The Wrong Son
Among the son's bright fucking ideas, that last summer they worked together, was the suggestion that since there was good money in sport fishing they ought to start taking out parties of tourists. Shug could savor a rank cigar, resting up his bad shoulder while doctors and lawyers baited hooks for a change, and when brain-surgeon fingers fumbled and bled or a senator's pate burned neon pink Shug could smile around the last skunky inch and salt the wound. Nate figured guys like that would secretly dig the condescension and would come back for more because, basically, no matter what he said or did or how he treated people Shug was forgiven, a dispensation Nate had not inherited. He did get his share of the Dawe looks—lank black hair that came to a widow's peak in front, large homely ears, scarps of cheekbone—but the mix could go different ways, in Nate a semicomic near miss, in his father strong-boned, remorseless beauty that fallaciously suggested great depth of character. Women, sure—the beauty of women was supposed to cause trouble, but Nate would not have believed such havoc could be wreaked by a man if he hadn't witnessed the consequences firsthand. He was sometimes asked by unsmiling women how his dad was doing these days and had figured out that the right answer was, "Not so good," though it was never true. Once Nate was given a packet of red licorice by a high-heeled out-of-town-looking woman who said earnestly, "I know he's your father but he's a liar." And then: "You know better than to tell your mom where you got that, right? Yeah, I can see you do."
Fishing guide is a serious comedown, and Shug will surely see it as such, but Nate's plan holds out the promise of small, redeeming pleasures. The same stories that cause Nate to grind his teeth lightly together, the freighter lit up like a nighttime skyscraper bearing down on Shug through fog, the mast clustered with barnacles that flaked upward as a whirlwind of monarch butterflies, the shark in whose sliced-open belly Shug found a cat, will be taken for gospel by tourists anxious to experience the real Mendocino. If there are wives along Shug can charm them—saying this, Nate suffered the usual pang. Shug did more than charm. Shug would grin right back at the big black sunglasses hiding the wives' curiosity, and at some point Shug and one of the wives would rendezvous in a fifty-dollar room with a factory seascape over the creaky bed, but Nate could handle this if it means saving the boat, and whether Shug acknowledges it or not they're in dire straits along with every other fisherman they know, government regulations hemming them in on every side. Reborn as a party boat the Louise would be completely booked and they would be sure, day by day, where the money was coming from, a certainty no Dawe had ever before possessed, and worth a try, Dad, right?
Over my dead body.
Which phrase caused Nate to walk carefully, eyes averted, past that dead body, cast up on the pebbled beach of consciousness.
Like most who rely on intuition Shug had his ritual, resting scarred knuckles against the bone over his dark eye and waiting. His green eye perceived no more than any other, but the tortoiseshell one saw down through the world's surfaces to its deep, shifting currents of luck, and even when other boats came home empty the Louise was nearly always in the fish. When, seven years old, Nate first said he wished he had a weird eye, the confession met with the mild, for Shug, rebuke that he was imagining things.
This was on the Louise, a diamond afternoon shattering across the - ocean, waves hurrying at the pace of a fire-drawn crowd, Nate captive in childhood, in an old life jacket, arms dangling like a fat boy's, meaning his tall graceful father was even more likely to lash out than usual because he was irked by awkwardness as a cat is irked by wet paws. The dirty, mildewy, sunwarmed hug of the life-jacket braced Nate for confrontation. He was seven and alone. This was life then, this bravery, this scaredness, this love of the truth in your possession, the thing you had seen that set you apart and somehow was you. You and no one else. When his mother had squatted to fasten the buckles of his life-jacket that morning Nate had looked down into the center parting in her red hair and seen a tiny jog the parting made to accommodate a pink mole, and this revelation, that she had oddities and flaws previously undisclosed to him, drove home the extent of her vulnerability and he would have given anything to protect her from his father's hectoring, his father saying don't fucking teach him that, no real fisherman wears one, fall overboard and you're dead so you don't fucking fall. His mother said he's a kid, kids have accidents. As if Nate was not listening she said Say he falls. Nate tried to get in I won't fall but already (and it was not like her: she was not an insister) she was saying it again, Say he falls, Shug, tell me what would you do then, a protest, a demand, a bargain because she was letting his father take him, entrusting his life to his father and his father did not say what she wanted him to say, I would find him, of course I would find him, but then he never said what she wanted him to, and it was dismaying that she still nursed reckless hopes. Now, on the boat, Nate reasoned that if Shug was wrong about his own eyes, as he plainly was, he could be wrong about other things, and that in the gap between what his father insisted was true and what was true Nate's private perceptions could take root and thrive and send out shy leaves of oppositeness, and he stood there in his sissy lifejacket confronting this prospect, with scarcely time to rejoice before the big rough hand cupped his head and his dad said, "All right now? Back to work," as if Nate worked as hard as he did, as if they were together all day long. As they ended up being.
Another memory, harder to explain, in which there was no lifejacket: once when he had done something wrong his dad had picked him up under the arms and swung him back and forth over the edge of the boat, out over the dazzling drop. Below the half-moons of white rubber capping his Keds, an abyss reeled past, scintillae shuttling back and forth at the speed of panic. Nate hung there, legs dangling, hating with such concentration he feared his father would sense it and, as punishment, let go. Instead his feet thumped down on the deck and Shug said, "There you are," as if this were a natural initiation into terror and Nate should have known to expect it. And as if he, the father, had performed it ably and even with a measure of affection. And Nate stood there, and among the things he felt was love, as if what had happened had been pure rescue.
