So Kiera and I were walking down the street, minding our own business, and we saw this old drunk leaning up against the wall of Woolworth’s, or maybe I should say he spied us. We were on our way to the Savoy to have a beer. He must have known. Ten minutes later, we’re sitting down in there starting our beer and in he walks, sees us right away and comes over to our table, sits down and orders himself a beer, just like that.
He’s drunk already, but his eyes are kind—more human, actually, than you see in most people you pass on the street, whose souls are shuttered away from the world. These liquid lights penetrate to our hearts; it’s like double moonlight shining from a forest pool at midnight.
He tells us we’re beautiful; that we look like his kids. He asks us what we do for a living.
We tell him we’re teachers. Then we ask him the same question.
“Oh, I was a construction foreman on the dams—”
“Like the Duncan?”
“Yeah like the Duncan. Worked out there nine years... the last one with Alice. She was just a child, really. She was infatuated with me, y’know what I mean? I was working eight hours on, eight off, making a thousand dollars a month clear; and my family was going hungry.” Gulps half his beer.
“Why was that?”
“Because Jacqueline, my wife, couldn’t drive! She couldn’t get to the grocery store!” He leans toward us, wrinkling his forehead and rolling his eyes. “And besides that she’s stuck at home with my little twin girls, and meanwhile back in the bunkhouse Alice says I want you, and I told her, ‘But you can’t’—but, what can you do? So one time I came home on a Thursday instead of a Wednesday and Jacqueline says what you been doing out there? I said I can forget it if you can.” (His eyes shine up to say know what I mean?) “Jacqueline ends up saying okay, show me you care. Take me to town, and I don’t mean goddam Castlegar.
“So I asked for a leave of absence and they said no, so I quit! We went to Frisco and Vegas for ten days, spent a whole lotta money, oh, did we ever. Anyway a year later I ran into Alice in a welfare line in Creston and I said to her, ‘What do you do with that money the gover’ment gives you?’—She says ‘I buy records.’ I told her ‘You oughta go to work right now.’”
At this he throws up his hands, eyes gleaming: “She doesn’t even have a record player!”
I look at Kiera, who’s got her eyes on the guy bending over at the pool table, lining up the old eight-ball. I think, I’ve seen this before. So I look back at our inspired, newfound friend. Somebody has to be polite.
He’s leaning over the table, trying to get back Kiera’s wandering attention. I’m looking him right in the face now so he notices his beer instead and drains it.
The barmaid is just then passing by so he pinches her sleeve—”Miss, another, please.” Kiera perks up then and orders another as well. I’ve hardly touched mine; in those days I could nurse a draft for an hour.
Anyway, the guy continues, on a new tack: “You know about the Golden Rule—you treat others the way you’d want them to treat you, right? Everybody’s good inside, eh? Christ, forgive them—they don’t know what they’re doin’, when they’re throwin’ rocks at this beautiful woman who just made a mistake gettin’ pregnant with some other man.”
Kiera’s tuned back in now; this religious stuff was right up her alley. And I’m the one having trouble following the guy, who rambles on: “Three years of arguments I had with these Jehovah’s Witnesses over blood transfusions: ‘partaking of blood’ they call it. No—sharing with a brother, that’s all, someone in need—like that hockey accident where a skate sliced a neck artery and I jumped down and closed it off and the poor guy gets a transfusion immediately—of course—no questions asked.
“I asked my grandfather when he was a hundred and one what should I believe in and he says you have a head God gave you; you know what’s right and wrong—” He paused to drink the fresh beer, licked the foam off his lips.
“Y’know, there’s only one commandment, just like there’s only one God. And that commandment, do you know what it is?”
I look at Kiera. We don’t know.
“Don’t lie to yourself. And, whatever you do, do it right; don’t fuck around—” He looks at me.
Then, to Kiera: “Y’know, you’re a great lady counselor, always listenin’. Tell ’em what they wanna hear, pat ’em on the back, tell ’em what they’re doin’ is okay. Am I right?”
