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Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2

Fiction

 

Peter Rock

The Submariners

Peter Rock (BA, Yale U) is the author of the novel This is the Place. "The Submariners" is part of his second novel, Carnival Wolves (Anchor/ Doubleday, 1998, forthcoming). He has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

 

A part of his second novel, Carnival Wolves, forthcoming, Anchor/ Doubleday,1998

We were in Utah. We'd crossed the Wyoming border an hour before, descending the canyons toward Salt Lake City. The cafe where we'd stopped for lunch was in a narrow canyon, set up there by itself with the highway pressing close to the front door.

I returned from the restroom, and the woman who'd driven me into Utah was no longer sitting at our table. Out in the parking lot, her car was also gone, which was neither much of a surprise nor a disappointment. It would slow me down, though, and I did want to get through Utah as quickly as possible. Now my dog dragged my pack slowly around the parking lot, tied to it by her leash; the pack's metal frame slid like the runners of a sled across the ice and cold blacktop. I watched this through the window, past my reflection—my hair flattened in a swirl around my skull, from wearing a stocking cap on the highway, the whole night before, waiting. My lips were chapped, my nostrils tender from blowing my nose.

One triangle of toast, its edge yellow with egg yolk, remained on the woman's plate. Cream spidered in my coffee. Circling, the waitress held up a fresh potits spout orange, decaf—and I shook my head. The waitress had a hooked nose, a blond braid down her back. I thought she'd liked me when she took our order, that she'd even flirted a little. The bill rested, unpaid, on the table; I lay my wallet next to it, to allay any fears she might have. I was the only person left in the restaurant. The legs of the empty chairs and tables, made from trees' branches, forked and twisted.

Outside, my dog sat atop the pack, to stay off the cold ground. Steam rose from her snout. It seemed to be getting dark out there, though it was only a couple hours past noon; the narrow canyon didn't give the sun much of a chance.

Anything else? the waitress said, suddenly close. I'm balancing the till.

No, I said. I took out some money.

Everything all right? she said.

Great, I said, all dignity and confidence. Standing, I counted out the money, leaving her a tip; I tamed and went out the door.

I tried to hitch a ride, but in twenty minutes not one car passed. My dog sat watching me. This was the very canyon the Mormons came down, the back of the menu had said, led by Brigham Young. Its popularity had certainly waned, if the traffic was any indication. Standing in a tight shaft of sunlight, I moved inches at a time to avoid the cold shadows. Through a sliver, below the curtains—they had been closed now—I watched as the waitress came and went. Her feet, then her legs, her waist when she was up close.

When the sun deserted me, I took another sweater from my pack, saving my cap in case things got desperate. I rubbed my dog's ribs, trying to warm her, to encourage her. I unzipped another pocket and spilled some dog food onto the ground. She sniffed at it, suspiciously, then ate it.

Jogging back and forth on the road, I jumped up, bounced on my toes, shadowboxed; I reminded myself what real cold was like. Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana.

Remember, I said to the dog. Those days I had to put a sweater on you?

I heard the door open behind me. The waitress stood there, keys in her hand.

I need a ride, I said.

She looked around, but there was nowhere else to go, no one to appeal to. I could tell she was thinking of the cook, or whoever else was still in the restaurant. Hers was the only car in the lot. She went around to the other side and I tried to follow, but she kept the car between us. I stood still before we made a full circle.

Just toward the interstate, I said. Something like that. West.

The dog, too, I imagine.

Yes.

All right, she said. Might be a long time before someone else comes by.

We put my pack in the trunk of the car, next to a shovel and a bucket of salt. She told me her name was Liza, that she lived down in the city. I had to climb across, since the passenger door was broken. My dog, in the back seat, started getting involved with a bunch of bags and wrappers from fast food restaurants; I gathered them and put them under my feet. We were driving, descending the canyon.

Strange, Liza said, how she just left you like that. You do something that made her take off?

Well, I said, this is better, anyway. You are.

Now you're making me nervous.

My name is Alan Johnson, I said. I offered her my driver's license, but she didn't look.

You wouldn't be hard to identify, she said. Unless you got rid of the dalmatian.

I only met that woman last night, I said. Hitching. On the interstate, Wyoming. I think may be this was as far as she was going. We just talk( a little, then she slept while I did some driving.

