MONTANA – 1947
When he hit McDonald Pass outside of Helena, Montana, where the two-lane blacktop curved and disappeared into mountains of pine and fir trees, Johnson had been on the road three days, his tires were sizzling, and he prayed to God for the first time since the war. He’d gone west past Helena, looking for some cabin that a man in a bar back in Kansas had told him about, a hunting cabin that wasn’t locked, where he could spend the night. But the details, scribbled in pencil on a napkin in the man’s drunken, unsteady hand, made less sense the farther west Johnson went, and he looked for a place to turn around in the winding mountain road that resembled the man’s arched, urgent script. He prayed that his tires, leaving black horizontal smears of rubber across the road as he braked, would not blow out and send the truck tumbling into the Rocky Mountains. The chassis shuddered as he fought against the steering wheel, sending silt to the edges of the road.
He slowed the truck to a crawl and coasted to a spot where he could see a good mile in front and in back of him. To his right the Rocky Mountains climbed, obscuring his view of the North, and to the south, the road dropped away into the deep blue Montana sky. He inched the truck back and forth across the width of the road, noting where his rear tires grabbed the edges of the narrow shoulder before it descended. He pulled at the steering wheel, traces of last night’s whiskey from some whistle stop in North Dakota beading on his neck and forehead and the palms of his hand.
He spotted a late-model truck heading east in his rearview mirror and pushed on the gas pedal, backing the truck westward before grabbing the clutch to move into first and forward. But he idled, in the transition, perhaps a second too long, his thoughts bottoming into the dark well of uncertainty, what he was doing in Montana, if he would find Stanley, where he had gone off the path, a side route where roads disappeared into mountains without the promise of emerging, and he felt the right rear tire spin because there was nothing under it. He pressed the pedal harder and leaned forward in the seat as rocks and dust swirled behind him and the right wheel sank into a soup of stones and silt. As he and truck tilted backward, moving toward the sky, Johnson pushed open the driver’s door with his left arm. He dropped from the truck and rolled to his left, the ground unforgiving to his shoulder and face. From the corner of his right eye he saw the front of the truck, wheels in the air like a bucking bronco, the engine whining for a moment in the rush of motion, the futile spin of suspended tires, before sound and truck were sucked into the below. A second passed, two, and the sound took up where it had left off, like a radio coming back into reception, as metal twisted and glass shattered and tires exploded, a vehicular accordion moving through the chords of its swan song.
He heard the other truck, now only hundreds of feet away, its brakes slowing the tires, its engine shifting downward in gears, and he became aware of his body, of the raw abrasion that clung to it like a dew, and he bent his elbows and knees and neck without moving from the ground, where gravity had locked his stomach and chest and back until the enormity of what had happened could be processed by his head. He laughed, feeling a tough loose in his bottom jaw, a stiff, unbendable left index finger, and he saw boots, scuffed bald on the toes, the steel of the toe almost peeking through, little caulks on the soles, by his head.
“You all right, buddy? Jesus.”
He forced his eye upward, toward the young man, blond, cleft chin bristled with stubble, with deep-set eyes looked at him from a height that may have been heaven.
“I think I need a ride into town,” Johnson answered, closed his own.
“I think I heard of a Stanley at the Fire Service,” the man, Lane Gustafson, answered. “You looking for a forestry job?”
“Yeah, Stanley’s my friend. We served together.” Johnson sat on the passenger side of Lane’s truck, patting his face with a handkerchief. A dotted pattern of blood emerged on the yellowed fabric as he moved it over his cheeks and forehead. He was sure his index finger was broken. The middle joint had swelled to a plum, almost as purple. He could not bend it; it was as immobile as a knife in a full jar of peanut butter.
“You want to go to the hospital, have that looked at?” Lane nodded at it as he steered them along mountain roads at speeds that made Johnson a little queasy.
“Naw. I’ll get a little ice somewhere. Back in the war, we called this a boo-boo,” Johnson answered.
