Hiding in the water
Hiding under the water
We set upon our enemies
We frighten the Stick People
We chew them up
We make them take care of us”
(Old Squilimuk song collected in
“Squilimuk Songs and Stories: The People’s Way (1899)”)
Chester threaded his way along the spidery network of little old roads that webbed together the mostly unused tracks of the Beaverteeth, Midden and Pacific Railroad. Why had so much of his experience – he did not want to call it a vision as the old woman had – been about a train? Trains seemed an odd subject for a vision or even an hallucination. He slowed the Drifta down and bounced its insecure suspension over the half-buried rails in the asphalt as he approached the old railroad yard. He noticed, as if for the first time in his life, the rusty old railroad roadbed as it branched itself out into the Gorgeville Yard like a great skeletal hand. Cinders and spikes and wet black iron in the fog, the little spring weeds poking up from the gravel ballast under the carved iron rails where his boyish feet used to run, the big armored beetles of the boxcars whispering slickly along the rails, kicked by the inertia of an engine’s push, rolling free to smash into their fellows lurking in the fog. The boxcars had always been his favorites and the sight of them, each emblazoned with huge words and slogans, never failed to move him. They were like chests, the boxcars, like boxes indeed, big ones from the hold of some old ship, rolling, entrained, packed with mysterious goods from far, far away. The freeway brought the trucks to Beaverteeth these days, but still the old railroad carried many of the town’s needs, those needs that could afford to move more slowly and that might be offloaded through the wide rear doors and over the high platforms of a town that wouldn’t have even been much of a town if it hadn’t had a backside with tracks running up it. There should have been coal from up the mountain at Carbon in those big green and white hopper cars called Great Northerns, he knew, but they were empty and rusting. There should be crocus bulbs outgoing in the short, old-fashioned wooden-slatted cars painted the black and orange of the BM&P (the “Routeof the Puffin.”) Everything that Bunky’s Hardware or Solveg’s Stationary or Krapp’s Drug or the Busy Beaver Lumber Co. needed to back up their stock would be in the mysterious golden sunset cars of the Southern Pacifics, stenciled with notifications of tare weights and tonnage and origin and a languid promise of the sun and ease of the south of California. There was a Chessie car, all the way from the East, a couple of Seattle Pacifics in green, then some Union Pacifics and a rare Chehalis and Cowlitz and then two Soo Line cars, still painted the old way in the old red color.
He loved the trains and all the things that went with trains, especially the scarecrow-like switches and the dwarfed hooded green and red lights. He had spent big parts of his teen-age years down here. He knew his way around. No wonder that much of what had happened to him had seemed to have been on a train. It was psychological, he thought. It wasn’t a vision, it wasn’t somewhere else. It was made up out of him, like a dream. It made him feel better to think like this and he tried not to remember that Annie Bob had told him the exact opposite.
He pulled in at a place on the other side of the yard, where it narrowed back down to the main line, down by the river. Thiswas a place where he knew he might drink alcohol without seeinganyone he knew, because he needed to think for a minute aboutwhat the hell he was actually going to do about this parade, notto speak of his mental condition. He knew he didn’t have to goover to Midden to talk to the Midden Parade committee, he knewwhat was up. He wondered if they would even let the traditionalBeaverteeth floats ride in their new parade and he was betting thatthey wouldn’t. It was as if the City of Midden wanted to wipeBeaverteeth off the map and since Chester wanted to get rid ofThe Name, he wouldn’t so much have minded, but he didn’t want tobe a part of Midden either. He wanted his town, only he wouldlike it to have a different name. He was thinking that beer might be his safest course and thecorrect refreshment for the kind of mental pursuit he was involved in. And, he thought, maybe he had a little edge here. Maybe everyone didn’t know as much as he knew yet. He reached for his cell phone and called Willi back at the office and asked her if she’d told anyone about anything. She said no because he hadn’t told her anything and he’d sworn her to secrecy anyway. She asked him what exactly they were talking about and he told her to forget about it. He dialed Tom Rasmussen and each guaranteed the other that they would not tell anyone until somehow the dullards down at the Beaverteeth Register found out or until the Midden papers printed it.
