Douglas W. Milliken


All the way from his house in the hills down through the river valley, Richard hacked and pointed his directions while beside him I listened and got us where we wanted to be. The streetlights were off but some passing cars had their headlamps on. Just south of town where the river widens and skinny young trees are all that remain after last year’s clear cut, we pulled off in a wide gravel turnaround and I nosed the old Chrysler to the west. Through the bug-stained windshield, we watched the sun melt to fade out behind the shadowy knuckles of the mountains. Waxy purples and pinks flaring through thin clouds, wispy as fading ghosts. Richard lit another Parliament 100 and nodded while the light slowly seeped out of the world. Like he was in negotiation with what we saw.
          On the radio, David Allen Coe was hating again. When the sun was all gone, I started the engine and Richard resumed instructing me as to where to go, what turns to take and which fire roads to follow up the mountains. I didn’t think the Chrysler should be taking on such rough terrain, but this was Richard’s car and he was calling the shots. We rumbled under redwoods with our headlights slashing wild shadows through the trees, then crested a bald summit. We had a clear view of some other little valley town and beyond that—thick reds and yellows burning over the world’s most lonesome blue—the sun set for us a second time.
          I took five bucks out of my pocket and told Richard to go fuck himself. Then I gave him the five bucks. But anyway, the money was already his. I was holding for him. The dollar lay right where I left it on his leg.
          Neither of us said much of anything after that. I guess Richard just now and then would kind of laugh. Deep and wet in his chest. We’d argued about this before but now we both knew. He was a wizard.

You once told me that there are stars that shed no light. You told me, I was one of those stars. So I can’t know if you’d be surprised that I made it this far west. Winter came on hard in our northeastern city and suddenly living outside didn’t seem like so much fun—down in the tent-city, among the burnt out wreckage of the old harbor front, the snow piled deep in a single night, crowding against the naked poplars and the wandering haggard men all bleary-eyed with Thunderbird and the shock of being, their shambled lamentations rising in blue plumes from fetid, black-stained mouths—and with nowhere else to go, I made up my mind to head south. A couple crust-punk kids I knew were going to hop cargo trains all the way down to New Mexico, and somehow they’d found it in their hearts to invite me along, but I knew too clearly, in that kind of journey, someone was going to get hurt. Lose their legs or simply just die. If I was to be of that party, I knew: I’d be the one who’d go under. I think they understood this, too. To them, I’d be the lucky rabbit foot that kept them safe. I’d be the one to feed the rails. I respectfully declined their offer and left them with the uneasy job of sorting out who’d be their charm instead. Then I scraped together what cash I could and bussed as far south as the lines would let me.
          My plan might’ve been to make a solid go of it down in Florida, eating oranges and sleeping on white sands, but I only made it as far as Georgia before things got kind of hazy. There were guys running crystal across state lines, which unleashed a fluttery moth of fear somewhere inside my solar plexus but then again, also afforded me an opportunity to get around and see some country. A New Year came and went while I played copilot in the South. Then one runner—a self-styled greaser kid in an unlikely blue Gremlin—decided he didn’t need to make the drop, he’s just keep going, make a fortune for himself somewhere else, and without even trying I found myself a quarter-share deep in the Carolinas. My logic at the time told me that this was too far north, so I sold the bulk of my stash in a fire sale and hitched west. I was hoping for some baked-clean desert but instead, I hit Oregon in shell-shocked confusion with my veins stripped and scoured. My last ride was from a trucker who hadn’t slept in years, it seemed, and who opted to dump me at some reservation casino alongside the highway. My luck could’ve been worse. I washed up in the bathroom and hung around the tables, thinking that if I looked like a gambler, I could maybe score some free drinks. But this was a dry casino. I frittered and grew antsy and I remember the ceilings seemed too far away, and at some point Richard saw me—he was working over a black jack table, frustrating the dealer and making a fortune—and after buying me breakfast and correcting my coffee with a flask from his jacket pocket—and, more to the point, after arguing over the likelihood of the Celtics making it to the playoffs and if they’d ever definitively get one up on the Lakers—we struck a deal that cemented our friendship. I’d help him get around and manage his self-medications and anything else he might need. In return for these services, he’d put me up and keep me in whatever chemical haze best fit my predilections. I’ve been living in his basement ever since.