Lane laughed, and Johnson took note of the throbs reporting from the various centers of his body: his lower back, his left forearm and elbow, his neck, his left thigh. The memory of his stumps entered his consciousness as randomly as a lightning flash on a clear day, and his first instinct was always to bury it in a stiff drink. Johnson turned and watched the buildings roll by on main street¾the Martha Hotel, F.W. Woolrich, the Harvey Hotel. Mountains towered over the far end, a protective giant that closed the valley of firs and pines and bright peaked houses in its arms. Lane guided the truck off the main strip and eastward out of town.
“I know a bar,” Lane seemed to read his thoughts. “Let’s get the shake off you, man.”
Johnson settled his shaking hands into his lap, where Lane could no longer see them. He seemed to skirt harm more than most people. Perhaps that was an understatement, or perhaps the strangeness of it kept him constantly vigilant, afraid that the truth of this statement would catch up with him and pronounce itself boldly; that he was actually a freak, a demon, a ghost. That something really had happened over in Germany.
The handkerchief he pressed against his face stopped absorbing blood. When he flipped open the sun visor and glanced into small rectangular mirror, covered with a paste of smoke and dust, to his surprise he noticed that his cuts were pink and closed, on their way, he supposed, in another moment, to disappearing completely. He curled his hands into fists and realized his index finger bent along with the other fingers, its plum-sized joint now just a peach pit. He covered his left hand with his right and hoped Lane would not notice, but he was too busy trying to find reception on his radio, the thick tuner bar moving lazily across the numbers.
“Can you pull over for a minute, buddy?” Johnson turned in the seat, unrolling the window, letting the wind dry the sudden sweat on his face and neck. Before the truck’s tires had stopped rolling, he jumped from the seat and crouched on the rocks and dirt by the shoulder, vomiting up God knows what from whenever he’s eaten last, acidic brown plumes tinged with red that singed the dirt and leaves and sent up an ominous smoke signal in the wake of their destruction. His clothes were drenched in sweat. He was in the middle of crisis in the middle of nowhere. He looked at his hand, wriggling the jammed finger, bending the joint. It moved as free as a stick through the air. He felt his skin, the sides of his face, as if they would supply him with answers. He felt his heart clicking in his chest—he could not be a vampire or a zombie or countless other versions of the undead he’d seen at the movies.
“I need you to take me to Stanley now,” Johnson said when he climbed back in the truck.
“Calm down, buddy.” Lane laughed at him before pulling off the road. He picked up his cigarettes from the dashboard, waving them up and down, back and forth, as if to tantalize him. “I don’t even know where this Stanley is. We’ll need to ask around a bit, and we may as well do that at the places that men usually go, right? Now, have a cigarette and calm down. Where are you from?”
“Ohio,” Johnson answered, pulling one from the pack, slapping his jacket pockets for a match. “I think my lighter was in the truck.”
“That’s a shame about your truck.” Lane held out his Zippo. “Maybe later we can get down there later, have a look, get your stuff out. You gotta be careful on these roads.”
“I’m just happy she got me here. This is where I needed to be.”
“You run into some trouble back there in Ohio?”
“No.” Johnson shook his head. He stared through the windshield before him, trying not to look at his finger, trying not to think. His brain pressed against his skull, and he put his fingers in his ears for fear it would seep out. “Just need to find Stanley real soon. What about you?”
“I’m taking it easy. They’re starting building on the new dam soon. I’m going get a job there¾the money’s great. You oughta come and get a job with me at the dam, Johnson.”
“I really want to try and find my friend at the fire service. It’s kind of important.”
“Well, not before we get you a drink, my friend. You almost met with the angels back there.” They watched as lightning, silent, cracked over the mountains. “Besides, it might rain. Keep ourselves under cover until it passes, you know.”
“Couldn’t hurt.” His feelings were fire in his pores, sweat on his skin, knots in his stomach. “I am feeling a little thirsty.”