“Why?” asked Tom.
“I think I’m getting an idea,” said Chester. Tom just laughed.
He stared at the Hiball Tavern. Since a tavern, by definition in Washington State, cannot serve mixed drinks or hard liquor at all, the hiball in question was therefore the railroad hiball, a signal thrown by hand or lantern or telegraph in order to give the big trains their head out on the main line, that they might be able to pick up speed with the assurance that nothing lay before them but rail. Chester hadn’t been in the Hiball Tavern in years. It had a bad reputation even among Indians and the Mexicans who came through annually to work the hops and plant daffodil bulbs. A spooky blue neon sign crowned the decayed old cedar shake roof grown over with mosses and ferns. The sign had no words on it, it was just a shaky blue neon train lantern, flashing on and off and sputtering and buzzing in the rain that fell again. The Hiball Tavern was a place of railroad men and these were not a convivial lot, even in the old days when there were hundreds of them in the town. These days, the old trains didn’t run much anymore, in fact the railroad business was pretty much gone from the valley. It hadn’t always been that way. Coal in carloads used to come down from up on Stick Mountain and more big timber went riding the rails out of Beaverteeth Yard than any inland Petersunn Lumber facility had ever laded, that’s what the old men always had said. The Petersunn Mill had been going full blast and the pool and the sorting yards once employed more guys in town than it seemed possible to house and railroad men were everywhere and the Hiball Tavern was where they drank their beer. Chester felt that drinking beer was probably the correct thing for him to do at this point, since one thing he knew about drinking beer was its effect upon him, which was calming, he believed. He did not need anything that might promote hallucinations, for instance. He was not the sort of drinker who would see snakes anyway.
With a clutch to his solar plexus, he remembered that he had seen a snake that day, a snake the color of milk. He carefully locked the Drifta, noticing that among its other stablemates in the Hiball Tavern parking lot was a pickup truck with two double banks of off-road halogen spotlights rankedup top and huge muddy studded tires beneath. It was a fearsome vehicle, no less frightening for the fact that it sported a license plateholder reading:
Fuck You If You Don’t Like It!
Washington Militia Posse
There were maybe six other cars parked there, some of them interesting enough, but it was pretty much all downhill once you saw the pickup. When he pushed open the little door to the tavern, the smell of hot grease and immolated clams and beer slapped him in the face like a playful uncle. It was not trendy, inside the Hiball Tavern, and there was not oneperson in the place any ex-wife or girlfriend would be the least interested in. There were no cute potato crisps or grilled sandwiches on the menu, no electronic dart games nor cleverly-named local beers. There were, in fact, no vegetables of any kind, the only food available being the traditional fried clam strips,bubbling turgidly in ancient oil in the
grimy cookers in the rear of the place. It was a place to drink. It was a place where men would come in for a beer long before their lunchpails were opened. It is true, he thought, that railroad people drink. He had always thought that railroad people are the way they are because only they really understand the fearful and malevolent sheer inertial weight of the rolling beasts they shepherd through the rest of our sleeping nights. And they may be drugged and theymay be drunk – that is, they may be men (even if they are women, which a couple of them are these days) – but they are doing it and you aren’t, that’s their attitude. Even if you knew all about it, you wouldn’t do it and they would still, so they’re railroadmen and you aren’t and that’s that. Chester liked to know where the boundaries were drawn in life, where the line of scrimmage was, so to speak, and he had always enjoyed – when he was a kid – being the kind of outsider who could get along down here, the kind of kid who made models of trains and wanted someday to play with the big toys.
He had wanted to be on the railroad side of the line of scrimmage, although life hadn’t worked out that way.
