Ralph, Danny, Shay Lynne, his father--each had their slogans with which to prod him. Crock of platitudes, Gregory Anderson thought as he drove his van out of the liquor store parking lot and onto highway 101 heading for the coast with a bottle of Bowmore squeezed between his thighs and a bottle of Glenrothes on the passenger seat. What had Danny called it? Getting laid by blame, finding someone to take the fall. Of course he could take the blame himself. No, that's getting reamed. Twelve million steps with no end. Forget that. He'd confront his demons. Go back to Forks, to the old homestead, to the scene of the crime. Slay the fucking dragon in its lair.
Heading north on 101 he crossed the Hoquiam river and cracked the cap on the Bowmore. Dusk was cleaving into darkness as a wedge of clouds, the storm's leading edge, plowed into the Olympic mountains, and more clouds, the froth and frenzy of the storm, shoved ashore from the Pacific ocean. He took the first swig of the Islay single malt as the highway weaved through clearcuts, logging yards, and trailer parks. The Bowmore was young, flavors not yet melded, but he liked the iron, the peat, the iodine oiling up his mouth. He preferred the twelve-year, which was like drinking a tide pool, but the liquor store didn't have it. In fact, the store's selection of scotch, except for the usual Glens he steered clear of, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, was almost all blends. The store didn't even have the passable Glenmorangie or Glenfarclas. Just the $100-a-bottle Macallans. But he didn't want a sherry-malt, wanted something with bite, the pepper of Talisker, the phenol of Laphroaig, or the tar of Ardbeg. The store had none of those, so he made do with young bottlings of the Bowmore and Glenrothes malts; seaweed and spice, the long deep after-burn either way. Iodine and licorice. Close as his palate would get. He filled his mouth, swished the Islay, teased up the seaweed, swallowed, let the brine and iron rise. Glugged some more.
Into the teeth of the storm Gregory goes, with his addictions, with his pain. Ralph, his sponsor, had said: You can run but you can't hide. Wherever you go you take yourself with you. Time to get to the bottom of what you're made of. Gregory wondered whether the truth really was any better than self-deception. His failings, as Ralph was only too happy to enumerate, added up to deception. This is how I've got you pegged, Greg, Ralph had begun. You can't achieve emotional distance from your past. Each painful experience remains an open wound in your memory. You can't treat experience as experience, as something to learn from. You let your memories become searing pain in the present. You choose alcohol as a form of self-medication to blot out your memory. Those were the words Ralph used to peg Greg. Even so, all he offered in the way of a cure was a crock of platitudes. Gregory knew that truth was slippery. Sometimes he did drink to forget. Sometimes. Most of the time, though, he drank to remember, drank to put himself in the right frame of mind to chase down the synapses of pain. Like the way the iron and copper finish of the Bowmore reminded him of his father's fist.
Finally trees. The highway flexed its muscle, curved right and left through groves, as light slipped away, gusts rose, and the rain sent his wipers from intermittent to low. Alnus rubra, Acer macrophyllum, patches of Tsuga heterophylla in between clearcuts, and then he was into the national forest with stands of Psuedotsuga menzeisii bordering both sides of the road. Shay Lynne gave him that, at least. She was the botanist, the nature girl. Took him backpacking, taught him the names. Latin. Latin only. Genus and species. No common names. No Devil's Club. Only Oplopanax horridum. Teach him on the way in. Quiz him on the way out. What's this? Cornus canadensis. What's that? Trientalis latifolia. This? Ribes sanguineum. That? Acer circinatum. Then pointing. Holdis discolor. Point. Gaultheria shallon. Point. Montia sibricia. No, the one next to it. Vancouveria hexandra. Good. Make a botanist out of you yet.
He popped in a Steely Dan CD, cranked the volume, saturated the inside of the van with saxophone and guitar riffs. A newly resurfaced stretch of blacktop glistened in the van's headlights. The freshly painted side and center lines dazzled his eyes. The wind pulsed against the van, pushing it towards the shoulder; he steered to the middle and then the gust sagged and he swerved across the center line and back. Leaves and branches pocked the road with debris.