“Can get mighty hot in Helena, my friend.” The Pint, a little roadside bar, came into view. “You’ll have your work cut out for you at the Park Service.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The land is dry grass in some of those gulches up there in the mountains, and it’s damn hot in the summer¾hundred degrees in the middle of the day. Lightning strikes, and the fire races right through them.” Lane laughed, a raspy cough punctuating it. “You’ll be praying for a job at the dams, then.”
Johnson followed Lane into the green-paneled one-story building. Lane was taller than Johnson, lankier, with a relaxed gait about the hips, shoulders back. A man who never felt in trouble, Johnson figured. A man who was not apologetic about having a whiskey at eleven in the morning. Lane rolled the box of cigarettes into the sleeve of his undershirt and swung the door open wide. In the darkness Johnson could make out the outlines of men at the bar, and when his eyes adjusted the lines of them deepened like carved rock, the only soft things about them were the worn white undershirts or plaid and the knees of their canvas pants.
“Well, if it ain’t the good-time boys.” One of the men said. He held a shot glass in his fingers that disappeared down his throat with efficiency and ease.
“Coming from one to another.” Lane slid onto the vacant seat next to the man and patted the stool on the other side. “Sit down, Johnson. What’s your poison?”
“Whiskey,” Johnson answered and nodded at the man. Overtop the bar, behind the counter two timberjacks were mounted in an X. Faded photos of lumberjacks, logging competitions, and woods dotted the walls. A musty billiards table rested under the dim halcyon of a hanging lamp, and some woman with a child-like voice sung a slow and pretty country song on the jukebox.
“A midget.” Lane nudged Johnson and pointed his head over to the jukebox. “Can you believe it? Little Cindy, she calls herself.”
Johnson ceded she sounded familiar. He’d probably heard her on the radio on the miles from Ohio to Montana. He listened to the radio or he sang out loud, out of tune, to crowd out the other songs that cried like mythical sirens from just beyond his ears: the war, his parents, Stanley, and Kate. He did not know whether second chances existed, and if they did, whether he was deserving of one, but he was alive, by chance or by design, and he did not want to dwell on the choices he had made to his point. He was afraid that he would choose to relive the past, to rearrange facts that had no bearing on the present situation, a ghost walking across the foyer, its ancillary object long disintegrated.
“This here is Johnson,” Lane said to the leathered man to his right. “His truck rolled off MacDonald Pass this morning.”
“No shit.” the man laughed, moving empty shot glasses on the bar like a magician trying to hide a ball. “Your wife in it?”
Johnson took his own whiskey and set the rim of the glass to his lips. He drank before speaking. “You know Stanley Polensky at the Park service? I come to see him.”
“Never seen him here. Probably a boy scout. All the rangers are, mostly. The only boys who’d touch a drop are the smokejumpers, and hell, I’d be drinking too if you were going push me outta plane into a forest fire.” The man coughed, wet and phlegmy, wiping his bulbous nose and stubbled jowl with the back of his hand. “What, you looking into forestry work?”
“This here is collateral central for the fires, ain’t that right, Lane?”
“They have been known to round up the drunks here, give them a Pulaski axe, and tell ‘em to cut fire lines.” When Johnson’s face didn’t register, Lane waved his hand. “You know, dig ditches in front of the fire¾contain ‘em.”
“I ought to go find Stanley right away, see about a job.” Johnson stood up as Lane’s hand pressed on his shoulder.
“I’ll drive you over there, Johnson. It’s only over in Nine Mile. Let’s have a few drinks. Let’s celebrate your good fortune. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to take the summer off, like me, wait out the dam jobs. All right?”
“All right¾just one more,” Johnson agreed as Lane signaled for the bartender.
The bar’s occupants had multiplied steadily over the hours, and not because Johnson began to see two of everything. The sharp clack of billiard balls, laughter, smoke, bodies, and heat crowded into Johnson’s back and in his brain, a sweet confecture, and he had not thought of Kate for a few hours, making him happy and disappointed at the same time.
