Thursday, July 12, 2012
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Change of light – Jake and Buster - Sea lions– A parley – “Blue Boots”/The Gene S .- “Those tender boat assholes” - In Nakat Bay – A moment of silence
I was awake in my bunk, and I could feel my legs sweating against my foam mattress. Thunder reverberated through the mountains. I listened to the rain fall softly on the deck. I waited. Brian would be in to get me up soon. My knees ached at the thought of crawling on deck, and there was still a welt on my cheek from where a jellyfish tentacle had stung me the day before. We hadn’t been to town in five weeks.
The bunk in the forecastle was humid and warm, heavy with the scent of unwashed clothes and a six-pack of glass bottled beer that had broken open on our last jog back from town. I though about how the bottles had smashed into the toolbox after we’d ploughed through a stretch of ten-foot waves. I’d been driving the boat at the time, and there was a terrible feeling when we reached the top of a crest- that long moment where time seemed to pause- before the bottom fell out of the world, and we went crashing into the next trough.
There were six inches between my forehead and Brian’s bunk above mine, and I stared at the swirls in the wood. A filtered shaft of moonlight lit the forecastle, and I drifted in and out of sleep. In a dream there was a woman, warm and naked lying against me, all the sexless days disappearing as I concentrated on rivulets of sweat that ran across the contours of her shoulders and back.
But when I woke back up, I had the image of Dave in my mind. His fat and oily neck and the folds of pasty white skin. The salt stained ball cap covering his sparse white hair, and the way he waddled on deck because his midsection was so bloated. He’d been in my dreams ever since his heart attack. Ever since the joke had started that I’d killed him by asking him to climb the stack for my new rain gear. He’d died early in the season, before he had taught any of his crew members how to drive the boat. And after he’d died (midway between a steam from the fishing grounds to Ketchikan), the crew had floated for miles, captainless, and in a panic, dropping anchor too far from the shore so that it never hit bottom, and instead drug behind them like a bum leg. We’d listened to it all play out over the radio like it was a program broadcasted to entertain us, instead of an actual thing that happened.
I sighed and reached for my socks and pants at my feet and rolled out of the bunk. My throat was dry, and I felt like a beer. I hadn’t had a drink since I had gotten on the boat. All the work and all the boredom and all the death, and I hadn’t had a drink. It was a long time and a helluva thing. I thought about that for a while.
The analog clock on the wall of the wheelhouse read 4 AM. It was time for the change of light set. Brian hadn’t been to sleep that night, hadn’t properly been to sleep in days it seemed, and I’d only gone to bed two hours before. I wondered what kind of mood he’d be in. I brushed my teeth and was putting on deodorant when the VHF crackled to life.
“Attention all mariners. Stand by for important message from U.S. Coast Guard, Ketchikan, Alaska.” I walked up to the radio and turned the volume up a few notches.
I watched Brian’s outline on deck. He was bent over the stern and studying the end of our net.
“Attention all mariners, be on lookout for fishing vessel, The Doxy, thirty-two foot white and blue gillnetter out of Gig Harbor, Washington. Last seen Wednesday night fishing two point five miles southeast of Tree Point, Alaska near the Nakat Bay jackline. Repeat, the Doxy is a thirty-two foot white and blue gillnetter last seen fishing southeast of Tree Point, Alaska. Please report any information on missing vessel to Coast Guard channel eighteen. Over.”
I stared at the radio trying to comprehend the meaning. The message started to cycle over.
When I got on deck, Brian was already at work. The gibbous moon was fading but still high over the ridge of Canadian Rockies. The sky was star sprent and tendrils of fog drifted over the evergreen trees and enveloped the lighthouse. The water lapped against the hull, and the hydraulics lines on the drum pulsed like arteries carrying their fluids through rubber hoses.
I put on my rain gear and walked to the starboard side of the drum. I tried to think how I’d say it, and then decided to just say it fast and natural. “Jake and Buster are missing.” I couldn’t think of Jake’s face, but I imagined his dog, a golden retriever named Buster, wagging his tail and running back and forth across deck. They usually fished a couple of sets over from us, and I would watch him through the binoculars. The dog was always on deck, even when Jake wasn’t. A good lookout and ever faithful.
“Huh?” Brian didn’t look up from the net. He picked clumps of seaweed and small sticks from it, and I helped.
“The Doxy’s gone missing.”
“Coast Guard. I just heard it on the VHF.”
The sky was purple and blue in the east. It felt like day was coming so much later than just a few weeks ago, and it made me feel both sad and excited to think of going home. The days of the $5000 catches were gone, but we were still making good money.
“He probably just cut out early with the closing today.”
I looked at Brian and didn’t think he believed what he’d said. The fishing on the outside was closed for a few days, and most guys went inland to work an open fishery on the weekends. You had to be lazy or in need of repair to not spend the weekend grinding inland. Everyone knew Jake was dumb, but he wasn’t lazy. His frenetic worship of the Lord was proof enough of that.
“I like the guy, but he doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s doing. He’s corked the shit out of a Randy a few times, and he got us early season. Maybe he just gave up on Nakat for the weekend. A guy’s gotta have some guts and the right teaching to make any money there.”
“That’s where he went missing,” I said.
Brian didn’t say anything, and I could tell he was worried and thinking it over.
The net came slowly over the stern, and finally, the seaweed cleared and there were a few fish. They were no longer the vibrant silver of early summer but rotting and black and eggless. With jagged misshapen teeth, and chunks of missing flesh where sea lions had been gnawing at them, they were like mutant versions of their early summer selves. The net was full of surprises by this time in the season.
Brian grunted and paused from picking. “Jesus, Mike. They look about as good as I feel. Fucking sea lions.” He grinned, and his teeth shown in the dim light.
There was a fish every few fathoms for the first hundred, and the boat bobbed in the three-foot rollers as I yawned and blinked sleep from my eyes. The rain was just a drizzle now, and I started daydreaming of the first cup of coffee, jogging on the gear with the sun warming my face, the clouds receding back into the mountains until they cleared the sparkling inland fjords and disappeared back into Canada. But in my mind, I kept going back to Buster running the deck of The Doxy, and those mossy granite cliffs of Nakat Bay. They’d be hard to climb if a guy fell in, I thought.
I picked the net in a mechanic fashion, but before long the fish were coming over the rail in large clumps, and I jabbed my fish picker into the net trying to keep up with Brian. These fish were lively and small, mostly pink salmon, with spots on their tails and dumb vacant looks in their eyes. They were only thirty-five cents a pound, half the price of chums, and I was starting to hate them for being so cheap and plentiful. Sometimes I wanted to break apart their gill arches with my hand, step on them and watch them burst open. Punish them for making me work just as hard as three weeks ago but for half the money.
The net was slick with jellyfish slime, and their bulbous, membranous bodies came up with the fish and then broke apart in the meshes of the net and plopped on the deck like blobs of pink and purple snot.
Brian yelled out like he’d been burned by a hot iron and slammed the drum to a stop.
“Motherfucker. Motherfucking fucker.” There was slime across all across his cheek and nose, and he shook his head from side to side. I could already imagine the welt on his face. They had a way of lingering. I’d been jellyfish stung across the eye so bad earlier in the season that I went blind for a day, and continued to have blurriness and tearing for two more.
Brian cursed again, but then started the drum back up. He looked angry and in pain but said nothing else. There’s only so much time to feel sorry for yourself, or anyone else. That was something Brian was always saying to me.
We picked the fish from the net, but many were too small to get caught in the large meshes. They fell out and hit the deck hard, popping off like bleeding firecrackers at our feet and splashing the jellyfish slime onto our pant legs before spasming out their last few moments of life in bloody half arcs all across the deck. A few other fish were like chunks of ice, large silvers and sockeyes, already in rigor mortis and heavy enough that they could break a toe if they hit just right. The fish piled up and blocked the scuppers and turned the deck murky and russet colored, and pretty soon we were ankle deep in them.
