Deciding against children is like telling God no. And this non-child lodged inside my uterus, this sour fruit, may be God’s way of reminding me who’s in charge, who pays the bills.


My friends and I stand on the rocky shoulder of the river, tossing stones at a half-submerged log near the far shore. The game is to launch stones into a hollow the size of a rabbit hole. It’s a child’s pastime; though we’re all in our mid-30s, we’re rapt. If nothing else is possible on this summer day on the Russian River, 60 miles north of San Francisco, the unspoken understanding is that each one of us must land a stone before we clean up our lunch spread, pack our dry bags, pull the canoes back into the river and float on downstream.

    The four of us pull up stones the size of hand grenades. It’s like throwing darts, adjusting your power, correcting the trajectory. Each miss makes a plunk, sends up a splash. When other bathers pass, tucked into canoes rented upriver, we hold our fire. They’ve seen what we’re up to, though, and they eye us until they’re safely out of the firing zone. On our way down the river, we saw men and children skipping stones, and I wondered what we’d do if we were hit either by mistake or on purpose. There would be bleeding, but no one would die.

    I’m the first to drop a stone into the hollow. Pure luck. The guttural sound is satisfying; heavy stone thumping wet wood. This small thing swells within me, feels unreasonably great. I retire to the beach towels, hide behind my sunglasses.

    “Way to go, Luce,” Jen says, smiling. A lanky woman with a horsey laugh, she wears snug-fitting surf shorts, a stretchy sport camisole, and a straw cowboy hat with the brim curled up on the sides.

    Jen and I used to work at the same ad agency in the city. We’ve taken improv classes together, gone on vacations to Vancouver. I talked her through the break up of her engagement last summer. She cuts my hair occasionally—the two of us on the roof of her apartment building, drinking pinot noir, listening to Billy Holiday on a CD boombox. I’m never completely satisfied with the cut, but she’s getting better. I walked in on her and my husband William kissing in the kitchen at a party a few years ago, and at the time the indiscretion was forgivable, something I could overlook, but looking at her now, the easy confidence of her body, I’m not so sure. Perhaps there was more to their casual intimacy than I’d imagined.

    Within minutes Jen pulls off what looks like a fancier version of the stone-in-the-hollow maneuver, skipping one across the water and into the log. Neal and Carrie high-five Jen, who bows toward a young couple holding hands as they pass. Jen comes to sit by me.

    “I completely rule!” she says. “Not bad, right?”

    She’s talking about the trick, but could just as easily be describing the way the trip is unfolding on this warm, clear day.

    “It’s better than getting teeth pulled,” I say.

    I’ve been meaning to tell Jen something, but I’m not ready yet. The doctor says there’s a mass the size of an orange taking shape in my uterus. She believes it’s a “fibroid tumor,” and said repeatedly that it’s non-cancerous. I keep getting hung up on the word tumor. Though she didn’t mention surgery specifically, I dread that an operation is in my near future. Next week I’ll go in for another ultrasound. Whether in my imagination or the real world, this mystery spot has weighed me down: the way I walk and swim, the way I sit in the canoe or toss rocks. Everything is off balance.


William is in New Mexico. He’ll be there another week as he says goodbye to his parents. He’ll be back in San Francisco with me for less than a month, before he ships out with his National Guard unit to the Middle East for who knows how long. The government won’t say. To them he’s a social security number, a mouth to feed, an extra bed to set up, a pair of boots on the ground. To me he was once nearly everything. The wives of other men send worried e-mails, updates and suggestions that we can only get through this together, and write about how their children are holding up. I delete the emails after reading them. William and I have no children. He doesn’t want them, plain and simple, and I’ve gone back and forth about it. His deployment means we can’t decide now, and we don’t have to think about the decision we haven’t made.

    Friends and family press for details; I tell them again that William is a “pencil pusher,” that he will have an air conditioned office far from the frontlines, just like their dull office jobs here in the States. I say he’ll only be gone a month. Of course, these are lies. I know very little about how he’ll live. William never contradicts my stories in front of others. He tells me later, in private, that I shouldn’t be so mean. For the last month he’s been collecting gadgets to take with him: compasses, flashlights, a digital camera, handheld electronics with capabilities unknown to me. On the living room floor, he packs and repacks these things into his sea bag with his fatigues, figuring out what can fit together.

