After a friendly suggestion involving a collapsible baton and the improvised use of a car door, I took myself over to the dry side of the state to see if a little more sunshine and a few less people might help. Despite my plea deal, my plan this time had been to keep my head down and my mouth shut, but plans had a way of always going to shit on me, and after a while I started getting itchy about it all. Wildfire smoke had been drifting overhead for days, though it was still high in the atmosphere, the clouds long and gauze-like. There was no charcoal odor yet, and if a person didn’t know any better, they might have even thought those wispy things were normal weather clouds, maybe even a promise of rain. If they was Alfie, then they thought they were thorium particles the government had seeded across the sky to fuck with our heads. Later though, the fires running our way, everybody knew the truth.
Alfie had tagged along with me to Polk, my hail-dented minivan over-heating only once. When we finally arrived, we split up for a bit with the logic that two new guys showing up together in a small town would stand out more than two guys who happened to show up individually at the same time. I pulled a phone number off the bulletin board at the IGA and rented a musty fishing cottage up along Trout Creek. Alfie poked around the gas station and The Long Branch until he found someone who knew someone who might have a place. That final someone turned out to be the sheriff, and the something was his second motor home, which was parked in storage at the rodeo grounds. The sheriff didn’t want Alfie driving it and come Rodeo Days in September he’d have to find something new, but until then the ‘87 Executive was Alfie’s for fifty bucks a month. Alfie could plug into the power off the concession stand, no charge.
When I prodded and asked Alfie if he was sure that it was a good idea to be renting from the sheriff rather than, perhaps, adjourning as far away as possible, he suggested I needed to be less afraid of meeting people.
“You pay your rent, show him you’re responsible, a man of integrity starts to trust you. You put it right there. No one can see what’s under their nose.” Alfie laughed at how easy it was, his eyes almost twinkling. Dude couldn’t see shit though. He had no clue the people I’d met.
“Try it,” he said.
The thing about an itch is you need something to distract you. Find something that makes some dollars in the process and that’s your classic win-win.
I drove in from the cabin to run my idea by Alfie. When I pulled up to The Executive, the side door hung open crooked, the bottom hinge pulled loose. The sounds of a baseball game on TV blared across the parking lot. An organist hammered the keys, rattling the RV: Bimp, bimp, bimp, bimp…Bimp, bimp, bimp, bimp.
I figured he’d seen me park, but I yelled his name and pounded on the Executive a few times. Alfie had arranged a lawn chair and a small table outside for his morning coffee, even gotten himself a little potted daisy on a daytrip to Walmart, though that had dried up almost instantly. He’d put a couple of other chairs on the other side of the RV to watch the sunset and the mountains. Sometimes he scattered popcorn for the doves who nested in the roof of the grandstand.
I held the door out of my way as I climbed in, the volume of what I still thought was the TV hitting me like a shovel. A few more steps up and there was Alfie. Instead of coming from the TV, the music was coming from an antique Hammond organ, Alfie at the keys. The organ had been wedged into the kitchen aisle, the fit so tight Alfie had to sit on the sink in order to play. He wore nothing but a pair of boxers and a faded Mariners hat. Next to him sat a twelve-inch bread knife, the handle placed so he could grab it. His edges seemed to be vibrating.
There was nowhere else to put myself, so I took the passenger seat and swiveled it so that it faced the interior. Even with the door hanging open, the air was stuffy and choked with dust motes. Rainier cans lay scattered across the kitchen table, which was blocked off by the organ. A women’s tennis shoe, pink laces still tied, rested on its side on the floor.
He caught me up right away. Bottom of the eighth, full count, two outs. The TV was on top of the organ, straight in front of him, where I couldn’t see. “Fucker has been fighting off pitches for over ten minutes now.”
“Please tell me this isn’t the sheriff’s,” I said. “I don’t remember seeing any music stores around here.”
He said he’d traded some work for it. Thought he’d gotten a bargain in return. “Betcha didn’t even know I could play.”
I confessed that I didn’t. Who would have? The batter fouled off another hit, a grounder down the third baseline. Alfie slammed the keys as if he were a frustrated composer, which is when I guessed he had something on the game. He’d go all manic on Keno, too.
