Old Things

STORY — I had more than a sense when I was nine years old that my father and mother were different than the other parents living in the logging towns of Snoqualmie or Tolt or Skykomish. Once while we camped at Monte Cristo, the site of an old gold mine town, the son of one of these parents, a child I had somehow coerced into playing with me, noticed my father’s pony tail looping over his shoulder like an oiled tentacle. “Is your Dad a hippie?” He half shouted causing me to jump and then look around to make sure no one had heard anything.

My father wasn’t, but what would the difference mean to a kid with a crew cut? My father had long hair and smoked marijuana but he did not believe in free love. He believed that everything cost something. My father worked in his own garage in Snoqualmie. He opened the doors in 1968 the year his older brother had dropped out of the University of Southern California and had lived in the forest behind the house with five friends, three guys and two girls. One of these girls was to become my mother. When the winter came, and the long summer days were replaced with long rainy ones, my mother kept living on the land. She planted bulbs for the upcoming spring and because she wanted to see them bloom she married my father. I’m not sure who my biological father really was because before I was born my mother always had a new boyfriend. They slept in the room that is now mine. When my mother became pregnant with me, my father told her she had to give up free love if she wanted him to stick around. I know all this became my mother told my brother John and me the whole story one time when she and my father were fighting. It was the last real fight because Ralph started visiting all the time and my parents don’t like to fight in front of other people. Anyway Ralph can smooth anything out. The great thing about Ralph is that even though he acts like Mom’s boyfriend, he’s not. Because if he is, then he’s also my father’s boyfriend. Ralph doesn’t say much. Usually he sits quietly on our porch and he mumbles something that causes my father and mother to sagely nod their heads.

Family hiking trips often started with no one talking to each other. My father and Ralph set off on a private hike, leaving my mother to read while John and I played in the clear cuts, or the in gravel beds of the high mountain rivers. At Monte Cristo, though, my father never left the stream bed; he huddled over the rapids, panning for gold. Most people drove there and left same day. We stayed for a week and a half.

At Monte Cristo the pioneers had struck gold and an entire town sprung up fueled by gold like the mushrooms that pop up after a spring rain. At first, Jake and me walked through the forest around the few buildings that remained in Monte Cristo. Between the stands of fir, metal plates had rusted into color of the bed of reddish pine needles. Main Street, now a foot path, ran through a strand of pine trees. Ralph made it seem like the old city remained, locked in a timeless dimension just at the edge of our vision. He transformed bird calls into mine whistles and the rush of the stream into teams of wagons. Behind the sounds, images scattered through our head, taken from the hundred Westerns we had seen. The imaginary activity filled the forest with ghosts. All of the industry, the claims, the stakes, the lives that had worked this city had eroded away. The forest continued to grow, the interruption having been recovered long ago, like a hurled stone’s plunge through into a river, the surface settled before the rock reached the gravely bottom. After the gold had been stripped, the prospectors moved on, leaving the town to stand. I imagined, when I was nine, and I walked down heavily wooded Main Street, that this could happen to Seattle. The old things, the rusted plates, the hulks of ancient rotting machines, were the remains of office towers and busses.

I found a machine deep in the forest. It was large enough for me to climb inside. It looked like a huge fishing reel, and an old wire rope twisted from it, looped under a pile of logs that had been laying so long new trees grew on top of them. This was my own machine. I crawled inside and sitting there, I realized that this machine had once been in a building and it had long ago rotted away. Through the boughs of the cedar trees, I saw a splash of color, bright reds and yellows. I jumped away from the machine and ran toward the color. I found a meadow of feral tulips and daffodils, plants that must have been planted in someone’s back garden when the city had still been standing. For generations they had continued to survive while the walls around the garden had slipped away into the soil.

I lost John like I always did at a beach or anywhere. He found someone more interesting, less demanding than me to play with me. I found him playing in the middle of the stream-bed with two girls his age. They held Jake’s hand at they jumped over the rocks. An older woman I took for their mother sat on the bank telling them not to get in the water.

In the clear running river, I saw the glitter of gold; Ralph called it Jason’s Gold. My father had once sifted through the clay banks around the Skykomish River. He had spent two hours crouched over the river bank, culling the gold from the sand, collecting the glittering metal flakes, until his back stiffened so completely that he lay on our couch, twisted into a ball. My mother pushed his back out with her knee and laughed. “Where’s your gold, Mr. Fourty-Niner? You’re going to need some bullion just to pay the doctor.” My father had the metal tested at a metallurgist in Seattle, and mailed back the report in an envelope with a silhouetted stamp of a prospector, complete with floppy cowboy hat, old beard, knobby nose, and a pick ax slung over his shoulder. The report: Mica, The Fool’s Gold.

My father came back from the river with John. “We’re going hiking,” he said, “just me and the kids.”

