Sunday, March 27, 2011

On the High Steel: Writing as Instinct

Last night, I happened to tune in to the middle of a PBS documentary about the construction of Worldwide Plaza, a Manhattan skyscraper built in the late 1980s. While the material was dated, it contained some timeless lessons.

One of the story-lines in the film followed a group of Native Americans who earned their living as ironworkers. The footage of these men plying their trade was breathtaking—though not in the aesthetic sense. As a massive crane lowered steel I-beams into place, the ironworkers strolled along girders some 40 stories above the street, without any safety lines or net of any kind. Watching them, it seemed to me that this fearlessness came from a life spent doing their work—practicing their craft—over and over, until it became instinct or habit.

I've found the same to be true of my writing—that is, when it's going well. I wonder if other writers share my experience.

Please share your comments.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Grand Central Oyster Bar, 1918

The best shucker came from a landlocked kingdom. Not that it mattered. To Erno Nagy, an oyster was a puzzle to be solved with his hands, a blunt-tipped knife and a second or two of thought. There was a rhythm to the work that carried him through his shift. Cup the oyster in his left hand, ease the knife between the shells with his right, twist, then lay the glistening morsel in its luminous bed on a platter of crushed ice. On his first day, it had taken him ten minutes to open a single oyster; now he could open three times that many in the same time.
            The months of his apprenticeship were spent opening crates marked Orient Point and Cutchogue, then shouldering the buckets of crenellated shells to the line of shuckers who worked behind the counter in wet aprons. The glazed yellow tiles of the vaulted ceiling carried their whispered jokes to the other side of the hall, where Erno would stop to knead the muscles of his back between trips to the basement.
            But, today, Erno was at the head of the line with three other shuckers to his right: a Pole, a Bohemian, and a fellow Hungarian. This position and his callused handshake were a source of pride to be savored, like the weight of a coin kept in his pocket while he walked from the subway to the fifth floor Yorkville walkup where his sweet Lina waited for him with a pot of tripe stew...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sand Trap

Big mistake--playing Glencroft with Mr. Tanaka. Huge mistake. Didn’t make sense from a logic standpoint. I was already shelling out $25,000 a year for my membership at High Meadow and could read most of the greens like comic books. They served a decent prime rib, kept a stash of Cubans in a walk-in humidor; we could have had the newly renovated Fairway Room to ourselves.
     But Tanaka was the one with his finger on the PLAY button; the decision--any decision--was his to make. After 16 months of bowing and gifts, his assistant hinted that Tanaka-san might be ready to discuss our relationship in slightly more formal terms. I took it as a solid maybe.
     For eight months I’d been hanging it out there with him on a seniors housing development planned for what was left of Pease Air Force Base; we were going to condo the hangars, convert the airstrip to shuffleboard courts, make a killing on a lot of people’s Golden Years.
     I spent my days skimming Sun Tzu for ways to breach the walls of innuendo, wearing two watches so I could work the time zones and slip sock-footed into Tanaka’s schedule. My status reports on the project became the highlight of the firm’s weekly business development meetings, anticipated like a favorite sitcom, my excuses quoted on express trains to Larchmont and New Canaan. Some joker even put up a chart in the conference room that measured my progress in grains of rice.
     I was backing out of a sit-down with the Managing Director when my secretary told me Tanaka’s assistant was on the line. Tanaka-san would be in New York for three days; he looked forward to playing golf at the famous Glencroft Country Club on the morning of the 21st. Tanaka-san sent his regards.
     I thanked his number two in Berlitz Japanese and began clearing my calendar for the golf outing. I wasn’t about to torpedo the financing on the Millenium Estates deal.
     A brief word about my career at that point: Lady Luck was out of town, so to speak. Hadn’t left any forwarding address either. Bottom line: my numbers for the year were a little soft. Not that I was rattled. Like I told the MD, Babe Ruth was the home run king and the strike-out king. It was all just a matter of swinging like hell; for the Babe, it was a Louisville Slugger.
     In my case, it was a bag of Calloways...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Law of Nature

Hip boots. The man's boots are muddy, caked to the knees. A clammer.

Bennett sees the bird when the man comes out from the trees. The guy has an osprey. Bennett can tell that just by looking at the body. Smallish. A second-year male. Its wings are splayed open like a broken umbrella.

Bennett hangs up the phone right then, with three numbers still left to dial, hoping like hell it's road kill, something the guy's picked up along 129, down where it runs along the tidal flats. If not, he's got a violation on his hands, and he's in no mood for paperwork. Not at 4:27 on a June afternoon. Not with less than a week until his retirement.

The clammer stands there, not far from the trailer now, kicking at the pine needles, just holding the thing.

Bennett gets up from the card table and raps at the window, waving the guy over. The clammer still doesn't move. The osprey sways in his hand; a breeze riffles the dark wing feathers like a deck of cards.

Bennett thinks twice about bringing the regulation book out with him, then changes his mind. The aluminum door smacks behind him.

