• Fearsome Critters

Sawtooth — Desmond Everest Fuller

*TOP CONTRIBUTOR IN FICTION, VOLUME THREE, 2020*

The steering wheel of Dad’s pickup was nearly as wide as my shoulders. The metal hoop shivered in the rubber grip as I shifted for third, my leg stretching to find the floor against the spring of the clutch. The truck moaned somewhere beneath the hood. I glanced over at Cody to see if he noticed the gears grinding, and saw he’d gotten blood on the seat.


“It’s no good,” he had said around a split lip. His dad would break his stupid arm, at least. His voice had trembled like her was about to cry, and I waited for him to flick a fist or rush me. He could have run, but he stood in my yard where I’d let go of his shirt-collar, his face beet-red and bitter enough to taste. I said to get in the truck. I didn’t know why; at thirteen, it seemed like a thing to say after winning a fight.


He held his dirty sleeve up to his nose where I landed the good punch. A brown spot pooled in the flannel cuff and a few drops beaded on the seat. My heartbeat shook my bones and my head was empty as coming up from a dream.


Dad had told me to never touch his keys, then looped them on a coat hook inside the backdoor like magpie bait. I would sit in the cab that smelled of Folgers, Camels, and Rainier and listen to Mariners games, waiting for him to get home from the bar. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking anything. I coasted, adrift in the wake of violence, glancing over at Cody, his cheek pressed against the window.


My gaze kept drifting across the dashboard to the notch in Cody’s throat. A single freckle floating in the dip of skin. It reminded me of Mom and how the light was different when she was alive, the way she used to lean into the sunshine, coaxing out her summer constellations blooming across her shoulders and raising amber in her cheeks. I stared until the passenger mirror nearly clipped a fence post as the road down into the river canyon.


Cody gripped the grab-handle. “You drive like shit.”


I said, “Yeah, well you fight like shit says that ass-kicking you took back there.”


He hunched his shoulders. “Wasn’t an ass-kicking.”


I snickered, and it tasted like dirty pennies in my mouth.


He grimaced. “It wasn’t.”


We were quiet then in the warmth trapped under glass.


I glanced at Cody’s shirt collar and the orphaned threads where I broke his buttons yanking him away from the back door of my house. He nearly broke the lock, prying the jam with a rusted chisel Dad had forgotten on the porch. I heard a squeal like tangled metal come from me, or maybe him, felt my fist land. Then we were driving. My knuckles blushed pink and stung where they had connected with his teeth.


The truck lurched as I stomped the brakes coming into the hairpin down the side of the canyon taking us beneath the trees, under their green light where the air smelled of water and moss. The road wound down to the river, deep and still. When I asked Cody why he tried to break into my house, he shrugged.


“Lookin’ for tools; been strippin’ copper outta little motors. Need a new jacket, too. I thought everyone’s in school.”


“It’s August, nimrod.”


Cody would have been in my grade, but I hadn’t seen him at school after he was got caught stealing a blowtorch from shop class. He turned and scowled at the rocks and mud where the road bit into the valley wall. His jawline was delicate and fell up into a thick tangle of auburn. I ran my tongue over my teeth and a mouth dry as chalk.


Cody asked, “Is Mrs. McCutchon still principal?”


“Yeah.”


“I hate that bitch.”


I turned the radio dial. The announcer in the static reported that the Mariners were up on the Dodgers by two in the fifth. I knew Dad was watching the game at the Sawtooth with the other lumberjacks. The Sawtooth was a dive cut from rough timbers and soaked in the neon of electric beer signs glowing in the corners like luminescent cobwebs. A wooden plaque above the bar featured a stump with an ax and said, “Don’t worry, I hugged it first.” I could still be home before Dad, maybe bury the broken chisel, scrub blood from the seats.


I squinted in a wash of light reflected off the river through a break in the trees. “Wish we’d get our own ball-team. You ever catch a Seattle game?”


“Never been to Washington.”


“Me either.”


Our talk was hollow and didn’t mean anything. I tried to keep my eye on the road, but we were flying along the river’s edge and my chest vibrated with how I couldn’t stop looking across the seat. The quickening light played on his freckled cheeks, and I tasted maple syrup. I imagined a diner: I’d order us flapjacks and we’d stay there ‘til we learned to like our coffee black and the world forgot about us and I’d retrieve the shape of what needed saying from the brier of fear all around us.


But then, all I could say was, “I guess I should take you home?”


He shrugged down in the seat. “What, n’ get beat on twice today? Hell, you know.”


We both knew, and our silence was heavy with our knowing.


When my dad’s hands flew, they were silent fliers that struck like rough boards. I’d felt them once or twice before Mom died, and then after, in the scattered, floundering nights that fell on him when Mom’s jasmine bloomed and his head filled with fever honey and bottom-shelf bourbon.


