Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
This is Richard Dokey’s third appearance in Weber. He is the winner of the Hoepfner Award, presented for the best short story published in 2006 in Southern Humanities Review. His 2004 collection Pale Morning Dun was nominated for the American Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. River’s Bend Press will publish his novel The Hollywood Cafe. Read other fiction by Richard Dokey in Weber: Vol. 18.0 and Vol. 21.1.
The fire came over Ben Milligan’s house. It took Ben’s fly rods, melted his fly reels, consumed his fly tying materials and turned to ash every photograph he had taken of where he had been, what he had done and everyone he had known. It took the things Frieda had abandoned in the divorce and that he could not throw away. It took what his father and mother had left behind.
Ben moved into the Lewiston Valley Motel, which was the only place in town besides the Trinity Inn near the river, and that was more than the insurance company would allow. There were fifteen units in the motel, joined together under a common roof. The doors to the rooms created the appearance of closets that opened to the blacktop and the field beyond.
At first it was strange staying at the motel in the town where he had lived for forty years. The room had a double bed, a round mahogany veneer table with two vinyl chairs beneath a window next to the door, a small microwave and refrigerator and a TV upon the dresser below a mirror with a crack in one corner. There was an alcove with a washbasin and mirror, a Mr. Coffee that held four cups, a wicker basket with packages of regular and decaf, which were replenished each morning and which he could not open with his fingers and so tore at with his teeth. To the right was a door that opened to the toilet and tub shower. Towels were held to the wall above the toilet by wire rings. An extra roll of toilet paper sat upon the porcelain tank cover.
He took his meals at Mama’s Place, which was eighty yards up across the macadam parking area and thirty yards from the mini mart that had the only gas pumps in town. It wasn’t Mama’s Place anymore because Oma and Dick had retired. Some people from Redding had the place two years now. They had renamed it The Lewiston Valley Grill, but it had always been Mama’s Place. The same people in town worked there and Jim, Oma and Dick’s boy, who stayed with them in the yellow house across the road because Dick had Alzheimer’s and Oma was arthritic, still cooked relief sometimes in the afternoon.
At Mama’s Ben sat at the counter, even though the booths were more comfortable and he could watch the deer that came down to the open field in the mornings and evenings.
"I was at the kitchen table drinking my third cup," Ben said to Patsy Erdman, whose husband Bill had been at the lumber mill for twenty years. "I looked up at Bear Back Ridge, which is in plain view from my house, you know, and there was the fire, rolling over the top, like lava that you see from those volcanoes on the History Channel."
Patsy wiped the counter and picked at the thumbnail she had broken moments before.
"I don’t watch the History Channel much," she said.
"Well, that’s the way it was, kind of liquid fire rolling off the mountain. It’s what I get for living in the woods west of town."
Patsy shook her head. "You were lucky to get out of there, Ben."
"I suppose so," he said, studying Patsy’s white, freckled arm as she refilled the cup. "I tried to wet down the roof and the side of the house. What can you do with a garden hose and no pressure to speak of?"
"Nothing," Patsy said. "You were damned lucky just to get out with your skin. It took Bev and Phil Beckwith’s house too, did you hear? They lost everything. And no insurance." She shook her head.
"Where are they now?" Ben asked.
"At her sister’s in Klamath Falls." She wiped the counter. "How about you, Ben? You got insurance?"
"I’m seeing him later," Ben said.
"You’re lucky, then," Patsy said. "We haven’t got insurance either. How can we afford insurance?" She looked at Ben and tried to smile. "So how do you like it at the motel?"
Ben thought about it. "I don’t really know," he said. "It’s weird, so small and nothing your own."
"Are you sleeping all right, Ben?"
"Oh, sure," he said. "Never any problems with sleeping, but I don’t like the damned light coming in over the curtain and the work crews up when its still dark and starting their damned trucks. But I suppose that’s part of it."
"I can’t get used to the smell," Patsy said. "If I leave the windows open, it’s awful. If I close the windows, I sweat. But what can you do, right?"
Ben shrugged. "It will go away in time," he said. "What we need is a good rain."
"Fat chance. It’s already June," said Patsy. "I hate looking at the burnt timber whenever I go back there."
"That will take longer," Ben said. "A lot longer."
"What can you do?" said Patsy. "You’re lucky you have insurance."
She went to the till. Her hand was shaking.
In the motel Ben sat on the double bed looking at the blank TV. He thought about Frieda. They had split the year before, and he had not heard from her. That was okay, he supposed, since the parting had been particularly bitter. They had lived together there in the house for so long, he couldn’t help wondering how she would react to seeing everything but the chimney charred flat to the ground. There would be a twinge about it, certainly, and he would have liked to see her face. A home was something you did together. But now it was gone, Frieda was gone and everything he owned was gone, so there he was, sitting upon a double bed in the Lewiston Valley Motel staring at an empty TV. How could you make sense out of that?