"I take it there's a good reason you're in possession of that bird," he says, not bothering to flash his I.D. "That's an osprey, you know. Protected species. Means it's got me and the Feds looking after it."

The clammer touches the bill of his cap and backs up a step, holding the osprey like a birthday gift.

Bennett notices the osprey's talons above the man's fist: a bouquet of thorns.

"You want to tell me where you found it?"

The clammer plays a finger back and forth across the buff-edged feathers on the bird's breast. "S'like fur. Touchin' it like. That's somethin' they don't tell on TV."

Bennett digs in his shirt pocket for his I.D. Some people just had to be set straight, had to have things all laid out for them. Bennett flips open the little I.D. case stamped with the Maine State Seal and says, "Warden, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife."

The clammer fans at the black flies swirling around him. "Know, I appreciate this kind of a bird."

"What kind is that?" Bennett asks. The clammer is talking like a drunk, but there isn't any smell. His face is smooth as stone and edged with wisps of beard; neither young nor old, he's both somehow, vaguely familiar.

The man looks at the limp creature in his hand, looks up again. "Bird like this, he'll fly not flappin' his wings. Way up, lookin' down, see." He breathes with his mouth open.

"Okay, let's start with your name."

The clammer rubs his lips with the back of his hand and says something.

"Gonna have to speak up."

"Said Alvie Popham Junior."

"Address? Where do you live, Alvie?"

"Ev'green House," Alvie says, digging a little crater with his toe.

"Evergreen House. That's the group home up there, right? Back of the hospital?"

Alvie holds the bird to his chest and looks down at the hole he's made. "Group home...yuh."
Bennett recalls him now. He'd seen him riding a woman's bicycle around—walking it sometimes—with green plastic buckets slung over the handlebars.

"That's okay. Hell, no shame in that. Just let me take a look at that bird now."

The osprey leaves a wet patch of blood and feathers on Alvie's shirt; he looks down at it, startled, afraid to touch it.

Bennett sees that the osprey has been shot. The abdomen and part of the right wing are frayed and coming apart like mattress ticking. The bird smells rank, fishy, and it has an odd weight in his hands; the head flops around doll-like when he turns it over to inspect the eyes: dull orange. When he looks up, Alvie is crying silently, a bubble of saliva on his lips.

"Hey. Hey, come on. He's dead, sure...things do that, they die. Law of nature. Now, how 'bout you show me where you found him?"

Alvie presses his hands to his eyes, spluttering, "I like it there...Ev'green House...Jeezchrise, I like it nice there."
"Sure. Hey, I would, too."

Bennett passes the South Bristol line, slowing the green state-owned pickup at the mailbox that says Dodds in drippy letters. He swings the truck onto a dirt fire road, glancing in the rear-view mirror at Alvie, who's hunched stiffly in back with his fingers clenched around the handlebars of his bike. That was where the guy wanted to sit. Bennett stops the truck beside a scrubby meadow, toothed here and there with shale; the land drops off to a tea-colored pond.

Bennett cocks his head out the window. "That it, Alvie? That field there?"

Alvie's cap bobs in the mirror.

It goddamn would be, Bennett thinks.

He drives on through a black belt of spruce trees. Boughs slap and grab at the sides of the truck; the tires splinter clam shells thrown over the ruts. The road opens onto a clearing with a graying cape flanked by loose heaps of split cordwood. A tin-roofed barn sags behind it. Bennett angles the truck next to a Subaru with a Grateful Dead bumper sticker, then kills the engine.
He gets out of the truck and walks around the side. "Just gonna ask you one more time, Alvie: That was it, right? Where you found the bird?" He almost hopes the guy will change his mind, tell him he made it all up.

Alvie looks at the lump in the plastic trash bag by the tailgate. "Told you, found him in a field. There was sheeps."

"But it was that field back there, right?"


"You telling me you're not sure now?"

"Said okay." Alvie begins to sniffle. "Jeezchrise."

Bennett picks up the trash bag. "Look, now. Just sit tight for me. Can you do that?"

Alvie wipes his nose on his sleeve. "A-course."

Bennett hears sheep bleating from somewhere behind the barn as he walks through high timothy grass toward the house. The place needs work; they all do out this way. The clapboards are flaked down to bare wood, and a string of Christmas lights is still tacked around the door frame.

He calls through the open door. "Clell?...Hey, Clell?...Like to talk to you, won't take long..." He cups his hands to his eyes, peering inside. The front room is coated with dust, empty except for a bean bag chair and a plastic rocking horse.

A thin woman in a tank top and blue jeans appears in the hallway; two loose braids snap from side to side as she walks barefoot toward the door, cradling a bowl.

Bennett steps away from the door and tucks his hands through the back of his belt.

"Came looking for Clell."

"Yeah, heard you out back." The woman keeps her head turned to the left. "Wish you luck." She studies the white flecks of crab meat stuck to her fingers, her face still in profile. "He was, you know..." She flaps her hand at the world beyond the door. "Out there."

"Have him call me. Bennett Sawyer."

"I might, you give me a hint what's in the sack."