Into the reservation. Indians raping their own land. Shit, at least the lumber companies replant. The old-growth nearly gone. Nothing but quick-wood. Lumber farms. That last apartment complex he worked on with Danny. Warped two-by-fours quickly hid under wallboard and siding. The knots exploding under the nail gun. Didn't anybody hand-nail anymore? Even the cabinets were shit. So out of square he'd had to use a scrub plane to raze an inch off the mounting trim. Was it Danny's technique or the bad lumber? The tribe might as well sell it all, log off their entire triangle of old-growth, bring good wood to market, and build themselves a city somewhere with the booty. Build a casino like the others. Okay, they made an attempt to replant here, Tsuga and Thuja in the wide open. Fuck, don't they have any botanists? Don't they have anyone who knows that Tsuga and Thuja need shade to grow, that you have to grow the Psuedotsuga in the sun and wait fifty years to grow the others underneath? Everything they've planted here is going to die.
Of course, if it hadn't been for all those poxy European explorers and settlers and their voracious industrialized appetites the natives might still be fishing and hunting and never think to log what they couldn't use. Each storm producing enough deadfalls, windfalls, to support five times the population. But we did take their life away, their means of support. Poor trade for pox. Gave them their land back though. Let them log it to a market ready made. The old ways are dead; let's see what they make of the new. Hope they hire a botanist. And don't I know one? Course Shay Lynne's allegiance always was with the bureaucrats; the only way to save the trees, she'd said. Judging by this logged-off reservation, maybe she was right. Better hire a botanist quick before it all sluices into the ocean, erodes right up to the glacier. What would it be if it wasn't a rain forest? Welcome tourists to the beautiful Olympic National Clearcut. If they stick to the road that's all they'll see anymore.
That's not fair. Still, something's changed. When he was growing up in Forks the tribes were complaining about the clear cutting. Now they were doing it on their own land. His family didn't live near the reservation though; they lived in logger country. His father ran a small shake mill, splitting old growth Thuja into shingles. That was before the environmentalists put an end to all that, turned the mill into a rusting hulk. That was before his mother, who'd taught English and history at Forks High School, ran off to Port Angeles with the science teacher. Maybe she too, had been familiar with father's fist. Last he heard from her she was living in a geodesic dome in Prescott, Arizona, trying to channel some fifth-century B.C. warrior goddess's spirit, or maybe it was just the tourist money she was after with those psychic readings. Back then, though, his father was so busy he'd had to shut down the mill whenever he wanted time off to build furniture in the barn he'd converted to a workshop.
Tunneling through the corridors of trees, headlights sweeping on the corners like a lighthouse torch, he slugged down another mouthful of Bowmore. The whisky hit like a punch, snapping his head from side to side like his father's fist. Even the same coppery aftertaste, the same long overpowering finish--thick, scalding, gluey, just like the blood. One drink and you're through. That's what Ralph said. You'll never be able to stop. You'll just keep drinking until you drop dead. Well, Ralphie, sponsor this, sponsor this, pal. He upended the Bowmore. Shook his head like a Labrador emerging from a lake. The Bowmore was half-gone; he'd drunk it fast and the buzz hadn't peaked yet. He poured in more fuel. Whew! Getting in the right frame of mind now. Binge, baby, binge! Make that persona twinge.
He'd intended to wait for a significant day. The anniversary of his father's fist actually. Still a week away. But the storm was here now, and he wanted to be in a storm, was in a storm, heading for the eye, hoped his would blow itself out with the weather. Been thinking about it long enough, time to get it done. So he bolted from the meeting and took off for the coast mid-morning as the storm came up. He hit the liquor store when he got to Hoquiam.
What was it the discussion leader said? Write a memoir, a story of your past, she said. Come to terms with your past; write its history, she said. Get it out of your head, make it real, she said. As if writing it down was more an act of imagination than thinking or remembering. Scripto ergo sum? Cogito ergo sum? Commoneo ergo sum? How about Bowmore ergo sum! Uisge beatha fill my veins. The malt exploded on his tongue like a depth charge.
He was nineteen when his father kicked him out of the house. I've been carrying you longer than I should have, he'd said. Danny was out of here when he was seventeen, so you're long overdue, he'd said. You're doing more damage than you're helping, he'd said. Don't come back until you're a master cabinetmaker. Gregory had been tuning up a new plane and had forgot to remove the frog, to file off its upper face, so that the blade was sticky when adjusted, imprecise. Blade chatter and tearout betrayed him and his father came unglued.