Nate’s friends didn't like when he started in on Shug, first because they'd been through stuff and they didn't go into it, second because Shug took them out on the boat for their birthdays and asked how's it going and if there was a problem with some girl he told them what to do with an easy authority only Nate understood was completely bogus, since Shug hadn't ever stayed around for problems but simply disappeared until the woman concluded it was over. Still, when things got rough for him at home Nate's best friend Petey Crews sometimes said he wished Shug was his father, wistfulness that caused Nate to glance away: not his job to set anybody straight. Then one night Petey upped the ante and confessed Shug had told him he got the wrong son. What the fuck did that mean, the wrong son? Petey tried to get out of it. He likes a good time, right? You gotta admit you're not a lot of laughs. Maybe that had something to do with working for a living and maybe Petey should try it, Nate said, and then report back about the laughs. Petey said Nate, man, you know you're too hard on your old man, you need to—. It could have been Nate's look that caused him to break off, or the quicksand shame of condescension going awry, but whatever it was Petey said softly It's just we're more alike, him and me. Nate thought softly Both motherfuckers. If he had said that aloud the friendship would have ended then and there, and not because he had called Petey a motherfucker, because he had called Shug one. But it was Petey who couldn't leave it alone. It's lost on you, while me, I would fucking love it, that's all Shug wants, a son to love what he loves, out on the ocean every single fucking day, who gets to live like that, only you, right, the last of the last? On your own, live or die, make it or don't make it, it's down to you and your dad and how hard you work and whether your luck holds and, man, I would fucking love that.
For a long while after that they didn't talk, but it was only on hearing about Petey's enlistment from Rafe that Nate understood how wrong things had gone. He'd had emails from Iraq that sounded as if they were still best friends but it seemed cruel to write back about his wife and his baby, and besides thinking of Petey aroused an obscure and guilty sense of finality. He just didn't want any more to do with the guy, and he let the emails accumulate unanswered.
But before that, while they were in high school, the best times were Nate and Petey Crews jammed into the cab of Rafe Figueredo's truck, talking about driving down to the city or farther, L.A., Baja, Austin Texas, if we want to we can just take off, ending up at the little beach they thought of as their own, the brothers Owen and Jeff Jennings and Boone Salazar there already along with Boone's girl, brown-eyed Annie Brown leaning back on one arm in the damp sand tossing mussel shells into the driftwood bonfire for the glassy tink of breakage, Nate liking that, not sure why, standing there nursing his longneck, another Saturday burning down to embers, wind from the west pasting his shirt to his skin, his abs impressive, he'd gone too long between haircuts but he thought he looked pretty good, he liked brown eyes and it would be nice having a girlfriend, telling his mom they were thinking about getting married, his troubles recounted to somebody who cared, who would argue it wasn't right Nate worked for his dad when he should be an equal partner, with an equal say in business decisions, if you could call the Louise a business.
Nate turned nineteen, then twenty, and when somebody wanted to talk about him in town they said you know—Shug Dawe's boy, that's out on the boat with Shug. Thought he might go away to college but he never did. In the Smoke River fashion the thought was unattributed, detached from any particular thinker. In Smoke River a thought was scarcely conceived before it was presented as common knowledge. That way if the thought turned out to be wrong nobody could be held responsible; that way the basis for an assertion was clouded. Nate had wanted to get out, had imagined the drowsy seashell acoustics of old lecture halls, a stack of pleasantly overdue books, calls where he explained he couldn't come home over the weekend because there was this big paper due Monday. Because there was this girl. Because if he went home he would be asked to help, spend half a day on the boat maybe, and the old life would take hold and insist that it alone was real and nothing out there, certainly no other means of making a living, would ever come close, and the fantasized Nate, the Nate who had gotten away, would have to stay away long enough to build up immunity, and how long would that take? Shug swept an arm toward the horizon, dove gray below slate gray, mother-of-pearl cloud scrolling toward a waning sun made of naked pink light, and said Another rough day at the office.
As close as he ever came to saying beautiful.
Even as fishermen went bankrupt the tourist trade flourished, and with a wide spectrum of out-of-towners to hate Shug singled out for particular venom the abalone divers who flocked to Smoke River each August and stood around their SUVs hoisting beers, wetsuits unzipped to display boastful white bellies. Inevitably one or more of their photos would appear in the Smoke River Sentry in their new guise, as drowned men.
The only divers Shug respected were the Vietnamese poachers whose fine-boned clean-shaven clever faces never made the front page, though sometimes one of their vans with the dark-tinted windows figured in a photo with Fish and Game guys swarming over it, and their names, Lu and Tran and Vinh and Ng, chimed through the court report, which detailed the number of abalone taken and the fines and jail sentences assessed, but as Shug said, for every ferrety Tran they caught a hundred drove home to San Francisco or Sac with a fortune in abalone. They sold to Chinese dealers who, with abalone increasingly scarce, paid not by the pound but the gram. The poachers ran calculated risks for serious money, five, ten, twenty grand worth of abalone in the coolers inside the black vans with tinted windows parked at night near remote coves. Within, the funk of unwashed maleness, neatly stashed diving gear, glossy black heads protruding from cheap sleeping bags—so said Boone Salazar, a classmate Nate had never liked: the guy was arrogant. He was hired by Fish and Game when Shug put a word in for him, and had fallen into the habit of stopping by the house for a beer with Shug, which seemed odd at first, a guy Nate's age hanging out with his dad, but made a kind of sense. They were two of a kind, Boone and Shug, inclined when pleasantly drunk to taunt each other in the glottal stops and high-pitched whines of made-up Vietnamese. Maybe it was reassuring, having another person echo your own racist views: Nate didn't want to think too hard about it.
