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BURL by Drew Buxton

Tori put her hand over my mouth and pointed. I never could hide my excitement. She stood off the bed real slow and tiptoed to our bedroom door but stepped on this one creaky spot in the carpet, and you could hear Joselyn scurry back to her room.

She’d been eavesdropping on us since she could pick up what we were saying. Back when I was still working for the logging company, she overheard us talking about sending her to kindergarten for advanced kids. She got up from behind the kitchen cabinets and said no way. She had to be with everybody else, said it would be better for her socializing or something.

I got out the baggie of crank I’d picked up that afternoon and cut up some on the nightstand. We waited her out and did bumps and followed the storm on TV. We could just hear it coming in from the west, and it would stay on top of Six Rivers for another hour at least. Rain meant coverage. It meant the rangers wouldn’t be out.

Tori opened our door and crept down the hallway to the kids’ room. She came back and gave a thumbs-up. “She’s snoring, and I can hear the baby breathing too.”

I turned up the volume on the TV. “I found the biggest boulder,” I said. Boulder was code for burl even though Joselyn knew our code words. Curly swirling burl. “The gnarliest swirls you’ve ever seen. Worth 25, 30k easy,” I said, and Tori rubbed her hands together and giggled. Burl was the most beautiful fungus.

When the thunder got close we put on the sweats we kept in the bottom drawer of the dresser. We snuck to the front door and waited for a boom to turn the knob, and we waited for another to start the engine of the old-body Chevy pickup. The four-wheeler was already loaded in the bed.

I went 75 the whole way, and the heavy north Cali rain came down hard, and the wipers fought to keep up. The truck was maroon with beige trim, and the cops could spot us easy in the daytime and would pull us over just for driving west of Redding. I’d already been busted once.

For the most part Six Rivers National Forest wasn’t fenced in. It was just too big, and there were only a handful of rangers to look out for. They were smart though. Joselyn’d giggled in court when my lawyer blamed it on the drugs. She knew burl was the addiction and made me take the crank. You can’t go out there at night during a thunderstorm without a boost. They gave me probation and rehab, and on the way home Joselyn telling me how lucky I’d gotten, rubbing my baldhead and making fun of my cheap Goodwill suit.

It was still pouring when we got to the forest, and the road was empty. I had a spot I’d cleared just inside the woods where I could pull the Chevy in and be out of sight. Signs of bears were everywhere if you were dumb enough to look down or to the side—bear shit, claw marks on trees. Black bears and grizzlies.

We flew down the game trail on the four-wheeler, and Tori clung to me with the chainsaw bouncing across her back in its case. Burls, curls, swirls. The tires barely kept a grip on the mud, and the headlamps only let you see a few yards ahead in the soaked dark, but I knew the trail.

Our tree was wide as the Chevy was long and must’ve been over 1000-years-old. I showed Tori where I’d hacked at the burl with an ax to see the insides. It was beautiful with dark chocolate swirls in the pale wood, and we couldn’t wait to see the rest. I was a surgeon with the chainsaw, and soon I had all the burl growth off the base of the tree. This one could’ve made five or six gorgeous coffee tables or fancy doors, 25 Lexus steering wheels.

Redwood is like a dirty old treasure chest. It’s grey and ugly on the outside like firewood, but then you cut it open. Burl’s what got me fired from the logging company because I kept sneaking off looking for it. Joselyn had been hiding in the pantry when I told Tori. She came out and asked me how I could be so irresponsible.

“Goddamnit, the goddamn pantry? What’re you doing?” I said.

“Checking the nutrition facts of the food you’ve been giving the baby,” she said. “This obsession with burl is destroying this family.” She was tall for her age and could hold eye contact forever. She said she was worried about how it was affecting the baby’s development and future. “I do my best, but I’m only nine. He needs parents. I’m tired of changing his shitty diapers. Also the electric bill is super overdue.” She knew about the burl in the attic and under our bed and said if we didn’t stop she’d have to call CPS or tell the cops. I’d go straight to jail. That day we promised to never touch the stuff again, but how could she expect us to work for $15-an-hour when we could make thousands in one big find. Really it was for her future and the baby’s future.

