Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
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We Drag Our Feet near the Stingrays

I was AWOL going on three days and Dad and I were sticking to the crappy highways north of Sacramento when he told me the difference between fucking and making love was where you put your feet. Not our usual daddy-daughter chitchat. We had stopped at a Burger King in Susanville and both of us fisted Double Whoppers. I guess he was trying to help ease my nerves because I hadn’t asked a question, and my right leg continued its newfound bounce under the table. I nodded, but didn’t laugh, and when he took a bite, I did as well. There was too much mayo on the burger, and I could taste onions I hadn’t ordered, but Dad was paying, so I kept my mouth shut. I hadn’t slept in thirty hours and some damn boy band played from hidden speakers somewhere above us. I wanted to disappear, and Dad had a friend that would put me up in Ravendale. We weren’t far.

“Feet on the floor,” he said, “making love.” A burger bite and swallow. “In a bathtub of Vaseline. Fucking.”

“What about a tub of Jell-O?” I said.

“Red or grape?”

“It matters?” I said.

“Grape seems classier, doesn’t it?”

My first laugh in days, but a glance at my black boots shattered my grape Jell-O vision and threw me under the weight of the questions that had pressed me for weeks—How long would the army search for me? If they found me, how long in Leavenworth? Did the prison have a women’s section?

Never in my life had I felt a sense of self-importance, but there in that Burger King, onions on my breath, I imagined black helicopters spotlighting North State backyards, cops everywhere 10-4ing my name back to dispatch.

“Grape is classier,” he said, answering his own question. He finished his fries and stood. I hadn’t noticed it before, but his jeans seemed new.

“Hitting the head,” he said. “Don’t run down Main Street naked.”

“You read my mind.”

“Get a shake if you want one.”

He smiled, but I knew what he meant: It’s going to be a while before you get another chance.

Jesus, he was amazing those first days. He acted like there wasn’t a thing wrong in the universe as he walked to the bathroom. A baker for decades, he still possessed an unshakable optimism about the world even after his millionth glazed donut, even after Mom left for Mexico two weeks after she bought me my first bra. He stood in our small kitchen when I came out at sixteen and didn’t grimace, just hugged me after a few seconds of openmouthed breathing. And the next morning, he made me eggs for breakfast and said, “At least I don’t have to worry about you getting pregnant.”

Not that everything was perfect. I can still feel his fist to my stomach the day he found weed in my sock drawer. And his girlfriends, a new local sleaze every six months, always shacking up with us, eating our food, wrecking our Corolla. But when I took Claudia to prom, Dad snapped front-yard pictures with pride, even rented us a run-down limo. When I came home one day my senior year and told him I was getting out of Ukiah, that I’d do what Mom had done and join the army and save up for college, he asked me to wait a month, and if I still wanted to join, he’d go with me to sign the papers; so he did. I knew there were wars on, but I thought that there was no way in hell they could last much longer, not with the government screwing everything up. And two years later, when I called him and told him I had orders to Iraq, and that as far as I was concerned the army could go fuck itself, he asked me what I wanted to do, and when I told him, he said fine, just to give him three days. He picked me up outside Fort Irwin on a Tuesday. First thing he did was run over my cell phone.


I decided on a vanilla shake, and after I ordered and paid with cash, the guy working the register asked if my name was Ellie. He swore that he met me at a party in Tahoe six months prior. I pretended not to be freaked out by pinching my Oakland A’s T-shirt, then putting my hands in my pockets and staring at his name tag—Adrian. He was short and had one vertical line buzzed into each of his eyebrows.

Even though my name isn’t Ellie—never was Ellie—and it had been years since my last trip to Tahoe, something told me he was right, that maybe he knew me, or maybe he had been looking for me.

He placed the shake on the counter and put a lid on it. I scanned the corners for cameras, but all I saw were the little holes for the speakers, some John Mayer crap killing us.

I tried not to think of Leavenworth, so I did. The whole sequence in fast forward: Adrian calling me in, a cop in our rearview a few miles out of Susanville, a yellow prison jumper, some cramped cell in nowhere Kansas.

“In South Lake?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“You sure? At Harrah’s or something?”

My hands dug in my pockets.

“Tahoe?” he asked.

I shook my head.