I still couldn’t understand how he’d gotten it in there. He said he’d knocked the pedals off with a sledgehammer because they stuck out too wide, and after that it was a lot of pushing. Crosshatched all along the Executive’s flooring and cabinetry were fresh gouges, the broken hinge on the door making more sense. “I had limited tools,” he said, with a shrug.
After a few more foul balls, the pitcher finally won, a swing and a miss. Alfie slid down awkwardly from the sink, and I asked how much. He said it was enough that it mattered, which I’m sure he thought answered it, but things can matter in a lot of different ways. He walked to the back of the RV, where his bedroom was. He left the door open as he went in. Someone was lying down on the bed, the blanket pulled up over their head, the other shoe still on her foot. I couldn’t believe she was sleeping through all the noise. Wrestling the organ was enough on its own. Hell of a time if she’s still out, I thought.
Alfie returned in jeans and a T-shirt, carrying an almost empty box of Rainier.
I smiled and motioned toward his room. “Fun night?”
He answered with only a chuckle, then held out the beers for me, the cans rolling across the bottom of the box.
“You’re really handing me this? Do I need to explain sobriety again?”
Alfie snatched back the offer, drew out a can and cracked it open, beer foaming out the top. He took a fast, slurping chug, then wiped his chin with the back of his hand. The game had gone to a commercial break. I couldn’t know what his thought was, but I saw it go off in his head, the way everything suddenly narrowed and gathered before exploding.
“Seventh inning stretch, asshole!”
That things were headed to the ninth didn’t matter. A lot of things didn’t matter to Alfie. He took another drink and climbed back up on the counter, in playing position. He was off-key, stumbling through the first few notes, but then he found it. Began again from the top.
When I didn’t join in, he stopped. “Stand the fuck up, Roach.”
With Alfie, sometimes you had to let him run himself out, the same way you did those big trout that used to choke the streams around here. Pull back too hard and it’s over. Better to let them go. Sometimes, though, you let a fish run like that and it means you’re going on a run yourself.
I stood, only mumbling along. “That’s not singing,” Alfie shouted, more demand than egging.
“Ain’t much of a singer,” I tried.
“Better start to be,” he said.
I’d found the carpeting tools while poking through the rust-eaten garden shed at the cabin. A smarter me would’ve kept them all to myself, maybe would’ve even learned what the hell I was doing a little bit and started laying a kind of foundation for an actual life instead of being a little bitch.
“And where do we get the carpet from?” Alfie asked, not quite following when I first explained it.
“We don’t. We’re simply installation. They order it from the Home Center or wherever in Baker City. We go pick it up and put it in.”
It wasn’t about the carpet anyway. The carpet was a distraction. We move the furniture, open a few drawers, see what’s lying around. Sweep a few things up in the shuffle.
Alfie nodded, like he was understanding. We’d taken ourselves outside after the game, had our lawn chairs facing the mountains. The foothills were as browned as Alfie’s neglected daisy. Up high, along the ridgeline, the few remaining patches of snow—snow that in winter was so deep it could bury the Executive—seemed to be shrinking right before our eyes.
“Still seems like a lot of work,” Alfie complained. “Low return on investment and whatnot.”
“And how much did you make on that baseball game?”
Alfie was slouched low in his chair, the back of his head resting on the seatback. He lifted his palms, which were flat on his thighs, turning them over before dropping them again. “I mean, that had potential.”
“So does this,” I explained. So did everything when you looked at things right.
Alfie sighed and then lolled his head my direction, his gaze pulled from the mountains and square on me. “Now you’re talking to me like I’m stupid,” he said.
Alfie hated feeling insulted. He once sucker-punched a guy at McDonalds for pushing ahead of him in line, then went and ordered a Big Mac. Cost him fifteen months at Two Rivers.
“Hey man,” I said. “Don’t do me like that. I’m only trying to be persuasive.”
Calls didn’t come rushing in. I spraypainted QUALITY CARPET INSTALLATION and our phone number on a piece of plywood and nailed it to a dying fir at the end of the cabin’s driveway. I used the number for the cabin since it had a landline and an old answering machine, the new recorded message: “Thank you for calling Quality Carpet Installation. We can’t wait to help!” I even wrote the We can’t wait to help! on the fliers I stuck up at the IGA and the feedstore. Made a couple extra to take along the next time we went all the way into Baker City.