    A few months ago, lying in bed on a Saturday morning, William and I decided that it would be better if I went back to New Mexico while he was away. His parents are there, and my mother lives there when she’s not traveling around the country in her RV, a vehicle that has more square footage than my apartment. I have no friends there, though, only the spotty history of teen alliances. Everyone I’d rather surround myself with is here on the coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I’m not going to go. It’s clear that this is the best choice, though William may take this as a betrayal. I’ll keep my marketing job, keep my San Francisco life. I feel dumb for even thinking of leaving.

    “Jen, I’m staying,” I say. Saying the words lightens my mood, gives me one less thing to worry about. The whole time Jen has been encouraging to me to stay in the city.

    “I told you,” she says, giddy. She hugs me, and as we release each other her warm tanning oil is all over my arms and back, a slick kind of proof of intimacy.

    “Guys,” Jen calls to Carrie and Neal. They turn from the water to look at us. “Lucy has something to say.”


When William and I first moved to the city four years ago, I imagined I could will a parking space to be open when we came home, or that I could will a Muni bus to arrive on time. One night William and I were walking from our apartment on Russian Hill to a friend’s potluck party in Pacific Heights. We were dressed up—me in a cocktail dress and heels, William in suit pants and pressed button-down shirt. We had called and waited for a cab that never showed up. My superpowers failed us. We didn’t want to lug the bread pudding in a heavy-glass dish a mile across the city to the party. We started walking anyway, down Green Street toward Van Ness. When we hit Polk Street, a homeless woman with a child stepped in front of us on the sidewalk. My eye was drawn to the woman’s ripped clothes, the dazed, wild-haired child of indeterminate sex at her side. She said something I couldn’t hear.

    “What?” I said, slowing up. I hadn’t yet trained myself to look away; this, I had been told, was how one got into trouble in the city.

    “Five bucks,” she said. She held out her hand. “Could you spare five or ten?”

    Several steps ahead of me, William held out the pudding tray, careful not to get it on himself. He wasn’t crude enough to tell me to stop talking, but he tightened his jaw and glared at me.

    “No, no I don’t,” I lied, glancing from the woman to the child, then to William.

    “Food,” she said. “Have you got any food you could give me? My kid and I…” She looked down at the child. I eyed the bread pudding in William’s hands. If anyone could spare food, we could. How to dislodge a chunk, though?

    I stepped toward William, my eyes giving away my thoughts.

    “No,” he said to me, loud enough for the woman and her child to hear. “Absolutely not.”

    “It’s the right thing to do,” I said.

    “No. It isn’t,” he said. He stepped toward the woman, the tray still heavy in his hands. “We can’t help you. Not today. Sorry.”

    The woman wheezed, asthmatic and sickly. She started coughing. Her child slumped down next to her, mumbled something, perhaps “faggot.”

    William ignored the child. And we left.

    Can it matter that the party went off well, and that the drunken crowd devoured the bread pudding? Hours later, Jen and William kissed in the kitchen; I didn’t stop them. She had been leaning against the counter, and he was reaching for a glass high up in a cupboard when she tickled his shirt near his ribs. He yanked her ponytail, enough to tilt her head back. They shared a hungry kiss, their jawbones showing lean, then they pulled away into an embrace—tamping down the spark? I couldn’t tell. He yanked her ponytail again, retreating to playful antics. The incident simmered in my mind, became a muddy grit I kept down. In a cab on the way home, we sailed past the place where we’d seen the woman and her child. Where had they gone, where did they sleep? A year later, as William and I settled into our lives in the city, our troubles arrived, the haphazard non-rhythm of two people trying to walk together in marital stride. William might say otherwise, but I link that early evening with the woman and child on the street to the widening of the rift between us.


By late afternoon Jen and the others and I return to the Geyserville house we’re renting for the night and we barbecue. We drink too much red wine, and it sits heavily in me as I lie in bed. My sun burnt body pulses. In the living room below my friends play cards, loud and rambunctious. An image highjacks my mind: a person flailing on the waters of a distant, unfamiliar river. Soon William will be overseas. Queasiness rises. Perhaps he is trying to call me, but I’ve turned off my cell phone.

    Tomorrow I won’t be ready to leave with the others. I’ll rent the house for another two nights.


