The man woke before dawn but didn’t light a fire in the chilly cabin. He knew they would leave before their tiny woodstove could heat the loft overhead, where his child was still asleep. Reaching for the box of wooden matches on the windowsill, he pumped the starter on the Coleman stove a few times and put the kettle on for coffee. He stood at the kitchen window and watched the trees become more visible in the early light, wondering when he would stop feeling hollow. Three weeks earlier his wife had announced her plans to leave. Their differences were her reasons, she said.
Hunger had necessitated a search for work. She was the first to go, taking a part-time job at a small bar in Colville called Bernie’s. She served drinks and prepared sandwiches for the buffet table, and when her shift was over she hitchhiked the thirty miles back to Onion Creek. Sometimes she walked the last mile and a half along the unpaved road bordering their property and other times she liked to make her way through the woods instead. He met her halfway, offering to carry the pail of leftover sandwiches she brought home for the children. After dinner she returned to the woods alone with her small metal tackle box of pencils and watercolors. Her aspirations to become an artist began to grow, as well as her need for independence. Two weeks after she started working in town, she took their two daughters to Kettle Falls. The silence that followed their departure filled the cabin and inhabited the man’s thoughts, hovering like the yellow-jackets that swarmed while he worked.
* * *
He climbed the wooden ladder through the hole in the ceiling that opened to the loft, ducking beneath the low rafters as he felt his way through the filtered light. Kneeling at the edge of the cot, he gently touched the back of his son’s neck.
“Are we moving again?” the boy asked. He unzipped his sleeping bag and reached for the cardboard box that held his favorite toys. Their family had moved many times, leaving the cabin in the cold months to stay with his grandparents in Tacoma or with friends in Spokane. Sometimes the moves were inspired by the logic of schools or jobs; other times they left just to be somewhere else.
“No, we’re only going for a walk. Maybe we’ll look for agates down by the creek later,” the man replied.
“Okay, Papa. What about school?”
“You can bring some of your books with you.”
While the boy finished his oatmeal his father filled a duffel bag with extra clothes and the patchwork quilt his wife had made for his 33rd birthday. He emptied the shelves under the sink: three cans of mackerel and a loaf of bread he had baked earlier in the week.
Folding a township map of Steven’s County around his tobacco and rolling papers, he stashed them in the front pocket of his army coat. He glanced at the envelope he used as a bookmark in his worn copy of The Hobbit before placing it in the bag and lifting it onto his shoulder. Latching the door behind them, he caught his reflection in the small window beneath the eaves and quickly looked away, not wanting to scrutinize the thin figure before him.
When they reached the edge of their property, he turned to look back at the cabin. The sun had not yet made its way over the red tarpapered roof and the front windows were still in shadow. The place already looked abandoned and the man felt he might be seeing their home for the last time. He had worked shirtless in the field, cutting alfalfa with a scythe under the August sun. Five years ago, he’d felt hopeful most days, digging a well and planting a garden, raising chickens and rabbits. But his thoughts of self-sufficiency were tied to his ideas of family, and his stomach lurched now when he remembered them laughing together in their tent as they made plans to homestead.
He turned and walked into the field. He hadn’t noticed that the morning dew had soaked through his logging boots, or that the boy was slowly falling behind. Early morning fog shifted around them and settled into the path their footsteps had made in the damp alfalfa.
“Papa, wait for me.”
He looked back at his son and felt relieved they were together. Kneeling, he motioned to the boy to climb onto his back.
“Come on, then. Up.”
The boy put his arms around the man’s neck and let himself be pulled from the ground, his legs circling his father’s waist in a way he remembered, feeling ashamed because he thought he was too old, but also longing for the comfort it had once brought him. He rested his head on his father’s shoulder and breathed in the mysterious scent of adulthood, of tobacco and mothballs and sweat, trying to remember the last time they had been this close.