“Goddamn,” Brian said. “There’s a metric fuck ton of em’ this morning.” His mood had already turned away from the news of The Doxy. Despite the pain, it was obvious the set would turn in good money. “Mike, you better go throw a few down before they start falling over the sides.” The boat rocked hard starboard and a few dozen fish smashed into the rail.
“Alright, Cap, I gotcha.”
I left the net and pulled the hatch covers off the holds. I rearranged the brailer bags, and then threw dozens of fish in the port hold to even out the boat’s weight. I worked on my hands and knees, and each time I tossed one of the stiff fish into the hold, it echoed against the fiberglass sides like a stone down a well. My back ached, and my palms cramped from grabbing fish by their thick tails.
I put the hatches back on and returned to helping Brian.
“How many did you put down?” he said.
“About a hundred.”
Brian stopped picking from the net and surveyed the rest of the deck. There must have been another hundred fish and ten more in the couple fathoms of net between the drum and the stern. There was blood everywhere, even a little glistening in his sandy blond beard.
“At this rate, they just might sink us. It’s turning into a theatre of fucking war, man.” He smiled wide like a little kid, that smile that said the fishing was still good. How did he always end up in such a good mood, I thought. Maybe it was because he was the youngest captain in the fleet. Maybe it just felt that good to have his own boat, to be making money on his own terms. One thing I’d come to learn: fishing was about money more than anything, and when we were making it, the rest of the world had a way of folding back into itself.
I smiled too and decided to play along. “Should I employ counter-insurgency measures, sir?”
“Naw, not unless the little bastards get up past the top of the scuppers again.”
In another hour, we’d finished picking the last hundred fathoms. There must have been four hundred fish in the set. I couldn’t remember a set all season that had lasted longer or had had more fish. I worked at throwing the fish down the holds and cleaning the deck and started whistling to myself. Brian had played the “Best of Michael Jackson” on the boat stereo the night before, and I had “Billie Jean” stuck in my head. Pretty soon he joined in and was singing the lyrics. He took a break from setting back the net in the water and started moon walking in his blood encrusted deck boots, and I laughed. On our boat, we passed days with an I Pod mix and old copies of the New Yorker Brian’s girlfriend mailed us. I thought of sitting in old Randy’s galley at the net float, gas station porno strewn on the dining table and a tape of Conway Twitty on a boom box. Things could have been much worse.
By the time Brian set the net back, the early morning fog and rain had cleared, and it was turning into a bright and warm day. Maybe only seventy or so degrees in the sun, but hot enough that the inside of my rain gear was already sticky and sour with the scent of fish guts and blood. I peeled off my rain jacket and pants and went inside.
I made a pot of coffee, and then poured a cup. The taste was rich and bitter and streamed down my throat. I felt that jolt of energy fighting back against the waves of tiredness, and it made me think of caffeine after a hangover. The way it had of cutting through the fog and making everything better, if temporarily.
Brian sprayed the back deck and then changed from his rain gear. I walked to the open cabin door to ask if he wanted a cup, but then suddenly he came rushing at me and pushed me aside into the kitchen counter. He hopped into the forecastle and returned with his rifle. Brian put the boat in gear, and the diesel engine roared to life. The engine strained as he rammed it through the gears, up to what must have been ten thousand RPMS for a short sprint along our net. We crashed through the water, and I could feel my stomach slam into my throat. I bounced high as we hit each wave, and then I hit my head on the low ceiling, shattering a bare light bulb all over the galley floor. I cursed and rubbed my head. Brian looked back at me, and I stared at him. He ignored me and went back to firing out the port side window for a minute or so, and then put the boat in neutral and climbed out the window.
“Get me more ammo,” he shouted. “Worry about the light bulb later. We’ve got a couple of sea lions in the net.”
I went down into the forecastle and fumbled through the toolbox for more bullets, all the while muttering to myself.
“Every fucking time. Every fucking time, he does this. Sea lions, and he acts like their fucking killer sharks.” I talked to myself for a while to work down from the anger. “All that gas and time just to save a few fish from getting eaten.”
The door of the head flew up as we hit another wave, and I noticed there were bullet casings in the toilet. I scanned the floor (an area of about two feet by three which doubled as a miniature shower) and saw five or six more shell casings. They were coming in from the small port side window, where I could see Brian lay prone, with his rifle over his shoulder. He’d stopped firing, and I walked back into the cabin and put the bullets on the captain’s seat.
I stared at the shattered glass on the floor. Fuck it, I thought. He can clean it up when he gets back in.
Brian stood on the port side of the bow and scanned the net for the offending sea lions. I hadn’t seen them. I could rarely seen them, but Brian had a hawkish sense for these things. I watched him as he leaned in the window for the extra ammo and reloaded. He walked back to the bow and stood.
There was a short burst on one our other radios. “Mike, you got me on here.” The voice sounded old, a little slurred and deliberate like someone who carried too much weight in the neck, and I could tell it was Randy on The Kimberly.
I reached for the radio. “Yeah, Randy. I got you.” I watched Brian pacing the bow through the window, still searching the net.
“You hear this deal about Jake on The Doxy?”
“Yeah, we just got the transmission during our change of light. You wanna talk to Brian, you’ll have to wait. He’s massacring some sea lions.”
Randy chuckled. “Yeah, I seen that. The fishing’s slow over here, and I been watching through my binoculars. Looks like you guys had a helluva first set there before them sea lions come around. You must have caught everything before they could get down to me.”
“We caught a couple,” I said.
“Right, a couple. You guys fishing Nakat after the closure today?”
“Yeah, affirmative there, Randy. Brian thought we’d fish up by the jackline.”
“Shit,” he said, “up there with the big boys. Tell Brian I want to come around and parley. I’m gonna leave the gear here and give it a good soak.”
“Right, Randy. I’ll tell him. See you in a few. Over.”
“Hey, uh wait.”
“A few of us are gonna meet on The Gene S. tonight over by Cape Fox. Have a drink and say a prayer for Jake if you guys wanna anchor up.”
“Alright, I’ll let Brian know. Over.”
About fifty feet away, The Kimberly bobbed stern to stern with us. Randy stood on the back deck and ran the boat from the second throttle he had next to his drum. It was not the safest way to parley, but guys did it all the time. I walked on deck and stood next to Brian who still had his rifle in hand.
“Ahoy there, boys. I hear you’re having some sea lion trouble.” Randy was shouting to be heard above the idling engines, but it was the kind of clear day that when we sat on the gear with the engine off I could hear a boat coming from miles away. When, with the right kind of ears, I could hear the eery chatter of deckhands practically a quarter mile from us.
“I think I scared them off,” Brian said.
“Yeah, just remember to be careful firing off the bow like that. I was doing that one time and damn near killed myself.”
“What happened?” Brian put the boat in reverse and backed a little closer to The Kimberly in the shifting seas.
“I was shooting at this little shit fucking seal that was swimming around my gear. Somewhere up near Juneau in the 80s. I had this brand new scoped rifle I brought up with me that season. I was popping shots off my hip, but then got down on my belly and lined one up through the scope. Only problem was that the scope had gotten off in the ride up that year, and so when I fired a shot it went about three inches lower than I meant. The bullet hit my anchor chain, ricocheted back, and nailed me smack dab in the middle of my forehead.” Randy chuckled his big man’s laugh like it was funny instead of horrific.
“I was stunned. I was pretty sure I’d killed myself. But then I walked back inside the cabin and saw the bullet had lodged between my skin and skull. I took out a pocket knife and pried the bullet out, and then drove myself back to town for stitches.”
Brian and I stared at each other. Randy was no doubt a tough old guy, a former crabber in the Bering Sea and off the coast of Oregon, but he had a bunch of these near death stories. Stories where he climbed a mountainside after his truck crashed over the guardrail, or cut himself out of bite lines while forty foot waves crashed down on him, and it was hard to know how much stock to put in them.
“No Coast Guard?” Brian said.
“Ah, shit, they don’t come out unless you’re missing an arm, or turn up drowned.”