After our second sunset had passed, we drove back into our valley town and bought fried chicken in a bucket from a drive-up window, then went back to Richard’s. While I fixed us drinks—nothing special, just tall glasses of bourbon and water—Richard took off his leg and got into bed. Then he called some girls. I really wasn’t interested in all that, so I put some chicken on a paper plate and left the rest with the old man. His pipe was already smoldering with Ready Rock and ash, acrid smoke spinning dizzily in the air. On the TV, a derailed train puked fire somewhere outside Reno. Richard puffed and wheezed. I took my dinner to my room downstairs.
          Long before all this, Richard had been an engineer at a GE plant outside of Troy, New York. He did that for twenty-five years. He had a wife and family I guess, but when he retired, he left it all behind. Maybe the transition from a daily purpose into infinite leisure made him crazy, but I don’t know. These are just things I’ve pieced together from living with him. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Richard doesn’t talk about that life very much.
          From what I’ve gathered, he traveled around for a couple years, then bought this place in Oregon, about twenty miles inland from the coast and a thousand miles from anything else. He says he loves the perpetual spring here. Always cool and misty and green with new things that are alive. But sometime soon after moving here, he wounded his leg doing something in his garage—this part of the story always changes, which makes me wonder how much of it is of a truth—and anyway, it didn’t heal right so by the time he went to a doctor, it was too late. Now his right leg ends just below his knee. It was probably around that time that free-base became an interest for him. As for the girls, I imagine they’ve always been a hobby.
          Down in my room, I ate my chicken and drank my bourbon and watched a program about dinosaurs on TV. Having television was still a novelty for me. I’d watch anything and be amazed. In those days, every aspect of normal life impressed me. Dishwashers and pay-per-view. The simple luxury of a bed. For too long, I’d been absent from these things. I was still giddy at being invited back in. After watching a stegosaurus stomp around for a little while, the doorbell rang and I went up to let the girls inside. They were pretty the way these kinds of girls always are, which is to say, in spite of themselves. Behind them, a black car was parked on the street. Seeing it there made me think of hard-shelled ticks or those fish that sucker to the bellies of sharks with their mouths like cup-shaped razorblades. I knew it’d stay there until the girls came out. I closed the door and pointed up the stairs but these girls knew the way. They’d been here before. One of them I recognized but the other girl could’ve been anyone. They tottered up the stairs on unsteady heels, calling Richard’s name, and I ducked back in my room. I ate my chicken and finished my bourbon. It made me want another. I waited until I could hear them up there, then I sneaked into the kitchen and fixed another drink and drank that down quick. I hardly noticed the taste before it was gone. My eyes felt fuzzy but everything else rang sharp and cool. I was clarified. I trotted down the stairs and back outside.
          Not that much time had passed but already, between letting the girls in and stepping out now, it’d turned from dusk to full dark. And too: it was raining. The sound was like dust popping on an old record in the quiet parts between songs. Except for the lights in the houses around us, the night’s darkness was a pure and living thing. It felt viscous. I knew the black car was still out there, but I couldn’t see it. I wondered if the driver could see me. Blind and maybe unseen, I waved.

I guess Richard must have once had a son. Back in his other life, back in Troy. Richard never mentions him, but there are pictures on the wall. Department store portraits. A boy at eight. The same boy at maybe twelve. Blonde hair and nice sweaters. The sort of pictures that tell you exactly nothing about a person. A whole life of imaginable potential. It’s very much possible that his boy would be my age. Which I guess, in it’s own way, might explain why I’m around.
          For my part, I’ve never told Richard about you. The life I had and how it was lost. As far as he knows, I’ve always been this way.

I’d said earlier that I live in Richard’s basement, which points toward a certain image that I think is probably misleading. It’s a finished ground floor with its back wall built into the hillside and most everything else above ground. There are windows. In the daytime, it’s bright, and aside from one room Richard uses for storage, the whole downstairs is mine. I’ve a bedroom and my own bath and another room I don’t know what to do with yet. I can use the kitchen upstairs all I want and anyway, Richard and I hang out a lot. There’s a chair next to his bed where I sit and watch TV with him on the days when all he wants to do is lie around naked and smoke crack. Sometimes we hang out on the balcony and look out over the valley, drinking and talking or maybe saying nothing. In a way, this whole house is kind of mine. But it still feels weird living anywhere again.
          Coming in from the rain, I wandered among my few things for a while until I found a tablet of motel stationary and started to write a letter to you. I wanted to tell you about seeing the two sunsets today. Instead, I started right in telling you about Dummy.

