Ever since I was small, I’ve always imagined myself somewhere else when I go to sleep. Someplace outdoors, usually, someplace wild, a rainforest or a mountainside or an island off a rocky coast. I’ll be traveling, escaping something maybe, and I’ll have found or made some kind of shelter. Rain or snow or wind will be battering it, but I’ll be warm and protected.
Of course, I knew when I ran away from home that it wouldn’t be like that, and it wasn’t. I slept in a tent pitched under a leaning redwood stump in a canyon north of Mendocino, less than twenty-five miles from home. It was summer, so there was no snow or rain, but every morning and most afternoons there was cold fog that couldn’t be kept out. My feet felt like blocks of wood. Banana slugs clung to the outside of the tent. Spiders found their way into my sleeping bag. I was living on apple juice, peanut butter, and raisin bread.
I spent too much time thinking. About my mother’s suicide, about who should or shouldn’t have done or said what, about how it played out in parallel universes. We’d all seen it coming, my father and my brother and I. She’d been depressed, delusional, obsessive for years. But (as I saw it that summer, anyhow) I was the only one who felt guilty about it, who thought there was something more we could have done. My father seemed fatalistic about it, my brother downright nonchalant. That was what had driven me out of the house, that one last feeble protest I felt I had to make.
I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. I had a little money, but not much. It’s not like I was hanging around so close to home because I was homesick. I didn’t miss my father or my brother. After a week I sent them a postcard telling them I was OK and they shouldn’t look for me. I couldn’t imagine wanting to see them again. But I just had no plan.
It was a tricky thing for my friends, I knew that. They’d been questioned by my father, by a counselor from the high school, and even (half-heartedly) by the police. I’d talked with a few of them since I left home, met up a few times. They weren’t going to turn me in or even admit to seeing me, but it had to make them uncomfortable.
Truth was, my friends and I liked to think of ourselves as rebels, as dangerous, but we were mostly good middle-class kids. Actual rebellion—which I seemed to have stumbled into—made us uncomfortable. Beyond the music and the clothes, which at the time (1979) may have shocked some people who were easy to shock, our rebellions were mostly in our heads, and we were really only dangerous to ourselves.
Zack Wollam, though, was legitimately close to the edge—a scrawny, greasy-haired guy with a flattened nose; an artist with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of humanity in general. He felt called upon to mock anyone he saw as a bully or a poser. If it came to a fight, so much the better, and not much difference whether he won or lost. He had a weakness for psychedelics and arson. Zack was the only one of my friends—”friend” might be too strong a word, let’s just say we seemed to tolerate each other—who fully approved of my running away and didn’t give a shit about having to lie for me.
“Fuck em.” He raised his hand to his shoulder and snapped his fingers, sending a Heineken bottle cap zinging out into space. We were on a bluff overlooking one of the beaches between Fort Bragg and Westport. “I don’t know your dad. His shit’s all right, though. Maybe a little too safe. No offense.”
My father’s woodcut prints, landscapes of the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Nevada, sold briskly for a few hundred dollars apiece, sometimes more.
“None taken,” I said. Zack’s art—multimedia, I guess you’d have to call it– was like a cross between a Rorschach test and a pipe bomb going off on a school bus.
“But your brother… your brother’s a dick.”
I shrugged. “What can you do? Death. Taxes. Steven being a dick.”
“I don’t know why I’ve never had occasion to kick his ass. That’s weird, huh?”
“Yeah, it is. I hope you weren’t holding back on my account. But it doesn’t matter now. He’s leaving.” Steven had graduated; he was headed for Columbia in the fall.
“You should leave too.” Zack had this tendency to want to run your life for you, as if the ideal scenario was that you could end up like him. “You can’t hang out in your tree stump forever.”
Had I told him where I was staying? I didn’t think so. Unnerving, a little.
“Easy to say,” I told him. “But what do I do?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Whatever that is.”
“You should talk to Wade.” He drained the Heineken bottle and hurled it end over end into the surf far below. “Wade will set you straight.”
