“Not everyone loves a river. But it’s said that every river has someone who loves it.”
Thomas Waters, The Streams and Rivers of Minnesota
The stories of the river come down without source. Some say the Sleepy Horse got its name from the Sioux. Others claim a Scandinavian root, something brought by the sodbusters from the southeast. Those were the folks whose lives rotated around cultivation, who inhabited these wooded hills and hated them. I suspect, however, that the name had something to do with equine encephalitis.
But what do I know? I’m a stranger.
My name is Culloden Johnson, but please call me Jack. I teach senior high mathematics in Otter Tail Falls. But my heart isn’t in — algebra, or the town. I’m living in a land of trolls where the abiding ethic is to thyself be enough. From that follows the smugness that turns my heart to stone. So I don’t know how long I’m going to stick it out. Based on experience, not very long: I’m a drifter, not a sticker. But it might be different this time, and the thing that might tie me down is a river.
How did I get here? Like a river gets places — I meandered. And my ancestors started all this mazy motion. They were the Gimli fishermen. Flushed out of Iceland by volcanoes and Danes, they settled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, where the small pox was waiting. That first winter they piled the dead on their sod rooftops and waited for spring, the season of internment. Clannish and independent, they kept progressing westward until they reached the regions of the great Qu’Appelle Valley, in eastern Saskatchewan. There they went to earth, scratching the stubble and scrounging the libraries and hounding the Finns in synodical schism. And, because they were Icelanders, when all else failed they had history to enthrall them, and usually somebody else’s. My own grandfather Ingolf wrote The Saltcoats Sagas about the early Scots in the area.
My father left the prairies to study at the seminary in Saint Paul. That was in the Forties, when everyone else was off fighting. He became a pastor and cobbled together a career that took him from Crow’s Nest Pass to the St. Croix River Valley. But it was at his last parish, in North Dakota, that you could tell it had all caught up with him. Previous pastors had spread the word, and he just seemed to be spreading it a little bit thinner on the same tired crust. He took his weariness in stride, however, and saw it as a sign of the End Times. He never really understood that he had worn out his calling.
But I did. What else can he think when the pastor starts riding around as town’s deputy to the local Sheriff, the railroad bull? If I know the gospels, there’s something amiss when earthly justice eclipses heavenly mercy. But there they’d go, a couple of friendless emissaries from Outside Powers, patrolling in a small Falcon with a detachable cherry. It was an embarrassment, I’ll tell you. In school I was called “Son of Festus.”
At home, however, I was the “Son of Mac.” My mother was a MacLauchlan and the nickname was one her father had given. As little boys my brother and I had been delighted when we first heard her called that and we kept the tradition intact. My dad hated the name — I never once heard him use it. But then they were different people. My dad, bombastic and doughy, “The Plump Pontiff of Opinion” as my brother dubbed him. My mom, quiet and thin. And in later years when Dad dyed his hair until it almost turned purple, Mac let hers go gradually gray. “I want it to match my eyes,” she would say to ladies of the congregation who wondered why she didn’t stay as young looking as their pastor. She was also the one — pancake mitt in hand — that fielded my fastballs in the dirt until her poor pummeled legs would force her to quit.
Mac did more than fulfill the fatherly role that Dad disdained. She surrounded my brother and sister and I with a world that carried us through all those unkind, kinless towns. She told us stories, she read us books, she taught us her own unruly way of cooking — it was common for her to serve perogies and ponnukukor at the same sitting. It also took me years to realize that this kitchen ecumenicalism was something else that must have gone against Dad’s stubborn grain. To him, custom was everything. As an Icelander he was knee-deep in genealogy — he could trace his family back five hundred years to the Westmann Islands. When I asked Mac where the roots of her family were buried, she just replied, “Deadwood.” And when Dad insisted that I, the second-born, should have a name that reflected her heritage — he had named my older brother Audun as a nod to his ancestry — Mac named me after a Highland disaster.
That’s pretty much my history. Before I taught math, I travelled. I had the best time in McGill, in Montreal. Fresh from high school I wanted to be an historian so I spent a year in Quebec, dividing my time between the Middle Ages and the fleshpots of the St Lawrence. But the nightly rounds of les boits took their toll on my student loans and I ended up above a charcuterie on Duluth, the air incandescent with the smell of raw meat.
