Matthew J. Sullivan received his MFA from the University of Idaho and is currently living and teaching in central Washington. His novel, Beneath Vietnam, was twice named a finalist for the William Faulkner Society's Best Novel Award, and his work has appeared in The Evansville Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Bloomsbury Review, Fugue, and Painted Bride Quarterly. He is at work on a second novel, a literary mystery set in a rural zoology museum.
Dale gets nervous on backroads in America. He doesn't flinch with Haight Street dealers or East Colfax thugs; he doesn't hide his camera from rogues in Pioneer Square. Backroads, though, unleash in him notorious visions of Stateside disease. We are bumping along backroads.
We share a phobia of bears but it pales next to his fear of backwoods ears picking up his Kiwi accent. In the creases of his mind there are guns involved, and redneck sheriffs, and foreigner lynchings. Old Scratch with a bottle of Jack. He plans on getting drunk at the first emergence of anxiety, but I'm telling him to ease up, I've known the guy since I was two.
"But you've never met him."
He's right, and the muddy road before us is pocked with craters that are filled with sloppy water. There are no scraps of roadside garbage in these pines and no tire tracks in this mud. We haven't seen another car in nearly an hour and for three days it's rained. I'm liking Idaho.
I'm liking this trip to Idaho, and I'm admiring this battered road in the same way a pilgrim admires the rocks below his crawling knees. The shrine waits ahead, and it's Henry Milkbottle's place.
I can't help but laugh when Mag hands me the uniform: a khaki Dickies shirt, two green tee-shirts, an 80s-mesh baseball cap. Each item shouts the company crest, a pine-tree badge, generic and bureaucratic. She thinks I'm smiling because I'm thrilled that I can wear bluejeans if I don't have any khakis. I don't hear her language of "company representative" and "work expectations" because I'm looking beyond into the meadows of this valley, red and yellow with wildflowers spilled among the grasses. She's reading through my application, and I'm staring up the valley's wave of aspens, and above that, the spruce and lodgepole blankets of green, and the grey juts of the Continental Divide still traced with snow despite July. Mag has been in Colorado all summer, and I've been here forever.
We are sitting at a picnic table under a canopy of pines at Yodela. The application I've just filled out calls it White River National Forest, Yodela Public Campground. It explains that there are 24 sites here, and once I sign the Campground Host agreement, they'll fall under my care. Mag is embarrassed to tell me that I'll only make $350 a month for collecting fees, scrubbing out the pit toilets, raking down the fire pits, and being an all-around good guy to visitors. I don't tell her that I'd do it for nothing. I also don't ask any of the questions on my mind because my Dad and brothers are over fishing Super Beaver Pond, and if I get out of this interview soon I can join them before the midday sun spooks the trout. She's impressed that I grew up weekends in this valley, and asks me questions that took years to answer. I tell her I'll take her fishing sometime if she promises not to ever say where.
The big question I don't ask Mag is this: Why does Yodela need a campground host? In 20 years of camping here, the only time I've ever seen it crowded is the occasional 4th of July. Today is July 3rd, and flashy SUVs with out-of-state plates are beginning to invade. Mag leaves—back in two weeks, she says—and I set up the run-down trailer that will sink into the mud and become my three-month home.
I know Henry is nuts. He and my father grew up together in the same rinky
Michigan town, and in their late-twenties together they packed up a Studebaker
and fled for Los Angeles. I know he's nuts because my father stacked him upon my
childhood with a teetering block of naughty stories. I know he's nuts because he
lives up here in the tanglement, in this place where mist cloaks the
mountaintops and lingers before the sun
like cigarette smoke on a candleflame. For over a decade he's lived a dream of solitude, perfect from far away.
So I haven't met Henry Milkbottle before. But I have talked to him on the phone—once every few years, less—since I was three. His Cookie Monster voice was the first one to offer me the f-word. And more. He always wanted my dad to "put one of the little shits on" when he called drunk at dinnertime.
"Jesus, Billy-Pat, how the hell did you end up with eight kids?"
When it was my turn he'd ask if I was playing basketball, and tell me it's all in the shoes. He didn't believe me when I told him I was the worst player on the team. Birth squeezed him out with one arm, and I couldn't ever figure out how he knew anything about hoops. I pictured some Globetrotters whiz tricks, one-armed dunks. I liked the fact that I was talking to someone who was always drunk. I imagined him swerving around a big fancy house, knocking over ceramic cowboys with his one flailing arm. All alone.
