This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Joel Bentley

Nels Hanson: Yellow Fish, Green Shoe
Illustration: Joel Bentley


            Roper swung the gaff and knocked me off the Blue Fin. My head hit the water and something flickered and the yellow fish with an orange eye and red mouth dove at my elbow, angling straight down as I fell.
             I’d saved the striped fish from Roper and now it was trying to save me.
             The fish veered off, away from a circle like a blazing porthole and I swam through it, closing my eyes.
             I was dry to the waist, wading in a stream of knee-deep fresh water that wandered through a valley of green grass. A cluster of brown teepees stood by the bend of the emerald river, the buffalo hides painted with blue moons and yellow suns, dancing rabbits and orange deer.
             I’d made it alive to Paul’s Mother of Water Lands he’d told Tug and me about at The Mast, before Dixie threw the green shoe at the patrol car where Roper lay facedown—
             I turned toward the bank and saw white statues of men half in, half out of the river, frozen as they’d stepped onto the shore with eager, greedy faces.
             It was bald Roper from the Blue Fin and Swanson the paymaster with his visor and Camel cigarette and the two Thomases from Thomas Fisheries and Pat’s sleepy son the butcher, from the corner store where I cashed my cheque.
             I stepped past a statue with two feet on the grass, one that had almost made it. It had a white mustache and short white hair and white, familiar eyes.
             It was Rick Speaks, the good man, forester and concerned ecologist who worked on the Sockeye Summer—
             My shoulder locked, my right foot felt heavy as cement. I glanced down at my arm and saw it turn to white rock, then grow lined with a spider web of cracks as my hand began to crumble and I tried to scream once before I turned to dust—

            I sat up, breathing hard, staring at the poster of Chief Joseph, the orange crate and Rick’s book, Requiem for the Earth, on the shelf the yellow Book of Changes, the colour of the fish, then up at the window where the sun was coming in.
             I wondered if Tug’s marijuana had made me dream about Paul’s story. Sleeping Child Lake was green, clear and 1,200 feet deep, two hours from Kootenay, where Tug and I would work at his brother-in-law’s mill. Its source was undiscovered, two scientists in a bell had been unable to find it, and Indians believed the lake was a door to another world.
             Only good Indians could go there. Anyone else would turn to stone.
             I looked back at the room and started thinking about storing my stuff.
             Then I remembered the big blonde girl with the bloody nose—Roper’s girlfriend Tug had saved from the cops outside the Gill Net, when she tried to go after Roper who lay cuffed in the car. We’d walked up from The Mast, and Tug had talked the girl down after she’d kicked at the cop and thrown the green shoe at the flashing cruiser.
             Dixie. I wondered if Tug was still going to Montana.
             I walked half a block and a horn honked. I saw Tug’s gray Navy truck with big tires coming toward me. He stopped, then reached across the seat and lowered the window.
             “You hooked up with Dixie?”
             “Naw, man. That was just helping a lady in distress.”
             “I thought maybe—”
             Tug shook his head. “You see her hands? I feel bruised.”
             “You still going to Montana then?”
             “We shook on it—” Tug looked concerned. “You just got fired. I just got my truck. You’re not backing out?”
             “No—I thought maybe you were. I need to store some stuff, somewhere cheap.”
             “Hop in. Paul’s got a shed.”
             Tug turned around in the vacant lot and down the street we pulled up at Paul’s. A small red Honda was parked in the driveway behind Paul’s old Land Rover.
             “Who’s that?” I asked.
             “Beats me. Paul get home all right?”
             “He did. I left him looking at the fish.”
             “Yeah,” Tug said. “Paul dug the fish.”
             We started up the driveway, and I saw the realtor in his chair at the table, this time in a white tennis shirt with crossed rackets embroidered at the pocket. His name was Gary and he was reading the sports page while the two blonde boys ate their cereal. His wife Julie stood at the sink in a pink bathrobe, and I realized I was glad I couldn’t see her pretty face that reminded me of Holly, my ex-wife’s sister.
             We went on to Paul’s apartment in back and Tug knocked and Paul called, “The door’s open!”
             The yellow fish swam effortlessly back and forth in the big tank, darting in sudden diagonals to strike some invisible prey. I touched my shoulder where Roper had hit me with the gaff in the nightmare.
            The fish seemed brighter, sharper, more energized than the day before when Paul had dumped it from my bucket into the aquarium. Now it dove, holding for a second the angle where the gold stripes shone and threatened to ignite like foil.
             Paul and a man in a sweatshirt and shorts stood beside the aquarium.
             “Hey, Bill. Tug. Meet Phil Davis. He came up from the aquarium in Monterey.”
             “Hi, Phil,” Tug said, shaking.
             I shook with Phil.
             “Bill’s the one who found it.”
             “I didn’t believe it.” Phil smiled. “I had to see it with my own eyes.”