I couldn’t have been happier. But all things must come to an end, and I returned to the Midwest where all is determined. I went to a state school and majored in math, a discipline for which I lacked passion and aptitude. But my degree was not a complete waste — it got me this job. Which led me here.
Which led me up the Sleepy Horse, that Saturday morning.
The town of Otter Tail Falls lies in a broad-leaf valley grooved by the Interstate that runs from Minneapolis to Fargo, forming the boundary between the Great Plains and the remnant forests of north and east Minnesota. Seeping out of those patchy woodlands, the Otter Tail River flows through and under hamlet and highway. A sign on the south edge of town proudly proclaims: The City Where the Otter Tail Ends. Which isn’t true — the river has its own mind about things. It keeps going south by southwest, getting sponged up by marshes before melding into the murky Red way out on the limits where the Dakotas begin and all hope is abandoned. But because the Otter Tail is slowed by a couple of dams as it passes through town, I guess the slogan is true enough. And because most of my life has been passed in dry places, all that dammed water made the Falls feel like an oasis as I drove into town for my interview.
I felt an immediate longing for the place, even though I was there. A faux-gothic church lorded over the hill to the west, testament to the Lutherans who longed for their ancient Germany. Below that, the brick buildings along the river echoed the mill towns of the earliest New English settlers. All along Main Street plastic signs hawked insurance and hardware and I was assured: this is a place where nothing serious could happen. This was the Happy Land.
I felt edgy and rough parked on the hill in my ’85 Reliant, a Norseman on his shaggy pony looking down on an unsuspecting farmer’s spread. Should I plunder, or pass on? After my interview at the schoolhouse I sat in the Perkins Restaurant overlooking the Interstate and watched the truck lights flow down from Fargo. In a distance corner chubby waitresses cooed to each other in rounded vowels and in a moment of weakness I wanted to belong. Like my father, I wanted to be one with the Volk.
I took the teaching job and rented an apartment on the northeast edge of town, just across the bridge from the high school. My unit was the east half of the second floor of a failing grocery store, the front of which faced north toward the old state highway that was now the backdoor into town. This highway swerved east around a small hill, then past a couple of cornfields and into a wood of box elder. On the west side of the old store a lawn ran toward the tangle of shrub that bordered the river’s edge. Beyond that the bank took a ten-foot drop onto a cement landing at water level. A path cut through the shrub border, linking up with the wrought-iron stairway down to the landing.
Things were shaping up. I had bought my fiberglass canoe with me and a high priority had been to find it a mooring. And this was a good one — the shrubs hid the landing from prying eyes. Not that I had to worry. In this land of aluminum Lunds, a canoe without a Mercury motor hardly rated as watercraft.
My last chore, after moving my sparse collection of furniture into my apartment, was to drive to the park across from the river with the canoe on top of my car. I carried the Vomit Queen — so named for her swirl paint job — down to the boat launch. As keel hit the water, I felt an electrical association. I paddled across to my landing and tied up. Later, walking back across the bridge to retrieve the Reliant, I felt like the happiest man in the world. I was at home between the woods and the water, and had only to stumble downstairs for my Wonder Bread.
It was the third Sunday in September when I headed down the river for the first time. I eased the Queen into the Otter Tail and started to drift. A couple of kids watched me from the bridge as I passed underneath. I pulled my cap low, so they wouldn’t recognize me. Years of being Son of Festus had taught me the value of going unnoticed. Flowing south, the river along this stretch was a narrow pond that backed up behind a small dam in the park. Above the dam a footbridge arched over a wide spillway with water pouring over its edge in a glassy curl. Steering parallel to the current, I slipped down it. Little did I know this was the least of the obstacles that lay in my path.
The river narrowed as it moved downtown where it was flanked either side by brick walls. Elms and alder grew in the thin ledge of riprap along the bank and busy noises filtered down from the street through the web of yellowing leaves. The walls of the JC Penney’s store rose out of the riverbank like a medieval bastion. To my left the grilles of Cherokees grinned down from the municipal parking lot twenty feet overhead. Downriver I passed under a low concrete bridge pocked with swallows’ nests and arrived at the Kinsmens Park. I floated through a curtain of willows that shrouded the southern bounds. The river began to slow and swell outwards into a reedy lake.
