by Bruce Holbert
Smoker's first whiff of trouble was Pork on his pickup's end-gate in insulated coveralls and an orange hunting cap, leaning against a half case of the Olympia beer he favored. Pork was his father, named not for his stoutness, but for a disposition resembling a porcupine's. He fished a fresh can from his box and tipped it in Smoker's direction, but Smoker told him he wouldn't drink elk piss and sauntered into Crazy Eddie's Tavern for a quart of Lucky Lager, which the place was short of, even in the cans. He helped himself to a house bottle the regulars kept with their cribbage winnings, instead. Myrna, the new bartender, clucked. He grinned at her, but she expected more. Smoker had undressed every Crazy Eddie's barmaid past middling since high school, and it had a way of out-legging him.
Outside, Pork commandeered the whiskey and raised it to the sun remaining. The bourbon leveled in the clear glass.
"Apt to be short," he said. Pork'd been six years without whiskey and would be ten more after. It only stood to reason he'd want his lapse notable.
"What's got your tail tied to the rocker rail?" Smoker asked him.
"Got to give your brother the sendoff," Pork said.
"He doesn't want any stag party. I asked him."
"Not up to him to want. Up to us to give."
Pork insisted on taking his rig. At the jar store, he bought a half-gallon of Canadian whiskey and a jug of Peppermint Schnapps. Once he got a pint or so in him, he didn't care for liquor plain, but found soda too thin a cut. Smoker watched him slide under the wheel, then uncap both and drink.
"You smell like a mint with a hard-on," Smoker told him.
Pork swirled the whiskey in the bottle and gazed at the twisting foam. His brow pinched over his eyes and his chin dropped, leaving him all forehead in the stretching shadows. His brother, Andre, had inherited their father's looks and his moods, too. Neither were to be envied, but after 24 years, Smoker still hadn't worked out what stitched him to Pork.
"We could get double-drunk and run you down some split-tail, just let Andre be," Smoker said. Whiskey would shut Pork like a door to a black room. This was the last he could be talked to.
"He'd prefer it that way, I'll grant you."
"Let it go, then."
"He's holding up at the one place we're sure to find him," Pork said.
"Because he's expecting us. Not because he's enjoying the prospect."
Pork blinked at the streetlights oranging. "We're obliged. He recognizes that."
"Wouldn't it be nice to disappoint him just the once?" Smoker asked.
Pork's driving was none too good sober, but drunk, he grew mindful, and Smoker abandoned hope they'd be arrested before they could do harm. They left the pavement for a gravel road. The federal government had finally surrendered damages to the Colvilles for what the reservoirs covered; it was no mean sum. Smoker had attended the meeting. The tribe would've put Andre three stories up, a balcony sticking over the water if he was so inclined, but Andre wanted only the rooms Claire lived in, so they'd set up housekeeping on her weedy street end.
Andre answered Smoker's knock but not before recognizing the truck idling. The old man and their mother complained she thought college put herself above them. Smoker pointing out Andre'd earned his sheepskin, too, made little difference, as they were suspicious of him, too.
"He was set to come with or without me," Smoker said.
"Where is the bride off to?" Smoker asked.
"Somewhere and won't come back till I leave. She says you're not to see your wife on the wedding day until she's prettied up."
"I know a few who make a habit of not seeing them after." Smoker said.
"Seems in the coulee married's just a rest between single and single again," he said.
"Not for me," Andre said.
"No, not for you," Smoker told him. "You can bunk with me."
"I'm set up already," Andre told him. "Though I'll spruce at your place in the morning if you don't care."
"I'm the best man." Smoker felt some guilt in the duty. He'd kept near a season of steady work and had not provoked Dede in six weeks, and a tuxedo he paid cash rent for hung in his trailerhouse closet with new shoes under, a worthy accounting until he'd surrendered whiskey to the orneriest drunk within a hundred miles and picked as poor day as there was to do it.
"You think we can stall old Porkchop till the jar store closes?" Andre asked.
"He'll only drag us to a cocktail lounge."
"We could run him out of money there."
"Us, too," Smoker said. "Besides, he'll just write bad checks."
Smoker poured himself some water in the kitchen. Photographs of Claire and his brother checkered the refrigerator door. They'd hooked up only a year past, but she'd managed a thorough record. They'd vacationed at the ocean once and documented one another lying in the sand or wading. The rest were Andre and Claire doing nothing memorable, standing downtown gawking or in the house reading books or the yard raking. Smoker himself had a bent for exacting events from his days, which occupied him enough to avoid books or garden tools. When he visited, Claire would hunt the camera and shoot him. The picture would make the fridge for a week or so, then end up replaced with more of themselves. It left him feeling unremembered.
