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Blowing Smoke Rings (an excerpt from My Last Summer, a novel)
By Dan Walker
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

 Chapter One


The last day I saw my father alive he was in a wooden dory coming through the swells to the beach.  Sometimes the loaded dory dropped out of sight as it pushed through the waves, so my father appeared to walk across the water toward us.  Over the nets stacked in the bow, I could see his hat pushed back to show his smile.  There would be few fish in the boat, maybe a dozen late run silvers, the last lean pickings of a used up season.  The rest of the load was nets, buoys, and anchors coming in for the last time this year. 

Joe and I waited on the beach, thinking it was just the end of a fishing season.  We had no way of knowing that is was end of everything we knew.  Joe sat in the jeep with his arms hung on the wheel, finishing his Lucky Strike, lust like he was finishing his time on the beach his time at home.  He was eighteen and restless to move on.

“I wish he'd let me go out,” I lied, “For the last run anyway.”  I had to lie for my dread of the water had no place on the beach in our life on the sea.  My brother was at ease on the waves but didn’t want to be a fisherman.  I loved everything about fishing except the water, cold, fluid vicious water.

“You'll get your chance next year, Humpy.  Then you'll be sorry.  You'll have your fill real fast.” 

“Nah, it'll probably be just you and Dad again with me on the beach picking the low tide sets.  Even on the nice days Mom will say no.” She had been raised on the beach sites and watched two brothers drown when a dory flipped in the surf trapping them beneath it.

“Don't count on it.”

“What do ya mean?”

“What the hell do you think I mean?” Joe leaned out of the jeep at me, his cigarette hanging tough guy like from the corner of his lip. “I'm hittin' the road.”

“Some road,” I thought,”All the way to Anchorage.”

“Damn straight. I’m goin’ you’ll see.”

The sun and tide were falling and an evening breeze had kicked up some chop around the one red keg buoy still anchored between the boat and the beach.  The boat stopped and hovered while Dad lifted the buoy clear of the water and hauled the line in hand over hand.  his shoulders and stance were broad as he braced against the roll of the swells and the rocking boat.  He hefted the sandbag into the dory with a spray of water and gray bottom mud then hummed toward us with a wave of his hand.  I winced to see him lifting that way.

“Keep your mouth shut, ya hear,” Joe said.  He fired up the jeep and jerked it into gear. “This is between me and Him.” 

Joe always called Dad, ”Him”.  As if he wasn't really our father, pushing him away as part of his escape.

I try to imagine how Joe remembers him now, but I can't.  I just see him the way I remember him, coming in through the chop in his rain pants and the wool sweater with the sleeves cut off at the elbows.  He was too far away for the weakness to show in his face.  One hand gripped the tiller while the other, brown and cracked like old cedar, waved to us in the sunset.  Joe was like him but taller and leaner, the next best thing.

We unloaded the nets when Dad came in.  Then we used the Jeep to drag the boat up high on the beach beside the cabin.  Joe and I were trying to do most of the lifting like Mom had told us.  Last October, Dad heart had his first heart attack, and he’d spent last winter recovering.  Mom and the doctor told him not to fish, but he wasn’t that kind.

I emptied out the odds and ends of tools and bailing buckets that spent the summer in the boat.  Joe and Dad unbolted the outboard motor and toted it and the gas cans into the plywood shed that squatted back in the alders along the bluff.  The three of us flipped the boat over on its gunwales so it rested on a pair of driftwood logs.  Then Dad padlocked the shed and it was done. The last eight fish of the summer lay in the back of the jeep for canning, and when Dad passed me and tousled my young head, I savored the last sweet smell of man sweat, salt, and salmon.  The season was over. 

Dad fired up the jeep and honked the horn. “I'll take the bluff,” I said. The jeep had to take the road up the creek bed through the bluff to the highway, but on foot a person could walk a hundred yards up the beach and climb a steep trail to our backyard.  From where I stood on the beach the galvanized metal roof of our house was just visible through a wedge of spruce trees.

“Suit yourself, Humpy!”  Dad yelled dad above the roar of the motor.  Joe nodded his head approvingly.  Maybe he was going to give Dad the word on the way home and didn't want an audience.  I hoped not.  It would be good if we had the last night of the season without a fight, and it would be a fight.  Or so I thought. 