“Please,” I said, and grabbed the shake.


I walked out the doors and leaned on the Corolla. There was smoke in the air. My sunglasses were locked in the car, and I closed my eyes. You can be anywhere with your eyes closed, but I knew I was in Susanville. Adrian. Leavenworth. A new name? A diesel downshifted hard on the main drag. Specks of light through my eyelids. The locks popped in the car. Dad’s Brut aftershave. I waited for his voice with my eyes closed, but he didn’t say anything. I tried to remember what his voice sounded like, but it was hopeless until he said, “Don’t tell me. Chocolate?”


I sucked at the shake as we headed east doing just more than the speed limit. The tops of mountains burned to the south. It was gorgeous. Fire trucks and cops zoomed by, clueless. Dad pushed the button for recycled air.

“I got a huge buck over there when you were little,” he said, pointing at the mountains. “Too bad.”

But the fires didn’t bother me. I loved that there was so much for everyone to worry about. The market in free fall. Forever war. Illegals everywhere. Fire engulfing the mountains. Homes going up. Probably a desperate guy or two out on their decks armed with garden hoses. They didn’t want to die, and that made us the same. I wasn’t going to Iraq and coming home messed up. I wasn’t willing to stub my goddamned toe over there.

“Thing fed us for a year,” he said. “I think that was the time I brought you back an electric pencil sharpener. I always brought you back something. You remember?”

I remembered, but I didn’t say anything.

“Some of the best hunting is up by Ravendale,” he said. “It’s hard to get a tag.”

I watched the smoke billow into the sky, flashes of orange flame scattered along the horizon. The hum of the tires on Highway 395. The vanilla shake working its way into my stomach. Dad gave up and put on some Garth Brooks, and neither of us sang along to “The Thunder Rolls.”

Right then, I guess I should have been thinking about the rest of my life—how long I’d have to hide, what lies I needed to practice, what I was going to do for money, or a million other things I’d need to figure out in order to stay out of jail. Maybe I should have been thinking about how much my dad loved me, and why he so easily agreed to help. None of that came to me. I was tired, and I thought of my mom, just like I always did right before sleep, and I saw her again in those recurring visions, first with that damn white bra in her hands, holding it out to me in a T.J.Maxx, and then, just her knees down, tan and smooth, her feet in white sand.


I awoke by a tree full of shoes.

High desert everywhere. Rocky hills in the distance. This crazy-ass tree. Hundreds of shoes dangled from the branches.

Dad talked to a man and a woman under the tree, all of them smiling. The couple didn’t look much older than me, and I wondered how Dad knew people so young.

I grabbed the door handle and pulled it, but didn’t shoulder the door. What had Dad told them? I blinked the sleep away and watched. The man, shaved clean with a blue Nevada Wolf Pack baseball cap. The woman was sleeveless, tan, tall. When she laughed and clapped her hands, her triceps flexed. A Chevy pickup a few years old with two Boxers in the bed. The wind blew hard enough to move the shoes in the tree, and I wondered if this was what disappearing looked like.

I grabbed my knees like I always do when I’m nervous. then opened the door. On the short walk over, I kept my eyes on them. Their smiles scared me.

“There she is,” Dad said.

“Hey,” I said. “Thanks for this.”

I attempted a little wave, but halfway through it I brought my hand up and brushed back my hair over my right ear.

“Meet Mike and Reggie Miller.”

Mike must have seen my nervous grin because he nodded and said, “Yes, like the basketball players.”

“What?” Dad said.

“NBA,” I said.

“Tom, you’ve never heard of Reggie Miller?” Reggie said. She reached out and touched Dad’s arm. Her fingernails were painted blue.


“The other Reggie Miller? One of the best shooters of all-time?”

“I know Michael Jordan,” he said, and frowned.

“That’s one,” Mike said. “Mike Miller is still playing.”

“Grizzlies, right?” I said, and forced eye contact with him, but he looked down. He had a small, c-shaped scar on his left cheek.

“Not sure. We went off satellite last year, so I’m a little out of it.”

“OK,” I said, because I didn’t know what to say. The basketball talk calmed me, but not enough.

“Yeah,” Reggie said. “We’re radio now. I told him to get rid of the satellite, so he did. There’s enough on radio.”

