Sheila B. was telling the story about the owl and the poodle again when the shaky walk guy zeroed in on her from across the room. He was grinning, and his hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his dirty Carharts. Except for the shambling walk over, he could have been any one of the Jesus-haired, twenty-something guys crammed into the bar.
At first his walk seemed fake, a motion made to amuse her. He took tentative steps, as if on heels, shouldering his way through the crowd. It wasn’t a drunken walk, although he probably was drunk, and it wasn’t that the crowd was thick, although the bodies were packed elbow to elbow. Something was seriously wrong with him. He nodded his head as if he could hear her across the room. “This is the best part,” she said, because she was encouraged by the weird thought that he could somehow hear over the sound of the band playing another sloppy version of “Mustang Sally.” She said, “The owl takes off from this big broken tree and sees this white furball peeing on the side of the road. The tourists, they look up, they’re like, oh, look at the beautiful bird.”
Eddie and Katie stood half-listening to her shouted story: the owl circling in a wide loop above the poodle dog and then descending.
“So they scramble for their cameras,” Shelia B. said. “They’re adjusting zoom lenses. In fact, maybe one of them has his camera right up to his eye and he’s ready to snap a picture when the owl plucks up their dog and carries it off. Of course they start screaming. It’s their beloved dog.”
Eddie said, “This one never gets old.”
Katie said, “It’s on the verge.”
Shelia B. raised her hand and felt her attention shift to the man behind them. He seemed to be the one really listening. The music blared from the stage and down through the tunnel of the barroom, building into an almost physical force, but Eddie and Katie had heard the story so many times that summer that they could probably follow her lips and fill in the gaps, and she was screaming to be heard because even though she had not been there—she had only read about the story in the paper—she had made it her own.
“So it lands up in the top of a tree,” Shelia B. said, and she moved her finger through the air, the bird rising up and up until it perched far above the heads of the tourists. “And it just starts dismantling the thing piece by piece.”
He nodded his head to the music, to the story. He had moved in closer.
What did an owl look like when it ate? She could see it dividing the poodle into smaller chunks, as delicate as an old lady at dinner, but with blood on the talons, and just like that old lady, it would take a long time to finish its work. First it would crush the skull and then knead the body. She said, “And this elderly family with their big RV parked on the side of the road. They just stand there and watch.”
Eddie said, “I don’t think they would have watched. Why would they watch? They’d be horrified.”
“That’s why they’d watch,” she said. “They’re horrified. They’re not going to just look away.”
That’s when the shaky walk guy pushed through them, dividing Eddie and Katie and getting dirty looks from both. It seemed as if he had heard the story from across the room and it had pulled him to her, but of course that was impossible. Maybe he had seen the strange movement of her finger, the spiraling arc upward to the invisible tree? He might have found that cute. Finally, he yelled, “I know you from somewhere. Did you ever work at the Howling Dog?”
She stepped back to make space between them. He seemed intent on touching her with his hand, as if this might trigger his memory. “Do I look like a fucking waitress to you?” she said, but he kept smiling. She had not yelled loudly enough, and the simple act of speaking those words managed to soften her mood. “I’m not a waitress,” she said more gently.
The Marlin was constructed like an old ship—a series of musty chambers moving deeper into a cramped windowless space. At the back of this space stood a double-doored emergency exit, and often people pushed through it and into the open air instead of moving back from room to room to room. She loved that—when the emergency alarm buzzed and everybody in the place knew someone had decided to make their escape. She thought of those double doors as she took a few steps backward.
Maybe she was walking to see him walk. He was following her.
A guy off to her right called her name and slapped her ass. She had tried to sleep with him weeks ago, but they hadn’t come together right and had decided to just make out a little bit and smoke cigarettes. Afterward, she had raided his refrigerator and found a pizza box containing a leftover slice, and she ate it standing in the glow of the open fridge while his naked body waited for her in the bedroom. That same hunger wracked her now and she wished she could find someone to buy her onion rings. Would the man who had just touched her do that? Would this strange man trail her?
She moved into the next room and the shaky walk guy followed her. Eddie and Katie followed him, too. The music softened in the next chamber, but the crowd was more tightly packed and she had forgotten her beer on a table in the other room. She only had $2 in her pocket, but maybe this guy would buy her a drink to replace the one she had lost. It was sort of his fault anyway. She yelled, “Do you want anything? Because I could use a beer.”
“I want you,” he said. She heard that clearly.
But why would he want her? She had recently shaved her head as an act of rebellion, and her knit cap hid the atrocity. When she looked at herself in the restroom mirror at the library, brushing her teeth, she saw the hound dog look of her father staring back at her. Who would want to make love to such a thing? Although, maybe he had said I want that. He was yelling something back. Somehow he had heard the story. He was talking about the owl. He thought it was hilarious. It served them right. People were always treating Fairbanks like it was a zoo. Fuck that and fuck them—all of this with that grin on his face. Had he realized what she was talking about just from the curling motion of her index finger?
The story had circulated all summer, so of course he knew it, but that kind of transmission bordered on magic, and yet the story itself was magic, too, so it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. She had left the owl there in the damaged tree. She had left the old couple craning their necks upward. It was important that they shouldn’t be allowed to look away.
She assessed his face and decided that he was neither good looking nor bad looking. His features occupied that generic space where objects lived: a chair, a stone, and her beer bottle left behind on a windowsill. It was hard to even think of them as distinct things. Only his walk made him stand out.