Our one-story log house squatted in the fireweed and wild geraniums on the bluff overlooking the inlet.  From the back porch, we could look down on the fishermen in their open dories, the cork lines of their nets like strings of beads across the tide.  Farther out, the drift boats fished with floating nets, and beyond them the giant container ships steamed up and down the Inlet to and from Anchorage and Seattle.  On the horizon stood two giant volcanoes with their noses pushed up in the clouds, spouting occasional puffs of steam.  In the long light of a clear summer evening, the bluff seemed on the rim of the world and the boats and mountains fell way before me.

In the summer, we practically lived on the beach where the salmon ran in great schools along the shore, and we stretched out nets from the beach to catch them.  Each day I made a dozen trips up and down the bluff trail fetching tools, hauling food and messages.  The base of the trail was a scramble up loss sand and coal chunks fallen from the bluff above.  Where the trail ran over sandstone, there were steps chopped in it and a rope for safety; I'd quit using the rope last summer after weeks of Joe's teasing.  From there, I could scramble on all fours up a washout and over the lip to our backyard. 

  To the right was the garden where Mom spent most of her summer with her back to the water.  To the left was the house guarded by giant spruces and surrounded with beds of pansies, poppies, iris, and forget-me-nots.

 I paused and hung on the rope, gazing down the Inlet.  The Fergusons were still out hauling buoys and the Leman's 4X4 was dragging a dory out of the breakers toward the bluff.  In a week, the beaches would be empty, and the only tracks on the beach would be those of the Jeeps collecting coal for the winter. 

I was watching this passing of summer when Dad had his heart attack.  He and Joe had made it to the gravel shoulder of the highway before he stopped the jeep, grabbed his chest and collapsed.  I guess that's why I remember it all so well.  I remember how he looked coming in through swells with his hat tipped back and his brown hand waving.  Waving to me, waving good-by.

By the time I clambered up to the house, the station wagon was tearing out of the driveway with Joe at wheel, leaving my sister Mary standing on the porch screaming after it, ”Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”  Suddenly, I couldn’t breath.  


Dad’s first heart attack had come ten months before.  He hadn’t come home from the hospital until Halloween, but when he did we thought our troubles were over.  We could face winter with him among us.  We didn't notice that the power and the laughter were gone from his eyes. 

As the evenings grew longer and the sun wasn’t much brighter than the moon, my father lost his warmth.  He was weak and pale and angry, as if the winter had entered his soul and chilled his spirit. 

Our family was soon trapped in the midst of night and the cold.  The happy card games were gone; talk and laughter were muted.  That entire winter, it seemed, we sat at my father's side and waited for him to heal.

Then, only weeks before summer when the days grew warm and light, we saw signs of hope.  Dad seemed to face down the demons in his body and his familiar strength returned.  His, and therefore our, infallibility remained untarnished.  We would fish on and we did fish that summer.

One night I spent alone at the beach cabin with Dad.  We’d finished dinner and I was washing our plates in the dishpan on our makeshift countertop.  Dad sat at the table rolling a cigarette from his Prince Albert can while his coffee cooled. “Come on, Humpy,” he said,”wipe up those last plates, and I'll teach you to play cribbage.”

Cribbage was the sport of men, a game for hunting camp and barrooms, a game that had a crazy way of counting. A game that smelled of hand rolled cigarettes and cream and sugar coffee. 15-2, 15-4, a pair is six.  I ran to get the board.

The board was made of horn and a double row of tiny holes ran up and down it's spine.  The pegs for the holes lay in a secret compartment in the back, which I hadn't opened for three years.  Three years I had gone without touching it.  Now I was forgiven and would learn to play.  I would play cribbage.

“I'll be the brown ones,” I volunteered, and my hands trembled when I opened the secret compartment and took out six pins, three of white ivory and two brown ivory, from the tusks of a mastodon, and one of wood. I placed the two playing pegs in their starting holes; the third would be a counter of games won.  For that one I would use the wooden peg I had whittled three years before.

“Imagine,” said Dad, “Holding a chunk of tooth from an animal that's been dead for five thousand years. Wouldn't you like to hunt those?  Oh, what a sight.”  He’d get a faraway look on his face sometimes when he could imagine being somewhere else.   

He dealt six cards to each of us and guided me as we played two hands for practice.  Then we played for real, two of us in the amber light of a kerosene lamp.

Since I was little, I had watched the homesteaders sit around the table playing cribbage, their hard leather hands holding cigarettes and cards as they talked about the weather and the road conditions.  When one complained of poor hunting or fishing luck, another would catch him with a good hand, and talk would turn again to the cards and tiny pegs on the board. 

Cribbage was a game for fishing or the time between tides when people were too tired to sleep. But that night in the halo of a Coleman Lantern, I was playing cribbage with the safe and simple satisfaction that lit the future in false light.

