WEDNESDAY: No More Empty Spaces


This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.

PAULA JUMPED at the knock on her door. Who could it be at that time of night? She never had company, except for her students. School hadn’t started yet, and those kids were mostly back in the States. Besides, they wouldn’t come at night.

She flicked the light on over the door and moved the curtain aside. It was Will Ross.

Odd, she thought. I just left there. What could he want?

She opened the door. “Hi, Will.”

“Hi. . . .”

“Paula,” she said.

“Sorry. I’m not good with names.”

She didn’t know then how Will categorized people — what she came to think of as the Good, the Bad, and the Invisible.

They stood in the doorway, looking at each other. His eyes were an astonishing shade of blue, like the sky on the clearest of days. She wondered how old he was, because those eyes had a youthful mischief in them, but there were deep creases at their corners.

She smiled awkwardly and noticed her lips were quivering. Had she forgotten how to talk with anyone over the age of ten in the year she’d been here? She was pretty much left alone. It wasn’t that folks were unfriendly, they just weren’t friends. She tried not to think about it, but she was lonely.

“What brings you here?” she asked.

“The kids are settled for the night,” he said. “I thought I’d come by and thank you for taking care of them today.”

Will ran his hand up and back through his hair, a gesture she’d seen in both him and Kevin, his fifteen-year-old son.

“And to ask a favour,” he added.

She couldn’t place his accent and wondered where he’d grown up. Not New Jersey, where they’d just moved from.

“Where are my manners? Please, come in. Would you like something to drink?” She squeezed against the wall to open the door wide enough for him to get by. “I don’t drink alone, and I never have company. I still have the little bottle of brandy I came with. Only had sips when I was down with a cold.” Why was she babbling?

“No, thanks. Don’t touch the stuff anymore,” he said, look­ing from Paula to the book she’d dropped in her dash to the door. “You’re sure you don’t mind the intrusion?”

“Not at all,” she said, following his gaze. She brushed past him, retrieved the book, and set it on the arm of her easy chair. “I know. How about some Turkish coffee? They say you can read your fortune in the grounds.”

“I’m not sure I want to know ahead of time,” Will said. “But the coffee sounds good.”

Retracing the eight steps from the living room to the kitchen, she grabbed one of the folding chairs she used at her tiny table, hurried back to the living room, and shoved a potted plant into the corner so the two chairs would fit.

“Wow,” he laughed. “Your house is even smaller than ours. But more colourful.”

“I love colour,” she said. “I grew up in my granny’s damp, grey house. I painted this place first thing.”

Paula pointed to the easy chair, and Will settled into it while she fussed in the kitchen.

“Maybe it’s so small because they don’t want their spinster schoolmarm keeping any company,” she said, and he laughed again.

She measured the water, then carefully spooned the fine, dark grounds and sugar into the hammered copper coffee pot she’d treated herself to on her first trip to Istanbul. “But what really happened was Mrs. Browning, the teacher before me, moved to Ankara when her husband got a promotion. None of the other wives had the qualifications to teach the English-speak­ing kids, so they contracted me through the Calvert School, which is the curriculum we use here. Then they built my apart­ment onto the back of the schoolhouse right before I got here.”

“Is Mrs. Browning Gus Browning’s wife?” Will asked, won­dering what kind of person could live with that asshole, reflecting on the conversation in the Ankara office earlier that week.

“One and the same.”

“I didn’t realize he’d worked at the site.”

“They were here at least two years before they moved to the DECCO office in Ankara. Their twin boys finished high school here. Their daugh­ter was in college when they came over, and she stayed in the States. She must be a senior now or maybe even have graduated.”

Paula leaned back from the counter. Will sat with his elbows on his knees, her book in his hand, flipping pages.

Angle of Repose? You’re reading an engineering book?” he asked.

“It’s a novel. By Wallace Stegner. Tough read, but beautiful.”

“That’s an engineering term.”

“I know. It’s a metaphor.”

He shook his head and set the book down. “Do you know what job Gus had here?”

She poured the coffee, pleased with the thickness and bur­nished gold of its foam. She let the grounds settle.

“The one Mr. Borkan has,” she answered.

“I see.” Will’s forehead creased into a frown.

The cups rattled on their saucers as she carried them into the living room. She handed one to him, then perched on the edge of her chair and took a sip. He followed suit. Their eyes met over the rims of their cups, then flickered away.

“What brought you to Kayakale?” he asked.

“Have you ever been to West Virginia?” she quipped.

“Can’t say I have.”