The guy could read my wife like a book. Kiera doesn’t know what to say, I can tell. “Sure,” I say, speaking for her. Then he says to me, “What do you think of that story?”
Which one, I wonder. “It’s sad,” I say.
“That’s exactly right.” Then, to Kiera: “You’re beautiful. You should create more just like yourself. Not more assholes like we already have too many of.”
Then he changes the topic again, and says to Kiera, “You don’t smoke. Do you smoke grass?”
“A little,” says Kiera.
“Well, what else can ya do?” He leans back in his chair with a drunken smile, pulls out a cigarette. “Now being drunk, is that wrong?” He looks to me, then Kiera.
“Uh, no...” She says what he wants to hear.
“That’s right. The first thing is, be humble. You’re lucky. You don’t want to start smoking and then never quit, like me.” His hand is shaking.
“Y’know, I told Jacqueline... well anyway. Can you drive me home?”
“We’re walking,” I tell him.
“Whatever.” He gets up, putting out his cigarette. “In that case I’ll be going.” He shakes Kiera’s hand, lingering with it as if it were a floppy dog’s paw, and all the time wearing a sad sweet smile. “Ah,” he says, “I can feel the good going through there.” I give him a look. He drops her hand and squeezes mine. Nothing about the good goin’ through me.
Then he withdraws, saying meekly, “Best of luck to you—individu’ly, and in what you’re doin’.” And he trails off, mumbling, out onto the street.
I look down, and there’s blood on my hand.
So what happens is, seven years later I’ve got this three-year-old kid and Kiera’s taken off with another guy—some jerk she worships like a saint. I’m not good enough for her any more, I guess. But good enough to be left with the kid, Chrissie. I don’t mind. I’ve always been good with kids.
I took Chrissie on this camping trip, a long hike up a steep valley where there was supposed to be some kind of festival, in a wilderness park, which I thought would be no big deal and something fun for the kid. Then there were all these cars in the lot and I said to Chrissie, it looks like we’ll have some company. We parked at the very end of the lot and started up the trail a little way into the woods.
She was really good about the walk. I only had to carry her about a third of the way, and it’s maybe a four-hour hike, all with a backpack on. She got really excited when we hit the snow. At the top of the trail we found this big crowd camped there all around the edge of the woods, a stage set up in a meadow, loudspeakers going on, musicians, speakers... and I asked around and it turned out it was some kind of environmental festival that was going on. Most of the people had paid twenty bucks to be there, to somebody stationed at the start of the trail back in the parking lot. We didn’t see anyone selling tickets; I guess we got in free since we were late coming, or maybe we just slipped past.
Anyway maybe we wouldn’t have paid twenty bucks to come and hear speeches, but now that we’re here—Okay fine, I thought to myself; I won’t argue. I support the environment. Let’s set up the tent, I said to Chrissie. There were these little clearings for campsites in the woods. She helped me by holding the pegs, and trying to push them one by one through the tent loops into the ground.
That night there was a campfire nearby and we sat by it watching the flames, listening to a few guys play their guitars. I noticed a slightly familiar face in the ring of listeners, a tall man stomping in the cold, rambling on to somebody next to him, his raw face illumined by the fire.
The next morning was cold when we got up so I carried Chrissie on my shoulders over to the new campfire, which the early risers or the night owls had restoked, where folks were having coffee; and I saw the guy again. In the daylight I almost recognized him, and the voice confirmed it.
So I went up to him and said, “Hey, I think we met in the Savoy in Nelson, years ago. Am I right?”
He seemed not to remember me—I thought maybe the kid threw him off. But he looked like he was thinking hard, and he finally said, “Maybe so. I been through hard times, son, hard times. No end of persecution, trials and tribulations.” His voice was hollow, haunted, and I started to wonder if it really was the same guy. “When a woman leaves a man, you look into your soul like there’s no tomorrow, and you see hell.” His eyes had been distant but now they bore right into me. “You know what I mean.”
Then he looked up and smiled at Chrissie. “Looks just like her mother,” he said.
He offered me a cup of coffee with a shot from his flask, and then got sidetracked into conversation with a fellow who had his eye on the flask. “I’m hungry,” Chrissie whined, so we went back to the tent for cereal and powdered milk. After breakfast we heard music from the stage so I picked up a blanket for us to sit on and we headed toward the meadow.
“It wasn’t as if I never told ’em,” he said to me suddenly, hot breath on the back of my neck. That voice again.
I turned around, holding my little girl tightly as she rode on my shoulders. The multitude walked on past us.
“Yeah,” he continued, his eyes twinkling, craggy jowls working: “You can’t say they weren’t warned. Why, I’ve been tellin’ ’em for a coupla thousand years, and the bozos haven’t pricked up their ears yet. What’s it gonna take, anyway—for the whole thing to explode in their laps, or what? I mean, they’ve just got no sense, if you ask me, and I know you didn’t, so there you go.”
An infectious smile. He took out tobacco and papers to roll a smoke. “I see you roll your own now,” I said. It seemed like we were in for a session, so I sat down right there in front of him and perched the kid on my lap. He sat down in front of us. We three were like rocks in the stream. He went on talking:
“Yeah, you know, it’s not only the appearance that keeps ’em off my trail—after all, who’d ever suspect an old reprobate like me! But, here I am, just like I’ve been tellin’ ’em. Are you listening?, I say. Oh, you’re drunk, they tell me. Oh, you smell bad. Oh, you only worked four hours yesterday, like some o’ these cockamamie politicians, tryin’ to argue their cases on my behalf. Which half?, is what I wanna know. Not this one, not this; not right or left. No, you tell me, do you see a split personality? Come off it. Okay, maybe I was a different man once. But when that old black locomotive comes through, bringin’ in the troops, which side of the train are they gonna jump off?—heh, heh.
“So...” He paused to gaze around us at the moving crowd, the fluffy clouds in the faraway blue sky, as smoke curled out of his mouth. Then he turned his attention to me: “You haven’t said much—I’m open to another point of view, y’know; I’m all ears.” And he turned his head to pull on a rabbity ear, winging it back and forth in his hand. The warts stood out on his bulbous nose. He was smiling again.
I didn’t know what to think of him, what to believe, what to say. Was he after something? What?—money, sympathy, a following? Maybe simple friendship. I couldn’t tell. But he saved me from my indecision:
“That’s okay. It’s your prerogative. It’s a free country, ain’t it?” And he pantomimed fear, shrinking down in his collar, looking around him surreptitiously. “You never know. Who knows why I’ve been thrown in the tank so many times. Do you? No, course not. I don’t mean it the wrong way. But they’re not gonna tell you. Charges? Why, the words they put down on that paper before they wipe their asses with it don’t mean... caca. And then there’s this controversy over ethics in public office. Ethics—now who’s kiddin’ whom?” He emphasized the m; his voice had taken off on a musical ride, heavily laden with sarcasm. “I didn’t elect the bastards; they never came to me. So I don’t even expect them to operate in my interest. All they’re concerned with is lookin’ for the other guy’s shit. ‘Scuse my language, little girl.” He smiled sweetly at her, chucked her chin. She giggled and tucked it shyly back closer to her chest.
“Christ, you can even take this here en-vi-ron-mental festival, for that matter. These organizers, what do they have in mind, at twenty bucks per? Well, I can count already a few thou’. But not in my pocket.” He rose up on slow thighs to his knees and pulled one pocket inside out, empty. Then sank back down to sit erect, leaning forward for emphasis, words pouring out in the dust.
“The schemes, the scams they’ll think of. They’ll rob milk from every babe for the fight against abortion. They’ll raise the tax to pay the tax-collectors. They’ll kill to keep the peace. They’ll shut you up to guarantee somebody else’s right to free speech; burn down the forest to save the trees. Yes, it’s a mighty wonderful system we’ve got here, ain’t it?”
He sucked the last of his butt and crushed it out on the beaten earth—almost bitterly, I thought. Yet when he turned that bloodshot face back up he was still smiling.