I had reached the main reservoir. A suburbia of ranch houses straggled along the shoreline. I dug deep, paddling past their blank windows. After a few minutes I saw the redbrick Bible College sitting on its prim hill to the east. Then I heard the bass drone of cascading waters. This was Otter Tail Falls, hidden now by the dam of the Otter Tail Power Company. I started to back paddle, but still found myself drifting toward the iron catwalk next to the pumping station. I spun the bow of the canoe toward land. A few yards in front of me the exploded elm grew at the water’s edge, it’s immense crown having split it in two. I paddled in sprints, closing with the bank. As I neared the willow I stood up and grabbed for a branch, then swung the bow of the canoe under the outlying trunk. That set me on my ass pretty quick, and I lay on the bottom of the canoe to avoid a beheading. From that position I hand-walked along under the tree like a mechanic on his back on a creeper. One last push, and I was clear. I floated a few feet with my arms thrown up in exaltation, like Christ himself crucified.
I sat up. I was in the shallows of a marshy creek that fed into the river. A muskrat panicked. The leathery carcasses of crappies ebbed in the grass of a sand bar. Cattails and sedge grew high overhead. Then I caught sight of the red-and-white cupola of the Bible College over my left shoulder and knew I was on the right track. “Keep the Lord to your left,” I’d been told. I paddled into the current, its seam lines roiling and black, until after a mile or so I reached a line of scraggly spruce. I pushed through the branches, holding my breath against the thick reek of pitch. I got stuck, and came free. I closed on a wall of cattails and rammed through, breaking into the open waters of Lake Argentia.
This lake was special. There was virtually no other access other than the way I had come, the shoreline being ringed by one woman’s property. One old woman. A road had once connected the cabins along the north shore with the College, but that’s when the Kittsons had been benefactors of the High Ground Congregational Church. Now Miss Kittson was all that remained, and she had allowed her Calvinism and her cabins to lapse into ruin. There was a thin trail through the woods used by kids on their bikes coming down to the lake to fish and to fornicate. They knew what I had been told: that Lake Argentia had the biggest fricking bluegills in the state.
It was those bluegills that had lured me there. Yvonne, the cleaning woman at the school, had tipped me off. I had been standing in the hallway between classes when I heard a voice behind me.
“Tell you a secret, if you bring me some fish.”
I turned around and saw a small woman in a blue smock and jeans. I had seen her a hundred times before, without noticing. Her eyes were as brown as Brazil nuts and her black hair was razor cut on the top, but long on the sides like a mullet. Silvery earrings like eagle feathers hung down the sides of her lustrous brown neck.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You’re Mr. Johnson, the new teacher. I got that right, don’t I?”
“You sure do. Only, I’ve been here a month.”
“Never mind. I’ve been here close to a thousand years. I hear you fish some?”
“Some. Who told you that?”
“Never mind. I got that right, don’t I?”
“Yes, you’re batting two for two.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“It’s a baseball allusion.”
“Never mind. I’ll tell you where you can catch lots, but you’re going to have to bring me some big gills back. I like them pan fried.”
“With butter and corn meal? Yum, yum.”
“Never mind. We got us a deal?”
“We sure do.”
And with that, I was doomed.
Once on Argentia I dropped anchor and waited for the breeze to set me somewhere. I took up my fly rod and tied a small foam popper with rubber legs to the tippet. A couple of false casts put it up against the reeds. I started to strip line with my left hand as the popper swam back, urgent as a mouse seeking cover. In a sudden swirl, it disappeared. Then came the thrill only the fisherman knows — the tug of something alive and alien on the end of the line.
The leader carved wide spirals in the water. I held the rod high in my right hand, drawing an arc in the air. After a few seconds the fish was zipping back and forth beside the canoe. With a last tug I lifted my quarry free of the water and cradled it in my hands. It was a plump pumpkinseed with a bright orange belly, with purple and turquoise vermiculations running down its sides. I held it for a moment longer, then let it slip back into the lake. It treaded water, stunned for a second, then — zoom — disappeared in the murk.
I relaxed, wrists dangling over the gunwales, the low sun casting an orange sheen over the waters. I felt enchanted. It’s been that way since I was a boy, and it began with a dream. I’m bending over a prairie ditch in early spring, the snow waters rampant. In my hands is a fine chain, a series of silvery hooks dangling along its curve. I sweep the chain through the water and, when I lift if out, there is a sparkling minnow hanging like a jewel from each hook. My chain has turned into a charm bracelet. I suspect all fishers have had this same dream, but I alone have revealed it. I am a prophet among piscadors.
Which isn’t to say I can predict the weather, or even find my way home.