             “You two decide what it is?” I watched its orange eye.
             “Possible Burmese Tiger,” Paul said. “We’re debating whether it’s a pioneer or a member of a school.”
             “It’s a major find,” Phil said. “That a tropical fish—”
             “Phil’s blown away,” Paul said. “‘The Northern Adaptation.’ There’s your title, Phil.”
             Tug glanced at Phil, then over at Paul.
             “Speaking of blown away—”
             Paul nodded and Tug took out his weed. Phil passed Tug’s pipe on without smoking. He asked me where the Blue Fin was when we netted the fish.
             “Three miles off the coast,” Paul said. “I told you 10 times.”
             He reached for his big book and they started turning the pages of colored plates.
             “Bill needs a place to store a few things,” Tug said. “I was wondering—”
             Paul raised a hand, still flipping the pages. “Anything you want.”
             “Maybe that’s it—” Phil was bending over the book, pointing.
             “‘Suspected early migration southward from polar regions—’”
             Tug winked at me.
             “We’ll be back in an hour or so,” I said.
             “Fine,” Paul said absently, reading.
             I watched the colour ripple across the fish’s side, the scales changing in rows like bending wheat as wind crossed a field, remembering how it glowed at my waist as I swam toward the bright hole in the lake, how yesterday it leaped like a yellow fire in the net before I caught Roper’s wrist and he brought back the sharp gaff and I earned my pink slip.
             I followed Tug out the door.
             Now Julie was at the table, lifting a white cup to her pretty lips as her husband read the paper. The way the sun lit her hair she looked so much like Holly I had to turn my head.
             “You have to pack?” I asked Tug.
             “Naw, all set. I’ll help you get stowed away.”
             We stopped by Pat’s store to get some boxes from her husband. We shook hands and Rolly wished me good luck.
             “Pat told me about your fish. She said it belonged at Sea World.”
             “Call up Paul Banner. He’s in the book. Ask him if you can see it.”
             “I know Paul. That’s what I’ll do.”
             I realized I was happy, suddenly optimistic. Everything seemed shining and laid out in front of me as Tug drove up the hill, and I remembered the orange sun with white rays on one of the teepees.
             From a distance, I’d seen Mother of Water Lands, before I turned to dust.
             Tug helped me pack and we took the stuff for storage to Paul’s shed. After the last box I shut the metal door and snapped the padlock. Through the lab window I saw Paul talking on the phone as he watched the swimming fish. His friend Phil sat working at the counter with a pen and notebook.
             I heard footsteps on the driveway and saw the neighbour with her two boys heading for Paul’s door. Holly’s twin smiled and again her brown hair was reddish in the light as she looked down at the smaller boy and touched his shoulder and they passed the corner of Paul’s laboratory.
             Phil turned his head and got up from his stool and then Julie and the boys stood by the tank with their eyes tracking the yellow fish that flashed and grew brighter when Phil switched on the black light.
             I watched their happy amazed faces reflecting the purple glow and then walked down the drive to Tug’s pickup as I wondered if Holly had any kids, if they looked like Julie’s.
             It was odd, because in a cupboard I’d just found the box from Holly, a forgotten wedding present for Jenny and me.
             “We’re on the road, bro, like Jack and Neal,” Tug said and started the big engine.
             I got all my money out of the bank and walked over to the phone booth at the Union station.
             Jenny’s husband answered. At first he thought I wanted a prescription.
             “You need to call the store.”
             I said no, then told him my name.
             “Bill who?”
             I could her kids yelling in the background. “Jenny’s ex-husband. Could I talk to her for a minute?”
             “Jenny’s out.”
             Maybe he was a nice man who was harried, maybe he felt odd talking to me, but his voice sounded flat.
             “Could you give her a message when she comes home?”
             “What is it you want?”
             “I found something of hers.”
             I’d expected to hear Jenny’s voice. It had a lilt, a natural melody full of warm excitement, like a red-winged blackbird calling as it flew from a reed.
             “Is it important?”
             I told him I was taking off the next day, that I’d found a box of Jenny’s dishes. They were fragile but I could have them shipped if he gave me the address.
             “Where are you?”
             “Mussel Bay.”
             He said they were driving up from Ashland the next morning. They were taking the kids to the Portland Zoo.
             “I can send them,” I said. I already thought of her too much, every time I went to Paul’s and saw his neighbour.
             “We’ll come by. Jenny’ll want to get them.”
             I gave him directions and got into Tug’s truck.
             “You want to eat?”
             “I’m buying,” I said.
             “‘Get along little doggies / Get along and slow—’”
             “Montana—” I liked the way it sounded and rang on the air.
             I spent the afternoon sweeping with the landlady’s vacuum, cleaning the bathroom, and sponging down the kitchen cabinets. I kept remembering that Jenny was coming in the morning. I’d have to tell Jenny about Julie. If she had time, I’d take Jenny to meet her and see for herself, maybe take a picture to show Holly.