We each did a bump and dragged the slabs onto the tarp. Try moving around burl without a little boost. We rambled about the swirls: 50k, 75k they had to be worth. It was three in the morning, and the storm had passed and we had to get out of there. The load was too much for the four-wheeler though. “Please, God!” Tori screamed into the sky, and I held her hands to calm her down. We’d stash some in the woods for later. We did a bump and moved two slabs behind a tree.

We got everything loaded in the truck bed and stripped off our muddy sweats and tossed them behind some bushes and drove back toward Redding in our underwear.

We had a storage unit just outside Redding, and the place was always totally empty at that time of night. There was almost no room left in our unit, and there was nothing in it but burl. Slabs stacked to the ceiling, a room full of gold. We spent 30 minutes wading through it and pushing everything to the back as tight as we could to make room. Tori cut up her knees but kept helping. We figured there was half-a-million dollars in that room easy, but the trouble was finding the right buyer, someone who would pay what it was really worth. Every burl is a unique abstract painting, and it seemed ridiculous to even try to put a price on it. I told Tori not to look at one for too long so she wouldn’t get attached. We would hold onto them until the right time.

We got back to the house at about 4:30, and it was still dark out. We pushed the truck doors halfway shut and took our time going inside. Once we got to the bedroom safe, we kept on about the swirls. “We gotta get back soon before someone finds those slabs,” Tori said, drying her hair with a towel.

“Yeah, hopefully it rains again tonight. There’s a good chance it will,” I said. “I’ll start looking for the right buyers. Just poke around and feel them out at first.”

“Exactly. Don’t show our cards too early. That’s been our problem!” Tori said. “You go in with a small sample and let them commit to a price-per-pound, and that’s when I’ll pull up with a truckload.”

“I almost think we should start our own wholesale business, sell direct to furniture manufacturers,” I said. “That way we keep all the profit.” We couldn’t stay sitting on the bed. We were spun still, off the find and the crank and the cold rain, and we forgot our code words.

There was a knock, but Joselyn didn’t wait to come in. She was totally awake, and her face demanded an explanation.

“We did a few bumps, okay? Is that a crime?” I said.

“Yes, it is actually.”

“What are you doing up?” Tori asked.

“I have a math test tomorrow, or today, I should say, and I need to review.” She came over to the bed, and Tori pulled the comforter up to her chin, but she yanked at it.

“I’m not wearing anything, honey,” Tori said.

“You’re wearing a bra. I can see the strap,” she said and felt the wet fabric.

“I just got out of the shower and didn’t dry off good.”

Joselyn put her hands on her hips, and a while went by where we couldn’t look back at her. “Big find today? Hmm? Think you’re being subtle when you pull up in the Chevy?”

We cocked our eyebrows. The truck was loud for sure. We should’ve parked a block away and pushed it. Joselyn rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders until Tori cracked and giggled, and it made me laugh too. Joselyn looked too mad to know what to say.

“Calm down, honey,” I said. “It’s only until I can find another job.”

“Shut up. You’re lucky I haven’t already called your probation officer.”

I thought she was bluffing, but she said, “4567320,” and I started crying. I didn’t have the number memorized, but that sounded right. “6578456,” she said. “You know what that is?”

I shook my head and Tori didn’t know either. She was crying now too, and she buried her face in my chest.

“It’s CPS, and don’t think I won’t call them.”

“What’s she trying to do to us?” Tori cried. “Our baby wants to destroy us!”

“Please,” Joselyn said and then broke it down. She told us she wasn’t going to school that morning to take her test. Tori would write her a letter saying she was home sick. We would take all the burl into town and take the first offer no matter what. She’d come with us. We would pay the bills with the money.

“I want a real breakfast this morning. Bacon, eggs, and toast…and I want to go to McDonald’s twice a week from now on…”

She kept on with the demands. She wanted to see San Francisco. We nodded our heads at each one, but I could only keep focused for so long, and we couldn’t make ourselves cry anymore. Joselyn didn’t know about the storage unit. I could tell Tori was fading too. I bet she was thinking about the chocolate swirls on the slabs we left at Six Rivers. Joselyn didn’t know about those either or all the rest of the burl still out there.

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