So it wasn’t a complete surprise to wake up one morning and find Zack and Wade passing a joint back and forth as they checked out my tree stump camp. I had a mini-BBQ as well as a large fire ring. A blue plastic tarp covered my diminutive wood pile. I’d drilled hooks into the stump and hung various tools from them. A hanging basket held kindling; a cooler tucked into a niche in the stump delivered fresh water at the turn of a spigot. It wasn’t quite My Side of the Mountain stuff, but it worked. I’d done enough camping with my family to know how to keep squalor at bay. Wade was seriously impressed.
“Like fucking Robinson Crusoe,” he said to Zack. As I looked out the door of my tent, they both nodded to me. Then they politely went back to their joint as I struggled into my clothes.
I’d never actually met Wade before, just seen him around and heard Zack and my other friends talk about him. He was a couple of years older than us, not a local but a Southern California transplant. A skilled surfer, supposedly, and he looked the part—tall, rangy, deeply tanned, with startlingly blue eyes and loose, curly sun-bleached hair. Against type for a guy who sold drugs, he had a reputation as a soft touch.
“I don’t know that you’d call him a dealer,” Zack had told me once. Zack had a way of inventing his own definitions for words. “He’s just a stoner with business sense.” The fact that he let Zack live in his house didn’t seem to fit with that description, but there it was.
He introduced himself, shaking my hand in a disconcertingly grown-up way, and barraged me with questions about the camp. How long had I been there? Were there bears around? Coyote? Did I hunt? Fish? Gather wild plants?
No matter what the answer was, he seemed to love it. Since I didn’t have any pine nuts or venison jerky to offer, he produced a package of Svenhard’s cinnamon rolls and a quart of OJ from his knapsack, and the three of us sat on logs, eating and smoking.
“Man, I always wanted to do this. Live in the woods, get in tune with nature.” Wade really couldn’t get over how cool it was. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it mostly sucked.
It was Zack who brought him down to earth. “Yeah, untold amounts of good times out here with the lady raccoons.” He snickered. Wade laughed involuntarily and choked on his OJ. Even I had to shrug by way of acknowledging the line. Zack had his moments. “But it’s too close to home. They’re gonna find him.”
“Home’s where?” Wade asked. I told him about Lupine Station, the ranch on the coast that had been in our family since the 1860s. When I added a little bit about why I’d left, he winced.
Silence for a long moment. Wade glanced at Zack, who fixed a glassy stare on him. I was stoned, they were stoned, but still it seemed something odd was happening.
“You probably had to do a lot of work, growing up on a ranch,” Wade said.
“Some,” I answered, though it really wasn’t that kind of ranch, its only product now being my father’s art. “Garden work. Carpentry.”
“Never had a job in town? Restaurant, grocery store, maybe?”
“School library,” was all I could offer. “Summer job.”
“Ah, OK.” Wade seemed to be thinking this over, for no reason I could imagine.
“Wade runs a café in Mendocino,” Zack put in. “The Pelican.”
This was pretty much of a shocker for me. I vaguely knew that Zack had some kind of restaurant job, though it was hard to imagine him interacting well with customers or coworkers. But Wade—I don’t think I was alone in assuming that drugs paid his way and then some.
“Temporary manager,” he said, shrugging. “My dad owns it. I’m just helping out for a while.”
“Same place I work.” Zack nodded.
“Here’s the thing.” Wade looked straight at me, his forehead wrinkled like we were about to decide the fate of nations. “We are so short-handed right now. Waiter quit, no notice. Counter guy’s in rehab, hostess has mono. We could really use someone solid. Hard worker, speaks English, honest, shows up on time. Easy, right?”
A blue jay dropped down out of the trees to stab at the crumbs from my cinnamon roll. I squinted at it, afraid to ask Wade if he was saying what I thought he was saying.
He was. “Listen, you could have that job. I mean, this is cool…” motioning at the stump… “So maybe you’re fine here, but Zack said you’d be good, so I thought, Why not?”
“But this is in Mendocino, right? It’s not like I have a car. It’s not like I even have a bike.” I did have a bike, actually, but it was at Lupine Station, sitting in the garage with two flat tires.
“Yeah, well, that’s the perfect part,” Wade said. “The waiter who quit? He lived in our house. So there’s an empty room. With rent paid for the rest of the month.”
“He’s gone? Like for good?”
“The dickhead broke up with his girlfriend, took off for Idaho. Flushed his key down the toilet.”