"Just business is all."

"Black flies seem to like it."

"Thing about them...they're not real particular." Bennett turns to check on the pickup. He can only see the shoulder of Alvie's blue windbreaker. Looking back at the woman, Bennett says, "Like to look in the barn before I go. Just so you know."

"You want, see it all. He says there's goin' on eighty acres."


The woman swings her head around to face him. "Who in hell you think?" A squarish bruise underlines her left eye.

Bennett kicks through a snarl of blackberry bushes and poison ivy on his way to the barn. He carries the trash bag over his shoulder, trying to keep the black flies out of his face. The osprey slides around in the green plastic, its feathers stiff, prickly, feeling like the end of a whiskbroom. Black flies sizzle behind his head.

The barn is roofed with tin and sided with green tar shingles, the whole thing leaning downhill, waiting for a push.

Bennett steps through the big sliding door and stands just inside, coughing a little from the dust.

"Goddamn it, Clell..."

Once his eyes have gotten used to the dimness, he moves around inside, lifting a tarp that covers a half-built dory with respectable plank work. Beyond that are buckets of bolts soaking in motor oil, crab traps, license plates from before the state went to lobster tags, and an apple crate stuffed with papers.

Bennett stands listening for a moment, wondering about Alvie, how he's doing in the back of the truck by himself. The guy seems like the type to bolt for no reason. Bennett listens to a breeze rattling a broken windowpane, then digs around in the crate, flipping through a month-old section of the Portland Press-Herald, sheep feed invoices, torn copies of High Times, a taxidermy supplies catalog—

Something shatters—comes apart—overhead. Bennett peers through swirling dust at the rafters. Several feathers waft down. He hears cooing. Mourning doves. Jesus. He coughs twice, then hears a hollow whump outside, like a car trunk slamming. He comes out of the barn, squinting at the sunlit glare off the truck.

Alvie is standing in the bed, only the top half of him visible above the cab. He wheels his arms around crazily, saying something over and over.

Another man's voice says, "Dance that rock-and-roll, son."

Bennett drops the trash bag in the ferns and circles around through a stand of dead birches on the far side of the truck.

A man wearing gray coveralls opened to the waist is standing with one foot on the rear bumper, beating time on the tailgate. He's rolling something shiny around between the fingers of his other hand, holding up where it catches the light.

Alvie is dancing around his bicycle. "Wanna stop now, please,” he sobs, tears dripping off his chin. "Please wanna stop."

"Too soon yet. Only startin' to get the hang of it." The man laughs, reaching down into his coveralls to scratch himself. "'Member you got your little friend here," he says, fingering the tiny object. "Sumbitch'll stitch a hole through you, come out smilin'."

Alvie flails and spins, moaning softly.

Bennett walks out of the trees, working his I.D. out of his pocket. "Alvie," he says, his voice sounding choked, boyish. "Alvie, you stop it now. Just sit, sit down there."

Alvie goes down on his knees, hugging himself, wailing. "Jeezchrise. Pissed my pants all over."
The man behind the truck turns slowly, ignoring Bennett's opened I.D. "He was throwin' rocks at my house."

"Like he could hit anything. Look at him."

"You're trespassin', Sawyer. The both of you. Property's posted."

"What's in your hand, Clell?"

The man fans out his fingers; the bullet sits in his dirty palm like a pulled tooth. His gums are gray as he smiles. "Feed 'em to my thirty-eight snubbie. Even got a license, you want to see it."
"Did you threaten him?"

"Workin' for the sheriff, too, hunh?"

"I could get him involved. You want it that way?"

"Might. Hell, let me think about it. Get back to you. Maybe I'll ask
slo-mo over there, see what he says."

Alvie is staring at the stains on his clothing: blood on his jacket, urine at his crotch.

Bennett sees the fuzzy shape of the woman through the screen door; she stands there for a moment, and he expects to see her come out, maybe say something, but she simply turns away.

"Clell, I think you shot a bird illegally."

"That a accusation?"

Bennett thrashes around where he left the trash bag in the ferns. Clell says something in a flat tone, then spits.

"Right here, Clell." Bennett has found the bag. He picks it up, working the knot apart; the plastic has gone soft in the heat. The smell inside shocks him, so foul it's almost sweet. He lifts the bird by the dark tip of one wing.

"Sure is a pretty one," Clell says. He hasn't moved from his spot behind the truck. "What do they call a bird like that?"

"It's an osprey—fish hawk—same thing."

Clell puts a finger to his lips. "Not too loud now, don't want to wake it." He laughs hoarsely, scratches himself again.

"How may shots it take you? I figure two to bring him down."

"Tell the truth, I wouldn't mind it. Shootin' a bird that big. Be kinda fun."

"Like paying a fine. Shoot a protected species, that's what you're looking at. Guaranteed."

Clell pinches the bullet between his fingers. "Guarantee you this: I'll shoot anything—bird, you, and retard included—mucks with my lambs."

"Gut this bird, you won't find anything but fish in his belly. You shot him for the hell of it, Clell."