Easy, Liza said. I believe you.

Part of a word, written in some past condensation, resurrected its, along the window. I waited, but it remained illegible, so I crossed it out with my finger. Then I rolled down the window and stared up at the cliffs of the tight canyon, trying to keep rocks from shearing loose and falling down to crush us. Liza's fingers—thin, white, without rings—held the steering wheel. I sat next to her, trying to come up with a compliment that wouldn't seem obvious. I wanted to say she seemed like a kind, sane person, but I feared that would sound suspicious.

Saved my dog from an accident, I said. That's how I got her.

Hit by a car? she said.

I told her all about how my dog fell off a cliff, how I'd never especially liked her and how the feeling was mutual. Early on I'd even considered selling her, tried to give her away, but eventually all that seemed less possible, as if we were supposed to be together.

Sounds like you like her now, Liza said.

We're used to each other, I said.

Fate, she said. You can't always choose who you spend time with.

True, I said.

And it was true that we had crossed almost the whole country together; in fact, I believed the dog had grown attached to me, and I took her attitude as a kind of sign, a gauge that said I was right to be feeling better about myself. Or perhaps this was a projection, for I knew I had grown more fond of the dog.

Liza drove, both hands on the wheel. The softest hairs, like down, grew on the back of her neck.

Cracked serpentine belt, I said, pressing my ear against the dashboard. Could go anytime.

It's not my car, she said.

We came out of the canyon, down into the clouds. She told me it was because of a temperature inversion, the pollution—the clouds like a ceiling that held the smoke, exhaust and cold air down.

We're part of the problem, then, I said, meaning the car's exhaust. On the left, then, we passed what seemed to be some kind of zoo, and that distracted me. Peacocks sat atop the chain-link fence; a herd of little deer ran along a fence; an elephant stood in the snow, tossing cold hay over its back, and then it was gone. Liza did not slow. Now there were cars around us, passing and falling behind.

I like to think I'm part of the solution, she said.

What? I said.

And you, Alan, I really don't take you for part of the problem, either.

Thank you, I said.

Sometimes a person will say one word and you immediately realize that you'll know them for a very long time. That's how it was when Liza said my name. I just sat still, holding that realization. We took a couple turns, into a quiet neighborhood, perfectly spaced trees in front of small houses and apartment buildings. Broken branches lay strewn here and there, piled in gutters. Without warning, Liza parked on the side of the street.

I can't wear this uniform for another minute, she said. This'll just take that long.

I followed her, leaving my dog in the car. At this lower elevation, most of the snow had melted away; it was only left around the borders of the yard, in the tree's shadow.

Inside the door of the building piles of mail sat untouched. A flight of stairs ran along a wall of windows, with an identical stairway on the other side, through the glass. At first, I took the windows for a mirror and I climbed haltingly, searching for my reflection, doubting myself for a moment. Liza was also lost; I reached out and touched her leg.

Yes? she said.

Lost my balance, I said.

The door of the apartment swung into a narrow hallway which doubled as a kitchen. I doubted the oven's door could open all the way; pans hung low, from hooks in the ceiling. The room widened. Liza threw her apron over the back of a chair.

Hold on, she said.

Who's the guy? a man's voice called from the next room. All I could see over the back of the couch was the red bandana on his head; then he turned a little and showed his dark eyes.

He's Alan, Liza said, shouting from behind a door.

I just stood there by the table. I heard Liza pull her dress over her head. I heard zippers and snaps.

Welcome, welcome! the man said, his voice surprising me again. My name's Rick.

I stepped into the room. Some kind of motocross played on the television; the sound was turned off. Motorcycles jumped up again and again, the course just a series of jumps set in a circle. Man and machine hung in the air, weightless for a moment until the earth pulled them down. Insert pictures showed the faces of the racers, and they all looked the same, all sporting little beards that made them look like teenage criminals.

Losers, Rick said. He had a beard just like theirs. He wore sweatpants, a t-shirt, mismatched socks. Out the window, behind the television, I could see down onto the street—my dog in the car, her tail sticking up behind the windshield.

Ride a motorcycle? I said.

You crazy? Rick didn't turn from the screen, as if the racers' pictures were actually a reflection of his face.

Liza returned, her hair loose now, wearing jeans and a sweater with reindeer knit across the front.