“Or, you have a heart attack,” I said.
Brian and Randy turned to me.
“Yeah, or you up and die like poor old Dave.” Randy took off his long-billed cap and wiped his big red forehead with the back of his hand. “What do you guys think of this whole Doxy thing?”
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “He better turn up soon, or one of us will have to talk to that big loud wife of his.”
Randy laughed. “Maybe he just went back to town because he felt bad for missing church during our opening last Sunday.”
Brian smiled. “God damn, he’s not a bad guy, though. Corked the shit out of us during change of light a few weeks ago, and I ran his ass up and down on the radio for it. Then, when I saw him in Ketchikan later that week, he gave me a McDonalds gift certificate for $20 and a hand written apology on the inside of a book. Guess he felt that bad about it.”
“What was the book?” Randy said.
“You Can’t Be An Atheist Because God Doesn’t Believe in Them.” Brian said
We all laughed. It was just the sort of book you could imagine Jake giving someone.
“Sonuvabitch means well. Just needs to cut out that God shit and figure out the fishing.” Randy spit out into the water. “Alright guys, meet you tonight over on the Gene S.?”
“Yeah, we’ll be there,” Brian said. “We’ll probably knock off early, maybe around sunset.”
We steamed to the off load point in the little bay inside Cape Fox. It was just after noon, and we were south of the lighthouse and around the bend from Nakat Bay.
Brian had regretted the sea lion ordeal, and let me drive the boat as he swept the glass from the cabin floor. He took the wheel when finished, and in a few minutes we could see The Gene S., bright and red and black and shining in the sunlight. There was a skull and crossbones painted on the bow like it was some sort of modern day pirate boat, but really, it was just an old steel crabber out of Seattle that doubled as a tender boat for gillnetters in the summer. It must have been a little over a hundred feet long, and when we pulled alongside, starboard to port, it cast a huge shadow over us that made me feel like we’d be crushed by it.
It was still clear, and a couple of eagles sat perched on the tops of evergreens. The wind was blowing steadily, and I watched the trees sway hard. The replacement captain of the Gene S. was a young guy named Gabe, and he greeted us by tossing over a line. I tied it to our stern raiol, and then caught the next line from one of their deckhands.
“How goes Blue Boots?” their deckhand, Paul, shouted at me.
I’d shown up to Alaska with cheap, blue deck boots that went to mid-calf and looked like they were made for a child at play on the beach, and so I’d spent the first week of the season as “Blue Boots,” a bad nickname for someone trying to earn his spot. My captain, the deckhands on the other boats, the tender guys, and especially Dave, the obese and sour former captain of the Gene S., had called me it. It hadn’t taken long before I got tired of the nickname, and I so I’d put in an order with the processing plant for new boots and rain gear at the end of my first week fishing.
On a Saturday near the end of June, the gear had arrived. When we’d met the boat, Dave had been the only one on deck at the time, and the gear was in a box along with our groceries on the top of a double stack of ten-foot by twelve-foot plastic tubs. He’d cursed me, and then waddled over and climbed the stack to get my gear. I remembered him gasping for breath after he handed me the box, and me pulling back after sweat from his hands dripped on to mine. He died in his bunk on the way back to town two hours later.
“You know, I haven’t had those boots for over a month,” I said to Paul and tied the other line to the bow.
“Yeah, not since you killed Dave.” He smiled a toothy grin, and the veins on his forearms were huge and wrapped in barbwire tattoos.
I looked at him. “At least I wasn’t the dipshit who dropped anchor two miles from shore.” He stared at me but didn’t say anything else.
The seas were rocking hard in the little bay, and the raised deck of the Gene S., some six feet above ours, threatened to pull our rails loose from where they were bolted in to the deck. The wood made a terrible moaning sound with each little wave like it would splinter apart at any moment.
Brian was hooking a brailer bag to the metal hook on the end of the hyrdraulic crane and yelled at Paul, “Hey, loosen up the ties on your end before you pull my goddamn rails off.”
“You guys will be fine, everyone else has,” Paul said, and went about sorting fish from a tub.
Gabe ran the hydraulic crane and lifted the brailer bag from the hold. He was still new to working the cranes, and it was a slow process. Brian became more tense with each moment, and one of our rails, the one even with the back of the wheelhouse, was straining at its base, while the molding looked like it was coming away from the deck.
Each bag was nearly a thousand pounds, and it was a spectacle to watch one swing in the air forty feet over the deck, knowing that if it fell on me it would crush me, and I would become nothing more than a hideous splotch of splintered bone, guts, and blood. I thought about what it would be like to die that way, and watched as the miasmic juices drained to the bottom of the bag and spilled out in vile arcs across both decks.
“Paul, I’m not fucking around. Loosen the fucking ties,” Brian yelled again. As a rule, Brian hated the deckhands on tender boats because he thought them lazy and slow. He felt they cost him money by being inept.
Gabe hollered across deck at Paul. “Hey do what the captain asks, alright, Paul?” Gabe turned back to us. The last of our bags was offloaded, and now we waited for the check. “You guys hear that Norm on The Dog Catcher says they found The Doxy crashed up into the rocks. A couple miles east. No one on board.”
Brian nodded at Gabe and then stared at Paul as he slowly fumbled with one of the lines. “Coast Guard show up yet?”
Gabe was writing out our check on a clipboard. “They’re sending out a cutter, but it might be a couple hours. Who knows, as bad as shape as that boat of his was in, Jake might of just crashed the thing to collect on it.”
At that moment, part of the molding from the middle rail splintered and a screw broke loose.
Brian screamed at Paul. “God damn, you fucking idiot!” He ran to the bow line to untie us before that rail gave way as well and yelled at me to untie us from the stern.
When we were free, Brian jogged back in to the wheelhouse and steamed away from the Gene S. as fast as our boat would go.
Gabe called our boat on the radio. “Hey, what about your check there, Cap?”
Brian was still furious. “Keep the fucking thing until tonight, and tell your fucking deckhand to get his fucking head out of his ass.” Brian slammed the receiver on the wheel and turned the radio off.
There was another full day of fishing, and all the effort that entailed, beating back behind us and erased and forgotten by the day’s warm ocean breeze and the forever of the Alaskan blue sky, but I felt no grace in the afternoon. The sense of accomplishment I usually felt after delivery was muted by the mystery of the crashed boat, and the sour taste of delivery.
We spent the early afternoon fishing the jackline at the mouth of Nakat Bay. The current ran hard, and it flooded on every set. We had to pick every thirty minutes because the net would be swept a half-mile inland in that time. It was difficult work for two to keep up with, and I thought about the struggle someone like Jake would have working a set by himself. Most one-man crews fished farther inland where the waters were calm and the fish less plentiful.
Between sets I didn’t bother to change from my rain gear, but instead stayed on deck and studied the face of the rocks that walled off and channeled the fjord. There were clumps of trees with gnarly gray roots that grew out of the granite, clinging to it like they were fearful of being washed away at any moment.
Brian came on deck from the cabin and stood next to me. We both just stared out at the cliffs. An eagle glided down from one of the trees and floated across the shimmering blue surface of the water.
“I never did believe that birds were the souls of dead fisherman,” he said. “I’m just not the superstitious type.”
“You think he crashed it on purpose?” I asked Brian.
“Guys leave boats out here all the time for one reason or another. He wouldn’t be the first. It would explain why he took his dog with him.”
“But you don’t figure that’s what happened?”
“I have a hard time believing it.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Fuck it,” he said. “Let’s go back up in the bay. I need a nap before we meet back up with those tender boat assholes.”
I drove the boat out about an eighth of a mile from the net, pointed it straight at the middle, and then set it to autopilot. The bay was calm, and the net had been in the water for over an hour. Brian had been asleep most of that time. At that distance, I had about a minute to get on deck and piss before we ran over it over. It was a game I played sometimes when Brian napped, and I was bored. I needed any kind of distraction that afternoon.