The previous winter, he and his sisters took turns lying on their father’s back as they raced down the hill on their neighbor’s toboggan. The moon was out and the forest was blanketed in freshly fallen snow. When they returned to the warmth of the cabin, they stood with their backs to the woodstove and dipped buttered toast in hot chocolate while their hats and mittens dried nearby.
* * *
The field turned to low underbrush, which slowly gave way to tall tamaracks, serviceberry bushes and Northern pine. The forest smelled of wood smoke, soothing the man, who was glad to be outside, away from the cabin. They stopped to rest in a small clearing at the top of a hill, where he removed his jacket. The sun had crept above the treetops and the day felt unusually warm for late September. The boy wandered to the edge of the woods to search for wild strawberries, then returned to his father to present the tiny berries, like jewels on the palm of his hand.
“Look, Papa.” He pointed to the remains of a salt lick several yards from the man’s feet, a pale pink block half dissolved into the bed of pine needles that carpeted the clearing.
“Looks like the deer have been passing through,” his father replied. He wondered if he should have brought his rifle, not to hunt with, but for the security it could provide. In his hurry to leave he hadn’t given it much thought. Better to have left it behind, he decided, since he wasn’t sure where they might end up.
In an earlier summer, the man had purchased the gun to teach his children to shoot the gophers that pulled precious vegetables into their tunnels under the garden and avoided the wire traps he’d set. He liked the feel of the rifle’s mahogany stock and the blued steel of its long, heavy barrel. The forest felt quieter than usual after he fired it, as if the clouds and the trees and the grass had pulled back slightly from the loud crack and the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air. He had also bought a small bow for the boy, who quickly learned to loop the waxed string into the notched tips as he bent it over his leg. He practiced shooting at homemade targets, the white shaft and brightly colored feathers on the arrows shimmering against the muted greens and dusty grays and browns of the surrounding trees.
The man reached inside the collar of his shirt for the chain the army had issued him with his ID tags, which now held only his thin gold wedding band and a small P-38 can opener. He opened one of the cans of mackerel, drained the oil, and put two pieces of fish on a hunk of bread for the boy.
“Aren’t you having some, Papa?”
“I’m not hungry yet,” the man replied. He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the flat turquoise tobacco can, rolled a cigarette and lit it, then leaned his head back on the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes against the sun.
* * *
They made their way down the other side of the incline, leaving the woods and entering a field of tall grass with a cairn of rocks and rusty metal near its center. The boy asked whether it was a grave and the man answered yes, but probably not for humans. “These are blades from a plow,” he said, touching the curved pieces of steel. “Homesteaders before us tilled the fields by towing these behind their horses.”
“But what’s buried here?” the boy asked.
“Maybe nothing,” he answered. “It might be their horses. Or maybe this is where they just gave up and left.” He looked at his son gazing at the pile of boulders and put his hand on the boy’s head. “Maybe we can make it to the creek while the sun is still out,” the man said.
Onion Creek was a narrow, wandering stream at the base of the mountain where the dirt road along the northern border of their property met the paved county road. The water was clean enough to drink and they regularly filled their jugs there, hauling them home in the back of their pickup. Wild spearmint lined the banks along the bend in the creek where they often ended their dusty summer days dipping into the dark green water to bathe. The boy liked to dig in the muddy banks for fishing worms, sometimes pulling in a rainbow trout but equally content to walk barefoot in the shallow water and feel the smooth pebbles beneath his feet.
* * *
When they reached the creek, the sun had begun its early autumn descent behind the tops of the fir trees, which stood in solemn contrast to the fluttering yellow leaves of the aspens. The man breathed in the cool air that seemed to come straight from the surface of the water and felt sad when he realized he was witnessing the end of the season. They had survived on their homestead through so many seemingly impassable winters, transformative springs, meandering summers, and bronze tamarack autumns.
Thinking this might be their last day here he called to the boy, who was leaning into the water where the creek ran shallow, looking for rocks and things that glinted beneath the current. He wanted to hold what remained of his family, wondering if the boy’s company could give him hope. The boy walked toward his father and held out his upturned palm, revealing two small stones. Orange and white and semi-transparent, they were crossed with thin black veins that resembled lines on a map.