He sat his big frame down at a corner pine booth under a flickering ugly light and felt better and ordered beer, good old beer, some pilsner of Spring, something golden, something calming. He remembered when there used to be telegraphers and froggers in these booths, waiting to go on shift, climbing off the extra board, supporting their families. He could look out a little paned window over a mossy sill at the gray dusk. Next tothe mainline tracks flowed the Squilimuk river, old friend of his youth, more beautiful than the most beautiful girl at Beaverteeth Union High school in any given year, quiet and deep and still and fast as it fell out of the valley, down to lose itself in the salt water of the mighty Sound. Across the river, the little abandoned BM&P station called Gorgeville partially blocked hisview of the volcanic mudflow. Little flashing yellow lights couldbe seen over there and, now and again, the explosive blinding glare illuminating a TV reporter. News outfits from as far away as Seattle and Portland and San Francisco had arrived today in some force to view the mudflow. He could make out the same trucks and equipment he was familiar with from the broadcast of the parade each year.
After the pitcher of beer came, and after the woman who served it had left him with his icy mug, a man whom Chester did not know leaned his head down to look out through the little window, but Chester could tell that the man was really stalking some conversation with him and was watching him out of the corner of an eye. The sun had set, leaving only a pinkish smudge on the dark rain outside. The man was his age, Chester figured, and had on the logger’s suspenders and plaid shirt and big expensive athletic shoes and backwards baseball hat that identified him as either a real estate developer or a lawyer. He was wearing what was practically a uniform in the Valley of the Squilimuk for off-hours yuppies of a certain age and wealth. Real loggers tended to wear an earring or two these days.
“One by one,” the man said dramatically. “One by fucking one, they’re closing them down.”
“Closing what down?” said Chester when he might have ignored the man. He didn’t want company but he had always felt that drinking alone was wrong and he was worried by the appearance of the milk-white snake in his mind as much as by anything on this tumultuous day. By the elaborate slowness of discourse, the studied gruffness, the flags of attitude flown, this man was signalling that while he didn’t like to talk and thought talking was silly, still, he needed to talk. Chester was relieved, in a way. He had not had much of a coherent thought about saving the parade as yet.
“Sit down, brother,” said Chester as the man paused.
The man sat. “They’re closing the roads down,” the man said. Then he jumped up and trotted – that was the speed – over to a lonely pine booth, grabbed his beer, trotted back and again collapsed across from Chester. He stared out the window and drank beer.
“See all the roads out there?” he asked.
Chester could see only one road, the Old Midden road, closed as it was, covered with seething mud as it was. (There was this problem of the mountain blowing up and killing them all, he thought. Was he not facing this problem? The mudflow publicity was going to kill the town anyway and obviously Midden wanted to distance itself from Beaverteeth which, geologists had always said, was in the direct path of the kind of horrible volcanic river of fire that had not come down off StickMountain in a thousand years, but that now seemed onlyminutes away.)
“The railroad and the river,” said the man, “are the other two roads. The rails are empty and the river’s probably next.It’s polluted as shit. Right here at Gorgetown they all come together. I like to come here to watch the trains. I’m a railfan,see? If there were any goddamn trains left.”
It was poetic, thought Chester. The guy had a gift for gab.Chester waited for the other shoe to drop.
“They’re going to close them down, see? That’s the deal. First they took the steam away and soon they’ll take the diesels away too. They don’t want any roads, see? The roads entwine each other into a skein of time and hate and commerce and history and asphalt and iron and water,” the man said, obviously enjoyinghimself. “The histories of Beaverteeth and Midden anyway make up a litany of anger,” he said. “A fugue of hate, like a ???” He stared blearily. Chester noticed now that he was pretty plastered.
“Like a metaphor?” asked Chester politely. “Exactly,” said the man with half a smile. “I could have said it better but I didn’t. And you did. Well said, my friend, you son of a bitch.”
