By Dwight Livingstone Curtis
They stopped for gas and lunch and to clean the windshield. The pump was in front of a bar called the Hitching Post in the town of Melrose. It was cold and the air from the Jeep’s heater had been getting cooler and cooler and Jack had three theories. One, there was a new air bubble in the heater core. Two, the core itself was bad and filling with rust as fast as he could flush it out. It wouldn’t be long before he needed to replace it or just block it off and do without. Three, it was so cold that even though the heater was working, and the engine was hot, the air through the radiator was leeching all the heat out of the coolant. Jessie pulled the blanket over her face when he opened the door to pump gas.
The L-shaped bar was full of men and they all turned to look when Jack and Jessie walked in. Jack took a step toward the bar.
“You serving lunch?” Jack said.
The bartender said “Sure, honey” and the men turned back around. Jack pulled out two stools at the end of the L and took the one next to the man so that Jessie could have the one next to the wall.
The men went back to talking normally. Three of them, at the corner of the L, were old-timers. At the middle of the long side of the bar was a younger man with a beard and a shirt and hat for a guide company. At the far end was another young man. He was nodding at the fishing guide’s story.
“You can kill a cat in a catch pole in fifteen, twenty seconds. Because its arteries are on the outside.” The guide cupped both hands around his neck. “A coyote you can strangle for two hours and he’ll still be fighting. Because he’s got the muscles on the outside.” The old-timers went on eating eggs with jelly.
When Jessie came back from the bathroom Jack had a beer for her. “What’d you get me?” she said.
“It’s a lightly hopped pilsner,” he said. “With a low ABV. And I got you a lime.”
“What lime?” she said, turning the glass.
“Okay, it’s a Coors Light.”
“Thanks, baby,” she said.
Then he whispered in her ear. “I know all about you and your Yankee boyfriend.” She put her hand on his leg and squeezed. The bartender came over. Jessie ordered a cheeseburger and Jack said, “I’ll do the porkie.” The bartender had described it to him already.
The turnoff to the campground was frozen over and Jack gunned the engine and spun out and Jessie shrieked. Jack stopped at the ranger station and paid for the campsite and three bags of firewood. He put the yellow pass on the dash. Since they slowed down off the highway the heater had gotten warm again and he worked through this in his mind as he drove.
They hiked in the final half-mile.
Jessie did jumping jacks to warm up and Jack guided her over to a flat spot.
“Keep that up,” he said. “Do it in a big square here where the tent goes.” She jumped around, packing down the snow. Her face got rosy and Jack took off his glove and slid his hand up the back of her shirt. “Sweaty babe,” he said.
He unpacked the kitchen things and hung the plastic bag from a branch to be their trash bag. Jessie came over, flushed, and said, “Give me a job.”
Jack pursed his lips and put his hands on his hips and surveyed things. “Orders of business,” he said. “First you find the speaker and put on music. Then find a big flat rock for splitting wood. Bring the wood over to the fire pit, bring the tent over to the tent site. Get out the booze and cider. Get out the big pot. Put the books somewhere dry.”
She dropped her jaw theatrically. “You want me to do all those things?”
“I’m in charge of wood, chopping, ropes, knots,” Jack said. “Boy Scout stuff. You’re in charge of camp morale. You’re camp mom.”
“I’d like to chop,” she said. “You can be in charge of knots. I don’t care about knots.”
Now Jack let his jaw drop.
“I’m sorry, baby,” Jessie said. “I love knots.”
“We love knots,” Jack said.
They built a fire and Jack knelt and tried to light it with one match. It didn’t take. He tried another and that didn’t take. He lit a crumpled stick of paper and fed it into the center of the wood where the kindling was and it took and the wood smoked and lit and grew into a fire. “Fuck,” Jack said.
“It’s a good fire,” Jessie said. She rubbed his back. The sun had gotten low. “No big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” he said. Jack’s dad had built one-match fires.
“You made a beautiful fire,” Jessie said. “You made a beautiful camp. You drove us all the way here. You fixed the heat. You maintained a beautiful Navy attitude. Everyone’s proud of you.” Finally he smiled.
“Elephant shoe,” she said.
“Elephant shoe,” Jack said.
Jack had packed their favorite mugs as a surprise. They poured whiskey and hot cider from the big steaming pot which Jack had soaped with dish soap and which was now black from the fire. He didn’t want to leave the fire but they needed to pitch the tent before it got too dark. He stood up and Jessie hooked a finger in his belt loop and said, “No. Never leave me.”
“I’m making the tent.”
“I’ll help,” she said.
“Stay. I’ll tell you when.”