“I found some agates, Papa. You can have them.” He dropped the wet stones into his father’s hand and watched as he held them up to the light, squinting, before slipping them into the chest pocket of his army coat. The two climbed up the embankment to the blacktop and walked south, waiting but not quite hoping for a ride.
* * *
A cement truck slowed to pick them up, and the driver held out a large, calloused hand. His hard hat was tilted back in a way that indicated it was quitting time. They climbed into the cab of the truck and the boy stood in the space between the seats, where his head nearly touched the roof. The man looked out at the trees moving past and thought about the resemblance between heavyset men and the heavy equipment they operate.
“I can take you as far as Colville,” the driver said. “That’s where I drop the truck.”
The man felt anxious at the thought of entering town. Years of isolation at the cabin had made him wary of people. The woman told him he was paranoid, but he understood their family was unique, living in a home they’d built from salvaged lumber, hauling water and heating with wood. “People are uncomfortable with what we represent,” he had responded quietly.
“Can you let us out where Clugston Road meets the highway into town?” the man asked the driver. He wanted to approach town at his own pace. Pulling the Steven’s County map from his pocket, he ran his finger along the road they had been traveling, which ran like a vein from Onion Creek to Colville.
The light was fading when the driver let them out across the road from an abandoned farmhouse with a barn whose skeletal roof gave them a view of the snowcapped mountains behind it. There was a large apple tree in the front yard, most of its fruit already on the ground. The man chose several that weren’t overripe and put them in his pocket. They followed a line of barbed wire until they came to an opening and passed through dried stalks of corn before entering a field of tall grasses. A rusting silo stood in solitary defiance to the otherwise horizontal landscape.
“I think we should sleep in here tonight,” the man told the boy. He ran his fingers across the corrugated metal siding, which was still warm from the heat of the day. He thought of his first girlfriend, who lived on a farm outside of Tacoma. Kathy’s parents were German immigrants and friends of his parents. Every first Sunday for a year the two families ate dinner together. He and Kathy spent most of their time away from the farmhouse. Their favorite place was inside the hay silo. When it was full the bales provided a prickly staircase that nearly reached the roof. Through a small opening near the top, a shaft of dusty sunlight illuminated their way as they dared to see who could climb highest before dropping into the loose hay below.
But this silo was full of corn, so they walked further into the field, pushing the tall stalks of wheat down into a small circle where they ate the last of the bread and mackerel. After their meal the man sliced one of the apples with his pocket knife, handing the thin wedges to the boy. Taking only a small piece for himself, he brought the blade and apple to his lips slowly, gazing at the small curve of orange light as the sun dipped into the dark blue hills along the horizon.
“Will you read now, Papa?” the boy asked.
Wrapping themselves in the quilt and using the duffel bag as a makeshift pillow, the man opened the paperback to the place where they had stopped the previous night. The boy listened to his father’s soft voice as he read, imagining the two of them were part of the story. As the sky faded to black the man pointed out the constellations to the child, his arm a silhouette against the hazy band of the Milky Way. They heard a coyote call in the distance and it was soon answered by another, not far from where they were lying. The boy moved in closer to the curve of the man’s body. When they woke the next morning there was a flattened area in the grass nearby. The boy put his hand on the spot and noticed it was still warm. A family of deer had slept close to them during the night, quietly making their way back into the forest at dawn.
* * *
The man glanced again at the letter he’d received from his older daughter and decided to walk through town before heading east to look for the Kettle Falls address. He folded their quilt into his duffel bag and put his arm around the boy’s shoulders, the asphalt hard underfoot compared to the cushion of moss and pine needles that surrounded their woodland cabin. From the lesser road they crossed the main arterial that fed into Colville and were suddenly overwhelmed by a mixture of car exhaust and the smell of fried food and freshly mown grass. It was early and the automatic sprinklers were kicking a misty arch across tidy lawns and rows of marigolds. A horn blared as they jay-walked Main Street in search of breakfast, but the cafes and shops were still closed.