I could see every boat in the one mile by five mile stretch of the waterway as I pissed over the side of the boat. I held myself and looked at the fishscales on the hairs of my knuckles and saw them glitter in the light. It seemed like as the summer went on there were fishscales everywhere. In the bunks, on our boots, in the food. Under our fingernails and in our ear canals.
The boat was practically on top of the net now, and I zipped myself up and jogged back to the cabin. I took the wheel and turned it slightly towards the net so the prop wouldn’t get caught. I straightened it out and nodded to myself. Pretty close this time.
I continued jogging the boat along the gear and took the binoculars from behind the radar screen on the dash. Randy had the next set over from us, and he was combing the last fifty fathoms of his net. I could see each fish he picked: chum, chum, pink, chum, and the rest a mess of seaweed. When he was done, he set to work cleaning a few of his fish. Randy was unstable on deck. He didn’t have a tray to cut the fish on, and he worked on his hands and knees. I wondered how many years of fishing he had left in him. When he finished cleaning his fish, he went back inside and started the old wooden boat. I looked at the name on the boat and studied the scripted, careful lettering: Kimberly. It was Randy’s wife’s name. Someone loved that brutal, surly man, and he loved them back. Had anyone thought to call Jake’s wife, I thought.
I drove the boat back and forth along our net in low gear until the middle bunched and both ends hooked in on themselves and caught tree branches and seaweed. It was long past the time we should have picked it. Around the middle of the net there was a weird, glinting mass, and I looked through the binoculars again. It was oddly proportioned and unlike anything I’d seen in the net. I stared at it for a good ten seconds, and then I realized it was a loaf of bread.
I shouted down to Brian in the forecastle. “Hey, Cap, wake up. You gotta check this out.”
“Ah, uh huh, Mike. Is it about time to pick up?”
Brian climbed the stairs from the forecastle and yawned and scratched his stomach. He stared out the port window at the net. “Wow, it really turned into a shit heap.”
“Check out the middle,” I said and handed him the binoculars.
He peered through them. “Whole wheat or potato?”
“White?” I said.
“Yeah, no one gives a fuck about white,” he said and laughed.
Brian put his boots on slowly, and then we switched places, and he drove us to the north end of the net. I went on deck and reached over the side with the gaffe hook. I picked up the net by the buoy bag up and attached it to the drum.
There were a few fish in the net, but mostly it was just junk. The process was slow and my mind drifted. I broke apart sticks in the net, and then slid them free from the meshes and tossed them overboard. We got to the loaf of bread, and I picked it out with the hooked end of my fish picker. I turned to throw it in our trash in the cabin when Brian spotted a dark, weird mass in the net about ten fathoms out. I could see it was encased in stems of olive brown seaweed, and it was wrapped in the green meshes many times over. When it was halfway up the back of the boat, the hydraulics on the drum whirred in protest, and we leaned over and pulled it over the stern. It was heavy, and my back burned with the weight. It took us twenty minutes to get it fully unentangled, and the whole time we knew it was a dead dog. The tail came free first, and it was stiff like it was made of a heavy gauge of wire. A couple of half eaten fish fell out as we unwrapped the layers. When we got to the head, the left eye was open and staring out at us, but there was a hole in the head where the other eye should have been. There was fur and flesh torn out from around the right eye socket. Something had been at eating at it, and a raggedy mess of blood vessels was the only thing left in the gaping hole in its head. We both just stared at it. That place where an eye should have been. I felt angry and sick and bile rose in the back of my throat. I wanted something to clear the taste and wondered if the tender boat had a bottle of whiskey.
“Good fucking God,” Brian said. “Let’s put in on the middle hold.”
I grabbed the front legs, and Brian grabbed the back. They were stiff and solid like the silvers and sockeyes we’d pulled up in the first set of the day. It was Jake’s dog. There was no doubt. After we sat it on the hatch, I kicked it hard in the ribs, as if I thought it might suddenly hop up and be okay. I felt bad about doing it.
“We’ll finish picking the neck. Then, get the shovels from the lazarette.”
I nodded. I couldn’t say anything.
At dusk, we anchored up and rowed our skiff out to a break in the rocks where the muddy shore led up to the woods. We carried the dog back into the trees a ways, breathing hard and cursing the entire way because Buster was so big and water logged. A swarm of no-see-ums followed us like a cloud, and we sat Buster in the tall grass as we dug a hole five or six feet deep in the soft dirt. The flies bit me on the face, on the arms, and I slapped at them. They landed around the dog’s exposed eye socket and sucked on the blood vessels until the area was just a buzzing baseball sized mass. I burned with anger and stopped digging to beat at the dog’s face with my fist, trying to clear away the flies. Brian stared at me and said nothing, and when I stopped pounding away at the dog’s head, there were just at many flies as before.
When we were finished, Brian rose from the dirt, panting, and pouring sweat. “Let’s pray Jake is still out there,” he said.
And I nodded. Brian reached out his hand, and I held it while we shared a moment of silence. But in my mind I thought of a man falling off his boat at the crest of a tall, frothing wave and then struggling to climb up the mossy cliffs around him. I thought of the panic that would set in when the water filled his nose, his vision blurred, and his mind turned dark. And I thought about a dog jumping over board, swimming out to help his friend, and then going under.
I thought I’d see if The Gene S. had any liquor, and if they did, I thought I’d drink my fill.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Paul Vega was born in Kansas on the morning of his father’s first day as the editor of the small town newspaper, The Junction City Daily Union, thus beginning a long and complicated relationship with both the written word and his father. He was born in that sweltering summer of 1985, 4 days after the U.S. decommissioned Route 66, 4 months before the Kansas City Royals won their first and only World Series, and right smack in the middle of Bruce Springsteen’s epic “Born in the USA” tour.
He came of age in southeastern Arizona, in the shadow of Cochise and Coronado and Kit Carson, the OK Corral, and in the cauldron of America’s longest and most violent border war. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Washington, a part-time tutor, writing instructor and fisherman, and an advocate for the short story form, Kansas State University athletics, short, blonde girls, and all things Joe Strummer.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Gabby’s dead husband had been born on this day some forty odd years ago. Besides a stomach full of baby boy, the only thing he’d left her was a pearl handled knife, and she’d had to pawn it in the first year after he’d died to pay for formula. The guilt had been immense, and now each year she visited his grave on his birthday and left a gift.
This was the thought Noah woke to Friday morning and rolled over in his mind as he worked up the strength to rise from the saggy, cornflower blue couch. He and Gabby had gotten drunk in his trailer the night before, played poker and made plans to spend the weekend in Flagstaff. She had a friend they could stay with, just outside of town in Gray Mountain, and Noah needed to get out of the desert for a night. It had been six months since he moved out of the hotel he owned in Mexican Hat and went to live on the reservation, and in all that time he’d yet to leave his new Navajo County home.
Somewhere in the blur of the previous night Gabby had told about her husband, Tommy, and Noah ha promised to drive her to her his grave today. It was a hell of an odd thing, the kind of thing you promise while drunk but don’t follow up on, but he felt an obligation to her. She and her son, Lelen, were his neighbors and the first people to talk to him after he moved to the reservation. He had run off this to this new home on the other side of the San Juan River and spent the last few months straddling the seam between drinking to function and just disappearing completely, and now it seemed this Indian family, these friends, were the only thing giving form to his life now that his divorce, and the sour malaise it left in him, had set in
Noah fixed a pot a pot of coffee and poured a half-full forty of malt liquor down the drain. It smelled of urine and beer, and he couldn’t remember if he’d pissed in it or not. The clock on the coffee pot read 1:30, and he was due to pick Lelen up from the bus stop pretty soon.
He left the coffee to brew and walked to the closet-sized bathroom. Noah took the black bandana off his head and stared in the mirror, studying the scratch marks on his right temple. They looked less irritated, less fresh, but still stung. He’d been wearing the bandana since Dawn had scratched him two days ago, and Gabby had noticed but made fun of the bandana instead of asking why he was wearing it. Noah rinsed his face and forehead, cleaned the abrasions and then put the bandana back on.