"Who the hell am I talking to?"
I've been hoodwinked. The 4th has been gone for nearly a week, and there are still campers in the campground.
I did not take this job to mop their urine off the outhouse floor, to pluck their tuna cans and broken bottles out of firepits, to scatter back the blackened wood that was too green to be collected in the first place. I did not come to live at Yodela to be woken up in the middle of my afternoon nap by dirtbike kids from Missouri wanting to know if they can set up a jump on the boulder that shades my hammock. I did not take leave of my bookstore job and my girlfriend's love and my whatever life in order to show some uptight Yip how to hook a worm. I'm angry at Colorado for letting everyone in. I'm angry that this job feels more like policework PR than the lockbox dream of solitude that I'd divined.
I take long walks in the woods along Brush Creek, and I find teens throwing rocks at the beavers that used to be far enough upstream to live quietly in their domed dams. I go to my favorite fishing holes and I see footprints. I consider quitting.
Dale keeps opening and closing the glove compartment. A napkin flutters and change there rattles.
"One thing," I tell him, "try not to piss Henry off. Pops says he's got a beastly temper."
I don't tell Dale about Henry's guns; he's not a Yank. I want him to see America, I'm just not sure that I want him to see America. We're a bumfuzzled bunch; I love us.
Dale's laughing to himself when the road ends and we discover it's a driveway after all. On top of a mountain above the Salmon River, Henry's fabricated house is shrouded in growth like gauze around a burn victim. There's a four wheeler ATV on its side, and an open shed crowded with tools and barrels. Everything is wet with June, and I'm surprised up here that the snow has already trickled gone.
We've been on the road for five weeks, a long trip, and Dale and I yawn up some Idaho air. I leave the keys in the ignition, and just as we fan open the car doors, a screen door crashes into the side of the house. It clangs like a cymbal and out into the ashen rain comes Old Henry, the voice on the other end of my Spiderman childhood and Grownman dream.
There are times when I see someone and I expect them to open fire. This is one of those times, but Henry doesn't hold a gun—not yet. He is a giant in his sixties, draped in disheveled sweats and slippers. He steps intently down his porch, so that with each plunk on the tread a slosh of liquid spills out of the blue plastic tumbler in his hand. In the stump of his missing arm, he holds two beers, and he runs to the car with a shit grin of yellow teeth chewing the stub end of a cigarette.
Dale reaches for the beer before saying hello.
"Right down to goddamned business," Henry says, and his voice rattles wet with cough. He's bald on top as he leans against the hood, and a pair of saucer-sized ears jut out like a sixth grade doodle. "That piece of shit got you here?"
This is good, he likes to talk. I've been worried about that, too, since he's lived alone in these woods for over a decade. My dad told me his phone bills are insane. He calls and calls everyone he's ever known. He calls to talk to strangers. The population of the closest town is 23; he told me on the phone to ask "anyone" if we got lost. We didn't see anyone, didn't see the town.
We are walking behind him and he is talking shitfire in weave, and by the time we are inside both of our beers are empty. It feels like that kind of a day, and I'm watching him jabber behind smoke and I can't help but feel like a boy in the presence of a hero.
Henry's home is a hybrid of a dive bar and a medicine cabinet. Pill bottles and sterile packaging are piled on the countertops. The shelves in the kitchen bear the weight of dozens of bottles of Seagram's, five-liter boxes of white wine, and row after row of generic salsa jars. I don't see any mixers or chips. There are two refrigerators, and as we walk by he gives us a tour: one's packed with white-wrapped meat, unmarked deer, and the other is stacked with cartons of Kool Filterless. Tucked between the blinding meat are beers.
"Those are for you two," Henry says. "I made a special trip, so don't bitch about the brand."
The television is on, muted flashings of business news, stocks rifling across the bottom of the screen like they're embraced in a race. The walls are, without fail, bare. We fall into a swallowing rag of a couch, and Henry tells us he lives off of his investments. He lives not well. He shows us a pile of envelopes on which he's written cryptic columns of scrawl, symbols and figures and crossed-out names. His latest winners are a tugboat company out of the South somewhere, and Chewing Tobacco, Inc.