After leaving Forks he'd gone to Tacoma and signed on as an apprentice with a Norwegian cabinetmaker. Which got him four years of listening to dogma dating from the guilds in the Middle Ages. The Norwegian believed in the arduous path of apprenticeship, whose main requirement was sacrifice, sacrifice at the feet of a master. The apprentice first had to learn the rudimentary skills, had to learn the feel and task of each tool. Had to learn you plane when you needed to shoot a perfect edge joint. You scrape to leave a smooth sheen without tearout when working against the grain. You file to clean end grain. You rasp on the forward stroke to cut quick and leave a rough surface. You hand saw to cut compound-angle tenons. You power saw to mill raw lumber. These techniques, though essential, gave the apprentice no satisfaction, no feeling that his goal of becoming a master was getting any closer. Yet that was the test of mastery--devoting the long years of sacrifice to the fundamental techniques so that, later, art could bloom. Without such sacrifice mastery could not be achieved. This the Norwegian knew; this he passed down to Gregory as it had been passed down to him, passed down generation after generation.
Gregory had felt that because of the many years he'd spent under his father's tutelage he should have been allowed to start further up the scale, maybe not as a journeyman, but at least given a chance to show what he could do. The Norwegian made Gregory start from scratch, and in the process Gregory learned that although his father was a good craftsman, he was no master, that he had in fact taught him many short-cuts. And that knowledge led to the fist, the straight left jab, the anniversary of which was almost upon him.
The CD hit his favorite song and he started singing: Drink scotch whiskey all night long and die behind the wheel--they got a name for all the winners in the world--and I want a name when I lose. Lose, schmooze. This isn't about losing. His father's fist. Now that was losing. Flipping over the porch railing and landing in the Mahonia aquifolium. That was losing. He filled his mouth with Bowmore, held it until the seaweed and iodine stung his gums. Least he could have done was come up with a better name to call me than Loser. He pushed the rewind button on the CD player and sang along: they got a name for all the winners in the world--and I want a name when I lose. Come on, Dad, couldn't you have come up with something better? He glugged the last of the Bowmore, pitched the bottle over his shoulder, so that it plunked around on the floor of the van.
Closer to the ocean the vegetation morphed. Pinus contorta, with galls the size of beach balls, on the ocean side. Thuja plicata, grizzled with dead wood, on the inward side. Both roadsides clogged with mounds of Gaultheria and Mahonia. Wipers on full, from stun to kill, as the rain lashed the van's windshield. Briefly, through gaps in the trees, his first sight of the ocean, whitecaps in the night. Gusts funneled through the same gaps in the trees and the van was pummeled with each one so that he proceeded along the highway swerve by swerve.
He approached Kalaloch. Sounds like a single malt when pronounced correctly. The van slowed as the trees gave way to the lodge and the wind had an unimpeded shot at him. Then into the trees again. Branches and cones battered the side panels and roof. Snatches of ocean. Gusts. Back inland, away from the beach, up on the ridge top. He starts to lose sight of the road as it heads back down toward the beach and the storm's fury. Yellow line separates, becomes two. Follow which one? Close an eye. The lines braid, become one and the same. There's Ruby Beach. Fuck, look at the waves! He swerves through a gust, dives down the hill toward the bridge at Cedar Creek. Too fast for the corner, he pushes into the brake pedal. Whoa Nellie! Too late, drive it through, foot on the gas. This road's like Galloping Gertie. Gotta get offa this bridge.
Centrifugal force takes over the van, leans it over on two wheels like a catamaran tacking toward the creek, until the van hits the guardrail, flips over, launches into a slow roll, thwumps into the alder trunks upside down, slides along the trunks, the van's roof crumples as it snaps through branches, then the van tilts, dumping Gregory onto the rear doors, his weight popping them open, and he falls out, smashes through branches, bounces off tree-trunks, and lands in a mingled patch of deer and sword ferns.
He came to with the rain pelting down and the wind howling through the branches. Sprawled on his back in the ferns, he looked up at the van twisted around the trees, its lights shinning up into the rain, the raindrops like bullets caught slo-mo in a strobe light, before splatting on his face. The sting in his chops telling him he was still alive, even if the wind was a whirling dervish within the woods. So how'd I get into the wood, into this forest, my face in the ferns? Blechnum spicant, picante sauce, she salsa, she salve, a botanical.