“Then so much for that joke. Anyway, my little town put me through college with the agreement that I’d come back and teach. Which I did. At the end of those four years, it was time to go.”

“This is a long way to go, especially for a young single gal.”

“Woman,” she corrected. “And I’m 27, not so young.”

“Not so old either. Pretty gutsy.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said and blushed. “I like an adventure.”

“I’ll drink to that,” he said, hoisting his cup. “And you found what you were looking for here?”

“Yes and no.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Yes, it’s an adventure to be halfway around the world immersed in a different culture, learning a new language, hav­ing this landscape and all sorts of history to explore. And no, it doesn’t feel good to be part of something I was trying to get away from.”

“What were you trying to get away from, if that’s not too personal?”

“It’s very personal, but not how you mean. I joke about it, but I love West Virginia. It’s wild and lovely. And the mining and chemical companies, they’re . . . there’s no nice way to say it . . . they’re raping the land. I had no idea building a dam would do the same thing. I suppose that was naive on my part.”

“‘Raping the land’? That’s pretty harsh.”

“Have you looked into the excavation? That’s harsh. Plus, I don’t know why it never occurred to me before I came here — there are towns and the people in them, and farmland and wildlife habitat, and the wildlife that lives there and even archaeological sites that are going to be drowned once the dam’s done.”

“Come on, isn’t that a bit overdramatic? We don’t drown people.”

“You haven’t seen those villages. They’ve been here longer than our country’s been in existence. You’re right, though — the dam won’t drown the people, it’ll just uproot them. Some of those villagers have lived eighty or ninety years in that one place. And the term is ‘inundate,’ right? I guess they’re going to feel pretty darned inundated, don’t you?”

“There’s a price you pay for progress,” Will said. “People have to move for big public works projects, but when they do, they have electricity and clean water and flood control and irri­gation for their crops. And infrastructure they’ve never had before to develop industry, and that helps the economy. They have to adjust, but it’s clear, the gains are greater than the losses. It’s a foundation to build on — better and stronger.”

“Really? What price are you paying? You’re getting paid. Me too. Do you really think one of those villagers is going to end up a rich industrialist? I think that villager’s going to end up slaving away for the industrialist who lives in a fancy penthouse in Istanbul. Or New York. Who gets to say what progress is?”

He picked up his cup and took a few sips. “This is really good, thank you.”

“Glad you like it,” she said, disappointed and a little irked that he’d signaled the end of the conversation with the nicety.

Paula missed the give-and-take of a talk that stretched her mind. Her world was bigger than her classroom, and she’d been alone in those parts of it for a long time. She didn’t quite fit in the Kayakale Dam community. She worked but didn’t fit with the technical staff, because she wasn’t an engineer or, more importantly, a man. She was a woman, but she didn’t fit with the wives because she worked and, more importantly, wasn’t a wife and mother. The only other foreign working women at the site, Kris the nurse and Margaret the archaeologist, didn’t seem to have the time or inclination to mix much. Paula had tried — they both seemed so interesting, and she would have liked to know them better. It would’ve been nice to have a friend, but it seemed their husbands were all they needed. If she were at Kayakale with a husband, it might’ve been the same for her.

Paula finished her coffee and gazed down at the grounds. She felt Will’s eyes on her and looked up.

“You’re very sensitive,” he said.

“I am. And I like it that way.”

“I didn’t mean it as an insult, just an observation,” he said. “In my opinion, building a dam is progress. And progress is a good thing. I’m here to get this dam built. You don’t have to agree with me, but you should.”

What? she thought. Did he really say that?

“That’s pretty black and white. I think there are shades of grey with respect to how we define progress,” she said.

“Is that another metaphor?” He shrugged and patted the book, which was sitting on his lap. “After you get to the angle of repose, things fall down. That’s pretty black and white. I sup­pose I don’t do metaphors. Or shades of grey, either.”

“Maybe ‘layers of complexity’ would be more apt.”

It looked like Paula would need to up her game with Will, but she was, admittedly, out of shape in that department.

“You came to ask a favour?” she asked.

“Yes. Look, I know it’s a lot, and I’ll pay you for your time . . . I need to work long hours, to figure out what I’m dealing with here, technically. Would you mind staying with the kids for a few hours a day, for maybe a week or so? Until they get more settled. If you think they’re OK, you can leave Kevin in charge. He’s old enough. I’m just not so sure of them these days, with the running off and all. They’ve had a lot to deal with lately. Two weeks ago, when I dropped them off at the house, Kat—that’s their mother—was passed out, naked, in the middle of the living room. She’d thrown up all over the place. Damn drunk. Oh,” he said, “sorry.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. But I’m sorry to hear about your ex-wife.”