I fished for several hours, slipping along the shoreline, raising and lowering the anchor as I spotted fishy patches of weed and slack water. I caught a bunch of fat bluegills the size of sunflowers, along with a couple of little bass. The bluegills went into the wire basket for Yvonne, the bass back into the water with a kiss on the snout. And all the while the weather was changing. The light off the water had gone from orange to green as thin clouds moved over the sky. The wind had cooled the air and with it, the fishing, the low pressure pushing the bluegills to the bottom of the lake. I made a critical adjustment, changing my fly from a popper to a wad of green gauze I called the Hairy-Assed Bugger.
I cast this new offering up against the weed line. My intent was to scour the shallows as I stripped the line back toward the canoe. I paused to zip my inflatable vest, and then on my next cast sent the Bugger deep into the cattails. Straining my eyes to judge the damage, I noticed the soft current flowing out from the reeds. I paddled in closer. Peering over the cattails I saw a rusty red pump on the shoreline, a stand of spruce just behind it.
I swiveled in my seat. It had suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember where I had come into the lake. The circle of shoreline was unbroken by any feature. Just reeds. Was this the spot, here? It had spruce. I looked for other stands of spruce and saw there were many, on every side. Pretty sure I had come in from the west, I squinted into the sun. That didn’t help. I would be dark soon, and I was lost. Which was crazy — I could hear the sound of the trucks on the Interstate, the hum of the tires as comforting as my mother’s old Hoover. I relaxed. I wasn’t lost in the Amazon, after all.
And then my neglected rod bowed, bass-heavy. I jerked my arm over my head, setting the hook. I expected it to zing free, but the weight held. Fish on! I spooled in the extra line and played my opponent off of the reel, the wet line slipping as I cranked. I lowered the rod tip, surrendering pressure. The fish took its lead and pulled toward the shore. Then it paused, and it was my turn to pull. Then the tide turned again, the fish making straight for the Queen. I couldn’t gather line fast enough to keep the fish tethered as it darted between stern and anchor, wrapping the fly line around the anchor rope.
In a fit of exasperation I swung the rod over my head, trying to retake the advantage. I managed instead to cinch the line tighter around the rope. Dropping my rod, I reached overboard for the anchor. At that moment the fish chose to surface. I saw it for only a second, and out of my weaker right eye, but I could tell it wasn’t a bass. It was long and speckled — a brown trout, at least twenty inches! I sprang to my feet in amazement, and rolled over the gunwale. Trying to kick free from the wicker seat, I felt my right knee go pop!
Hitting the cold water, I tugged the ripcord on my vest. The CO2 cylinders hissed, filling the bladders with gas. My head rotated toward the surface as my feet dropped toward the lake’s muddy bottom. I grabbed the gunwale of the canoe and hung on, treading water. My fly rod swam passed me. I kicked free of the canoe and gave chase. It swam faster. The fish was still on! I grabbed the rod, gave it shake. The tension went slack, the fish swimming away.
I swam back to the canoe and pushed it into the reeds. The anchor kept snagging in the cattails, but with furious effort I pulled it free. I beached the canoe in the mud, throwing the paddle, rod, and vest into it. Then I looked around to see where I’d landed. The red pump stood on a mound, twenty feet away, its handle sticking up at a rude angle. My knee was throbbing like hell now, so I pulled my jeans off for a closer look. It was swelling like bread dough.
I took off the rest of my wet clothes and hung them on the pump with my jeans, then sat down to shiver in what was left of the sunlight. Thinking a fire would be nice, I searched my jean pockets, then those in my fishing vest, for my emergency cigarette lighter. All I found was my compass and jackknife.
Well, hell. I decided to leave before it got dark. I tried to pull my wet jeans back on. They wouldn’t go over my swollen knee, so I opened the jackknife and sawed off the pant leg below the crotch. I pulled on the rest of my clammy clothes and laced up my wet boots. Leaning against the pump, I looked across the lake. I hadn’t bothered to take a compass reading and had no a clue where to go. The sun was into the trees now, the shore a black line all around. I slumped onto the wooden platform, cradling my head in my hands. How had I managed such a majorly fuck-up? That’s when I heard the trickle of water. I raised my head, looking over my shoulder.