The trees went knock and creak, then crackle, thump, and whump, as one came down behind him. He could use a Knockandoo, but knew it was no can do. He remembered putting up those roof trusses on that Bellevue condo; he and Jack had been knocking back belts of Knockandoo while Danny went to reload the nail gun. Raspberries and licorice, can't knock that, although Jack took a knocking when he slid off the roof. Jack was lucky to have landed on the stacked pallets, which broke his fall; just the way these ferns had broke Gregory's. Broke? He took inventory of his limbs, his cordwood. Right arm? Righto. Left arm? Trim and top shape, sir. He saluted. Right leg. I can't do that, Dave. He slumped back into the ferns. Shit! This is how wood feels getting planed against the grain. He felt the sole of the plane working back and forth on his shin, the chipbreaker chunking out shavings. Watch the fucking tearout, will you! Broke. Brackla, now that was a sulphurous malt, burnt and smoky. Take a dollop of that molasses on my tongue right now. His right leg was a pile of shavings and wood chips, take a few c-clamps and pinch dogs to hold it together. He couldn't feel his left leg and was afraid to wake it up. But he could see the slashed and bloody jeans and it looked like he'd been mauled by a grizzly. With a sharp-breathed pain he realized that something in his ribcage, where his heart knocked, wasn't right.
Widow makers falling. Ha, no widow to make. The widow he woulda made was Shay Lynne. Focus on the future; forget the past, she'd said. Where was she now? Why'd he chase her off? Can't look at a plant without thinking of her. Need something to drink. Got to move, or die shivering. He props himself against a deadfall, sees the creek ten feet away, drags himself hand over hand to the creek side, collapses with his face in the muddy bank.
Drink something. Not the water. Touch of giardiasis. Kill that in the still, the copper kettles. Really am up shit creek. What's that malt called? Glenfeces. That parasitic fist with its bloody finish. Glenfist. Nobody wants to drink a single malt that tastes Latinate. Polypodium vulgare. Oxalis oregano, Symphoricarpos alba, don't pass the mental taste test, but licorice fern, wood sorrel, snowberry, those are bottles hoarded rather than shared. Screw the giardiasis. If he gets out of this, they'll get it out of him. Glenfeces it is, he thought as he slurped from the creek.
As he looks up into the trees and sees the van hanging there, its lights still on, illuminating the drenching rain, he realizes just how fucked he is. He raises from the creek bank and starts crawling toward the bridge, a way out. His chest feels like a rip-toothed saw is ripping its way across his ribs. A branch drops, snaps, crackles, pops a few feet behind him. He crawls faster, the wind slapping his face with Polystichum fronds. He swims through the ferns, shoving off with his left foot, dragging his busted right leg behind. On the other side of the ferns he slides into muck, into a patch of Equisetum arvense and Lysichitum americanum growing along the edge of the creek. Pollinated by carrion beetles, not the birds or the bees, hard-shelled carnivores. Lesson there. Where? Be a carnivore? Keep a hard shell? Follow the stink?
The swamp is no way out, not the place he wants to die, not as beetle food. The way up to the road is choked with Rubus spectabilis, Rubus parviflorus, and Oplopanax horridum. Fucking Devil's Club! But if he could get through all those thorns and onto the slope, the way would be easier: remnants of Adiantum and Pteridium ferns, Sambucus racemosa, Vaccinium parvifolium, and Acer circinatum.
Off he goes, into the Rubus patch. He's getting scratched and scraped, planed down as he crawls through and under the brush. It's like he's being abraded. Ah, give me a good rasp. Danny where'd you fuck off to with all my favorite tools, you son-of-a-bitch. No, you're a bastard. Just like the old man and his fist, you had to kick me when I was down. Stole my truck and my tools with it. Your own fucking brother. What did I ever do to you? You were the fucking favorite, not me. Asshole. Least you let me stay with you when I showed up, I'll give you that. What's a brother for? you'd said. Someone to stick it too, Gregory thought on the other side of the Rubus and staring into the inch-long thorns on the Oplopanax stems.
Stuck there, between the thorns he'd been through and the thorns yet to come he lay with his face in the Oxalis, the rain spattering his back while branches clattered overhead. His father had told him that he'd never make it in woodworking because he never finished what he'd started. Was that his crime in the barn? He heard his father yelling at him. You can't stick to anything. You never finish anything you start. Your problem is you have no stick-to-it-ness. He ducked his head, dug his elbows into the Oxalis, and started crawling, thorns stabbing like an awl, marking him for nailing.
He slithered through decaying Adiantum and Pteridium ferns, their brown stems and fronds clinging to his hands and face, until he bumped into a fallen tree trunk. Panting, he rested. Overhead branches rubbed together, sounded like a baby crying. Or was that him? The chattering was not a bench plane, but his teeth. He knew that and clamped his molars together and shivered against the trunk's bark.