In the late afternoon they set about prepping Noah’s truck for the weekend trip to Flagstaff. Noah lay on his back under the truck and could hear Lelen shifting on the bench seat above him. He’d been at the radio trying to get it working for the past half-hour. As the oil finished draining, Noah was surprised to hear what sounded like Indian drum playing coming through the floor boards of the Chevy.
“Noah! I got it working. You hear that?”
Noah climbed out from under the truck and rubbed his grease-blackened palms on the side of his Levis. The music switched to Metallica. Shit, sure enough. It was the radio. Only the Tuba City radio would have a playlist like that.
“I hear it.” Noah said. He smiled widely. “Goddamn, that’s gotta be coming all the way from Tuba.”
Noah was still new to the reservation, but he’d already come to find a bunch of these unexpected cultural meeting grounds. Radio stations playing traditional songs and then speed metal. Stands selling mutton stew next to the Safeway. Basketball played so obsessively that if a close game headed past dark people played under moonlight and a car’s high beams rather than quit. A Navajo Code Talkers exhibit in a Burger King off the highway.
A week before he’d bought a tape deck at the flea market while Gabby was working in Monument Valley, and it seemed like Lelen hadn’t gone more than a few hours since then without mentioning it. Noah had taken to driving the kid to school since it had started two weeks ago, and the boy was excited to have a distraction from the strangling and spongy monsoonal heat that hung all about the verdant mesa tops and flooded the cab of the truck each morning. But the truth was Noah wasn’t sure how to wire the thing, and he’d given Lelen the first crack at it while he drained the oil and changed out the air filter.
How the boy knew how to wire it was a mystery. As he stared at Lelen’s brown, smiling face through the truck’s cracked windshield, he felt a sense of pride well up in him as if the boy was his own. He had no right to, but he felt it all the same.
Noah reached for his mug of coffee on the roof of the truck and took two large gulps. He’d bought a twelve back of beer and put it on ice, but he was waiting until Gabby got home to break into it.
The boy stopped fiddling with the knobs on the radio and hopped out of the truck. He stood erectly. Though only thirteen, he came up to Noah’s eye level.
“How ‘bout you let me have a drink before Mama gets home?”
Noah laughed and flicked the dusty, salt-stained bill of Lelen’s Arizona Diamonbacks hat. Just because you’ve been doing a man’s work doesn’t mean you’re ready to drink like one.”
But it was more than that. This was someone else’s son. This was someone else’s Indian son, and it wasn’t his place to share a beer even if he wanted to. The sun was dipping below the mesa which rose up behind the trailers, the shadow of the ancient red rock fast encroaching on them both.
Lelen laughed. “Alright Noah, but it aint’ my fault if Mom finds out you saw Dawn the other day.”
Noah was surprised and realized the bandana had slipped off his forehead and down around his neck as he worked under the truck.
“Dawn didn’t give this to me. I just bumped my head.” He lied and it sounded lame.
“Yeah, alright. Whatever you say.”
Noah finished his coffee, snorted, and then tossed the dregs into the dirt. “And besides, ain’t you a little young to be in the business of blackmailing?”
The boy smiled. “ I’m just sayin’ if you saw Dawn you could tell us. You know what Mom’s advice was. She said ‘get the hell away from that two-bit sl-’”
Noah cut him off. “Look, she wasn’t around, but your mom and I aren’t dating anyway. What you tell your her is your business.”
“Suit yourself.” Lelen said.
But Noah was unsure of what he’d said. Whether he was just sick of talking about Dawn or whether he didn’t want Gabby to know, he was hiding them.
They stopped talking when they heard the hum of a diesel engine from somewhere far off. Noah squinted to see down along the road where its jagged, muddy ruts met up with Highway 160. A jeep was coming from the north and it slowed as it got towards the end of the road. A woman and a wild, scabrous looking thing of a dog got out. The woman waved goodbye to the driver and started slowly up the red, snaking path.
Even from a great distance he could tell it was her because of the three legged dog desperately hobbling along to keep up. And as she came into clearer focus, Gabby’s style was unmistakable: a creased brown leather jacket, black jeans and black boots caked in dirt and turned pink by the redness of the earth. She wore a pair of headphones held together by duct tape that brought ought the sheer blackness of her hair. Her cavernous army surplus bag hung over her right shoulder stretching down to where it met a large carving knife attached to her belt. The dog wore a harness and there was a cloth pouch sewn into the side where, depending on her mood, he knew she kept a bottle of water or a flask-sized bottle of rum.
When she was close enough to him, he turned to the cooler in the bed of the truck and pulled out two fresh beers. He tossed one at her and she caught it without breaking stride. She continued walking until she reached the front door of her trailer where she put down the bag and removed the leash from her dog. Gabby motioned to the dog to sit, but it didn’t move.
She had a complicated relationship with the mutt. Had found his missing leg sad and endearing when she first spotted him in a pack of dogs chasing a cow in the parking lot of the Kayenta Texaco, and now took him to work every day in Monument Valley where she sold wooden figurines. When he frustrated her by refusing to be house broken and drinking from any open beer, she had decided to name him Reagan, after the president, and though she loved him she was always complaining about his malfeasance: “Reagan’ll hump anything that moves.” “Reagan was gnawing on a fat white lady today.”
“Reagan. Sit!” she said, and the dog squatted down gingerly.
“You’re still going with the hair metal look I see.” She pointed at the bandana.
“Yeah, I still can’t find my ball cap, but I got a bunch of these. Used to use them as rags for working on my truck. Guess I just gotta stick it out I get a new hat.”
“Suit yourself, “ she said. “You could at least pick one with a design that makes you look less Bret Michaels and more Bruce Springsteen.”
They’d all loaded into the truck, Lelen, Gabby, Reagan, and a cooler full of beer and driven west towards Tuba City. There were rickety, wooden stands all along the highway with dirt parking lots and banners at each with some variation of the phrase “Genuine Indian Goods.” Further on, where the rocks became banded with reds and grays, there were a few pull offs with handmade signs advertising “Dinosaur Tracks.” Gabby and Lelen had laughed and pointed out into the desert where a handful of signs advertised the “Dino Tracks.”
“We used to do that,” Gabby said.
“What? Work at one of those?” Noah said, pointing out into the desert.
“Yeah, in those days we still lived in Tuba. Mama was helping me get back on my feet, and she had a friend who owned one. We didn’t make bad money at it either. I was selling my carvings, and Lelen was the cutest little runt of a hustler you’ve ever seen.”
Lelen laughed. “Yeah, we had this system set up where I’d stay hidden until Mom had a sale in the bag and then pop out from behind the stand. I’d say, ‘excuse me, sir, but would you like to buy some corpolite? Take a real live part of the dinosaur world back home with you.’ And the man would say, ‘Geez, son. What’s coprolite?’ And I’d holler, ‘Dino poop,’ and you can just imagine the look on the face of this Phoenix type businessman with this ragged five year old Indian boy smiling up at him trying to shove a handful of fossilized dinosaur shit in his face and his wife and kids right behind him.”
Gabby broke in, “He’d give them those big doe eyes, all sweet and innocent like he had just popped out of bed and didn’t spend his whole day hustling tourists by the side of the highway. And they’d either pay him out of surprise or pity or down right admiration for Lelen’s pitch.”
After they’d visited Gabby’s husband’s grave, they’d reached Tuba City and pulled off the main road and towards a small neighborhood of dirt roads, trailers, and HUD homes.
The trailers were within a rectangular chain link fence and a couple of shanties, and other pre-fab houses stood off in the southwestern corner. A ragged looking dog sniffed through garbage while two girls tossed a basketball back and forth over a rusted Chevy. Gabby and Lelen and Reagan walked up to a trailer where an old woman with thick and braided head of gray hair greeted them on the porch. Noah made eye contact with her and lifted his hand in acknowledgement, but she just stared at him from the corner of her eye and continued talking to Gabby.