He was yelling, “I’ve seen you around. It’s funny because I thought you were two people. I thought you were you, but I also thought you were your brother.”
“What do you mean?” she yelled. She didn’t have a brother. She didn’t have a mother or even a father. Not really.
“Well,” he yelled. “Sometimes when you’re in that sweatshirt and your cap, you look like a guy, but you look like you, you know? And so I thought you had a brother, maybe a twin, so sometimes I saw you and sometimes I saw your brother, but tonight I realized you were the same person.”
This definitely seemed magical: to be two people. She would enjoy that. They stood at the back of the room near the ratty moose head with the distance between them shrunken to a hand’s length. He moved in close to her ear. He could have puckered his lips and kissed it.
He said, “You’re one of the tent people down by the Chena. I’ve seen you down there. A yellow dome tent, right? I’ve gone by there in my canoe and you waved to me.”
She realized he had said, I know you.
“That’s not me,” she said. He had watched her from his boat, her and the rest of them with their clothes hung along ropes from tree to tree and smoldering fires made from cardboard, plywood, and pallets taken from behind the Fred Meyer.
He said that it reminded him of a little village, all the tents and hanging laundry. He said, “You have a gypsy spirit, don’t you?”
“You have me confused with someone else,” she said. “Maybe my brother.” She laughed.
She was relieved and disappointed when Katie stepped between them. They were the ones touching now, Katie’s hand on the guy’s barrel chest, and still he smiled. She was smiling, too. Katie gave him a nudge.
This is what good friends did for each other at The Marlin on a Friday when the midnight sun was making everybody nuts. Not long ago, Sheila B. had protected Katie from Eddie in the same way, and now he was stepping in, too, so the guy took a shambling dance move to one side and then back. The crowd moved with him—they swayed as if to a great wave—and then the guy was falling and Sheila B. was laughing. She couldn’t help herself. It was practically slapstick, and anyway, how dare he say that. I know you—like seeing her yellow dome tent from his boat was something special.
Except the crowd held him up. Strangers reached out to support him, and so did Eddie, four or five arms moving to him and then giving him back his balance and his dignity. The guy looked down at his own feet, his big boots, and seemed surprised to find his legs there beneath him. The smile was finally gone. He was amazed. It was like he had just stepped out of a wheelchair. The hands withdrew.
Katie said, “We should get out of here.”
They pushed out into the next room and then through the double doors. The alarm rang and people hollered after them. Then they were standing in the dirt parking lot under the reddening early August sky. Katie produced a pack of cigarettes. She said, “You know about him, don’t you?”
“I don’t know anything,” Sheila B. said. “This was the first time I talked to him.”
“If you knew, you wouldn’t have laughed,” Katie said, and she handed a cigarette to someone else who had just attached himself to their group—another beard, another smile, another pair of ripped jeans shining from five days of wear. Above them, the sky hung starless and blue, but below they performed the most mundane things. They positioned the cigarettes between their fingers and adjusted their clothes. They sniffled and stretched. The Marlin sprawled behind them like a beached wreck, old Christmas lights draping the roof.
“Laughter is the best medicine,” the guy said.
“He thought I was two people,” Sheila B. said to Katie.
They had been laughing, too, at the owl killing the dog, so what was the big deal? Behind her, the horizon exploded with color and was there ever anything more beautiful than a white moon against a blue sky? The object in her hand, her hand itself, seemed an insult—her body’s cravings, an insult and her mind’s desire an insult. All of it.
She could start from the beginning, allow the bird into the frame of her imagination again and turn herself and all the others into prey. The new guy was talking about a party somewhere else, at a house on Cushman Street, a friend of a friend. A friend of a friend of a friend, he joked. Eddie moved up behind her and asked if she was okay, and she said of course and then he touched the back of her neck protectively, stroking the peach fuzz. Katie had done that before, too. It seemed a part of her they both preferred. Katie and Eddie always split dessert when they ate, positioning the plate at the center of the table and reaching across or pulling it in between them and even sometimes sharing a fork. Sheila B. thought of herself like that: a thing they shared, and that was better than how she felt on the avenues in Anchorage, asking for change from strangers.
The guy’s directions for the party didn’t make any sense and he seemed to know they didn’t make any sense, but he was trying to solve this particular problem by repeating himself. It was not far away and it would be great, but he was trying to remember the color of the house. A red mailbox stood at the top of the gravel driveway. He remembered that and he remembered the rooms inside, the bedrooms upstairs with padlocks on the doors. They listened to him go around and around and back again to the red mailbox, the house hidden by birch trees. They stood in a circle and let him talk about the last time when the drugs had been everywhere and the music loud enough that he felt it in his teeth and Eddie’s hand finally slid down from her neck to the space between her shoulder blades. What would all of this look like from above?
She saw the shaky walk guy again the second week of August, the first night it was cold enough to keep her socks on and crawl deep inside her sleeping bag. Soon she’d roll it all up, attach it to her shoulders, and hitchhike back to Anchorage for the winter, where it was warmer and the shelters served better food.
The trick was to know when to leave. Last year she had departed too late and a cold snap in early September had forced her into mittens and her old duct taped coat and then finally over to someone else’s fire, a group of Vicodin munching kids staring into the flames with wide eyes as if into the gate of heaven. They reminded her of her dad as he watched TV—the same rapt expressions locked between sleepiness and absolute attention—and she didn’t like to think about him and she didn’t like to think about them, either, so she flushed it all from her mind.