After spending the better part of the winter down South, I hitched around a bit and for a period of weeks found myself in Montana. It was springtime and kind of ghostly in those cool dim days of April, and the town I was in played along with this feeling. It’d once been a copper town but the mine went bust sometime back in the early 80s so now all they have is a Superfund site. I guess most of the people there left when that happened. Now this pretty western town is almost empty. For me, in that season, it all just fit the mood.

I’d fallen in with another group of men like me, guys who maybe once lived somewhere and did work for money but couldn’t do that anymore so did this instead. I’m sure we all had our reasons. At the edge of town was a half-built high school—something that was started during the copper boom but then left incomplete when the mines closed and everyone split—where me and the other guys slept most nights. It was clean and warm and empty in there with sheets of plastic flapping over the unfinished inside walls. It was a fun place to live. During the days, we’d just kind of wander around town.

I know these are things you don’t want to hear. They don’t really fit the details of what a “good” life is supposed to be. But these were okay times for me. For that little while, I was fine. And anyway, there’s something I’m trying to say.

For whatever reason, that season in Montana, I found myself often in the company of this guy we only ever knew as Dummy. He was young and gangly and looked an awful lot like a skeleton that couldn’t understand what you were saying. I’m sure Dummy was smarter than he looked, but that really isn’t saying much. He’d grown up somewhere raw and poor in the mountains of Kentucky or West Virginia. He liked to swear but didn’t really know how. He considered himself a lady’s man, though as far as we could tell, he was still something like a virgin. To match this image of himself in his head, Dummy liked to maintain what he considered a clean look. Often we’d find him in one of the cavernous locker rooms—the cold water, for whatever reason, still ran—shaving his head with a played-out disposable razor. But he was bad at it. His head was crowded with scabs.

Dummy was a good guy but he talked a lot and some of the other guys hated him for that but he and I got along okay. He didn’t have to tell me his story for me to know he’d always had it bad. Someone else had made him this way. He could talk all day and it wouldn’t bother me. It’s not like I had anything better to say.

One time Dummy and I set out to find a ball because I wanted to teach him how to free throw and pass, but we didn’t have any luck on that account. What we did find, though, was a kid’s BMX bicycle abandoned down by the park. It looked like it’d spent the winter in a snow bank, its chain all rusty and tires a little flat but it had pegs on the front and back. We could both ride at once. I peddled first and Dummy got on back and we rode as far as the tennis courts and then we just kind of stayed. Dummy was laughing like I’d never seen or heard before. It was like when a dog discovers the moon and then that’s all there is in the world: just the moon. He was hypnotized by the moon of his laughter. He couldn’t stop. I peddled us in circles and figure eights around the courts and Dummy held onto my shoulders and laughed and howled and shouted and laughed. I could hear him echoing off everything. He was everywhere.

I set down my pen and looked at the paper. I didn’t want to say what happened to Dummy after that. What those other motherfuckers did. He was a good kid and didn’t deserve what he got and I didn’t want to think about finding him that way. So I reread the last thing I wrote and remembered him laughing while we rode together around the nets and between the painted lines. Then I told you that I loved you and found an envelope, licked the seal, and it was done.