Later, as he drove them west into the setting sun Noah watched the dusk linger all around. He’d seen thousands of desert sunsets, but on this open stretch of Highway 191, on this Friday night, something caused him to speed up...65, 70, 80, 90 miles per hour. Gabby didn't comment. There was only garbled singing on the radio, and the soughing of the wind through the cab of the truck. All across Noah's line of sight the pale orange merged with the erupting red and violet, the shattering of the azure sky. And he felt a strange feeling came over him like he wanted to chase the sunset forever, to bleed every moment, every element out of its dying colors. He pushed the truck hard until it shook and felt like it would fly apart.
Noah was still running over the visit to the gravesite in his mind. He’d been unsure what to do and had just leaned up against the truck with Lelen and petted Reagan.
Gabby had pulled out her pack of Winstons and lit two, switching between cigarettes on each drag. It was like she had lit one for her husband. Was communing with him in some unspoken way they could never understand. Smoke had curled out her broad nose, and the distant lights of Tuba city fluttered on in the east. She’d finished the cigarette in her right hand and put it out on her left boot and then inverted the process with the other cigarette.
Gabby had laughed to herself and turned around from Tommy’s grave, walking towards the back of the truck. She’d reached in the bed, and pulled out the shovel they’d brought. She had walked back to the grave and worked over some dirt next to it with her boot heel, and then started digging shovelfuls out from the red earth. She’d breathed heavily from the effort, and then went to a knee and placed the book in the hole. When she’d finished putting the dirt on top of the book, and she’d smoothed over the red hump on top of the hole with the underside of her boot.
“What book did you give him?” Noah said. They had remained silent for most of an hour as the buttes closed in on the sides of the highway and walled them off from the day. And now the night was finally winning out, about 30 miles outside Flagstaff, and they were beyond the Painted Desert and the pine forests ghosted their peripheral vision.
“Blue Horses Rush In,” she said.
Noah stared blankly. It did not register.
“Luci Tapahonso,” she explained. “Tommy liked her poetry. I thought it was weird when we first met. This broke Indian cowboy reading poetry in his spare time. But now it makes sense to me now. And sometimes when I read what he used to read, it’s like I can hear his voice talking to me. It’s like a shared and whispered chant of loneliness.”
Noah stared at her for a while. He thought what she’d done seemed a tender and unique gesture, another side of this person he was coming to like more and more.
“You saw Dawn the other day didn’t you?” Gabby said loudly.
It was as if she had read his mind, and he jerked a little at the mention of her name. He took his left hand off the steering wheel and touched the bandana. Just the thought of her and he could immediately see her face buried in the trucker’s crotch, working his privates like a greedy javelina on the underbelly of a scrub oak. He felt sick.
“I saw her. I don’t know how much she saw me. ” The words came out quietly, and he didn’t know if Gabby had heard them. In any case, she didn’t ask him again, and he was thankful for that. He was embarrassed, but it was more than just embarrassment. He hadn’t wanted Gabby to know that he saw Dawn for the same reason he woudln’t talk about an ex-lover to a new one. But Gabby wasn’t his lover. He wasn’t really sure what they were becoming.
They had dinner on the outskirts of of Flagstaff and had a drink before they went to the bar. Jack Ryan’s sat on the northwest side of town out where old Route 66 and I-40 met up. For a quarter mile on either side broken bottles and cans of beer littered the highway, creating a drunkards walking trail between Coconino County and the reservation. When they pulled into the parking lot, a leather-jacketed fat man was peeing next to a dumpster. He tottered, holding himself with one hand and waving the other out in the air for balance.
They parked and walked past the peeing man towards the entrance where there were three Mexicans standing up against an old truck. They were passing a bottle in a sack and smoking cigarettes. They stared hard at Noah and Gabby and he could feel their eyes following him as he pushed open the heavy, wooden door.
There taxidermied deer and elk, a bevy of birds and even an evil looking wild pig mounted on the walls all about the room and a mirror behind the bar that ran the length of the wall and reflected the crowd. A strange mix of bikers, college kids, Indians, Meixcans, and cowboys. It was not the kind of bar he would have chosen, and he felt unsure there. But Gabby was excited about it. Had told the mythic history of Jack Ryan’s the night before. Word circulated that years ago a man with a beef over gambling debts had followed another into the bathroom and cut his throat from ear to ear while he pissed. That a couple had once owned the bar together and lived upstairs until the wife shotgunned her husband when she caught him after hours with a waitress in the beer cooler. And Gabby swore her friend Maria had been there when a drunk Indian chased an errant pool shot as it bounded over the edge of the table and out into Route 66. The drunk had gotten back the pool ball but been laid open by a station wagon containing a family headed to the Grand Canyon. He was split in two and his skull was crushed causing the brain to pop out and splatter on the asphalt like an eggplant. A crowd had gathered to watch while a country band playing inside. The bartender just called an ambulance and went on serving. Even offering free drinks to the EMTs who scraped the man off the road. And as Noah looked at his face in the mirror, unshaven and deeply darkened from the summer sun, the salt-stained bandana high on his head, he thought maybe he belonged here. That his own misery paled in comparison to this history of violence and made him feel anonymous. He relaxed and was glad to be there with Gabby. He wanted to get drunk, and he didn’t want to see anyone he knew. It felt like that was all he’d ever wanted, really.
Gabby bought the first pitcher of beer even though he insisted against it. “Don’t worry,” she said and smiled, “you’ll get plenty more opportunities to get me back.”
She walked to the jukebox and fed it quarters. A Springsteen song came on. Gabby was always playing Springsteen and Noah thought it was a funny choice for an Indian woman. He recognized the track by the rough and worn texture of Springsteen’s voice but couldn’t name the song. Something about being down on your luck and your girl not loving you anymore, but wasn’t that half of Springsteen’s catalog? Wasn’t that half of all songs?
They picked out a pool table and started playing. Noah had heard Gabby was good, but he was skeptical because his source on this was Gabby. He’d only ever heard her brag about two things: her son and her ability to play pool, and getting drunk tended to magnify her own estimation of both. And she was always telling stories. Wild and dubious stories about everything from the origins of the scar on her cheek (it came from when she used to rodeo) to how she acquired her double-wide (she won it drag racing).
It didn’t take long to convince Noah that Gabby was telling the truth, at least about playing pool. He broke, missed his first shot, and then sat back as she went to work destroying him. They played a couple games but she was never threatened, missing just enough to keep him interested, but not enough to have to give it her full attention.
“Six ball, side pocket.” Gabby hit the ball true and it went in. They were betting in beer instead of dollars, and he already owed her two pitchers.
She moved to the other side of the table and lined up another shot. “Yeah, I saw Bruce at the Coliseum. It was in ’85. Before I married Tommy. Before I had Lelen. Shit, during Reagan. Four, side pocket.” The music was loud and she was practically shouting.
The shot rattled home, and Gabby took her beer and swiveled her hips as she walked to the other end of the table. Noah’s eyes followed the arc of the skin-tight Levis over her butt. She had a good full ass. Healthy and well-proportioned and not at all like the Dawn’s bony backside. He smiled to himself. It was like he’d been so wrapped up in Dawn, he’d forgotten about the simplicity of attraction. And he wondered: Was this a first date of sorts? If someone saw him and her together, would they assume they were a couple? He’d put a lot of effort hiding his forehead from Gabby and Lelen, and now he wasn’t entirely sure why. Gabby might not have fit the model for the kind of woman he was attracted to (if such a thing even existed), but to know her was to know a good time. And more than a good time, there was a passion to her that was infectious and that had been missing for his life for a long time.
She lined up another shot and continued with the story. “Yeah, we rode the bus all day from Kayenta to Holbrook to Phoenix and ended up meeting a bunch of End of Times looking Mexicans at the Phoenix Greyhound station. I turned on the whole ‘I’m not from around here’ charm and before Maria and me knew it they were giving us shrooms, and we’d scammed a ride with one of their friends to the fairgrounds.