A gust of wind and the dull sound of shoes knocking. I looked up at the shoes, but I didn’t recognize any of them.


“We get the stations out of Reno mainly,” she said. She clapped her hands then hushed the Boxers even though they weren’t barking. “Point is you’re happy to stay with us if you want to.”

“There’s no choice,” Dad said. “Courtney knows.”

“I’m not forcing her to do anything,” Reggie said, pointing at me. “She only comes if she wants to.”

“You agreed,” Dad said.

“Who you talking to?” Reggie said.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Yes. I mean. Of course, I’ll go.”

Just then Dad took three quick steps toward the Corolla, then stopped. He kicked the ground and stared back at us, the color out of this face.

“We’re talking too long,” he said. “We should’ve met someplace else. This damn tree.” He pressed his hands together. “What are we doing? Come on, basketball? Radio?”

“Easy, Dad.”

“Grab your stuff,” he said. “Now.”

“No one’s out here, Tom,” Reggie said. She opened her arms out wide.

“Now,” he said. “We made it all the way here. No one knows what the hell is going on, and we’re talking about the fucking basketball teams.”

He was right, but I didn’t know it then.

“Jesus,” I said, and dug my fingernails into my hands.

“You called me and now I’ve done this,” he said. “Get your things.”

I did, and he hugged me hard. He kissed the top of my head then he squeezed my shoulders and gave me a push. I went back on my heels and I looked at him to see the surprise in his face, but there was none.

He’d saved me, but it didn’t feel like it, not then. He wanted me gone.

I guess I should have thanked him, but for some reason I showed him my palms and said, “Fine. Go.”

We watched him leave, and Mike grabbed my stuff and loaded the two bags into the truck. I stood by the tree for a minute trying to get my legs underneath me. The sky above us was clear, but to the south I could see the smoke haze in the distance. Reggie gave me a few seconds, then walked over.

“Those red ones are mine,” she said, pointing at a pair of little kid’s shoes on a branch about ten feet up. Unlike the other shoes, hers seemed new, or at least barely worn. When I looked closer I saw the small Nike swooshes. I thought about asking if they were her son’s shoes, but I stopped myself. I watched the shoes twist in the tree and waited, and when she turned and walked away, I followed her.


Early on with the Millers I sat on the back steps in the morning and stared out at the desert. Sometimes I heard sirens in the wind. I thought about Dad sometimes, working the donuts to life. Often I wondered who was getting blown up in Iraq, and if I knew them. Sometimes I wondered if the person that went in my place was getting blown up. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care. I stomped my feet on the steps. I dug my fingers into my quads and felt the pressure, my whole body connected.


If I learned anything in those early days, it was that all of the philosophizing about returning to nature and finding yourself in nature and loving nature and Mother Earth, all of that shit, was wrong. At least it was a few miles east of Ravendale on County Road 503.

There was wind and deserted dirt roads. Empty skies and sagebrush and brown rock and summer snakes. Salt licks out back and Mike gunning down deer and antelope from the back steps. There was me with my hands in the warm, dead bodies of animals, pulling out the gray guts and skinning off their hides.


I had my hands in the slick guts. I yanked on the intestines and smelled the stench, and I wasn’t upset, but I thought about what I wanted to be. I was twenty. I was always cold. I pulled out a stomach or lungs and plopped them onto the ground and I remembered sitting in class in Ukiah and wondering if I’d be a good teacher. I still thought about that, if I could teach reading or math, if I’d be any good, but I knew there was a background check if you wanted to be a teacher. Still, I let myself give in to the daydreams out there in the brush for a few moments, but it never lasted long. The guts steamed in the morning and I looked at my hands and knew—This is what I am.


Eight months after the shoe-tree handoff, I walked into the house to loud classical music. I’d found the lost goat and gathered eggs for breakfast, so my hands were dirty and full. A couple days prior I mentioned something about missing great music. I didn’t specify.

Reggie stood in the living room next to the old Pioneer speakers, Mike in the kitchen in swim trunks. They were proud.

“Fuck Beethoven,” I said.

I had no idea if it was Beethoven, but eloquence and obscenity melted their brains. I smiled to let them know I was joking, but Mike went into the bedroom and shut the door.

“Courtney,” Reggie said.