Tonight she couldn’t sleep. She rose, unzipped the tent fly, and emerged into open air. Fires still burned in the hazy night and three tents away. Crouched in the dirt, there he was, the shaky walk guy, holding a stick and poking at the embers of what had once obviously been a great blaze. A few others circle the ashes, all men, all about his age, each one a clone of the other. A few were laughing, but not the one with the walk, the one who had listened to her story of the owl and the dog. He seemed to be listening now, too, his head craned forward. Then she looked closer and wondered if it was him after all. He seemed older, as if the last week had been a year or two. Then he was his old self again, the person who had said I want you or something like that.
After her pee at the edge of the woods, she called Katie from the library pay phone, reading the number off an envelope she kept folded in her jeans. They were at The Marlin, but they were leaving to get some food. They could pick her up. Where was she?
“At home,” she said, and she headed to the cabin that she had told them was hers and then stood in front of it waiting. It was two in the morning, and the ghetto of tin roofs stood half-visible behind her in the gray light. She would look mysterious to them as they approached on the dirt road, a shadow figure with its arms crossed and face hidden.
At the diner, the black coffee arrived, along with the scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, the hash browns, the sausages, and pancakes. Bring more, they said, bring more, although they weren’t sure how they were going to pay for it. Maybe Eddie had enough for all three of them. Maybe somebody else with cash would hook up with them. Maybe they’d cut and run, but they had never done that before. Thinking about it, though, made the coffee taste better, the whole thing sharper, like the sky outside the shaded windows, the glow of the sun running along the jagged horizon of the city.
“We should have gone to that other place,” Shelia B. said, but she could not stop eating. She sat on one side of the table, with Eddie and Katie on the other holding hands and watching her. Finally, she began slowing down.
“Good job,” Katie said. “You won the contest.”
“Did you even taste it?” Eddie said. “Did you even look at it?”
“She assessed it at the very beginning,” Katie said. “Like an athlete about to dive into a pool. And then splash.”
“I saw him again,” Sheila B. said. “The guy from last Friday. The one with the limp.”
She called it a limp because that seemed polite, but the word did not match that herky jerk motion.
“Did he hit on you again?” Katie asked.
“He never hit on me,” she said.
It was Katie’s turn to talk, to tell a story. “His name is Duncan,” she said, as she ate potatoes with her fingers, dipping each one of them in a smear of ketchup on the side of Sheila B.’s plate. “He’s from Portland originally, I think.” He had come up here about two years before, and the story was that he had ridden his bicycle the entire way, occasionally stopping and hitchhiking if he saw a truck with room for his mountain bike.
“The kindness of strangers,” Sheila B. said.
Yes, but with his resourcefulness, the strength of his thighs, and the assortment of useful things in his backpack, he’d have to be tough to take a trip like that, tough and a little crazy, but then he’d be able to tell everybody about it when he got to where he was going. “We’ll have some more toast,” she told the waitress when she tried to sneak by.
“Second wind for Sheila B.,” Eddie said. “Here we go.”
Two plates arrived. They spread jelly on the buttered bread and ate quickly, as if they had somewhere to be. Eddie ordered more coffee by making eye contact, pointing at the cups. He was from a middle class family and moved through the world as confidently as a prince, unless you insulted his ability to do things with his hands: fix cars, chop wood, build and repair. He said, “I heard the bike didn’t make it the whole way. It just sort of disintegrated underneath him on the trip. By the end, he was carrying the frame over his shoulders down into the valley. Covered in mud and this blank look on his face. He looked like he had come from another planet.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Katie said, but she squeezed Eddie’s hand. It was her story and she’d tell it the way she wanted to tell it, without excessive preamble or mythologizing. Anyway, lots of people hitchhiked to Fairbanks. People rode bikes or drove cars held together with duct tape and bungee cords. She said, “He settled in pretty well. He got a job over at the west side Fred Meyer and then he left that and did something else, some assistant on a job site, running around getting Cokes for people and making sure everybody had their hammers. Someone I know worked with him, and they said he was a cool guy. Super friendly and funny.”
Something bad had happened in Portland, but he didn’t like to talk about it and who cared anyway? The whole point of coming here was leaving that shit down there. That’s what she had done, right? Katie made a gesture toward the floor, as if the rest of the country existed in the foundation of the diner and the bedrock below that, the fissures and plates and water tables. It was all down there.
“So he worked this job for the second half of the summer through October and then, of course, he got laid off as it got colder, but he had saved up some cash and he was doing okay. Of course he was at The Marlin every weekend. He even had enough money to buy an old truck. That was part of the problem.”
Katie pushed a sausage through the maple syrup, but she didn’t eat it.
“One night he got really, really drunk. Someone else had been buying drinks, his ex-boss, and they were all having a good time, but Duncan, he was conscientious. He wasn’t about to drive home as drunk as he was, or maybe he had before, who knows, but there was something different about that night. They walked out into the parking lot and said their goodbyes and then he must have looked up at the sky and decided, hey, I’m going to walk. It wasn’t that far and it didn’t feel cold.”
“This is how people make bad decisions,” Eddie interrupted, and he got another squeeze, harder this time.
“Yeah,” Sheila B. said. “You look around and everything is beautiful and special and you feel like you’re part of the beauty.”