“We got down there and snuck in through a gap in the bullshit carny fence they had set up. And you know the Coliseum, that great saddle-shaped roof it’s got? It gets me thinking about going to rodeos as a girl and all the cute young cowboys that used to come through town. I’m thinking about them when Springsteen comes out with his shirt half-unbuttoned, chest gleaming. Me, I’m half out of my mind, licking the sweat off my arm I’m so thirsty, and all I can think about is riding Springsteen. Or, him riding me. The thought’s repeating in my head, and I’m laughing and vibrating cause of the rumble of the first song, the shrooms in my stomach, the whiskey we’ve been drinking. Maria and my new End of Times friends probably think I’m insane by this point, but something happens: I recognize he’s playing ‘Badlands,’ and at that moment it’s meant just for me. I’ve come all the way from the Painted Desert, another kind of badlands, and Bruce knows this. I tear the label off the whiskey bottle and write every song in the set down on the backside of the label. Nineteen, plus a four song encore. Still have the set-list. The handwriting on it looks like I was taking notes while in the bed of a truck that was four wheeling.
“Anyways, we spent the night on the fairgrounds in sleeping bags, and I got dropped off at the Greyhound station the next day, ass broke and hungover. Didn’t get back home until three days later after Mama wired me $40, and I hustled another twenty off some winos playing pool in a pit of a bar downtown.”
She stopped talking and laid the pool cue down. She’d been playing the whole time and knocked in two more shots during the story. He’d lost again.
She walked towards him until she was within a few feet. “Yeah, I always say since Tommy died I’d never re-marry, but it’s a lie. I’d re-marry if Springsteen asked.” She laughed to herself. “You got the next couple rounds?”
“Yeah,” he said. The song on the jukebox changed to the next Springsteen song she’d picked. This one he recognized. It was one where his voice sounded impossibly high and young and hopeful. And the keyboard and backup singers gave it the feeling of Motown, or soul. “Hungry Heart?” He said to Gabby.
“Yup,” she said.
They took a seat in a booth opposite each other and he poured them fresh beers. The bar was a big open rectangle and there was a dance floor in front of the pool tables. Everyone one in the place seemed good and drunk and things were getting rowdy now. There were two men in a shoving match by the jukebox who then locked arms in an awkward kind of dance. A college kid sat at a corner table looking like he might vomit at any moment, and there was a puddle on the bar stool below him like he’d pissed himself. By the bathroom, a man with two dark braids running down his back was pulling something from his oversized coat and handing it to a woman. He seemed to know everyone, but was there with no one, and occasionally disappeared into the bathroom with a stranger only to emerge once again by himself.
“Maria, lives up at Gray Mountain,” Gabby said. “She said she’d let us crash with her tonight.”
Noah nodded. “Right.” He practically shouted it and realized how good and warm and drunk he was feeling from all the beer. He was feeling energized by the crowd and was starting to see Gabby in a way he never had before. Something at the gravesite had changed things. That whispered chant of loneliness.
“You really do that every year?” he said.
“Go out there and give your old man a gift.”
“Yeah, of course,” she said.
“You mind if I ask how long he’s been gone.”
“It’s a helluva thing to do. Most people would move on at some point.” Noah grimaced. He regretted saying that.
“Yeah, well when you find a good one you start comparing everyone to him, and it’s a hard thing for a man to compete with a ghost. Plus, there aren’t all that great of prospects out there.”
“Not a lot of rock stars on the reservation?” he said and laughed.
“No, just white guys running away from their crazy wives.”
He felt bad and looked at the braided man by the bathroom and thought about what he was doing in there.
She kicked him gently in the shin. “Relax. At least you’re not too ugly, especially when you’re not wearing that dumb bandana.”
He looked at her and she reached across the small table and pushed the bandana off his forehead so it drooped around his neck. The smoky air stung the scratches, and his forehead felt naked and raw like when you remove a band-aid after a couple of days.
“That’s better,” she said, and touched his cheek gently with her thumb as she pulled back.
She smiled at him and didn’t say anything about the scratches. He felt at ease and better than he had in a long time.
“People probably think I’m crazy. Burying books out in the desert for dead men. But you know, you do what you do to try to make it better. Better, even if you can’t ever make it right”
“I guess that’s what I got to figure out.” he said. “A way to at least get forward.”
“Well, there’s no blueprint. I nearly died that first year without Tommy. Sold everything I could because I didn’t have any energy to work. I buried the knife he gave me only to dig it back up and pawn it for formula and whiskey. I remember being there in the pawn shop with the knife, not a fucking cent to my name and my mom with Lelen on her shoulder going on about ‘how are you going to go and give away a dead man’s gift. That makes you just about the biggest Indian giver in the world.’ You’d think I was giving Lelen away. It was a while before I could bring myself to try at life again, but I saw Lelen getting bigger and he started talking and I realized I was checked out. My mom was being his mother. Eventually I got back the knife, started back into carving those wooden figures and got into working the Monument Valley tour.” She smiled and pulled a cigarette from the pack in her shirt pocket. She lit it and blew smoke softly out her nose. In that moment, he thought she was truly beautiful. “Sometimes you just gotta mature. Growing up is really just realizing you can’t have what you had, but at least you ain’t dead.”
“Who said that?”
“Me. Or maybe it’s a Springsteen song, I forget.”
He laughed and they both sipped their beers. It was getting late, on towards last call, and he envisioned the drive back to Gray Mountain and the trailer park and what he’d do the next day. He’d play basketball with Lelen and maybe even drive into Mexican Hat and fix up his old place. He realized it was the first time in a long time he’d thought about anything past the end of the day in front of him.
They were nearly finished with the pitcher when two red-faced and sweaty men approached the booth. They were both Indian with light complexions, maybe even related, but the one on the right was taller and older, dressed in tight denim jeans, boots, and a maroon collared shirt with the top two buttons unfastened. His forehead was full of deep wrinkles and he had pock marks all over his bulbous cheeks. The combined effect was that it made it hard to tell if his was 35 years old or 60.
“What’s a matter, Gabby. You don’t say Hi anymore?” the wrinkly man said. He looked at Noah and grinned. The young one stared blankly and lit a cigarette. He had on a leather bomber jacket over the starched, tanned uniform of a tribal cop, but he was so fresh faced Noah thought it looked like a Halloween costume on him.
“You two friends?” said the wrinkled man.
“Good friends,” Gabby said. “Very good friends.”
“I’m Bert,” the older man said and reached out his hand.
“Wrinkles,” Gabby said. “Everyone on the reservation calls him Wrinkles.”
Noah stood and shook his hand. “Noah.”
“This is Roy.” He pointed to the uniformed kid. “He’s my nehphew. He just graduated from the academy today. Following in his uncle’s legacy. We’re celebrating so drinks are on me. A friend of Gabby’s is a friend of mine. Mind if we sit down?”
“Okay,” Noah said.
But he was sorry to have to share the space. The two cops sat down and ordered drinks for everyone and for a time they sat in a tense sort of quiet.
“We’re headed out in a little,” Noah said. “Just long enough to finish this pitcher.” He looked at Gabby, figuring she’d agree, but the look on her face terrified him. Something dark and distant like she was grappling with an unpleasant memory.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, of course,” Wrinkles said. He sat across from Noah and the nephew, Roy, sat next to Noah, blocking his path from leaving the booth. He stunk of liquor and beer and body odor, and Noah wondered how long they’d been at it. Noah looked across the booth at Gabby and smiled at her and she forced a smile back.
“Good friends, huh?” Wrinkles said. He was drinking a whiskey on the rocks and placed the glass hard on the table so some of it spilled. “Shit, Gabby and me go way back, back before she was even married back. Back then I had to had out a traffic ticket just to get a woman to talk to me he said. I was so goddamned ugly.”
The nephew laughed too loudly and slurred, “You still are ugly, Unk.” He took a bottle from his jacket pocket and poured some into his drink.
