We peeled off our rain gear at the back door of the Grant’s Pass Hotel, wrung the water out of our gloves, and traded our muddy boots for sneakers and moccasins. It wasn’t dark, but it might as well have been. The Oregon sky had turned evil-looking three weeks ago, and now it didn’t matter if it was day or night. Nothing but drizzle, rain, and fog. I threw my hard hat in a corner and headed into the barroom. No one believed Decker that night when he said he drove a delivery truck in Vietnam from Hue to Da Nang, and if any gooks wandered into the road or were a little slow getting out of the way he’d run them down. They were all gooks to him. He said he drove as fast as he could, just so he could hit them. He laughed a high-pitched hyena laugh and looked off, as if waiting for someone to come out of the smoke.
I walked over to the bar to get away from Decker and ordered another shot, but I could see him in the greasy mirror over the rows of liquor bottles. He was lined up behind the pinball machine, arms outstretched in a pantomime of driving, hands gripping an invisible steering wheel, laughing his spooky laugh. Carl, our lead man, sat on the stool next to me. “That Decker is one crazy fuck,” I said.
“On me,” Carl said when the bartender brought my drink. He didn’t mention Decker, but he watched him in the mirror. The hotel barroom was called Little Joe’s, a workingman’s place: brawlers, big drinkers, and country music fans—the hard hat crowd. A person could avoid his depressing room and forget that he had a family or a girlfriend or a past. The only woman in the bar most of the time was Debbie, the short-order cook who put together burger baskets in a backroom kitchen and brought them out to men who didn’t want to interrupt their drinking to eat in the restaurant across the street. Everybody in the place wanted to fuck her.
The jukebox played tunes by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Johnny Paycheck. Two pinball machines competed with each other with clangs and dings every night until closing. Yellowish bulbs cast a dim light in the room, except over the pool table, where a pair of long, fluorescent tubes flickered and flashed. The place was busy for a Monday night, and a group of men gathered around Decker. They egged him on for a while, then somebody told him to shut up, and he threw a punch but missed. He spun around, bounced off the pinball machine, and hit the floor hard. Carl and I and some of the crew picked him up and carried him to bed.
* * *
I remember Decker’s probation officer dropping him off his first day. Hans was looking over topographic maps with Carl, as he did every morning. Hans was the boss, a private contractor who secured tree-planting jobs from the US Forest Service and timber companies. He was a small man who wore an aluminum safari hat, smoked a pipe upside down to keep the rain from putting it out, and signed our checks in green ink. Carl hunched over him like Bigfoot taking directions from the Tin Man. A brown Ford Fairlane with state plates pulled up behind them, and a pale, blond-headed kid with a baby face—practically an albino—got out of the car with a plastic garbage bag full of clothes. Carl looked away and leaned over the maps, as if trying not to be noticed. Hans nodded to the officer, who didn’t get out of the car, but pointed Decker toward the “crummy,” a beat-up, old van that hauled us to and from work sites. The rest of us shivered in our seats, waiting for Hans and Carl to come up with a plan.
The crummy was our hideout and our shelter once we hit the backcountry, our hideout from whatever demons were chasing us and our shelter from unremitting bad weather, but no one wanted to be in it if we weren’t on the move. It smelled like death. Rotten food filled the air from old lunches workers left behind, and the dried blood on the floor, in various places from broken blisters or fights over a seat or some minor insult, reconstituted to an infectious goo every time it got wet. It never stopped raining—except when it snowed—so we were soaked all the time. Why they called it a crummy, I never knew—loggers, tree planters, farm workers, road crews, and chain gangs all called these run-down, shitbox vehicles crummies and always had. Ours was rusted-out green. We filed in and out like fish on a conveyor belt every morning and every evening and let it take us to and from the slash-covered hillsides where the work was, where a man could leave the world and never be found or sneak back into civilization from the beyond.