Late in the night I wake from a dream in which I’m flying, the ability contained in the tumor within me. A revelation: what I thought was destructive is actually powerful.


At noon the next day, I’m sprawled out between two sheets on a massage therapist’s table. I’ve told her that my back and arms need the most work, and that’s where her powerful hands focus. We’re on the second floor of a modest building on Main Street above a touristy grocery store that sells wine and cheese. Out the window the small town stretches for only a few blocks, then is swallowed up by fields of grapes and the occasional house before the hills rise to the east. The massage therapist isn’t beautiful in the traditional sense, but there’s a mid-40s handsomeness about her, a no-nonsense solidness in her shoulders and accepting eyes. Her single braided ponytail contributes to this, as do her yoga pants and Lycra tank top. 

    I’m the kind of client who will not call off the hardest massage until it’s unbearable; the pinned wrestler who refuses to tap out. If I’m paying someone seventy dollars an hour I want to feel I’m getting something out of it, even if what I get is pain.

    “Is the pressure all right?” she whispers to me.

    “Perfect” I grunt, then inhale deeply. She runs the point of her elbow along the edge of my backbone, coaxing my muscles to release and expand. It’s heaven.

    I turn onto my back and face up. The therapist, her upper body extending over me, reaches her hands to my rib cage and stomach. It’s always surprisingly intimate, no matter how many times I experience it. To have someone hovering over me like this, her breasts and solar plexus so near my face, is startling. Her breath intermixes with mine, a thing shared by lovers. I wonder how this would work with William and try to recall ever being in such a position with him. Perhaps when he returns from his tour, I’ll massage him the same way. Something in my mind has already released him.

    Afterward, uncharacteristically, I’m gushing with praise for the therapist. Normally, I say one thank you then let the cash tip convey my gratitude. But I can’t stop myself from explaining how much I needed it. My body has been conquered, relieved, returned to some place it didn’t know it had left.

    “I’m glad I could help,” the woman says, taking the small pile of twenties without counting them.

    “Help? You’re a magician,” I say, unable to stop the lame phrase from exiting my mouth.

    “There is one thing, though,” she says. “I couldn’t help but find something resisting within you. It’s hard to describe.”

    “I’ve just lost my husband,” I say, the words springing from my mouth. “It’s been rough. A terrible accident on a river.”

    Her eyes soften; she offers me a pained smile.

    Downstairs, walking the aisles of the grocery, I load up a basket with gouda cheese and crackers. This image lingers: the massage therapist sitting at the waiting room desk, her hands at rest, electric and pulsing from the work they’d done on my body. Has she altered my aberrance or have I infected her? The world is made of a porous material, a membrane that breathes, dies, or heals.


When I wake that night curled over a book, a dull pain thumps in my head. The bedside lamp is blazing, the whole room sunflower yellow. An empty wine bottle, a half-full glass. Spills cover the comforter and my shirt. What a mess. It’s as though I’m not looking at myself, but rather the shell of someone else; she’s a sloppy drinker. A noise announces something outside. I turn off the lamp, then reach for the empty wine bottle on the dresser. The glass neck feels good in my hand. I want the chance to use it. The outside lights are on, the deck aglow, illuminating a man sitting in one of the lawn chairs. It’s William. The way he locks his hands over his chest gives him away. I want to take a crack at him with the bottle, to get back at him for terrifying me.

    I call his name. He turns toward me. I unlock the door.

    “What the fuck are you doing here?” I say.

    He comes inside. I reach for the black eye that mars his face, while he takes in the disastrous state of the kitchen, something I reluctantly start to recall—evidence that I’ve had an unusual night.

    “What’s all this?” he says.

    Broken dishes and glasses litter the kitchen floor. Another empty wine bottle stands as proof of my mad handiwork; the headache overwhelms me. I dive for the sofa in the living room, dropping the bottle along the way. A vague memory from earlier in the night: blasting music, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” drunkenly dancing about by myself, pulling dishes from the cupboards, slamming them down onto the ground, the shards bouncing and scattering around my legs. Small cut marks from shards of glass color my feet, but nothing that would require a hospital visit.

    “Who could have done this?” I say.

    “Raccoons?” Williams says.

    “What the hell happened to you?” I say, again reaching for his bruised eye.

    “Raccoons!” he says.