Jack put on his headlamp and laid the tent bag on the snow and pinched the bottom of the bag and pulled it off. He shook out the nylon footprint and laid it flat on the stomped-out patch of snow. He took the tent by the corners and shook it out and the zippers jingled. He opened the stake bag and tried to remember how this part went and then counted the stakes and remembered. He had one runt stake and one plastic stake and these were his favorites and he set them by the corners near the trees. Then he threw the tent poles and felt them click together on their bungees and he shook them into the dark to make sure they were whole. Jessie came and stood beside him. He showed her how to feed the poles and the tent sprang up in their hands. It was full dark.
He used the butt of the ax to hammer in the tent stakes. The stakes hit the hard ground beneath the snow and he needed to bury his hand in the snow to hold the stake steady. He braced the face of the ax with his thumb and when he hammered down the blade caught his thumb and sank in. He dropped the ax and stood right up. “Fuck,” he said.
The blood was coming out fast and he held his thumb away from the tent. His thumb felt lighter as the blood sprayed out. “Fuck,” he said again.
“Who dares deny me access to the realm of pain?” Jack said. Jessie was compressing his thumb in her bandana. “That’s Virgil,” he said. “I don’t need to go to the hospital.” His idea was to wrap it up as tightly as possible until it stopped pulsing and then have another drink and drive into town and have dinner at a bar.
“It’s deep,” she said. He could feel the blood pumping into the bandana. They hadn’t looked at it and now it was too late. The ax hadn’t been anywhere dirty. It had been in the back of the Jeep all winter and any germs would have frozen off.
He’d had a babysitter once. She lived with them: Callie from Alabama. They went on bug hunts in the backyard and jumped on the trampoline and he remembered the way her legs buckled when he bounced her. High on her thigh were four round scars like soft pennies on her skin, a line of them spaced out evenly from the hem of her cutoff jeans to the middle of her thigh. She was playing on the roof, she said. Never play on the roof.
I fell. She was teasing him.
On the haystack.
And then what?
The pitchfork was in it. Pop-pop-pop-pop. She ran his finger over the skin.
“You’re lucky I’m a doctor,” Jessie said. The pulsing was softer now and it ached deep in his hand. “A proud womanly frontier doctor.” She stood and he held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. His thumb was wrapped tightly in the bandana.
“I’m cured,” Jack said.
In the tent they moved their sleeping bags together and he told her about a trick he used to do. He’d get his bandana wet and then zip himself into the tent and coil up the bandana and lie on his back watching for mosquitos. He’d lie still with his flashlight pointing at the ceiling and one by one he’d snap them out of the air.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you’d get a fat one and it would explode with blood.”
“Tell me a ghost story,” she said.
He told her about Callie from Alabama and her four penny scars.
“Yuck,” she said. “Is that true?”
“Scout’s honor,” Jack said.
“All right. Brace yourself,” she said. He liked when she got this way: big-eyed and stone serious and ready to cackle or jab at any moment. She clicked on her flashlight and held it under her chin and then flashed it at his eyes and clicked it off. The tent swam with bruise-colored snakes.
“Once upon a time,” she said.
“Make the SVU noise,” she said.
“Once upon a time there was a woman who walked with a hunch. She always wore a shawl. Want to know why?”
“Because of all the scars.”
“Jesus,” Jack said.
“I know,” she said. “Guess more.”
“Tell me,” Jack said. Jessie got up on one elbow.
“It was the night of the middle-school dance. She was the weird girl no one talked to. She was the girl who played horses at recess. At the dance, the most handsome boy in the grade asked for her hand. They danced a slow dance and afterward she went into the bathroom and she was standing in front of the mirror smiling and thinking how amazing it was when the door opened and the popular girls walked in. They cornered her. She’d broken the unspoken rule. One of the girls had a pocket knife. They gave her a choice. They said, horses don’t wear nice dresses. Either she could take the knife and cut her dress into little pieces and walk back out through the dance naked, or they’d do it for her. She summoned all her strength and tried to gallop past them to the door but the girls grabbed her and covered her mouth. They stabbed her until the knife broke against the floor. She barely survived. And she’s forever hunched over with all the scar tissue. Now, anytime popular girls get together in the bathroom during a dance, she’s waiting in the stall with a pocket knife, ready to jump out and take her revenge.”
“Holy shit,” Jack said.
“I know,” she said. She curled up against him and put the bottom of her sleeping bag over his legs. It was quiet in the tent.
She said, “Too bad there aren’t any mosquitos tonight, or you could impress me.”
Jack unzipped his sleeping bag and lifted her legs and sat up and swiveled around on his butt.
“No,” she said.
“We have to brush our teeth,” he said.
“I refuse,” she said. She covered her head with her sleeping bag.
“Activities of daily living,” he said. “Help me help you.” He pulled his boots onto his bare feet and felt in his duffel bag for his dopp kit. She hugged the bag under her chin.