Nobody had been doing well this summer, but this morning the salmon had started biting so hard before dawn that they didn't have time "to shit, shower or shave," Shug said, and when Nate poured the last of the coffee from the thermos and handed the cup to his dad, Shug said, "Kept up with me pretty good." Under its mask of salt spray Nate's face warmed at the praise; he felt high as a giddy child, light as if buoyed by a funky life-jacket. As if he could do no wrong, as if disappointment would never again narrow Shug's eyes or turn him sarcastic. Money worries were eating at Shug, and on a boat there is no escaping somebody else's foul mood. Late at night when Shug was topside, bullshitting on the radio, Nate sought consolation by imagining different girls from high school seated above him, their hair swinging forward, palms on his chest as if they were embarking on CPR, the fantasy heightened if he didn't will the girl into being but simply waited. The appearance of one girl, Ollie something, was surprising; he had never gone out of his way to talk to Ollie, nobody did, but sometimes they ended up together on the grafitti'd boulder jutting from the weedy slope descending to the football field, the boulder the designated site for pairings permitted nowhere else, the refuge where she set about dismantling his naivete. What had gone wrong in Newfoundland was going wrong all over and within fifty years every fishery on the planet would collapse, did he know that? Or: a tsunami, and there were going to be lots, could roll right over the cliffs and plunge across the field below with its scatter of seven-year-old soccer players jogging white-legged into the wind. They sat on their boulder smoking and picturing drowning second-graders. Ollie was their school's oddball star, the kind of student teachers wanted too much from: flashes suited her, intuitions, but not structure, not obligation or rules or any voice urging responsibility or goals in life. Boundaries repelled her, a fact that partly explained why she systematically violated his, pinching the cigarette without asking, exhaling with eyes slitted, comically vamping. He could not overcome his sense that she was a disaster, but this was not entirely off-putting. Ollie with no last name, or none he can recall. She clasped her knees in her arms and rocked, or she tinkered with her hair, fooling with this project on her head, tatty homegrown security blanket. Faithful as she seemed to her obscure devotion to him she was rumored to sleep around, and Petey Crews added her name to the bathroom tally of girls who gave blowjobs, but Nate didn't believe it, not this girl who wanted to crew on a Greenpeace boat, whose T-shirt claimed Fur Is Murder, who believed the world needed saving, starting with him, Nate. Had her name really been Ollie? Ollie what? He remembers asking about her dreads once. Why do you want to look like you don't give a shit? Had she been hurt, had she cared what he thought? He was pretty sure she had, even if the realization is late—almost two years late—in coming. After graduation she must have left town. She had never talked about what things were like at home, and he can't remember any mother or other family showing up at high-school events. Her dad had died when she was nine, and another girl would have incorporated the tragedy into her persona, but Ollie told him no details. Nate invokes the nimble theft of his cigarette, the pointy chin tilted up, the crawl of smoke from her parted lips, but this version is too accurate, friendly, failing to mine the erotic potential of her vehemence, and fuck this, he was too old to live in such close quarters with his dad, two berths angled toward each other in the V of the bow, the funky iron wood-stove crowding the space even more and smelling sickeningly of the boot polish Shug had dabbed on its scratches. Jesus, get a fucking life, he imagines a good friend telling him, but what friend? Petey Crews is in Iraq, Rafe works for Aboriginal Lumber. Nights off, when Nate made it to the inn at the crossroads south of town, its gingerbread eaves laced with Christmas-tree lights nobody ever bothers to take down and its marquee promising live music, he had that feeling of waiting for someone, but it wasn't clear who until, one night, Rafe slid onto the next barstool saying "N Dawg," Petey's usual greeting. After they had gone over what they knew about Petey and how he was doing Nate asked Rafe if he remembered a girl named Ollie something.
"Who had a thing for you."
"She had a thing?"
Rafe smiled down at his beer.
Nate made sure he could be heard over the music: "I was thinking she might of left town, right? Nothing to keep her here. I mean why're we still around?"
The crease at the corner of his mouth deepened as Rafe appreciated his beer. "'Member Annie Brown? A year behind us? Teaches second grade now.*
"Sure. Annie. Went out with Boone Salazar." He was pretty sure what was coming next, and he was right. "Not anymore," Rafe said, and his left hand did a shy stiff-fingered hula till Nate identified the gleam and said, keeping his tone warm, "What the fuck."
Rafe said, "At the county courthouse over in Ukiah. Spur of the moment or I would've called." They had vowed to be there for each other, to work it out so they each got a shot at best-man-dom, Rafe and Nate and Petey Crews, but Nate didn't hear any real apology in Rafe's tone, and his embarrassed sense of exclusion, disguised by rapping the bar for another couple of beers, drove home the sadness of their having gone separate ways. Petey had been the glue, Petey had seemed to have the most at stake in their comradeship and had gone to great lengths to keep them entertained, or as entertained as they could be in Smoke River.
This luminous afternoon when their luck turned for the better, Nate said, "I guess we ought to get back to it." The hard morning had left Shug's face sweaty and sunburned, his pulse tripping where a vein swelled in his temple, this visibly hard-working vein striking Nate as dangerous. But the veins that were really troublesome were deep in the brain, he told himself, not right out there where you could see. "Dad?" "Give me a minute"—not an answer Shug had ever given before. "My fucking shoulder again. You go ahead"—two more things he had never said. What it came down to was that time was taking its toll, and at least for this one radiant day he couldn't keep up with his son.