Near the edge of town, they walked through a park and past a church where the man had once worked as a part-time janitor. He’d taken the job in desperation after his wife began bringing home restaurant leftovers to supplement their food stamps. He had enjoyed working alone, soothed by the silent interior and dusty scents of wood floors and candle wax reminiscent of his altar boy days. Custodial tasks completed, he’d spent the remainder of his shifts wandering from one empty room to the next, pausing to look out at the dry grass and sunbaked hills on the horizon. He quit abruptly after two weeks, unwilling to compromise his time with his children. He knew the logging camp would welcome him, if he chose to return to work.
On the next block they stopped at a filling station and drank from a hose near the gas pumps. The gush of metallic water was a shock compared to the sweet but meager flow of their home well. The boy looked up at his father and asked why they hadn’t filled their canteen before leaving. The summer he dug the well, he sent his children into the woods to search for the mythical willow tree. He cut a Y-shaped branch and they each took a turn witching, tentatively waiting for the end to dip toward the ground. With a pick and shovel he worked steadily, until he struck water several days later. Lighting his pipe to fend off the mosquitoes that swarmed to the damp dirt, he looked from his blistered palms to the sliver of sky reflected in the shallow pool at the bottom of the well, feeling the quiet thrill of self-sufficiency.
“The well is down to a trickle, son.”
The man bought chocolate milk and a package of hotdogs at the gas station and wondered how it was going to feel to see his wife and daughters. He hoped for direction, or at least intention, once the five of them were in the same place again. Crossing parking lots and roads, they entered a field that had once been a drive-in, but had become a graveyard of short metal posts, a peeling white screen and dilapidated bleachers shrouded in blackberry bushes and scotch broom. The boy raced to the top of the bleachers and sat down, where the two ate cold hotdogs from the package, passing the carton of milk between them.
Hesitant to hitchhike on busy roads, but knowing the highway was the most direct route to Kettle Falls, the man reluctantly stuck his thumb out after they cleared the embankment near the onramp to westbound I-395. A young couple picked them up and spoke wistfully on the drive about the cabin they planned to build on a small piece of land they had inherited in Rossland, British Columbia. The man nodded as he listened, his thoughts dissonant with the myths of homesteading and the realities of isolation and poverty. When the couple stopped on the outskirts of Kettle Falls, the woman slipped a tiny beaded bracelet on the boy’s wrist, wishing him luck as he and his father stretched their legs and said their goodbyes.
* * *
The cemetery trees shaded the street where the man and his son started counting house numbers. They stopped in front of one with faded red paint and a yard that was mostly dirt. A German shepherd ran toward them, barking, and they heard someone shout from inside the house. The screen door opened and a boy emerged, his face a question mark.
“Are the girls here?” The man asked.
The boy retreated without answering. A few minutes later two girls appeared and stood nervously in the shadows of the porch.
“Papa!” the younger girl shouted, running across the yard.The older girl observed her brother before opening the gate to hug him. His face looked pale to her, but his hair held the familiar smell of alfalfa hay.
“We gave the pony away,” the boy said. Both girls looked up at the man.
“We gave him to your godparents,” he said. “They’ll take care of him.”
“Mama quit working at Bernie’s,” the older girl said.
He looked at the house and asked if their mother was inside.
“She’s helping some of our new teachers. I can take you. It’s only six blocks away, on the other side of the park,” she replied.
“No, I want to go by myself,” the man said quietly.
Unsettled, he strode quickly through the park. Pine cones covered the ground, crunching underfoot. From the sidewalk that surrounded the school, he realized that the woman was walking toward him without recognition. When they were a few yards apart, she smiled.
“You found me.”
“I wish you would come back,” the man replied.
The woman looked away, between the tall trees, to the yard where the boy and his sisters stood.