It was unexpected to say the least—all my problems solved in one deft move, and by Zack, to boot? Not that I was going to turn down the offer, but I felt like I had to be sure Wade knew what he was getting. “So look, this would be awesome, but I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I mean, if it’s the waiter job—“
“No no no. Not going to throw you into that. Not right away, anyhow. It’s like a café and deli, so there’s counter work, ringing up sales. No dishwashing, we’ve got a couple of kids who do that—but just a lot of different things, clearing tables, setting up tables, counter work, like I said, cleanup, stock work, generally helping out…”
“You’re going to sweep a lot of floors, man.” From the way Zack said this I guessed he was the one doing it now.
“Well, yeah,” Wade conceded. “Lots of different things. Deliveries, sometimes. We’ll keep you busy.”
Zack laughed, and they looked at each other, and I could tell there was some private joke involved, but it didn’t seem like I needed to know what it was.
The house was a rundown Victorian, standing by itself in a field on the Mendocino headland, west of the town, with the ocean not far away on the other three sides, but far enough that there were no dramatic views. Like the restaurant, it belonged to Wade’s father. Apparently the idea was that, when and if the permits came through, the house would be leveled and the lot parceled out for half a dozen duplexes. Until then, it was ours.
If learning that he worked a real job and rented from his father had dented my impression of Wade, meeting the sisters—his other housemates besides Zack—restored it. Tamara was a sullen brunette with pale skin and dark eyes, almost a Jewish or Armenian look. A tight T-shirt tucked into tight jeans, tattoo of a dragon on her collarbone; only a fractional smile for Wade, barely a glance at Zack or me. This was what I expected from Wade. Then I found out she wasn’t even the girlfriend—she was the girlfriend’s sister. Sara was the girlfriend.
Completely different look. At times I wondered if they were really even sisters. Sara was slight, golden-haired, green-eyed, and she dressed like an artist– peasant blouses, bright print skirts or faded blue jeans– though she was studying to be a librarian. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was nice to me, but she was at least polite, because she wasn’t the type of person to be impolite. Unlike Tamara.
I didn’t bring it up with Wade, but he noticed. “You can’t let Tamara bother you,” he told me. “It’s just how she is. And she’s having a hard time.”
Good, I wanted to say.
“You remember I told you about Hugh? The waiter? How he broke up with his girlfriend and that’s why he left?”
Oh hell, I thought. “Tamara was the girlfriend?” And I was in Hugh’s room.
He made a face. “I don’t know, maybe we should have told you about that before now.”
On the North Coast, we’re raised to loathe tourists, but to be polite to them, because there aren’t a lot of other sources of income. Wade, despite being an outsider, understood this and had no problem with it, and for me it was second nature. It was different for Zack. When he had to work the counter at the café, his repertoire ranged from mocking servility to sullen hostility. On his breaks, he’d come into the back office and punch walls, bang his head on locker doors, trample stale hot dog buns into the tiles.
But Wade handled him well. He had a great feel for when to joke around with him, when to take him out to the parking lot for a smoke, when to give him some simple physical job– stacking crates, washing windows, moving tables around– when to send him out for a delivery or a shopping trip.
As for me, I found the job surprisingly easy. At times it got crazy: a line of people waiting to pay clashing with a line waiting to order, not enough quarters in the till, kitchen backed up, screaming babies, tourists with clueless questions, dishes dropped on the floor… But almost always Wade was there to back us up, smooth things out.
We had relaxed times too—afternoon lulls, rainy days, the hour before close—when suddenly you’d notice the music on the radio, the smell of bacon, the antics of seagulls on the sidewalk. In one of those quiet moments, I asked Wade the obvious question—why Zack?
He laughed. We were in the back office, me gnawing on pizza crust, him doing bookkeeping. “Yeah, why? Good question. Sara asks me that all the time.”
I waited him out.
“You realize he’s not a bad guy, right?”
I did realize that, I understood how much Zack had done to help me. So in a way I felt bad talking about him like this. But still, facts were facts, Zack was trouble, and maybe I was hoping Wade could explain how those two things fit together.
“What can I tell you?” He shook his head and recounted a stack of quarters. “We grew up together. Not best friends or anything, but same neighborhood, same block even, same grade school, same high school.”