I cracked the eggs into the pan, and I let Reggie rub my back. She’d kissed me once, but I wasn’t interested then. Her hand felt good on me.

“Here’s something,” she said. “I’ve never known anyone who has died.”



“You’ve got to turn down that music,” I said.

“I’ve heard of people dying, of course, but everyone close to me—all alive.”

She stopped rubbing me, and I wondered if she remembered that she’d shown me the red Nikes. Even if she did, what was there to say?

“Are you happy for me?”

“Sure,” I said. “Am I going to live forever?”

“Not one person.”


“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know it’s coming, only that I haven’t had to deal with any of that. I’ve never been to a funeral.”

“Turn the damn music down.”

“Are you listening to me?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What I’m saying is, how can I know what I want if no one I know has died?”

I turned to face her. She had been kind to me, but she angered easily.

“Don’t wish for it,” I said.

Mike opened the bedroom door.

“Stay in there,” Reggie said, and he closed the door.

“We should go for a drive,” she said. “He’s been pissing me off. Giving the dogs the wrong food and all that hell.”

“I’m making eggs.”

“You think I don’t want to be here, right?” she said. “Go on with your eggs.”

I turned back around and fumbled with the spatula. She put her hand on my back.

“Who knows?” she said. “It’s better than Reno I guess. Just whores running around.”

I turned the burner off.

“Have you seen these whores?”

“What do you want?” she said. “I mean, where do you want to go?”

A simple question, but one I didn’t have an answer to. I hadn’t let myself think that far ahead, although I had plenty of time to come up with a plan, or at least a wish. Still, I knew dreams were dangerous. I kept my back to her.

“You don’t know?” she said.

I laughed, and the sound devastated me.

“Everyone says ‘somewhere warm,’” she said. “That doesn’t sound smart to me.”

“Iraq is warm.”

“Are we joking about that now?” she said.

“Why not.”

“Iraq as vacation spot? Tourism probably isn’t booming.”

“Only one way to get there,” I said.

“What’s that?”



No cell service, no internet, no television. Just the radio with three reliable stations: country, old country-western, and some pirate station that tried to convince us that the world would end at any minute. But the few times I went into Alturas I knew the world was still alive, and probably would remain so for a while. We once ate at the Black Bear Diner, and when the waitress called me “Honey” I fought the desperate pangs of belonging. Besides her, no one looked at me. Not in Alturas or Likely or Termo. And when I checked, nothing in the paper that mentioned any missing person.


No one, anywhere, was thinking about me. Not Dad, who hadn’t visited in six months. Not the army, who I assumed by that point had better things to worry about. Not even the locals, who must have bought the lie that I was Mike’s cousin.

When the fighter jets from Klamath Falls buzzed the hills, my nerves no longer flared up. I laughed when the jackass on the radio stuttered out that the government had us all under surveillance. Even so, I wasn’t begging to run into the sheriff or anyone else. I knew how to milk goats and fix a fence. I could tell the difference between a crow, a raven, and a buzzard. None of it mattered, but I was alive.


There were enough good days—the hours after an afternoon thundershower would soften the land. The few times a year herds of rabbits would swarm the hills around us like some harmless apocalypse. The day Mike taught me how to waltz to the horrible classical music CD he’d bought for me. The second time Reggie kissed me.

It wasn’t inevitable. We were in the garage. She was holding a gallon of milk in each hand. I thanked her for cleaning my room and she kissed me on the cheek, then she went inside.

Mike and Reggie teased me about my hatred of Dolly Parton, my aversion to olives, and the fact that I owned four Oakland A’s T-shirts, and I gave it back to them about everything from their diet (meat and more meat) to their décor. The living room walls were decorated with pictures that changed by the season. Spring—Elvis; summer—Aztec, New Mexico; autumn—deer and elk; winter—U.S. presidents. My favorite was a picture of a white sign, black lettering, “Welcome to Aztec. 6378 Friendly People & 6 Old Soreheads” that hung from June through August by the fireplace.

In their bedroom they had a dozen photographs of their nephews and nieces. They rarely talked about them, but one day I found a pregnancy test on the living room sofa and Reggie told me they were trying to start a family. It was the only time I saw her cry, and even then, it was only tears. No hysterics or heaving or gasps. I held her and she put her feet on my feet. It hurt, but I didn’t say anything. Her head was on my shoulder, and I looked around the room at photos of Aztec as she repeated, “Just one.”