“Can we walk for a few minutes?” he asked. The wind blew the woman’s hair across her face. Chilled, the man reached for her hand out of habit. He thought of their first walk, twelve years and many miles ago, the Berlin sun casting distorted shadows of their arms and legs as they moved toward this autumn day.They crossed the street in the direction of the house, stopping at the fence to watch their children. The older girl twirled a silver baton while the younger one showed her brother how to toss horseshoes into a sandbox near the driveway.
“The boy should be with his sisters,” said the man. “I don’t know where I’m going after this.”
“You need each other,” the woman answered, then walked to the porch. The younger girl waved to the man and the boy before following her mother into the house. The older girl held her father’s hand in both of hers, then put her arms around her brother. She stood on the bottom step of the porch and watched them walk away, her brother’s eyes on her until they turned a corner at the end of the block.
* * *
They hitchhiked back to Colville, arriving as the streetlamps flickered on. The two were silhouettes as they crossed mid-block toward the neon orange and blue of the Rexall Drugs sign. The man selected a small pair of scissors and a disposable razor while the boy chose from assorted cans of soup and boxed cereal. After their purchases they had $38.00 and some change. The boy pointed at the comic books near the register but the man told him they needed to save the rest of their money for travel. They found a motel with a vacancy near the freeway. The old man behind the desk glanced at the serial number stenciled on the man’s duffel bag.
“Where’d ya serve?” he asked, eyeing the man’s beard and threadbare jeans.
“I was stationed in Berlin from ’65 to ’67,” the man replied.
“See any action?”
“My CO held me back because my wife was pregnant. My buddies went, though, and most of them didn’t come home.”
He paid $30.00 for a kitchenette and the old man handed the boy a key. The room smelled like cigarettes and there was crumpled tinfoil on the TV antenna, but it felt like a safe place. After the boy took his bath, the man closed the bathroom door and turned on the light above the sink. He began carefully cutting his beard with the scissors until it was short enough to use the razor. When he was finished he stood in front of the mirror for a long time listening to the faucet drip and the sounds of the TV as the boy flipped through the channels.
He opened the bathroom door and asked his son what kind of soup he wanted for dinner.
“How come you cut off your beard, Papa?” the boy asked.
“It was time,” the man answered.
“Can I have cereal instead?”
The man opened a can of vegetable soup and placed it directly on a burner to warm, then handed the boy his Raisin Bran, which he ate from the box while seated on the edge of the bed in front of the TV. He had settled on watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but fell asleep on top of the bedspread shortly after the show began. The man shifted the child until he was under the blankets before lying down in the recliner next to the bed and covering himself with the quilt.
* * *
In the morning they headed for Spokane, alternating hitched rides with long intervals of walking. When they reached downtown, the man began to wonder what they would eat next and where they might sleep that night. A sign in a church window read “Free Coffee & Donuts.” Reluctantly, they entered the low building and walked down a hallway with polished floors that led to a small lunchroom, where two elderly women greeted them with smiles and handed them each a chocolate doughnut and coffee in Styrofoam cups.
“We don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight,” said the man. “Are there any shelters nearby?”
“Yes,” one of the women replied, “there’s a Salvation Army about six blocks west of here.”
The man thanked them and shifted the duffel bag to his other shoulder, suddenly embarrassed by their faded clothes and meager belongings. Outside, the sun greeted them, their leg shadows scissoring the sidewalk as the boy tried to match his father’s stride. They approached a model train shop and stopped to look in the window. The boy cupped his hands around his face near the glass while the man stood back and stared at his own reflection.
He searched his thoughts for a sense of direction. Trying to survive in the city was a somber option, but returning to the woods didn’t seem viable either. At one point he’d envisioned making a pack saddle for the horse and heading north through the woods into Canada. But then he remembered that he’d given their horse away. Dangerous idea anyway, he thought, with winter coming. It would be foolhardy to risk the wilderness this late in the year. Watching his son peer at the tiny train village, he thought maybe he should’ve left the boy with his sisters and mother. He needed to keep moving but he couldn’t see beyond the next few days.