“Sure,” Katie said, but she smirked. She was smirking at the story, too. The good part was coming up and maybe it was funny. Eddie was laughing a little already, although it could have been at anything—the waitress and her big hair or the people at the next table. “So he started walking, maybe even jogging, except he was wearing sneakers and it was thirty-five below. He had mittens and a good hat but he was wearing sneakers. He headed up the trails and when he got home, he felt great. He fell into bed and then the next day, when he woke up, his feet hurt, more specifically his toes.”
Eddie said, “You know how if you leave a banana out in the cold? How black it gets?”
“So he went to the hospital. Except he had to walk again. He called friends, but it was early on a Sunday morning and nobody was answering their phones. So he walked all the way back to The Marlin and got his truck, which had a ticket on the windshield by now, and then he headed to the hospital.”
“Chop chop,” Eddie said, but he wasn’t smiling.
“They had to cut off the toes,” Katie said.
The waitress came over, and they all said thanks, everything was great.
“People underestimate how important your toes are,” Katie said. “We need them for balance. We need them.”
She said this last sentence as if it was the whole point of the story, a mysterious subtext that had to be spoken directly into the face of this innocent girl sitting across from her. Sheila B. looked to her side out the window at the sky finally emptied of reds and oranges. Everything out there had turned a muted gray and in a few hours, it would burn bright again. She decided that Eddie was too drunk to drive. “I only have two dollars,” she said.
“Jesus,” Eddie said. “We got you last time.”
Katie reached across and took some bacon. “And the time before that.”
“You know my situation,” Sheila B. said.
“Sure,” Katie said. “Sure. Sure. Your situation.”
That word went back to the beginning of the summer when she met them at The Marlin. She had told them that she had just been fired from her job, and they had bought her drinks until her head became a spinning fun house ride of new information. They had touched her on the shoulders and hands and said she looked cute when she was falling down drunk. Remembering it made her want to be that thing again, the thing they had helped to the car and driven to her fake home. “There,” she had said, and pointed at the one she liked the best.
She remembered them talking in the front as if she couldn’t hear, the descriptions of her mouth and her hair, long then, and her keening laugh. They had used the word cute again, the word dumb. She remembered Eddie saying the first, Katie the second, as if they were the same word, one an echo of the other.
She tried to remember his name, but it was already gone. It began with D, but it wasn’t David or Dylan. She liked both those names, but it was neither. Something else less common. Eddie threw money on the table and they rose as one, except that they were separate now, separate even when smashed into Eddie’s dust-covered Civic with the cracked bumper. In the car, Katie yelled at her from the passenger seat—or rather she yelled at her reflection in the rearview mirror, the tiny version of herself displayed there. Katie adjusted the image as she rattled off complaints. “Never again. I’m tired of your mooching, okay?”
“We’ve tried to be nice to you,” Eddie said. “We’ve tried to help you.”
“Because of your situation,” Katie said.
“Right,” Sheila B. said, as if she were yelling at someone else right along with them.
“Sell your plasma,” Katie said. “Do something.”
“No more charity,” Eddie said.
“No more anything,” Katie said. “No more.”
They were turning onto her block by the husks of old cars, piles of hubcaps, and the Confederate flag in the cracked upstairs window. The ghetto of tin roofs appeared in a tight cluster. There it was among the others, the one she had lied about. A truck sat in the driveway, but Katie and Eddie didn’t seem to notice or care. Sheila B. didn’t have a license, but she could imagine driving a truck like that all the way back to Anchorage. She reached out to touch Katie. She said, “Please,” and although Katie allowed the touch, that was all. She continued watching the small her in the rearview mirror, until Sheila B. stepped from the car and slammed the door.
She walked back to the campground to find all the fires dead and black, the tents dark, and she crawled inside her own. All her things were still there: the two flashlights, the matches, the plastic dinosaurs she had stolen from her little sister, the jackknife she had stolen from her father, the jacket she used as a pillow when it was warm, the fast food sugar packets, and carefully folded map. The inside smelled of the entire summer—her sweat, bad dreams, and Cheerios eaten by the handful.
The next time she told the story of the owl and the dog, she was waiting tables at the Thai restaurant downtown. Her first day and a party of ten had been hassling her for more than an hour. One of them snapped his fingers at her, called her over, and said his fork was filthy and why were the waters not refilled? And so as she took the fork in her hand and a bowl in the other, she told them about what had happened at the beginning of the summer to those poor tourists. Had they heard about it?
Visual aids helped. She lifted the fork almost above her head. This was the owl. In her other hand, she held the bowl stained with the remnants of yellow curry. That was the dog. One circled above the other. Half the table looked horrified and the other half amused. Then, face by face, the amused expressions edged toward disgust as she told them about the breaking apart of the flesh. She circled the table the way the bowl circled the plate in her hands, the way the owl circled the dog. The last smile vanished and she said, “Where are you all from anyway?”
“Here,” one of them said. “Except my sister. She’s from Missouri.”
“My sister is from here,” she said. “Well, from Pilot Point. Population less than a hundred. We were raised there.”
That was just a place she had seen on the map and pined for, a dot at the end of a tentacled peninsula, but it sounded better than Seward and definitely better than Seattle, where her sister lived now, better than the living room smelling of TV dinners and her dad’s cigarettes.
“The water?” the guy with the snapping fingers said.
She was just about to slide back into the story of the owl and the dog when her boss grabbed her and yanked her into the kitchen. “I took a chance on you,” he yelled at her, and he kicked open the back door. The summer light spilled into the room, illuminating the faces of the line cooks chopping vegetables. They didn’t bother to look up from their knives.