I'll see you later, she said.

How's that? Rick said.

Alan needs a ride downtown, to 1-80. Hitchhiking.

Hell, Liza, Rick said. I have to go out anyway. Relax, for hell's sake. Now he looked up at me. I'm ready, he said, swinging his feet to the floor, reaching for his shoes, tying the laces. One second, he said, then went through the doorway Liza was standing in. He returned with a backpack in one hand and a sweatshirt in the other.

Good luck, Liza said.

You saved me, I said.

Now that's a little melodramatic, Rick said.

Liza, I said.

Rick stood half in the hallway, the apartment' s door open. He jerked his head down the stairs, as if we understood each other.

Go ahead, 1 said. I'll be there in a second.

Go ahead? he said, but when he saw I wasn't moving he went on down the stairs. I listened to his footsteps.

I'd still be in that canyon, I said, if it wasn't for you. I tried to look her right in the eyes when I said it.

Pass it on, Liza said. You take good care of yourself.

In that moment I could have hugged her, and perhaps then I would not have left; she turned a little toward the television, though, and I saw that in her mind I was already gone. Nothing would be gained by dragging it out, and certainly not with Rick waiting.

Outside, he leaned against the idling car. I descended the strange stairway, into the cold, and found him there.

That' s your dog, I take it, he said.

Yes.

Good, he said, as if this was a relief.

We began to drive, Rick cursing the fast food wrappers—my dog had gotten into them, licked them clean—and simultaneously explaining how the late snow had caught the new leaves on the trees, the weight breaking the branches, bringing them down. My dog panted, her head stretched into the front seat between us, her breath full of yellow teeth.

Not too smart, your dog, Rick said.

No, she isn't, I said, defusing the insult in agreement.

All the cars around us had dark lines of dirt and salt along their metal sides, black ice encrusted in their wheelwells. The sky was solid gray, settled just above the tallest buildings; the traffic tightened in their shadows. Rick checked his teeth in the rearview mirror. Ugly city in a beautiful setting, he said. Not that you can see it much today.

Ugly city in a beautiful setting, he said. Not that you can see it much today.

You from here? I said.

Certainly, he said, laughing. Now look at that rinky-dink affair—he waved at the temple, a small castle surrounded by office buildings, a golden angel blowing a horn atop the tallest spire.

You're not a Mormon? I said. I had been led to believe everyone in Utah was.

Oh, hell yeah, I'm a Mormon. Since I was born. You know, anymore, it's all turning to splinter groups. What would you say if I told you I got a brother down south with three wives?

I don't know, I said.

And if I said one of them's, even the daughter of the other? What would you say to that?

You can let me off anyplace down here, I said.

We kept going, Rick holding tightly to the little backpack on his lap, my dog panting away.

So what do you think of Liza? Rick said.

She's nice, I said.

Nice? he said. What about her ass?

That was nice, too, I said.

You're talking about my sister, he said.

Sorry, I said. Really, this is fine. I can get a ride from here.

Hold on, Rick said. Trust me, here. Now, let's talk about Liza. I'm interested to hear your impression.

Where's the lake? 1 said.

What? Where'd you come up with that?

I've never seen it, I said, except on maps.

West, he said. 1-80 goes straight past it, out across the salt flats. No one from here goes out there, really. It stinks, for one thing. Down the south end you got Saltair, a flooded set of buildings, then some kind of nude beach for fags—I heard about that, not that Fad know. That's all.

I knew 1-80 would go west, across the deserts. It seemed we had taken a right turn, though, that we were heading north. 1-15, the signs said. The sky cleared a little as we left the valley which held the city. A low ridge ran parallel to the interstate on the right; on the left, the land stretched out, flat.

Where you headed? he said.

California, maybe.

That'd be good for you, he said.

You don't know me.

Your hands, he said, and I let that ride. I asked him again if he would let me out and he told me we should go a little farther. I searched out the window, past Rick, trying to see the Great Salt Lake. Squinting, I saw a glimmer of light, a thin strip which might have been water.

Somewhere out there was the spiral jetty; made by an artist. Once, in a museum where I'd worked as a security guard, I'd seen a photograph of it, read the description a million times. The water rose up and covered the spiral jetty, hiding it for years; when it subsided, the jetty surfaced, all covered in salt crystals. That was one thing I'd like to see. I imagined myself walking out from the beach, around and around until I was at the center.