It’s true, I’d been granted my wish. I wasn’t in Iraq. I rarely thought of IEDs or sniper fire. I had all my limbs. No traumatic brain shit. In the mornings out on the back steps, I no longer wondered about the person that went in my place. We all make choices.

But I did think about the day outside Fort Irwin, how easy it was to get into the Corolla, and if all of this was still a crime. What would I say in front of a judge? I just wanted to live. Could that be enough? I wasn’t willing to die there. What if everyone agreed that the war was a mistake? If that was true, and it seemed to be true, then didn’t I make the right decision?


We were all in bed—me, Reggie, and Mike. Mike was sleeping. He was a good listener and he followed the rules. He could touch me above the waist, but no erections. An erection and I was out of there, back to my room. If he asked me to touch him, I was out of there. It wasn’t about him, and he understood.

Earlier that night, he sat on the edge of the bed with a belt around his neck like we to told him to. He never said anything.

Mike started snoring and Reggie kicked him. She’d had coffee with dinner, and I knew she’d be up late.

Her head rested on my stomach, and I stroked her hair to calm her.

“Why can’t we get the truth? The oil spill in the Gulf, all of these jerks saying that it’s a catastrophe. Said the same thing about the Exxon spill in Alaska. No one’s talking about that one anymore. Same thing here. Wait five years and it will be forgotten. But now, the world is ending. Every day on the radio, ‘It’s destroyed forever!’ The world is ending. Over oil? So a few thousand birds die, and this is the world event we care about? What the hell are we doing? And we cry and cry over these things, but like two million people die of starvation every year, and we’re worried about damn birds?”

She started using a new conditioner and my fingers glided through her hair. Her vanilla smell everywhere.

“Preach,” I said.

“Don’t say that. I’m not preaching.”

“Fine. What else?”

She was quiet for a while, and I could hear Mike’s breathing. He slept the best of all of us.
“You know the gay guy in Wyoming that was killed all those years ago? Found him out by a fence. And the whole damn country was up in arms because it’s a hate crime. Rednecks in Wyoming should go to hell and everything. Dead guy becomes the poster child for all the discrimination in the world. He was a saint. Never did anything wrong. Poor little man just liked other guys, so he gets a play in his honor. Rallies and donations. And you know what? Turns out that his murder had nothing to do with him being gay. Guy was a filthy drug dealer. Guy screwed with the wrong people. Got killed because he was a druggy asshole. But does the media tell us that? Is there a play about that? Pisses me off.”

“No one knows anything,” I said.

“You don’t believe that.”

“What do you think I’m doing here?”

She lifted her head and kissed my ribs.

“You’re here because you’re strong. That’s it.”

“That’s it?”

“Tell me you’re strong. Say it.”

“Motivational speaker?” I said.

“I know you.”

“Keep guessing.”

“You’ve seen someone killed, right?”


“I know you have. Tell me.”

“Psycho,” I said.

“Tell me. Story time.”

“It’s not that interesting.”


“I didn’t even see the guy,” I said.


“It’s not a confession, but my prom night I saw a motorcycle get hit.”

“A motorcyclist you mean.”

“Orr Springs Road, outside my hometown. We’d been up in the hills. On the drive back, the van in front of us went over the double yellow and hit the bike, but we kept on driving.”

“Damn,” she said.

“We were so messed up. We got back to her house and we didn’t know what to do so we took some ecstasy and put on The Wizard of Oz.

“Prom night?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We were crying. We thought we were screwed, that the cops would be showing up to the doorstep. But we kept our mouths shut, and no one ever showed.”

“See. Strong.”

She kissed my ribs again then crawled over me to Mike and held him. I was sweating.

“I love him,” she said, although I’d never asked her to prove it.

“He’s never been sick, okay?” she said.


I put my hand on her back and felt her heart going like crazy.

“Never. And there’s a guy named Ray Kurzweil, he’s never been sick either. Some genius, and he’s taking pills that will keep him alive forever. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. Like a hundred pills a day. He’s so damn smart and he created the first program that types what you say into it. Not that that has to do with anything, only that he’s created all this stuff, invented everything, and he’s trying to live forever. But his biggest project is he’s trying to bring his father back to life.”