Two weeks along, we still had no takers. Daytime temps climbed over 103 degrees, and I planted myself in front of a box fan and a bowl of ice, out of trouble. Then Alfie showed up at my cabin one morning before seven in a brand-new F-150, bright red, rims and tires polished and shined. A thick roll of tan carpet was angled across the truck bed. Another slightly smaller roll, wrapped in a blue tarp, rode alongside it.
“Grab those tools,” he commanded before cramming a powdered mini-donut in his face.
I leaned in through the open passenger-side window and asked whose truck it was.
Alfie disappeared another donut in his mouth. Best I understood, he replied, “Ors fah na.”
I’d been sleeping when he arrived and had a moment where I wondered if it all wasn’t some dream. My cigarettes were in the cabin. Yesterday’s coffee sat cold in the pot. I asked Alfie what he meant “for now,” if he was renting it our something, pressed him on where the carpeting was from.
“It all Lawrence’s,” he said, mesmerized by his donut-powdered fingertips. He kept sticking them together and pulling them apart. “Our client’s.”
I didn’t know what he meant by “our client’s.” And who the hell was Lawrence?
“God damn it, Roach. This whole thing was your idea and now you’re acting like you don’t know what the fuck is what. Our client. For the carpet business. He had me drive to the Home Center and pick everything up, exactly like you said it’d go.”
Alfie had met Lawrence at The Long Branch the day before, eating burgers at the bar. Lawrence was a bit of a talker, the kind of guy who didn’t seem so comfortable with silence. Second beer in, he starts talking about his vacation property, half-bitching, half-bragging about the renovations he was doing, the trouble he was having with contractors. Mentions carpeting.
“Motherfucker was a gift from god,” Alfie said.
Lawrence already had an installer lined up, but the guy was weeks out with other jobs, and Alfie, if he had one useful talent, it was how to make things appear too good to be true for someone—how to make it so they couldn’t say no.
Alfie told him we could do it the next day, for half of what the others had bid.
“Yeah, Lawrence seemed skeptical, too. But then I told him I was just going to be frank. We were new to town and needed the work.”
The winds had shifted, and smoke drifted into the valley overnight, the haze, as weak as it was, making everything feel off-balanced. Dulled, yet somehow brighter. Slowed, but already too fast.
I asked why he hadn’t come and gotten me before the Home Center, since I was on the way.
“You’re only partly on the way. Plus, I had some other shit.”
“What other shit?” I patted again for my cigarettes, which still weren’t there. Earlier, Alfie had said my idea worked exactly as I said it would, but I already understood then that the likelihood of that happening again was slim, and whatever idea I had about what was coming next was only one of a million ways that it probably wouldn’t go.
He took his last donut and stuck it on his finger, ripping the hole wider. “Other shit.”
Lawrence’s property overlooked Little Elk Lake. The “cabin,” as he sometimes referred to it, was not the fishing-cabin I knew, but a five-thousand square foot, four-bedroom, three-bath hard-on, with a lot of exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling windows on the lake side. In the living room, a bright Pendleton blanket was folded over the back of a brown leather couch, and high above the river rock fireplace, the taxidermied head of a black bear snarled at us. The kitchen looked like a goddamn restaurant.
Lawrence led the way to the room we’d be recarpeting, pausing to usher us through the doorway so we could see first.
“It’s empty,” I said.
“Just the carpet,” he said. The carpet appeared to be brand new, light grey instead of tan.
I told Lawrence that part of our service was to move his furniture in and out. “We do it all.”
Lawrence had thinning white hair and a well-grown beard, a Santa in a western shirt and blue jeans. My guess was that he’d purchased the bear head above the fireplace rather than shooting it himself, or that a guide had all but pulled the trigger for him. “Great,” he said, clapping a single clap. “Now you can do this part.”
Prying the trim went fast enough. We stored the pieces in the hall, out of our way, and each time I went out there, I tried peeking the other rooms, but everything was put away and tidied up—nothing left atop a dresser, beds all made, pillows fluffed. There was a single family photo stuck to the side of the fridge: Lawrence and his daughter behind the wheel of a pontoon boat on a bright blue day, Lawrence helping her steer. They seemed happy, both smiling, hers revealing braces. It was hard to tell how old she was. Old enough.
We started tearing out the carpeting. Instead of cutting it into smaller sections that were easier to roll up and carry, Alfie had the idea to keep the carpet intact so we could resell it later.
