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By Tom Larsen
“Get the gate for me will ya, pardner?”
Steve pecks at it, arms cradled in duffel bags. He’s been calling everyone “pardner” for a week now in clear violation of the code. I work the twisted length of wire.
“What the hell do we need a gate for anyway?”
“Looks like your finger’s bleeding.”
I yank the loop off the post. The gate drops on my foot like it always does.
We are on our way to do laundry. We decided on Saturday as a laundry day, thinking other things would come along to occupy our Sundays through Fridays. This has not been the case. Great gaps of time to kill have reduced us to the mundane, throwing rocks across the river, watching the goats and chickens. Mostly we smoke dope and sleep.
But laundry has gotten away from Steve, which accounts for the duffel bags and his overall appearance. Most Saturdays, I launder alone, a practice the locals find as amusing as my daily dip in the icy Matol. In the land of lax hygiene, I stick out like a finely groomed thumb.
The thing is, Steve really likes it here. Everyone seems to like it here. I don’t know what I was expecting but counting down to Laundry Day doesn’t ring a bell. I’m all for getting back to the land; just don’t get it all over me. For a time, I thought that filthy jeans and black socks were Humboldt de rigueur. Then I realized the natives weren’t wearing socks.
“Here take this will ya?”
Steve hands me one of his bags in exchange for mine, the contents barely rounding the bottom. Past the garden, weed choked and wilting, cultivated in a cocaine frenzy then left to the deer when the Quaaludes came. Skirting the cluster of abandoned trucks and school buses, tiptoeing by the guy who lives in the tree stump, on through the last stand of live oaks and out into open country. A scene as idyllic as Steve swore it would be. Idyllic, the very word taking shape like a row of Greek columns. I can dig it. Skies so blue you lose your balance, grassy hills folding into each other, scattered horses, so right on.
“Oh what a beautiful moooor-ning,” Steve’s Goulet is right on the money. It’s a schtick that gets him stitches only I’m not laughing.
“What’s on your mind pard?”
“Pard? What the fuck is pard?”
“Derived from pardner. A rural southwestern colloquialism indicating partnership in, or symbiotic -,”
“Give it a break.”
“What? … Pard?”
“Or anything derived thereof.”
“Whatever you say p-uh-”
Around the bull nose base of Karen’s hill, tent flaps open to the breeze, silhouette so still you wonder what she’s doing. I worry about Karen, though not enough to keep from sneaking up there every other night. I fear that she will kill me in my sleep for no reason other than she’s fruitcake nutty and heavily armed. Maybe part of the attraction, bored shitless and horny as I am. At the crest of the hill we stop to watch a pair of turkey hawks soar on the currents. We’re thinking about what we look like, long-haired and berry brown, eyes all squinty against the sun.
Steve pulls a roach from the cigarette pack in his pocket.
“Rains coming,” he said as he cups his hands and fires it up. “I can smell it in the wind.”
“Blow me clown.”
Near the flatbed bridge we see dust clouds to the north. A car, or more likely an amalgam of parts cobbled together and bearing makeshift living quarters. These hills abound with vehicular aberrations unseen since the Oakie days. Makes and models unto themselves, as much a part of the White Thorn milieu as baby butts and brown teeth. Breaking out of the far trees in a flash of sunlight, yellow jeep with a dog in back and a real looker at the wheel. The type that strikes a cord of longing, blow dried blonde, and fresh as a daisy, clearly not of this place.
“What have we here?” Steve asks as he drops his duffel bag and shades his eyes. A rind of dirt runs from wrist to elbow.
“She must be lost,” is all I can think.
“Maybe she came to a fork in the road and just took it.”
“Someone should warn her.”
“Leave it to me. ”
The jeep stops at the lip of the bridge. The dog jumps out, circles once then jumps back in when blondie doesn’t budge. Sits slouched behind the wheel scanning the hills behind high priced shades.
“Howdy ma’am,” Steve gives her his goofiest grin. “What can we do for you this fine morning?”
“Johnny Cash? Is that you?” she rakes her hair straight back so it falls over her face, a move that makes my heart melt.
“The name’s Steve. This here’s my pardner, Tim,” a rare reference to my first name.
“Steve and Tim. How homespun.”
“Right purty dog you got there.”
She looks to me.
“He’s kidding, right?”
“He better be,” I say, more to him.
She slides sideways out of the jeep and strides over the flatbed, the last few in a slow sashay that’s pretty much out of our league. Standing too close as we downright ache for her. Our needy concave faces reflected in her shades, Steve looking less than human in his laundry togs, myself, so much taller and neat as a pin.
“Do me a favor, boys: watch Romeo and the jeep while I go buy a horse.”
“Give us ride into town and you got it,” I strike the standard deal.
“Sorry, I’m going west. You know, into the sunset?”
“To the road then.”
“Play your cards right, cowboy,” she turns and heads up the trail, butt cheeks churning for as long as we care to watch. Until she’s just a tiny speck veering left and straight up the hill to John’s cabin. Not a cabin so much as a car port chained to pine trees and draped in blue plastic, the building material of choice in these parts. Untold acres of it lashed to rooftops and duck taped to shanties, forever not blending in. John of the horses and flamenco guitar, big guy from Yonkers, all I know about John. Watching until we can no longer see her, just the patch of blue where we know her to be.
“Mmmmmmmmmdoggies!” Steve says before I can stop him.
“ Steve … Steven,” I step around to face him. “Lose the gomer routine OK? You’re from Pittsburgh. You wouldn’t know shitkicker if you stepped in it, remember?”
“Sure thing, Tim,” he says in his normal voice.
“ Ppreciate it,” to ease the blow.