“Stop,” I said.

“Listen to me. It’s true. He’s invented all this stuff. People call him Frankenstein. I’m sure he gets laughed at, but he is, no shit, smart enough to bring his father back to life. He’s trying at least.”

“Good for him.”

“He knows what he wants because he knows someone that died.”

“Again, Reggie?”

“Listen, Mike’s never been sick.”

“Okay, I believe you,” I said.

“I’m saying that Kurzweil knows what he wants. He could have anything, but he wants his dad.”

“You mean you want what you can’t have?”

“No,” she said. “I mean he wants his dad. Have you been listening?”

“Where’s your dad?”

I said it before I thought about saying it, but I wanted to know.

I kept my hand on her back and felt her heartbeat. It was the same fast beating, but she was quiet. All I knew about her childhood was that she was from Carson City, that she’d had a pig named Oreo, and that she’d done a year at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Reggie reached back for me and I gave her my hand.

“He’s not dead,” she said.


One day there was an AMBER Alert on the country station. A boy had been abducted on the way to school in Sparks. The public was asked to be on the lookout for a red Dodge Dakota, Nevada plates. The boy’s mother came on and destroyed us with her pleas. I thought of her pain, about how easy it was to kidnap, about all of the red Dakotas that were innocent. Later, I heard that the boy was found out at Pyramid Lake, alive and untouched, with his Star Wars backpack. I couldn’t make sense of it then and still can’t.


Every Tuesday on the pirate radio station a woman would come on and read for an hour. Everything from Harry Potter to Montaigne to Robert Service. I’d sit on the carpet and listen contentedly, but then she would sign off with, “Remember, freedom is the only thing that matters.” That always pissed me off. Why ruin a great book with that crap?

Ask anyone what freedom means and they’ll look at you funny then say something about liberty. But when you ask them about liberty, they’ll look at you funny then say something about privacy. Press them about privacy and they’ll say something about freedom. Everyone claims they want to be left alone, but I don’t buy it.


Dad drew an X5a hunting tag in October of 2011, so I met him at 4 a.m. out on Grasshopper Road west of Termo. I knew something was wrong when he pulled up in a new Ford F-150. He brought his latest sleaze, Marci, who wore pink boots and had hair down to her ass. I was furious, but I let her talk.

Within two minutes I knew everything: she’d won $400,000 off a scratcher lottery ticket a few months prior. The truck was a present for Dad. She’d invited him to move in.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” Dad said, but Marci interrupted him.

“And I can keep quiet about you,” she said.

“Can you?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, and reached for Dad’s hand.

“Perfect,” I said.

“They’ve stopped calling,” Dad said. “I’m not saying it’s over. But it used to be every month I’d get a call. They’re still probably looking at my call history. I’m not sure.”

“They’re not looking at your calls,” Marci said. “You know how many people have run off? Thousands and thousands.”

“I don’t know,” Dad said.

I shook my head.

“Sure,” Marci said. “Thousands. But there’s no recruiting problem, so they pretty much let you go.”

“Marci,” I said. “You don’t know what’s happening.”

“Obama’s ending the war,” she said. “I know that much. For all the other shit he’s up to, at least he’s doing that.”

“Okay,” Dad said. “Enough of that. We’re all here now.”

I didn’t know what that meant, and just as my frustration rushed at me, Marci handed me a coffee.

“Your dad says you like a ton of sugar. Me too.”

That bought my silence for a few minutes as I tried to figure out how I’d get some time with Dad.

We headed south until Pine Creek and stopped and unloaded. Brutally cold outside, Dad offered me his old .243 rifle for mountain lions, but I had brought Mike’s .40 SIG, so I waved him off. Within two minutes Marci had decided to stay in the truck.

Dad and I set up two ridges over from the truck, overlooking a long draw. The sun came up on our backs, and we stayed quiet for a long time. The light did nothing to the cold, and I watched my breath push out from my mouth. My feet and hands ached. Dad sat close to me, but I couldn’t smell him.

“Nothing here,” Dad whispered. “Head back?”

“Can we take out Marci?”

Dad didn’t answer, but he stood and gathered kindling and started a fire. My hands hurt as they warmed.