* * *
Late that afternoon, they joined a line that had formed outside the Salvation Army shelter, a small group of men in varying states of despair. Some made the sign of the cross as they entered the old brick building. The boy thought that he and his father were probably the youngest in the gathering. Their room was not much bigger than a closet, but they found clean blankets on the bunk bed and a working sink. As they took turns washing, the boy was startled to see his father’s ribs.
A meal was underway when they entered the cafeteria. Overhead fluorescent fixtures cast the food and the diners in a monochrome light: stacks of plain toast and bowls of thin lentil soup, an urn of black coffee, and maple bars for dessert. Dinner conversation was sparse, which suited the man, who listened hard and chose his words carefully. When they returned to their room, the boy climbed to the top bunk and crawled under the covers.
“Will you tell me a story, Papa?”
“Yes, after you brush your teeth.”
The man was silent for a while before he spoke. “When I was your age, I loved to explore the ravine under Proctor Street Bridge. On sunny Saturday mornings, I nearly flew the eleven blocks from my house, pausing at the railing to breathe and look out across the tops of the trees toward the water. It was a good place to start a hike to the bay, about four miles away as the crow flies.
“My buddies and I headed east through the heat and the scotch broom and the madrona trees. An opening appeared in the thicket, and Big Rock towered in front of us, our first rest stop. It was three times my height, but we scrambled up the low side to sit on the top ledge, looking back at the ground we’d covered like birds might survey their territory. We imagined that our paths had been made by dogs and cats tunneling through the dense underbrush. I knew the entire maze by heart and played there many times with friends whose names I can’t remember now.
“As the brush thinned in the second half-mile, we knew we were close to Dead Man’s Gulch. We’d heard stories about a rickety bridge that had collapsed to the bottom of the ravine under the weight of a car, killing the driver. We figured the angle where the bridge likely crossed the gulch, though there was no sign of the road anymore. If the day wasn’t too hot, we sometimes searched for bones in the rusting remains of the car. There was also a cave down there we liked to explore, shallow and precarious as it was continually worked on by visitors like us.
“Almost a mile from Dead Man’s Gulch was Blue Pond, a large, green-gray cattail swamp full of dragonflies, frogs, birds, and an occasional makeshift, pole-powered raft. It was a nice place for a swim and the rock skipping was good.
“From Blue Pond we descended further into a dark, lush forest of leafy trees to a stream alongside the railroad tracks, parallel to the bay-shore. Sometimes a train would pass us in the tunnel there. We searched for pennies flattened on the rail and poked around the abandoned fire pits of a hobo camp. With the sun setting behind us, we found just enough huckleberries to keep from starving on the long walk home.”
The man winked at his son, tucking the blanket under the boy’s chin before climbing down to the bottom bunk. As the boy drifted into sleep he thought he heard his father weeping.
* * *
The next morning the man woke early and carefully searched their belongings in the dark so he wouldn’t wake the boy, quietly transferring the treasure to his son’s jacket pocket. He knew where he was going, but the boy would not be joining him. After gathering their possessions they returned to the cafeteria for oatmeal, more toast, and coffee.
The two walked hand in hand to the Greyhound station, where the man spent the rest of his cash on a ticket. He paced the perimeter of the waiting room and knelt in front of his son, taking in his worried expression.
“I want you to go back to Kettle Falls. Stay with your mother and sisters until I find work. Then I’ll come get you,” he told the boy.
“But I want to stay with you, Papa.”
“I know you do, but we won’t be apart for very long. Then we’ll finish reading the book together, okay?”
A loudspeaker echoed in the open room, announcing the next departure. The man hugged the boy, then turned him by the shoulders and pointed in the direction of the bus.
“This one’s yours, son.”
The boy walked slowly toward the exit. He stopped at the door of the bus and looked back at his father.
“Where will you be?” the boy shouted over the noise and jostle of the other passengers.
His father only nodded and touched his hand to his chest.