Pork rode them through Grand Coulee, then Electric City, towns made by uprooted midwesterners of the Thirties, hunting dam work. The passing lake was as white as the ground, though flatter. A bevy of Russians had sawed holes in the ice, intent on squawfish. Their fire barrels pocked the surface with torchlight.
"You think married's easy?" Pork asked.
"Easier," Andre said.
"One drink and you're goofy as women," Pork said.
"You were married," Smoker said. "You do hard math?"
"Anybody you know do it?"
"This ain't about adding and subtracting."
"No, there's division and geometry. What's 472 divided by 128?"
"You don't know, neither," Pork said.
"Ain't me giving advice. You got to be qualified."
Pork thumped his chest with his thumb. "I'm married," he said.
"Mother that hard on you?"
Smoker had. One as owly as a kid with colic, the other wound tight as Saturday night. They were no advertisement for bliss.
"You got a heart, goddammit, that'll work against you." Pork surrendered the wheel and leaned across Smoker to argue his point. The two looked more brothers than father and son. Their ancient round faces and wide, blunt eyes were better suited for broad horizons and game skylining, and their pocked skin for bearing hard weather, rather than lowlighted taverns where a woman appreciated the good straight line a chin or nose can cut.
"Turn," Smoker said.
Pork raised himself to allow the wheel to spin. "I did once, too," he said
"You don't know heart from kidneys," Smoker told him.
"I know enough to figure I ain't the only one ever felt something," Pork said. He held Andre's coat in his fists, but Andre's eyes were remained with the darkness beyond the window glass. It was true, he and Andre shared the same melancholy. The old man had discovered their mother in high school and spent his life charting her. She was harsh geography, with shifting borders, but a homeland nonetheless. Andre had the same talent for sentiment, but no knack for exploring. Young, it'd turned him girly, then just sullen. Women Smoker tried to steer toward him balked because they saw him weak, and Smoker couldn't get them to comprehend the other end of it. Heart had ruined Andre, that was certain, but a man suffering such who hadn't swallowed a gun barrel was not likely fragile. If anybody tested Smoker, he held his own in a tavern scuffle, but Andre took blows without feeling them. No one sober had tried him since high school.
"Don't listen no better than before," Pork said. He backed himself from Andre and retook the wheel and the whiskey. They'd left the reach of the town's glow, coming to where the high coulee walls blackened both sides of the lake, leaving the moon alone shining and the ice under blue in the glow.
"Maybe I'm considering the source," Andre said.
"You got no right to say that to me, goddammit."
"Well, maybe you do," Pork admitted. "But it ain't kind."
Pork passed the bottle across Smoker to Andre, who, himself, had been six months dry until he undid the cap and swallowed deep, then let Smoker have his turn. Alcohol was greasing a zirc to Smoker, just proper maintenance. He'd nurse a beer all day and not feel shorted or down eight and just want a nap. He'd likely as not choose lemonade, given the chance. It seemed to him the comfort in drinking was the same solace that keeps the army manned, that being, though you enlist all by yourself, you come out the same as the others. Andre, though, it stranded. He was a drunk, and he was gutted by it. Even sober the waiting to drink sawed on him, so that either way he was butchered and on the meathook, his parts scattered around him to study and mourn, leaving him unfit for people.
Smoker decided to swap horses. "How you figure I'd do married?" he asked.
"Not good," Pork told him.
"I make them stick, sometimes two or three at once."
"Many are easier to manage than one."
"Dede," he said. "We been steady a good while."
"I doubt you'd give up fishing just because you landed a keeper."
"He was being skunked."
Andre said nothing. The dash light kept him as ghostly as the country around them. Not long ago, Pork's bluntness would've taken a month of hard whiskey to dig from Andre's hide. His face reflected no feeling now, though, still, except his blinking watery eye pitched up the pavement.
Pork wheeled through a turnout and aimed the truck back toward town.
"Switch that heat on awhile," he said. Sitting in the middle left Smoker accountable for the heater fan.
"I'm already too hot," Smoker said.
"You ain't the only sheep in the herd."
"But I'm the only one that can reach the heater."