Upstairs, it sounded like they were having lots of fun. I put on my shoes and stepped back outside where the rain had slowed a little but the dark was still indelible and thick. It took a long time to find the mailbox. I dropped in the letter and raised the flag and headed back up the drive but along the way, I saw the dome light glowing inside the black car. A large African man was sitting behind the wheel. Light shining off the smooth bald cap of his skull. He was reading.
          Back inside, I headed for my room but Richard must have heard the door because he shouted my name and then the girls started in, too.
          “Coleman,” they yelled, then Richard said, “Coleman, get up here,” and then the girls again: “Come join us, Coleman.”
          I normally didn’t hang out when there were girls around but tonight I was feeling funny, having thought about Dummy and thought about you, and I really wanted some company. It was nice of them to invite me up. In Richard’s room, they were all in bed together and everyone still had their clothes on. They were just hanging out. It looked cozy. They were sharing a bottle of cheap red wine and passing around the pipe. They hadn’t touched the bucket of chicken. On TV, kids were doing things with skateboards: they clearly weren’t very good. The girl I didn’t recognize smiled sweetly at me and told me to join them. She batted her lashes and everything. I stood for a moment near the door, then sat in the chair beside Richard’s bed. They laughed.
          The girl I recognized had been here a few times before and one time we’d got to talking. She used to drive a school bus up in Juneau, she’d said. Now she was here doing this. Just like the rest of us. Richard was sitting with a girl on either side and the girl I knew was the one nearest me, so she handed me the wine then handed me the pipe, then Richard offered his pack of long white cigarettes and even though I don’t smoke, I took one of those, too. On the TV, a kid skidded off a railing and landed on his face. The girls were doing things now but Richard and I were playing it cool like nothing was going on—we were arguing as to whether Rajon Rondo would ever statistically beat Magic Johnson in consecutive double-digit assists to become the best player alive—but when the girl I recognized slithered between Richard’s knees, I remember, like it was beyond his control, the bald stump of his amputated leg slowly rose from the sheets like a quivering hand raised in surrender. It was a little obscene but a little bit beautiful. In my lap, that sweet other girl was doing her thing to me. I was eating a leg of chicken.
          “He’ll never do it,” I was saying. “He loses his cool too often. He’ll get in a fight. They’ll eject him from the game before the record’s ever broke.”

They were swinging this baseball bat around and laughing when I came down into the gymnasium. There were maybe four of them. They were taking turns. I asked if they knew where Dummy was, but they just kept on laughing. The bat was filthy. I got on our bike and pedaled out into the drizzling grey morning, and it wasn’t too far away, along the edge of the access highway, that I found him. His legs were in the road but the rest of him was in the ditch. It kind of looked like his head was hidden in the marshy grass. I knew nothing was hidden down there. They’d been thorough. I got off our bike, then I got back on. He was still holding half a candy bar. I peddled to a truck stop at the edge of town, where the state road meets I-90. It was the same place I’d landed when I first found myself in this town. Everywhere I’ve gone and every stupid thing I’ve done since you sent me away, and only now as Montana gave itself up to rain did I feel like some vulnerable pink animal clinging to the face of a rock spinning through outer space. The only thing that’d changed was my knowing it. I walked around until I saw the pay phone, but when I had the black receiver in my hand, it hit me that there wasn’t anybody for me to call. Dummy didn’t have anyone in all the world. And the cops likely wouldn’t get up to anything good with his body. Maybe it was better he stay there, I thought. Like a dog that’d been hit, or a raccoon. Some birds would find him. I thought maybe that’d be okay. I hung around the truck stop for a while, then I found someone who’d take me west. The truck stop had great coffee and was named Theriault’s and the driver didn’t say one word to me all the way to Oregon and it didn’t hurt my feelings at all because I didn’t want to talk anymore.
          That’s the part I didn’t want to tell you. But now you know. I’m sorry.

Sometime much later, after we’d all passed out wherever we sat or lay, I woke up to a knocking at the door. Not the doorbell: a knock. It was the African man. He wanted me to let him in.
          Standing there with each of us on different sides of the same open door, it occurred to me that he and I were engaged in the very same job. Each of us protecting the bodies with which we’d been entrusted. The same way Richard was protecting me. The same way everyone is protecting and protected. All at once, we have power, and we are powerless. We only have to slip up once to fail. This man—twice my size and of a world so much harder than mine—could snap me in half if he wanted to. But this was my house. I told him he couldn’t come in. I told him to wait here. Then I went upstairs to get his girls.

It isn’t just yet but it’ll be pretty soon. Richard will get dressed up in his powder blue suit and attach his metal leg and go back to the dry casino. He’ll clean house. He’ll walk out with pockets full. Before he leaves for the casino, I’ll ask if he needs a ride and he’ll say no, “I’m feeling lucky tonight,” he’ll say with his voice a smoky mess, “I’m going it alone.” He’ll leave and I’ll wait and the night will get late and at some point, I’ll know. He’s waiting somewhere, biding his time, and I’ll know. I won’t linger too long once I figure it out. I’ll pack my one bag and I’ll head out into the night.
          But that night isn’t here yet. I still have time. For a little while longer, I’m saved.


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