I suppose I’d always discouraged any attempts by Zack to tell me about his childhood. I knew there was a bipolar mother, an alcoholic stepfather, a stepsister that he lusted after.
“Anyhow,” Wade said, “Yeah, he’s a fucking menace, sometimes, but he pulls his weight. You know we’re delivering more than French fries and grilled cheese sandwiches, right?”
“Kind of.” I’d noticed Zack leaving for deliveries when it didn’t seem like anyone had called in an order, and I’d noticed money changing hands at the back door of the kitchen.
“He’s good at that side of it. Helps me out a lot. You know, it takes someone who’s not shy, someone who doesn’t scare easy.”
“Sure,” I said. “Got it.”
“You ever want to help out with that, let me know.” He waved a rubber-banded stack of twenties at me. “The money’s good.”
The house had a big high-ceilinged living room, with a picture window facing west and bookshelves all along the other three walls. At first I assumed the books belonged to Wade’s girlfriend, her being the future librarian, but it turned out she just had a few shelves of semi-respectable romances—Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Gone with the Wind, that kind of thing—along with her library science textbooks.
The rest of the books were Wade’s. Fiction (classics and modern), history, biography, and—more of this than anything—adventure. Sailing, surfing, exploration, flying, climbing. When he’d had time to do all this reading wasn’t clear, maybe the two years he’d spent at Humboldt State, where he’d met Sara. But he’d read them. One day he found me leafing through a book called Kamet Conquered, the story of a 1930s climb in the Himalaya. For the next hour he was pulling books off the shelves and telling me I had to read them. Cho Oyu; Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage; Farthest North; Wind, Sand, and Stars; Arabian Sands.
“So do you climb?” I asked him, because the mountaineering books outnumbered the others, but there were no guidebooks, no how-to’s, and that seemed odd.
“Not really.” He frowned. “I mean, sort of. A little.”
“Same here.” When I was small, we’d gone camping in the mountains every summer, the whole family. My father had climbed in Yosemite when he was young, and it felt normal to him to drag us all up some easy peaks. By the time I was a teenager, my mother was staying home and my father had Steven and me top-roping easy Class 5 rock at Lake Tahoe, practicing snow and ice technique on Mt. Shasta.
“Way less than that for me.” Wade pushed another stack of books into my hands. “Some Class 2 stuff. Hiked up Half Dome. Halfway up Mt. Whitney.” In a lowered voice: “I was all about surfing when I lived down south. And then—well, Sara hates the mountains. What can I say? She who must be obeyed.”
After I’d been working at the Pelican a month, Wade started sending me out on deliveries with Zack. Ride-alongs, they called them. At first just food—a pizza, a bag full of burgers and fries, Styrofoam boxes reeking of vinaigrette dressing. But soon enough we were dropping off the little black plastic bags that lived in a special locker in the café office, and walking away not with credit card slips but with grubby bundles of fives, tens, twenties.
Zack being Zack, the exchanges weren’t always as smooth as they could be. His little gems of barbed humor and philosophical commentary got him puzzled looks, sarcastic thank yous, and on one occasion a slap in the face from a woman who answered the door in her underwear and didn’t appreciate Zack’s reaction. But it’s not like he was clueless. The bigger and more illegal the purchase, the more muscular the customer, the politer he was. The woman who slapped him had only ordered a BLT and a milkshake.
“You have to know where the line is,” he told me one night as we got into the café’s unmarked white pickup. “And how far over it you want to dance.”
“Or if you want to dance at all,” I said.
“Yeah, sure.” He gave me a disgusted look. “But if you think I’m bad, you should have seen Hugh. Fuck, man, that dude had issues. He loved scaring the shit out of people.”
“What’s the point?” I asked, not meaning just Hugh. “Our people are mellow.”
“He hated that. Like he thought it was fake, he couldn’t stand the touchy-feely bullshit, he wanted people to put up a fight.”
“And did anyone ever do that?”
“Not for long, man. Hugh was packing a gun. He never used it, to my knowledge, but he’d let people know it was there.”
“Fucking A.” Breaking drug laws was one thing, it was just a given among the people I knew. Nobody thought of it as a real crime. A gun was different. “So did Wade fire him? Is that why he left?”