"Someone's got to support the bastards."
Dale and I don't know money, so maybe it's all real. The conversation dwindles and I immediately begin talking about my father back in Denver. Dale knows him, too, so the three of us drink and smoke and cling to his image like it's enshrined in some church. Henry jumps up and leaves the room, suddenly compelled, and breaks our silence with a yell, "Keep talking!" as he lops out to the porch. Dale is sizing up the rifles and shotguns stacked next to the couch like garden tools in the shed, and the Colt .45 in the cracked holster stretched over the back of Henry's chair. From out there, I hear a heaving splash, and he says, again, "Keep talking goddamn it!"
I do. Dad's still a great basketball player but he's starting to hurt, and he never gets to fish as much as he wants to, trying to get Mom to tie his flies but she just laughs him off. She's great, too—you know her, right? Then Henry is back with a screen-door slam, tucking a plastic bag into the depths of his sweat pants, adjusting an unseen tube with a wince.
"Had to piss," he says, "don't ever get old."
It's me and Tillie alone in the campground. She was my parents' Old English Sheepdog back in the first week, borrowed for the stay, and now she is suddenly my own. I'm training her to chase the herds of free-range cattle—with their taste for burnt wood and picnic table catsup—out of the campground. My work now takes me an hour a day—scrub deep into toilet pits, gather wrappers from the road—unless the cattle get in to splash their shit around the fire rings. It's a sloppy job and my shovel's too small, and it rains more at 9,000 feet and that makes it worse. I'm beginning to see the Sheepdog part of Tillie's Old English title as she bites tails running and fences collapse under the weight of future organic beef. Once in a while, a mustachioed cowboy rides in on a horse, apologizes and spits, then goes to fix the fence.
A pickup rumbles by on the dirt road across the meadow from where I fish knee-deep in the current. I realize that six days have passed and I haven't seen a soul. I catch a meaty Brookie, and as I let it slide back into the riffles, I realize I'm happier than I've been in years, looking upstream under a mantric chant: this is the place I live.
As the wet light outside grows grey with dusk, Henry is talking hunting. Dale tells him that growing up on his New Zealand farm, he once took potshots at a scatter of hares.
With drinks emptying down, and language breaking like uncooked spaghetti, Henry calls Dale Daryl, then Danny, then says, "Screw it, you're New Zealand."
Dale and I are laughing a lot, and Henry lays on the banter, harsh and gauche.
"Liquor!" he says. "New Zealand, get off yer ass and get me booze. You want to stay in the five-star Milkbottle you pour my goddamned drinks."
Dale does. He gets himself some, too, I notice, straight from the bottle when Henry isn't looking. I don't blame him. He's trying to keep his nightmares at bay, I can tell, but he is eyeing Henry in a way that tells me it's not working. Nightmares, and Dale is gaped awake.
August now, and the campers have finally dwindled. One or two at most all week. They come up to get away, and I like that. I let them, and get away.
The helicopters are beginning to fly overhead more and more. Now that the campers are gone the Army is back in force, flying four or five trips a day. They are searching for lost bombs, and the body of the pilot who spilled his sanity and crashed into Gold Dust Peak, just up the pale green stretch of this valley. Hueys shake my trailer from the sky and speed above Brush Creek. Bluejays and hawks leave their boughs under their storm of metal, and deer and elk scamper north. I watch the copters disappear beyond the horizon's jagged peaks, and later return, dangling nets of wreckage over the quiet.
A black helicopter thin as a dragonfly lands in the meadow near Super Beaver Pond. I watch with binoculars as four men dressed in black—helmets, visors—leap out, run around, and leap back in, as if performing some top-secret Chinese fire drill. I imagine the day when they'll take me away—seen too much—and there will be no one here to know. I'm feeling invaded by their noise. I normally doubt conspiracies.
Henry tells a mean story.