The boy climbed the platform and found a seat near a window. As the bus pulled away from the station, he placed his hand on his own chest. Sensing an unfamiliar shape in his jacket pocket, he reached inside to find one of the agates from Onion Creek.
* * *
The man stood on the side of the interstate and watched the Greyhound bus accelerate away from him in a cloud of diesel exhaust. A light rain had begun to fall. He buttoned his coat against the wind, lifted the duffel bag back onto his shoulder, and stuck his thumb out. He already missed his son and wondered if he’d made the right decision in sending the boy back to Kettle Falls. Compelled by the previous night’s recounting of the Big Rock story, he realized he wanted to return to his childhood home in Tacoma.
He continued along the side of the highway until a horn blast pulled him from his reverie. He looked up to see that a semi had stopped a few yards in front of him. Though he preferred to walk, cloistered in his thoughts, he decided it was time to dry off. There were many miles between where he was and where he thought he wanted to be.
The driver nodded a greeting and offered the man coffee from a thermos, which he gladly accepted. They drank in silence until the driver began detailing his route, revealing a severe speech impediment which contorted his entire face as he struggled to form sentences. The man felt strangely soothed by the halting words as the windshield wipers pulsed across the wet glass and glare of the headlights in front of them. They’d be going straight through to Tacoma.
The man asked for a piece of paper and the driver invited him to search the dashboard. Locating a pencil stub in the clutter of folded maps and coffee straws, he jotted a short poem on an oil company receipt as they left Spokane heading west.
Dismal city night
Thoughts tending to the sun
Interposing heartbeat and raindrop
Rendering conscious hope
* * *
As they approached Tacoma, the man asked the driver to stop near the overpass that led to Ruston. He walked north to the pier at Pt. Defiance Park, pausing to breathe the salty air and gather his thoughts. A few old men stood with their fishing lines in the water, drifting in and out of conversation, smoking and passing a thermos of coffee between them. The man lingered near the group, gripped by the thought that these men had appeared from his childhood, as if time had time stood still in his absence, waiting for his return. He made his way along the boardwalk until it ended at the beach, through the scattered driftwood to the water’s edge, and looked out across the Sound. He was alone.
He left the park and walked south through the streets he’d known as a child, observing what had changed since he’d moved away. The neighborhood general store, once owned by a Slavonian they’d known only as Old Man Demich was no longer there, and the man felt a pang of melancholy as he recalled racing his bike after school to meet his friends at the little store. The interior was dark and stale, Demich sitting on his stool behind the counter looking as old and varnished as his candy showcases. They would pool their money to buy a pack of Salems and leave quickly, broken English following them past the rusty screen door. At dusk he delighted in the solitude of the long ride home through the flat residential districts, the fresh chill of wind stinging his adolescent face. The lights were just beginning to flicker on in the houses that streamed past, wood smoke scented the air and dried leaves crackled beneath his tires. It was his favorite part of the day.
The man approached his parents’ garage from the alley and peered into the dim interior. He was relieved to see the empty spot where his mother usually parked her car. His stepfather’s work bench was still covered with hand tools, fishing tackle, and Mason jars and peanut cans filled with hardware, as if the old man was alive and had only stepped away to run an errand.
Bill had survived the Depression with a makeshift existence, fishing at dawn for his breakfast and peddling what was left. An appliance repairman and tropical fish enthusiast, he was inspired by necessity, fabricating spare parts for aquarium pumps, washing machines, and outboard motors. Their basement was crowded with his unfinished projects, and it was the man’s favorite place in the house.
Opening the gate to the back yard, the man was greeted by the familiar sounds of barking and clanking. He walked up the path that divided the lawn, his mother’s dog Ringo straining against the chain that was just long enough to allow him to run from the patio to the iron railing that surrounded the basement steps. As the man stooped to retrieve the spare key from its hiding spot inside the doghouse, he realized he was exhausted. He sat down with his back to the house and took in the cherry trees, the overgrown rose trellis, and the cracks in the concrete. Pressing his face into Ringo’s soft fur, he gently inhaled the scent of home.
