C i r c u m n a v i g a t i o n

 

originally published in American Short Fiction
and in CIRCUMNAVIGATION (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

 

The front of the house is mostly glass, so from my chair at the kitchen table I see the truck before I hear it crunch up the gravel driveway. I see the man in crisp, clean coveralls, fresh as ice, the tiny body he pulls from the truck and stands on two legs and pushes up the porch steps. I see Lockjaw Watkiss, come to collect, a heavy knuckle raised to rap at the glass pane. And he sees me.

Lockjaw Watkiss is a strapping hillbilly I owe money, sixty bucks or so, from the time he yanked a radiator from one of his rusted junkers — something long and gray and humped — and rigged it to work in my old Datsun. That was about a year ago. Maybe two.

When I open the door, Lockjaw says, "I need you to watch my kid for a while. I got to drive up to Oregon and cut a guy in half." He takes a roll of bills from his pocket, snaps off a dozen or so and hands them to me. A small face studies me through his legs.

Lockjaw turns to leave, but half way down the porch steps he notices the Pontiac parked at the side of the house. "How's that old car of yours running?" he says. "Toyota, was it?"

"Datsun," I say. "Not too good. It's at the bottom of a lake."

Lockjaw nods, strokes his long brown beard, stiff as snow. "That drop-off into the lake behind Jack Stone's Tavern?" he asks.

"Yeah."

Lockjaw scratches himself, nods again. "I know it," he says. He opens his truck door, lingers for a minute, half in, half out, says, "There's a helicopter in that lake, you know."

"No kidding."

"Me and the boy used to go look at it sometimes. You can see it when the water's low."

I nod, smile. "Something," I say.

When Lockjaw's leaves, I go inside and find his boy standing beneath the ceiling fan in the living room, staring up. For several minutes I watch him watch the fan. "Are you hot?" I ask him.

He doesn't say anything, just stands there looking at the fan. "Hey," I say. He glances at me, pushes a chair over to the air conditioner in the window. He climbs up and puts his face to the vent. He points to it, says, "There's a fan in there."

"It's busted," I say.

"Do you have any more fans?"

"What do you want with fans?" I say. "How about some television?" Then I remember the tv doesn't work, hasn't since I got it back from hock.

The boy gets down off the chair. "Where are the fans?" he says.

I take him into the bedroom and show him the ceiling fan there. It's turning slowly, barely moving. Each blade is bearded with dust. "Make it go faster," the boy says. I stand on the bed and pull the chain. The fan picks up speed until my hair is being fairly blown.

"Faster."

I tug the chain again and the fan picks up speed, shakes like it's about to jump off of its mount. Two more tugs and the blades slow to their original lope, dust beards intact.

"Make it go backwards," the boy says.

"It doesn't go backwards," I say.

"Yes it does," he says. "That switch right there."

I put my finger on a black toggle on the bottom. "This?"

"That makes it go backwards," he says.

I slide the switch into the up position. The fan slows and slows and — goddamn, there it goes the other way.

"That makes the hot air come down," the boy says.

"Do I want it to come down?" I say. "It's over a hundred degrees. I think it's pretty well down already."

"It's for when it's cold," the boy says. "Not for now."

I sit at the kitchen table and listen as the hot afternoon ticks away. The dry grass hums, bugs snap in the heavy air. The mountain's nervous. Fires have been popping up like Jack-in-the-boxes all over. Last week I was at Jack Stone's Tavern, and nearly everyone there had a fire story — a wood shed gone up, a few acres scorched — poof — just like that. I kept quiet. The tavern is usually full of firemen because the volunteer department keeps its engine in Jack Stone's barn, just across a gravel lot. I haven't cut the weeds back from around my house or cleared away dead timber or tilled the dry grass around the storage shed for years, not since I quit work altogether, and I don't care to see the reaction this would rouse in a room full of firemen. Jack Stone's is the only place on the mountain for a drink or human company, and I plan to go back there.

I listen to theories about how the fires are starting. Heat lightning. Someone's flying around in a defective plane that's shooting sparks. Maybe the pilot flicks his cigarette butts out the window. It's all bunk, though. I used to fly, and I know planes can no more shoot sparks than they can swim the English Channel. Anyway, the only planes I see these days are Forest Service tankers on their way to this conflagration or that. Some days the sky's choked with them.

 

Around nightfall it occurs to me I should fix a full-on meal. It's been a long time since I've thought about such a thing, since Magda moved out. Before that, even.

There's no kid food in the house, so I get down a can of beans and a pot. I'm standing at the stove looking at them when the boy comes in and points to the sticker over the light switch. "'Conserve Energy.'" he says. "What's that mean?"

"It's just something my mom put there," I say. "She doesn't like utility companies. Didn't."

He reads it aloud once more. "''Conserve Electricity.' It has to mean something."

"How old are you?" I say.

"Five."

"Are all five-year-olds like you?"

"What does it mean?" he says.

"Well, I guess you know what electricity is."

"No."

"Electricity. You know — power."

The boy waits, mouth gaping. He's awfully small, hardly a chin to speak of, nose little more than a nub. He looks unfinished somehow, like he needs more womb time.

I put the pot and the beans down and grab a wire coat hanger and take him out to the Pontiac, which Magda bought for me after I sank the Datsun. I pop the hood and stand the boy up on the bumper. I untwist the hanger and take my shirt off and bunch it up around the bent wire. "This is electricity," I say. I touch one end of it to the negative terminal of the battery. I turn my face away, brush the positive terminal with the other end of the wire. Nothing. I press the wire full on to the metal post. Scratch it around. Fuck.

"Sorry," I say. "No electricity, I guess."

I put the boy down, let the hood drop shut, chuck the wad of t-shirt and wire into the car through the window. We go back inside and I put the beans in the pot and turn the fire up under them. After a minute or so I hear a chafing sound on the living room rug, feel the boy's footsteps behind me. A static zap shoots up my bare back. I turn around and he's standing there with his finger out, smiling. "Is that electricity?" he says.

The shock still fresh on my skin, I say, "Yeah, goddamnit. That's it. Now sit down and eat some beans."

He climbs onto a chair at the table. I scoop beans onto two plates and we sit and eat. After a few bites, he starts staring again at the wall switch. His mouth falls slowly open like a baby bird waiting for some worm.

"What does 'conserve' mean?" he says.

The subliminal hiss of the TV wakes me in the middle of the night. In the living room I find the boy on the couch, lying on his back with his arms crossed over his chest the way movie Draculas sleep in their coffins. I lift his foot and drop it. "Hey." I take it again and shake until his eyes snap open. What a thing to see, not at all how you'd picture a kid waking up. No face-rubbing or squirming around, just these dark little eyes waiting for an explanation.