Decker stood by the door in the rain, waiting for his orders. Finally, Hans snapped up the maps and headed our way. Carl climbed in ahead of Decker and pushed his way to the back, and Hans jumped into the driver’s seat. Decker threw his shit under a seat and sat down next to Ajaib, my friend from India, but immediately got up. He moved to the back next to Carl, glared at Ajaib, then looked down and shook his head. Carl welcomed him with a handshake.
* * *
Nobody planted trees for a living if they could do anything else. Tree planting was for ex-cons, probationers, dropouts, homeless veterans, and alcoholics. Poor people. Poor people climbing over shale and slash from old logging operations, slogging through shin-deep mud on eroded hillsides, lugging 50-pound canvas bags of seedlings up and down, up and down, up and down, all day. Ajaib and I were college dropouts. He’d lost his student visa and I was dodging the draft, so we got what we could for work as far away from the government as possible. The pay wasn’t good, but you could make extra money if you planted fast, and you planted fast when you had a good lead man.
When we’d finished five or ten acres—I couldn’t gauge a piece of land for shit—we stopped for lunch. Decker didn’t have a lunch, so Carl gave him a bologna sandwich and then started yelling at us. Ajaib and I were vegetarians, and Carl liked to let loose when he saw us passing around bags of granola.
“You can’t live on those fucking seeds.” Carl’s scraggly beard covered a long scar on his neck that looked like it would pop when he got mad. “You gotta eat meat if you want to make any money up here.” His bugged-out eyes were buried in a face with bushy red brows, and they made him look like a vicious nocturnal animal. His hands could palm a basketball or take hold of a man’s head and twist it off the neck. “Meat!”
Nobody fucked with Carl. He told us about a guy at Soledad Prison who fucked with him once.
“Louis Collins, big fuckin’ nigger that ran the block.” Carl was big but Louis outweighed him by a hundred pounds, he said, and was a foot taller. Decker glowered at Ajaib when Carl said the word “nigger.”
“When Louis said, ‘Take it out, boy,’ you took it out. When Louis told you, ‘Bend over, boy,’ you bent over and asked, ‘Far enough, boss?’”
Ajaib passed me a bag of dried fruit.
“One day Louis doesn’t show up for chow. Motherfucker’d walk around the room, take food off anybody’s tray, especially if they looked hungry, and put it on his own. He’d sit his ass down at the table and say, ‘Pass me that piece of meat on Carl’s plate’ or, ‘I’m putting Carl on a starvation diet, startin’ right now.’”
Carl grinned at Decker. Decker chomped on his sandwich.
“So that day he don’t show up, and the pigs go on a full-scale search. Finally, they find him in the laundry with a welding rod shoved right up his ass, straight through his belly button, and a couple of bites taken outta his juggler veins.”
Decker laughed his spooky laugh, and bits of bread and meat fell from his teeth. Carl said they never found out who did it.
* * *
After lunch it was shit-soup fog, like every day on the slag, and I was halfway up my row on a steep hillside when Carl popped menacingly out of nowhere, breathing hard, face red, lips blue, smoking a wet fag, looking like he’d fucked a small animal or a fox, just for the rush, or a crow, because it was black, and was about to pay for it with a heart attack.
“Watch where you’re planting,” he said, and moved on down the hill to check on someone else. About a hundred feet further on, next to a slate cairn formed by someone hacking with a hoedad, the tree planter’s hatchet, I came across a big rattlesnake, hacked into forty or fifty pieces—one hack would have done the job—as if a madman had gone to work on it. Thank God for Carl, I thought, in spite of myself. The snake was right in my path; I would’ve sunk my hoedad right next to it and never noticed until its fangs ripped through my raincoat into my arm.
* * *
Carl and Decker were sitting at the bar when I walked in with Ajaib a couple of days later. I hadn’t slept much the night before because I’d gotten the hives. Almost anything could set them off. Sometimes I knew exactly what it was: strawberries, peanuts, sulfa drugs, nerves. Most of the time I didn’t, but they were gone by the time we came in from planting. We’d gotten paid and Decker offered to buy me a drink.
“Hell, get ’em both one, Decker,” Carl ordered. “Don’t be a fuckin’ asshole.”