The sound was coming from the dark line of spruce trees silhouetted by the full moon to the east. I stood up and staggered across the rough ground, came to a bog, then worked my way south. A couple of dozen yards farther I found a small creek, the source of the current flowing into the lake. I looked upstream in the moonlight. There was a big pile of dead timber. I limped over and looked. It was a beaver dam, and on the other side a pool that stretched into the trees.
Using my compass, I made a quick calculation. This stream must flow under the old state highway that ran southeast out of Otter Tail Falls. The theory made enough sense that I dragged the Queen through the grass to the dam, an operation that took several minutes and considerable pain. Standing at the edge of the beaver dam like a French coeur de bois, I slid the canoe into the pool and climbed in. The splash of my paddle was greeted by the splash of a beaver’s tail. I slipped across the smooth water toward the trees and found a stream, about a man’s height, flowing out from under the branches. I backed water a moment, then paddled ahead.
The boughs were dirty and covered in sap and I got scratched up pretty good, my hair full of needles. Once through the spruce I was in a dead woodland, the current arcing around the trunks of drowned trees. I sounded the stream with my paddle and the water came up to my hand. I heard something splashing, and thought it was beaver. But then I saw the first rise. It was trout — the browns were basking!
I stared into the water, as if expecting a name to be written there. What river was this? It seemed a simple mystery, but later, when looking in Thomas Waters’ book, I didn’t find it listed among the Rivers and Streams of Minnesota. It flowed incognito. In fact, it wasn’t until I asked some kids casting worms and lead sinkers near a culvert that I found out the answer.
“It’s called the Sleepy Horse.”
“Who the fuck knows?”
I called on nursing homes and talked with wrinkled Norwegians. I bought beers at the bar for old Sioux. Everybody had a theory about the Sleepy Horse, none convincing. But all that came later. That night on the river I was cold, lost, and aching. I paddled into a marshy backwater and beached. The night itself seemed to be thinking. Across the bog a white pine was staring back at me and for once I didn’t want to believe in ghosts. I willed the night barren, but that didn’t help. Things splashed and snapped all around me. I stared into the murky water below the canoe. It was like trying to peer into the afterlife. Just a white glimmer, then passing.
I paddled back into the channel. It narrowed, the current pushing harder against me. I was ready to turn around when I heard the sound of tires squelching on gravel. Thirty yards in front headlights floated above the ground. Working along the edge of the creek, I reached the roadway. There was a culvert cut under it, a half-moon of light shining at the other end.
I clung to the corrugated rim of steel. The bank was too steep for a one-legged man to climb, the current pulsing through too strong to paddle into. Then I remembered the anchor. I let go with my hands. The canoe spun around. I threw out the anchor and tugged. A blade caught on a seam in the culvert. I pulled the canoe forward and repeated the trick. The anchor caught again. Time after time, two canoe lengths forward, one back. Then the anchor snagged on a tree root and stuck there.
I was ten feet from the other end. The earth rumbled as another car passed overhead, peppering dirt down upon me. I paused, hands on the anchor rope. Then I let go, grabbed the paddle, and dug for dear life. I had just enough juice to reach the rim with my hand. I dropped the paddle and pulled.
And came out into another world.
When I came out of the culvert, I found myself facing a moon-flooded marsh, the lazy course of the river lined with shrubby trees. I paddled into an eddy then stared up the bank. It was steep and unscalable. I looked upriver, across the broad marsh. Friendly lights twinkled away to the left. I took a compass reading. Northeast.
I paddled up the willowy avenue of the river for at least half an hour, then came to a single lane bridge, the stream running north underneath it. Pulling up against a wood piling, I saw a path leading up to the roadway. I rammed the bow of the canoe into the mud and climbed out, dragging my left leg behind me. Grasping for roots and branches, I reached the top of the bridge and leaned over the rusty railing. I was waiting for something, I just didn’t know what.
Turns out, it was a pair of headlights, bouncing up the road from the west. They took several minutes to reach the bridge while I waited. Then a pickup truck lumbered onto the planking and pulled to a stop beside me. The driver’s window rolled down and a wide face wrapped in red beard stared out.
“Hello,” I said.
Silence. Then, finally, “What’s the story here?”
“I was just out canoeing and got lost. Could use a lift, maybe.”
“You could, huh? What the hell were you doing, canoeing?”
Good question. It did seem like a pretty silly thing to be doing. Besides, it would soon be common knowledge that the new teacher at Otter Tail High had been found hanging on a bridge, after dark, wet, with one pant leg cut off.
“Oh, you know,” I replied.