It was early evening and the walk home was long, but pleasant. She picked up change and trash on the side of the road and when she reached the gas station, she threw the trash away and used the change to buy a hot dog, which she ate standing by the gas pumps. It tasted like sawdust and ketchup, but she liked standing there watching the dirty traffic.
Across the street, as if the story of the owl and dog had summoned him, stood the toeless man whose name she had forgotten. The sight of him made her think of Katie and Eddie, of the continuation of the story begun that night at The Marlin, and his name returned to her just as he did, Duncan, right there as plain as his body, his odd existence out there as a shape moving across the gritty parking lot. He seemed so inconsequential that blinking her eyes might wipe him away.
He pushed a carriage of groceries, a pile of plastic bags and water jugs. The seagulls seemed to follow him, but they were following everything that might give up some food, and he was just the latest in a line of people leaving the store. He was pushing the carriage out of the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. Was he going to push it all the way home? She had wanted to ask what they did with a part of you once they cut it away, all those pieces, nubs of bone and meat.
A car beeped at her to move. She was blocking the pumps.
“Hey,” she called out to him. “Hey, you, Duncan.”
He stopped and seemed to listen, but did not turn in her direction. The car beeped longer and she stepped backward, and then when she looked across the street again, he was gone, replaced by a family, three kids orbiting a mother. For some reason, she decided to call out again, “Hey you,” and the woman turned her head. She could do this all day. She felt like she was shouting out something important, a warning maybe. She called out again, and this time the woman looked right at her, then they looked away from each other and Sheila B. continued to the coffee shop. She liked to look in the restroom mirror and wash her arms all the way up to the elbow with soap that smelled of lemon.
Her face was still a chubby, childlike thing. She watched it for changes, but it held its shape in the mirror, unaltered except for an ugly rash across her forehead. Everything below that had become ropey and lean and she had to yank her belt tight to stop her jeans from hanging on her hips. She thought of her mother shrinking into the big bed shoehorned into the dining room, the nightstand with its unread magazines and medications. The bed was probably on the second floor again. She imagined her father cursing it up the narrow stairs by himself.
He liked the phrase shitfucker and used it on people and things both: the doctors, the pills, the kitchen help, the president of the country, and the illness itself, too, although these last two were said with a kind of terrified admiration. Shitfucker, he’d say as he shouldered the box spring up, shitfucker, shitfucker. She wanted to tell him about her new life, this shaky thing she currently occupied, but doing that seemed as impossible as the toeless guy’s walk across the state. “Mountains. Rivers. Animals. Everywhere you look, there’s something breathtaking,” she said to herself and to the version of him she kept in her head, her mother, too, and her older sister, who had made a different kind of escape. The sound of her own voice made her a little sick. A teenager, about her age, looked up from his coffee and gave her a once over, then forgot her.
She shoplifted a bag of potato chips from a gas station by simply marching out the door. The kid behind the counter watched her go and then she ate them as she walked across the parking lot. The sky glowed purple at the correct hour and the mountains appeared or disappeared, depending on the weather. Each crest made a white sail and the white sails formed a procession of ghost ships. It was all heading somewhere, but each day seemed its own invention separate from the one before. From the riverside, she watched the pine stretching on forever, a tin roof here or there, a plume of smoke marking a person’s homestead. She made a game of it, and the total mattered because she was one of them.
Ivory Jacks was a mistake, overfull with men telling thirty-year-old stories about the pipeline, and there, down at one end of the bar, Katie talked to some woman dressed for winter. On the bar sat a small wire cage with something moving inside. “Want to buy some chickens?” the woman asked when Sheila B. came over. She had some right in the back of her station wagon. In fact, she had one right there in a small wire cage, a puffed up white thing with black eyes. Its body seemed to vibrate like a machine, probably the result of sheer terror. The woman tapped the cage and said, “Chick chick chick.”
“Hey you,” Katie said, as if they had just seen each other the day before. “This woman here wants to sell me some chickens. Do you want to go in halfsies on this deal?”
“It’s not a joke,” the woman said. “It’s a good opportunity.” She had rolled the sleeves of her jacket up so it would fit. Beneath that, she wore a heavy man’s shirt. Sheila B. could smell it all from 2 yards down the bar. “How about a dozen?” she asked.
“It’s interesting that you came in just now,” Katie said. “We were just talking about your boyfriend. What’s the matter with your face?”
“You know the deal with him?” the other woman said.
“He’s not—” Sheila B. said, but Katie wouldn’t let her finish.
“Just the fact that you know who we’re talking about proves my point,” Katie said, and she looked at the chicken on the bar as if it might have something to say, “but seriously, you have got to hear what this lady was telling me.” She grinned wide, and she seemed to be vibrating, too. “This is too good to be true,” she said, and she explained what Duncan had done. “The toes,” she said. “You are not going to believe this.”
“I don’t want to know,” Sheila B. said, although of course she did. “And where is Eddie?”
“Oh, don’t mention that asshole’s name to me,” Katie said. “Do you want to hear this story or not?”
The chicken woman said, “He lives down the road from me.”