He rehashes those that I've heard from my father. Henry raised sheep on his own all through high school, and on graduation day bought a gas station with the money. After Dad floundered through Notre Dame the two of them ended up working together at my Grandpa Liam's car lot in Perla, Michigan. Grandpa Liam used to turn back odometers, Henry says, fill up cars with old oil, and cut fresh treads in bald tires. Henry is the first person in my life to tell me that Liam was nowhere near the scoundrel that people always said. Henry tells me he admired Liam. I wonder if he's having me on. He tells me about the day he and my father bolted for L.A., and how he bought a hardware store, then a beach bar in Malibu. There are movie stars in these stories, and naked women, and absurdity. With each word my father changes before my eyes. Henry does, too. He tells a mean story, yes, and the stories get meaner as they creep away from the past and closer to this present.
Henry had a wife and kids and then did not. He lived in California and then did not. He owned a bar, then a motel, then a gun shop, then this plot of lush land above the Salmon, and then then is now. Dale asks him if his kids—our age—visit much.
"Visit much," he says.
Henry jumps suddenly up and weaves along the back of the couch toward the window. He widens the gap between curtains, and is staring cockeyed out. Dale and I turn to see.
"Stay right there," Henry says, and drags a shotgun out from the stack by the drooping arm of the couch. He drops it on Dale's lap, and it clunks heavily against his knee. "Careful: it's loaded."
With his stump, Henry points uphill to a thicket. "Deer," he says. "Go `head, New Zealand. Take her out."
Dale is holding the gun away from himself like it's soaked in blood. He begins to stand, pale-faced and twitching nauseous.
"No," Henry says, "do it sittin' down. Kill her from the couch. Like remote control."
I don't see any deer out there, and besides the window is still closed. Dale isn't even looking. He's staring at Henry staring back, and Henry looks crazier'n shit. The place suddenly smells of mold and menthol.
"Christ," Henry says, "thought you liked to hunt." He walks away again to splash his plastic bladder.
I wonder about being alone.
They've found the pilot's body, but not the bombs he ditched. For the past few days, they've been dragging the alpine lakes with no apparent luck.
One afternoon, an explosion rattles all the windows on my trailer, and pine needles spin helplessly to the earth.
"They found a bomb," I tell Tillie.
I am fly-fishing every day, getting better, and training Tillie to stay back and not get hooked. She keeps an eye out for me, growls in the thickets and swims in the creek, and chases squirrels and marmots in maddening loops. At night she sits on my feet while I'm writing a bad novel on an old lap-top hooked up to a car battery. Every few days I have to take long drives—logger roads, ghost roads—to rejuice the battery in order to write. I notice that Brady, my main character, is growing distant from the other characters. He doesn't feel natural when they try to share the page. I stop writing letters.
My hours are changing. I begin to stay up until six in the morning, when the light is blue and the morning cold. I go fishing, then, and eat pancakes for dinner. I keep running out of candles and lantern fuel because I am living at night. During the day I take naps, then wake to write and fish, then nap some more. I no longer care if the words feel right, or if the fish are fooled by my fly.
One night I have a vision of God in my candlelight—I feel God alive around me in the trailer—and I nearly have a euphoric breakdown.
I might tell you about all the Catholic saints I begged favors from as a child, and the visions of Mary I watched in gradeschool filmstrips, and the yearning for the impossible God-on-a-tree whose very breath could've torched my playground youth, but there's a candleflame telling me I shouldn't tell you a thing. You don't need to know that I can't stop crying, and that Tillie gets scared and bolts away from my feet. You don't need to know that this crag I've dropped into is deeper than cells or bones or blood. All of it is language, this, and candlelight wrongly attached to a mind.
It makes me nervous how little I worry about it, how I don't think this vision odd.
"You get to know yourself," Henry is telling us. He's switched back to white wine. "A lot of years go by and you discover who you are."
Dale and I are nodding, feeling macho bonding with this sage of lonely days.
"I know who I am, deep down," he says, "and I'm a total asshole."
I haven't seen another person in 11 days. I realize that when a car of picnickers arrives and waves to me. Ghosts with sandwiches.
It's been pissing rain, and five times a day I have to dump the swells of water from my ancient canopy. Everything I own is wet, and Tillie with her white and grey dreadlocks reeks in the trailer. It is cold. The aspens are beginning to turn to groves of gold doubloons, but some blight blackens them quickly and drops them into mulch. Tillie takes herself for walks now, and seems amused by my endless chat. Sometimes we get into the thick of the forest and run through the rain, leaping logs, barking and yelling together. I'm reminded of boyhood, of playing "Bigfoot and Wildboy" in these same woods with my brothers and sisters and friends, only this time around it's different.