             I put on a flannel shirt and walked down toward the docks through the clear still night. At The Mast I looked up at the hanging dusty nets of crab shells and dried sea stars I wouldn’t see again; in two days I’d sleep at Tug’s sister’s house in Kootenay. I had a basket of fish and chips, watching the lights on the black water, the orange, red, and green zigzags like writing from a black moving pen.
             After I ate I walked past the Gill Net. Muffled music vibrated through the wall, Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.” By the pleated leather door Dixie had stood topless and nearly naked on the sidewalk with a darkening bruise on her cheek and a bloody nose and lip. The short cop had picked up Dixie’s green shoe she had thrown at the patrol car and Tug had taken the other one from her foot and slipped it into his back pocket.
             “That pig,” she wept. “Pig, pig—” and Tug had held her.
             The scene resembled some backwards Cinderella.
             I saw Tug’s truck across the street, thought briefly of going in, and went on through the red neons past the swim shop’s skinny mannequin and up the hill to the emptied apartment.
             The alarm woke me at eight. It was sunny; the fog couldn’t come in against the off-shore breeze. I showered and shaved, combed my hair in the mirror, hung the towel out to dry on the railing.
             I had a bowl of Cheerios and finished off the last of the milk. My hands were trembling. It had been six years.
             I was washing the bowl and spoon when I heard the knock. I took a breath, dried my hands, and went to the door.
             “You up?”
             Tug was wearing a powder blue t-shirt with the words “What Happened?” across the front in small white letters. We took down my dishes and pots, my sleeping bag and fishing gear, a box of books and the hanging clothes wrapped in a sheet. Tug tied a tarp across the bed of the pickup.
             “I’m going to gas up.”
             “Let me give you some money.”
             “Naw,” said Tug. “Dixie treated me to dinner.” He looked at me, tired-faced, with sad eyes and no ready quip, and got into the gray truck.
             Ten minutes later I heard a car pull up and then quick tennis shoes on the stairs. I opened the door.
             “Hi, Bill.”
             Jenny pulled back her hand ready to knock.
             She was even prettier than I remembered, a woman now, not the cute girl in Levis and a cap and sweatshirt.
             I didn’t have a picture and when I dreamed of her the curve of her nose and her mouth were slightly different. I memorized them now for when she was gone.
             “How’ve you been?”
             The hopeful spark was still in her voice.
             “Okay. How’re you?”
             I glanced over her shoulder at the street, where her druggist husband sat behind the wheel of a green Volvo station wagon. I couldn’t make out his face. Two brown-haired boys stared up at me from the backseat window.
             “It was pretty driving up.”
             “You going to the zoo?”
             “Yes.” She smiled. “The kids are excited about seeing a lion.”
             “Come in.”
             I hadn’t heard her voice in four or five years. The last time was a phone call, about a registered letter that had somehow come to me. Jenny looked around the bare room and moved toward the kitchen.
             “Bob said you were leaving town—”
             “I got laid off.”
             Jenny looked at the scrubbed sink. “Where’re you going?”
             She turned. “What’re you going to do there?”
             “Work in a mill.”
             She stared at me a moment.
             “You thought about going back to school?”
             It was the old question, only now our lives weren’t connected anymore.
             “Not much.”
             “You ought to finish. You’re smart.”
             “I don’t know.”
             “Of course you are.” She watched me, as if it were her turn to remember my face, compare it to her memory of it. She glanced over at the white box on the counter. “I won’t lecture you, about teaching or anything else.”
             “It doesn’t bother me. It’s nice to see you again.”
             “You too, Bill.” Jenny looked back at me. “Really good.”
             For a second we didn’t speak.
             “Are those the dishes?” Jenny touched her cheek and I saw her wedding ring with the diamond.
             “The cups your sister gave us. The ones with the roses.”
             “It’s strange.” She looked at the box without moving toward it.
             “Like they should’ve turned to dust?”
             Jenny shook her head.
             “Holly died—”
             I stared at her.
             “Two years ago this month.”
             “I can’t believe it.”
             Jenny nodded. “Neither could I. She went really fast. At first she was real sad. Then it was like she couldn’t wait; she wanted to go.”
             “They couldn’t do anything?”
             “They tried but it wasn’t any use.”
             I half-expected Jenny to explain it, to make it right. When I’d met Holly, I knew for sure Jenny was the one. They were alike. Holly and I had only laughed, never exchanged a sad word. She was sorry when Jenny and I broke up.
             “Did she ever get married?
             Again Jenny shook her head. “No. But she was engaged. A real nice guy. He stayed with her in the hospital, right to the end.”
             I didn’t answer.
             “You seen your folks lately?”
             “Not lately.”