"Did you fix the tv?" I ask.

He looks over at the tv, then up at me. "I turned it on," he says.

"But it doesn't work. At least it didn't before."

He closes his eyes. His chest rises and falls, rises and falls. "I just pulled the knob," he says.

I shut the tv off and go back to my bed, which smells vaguely of Magda, my ex. She comes around a few times a month to write out checks, for the power bill and such. She works at a bank down in Mariposa, manages the office. She has an apartment there. When she comes she sleeps over, I don't ask questions. I understand about needing someone. Anyone. I don't make demands. She keeps giving me money, I don't ask why. It's not that I'm afraid she'll stop, it's just the way things have always been between us. Unspoken, understood. We know each other's contours, each other's rhythms. She just got sick of mine.

The boy's staring into the dog house when I get up. I stand at the window and watch. The dog house is big enough that he could walk into it without stooping. It's as fine a one as you'll see, a shingled roof, knotty pine walls, my old dog's name burned into the wood above the door — "Corn." Corn was a Great Dane. I spent a lot of time both inside and on top of his house as a kid. I'd go there whenever I wanted to punish my mom for working so much and leaving me alone. I've slept nights in Corn's house.

This kid, though, he just stands there looking inside, his face empty.

When I open the door to tell him it's okay to go in, play dogs, I hear the hiss of the rattler. I grab the .22 off the rack and hustle barefoot out to where he's standing. "Better get back," I tell him. He doesn't move, though, so I pick him up and set him down a few feet away.

"You sleep too much," he says.

I crouch down in front of the dog house and point the gun. The snake goes crazy, writhing and striking at air. "Not too much," I say. I empty the rifle — eleven shots — into Corn's house, every one of them a miss. I could go up and reload but I'll never hit it clean enough to kill it. So instead I lift the sheet of plywood that lies in front of the tall arching door and press it flat over the opening. "Here kid, hold this," I say.

"My name's Jamie," he says. He steps forward, puts a hand up against the board. The snake strikes it — thump, thump.

"Can you hold it?" I ask.

Jamie nods, and I go up to the house for a hammer and nails.

The ceiling fans run twenty-four hours a day now. Every time Jamie comes into the house he goes from room to room and checks each one. Sometimes it's quick — a head in the door then back out. Other times he'll stop at one and watch for hours. A few nights ago I had to interrupt a session in my bedroom so I could turn the light off and sleep. It was past midnight, and he'd been sitting on the edge of the bed, staring, since supper. It was just Rice-a-Roni, I can't see as that's anything to launch a stupor.

Magda shows up in the middle of the day, so it must be the weekend. She opens the door, purse hanging by the strap from her wrist, drops onto the couch at my feet. She looks haggard, her big features wilting in the heat. "Do you have a beer?" she says.

"Sorry."

She unzips her purse and finds a pen.

"Wait." I lead her into the small bedroom. Jamie's lying on the floor on his back, looking at the fan, his mouth open. "Whose is he?" Magda says. Jamie's eyes shift in their sockets enough take us in and quickly disregard us. "He's creepy," Magda says, then heads for the couch.

"I'm watching him," I say.

Jamie shuffles out to the living room while Magda's balancing her checkbook, an act of pure concentration for her. "My name's Jamie," he says to her.

"Good," she says. She shakes her pen. Her purse is on the floor beside her. Jamie picks it up, goes out to the porch with it. I should say something.

Soon Magda is shaking her pen again. She gives up and reaches down for another. "Where's my purse?" she says.

I point, and she turns and sees Jamie through the glass door. He's sitting facing us, the contents of the purse spread out between his legs. He appears to be reading a paperback book. Magda jumps up and rushes outside, yanks the book from his hands and sweeps up her things from the floor. "What's with you?" she says to Jamie. She sits back on the couch and shoves the purse between her leg and the cushion. "And what's with you?" she says to me.

Now Jamie is beside her. "Can I have that book?" he asks.

"No," Magda says. "Go play with fire or something."

"What's 'amortize?'" Jamie says.

"Who said anything about amortizing?" Magda asks.

"It's in there," Jamie says, pointing to the purse.

Magda takes the book from her purse, gives it to Jamie, says, "Show me."

Jamie opens the book. "'Chapter six,'" he reads. "'How to amortize, chart loan progress, and calculate depreciation.'" He looks up from the book. "'What's depreciation?'"

"What are you reading that for?" I ask Magda. She doesn't answer, but flips through the book. "Here," she says to Jamie. "Read this." Jamie does.

For the rest of the day, Jamie and Magda lie in my bed, Jamie reading aloud from books. I sit at the kitchen table and listen to fire reports on the scanner. They say the charred mountain looks like a patchwork quilt from the sky.

It's near dark when I go in and find Jamie and Magda asleep, his arm draped across her face. Suddenly she springs awake like a new mother, says she's going to fix dinner. She brushes past me to the kitchen, rifles the cupboards and drawers, says, "There's no food."

"There's some food," I say. I stand behind her and we inspect the cupboards together. "There's cranberry sauce, there's a box of hushpuppy mix, there's Ovaltine, there's—"

Magda slams the cupboard door, storms out and drives off, comes back an hour later with a box of stuff from the Johnny Store down on the highway. "If I ever see that again," she says, pointing to the cupboard, "I'm going to be one flaming hot bitch."

"We eat," I say.

Magda showers after supper, says she's been busy but not what with. Jamie and I are on the couch looking at tv when she walks by wrapped in a towel, wet. "My mother was born in Oregon," Jamie says.

"Really?" I say. "They've got some dumb laws there."

"Is that lady my mother?" Jamie says.

"I don't think so," I say.

Jamie turns back to the tv, no disappointment at all in his face. That's somehow sad, it seems.

"You can pretend she is if you want," I say.

"What do you mean?"

"Pretend," I say. "You know. Make believe. Use your imagination."

"I don't understand you."

"Like playing," I say.

Jamie scowls, gets up from his chair and sits in the one by the window.

Magda stays the night, we make quick, sloppy love. When I get up the next day there's a note on the table, along with checks for the electricity and the installment payment for having the well dug deeper. The note says only, The tit's running dry!

I have just over 40 acres. It's one of the smaller properties on the hill, I think. Mom paid twelve grand for it back in 1960. I can picture her with some piled-up hairdo, cigarette ash a mile long, one eye slammed shut. "$300 an acre, huh? Alright, give me forty of 'em." She hadn't had me yet when she bought the place, but she was planning to, she told me later, so she had the house built big enough for just us two. She was afraid that if it was big enough to look inviting to a man, one would eventually end up here. She'd been at the mercy of violent, alcoholic men all her life, said she was through with them, with men altogether. As a hedge, she took the smaller bedroom. She said I could hang around as long as I was a kid, but when I started to act like a man I'd have to leave.