Chester raised his mug to the man and smiled half and drank deep but his mind was on the morning, on the barely remembered fragments of vision that floated and bounced around the big emptiness in his head. The train made its own tracks. He had sat on top of a mountain. He had two heads. His father had been murdered. Over on the other side of the room, by the ugly bar, three young guys were yelling at a TV set slung up on the wall.There was a game going on.
“You fuckin’ ASSHOLE!” shouted one of them.
“NO, NO, NO, NO!” they all shouted in unison.
“Big game,” said the man to Chester.
“Big game,” said Chester. Neither of them were interested. They couldn’t even hear the TV, the young guys were so loud.
“If I was from Beaverteeth, I’d hate Midden,” said the man. “I wouldn’t like it when they win and I’d like it when they lose. I’d enjoy seeing them humiliated.”
“You got that right,” said Chester. He wasn’t really listening and he signalled the bewigged woman with the cigarette behind her ear to bring them another pitcher of that crazy German beer, the beer that was all cloudy and almost tasted sweet.
“If I were from Beaverteeth,” said the man, “which I’m not, I’d be of the opinion that Midden is a provincial little city ofoverwrought ambitions, that it’s like a pretty snake or a possum-playing god-damn viper, a dead bullhead, a mushroom poisonous, a gutted shark still alive, a dead skunk at the bottom of a dynamited pond.” He stared at Chester as if to see how he was taking this. Chester smiled wanly.
“You got that right,” Chester said. He wasn’t really following what the man was saying. He got the general drift and like many in Beaverteeth he, of course, agreed.
“Midden. The fucking place stinks,” said the man.
“I hear you,” said Chester.
Indeed, Midden, when profiled in the New York or Los Angeles newspapers was, more often than not, characterized as a small, grimy, odoriferous working-class city overlooking the scenic Puget Sound. Out on her stinking tideflats, where the piers had been driven deep into the muck and a towering assemblage of cranes and billowing smoke arose and great ships from the Orient stood out in the deep channel waiting each her turn to be loaded with pulp or logs or wheat, the smell would rise on days of ill-favored winds like a witch’s curse. Tideflats at their natural best are aromatic and pulp mills were designed by God to test the olfactory sanity of Mankind, but here the combined smell was overpowering, elemental, like a fiery conflagration of rotten oysters soaked in urine and laid on a bed of flaming rubber tires. Still, Chester was no fool. Midden had its charms. Of his adult life, more had probably been spent in Midden than in Beaverteeth. He had always coveted a shoreline retreat on MysteryIsland – which lay just offshore of Midden – where the incomes ofairline pilots and refugees from Los Angeles had driven property values up beyond his limited means in the space of half a lifetime. He enjoyed life in the Valley of the Squilimuk, he loved the mountains and the river. But the Sound is the Sound, he thought, and in Western Washington the first preference of anyone, Chinese or Swede, white, black or Nisqually, rich or poor or Mexican, from Tacoma or Seattle or Bremerton or La Conner, is the verdant and living shore. To live at its edge, to have a dock or a boathouse and a boat, to wake up looking out on the sheltered isles and forested capes around Mystery Island or the Geegee Peninsula, to see the snow-topped Olympics and – far across the Sound – to see sunlight on the Cascades and the mighty Stick Mountain reaching to the clouds, is to have achieved all a man might in this country. Midden, it seemed to Beaverteethians always, was where the Fortunate were. Left for inlanders was a feeling ephemeral as mist, a feeling of loss and half-remembered fears, remnants of a troubled past. Beaverteethians had inherited, with their stupid name, a distrust of Midden and Middenites so strong as to occasionally hamper sober business and commercial dealings between the two municipalities. Everywhere he looked in Midden, Chester could observe the smugness of the happy residents, their ease, their destiny, as destiny is defined in places where history itself is counted only in decades. In Beaverteeth, many felt that if Boeing or Intel didn’t move a couple of expansion plants to the area, the place was effectively finished and the forest might as well grow back and cover it all. Chester and his new friend finished the pitcher of cloudy beer. They yelled happilyat each other across the sea of TV sports noise.