“Now we’re sales and installation.”
The old carpet did not role easily, or tightly, and inanimate as it was, as soon as we tried to pick it up, it seemed to come to life with the sag of a giant python. We were grunting through one more attempt to move it when Lawrence popped his head in the room.
“We’ve got a problem here, boys.”
Alfie thought Lawrence was referring to our troubles right then. “Extra set of hands could help.”
“You’re off track,” Lawrence explained, hands stuffed in his pockets. It was the new carpet Alfie had picked up. Somehow, he’d brought back the wrong stuff.
“Hey, that’s what they gave me.” Alfie was still holding his end of the snake while I’d dropped mine.
“Might’ve looked at the tag,” Lawrence said. His faint drawl was suspiciously gone, replaced by something more belittling. “Wrong name, wrong address.”
“Seems like that was their job.” Alfie nudged the roll of carpet with his hips, wanting me to pick it up, but we weren’t going anywhere.
“Nice having a job,” Lawrence replied. He made sure I saw that he was also talking to me, but for some reason he really wanted to give it to Alfie. “Better to keep ‘em.”
Folks like Lawrence, they saw Alfie as just your average fuck up, the kind of guy who’d been laboring at odd jobs his whole life, a couple-six beers every night to numb the soreness and sunburns. It’s basically what Alfie was if you included the harder drugs and all his time served, except Alfie was also prideful as hell. People tend to forget what pride means to a person.
“I think the question here,” I jumped in with, “is what can we do to fix this?”
Lawrence had already called the Home Center. The carpeting had somehow ended up in Hermiston, and it’d be a few days in re-routing. In the meantime, he wanted us to return the other roll right away, even though it’d be twice the driving. “You bid what you bid,” he said, when I questioned the logistics.
Alfie finally set his end of the carpet down, which I took as a worrying sign. Things usually went better when his hands were occupied.
“How about this?” I bargained. “We’ll eat the time, but we don’t eat the gas. That’s on you.”
Alfie was already shaking his head no. I thought it’d be the same with Lawrence, but then he surprised me. “Fair enough,” he said, drawl creeping back in. He took a CFN card from his thick wallet. “I want the receipt.”
Lawrence thought the deal was done, but I could see Alfie resisting. I was half expecting him to tell Lawrence what to do with his job, and himself, and maybe even his mother. Alfie had a way of forgetting the big picture, lost on impulse, but he surprised me and tamped it all down.
“Don’t you worry, Lawrence,” he said. “You’ll see. You’ll see how we make this right.”
Two days later, bright and early again, Alfie was at my place, leaning hard on the horn of Lawrence’s truck. He had another roll of powdered donuts and a can of Monster Nitro. An unopened can was waiting for me in the cupholder.
Larry had some extra work for us, hundred bucks a day.
“I thought your whole idea was to be doing less work,” I said. “Return on investment or whatever.”
Alfie was happy to fly without me if I wanted, but he thought we were still doing the team thing. His hand drifted over to the can of Monster he’d brought me, and he put his palm down on top of it. I wasn’t sure if he was going to drink it or throw it out the window. “Did I have that wrong?” he asked.
I assured him we were good, that I was only getting up to speed. “Teamwork makes the dream work, right?”
It was an expression he used all the time. He repeated it back, pleased. “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Then he tapped a fingernail on top of the can in the cupholder, as if I’d never seen it there in the first place.
For most of the day, Lawrence had us working outside around his property clearing brush, weed eating, tearing down an old pump house. A heavy blanket of smoke turned the sky grey-brown, the air abnormally humid and stuffed with campfire stink. The fire was only five percent contained, the shift in winds pushing it toward new fuel. There was a Level-One Evacuation Order over half the county, a Level-Two up past East Eagle.
Lawrence had a couple of ATVs, one of which he let Alfie and I use to get around. Every hour or so, Lawrence would drive out to check on us, wherever we were, his leather gloves bright and new, a blue handkerchief tied around his face. One trip he even brought us a couple of eight-ounce bottles of water, warm as the air. “Case you get thirsty,” he said.