There was a knock at the door. In two steps Ben’s hand was on the knob.
"Mr. Milligan," the small man at the threshold said. "Howard Atkinson. I’m the adjuster with American Insurance. How are you, Mr. Milligan?"
Atkinson wore brown flannel pants that hung short above scuffed wing tipped shoes. He wore a white short-sleeved polyester shirt and a clip on tie, the clamps of which shone dully in the hot light because Atkinson had unbuttoned his collar. He held a clipboard and a yellow sheaf of papers.
Atkinson came into the room and sat in one of the vinyl chairs under the window. Ben left the door open. It felt good to have the day inside along with Mr. Atkinson. Ben sat upon the bed.
"I’ve been out to have another look, Mr. Milligan." Atkinson made a clucking sound. "A terrible shame. Terrible. Terrible. Were you able to save anything at all?"
"Nothing," Ben said. "I had to get out of there. The fire came down like an eruption." He wanted to tell about the History Channel.
"It must have been something," Atkinson said, arranging the yellow sheets of paper upon the table.
Ben thought a moment. "It was," he said. "All I have is the truck."
"Parked out front?" Atkinson said.
"That’s it," said Ben. "I had the keys in my pocket. I jumped in and drove right out of there. I suppose I was lucky."
"You were that, Mr. Milligan. You were, indeed. And even after such a tragedy, you are lucky still. You have American Insurance on your side, Mr. Milligan. We’ll put everything in order, just as it was. It will take a little time to get started, of course. There’s the paper work. There are bids and such. New codes and ordinances since your house was built. These things happen. But we’ll take care of everything. We should be able to get started in, say, six to eight weeks. How are you fixed? Are you comfortable here? Do you need anything?"
Ben looked about the tiny room. A smoke detector was fastened to the ceiling above the bed. Every twenty seconds it blinked red. He had been long enough at breakfast for new towels to be brought in. The Mr. Coffee carafe was clean. Fresh bronze cellophane packages were in the wicker basket.
"I’m all right," Ben replied. He shrugged. "What else can I say?"
Atkinson nodded. He had been through it many times before and decided that he did not want to say again what he usually said.
"I’ll leave some papers with you," Atkinson said, standing. He took out his wallet and produced a card. "Look them over. Call me if you have any questions or need anything." He stepped to the door. "I’ll be talking to you about the features for the house. We can make it just as it was or you can have some modifications, if you like, a bigger living room area or kitchen, perhaps. Cosmetic things here or there. As long as we stay within the original square footage and use similar materials. You understand, I’m sure."
Ben nodded. Atkinson went out into the sunlight. "Of course," he remembered, "if you should decide not to rebuild, we can issue you a check for the market value of the place. It is all pretty much burned around there. You might not want to see all that from a new house. Some people just want to get out." He nodded. "Something more to think about, I know."
Atkinson waved, climbed into his car and drove off.
Ben stood in the doorway. He looked at the field where the deer came down. He looked at Mama’s Place. There were only a couple of SUVs out front. It was an hour before lunch. He looked at the mini-mart, where a tourist was filling the tank of a ski boat.
After lunch he drove out to have a look. He hadn’t gone out since the fire. He had not wanted to go out. He saw it in his mind. He heard the flames and smelled the smell. When he got there, that’s how it was.
The earth was burnt and charred. There were a few metal rungs and pipes, like black, broken bones. The stubs of burnt cedars stood around. If some of the cedars had trunks or branches, the trunks were black, and the branches were black sticks stuck into the trunks. There was the smell of everything black and burnt and dead.
He did not go to where the house had stood. He had seen on television how people after a fire picked through the embers, looking for something, anything. He stood by the truck. He looked at where everything had been. He closed his eyes and imagined the house, the pine needles upon the shingled roof, the chimney and the wisp of smoke, all the cedars around and deer coming down, heading for the meadow beyond. He even imagined Frieda hanging clothes on the white parachute cord he had strung between two trees. He opened his eyes. He got into the truck and drove to the motel.
The room was gloomy, so he used the metal push rod to shove back the curtain. He went to the bed and sat down. He got up to look out the window. There was a Jeep parked at Mama’s Place. It had a trailer with a couple of dirt bikes. At the minimart a man was putting gas into the tank of his motor home. A calico cat padded across the parking lot and into the field. The sun was hot on the blacktop. He went to the bed and sat down.
He got up and opened the door. It was pleasant with the day inside the room. A fly buzzed in, hurried about and left.