I like the house. It's got two bedrooms and a big kitchen and a living room with plate glass windows on three sides. If it was much bigger I might feel obliged to work in order to take care of it, but it's not, it's small, so I can sit and look outside most of the time and feel fine about it. Mom worked twelve hours a day at a roadhouse that was dark and cramped and finished all over with rough-hewn wood. "It's like being a termite," she said. She decided her own house would have windows everywhere, the more the better. She wanted to come home and sit and drink her coffee and look out at what all she'd done it for, even if she couldn't see it for the dark. She hinted once or twice that if she'd had more money she might have added on another small bedroom, given me a brother or a sister. But when you've got a house to build and only x amount of dollars to do it with, square footage is a finite thing, and she wasn't going to give up her big kitchen just so as I'd have someone to play with. I'd have to be happy with Corn.

I like the property, too. The way it sits on the tree line, we have old oaks and boulders and brown field grass at the front, and at the rear, where the hill gets steep, narrow-waisted pine trees stand as tall and green as they could be. Beneath them is honest to goodness forest floor, damp and dark and smelling like pitch from the needles that pad the ground. Just above the first sprinkling of pine trees is a pond, and on the near side of it a ridge that rises up from the water like a man-made dam. If the ground wasn't so rocky you could slide down on your butt right into the water. That's something I'm always doing in dreams.

Jamie and I are at the table making strawberry milk when Magda bangs in through the kitchen door with another box of groceries. She's been bringing them every few nights after work, faster than we can eat them. She brought up a battery for my car, new clothes for Jamie. Most nights she stays over, sometimes in my bed with me, sometimes with Jamie in his or on the sofa by herself.

"You wait right there," she says to Jamie. She goes out and returns carrying a paper sack with handles. She holds it open in front of Jamie and squats down. "Guess what's in here."

"What?" I say.

"Not you," she says. "It's a present for Jamie. Can you guess what it is, honey?"

Jamie shakes his head. Then he says, "A present."

Magda looks at me, says, "You have to ruin everything, don't you?" She opens the bag wider, says, "Go ahead." Jamie's not looking in the bag, but into Magda's blouse, which is hanging open some. When he leans forward and reaches, Magda leans forward too. Both the sack and her blouse open wider.

Jamie reaches into her blouse. "What are them?" he asks.

Magda jerks back, then laughs when she sees the angered look on Jamie's face. "It's okay, honey," she says. She laughs some more and Jamie looks even angrier. Then she says, "Those are boobies."

"What are they for?" Jamie asks.

"Well," Magda says, "if I ever have a baby — which it doesn't look like I will — that's where the milk to feed the baby will come from."

Jamie looks at Magda doubtfully. "Milk comes from the Johnny Store," he says.

"Mammals make the milk and then it goes to the Johnny Store," Magda says. "That's what makes them mammals."

"I thought mammals have live young," I say.

"What else would they have?"Magda says. "Dead young?"

"No, they'd lay eggs. Mammals give birth to live young instead of eggs."

"Are you sure?"

"I think so. Hell, I don't know, maybe it's lungs."

"Anyway," she says to Jamie, "people are mammals. You are and I are."

"Are you my mom now?" Jamie says.

Magda's face drains, her smile dropping like fruit into the sack. "Let's give you your present," she says. She takes a book from the sack and puts it on the table in front of Jamie. How An Internal Combustion Engine Works.

Jamie opens the book and turns a few pages. He stops at a cut-away illustration of an engine. A line connects each part of the engine to a chunk of text that tells its name and the function it serves.

"Can you read it?" Magda asks.

"Yes."

She watches him read for a minute. "When's your birthday?" she asks. He doesn't answer, just stares at the picture, so she raps her knuckles on the table in front of him. "Hey," she says. "When's your birthday?"

"I don't know," Jamie snaps.

"Okay," Magda says.

Jamie gets down from his chair and takes his book from the table. "My dad works on engines," he says. He goes off into the living room to read, his glass left nearly full with strawberry milk. I hold it high over the sink and slowly pour it out. "I spoil everything," I say.

The rest of the night is silent. When I sit beside Magda on the sofa, put my hand in her lap, she says nothing, does nothing, even after Jamie's asleep. I go outside and listen to the mountain cool. The ground seems to glow from its earlier heat.

 

Lockjaw Watkiss repaired my Datsun under a sheet of corrugated tin nailed between two pine trees. It took him a full day. I sat on a footstool about twenty feet away — not for any reason except that's where he put it — and waited. His trailer was a short distance up the driveway. Behind it, acres and acres of old dead cars covered the piebald hillside. I went around to the back of the trailer every little while to drink from the hose, and each time a small, serious face appeared in the window. It didn't say anything, or even move. Once I went up close to the screen and said, "You stink," but the face didn't flinch, didn't crack a grin or disappear or tell me to go scratch my ass, so I just went on back to my stool.

When my car was fixed, I tried to pay Lockjaw Watkiss with a credit card. He looked at it, then at me. I squinted off into the distance, like there was something up the hill in the menagerie of cars that wasn't really there. Lockjaw wiped a chunk of sleep from one eye with a greasy thumb. "You can catch me later," he said.

I patted my pockets for effect. "You don't take Visa? I didn't see a sign."

Lockjaw looked left, then right. "There isn't one," he said. He handed me my keys and shuffled off to put away his tools.

Driving home, I flipped the charge card out the window as I crossed the Chowchilla River bridge. It was worth less than all Lockjaw's junkheaps put together.

Magda shows up again the next day. Though it's hours till nightfall, the sky is dark, the sun choked off from the smoke of a fire burning close by. I watch from the window as she sets the box of groceries on the porch, sits in the spring chair and calls Jamie over to her. He climbs into her lap and she jostles him around, they laugh. After a minute, though, Jamie's through with that. He slides out of Magda's arms and walks away, scowling. Magda collects the box and comes inside, smiling briefly as she walks past me. She puts the box on the kitchen table, sits down, crosses her legs.

I wait a minute — not sure why — then go in and immediately start shelving the groceries. A dot dot dot sounds through the wall near the kitchen door. It's woodpeckers hiding their food in the worm holes of the rough wood siding.

"We need to talk," Magda says.

"I guess the birds figure the house will be here even if the trees burn down," I say.

"I need you back on your feet," she says.

I line up boxes of macaroni and cheese in the cupboard, talk with my back to her. "I'm on my feet," I say.