"What's your proof—him?" Clell cocks his arm and whangs the bullet off the roof of the truck cab, close to Alvie's head. "Next one'll bite you in the butt, son."

Alvie starts to whimper; his eyes roll white, shuttered; his body pulses, a shiver racing through it, like a dog drying off. His skull drums on the sheet metal.

Bennett drops the bird and scrabbles into the back of the truck, catching his boot heel on Alvie's bike. "Hey, guy...Alvie, goddamn." He tried to remember what you're supposed to do with something like this, tries to break it down into steps. Clear the airway, that's one. Alvie's head and body are fused, clenched, shaking like a fist. Bennett gets his fingers into Alvie's mouth. He skins a knuckle on Alvie's teeth, trying to fish his tongue out from the back of his throat. He can't think of step two, so he turns to Clell.

"I'm asking—hell, I can't do this myself. You're gonna have to call, Clell. Nine-one-one."

"Well, shit. You need me. Retard gonna tattle on me when he pulls out of it? Maybe split the fine with you?"

"Clell, get on the goddamn phone."

"Don't know as it's workin' proper." Clell works the zipper up and down on his coveralls.

"Could be what you call out of order."

The woman pushes the screen door open, her bare feet stepping onto the granite stoop, a skein of hair wagging as she walks down through the weeds.

Clell swings his weight around to face her. "You hear somebody call your name? I want you standin' around here, you'll be the first to know. That make any kinda sense?"

Alvie's head whips back and forth, his teeth sawing the back of Bennett's hand. His boots kick twice at the side of the truck.

The woman burrows her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "That fella all right?"

"Yeah," Clell says, "he's having a real wing-ding. You get inside now, I'll tell you all about it. Scout's freakin' honor."

She stands there, one big toe working into the dirt.

Alvie coughs, then spits up. His face looks oddly shaded. Bennett grips Alvie's muddy wrist for a pulse, but he can't feel much of anything. He knows there's another place to check, but he can't focus his mind long enough to remember it. "Jesus, Clell, get on the telephone. You hear me?"
"I'll call," says the woman.

Clell wheels on her. "Touch that phone, Lindy, we'll be havin' a conversation later."

"Tell you what," she says, starting up the slope toward the house, "I'm all talked out."

"Bitch kitty on ice," Clell says, reaching into his coveralls. His hand comes out with a blued-steel .38 Ruger revolver.

"Hey now, Clell..." says Bennett.

"Yeah?" Clell's eyes look broken in his face.

"The bird—fuck it—who's gonna know?" Bennett wipes at a trickle of sweat stinging one eye. Black flies whine just behind his ears.

Clell laughs, a sound like gravel shaken in a can. "You sayin' that for her or for brain child?"

"I just said it. Now make the call."

"You heard the lady. She's makin' it."

"You gonna let her?"

Clell pops the cylinder on the Ruger, then gives it a spin. "Goddamn, Sawyer, you got me stumped." He sights in on the woman's narrow back, then throws his arm around, firing the Ruger at the dead bird in the weeds.

"Lot more fun the first time," he says.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Place on the Wall: In Memory of Hector Moggia

Tunk is sitting on the ragged stump of a pine tree split by lightning when he hears Griff and his buddies drive down the narrow fire road in two cars; they jounce over chuckholes, slap spruce limbs.

Griff and a man dressed in tree-bark camouflage get out of a blue Jeepish thing. Five other men tumble out of a low-slung foreign car like circus clowns.

Tunk looks at their feet, then glances down at his own. Everyone's wearing L.L. Bean boots. Leather tops, rubber bottoms. That's what they have in common.

Tunk is from just outside Millinocket, a native. He's never been further south than Augusta, when his fifth grade class rode in a stinking bus to see the gold dome of the state house.

Griff and the others are from away. Down from Connecticut. Down for their deer. The camp belongs to Griff. Albert Griffin Tillbody V, that is. Before that it belonged to Albert Griffin Tillbody IV, Griff's daddy. Tunk has worked for them both. On paper he's the caretaker. But Griff calls him the guide when he has sports around.

Every year at this time, Griff gives Tunk a call, telling him to get the place ready. To Tunk it's as much a sign of deer season as hoof-scuffed earth and steaming clusters of droppings. A day or two later, he'll drive down the fire road to Sprucewold. That's what Griff's daddy named the place back in '49. Tunk made the sign himself, carving it out of a slab of birch.

It takes Tunk the better part of a day to get the camp cleaned up, but he enjoys the ritual of the work: loading the firebox, sweeping what he calls slut's wool from the corners, airing out the blankets, knocking papery hornet nests off the porch.

Now Griff is up again for another season, another trophy. He ambles over to the shattered stump to shake Tunk's hand. "If there's a buck in these woods, Tunk'll find him," he says, by way of introduction. "You wait, he'll be calling them in like dogs."

