Excerpt of a 5,800-word short story. Copyright 2013, Lawrence Hogue. Forthcoming in Phantom Seed: Writing from the California Desert, Issue 5 Fall 2015, ed. Ruth Nolan (published by Old Woman Mountains Press). It will also appear in my forthcoming collection, Desert Trilogy.
Drill set in hand, I walk over to where Jane lies in the sand of the desert wash. I sit down next to her and cradle her head in my lap. She still has the peaceful look she got when she lost consciousness two hours ago. The convulsions are gone now and she looks as beautiful as she did last night as we went to sleep under the stars. Too bad.
The sun is setting behind the mountains, turning the boulders around our camp blood red. A pair of phainopeplas flits past and lights in a creosote bush across the wash. The light is going to go soon, and I don’t know how long this is going to take.
I open the drill case and run my finger over the bits, all sharp and hardly used. I select a quarter-inch bit and feel the point, trying to imagine the size of the hole it will make. Big enough? Too big? I don’t have a clue. I drop that one in the sand and take out the three-eighths. My hands begin to shake as I slot the bit into the chuck. I tell myself there’s no hurry now. But what if someone comes around the bend in the canyon just as I’m getting started? I press the trigger and watch as the bit whirs like an angry wasp.
I met Jane when we were both working at a fish cannery in Sitka. I was there because it was the Far North, adventure, and everything I had read in Jack London – though it didn’t turn out to be quite that way at all. I was taking a summer off from my usual round of carpentry jobs in southern California, where I grew up surfing and still spent most of my weekends out on the water. I had brought my board and a sea kayak and occasionally found time for a set or two on the weekends. It wasn’t long before Jane was calling me Surfer Boy.
She was still in college, a marine bio major, and had come to Alaska to get close to the salmon she hoped one day to study. She didn’t like the cannery much, but it allowed her to see the end result of the fisheries management system she hoped to be part of one day. She owned a blue-eyed husky, and wore her long hair braided into a ponytail, most often covered with a bright red bandanna. I began calling her Nature Girl.
She and her friends would take long weekend backpacking loops into the spruce rainforests around Sitka. Soon, I began tagging along. There was something about her hearty laugh and her toughness that I wanted to be around. She would make a fifteen-mile day look easy, and she could name twenty different forest birds by their call alone. The forest was new to me, and she chided me for my ignorance. “I shouldn’t be so hard on you,” she kidded me. “There’s no nature where you come from, is there?”
Building houses in southern California, I had never thought much about where the wood came from, and it was strange to see it now as a living, vertical thing, instead of the dead planks we threw around on the job sites. A lot of timber was going out of the Tongass at that time, and we saw some huge clearcuts, the fresh-cut red soil bleeding into the creeks. When we came to one of these, Jane would just quietly turn the group around and head in another direction.
Sitting on the docks during breaks, watching the fishing boats heading back out, her eyes would follow them until they disappeared, the skin crinkling around the corners of her eyes as she squinted into the sun, and I could tell she wanted to be out there, on the water, beyond the horizon. After a month in Sitka, she convinced one of the fishing captains to take her on as crew, a big deal back then.
The boats went out for a week at a time, and I saw less of her after that, mostly in the Friday night bars. They were filled with a mix of fishermen and loggers. Once, when a logger had been complaining especially loudly about the spotted owl, Jane sat down next to him at the bar and quietly explained to him that the clearcuts in the forests were killing the salmon, along with the livelihoods of a lot of his neighbors.
He replied in a kind of vicious growl, something about outsiders stirring things up. Then I heard him say, “college cunt.” I clapped my hand down, not too softly, on the back of the man’s neck and suggested that he apologize. He tried to spin on me and catch me with his left fist. My hand on his neck slowed him down enough that the blow glanced off the side of my head. As he tried to regain his balance I hit him in the nose with my right fist, knocking him backward into the bar. He was coming at me again when the bouncer got between us and escorted us both outside. I wanted to finish it there on the street, but the logger just walked off cursing.
Jane came out of the bar, and from behind her I heard someone spit the words, “fucking hippies.”
After that night, Jane and I took our first weekend trip by ourselves. We made love on a bed of moss beneath a giant spruce, her dog keening and whining on a tether nearby. I began calling her my nature girl.
I’ve got to calm down and think. I stand up, carefully laying Jane’s head back down on the sand. Back at the truck, I pull out the Coleman lantern, pump it, and light it, setting it on low so it will be ready when it gets dark. I rummage through my pack and pull out my headlamp. I switch it on to test the batteries, and then the tears come again as I remember our last winter trip, Jane sitting across from me in our snow kitchen, her headlamp strapped around her wool cap, the light shining down into the pot she was stirring. We were drinking hot chocolate and rum topped with whipped cream, and the light from her headlamp illuminated a dab of cream hanging from her nose. When I leaned over and licked the cream off, she laughed and pulled away. “Stop it, do you want to give me frostbite?” Her smile gleamed in the glow of her headlamp.
I bang the side of the truck with my open palm, then try to wipe the tears from my eyes. I’ve got to focus on what I have to do. What else do I need? Rags! I look around at the disaster I made of our camp when I threw everything out of the truck earlier. My pack is lying in a creosote bush and I grab a couple of T-shirts out of it. Then I see the food box tipped on its side, and get the bottle of Bacardi – the same bottle we had started on that winter trip. Might need that too.
I carry these supplies back to Jane. Just like setting up camp, I tell myself. It’s getting dark now, and a light breeze has kicked up. Back to the truck one more time for Jane’s jacket. I drape it over her, then turn the Coleman on high and click on my headlamp. I want to see what I’m doing. The T-shirts are within easy reach, the drill is ready. What else?
One last time, I hike up the canyon wall above the wash and look out across the desert to make sure no one’s coming. Not a headlight anywhere, nor a sound of any kind of engine. The desert silence engulfs us. It’s just Jane and me. I walk back toward her body, slowly now, focusing completely on her and what I’m about to do. I put her head in my lap once again and pick up the drill. My hands are shaking badly.
“Goddamnit!” I shout into the night, pounding the sand with my fist. I reach for the bottle of Bacardi and take a swig. Got to calm down. As an after-thought, I splash the rum over the drill bit.
There’s nothing left to do but do it. “I’m sorry baby,” I say, and kiss her forehead. Grasping her head with one hand, I pick up the drill and place the bit against the side of her skull with the other. Then I pull the trigger.
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