He thought about his truck, a pulverized animal in a gulch of the Rocky Mountains. He tried to remember whether there was anything he needed in it—personal papers, a clean shirt, everything and nothing. He thought about his finger. If he could only find Stanley, straighten this out. Perhaps he’d find him today, tonight, and it would all be over. He stood up and went outside. The heat hit him like a train as it wafted up in waves from the road. The sky, so far away, seemed like blue glass, reflecting the heat back to the earth, cooking the drunken stew in his blood and his stomach. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He wanted to go home, back to where everything made sense. He was not sure where that was.
When he opened his eyes he saw the smoke, a small plume from the mountains, like a giant smoking a pipe. He heard the heavy clank of suspensions, the churn of engines as the trucks came down the road, trucks that bore the green and white shield of the Forest Service. Equipment rattled around in their beds, and instead of passing by the bar they slowed and pulled into the crowded parking lot.
“Get in.” One of the rangers, a thin, wiry man who emerged from the first truck nodded at him. “We need all the warm bodies we can get.”
He found Lane cradling his head on the bar and hooked him under the armpits, dragging him out onto the dusty gravel before climbing in a truck full of men with bulging eyes, lopsided grins. He looked around for Stanley, even though he would not be among these men, the flotsam and jetsam of Helena. The smell of burning wood and brush had reached the road, and the smoky plume had become a monstrous cloud. He felt the shift of gears in the truck, its wheels begin to roll, and they were on their way, drunks to a forest fire.
From the truck they climbed into a boat that took them down the Missouri river. There were no roads; pine studded cliffs rose hundreds of feet on either side of the river, as if the hand of God himself parted them. In pockets of lower elevation bobbed little docks for boats that ferried picnickers and sportsmen and rangers into a territory had seen little taming since the days of Lewis and Clark. From the boat the cliffs grew, straight, long molars that had erupted from the ground.
They could feel the heat before they even got to the base of the gulch, where the fire burned. They could hear it along the road that wound around the base of the gulch. It snapped branches, sending random pops through the air, along with the crackle of drying, burning leaves. Johnson could feel the heat and the smoke line the bottom of his lungs, a velvet aftertaste of soot and carbon. They disbanded the trucks in single file and a man, tall and pocked-faced with a prominent nose and high forehead, stood before them. Johnson studied the quick efficiency with which the man moved, as if every second on earth were calibrated with the same urgency. The man studied them quickly as he assigned them their tools: Pulaski, two-person saw, shovel, water can. He assigned Johnson the Pulaski, a wooden shaft with an axe on one end of the head and a pick on the other. Johnson felt he must have appreciated his broad shoulders and back, certain that he could chop down small trees standing in the fire’s path and break open the earth, parting the dirt into a chasm, a fire line, that the fire could not jump across, thirsty for more fuel.
“All right,” the man, Mantee, spoke, and his voice was sharp, like metal, clipped. Johnson wondered whether he had been a corporal or sergeant. “We’ve already dropped thirteen smokejumpers in to flank the fire and keep it on the south side of the gulch. You’re to meet up and support them, building a fireline and clearing shrubbery. I’m your foreman; you listen to everything I say. At no time during a fire are you ever safe, so always keep yourself between the river and fire. You might need to escape to the river if the fire gets out of control.”
The twelve men seemed to slouch collectively as he set them at rest, the saws and axes suddenly more burden than they could care to handle. The memory of ice-cold beer in frosted glasses back at the bar grabbed at their hearts like a first girlfriend. The heat swooned heavy over them, buckling their knees and soaking their brows, and they had not even broken camp yet.
“Okay, let’s move.” Mantee picked up an oversized water can with one hand, clutched a compass in the other. “Last report from the radio tower had the front of the fire about two miles from the river.”
Johnson found himself next to last in line. Lane had made sure to get behind Johnson, giving him a wink and grin.