Rick kept looking at the rearview mirror, then over his shoulder, checking his blind spot. I couldn't tell if he was using it as a pretext to look over at me.

Weak, he said, pointing off to the right, at an old wooden rollercoaster, the kind that gets better, scarier each year—everything a little looser, bolts unthreaded, the rust at work.

Think someone's following us? Rick said.

I looked back. No, I said. Looks like everyone's pretty much going their own way.

Liza's not my sister, he said.

That's what I thought, I said.

The interstate seemed to have run out of exits. I imagined Liza sitting on the couch, in front of the television, brushing her hair, saying my name aloud, again and again, repeating it to herself. We drove in silence, passing a trailer which held a purple dune buggy. The buggy had tall black tires and its engine was visible through a cage.

Tits, Rick said.

What?

You never heard that expression?

No, I said, and then I saw the lake expand, suddenly visible off to the left. It shone, mountains rising up from its waters. We turned toward it, passing through a neighborhood of large gardens, yards with trampolines.

You ever been married? Rick said.

No, I said.

I knew you hadn't, he said. Me neither. What it takes to trust another person like that, I just don't know.

It might be all right, 1 said.

Rick laughed at that. I grew up with my brother, he said, and I sure as hell wouldn't trust him.

All at once, we were surrounded by water. Waves slapped the causeway, which was only two narrow lanes; water splashed up, leaving trails of salt on the windshield. Rick said the causeway had washed out ten years before. He said the lake never even got fifteen feet deep, that it was so salty you couldn't sink, that it attracted birds from all over. Avocets, Great Blue Herons, Eared Grebes.

You some kind of naturalist? I said.

I've been to school.

Listen, I said.

You're not expected anywhere, he said. Relax.

To resist him, I decided, would only make matters worse, and perhaps my suspicions were only suspicions. My dog whined at the water. There was only one other car on the causeway, about half a mile back. Rick kept one hand atop his pack. He talked about brine shrimp, all linked together. I looked up. The sky was relenting, opening itself.

One time, Rick said. Listen to this—one time we were driving out here, going forty, fifty miles an hour, like this, and up ahead it looked like a van was driving in reverse, so fast it was hard to catch up. But when we did, we saw how there was a windshield there, and a steering wheel facing back, but it was like the front ends of two vans had been welded together. So we pulled around front, and you know what?

What? I said.

A clown was driving it. A fucking clown! The red nose and everything. We never found out why.

I believe it, I said, just to say something.

He told me the island was named Antelope Island. We couldn't see any, though he said they were there. A herd of five hundred bison, too. On the island, I looked back down the causeway and it made me uneasy; it would be better, I thought, to be surrounded by water, to have no escape and to know no one could follow. Or to be surrounded by land. One or the other. The causeway left us somewhere between.

Well, Rick said. I thought this was something I'd have to do by myself. Guess I was wrong about that.

Dirt roads forked away, south, across the island. There were no buildings. We climbed a rise and kept driving, gravel kicking under the car.

So you've been here before, I said.

Plenty of times, he said. I've had lots of times here.

The parking lot was empty. Rick stopped and turned off the ignition; then he got out of the car and walked away, leaving the door open. My dog jumped over the seat and went after him. I followed.

Rick stalked ahead, the back of his bandana loose, flapping, a red triangle. He seemed a little more tense, testier, saying something softly, words I couldn't make out. I tried to stay behind a little, so I could keep an eye on him, not turn my back. The tiny rounded paths of mice forked here and there in the dried grass, from stone to stone. My dog stuck her snout into every hole, her tail slicing the air.

Stone's pretty soft, Rick called back. You can carve on it, if you want to sacrifice a knife.

We climbed higher, up a steep path, where huge slabs of rock lay atop one another, forming natural altars. Rick disappeared into the ground, down into a tiny cave. He looked out at me, his face at the level of my feet.

When I was a boy I found a book down in one of these, he said. Something about the sexual habits of animals. Plenty of pages ripped out, but still pretty good.

I heard the sound when he dropped the keys, then listened to him curse as he tried to reach into the crevice where they had fallen. It seemed possible that we would spend the night on the island, huddled together in the car.

