The first time Jake saw a woman pee, he was in the middle of a shorn wasteland where a forest of jack pines had once stood. It was the end of the workday. The sun was still high but had lost its warmth. A sharp wind had begun to blow dirty clouds across the sky. The three tree planters were standing on the margin of a two-tire dirt track, waiting for the foreman to come in his pickup to take them back to camp. Jen and Skye leaned on their shovels, their empty planting bags slouched at their hips, passing a cigarette back and forth with dirt-caked fingers.
“So, Jake, how many you get in the ground today?” Skye asked. Her eyes seemed extra bright, surrounded by dirt. She had ripped the sleeves off her shirt and stretched one around her ears to keep out the blackflies.
Jen took the cigarette from between Skye’s lips with a forefinger and thumb, puffed, and flicked it into the middle of the road, scattering sparks.
“Uncle Bernie would fine your ass if he saw you do that,” said Skye.
“He’d have to kiss it first,” Jen replied.
Uncle Bernie was their nickname for the checker from Forestry who stalked the newly planted land each day in orange steel-toed boots and a canary-yellow hard hat. He fined you if your trees were too close together, too far apart, tilted, J-rooted, too deep, too shallow, too loose, improperly screefed, planted in red rot, planted in duff, black spruce in sandy soil, or jack pine in swamp. On the first day of the season, he had stood on a table in the mess tent and shown them how to stub their cigarettes until they could pinch the burned end between finger and thumb. Every fluff of dried moss on the cutblock was tinder. “You fuck up, you’re fired!” he’d shouted.
“So,” said Skye, still looking at Jake, “how many did you get in?”
Jake squinted up toward the sun, as if he were trying to calculate, though he’d counted and recounted his 850 miserable trees, and he knew that, at nine cents a tree, he’d earned $76.50. Subtracting $25 for camp costs left him with $51.50. It was still better than his first few days, after which he’d owed the camp money.
“A thousand,” he said, adding the trees still in his bags.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Skye. “My first week, I don’t think I broke 500.”
“You planted 1,500 on your second day,” said Jen. “I was there.”
“What can I say? My memory’s shit.” Skye grinned, turned her back to Jake, and squatted down in the middle of the road, dropping her muddy pants in a motion so swift Jake couldn’t help glimpsing the curve of her thigh before he managed to look away.
“You could at least warn him,” said Jen. She lit another cigarette.
“Jake, I’m pissing,” said Skye. “Look away if you must. If you can.”
“You’re fucking embarrassing him, man,” said Jen.
“If a man can piss wherever he’s standing, so can I.”
Jake could hear the hiss of her stream hitting the sand. He felt a shiver of excitement. He’d never met a lesbian before—that he knew of, anyway. He’d grown up in a small Prairie town where everyone spent Sunday morning either in church or drinking beer at the gravel pit, chucking their empties at the dragline. Jake had always been content among the churchgoers, solid people who, if not always lights for the whole world, could certainly be counted on to show up at your door in times of trouble, bearing casseroles and sympathy. At Bible college, Jake’s roommate, Elmer, had told him about tree planting. You could make ten grand in two months, if you were good. Elmer recruited most of his crew from Bible college. He’d even formed an accountability group to keep them from being tempted, out there in the wilderness, by marijuana, alcohol, and sex, all of which were rampant. Every evening, they would gather in front of Elmer’s tent, and he’d get out his battered guitar and lead them in singing praise and worship songs. Everyone else in camp gave them a wide berth.
By the time Jake had decided to sign up, Elmer’s crew was full, so Jake had ended up with another company, in northern Ontario, where he knew no one. Packing his Liquidation World tent and army-surplus sleeping bag, he’d decided that he’d steer clear of drugs and booze, but if an opportunity to do something with a girl presented itself, he would go for it. He was almost twenty-three. Jesus had lived another decade without sex. Jake wasn’t sure he could make it that long.
His Christian friends assumed he was a virgin, and his (few) non-Christian friends assumed he wasn’t. Jake didn’t bother trying to set the latter group straight, but recently he’d started to think that, as long as he was implicitly lying to someone, he might as well switch things around. He wanted, just once, for a girl to take his hands and guide them to her breasts. Before he died or Christ returned. Sometimes he wanted it so badly he could feel a physical pain, like the blade of a knife, pressing in a vertical line along his breastbone. He couldn’t exactly pray for it to happen, but he knew God would forgive him if it did.
Every evening, as the cold spring wind snapped at the canvas of the mess tent and the tree planters bent their heads over plates piled with food, Brook, the foreman, stood in the doorway and shouted their names, one by one, and each planter shouted back their tally for the day. Jake always sat at the table closest to the tent door—even though that meant he was farthest from the warmth of the wood stove—so that only those at his table would hear his number.
“Aaron?” yelled Brook.
“Fuckin’ awesome!” Brook performed the ritual with his boots apart, clipboard in hand, bleached hair tufted into a peak. He had been foremanning the crew for ten years now, the other nine months of each spent surfing in Bali. He had a wreath of hibiscus flowers tattooed around his shoulders and could drive a quad loaded with tree boxes through a shithole that would swallow anyone else.
“Yeah. Broke my shovel. Had to wait two hours for a new one.”
“God damn. Jen?”
“There’s my highballer. Skye?”
“Jen, what happened? Couldn’t keep up with the legend?”
“Fuck you,” said Jen.