Pork bent for the switch and swerved the truck. Hot air poured into Smoker's lap. The old man gave him a toothy grin. It wasn't a minute later the engine wheezed. Pork tapped the dash gauges like maybe they'd right themselves.
"Should've kept the fan off," Smoker told him.
"Heater don't use gas," he said.
They pushed the pickup to where the road shoulder widened. Pork ferreted through the cab, coming up finally with a plastic milk jug with the top sawed to the handle. He headed toward town and the filling station, saying not a word.
Smoker and Andre returned to the truck cab to keep out of the wind. The fan was blowing cold air and the window glass in front of them was already frosted. Smoker watched his brother draw a bear print on the window and then a peace sign. Just a hen's track in a circle, Pork had told them growing up. Andre's breaths rose in clouds, leaving him vague. Smoker thought he'd dropped into a doze until he stirred himself enough to find the whiskey, open the truck door, and set off up the road shoulder.
"It don't take more than one for the gas," Smoker shouted.
Andre kept on. He'd gone thick early like many in their tribe and Smoker easily caught him running. Andre tipped the bottle and drank like he had a bet on it. Cars passed, none carrying Pork, nor anyone generous enough to offer rescue from the weather. Andre remained intent, laboring a half-hour without letup until they hit Claire's street once more.
"Thought you were supposed to keep clear till tomorrow."
Andre hushed him. Together they circled the duplex through an alley until Andre stooped under a tall spruce and motioned for Smoker to do the same. The tree was dense and stunk like gin, the earth under it frozen and bare. Andre shoved his arm through the canopy of branches until a long lawn chair and mummy bag came loose. He undid the chair so they could sit, then laid the sleeping bag over them.
"You're going to be frosty by morning," Smoker told him
"Don't I know it," Andre said. The pine was perched on a low hill and they could see easily into the apartment without being seen themselves. Smoker recognized Claire, bent, hemming a bride's maid gown at her machine. She nodded at her work. Andre had a drink from the bottle and Smoker took a turn to chase off the chill. In a while, Claire stood and went to the window and stretched her arms. She was stick-thin, but preferred her clothes big, which left her shapeless. She had nice teeth, though, and she'd cut her hair short recently, which brightened her face pleasantly.
A car passed and for a moment Smoker thought they'd be found out, but the lights reflected off the dumpster behind them.
"You considered this some, didn't you?" Smoker said.
Andre said nothing. Claire had shut her eyes. She had one hand raised and one foot, too, looking like a dog on point if the bird was straight up. One hip thrust forward suddenly and the other back and she began to spin. Her hand fell from overhead like slow water and when it met the other, she let them both spread about her waist as if they were pooling. Her legs seemed to be not moving at all and on her face was an expression Smoker had only seen in children.
Then Dede rose from a couch that faced away from the window. She set down her own dress, which she was trimming. Smoker had no idea she was visiting, though it seemed natural enough. He watched her laugh and try to whirl, too. She could muster only half a revolution until Claire took one of her elbows and steered her into a spiral. Dede was pretty as a wildcat and about as hard to corner. Her snug jeans and tightly tucked shirt left it clear where a person's attention ought to be, but she seemed to be suddenly wanting.
"She's the only girl I ever seen naked," Andre said.
Smoker shook his head. "That yell leader I brought back to your dorm room was naked. I remember her hollering."
"It was because you grabbed her blanket and made her chase you. She never would've shown herself otherwise."
"I was sharing," Smoker said.
"You were lording it over me."
Andre drank again, taking long pulls.
"You never seen another woman undressed?" Smoker asked him.
"Not once." He took a deep pull of whiskey and sighed.
"That make you better, you think?"
"No, but it doesn't make me worse, anymore."
The purpled sky had surrendered to the black. Andre picked up a pebble and lobbed it into a mound of grey snow.
"What'd she find to give up fishing?" Smoker asked.
"Nothing I can see that hasn't been there all along." Andre said. Andre closed his eyes. He inhaled a breath and kept it until he was coughing on his own exhaust, then took another and did the same. Smoker watched his face swell and eyes empty. In the park, as children, they'd entertained one another by hyperventilating into blackouts. Smoker imagined Andre's brain then and now, light and swirling, aloft.
"She's worried I want someone enough to take anyone," Andre said.
"It's her worry. She's just putting it on me to get a clear look." Andre let out a breath and watched it disintegrate against the spruce branches. "I don't have much practice loving," he said.
