Louise was a passenger in her own car. Richard, her husband, the inveterate cyclist, was driving her to the airport. When they got to Amazon Parkway, he turned left instead of making the right that led to the freeway, the fastest route there. They passed the rose gardens, then the pizza place run by second-wave hippies. Soon the streets were unfamiliar. Houses sank into hard yellow grass. Flowers, their stems bleached and brittle, offered no premonition of the rainy season ahead. Louise had lived in Eugene a long time; it was nearly impossible that this terrain could feel new. But Richard taught urban design, and he never took the same route twice. That detour made us discover those donuts, he liked to remind her. We never would have found that park. Life presented constant opportunities for research, he told his graduate students.
And maybe he wanted her to miss her flight.
It was October, and for the first time in many years, Louise was not shackled to the school calendar. At fifty-nine, she was newly retired, or perhaps just unemployed. Until a few months earlier, she’d taught art at a private school across town—?the Cedar School, with its experimental curriculum and sliding-scale tuition—but in June, the principal had confirmed the swirling rumors: the strapped school would be closing for good.
Normally at this point in the fall, Louise would have been dreading the annual barbeque at the vice principal’s house—a time for teachers to get together and moan about their seasonal panic, to swap verbal recipes for horrible dips made of sour cream. Now she longed for that familiar slump. The usual classroom anxieties had filled her recent dreams, and it took a few minutes in the middle of the night to remember that she wasn’t going back.
This drive to the airport prompted similar feelings: she was urgently nostalgic for Eugene’s hippie pizza and ordered green spaces, even though it was all still right there, the colors softened by fog.
Richard squeezed the wheel. “Remind me what I’m doing with the wood.”
Louise had charged him with maintaining her project while she was gone, adding a piece to the cumulative sculpture she had been working on for almost twenty years on the land behind their house.
“The next piece is in the garage,” she said. “With the drawings.” She’d cut plywood into triangles and squares already, their sides four or five feet long, and painted them. Each new shape was added to a line in the yard that pushed forward and turned back as its tail end decomposed. The rules were simple: a new piece and two photos on the 18th of every month, documenting how the untreated wood had faded and settled into the earth. The wood’s decay was the most interesting part?—it gave her a way to measure time, to feel its pressure. An ongoing reminder, a clock. The 18th project was at once a utopian vision—that plotted spectrum against the green grass—and a document of its failure. Fading and breakdown left in its wake. To see both the possibility and the aftermath offered a gratifying sense of control.
What will you do when you run out of space? people often asked. That wasn’t the threat. Their two-acre yard cut into a patch of forest at the edge of the property. She could work on the project at the same rate for decades longer; the wood’s decay cleared space for a return, and that promised room had always reassured her. Money was the real limitation. The question was whether she and Richard could afford to stay in the house now that Louise had lost her job and her pension.
“What about the camera?” Richard asked.
“One shot from the ladder, one from the roof,” Louise said. “You know how to do it.”
He’d done it before. Taken over for Louise when she was out of town. But it was unusual for her to go away without him. The two of them timed their trips to the project—camping on the coast, visiting their scraps of extended family. Some things were unavoidable, of course. Graduations, weddings, parents’ weekends: occasionally they fell on the 18th. Louise would ask their younger daughter, Margot, to set the next piece, or else a friend, if the whole family was away.
“What if the pictures come out wrong?” Richard asked. Back when she’d first devised the project—an eroding line—Richard had been the one to suggest the photos in regular increments. She hadn’t switched to digital photography, at least not for the strict confines of the project. Her simple rules made it easier to keep going.
“You’ve always done it right,” Louise said.
Richard nodded. He knew exactly how to take the pictures, but knowing and wanting to be told were two different things.
Louise would be taking three flights that day.