More people, men in orange hunting vests and camouflage, had come into the roadhouse, and they filled in the empty space at the bar next to them. They looked over and cast the barest judgment their way, a collective look that acknowledged and dismissed them simultaneously. There were four of them, each one dirty with mud and sweat. They had just bagged a moose. It was out there tied to their truck. The chicken woman raised her voice. She seemed to want to include these new arrivals, too. “It’s a known fact that hospitals are legally obligated to do what you tell them to do if you want things back, unless it involves cancer or some kind of infection, which I can understand.”
“Okay,” Katie said.
“You can ask and they’ll have to give it back.”
“This is the best part,” Katie said.
“So he asked. And they gave them back. I’ve seen them.”
Katie grinned and finished her beer. She said, “Get this. He keeps them in an old pickle jar. Can you believe that? Who would do that?”
“It’s a legal thing,” the chicken lady said.
Katie carried the story forward as she looked down the bar for another drink. The toes had ended up in a pickle jar, and the pickle jar had ended up in the fridge. Just open the door and there they were, alongside the mustard and Tabasco, black as if they had been burned, small as finger food. Katie slapped the counter in disbelief and pure joy and ordered another drink, but one of the hunters interceded. They were not about to let her pay for anything, and what was this joke she was laughing at? So she started from the top, spinning around in her stool to face them. Sheila B. knew how this would end. She said, “I don’t understand why he would do that.”
“It’s his choice,” the chicken lady said.
She imagined the jar, still labeled, still smelling faintly of pickle juice. That seemed so simple. He would do it because it was his right—the same reasons why he came here in the first place, why this lady was selling chickens at a bar, and why Katie was laughing and telling the tail end of the story to the youngest hunter. He’d be telling her the story of finding the moose soon. She’d be telling him she had always wanted to go moose hunting.
Sheila B. said, “So how much are the chickens?” but she didn’t bother listening to the response. She said, “So where do you live?” and she took note of that one. She said, “Are you sure you’re telling the truth?”
“What kind of question is that?” the chicken lady asked. “Do you mean, am I lying? I’m not lying. Do you mean I’m crazy? Because I’m not crazy. And neither is he.” She glanced at the hen, but of course she was talking about Duncan.
Katie was telling them the punchline to the story: that this man, a man with a pickle jar filled with his own toes, was madly in love with her best friend. “Right there,” she said and pointed at Sheila B, but the men didn’t give her more than a momentary glance. This was the first time Sheila B. had heard that expression best friend. “He’s practically stalking her,” Katie said.
“Yeah, well,” the hunter said. “Everybody has desires. I know a guy who fell in love with a woman twenty-five years older than him.”
“Let’s look at those chickens,” Sheila B. said.
“Let’s get you home,” Katie said. She held out her hand a few inches from Sheila B.’s face and said, “Chick chick chick. Chick chick chick.”
“You don’t know me,” Sheila B. said.
“Come back to my place,” Katie said. “I have lasagna there.”
“Please,” Sheila B. said. She uttered that word again because it wasn’t fair.
“You two don’t seem like friends,” the lady with the chicken said.
Katie moved her hand in front of her face, a pulsing, teasing motion with her fist. It reminded Sheila B. of a heart pumping too fast and she looked away. “We’re not,” she said. “Not really.”
She walked the 6 miles home, or rather, she walked to her false home. It was not far from where the lady with the chicken said Duncan lived and closer than the river, so she wandered up and down the dirt road twice, three times, wondering if it was this house or that, if he was sleeping, if he was in pain. That was a very real possibility, much more likely than the pickle jar in the fridge. A dog with a broken ear eventually started following her in her circular journey, then two dogs. It was two in the morning, but the road was clear. One dog followed her close and the other ran up ahead and back again. She began calling out to them, and soon they were following her back to her house—the house she had claimed. She wished that she had something to give them, a snack or something else: an understanding that they were in this together and that it wasn’t a game. She was serious. She needed to find him. She found a dirty tennis ball and threw it out ahead, but neither dog cared.
This is how she began to follow them. A moment before she had been the leader and then, a moment later, as the tennis ball rolled into a gully, she wasn’t. She was walking fast into the gray night as the husky up ahead trotted to the end of the road. She decided to call out their names, their pretend names—Sugar, because the dog was white; and then Lightning, because the other dog was fast, and then Duncan, Duncan, Duncan, because that might bring him out of his cabin. Pride seemed an unnecessary thing in this place of cabins without running water, unpaved roads, and bonfires built on pallets and gasoline. She began running after the first dog, the fast one, tracing it up to the place Katie and Eddie believed was her home. She moved closer than ever before, as if she might enter it and occupy it.
A light shined on the porch and one came from the window, with someone reading a book on the couch. He came to the door and did not seem surprised to find her, an old man wearing reading glasses and flannel pajamas. He waved at the mosquitos and said that these were not his dogs. He had never seen them before—nice ones, though, and he bent and petted the head of the speedy one. She asked about Duncan.
He knew that one. There were a bunch of them, kids really, a tight cluster of new cabins at the tail end of the road, almost a dozen, all built three summers ago when a contractor came in with a bulldozer and cleared out about two acres of trees. He pushed his hand through the air to show the force of the machine. She said, “I want to find him. I have something that belongs to him.”
“You know,” he said. “All of this used to be trees.” He pointed across the road. “Just my little place and that cabin over there. That guy died about ten years ago. If you think I’m an old timer, you should have seen him. There’s a kid in there now, too. Loud music almost every night.”
“I’m trying to get him his wallet,” she said. “He forgot it at The Marlin. I’m a bartender there.”