“You’ve been out there long enough, I guess,” Dad said.

“You guess?”

“I don’t know how to help,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to say.”

I didn’t have an immediate answer, and I wasn’t going to pretend. I’d forgiven him for our initial good-bye long before. What else was he supposed to do? No one knew my plans because there weren’t any, and I didn’t know then what help I needed. The smoke shifted at me and I edged to my right.

“What are you doing with her?” I said.

“I don’t ask what you’re doing. I only ask if you need help. You make your choices.”

“Ask me,” I said. “What do you want to know?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Jesus,” I said. “Fine.”

“That I should have taken you somewhere else? How was I to know?”

“Know what?” I said.

He didn’t say anything, and I pressed him with “Tell me,” but only once. He stared into the fire and shook his head. I looked down at the draw and didn’t see anything.

From somewhere in the distance a guttural, manufactured sound. It stopped then came again.

“What the hell?” I said.

“Honking,” he said. “That’s my horn.”

“Wow, a keeper.”

“She’s fine.”

I stood, but he didn’t move.

“She can wait.”


“When you were a kid, you always  . . .”

“Shit, Dad. Just stop.”

“What do you want, then?” he said. “Why are you out here?”

“You asked me, remember? It’s that easy.”

“You act like we have to learn something every time we’re together. I just wanted to see you. That’s enough.”

“You’ve seen me once. Are you serious?”

He took off his gloves and held his hands to the fire, and his hands were wrong, clawed, the middle, ring, and pinkie fingers curled in tight to his palm. I watched for a moment waiting for him to open his hands.

“What are you doing?” I said. “Your hands. Jesus, Dad.”

“Viking disease,” he said.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“That’s what they call it, Viking disease.”

“You can’t move them?” I said. “You can’t. They’re stuck like that?”

“It’s not serious. I can have surgery. It came on quick. I spent years in the bakery.”

“Spent?” I said. “You’re not baking?”

“Are you serious? Look at my hands. I haven’t worked for a year.”


“Almost two years.”

I stared at his hands, like play guns. He held them to the fire.

“What are you doing for money? I mean—” but I cut off as soon as I pictured Marci.

Dad looked at the fire, and I don’t know what I expected from him in that moment. Defeat? Pain?

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m here.”

“You can have surgery.”

But he was off somewhere else. His eyes on my feet.

“When you were a kid you always asked to come hunting with me. And I always said no, but you’d always want me to bring something back.”

“I know this story,” I said. “The electric pencil sharpener. And look now, we’re hunting! Let’s make a movie. Stop. Your hands.”

“No. Let me finish. You’d want something when I got back. Not just the damn pencil sharpener. But always I’d give you something. A Hot Wheel or some stickers.”

He paused then scratched his face.

“Yeah. So?”

“I didn’t buy them. I mean, I gave them to you, but your mom bought them in Ukiah. She’d have them ready when I got home, and then I’d give them to you.”

“What are you saying? So you didn’t give me the shitty stickers, who cares?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It bothers me that you think that I got them.”

“That’s what bothers you? What are you trying to do, give Mom some credit?”

“No, this is about me and you. I want your memories to be right.”

“Are you serious?”

The horn sounded again and Dad stood.

“I’m serious,” he said.

He didn’t hug me then, or pat me on the back, and when we started walking he said, “We’ll keep this between us,” but I had no idea what he meant.

We walked together up and down the two ridges. It was quiet, except for our boots on the ground. I had no idea then that it would be the last time I’d be with him alone. Even if I did, I don’t know what I would have changed.

As soon as we got within sight of the truck, he stopped and said, “Brace yourself.” He could always make me laugh, and that’s something.

When we got back to the truck, Marci opened the door and said, “Nothing?”


Later that evening, after Dad and Marci left, I sat in Mike’s truck alone up near Observation Peak. Mike had given me a little weed and I smoked as the sun went down.

I kept the window down as a courtesy even though it was cold. I was still trying to escape the new-car smell of Dad’s truck, Marci’s pink boots. I imagined what I would get if I won $400,000 in the lottery, but the beach house-Ferrari dream faded as soon as I realized there was probably a background check involved, or at least publicity of one sort or another.