    Liars in love. We’re made for each other. His face is puffy, distorted. This minute, I’m no prize either. We lie there as the dark of the night deepens. We sigh, drift off. His body next to mine is comforting, surprisingly so. I say, “I hope all that dishware is from Crate and Barrel.” I’ll need to come up with a story for the rental agency. Maybe a cupboard shelf gave out, a minor earthquake rattled the house. I’ll figure out something, William will help me.

    I lift my head slightly to survey the mess in the kitchen, then plop my head back down. I practice breathing.

    “You don’t answer your phone anymore,” he says. “The doctor’s office left a message for you at home.”

    “There must be a mix-up,” I say.

    William doesn’t say anything.


We’re in bed upstairs later when William says he has a gift for me. He pulls out a handgun from a velvety pouch, the kind of bag that once held pricey liquor. In the light from the bedside lamp it gleams silver. My heart speeds at the cruel beauty of its design, the violence and weight of it in my hands.

    “For while I’m gone, to protect yourself,” he says, understanding without my having to say it that this gift requires an explanation. It’s very much like him to think that safety is a solution to loneliness. The gesture is kind, though terrible too. How would I sleep with such a thing under my pillow? Does anyone besides drug dealers and cops rest so easily?

    “So I can bust a cap in someone’s ass?” I say. The gun sits in my open palm, heavy and powerful.

    “We’ll go to a shooting range before I leave, so you can learn,” he says.

    “Thank you,” I say, pulling William towards me. I’m crying, suddenly overcome by the present.


At some dark hour before sunrise William tugs at me from behind. He presses against me, his hands massage my shoulders. It’s his way of asking me to play. The sharp edge of a hangover levels me like a keel, keeps me from giving myself over to him. But he’s persuasive. His mouth is at my ear, kissing and almost kissing. Do I want him in my current state? There are a dozen reasons to say yes or no.

    William can feel my resistance. He says, “We only have a few more weeks.”

    He’s right. Our time together is brief. In a normal relationship, in a rational world, two people would wring that last bit of time for themselves, live as though the end of the world were on the horizon. But we’re not those people.

    “I can’t,” I blurt out. “I mean, I don’t want to.”

    “Think of it as a favor to a soldier heading off to battle,” he begins. “In this story I’m the soldier—”

    “I’m sick,” I say, cutting him off. “The doctor says I may have cancer.”

    William’s smile fades then returns, like a light bulb flickering in a surge.

    “That’s bullshit,” he says.

    I’m ready to say no to him. To deny him sex because of what may be revealed in an ultrasound test would be to cancel out all the reasons I haven’t yet articulated.

    “Just joking,” I say, meandering into unknown territory. Where can one go from here? “I don’t love you.”

    “Oh that routine again,” he says, laughing.

    “I’m not ready at this moment to have intercourse with you,” I say finally, sounding like a script from middle school sex-ed class. Part of my mind races minutes ahead, to an imagined scene wherein William is inside me, taking me from behind, and as we bump along, his penis is tapping at the tumor. He taps at it the way one might use a stick to knock a ripe orange from a tree. William will know intimately without my telling him and without his seeing any test results that I bear something foul inside me. He will understand and be respectful and become helpful. But that’s not happening.


When the standoff ends minutes later, William heads to the bathroom to stand under the steam of the shower and I go to the kitchen. I put shards of glass and shattered ceramics into brown bags doubled into each other, then sweep bits into the dustpan. I settle into routine; the simple act becomes meditative. It’s amazing how far out into the dining room the dishes and glasses have flown, as though a small bomb went off.

    Unfamiliar sounds outside stop me in my tracks. I rush through the back door and out onto the deck, wanting to catch this person or animal, the stalking presence I believe I’ll find. The night opens wide and cruel above me, casting a blue veil over everything. I don’t have the primitive weapon of a stone at hand, nor the engineered sophistication of the handgun. It’s me, alone, half clothed, circling and circling the illuminated house. My husband’s shower spews steam from an open window. All the broken things are prepared for disposal. I hunt.

Albert E. Martinez grew up in Southern California and Northern New Mexico. A graduate of New Mexico State University's creative writing MFA program, he has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His stories have been featured in Best New American Voices 2006, Nerve Magazine and Lost Magazine. He dines regularly in Berkeley.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1


Albert E. Martinez