Wrinkles threw back his head and rolled his eyes, but they went far back in his head like he was going to pass out right there, but then quickly his head slammed back down. They were packed tightly into the booth, the table wet and covered with glasses, and Noah felt like he had to piss.
“So you two are good friends?” Wrinkles repeated. “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said to Noah. “This one doesn’t go with just anyone he said. You wanna get to know her you practically got to beat it out of her. Some people get to wondering if ol’ Gabby even likes men anymore.”
“Just cause I never liked you doesn’t mean anything like that.” Gabby was back in the conversation now. “I just never like your shriveled ass, but there are other men in the room who still got ones worth sticking, even if you don’t.”
He grinned widely. “Shit, Gabby. You don’t mean that.” He turned to Noah. “She don’t mean that. We go way back. Way back.”
Noah was uneasy and turned to the nephew. “So that’s a helluva thing, you being a cop. Lot of power carrying a gun and everything.”
“Not too much,” the nephew said coolly and in too sober a voice.
Wrinkles focused his attention on Noah. “So we know what her deal is, but what’s yours? Where’s your woman?”
Noah was starting to get annoyed and said nothing.
“What I mean to say is you must have some big, white sweet thing back at home. Maybe even a whole litter of white babies, but yet here you are with someone else.”
“Hey, Unk, ease up,” the nephew said. “Have a drink.” He pulled the bottle back out of his jacket and poured more into his uncle’s glass. It was empty and he left it on the table in front of Noah.
“I had one in Mexican Hat,” Noah said, “but it didn’t work out. Not that it’s any of your damn business.” Noah didn’t know why he told the truth, other than he felt it was the only way to deal with this sort of belligerence.
“Mexican Hat!” Wrinkles practically yelled. “Where we hear about that, Roy?”
“On the scanner in the cruiser,” he said. “Bunch of people off the rez getting strung out and busted up in that shitbox.”
“You from Mexcian Hat then, huh?” Wrinkles said.
Noah said nothing.
“Mexican Hat, huh? Where all those white girls are getting up on Indian guys just to get a fix. Imagine that.”
Noah was furious and rose to leave. Gabby stood too, but Wrinkles grabbed her wrist.
“Relax, Noah, relax. Bet you’re thinking here’s this fucking drunk Indian and what the hell should I do next? Bet you’re thinking you gotta defend ol’ Gabby here? That you’ll kick my reservation ass in, right?”
Noah looked around to see if anyone had noticed them, but everyone was too drunk. “I’m thinking you need to let go of her and get the fuck out of here. That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Whoa, come on guys. We’re just talking here. I’m just fucking around. No one has any reason to leave.” He smiled and Noah could see long, thin patches of hair over his bulging, pock-marked checks. They were grotesque and Noah imagined getting Wrinkles on the ground and stomping him in the face with his boot until his cheeks popped and oozed their bloody seed.
Wrinkles let go of Gabby’s wrist. “Yeah, this is all just talk. Just playing around unless maybe Noah don’t want to take it that way. Unless maybe Noah’s old lady is back in Mexican Hat right now. One of those women we heard about all over the scanner, shooting it between their toes and in their butts, sucking dicks for crank. Unless maybe right now while Noah’s here with this woman who ain’t his wife, while we’re here just getting on great and without a fucking care in the world, Noah’s wife is back up in Utah getting down on someone else’s meat.”
There was nothing else to say. Noah turned to get past the nephew, but he stood and blocked his way from leaving the booth.
“Get the fuck out of my way.”
“Make me,” said the kid.
Noah pushed the kid as hard as he could and he fell back out of the booth into another table. Noah scooted out of the booth and Gabby came out after him. They made it to the parking a few steps from the truck, but then Noah felt a huge weight crash on him from behind and knock the air from his lungs. Wrinkles had tackled him, and now they wrestled in the parking lot and a small crowd gathered.
The nephew had followed them out and tried to grab Gabby, but she pulled her knife from her belt and slashed at the air in front of her. “Get the fuck away from me,” Noah heard her say. The nephew stood paralyzed and didn’t help his uncle for fear of getting cut.
But Wrinkles was a big guy and had gotten the upper hand and now stood up and kicked Noah in the ribs. He kicked him again, and Noah felt his mouth fill with blood. He felt he would pass out, and that this was it and that he might not get back up from another kick, and with the strength he had left he reached out and caught Wrinkles’s boot and in mid air and twisted his leg. He yanked the leg and the older man fell and hit his head hard on the ground. Noah stood slowly and nearly fell over, but then he gathered himself and kicked Wrinkles in the face. He saw a fist-sized rock in the parking lot and thought of smashing in the man’s face. He wanted to climb onto his chest and put his thumbs into eye sockets. He wanted to see the blood from his own mouth dripping onto Wrinkles. He could see the ugly man’s broken nose bleeding profusely as Noah pressed hard into his eye sockets with his thumbs. All he wanted now was to hurt this person as much as he possibly could. To hurt this person who he was sure had hurt Gabby. As if he could make everything right by inflicting as much pain as possible on this person. He wanted to watch Wrinkles gasping for breath, to push his thumbs deeper and deeper into Wrinkles’s eyes sockets until he screamed and bled from them. He wanted to see them explode like grapes under the head of a hammer, wanted to feel their juices run over the bloodied crevices of his knuckles, but from somewhere far off he could hear Gabby yelling, “Noah, Noah let’s go.”
Noah gradually came out of his fantasy and left the man laying in a fetal position in the parking lot. Gabby had put down her knife and the nephew rushed over to his uncle’s side.
Wrinkles yelled something over the crowd. He yelled, “We’re old friends, we’re old friends! But she wants a white guy with a fat wife!” Noah heard him say it, but then the crowd and the jukebox drowned him out. People started filing back into the bar, and Noah and Gabby kept walking towards the truck. The truck would take them to Maria’s and Gray Mountain. They would eventually get home, together.
They drove north on 89 towards Gray Mountain mostly in silence, until Gabby told him to take a county road to get to her friend’s house. Noah was relieved to get off the highway. He’d kept looking into his rearview mirror every quarter mile to see if someone was following. He didn’t think they would follow but he wasn’t sure. That kind of drunk was dangerous, but he thought they’d come to their senses. They were cops after all.
The county road to Maria’s house was an unfinished road and the Chevy bounded loudly down the path, shooting up gravel. The radio was on but it was just white noise at this time of night. The wind was blowing hard outside and the truck swayed from side to side from the force. There were dust devils off in the desert that looked like mini tornados in the moonlight, and there were high banks of the summer clouds that brought the monsoonal rains. It was getting on toward 4 in the morning and the sky was just starting to lighten.
They were a mile or two onto the county road when something ran out in front of them. It was stocky and pig sized. Noah swerved and nearly ran off the shoulder. He thought he crashed into a grove of mesquite trees for sure before he corrected and got back on the road. He watched the chunky beast in the rearview mirror bound off into the underside of brush beside the road. The adrenaline shocked them out of silence.
“Some fucking night,” Gabby said. She pulled the bottle of rum from under the seat and took a swig. “I thought you would kill Wrinkles from the look on your face.” She passed it to Noah.
Noah took a drink. “I thought you were going to cut up his nephew.” He laughed. “You and Wrinkles go back a ways, huh?” He felt sorry for asking and realized the full answer to his question was something he didn’t want to know.
“Unfortunately,” she said and she started crying.
“What is it he asked?”
She was silent for a while and reached out and took a drink from the bottle. “Just thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” he said.
“Look, don’t get down about what he said back there. Dawn and all that. That’s not your fault. You’re a good man.” She leaned across the bench seat and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
It felt hot and good and he couldn’t remember the last time a woman other than Dawn had kissed him. He watched the cyanine sky rising up behind them in the east and saw the outline of the new day and felt that things would be okay. He reached over and touched Gabby’s hand and squeezed it gently. There was a huge cloud of dust trailing them, whipped up by the truck and the wind, and faintly, just faintly, he thought he saw a car pull onto the road behind them, and then sirens red and blue coming out of the haze.