"You're not on your feet," she says. "You're on my feet. I'm still paying for everything. Food and the lights. Everything."

"No one's forcing you," I say.

"I know no one's forcing me," she says. "I know that."

I stop with the groceries, pour luke warm coffee into two cups. I sit beside her and we drink. She looks out the window, brushes her foot over the floor like she's sweeping something away.

"I've done my bit making money," I say.

She looks at me, then out the window again.

"How much did I make that year?" I ask her.

"Twenty-six," she says.

"Twenty-seven. The book said, 'Make twenty-five thousand taking pictures,' and I made twenty-seven."

"I don't think making money is the kind of thing you can say you've done once and then that's it."

"I have done it."

"But it doesn't stay with you," Magda says. "You don't get to keep taking credit for it when the money's gone."

I get up from the table and pour my coffee into the sink. I fill the cup with water and drink that. "I have the house," I say. "That's all I need."

Magda sighs, looks out the window. "I got a new job," she says. "At the Advance-Press. I'm managing the office and the accounts there and doing some other stuff. I'm making more money."

"Since when?" I ask. "I didn't know you were looking for a new job."

"Since April," she says. "And I wasn't. There's more to it than that."

"April," I say.

Magda nods.

"That's four months," I say.

"I didn't tell you because I'm seeing a man I work with. Work for, actually. Russ Jones. It was too soon to tell you."

"Seeing," I say.

"Seeing," she says. "Seeing? You know? As in fucking?"

"Russ Jones," I say. "You're seeing Russ Jones."

"Yeah. Russ Jones."

I shove the groceries aside and hop up onto the counter next to the sink. I used to sit here while my mom cooked. I sat here and she talked to me and I talked to her. I miss talking to her, watching her cook. Our kitchen was always warm. Mom's voice, normally loud and gruff, seemed hushed in here. The bowl of butter sat on top of the gas stove and the pilot light kept it soft and ready to use. There was no room in my mom's house for cold butter.

"Russ Jones," I say.

"I want to help you get back on your feet," Magda says. "I want to, and I want you to let me. Then I have to leave. I mean really go. Okay?"

"Go," I tell her. "I'm on my feet." I slide down from the counter and land with a thud on the floor.

"I'm going to ask you to do something for me," she says. "Next week is my birthday—"

"I know when your birthday is," I say. Technically, this isn't a lie — I do know. I just don't know what today is.

"Just listen," she says. "Next week is my birthday, and I want a party, and I want to have it here. With you and Jamie. And I want Russ to come, too. He's a part of my life and you're a part of my life and Jamie's a part of my life, and I want to spend this one day with everyone I love. And I want you to bake me a cake. I bought a mix. It's in there. I'd like you to make it and put my name on it and write Love. You can do that, can't you?"

"You want me to make a cake for you and write Love on it," I say. "Here. At my house."

"I know it's your house," she says. "but it was mine too for a long time, and even though I don't live here anymore, not really, it still feels like home, more than my apartment, and I'd like to have one last birthday here. Is that too much to ask, considering I keep you from having to sell it?"

"I wouldn't sell it," I say.

"Is it too much to ask?" she says. "Can't you do this one last thing for me?"

Actually, it sounds fair. She was here a long time, longer than anywhere she'd been before. She was a military brat, shy, slow on her feet. It took every bit of her strength to leave me and she's still not gone.

"I can do that," I say.

"We lead separate lives now," Magda says. "You know that. We have for a long time, even when we were still together. And I'm growing, in ways I couldn't before. Russ is helping me. He says, 'If you don't grow, you die.' I think that's true. You and I have dissimilar growth rates."

"Dissimilar growth rates?"

"Can you do this for me?" she asks. "Take this step forward with me?"

"Sure," I say. "Whatever you need."

I put the rest of the groceries away while Magda drinks her coffee. "Are you okay with everything?" she asks.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"You know," she says. "Because we still fool around. We haven't actually stopped with everything. Not with everything."

"I have," I say.

"You have not."

"I have."

Magda looks at me, her eyes hopeful. "You have? Really?"

"Absolutely."

"Then can I tell you about him? About us, I mean. I mean, we haven't talked everything out. He and I, I mean. We haven't said, you're my boyfriend, you're my girlfriend, and that. It's just something we know. It would be nice to be able to talk to you about it. I mean, we're friends too, right? Me and you?"

"Friends first, I'd say. The other stuff second. Maybe third."

"How third?" she says. "What could be second?"

"I don't know. Guardians, maybe."

"We've only been guardians for a couple of months. How can that be second already?"

"I said maybe."

"Let's say second," she says.

"Okay, fooling-around-people second, guardians third."

She moves in behind me, puts her arms around my stomach. "I know we'll still be great friends," she says. She presses her face into my back and squeezes. "You're the best," she says. "I'm going to help you get kick started. We deserve more. Both of us."

I'm putting the Crisco in the cupboard above the oven, where it belongs, my arms over my head. Magda hugs me tighter, her breath soft and warm on my back.

"Hey, buddy," I say. "Pal. Chum. I can't hold my arms up like this all day."

The year I made money, I had most of the elementary school business around Mariposa, from Ahwahnee on up to Yosemite. I had the dance studio and the karate school, the little leagues of both baseball and soccer. I did some industrial work for the milk processing plant down in Cathey's Valley, some promotional stuff for the Golden Chain Theater in Oakhurst. I did the civic affairs stuff for The Advance-Press. Nearly all of it was humiliating. When there's a photographer around, everyone who thinks they know best is out to prove it. "You should get a picture of this, get a picture of that." You smile, nod, say you already took the picture or you're out of film. People get offended anyway. By all appearances you're saying that what they think is valuable really isn't. For me, that's a hard thing to do.

Magda fixes supper — meat loaf and gravy — and gives Jamie and me huge servings. She sits with us and watches but doesn't eat. When we're through, she cleans the plates and forks and puts them away, wraps the leftovers in foil and puts them away too. Then she kisses Jamie's hair, rubs my shoulders, says she has to leave. She has a date with Russ.

I'm lying on the floor of my bedroom, my legs upright against the wall, feeling not exactly sick but not well, either, when Jamie comes in and says, "What's the matter with you?" He reaches up and pulls my sock down, which is actually pulling it up.

"I'm not sure," I say. "I might throw up. What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing." He checks my sock again. It's still down. He runs his hand over it, pressing hard as if to secure it.

"You ever feel nervous?" I ask him.

"No."

"Not even a little sick at your belly, except it doesn't exactly hurt, it just feels wobbly?"

"No," he says. "Sometimes I get scared."

"Were you scared when your daddy left you here?"

"No."

