SLEET

Sleet, the first he’d seen in California, and not much of it at that. At five thousand feet in February, it made sense, though. Nosing along in his pickup, he’d traced the lake created by Pacific Gas and Electric, part of their massive hydroelectric plan that captured power and water from the Sierra and helped an arid state to prosper. Bass Lake looked the type you’d find in the Rockies back east, pine-rimmed, blue, the greater mountains behind and above it.

Climbing up from the water, he halted on the trail to catch his breath, noting he suddenly longed for a smoke, five years on, now. The trail was mostly boulders that were sunk like old
molars rotting in a line, the whole thing spit-slick with leaves and moss, making his Adidas nearly useless. Yet, he’d rather hike than use a mule, thinking of their shod hooves, wet rock, the sharp tumbling drop to the cascading water below. Here, tight-throated, the water bolted down this falling stream toward the lake, keeping it topped off like a five mile wide gas tank. The water ran white, and loud enough he would have had to shout if he wanted to be heard, but alone, there was no need to be heard.

He picked his way down until he was able to sit on a large rock midstream. What sun the weather and trees let fall was spotty on this round, flat rock, size of the rounded mirror attached to his wife’s art deco vanity, that thing large enough he and a buddy had struggled hauling it in. He pulled from his fanny pack a pouch of tuna, plastic fork, apple and a sandwich bag of raisins. He took the bug-out bag almost everywhere, no longer able to stomach fast food and too lazy to make sandwiches unless peanut butter and two slices of bread were a sandwich. He pulled his cotton hood over his head and, leaning in, sat cross-legged, cold, but beginning to feel what warmth that remained in the weak winter sun that slid in and out of the clouds. The sleeting stopped.

He felt suddenly light-hearted as head thrown back, he raked the oiled tuna into his opened mouth. The apple was tart but satisfyingly crunchy and the raisins gave his brain a little hum. Life could be kind. The sun on his opened face made him think Jimmy was likely to be
home in this weather. But Mark would have to get up there, soon so, if need be, there’d be time
to get back before dark or before this storm moved all the way down from the more distant
mountains. He hadn’t told his wife he was staying overnight anywhere and his cell was useless up here. So be it. He’d wanted to get away from what she thought. Over time, their marriage had settled into what he considered a pleasant truce, reliable roommates. Yeah, he thought and snorted. The cell phone had become a text message leash replete with every character defect his wife had detected in him. And Jimmy? Hell, Jimmy didn’t have any electronics but the old boxy twelve inch television in his Airstream, clean as a bullet, and fitted-out for one. Jimmy Finds-A-Feather hadn’t been from one of the Miwok families listed on the register, those that cashed in on the casino a couple of thousand feet below. Mark smiled as he thought how Jimmy hadn’t seemed to care one twit. It was that kind of soul Mark admired. Liked, too, how he could bitch while Jimmy’s half-lidded eyes appeared almost to sleep. Wisdom in that, he thought.

Jimmy teased him. Said Native Americans were thought of as holy once they’d been sufficiently quelled by genocidal slaughter. Jimmy wore his hair long, parted in the middle, two wings of a crow that flapped tiredly when he walked ahead, leading the way, but he spoke of his trailer as his finest treasure, said living in the dirt was white-man fantasy. It was just that Jimmy had been raised without a lot of electronics and cutting firewood was not employment that required it, and he felt more comfortable with what was familiar, anyway. Not a goddam thing spiritual about that, he’d say, spitting a long string of tobacco out of the right side of his face, his head not turning as his brightened eyes stayed on Mark’s.
That was last summer, the time they’d hiked from that home of his that he kept buffed so shiny it might from a distance, be mistaken as a spacecraft. Jimmy would never mind a joke in his direction. Though, once, as they walked, Jimmy had whispered back at Mark to be quiet. A few yards more and he’d come back on Mark, meeting him with a face very close, looking down on him, and pressing slowly from thin lips, as if each word were a saved quarter, If you can’t keep it down, I swear I’ll bury you here.

Mark hadn’t known he was being noisy, but as they went on he became aware of sound, the breaking twigs and grasses his feet pressed down. He quit batting at low hanging branches and tall brush. It was only fish they were coming up on. He understood Jimmy wasn’t murderous, but he knew, then, too, that he was more to him than the pleasant guy he’d met in Ducey’s, a mountain crossroads bar.