The rainwater dribbling into his mouth made him crave a whisky. Why should Scotland have the corner on the single malts? This peninsula could be as just good as the highlands of Scotland. It has all the ingredients: water, plants, mountains. And the names. You've got the rivers: Soleduc, Bogachiel, Calawah, Clallam, Hoko, Waatch, Queets. But steer clear of the muddy Wishkah--unless you want that clearcut sludge mixed with two-cycle chainsaw oil, logger sweat, and tobacco juice. The finish is bitter and long, definitely oily. Could the Glens compete with that? And the beaches: Rialto, Shi Shi, Mora, Kalaloch, Bohobohosh, Kayosita. Seaweed, driftwood, starfish, sand dollars, razor clams, geoducks, salt brine, and gull shite. Give those Islays a run for the money. Of course each of the coast tribes--Hoh, Quinault, Quillayute, Makah, Ozette--would have a distillery; the alcohol revenge even better than the casino's crap tables. The Hoh. That's a river too. Milky, the flour of glaciation, ice age grist, a chalky malt, flowing through the Hall of Mosses, an epiphytic malt if there ever was one. The highlands don't even have trees, so how the hell are the Scots going to compete with this? I'll see your Erica and raise you a Picea sitchensis. He thought of them all, the single malts of the Olympic peninsula.
The van's lights were dimming as the battery drained; he knew he had to reach the road before there was total darkness. He heard trees falling somewhere deeper in the forest. His path to the road was over the tree trunk. If he could do that, the ground hugging branches of the Acer circinatums would get him the rest of the way. He dug his fingertips into the thick bark furrows and chinned himself, pushed up, heaved on top of the trunk. The pain in his ribs sent his breath out with a whoosh. He felt the jaws of the vise tightening and slid over the trunk and fell into a spiny-leaved bush. Mahonia aquifolium. He tasted the blood. Gasped for breath. Gregory lay in the Mahonia knowing he'd stuck it out, did the four-year apprenticeship, become the master craftsman, returned home, and been welcomed by his father's fist. It wasn't the branches. It was him crying now, he was sure of it.
Spider webs everywhere, draping him like a mossy maple. Soon mushrooms and epiphytes would sprout from his decaying body. He'd become a nurselog, birthing Tsuga, Picea, and Thuja seedlings. Smell of something's dung, a grizzly's? Or is it him? What if it's him, rotting? He could see it now, the carotid beetles, digging out his eyes. Of course, if it is the grizzly's dung, the undigested berry seeds would be good for the malt. Another carnivore that follows its nose. No hard shell. Has the thick grizzled hide. Hibernates in winter. Lesson there. He watches the van's lights go out, the forest go black, and still the rain descends drop after hypnotic drop.
He dreams he's following the grizzly bear. He's running through the woods, right on the grizzly's heels. He's trying to learn what it feels like to be a grizzly. Then they are out of the woods, running along the beach, jumping over tide-pools. Every now and then the grizzly turns and growls over his shoulder and nips at Gregory to keep up. They've stopped and the grizzly says to him: You are too high up, you have to get down on all fours. So Gregory starts crawling around on all fours, following the grizzly across the beach. Then the grizzly stops and says: You need the grizzly bear costume. Gregory starts trying to put his feet into the costume but the grizzly insists on showing him how it's done. Gregory says he doesn't need to be shown, that he knows how to put on the costume, but the grizzly takes the costume away from him and starts pulling the costume over his own grizzly hide.
Gregory tastes blood as he drags himself hand over hand along the branches of the Acer circinatum. He's on his back, pulling himself toward the road. Red and blue lights flash, strobe the white car in and out of shadows. The state patrolman reaches down, and, grabbing Gregory's collar, says: Okay Buddy, I got you now. Then he drags him up onto the gravel shoulder of the road. Whoa! You're a mess.
About the author:
Steven J. McDermott is the editor of Storyglossia. Among the journals his stories have appeared in are Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Anthology, Carve, Passages North, Red Wheelbarrow, The Rockford Review, Scarecrow, Timbercreek Review, Westview, The Angler, Thieves Jargon, and SmokeLong Quarterly. His story "Oxygen" received Honorable Mention in the Passages North 2002 Wassmode Fiction Contest. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and "Blue Jeans and Black Leather" was produced as a short film and shown at several film festivals.
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