Decker ordered a couple of beers, and Carl bought each of us a shot. Debbie brought out a burger basket from the kitchen and set it in front of Decker. Carl started flicking his tongue at her, and Decker kicked him under the bar. Carl could have killed Decker with one punch, and from the scowl on his face, it looked like he was having a split-second temptation to do just that, but he let it go. Debbie looked pretty sexy in her long, blue apron with the bib turned down and her sleeveless white tee shirt with “Don’t Even Think About It” stenciled across her tits. She slapped the bill facedown on the bar and turned to go back to the kitchen.
“Debbie,” Decker said. His voice was soft, controlled, almost like a lullaby. Debbie stopped but didn’t turn. “Hey, Deb,” Decker said. “How about some ketchup?” This time she did turn, and Decker smiled such a warm, open smile, it left her defenseless, and she had to smile back.
“Sure, babe,” she said, and grabbed a squeeze bottle off the back bar.
“Tell her to squeeze it for you,” Carl said.
“Be quiet, Carl,” he said. He didn’t say Shut up, Carl or Shut the fuck up, Carl. He just politely said, Be quiet, Carl, and Carl shut up. Debbie set the ketchup bottle down in front of him and, with her back to Carl, gave it a little squeeze.
“Thanks, Deb,” Decker said. “I owe you one.”
* * *
The next day we were back on the mud-slick hillside planting trees, and I had to know.
“Decker,” I yelled. Rain beat on our aluminum hard hats and blew in our faces. Our yellow rubber rain suits rattled and snapped like tent flaps in the wind, and voices were muted by swirling fog. Decker didn’t turn; he just kept moving up his row and faded into a fog bank that rolled over the crest of the hill.
“Decker,” I shouted, louder this time. He must have been hard of hearing. He always talked too loud, and there were a few times I’d seen him wait until the last second to move out of the way of a car or truck bearing down on him from behind. He looked like a ghost when I reached him, standing there in the mist, waiting.
“What?” he said. He shaded his eyes and squinted, even though it was overcast and gloomy. He was so pale that he looked sick, and his baby face was that of a kid who played in the high school band because he was too weak for sports. Sometimes I doubted that he’d been in the Army at all. He had powerful arms and legs and a narrow waist—probably from planting trees—but he didn’t look like a soldier to me.
“All that Vietnam shit, running over people, what was that shit?” He looked as if he hadn’t heard me. “That story you told in the bar the other night?” He took off his hard hat, slung the rainwater from it onto the ground, and wiped his face with the back of a muddy glove.
“What story?” he asked.
* * *
He told it again a couple of weeks later, drunk, and no one believed him except Carl. Carl said he knew what men could do. He’d spent the last 12 years in prison for murder. “Self-defense,” he said. “But the judge called it murder.” Carl watched over Decker and anyone who hassled him answered to Carl. Decker said there were never any young men along his Hue-Da Nang truck route, and that’s what really pissed him off. He wanted to run down males his own age, but they were all out in the jungle with guns, digging tunnels and shoving wooden spikes up the dicks of captured American soldiers, so he went for women and old men, anyone he thought could give care and comfort to the enemy—and all gooks were his enemies. Kids grew up to be enemies, too, so Decker ran them down just like he ran down the old men—either side, it didn’t matter. Carl said he understood why it would piss him off. I woke up at four in the morning with hives, craving a drink, and a voice in my head that kept saying, “What story?”
* * *
Ajaib didn’t speak the first time we met; he smiled and held out his long, smooth hand. He wore loose-fitting jeans and a long, cotton Indian shirt that hung to his knees, and he walked slowly in front of a flock of goats. The topknot on his head was undone, and his hair drooped in long, stringy coils around his dark-brown face. He’d never had a haircut. It was a hot, windless summer day, and perfect footprints followed his bare feet in the tan powder of the dusty, unpaved road. He handed me a canteen, three-quarters empty, and lifted his hands in a gesture that said finish it. Jim and Marti Rhodes, my friends in Coos Bay, had told him I was coming, and, even though we’d never met, he walked out to the end of their road to meet me. I’d known Jim and Marti since our student days at the University of Washington, before they got their degrees in philosophy and English and I dropped out. They were used to my calls from the road on my way to or from somewhere, asking if I could come and stay for a while. I helped out with the chores, ran errands, and hung out, drinking homebrew while we figured out new ways to protest the war or resist the draft. Sometimes Jim played “Old-Timey” music on his beat-up, old Gibson while I sang and Marti played the fiddle.