“Midden is not Europe, Midden is not China, Midden is not even Tacoma!” shouted the man. He, like Chester, was suffering some hair loss and Chester felt inclined to like him for this alone.
“Midden is a most recent creation of clever railroad advertising landsale brochures whose ink, slapped down a mere hundred years ago, is barely dry today!”
At the bar, the three guys screamed in horror at the TV.
“Shit!” they yelled.
“No,no,no!” they cried. “YOU STUPIDFUCKING ASSHOLE!”
“So they have a port,” shouted Chester sarcastically, over the noise of the young guys’ pain. “They have a deep-water port. They settled in a place that stinks and they made it worse. They have deep water anchorage but they are not men. We are men. We live on a honeyed, fruited plain made from our own labor, where men may live as men and not as mollusks.” He poured the last beer out of the second pitcher.
“The achievement of the City of Achievement was that they were there first at the waterfront, my friend, that’s all,” said the man. He seemed smarter than heíd thought he was at first and he was glad now for his company. The neon-dotted memory of the morning seemed far away.
“Man, they crossed the wrong person when they crossed me,” Chester proclaimed. “I don’t need to go begging to the goddamn Parade Committee. I know what the deal is, I know that they know that if you’re going to be the City of Achievement you can’t do it dragging a little neighbor town with a stupid name behind you into the Twenty-First Century. It’s come time for Midden to cut bait and the bait they are cutting is Bunky the Beaverteeth Beaver.” He was booming now. The man looked at him with sudden stillness.
“I get it,” he said.
“You get what?” said Chester.
“You don’t know who I am and I just figured out who you are,” the man said. “You know who They are and why They want to close the three roads down, of course.”
“Oh my God,” said Chester. “You’re a Believer.”
“So what,” said the man testily. “So are you. You just made up all that stuff about Chief Smoattle being a fake, admit it. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
Chester had a creepy feeling as the man stared at him across a sea of too-much-beer. The game on the TV was wild, judging from the noise. Every once in a while one of the guys at the bar would shriek “Shit!!” Chester stared at the man. Reason prevailed.
“Why the hell should I know whatever it is we’re talking about, which I have frankly forgotten?” he said in a friendly and forgiving manner. He wanted to give the little guy an out and move him along but his joke did not get a laugh. They both stared across the pitted formica between them, not quite meeting each others’ eyes.
“You’re Chester Honeyacre who lives right here in town, aren’t you? Of course you are.” The man was strangely kind when he asked, almost solicitous. Without waiting for Chester’s answer he said, “You know as well as I do what Chief Smoattle predicts:the Sacred Flow, the Choosing of the Elite, the Silver Triangle, the Secret of the Plant Brain, the Big Blow, the Big Flow, you know it all, chapter and verse, my man. I mean, my God, Honeyacre, you’ve been there! You saw it all from the beginning. How could you try to convince anyone that you weren’t a Believer? You had a bad, bad lawyer, Honeyacre, but I guess you know that by now. I shouldn’t be talking to you anyway. This whole town is going under when the mountain blows. It’s already started, just like she said. They’re closing down the roads to begin the Choosing. The Processing has begun.”
This kind of crap was the last kind of crap Chester needed to hear.
“She did say it, you’re right about that, pal. And she’s the only one saying it. For sure Smoattle didn’t say it because there IS NO CHIEF SMOATTLE, get it? He doesn’t exist, GET IT? Shirley Anne is faking, GET IT? He doesn’t come into her body in a trance because THERE IS NO TRANCE! There is only her body, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Can I make it any clearer for you? I was there, I know, I ??? You seem like a smart guy. How the hell can you believe in all that bullshit? How much money have they got out of you by now? Who the hell are you anyway? Do I know you?”
“I’m Baxter,” said the man sadly. “Don’t hit me.”