I couldn’t see a single person or home in the basin below. That and the weed calmed me. Life wasn’t hard for me then, but I understood nothing in my future would be easy. I wouldn’t be able to stay out there forever. I knew that, but each day passed and everything seemed more comfortable—the Chevy, sagebrush, night noises, living room pictures, their touch.

I didn’t love Reggie or Mike and they didn’t love me, at least in the way that would keep me in their home. Affection isn’t love.

I sat in the driver’s seat and watched the valley go dark. I wasn’t trying to force my mind anywhere, so it wandered. My dad’s hands. The shoe tree. Swimming lessons when I was eight. Signing my name at the recruiter’s office. The woman’s voice reading Robert Service. An iPod Christmas present. Watching Mom undress. Finding that goat near the dry ditch. I couldn’t make sense of it then, but now I think that’s what it means to know yourself, that you remember enough about your life that you know who to be.

It was dark when I rolled up the window. I was tired but relaxed as I drove down the dirt road, and I knew I’d sleep well.

About a mile before the 503 I saw the rabbits. There was a herd of them in my headlights, a thousand maybe, more than I’d ever seen. They huddled together in my lights. Brown like the dirt. Pathetic and helpless.

I wasn’t angry when I pressed the gas. I was strong. I knew that. A rush of blood and adrenaline poured over me and I tapped into that strength. It had been so long since I felt invincible, but I felt it out on that dirt road in the Chevy. The smallest bumps under the truck, like driving over a stretch of washboard. No blood or guts. Just the harmless rattle of the truck. My keys bouncing into the steering column. The smallest shake of my hands, and I knew that nothing could happen to me. I would never be hurt. No one could tell me no. It was an easy choice. Not even a choice, just a silent move with my foot.


One day in Alturas I saw a couple of vets at the pizza place. Reggie and I were there on a Sunday watching the Niners destroy the Rams, minding our business in the far corner. I overheard one guy telling the bartender that he’d been in for eight years and hadn’t deployed once. His friend said that he saw time in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was stupid, but I imagined that this was the guy that took my place. I ignored the game for a while and watched him. When the Rams, scored he cursed quietly. He talked about the small fire out by Devil’s Garden, about cattle near Canby. He scratched his ear a lot. When they walked out of the place in the middle of the fourth quarter, neither of them limped or grimaced or cursed their place in the world. Is it wrong to say I was surprised? That I was expecting some outward proof, at least from the one? I must have been staring because Reggie tapped my arm and asked me what was looking at. I said, “Nothing,” which was true.


Mike licked my collarbone. I’d given him permission a few weeks before, but he’d waited, and I could hear the ecstasy in his short breaths. We had all the lights off in the house and I sat on the kitchen counter with my jeans on. Earlier that evening we had a fight about how much longer I was going to stay, and I thought we had settled on another three months. Mike and Reggie wanted to adopt a child. I didn’t blame them.

Mike licked me in the dark, and I waited for Reggie to come over and tell Mike to go away, but she said, “I’m calling the sheriff tomorrow. I won’t call if you’re gone by lunch.”


Who do I want to be? I want to be alive.

I lived in Ravendale. I’ve been on a Greyhound at 2 a.m. in west Texas. I worked the docks outside Memphis. I’ve picked up trash in a VA hospital.

Freedom? Please. I’ve seen the misshapen heads of vets with traumatic brain injuries. I’ve seen their kids crawl on them as they moan. I’ve seen a dead woman floating in the Mississippi. I’ve seen little red Nikes in the shoe tree. I’ve seen a boy step in front of a train, then change his mind at the last second. Wanting to be alive is the only thing that matters.


On St. George Island there’s a couple family-run restaurants, a lighthouse, and enough vacation homes to keep the restaurants open. In the morning you can see the shrimp boats in the shallows between the island and the Florida mainland.

After work I take my daughter to the beach. No one knows us because everyone there is a visitor looking out on the Gulf, waiting for a dolphin to crest or a red sunset. They look out at the Gulf and can’t imagine anything bad ever happening out there. I don’t blame them, but I don’t believe in forgetting.

In autumn, we all have to watch out for the stingrays. They come in close to shore, thousands of them. You can see them everywhere. The warning signs say that you only get stung if you step on one, so we drag our feet on the sandy bottom.  

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