When we weren’t running the ATVs and power equipment, it was quiet up at Lawrence’s. Not that it was loud anywhere around Polk, but there was a different quality up there, and when I cut the engine of whatever machine I was using, the stillness felt practically shocking. Ridgelines folded themselves to the horizon, trees upon trees upon trees, the reflection on the lake then doubling everything again. Big ass birds soaring. Chirpers all around. It wasn’t as if I was eager to do of lot of thinking those days, but Lawrence’s was the kind of place where you could do that sort of thing if you were so disposed. Better, it was also the kind of spot where you could not think, where you could look out at the distance of things and be okay with whatever sins you’d done in your life. A place where you could fool yourself into believing that was even possible.
Near the end of the day, Lawrence had us haul the rotten wood and insulation from the pump house and the old carpet and pad—he wouldn’t let us keep them—to his dump pit. He had his own backhoe, and he’d carved the pit out of a hillside, kept a big pile of dirt to backfill with. While some of the trash was covered, much of it never was or it had been pulled to the surface by erosion and animals. Legs of an upside-down office chair stuck into the air like a metal bush. There was broken particle board and chunks of concrete and open cans of house paint. Flies and hornets buzzed the rotting food.
“Look at this,” I said to Alfie, picking up a piece of fresh junk mail.
“Geico saves you money,” he read.
I pointed out the name. Anne. Mrs. Alfie already knew Lawrence had gotten divorced. He couldn’t see where I was going. Neither could I really.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe there’s some bills out here. Account numbers. That kind of shit.”
Alfie took the envelope from me and opened it, glanced at the letter inside, tossed it all back into the pile. He crouched down and sifted through the other mail that was there, opening a few things, throwing them all back. He stayed squatted on his heels for a moment, surveying the pit before finally standing and laughing. “What if she’s in here?”
Lawrence was headed our way, throttling up the hill. “You think?”
Sweat glistened on Alfie’s cheeks, and bits of saw dust stuck to them. “Larry?” His smile lines were dark with grime. “No, not our sweet Larry.”
Lawrence pulled up a moment later, seemingly annoyed by our good cheer.
“Let’s suppose we don’t go through my mail like that.” He’d left the ATV running and had to half-shout. “We call that minding your own damn business.”
“You got all this stuff blowing loose,” Alfie replied. “We could get it cleaned up for you, get it covered.”
Lawrence tugged down his handkerchief. He leaned forward on the ATV’s handlebars, one arm resting over the other like a fucking cowboy on the horn of his saddle. He said he didn’t realize that Alfie knew a backhoe, and Alfie responded that was simply because Lawrence hadn’t asked. Alfie had all sorts of surprises.
“Saw some bear tracks earlier,” Alfie added, bullshitting Lawrence. “Best to keep them out of here. They can get bold.”
Lawrence looked at the pit, taking the jumble in, same as Alfie had done a few minutes earlier. He told Alfie he was probably right. He’d put it on his list and deal with it.
It took a second for Alfie to realize what Lawrence had meant. “You sure?” he asked. “I think you’d rather have us do it.”
“No sir,” Lawrence said, sitting up and readjusting his mask. “That’s my toy.”
When Alfie didn’t pick me up the next morning, I assumed we had the day off. I’d already gotten out of bed, so I microwaved a cup of coffee and went down by the creek. The air felt gritty, the sun filtered to a strange soft orange. The “suggestion” that had precipitated my move east had left me with nerve damage in my right leg, and I had trouble sitting for very long, but I found a nice rock where I could stretch out. Based on all the pictures in the cabin, Trout Creek had been something to fish back in the day, currents as clear blue as an icicle, but now it wasn’t much more than a trickle, the rocks shagged with thick green algae. Despite the low water, the air felt cooler along the creek, a moisture that was almost buoyant. It started me thinking about things from my old life, hustling along Bay Drive, that good stench when the tide went out, the seagulls in the oyster yards who’d try to steal the sunglasses off your head. I could admit I was beginning to think maybe a place like Polk was okay, that it was better for me. The endless sun, maybe even the heat, but then always underneath there was this other feeling, days when all the open space, an ocean all its own, felt inexplicably claustrophobic, like the panic before drowning.
I wouldn’t even have to tell Alfie, or anyone. Only leave. Just go back, hoping enough time had passed. That a few fools might even be happy to see me.
The landline started ringing. I’d thought it was a new customer. Maybe it wasn’t too late for my other plan. Maybe we could simply be carpet installers and forget about the rest. Let that be plenty.