“Should I take the goats out to the field?” I asked Ajaib. “Do you want help cleaning the barn?”
“Whatever pleases you,” Ajaib would answer.
“Okay, man, whatever you say,” I’d joke. “You’re the boss.” We worked together in silence for four or five hours, and every time I looked at him he smiled. Not a broad grin or nervous gesture, but a small upward twitch at the corners of his mouth that suggested a smile. For lunch he’d have an apple or a pear from one of Jim and Marti’s trees and munch on a chapatti, tearing off little pieces and chewing them for a long time. He slept outside when it was warm, not in a sleeping bag, but curled up on the ground under a wool blanket in a different place every night—wherever looked like a good place to lie down, I guess.
Jim and Marti and I usually stayed up late drinking, talking, and playing music, and sometimes Ajaib joined us. He always took whatever he was offered—no hesitation or pretense—but he preferred a glass of chai to homebrew, and he liked to go to sleep early, yet he never left the cabin as long as he was included in the conversation. Sometimes we had to ignore him to give him a chance to leave gracefully.
“Don’t you ever get pissed off?” I asked him the day one of the goats stomped on him. The goat’s hoof opened up a large gash on the top of his bare foot, and one of his toes was bent sideways. He fell back on the ground, gritting his teeth, and a tear formed in the corner of his eye. I’d have screamed and cursed and thrown the nearest heavy thing I could get my hands on, but Ajaib got back on his feet and hobbled out to the field with his hand resting gently on the goat’s back.
“Why would I get upset?” he said in a trembling voice, obviously in pain. “It wasn’t the goat’s fault.”
We had to force him to go to the emergency room for stitches and a tetanus shot, but the foot wasn’t broken, so the doctor wrapped it up, gave him a bottle of pain pills, and told him to wear shoes. I don’t know if he owned shoes at the time.
“Do you like these pills?” he asked me. “I don’t want them.”
* * *
When the rains began in the fall, I headed for the Rogue River to plant trees. I had spent a month at Jim and Marti’s on their piece of scrubland in the hills, where they’d built a cabin and a barn and lived off the land. Ajaib was building a lean-to on the barn the day I left, a place to sleep, I thought, or a shelter for the goats when it rained. They gathered around him like devoted followers, and he looked like Mahatma Gandhi with long hair.
“We’ll meet again,” I told him when I left.
“Let us hope for the best,” he said.
I mentioned that he could find me at the Grant’s Pass Hotel, and a week later, he showed up.
* * *
By January we were planting in snow. Wet, heavy precipitation covered the higher elevations, enough to make hillsides slippery but not enough to stop us. It usually rained within one or two days after it snowed, and we were back to mud, shale, wet gloves, wet shoes, and water filling our canvas tree bags faster than it could run out through the seams. The sky was either white with snowflakes the size of popcorn or gray from one dense horizon to the other. I began talking to Ajaib about going to California to hoe lettuce in the Central Valley or wash bread pans at Tasahara, the Zen bakery down the coast. I knew he’d go along with whatever I decided. By the first of February, we’d made up our minds to pick up our paychecks at the end of the week and hitch a ride south.
Work was easy after that. A few more days and we’d be gone. I dreamed about the hot sun in Salinas, Bakersfield, and Monterey. I pictured the view from the cliffs of Big Sur, where the fog rolled in at sunset and rolled out in the morning, different from the soaking fog that had socked us in since fall. It hadn’t snowed for a week and the rain had stopped, but the sky remained a dismal yellow-gray, like tarnished silver. Still, the mood had changed. Decker was calm. Debbie spent a lot more time in the bar, always with Decker, and she brought a couple of her girlfriends around to meet some of us.