Henry and New Zealand and I are smoking too much and talking about the tattered bookstore where I work. Henry gets an idea and takes us through the kitchen and opens a door which looks like a closet but turns out to be an entire wing of this shrouded house. Henry swipes cobwebs out of his face, and Dale and I follow him into a giant room with a stone fireplace and a wall of windows that looks out to the moonlit Salmon. There are stacks of guns and boxes of ammo, bags of food and bottles of booze. A stained-glass pool table light hangs like jewelry from its center. The woodwork is immaculate and filthy. There's no chair and there's no table. This room makes the other look like hell's bad bathroom.
Henry is pulling old editions of Jack London and Joseph Conrad from a bookshelf sunk ornate into a dustbunny wall. He tells us he hasn't stepped into the room forever. I ask him why, feeling awkward with surprise, and he puts the books back and says, "'Cause I'm in charge."
It's finally stopped raining, and I wonder if anyone will come and camp now that Labor Day is gone. I'm discovering new places every day. I'm catching bigger fish and never keeping them. I'm reading novels that were too long to read before. I'm praying and taking walks and learning to name Indian Paintbrush and Juniper Pines. My girlfriend comes to visit for a few days and I mistakenly called her Tillie. We wonder if we're "on the rocks" with me away so long.
I'm reading outside by lanternlight, and it's three, four in the morning. Tillie is asleep inside the trailer, and I'm lost in the words. I feel something brush my shin and look down, and one of the foxes who dens above my camp has come down to sit on my legs. I leap.
"Get—get outta here!" She scares the hell out of me because she is unexpected. She also does not listen, and runs a few feet away before stopping again to sit. She watches me read, and I get the willies, and go inside. Tillie has no idea in this her doggie dream.
Later, climbing out of bed and pissing on a rock outside, I feel the fox's nose pressed against the back of my knee. I feel her nose and can't stop pissing.
Henry cooks chicken while Dale and I take needed showers. He smokes while we eat, says he ain't hungry. I can hear him wheezing, and I tell him my dad wants to know how his health is.
He leans way back in the chair, lifts up his shirt, and shows us two phantom lumps the size of eight balls in the skin of his abdomen. Dale is sucking dark meat from a bone, and Henry hates doctors, he tells us. He won't go unless someone makes him. Lights Kool off Kool.
"I might die tonight," he says, "and you little bastards will have to bury me." Dale looks up from his plate. We search Henry's grin for the humor, but it's just not there. He tells us he'll take it personally if we don't finish up the potato salad he made from scratch.
He tells us he's serious.
I'm with my Dad and we're walking together through a marshy thicket. He's come to drag me out of Yodela before the first snow, which from the feeling in the air should happen any day. We have two hours until we have to haul the trailer out of its home in the mud, and we decide to spend the time fishing.
As we trudge together through the boggy brush, I don't so much talk as open my mouth and hear the words come splashing out. They sound freakish and they relieve me, and Dad, with fishing on his mind, doesn't judge them either way. He's taking me somewhere up the valley where I've never been. I can hear the creek up ahead, but each time I've tried to reach it from here I've been halted by fallen-forest madness and muck. We cross another meadow—I've been this far—and then Dad stops, looks around, and ducks under the reaching boughs of a spruce. I follow, and on the other side we duck again, and again, and when we come out of this scratchy forest scented with fall, the creek is here—surprise.
Somehow, years passing with this land underfoot, I've never found this spot. The creek is banked by mossy walls of rock, and waterfalls splash down into holes welling with silver water. I can practically smell the trout, and as I splash on ahead, flipping my fly, I can hear my dad's branches crunching behind me—crunching underfoot, so the sound of another becomes the sound of my father, and there are choices echoing into the wild with each step. I can speed up and fish alone. I can dunk Tillie in the stream and give her a final icy bath. I can bite this fly off with my teeth and flip the empty line. I can disappear up the side of the mountain and eat squirrels all winter or starve.
But I don't. Instead, I slow down so my dad's crunching footfalls match my own, and together we don't catch shit. Together, perfectly, not shit.