I didn’t get there in time, and the machine answered. It was Alfie, giving me instructions to go to the rodeo grounds and get Lawrence’s truck and then bring it up to his place. An engine rumbled in the background. “Be expeditious,” he said.
I picked up and asked where he was.
He said it like it should have been obvious. “I’m at Larry’s.”
And when I asked how he’d gotten there, he told me he had the Executive, as if that should have been obvious too.
“Call it a test drive,” he said.
I’d expected to see the Executive right there in Lawrence’s driveway, but the driveway was empty, the garage buttoned up. I drove around and parked in front of the outbuilding where Lawrence kept his tools and yard equipment. The barndoor was open, both ATVs in place.
I found Alfie at the dump pit. He’d somehow managed to coax the Executive all the way down there along the two-track, though he snapped some branches off a low-hanging vine maple. He was working the backhoe, scooping a bucket from the fill pile. The trash that had been loose before had been buried. Alfie added another layer of dirt on top and then used the claw to rake the soil together, delicate as a cat covering its mess.
Alfie dampened the throttle and leaned out of the cab. He had on a pair of cheap mirrored sunglasses, fake gold—the frames, lenses, everything.
“I guess Lawrence changed his mind,” I said.
Alfie was already beaming. “Doubt he’s gonna ask me to unbury it.”
Lawrence was gone for the day but had talked with Alfie earlier. The carpet had come in, and we needed to go pick it up. Get the pad down. Wait for Lawrence to double check the color before we installed. He’d given no instructions concerning the backhoe.
Alfie was basically finished but wanted to move a few more buckets, tamp things down one more time. “I’m having too much fun,” he said.
The bottom hinge on the Executive’s door was still broken, and the door hung open the same as the day I’d found Alfie on the organ. Even through the smoke, the interior of the RV smelled sharper than the dump pit, something half-cabbage and outhouse. The organ was still there and not in Lawrence’s pit, as I’d guessed. I twiddled on the keys, but the power was off. I tried squeezing past to get to the back, but even my skinny ass had to crawl over.
A shadow flashed across the walls and then Alfie’s silhouette filled the doorway. He’d left the backhoe running and now stood at the foot of the stairs, blocking the exit.
His bedroom door was open. The bed had been stripped down to the stained mattress. The sheets and blanket, even the pillows, gone. No lonely shoe.
It’s a son-of-a-bitch to have to look behind you like that. “I don’t have to know about any of this,” I said, turning around.
He’d taken another step inside. Only then did I notice he had on Lawrence’s gloves. His edges seemed to be vibrating again.
“The thing about that is you already do know. See the problem?”
“But I can forget,” I promised. “You forget something and it’s like it never even happened.”
“Like what never happened?”
“Like nothing,” I said.
Late that afternoon, having finally gone out to the pit himself, Lawrence fired us. The carpet was only halfway installed, but he told us to pack our tools right then. He pulled a fold of hundred-dollar bills from the front pocket of his blue jeans and started counting them off, handing three to me and Alfie each. Lawrence said it covered the other work we’d done around the property, plus some. When Alfie asked if it included the work he’d done for Lawrence in the pit, Lawrence boiled himself red, either angry or embarrassed, or probably both.
“You’re a real charming son-of-a-bitch,” he said to Alfie.
“We can finish this,” Alfie said, nodding to the side. “The carpeting.”
Lawrence was firm and wanted us gone. I’d guessed there were at least ten more hundreds in his stack. I had to believe Alfie saw that.
Lawrence followed us outside and walked us all the way to the Executive. Before we loaded up, Alfie tried to shake Lawrence’s hand, but Lawrence refused, something that charmed the shit out of Alfie. “Larry,” he said, “you’re making all this so personal.”
I don’t think Lawrence exactly knew what Alfie meant, and I can’t say I did either. I only knew who Alfie was and how stubborn he could be. Pride and stubbornness, piss meeting shit. Lawrence looked at me for some kind of clue or intervention, I think, but I only shrugged. He’d set his own destiny with Alfie as far as I cared. I was the one who needed a ride back home.
Lawrence stuck out his hand and looked Alfie straight in the eyes. “There,” he said. I could tell he was trying to squeeze the shit out of Alfie’s hand. “Happy?”