"I would have been when I was five," I say. "I'd have screamed my face off."

"I saw you drink out of my daddy's hose," Jamie says. He grabs my shin and steps onto my stomach. For a second it feels like sick-time, but then he steps softly across my chest and middle his weight smoothes down the bubbles.

"That doesn't mean anything," I say.

Jamie shrugs. "I wasn't scared," he says.

I push away from the wall and Jamie lies face-down on my legs, his head between my feet. I lift my legs and he's suspended horizontally above the floor. "Put your arms out," I say. "You're an airplane."

He holds out his arms, teeters a bit until I grab his ankles. I lift him higher and higher, make silly lip noises like a plane.

"You ever read the town newspaper?" I ask him. "The Advance-Press?"

"No."

"Well, that's where Magda works, and the guy who owns it is going to be here for her birthday party. How about that?"

"I don't know," Jamie says.

"It used to be a decent little paper," I say. "Nothing fancy, but good. I took some pictures for them the year I worked, of the new methane recovery plant and little league soccer and stuff. You ever play soccer?"

"No."

Suddenly my stomach muscles are burning from holding Jamie up. It's not just queasy now, it's hot, too, and my legs drop to the floor. "Turbulence," I say.

"What's that?"

"Turbulence? That's when the plane hits a pothole. Anyway, this guy Russ Jones buys the paper, and you know what he does with it? This decent little paper?"

"No."

"He stops charging for it, gives it away for free. Only he doesn't just give it to anyone who wants it, he gives it to everyone, whether they want it or not. You know those papers you see all dried up in people's driveways and littering the roads in town? Those are them. Only he also quits printing anything people want to read. There's like two or three articles puffing up some business in town that buys big ads in the paper. No more Op/Ed page or sports articles, same person writes everything. The pictures look like mud."

"I don't know what to say about that," Jamie says.

"Nothing to say," I tell him. "It's a piece of shit."

I lift my legs high again, and Jamie is soaring. "Make noises like an airplane," I tell him. "Are you a jet fighter or a 747?"

Jamie says nothing.

"Are you pretending you're an airplane?" I ask him.

"No."

"Why not?"

"I don't want to."

"Sure you do. Everybody wants to be an airplane."

"Put me down right now," Jamie says.

I lower my legs again and Jamie rolls off of me. "Whatever you say. No sense flying if you're not an airplane."

I started flying when I was in high school. There was a man, Butch Kelly, who used to drop his little helicopter into the parking lot of Mom's truck stop and spend the day drinking coffee with her and plunking Bix Beiderbecke tunes on his banjo. He never hit on her or asked for anything more than a refill, and Mom called him her friend. She didn't say that about many.

Butch operates a flying service out of the airport in Mariposa. He used to take me up with him in the afternoons, sometimes in his little chopper, which he called The Moth, sometimes in the Cessna. He let me start the Cessna by spinning the prop, and when I got interested in photography he gave me a multi-lens camera that had belonged to an aerial photographer who'd stiffed him on charter fees. On my own, I learned how to use the camera, how to set course and speed to area and altitude, how to make mosaics at a scale of 1:20,000 to cover many miles in one image, how to border a vertical shot with oblique shots from each side to form a continuous photo of an area, horizon to horizon. I developed the film at school. The photo teacher gave me free use of the darkroom in exchange for feeding his dogs on the weekends he drove down to Bishop to see his kids.

Russ and Magda show up for the party right at three. Magda warned me about Russ's punctuality; she thinks it's endearing, respectful. I watch from the living room window as Russ parks the car. The trunk lid pops up before they get out. When Russ sees the dog house he stiffens, looks around. Magda laughs, tells him there's no dog to worry about. No Corn. They disappear behind the trunk lid for what seems a while, then it goes down and they're holding boxes. Russ looks regular — white shorts, brown t-shirt, a collar of russet hair around his tan, freckled head — and I get a little queasy thinking maybe I'll like him. But that goes away when I get a look at Magda in her shortie dress, red with bright yellow and blue flowers, sparkling like a drawer full of dimes. She puts a hand on his back as they head toward the house.

I met a man one night at Jack Stone's Tavern, a cowboy, handsome I guess, with a drooping walrus mustache and big forearms. He said he'd come up here all the way from Bakersfield because he wanted to drive and think. For some reason he singled me out, kept talking to me. All that driving, he said. All that thinking. He compared the lines in the road to the days of the year. What could I do? I asked what all he'd thought about. "I can't tell you," he said. "It ain't right." Okay by me. I watched tv for a while, shot a game of pool. When I went into the bathroom, the guy followed me in. He stood behind me and stammered as I peed. "That stuff I said before? Well, what I want to say is this: good and bad, ugly and pretty, they're right next to each other, you know? Not far apart like we think. Me, I never thought of my wife as beautiful, never thought of her any particular way. Then today I seen her with another man's dick in her and right away I thought, Yes, of course, that's it exactly."

I grab the cake from the kitchen table, blow some of the flour from the sides of the pan and meet them at the door with it. It says Love. There's a small chink in one corner that I tried to cover with frosting, but it melted and ran into the crack. Somehow that makes the Love stand out more.

When they hit the porch I open the door and greet them cake first. "Happy birthday," I say.

Magda beams at the cake, kisses me on the cheek. "Thank you," she says. "Really. Thank you." She holds out a pink box tied with string — a cake box. "I'm sorry," she says. "It's not to show you up or anything. It's for Jamie."

Magda steps back, takes Russ by the elbow, makes introductions. Russ shrugs, nods at the boxes in his arms. There are two, one the size of a computer, the other smaller, a cellular phone maybe. Then I look closely at them. The wrapping is black with E=MC2 all over in shaky white letters. It's supposed to be a blackboard with chalk handwriting. Magda sets her cake box down on the spring chair and takes the gifts from Russ. He wipes his hand on his shorts and offers it to me. I take it, squeeze it, drop it.

To Magda, Russ says, "I hope my coming here isn't out of line." Magda shoots me a look, and I say, "No. Not at all." I take up his hand again, pump hard this time, smile. To Magda I say, "I baked you a cake."

"You must have known she was coming," Russ says. We all have a laugh. Then Russ says, "I know you two are just friends now, but this is awkward. No sense pretending it's not."

"Well," I say.

"Yeah," Russ says. "Well."

"It's just one afternoon," Magda says. "It's not like we're here for a menage."

More laughs. Funny sound, menage. I hold the door open and Russ and Magda take up their boxes again and head inside. She shoves aside the newspapers on the coffee table — copies of the Advance-Press I scavenged from driveways in town; the undersides are crisp from the sun — and sets down the pink box. I nod at the presents. "Looks like you made out," I say to Magda.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I just thought since we don't know when Jamie's birthday is, we'd celebrate it today, too. He's never even had a birthday party, I'll bet."