“Decker’s turned into a goddamn saint since he started fucking Debbie,” Carl said. He ordered another shot.
“On me,” I said when the bartender placed it in front of him.
“She’s pretty goddamn rosy-cheeked herself,” he said. Carl downed his drink and ordered another, plus a couple for Ajaib and me. Debbie let Decker help her line up a shot on the pool table by wrapping his arms around her and pressing his bulky crotch against her ass. “Decker’s a real gentleman, ain’t he?”
Ajaib thanked Carl and held up his glass in an awkward toast, but only took a tiny sip.
Decker didn’t tell his gook story anymore—maybe because he knew it would turn Debbie off, maybe because he didn’t get so drunk, maybe because it wasn’t true. Sometimes I watched Decker in the mirror when he was with her to see if he would grin at us or flash Carl the high sign—or some other sign, some fuck gesture—but he didn’t. I figured that sooner or later, he’d fly into a rage over some small thing Debbie did, like talking too long to other men in the bar or laughing at the wrong time but he never did.
On our next-to-last day, the sun broke through. Steam rolled off the rocks like spirits rising from their graves. Our rubber rain suits quickly became too hot, and most of the crew stripped them off and threw them in the crummy. Some of us draped them through the leather straps on our canvas bags so we could put them on quickly when the rain started up again. But it stayed dry. Carl moved fast and we all kept up, and it looked as if Friday would be our biggest payday yet.
That night I dreamt I was in a foreign country, in a city with rickshaws and water buffalo and yellow rice cooking over dung fires. The smell was so thick and musty, I could hardly breathe, and hordes of people swarmed around me, so dense I couldn’t move. I felt buffeted by millions of giant moths’ wings, only they were women, children, and old men. Then I was on a flat plain with the city behind me. I couldn’t see it anymore, but I heard the sound of traffic and loudspeakers calling people to prayer. On the plain I saw hundreds of yards of brightly colored cloth—orange, yellow, cochineal, and royal purple—stretched out before me as far as my imagination would reach, lying on the ground and draped over wooden racks. The sun was high and there were no shadows.
Then it started to rain. It poured down in sheets, but the sun kept shining. It snowed for a while, but the temperature stayed hot, and the sun continued to shine. Then a rain of ash and soot fell on the plain, and the brightly colored cloth shriveled and turned to a sticky, black goop, like tar. The sun disappeared. A young man walked toward me, and I realized it was Decker, only he was dressed in a saffron robe, like a Buddhist monk, and his head was shaved. He had no eyes.
He extended his hand, as if to introduce himself, and said, “You do not know who I am; this is all I came to tell you.” I woke up with the hives.
* * *
I don’t know why Debbie dumped him, but it was predictable that sooner or later he’d get roaring drunk and tell his tale.
“I knew she was a two-timing bitch the first day we came in here,” Carl said. “Bank that five-ball off the rail.” I was playing a game of pool with Hans, and Carl was telling me how to shoot. “I watched her squeeze that ketchup bottle every time she brought Decker a burger.” I went for the straight shot instead of the bank, and scratched the eight ball. “Trouble is,” Carl said, “she was squeezin’ the ketchup bottle for a couple other guys too.”
“Everyone except you I guess, Carl,” Hans said. Carl’s neck scar got all puffed up and looked as if it were about to pop but he didn’t move. Carl only had to fuck up once, and he’d be back up the river for the rest of his life.
“She’s a cunt,” Carl snapped. “That’s my point.”
I don’t know why Hans decided to let Decker drive the crummy that last day. Maybe it was Carl’s idea. Maybe it was just convenient. Hans, like me, had never believed Decker’s crazy stories, and Decker did have a knack for driving. He was good on mountain roads, and he delivered us to the site and back without getting all nerved up like Hans, whose pipe was always dropping hot ashes on his lap.