“What the hell happened to your hand, Johnson?” Lane pointed to his left hand, his smile wiped into a frown. Johnson expected to find it suddenly missing, mushroomed to the size of a sausage or covered in blood, oozing gangrene. The way it should have been. Relief washed through him warm, like piss. But he held his finger up to the sky and found that nothing was wrong¾the peach pit from earlier that morning had shrunk to its more regular shape of oversized marble, the color and texture of skin uniform with the rest of his hand. He squeezed and wriggled, felt no pain.
But Gustafson had seen it too, the malformed member before its renaissance of health. And Johnson knew, for the first time, that he was not crazy.
He could not think about it now. They walked through a thick growth of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, a tinderbox of needles that lashed at their faces. Above them a blue china sky became milky with grey plumes. Ahead, a clearing beckoned; beyond, one could see the slurry orange lollipop of fire that tumbled slowly down the south side of the gulch like a slinky. As they got closer Johnson could see that it moved in waves, dancing a little bit forward, backward, before making short sprints across fuel-heavy areas. Still, it kept under the tree crowns, away from the branches and leaves. They would start the fire line in the clearing, he heard Mantee say from the front of the line, men separated ten or twelve feet apart, digging trenches that would meet up at both ends. It was not much different than the war, he reckoned, except the enemy could grow exponentially and unexpectedly. And these men were not soldiers; they were drunks, slurry smile good ‘ol boys and liars.
“Johnson,” Lane said behind him, and Johnson glanced over his shoulder as Lane doubled over against a tree, the remains of his last three or four whiskeys watering the base. “Christ, the smoke’s so thick.”
“Come on.” Johnson felt the little earthquakes in his stomach as he straightened up Lane by the armpits. “Don’t think about it.”
Before them the faint smoky shadow of tree line seemed to go on forever, thicker and with a glimpse of an upward slope¾perhaps the northern side of the gulch. They were on the far arc of the fire trench, working toward its middle. But already they could not see the men twelve feet in front of them; the smoke and the heat crackled as intimately as if they were in a closet. Johnson bent his knees low, trying to find the heavier, cooler air near the forest floor. Each time he swung the Pulaski behind his back and speared it into the ground, it was as if he was spearing himself and not the earth. Pain and nausea zig-zagged through him, and he could no longer see the trench he had begun. He thought he heard the voice of Mantee calling to the men.
“What is he saying?” He shouted to Lane, who rested on his knees behind him. He did not know whether it was fire or voices, the screaming white noise, but he knew his hands burned with such intensity he could see the flesh begin to redden. He nudged Lane, who fell to his side. A roar swept around them, like an eighteen-wheeler or a train bearing down on them, and Johnson turned to see if such a calamity was possible.
But it was the fire, the giant swell of burn that consumed the oxygen in ragged, hungry breaths through its insatiable mouth. The fire had moved upward into the crowns of trees maybe seventy-five yards away.
“Run!” He shouted to Lane, but he couldn’t even hear himself, only knew that his mouth had formed the words, and to back them up, he grabbed Lane’s arm and began to pull him through the growth and up the slope. They were a quiet breath machine, tongues leaving the caves of their mouths as they opened them wide to breathe the thin air, hot and filled with smoke. It burned at their lungs and stung their eyes; bright red and blue stars filled their vision and their legs seemed filled with cement.
The fire was twenty yards, maybe less, and Johnson could hear the heat in waves at his back, his lungs gasp for the thinning air. He saw Lane drop beside him, his boots kicking stones and roots down the hill as he scrambled for footing on the ridge. They were thirty yards, maybe more, from the top of a ridge and would not make it. Johnson thought of his finger and had an idea. He pinned Lane to the slope with his body and tucked in his flailing limbs as the fire burned over them, a howl of flames and crackling wheatgrass and smoke and wave upon wave of searing air until it was quiet and they lie on the black slope, the ashes falling over them like snow.
