Sacred Shirts (1)
I had this delivery job one time. I’d go into the depot in the morning, load up the truck, get out, get back, load up again. 3 loads a day. Just boxes of stuff. Hospitals, offices, industrial units, so forth.
“What is this stuff?” I asked the fork-lift guy.
“How the fuck do I know?” he said. “Why the fuck does it matter, anyway? You still gotta deliver it.”
If you were lucky, you could do the 3 runs in 10 hours. I was never lucky that way. Sometimes I’d leave home at 5 a.m and not get back until 6 at night. The foreman used to check my timesheet twice.
“You’re my slowest man, Hopper,” he said to me.
I wasn’t sure if it was a complaint or a compliment. I didn’t ask.
One day they sent me up the line aways, outside the usual area – some pissant burg way up in the woods. Tractors, lumber mill, feed store, IGA, trailer park, bar, church. Station wagons up on blocks. Funny-eye dogs. A way-station for scrubs and deadbeats heading for who knew where.
It was 3 already and I’d still got 2 more drops to make after this, so I was pissed anyway. But then my guardian angel squats and squeezes a big brown curly one straight down the back of my head to make sure of it. Halfway up a forest road, the goddamn radiator boils. I pull over by this dirt drive and jump down, and it’s going like a fucking steam train under there and I kick the son of a bitch a good one and dent up the toe of my boot. I don’t even have a cell phone.
Then a shadow falls and I turn and there’s this big ol’ boy standing there like he dropped out of her ass, too, just looking at me. Mustache, shades, gun club t-shirt – one big motherfucking mother. He’s leaning on a shovel, like he’s pushing it into the dirt. Behind him, up the drive, I see a house I hadn’t noticed before – laid-out ranch-type thing, bull horns over the porch, plot out back, crazy trees. Wacko home. Bodies under the floorboards look. Type of thing you’d need a shovel for. You can tell by the way he’s standing it’s his house. You can tell he isn’t sweet on seeing me and my truck stuck there in front of it. It’s steaming up good. You could cook eggs in it.
“You got a problem, boy?”
God gave him eyes anyway. I put my hand on the hood.
“Cooling system ain’t.” I figured I’d chance an appeal to any better nature he had. Wasn’t much else I could do. “Could I use your phone to call it in, please?”
He looks at the truck. Then he eases up off the shovel and begins to swing it slowly, like he’s lining for a long putt on the eighteenth. I didn’t want to think about where the ball might be. All I had was a wheel brace, but that was in back. What chance does anyone stand?
“Can’t have it stuck there,” he says.
He turns and walks up the drive in a follow-me kind of way. So I do. There’s a double garage with a Dodge truck and a black Camaro Trans Am – an old one, but looking like it could do something. Out front, a couple of saw horses, a wood chipper, a stack of timber, a rotary saw. All the tools you’d need. You knew he built the place himself. On his own, probably. A big ol’ self-made pioneer snap-case. Give me a wife and rent dues any day. Knowable risk.
We step up on the porch. Between the bull horns, a security camera watches me like a cyclops eye. To the left of the door, a brown bear rampant. Stuffed, it seems. Either that or scared shitless. I would be. Gasholder stops and points at my feet.
“Have to take them off before you go in.”
I look down at my boots. Scuffed and shabby, but a good bit better than my socks. I wonder how easy that saw’ll go through my ankles. I kick the boots off. I notice he leaves his own on, which is kind of unreassuring – though they look like they might be welded on anyway. He pulls open the screen door and puts his head in.
Nothing. Then there’s a scuffle of feet and a real angel appears. No wings, but she didn’t need ‘em. She had everything else. 19, 20… cutie little shorts, bikini top, hair you could lose your mind in. My God. I’d dream about her for the rest of my life. She has a bottle in her hand, a cigarette in her mouth, just like the movies. Alyssa. She doesn’t even look at me.
“Let him use the phone.”
He heads back over to the woodpile with his shovel. She watches him go, then turns inside. I follow her into the main room, my eyes fixed on that wiggle. Jesus. She could win the wiggle olympics. Tight as two bowling balls in a silk stocking. Good friction. I get a rod just thinking about it.