He made a face like he smelled the worst of all things. She couldn’t help but smile. “That’s a new thing, too,” he said.
“Sure,” she said.
“Look,” he said. “I see him all the time. If you give me the wallet, I’ll hand it over to him tomorrow.”
The dogs squirreled around her legs, against the crack in the door. They wanted in, but they also wanted to keep moving. They wanted anything but to stand still. One pushed against her thigh. “No, no,” she said. “It’s fine. I can do it. I want to find him.”
“He’s the one with the feet,” he said.
“Stupid kid,” he said. What had happened was this: he had gotten drunk somewhere and decided to walk home, but that wasn’t the dumb thing. The dumb thing was that people offered him rides. Other people in the neighborhood had been there that night and they had said, hey, come with us, but no way was the kid going to accept help from them. He could do it himself. It wasn’t far, and he had walked all the way from Homer once.
“Walked?” she asked.
“That’s what he told me,” the old man said, “but he told me a lot of things.”
He had moved outside, shut the door, and told her the story beneath the stars. It was the first night she could really see them and that meant the summer was pretty much gone. Any day now, she’d have to hit the road. She should have left days ago.
One of the dogs, the fast one, ran back up the road, probably back to home. She could hear other dogs barking out in the woods, straining at the end of their chains as they saw this free one springing past them. The old man said, “I guess he thinks he’s different from the rest of them and maybe he is, but not that different. That’s the thing. He’s close enough for me, which isn’t to say he’s a bad kid. He helped me with my carburetor once when he first moved here.” He stopped, looked down at his feet, and laughed. “And see, I’m out here without shoes.”
“So I see,” she said.
“I guess we’re all a little stupid.”
“I know I am,” she said, although she could just have easily said, Not me.
The second dog pushed its head in against her again as it demanded her attention. “Stop it,” she said.
“Really,” he said. “Just give me the wallet and I’ll get it to him.”
“Which cabin is he?”
“One of those,” he said, and he made a wide gesture to the end of the road. She couldn’t see anything but birches and a trailhead and a single truck parked along a ditch. “How about it?” he asked.
“Chase me,” she said.
His turn to be surprised.
“Chase me,” she said again. “Chase me in your bare feet and it’s yours. I have it right here.” She made a quick motion with her empty hand and then she jumped back a few steps. She did not check to see if he followed. She ran and she could feel the dog’s beating heart right up next to her as they broke to the road. It caught up on the hill and then streamed out ahead of her into the night. It was dark, truly dark for the first time since May, and the second dog vanished up ahead, then so did she and the old man must have been following her, at least with his eyes.
A sentence popped into her head. Running away from home. She smiled as the cold air hit her face.
The next time she told the story of the dog and the owl, it came to her in a new shape with new lessons. It was the first day of September, and most of the tents at the riverside had been pulled up, leaving yellowed squares of grass and blackened patches where people had recently gathered and talked about what had brought them to this spot. Sheila B. walked in wider circles around town. She climbed into dumpsters behind restaurants and tore open trash bags.
Someone had left a roll of copper wire in the back of his truck, and she hefted it up as if she was entitled to it, half expecting to hear a shout from across the parking lot. The guy at the scrap yard gave her $160 and a dirty look, and she bought Kentucky Fried Chicken, cans of generic brand soda, and a box of Ring Dings. She licked her fingers as she walked through the dusky light. She slept in the afternoons with her hat and boots on.
On the first day of September, when the trees in the hills were already splashed with yellow, he appeared crouched at the mouth of her tent. “Here you are,” he said, and he chuckled. It was Eddie. She roused herself from her dream state and watched him through the netting. He seemed easy enough to handle through the screen, his face a blur, his body shrunken. She edged toward him on her hands and knees and then fell back into a crouch, too. “I’m not mad,” he said. “I’m disappointed, I guess, that you lied to me, but I’m not mad at all. Can I come in? It looks cozy in there.”
That word please entered her head again, but she replaced it with the word no and said that instead.
“Well, fine,” he said. “We can talk like this. That’s okay. Have you seen Katie? Because I haven’t talked to her in a while. She’s not answering her phone, and she’s not opening her door. In fact, got a little involved, but I bet you know that already, don’t you? Are you sure I can’t come in?”
The word please again. She replaced it with no and no again.
“I don’t know what she told you, but she has a way of exaggerating. I have a temper. I admit that, but I wouldn’t do anything to her. I certainly wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. What did she tell you? She told you about the window, didn’t she?”
“Nothing much,” she said.
“What is all this?” he asked.
“My situation,” she said.
She couldn’t see his face very well, but he looked a bit sad behind the screen, as if he might be a prisoner there. He picked at the grass with his left hand. Sad at what? She didn’t know. She wanted to say no again, no and no and then no, but she found herself saying, “We should try to stay friends.”
“With me?” he asked, laughing. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Because I like you,” she said, but having said that, she couldn’t think of a single thing about him that she did like. Wait. She liked his toothy grin and the fuzzy green sweater he had been wearing the night they first met. Those were two, but not nearly enough.
“Why don’t you and I hook up?” he finally asked.
“A date,” she said.
“A hook-up,” he said. “Can I come in?”
She took the word please and made it no. She took her hands and placed them on her knees. It was hot inside the tent and she realized that he looked the same to her as she did to him: small, round, and easily managed, a creature in a cage. He must have walked around the tents, watching the moving shadows inside like moths inside a lampshade, until he found her. How long had he waited?