“Absolutely,” Alfie said.
The road into town was a long downhill, and Alfie let the Executive run, a billowing cloud of gravel dust behind us. The RV swayed to the outside of each curve, then sprang back the other way. When I said that I could smell the brakes heating up, Alfie fake-panicked that they’d gone out already, stomping frantically on the floor. On a few corners, Alfie took my side of the RV right to the edge of the road, the canyon dropping off sharply below me. I locked the door and both-hands’ed the grab bar, which cracked Alfie up, and it took me back to when he’d made me do the seventh-inning stretch—that way he seemed to find joy in making puppets out of people.
“We should go get the rest of it,” I said, my breath a little rushed. “Tell Larry to let us finish or to pay us.”
The Executive bucked hard on a dip in the road, almost bouncing us from our seats.
“Screw that,” Alfie said. He was practically giggling. “Don’t ask. Just go up there and take it.”
“Or just go up there and take it,” I prodded. “That’s easy money.”
“Too easy,” he said.
But we didn’t return to Lawrence’s that day, and it was only Alfie alone who went back later. Instead, Alfie piloted us down to the rodeo grounds, first stopping at the Chevron to get a pack of hot dogs. He assumed I was going to stay, had bought a family-sized bag of Lays to share. Mariners were in San Diego. “You can try the organ,” he said. “I’ll teach your dumb ass a fight song.”
I convinced him I was beat, lied about an impending need to take a dump. I walked backward as I spoke, so I could face him. Maybe I’d rally later, after a shower. “Next game, for sure.”
He found me at The Long Branch not a half hour later. The smoke had changed his mind about the hot dogs. A.C. and a cold beer sounded better. “I thought you were going home.”
I made up a story about almost loading my pants, about needing to stop. But the truth was only that I was at The Long Brach because it was a bar. I was on my third Bud Lite, and when Alfie pulled out his wallet, I pointed to the pile of tens already in front of me, which I’d planned to drink through. “On me.”
Alfie sat down, leaving a seat between us. He slapped me on the back so hard it stung for a half hour.
“Roach, amigo,” he said. “Welcome back.”
One of the TVs above the bar was tuned to the Mariners, the other the news, volume muted on both. I was already too bleary-eyed to read the score on the game. The news was showing video from the fire, which was doubling every day, an entire forest wrapped in flame. They thought it would burn until winter.
I came to in the front seat of my Caravan, head against the driver’s-side window. The sheriff was tapping his knuckle on the other side of the glass, right on my head. I was parked on the front lawn of my cabin, having overshot the driveway by a good ten feet, the front bumper kissing the porch. The sheriff tapped again. My shirt was chunked with puke.
“Mr. Ambriz,” the sheriff said. The window crank on my door was stripped, and I had to palm the window to roll it down. “Good morning, Roach.”
I shaded my eyes, even the hazy light too bright. “Sheriff.”
The sheriff tugged on the door handle, but it was still locked. “Please open the door, Roach.” I told him I was good where I was, that he could talk from there, but he pulled on the handle again, leaving his hand in place until I finally unlocked it.
I stumbled getting out, and the sheriff steadied me, grabbing my shoulders and leaning me against my car. He got my cigarettes and lighter from the dash and then closed the door. My hands tremored as I took them.
“Thought you said you wouldn’t come out here unannounced. Wasn’t that part of the agreement?”
The sheriff said I could be right. He was soft around the belly and not much of a tough guy, but he seemed amused by how much difficulty I was having with my coordination. “We also have the kind of agreement where it doesn’t much matter one way or another.”
I finally got my cigarette lit. “Oh, that kind.”
The sheriff had originally come out to tell me about the evacuation order, which had been raised to Level Three. However, considering things, and since he was here anyway, he’d also heard that I’d been doing some work for Lawrence Newhouse. “How long that been going on?”
I thought I was feeling better, but I must have started to slump because the sheriff reached over and steadied me again.
“Who told you about that?”
“Lawrence, primarily. Alfie, too.”
“You’ve been over to Alfie’s?” I wondered if he’d gone inside, but I also knew I couldn’t ask, that there was a chance he hadn’t. “How is he?”
The sheriff was humored by my concern. “Anything you want to tell me, Roach? That’s your job, remember? To tell us things.”
