his hand to silence

“Sure, sure. Was there an address?"

“No address," Hub says. He feels sick, not knowing for sure. “Man's name was Stanley, though."

“Well, whatever his name, I'd wager San Francisco." The old man balls up one fist
and thrusts it in the air. “That's it, then. Look for a sailor named Stanley in the port of San Francisco and you'll have your reunion!"

Hub stays on until a replacement is hired and then heads north to Salt Lake City.

The old man must be crazy, pays him less than he remembers being promised. But it's enough for a train ticket and a handful of hot meals. Enough to get to California, to Clara. San Francisco is bigger than he imagined, teeming with men and boats and more women than he's seen in a long time. The tide of skirts and dresses makes him dizzy. He takes a job at one of the docks, but no one knows about a sailor named Stanley, with a new wife, a baby.

A month passes without news.

Finally one day a red-haired sailor heaves himself up to the pier. Hub's lugging a keg past when he sees him, a new face, and decides to try his luck.

“Looking for a sailor," he says, pausing to lean on the heavy keg. “Named Stanley?"

“Yeah?" The red-haired man spits into the water. “How nice for you."

“Ring a bell?"

“Sure it does. I've done a handful of tours with that sumbitch."

“And Clara? His. . .wife?"

“Has a baby, what I hear." The man narrows his eyes at Hub. “Who are you wants to

“Brother," Hub says. The heat of the day makes him giddy, words tumbling out of his mouth. “He told me to come west and find him and I haven't been able to track him down since I got here."

“That sounds like Bill Stanley!" The man relaxes, laughs even. “They have a place up on the hill, maybe a two miles up from here. Him and his sour little wife. You find him, you tell him he stills owes me a tenner. He'll know what you mean."

Two miles, Hub thinks. Two miles. He'd all but walked from Florida to Michigan to California and stopped barely a breath away from where he'd meant to go. For the rest of the night, the kegs are light as air.

The two miles are practically straight up in the air, but Hub doesn't mind. He's used to it.

The whole city is built uphill. He brings a limp bunch of flowers with him, stems crushed in his hand before he reaches the top.

Clara's neighborhood is all houses one on top of the other, laundry hanging out every window, long rope lines stretching across the narrow, uneven streets. Dirty children run past him or stare out of doorways. Hub smiles, nods. Now and then one will wave back. It's a cooler day, breezy, but he sweats through his shirt as he makes his way down the cramped
little alley.

Will he recognize her? Will she cry when she sees him? Embrace him and weep for all to see? They'll have to leave right away, skip town to get away from her husband. And the baby.

The red-haired man told him to look for a blue house, number 506. One of the apartments, he wasn't sure which, is where Clara and Bill Stanley are living. Hub cranes his neck, looking for blue among the drab browns and reds of the other houses. When he does see it, it's like a beacon. The peeling, dingy paint like a glowing lighthouse, guiding him in.

Clara's in the yard, clipping laundry to the clothesline. Her back to him, but he knows it's her. Something in the way she stands. The clothes flap in the breeze. She's distracted.

Doesn't hear him come up. Doesn't turn around until he's almost in front of her.

When she does turn to him, there's no tears or embrace. Not even a smile. Clara's pretty face is lined, grim. Bare feet. She watches him walk closer, the frown creasing her forehead. She shakes her head once, twice, but otherwise is still. Until she lets the clothes drop, hands dangling empty at her sides.

Hub leans down to fetch the laundry, lifts a man's shirt. He gives it a good shake before pinning it to the line.
“Hub.” Clara says finally.

“You asked me to come and I came,” he says. He picks up a blanket, the baby's maybe, and swings it over the line, smoothing the alley dust off the faded fabric.

“I didn't ask you to come.”

Inside the baby starts to cry. Clara, cheekbones sharp in her face, turns toward the house but doesn't move. It's not what he expected, not any of it. Later, he thinks, when the shock has worn off. Later she'll remember what she wrote in the letter. There's time.

“Well,” Hub says. “Here I am.”


Cate Stephens Davis received her MFA in Fiction from Chatham University in 2009. Her work has previously won a contest sponsored by Pop Japan Travel and has been published or is forthcoming in : lexicon, Cerebral Catalyst, Six Sentences, the Six Sentences Volume One anthology, FreightTrain and Wanderlust Review.

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