Past midnight now, and Nate hoped Shug had done the smart thing and gone to bed instead of staying up bullshitting on the radio. In the ice hold's echoing chill, his two or three different and overlapping shadows flaring in the corners as the fluorescence quickened, Nate's boots imprinted a melting dark meander as he crossed back and forth, slinging fish into the silver dune, tired enough that the prospect of sleep made him want to sink to his knees in the ice like one of those climbers yielding to death on Everest. He clicked off the light before climbing to the deck for a last look around. They were far enough from shore to drift for the night and the Louise had settled into a rare silence. Below in the fo'c's'le he found Shug asleep, longish black hair fanned across the ticking of the pillow, tattered and filthy, he refused to part with or let Louise wash because he believed it was lucky. Disgusting, Nate said, but his mother laughed and said it could be worse, it could be underwear. The shushing of the sea against the hull turned the tiny space chapel-like, and the need to keep quiet as he undressed made Nate feel like a good child, respectful, or as if he was in the presence of his dead father, feeling what he was supposed to feel, no more and no less.
Not that night but the next, Nate woke knowing that Shug's bunk was empty. "Hey, Dad? Where'd you get to?" The deck gleamed back at the moon, the day's blood sluiced away, Shug working while Nate slept: walk barefoot the length of the boat and your feet would stay clean as a newborn babe's. Nate retrieved the toilet seat and clapped it on the bucket, the seat an old wooden one, paint rubbed away in a bottom-shaped arc, his dad's arse and his, any other son would have conceded no more than a cryptic postcard, Santa Fe, Seattle, some wild little postmark north of the Arctic Circle. Nate emptied the bucket over the side.
An arm extended from the door of the cabin, the hand sloppy as a dead thing when Nate gathered it up, when he crouched saying, "No, no," his fingers against the inside of the wrist finding nothing, hoping, finding nothing nothing nothing nothing. Nate let shock carry him a short way into death after his father by neither moving nor blinking, concentrating on the death in his father's face but not knowing what it was like or how to go deeper, to take part in this death that intolerably excluded you and left you hanging. Then stupefaction as the pulse flailed against your fingertips and the need to make sure you weren't deceived by the force of longing. The sea slid past, the moon poured down, and Shug sat up sick and dishevelled with a look that said Nate was responsible.
"I think you fell, Dad. Fell and must of banged your head. Hold on, hold on, don't be thrashing or you could hurt yourself worse."
In trying to get him to lie back Nate was reminded that Shug was a big man, his back broader across than his son's and showing a distinct slide and play when Shug works shirtless, a bunching and cording along his forearm when he threads the hook into the herring and trims its tail till the glint of metal is perceptible, baitfish and hook coequal, no excess for salmon to snatch unscathed. On first demonstrating the technique to Nate he had said This is sex. Nothing to spare, no little bit to nibble off. The beauty of it: it's all hook. Nate had been, what? Nine? Shocked. Hiding it.
"You got to lie back down, Dad."
Nate's boots squeaking against the deck, they struggle in moonlight bright enough to contract the pupils in Shug's devastated glare. The core of bright mind he's left with refuses to trust his son.
Even now: refuses.
Under his dirty T-shirt Shug's collarbones are set against him like bull's horns. Gaining secure footing at last Nate levers his weight into his dad's bad shoulder, and when he yields his fury is terrifying, Shug gaping up from the deck with his hair strewn across his sweat-polished temples and crazy disbelief in his eyes at having been handled thus. This wrong somehow whistles up more wrong and Nate leans in and says savagely, "You're fucked up, Dad. Now let me do what I need to."
Nate called from the hospital in Eureka to tell Louise that she should come as soon as she could. Yes the doctor was a good one. Yeah, a bypass, kind of thing they do all the time, they said it takes four or five hours and Shug's chances were good but they don't tell you more than that cause they don't want to be liable. He had resolved not to lie for the sake of reassurance, though the impulse was strong. Nate rested his knuckles against his brow and then realized that was his father's gesture for summoning the right answer and dropped his hand, as embarrassed as if he'd stolen something small and personal from Shug. He, Nate, didn't know what to do and whether he should hang around here in the hospital or get back to the harbor where he had left the Louise. Nate thought of her as knowing nothing about the boat but his mother answered that he should stay where he was, the catch could wait until tomorrow, there were plenty of buyers in Eureka and it would all work out, he'd see. He had expected her to fall apart and was still braced for her tears but she went on calmly. Night driving was hard for her and she wasn't going to rush out the door. Nate heard her light a cigarette, and then she said it was ironic that it wasn't her heart attack, she was the smoker. Nate knocked his forehead against the wall, needing to bump up against something that behaved exactly as expected, and she said she would leave early and get there by ten or eleven. When there was no reply she said, "Are you crying, honey? You did fine. You got the boat into the nearest harbor, you got to the hospital. It's not helping, you going to pieces." He hadn't foreseen that she would be this rational; he had expected her to hold him responsible for Shug's overexertion. Without meaning to he had absorbed his father's sense that she could not handle things, but now he understood: she had always handled things, she had seen and understood and had been dealing with god knows how much truth they believed they had kept from her. The thought that came to him was, All that fucking work. Whose? Theirs. Theirs as a family. He was astonished to the point of tears—more tears. Whatever he confessed would be absorbed and answered in this same intimate, practical tone that only wanted to figure out what they should do next. Treasure was within reach, the treasure of being listened to and honestly forgiven, but what he came up with was "Mom, I'm so dirty. Right from the boat. I smell," and she answered that he should find the men's and wash as best he could because he had a long night ahead of him. He should wash his face in cold water. He'd see, that would help.
He told her goodbye and was tapped on the shoulder. Nate could go in for a couple minutes before they put Shug under. He was led through a series of hallways into the room where his father lay on a gurney, his rakish black hair hidden, his large ears jutting from a crinkled shower cap. Against the crisp gown his windburned forearms, the backs of his hands scribbled with white fishhook scars, looked used. He was not sure how he had ended up here; he was balking at the notion of surgery and would have walked out if he could have gotten to his feet, but they had given him something that left him subdued and lost. The heart attack and Nate's rough handling had vanished. They kept snagging Nate's attention, the raked-up brows of his father's bewilderment, and he took Shug's hand and said You're gonna do fine, Dad, shocked by the grateful response, Shug's big-knuckled fingers awkwardly interlacing with his, their two hands clasping, tightening, unwilling to part. Their sustained silence made the nurse frown when she returned, as if they should have been using this time to say last things. In the waiting room Nate found, in a corner, a shabby wing chair, upholstery already so far gone he didn't worry about the stink on his clothes rubbing off. It must be destined for replacement sometime soon, this chair. Hospitals didn't usually tolerate the threadbare companionability of long use. Throughout the murmuring public night people came and went, speaking the cryptic language of anguished uncertainty and, once or twice, breaking down and crying, for which Nate pitied them in his sleep.
"Good news," a male nurse said, waking Nate. "Your dad did great! He did fantastic! You can go in and visit. Frankly some people seem a little taken aback but I told them there is a lot of mileage left in that handsome old man. But who listens to me."
With Shrug housebound Nate was able to take out a couple of persuasive Sacramento lobbyists for several highly illegal jaunts, and the lobbyists let some friends in on the secret, and those friends told others. Getting caught with scuba gear and abalone would mean a steep fine, suspended fishing license, even jail time, but the lobbyists basked in the risk as if it were sunshine. When they went back to Sacramento Nate figured he had better do a couple days' hard fishing to account for the cash in case the IRS or Shug ever ran a cold eye over the books, and he was alone, leaning to toss a bucket of refuse when a wave lolloped into the bow and the Louise shrugged him into the sea. Opening his eyes underwater he had a vision of fish guts unknitting in a bumbling cloud. He slid down as if he had let go of a rope and the speed of his descent scared him into kicking. He surfaced in breathable light, scales gumming his hair and lashes. He spat and gagged. Ten minutes to hypothermia, the cold already searing, and how far had he been carried, and look out. Concentrating underwater, he scraped his toes down his heel, shedding one sluggish boot, then the other. He surfaced and the shadow of a gull rumpled interestedly across his head, followed immediately by a wave. He strove against the cataract and lost, borne backward into a hollow rolling with echoes, and despite this setback he felt his body coming back after long years' absence, gathered and intent and smoothly useful, his soul right here too, pleasurably distinct, a thing that could be torn from him, and he wished to cradle and save it, his soul, and to do that he had only to swim, it was so clear, he was for once brilliantly aligned with necessity, rejoicing in the clear, clear light of live or die, taking pleasure in his strength, which had been given a stinging outline by the cold, stroke, breathe, stroke, narrowing in on what he needed to do next, which was to swim around and take hold of the rungs and climb. A Jacob's ladder, wooden rungs on sturdy ropes. There she was, a neat small craft, handsomely white in the early light, illumined from behind, so that he noted the faint opalescence of spindrift within her shadow, the changeable, suddenly darkened, redoubled green of a wave sliding through the slanting tent of the boat's shadow and casting a shattered pearliness up through the shadow into the brighter air, where it floated in a brief-lived haze. No boat used for trawling salmon had a ladder. Potbellied, arrogant, the lobbyists had been in such bad shape it was hard to believe they wanted to dive, and it wasn't a pretty sight watching them lurch and clamber up that ladder, but now they're about to save his skin. Without the ladder he would have been treading water between the swells, keeping the Louise in sight though she was no use to him, staring at her as long as he could because she was the one known thing, the last human thing out there with him, because it would almost seem she wanted to help.
In the cabin, whose disorder proved it was no longer Shug's domain, Nate found a change of clothes, his dad's, and washed his face and rinsed his mouth clean of the lingering taste of salt with bottled water, rubbing his hair dry with a rag saturated with engine oil. To his scoured senses the world was a glittering, reeling heaven of sensation: he would forever after associate the smell of engine oil with the shock of being alive. Elation like this won't last long—even a minor setback can confound it, by introducing reality, but once the Louise was docked, the gladness was still there, and in hopes of sustaining it he stopped in at the Harbor Cafe on the wharf. Leaning back in his booth, he greeted the approach of the waitress with a smile inspired more by his own exhilaration than her familiarity, and this smile, which wasn't about her, which suggested a wild, causeless pleasure in being alive, caught her off-guard. Her hair was a blonde ponytail falling not down her back but across her shoulder, as if she'd drawn it forward to show off its length. She had something in her left eye, and the compulsive blinking made her feel ridiculous. In her distraction she lost his name and sought it in a quick inner stammer of guesses. Blinking, she poured coffee into the cup he nudged forward, and he beat her to it. "Ollie."
Then he said something she was never to understand. He said, "There you are.
It wasn’t Shug's heart that gave out, it was Louise's, in her sleep. Peaceful, people said, and So lucky she lived long enough to hold the baby.
Nate and Ollie and the baby lived in a trailer set on cinderblocks behind Nate's parents' house, in a yard knee-deep in thistles and sorrel and wild radish that Ollie resolved every spring to turn into an organic garden, but before they knew it it was midsummer and that plan, like their others, withered into endless bemused postponement. Sometimes it was Ollie who said wearily Look at this place and sometimes it was Nate, coming home exhausted and needing some gesture from her that would redeem his frustration and the weirdness of having to pay rent to his own father and his fear that he would never get them out of this trailer into a real house. Where had it gone, the scruffy dreadlocked rebelliousness of that girl on the boulder? If she was tamed was she even the same girl? They were trapped; the future was closing down fast and soon would shut them out altogether. Up to her to convince him otherwise, to reason with, comfort, and settle him down, but how? He said (and regretted it during the saying) there must have been a time when the prospect of giving him a blow job didn't turn her stomach. The girl on the boulder would have had turned on him the Medusa gaze of murderous feminism, but she was gone, leaving behind what? They could come back from this—find their way back. They had to. In a clearing in the trailer's mess the baby sat and blinked and sucked, muzzled by the lima-bean-shaped handle of his binkie. They crouched and warmed their hands at him like aborigines who have managed to strike a flame from rocks. Before long their friends with kids started to shake their heads. Indulge his every whim, let him think your lives revolve around him, and you're creating a monster: such was the advice directed at Nate and Ollie, who shrugged and smiled. I pity you two guys, Rafe announced one stoned midnight when Ollie and Nathan both jumped up at a bad-dream whimper from the bedroom. If it ever comes to working out joint custody. Rafe didn't have a big mouth usually, but Nate kicked him out for that remark and volunteered, because Ollie was crying, that Rafe was an asshole and jealous of what they had, and what happened to Rafe and Annie will never happen to them. Which only made Ollie set her two fists against her face, her elbows poked out as if she wanted to punch her own eyes.
This scared him and he pried her fists away, but she would not talk.
Fourteen-hour days for days on end, he worked. Let her work, now. Let her pick away at the crazy knot of resistance to him that had tied itself in secret. He didn't know why it had, but it had.
Left over from the brief spellbound time that had followed his finding her in the cafe, she had one trick, and when their drought had gone on long enough—almost too long to permit backtracking—she used it, turning to Nate and saying, "What if it was the last time we were ever going to see each other and you knew it, how would you fuck me, what would you do?"
She had taken a chance. He rested rough hands—so like his father's—on either side of her pointy chin, and gazing down past her everyday self to the deep-down soul-shelter where treachery stirred—they both knew she was not entirely pretending—he said, "I would kill you," with something close to the ferocity she needed.
Petey Crews was back from Iraq, and Rafe said they needed to celebrate, the three of them, hit the beach, that little cove where they used to hang out, make a bonfire and get high and drink some beer.
Petey and Nate got an early start and were already drunk, so Rafe drove Nate's truck, hauling hard at the wheel as if caught off-guard by each curve. Jammed together in the cab they were not as easy as they had once been—they had lost the hang of shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. Nate felt treacherous, as if having once been Petey's best friend he was obliged to feel what he always had, but could not. Rafe kept wanting to know if he should turn now, was this that little road to the cove?, and they all three squinted at the road snaking out of the dusk, their disorientation a fall from grace, each separately determined to ignore this failure and do what he could to regain the old sense of rightness, because without it who were they, what had they become? This had been their kingdom—this half moon of nondescript beach, streamers of foam borne lightly toward them, flung high, disintegrating, drained away in pebble-glittering rills. The moon. The companionable shapes of dunes embracing the dead end that served as a parking lot. Where there was, gradually looming into visibility, another vehicle, a black van with opaque windows and mud-obscured license plate. "Don't tell me," Rafe said.
They got out and prowled around the van.
"Nobody in there now," Nate said.
"How do you know?" Petey drank and wiped his mouth, drank again and flung the bottle away, but that was a good thing, not at the van, away into the dark.
"Tracks and scuff-marks heading off but none coming back," Nate said. "Jesus. Tonto."
"Let's just leave it," Rafe said. "Go further down the beach. Make our fire." Once the fire was sending seething mares-tails of sparks upward Petey said, "Isn't it too dark for them to be out there, still?"
"Using lights maybe," Rafe said.
"If they were using lights wouldn't we see them?"
"Or they saw us, driving up."
"Shug wants to go out early. I'm fucked. I haven't been drunk in forever," Nate said.
They couldn't help watching the surf while they drank.
"Here he comes," Rafe said.
Ushered onto the beach by a gentle wave the slender figure advanced with a hampered frog-footed delicacy, his raft rasping and hissing across the sand. Pausing, he slid his mask onto the top of his head, revealing a naked oval face hooded all round in sleek black and aimed uncertainly in their direction. When he moved little points and glimmers from their fire skidded across his oily pelt. He set down a heavy bag whose clatter they could hear from where they sat.
Petey said, "Too heavy to carry, the greedy fuck."
"Gonna be more than one of them," Rafe said, but they waited and no others emerged from the surf.
"He's alone," Nate said.
"Dangerous diving alone," Petey observed.
"You know Fish and Game really fucks with these guys," Rafe said. "Hits them with these ridiculous fines, basically ruins their families. Bankrupts 'em. Five or more over the limit means they go to jail, and, Jesus, it's not like they're dealing heroin. They're just trying to get by."
"All I know is Shug really hates them," Nate said.
Petey ground his cigarette out in the sand and got to his feet. "This is for Shug."
Rafe said, "Petey. Come on—who is he hurting."
But Petey was already halfway to the slender figure, who turned and tried to run, tripping on his fins, curling up with his arms wrapped around his tight black bulb of a skull when Petey drove the toe of his boot once, twice, again into the unprotected small of his back, then moved around to the head clasped in slender arms, Rafe and Nate pounding across the sand, Rafe screaming, "Not his head," Nate screaming too, unsure in the end whether the diver had made any sound at all, and when Petey backed away and Nate knelt with a flash of &ja vu, he believed that upward gaze was the one he had been waiting for all along, the dark gaze that had seen to the end and had nothing to report.
But the limp black frog-footed figure was hoarsely breathing, and it became a question of what to do with him. Petey stood off to one side while they tried to figure out whether they had to take him somewhere or whether he could be left right there in the sand. "Where he bleeds to death from internal injuries," Rafe said.
"I dunno," Petey said quietly. "It could be worse to move him. His back took some pretty hard hits. Maybe his spine." As if he had nothing to do with it.
"We're taking him," Nate said. "Count of three, we all lift. Petey, you get his hands."
"This is how we get caught." Soft-voiced, but throwing down his cigarette. "You get his hands."
"I'm telling you this is the mistake, not what I did. And fuck you, I can carry him myself."
Staggering over the sand with the diver cradled in his arms, Petey went down on one knee but didn't drop the guy.
Rafe said, sliding two fingers down inside the black cowl, finding a pulse in the throat and nodding first to Petey and then to Nate. "Still with us."
"Now what do we do."
"Drop him off in front of the Emergency Room. In that grass in front of the hospital," Nate decided. "Being careful not to get seen."
After they settled the unconscious figure on a sleeping bag in the camper—Nate remembered just in time that he should be arranged on his side so that if he vomited he wouldn't choke on it—and were climbing into the cab Petey said, "Wait, man. The goody bag."
Petey slogged back across the sand toward the raft and came back, tilting comically to demonstrate the bag's weight. "More money than any of us've made this year. Who wants it."
"Put it in the back."
Within a quarter mile Rafe had to pull over to permit another vehicle, a huge SUV none of them recognized, to buck and lunge past them with inches to spare, Nate swearing at the other driver for almost scratching his paint job, Rafe saying, "What the fuck, nobody used to come here but us."
Before light, the phone rang, and Nate reached from the futon to answer it, knocking it from the wine-crate nightstand and leaning to feel across the carpet—sandy rumpled topography of his discarded jeans, the ringing chiming through the trailer, rabbit's tail tuft of a balled baby sock, the ringing, slick foil of a condom package, when was that, ringing, constellation of faintly glowing buttons that he held to his ear, scared, remembering, sick, life as he knew it over, a last importuning ring before he hit the right button.
"N Dawg. I fucked up."
Nate said the first thing that came to him: "It's gonna be all right." "Who was he hurting?" Petey was crying.
Ollie sat up, the T-shirt she slept in whiter than her nakedness would have been. "Who is it?"
"Listen to me," Nate said. "It will all be all right."
Back jammed against the wall, arms around her knees, Ollie said, "Is it Shug?"
"I've called the hospital like five times and they won't tell me alive or dead. I said I was his brother. I made up some Vietnamese name but they laughed—the nurse laughed. That has to mean he was awake and told them his name. If he was dead nobody would laugh about any little bit of it, right?"
Aware of Ollie listening with her back to the wall, Nate said, "Yeah that's a good sign. Now listen to me."
"One of your famous plans, N? I got a plan. Mexico. Tell Rafe so long and he was right, but then you had to go and say that thing about Shug, and Shug is like a father to me and I lost it. Why didn't you two fuckers hold me down." He coughed.
No longer caring that Ollie could hear Nate said, "Shug isn't like a father to anyone."
Ollie uncrossed her arms. Fur Is Murder. She crossed her arms again.
"My big mouth, shit, I'm sorry, man. That was unjust. You would've stopped me if you could, I know that rationally. I got to get going. Hey, I left the bag in your back yard."
"What bag?" Nate said.
But Petey was gone.
In the five A.M. kitchen Shug was dabbling together a breakfast heavy on salt and lard, whisking eggs and amening the cadences of his favorite talk-show host. When Nate came through the door Shug dialed down the volume—the jackal voice hectored from a dollhouse—and shook his big head in sullen wonder. "Left it right out there where anybody could come across it. Boone's been after me about buying the old truck and he could have come by. Then where would we be. Well, you. You would of still been in bed. But me, Boone trips over that bag and I'm looking at jail time. Fish and Game," Shug added, in case Nate had forgotten who Boone worked for.
Nate barely managed not to say Jesus Dad put your shirt on. It didn't matter how used to each other they were on the boat, here in Louise's kitchen he was bothered by Shug's ribby, potent, belly-hanging nakedness, and especially by the scar between the old man's slabby breasts, the naked pink millipede that should have been decently covered by the shirt hanging on the chair. Curious, that Shug had brought the shirt downstairs but not tugged it on over his shaggy head. Or had he taken it off when he began cooking. Though this time it was a trivial matter Nate tried once more to figure out why Shug did what he did.
"If it was just you running the risk, I would almost agree you have the right to screw up your own life, but when your lying cheating deviousness threatens this family I can't turn a blind eye. You think I don't mean it, or that I can't handle the Louise on my own or that I'll never draw the line because I'm your father, but you fucked up for good, and Ollie and the baby can stay but you've got to go. Now. Today. I don't want you spending another night under my roof."
Every angle in the kitchen sharpened as if a knife had shaved vagueness away. Nate's body recognized catastrophe before his brain did. His heart began a purposeful gallop but his mind, groping wildly, discovered not a single word of protest, and this was too bad—later he would understand that the one way he could have saved the situation was to get right into the old man's face. That might have worked. It might have meant their lives could go on. Much, much too late he was to grasp the consequences of his silence and wonder why, when his very life depended on it, he had not been able to come up with the straightforward Fuck you of a blameless man. Instead, as he had too many times before, Nate placed his faith in explanation. The problem was his dad did not understand. Look how quickly he could clear this up! "Somebody left the abalone in the yard while I was sleeping. Left them without my knowing."
"Ah, now. Like I don't know how this world works. Like anybody would leave that bag if you weren't in on the deal. You think I never wanted to break the rules? Cheat some? But did you ever see me? How much do you think was in that bag? Did you count? I'm guessing—ten, twenty grand? You think I don't know you take divers out? A blind man could tell from the mess you leave behind. You got your cut, and if you hadn't been drunk you wouldn't have left the bag out where I would find it. But part of you wants to screw up. Part of you always has."
"No, Dad, this is about you. What you've been waiting for," Nate said. "And here it is, your chance to end this, because now that Mom is gone there's nothing to keep me from hating you."
He ducked, but then stood shaking his head, aware that nothing more would happen, now that Shug had tried to hit him. The words had come out wrong and he would have liked to explain that piece of it. He wasn't the hater. In his confusion it had come out wrong. What he meant was: nothing to keep you from hating me.
He was almost through town, Highway 1 running between dark old false-front buildings housing four antiques stores and a used bookstore and a shoe store and an art gallery and a hardware store doomed to another day of almost no sales, when he noticed the star sparkling in the rearview, twinkling from red to blue, sharpening, fading, falling behind, his truck running well though he'd neglected to get the oil changed—well, he hadn't been contemplating any long trips, and even now he wasn't sure where he was going, except that he had an aunt he had liked when he was a kid, and she lived in a little town in Oregon, and that might work for a while, long enough for his dad to calm down. They could use a cooling-off period. Shug was right, Nate couldn't see him handling the Louise on his own—it was only a matter of time, and if Nate chose a lucky evening to call, Shug would answer the phone as if there had been no fight and Nate had inexplicably taken off, leaving him shorthanded. That was exactly how Shug would play it, as if Nate was in the wrong, and this cradling, forgiving, exasperating recognition of his dad's ability to put him endlessly in the wrong was complicated by the sudden realization that the ricocheting red-blue twinkle was for him and then as clearly as he had ever seen anything in his life he saw Shug rest his knuckles over his dark eye, recollecting the numbers of Nate's license and reciting to the officer on the other end of the phone, and as it gained on Nate that scurrying to-and-fro light-show would burn brighter and brighter and more righteously, its anger justified when Boone Salazar or whoever swung down the tailgate and dug under the tarps in the pickup bed until, aha, the goodie bag was hefted and swung before Nate's believing, disbelieving eyes, the shells within chattering like stones poured down a well except these would not be poured anywhere, but held against him as evidence, and it didn't matter what he said or didn't say, they had the proof in the Vietnamese diver's bag, which smelled of the bottom of the sea, and if Petey was wrong and the man had in fact died this could get very, very bad and Nate could be gone for years, and there would be Ollie alone with their little boy in the trailer in the yard knee-deep in thistles and bindweed, and nothing Nate could do about it when Shug crossed that yard, and he would cross that yard, he'd already been crossing that yard and with this recognition Nate was alone in icy water with the keen sense that it was time for him to go down and he really didn't care. It was just too bad that the end was on him before he understood his life. The end had been coming forever and now that it was here he saw no reason to object. He downshifted and pulled onto the shoulder without worrying about it because he was cradled in the shadow of his destined wave, heaping itself, its high rim a spitting, flinging banner of foam, and Nate rolled the window down and rested his face in his crossed arms on the steering wheel and waited.
It was Boone, and he said into the open window, "I'm gonna need to see in the camper," and Nate said, "Yeah, okay," but before he could get out of the truck Boone said, "Did you know that diver was a kid when you-all broke his ribs?" and Nate said, shocked, "It was not a kid," and then, "How old?" Boone said "Seventeen," and then, "Well, now things get more complicated, because he's hurt pretty bad," and Nate figured he might as well ask, "How bad?"
"Well yes it is," Boone said, "yes it is and I'm surprised you're so damn calm in the face of important good news like this, but maybe you called to check on the kid during the night."
"I didn't know it was a kid and I didn't call."
"It's been a night of interesting phone calls. A couple to the hospital during the night and an anonymous one to my office a half hour ago. Christ, Nate, how could you get into shit like this, break your old man's heart?" And then: "Look, I'm gonna do something I'm going to regret, so don't say anything and don't give me any fucked reason to think twice. Just drive." He slapped the roof of the cab twice. "Just drive away." He stepped back. "This is for Shug. Now you tell him that the next time you talk."
In the rearview mirror Boone Salazar was backlit by alternating shocks of crimson and blue, his hand lifted in a wave, but it took an hour of dark highway, winding through the woods with no lights whatsoever in his rearview, before Nate could believe that he was free, and more miles passed before, remembering what he was supposed to tell Shug, he began to laugh, seeing the beauty of it.