I sipped from my father's cup and tasted his coffee while he blew a smoke ring that rose past us.  It spread wide in its perfection, bending and contorting until the ring was broken and only a wisp remained.  Then it too was gone away from me.

“Blow another.”

He did.  I watched it come toward my face growing larger and larger but still perfect.  Then, just before it reached me, it stretched and rolled at the corners like a wicked smile and broke around the lamp.

My father sagged in the chair as tiredness came, a new weakness that he had hidden from us. “Smoke rings.  They're like our lives,” he said. ”We make them tight and perfect then they roll and grow and you can't stop them.  They get thin and twisted until they aren't rings anymore. . . and then they're gone.”  He rose and walked to the cupboard where he poured a glass of whiskey. 

            I didn’t understand what he meant until that last day of salmon season when death passed among us.  Two weeks later, we buried him behind the church overlooking the Inlet.


Chapter Two

Mom broke the news one Sunday in March when we were sitting at the kitchen table eating apple Betty for desert.  Joe was there, Mary, Mom, and me.  Only Dad was missing, and we hadn’t gotten used to that yet.

“We have to move to Anchorage,” said Mom.  Her voice was soft but strong, and I can’t think of a much harder thing she ever had to say. “You kids can stay with the Browns until school is over.  But I’m going to have to go get a job.  You know there is nothing here, no work for a woman in the winter.”  The strength was gone suddenly from her voice.  She looked around the cabin with tears filling her eyes and leaking down her cheeks. “You’ll never know how hard this is for me.  To lose him like this and then this too.  Your father loved it here you know.” 

I could only think of how it felt to hug her, how she was soft on the outside and hard underneath.  Dad’s hugs had been just hard, no softness.  I thought she could use a hug just then, but one from me wouldn’t help much. 

Joe leaned back on his chair and looked at the ceiling. “It make sense to me,” he said.  Of course, it was fine with him.  He had stayed to long already. “It’ll be better, you’ll see.”

I saw Mom’s pain as she swept the hair back from her face and held the coffee cup to her lips so that the steam from it rose into her noses and eyes.  She did that when she was choosing careful words. “We all don’t feel that way Joe.  We all don’t want to leave.”   

“He’ll be here forever,” I heard myself say. ”And we’ll be back.”

I don’t know why I said it that way, like a twelve year old could make decisions about such things, about anything, but Dad was buried on the bluff above the Inlet.  The log house he built and the land he cleared, the smoke house and all of it would be here.  It wasn’t going away.  Mary erupted instead of speaking, as she always seemed to do. “He doesn’t care about anyone but himself, Mom.  You know that.  No one care what I want.  No one asks me!”

“Daddy wouldn't want us to leave,” said Mary.  She turned a hard stare at the three of us at the table. “He built this place for us, and this where we should stay.”

I thought Mom was going to cry again. “I want to stay too, but your father would expect us to do what we had to do to get by.  He didn't like going doodle-bugging all winter to support this family either, but he did it.  And we are going to do what we have to.”

 Joe was suddenly restless, and he rose to tend the fire.  He opened the stove, exposing the reds coals within, and, jabbing the coals with a poker, created a shower of sparks with their friendly crackle.  Then he slammed the stove door with a bang, pulled on dad's wool coat and passed through the snow porch to the cold and silence of the night. 

It was after bedtime I heard Joe’s engineer boots stomping up the steps.  It didn’t take long for him and Mom to get into it again.  I could hear them through the wall and imagined Joe standing there all loose and tall with Mom looking up at him with her hands on her broad hips.  Mom was small and round, so different from Joe with his angles and length that when they fought it was like they were from two different worlds instead of the same family.

“You don't want to stay here, do you, Joe?” she said, “I know that.  You don't want to be a salmon fisherman.  You want the city and all that . . . what ever it is.”

“I'm sorry, Mom.  I wish I did want to stay.  But this is all I've ever done...”

Then I say, go! This isn't good enough for you anyway.  Just a little hick town like this. . . not big enough for Joseph Barger.”

“Oh, Mom!”

“Okay, tell me I'm wrong.  Tell me it's something you want . . .  not something you want to leave.”

Joe didn't answer.

Lying in the dark with voices coming through the walls, I silently begged for him to be different.  If Joe could stay and fish, we could keep the beach sites and stay in Ninilchik.  Mom could sew and garden and help on the beach, Mary and me in the skiff with Joe, and we could make it.  Outside the wind stirred the spruce trees, and I heard coyotes on the muskeg laughing at my wasted hopes.

“If you ask me to stay, I will.”  Joe's voice had become a whine without his knowing it.  Mom would never ask him.

“I'll still need your help.  Even if I move to Anchorage.”

“Don't worry.  I'll get a job and give you what I can.”

Yeah right Joe.  I doubted we'd see him more than once a week and then just for dinner and mom to do his laundry.

It was done.  The talk at the kitchen table was just talk.  As sure as the sunrise we were moving to Anchorage.  The wind in the trees was stronger now, and I could hear the snow brushing against the windows, and I wondered if it would be winter forever.

It was darkest of winters, this winter after Dad died.  The nights were endless and the sun of the day had no warmth.  Only the wind seemed to move, moaning as it swept across the muskegs searching for spring.               

During the long evenings, I hid from the cold of death and winter in the tales of the mountain men, and I studied their life in our battered Compton's Encyclopedia.  Some entries I knew by heart.  I walked in the tracks of Lewis and Clark, and slept in the camp of John Colter.  I laid trap for beaver with Joe Meek, greatest of the frontiersmen.

I wanted to be a mountain man, and so for the first time I ventured beyond the shoveled paths and into the sleeping timber.  I was drawn to the forest and its lonely emptiness.  The spruce trees were the only green and the chickadees the only sign of life as I crossed over places I played in the summer, and I walked on, feeling taller.  I had always been too fearful of the shadowed maze of the forest.  But now the birches and alders were stripped naked, and I could see deep into woods, much farther than during the summer. 

Small trails ran around the trees and under the brush.  Broad rabbit tracks and black pellets of scat labeled them as rabbit. A shadow moved and then froze.  A rabbit saw me.  I froze too and our eyes locked for a moment.  I made a plan. 

In the shed I found snares hanging in a corner, tinted with rust and long forgotten.  I remembered pictures from books showing how they should be hung, and I tried to recall each detail as I separated the long pieces of wire with their tiny lassoes at the end.  There were six in all and each I stretched full length on the rough work bench beside the coffee cans full of nails and bolts and strange magical parts that only a father could put to use and therefore have reason to save.  The shed had been Dad's place, and I felt a touch of guilt for the times I interrupted that silence, “What's that do?  Why is metal heavy?  Will I ever be big as you?”  He would nod and answer without looking up from his work. 

I had questions now, but they went unasked as I oiled the snares like Dad would have.  I could smell his Prince Albert cigarettes and hear the curses he used on the rusty bolts and broken parts of outboards motors and chainsaws.  I could feel him, as he should have been, strong and confident among his tools.

I set my snares by hanging them from bushes along narrow little paths that ran under the moose brush and devils club where larger animals wouldn't go.  Some I tied on bushes bent over spring-like and anchored with a notched stick.  Other hung loose from the branches above. 

Each day, I went directly from the school bus to check my trapline.  The dusk came early in the clearing and darkness had settled among the trees, making the giant spruces seem taller.  I imagined sinister creatures hiding beneath them.  On especially dark evenings I ran the whole trail without stopping, just slowing down for a quick glance as I passed each snare.  I hated the fear that grabbed me sometimes and shamed me.  I liked the snares and the trail and the time alone; I just didn't like the woods.  Or was it the darkness? 

The great adventure stories and my daydreams about them never showed that fear.  Were the mountain men ever afraid of what could be out in the night beyond the range of their tiny fire's protective halo?  Did they ever cower under blankets trembling to be home in bed with people around them?  The woods did that to me.  Like the inlet, the forest held the potential for violence and the threat of danger.  Every shadowed tree, each gust of wind, every frightened thrush made me jump. 

On one early spring evening, the winds off the Inlet had filled most of the trails with snow, and I had to pick my way carefully, following the flags of plastic ribbon that marked the path through the forest.  There was little warmth from the sun, and the air bit at my cheeks.

For ten days I'd been trapping and had caught nothing, so I was complacent, expecting nothing, only half paying attention to the snares as I passed them.  Then there it was!  A rabbit in a snare. 

The rabbit was dead.  He lay stiff, frozen in an unfinished lunge with my snare cinched around his neck, strangling the last of his breath.  Joe would have reminded me that it was really a hare, a varying hare.  I called them snowshoe rabbits, to heck with Joe.  It was just a meal now anyhow, rabbit stew lying cold on the snow.  I stepped back, a lump of nausea rising in my throat.  My first prey was dead before me, and I couldn't touch it.  I had found the run and set the snare, but I couldn't touch the catch.  I didn't want to touch the rabbit I had killed, but I had to touch it.  I had to be a hunter, to take possession.  I leaned forward and cautiously lifted one leg.  The fur was soft like a cat's, but beneath was solid like some one had stuffed a wooden cutout of a rabbit in a real rabbit's fur.  The eyes were real and the tiny crystal of blood frozen to the lips was real. 

I forgot how cold it was.  The nausea was passing, and I forgot that I lost my father.  I forgot everything but the dead rabbit, and I wanted to make a fire and eat it right there.  Then I wanted to run away and pretend I'd never seen it. 

Gingerly I took the wire in two fingers and lifted the head.  The snare wire was buried in the white fur and traces of blood tinted it pink.  I gagged a little as I loosened the noose and pulled the carcass free.  The animal was heavy and long, so I had to hold my arm up as I shuffled toward the house, changing hands every few steps.

I climbed over the berm pile and stopped to rest my arm.  Dead things were heavy.  I squatted in a small depression in the pile of stumps and brush that formed a low wall around our clearing.  In the summer a large elderberry shaded this place and the fireweed and raspberries made it private.  Wild grass formed a soft bed for daydreaming.  It was there that I had dreamed of crossing the Rockies to trap for beaver, making detailed lists of gunpowder, salt pork, and trade beads.  Gazing at the sky I could enumerate each detail of my outfit and weapons.  I fought Indians and Hudson Bay Company trappers.  But that was the summer; this day was real, and I passed over that dreaming place. 

It was a short walk across the clearing to the house.  I could see the tiny hump of it squatting in the snow, a rectangular log box with a pitched roof.  Out behind was the outhouse and beyond that a dory turned over and hidden in the snow beside the smoke house. 

The light in the kitchen window made a pale square of gold in the snow, and my mother's shadow passed through it.  She waved when she saw me.  I held up the rabbit and saw her smile.

“Don't you bring that thing in here,” she said, catching me at the door.  She smelled of fresh bread and warmth, and the heat of the kitchen washed around her like surf. “My that's a big one,” she added, “I guess I know what I'm cooking tonight.”

The darkness around her eyes reminded me, and I was filled with a sense of panic.  There was no father at this house to help me clean the rabbit.  Dad would have known how to butcher the animal and probably would have told me a story while he did it.

I turned back to the forest, and beneath a giant spruce I used my knife to open the rabbit and expose the innards.  They were cold, nearly frozen, and I had to tug and tear to pull the strange slimy shapes out of the cavity formed by the creature's ribs.  I was making a mess of it, ripping meat and hide, splattering myself with blood.  I knew the skin should come off in one smooth slip like removing one piece long johns, but I didn’t know how and there was no one there in that cold winter evening to show me.

I looked across the snow to the back edge of the clearing where the berm pile made a shadow in the pale light of evening.  I didn't feel anything like a mountain man.  My feet were cold and it was dark under the trees where the night started early.  There were cold tears on my cheeks.  I knew that dad would insist that the guts be left back in the trees away from the cabin where scavengers could get them.

Several yards into the shadowed forest, I threw the rabbit guts across the snow where they spread a shameful stain.  I walked slowly back to the house with my rabbit in my hand and wondered how many days I had left.  I knew we couldn't stay.  Soon I would have put away my snares and say good-by to the cabin in the woods that I was just beginning to come to know.

As if reading my mind, Mom confirmed my fears when I returned to the house.  She took the rabbit and laid it in a pan of cold water.  As she washed her hands, she leaned against the sink and smiled the first sincere smile I'd seen in several weeks. “Are you proud of yourself, bringing home dinner like a man?”

“I hope I gutted it okay,” I said, apologizing for my clumsy hands.

“It's just fine.”  She moved across the room shortening the distance between us. “Sam, you'll have to pull you snares in a few days.”

I nodded my answer, feeling the comfort of her presence and the warmth of the fire in the wood stove.  She was heading to Anchorage to start a job, and we kids were to be farmed out with friends.  We were actually leaving this place, maybe forever.  I dabbed my cheeks, smelling the rabbit blood as I did it. 

Perhaps it was the purity of a sleeping forest in winter, or maybe it was just the safe, warm feeling of the cabin itself with its memory of smoke from Dad's Camels and a taste of his cream and sugar coffee.  For whatever reason, this cabin on the bluff was a good place to be for a guy coming on twelve and leaving would be tough, like loosing Dad tough. Then I knew that in this, my first time in the woods alone, long before the end of winter’s shadow, I had started a new summer.


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