On one of the last days of August, Nathan headed into the mountains after work. He coasted through town, then out of it, orange boulders on his right, a creek on his left, and as he drove higher, he saw wildflowers. After he’d passed the town of Nederland, he turned down a gravel road, plunged through an aspen grove, then dipped into a valley, scrubby bushes on either side.

The decent gravel became potholed gravel after a mile. The potholed gravel became, after another mile or two, just dirt and potholes. His Jeep could handle the rough roads, but the bouncing revived an upper back injury. At the bottom of the ravine, he pulled over. As he got out, he noticed a miner’s shack and a nineties silver Corolla beyond a grove of trees.

Sometimes physical movement made his back feel better, so he walked down the road and back. That didn’t help, so he popped a couple ibuprofens and lay on the ground between his Jeep and a blooming cactus. He breathed deeply, closing his eyes as the pain lessened.

When he opened them, a small woman with long, scraggly black-gray hair stood above him. She wore jeans and a red sweatshirt with a very faded, cracked white logo on it, and squinted, arms against her chest.

“I’m OK,” he said. “Just stretching the back.”

“How’d you get down here?” she asked.

It felt as though she was accusing him, he thought. Well, maybe she was a squatter or back-to-the-lander. He could be invading her space.

He sat up and nodded toward the Jeep. His wife had died two years ago, and since then, he’d spent dozens of late afternoons driving around simply because he didn’t want to go home.


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“How long have you lived out here?” he asked.

“Two years.”

“Must be difficult to live without neighbors,” he said, standing.

She stepped back, as though threatened by his five-foot-two figure. He wasn’t used to that kind of response from anyone, women included.

“It’s OK once you get used to it,” she said.

“Mind if I take a look at your homestead?”

“I guess not.”

She ushered him slightly in front of her as they walked around the shack and over to a garden. Zucchini vines covered an entire plot, which was outlined by a fence of stacked and weaved branches. To the side of the garden was an old picnic table, on which lay a pile of zucchinis, a grater, and large Ziploc bags.

“My garden, my house,” she said, pointing. Then, “Excuse me, I’ve got to finish this.” She plopped at the table and started grating.

He looked at the high rock faces on either side of the valley, then up the steep, potholed road from which he’d come. He felt as though he’d entered another world. But wasn’t that the point of his aimless driving: to experience another reality, if only for a few hours?

He stepped to the table. “Need a hand with anything around here? I’m pretty handy.”

She squinted at him again. “I’m OK,” she said. “Just getting ready for a freak snowstorm.”

Down in the foothills, where he lived, winter was the last thing on people’s minds. But up here there could be snow. He sat across from her. The shape of the grated zucchini reminded him of the maggots in the dumpster behind the factory where he worked. He’d seen them earlier, slithering through waste. He’d gagged, then had gone inside and told the other guys that they’d multiplied.

“By the way,” he said. “I’m Nathan.”

“Julie,” she said, not looking up.

He asked what brought her out here. He thought of his own neighbors, how they all had a good rapport with one another. He imagined telling Kevin at the corner house tonight about the maggots, how his boss, Gus, had overhead the complaints and yelled that goddammit, he couldn’t control the hot weather. Kevin would say that ever since the recession Gus had been a son of a bitch, and Nathan would feel a little better.

“I’m on a wait-list for low-income housing in Boulder,” Julie finally said. “I might as well wait out here.”

Nathan felt lucky he and Anne had bought decades ago, when housing was cheaper. He wondered, if they’d divorced, as he’d suggested twice in the months before her fatal car accident, whether he’d be the one renting now.

“Free rent out here,” he said.

“Bratwurst Haven”


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She grabbed a handful of grated zucchini and stuffed it into a bag. “But you’ve got to have a lot of know-how.”

“I can imagine.”

“I drive into Nederland once a week, if I’m not snowed in, to check the internet at the library, to see if my status has changed. Still fifty people ahead of me.”

“After two years?”

“It was 150.”

“Let me help you with that,” Nathan said.

“All done.” Julie stepped over the bench and hoisted the four plastic bags into her arms. “Be right back.”

He followed her halfway to her door, but she kept glancing back at him. She didn’t want him in there and she didn’t like to be followed, he thought, so he dropped into the dirt and did some back stretches.

A few minutes later he heard her heading toward him.

“Don’t step on me,” he said.

For the first time since he arrived, she smiled. “What’s with your back?”

“It’s an old injury,” he said. “From when I worked construction.” Anne had nursed him after the construction accident, then encouraged him to use the settlement money to learn a trade. He ended up going to school to be a barber. They were getting on well then, and he wanted to please her.

She nodded. “Do you want some food?”

It had to be dinnertime. He hadn’t noticed that. “If it won’t put you out.”

“Come on in.”

Again, she ushered him slightly in front of her. Her shack had a single bed on the left, a kitchenette on the right, a table under a window, and a woodstove in the middle. “Just the essentials,” she said as she headed toward the kitchenette. She was taking deep breaths but didn’t look over her shoulder.