And that place is something else. Some mad dream mess between an armoury and a zoo. Guns everywhere, hung up like other people have pictures. Pioneer muskets, civil war carbines, Kentucky rifles, Smith and Wessons, Colts, Lugers in cases. Caribou heads hanging like they just charged through and got stuck and died. Foxes fighting, a beaver on the TV, a raccoon down the back of the sofa. Fishes. Whales. Apes. Godzilla. In a clearing, a pool table. Beyond, a huge patio window, like a movie screen – a pool out there, diving board, loungers, cocktail bar. The sun on the ripples, catching in a hundred pairs of dead glass eyes, making everything move. I don’t need to stay here too long.
“It’s in the corner,” she tells me, pointing with her bottle hand as she sinks that ass back down on the sofa where it’s been. You could see the hollow. I’d take a moulding of it. I’d die and come back as a cushion for that.
And it’s a payphone, wouldn’t you know. I dig in my pocket for some change and dial the depot. The line’s taken, so I hang up.
“Busy,” I say. She’s drinking her beer, looking out at the pool. I’m not even here.
“Creepy, huh?” she says.
Well… maybe I am.
“They look almost like they’re alive.”
She looks at me for the first time.
“That’s what I mean.”
I try the number again. Still busy.
“Did your dad shoot them all?”
I look at her closely. She’s smirking in a way I want to kiss her face.
“Lloyd’s my husband.”
She sucks some juice down.
“I’m not. He’s loaded.”
She lifts a foot and runs it down the inside of the other leg, easy as you like. She’s set. She sees me watching and I turn back to the phone.
“Yep,” she says. “Whole place is full of stuffed animals. Know what we got in the crapper? Goddamn buffalo. Took a crane to get it in there. Lloyd hooks the paper over one of its horns. Tacky, don’t you think.”
She’s trying me out here. I ain’t taking that hook.
“Different,” is all I say. I try the number again.
“He has this little joke that the only animal he don’t have is a man. Says he’s waiting for someone to break in.”
I bet he is.
This time I get through.
“Hi… Depot Foreman, please.”
“Ted Hopper. Driver.”
“Hold the line.”
A few bars of Red Simpson
got a lowdown feelin' truck driver's blues
ride ride ride on in to town
and I’m thinking that someone there has a sense of humour at least.
“Line’s busy. Can you hold?”
And it’s while this is happening that she does it. She gets up from that sofa, takes off her bikini top oh Jesus, steps out to the pool and dives right in. Though my hands are shaking, I push in another coin and Red comes back
there's a honky tonk gal waitin' for me
and I've got lots of troubles to drown
and she’s still under there, must be a minute already, some lungs on her for sure, might even be a mermaid.
“You’re through now.”
And then I see her float to the surface, face down. I just about catch “Where the fuck…” and I’m through the jungle and out there in the water, too. I turn her over, pull her to the side and get her out. I’ve done my stint as a lifeguard, so I know the drill. I lay her on her back and she ain’t breathing. I give her the breaths, then pump her chest – my hands almost touching those two gorgeous cupcakes – then give her the breaths again, and thank holy Christ she coughs. Which is when Lloyd and his shovel make their next appearance. He’s seen the kiss and he’s seen the feel and he’s heard the gasps and there’s no doubt about which way he’s swinging this time. That blade comes around like a helicopter rotor and I go the only way I can to miss it, back in the water. I kick out for the other side and when I come up he’s got the shovel back over his head like a javelin.
“You don’t understand…”
But this is a guy with a house full of guns whose wife’s just been raped or something, so he ain’t about to sit around a table. I make to go under again, but Alyssa grabs his foot and in he goes, too – like Saddam’s statue – shades and shovel and all, like he’s about to dig himself a watery grave, and I’m out of there and back through and into my boots before he even has time to realise he’s wet.
And now here’s the prettiest fix. The truck’s going nowhere and I don’t know where the fuck I am. I look around to see if there’s some weapon I could use, and there’s the rotary saw. Which’ll be a good match, probably, for an assault rifle or a Magnum or fucking napalm. He’s out of the water already anyway – I can hear his boots on the concrete – so I just key in on the instinct that’s carried me so far in life. I run. Over the road, up a track, through the trees and into the wilderness. Gone. Not a clue where I’m going or what my plan is – just knowing I need to get away until it looks safe to come out.