             “They still at the ranch?”
             I nodded.
             “Remember that poster I got you? The white bird, like the song?”
             “It’s A Beautiful Day.”
             “That was the band.”
             Jenny reached out suddenly and touched my arm. “What’re you looking for, Bill? You were always looking for something. For a while I thought it was me.”
             “It was you.”
             “I wasn’t sure—”
             She was right. I’d fouled things up, one ear always cocked for some sound or word I couldn’t hear but thought was calling to me, like the hawk that dropped the pinion in the barnyard. My father had yelled that I’d never be a cowboy and ought to go in the house to help my mother.
             “For a while, when I was first married to Bob? I’d wake up at night and think it was you. I’d be happy. Did you ever think about me?”
             “All the time. I called you sometimes. Just to hear your voice. I’d hang up.”
             “Oh. You shouldn’t have.”
             “I didn’t want to interfere.”
             “You going with anyone?”
             “Not for a while.”
             “You’re not looking?”
             I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her tight and kiss her mouth. I would have made love to her on the floor in the empty apartment, without guilt or remorse or fear of hurting her feelings or mine or betraying her husband. I thought maybe she wanted to. I wouldn’t care if someone found us.
             I was still in love with her and thought of Holly’s cups that had been wrapped up for six years. It was like Holly was alive again, here in the room with us as we got back together.
             A horn honked, then again.
             “You better get going.” I reached toward the box. “Holly’s cups are wrapped in tissue paper. I took one out and it looked okay.”
             “I’m sure they’re all right.”
             “It’s strange, isn’t it, how you get older but the things you save stay the same.”
             “You’re the same.”
             We looked at one another. Then I went over and lifted the light box. “I can take it down for you.”
             “No.” She reached for the box and I let her take it. She held it close. “We’re going to Portland. The zoo.”
             “That’s what you said.”
             “Did I?”
             Her brown hair shone like Holly’s, like Julie’s, auburn in the light through the open door. She looked distracted.
             I touched her arm and she tensed so I dropped my hand.
             “Jenny, I’m really sorry.”
             She looked surprised.
             “What for?”
             “For wasting your time. Those years.”
             “You didn’t waste my time. I have good memories.” She smiled. “It turned out all right.”
             “Did it?” I started to say, then didn’t. “I’m glad for you.” I looked into her eyes, at the hazel flecks in the brown. Her gaze softened.
             “I’m sorry too,” she said.
             The horn honked again.
             “I’m holding you up.”
             “In a minute he’ll send up one of the boys.”
             “What are their names?” I said.
             “Chad and Clint.”
             “Chad and Clint.”
             “Ah, Bill—”
             She reached out with an arm, balancing the box, and we hugged. I breathed in her familiar sweet scent. The white box started to slip and I leaned back, holding it as she grasped it again.
             “Let me take it down the stairs—”
             “No,” she said, “it’s light as a feather. Take care, Bill.”
             “You too, Jenny.”
             She turned in the doorway. “I always liked the way you said my name.”
             “I liked saying it.”
             “I know you did. I better go—”
             She turned, nearly bumping into Tug. I hadn’t heard him come up the stairs.
             “Excuse me.” He stepped back.
             “Tug, this is Jenny. Jenny, Tug.”
             “Glad to meet you.”
             “Yes,” Jenny said, holding the box. She looked back at me. “Goodbye, Bill Ryder—” She stepped past Tug and started quickly down the stairs.
             I looked at Tug, then went out on the landing and watched her cross the yard, waiting for her to stop and look back but she didn’t. I admired the honest way she moved, the set of her head and shoulders and hips and her clean certain stride. Jenny moved the way she talked and smiled and in my mind I said, “Goodbye, take good care, my love—”
             It was the last time I’d see her. We’d never speak or touch hands again.
             Her husband started the engine of the green Volvo, to go see the gold lions. Jenny put the box of dishes in the back of the car and got into the front seat. She was pulling down her seatbelt as the car moved away from the curb, up the street toward the house where Julie still lived even though Holly was gone.
             “You ready to go?” Tug said.
             “Sure,” I said.
             Tug went down to the truck and I looked at the bare room with the vacuum cleaner sitting by the door. I thought of the beautiful yellow fish I’d saved from Roper, how right now it was swimming in Paul’s tank while half a mile away Roper sat in jail for hitting Dixie.
             Then again of sweet smart pretty Holly dying as fast as she could while her fiancé sat beside her bed.
             I pushed the button on the knob and closed the door, slipped the key under the mat for the landlady. Up the block, the station wagon hesitated, then crossed the side street and climbed the hill past Julie’s until Jenny was a small square of emerald.
             The car made the crest and I realized the green was the same as Dixie’s thrown satin shoe, as Sleeping Child Lake and the river the yellow fish led me to, where I’d set one foot in heaven before I turned to stone.

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