The others are standing around in khaki clothing, rubbing sore backs, passing around an engraved silver flask. One of them is fussing about a scratch on the foreign car. Tunk has no idea what they do for a living. From what he has gathered over the years, Griff moves money around by telephone, collects expensive wives and guns, maintains a suntan the color of a penny.

Tunk follows Griff and his friends up to the porch, then totes their gear inside, making sure they all have their big Coleman coolers and monogrammed gunbags.

The man with the flask twitches a twenty dollar bill near Tunk's hand. "Appreciate it," he says. "I like to see a working man rewarded for his efforts."

"You can put your money away."

"I forgot. You guys are funny about stuff like that. The Yankee thing, right?"

"I work for Griff. That's the arrangement."

"I'll keep it in mind."

After cocktails and a few rounds of cheating poker, Tunk shows them all how to fire up the wood stove without torching the place, points out the way to the backhouse, warns them about the coyotes.

The man with the flask tips it toward Tunk and says "Like a hit off my canteen, Scoutmaster?"

"Shut up, Baskerville," someone says. "You're juiced."

Griff isn’t following the conversation; his eyes are focused on an empty place on the wall opposite the fieldstone fireplace that runs up to the ceiling like a city street. He rubs his hand across a patch of yellow pine between a framed photograph of his granddaddy resting his boot on the woolly head of a dead bison and a faded Dartmouth pennant with Class of ‘03 stitched in rotting thread.

“Right there,” Griff says. “That’s where he’s going.”

“Who?” says a man with a hunting knife strapped to his leg.

Griff traces a wide circle across the wall with his trigger finger. “Tell him, Tunk,” he says, measuring the blank space with the flat of his hand.

“Not that old fella we scared up last time out?”

Griff nods, speaks to the wall. “Silver sides, oak tree rack, backside like a linebacker.”

“Some bucks just ain’t meant to be taken, Griff.”

“You can take anything you damn well please, if you’ve got the right hardware,” says Baskerville. “Get yourself some heavy metal—say a thirty ought-six—and you can knock down a bull elephant like he was a beer can.”

“No elephants up here,” Tunk says. “‘Less you count animal crackers.”

When Griff rousts his friends out at four o’clock in the morning, Tunk is waiting in the mist that’s strung through the trees like yarn. He sits there, scratching the stubble along his jaw with a broken piece of antler, watching while the sports chew on bark-like strips of beef jerky, pucker up to scalding cups of coffee, assess the redness of each other’s eyes with flashlights. They’re dressed in a riot of camouflage, all zippers and bullet loops, carrying deer rifles whose custom-fitted stocks are etched with muscular stags and towering pines.

Baskerville tops off his flask with Johnny Walker Red.

Griff lopes toward Tunk, his big gun creaking from its leather sling. He’s painted his face in jagged streaks of gray and black, and a green rag is knotted across his forehead. His eyes are stones in a muddy pond.

“How lucky are you feeling this morning, Tunk?” he says.

“No more’n usual. No less neither.”

“I can live with that.”

Griff whistles to the others. “Okay,” he says. “Here’s how it goes. Rule number one: call your shot before you take it. And rule number two: no second shots.”

“Call me crazy,” Baskerville says, “But I didn’t drive seven hours to be a Camp Fire Girl.” The flask bulges in a pocket of his camouflage vest like a hand grenade.

“Nobody’s asking you to like it,” Tunk says, moving toward the group. “Some things I don’t cozy to myself. Like chasing down a gut-shot buck ‘cause some boy got sloppy.”

“And who might that be?”

Tunk tucks the broken antler into his belt, tips his head at the trees that ring the clearing like an iron fence and says, “Best pay attention out there, son.”

Tunk sits on a scrap of moss, rubbing his thumb over the worn tip antler fragment. The black-and-blue checked cap on his head is cocked into a breeze that pushes steadily up the ridge, flopping the curled leaves back like hounds’ ears.

He listens for Griff and the others. Bringing them out here makes him feel sad, cheap, as though he’s dragged a fancy woman home for Sunday supper.

Upwind of him stones tumble and click together. A twig snaps. Griff’s painted face looms up from a knoll. His skin is beaded with sweat and the rag across his forehead is a damp, black-green. Baskerville is right behind him, balling up the wrapper from a Clark Bar in his fist; his lips are sticky at the corners.

Griff breathes through his mouth, the wet cloth of his shirt filling and emptying like a bellows. “We close to anything?” he wheezes.

“Still got a ways,” Tunk says.

Baskerville roots around in a fanny pack for a bottle of buck lure, then splashes it on his neck and arms.

“Pickle yourself all day in that stuff, won’t do a lick of good,” Tunk says.

Baskerville sniffs at the buck scent on his hand, wrinkling his nose. “You don’t think too much of a guy like me, do you?”

“Guy like you don’t concern me one way or the other.”

“That’s what I mean. I’m just some Greenwich wiseass you have to try to ignore. The question is—why the hell do you put up with it?”

“Mister, maybe you ought to keep your mind on your hunting,” Tunk says. He rises slowly to his feet, brushing off the seat of his pants.