My mother read one of her thick biographies about some famous person who had died a long time ago. They were hard bound books, that always had a few pages of photographs in the middle. I usually looked at the photographs and she would tell me stories about each of the pictures. I remember one of a woman sitting on a couch between these two ugly guys. One of the guys had his arm around her. “What’s going on here?” I had asked. “This woman loves this man,” she had said. “And he loves this man. This man likes both of them but he doesn’t love anyone. This book is about him.”

I thought it was sort of strange that my mother had said it that way. That the entire book was about this man, based just on that? “Is that all that he ever did.”

“He didn’t even do that,” my mother had said.

She sat up and poured herself a cup of hot water from the tin pot dangling over the fire. She winced from the hot handle, but she could still touch it. I couldn’t even lay a finger on the smooth black grip because it would blister my fingers. My father says that she has tough fingers “because your mother’s made of ice boys, and ice doesn’t have any feelings.”

“Go hiking,” she said. “That would be a good idea. Take the boys out and make sure something really drastic happens. Maybe you could find an avalanche or something.”

My mother took every chance to make fun of my father and his accidents. Whenever my father did something by himself, he would come home and the biggest and most dangerous thing had just happened to him. He was hiking one time and a mountain goat chased him off the top of a cliff. He was walking to his car once and a mugger hit my father in the face with his ring covered fist. One time riding his bicycle on a busy street in the middle of the day, a drunken woman ran a stop sign and crashed into my father, knocking him into a street planter and breaking three of his ribs. The one fact about my father’s stories was that he always had scars or broken bones to show for them.

“Where’s Ralph?” My father asked. He stuffed all kinds of supplies into his backpack. He always did this because he said that no one ever knew what was going to happen out there.

“No, I haven’t seen him since this morning,” my mother said.

“Watch our for him, I think he’s discovered where I hid his bottle of Bacardi.”

“I’m the one who found the Bacardi,” my mother said.

“I don’t want to go hiking,” John said. “I want to stay here.”

“Come on, you have to go,” I said.

“You go if you want to go, but I don’t want to go.”

I wanted him to come along because he had found friends and I would be stuck walking through the Sitka spruce, crushing puff balls. I would be stuck trying to identify salal and find the plants from Ralph’s Big Book of Pacific Northwestern Flora.

“Go along with them,” My mother said from the tent.

My father prepared his things. His backpack lay on the ground as he sorted through its contents. Never completely unpacked, the inventory of canned goods, candles, dried fruit, and foil wrapped potatoes grew and shrunk depending on the season. In the summer it bulged and shrunk, but in the long rainy winter lurked in the kitchen until he opened it in the spring and threw out everything that had started to mold , then the space sat empty like a piece of furniture had been removed. My father heaved the mass of the pack frame onto his back.

John and I filled our packs with a faint repeated of his inventory, and we set off after him. He leaned into the slope of the trail. The floor of the forest was muddy by the old city, and roots stuck out in crazy angles from the bed. The trail had been worn down by the passage of so many feet that it lay in a gravely trench.

John walked in front of my like my captive. My father walked in front of us. Steam trailed from his skin, rising in thick clouds around his head. Seat dumped from his forehead, and plastered the hair on his head around his ears and across his forehead. Behind us, the mist of the valley floor and the leafy plants disappeared; we crossed into the single canopy of fir, just the sparse needles of the tree tops. Elevation stripped the forest to its essentials.

We broke through the roof of the trees and stood on a rocky outcropping. From the outcropping the forest grew further up the slopes of the valley, but from here we could see the valley under us, the torn tips of the firs, the manicured points of lumber land on the lower slopes, and finally the blight of clear-cuts at the foot of the valley. “Where’s Mom from here?” John stood on a rock, with his hands cupped over his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter,” my father said. He swabbed sweat from his forehead. He held his glasses in one hand and whisked the towel over his hair. It frizzed wild. He smoothed the hair back into matted strands. “She’s down there with Ralph, that’s all that matters.”

I sat on the rock. Instead of sweating, I felt my face burn hot. A breeze welled over the lip of the ridge, and felt smooth on my skin. Bumps stood on the back of my neck. “You’re red,” John said. “You’re a redneck.”

John’s face was pale and his hair wasn’t even mussed.

“Where did the city used to be?” I stared into the tree tops, and it seemed unbroken until the first clear-cuts.

“You can’t tell, can you?” My father said. He started up the hill. He heaved the pack up on his shoulders. John and I struggled uphill behind him.

The forest became dark more quickly than any of us expected. We walked through the silver trunks of mountain hemlock; they grey isolated from the other trees, alone in the middle of twisted wild blue berry bushes. Moss dripped from the branches. A cloud had settled on the mountainside and we climbed through the shadows. The clouds caused an illusion of light, filling the forest with the faintly glowing mist. We floated through the stark outline of the trees and then we stepped out of the cloud into darkness. From the lip of the mountain side, the clouds floated in an undulating sea, with the sharp peaks breaking through like islands.

“Where are you taking us,” John asked. I could tell he was afraid of something.

“I thought you would like to see a cabin that I found the last time I came here.”

“What about Ralph?” I asked.

“What about Mom?” John asked.

They won’t miss us,” my father said. He set his back pack down and began to rummage for something. Finally he took out a handful of candles. When we lit the candles, the trees jumped up around us, casting sharp shadows behind them. The world in the foreground caught the light, and we could see the scales of the bark in the trees, the mud puddles in the trail. Beyond the light, where we had been able to see the dusky outlines of the trees it now lay in complete darkness. When we walked the flickering light flowed around us.

The trail started to break up into fallen logs and stands of small fir trees. My father turned sharply down and we came to a gully filled with the echo of trickling water. Above the stream, in a flat clearing with the trees growing up around it, a cabin sat, shaped like a milk carton, with a wooden door. The wood had long ago silvered. But unlike any other cabin we had ever seen, one wall had been built entirely of glass blocks. The candle light glazed surface. Inside, we found a rusted bed frame, furniture fashioned out logs with the bark still on it, and two stools and a rocking chair. A ladder led up to the second level, empty except for mouse droppings.

John and I sat at the door, looking out on the gully that the stream ran down. Through a break in the trees we could see the stars and the shapes of the mountainsides descending to the wide, flat sea of clouds.

After we had made a fire, and we ate our dinner, we played chess. First my father played against me. As I cautiously set up his Queen, he started to laugh. “This is so devious. I can see you sitting there, thinking how to knife your old man. It’s great.” He laughed and laughed.

In the morning, we woke when my father came back to the cabin with an armload of twigs. He set a saucepan of water on the fire. The cinders smoked slowly and then he blew against into the embers and fed twigs until he had a flame. He quickly built the fire until the water started to boil.

John and I lay in our sleeping bags. We rolled onto the cold floor. I pulled on my jeans, the denim frigid against my warm skin. My father mixed instant coffee and he gave us packets of hot chocolate. I mixed the drink in my cup and then we went outside; the stream rattled in a small cleft. When he finished his coffee, my father tossed the dregs into the stream. “Hurry up with your sleeping bags. We have to get back to the bottom of the mountain before the sun rises.”

“Now that we’re here aren’t we going to stay for a while?” John asked.

“You just want to sleep.”

“There’ll be plenty of room in Ralph’s tent to sleep,” Dad “Just hurry, if we have to get back.”

We rolled the bags, lying across the nylon to smooth the lining down. Then we twisted them tight, and stuffed a ripped plastic garbage bag around the roll. We strapped them to the frames of our backpacks. In the early light, everything looked like it had been filtered through a grey film. Shapes suddenly gained detail as we passed them. The smell of the forest after the mildew and smoke filled cabin, clouds, pine needles, and mud, rushed around us as we slid down the mountain trail. My father started running and then we were all racing down the mountain. We let the weight of our backpacks carry us down and down, through the trees, and finally as the grey light grew came to the lower level of the forest, out of the hemlock and into the Douglas Fir.

We rushed under the low laying clouds into the camping site at Monte Cristo. Our tent flapped open. The rain fly was covered with morning dew, but my mother wasn’t inside. My father dropped his pack in front of the tent, sending a jarring echo of silverware and metal tent stakes jangling into the trees. My face steamed in the cool air. Jake sat next to me, his breath trailing clouds in the air.

My father knocked Ralph’s tent over. Ralph jumped up, with the tent wrapped around him like a big bet. He freed his head, and finally slipped out of it and stood on the damp ground. He just wore his underwear. “Morning,” he said, “I think, although it still feels like its about midnight.”

“Where is she?” my father asked.

“Where’s who?”

“My wife.”


My father walked back to the tent and looked inside. He ducked inside. “Where’s her sleeping bag.”

“I don’t know.”

Ralph smiled at me. His arms were crossed over his bare chest. “Where’d you spend the night?”

“In a hole,” John said. “With mad men.”

“Good morning, John,” Ralph said.

“Morning,” John said.

We found my mother in the car. Dew covered the windows. My father brushed a window in the beaded water, so we could see her through the foggy glass sleeping in the back seat. She slept with her jacket as a pillow. My father tried the door but it was locked. Rapping on the glass, my mother finally woke up.

“What happened?” she asked.

“They’re fine,” My father said and he explained about the cabin. “I forgot about it until we were almost there. I should have told you we might not come back during the night.”

“How? How can I understand you just leaving like that?”

“I thought you wanted to be alone.”

“Fuck you,” she said. “Fuck, you.”

We left later in the afternoon, after my father and my mother had one of their closed conference talks. After we stripped the camp site down, folding the tent up, packing the cardboard boxes of supplies, Ralph, John and I walked through the city of Monte Cristo one last time. Ralph said that this was the fate of the west. People come out here, he said, they work the land until it’s spent. And then the get out and leave. The only thing that still grows out here are trees.

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