“I thought I had it down pretty good.”
“Too good. It’s like hanging out with an imbecile.”
“I meant it as an inside joke.”
“Too cagey. The cagey starts to fray the nerves.”
“For years from now, to get a laugh.”
“Also a sort of leering quality to it. Unbecoming.”
“But good, though.”
“Too cagey. It wasn’t working.”
“I gotta tell you it feels right. A million miles from home you can be anyone.”
“No, you can’t.”
“It’s the fu-manchu isn’t it?” he gives the ends a twirl.
“No. The fanchu-manchu is another thing entirely”
“Hey Conway It’s 1975. Loosen up a bit.”
“One affectation too many, since you brought it up.”
We turn our eyes to the hillside. Two figures, one less tiny, move at an angle to the top and over. I picture them coming down the other side, passed the nasty dead thing, over the water line that runs to Karen’s, through scrub pines to a small unfenced clearing where his John’s horses gather for no apparent reason.
“You really want her, don’t you Tim?”
“Are you kidding? The first girl I’ve seen in weeks without head lice?”
“How will you stand it after she’s gone?”
“That was my first thought.”
“You know what I say don’t you?” Steve folds his arms across his chest.
“What do you say?”
“That’s one fine looking woman. Jaysus!”
“I got no problem shooting you, you know.”
Steve smiles and slaps me on the back.
“Hey! That’s more like it, p-uh-"
We gather our bags and start across the flatbed, White Thorn creek a-gurgle below us. The yellow jeep gleams like something perfect.
“I can see it in your eyes, Tim. What you wouldn’t give.”
“To sleep in clean sheets.”
“What we came to get away from.”
“Take a shower, watch TV.”
“Mere creature comforts, friend. While she’s taking a shower and watching TV you’re out here living history. Something you can tell your grandkids about.”
“Right. The summer I shit behind a tree.”
“The last of the badlands. It’s crude, I grant you, but so out of touch.”
“And the good points?”
Steve shrugs his eyebrows as if the good points are obvious. As if living in a lean-to and shooting smack is a noble rite of passage, as if killing and eating campsite mascots is to be expected, as if helicopter surveillance is a really a good thing.
“When will you ever get a chance to do this again?” he says in all seriousness.
A dozen comebacks come to mind but I hold my tongue. What we’re doing, essentially nothing, speaks for itself. Oddly, the moment passes into an interlude so elementally perfect, I swear I can hear the sun shine. The essence of the north coast goes straight to our heads. Stillness, deep and seductive, light and color like no other place, the shadow of a hawk rippling over, the buzz of a fly right out of Steinbeck.
Steve tosses our bags in the back of the jeep and slips in behind the wheel.
“This thing about women and horses,” he checks himself in the side mirror. “It’s not natural you know.”
“Why is that? Men like horses too.”
“Not if they don’t have to. With women, it’s genetic.”
“Stereotype?” I settle in beside him.
“Exactly. The thing we use to explain away the truth.”
“I thought that was the reefer.”
“Which reminds me,” he slips another roach from his pocket, the local blend, ungodly stuff. Here in Humboldt it’s not the quantity of drugs, it’s the quality. Reefer so potent, you can’t work a pencil, lines as pure as the driven snow. It’s the main reason nothing gets done around here. That and the quantity.
Over Steve’s shoulder I see another dust cloud approaching. Tom and Laura’s panel truck, by the sound of it, rods knocking as it clears the trees, sheathed in blue plastic and shingled in cedar. Tom’s bulbous head lolls behind the wheel, a gaggle of limbs flail in the back, Laura and the triplets, Moe, Larry and Curly. They pull up behind us. Tom grins his half-wit grin and leans on the horn.
“Clampett’s at twelve o’clock,” I give Steve a nudge. “You better move this thing.”
“Me? I haven’t driven in months.”
“No wait, I can do it,” he reaches for the key then changes his mind.
“Come on, before he comes over here.”
“OK,” he turns the key and the jeep jumps to life. “Let’s see, first gear?”
“Straight up, Just do it, will you?”
He eases the clutch and there’s a sudden lurch followed by a thump and a string of blood curdling yelps.
Off like a shot but running funny, the echo of yelps curdling as he lists to the right. Turning to a moan when his front legs crumple, low and mournful like he knows what’s coming. Eyes rolled back, tongue flaccid in the dirt, dead before we even get there. The image sears into memory, our end of the deal gone horribly wrong. Confirming what we’ve always suspected. If there’s a way to fuck up we will find it, the dog dead for a minute now, soon to be two and so on. Steve and I kneel on either side, the sun shines, the creek gurgles, but it’s all so different now. No way to fix it, over in the blink of an eye. We have done what we came all this way to do.
“Oh, Christ! We’ve killed it.”
“Steve, it was an accident."
“Jesus! Oh, Jesus! What do we do?”
Larry and Curly come up from behind, mouths agape and eyes bulging. Worse yet, a distant scream heads our way.
“Is he dead?” Larry wants to know.
“Did you kill him?” snot-nose Curly, more to the point.
“He’s dead all right,” Tom says for the record.
“They killed him, okay?” Laura sets it straight.
It came out later that Romeo was seven. Prime of life and the picture of health right up to moment we killed him. If we hadn’t, the girl, the dog, the and possibly a horse may have passed a happy decade together. Of course if we hadn’t, Steve might have remembered to set the emergency brake. For Romeo and the yellow jeep, any road not taken could have only been longer.
Tom Larsen has been a fiction writer for fifteen years. His work has appeared in Newsday, Best American Mystery Stories, Puerto del Sol and the LA Review. His novels Flawed and Into The Fire are available through Amazon.
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