When the others trickle in, blistered and sore, Tunk lets them rest for five minutes, advising them to leave their salt tablets for the porcupines and to drink no more than a swallow or two of water.

Then he starts off without a word, leading them along a trail that offers no more than a hint of passage through endless clots of puckerbrush and moose maple. The trail links several clearings at which Tunk kneels to interpret clustered droppings and matted leaves, evidence of slumbering deer.

He pushes himself hard in spite of a hip that feels like a cracked teacup brimming with hot coals. Most men his age have given up backwoods hunting, content to shoot crows from the porch and play cribbage for match sticks. There’s no good reason for him to be out here, slogging through beaver bogs, picking his way over ridges toothed with granite, while his hip hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.

It would be easy to give it up. When Griff calls next year, he’ll just tell him he’s flat out of luck, tell him to hire out with some candy-ass who’ll let him plug corn-fed deer while he’s driving around in a Jeep with a Bud between his knees.

But Tunk knows he won’t do any such thing, It would mean taking a job paying minimum wage somewhere: pick-poling logs off a conveyor belt at the pulp mill or operating a deep fryer at a McDonald’s or—worse yet—selling tickets at the petting zoo out on Route 129. No, he’ll stay on.

It’s just after daybreak when he spots what he’s been looking for: three ash trees whose bark is worn away in fuzzy patches roughly four feet up their trunks. A buck rub. He circles the trees quietly, noting clusters of warm scat and overturned mats of leaves, acorn husks.

Hell if he hasn't found the sports some deer. The fact that he’s done it—can still do it—makes him want to whoop and holler like a logger on payday. Instead, he removes a stale Necco Wafer from the torn roll in his pocket and lets it melt on his tongue while he waits to show the deer sign to the others.

Griff scuffs up with Martini and Baskerville. “The rest of them crapped out,” he says.

Baskerville carefully spits on an ant between his boots. “Shitbirds.”

“They know the way?” Tunk asks.

“They’ll find it eventually,” Griff says. “Hell, they’ve got all day.” He blots his face with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of greasepaint across his knuckles.

“Weak tits,” says Baskerville, spitting again.

Martini laughs. The knife gleams in his palm as he draws the blade along the thumbnail of his other hand, raising a tiny snowflake. He blows it away, satisfied.

Tunk points out the frayed tree bark, the churned soil.

Griff kneels beside the scuffed leaves, inspecting an acorn.

“How many are we talking about, Tunk? One? Two?”

“Could be one old boy with plenty of spunk. Maybe a couple of youngsters testing their spikes. No telling exactly.”

Tunk watches Baskerville draw the flask from his pocket, vaguely offer it around, lift it to his lips, then replace the cap—all with one hand. The Lord gives us all a gift, he thinks.

Tunk keeps the group close together now, leading them in a loose arc toward the place where they will wait, concealed. It’s a spot he’s known since boyhood: an abandoned brickworks. Stubborn maples have pushed through the crumbling kiln, their roots lacing through the stone foundation. Shattered bricks velveted with moss lie heaped about on either side of a forgotten roadway grooved with the scars of vanished wagons. A stream flows along the downhill edge of the road, chuckling faintly beneath doilies of hoarfrost.

Tunk hunkers down beside a twisted maple, favoring his hip as he settles among the roots. Griff crouches next to him, shucks off his boots and rolls his socks down to his toes, probes the blisters on his heels.

A fog bleeds up from the ground while the men whisper to one another. They watch it spread quickly, consuming stones and trees in a cool, pale fire.

"Isn't this just too picturesque," Baskerville says, heaving a brick shard at the crawling whiteness. "Maine fucking fog. No wonder the damn season's so short up here."

Tunk wrinkles his nose, takes in a good snort of damp air. It smells rusty, decayed. He begins to rub the scrap of antler against the scars and fissures of the maple behind him. The sound knocks and grates as he works the antler—both drumstick and violin bow—building the frenzied rhythm of a buck in rut. He pauses, glancing at the others as they slurp smoked oysters from a can. They don't deserve to be here; he is no better for bringing them.

Martini strops the blade of his knife on his pants leg and holds up a small carved figure: a man, bent and bearded.

"Let me guess," says Baskerville. "It's one of the Seven Dwarves—Sleepy or Doc."

Martini shakes his head. "Saint Francis of Assisi."

"You know what they say about guineas and statues?"

Tunk lurches to his feet, using the maple tree for support.

"What is it?" says Griff.

Tunk tilts his good ear toward the stream. Something is out there. Sizable, too, judging by its footfalls.

"Looks like Daniel Boone's got incoming on the radar," Baskerville says.

Griff stands in unlaced boots, a slovenly Boy Scout. He fingers the custom checkering on the grips of his Remington.

"Talk to me, Tunk," he says.

Tunk waves him off. He is trying to fill in the shifting blanks around him, sketching a map of sounds in his head. There's something at the stream, a tongue lapping among the wet stones, a sound within a sound. Then a rustling.

He sees antlers spiking through the gauzy mist to his right—three rifle barrels. Damn, dumb sports: so quick to pull a trigger, so slow to think. He shoos them back with angry flaps of his hand.

Only Baskerville stands his ground. "I don't hear shit," he says; his voice sounds lost, puny in the fog.

The others perch, angled and itchy, straining to hear a grunt or snuffle—something to lay a sight on.

There's a splash and another sound—low, almost chesty. This time they all hear it.

Griff steps up next to Tunk and whispers, "How big, Tunk?"

"Best wait and see. They're skittish, won't move far in a fog."

"Wait, hell," says Baskerville. "If you won't take the shot, I will."

Griff looks to Tunk, shrugs. "I'd kind of like to hang something on that wall."

"Your shot'll come."

Something strikes the water—once, twice—the sounds moving away upstream.

"I'm waiting, Griff." Baskerville follows the splashes with his rifle barrel, squinting through the scope.

Griff fits the Remington's walnut stock to his shoulder and gives Tunk a backward glance without saying anything. He takes a sip of breath, swinging into a firing position, loose and easy.

A breeze from the northeast scours the maples, abrading patches of fog, which fill themselves in. Tunk glimpses a limb flagged with crimson leaves, a clot of tannin-stained foam in a stream eddy, tangled ferns.

He watches the muzzle of Griff's rifle; it bobs slightly, then rears back with the shot. The gun's report cracks through the trees like an electric current.

"Jesus Ever-loving Christ," Griff shouts. He loops the rifle sling over his shoulder. He's pumped up and smiling, the boy who scored the touchdown. "I tagged something, no question."

"Didn't look like much to shoot at," Tunk says. "Where'd you put it? You thump his chest?"

"I took the shot, didn't I?"

"If the son of a bitch is over twelve points, you're buying dinner at 21," Baskerville says.

"That includes the Cuban stogies," Martini adds. The carved feet of St. Francis jut from his coat pocket.

Tunk watches the sports trot across the sunken roadbed toward the stream, stumbling on brick chunks scattered in the mist. A gunshot or two and they all become Superman. He listens to their whoops and curses, their voices shrill and boyish as they give chase. He waits for them to get well ahead of him, then shambles down the grade.

The stream runs brown and cloudy where Griff and the others have crossed: the far bank is tattooed with their toes, their heels. L.L. Bean boots. Tunk crouches to look for deer prints and finds several. They're old, a day or two at least. Then he sees a ribbon of blood across a patch of gravel; it's already sticky, going brown. Blood and bootprints lead through curled, fetal ferns and, beyond that, beaver-gnawed alders. He limps after the sports, sees where they've stopped to light cigars, then, further along, where one of them has fallen ass-over-teakettle on a patch of moss the size of a doormat. Their tracks read like a comic book.

Tunk finds himself stopping often. It’s his hip. He figured his eyes would go first. Or his teeth. His good ear picks up scraps of shouting, not enough to piece together or understand.

So he pushes on, following the tread pattern patented by Mr. Leon Leonwood Bean. It's amazing to Tunk how a man could make a fortune off rubber boots. Now here he is—stomping around in their silly prints. He could have made a pile of money himself. Ten, twelve years back, his nephew had asked him to go in on a toothpick factory. All they needed were birch trees, junk stuff. There wasn't a joint from Moody's to Miami Beach that didn't have a little bowl of toothpicks set out by the cash register next to the mints. But something in him just wouldn't give up the sight of a buck's jeweled eyes or maple leaves winking in the breeze like dimes. It's the only kind of money he's ever really had.

He hears the hollow clap of a gunshot just over a granite spine downwind of him. Two more claps follow.

He hustles along as best he can, his hip socket burning like a welder's bead. He thinks back to the racks of bucks he's helped hunt, considers their differences. They were better than snowflakes, their twists and warps telling stories of bitter winters, battles over does, dry seasons; the same stories unfolded on his tongue whenever he ate a mouthful of fresh venison. He thinks ahead to the little chores and tricks he'll do when it comes time to dress out Griff's kill. Later on, he'll salt down the hide. The head he'll freeze until he can take down to Rip Thwackett's in East Millinocket. Rip can make a stone look alive.

Tunk feels the press of gravity nudging him downhill. The ground crumbles under him, falling away like burnt paper. He gropes for the edge of something, claws up pine needles and loam, plows furrows with his boots. His slide ends in a snarl of a blackberry thicket. He picks thorns from his wool pants and blots the scratches along his wrist; otherwise he's unhurt, though he feels green, foolish.

"Walk it off," says voice from somewhere below him. It's the Italian—Marty something with the knife. "Could've busted something."

"Well, I didn't," Tunk says. He slaps the dirt from his pants. "Where's Griff's buck at?"

Martini shucks off his cap to smooth his hair. "How long you say you've hunted around here?"

"Forty-six, forty-seven years. Long enough t'have seen some things."

For a moment Martini's eyes try to read something in Tunk's prickly face, then he turns and clomps off downhill. Tunk follows him through pockets of mist, feeling cranky about having to trot along after some country club hunter.

The land begins to tilt upward, cresting at a grove of tattered birches before dropping to bend around in a tight hollow; mist swirls above it like steam from a soup bowl.

Tunk looks past the shoulder patch on Martini's shooting jacket and sees Griff and Baskerville on the far side of the bowl. They're hunched over, busy with something on the ground, two heads bobbing on the surface of the fog.

"Griff didn't start the dressin' out, did he?" Tunk asks. "He'll just botch it up. Don't know the first damn thing about it." He pokes Martini's shoulder. "How big d'you say it was?"

Martini doesn't answer him.

Tunk wades across the bowl of fog, his boots moving unseen, disconnected from the rest of him. He smells cigar smoke as Griff and Baskerville pass something between them. It's a good sign, celebrating.

Griff sees him and stands up, wiping his hands on his pants; a cigar is pegged to the corner of his mouth. Baskerville sits there, puffing deliberately, watching the bluish smoke climb through the trees.

Tunk drifts toward them, wishing Griff's daddy were there. The Old Man would have pounded him on the back and said, Like a fox with a road map, Tunk—hell if you didn't find them again. That man could put starch in you.

"Done good," Tunk beams. "Ol' Man'd be proud."

Griff laughs once, the sound stalling like a cold diesel engine. He jingles something in his pocket.

Tunk rolls back a sleeve on his jacket. "Meat'll spoil, we don't gut him out soon."

"Go ahead," Baskerville says. "Lord Baden-Powell hauled us all the way out here. At least show him your merit badge."

Tunk scratches his head, fusses with the cap in his hands. When he looks up, there's a grin flopping at the corner of his mouth. "You, boys knock off your funnin' now."

"Shut up, Tunk," Griff snaps. "Be quiet, dammit."

Tunk stiffens. "Your old man never spoke to me like that. And you don't add up to half of him."

"Funny," Griff says, "He used to tell me pretty much the same thing." He pulls a scuffed leather band from his pocket; a pair of metal tags dangles from it, chiming dully.

Tunk snatches the tags and brings them close to his eyes. They're scratched and worn. He makes out a word. A name. Champ. He flings the tags at Griff's streaked face, etching the grease paint with a jot of blood.

"At least he was a pure-bred," Baskerville says. When he looks up from the knot of his cigar the barrel of Griff's gun is at his head, its muzzle like a cave. Tunk steadies it with both hands.

"Listen, friend," Martini says, "the joke or whatever is over."

"Put the gun down, Tunk," Griff says.

Baskerville breathes shallowly through his mouth.

"Is he dropping it or what?" Martini says.

"Come on, Tunk. No harm done."

Tunk presses his cheek to the walnut stock, sighting in on the map of veins at Baskerville's temple.

"All the seasons I been out here, I never shot nothin'," he says.

He squints and jogs the barrel a couple of inches. Squeezes the trigger. A puff of powder kicks up from a rock. He squeezes again. Bark flies off a pine tree. He squints at the ragged patch of sky. Squeezes. Feels the recoil, the sting at his shoulder.

When he lowers the rifle, Griff and the others are fanned out, slinking away. The gun is suddenly heavy, a damp log in his arms.

Baskerville shakes his head, coughs, vomits on his boots.

"You coming, Tunk?" Griff asks.

Tunk leans on the rifle, looks away.


"Screw him then," croaks Baskerville.

Tunk sits listening to the sounds of Griff and the sports bleed away, straining his good ear as his eyes roam over matted leaves, strewn acorn husks, the pale carved figure of a man in the dirt.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Illegal and Indefatigable

1989 Ford Econoline… Monday, 5:34 a.m.… 52 m.p.h….

This day I will not sweat behind the little push-mower or have my shins slapped by the weed whacker. The insults of Luis Aguilar, who struts like a luchador while his taunts are drowned out by the whine of a two-cycle engine—these I will no longer endure.

I am a man who has kept the conveyor belt running at the Glomex cement plant in Monterrey in the State of Nuevo Léon. Not once did the river of gypsum cease to flow on my shift. Never was I sick or tardy in my seven years of employment. I do not hold El JéfeSeñor Cabrales—accountable for the plant closing or the loss of my position. As he explained in the letter sent to all former employees of Glomex S.A., his decision was most difficult and due to changing demand for our world-class products. I am proud to say that, except for the young man who lost a hand that night in my third year of employment, my team had a most excellent safety record.

As I merge with the trucks driving north through Stamford on Interstate 95, I can imagine my fellow workers beneath the overpass—Berto, Miguel, TJ and his cousin Estéban. Also Nacio. This very moment they will be clustered around the third column on the southwest side, sipping their paper cups of coffee and wondering why I am not waiting there with them for the jackal Aquilar in his Dodge Ram pickup.

I wish them well—most of them anyway. But I am a man of much ambition and cannot delay my success by waiting for those with the shuffling dreams of a péon.

Acres of green lawn and trimmed shrubbery may serve as a showcase for the house of a rich banker, but it is no place for a man of industria—of imaginación.