“I was gonna have oatmeal for supper, but for a guest, I’ll make fish,” she said. “And oatmeal on the side.”

“No need to go to all that.”

“I caught the fish,” she said.

While she worked, his hands felt restless. He stepped to the woodstove and opened it. He arranged kindling in a tepee with newspaper underneath, and when Julie didn’t comment on it, he lit the stack.

She arranged food on the table, and brought over the stool from the woodstove for herself. Oatmeal, fish, sautéed zucchini. They ate as the inside and outside light dimmed. She told him this was the time of day when she shot rabbits, though of course they didn’t come near the shack anymore. She told him she was worried that this winter, her third, would do her in. “I wasn’t cut out to live out here.”

“Alone?” Nathan asked.

“Just in general. I’m a city person. It felt like learning a new language, and even now, I’m dreading winter.”

It dawned on him he could rent her a room for really cheap in his bungalow. He had two bedrooms full of junk. But that would be strange. He didn’t even know her.

After they ate, he took the dishes to the counter. She said to leave them, that she’d wash them later. He asked her again if there was anything she needed him to do before he left. “I could even cut your hair.”

She smiled at him for the second time.

“I’m a barber,” he said. “Trained as one anyway.” He’d never set up shop. It was laziness, pure and simple. Anne had said that, and she was right.

Julie stood up and pulled her long hair over her shoulder to look it at. “Oh, I’m OK,” she said. “It’s more acceptable for older women to have long hair these days. It might need trimmed sometime . . .”

She trailed off as he stepped to her. “It would look nice cut to here,” he said, touching her collarbone. And then for some reason he kissed her. She didn’t resist, but they both stepped back after. Then she approached him, and after another step back, he stopped. They kissed near the stove, then she led him to the narrow bed. The last time he’d been with a woman on such a small bed was a decade ago, when he, Anne, and their two teenage sons had rented a guard station cabin at the last minute. He and Julie fit fine; Nathan wasn’t much heavier now, and Julie was smaller than Anne had ever been. His back hurt at first, but once aroused, he didn’t notice it. After, his whole body felt relaxed.

Julie smiled more at the ceiling than at him. “Thank you. I needed that.”

Nathan thought he should get dressed and be going, but he pulled the blanket to his chin instead. “You know,” he said, “I didn’t even like my wife that much.” He imagined his neighbor Kevin’s face if he’d said that to him, full of surprise and judgment. But Julie had lifted herself up to an elbow. “She was a principal,” he said. “So accomplished. I’d always resented her. And it had started to outweigh the love until I couldn’t feel the love anymore. Not until after she died.”

“I know what you mean,” Julie said. “My ex and I . . . I love him but can’t be near him. It was not a good relationship.”

Nathan wondered about her hesitancy with his movements. Had her ex abused her? Julie rolled onto her back again. He kissed her on the neck, then all over, more tenderly this time.

After they finished, she hopped up naked and restocked the fire. “In winter,” she said, “I wake up from cold and restock it every couple hours.”

Again, Nathan thought of asking her to rent one of his rooms, but especially now, that would be weird. “I have an extra room,” he said. “If you want to stay in it.”

She looked over. “Would I pay in sex?”

“No,” he said, embarrassed. “I was thinking about it before all that . . . I’d want you to rent it, but you don’t need to pay much.”

“I’m not ready to live with a man again,” she said. The answer was so immediate and firm he knew she wouldn’t change it.

He got up and put on his clothes. “I’ll give you the address in case it gets bad out here,” he said.

Julie put another piece of firewood in the stove as he wrote it out on a scrap of paper from his wallet. It seemed old-fashioned, he thought, but they had no signal out here, no way to exchange texts.

After he handed it over, her shoulders relaxed. “St. Anth,” she said. “My ex lives in Boulder.”

“Some Boulder people aren’t the best,” he said. He wanted to say more, but she’d turned away, her shoulders hunched again, so he left it at that.

Outside, the temperature had dropped, and Nathan shivered in his white T-shirt as he hurried to the car. His Jeep sounded loud as he drove out of the valley. He took two turns he knew, then one he thought he knew, then stopped the car, perplexed. He didn’t remember this area, but of course the landscape would look different driving out than driving in. He tried to discern where he was by turning his Jeep around, but that didn’t help. He had an emergency kit with him that included a blanket. He could always sleep in his car and drive out in the morning, he thought, even though that would be bad for his back.

He glimpsed Julie watching him from below, then she turned and went inside. He didn’t want to ask her for directions, especially at dusk. Even after their intimacy, she might be more skittish at this time of day, if her ex had been the violent type. He turned his car around again and started up the road. As long as he continued to go up, he was headed out of the valley, he figured. He turned on his brights to help him try to avoid the potholes. Gravel began to crunch beneath his tires.

Rachel King is the author of the novel “People Along the Sand,” the linked short story collection “Bratwurst Haven” and two poetry chapbooks. After residing in the eastern United States for several years, she lived in Colorado from 2012 to 2016. She currently lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.