"What about his real birthday?" I say.

"We don't know when it is. At least this way he'll have a day to celebrate."

"Yeah. Your day."

"Don't be petty," Magda says. She unties the string on the pink box and opens the lid. Painted in green and pink frosting over a sky-blue background is a ceiling fan, little wisps of white at the tip of each blade to show motion.

"It's something," I say.

"I wasn't trying to upstage you," Magda says. "I'm sorry if it seems like it. God, if I say 'I'm sorry' one more time today I'm going to kill someone."

"It's okay," I say.

"Your cake looks good too," Russ says.

"Yeah," I say. "Maybe we'll eat this one and save mine for the fair."

Magda gets us all beers, rounds Jamie up from his bedroom. She stands him in front of Russ, announces him. "This," she says, "is Jamie."

"Howdy, professor," Russ says. "How's the research going?"

"I don't know," Jamie says. He twists away from Magda but she finds his hand and leads him to the E=MC2 boxes. He tries to fight her off but she holds him close and finally hugs him. "Stop fighting me," she says. "We're celebrating your birthday. These are for you."

"What are they?" Jamie asks.

"They're presents, silly," Magda says.

"I'm busy," he says.

Magda takes the smaller box, puts it in Jamie's hand. "Russ got this for you," she says. "If you don't take it he might cry. Do you want Russ to cry?" Magda looks over at Russ, half smiles. "He's not usually like this," she says to him.

Jamie takes the gift and sits with it on the floor. He opens it slowly, like he might have to put it back together the same way. When the paper rips, he looks up at Magda. "It's okay," she says. She rips the rest of it away and puts the box in Jamie's hand. It's a calculator. Jamie takes it out of the box and brings it to me. There's about a hundred buttons. He runs his fingers over them, looks up at me.

"Cool," I say.

"It's a scientific one," Russ says. "It'll perform every calculation a calculator can perform. If he takes care of it, he'll never need another one." Then Russ seems to realize he's talking to me instead of Jamie and looks away, embarrassed.

"Cool," Jamie says. He hands me the calculator and goes back to Magda, who's waiting for him on the floor with his other present. This time he grabs a corner of the paper and rips it away in three swipes. The picture on the box is of a towhead family cooling off beneath their new ceiling fan. Jamie rubs his hand over their faces.

Russ gets down on the floor and helps Jamie unbox the fan. He peels the cellophane from the blades, tears the hardware from the shrink-wrap. "You think you can figure all this out?" he asks Jamie.

"What do I do with it?" Jamie says.

"That's up to you," Russ says. "Rather than having me tell you, why don't you just try to understand how it works. Think about it. Explore. See if you can figure out a way it could work more efficiently."

"He just learned what electricity is a few weeks ago," I say. Jamie grins when he hears this. He holds up his index finger like a magic wand and points at me, laughing. "Yeah," I say. "Ha ha ha."

Jamie stays inside with his fan when the rest of us head out back. I put out a little spread beneath the oak tree — snacks, beer in the ice chest. It's hot outside but not terrible, not so you feel like giving up.

I grab three fresh beers and we three adults stand over the cake that says Love and talk. Russ tells about the aggressive recycling program being implemented at The Advance-Press, which sounds like a canned answer to complaints about unwanted papers and trees needlessly butchered. Magda shows off talking about amortization and devaluation and profit reclamation. Russ nods and smiles. I act bored, though really I'm impressed. The beer goes fast. When Magda shifts from balance sheets to politics and the free market — could Darwin take the Republican nomination? — Russ breaks off to use the bathroom. By the time he gets back, conversation has dropped to the level of What stinks worse, skunk or cowshit?

"That boy's tearing into that fan in there," Russ says. "He's got the instructions and wiring diagrams out. Man!"

"You think he can really make that stuff out?" Magda asks him.

"Sure," I say.

Magda checks with Russ. "I think so," Russ says. "I think he's a prodigy."

"God knows what genetic miracle allowed that to happen," Magda says.

"Kids can do things with their minds adults can't," Russ says. "It's never too soon to get them thinking about the world's problems."

"His dad fit a radiator from a Model T to my Datsun," I say.

Magda and Russ laugh. "Yeah," Russ says. "Well. That's a little different, isn't it?" He goes to the ice chest and returns with a fresh beer. "There are special schools for kids like Jamie," he says. "He should be started pretty soon on a program."

Magda looks at me as if Russ had asked a question.

"We play dominoes," I say.

"There are tests that determine aptitudes, " Russ says. "That might not be out of line at this point."

"Actually, we just line 'em up and tip 'em over. The attraction of the game itself is beyond me."

"So you haven't thought about his schooling, then?" Russ says, this back and forth glance thing going with Magda.

"It's not up to me," I say.

Russ looks confused. "But I understand . . . "

Magda looks at the ground, shrugs. "Lockjaw's not coming back," she says.

"You don't what the hell you're talking about," I say.

I go inside to check on Jamie. He's in his room, fan parts spread out on the floor. I peek my head in. "So," I say. "Six years old. The big O-6. How does it feel?"

Jamie stands up, hands on his hips. "Fine," he says, shuts the door.

It's Magda's shot at the bathroom next. When she's gone, Russ says, "I don't know if you'd be interested, but I could use someone to take pictures for the paper. I've had to take them myself for the most part, but I barely know which end of the camera is the looking end and which is the pointing end. I just aim it and press the button. I know there's more to it than that, but I don't care to learn it."

"Not much more to it than that," I tell him. "Anyway, I don't take pictures anymore. I got tired of being asked to weddings."

"I know you don't," Russ says. "I know that." He waits a beat. Kicks a pebble. "But maybe you should."

"Maybe."

"I know it's not that exciting, mostly handshakes and mugs, but you've done it before, right? I mean, it's easy enough."

"It's still work though," I say.

"You know," Russ says, "I'll admit something here: I just don't understand that kind of attitude."

"It's more of an outlook than an attitude, really."

"Sitting around while the world spins by without you? That's some outlook."

"I'm not missing the world," I say. "I'm watching it. It doesn't need me to spin."

Russ shakes his head. "Is that what you're going to tell Jamie? That you contributed to society for a year but didn't like it?"

Right as I'm watching the sun jingle in the beads of sweat on Russ's head, a bird swoops down and pecks him hard on the skull, top dead center, then beats its wings in a flurry. Russ swings at the bird as it flies off. "Fucking bird, goddamn bird." He wipes his head, forces a smile. "What kind of bird was that anyway?" he says. "It dive-bombed me."