“You know what it’s gonna take, don’t you? Course ya do. Everybody knows. It’s just that we’re too stubborn to think of anything else than to go along with the shuffling herd. Anybody got any bright ideas? Lock ’em up.
“Ah, what do I care? I’ve seen it all before. It’ll be a show, I tell ya. And the preachers say read your book. Hell, the book’ll say look around you, look at me! But no one will read it, anyway—I mean really read it, y’know what I mean—so what’s the dif?
“You don’t smoke, do ya?”—he offered his pouch. “Okay, I’ll have another. This isn’t what’s gonna do me in, I’ll tell ya. Least not for another coupla centuries.” His voice broke into a hacking cough. My daughter flinched. His ruddy face had darkened; the smile was gone.
He silently rolled another cigarette, then paused with the wooden match. It burst into flame. His thumbnail was so quick I hadn’t seen it scratch the matchtip. He took a deep drag and blew out a long, white cloud of smoke.
He looked at me directly, his round eyes clear and shining. Across our silence flickered a gleam of understanding; yet in his look I saw also an appeal for confirmation. Of what, I still wasn’t sure. I sensed that whatever it was he wanted, I couldn’t give it.
I was still speechless. The strains of amplified music wafted over our heads. I rose to my feet and took Chrissie’s hand.
“Well,” I finally managed, “it was nice talkin’ to ya.”
I didn’t see the guy again until the next day, when the festival was over. A long ragged line of people wound its way down through the trees, back on the trail to the parking lot. I started out at a brisk pace with Chrissie on my shoulders. In no time the guy turned up behind us, saying, “What’s yer hurry, friend?”
“Oh—” I wheeled around—” hello again.”
“Back in the herd now, are we?”
“Looks like it, yeah.”
“I know a shorter way.”
“Oh? You been here before?”
“Hell, yes. Alice and I used to come here. Nothin’ to do but drink and f—” he glanced up at Chrissie and smiled. “Anyhow, there’s a fork a little ways down. Avoids the crowds.”
I wasn’t sure whether to trust him; but I figured he wouldn’t have suggested the route if he didn’t know it. And it was downhill, anyway....
When we came to the fork the main trail was marked with a row of blazed trees. The trail to the left looked little used, no bigger than a deer track. Our friend forged past us and headed down. The main line of people continued on the blazed route. Several people gave us strange looks as they saw what we were about to do. When I still hesitated he glanced over his shoulder and waved his arm forward: “Come on, I know this country like the back of my hand.”
So I plunged forward, following his long strides down the mountainside. Somewhere behind us the sun was coming up brighter; down where we were going, in the dense big trees in the draw, the light only dimmed.
We followed the trail without talking for over an hour. It became harder and harder to tell there was a trail at all, but for following the shadowy figure gliding down ahead of us through the trees. I really started to have my doubts. Chrissie had started out humming and cooing, the way they do, and now she was dead quiet. The old-growth forest we found ourselves in was filled with a deep, dark gloom.
Our guide suddenly stopped, looked around at the ground and the trees and up at the distant sky, threw up his hands and said, “It’s no use. I’ve done it now. We’re lost.” He sat down on a mossy log and reached his arms out. “Here, I’ll take your little girl a moment. Come sit on my lap.”
Chrissie, you see, had begun to cry a little. She knew what was what. She reached to him, so I leaned down and let her off, and she walked over to sit on his lap, where she sat studying his hands. I was glad to be relieved of one burden and took off the backpack as well. I set it down next to a tree and leaned against it. My mind in a turmoil, the thick moss under me was soft as a feather bed, so I stretched out and closed my eyes and felt as if I could lie there forever, and never wake up. I took a few deep breaths. No—I couldn’t just forget that we were in a jam.
I sat up again, so abruptly that I strained a muscle in my side. “What are we gonna do?” I demanded. I was angry now and the new pain made it worse.
“Yeah, good question. You got any water?” I only realized then that the guy wasn’t even carrying a pack. No blanket, nothing. I got out the plastic water bottle from my pack and handed it to him. I wondered where he’d slept up there in the cold, but it was not the time for curiosity. I just wanted a way out right now for me and my daughter—this crazy fellow be damned.
He took a slug of water and immediately spat it out. “Yagh, tastes like vinegar.”
“Yeah, it’s an old vinegar bottle,” I said with some perverse pleasure of revenge.
I was exhausted, and the older man looked beat, too. I looked back up the hill. I couldn’t see the trail. How long had we been guessing, following mouse-trails for all I knew?
If we could find the trail again, the thing was to follow it back and get onto the main trail again. If we made good time we’d have enough daylight to reach the parking lot by dark. I turned back to suggest this obvious strategy to our friend. His head was tilted back as he sucked from his pocket flask. Chrissie was reaching for it and asking for some.
I lunged at him, swiping at the flask to knock it away. With a half-opened eye he saw me coming and deftly moved the flask out of my reach. “Not for you, dearie,” he said to Chrissie. Then to me: “Care for a swig?”
“No!” I shouted. “Now let’s find that so-called trail we were on and get back up to the blazed trail. I don’t want to rot out here in the jungle even if you do.”
He capped the flask and tucked it away inside his tattered suitcoat. “Jungle... tsk, tsk. It’s not all that bad. So we’re lost, temporarily. Ever try forty days of it?”
At that he took out his paraphernalia and started to roll a smoke.
“Look,” I said. I was ready to explode at him again, to yank the girl out of his hands and storm up the hill without him. He just looked at me... the most gentle, innocent expression. It completely disarmed me. I realized that I was as much to blame as he was. Or maybe there was no blame to lay: we’d simply gone another way, and were taking a rest-break. It wasn’t over yet, and it could turn out to have been quite an enchanting little stroll through nature’s house. That’s what his eyes told me, what the lush moss told me, what the air breathed and the shaggy trees whispered.
My little mind cried out: You’ve gotta get us back home! Back up the trail! Forget this lunchbucket you had the bad sense to hook up with....
“I’ve got an idea,” he said then with a calm, even voice. “We’re both tired. The best thing would be to conserve our energy, not wander all over the place until we’re both too exhausted to go on, once we find the trail. Now, I know I can use more of a rest. If you’re eager to get going, how about seeing if you can get us pointed in the right direction. You can keep your backpack and the little girl here with me until you find a good trail; then come back for us, marking your way as you go.”
My poor mind whirled. Did his plan make any sense? It had some merits, and some drawbacks—like me leaving Chrissie behind. What if I went and got myself lost, separated from them? But he was right about all three of us wandering around aimlessly through the bush.
I looked to Chrissie for help. Kids know. They have a feeling for things. If she was the least bit uncomfortable with the idea of staying with this character, there was no way I’d go for it.
She sat there peacefully pulling at the moss, and sweetly said to me, “It’s be okay, Daddy. Big Chrissie wait here.”
I still wasn’t sure. But they looked so calm and peaceful there together, in the fading light. The fog in my brain began to lift; my clenched gut eased in a moment of clarity. I recalled the advice of Grey Owl, the Englishman who turned native and wrote about life in the wilderness. When lost, go in a circle to make sure you came back to where you started. Was that it? Anyway, on this impulse I took off, figuring to find quickly a proper trail for us to follow, either down or back up the mountainside.
So I’m sittin’ in the Savoy one day tellin’ this tale to a mister nice guy and his wife—she’s got this really beautiful way of resting her chin on her hands while she’s listening, y’know, blow yer socks off—I figure I’ve got a good thing going but talkin’ so long gives me a powerful thirst, know what I mean?
Anyway he’s the one buyin’.
I sit there and lick the last drops out of my glass and then rub the old tongue around in the mouth, catching my breath, y’know...
And “Yeah?” he says with his big deer’s-eyes. “So what happens next?”
I tell him, all cool, like—”Ah, you want to hear more, how about another drink?”
“Go to hell,” sezee. Just like that.
“Okay fine,” I say, and I’m walking.
"Trinity" appears in the 2014 collection, My Country: Essays and Stories from the Edge of Wilderness.
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The story also appears in the 2014 short story collection, Strange Love / Romance Not For Sale
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