Brief silence. I presumed Zack was thinking maybe he shouldn’t talk about this. But running his mouth was the default. “Well, they had words a few times. But Wade doesn’t really fire people. He just tells them they’re being uncool, and either they feel bad and they shape up, or they get pissed off and they leave.”
“I’m guessing Hugh was more in the pissed off category.”
“He didn’t want to be here in the first place. He’s from Idaho, he wanted Tamara to go back there with him. She wouldn’t go, so he said Fuck it, fuck all of you, and he took off. Big scene, I guess, but I missed it. I was at work.” He sounded sad about this.
Wednesday night at the Pelican. Customers: two, an old tourist couple who’d finished eating half an hour earlier. Wade at the counter, getting the cash drawer ready for close. Me sweeping the floor.
“You’re off this weekend, right?” he asked me.
“I guess so.” I didn’t usually check my schedule more than a day or two ahead.
“I think you are.” No doubt—he was the manager, he had the whole thing in his head. “What do you say to a little road trip?”
“A road trip?” Unexpected. We’d done a couple hikes together, Wade applying his Himalayan fantasies to the forested ridges east of town. But for the most part (and for good reason, it seemed to me) his spare time belonged to his girlfriend.
“Mt. Shasta,” he said now, elaborately casual. “What do you think?”
“Sure, why not?” I was bluffing a little too. I’d climbed Shasta with my father and brother, and I knew it was basically just a long, long walkup. But… with my father. This was a little different. “As long as Sara’s OK with it.”
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
Zack was scornful. “Ooh, the mountain men. Don’t forget the bottled oxygen!”
“You should come too,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t. Any kind of physical effort reminded him of the jocks who’d beaten him up in high school.
“Who do you think’s covering at the café while you’re gone?” He tipped his beer back to drain it. Long-necked Buds, which we considered a special treat. We were at a beach not far from the house, shivering in the late afternoon breeze. “And getting all the commissions.” There were no tips as such for the drug deliveries, like there were for food, but Wade cut us a percentage of the transactions.
Of course, as always, Zack had to play the older, wiser friend, the one who knew the sordid truth behind innocent appearances. Which in this case, he actually did. “You know what this is about, right?”
“Uh, no, Zack.” I tried to be stone-faced. “What’s it about?”
“Hugh’s coming to visit.”
“What the fuck?” By now I’d heard enough stories about Hugh that in my mind he was nine feet tall, built like a pro football linebacker, and bristling with weapons.
“Apparently it’s on again with him and Tamara. Don’t worry, he’s not going to move back into his room. He’s just here for the weekend—then if things work out, Tamara’s going back to Idaho with him.”
“That’d be a win,” I muttered. “But what’s it got to do with Wade and me going to Shasta?”
Zack chuckled. That, or cleared his sinuses. It was always hard to tell. “Bad blood between those two—Hugh and Wade. Tamara and Sara want everything to go smooth, so they told Wade to get lost for the weekend.”
“And take me with him?”
“I think you’re just collateral damage.” He shrugged. “But Hugh doesn’t appreciate having other males around his woman.
“So how’s he going to tolerate you?”
“Me? I’ll be at the café all weekend. Anyway, no fear on that score. I might as well be a eunuch as far as Tamara’s concerned.”
The climb, as it turned out, was more or less a complete bust, but the kind of bust you remember fondly and talk about for years afterward. Wade, with his badly chosen mail-order equipment and his surfer’s physique—heavily muscled torso and underdeveloped aerobic capacity—struggled on the hike in, but we made it to the high camp at 10,000 feet and spent a restless night there. Starting off in the dark, we cramponned up a vast slope of frozen snow and into a narrow, rocky gully, where a falling boulder knocked Wade off his feet. Some kindergarten-level rope work saved him from sliding all the way back down the mountain. With a twisted ankle, he managed to limp up another hundred yards to the top of the gully, a spectacular viewpoint but still two thousand feet below the summit. We high-fived each other as if we’d just conquered Everest, and that was the big moment of the climb.
With him limping and me carrying both our packs, we went back down so slowly that we got off the mountain just about the same time we would have if we’d summited with no problem.. He’d arranged to call Sara when we got back to town, to let her know we were OK. I went into a supermarket to pick up road food while he made the call from a pay phone outside. When I emerged with a bag full of Pepsi, Svenhard’s, and Doritos, he was still there talking.