“I’m getting better,” she said. “Scout’s honor. This isn’t a sign of anything. But I can’t do it tonight. I’m freezing. I’ll do it twice in the morning.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m kidding. I’m cruel. But I have to do it. I can’t sleep if I don’t.”
He knew it about her and she knew it about him.
When he got back in the tent he took out his dailies and she sat up in her sleeping bag and he handed her one of the soft contacts and they each swallowed one for good luck.
Jack woke in the dark. He felt the cold hard ground through his sleeping pad. He zipped out of his bag, pulled on his boots, put on his vest, and unzipped the tent. He peed on the nearest tree. It was just starting to get light. His body ached and his nose was stuffed. Back in the tent he sat down on his fleece which had been his pillow and took off his boots. Jessie had rolled up against the wall of the tent. He tried to kiss her but she pressed her lips shut. She sat up and unzipped her sleeping bag.
“It’s really cold,” she said. She put on her boots and took the Nalgene and her toothbrush and the roll of toilet paper and left the tent.
When she came back she kept her boots on and kneeled on her pad.
“It’s pretty cold for sex,” he said. “What do you think? Just some hand jobs?”
“Yeah, I want to do some hand jobs,” she said. She waggled her toothbrush. “Coming right up.”
He built a fire, soaped the skillet, and made coffee. The snow next to the tent was spattered bright red. His thumb had sprayed like a hose. He tried to scuff it out with his boot and then with the shovel but it was frozen deep in the snow.
The bacon thawed and separated in the skillet. The fire was too hot and the bacon slid around in its grease and each time the fire settled he needed to reposition the pan. Then the grease caught fire. He wrapped his hand in the dishtowel and put the skillet down in the snow where it hissed and steamed. He rewrapped the towel, carried the skillet to the edge of the campsite, and dumped out the smoking grease and the burned bacon at the base of a tree.
They drank coffee and then Jessie went into the woods with the wet wipes and when she came back Jack took the wet wipes and went into the woods in a different direction. When he got back she had tidied up the camp and boiled more water and was pouring it over the bloody snow.
“I had a nightmare,” she said. “My nose was swollen up like a giant abscess or pimple or something. I squeezed it and it started to split open. My nose. I kept squeezing and there was something inside. Something wet and slimy.”
He took the kettle from her.
“I reached in and pulled on it and it started to come out and it was this… segment. Like, a segment of a grapefruit. Except it was, like, flesh and cartilage, and the juice was all blood.” She shuddered. Her face was pale. He put the kettle down and cupped her chin and held her face up to the weak sunlight. She closed her eyes. He angled her face around and studied it.
“That’s a gross fucking dream,” he said. She opened her eyes.
They sat down at the picnic table. It was almost eight. They’d planned on hiking the mountain at dawn. He hadn’t been able to shit and his stomach was tight and sore and his face was filmed with grease.
“Baby,” Jessie said. “I’m sorry I didn’t brush my teeth last night. I know I’m bad about that.”
“No,” Jack said. “I’m the weird one. I’m obsessed with it. You’re totally rational. I’m sorry I always try to kiss you in the morning. I know you hate that.” She put her head on his shoulder and picked up his bandaged hand. She untied the bandana.
“It’s not that I hate it,” she said. “It’s the halitosis. I’ll have it forever. It’s my albatross.” She started unwrapping the bandana. The blood spot got bigger with each layer that came off.
“I’m sorry I cut my hand like an idiot,” Jack said.
“Give me a break,” she said. “Does it hurt?”
It did hurt. Not like a cut but like a bruise. He wondered if he’d struck the bone.
“Tell you what,” he said. “New plan for the day.” She un-velcroed something from his thumb.
“I forgot that we put oil on it. Why did we put oil on it?”
“It’s not oil,” he said. “We talked about putting oil on it. I don’t know why. We put whiskey on it. On a paper towel.” That was the velcro feeling. “So listen. New plan. Instead of the mountain let’s just stay here today. Let’s make a new thing of cider and get drunk and play cards. Read our books.” He jerked his hand away and she said sorry.
“Great plan,” she said. “You make beautiful plans. We can even see about those hand jobs. There.” She leaned back and he held up his hand. It felt light and cold in the air. There were lines of dried blood where the edges of the bandana had been. Down the side of his thumb there was a dark red slit and around it was bloodless white skin, clear-edged and tingling. He pressed his finger against the pad of his thumb and the red slit bulged. It was the deep flesh and under it was the bone.
“Woah,” she said. He pressed around it, seeing how deep it went.
He loved her. They were going to get married. Not now, but some day. They’d talked about it a hundred times. It was the great sure fact of his life.
Copyright 2018 Curtis