As Rick grunted and swore, trying to reach deeper, I climbed atop one of the larger rocks and looked down, over the curve of the island, its white beaches and sharp peninsulas. The water blended into the sky, denying any horizon, and far off I could see the mountains, the peaks hanging like solid clouds. Snow stretched like octopi over the pointed tops.

Finally, Rick said, re-emerging, holding out the keys. You keep these, he said. I got no pockets.

He could have put them in his pack, but I did not point this out. I took the keys.

Buffalo point, he said, climbing up next to me, turning a slow circle.

Where are they? I said.

Over there, somewhere, in a corral, he said. They've been out here a hundred years, though—whole herd brought out on a sailboat, almost capsized every time the wind gusted.

That was before the causeway, I said. It stretched out below, a dark, thin line connecting us to the world.

About that clown, I said.

That was a true story, Rick said, so calmly I believed him,

Jumping down, he paced back and forth, bending and then standing again.

Need a place that's sheltered from the wind, he said.

Beyond him, my dog ran along the slope toward the beach, flushing seagulls from the rocks. Rick unzipped his backpack and took out four packets. They were letters, all bound together with string, and the top envelope of every packet was marked with the same handwriting.

Setting them down, he leaned the packets against each other; they did not bum easily, being too closely packed together. With his fingers, Rick separated them a little, and the flames rose. Pages flapped loose, revealing the same handwriting—slanting left to right, leaning backward, covered in exclamation marks—just before they went to ashes. Rick leaned close, his face illuminated, as if he wanted to read them one last time.

My dog, I said, but he didn't hear me. He didn't notice as I backed away.

The wind came cold across the lake, thicker and saltier than the ocean. I smelled sage, also, as I kicked and stumbled through the bushes, whistling for my dog, realizing this also let Rick know where I was. The light was starting to give out. I could not see nor hear my dog, yet I knew she would find me—I'd only used her as an excuse to move away from Rick and whatever he was doing. I kept on, shivering, trying to stay on the path, and when I came around the edge of a slope I was surprised to find myself just below the parking lot.

I opened the car door and sat there for a moment, listening as the wind spent itself and started again; I fit the key into the ignition, but I did not start the engine. I'd like to think that even if I'd had my dog with me I wouldn't have left Rick there, but that's probably not true. I would have gone back to Salt Lake City, perhaps even tried to find Liza, or I would have found 1-80 and driven west across the salt flats, out into the desert. Instead, I sat in the car and thought about the letters Rick had burned. When he set the match to them I had believed for some reason that they were from Liza, yet now I realized they could be from someone else. I thought about those letters because it seemed wonderful to me that one person, alone, would feel moved to write down words and send them to another. And now they were lost, lit on fire.

I closed the door of the car as silently as I could and I went back up the narrow path, choosing my steps carefully in the darkness.

I only found Rick by his silhouette; I climbed up behind him. He slapped the stone and I sat down.

Why did you bring me out here? I said.

Company, Rick said. The moon, he said, and there it was, pale, a sharp crescent over the mountains. Our feet hung in midair, and below them the ground was dark where the letters had burned.

I wonder where she is, he said.

I don't know, I said. Who is she?

Talking about your dog, he said.

My dog, I said. Yes.

This was all underwater, he said. Once. You find fish fossils, trilobites way up in the mountains. The whole city, the damn temple and its secret rooms, the Capitol and the car parks—the water filled the canyons and those highest ridges you see were islands, at best, like this one, but right here where we are was under, too, a mile below the surface.

Without warning, he took my thumb in his hand.

That's your will and your reason, he said, then flattened out my hand. He leaned so close, for a moment I thought he was going to kiss my palm. Heart line's better than your head line, he said. Forget about fame and fortune.

Next, I said, you'll tell me how long I'm going to live.

Until you die, he said, so close 1 could feel his warm breath on my fingers.

Now the causeway was hardly visible; I could just see a car, its headlights pointing away from us as it headed in from the island. At that moment I knew my dog was gone.

You're going to lose something, Rick said, letting go of my hand. Of course, he said, that's a pretty all-purpose fortune.

I guess so, I said.

He put his hand on my shoulder to push himself up, then stood. He moved his hand so it rested atop my head, and we stayed like that, both looking out over the lake and the causeway, for quite some time before we started down to the car.