“Jesus, are you okay?” Lane wriggled underneath Johnson, but Johnson could not answer. He rolled slightly to the side, feeling cold on his back and legs. He reached around and touched where his shirt, his belt, would be and felt oily, separated flesh, hard blades of rib. He looked down at his feet and saw the heels of his boots melted against ankles, his pants burned away or grafted into what remained of his skin. He opened his mouth to dislodge the sandpapery sack of his tongue from the roof of his mouth, and when he worked up enough precious saliva, he spoke.
“Are you all right?” he asked as Lane scooted away from him.
“Oh dammit, Johnson. Oh jeez. I’m okay.” He patted an earlobe, singed, and brushed at some minor burns on his hands and legs. “Oh Christ, look at you.”
“Give me some of your water.” Johnson looked, reached for Lane’s canteen, which had been buried under his stomach.
“Sure, buddy, sure.” Lane made a face as he unscrewed the cap. His hands shook as he held out the canteen to him. “Where do you hurt?”
“I don’t hurt anywhere,” Johnson answered. He was euphoric, actually. “Just thirsty.”
“Yeah, I imagine you wouldn’t,” Lane answered, and Johnson knew vaguely what he meant. He remembered when he was in the army and received treatment for a shrapnel burn, how one of the nurses had explained that sometimes burns can be so deep that the nerves are burned as well. Those patients, she added, usually died. “We need to get you out of here.”
Johnson stood gingerly on the slope. He felt the bone of his heels touch the warm, soft carpet of soot that now covered the hill. The backs of his legs were a pastiche of exposed muscle and skin and strips of canvas, a white glow of bone at the heel. He touched the back of his head and felt only skull.
“Get help,” Johnson said.
Lane moved up the slope, looking back at him, not with concern, but with sadness. Johnson would be dead when he returned, he thought, and Johnson figured he would be right. A vacuum of air and popping rocks, twigs surrounded him. No birds or wind. He thought he could hear the Missouri running downgulch of him, but it sounded so close at times he thought maybe it was the rushing in his ears. He felt asleep and awake at once, a dreamy happiness flooding his circuits along with the uninhibited endorphins and toxins. He strained to hear other men, a rescue party, cursed Lane for leaving him to die on purpose, even as he knew at some logical level that it would take hours for a team to get here, whether by boat down the gulch or helicopter. But he could not tell one minute, one hour from the rest. He stood on a hill, ashen and pocked with stumps, black stones, and he wondered whether he had time traveled back to Germany, whether he was in Dresden.
Damned if he was going to stay here. He crawled slowly up the slope, trying to stay off his heels. He had gotten twenty feet before he realized he left the canteen behind. He kept moving upward, reasoning in some way that the river was closer, that there was more water in the river than in the canteen, and he could not waste any more time. He thought about Kate, in New York, and was saddened he would not be able to tell her of his demise, even see Stanley, so close, somewhere in these woods.
At the top of the slope was a reef barrier, tall white saw rocks jutting out with little space between them. Johnson squeezed himself through a slit and saw the glint of the moonlight river below. If he could make it to the river, baptize himself in its cool embrace, he could fill his mouth and his reserve and he could make it. At the very least, he could quench the terrible thirst that scraped his throat and glued his eyelids together, that spasmed his stomach like a wrung-out dishcloth. He stood up, and in a minute of hysteria, thought he would run like hell, that he could feel no pain, and that it would be over fast.
He took a few large leaps before losing his balance on the impacted stones of the slope, and he rolled and bounced, airborne at times, down the hill and into the river with a rush. The water filled his back and legs with white-hot pain, and as he drank the dark water it seemed to leave him as quickly as he drank it in. He vomited hot into the cold space around him. The basin of night was bare on the east side of the Missouri. A skeleton of trees scraped the cloudless sky. No owls or night creatures convened as was their ritual to discuss all matter of nocturnal importance. It could have been hell on earth, or it could have been actually hell. All he knew was everything was dead, and he was alone, too tired to get out of the water.
About Jen: Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press; winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books 2013) and Close Encounters (So New 2007), and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a ‘Best of Baltimore’ in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets @MichalskiJen.