"I think it was a woodpecker," I say.

"It was brown," Russ says. "Woodpecker's are black and white."

"I know. With red head feathers. It was a pecker."

"It wasn't a woodpecker," Russ says. He chews his lip, looks toward the house. "Maybe that picture thing wasn't a good idea. It was Magda. She wanted me to ask."

I load each finger of my right hand with a black olive from the relish tray. "There's olives," I say. "Jumbos."

"I'm not hungry," Russ says. "Thanks." He looks at his wrist, sees he's not wearing a watch. He looks at the sky, at the house. "What the hell is she doing in there?" he says. Then he says, "Man, I'm drunk."

I head down to the house and through the window see Magda holding Jamie on the couch, tightly, stroking his hair. Jamie looks absent, his body wooden in Magda's arms. I head down to the dog house, poke a stick through a high knot-hole, jab it around until it hits meat. The snake nudges the stick and I scoop him up, lever him up to the rafters of Corn's house. Finally his lazy weight breaks the stick and he drops with a thud, hissing. I climb on top of the dog house and sit straddling the roof, pretending to fly. Russ steps out onto the porch and calls down and calls down to me, "What are you doing?"

"Flying my pet snake," I say. Russ shakes his head, goes inside.

It's days later, a week maybe, before Magda shows up next. I boil hot dogs for supper, clean up after. Magda and Jamie sit at either ends of the sofa and watch tv. I finish up in the kitchen then sit between them. Magda pushes me toward Jamie's end with her foot, says she's sleeping on the sofa tonight, or with Jamie. "Fine," I say. "Great. No problem."

We watch tv. After a while, Magda says, "I like television more now than I used to. Are the shows better or something?"

I don't answer. I have nothing to say to that. Sure, the shows are better, who knows?

"Let's go outside and tease the snake," I say to Jamie. He nods, goes outside.

"But we're watching this show," Magda says.

"He wants to go."

"I know," she says, "just—" She stops. "Fine," she says. "Go."

"What?"

"Nothing," she says. "We'll talk later."

Jamie pounds the dog house with the hammer, stands listening to the snake rattle. He drops a rock through a knot-hole. "Let's fly," I say. I put Jamie up on the shingled roof and climb up behind him. "This dog house is just begging for us to fly it somewhere."

"You can't fly a dog house," Jamie says.

"Sure you can. Snoopy does it all the time."

"There's a rattlesnake in here," Jamie says.

"You can fly a dog house with a snake in it," I say.

"No you can't," he says. "There's no fans on it to make it go. There's no wings."

"On a plane, fans are called propellers. Dog houses have inboard propellers so you can't see them. And you only need wings if you don't have a snake for power. We have a snake. Both are good."

"You can't fly this dog house," Jamie says. "Quit saying that."

"Watch," I say. I bang on the doghouse and the cashook cashook cashook comes right up through the wood and the tar paper shingles until the house feels energized, electric. The snake's lurching, coiling weight gives the house a shifting liquid center, like a giant, sloshing egg. "Here we go," I say.

Jamie stands and walks down the slant of the roof, jumps off. "I want to go back to that lady, now," he says. He bends down and says through a knot-hole, "You can't fly," then stomps off pouting toward the house.

"Come back here," I say, but he keeps walking. "Jamie. Come back here."

He turns around, says, "You're not my daddy, and neither is that snake."

You'd think it would take an audience of more than one five year-old to make a grown man feel as dumb as I do now. But it's not just Jamie. It's me, too, and Russ Jones. It's a talk with Magda hanging over my head. It doesn't seem fair, that. Small wonder we couldn't fly.

"I think Jamie should be with me," Magda says.

"He's my debt," I say.

"I can't come up here anymore," she says. "And I can't leave him here with just you."

"He was left before with just Lockjaw Watkiss."

"He was his father. You're nothing to him. Some guy who owed his dad money."

"Get out of my house," I say. "I appreciate all you've done, but you were right: it's time for you to leave."

I'm in the kitchen, listening to reports of the fire just over the hill, when I hear the muffled throp throp of a helicopter. I hurry out to the porch and find Jamie sitting there with his fan parts sprawled out. The blades are attached to the irons but the motor unit is out of its fake brass housing and the wires from it are in Jamie's hand. "You hear that noise?" I say.

Jamie nods, mouth open. I take him by the hand and lead him up the driveway toward the pond. The copter is just visible through the pine trees — a whir of white paint and ghosted blades — and as we climb the dam-like ridge, each step reveals more. It's got two rotors. The cab is long and thin. To its middle is attached a cable, and at the end of that is an enormous red trash can standing upright on the surface of the water, swallowing my pond. A fine mist rises like smoke off the water but quickly disappears in the dry air.

"I'm scared," Jamie says.

"There's nothing to be scared of," I tell him. "It's just a helicopter. In fact, I've been in that exact one. I took pictures from it of fire damage in Yosemite. You know what they're going to do with that water?"

Jamie shakes his head.

"They're going to fly it over to where the fire is and dump it right into the flames."

"Are we going to burn up?" Jamie says.

"They have a fire-wall dug between here and there," I say. "We'll be okay."

Jamie holds my leg, his shoes against mine, his nose touching my thigh. "Is my daddy in that fire?"

"No," I say. "He's somewhere else. In Oregon."

"How do you know?"

"Grown-ups know things," I say.

Jamie looks up at me, suspicious, squinting from the flying dirt. "I want to see," he says. "Take me home." He walks off toward the house, the car, and I'm left watching this great red trash can fly off with my pond.

It's about eight miles to Lockjaw's place as the bird flies, twenty by these round-about roads. The sky darkens as we get closer. "You want to drive?" I ask Jamie.

He shifts in his seat, grimacing. "I can't drive," he says.

"You can sit in my lap and steer. That's driving."

"I'm tired of you," he says.

"Today, you mean? Or in general?"

"Today."

"But in general I'm okay?"

"Yes."

"Is it okay staying with me?"

Jamie's permanent scowl deepens. He points up ahead and says, "Road closed."

A green Forest Service truck is parked cross-wise in the right lane. An electric sign flashes from the roof: Road Closed . . . Road Closed.

I drive past it in the outbound lane, which is clear. Up ahead, the sun is a faint disc in the haze of ash. A car approaches, headlights on. It's a sheriff, his arm out the window for us to stop. It occurs to me that if I do, a whole series of things will happen, the last being that a social worker will show up at my door and drive off with Jamie. This may happen anyway, but not today. I turn the car around, wave back as if to say "Right-o, Roger, I gotcha."