After a few more minutes he hung up the phone and hobbled back to the car. “Fucking A,” he said, ignoring the snacks and motioning to me to drive. “Good news, bad news. Good news, Hugh is in jail.”
I started the car, paused with a bear claw on its way to my mouth.
“Bad news, he’s in jail because he shot Zack.”
“What the fuck?” I stopped the car four feet into its journey, staring at Wade with the hope that he was joking. But he looked as serious as I’d ever seen him.
“He’s alive—they’re not sure how bad it is. He’s in ICU and they can’t get in to see him.”
He told me about it as we drove south on I-5. “What I was afraid of—Zack and his smart mouth, Hugh and his macho bullshit. Zack is playing Led Zep at seven in the morning, Tamara yells at him to turn it down, he makes some lewd remark because she’s half undressed. So Hugh gets into it, they start fighting, and it’s pretty one-sided, but you know Zack, he’s like a rabid squirrel. Somehow or other he manages to kick Hugh in the balls. Only not hard enough, because Hugh staggers back to Tamara’s room and gets his gun. And he comes back and he fucking shoots Zack in the groin.”
“Ohhh.” My head dipped to the steering wheel for a second.
“So Sara goes to the phone to call for an ambulance, and Hugh runs out, jumps in his car, and drives away.”
“Fucking A. When did all this happen?”
“This morning. Nothing we can do, really. Zack’s in the hospital. Hugh’s in jail.” He sighed and went on: “He ran a red light leaving town. The cops saw the gun on the floor of the car. And Sara was just talking to the dispatcher, so they kind of figured it out.”
“Did they go to the house?” Nobody had ever said anything specific to me, but they really didn’t need to. When your house is full of dope, you try not to invite the police over.
“Yeah, they did.” Another sigh. “Sara cleaned up the best she could. We’ll see.”
When we got to Mendocino, we drove cautiously past the house. No signs of life.
Sara’s car was gone. He’d told her to get out, to meet us at the Pelican. She and Tamara were in the back office, smoking cigarettes and drinking Diet Coke. For once they actually looked like sisters, with the same taut, angry expressions.
Sara glanced over at me and said, “I hear you saved this idiot’s life,” nodding towards Wade.
“What?” I said. “No, not really—“
She cut me off. “Wasted effort, Rob. Because now I’m going to kill him.”
For a minute, Wade didn’t say anything, just ran his hand back through his hair. Then: “O.K., Sara, I get it. I’m sorry you had to deal with everything.” A glance at Tamara. “But how is it my fault that Hugh’s a psychopath?”
“It’s not.” She let that hang in the air for a moment, maybe to prove she was being fair. “But it’s your fault a pervert like Zack is living in our house and saying obscene things to my sister.”
Wade held up his hands in surrender. “All right, let me say it again. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” Sara said, meaning—you think an apology covers it?
“Look, I’ll find someplace else for him to live, OK? But meanwhile, pervert or no pervert, what’s the news? Should we go to the hospital?”
“Not much point. We just came from there.”
“Officially, we’re no one and they can’t tell us anything. Unofficially, one of the nurses told us he should be OK. He might walk with a limp. But he’ll walk.”
“What about the, you know, the family jewels?”
“Undamaged, I’m sorry to say. If he ever finds a woman crazy enough to have unprotected sex with him, he might even have offspring.”
“O.K., that’s good.”
She shrugged; Tamara scowled. Wade took that as permission to move on:
“We went to the house. Everything looks mellow—no cops, no dickhead friends of Hugh’s.”
“He doesn’t have any friends,” Tamara snapped. “Maybe in Idaho, not here.”
“Well, good. What do we know—where did they take him?”
“County lockup in Ukiah. He used his phone call to call me. I hung up on him.”
“Does he have money? We sure as hell don’t want him to make bail.”
“Not going to happen. Not once they talk to Idaho. He’s on parole there.”
“Excellent.” Wade nodded and sighed. “That is just excellent. It’s weird how this is all working out.”
“Easy for you to say” — Sara, cuffing him away as he tried to take her hand. “You don’t have to testify at that moron’s trial.”
“Come on, honey.” He made another grab for the hand, and this time she let him have it. “Let’s go home.”
The next day, I was at the Pelican, working the counter. Swing shift, waiting for Wade to come in for the close. He was late, which wasn’t unusual, but he hadn’t called, which was. When Sara walked in, I knew right away something was wrong. She was moving at twice her normal speed and her cheeks were bright red, her forehead locked in a frown.
“Is Wade here?”
I shook my head.
She came behind the counter, grabbed my arm, and pulled me into the office. Foster, one of the deli guys, was taking his break there; she chased him out to the counter with a look. Sara didn’t have any official role at the Pelican, but we all knew that she outranked everyone except possibly Wade.
I’d just about gotten my mouth open to ask what was going on when Sara said, “They’re at the house. Sheriff’s deputies. Tamara thinks that fuckhead Hugh dropped a dime on us.”
“Holy shit. So did they bust Wade?”
“I don’t think so. Tamara was the only one there. She called me at work. I don’t know where Wade is. Do you have the combination to the locker?”
She meant the locker where we kept the weed for deliveries. I shook my head. “Just Wade and Zack do.”
“Shit. The cops are going to come here next.” She ran to the front door, looked up and down the street, ran back. “Where the fuck is Wade?”
“He was supposed to be here at three.”
“Yeah.” She rattled the locker door, once, twice, and then a third time, hard. “Well, then– screw it. I’ll see you later, Rob.”
And she was gone.
Five minutes later, as I was dodging Foster’s questions about what was wrong,
the phone rang. “Rob…” Wade, as casual as if we’d run into each other in a record store. “Sara there?”
“She just left. She was looking for you. She said—“
“Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up. They’re searching the house. I’m at Eric’s.” Our closest neighbor, a few hundred yards down the road. “I went out to get cigarettes or I guess I’d be wearing handcuffs already.”
“Sara said they’re coming here next?”
“Seems like it. You need to leave, Rob. They won’t be looking for you, Hugh barely even knows you exist. But if you’re there, you’re caught up in this.”
“I should do something with the shit in the locker.”
“There isn’t time, man. Just go. Get your jacket, don’t go to the house, get on a bus. Go back to your family, go back to your tree-stump, go to San Francisco, whatever.”
“What about Foster?”
“He’ll be fine, he’s fucking innocent, dude.”
Banging, shouts, metal jingling, a laugh that wasn’t Wade’s.
I listened. A voice, loud, angry: “Who’s there?”
I didn’t answer. After a few seconds, a dial tone.
I slammed down the phone and brought Wade’s toolbox out from its place under the desk. Opened it, grabbed a hammer, crossed the room to the locker, and started banging on the lock. Five or six wild swings, Foster looking through the doorway to see what was happening, lock broken.
Inside were three large Tupperware containers, three small ones, and a Ziploc full of cash. I stuffed the containers into my knapsack, weighed the Ziploc in my hand for a second, put it into my back pocket.
“Don’t ask,” I said to Foster on my way to the door. “You really don’t want to know.”
There was $1500, give or take a bit, in the Ziploc. Even without the money, I wouldn’t have gone home. My father was alone now, with my mother dead and my brother at Columbia, and it seemed fair to me that he should be. I figured I’d send him another postcard when things calmed down. Beyond that, I couldn’t see that I owed him anything.
I never spent any of the money, never felt it was really mine. But it was good to know it was there if I needed it, like in some way Wade was still taking care of me. As for the weed, I dumped it into the ocean at the state park beach, where it lay in the water like so much kelp. Then I walked out to Highway One and hitched a ride inland to Willits. I spent the night in the doorway of a used bookstore, not sleeping much, imagining the nights Zack and Wade and Sara were having
The next day I took a Greyhound south and wound up in the wine country. I slept under a palm tree in the town square in Sonoma, and in the morning I walked around the square, looking for work at all the restaurants. A bar and grill named The Golden Bear hired me as a dishwasher, and a waitress with a crooked smile slapped me on the shoulder and said to the bartender, “Fresh blood.”
Tom Gartner’s fiction and poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including California Quarterly, Concho River Review, The Madison Review and most recently New Limestone Review. One story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work is forthcoming in Levee and Deracine. He lives in California, just north of the Golden Gate, and works as a buyer for an independent bookstore in San Francisco.