“No, I don’t know,” came his answer.
A second face, with a long dark beard, appeared in the window. “You live around here?” this second man asked.
“Well, not around here, not exactly.”
“Then how the hell we supposed to give you a lift, if you don’t live around here?” the first man asked.
“Well, I guess you can’t.”
“No, we sure as hell can’t,” the first man said, nodding.
“Let’s fuck him up,” the second man said.
Now that seemed like a good idea to them. The pickup truck’s doors squeaked open and I’d heard enough. I let go of the railing and scrambled down the path to the canoe. Sliding it into the current, I paddled like crazy for a thicket of bushes upstream. The guys from the pickup stood on the railing and hooted.
“Yeah, we catch you, we’ll fuck you up, good!”
A couple of beers cans sailed through the air, one striking the Queen amidships, the other hitting me behind the left ear. It was half-full, and hurt. The rest of the six pack splashed in the water.
“Damn. That was the last of the beer.”
“You fucking fag, why’d you throw it!”
“Don’t’ know. We’ll go to the bootleggers, get more.”
They got back into the pickup and drove away east. My ear still ringing from the Budweiser blitz, I slipped into the current. The lights were clustered under a dark ridge, ahead and to the right, the river leading me toward them. As I got closer, I saw a line of old buildings facing the riverfront.
I steered into the bank, backing water under a bush. I felt like an old trout myself, hugging cover. Here was civilization, such as it was, so I chanced it. Paddling along the street felt like passing a diorama of a dead town. A two-story clapboard building displayed the words HAMMERLANDS DRY GOODS above the door, the windows either side empty and black. Several shacks later stood a white-stuccoed box, the letters SIOUX OIL COMPANY faded in black across the overhang in front. There was bulb-headed pump underneath, the greasy windows behind it smeared with a yellow light from inside.
The neon sign on the building next to the gas station said MARCOUX’S BAR. Here the street turned east, with a graveyard facing the bar on the other side, the light from the sign flashing on the headstones like a Halloween trick. Peering into the darkness beyond the graveyard, I could barely see the wooden spire of a church poking above the trees. The bar itself was low and boxy, functional to the goal of getting folks drunk. A police car was parked in front and, beside it, the pickup that had stopped on the bridge.
I pushed into the bank and watched the activity in front of the bar. The wide-faced driver was talking to a deputy, who was listening with a sleepy half smile. Dark-beard still sat in the passenger’s seat like a prodigal on probation. Whirling his arms for effect, Wide-face motioned south, in the direction of the bridge where they’d found me. The Deputy, leaning against his car, switched legs, pausing to inspect the sole of his shoe for debris. Wide-face stalked back to the pickup, waving his arms in dismissal. The Deputy threw his in the air, then got into his patrol car. The pickup disappeared up the road east, past the church. The Deputy drove the other way, south, on the look out for a fag in a canoe, I presumed. Far as I was concerned, you could leave the police out of this. I’d find my own help.
There was bright telephone booth on the street corner in front of the bar. Just what I needed, but how would I get there without being seen? I paddled upriver past the dark graveyard and beached the canoe. I tucked all my stuff underneath an outcrop on the bank and tipped the canoe on top of my little hoard.
“There, that should do it,” I said, standing back.
Then I hobbled among the gravestones, working my way south toward the street. I heard a truck somewhere revving its engine and ducked behind a big stone. The inscription said, “To Alonzo Inman, My Immaculate Husband.” Immaculate? How did you get to be something like that? I’d been a husband once, but the word immaculate had never come up.
I paused at the edge of the street and looked east, worried my friends in the pickup might make their way back. All clear, I made a break for the telephone booth, hobbling on my half leg across the street. Squeezing into the booth, I held the door open so the light wouldn’t come on. Then I realized — no change.
I took a soggy dollar out of my wallet and walked over to the door of the bar. Pausing a moment, I went in. It was smoky and dark inside, the only light coming from the Wurlitzer in the back. I walked up to the bar, squeezing onto a stool between a man in a tractor cap, and a woman, mid-fifties, wearing a short jacket cast off from Carnaby Street.
“Can I get some change, please?” I asked.
“What for?” ask the bartender, a tall man with ears like a rat.
“I need to the use the telephone.”
“Ain’t no business of mine,” he said.
“Okay. How much for a coke.”
The bartender set a bottle of coke, and forty-three cents, down in front of me.