I figured Cody had it worse, was told his dad to be a mean drunk. Dad had pointed out the Foss place to me once on our way to unload trash at the transfer station. It was truly a shack. Shadowed, even on a sunny day, wedged between two hemlocks. Low sagging wires poached light from the nearest power-lines, and the yard was strewn with a menagerie of rust: hollow skulls of cars, half-buried barrels filled with old rain, dry refrigerators leaning open. Foss was a scrapper; his pick-up stood out anywhere, wobbly with junk. After Cody’s suspension, his dad kept him scrapping, and food was rumored scarce in that house.


A heron shadowed over the river and rippled down into the shallows. On the radio, the Dodgers had tied it up with two runs off a bunt. I imagined Dad’s forehead creasing, this side of throwing a beer pitcher at the wall, this side of weeping beneath slipping wages, Mom’s missing shape and the wash of the TV calling loss, loss, loss.


A beige Studebaker appeared, floating in front of us, a leisurely ten miles under the speed limit.


“Pass em’,” Cody muttered.


I looked over, and for the first time he didn’t avert his gaze. His eyes were full of me, and I had never known the feeling of wanting to stay like that, open, full of blue and me looking out from him.


I shifted down into third. My gut shivered with excitement, and I smirked. “Bad spot to pass.”


“They’re crawlin’ along. Get around them.”


I bit my lip. “Can’t see too far ahead.”


Cody grinned, snickering. “Chicken.”


“Oh, we’ll see about that.”


“Yeah?”


“Shit, yeah.”


Light fell in strips through the pines, cutting green and gold over the road. We floated for entirely too long while I floundered between gears, nearly kissing the Studebaker’s back fender. Finally, I felt the truck lock into fourth, then fifth, and the engine bellowed beneath us as we pulled abreast of and began to overtake them.


I nearly didn’t see the logger, his bed folded and empty behind him. Horns bleated and our voices cried out in small unison. The logger’s horn smeared alongside us as I pulled the wheel hard over my knee. Metal screamed in my ear, sparks jumping through the open window. Behind us the Studebaker had almost jack-knifed across the lane; my driver-side mirror, ripped clean off, lay on the asphalt, and disappeared as the road curved away behind us.


My heart was in my ears, thudding beneath a buzzing like a vacuum. Cody’s voice. Warmth. I gripped. And there was Cody’s hand in mine, sending white lightning up my arm. I pulled away, turned to Cody staring at me. Before I could think, or he could speak, I cuffed him hard up the back of his head. How soft the mess of hair felt in my fingers.


He exhaled sharply. “You crazy son-bitch.”


It felt as though we were flying, ourselves and the body of the truck flew around us, all suspended. I wanted to kiss my palm, brush my lips against the memory of his calluses, his young hands labored to course burlap. In a flickering, like of a candle or a film reel, I imagined him with his back to me, his bare shoulder-blade dotted in a colony of freckles. And I knew him to be beautiful in a way that no one had ever been beautiful before.


The radio cut out for a while, and there was silence above the humming of the tires on the road. When the signal came back, the Mariners were up at the top of the sixth. I wanted to speak words that could convey the mess of light in my head. But I didn’t then, and didn’t for many years speak of it to anyone, not till long after I’d left our county, and the small mills all up and down the highway shut down and stood like bones of prehistoric beasts.


Years later, I took a weekend out from the city just to drive around inside a ghost. At the last mill where Dad worked, someone had parked a camper under the tin-roofed bay where fresh logs were once stored. The tiny camper windows were covered with dirty sheets, latticed with moss. I went by our old house no one ever wanted to buy and the truck where Dad left it. I peered through the dust-grimed windshield and made out the old bloodstain like a brown thumbprint on the seat.


Cody rubbed the back of his neck. “Anyone ever tell you you don’t have to hit a guy so hard?”


I needed to dunk my head in the cold river current and flush all the hot blood from my face. I needed the rush of mountain run-off to fill my ears with its glacial indifference.


I could barely hear my own voice. “You, just now. Should I get used to it?”


He shook his head. “Something off about you.”


I thought about that and wondered what would happen if suddenly, like blinking, I reached for his hand and our fingers dovetailed back into a dream of warmth. Maybe in that dream there could be something off about both of us. We could shed the tight-grain hardness we wore in this place where we would break without it. We could keep driving, his palm beneath mine on the seat without time.


We rolled to the first stop sign of the first crossroads coming out the bottom of the canyon where the river drifts toward town. The truck idled in the warm air, and above the low chug of the engine we could hear frogs singing. There was the click of the latch and the door slammed in the golding light that was leaving. The browned stain on the seat where Cody’s dried blood stared back at me. I thought about how I’d grit my teeth through the belting I’d take when Dad saw the truck like this. I heard Cody’s footsteps receding fast in the dust, and wondered about the way home.