“The boys are so angry at me for bringing them here. But I did what I had to do.”

Black and white. Not always right, but never in doubt. She wondered what it was like to feel that self-assured.

“I tried to call Kat and tell her I was keeping the kids for a while, but I couldn’t reach her,” he said.

“Kevin said she was going away,” Paula said. “With her boy­friend. That was how he got Rob to go with you after he ran off.”


“He told me yesterday, when I found him. And the puppy. Buddy, that’s what you’re calling the little guy, right?”

Will smacked the book, then leaned forward in the chair. “What else did he tell you that I should know?”

“Whoa,” she said, raising her hands. “I don’t know. He’s a teenager. It’s always easier for them to talk to anyone besides their parents. Don’t you remember?”

Will snorted at that, like Kevin had when she’d found him and Buddy.

“Yes, I remember. It’s just that Kevin and I have always been close.”

Again, she thought, Not always right, but never in doubt.

“Of course I’ll stay with them,” she said. “No need to pay me. I’ll do it until school starts, and then they’ll be stuck with me anyway. What time tomorrow?”

“We left for the field at seven this morning. We’ll keep that schedule.”


“I can’t thank you enough.” He stood up. “It’s late. I should go.”

They walked single file to the door.

“Thank you again,” he said, turning to her, holding out his hand to shake.

It felt hot and dry and rough against hers, and its warmth lingered after he let go. So did the mingled scents of earth and sweat and coffee.

Paula pushed the curtain aside after closing the door and watched Will walk away until he disappeared into the dark.

She was restless that night, thinking of the Ross children. Will was so certain he’d done the right thing, not leaving them with a mother drowning in alcohol. But it couldn’t seem that simple to those kids. She knew that from her own childhood. She couldn’t help thinking of that little girl in West Virginia, also taken from her mother by a father sure he was doing the right thing. With Paula’s mother, it hadn’t been booze — it was nerve pills. And her father tried, she supposed, to keep their family together. But once he’d made his decisions, first to put her mama away and second to hand her over to Granny, his own mama, to finish her growing up, Paula never saw her mother again. And she never could get her father to talk about it — not whining at him as a child, not screaming at him as a teenager, and not asking him calmly, but urgently, as an adult.

Her old boyfriend, Curtis, would hold forth on the subject. He was a psychology professor, and sure, from Paula’s descrip­tions, that her mother was manic-depressive and could have been treated. But, like Curtis, that conversation was academic. What could’ve or should’ve happened was of no consequence by the time Paula knew him. Mama was gone.

Paula only held snatches of memories of her. Mahogany hair, so long it hung down to her waist — she remembered watching her braid it every morning. Draped over her right shoulder, her fingers whipping through the silky locks at lightning speed.

Paula remembered waddling around in her favourite red snowsuit, while Mama bundled into a coat, hat, and mittens herself. Together they would wade through the deep snow in the backyard, find the perfect pristine place, then fall backward side by side, waving their arms up and down, making snow angels. Then all day long, Paula would press her nose to the kitchen win­dow to see the angels flying low along the winter white carpet, which she imagined the surface of clouds might be like.

But there were also the memories of the closed door to her parents’ bedroom, the sound of Mama’s moans the only human contact she might have all day. Or the nights when she heard yelling from behind that door, her father demanding, “You pull yourself together, or else.” Her mother either snarling or whim­pering in reply, the words muffled. The threats so frequent, with nothing changing, that Paula had been stunned when the “or else” finally came.

Tears trickled down the sides of her face and into her ears. She felt for the handkerchief she kept under her pillow. Two-thirty glowed on the radium-green dial of her Baby Ben alarm clock. She knew she should try to sleep. She needed to be at Will’s by seven.

She hoped Kevin and Rob and Didi were remembering good things, if they were dreaming of their own mother tonight, not the picture Will had painted. Surely there were some good memories.

She fluffed her pillow and settled her head into its softness. Closing her eyes, Paula beckoned a happy memory of her own. Chasing Chance, a puppy just about Buddy’s size then, round and round till she and Mama fell in a happy heap, spent and dizzy, on the soft spring grass.


Image of D. J. Green

D. J. Green is a writer, geologist, and sailor, as well as a bookseller and partner in Bookworks, an independent bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She lives near the Sandia Mountains in Placitas, New Mexico, and cruises the Salish Sea on her sailboat during the summers. No More Empty Spaces, her first novel, will be released on April 9, 2024.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *