The deer that cleared the highway with a single leap was a magnificent six-point buck. The tree I hit while I watched the damn thing was a Sitka spruce about 12 inches thick. Totaled the bike. Took a nosedive down thirty foot of rocky hillside. The accident left me in a walking cast, with three cracked ribs, a face full of scabs, nursing a beer, and wondering if I could talk Lizzie into running me a tab until the disability check came. Assuming Jack had paid the insurance.

The sign out front claimed I sat in The Alpine Inn. The phone book listed it as The Satan’s Spine Tavern because it’s cheaper to change a telephone listing than a sign. The credit card reader called it The Milltown Grocery because the Oregon DHS don’t allow bar sales on a benefits card. We all called it Charlie’s, but no one remembers why.

Before the mill closed, the building held a grocery mart with a root beer stand. Now, it’s a bar with painted over windows, plastic orange booths, and a cookie aisle.

“Hon, you look like crap.” Lizzie slapped a rack of clean glasses into their place behind the bar. “Did they at least give you something for them scratches?”

“Nah, they’re getting kinda stingy with scrips unless your address is in Hillsboro or someplace high-tone.”

“Bastards. You want another one?”

“Can’t afford it.”

“Did Jack let you go at the salvage yard?”

“Safety man says I can’t be on the floor with a cane. Eight weeks.”

“Damn. Have enough to tide you over?”

“I could sell the bike.” Gallows humor. The last refuge of the screwed.

“Tell you what, I’ll buy you an applejack if you talk to the kid.”

“Isn’t he a little old for the talk?”

“Someone stole his guitar case.”

“Just the case?”

“Poor thing is worried sick about it.”

The kid worked his way through a John Prine song on a second-hand guitar. The bandstand was a carpet remnant, two microphones, and an ancient amplifier with a Trailblazers logo carved in the side. Lizzie let him start playing in the bar right after the jukebox died.

When the Shepherds divorced, they went their separate ways. The kid sort of split the difference and stayed where he was. He cleared the brush in front of the house, put some new paint on it, and planted some hyacinth bulbs his ma left behind.

The kid’s set ended when Palmer yelled “You suck,” from the booth by the door. Before they closed the high school, he coached eight-man football. Now, he made a circuit of landfills gathering busted appliances for Jack. Someone told him once it was a scientific fact criticism motivated people more than praise. He did his part by screaming at players, other drivers, and musicians.

I gave the kid the high sign. Lizzie poured me a glass.

People have been known to describe her applejack as golden. Usually, after they’d had a few, and before they curled up for a nice little nap on the floor. She made it herself without the blessings of the Liquor Control Commission. It started as apple juice in five gallon buckets laid out like plastic tombstones in her garden. As autumn passed, it fermented to hard cider. She spent the winter fishing out ice chunks and by the time spring arrived, the process left a sweet, rust-colored concoction served in pint glasses. It got the job done.

I shook the kid’s hand.

“Hey, man.” Thin, he dressed in shades of brown with baggy pants, some kind of hemp shirt, and a vest. When his hat was new, it was probably a wide-brimmed fedora. Now, it was just floppy brown felt that kept the rain away from his straight, chin-length, you-cut hair. Even when he was little, he had a half-baked smile and a go-along, get-along style. We all expected him to drift off with the rest of the stoners, but he still lived among us. He patched together what he needed from playing for tips, picking mushrooms for the foodies down in the valley, and under-the-table jobs.

Lizzie brought him a beer and lit her cigarette. She watched over the boy like a combination of a third grandma and a rottweiler.

“Lizzie says you got your guitar case stolen?”

“I didn’t get it stolen.” The kid bobbed his head. “Someone took it.”

“What’s it worth?”

“It’s only a ply-wood box Burke made with padding and hinges. Look man, it don’t mean nothing. Can we focus on my song book?”

“Can’t you just drive down to Portland and get another music book?”

“They’re songs I wrote. Like, a year’s worth.”

“Did you piss someone off? Who’d want your book?”

“Life’s too short to hate, man.”

“They stole it Tuesday.” Lizzie stubbed out her cigarette in a cracked coffee cup and put it back in the hidey-hole behind the sign explaining Oregon’s smoke-free workplace law. “The night them a-holes were here. Think they’re the stuff, with hundred-dollar suspenders and old-timey hats, come up to gawp at the hicks. The one with the mustache nearly got my foot up his ass. Complaining about the kid playing a little Jerry Jeff. Wanted me to get a damned string band in here.”

“I don’t know.” The kid took his hat off so he could pull his hair back. “The chick was cute.”

“Ah, she was alright. After the jackass walked out, she covered the tab.”

“So,” I fortified myself with a swallow of the applejack, “what do you want me to do? And, how is it gonna cover my tab?”

“Could you talk to them? I need the book. I got a couple a hundred bucks saved up.” The kid must be desperate.

“You keep your money in your pocket, Hon. I’ll cover it in bar money. If my birthday song is still in the book, I’ll add an extra fifty. If you find the one with the mouth,” Lizzie said, “I want you to talk to him good and hard.”

“Are you expecting them to come back?”

“I expect you to find ’em.” Lizzie plucked up a credit slip and put her reading glasses on. “Marisol Mata. And, I know her credit card number.”

“I’ll bet you a buck her middle name is Maria.” I got no takers. “These kids came up from Portland?”

“They weren’t from here.”

“I’ll need a ride.”

“Perfect man, I’ll drive us down.” The kid scratched an itch. “How does that sound?”

It sounded like crap, but it was beer money and something to do. “Yeah, OK, be at my place at ten. Sober. I ain’t going if you’re baked.”

#

At nine-thirty the next morning, I threaded the phone cord through the side-door and took a seat in the canvas chair on the porch. Sounds funny, I know, but the rain always soothes me.

I wedged the handset between my shoulder and cheek and dialed the number for the bank. The recording reassured me my call was very important to them every twenty-three seconds.

I watched a pickup trundle up Satan’s Spine Road. The original road to nowhere. In the beginning, the old-timers built the mill on the highest flat spot they could find in the eastern foothills of the Coast Range. They cut the trees nearest the mill and the road more or less just grew after that. Each stretch started from the end of the road and went to the next logging camp. Up switchbacks on hillsides and twisting along creek banks. Around boulders and over tree trunks laid out in corduroy roads at the low spots. Someone lost to history complained the road twisted like Satan’s Spine and the name stuck. Now, on the maps, it was reduced to Oregon Route 5. The rain floated down and I dreamt of crews with two-man buck saws and oxen working their way through hillsides of virgin timber.

By the time David, my very own “like-family” service representative, answered I had my story ready. Seems my step-daughter was in a jam. She had a charge she didn’t recognize on her card. The card her father gave her.

“So, Dave, you can see my problem. I think the girl just forgot or is trying to cover something up. If the card was stolen though, we’ll have to cancel it and let the bank eat the charges. I really don’t want her father to lose his temper. Can you help me?”

David reassured me he would do everything in his power. The bank had the best security money could buy and he was sure it was only a misunderstanding. No need to panic.

“Good, good. So, can you read me off the last several charges?” She charged a surprisingly large amount at a soup joint. Probably covering her friends’ tab again. A hundred bucks at the Rock Creek Campus Bookstore. She spent another couple of hundred bucks at a dairy over the river in Vancouver. “Those sound like they might be alright. Before that?” A charge at a joint named Colours. David spelled the name for me. I half-hoped it was a strip club with a name like that. Thirty bucks worth of gas from a station in Beaverton. And, at last, the charge from last Tuesday at The Milltown Grocery.

“I have to be honest with you Dave. I’ve never heard of Milltown. Is it even in Oregon?”

Dave stumbled. His keyboard rattled furiously.

“Is this one of those joints where they make sure a card is good by making a charge? Did she get her identity stolen? What’s the address on that place?”

More keyboard sounds before he read the address back to me. Before the government cut the funding, Mike Stone ran the post office. Now, we had boxes and Dave read me Lizzie’s number, 403.

“And will you read me the city and zip code for the card so I can verify it.”

Some days, it is just that easy. Threaten to fire someone for canceled cards, and they’ll overlook a little privacy violation to avoid a black mark on their monthly numbers.

“Dave, I’m gonna check this out. If I don’t like what I find, I will cancel the card.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you for banking with us, sir. Can I answer any other questions, sir? Very good, sir.” I wanted to interrupt just to screw with the guy, but I had what I needed.

If the kid showed up, we had some place to go. North Plains. Where the hell is North Plains?

#

I was sitting reading my paperback when a gunshot echoed down the valley. I stood, looking for the shooter and hoped they hadn’t poached my buck. The kid came around the far bend. He drove a Honda from the ’90s, repainted a brilliant yellow with some hippy-dippy lotus blossom on the hood. It looked like a wagon wheel to me.

He was one of the few young people left. The smarter kids left for schools in Seattle and Eugene. A few headed for California. Some hit the community colleges or got jobs down in Portland. Too many drifted into meth, either cooking it or smoking it. None of them ever came back.

I lifted my pea coat from the hook behind the door and slid into it. The kid rolled the window down a few inches and spoke through the crack.

“I’m here.”

“You’re late. You sure you’re up for this?”

“Man, just tell me where to go and I’ll get you there. We need to stop at Glenwood for gas and a couple of quarts of oil.”

“You sure? There’s a good chance we won’t find the girl.”

“You always talk shit, then you get it done anyway. Get in.”

When we made the end of the drive, I told him we wanted the library in Forest Grove. He hung a left and double-clutched a shift into second.

We went down past Charlie’s and the salvage yard where the healthy broke discarded appliances back into their original elements: copper wire, steel sheets, and aluminum dryer baskets. More and more, we collected circuit boards and plastic.

When the mill closed, we made a living tearing it down. That old mill equipment kept us in cast iron for a while. We broke down the rail cars that carried lumber. We pulled up the wooden planks from the floor and sold it for stupid prices to dentists in Orange County who paneled their dens with ‘distressed timber’. We tore down barns. We tore down chicken coops. When we ran out of things to tear down, we started trucking in broken appliances.

Someone had painted “TRUMP One of us!” on the railroad bridge. When I was young, a train came through here every day. Now, a switch engine moved three cars once a week. I watched the landscape roll by and thought about what possessed some kid to spray paint in the rain so the paint dribbled down in rivulets.

#

By the time we found a parking spot on Pacific Avenue, by the library, my ribs ached. The kid offered me a hand up and I took it.

“What are we doing here?” The kid put some change in the meter. “I thought we’d stake out someplace or follow someone.”

“You stake out non-fiction,” I said. “I’ll take the reference desk. Hoot like an owl if you see her.”

“Man,” he drew it out, “why all the hate?’

“You watch too much TV. I need to spend some time figuring out where to start looking. Find something to amuse yourself.”

He held the door open. It was hard to miss the nannies and the stay-at-home parents herding their preschoolers away. They chattered about story time, but there was a whole lot of adults moving to stand between the children and us.

I hit the phone books while the kid picked a spot leaning against a half-height book shelf. Colours turned out to be an art supply store between the jail and Tuality Hospital. The book store served more than one branch of Portland Community College. We could poke around, but Marisol might be on a whole different campus. The soup joint looked like the kind of place someone might make a habit, all natural and that crap.

The librarian read to the children from some local woman’s third-hand fairy tale about the Tualatins living lightly on the land. Give these people their due. Tell the kids they farmed entire forests with flame, a torch their plow. Tell them the natives burned to make way for camas plants and clearings for deer and elk. Tell them God didn’t give them paradise, he gave them the brains to bend the world to their needs and they did. The kid leaned in and listened slack-jawed. His eyes shone.

#

“I can’t find the North Plains’ phone book.”

“It’s all on the computer now.” The reference librarian had to be fresh out of school with chunky glasses and a bottle blond bob to match. “Would you like me to show you?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but bounced up and left her chair spinning. “It’s really easy. I’m sure you can do it.”

The computer forced you to use a ‘helper’ without a way back. You had to start over if you didn’t like the results. She showed me the same screens several times. Lord love a reference librarian, but they are a curious lot. I had no intention of telling her Marisol’s name. A generous helping of surly sent her back to her desk.

I spent some time going through the helper again and again and decided Marisol Mata didn’t have a listing. Once I broke through to the raw browser, I narrowed the listings down to the zip code and found one listing for Mata in North Plains, wrote down a few addresses and printed some directions.

When I asked for a pay phone, the librarian gave me back my surly with a side of sarcasm. In the end, she let me call from the reference desk. The Matas didn’t answer their phone in the middle of the work day.

Looked like the kid and I were gonna have soup for lunch. With any luck, the place made decent coffee.

#

The girl wasn’t there, but the soup tasted good and the coffee strong. After the high-school dropout behind the counter suggested two hours was plenty of time to finish lunch, we decided to ask at the art supply store. The clerk, with clattery bangles and a rhododendron tattoo, told us off for asking after their customers.

We put in some time at the book store, but the two of us couldn’t watch all the doors. The salesman laughed at us when we asked for a pay phone, so we hit up a burger joint to use the bathroom and buy some coffees before we headed for North Plains.

We found the address deep in an “exciting new planned community” according to the signs. Maybe a year old, a third of the houses on this block were empty behind waist-high black steel fences. The Mata residence had two stories and posts like a bungalow around the porch. We saw lights behind the curtains, but no shadows.

The kid opened the door to get out, but I held him back.

“Aren’t we gonna ask?”

“Wait a bit.”

“What are we looking for?” he asked.

“Large men, dogs, guns. Take your pick.”

“Like she might come by walking her dog?”

“Just like that.”

“How do you know she has a dog?”

Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head.

We watched the windows for the tattle-tale florescent blue light of a television. The planners of this exciting new community put all the garage entrances on the back of the houses and locked gates at each end of the alley to keep the riffraff out. Any idiot could trip the inside switch for the gate, but I didn’t have a desire to explain to cops, or deputies, or whatever private security crew they used out here why I was prowling down an alley looking for a stolen song book.

The kid stayed quiet for a while and rocked his head to an imaginary tune. His left hand made the chord changes. No cars appeared on the street and no dog walkers on the shoulder. Eight o’clock came and steam covered the car windows.

“OK. Let’s do this.” I said.

We walked down the block. The houses came in two plans and three shades of tan. The same two sentinel plants sat at the top of the steps at every house. We climbed to the Matas’ porch and the security lights came on.

We knocked. The peep-hole darkened and grew bright again. Someone behind the door slid a chain into place. Not a good start. A drawer squealed open and slammed closed.

“Man, I’d be scared too if I saw all the damage on your face for the first time in the dark on my porch.”

The door opened as far as the chain allowed. What was it about a woman in scrubs? The outfit screamed brains and clung like cheap pajamas at the curves beneath. Her black hair formed a mane where she’d taken a scrunchie out and run her fingers through it.

“Doctor Mata?”

“I don’t do house calls.” She hid behind the door and only leaned far enough to see us. “There’s no prescription pad inside.”

“We’d like to talk to Marisol if she’s around?”

“What about?” She stole a peek over her shoulder.

“We’d like to ask her about a guitar case that went missing last Tuesday. We don’t think she took it or anything. We’re just hoping she might have seen something to help us.”

“What’s so special about a guitar case?”

“It had the boy’s notebook in it. Songs he’d written. Personal things.”

“Oh.” She held her expression well, but there were flickers as she considered the wisdom of letting us talk to her daughter. “Wait.”

She closed the door and shot the dead bolt home. We waited. I shifted the cane to the other hand and leaned my weight on it.

The peep hole darkened again and the deadbolt slid back. The door cracked open. A pretty, thick-set girl with straight black hair and giant snow-white glasses looked at me curiously.

“Hey,” the kid leaned into her line of sight and smiled at her, “it’s you.”

“No. No. No.” The girl took off and leaped up the stairs two at a time.

“What does that mean?” the kid asked.

“It means Doctor Mata’s gonna ask us in.”

#

We sat awkwardly at a lightly used dining table, waited for Marisol to come down, and drank hot mint tea. The good stuff, not tea bags from the back of the cabinet. I salivated at a spicy smell from the kitchen.

“Were you gonna brain us with the fire-extinguisher if we tried to come in?” I pointed with my mug at the pressurized canister on the table.

“If you stitch up enough deputies, they’ll slip you some self-protection from their riot gear.”

“Pepper spray?”

She nodded.

“Crap.” The thing must’ve held at least a quart of gas, and police were issued the nasty stuff. “I don’t suppose you’d mind pointing the nozzle the other way?”

She thought a moment, pursed her lips, and put the can on the floor. Marisol made her entrance from the stairs.

The kid half-waved at Marisol.

“You want to join us sweetheart? I made some tea.”

“I saw you play.” Marisol took a seat. “You’re good. Too good for that place. I didn’t steal it.”

“We’re not accusing you of–”

“I took it, but I didn’t steal it.”

I was confused. Marisol held a cell phone up and showed the kid the screen. She turned the phone towards me to show me a picture of the guitar case.

“You painted it?”

“A wreath of red roses,” Marisol put the phone away, “like a crown.”

“That’s so cool.” The kid found his tongue. “Can I see it?”

“I was going to bring it back. I swear I was. When we found out about the bottom, Jacob took it.”

We sat there looking stupid at each other until the kid started giggling.

“What’s so damn funny?”

“There’s a false bottom. Burke put one in there so we could hide our stash when we toured.” He stammered a bit. “You know, we imagined we would tour….”

“Stop.” The doctor sent the boy scurrying back into silence. “I’m not an idiot. Where is the case now?”

Marisol stared at her feet.

“This is why you haven’t been hanging out with your friends?”

Marisol shrugged.

“I kept this.” She held out a dollar store spiral-bound notebook painted to match the case. “I read them. I’m sorry.”

The kid reached up, but couldn’t quite bring himself to touch the notebook.

“It’s….”

Give Dr. Mata credit. With two strangers in the house pestering her daughter about a stolen case with a convenient smuggling compartment, the pride in her daughter’s painting showed.

“That’s the book?” I asked.

The kid nodded.

“Well, thank you very much. The tea was good.” I stood. “May I use the rest room before we go?”

“What about my case?” Marisol and the kid said together and giggled.

“Lizzie’s paying me to find the book.”

“Before she painted it,” the kid said. “Now, things are different.”

“Please.” Marisol made puppy eyes. “I just wanted to do something nice for him.”

“Look at me. I got three cracked ribs and a walking cast. You think I can just beat it out of this guy?”

“Maybe, you could just talk to Jacob?”

“I don’t even know the man.”

“Sit down.” The doctor glanced at her purse on an end table next to a book propped open. “They paid you to find the book?”

“Lizzie’s covering my bar tab.” I said.

“I don’t have that kind of money.” Doctor Mata smiled. “I’ll make you a deal. I feed you dinner, and we go talk to Jacob.” She held a hand out to shake. “I’ll made enchiladas.”

Both kids looked like they might wet themselves with excitement.

“Throw in a beer and you have a deal.” I shook her hand.

#

We spent a while sorting everything out. Jacob had turned his phone off, so Marisol spent some time typing messages to mutual friends while we ate. Someone named Brooks returned Marisol’s message. The phone buzzed and Marisol clicked the keyboard, back and forth, until we figured out Brooks missed Marisol with a string of little pictures of sad faces.

Marisol laughed at us when she found out we didn’t carry phones. I had to explain, no towers in town meant no phones.

Marisol learned her friends planned to hit the Palace of Industry for a square dance. Yeah, I asked twice to be sure. Jacob had to meet with his buddy at some New American restaurant in Overlook. He’d been gone a while, but Marisol should plan on being at the club around 10, ish. Jacob’s loss if he didn’t make it.

The doctor drove. Her plush SUV eased our aches. Mine anyway. She dropped the kids at a coffee place with a good view of the front of the restaurant. They probably spent more time looking at each other than looking for Jacob. The doctor and I parked around the corner, near the alley to keep an eye on the kitchen door.

“What am I looking for?” I asked.

“A smarmy kid who wears suspenders, a newsboy hat, and a waxed mustache.”

“Friend of yours?”

“He likes to call Marisol ‘chica’.” Her grip on the steering-wheel tightened.

“She thinks he’s ironic. I think he’s an ass.”

“Seems to be a popular opinion.”

She rolled her eyes. The rain pattered on the car.

“What’s your name?”

“Took you long enough to ask.”

“I can keep calling you Doctor if you prefer.”

“Maria.”

“The kid owes me a buck.” I ignored the question in the look she shot me.

I reached up and turned the overhead light off. No sense in letting everyone know when we opened the car door.

“I have another question, if you’re still speaking to me. What’s with all the old-timey stuff?”

“Think of it as hand-made. Music that’s not recorded. Food that’s closer to grown than manufactured. Clothes different enough they aren’t like uniforms. Those kids want something personal.”

“We just grew our hair long and wore jeans to church.”

“Times change. When anything you see can be ordered on-line for same-day delivery, it takes a little work to make something your own.”

She checked her phone, then checked it again after fifteen minutes. “It’s getting close to ten. Should we go look for him at the club?”

“He’s what? Early twenties? Were you ever on time when you were twenty-something?”

“I was always on time.”

“That’s probably why you’re a doctor and he’s a guitar thief.”

“A guitar case,” she corrected.

“Let’s agree on art thief.”

She smiled in the darkness. One of those tiny cars shaped like a baby-buggy parked up the block. Maria pulled out her phone. I touched her arm and shook my head. In the car across the street, a man checked his messages. His phone lit up his face.

“That’s him.”

#

Jacob got out of his car and looked around. He walked to the back of the car with his head on a swivel.

“Call Marisol and tell her to come here. If we’re gone, go back to the coffee shop and wait.”

Jacob pressed his key chain and a chirp told us he opened the trunk. He pulled out the kid’s case. He looked up and down the street again as he closed the trunk.

“Stay here and be ready to roll if I come running.”

I eased out of the SUV and hobbled to the back. He checked over his shoulder and started pussyfooting towards the alley. I waited until he passed us then half-hopped, half-ran across the street as quietly as I could.

I peeked around the corner of the alley. I closed the gap between us. I only intended to talk to him, but, sometimes, surprise keeps people from having time to think up a good lie. He walked near the wall on my side of the alley.

“Jacob Sykes.”

He spun around.

“I’d like to talk to you about that case.”

He charged, using the case like a ram and hit me in the ribs. The blow knocked the air out of me. I went down on my ass and tried to hold perfectly still. My body forced me to take a breath. The agony made me roll on my side, gritting my teeth.

He side-stepped me and tried to trot past. I lunged with my cane, but regretted moving immediately. The cane’s handle caught his ankle. He went down. The case and his phone skittered down the alley. He jerked his leg and I couldn’t hold the cane anymore.

He rolled to his hands and knees. He took the chance to curse me and bitch about his clothes getting dirty. He got to one knee, took a ragged breath, and stood.

“Cover your eyes!”

I did what the doctor ordered. A snake’s hiss filled the alley. Jacob started a scream, but ended up coughing hard. He staggered towards the end of the alley. Maria popped him with the butt of the canister and he went down hard.

“Are you ok?” She leaned over me, the bright orange pepper spray in her hand. “I thought you were going to talk to him?”

I tried to explain the young man wasn’t interested. My body decided oxygen trumped sarcasm.

“Did he hit you?” I nodded. “Where?”

I tried to point.

“Lie still. Let me look.”

Jacob sputtered and coughed. Maria unbuttoned my pea coat. She ran her fingers along my ribs and across my chest. The kid and Marisol came trotting. He started rubbing the dirt off the case with his sleeve. She picked up Jacob’s phone.

“They aren’t broken.” I wasn’t so sure, but Maria seemed confident. “Stop panting and take a deep breath.”

They helped me up and I flattened my back against the wall.

“I told you to stay in the car.”

“Yeah, that didn’t work for my ex-husband either.”

“Man,” the kid weighed the case in his hand, “this is heavy.”

“Open it.” I tilted my head back so the rain could fall on my face.

“It has a guitar in it.”

“The back. Open the back.”

The kid fiddled with the clasps and got the back undone. Jacob tried to snatch at the case. He coughed like he might bring up a lung and gave up.

“What the hell is that?”

Damn. I had to open my eyes. Rounds of what looked like white clay filled the space under the false bottom.

“Is that some kind of meth? No wonder he hit me.”

Maria punctured one of the blocks with her fingernail and picked out some of the white stuff.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

She tasted it.

“Cheese.” She reached for a second, larger bite. “Creamy.”

The kid tried a bite and smiled.

“Jacob,” I poked him with my cane to get his attention, “why do you have cheese in the case?”

Marisol looked away.

“You know?”

She sighed. “The dairy uses raw milk.”

Maria spit violently a couple of times.

“Don’t leave me hanging.” I said.

“The dairy in Washington.” Didn’t mean anything to me. “The FDA says you can’t carry raw cheese over the state line.”

“Oh, Marisol,” dismay dripped from Maria’s voice. “It has to be sixty days old.”

“It’s safe.The French have made Camembert that way for centuries.”

“If it’s made right and handled well. Carrying it around in a guitar case is not handling it well.”

I laughed, or tried to. I’d never met a cheese smuggler before. An idea struck me. “Give me the case.”

The kid held it out to me. “What are you gonna do man?”

“I’m gonna find–. What’s his buddy’s name?

“Zachariah,” Marisol said.

“How come no one is named Bob anymore? I’m gonna find Zack and sell him some iffy cheese.”

#

The kid and I drifted through the darkness up Satan’s Spine Road. My ribs hurt, but I didn’t care. Maria didn’t keep a prescription pad in the house, but she did have a well-stocked medicine cabinet.

All in all, it’d been a good night. We’d sold the cheese for six hundred dollars cash and a quart of milk. Maria insisted on the milk so she could clean the worst of the gas off Jacob. No fool Zack. He sent a message to Jacob to check out the scab covered derelict who smelled like he’d been rolling around in the alley. Then again, he believed the reply Marisol typed into Jacob’s phone.

The guitar Jacob left in the case looked old and said Gibson by the tuning pegs. Probably good for a few bucks. I figured, he started this whole mess, so, he owed us.

Marisol made plans to come up and hear the kid play. He promised to finish a new song before she did.

The kid tapped a beat on the wheel and sang nonsense syllables as he drove.

“Man, how many goats can you keep on an acre?”

“Beats me.”

“I mean, how many do you think? Mrs. Rowell used to keep a goat in their yard for milk.”

“What makes you think I know shit about goats?”

The mist glowed in the headlights and flowed around us before it turned red.

“How many acres you figure on the Stevens’ place? They foreclosed it, right?”

“You can’t afford it.”

“I could sort of use the pasture until someone buys it.”

“Why are you asking about acres and goats and things?”

“Just thinking.”

He went back to tapping on the wheel. Before, he only had a beat. Now, his chorus included ‘a crown of thorns’ and a ‘wreath of red roses’. I sat back and closed my eyes.

“Does Darrin’s cousin still work at the concrete place? How much concrete do you need for a milking shed.”

The front wheel hit a pothole and made me care about my ribs again.

“Forget it. She’s not coming up here.”

“Man,” he drew it out, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me? I spent the whole damn day chasing down your book. Some lunatic beat me in an alley. You made out pretty good on the deal and you’re gonna yank my chain about a girl?”

“What’s wrong with me thinking about keeping some goats? Making some cheese? Hell, Burke’s building sheds and stuff over in Baker. Maybe he’d come back for a while and help us.”

I snorted and watched Little Bear Creek pass us by. He tapped on the wheel.

“I mean, just every once in a while, wouldn’t you like to build something up instead of tearing it down?”

That’s the problem with hanging around people who believe in fairy tales. Eventually, they want you to believe too.

Top Photo Credit – Photosbygar Photography – http://photosbygar.com

 

Dooley

Dooley lives in the San Francisco Bay area, but waits patiently for the day he can return to the Willamette Valley. Maybe next year.

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