“What’s this?” I asked. “I need at least a couple of quarters.”
“It’s for taxes. Take it up with the Governor.”
I took the bottle and change and slipped off the stool. The woman nudged me. “Here,” she said, “here’s a quarter. Any man with a leg that pretty.”
The man on the other side laughed. I made for the door.
“Know that guy?” someone asked.
“Think we should call the Deputy back?” someone one else said.
“Got pine cones in his hair, you notice?”
I hurried into the phone booth, plugged in the quarter, and dialed “0.” An eager voice answered. “Hello, and how may I help you?”
I pictured a girl named Myrtle with cat’s paw eyeglasses perched on her pointy nose.
“Number for Yvonne Morin, please.”
“No. Mor-rin, as in, Morin.”
“No need to get huffy. Here’s your number.” Then, click.
I retrieved the precious quarter from the tray, mumbling the number. Then I dialed. A bleary male voice came on the line.
“Is Yvonne there, please?”
“Good. You got the stuff, then?”
“Good, she’s down at the Nail. Get the lead out, we can’t wait forever. They’re wanting the stuff up in Moorhead.” The line went dead.
I twisted the second quarter between my fingers. The waters were wide, and very deep. What the hell, I’d come a long way. I dialed the operator again. The same Myrtle. “The Rusty Nail Lounge, Otter Tail Falls, please.”
“What’s the matter, your girlfriend going out on you? Here’s the number.”
I dialed. A gruff voice answered. “Whoever this is, we’re closing.”
“Yvonne still there?”
There was short pause, then a chuckle. “Yeah, like where else is that chick going to stick? Who’s asking?”
“Oh, sorry, Mike. Hang on, would you, buddy?”
I listened for at least a minute to the sounds of glasses clinking, of chairs scuffed and shuffled over the floor. Then a woman’s voice came on the line.
“Hey, Yvonne, it’s me, Jack Johnson. You know, from the school?”
There was silence, then. “Oh, yeah, the teacher guy. So, you got my gills?”
I’d forgotten all about the fish. For all I know they were still swimming around in their wire cage in the lake beside the red pump. I hoped they had the smarts to escape. “Yeah. I mean, I know where they are. But listen, I need a favor. Need a ride home.”
“And I need frontal lobotomy.”
“No, I’m serious. I wouldn’t ask, but you’re the only person….”
“Person, who? That doesn’t matter? ‘Cause I’m Indian, I guess?”
“Well, sort of.”
“At least you admit it. What are you, drunk?”
“No, I just dumped the canoe, broke my knee.”
“Okay, well that’s a good story. Where are you?”
“I don’t know, exactly.”
“So, how am I supposed to find you? Smoke signals?”
“It’s some little town, on a river — ”
“Jesus. It have a saloon?”
“Yeah, it’s called Marcoux’s Bar.”
“Oh, you’re in Scotland.”
“Really, Scotland, Minnesota? Didn’t know we had one of those.”
“Well, we do. Where are you, exactly.”
“In the graveyard.”
“Of course.” Then, click.
I stared at the dead receiver. Then limped back to the graveyard, to wait for whatever.
It’s true, the road ends. For all of us, eventually. And for about an hour and forty minutes that night in Scotland, Minnesota, I thought it had ended for me. After retreating the graveyard, I found shelter under a molting lilac. Spent leaves fell on my shoulders as I watched the bar across the street empty out. The patrons, men in tractor caps for the most part, ambled out the door to their outfits, climbed in and rumbled away. Then the Deputy returned in his patrol car. He looked around, furtively, before going in. When he came back out, he was with the woman in the short jacket who had given me the quarter. Apparently her life was in danger now. The Deputy escorted her to her beat-up Toyota. She drove off to the east. Good riddance, the Deputy following. Then the red neon sign went out, and I was alone.
Chilled from my wet clothes and the night, I started to shiver. In my fever, the gray stones around seemed to be growing. Then I felt my throat quicken. Choking, I jumped to my feet, trying to stop the slide. No good, I dropped to my knees. That’s when I heard a vehicle coming up the street from the south.
I opened my eyes. The rusty red station wagon kept coming right into the graveyard, and parked a few yards away. The driver’s door opened and Yvonne jumped out, looking around.
“Over here!” I yelled, standing up.
Yvonne turned toward me. “Johnson?” she whispered.
“Yeah, over here.”
Yvonne had one hand on the car door. She looked like she was ready to bolt. “Johnson?” she said again, a bit louder.