We knocked off early while the air was still clear and the sky white with sunlight. We’d had a good week; Hans and Carl had made a lot of money. Ajaib and I were flush for our trip. The rest of the crew was happy, already half drunk. We’d been back at the Grant’s Pass Hotel for an hour or so, and Decker was still outside—probably cleaning the crummy or trying to make up with Debbie (who I’d seen leaving as we pulled in from the job). Ajaib was MIA too, but I kept imagining he’d gone upstairs to pack our stuff for California.
* * *
It was Debbie who burst in the back door screaming. The voice seemed to come from the ceiling or the mirror, but not from Debbie’s mouth. Her hair and eyes looked as if they belonged to someone else, a madwoman or a cornered animal. The room went silent except for a Charlie Pride tune playing on the jukebox. The hair stood up on my arms and neck, and my skin started to itch with the hives. Carl looked at her like he didn’t recognize her. Hans rushed for the door.
“Call the cops,” someone yelled. “Call an ambulance.”
Debbie was halfway to the bar when she started vomiting. The bartender hung up the phone and rushed around front to help her. I was out the door behind Hans, and the rest of the crew followed. I heard Decker laughing his awful, high-pitched, hyena laugh. A pickup squealed around the corner. A log truck rolled through the center of town like a freight train coming out of a tunnel, but I still heard Decker’s laugh above the roar. The crummy faced the back of the hotel, and he was standing on the driver’s side, leaning on the open door.
* * *
Whenever I tell this story, which isn’t often, I’m always drunk, and no one ever believes me. Sometimes I get halfway through, and it just fades out, turns into a jumble of words with nothing to hold them together. I forget what I was talking about and order another drink. People leave me alone. I saw the boot first, lying on its side about 20 feet away, with blood running out of it—then the foot.
“Somebody do something,” Hans shouted. “Get some bandages. Get some towels.”
Hans stood behind the crummy, looking at the ground, but I couldn’t see what he was looking at, so I ran to catch up. Decker was still laughing. Carl stood in the hotel doorway leaning against the frame. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at right away. But then I spied the back wheel of the crummy, and all around it, like a bouquet of poppies, blood and mush and pieces of bone mixed with mud. The big rubber tire had rolled over Ajaib’s head and popped it like a watermelon. There was no face. Black, blood-filled tire tracks flattened his belly, and shit, blood, and intestines oozed out through a huge hole in his side. Hans screamed for towels. I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach and I started to puke. I couldn’t stand. A siren wailed in the distance. Decker was still laughing.
Then I saw Carl. It was like the day he slipped out of the fog with blue lips after hacking up my rattlesnake. He walked slowly from the back door to the crummy and looked down at Ajaib. He went to Decker’s side and put his arm around his shoulder, as if to congratulate him. If I’d had a gun, I would have shot them both. If I’d had an ax, I’d have chopped them in pieces. I retched and tried to get up but I couldn’t. The siren sounded louder. Carl moved around behind Decker, shifting his forearm from Decker’s shoulder to his forehead, cradling the back of his head in the crook of his other arm. The siren screamed from the street out front, and just as the police cruiser pulled into the parking lot, Carl pulled back—one hard, sudden jerk—and Decker’s head flopped to the side like a rag doll.
* * *
Sometimes I tell this story in a bar, if I can get anyone to listen. Sometimes I tell it at the shelter or the soup kitchen. It all depends on how drunk I am, because I can’t remember it when I’m sober. Sometimes these days I hear people screaming that we should nuke the “towelheads” in the Middle East, or that we ought to send all the wetbacks and gooks back to where they came from—they’re usually the same people who have bumper stickers about the Indians that say, “We took your land; get over it.” That’s when I tell it, to try and wake them up, but it doesn’t make any difference. Nobody gives a shit.
I think Decker was still laughing when Carl let go and dropped him to the ground. Or maybe I just imagined that part. I play it up when I’m telling the story in a bar, but it seems that the more I do, the more people want to get away from me. “He died laughing,” I say, and then laugh my own high-pitched hyena laugh. Sometimes the bartender tells me to shut up. Sometimes someone else does and I take a swing. That’ll get me thrown out, which I take as a sign that I should move on, get out of the fog and rain of central Oregon, and head south. I’m still trying to get to California.