I’m climbing, maybe ten minutes, just getting through wherever there’s space and already the trees are so thick that it’s getting dark. I get behind this big old beauty, then stop for a recce. I can just make out the roof of the house, way down there, and nothing moving. Then there’s the crack of a rifle and something hits the ground just a few feet away and it ain’t a bb pellet or a paint-ball. Jesus, this fucking maniac, and I can’t even see him, probably camoed up like he’s back at Mai Lai or somewhere. And what about me? Right. Bright orange fucking company t-shirt, so I might as well have a flashing light on my head and a siren going and a bullseye with a finger saying ‘Aim here’. I pull the thing off and throw it out through the trees and then I’m climbing again, getting up way above him, so at least I have that advantage. I’m younger, too, maybe sixty pounds lighter – though he’s probably got mines and bear traps in this place. I can’t think about that. The trees are whipping the shit out of me, but at least I ain’t taking no bullets.
Pretty soon I reach a level, and then it starts to go down. I’m slaloming here, like a skier, never keeping the line long enough for a straight shot. The trees are good for cover anyway. But who’s to say when a serious wrong number’s dialling up your ass? I just keep going, down, down, and across and down. Twenty minutes, maybe. Thirty. It begins to get lighter. Then ahead, through the trees, I can see something glittering. The ground levels out again, the trees get thinner. Then there’s open space and I come out near the shore of a lake. Or it could be the sea, even. I don’t know. It feels like I ran a hundred miles. Maybe it’s the fucking Mexican Gulf. Where’s Mexico anyhow? How the hell’d I get into this? I got a truck to fix and 2 drops to make before going home and I don’t even know which country I’m in.
I stop anyway and look back up in the trees, but can’t hear anything moving. Just a few birds, a breeze slipping through. No wired-out ex-generals, no big-ass cracker barrels toting bazookas. I can get my breath a minute. So I sit down under a tree and look up…
…and Jesus Christ and his mother I nearly die right there. Here’s another shadow, the biggest all day, attached to fucking Geronimo. Hightower Man. Seven feet maybe, black ponytail, some kind of shorts and nothing else, and this fucker’s so wide at the shoulders he looks like he swallowed an axle and didn’t bother to take off the wheels. I’m not just in another country, I’ve slipped back two hundred years in time. Or maybe they’re making a Custer movie and he just wandered off set for a dump. I scrabble to my feet against the tree, but the guy holds up his hand in a way I can see he’s alright.
“You look like you could use a beer,” he says. Man, I’ll marry him there and have his children.
“I need your help. I got some nut after me with a rifle.”
The indian smirks. “Not any more you ain’t. He lost you a way back.” He looks far up into the trees, over to the right. “He’s a couple of miles that way. I think he got on a deer.” He eyes me again. “You want that beer?”
Along the shore, about a quarter of a mile, there’s woodsmoke rising. We head that way.
“George,” he says, offering a hand that could crush your head.
“Ted. How long you been listening?”
“Since I heard that first rifle shot.”
“You kidding? That was miles away.”
“Not that far. It’s only two miles to the road if you go straight. It seems further when you’re running through that stuff. You went back on yourself a couple of times, anyway.”
This guy’s a fucking extra-terrestrial, I know that.
“How could you tell?”
“The noise you made. A strange prescence changes the whole balance of sound in the forest. The birds and other animals. Even the insects. Someone breaks into your house in the night, you wake up, you know they’re there, right? Same principle. He got pretty close to you with that first shot. What the hell did you do to Alyssa?”
“How’d you know I was there?”
“I know the sound of Lloyd Ewens’s rifle. Man’s dumb as dog shit. If you’re gonna shoot an animal, you shoot it for food or clothing, not to decorate your fucking house. You’re lucky, though. He’s a good shot. Just a crap tracker. There’s an old Paiute saying. ‘It’s no good having a prick like a stallion if you can’t find a hole to put it in.’”
“I didn’t do anything to her. She almost drowned in the pool. I was giving her CPR, he comes in and thinks it’s foreplay.”
“What were you doing there?”
“My truck broke down right outside. I was using the phone to call it in.”
He nods again.
“That’s extremely bad news for you.”
“Well, ain’t that the truth.”
(to be continued)