They’d hiked to a high meadow pond stocked by the Feds with blue gill fingerlings, six for every one of the large-mouthed bass that had been planted, too. Took good nutrition to make a nice bass, and they were nice, fat. Worth bothering to find, worth the walk. Jimmy had looked happy. That summer Mark had used grasshoppers Jimmy caught where they jumped like popcorn in the long yellow grass and a pole made from a thin branch of manzanita. Jimmy’s graphite job did as well but no better.

But Mark had never been up in winter, had no gear of any kind, hadn’t intended more
than a drive up above the inversion layer that lidded the pot of the big valley below, dulling the skies over a sprawling city that had begun its decay before it ever came to anything. All he had were a yellow Case knife, cotton hoodie, a couple more apples in his belt pack and another six hundred yard climb before he’d veer out into the rising forest for two, maybe three miles that led to the mountainside where Jimmy had his trailer set next to an old dirt logging road that was far too long a trek to use on foot and today too muddy for a truck. The trailer bulbed in a clearing to catch the sun needed to fill the solar panels that Jimmy had salvaged and mounted on a frame built of two-by-fours next to the travel trailer that no longer traveled.

When Mark crested the ridge, he saw on the other side of the hollow, topping the face of the next ridge, what occurred to him to resemble the fuselage of a B-Twenty-nine. He shook his head, thinking he could tell Jimmy that, too, though it was true one had actually crashed in the Sierra very near here, in the forties. He switch-backed down, the dirt, dry and powdered under the thin layer of moisture, the melting patches of snow. Because Jimmy’s side caught what sun there was all day and dried, it would be like climbing sand there, impossible but for the downed pines and buck brush to latch onto. He sighed and inhaled deeply noting the sweet resin of sugar pine mixed well with the acrid scent of the brush, though muted by the scant rain and sleet that had come on only briefly.

He reached the place an hour later, arms scraped, cut on his forehead, hands that were
red and swelling and should’ve been gloved. He stood breathing heavily. Things looked
abandoned. Nothing left lying around. The door curved like a ship’s hatch: locked. He tested it
gently once more, thinking it might have a rusted latch. Nothing. Mark surveyed for a place he could sit without getting any muddier than he was, which was considerable. From under the trailer he pulled a webbed folding chair he spotted, the kind that sat low to the ground, for the beach– someone must’ve given it to Jimmy or he’d scrounged it since he rarely parted with his little cash. Even as he had approached the place, Mark’s movements, had been quiet. Somehow he felt like a thief though clearly no one was here. He sat down close to the Airstream, what sun it had stored that morning and still radiating from the trailer’s aluminum warming him.

Though he’d have willed it otherwise, his thoughts went to Martha. She’d be online now, doing whatever she did there for hours. Sometimes he wondered if it were only women friends she kept tabs on. He couldn’t really imagine otherwise. Too obsessed with fixing him. Then the true disappointment that Jimmy wasn’t there came over him. Why would a woman pick a guy for the very reasons she now wanted to change? She’d loved him for being old-fashioned, his
willingness to take care of her, careful with money, her car always in tune, the house ratcheted
down, tightly snugged. Now he was a cheapskate, always busy with chores, never talking, but what was beginning to feel a deal-breaker to him was that she had ceased telling him how compatible they were in bed. Ceased the whole thing, and he’d just let it go, tired of the
smoldering resentment he felt in her body when she moved sparingly beneath him.

A month or more ago she’d even said, I can’t live this way. And he knew he was
supposed to argue for some compromise but none would come. He’d gone out to his shop and fiddled with a carburetor, quickly captivated by the complexity of its mechanics. It was a half hour before he looked around to see her standing in the doorway, watching him. She’d waited that entire time just so he’d see her displeasure before she turned abruptly and disappeared. He’d felt a sourness somewhere down where his liver should’ve been and breathed hard before going back to the job spread on his workbench. This time he settled in on his stool, knowing he needed to put in some time, hunched over his work, lasso of lamp light over his shoulders, his hands.

He loved her. He figured the same of her. She’d not go to all the trouble to make him miserable if she did not want things to change and then go on. Where? he thought. Driving around blowing a wad shopping for crap they didn’t need, having lunch and talking some version of the Oprah show, then home for just a taste of the wild thing as his reward? He considered that though he knew, some way, she was his emotional anchor, that he let her do the necessary feelings come the time for them, he had nothing to say to her beyond the information that passes between two persons keeping a household. Yet, he liked the familiar and un-dramatic groove of marriage. Thought of it as signing up, the way he’d once signed at an Army recruiting station. Resolute, sincere. Thought that is what a woman wanted– steady, reliable guy that cleaned up well enough to show her friends or family on special occasions. The way he saw it, he’d done his part. It was she that was breaking the deal.

This is exactly what he wanted to tell Jimmy. He could talk if frustrated. To Jimmy. Anger was nothing to fear. Perhaps, this was because it was that Jimmy wasn’t part of his world and could be shut off for as long as he liked, which was plenty. Anyway, if he talked to her about it she’d be half-hysterical, want him to feel something he couldn’t and make even less sense than she was making now. Once she had used the word, “Divorce.” Then followed it with tears and some pleading he never leave her. He could tell her emotion hadn’t come from dependency, either.

It was warming here, and it was very calming watching cloud shadows moving over the
land, miles out. But the storm, mostly up much higher, was easing down from the far crests. This just the fringe of it. Flecks of rain would hit his face for a few minutes then stop then start again. There’d be no snow to make getting home any more of the problem it was getting here, he reasoned. He could afford more time he thought as the sleet started dropping again. Yet, he stayed in his chair. Willing it to stop. But his head snapped up at the sound of little yelps like
that of a kit of coyotes coming sharp, though muffled by the trailer’s thin walls. He stood up, abruptly, slipped and came down hard enough on the aluminum frame of the chair with his knees to crush it and leaving him struggling on his left side in the mud. Now the yelps were soft, hurt animal sounds, and then only this deep mulish groaning that grew louder just before it quit. He sat up and tried, rapidly, to consider his options, his hands so muddied he couldn’t mop the moisture from his face.

With quick, economical movement, he slid the chair back where he’d found it, knowing the damage would be obvious later. But at least, Jimmy might examine it alone. Or… He glanced at the little windows and saw the blinds were still closed. He straightened up slowly, but felt unable to go, stood still as a deer that one might have come out of the trees to find, feeding near a stream, it standing there with its head, just then, having come up, listening. Not yet drifting up a hillside of trees like smoke, gone. Abruptly, he stumbled toward the tree line. A good forty yards, slipping only once but decidedly onto a jutted rock of granite, stricking a front tooth directly and chipping it, leaving a painful, bloody bit he sucked as he trotted on. He felt an anger he’d never felt, terrible and huge, surging suddenly up from the depths within in him like a hammer-headed shark, escaping his self to then pass over, shadowing him, his face blood dark. His tongue felt thick and black as an ox’s as he coughed and spit and swore eloquently and long in a harsh whisper. He made the woods and stood just inside them, dropping to his haunches, one arm locked at the elbow, hand flat against the rough bark, his weight leaning, the other hand pressing his mouth as if holding in whatever else might want out, the warmth leaking through his fingers, a spider of blood dangling from a rope of spit.

He didn’t walk on through the trees to come back around to the trail and leave. He stood behind the pine. His eyes went up when he heard the door squawk open. He watched the girl, long dark hair, a Raiders T shirt and jeans. She looked Native American, maybe fourteen, thirteen? His heart did its two-step too quickly. His tooth winced and he sucked air reflexively,
making sound he worried could be heard. But she came jauntily down two steps and turned back to the door where Jimmy hulked, a stiff arm offering her a jacket, a man’s air force surplus job, the kind with bright orange lining, balloon-like when she slipped it on, easily; on her slight frame it came down far enough to cover her ass, though it was a waist-length job.

He could not see Jimmy really, only darkness in that doorway, but her face lit up, smiling. He could see her features clearly. It was a woman’s knowing smile that curled up on one side of her face, one eyebrow arched. He imagined she must have winked before she hopped down the last step and strode handily as any boy toward the logging road. The door closed, and he stayed there by his tree watching her until she disappeared over the first small rise that would dip before going up again where she’d be too far away to distinguish from the brush. His breath still came too quickly. He cocked his neck, his face up. The clouds still there, sleet and rain yet to finish their work.

He’d stay just a little while with the small wild things curling from the soil, balled up in the brush, hunkered down, waiting before he moved.

–D. James Smith


Stories Writing

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