When we get back to the house, Jamie camps out beneath the fan in the living room and stares at it with a vengeance. He won't talk, won't acknowledge me at all. I make an airplane of my hand and dive bomb him. I tell him I'm the Red Baron, buzz his little nub chin and say nyeeeeow nyeeeow. Does he even blink? I turn the tv on, flip through the three channels we get, turn it off. I go outside, kick back in Mom's spring chair and stare off toward the fire. It's a tinder box of dry grass and chaparral between Lockjaw Watkiss's place and mine — what the firemen at Jack Stone's place would call a light snack.

After a while, Jamie comes out and says, "I want to fly."

"Let's go warm up the dog house," I say.

Jamie shakes his head. "In that helicopter. The one you took pictures in."

"That helicopter's working," I say. "It's fighting the fire."

"My daddy's burning up in that fire," Jamie says.

"Your daddy's fine," I say. "Your trailer's fine."

He stamps his foot hard, two times. "You said we could fly, so fly me there!"

A prodigy. How much can he really understand? It seems to me that if the map of his brain lays out like Russ and Magda say, those channels would be too deep and dark for a notion like abandonment to navigate. It seems to me.

"I can't," I tell him. "I'm sorry."

"I knew a snake couldn't make you fly," he says.

From the helicopter, the fire appears to trickle down Lockjaw's scrubby hill, through his field of cars, right up to the trailer. It creeps along slowly, like lava, almost flameless but for the yellow outline. The wind riffles down from the direction of my place, sweeping the smoke and flames to the south, where a much bigger blaze is tearing through the wooded canyon.

"Looks like you're gonna get lucky," Butch Kelly shouts over the pounding of the blades. "A different wind and we'd be looking at your place next."

When I called him, Butch let the phone ring about a hundred times before answering. The Forest Service would be looking for pilots and he wasn't interested. He was glad when it was me — there's good money in aerial photography — but then I told him what I wanted and he said he should have known better than to pick up the phone.

From my lap, Jamie watches, unmoved, as the fire overtake his father's land.

"Should he be seeing this?" Butch asks.

"Probably not," I say. Then to Jamie I say, "See, your daddy's not here. He'd be out fixing cars if he was."

"Go closer," Jamie says.

"Too dangerous," Butch says. "Some of those junkers might still have gas in them."

Jamie strains forward to look up through the bubble at the blades thumping overhead. "You okay?" Butch asks him. Jamie doesn't answer, just watches the blades spin. "Creepy," Butch says.

What can I say? We are what we are.

"We have to cut out of here," Butch says. "It's getting too warm for my taste."

"There's my daddy," Jamie says quietly, almost a whisper. He points. "Over there."

"Where?" I say, my stomach in a barrel-roll. "You saw him?"

Jamie nods.

"His truck's not there," I say.

"I saw him," Jamie says.

Butch catches my eye, shakes his head.

Jamie shifts in my lap, leans into me. "He's okay," he says.

"We're outta here," Butch says. "Sorry." He points the copter toward home and we dip forward.

It seems like I should say something, something important, but nothing comes. I should talk about life, or growing up. Find a map and show him where Oregon is. I should explain the concept of truth, that his father's gone and likely won't be back. I should tell him that he can live with me if he wants, or with Magda and, eventually, Russ Jones. I should tell him about courts, how everything is ultimately up to them. And I should tell him that no court will ever let him live with me. The judge will think, like Magda does, like most anyone would, that that would be like one child raising another. I should tell Jamie some or all of this, whatever's the responsible thing, the thing Magda would think me unable to say.

But nothing comes.

"I told you he was okay," I say. "Grown-ups know things."

Jamie turns in my lap, narrows his eyes. "You're okay today," he says. I squeeze him a little, but he wriggles loose. "Stop that right now," he says.

On the way home Butch checks out my pond. It's little more than a wet spot now, flashes winking up here and there from the fresh mud.

"My daddy knows where there's a helicopter in the water," Jamie says.

Butch grins. "Everybody knows that," he says.

"Let's see it," I say.

Butch shrugs, heads across the mountain.

The lake behind Jack Stone's Tavern is low, but blue and clear. Butch dips over to the north shore about a hundred feet from the log-choked bank. It's like Lockjaw said: you can just make out the copter — a brown bulge in the water, the bubble a dim glow beneath the surface, a thumb print.

"How come it's there?" Jamie asks.

"Yeah," I say to Butch. "How come?"

Butch cracks up. "Ha! You don't know?"

Jamie and I both shake our heads.

"I put it there," Butch says. He laughs, makes the tail of the copter wag like a dog's tail.

"What for?" Jamie says.

"Yeah," I say. "What for?"

"What for?" Butch says. "Because I was drunk as an uncle, that's what for." He puffs up, smiles big as the sky. "Good thing I can swim drunk."

"Head over behind the tavern," I say. Butch leans into the stick and in seconds we're above my Datsun, a faint yellow ghost beneath all this beautiful water. "I put that there," I tell Jamie. "You remember that car?"

"Yes."

"Your daddy fixed it for me," I say.

Jamie stares for a long time at the water beneath us, at the car, perhaps, or at the reflection of the helicopter's spinning blades. Then he says, "My daddy fixes things."

When Butch lands the copter in the driveway, I jump out and lift Jamie down after me. "Call me sometime when you don't want nothing," Butch says. "I'll fly up for coffee."

"How about now?"

"Naw," he says. "I got to go make money off this fire business somehow. Can't talk you back up with your camera, can I?"

"Sorry," I say. "I'm retired. Try strapping your old Brownie to a kite. That's what the old timers did."

Butch laughs. "Retired my ass. God did all this damage for us, least you could do is take some pictures of it."

I shut the door and cover my face from the flying dirt, but Jamie just stands there looking up, too young or dumb or just too much a child to protect himself. I pull him close and stretch my shirt tail over his face until Butch is gone and the debris settles.

We head up the hill, and when we get to the dog house I ask Jamie if he wants to play with the snake.

"We have to let him out," he says.

"Yeah," I say, "I guess he's earned it. He's been a good snake." I pick up the hammer from the weeds and yank the nails one by one from the plywood board until it's just me holding it up. The storm of rattles rages on the other side. "Come here," I say to Jamie. I squat down, and he climbs onto my back "There should be a dog in there," he says.

"How about a Chinese water dog?" I say. "I hear they're smart."

"Dogs can't live in water," Jamie says. He says this, but he doesn't sound sure.

I let the board go and take off running, this odd little-boy weight on my shoulders. Jamie tightens his hold on my neck. His cheek bumps mine as we run, fast, then faster, finally taking the porch steps two at a time and stopping only when we see ourselves, man and boy, big as life in the glass door.

 

about Steve Lattimore

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