* * *
Inside the kitchen door he was met by the combined smells of coffee and pot roast and floor wax. A small mound of lipstick-stained cigarette butts lay in an ashtray on the counter. Trying to remember what he had eaten in the four days since he’d left the cabin, he tested his mother’s coffee cup for warmth, his stomach churning with the surprise of stale beer. Hunger subsided as he retreated to the mud room and into the shadows of the basement steps.
There was a long, partitioned space at one end that had been his step-brother’s room, and the man had often snuck in as a boy to play a nickel game on the old pinball machine there, occasionally winning four or five more. He was thrilled to move into the room when his brother was drafted and sent to Germany. It had a dark maroon linoleum floor and wood paneled walls with only a cellar-type window at one end, but it was somehow a beautiful room and he was enchanted with it.
He walked over to the window and looked out across the grass, past the goldfish pond to the gray cinderblock structure of the fish house. For a moment he thought he heard the aquarium pumps bubbling while his step-father shuffled between the tanks, net in hand, sleeves rolled to the elbows as he inspected his brood of tropical fish.
Turning from the window he crossed the room and opened the closet, where he was met with the dusty fragrance of old books. Searching the space beneath his mother’s winter coats, he found the first-basemen’s glove he’d received for his ninth birthday. He sat on the bed and leaned against the wall, wishing he could close his eyes and wake to the sprawling summer days of his youth. His fingers remembered the worn grooves in the leather from countless games he’d played and the afternoons spent alone, bouncing the ball against the back of the garage. The man fell asleep with the glove in his hand, wondering if he was imagining the sound of his mother mowing the lawn outside the window.
* * *
He woke disoriented in the cold room, thinking he was back in the basement apartment he’d shared with the woman in Berlin. He looked out at the gray sky and remembered where he was. Placing the baseball glove on the dresser, he found a pen and a pad of notebook paper and began to write.
blushing red-yellow with laughter.
Trembling with elegance
then withering brown,
its symmetry curls.
And to spite death’s bite
to the autumnal hymn.
Then living and dying,
perhaps sighing unheard
leaf flutters in ultimate freedom.
When he was finished he stood and emptied his pockets: a creased paperback and the Steven’s County map, a half-empty tin of tobacco, rolling papers, a few coins, and the agate his son had given him. He picked up the small stone and carefully placed it on the windowsill. Reaching into his thermal undershirt, he removed the chain that held his gold wedding band and let it pool into the folds of the township map.
He looked around the room and breathed in the trapped smells of concrete and mothballs and wool. Retrieving a nickel from the change on the bed, he walked over to the pinball machine and wiped the dust from the surface with his sleeve, slipping the coin into the slot on the front. Somewhere deep inside the machine a steel ball rattled into place and rolled down the narrow wooden trough before coming to rest at the top of the shooter. Pulling the spring-loaded lever back, he held it in place for a few moments before returning it to its original position.
Then he walked up the basement steps and through the back door to the yard, pausing under the cherry trees to glance back at Ringo, who lifted his head from inside his doghouse. Shutting the gate behind him he made his way back down the alley and headed east toward Proctor Street Bridge, wondering how long it would take him to reach Big Rock. Dried leaves crackled under his feet and the air smelled of wood smoke. The low autumn fog rolled in and surrounded the man until he disappeared in the fading October light.
Benjamin Malay works with a variety of materials to create deeply personal images of people and places. He embraces imperfect memory and fleeting life through painting, photography, and writing. Influenced by music and film and the patterns of the natural world, he is most inspired by the spontaneous use of available materials. He is the sole proprietor of a fine art framing business in Seattle, Washington.
Between 1973 and 1978 Benjamin’s family lived on a remote homestead in rural eastern Washington State. They were not close-knit but bound by their isolation, which ended abruptly when his mother left and his father committed suicide. Writing reveals that time and place to him, and connects him to his unsettled childhood.