“Did you find what’s-his-name yet?” he asked.
“Why does everybody think I’m looking for him?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Because you are?”
“Well,” she said. “I already found him.”
He crouched monkey-shaped at the entrance of her cave and she replaced the word no with the word yes. Yes, she had found him, and yes, she would tell Eddie what happened, but no, he couldn’t come in. “Stay where you are,” she said. “No friends. No nothing.”
The cranes would leave soon, in arrow shapes over the city, until there were none left, and then the first snow would arrive—none of it was far off. Sometimes it snowed in the first week of September, a light dusting covering everything for an hour or two before it burned off in the afternoon sun. Once when she was a kid, it had even stuck and they had played in it.
“You wouldn’t know where to start,” he said.
“Listen to this,” she said.
Past the chicken coops and the old man’s cabin and down to the trailhead and into the woods, he was in there somewhere.
“You won’t believe it,” she said, “but I’m going to tell you anyway.”
She gave him the bones of it. The rest immersed itself deep in the brine of her imagination.
“It was easy,” she said. One of the dogs from early in the summer stood by Duncan’s side—his dog, the fast one, white as a bone and thin as one too, ears horn sharp, one eye blue and one white. She appreciated it more now. She could see it in some new way, as a new animal. His hand touched its head, and he seemed to gather a little strength from it before his lurching trip over to the stove. A pot hung above his head from one of the rafters. He pulled it down and began rummaging through the fridge. She thought briefly of her hunger and then also of the thing that was supposed to be in there, the collection of things.
She’d forgotten that part of the story, but now it returned to her with new force. She would open the jar. Could she do that?
Duncan plopped canned soup into the pan and put it on the stove, yet neither of them could find words to throw against the quiet. The burner clicked and then ignited, and he made a noise of satisfaction. He made a similar noise when tugging off his boots. The soup was already steaming behind him.
She helped him with his shirt. He was almost naked, and she was fully dressed. She turned her head to assess the weather again, as if it were watching them, expecting a particular performance.
“Hey,” she said. “You have one.”
He had taken off his socks. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Watch this,” and the single toe at the middle of his left foot wiggled. It practically danced. “I don’t know why that one survived,” he said. “Lucky, I guess.”
“Weird,” she said. He was unbuttoning his pants. The side of his hand had a chunk taken out of it, possibly frostbite, too, or some other unrelated accident. The skin there reminded her of bark, scratched and weathered and easy to flake away with a touch. That’s how the feet looked, too, except there the skin was as pretty as a dry log on a beach. “Does it hurt?” she asked, and he nodded, but he was more interested in taking off her shoes, her socks, her shirt, and then her bra. “Do it again,” she said, so he made the toe shimmy and wiggle.
He yanked at her jeans. The belt unfurled, and he said something about her being skinny under all those clothes. She lay beside him on the bed, looking down the length of their bodies, the parallel sets of parts marked by a few major differences: her breasts, his cock, and her full set of toes. They were laughing at their nakedness. This was a beginning and an ending, just like in the best fairytales.
She laughed as she told the story to the crouched shape. She laughed because it was happy, and she laughed because it was fake and Eddie knew it. The worst parts of it emerged into the air in the shape of words and the rest she kept for herself. She had to keep the proportion right. A chip of willpower came loose inside her, something she had been holding in position for months, maybe years, and she became like that couple watching their dog fly up above their heads: a blubbering mess, but funny, too, ha ha ha, higher and higher. She was laughing at herself as she sobbed—the two became part of the same physical motion: a cry and a laugh, a bend and a lift, a chew and a swallow.
“I don’t believe you,” she heard him say, but he laughed a little, too, and he didn’t move away from the triangle of her mesh window. Her words held him there, and his body kept her talking, laughing, and crying.
“Why should you?” she asked. “I don’t believe me either, not most of the time, but this is true. It’s what happened and I swear on my mother’s grave.”
Because in a way, she had found him. It had been difficult and it had taken years, but she had done it. She’d rise tomorrow, boil the water on the fire, make the instant coffee, and eat damp saltines from the box, but she could not believe how full she felt at this moment. She couldn’t believe how that satisfaction would soon desert her. She had recently taken jelly packets from a restaurant, and she found them in the pockets of her coat: strawberry, blueberry, and raspberry. One of them for tomorrow, sucked empty and then licked clean, then one the next and the next, like pills.
“Remember the T-shirts?” she asked. Alaska. Our birds are bigger than your dogs. People wore them with pride: women, men, and a few children. She had wanted one desperately, but of course she didn’t have the money. She didn’t even know who was selling them.
“I remember,” she heard him say. “We had a good laugh at that.”
Sheila B. allowed herself to think of the dog rising in the air, that first moment when it must have thought it was flying, but before its skull was squeezed to pulp. Was that where the comedy resided, in that moment of absurdity? Of fake triumph? Maybe even its owners, that disgusted man and woman, thought it was funny at first, but the other thing was this: their idiotic pain was funny, the sobbing and impotent anger, quotes in the newspaper about never, ever returning to this miserable place. They were mad at a bird.
She was mad at a dog, a helpless ball of fur that couldn’t fight back. For a second, it really thought it was flying. That’s why she hated it, that’s why it was funny, and that’s why she told the story again to the shape that was just beginning to stretch and stand.
David Crouse is the author of the short story collections “Copy Cats,” winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and “The Man Back There,” winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize.