Dispatch hates it when we go rogue. The driveways are killers, god-awful ruts that climb for miles and beat the hell out of your oil pan. We got loggers barreling down from McSorley’s Tract, not to mention the creeks wash deep until July, but most of us except Nemo are good behind the wheel. We’re supposed to leave packages behind the mailboxes along the numbered routes—they say it’s a liability issue—but with the chump change they pay us I got a good idea they can afford a little extra comp and collision. Anyway, it’s always an interesting proposition to see how folks live up there, off the grid and all. Some of them are real freak jobs—like that ranch where they all wear purple—and the rest, well, they can’t be bothered. Good luck finding anyone you’d want to go bowling with. I guess that’s true everywhere these days, which is why this particular delivery caught me off guard.
It was the fifteenth of June. I remember because I had just come back from leave and things were still a little hazy. I was loading the truck when Johnny stopped by to tell me how sorry he was about what happened.
“What can you do?” I told him, knowing there wasn’t shit anyone could do.
He noticed I had a box for this dude named Storm Cartwright, a fake name like we always got when someone sent away for something they shouldn’t.
“Big tipper,” Johnny said, “a sixer and twenty bucks last time I was up there.”
“I meant what brand of bullshit. A tip like that, he must’ve run you through it.”
“Seemed alright to me. I hear he’s famous. Don’t know for what, but that’s what I heard.”
“I’ll be sure to get an autograph.”
“His house, it’s one of those they build in, like, Palm Springs or somewhere, put it on a truck, slap it together on site. Lots of glass and recycled shit. He told me his walls are stuffed with Levi’s. They cut up old pants.”
“He should have tipped you fifty,” I said, and almost ripped my finger off locking the gate. It was going to take a while before I got my wind back.
Once I turned off Route 6 it got dicey. The grade was pushing 30 percent and there were rocks the size of basketballs. I had to take it slow, just like the ring road in Kandahar whenever we saw something out of whack. Sunlight was getting harder to come by and I hit the first patch of snow at mile two. A ponderosa had fallen at an angle, partly blocking the road. I got out, made sure there was clearance. Looked okay, crept through with an inch to spare when a load of slush fell onto the windshield. It mixed with the dust and made a real mess. Just what I needed—another day at the office, another friggin’ car wash.
A half-hour later, I cranked the last hairpin and drove into a clearing. The place turned out to be as advertised—like a fancy box—with siding made out of some striped wood I couldn’t place and lots of glass. Not very practical, I thought. A Stellar’s jay ripped shingles off the awning, squawked at me like I did something wrong. Otherwise, it was still and quiet, not a soul in sight. Usually we get up here and the dude—it’s always a dude—is waiting on the porch wondering why you’re on his property and make it quick. It’s no secret—misanthropes, they live for a security breach. There’s typically a generator growling, a ratty blue tarp strung between the aspen, drums of chemicals they probably banned when Clinton was president. And woodpiles. Always a woodpile, either stacked to the sky or a scratch of kindling, nothing in between.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. The dude is like a dog with a ball in his mouth, been sitting there a month waiting for you to throw it. He’s starved for conversation, a little local flavor from down the hill—anything to pass the time. You could be the Zodiac Killer and he’d still want to hear all about it. But that day no one came to greet me so I stomped the parking brake and went into the back to dig out the package for one Mr. Storm Cartwright.
Walking up to the house, I saw a snowman with a pink scarf and little kid’s backpack, which struck me as odd. I knocked on the door. It opened a crack, then slammed shut. I knocked again. The door swung wide open this time and a girl—maybe eight or nine—was standing there.
“Is your dad home?” I asked, thinking it was strange a kid was up here. My mind began to create scenarios, ones I’d rather not think about, considering all the sick fuckers in this world. But the girl seemed happy, the way a kid should, so I let it go.
Usually we get up here and the dude is waiting on the porch wondering why youre on his property.
She skipped back into the house like she weighed half as much as a butterfly. After a minute, a man came to the door. He had long hair and deep lines at the corner of his eyes. He was wearing a fancy dress shirt with stitching around the collar and those black glasses with thick frames that either made you look like a funny guy or smart, depending. I could tell he’d seen some shit over the years.
“Ten-to-one your dogs would’ve sniffed this out,” he said giving the package a shake. “Don’t guns require some special form to fill out? At least a note from my mother.”
I couldn’t tell if he was kidding, the way it is when you meet someone and they’re not how you thought they’d be.
He handed me a fifty. I tried to give it back.
“Better you than the IRS,” he said.
The little girl peeked out from behind her dad and pinched him.
“Damn, Izzy!” he winced, then smiled, always a good sign when someone reacts to pain like that.
“My daughter’s part crab, part sunrise,” he said, kind of proud.
“Daddy, can the delivery man stay for lunch?” she pleaded.
“Oh, no, I can’t,” I said.
“We’ve been cooking all morning,” Mr. Cartwright said. He had an inviting way, like someone you know is going to tell you a story that could rearrange how you look at things.
“This could be your only chance to break bread with certified blue-blood rednecks. Plus you’re gonna need time for that leak to seal up.”
I turned around and sure enough there was a steady drip of coolant pooling beneath the radiator of my truck.
“Get the pepper shaker, Iz.”
She ran off, excited by a project.
“If black pepper doesn’t gum it up,” he said, “we’ll crack an egg.”
“That really works?”
“Finds the leak every time. I’m a vegetarian, but only when it comes to auto repair.”
As I took off my shoes I knew there would be hell to pay once I got back down the hill. We sat at this weird low table that looked out through the glass wall. From the front yard you couldn’t tell but the whole house was perched on the edge of a steep canyon. The view was amazing. Down below you could see Convict Creek, a famous spot for catching native trout if you’re willing to make the trek. Lunch was a big plate of ribs—a nice departure from the steady diet of Subway I’d been eating since Jody left. I immediately pegged it as South Carolina–style.
“Mustard and vinegar,” Mr. Cartwright said, impressed. “You a chef?”
“My wife, Jody, she’s from Orangeburg. The whole family, they’re psycho about barbecue. Her brother’s one of those speed eaters. They’ve got a league now, like the NFL. He holds some kind of record.”
“Let me guess—thin as a rail.”
“No, he’s huge. And he tells the same jokes over and over when we go out there for Thanksgiving.”
“The pilgrims had no idea what a cruel legacy they’d leave behind. Home for the holidays my ass.”
I already liked the way he spoke—poetic but kind of gritty.
“Jody’s mom, she makes her dad take sleeping pills,” I confessed. “Not for him but for her, so he doesn’t toss and turn and wake her up.”
“That family sounds like mine.”
They baptized me in the drainage slough behind the barn.
“Yeah, but my wife’s a good sport. We have a safe word when it’s time to leave. Last time it was flaky. I said, ‘Thanks for dessert, Mrs. Garrison, that was the flakiest pie crust I’ve ever had,’ but my wife wouldn’t leave until I got it right. I had to say ‘I love a flaky crust.’ It’s tough to tell but Jody, she’s got a great sense of humor.”
“You’ll have to take her a plate of ribs, see if they pass the test.”
“That’s okay, she’s gone a while. Up to Corvallis,” I said. There must have been a tone because Mr. Cartwright didn’t press it further.
Izzy ran in with a scale that looked like it was straight out of some fancy catalogue. She put it down on the floor, weighed herself, then disappeared. She came back into the room hugging a guitar case. It was as big as she was. She stepped back on the scale. I could see her counting to herself.
“My dad’s guitar weighs . . . twelve pounds,” she announced.
“Izzy’s good at math,” he said to me, “and the art of persuasion. I blame her mom.”
As she stepped off the scale she almost dropped the thing. I was surprised Mr. Cartwright didn’t yell at her. My dad would have slapped me stupid if I went into his stuff, let alone something pricey. Then Izzy grabbed the package I delivered and stepped back on the scale.
“Two pounds. The best presents always weigh two pounds,” Izzy declared.
Her father just smiled and looked at her, refusing to break the suspense by telling her if it was or wasn’t a gift. He took the box and put it on a high shelf.
“Stay here,” she said, suddenly excited. Izzy ran into the kitchen. I could hear her rifling through a drawer. She came back and handed me a flashlight, then pulled the heavy drapes shut. The house became dark.
“Daddy, you say go.”
Mr. Cartwright gave a shrug and a smile. He took a second to get into character.
“Would you welcome please,” he said in a booming voice, “on loan from the Louvre and weighing in at 60 pounds . . . the ballerina mas fina . . . Isabella!”
Izzy leapt onto the table and put her arms out to the side. She looked over at me then down at the flashlight but I didn’t get the cue.
“Shine it, silly!” she demanded.
I focused the flashlight like she was center stage. Izzy propped up on her tippy toes, curled her arms overhead, then spun like a little top. She went around and around in perfect circles then fell into her father’s arms, giggling. I didn’t know what to do with the spotlight so I just kind of let it bounce off the ceiling. In the reflection, I could see her dad’s eyes well up. He took a deep breath, pulled himself together.
“You any good at climbing trees?” he asked me, then limped outside before I could answer.
I tied off the rope swing on a branch about twenty feet high. It was a pain in the ass getting up there and I had to think about what kind of knot would be safest. As I worked the rope ends into an overhand knot, then undid them in favor of a clove hitch, I could hear Izzy and her dad talking beneath me. She asked him if Japanese people can have blonde hair and I couldn’t hear his exact answer but it was measured and thoughtful. I began to think about my grandpa. How he was the only one who ever took the time to talk to me like I wasn’t an idiot, like he knew the value of trying and failing while my dad just rode me into the ground and accused me of all sorts of deficiencies. I remembered the time my grandpa took me on the houseboat. I was a little older than Izzy and we were shooting skeet off the bow when a sheriff’s boat pulled up and told us it wasn’t allowed. But my grandpa, just the way he was, took one more shot before saying yes, sir. He also taught me how to spike a watermelon. Maybe that wasn’t his shining moment, but it got me laid in high school, that’s for sure.
I slid down the rope and turned it over to Izzy for a test drive. Mr. Cartwright was leaning against the tree, smiling at the sight of Izzy as she got a running start and swung out over the lip of the canyon. The drop was pretty steep and I didn’t know too many parents who would have been comfortable with their pride and joy sailing over the rocks like that. She giggled, darted around like a little bird drunk on pyracantha berries. I walked over to her dad and watched alongside.
“Happy kid,” I said.
“Were you the same way?”
“Hell, I can barely remember yesterday.”
“I heard about this study on twins separated at birth but raised in different places. How they turned out.”
Damn blue jay went kamikaze, he said, not turning around.
“The old nature versus nurture debate. Sounds like someone is taking Psych 1A.”
“What do you think? Are we cut straight out of the cloth?”
“Well, my twin brother lives in Hawaii. He’s gay, five-foot-one and Jewish. Helluva surfer, too, but he’s goofy-foot and I’m regular.”
“You like to connect dots, don’t ya, kid,” Mr. Cartwright said taking a deep breath and sitting up straight. He looked out over the canyon. “I was born on a farm down the coast. My parents, they were kind of like what they grew. Artichokes. A little thorny, if you know what I mean, but you never seen anyone work so hard. They baptized me in the drainage slough behind the barn where my dad, he used to change the oil to the tractor and dump it back there. When they pulled me out of the water I had this rainbow clinging to me, and my parents always insisted it was God’s color. That I was something special. I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s always an ugly explanation for things but it’s our job to turn it around, see it in a better light.”
Hearing this put me at ease, especially after what had happened. I was caught up in the ugly details, the cracks in the paint, and he was telling me I needed to get an aerial view.
“What brought you up here?” I asked.
“Addiction,” he said without skipping a beat.
“Oh,” I said, unprepared for such an abrupt about-face.
“I kept sinking lower and lower. I couldn’t stop. It was affecting everyone close to me.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“You don’t know how bad online shopping can get.”
“Shoes mostly. Doc Martens, Prada, Berluti—you name it. Oddly enough, K-Swiss were the worst.”
I looked over and he was just shaking his head, couldn’t believe I fell for it. “Jody says I’m an easy target. Like fish in a barrel.”
Izzy ran over and pulled something from her pocket, placed it at my feet, then jumped right back on the swing. It was a pile of sand.
“Ah, a peace offering from back home. Izzy lives with her mom on the beach in Malibu. The step dad, he’s a nice guy but the colony’s gated. They don’t get many visitors who aren’t in the industry. Kind of lonely for a kid.”
I took a pinch of the sand and rubbed it between my hands. It left a residue of salt.
“So you’re a musician?” I asked.
“I’ve written a couple hits.”
“Prettier people with prettier voices.”
“I always heard it’s impossible to break in.”
“I lucked out. My pot dealer wrote a sitcom, hired me to do the music. Never looked back.”
“Then why are you up here? For real.”
“Has to do with my other job.”
“What’s your other job?”
“I rob banks.”
Mr. Cartwright gave me a serious look, whipped a rock into the canyon. “I’ve got something big lined up. You know all the back roads—I was hoping that maybe you could drive the getaway car.”
Hed been crying, and even though it had just been a week he looked ten pounds lighter.
I sat there frozen. I didn’t know what to say.
“Well, I’ve never really done anything like that but—”
“Holy shit, your wife’s right—you are gullible!” Mr. Cartwright laughed so hard he almost fell over.
“Glad someone thinks it’s funny,” I said.
“Sorry, kid, I couldn’t resist,” he said, slapping me on the back. “But seriously, I do need your help. Next week Izzy needs a ride to the train station. You think you could bring her?”
“Are you taking another piss at me?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said, his laughter settling into a sense of calm. “Never kick a man when he’s down. That’s my motto.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” I said.
We sat there watching a kid who had probably seen and heard more stuff than most grown-ups, but didn’t know it. I couldn’t believe how much energy she had, how she just floated from one place to the next so satisfied with everything. I didn’t remember it being like that. I remembered the grind, the smell of creosote walking down the tracks when it was a hundred and ten degrees, waiting for Weeze to finish his chores so we could smoke the cigarettes I stole from my mom. I remembered the weight of it all as I got older, like those lead blankets they lay on you when you get an x-ray, giving up two runs against Butte then tanking my history final, so fucking sure Coach Madsen—who also happened to be my teacher—failed me on purpose because of the game. Maybe if they had enough money to pay a real teacher, I wouldn’t have walked into the recruiting station the next morning, hung-over, to sign on the dotted line.
“It’s none of my business,” Mr. Cartwright said, reeling me back in, “but I can tell there’s something on your mind.”
I felt my body clench up like I had been caught. I wanted to tell Mr. Cartwright he was wrong, that I was fine and he misread the situation. I was raised that way, to buck up and keep it to yourself but I realized he was raised that way, too, yet somehow was able turn some mysterious valve in order to prevent the whole thing from blowing up. There was comfort in that. Maybe comfort’s the wrong word. Encouragement. A glimpse into what might be.
“I just . . . I can’t seem to calculate the importance of things right now,” I told him. “What’s worth it, what’s not.”
“That’s your first problem, son,” Mr. Cartwright said. “It’s not a calculation.”
I decided to pick Izzy up on company time. I always wrestled with the idea of a sliding morality or whatever they call it, used to argue with Conor in basic about whether it was okay to steal from stores that charge five bucks for a gallon of milk but pay their employees shit. When he said that was wrong I told him to go watch Robin Hood and get back to me. Not that banging up the company truck is like giving to the poor, but I was helping someone out and that’s all that mattered. When I finally made it up the hill, Izzy was sitting on a bag that was twice her size. I hopped out and for some reason shook her hand.
“Where’s your Dad?”
“I already said goodbye,” she said.
I situated Izzy’s bag between two heavy packages so it wouldn’t slide around and she climbed into the passenger seat.
“I’ll just be a minute,” I told her.
The house was flooded with morning light. The glass that looked over the canyon was cracked like a giant spider web, and Mr. Cartwright was using duct tape to keep it in place.
“Damn blue jay went kamikaze,” he said, not turning around. He sounded tired, kind of mad like I hadn’t heard before.
I helped pick little pieces of glass off the table and couldn’t help but notice Mr. Cartwright’s eyes were red. He’d been crying, and even though it had just been a week he looked ten pounds lighter. Pale as a ghost.
“Izzy’s in the truck,” I said.
“She’s gonna talk your head off. You know that, right?”
“I don’t mind.”
“If she asks to drive, keep it under a hundred,” he said. “She’s a speed demon, especially when she’s got an audience.” Mr. Cartwright’s face lit up with a smile and his old self, if only for a glimpse, broke through.
I didn’t know what we’d talk about. The drive was a long one but my concern faded when I realized Izzy could go toe-to-toe with Oprah if she wanted. Her first question was whether or not I had an FBI file.
“My dad’s is bigger than John Lennon’s,” she boasted.
“You don’t even know who that is,” I said.
“He lived in Belize with a Russian ballerina who dissected. They grew chocolate beans before anyone else knew what organic meant. Not John Lennon. My dad.”
“Defected,” I corrected her, “and I’m not sure chocolate comes from beans.”
“Where have you lived?”
“And Afghanistan, if that counts.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” she said looking around the truck at crumpled receipts and little bits of trash I was too lazy to pick up.
That crazy bastard really did have his walls stuffed with Levis.
“There’s donuts in the glove box. I didn’t know if you drank coffee so I got you a Coke.”
She bounced in her seat—nothing like a donut to make you feel half your age. I helped Izzy open up the can and made a little tray out of my clipboard.
“My mom calls cinnamon rolls snails. Do you ever eat snails?”
“Only slugs. A little salt and they foam right up.”
“Gross!” she screeched, and laughed so hard Coke bubbled up through her nose.
“Hey, watch the upholstery,” I told her.
She kicked me across the seat and I almost let the wheel slip but I couldn’t get mad. We were having fun. I wasn’t thinking about the hospital anymore, how I couldn’t stop Jody from crying even when I did the hippie dance she always begged me to do. I should call Jody, I thought. Have her come back from Corvallis for good, meet us so she could hear Izzy’s laugh, have it drown out the whine of that fucking pump, the new round of apologies every time the nurses changed shifts. Maybe we could even get on the train with Izzy and go to Malibu. Nothing bad ever happens at the beach.
When I snapped back, I looked over and Izzy was asleep. I couldn’t tell how much time had passed, but we had lost quite a bit of elevation and the forest was thinning. Soon I’d get coverage. My phone would blow up—dispatch wondering where the hell I’d been—but it didn’t matter. Once I dropped Izzy off at the train station, I would never see her again.
The storm dumped six inches of fresh powder. Jody was home packing for our trip. It felt good to have her back, to be moving forward. She called me at work and said that flights were still taking off so we should leave a few hours early just to make sure we got to the airport on time. I couldn’t believe it was Thanksgiving already. At breakfast we hashed out our safe word. It was a tough one—propeller—and I wasn’t sure how I’d work it into everyday conversation with her mom. Time was starting to speed up, which was a good thing. I had been at the dentist the week before and read this article where they found out time goes by faster for people as they get older because they’ve been through it before. They have a shorthand for things they’ve already seen. But the study didn’t take into account the troubles we go through, the what instead of how often. If it had, they’d realize there are certain things that could happen a thousand times over and still grind your life to a halt. But like I said, time was rolling along now and there was no need to dwell. That’s when Nemo stuck his head in the passenger window.
“I burned my ass last night,” he said.
“You’re supposed to come back with something funny like I didn’t know they had ladies’ night at the tanning booth.”
“Yeah, but that’s not funny.”
“For real, though. I burned my ass. Having sex on Brittany’s floor. Another marathon like that and she’ll have to replace her carpet.”
“Or be evaluated by psychologists.”
“You know what they say—crazy in the head, crazy in bed. Which reminds me. You hear about that dude who killed himself?”
“Johnny said you knew him. The big tipper.”
Nemo held an imaginary gun under his chin, made a popping sound and threw his head back.
“Supposedly he had cancer or something. If it was ball cancer, man, I’d do the exact same thing.”
I parked a mile from the house. The snow had accumulated so I wrapped garbage bags around my shoes and started to walk, first on the road, then a more direct route up through the trees. When I finally reached the clearing, the house looked the same. Peaceful, dusted in white. The woodpile was loaded halfway up and the rope swing just hung there even though the wind was gusting hard. There was no sign posted on the door, no flowers left behind. For a second, I thought maybe Nemo was having me on. It was something he and Johnny always did, practical jokes, like the time they made up fake petitions and asked people outside Walmart if they’d support a union for all those employees who have to dress up at Chuck E. Cheese. They got like 200 signatures, posted the names online. I even remember Johnny telling me the best practical jokes involve at least three people and take several days to play out. But when I walked around back, I realized it wasn’t a joke.
The living room glass was busted out. Pine needles had piled up on the low table. I ripped the bags off my feet and stepped inside, careful not to disturb anything. The place was frozen in time, like those pictures I saw of that city in Italy that got buried by a volcano. No one had come to claim any possessions—the wine rack was still full and the antique land grant Mr. Cartwright showed me was still hanging on the wall. I saw the guitar—all twelve pounds of it—leaning against the corner. I opened up the case. It was a Martin, beat to hell from being played but still intact. There was a burn mark near the tuning pegs, a scar from where he must have tucked his cigarette under the strings during moments of inspiration. As I closed the case, I heard a bang in the kitchen. I tightened up.
I grabbed a bottle of wine by the neck, moved slowly along the wall. I pressed up against the doorway and listened—nothing but the dripping sink. I spun through.
The place was ransacked. The cabinet doors had been ripped clear off their hinges, shredded boxes of lasagna and pancake mix littered the floor. Glass jars had been pulled out of the refrigerator and licked clean—even the peppers. I immediately recognized the destruction. It was a common occurrence in these parts—black bears get a taste for Doritos and they won’t leave you alone. I couldn’t help but wonder if the raid happened before or after they discovered his body. I started to get angry, then realized Mr. Cartwright would have been more disappointed in the cops for not sweeping up than at the bears for doing what their instincts told them. I found a broom in the pantry and got to work, bent the racks into shape and slid them back into the fridge. As I wiped a healthy set of paw prints off the counter, I remembered what brought me here all those months ago and went back out to the living room.
Up on the high shelf, exactly where Mr. Cartwright put it, was the box I delivered. I pulled it down and dug through the packing material but there was nothing inside. I knew it wasn’t a gift for Izzy. The box was a familiar size and weight, and I couldn’t get rid of Mr. Cartwright’s voice joking about guns needing a note from his mother. As the wind kicked up and a drift of powder blew across the floor, I realized it was strangely warm inside, which reminded me of what Johnny had said about the house.
I found an inconspicuous spot on the back wall, took out a key and began to dig in circles until it finally punched through. I reached inside with my index finger and—after some maneuvering—pulled out a piece of cloth. It was soft, faded blue. That crazy bastard really did have his walls stuffed with Levi’s. I could almost hear him saying I told you so. Then I saw it. A bleach spot in the middle of the hardwood rubbed so deep it blurred the bloodstain beneath while at the same time making it stand out. I slid the stool from the desk and sat down, looked out the window to see what Storm Cartwright would have seen in those last seconds. A creek cutting through the canyon, an expanse of forest tumbling down the ridge. Directly across, there was a stand of sugar pine charred by lightning. I squinted this time. A sea of obsidian-green, flecks of pure white snow, the scorched silhouette of a little top spinning in God’s color.