I took a drag of my cigarette. I’d asked Alfie about the pit while at The Long Branch. He kept stacking up blackberry brandy and tequila shots on me. Fucker wouldn’t stop saying amigo.
“Somebody,” was all he’d answered. “Nobody. A woman.”
I tried to bring the sheriff into focus and present a real convincing look, but I could hardly keep my eyes open past a squint. “Nothing I can really think of.”
“Nope. Not right now.”
“Not right now?” he asked.
“I believe that’s what I said.”
The sheriff eased up and gave me some room to off-gas. You can see when someone thinks they’re bullshit proof. You let someone catch you holding something once, they think they can always do it. Some lies you don’t hide.
“My wife was actually talking about new carpeting the other night. I saw your sign out there. Maybe I should call.”
“You should,” I said. I knew then that things had run out. Some guys liked to take it all the way to the end, no matter win, lose, or worse, but I’d always figured it was best to get out way ahead of that. That was survival. “We do pretty good work, surprisingly.”
The sheriff headed toward his cruiser but stopped short, like he’d remembered something, and then just as quickly had lost it. He looked at the ground, and I wondered if he was really trying to remember, or if he was only giving me more time, another chance to say something.
“It’s peaceful up here, isn’t it?” He’d gone from looking at the ground and up into the trees. “Even with the smoke, I always thought this was a little slice of heaven.”
I told him I agreed about the quiet. But I didn’t know if it was peaceful. “It feels like I’m being barbequed.”
The sheriff nodded sympathetically. “I suppose you probably are.”
I left my minivan where it was and went inside to sleep things off. It was nearly five that evening when I woke. My nose was stuffed up like I had a cold, and my head throbbed as bad as that time this motherfucker Cheeks had cracked my skull.
I lurched my way to the kitchen and ran my head under the faucet, sucked down mouthfuls of water until my gut ballooned. It was a start, but I was still miserable, and for a moment I was almost thankful about it, how the misery wasn’t going to fade anytime soon. I thought that meant I’d learn from it.
I’d done the steps before. Step One was to admit that your life had become unmanageable, which sure, but what Step One maybe failed to consider was that some situations called for different styles of management. It was Step Four, “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” where I’d gotten stuck in the past. I hadn’t been to church since I was a kid, but the way I remembered the rules was that you could say you were sorry right at the very end, at the very last moment, and right before you died, if you believed, if you really did, then they had to let you in, you’d be saved. It was the riskiest bet there was.
I went by Alfie’s the next morning. I was going to offer him a ride to Walmart, offer one last favor as a way of evening things out, though I knew our books would never balance. The Executive was already gone—at Lawrence’s. Alfie’s table and chair had been knocked over, and I set them back up for him. I gathered his daisy and flowerpot, which had separated. The roots and soil had dried into a feather-light cube, and I stuffed them back into the pot, arranged it all as Alfie had. The other chairs still faced the mountains, which were somewhere out there, hidden behind the smoke.
Because of the fire, County Divide Road was closed, so I had to circle around to Highway 29 to exit the valley. Convoys of trucks pulling stock and horse trailers headed out with me. Up near Westfall, heavy patches of smoke drifted across the roadway, our headlights hardly cutting it. Snow-like ash accumulated on my windshield, punctuated by blackened pine needles. The pump on the fluid reservoir had burned out years ago, and without any help the wipers would only made things worse.
In Baker City, I stopped at a Jacksons for some supplies. My car still had enough gas for a hundred miles, which would get me somewhere. I called the sheriff from the parking lot and then tossed my phone.
Instead of getting on the interstate, I turned back toward the fires, the only direction left to go. I drove leisurely, a cold can of Coors tucked between my legs, sipping whenever I wanted. It was almost like I was on Bay Drive again, when I could just cruise around and watch the world, when it felt like I could own it.
The road curved west, the sun now straight ahead of me, glowing an otherworldly neon red. Because of the smoke, you could look right at it. It was flat in the sky and round as a quarter.
I pulled over before the road veered north again and parked on the shoulder. I tossed my empty in the back of the van, then fished another beer from the plastic grocery bag, scanned the radio and found a ballgame.
It was so strange to be able to look at the sun like that. I knew I was wrecking my eyes and screwing myself, that it’d catch up with me. But I kept staring at it for no better reason than I could. It was the only reason you needed to do anything.