Ben took one of the vinyl chairs from the table and set it beside the door outside. He closed the door, lit a cigarette and sat down. At the end of the motel to the left, the blacktop rose to a grassy plateau beneath cedar and jack pines. Trailer homes were parked there. Wires and hoses came out of the trailers. On top of the trailers were satellite dishes and radio antennas. The trailers had painted names, like Montana or Mountain Eagle or Sundowner. There were hookups for a dozen trailers. A half dozen were there now. Bob rented the spaces for as long as anyone wanted.
Around the corner of the motel to the left and out of sight was a public storage that Bob also owned. It was the only storage in Lewiston. Before he sold it, Ben had kept his own boat there.
He thought about the boat now. Then he thought about fishing. It would be good to go down to the river above the bridge and fly fish for trout. The flow from the dam was at 350 cubic feet per second, perfect for putting a fly below white riffles and the seams beneath the willows. His fly rods and reels, his flies, his fishing vest, his waders and boots, everything was gone under the fire. He’d have to go over to Herb Burton’s shop and begin collecting gear again.
He sat in the shade outside the motel.
He had the retirement, the social security and what his parents had left at the bank in Redding. He had the money from American Insurance. He did not know how much Bob was charging American Insurance. Bob dealt directly with the company. But he didn’t owe anybody anything. No one owed him anything. He looked at the empty field.
He didn’t want to go over to Herb’s. He didn’t want to browse through all the things, picking and choosing. He didn’t want to talk about the fire and go over it with everyone he met.
He decided to drive to Elmer Burrows’ place to borrow a rod and reel and use Elmer’s old waders and boots. Elmer and he were the same size. Sometimes, if one of them forgot something or something was leaking or broken, they shared. He put the chair into the room, closed the door and drove to Elmer’s.
Elmer did small engine repair and lived in a trailer near the river. Ben borrowed the fiberglass rod, the dented Pflueger reel and Elmer’s patched waders and boots. Elmer gave him a dozen flies in a plastic cup covered with tin foil. Ben drove to the road and crossed the bridge. He turned down the dirt trail to the parking area Fish and Game had prepared the year before.
The river was low and clear, the rocks mossy and brown. The riffles sparkled in the light. The river came out of the top of the spillway a few hundred yards upstream. It came down, bubbling, frothy and white. A fisherman was below the spillway in the first riffle. Ben saw the glint off the fly rod as the man’s arm came back and went forward.
Ben put on the waders and boots. He knotted a size eighteen tan caddis downwing to the tippet of a nine-foot leader. He stepped into the water.
The water was a rising shock. It was strange not having his gear around him. He had tied thousands of flies. He always carried twelve or fifteen boxes of flies to the river. He liked carrying a lot of flies. He felt proud and professional carrying so many flies. Now he had the dozen Elmer Burrows had tied. He was wearing Elmer’s patched waders and Elmer’s old boots with the broken laces. He was using Elmer’s fiberglass rod, which was stiff and unresponsive compared to the Winston graphites he had collected over the years. But that was all right. After a bit he found a rhythm. He began to catch trout. He caught big trout. He had a dozen flies. He lost the downwing caddis and four or five other flies, but at the end of the afternoon he had released enough trout to give him complete satisfaction. The fire was out of his mind.
He returned Elmer’s gear and drove to the motel. He left the door open and sat down upon the bed. In his shirt pocket was the plastic cup with the flies he had not used.
He put the cup upon the round table beneath the window. He moved the cup to the dresser and sat down. Bob walked by on the way to the laundry room. Bob waved through the door. Ben put the cup into the refrigerator.
He walked over to Mama’s Place, sat at the counter and ordered the chicken fried steak with white gravy. The Redding paper was on the counter. He thumbed through it, but he wasn’t interested in reading.
Ellen Burmeister came in and sat down beside him.
"Well, hello there, Ben," she said. "I haven’t seen you for awhile."
"I suppose that’s so," Ben replied. "Even in Lewiston folks sometimes miss each other."
"They do, don’t they?" Ellen said. "That’s so."
Ellen Burmeister was a slender and still attractive woman, thin faced, with round blue eyes that effervesced when she was excited. She was Frieda’s age. Frieda and Ellen were friends. Ben had wondered what Frieda had said during the break-up. There was plenty to talk about, since Frank, Ellen’s husband, was so mean that Ellen had wanted to leave too. But then Frank was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He took eight months to die.
The chicken fried steak arrived. Ellen ordered a bowl of chili and French bread. They sat eating.
"It’s awful about the fire, Ben," Ellen said.
Ben nodded, chewing.
"Were you able to save anything at all?"
"Nope," Ben said. "Not a thing."
Ellen shook her head.
"How awful! Have you told Frieda?"
"I haven’t talked to Frieda," he said.
"Funny," she said. "I haven’t either."
The door opened. Four out-of-town fly fishermen came in. They wore khaki shorts with cargo pockets, vented shirts with button-up sleeves and baseball caps with logos of trout and the names of outfitters. They sat down in a booth under a window.
"What will you do?" Ellen said, breaking a piece of bread and dipping it into the chili.
"I don’t know that," Ben said.
"I understand," she said.
He finished the chicken fried steak. Ellen finished the chili.
"Like to split a piece of lemon meringue pie?" Ellen smiled.
"Sure," he said. "Why not?"
They ordered the pie to be cut for two plates and ordered two cups of decaf. They sat eating the pie.
When the pie was gone, they ordered two refills of decaf. They sat drinking.
"It’s early," Ben said. "I think I’ll watch the six o’clock news. Would you like to finish the coffee and watch with me?"
"All right, Ben," she said.
They walked down to the motel. Ben unlocked the door. He moved the vinyl chairs from under the round table and set them next to each other at the side of the bed. He left the door open.
They watched the news and finished the coffee. Ben made a carafe of decaf, tearing at the bronze wrapper with his teeth. They drank two more cups. Then the news was over.
"Do you want watch anymore?" he asked
"I don’t think so," she said.
He switched off the TV.
Outside, in the twilight, the deer had come down to the dusty field. He pointed. She turned to look.
"Isn’t it sweet," Ellen said. "They’re almost pets, aren’t they?"
"Maybe they should have names," Ben said.
"No one has even given them names," said Ellen.
Ben sat down. "That’s probably a good thing," he said.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
He thought a moment. Then he said, "They don’t belong to anybody."
They sat a moment. Ellen said, "Would you ever like to come over for dinner some evening, Ben? You always did favor my pork roast."
"All right," he said.
She looked at her hands. "I should be out of that house, I know. It’s acceptable now, if that makes any sense. You have to live somewhere."
"Saturday night?" She stood up.
"Sure," he said.
The next day he went fishing. He had only the flies in the refrigerator, but they were enough. He caught a dozen trout, climbed out of the river, lit a cigarette and sat down under a willow tree.
The river was very clear and bright. Midstream, behind a rock, a trout rose. It rose again. He thought about getting out there to catch it, but he sat beneath the tree smoking.
There were red and green patches on both legs of the waders. One of the bootlaces had broken again. He had had to tie the boot at the top. The boot squirted water when he stepped onto the bank. Upstream an angler was playing a trout. He saw a splash and a silver gleam. The gleam disappeared into the water. The rod bowed and throbbed.
Ben sat watching the water. It was better than yesterday. He was in no hurry. It did not matter when he got back to the motel. He liked fishing with a few flies. He liked fishing with a borrowed rod and tackle. He looked up. A black and white eagle sat perched at the very top of a jack pine. Its yellow beak was hooked and sharply pointed. The eagle was also watching the water. The eagle turned its head. Its eyes never left the water. The trout rose behind the rock. The eagle flung itself down. At the last moment it spread its wings, splashed bluntly into the water behind the rock, its claws stretched and hooked. It rose, the trout pinched, spewing water like a sponge. The eagle flew off down river, the trout curving and uncurving its tail.
He had seen eagles catch trout many times on Hat Creek, which was fifty miles the other side of Redding. He loved Hat Creek. The water was clear, clean and smooth, like bath water. Maybe I’ll fish Hat tomorrow, he thought. He stood, crossed the river, the cold rising above his thighs, removed the waders and boots and drove to Elmer Burrows’ mobile home.
"Hell, Ben, why don’t you just keep the damned things? I don’t use them anymore. They just sit around here. Keep them. Go on."
Ben laid the waders and boots upon the workbench Elmer had made from scrap lumber.
"Elm," he said, "I couldn’t do that. No place to put anything. I’ll come by when I need them, if that’s okay." He leaned the rod against the mobile home.
Elmer shook his head, "Suit yourself, Ben."
"I will take a few more flies," he said. "Might go over to Hat. I’ll need some pale morning duns and a few blue wing olives. Nymphs too."
"Must be great being retired," Elmer mumbled.
At the motel he unlocked the door but left it open. He set one of the vinyl chairs outside and lit a cigarette. He looked at the sunset against the roof of Mama’s Place. There was one car at the side away from the main entrance, Patsy Erdman’s ’78 Camarro. That meant Jim had walked across the road from Oma and Dick’s to cook. He felt sorry about Oma and Dick.
He sat smoking and watching the sky above the jack pines beyond the field.
There was nothing to do, no obligation, no future piling up in the corners. He felt young and fiercely strange and wondered if, approached in the right way, Bob might cut him a deal to have the room on a long-term basis.