“Yes,” I said, “Over here!” I was getting a little insistent.
She shook her head. “I can hear you, but I can’t see you.”
“That’s crazy, I’m right here.” By then I was only twenty feet away, nothing but thin air between us. I staggered toward her with my arms outstretched.
Yvonne was looking well to my left, then all of sudden she turned her head. “Oh, there you are!”
I was ten feet away. “Yeah, there I am. What were you looking at?”
Yvonne glanced to her right. “I was looking at that other guy, over there.”
I looked over my left shoulder. Nothing there I could see. “It’s just the moonlight, playing tricks on you,” I said.
“Yeah, sure. Just get in.”
I started around to the passenger’s side and Yvonne said, “Where the hell are you going? Get in back.”
“Yeah, in back. You’re all filthy.”
Yvonne put her hand in the middle of my back and pushed me toward the rear of the wagon. She pulled the tailgate down with a clank. I looked at her, but she just stood her ground, hands on her narrow hips. Then she reached out and tickled the patch of belly hair poking through my shirttail above the belt.
“Yeah, get in, Mr. Slim Jim.”
I looked into the station wagon. The back seats were tilted forward to create more cargo space and the compartment was filled with a laundry basket, a couple of stuffed garbage bags, and what looked like a car’s muffler. I sat down on the edge of the tailgate and tried to leverage my leg up and around.
“What’s the matter, got a stiffy for me?”
“I wish. My knees all swollen, I told you.”
Yvonne leaned in for a closer look, then she put her hand on my shoulder. “Here, sweetheart, let’s help you.” She bent down and lifted my right leg by the ankle. I braced my hands on her thin bony shoulders as she spun me around. For a moment I could see down the front of her worn flannel shirt. There was surprising abundance down there. I looked away, ashamed.
“Caught a peek, did you? That’s okay, they’re just bags, you know.”
“Speaking of which, what’s in those garbage bags, there?”
“None of your business.”
I nodded, then pulled myself forward. The tailgate slammed shut behind me. I worked my way up against the front seat and looked over. An fat owl’s fat stared back from the passenger’s side.
“What the — ”
“That’s my boy, Toby,” Yvonne said, slipping into the driver’s seat. She turned on the interior light on and adjusted the mirror, looking back at me.
“We’re very good,” I replied. I stared at the child, and he stared back. His eyes were dark and unperturbed, as if strangers crawled into the back of the station wagon all the time. The black hair on the top of his head stood straight up like a bear cub’s. Yvonne cranked the engine. “Okay, Charlie. Let’s rock and roll.”
Propping my head on the back of the seat, I watched her leathery hands leap-frog along the steering wheel as we backed out of the graveyard and turned around in the street. As we drove past the gas station, Yvonne snapped off the interior light. “Hah,” she said. “Old ghost didn’t get me tonight.”
“What’re you talking about?” I asked.
“Shut up or you’ll scare the baby,” Yvonne said. Then she laughed.
My neck was developing a cramp so I settled my head on one of the garbage bags. It was soft and sweaty against my cheek. The car smelled of beer and baby poop, of gasoline and blood. I nudged the laundry basket with my elbow, pushing it as far away as possible.
The wagon rattled down the rutted street, the shocks as soft as rubber bands. My teeth buzzed as we drove over gravel, and after a while we crossed a bridge, the one where the rednecks had offered to fuck me up. Then the car rose at a 30-degree angle and stopped, pile driving my head into the back of the seat.
“Whoa, me buckos,” Yvonne said. “You all right back there, Johnson?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Kind of smelly.”
“Ain’t you, though.”
I slumped back against my garbage bag pillow. The drive shaft below my ear thrummed, but underneath that I could her Yvonne cooing to her son. She was speaking a greener language than I knew, one that had grown out of the hills around here. Then she was singing.
I raised my head. Toby was staring at his mother, his eyes still placid and dark. I glanced up at the rear-view mirror. Yvonne’s face hidden in darkness. It was as if some Spirit was driving the car.
I put my head back on the bag full of dirty diapers. Warmth was seeping back into my bones. I lay still, trying to register the moment when the road crossed over the Sleepy Horse, over the culvert I’d crawled through. Yvonne was still singing and we were still listening, Big Bear and Little Bear both under her spell. Then it felt like the river was flowing beneath me.
At least that’s how it feels when you’re falling asleep.