"Hell, you're the only one of us with training at all," Smoker told him. "You got all the goddamm feelings."
"And you got all the stabbings."
"There were many a night I'd liked to found out."
"How about we trade," Smoker said.
"No," Andre told him. "Not now."
He took two blasts from the bottle, then a breath, then two more before he curled on his part of the chair and gazed at the ground, breathing deep, counting pebbles or weighing seconds, the same thing Smoker did when he was drunk and didn't want to be.
"I knew I'd be drinking tonight."
"Why didn't you just gargle on the bottle or take little sips, the old man'd never know."
"You'd know," Andre said. Laying down, his heavy brow hooded his eyes and he looked kin to one of the middle pictures on those Progression of Man charts. His lashes fluttered, though, like a girl's. Looking gentle was difficult for one so ill-favored. Smoker considered himself and his face fine for undoing a woman. He had no bent for healing, though, and no appetite to learn. Tenderness irritated him and he let each dress and fester like an open sore until she foresook him for some other, believing the lacking resided in herself. He'd done no better for Andre. He closed his eyes then tipped his head back and let them open. The sky was a starry liquid, blowing in waves above him, as if he were a fish at the bottom of a lake, studying the boundaries of his world. A pair of cars came and went and Smoker understood he was a selfish man and a poor brother and there was nothing he was prepared to do about the matter.
An hour passed until Smoker heard Pork's truck cough up the street. He waved them to the alley to keep Andre's camp disguised. Pork joined him, the pickup still idling. "That Myrna woman at Eddie's has a shine for you. I figure you can parlay that into some goodwill for your brother. I bought her a couple of highballs. She's a blacker-outer, I hear. Won't have no story to tell."
"Neither will he."
"We'll acquaint him with it later."
"He's passed out."
"We'll stir him, then."
"I got to piss," Andre moaned.
Together, they propped him against the tree. When a car turned, though, the lights lit him, so they headed to the back of the dumpster, dragging Andre by the shoulders like downed game. They leaned him against the metal, but he slid, then lay down in the cold gravel, laughing and flapping his arms and legs. "Gravel angel," he said.
"You hungry for a woman, son," Pork asked him.
"She don't require you tonight, you'll recall," Smoker told him.
The street was quiet.
"I got to piss, still."
Smoker propped his feet wide, then squatted under his chest and pressed until Andre leaned again against the dumpster's white metal.
"Piss." Smoker told him.
Andre worked at his pants and then turned. "I can't get it unzipped, Smoke."
Smoker bent and unbuttoned the jeans and pulled down the zipper. Pork stuck a match and lit a cigarette, though he'd been off them longer than liquor. Smoker looked at him and he put another to the end and passed it. They both smoked awhile.
"You know, you can get some strange whenever you please. Your brother isn't so lucky."
"Myrna medicine for that, is she?"
"I ain't saying it's a cure. Us being good to him is all."
"It's you and me making him a present of what we'd want."
"We? You standing there looking like a goddamm prince saying we." He spat. "We got nothing common but name."
Smoker could see they did. Cold light sprang off the gravel like tiny stars. The night'd turned school and he was learning.
Andre reached into his underwear. He scratched himself, then shut his eyes.
"Good Christ. He's going to piss himself," Pork said.
Smoker sighed and reached into Andre's pants, pulling out what he'd been hunting. The stream arced into the light and splattered on the gravel, piss ruining Smoker's good coat.
Pork shook his head, disgusted. "Fruits," he mumbled. "I raised me a couple of fruits."
Smoker nearly broke his knuckle on Pork's bridge work. The old man collapsed to all fours. Smoker stood over him, rubbing his aching hand. Blood from Pork's mouth puddled the snow.
"It don't do to insult you, I guess," Pork said.
"You once told me whoever gets the first blow is likely to land the second," Smoker warned him.
"Only thing I taught you that stuck, seems to me."
"Everything stuck, goddammit."
Andre laughed and slid down the dumpster, his bean dripping dry.
"You going to belt me again?" Pork asked.
"I don't guess even you'd hit a man down." Pork crawled to Andre. Smoker watched him lift his brother's chin in one hand and turn his face toward him. Sleeping people were supposed to look pure as the young, Smoker'd heard, but Andre only seemed himself. Pork brushed the hair out of his eyes. Smoker could see the mess he'd made of his father's face.
"I don't know this boy at all, do I?" Pork said.
"It's our own dammed fault," Smoker told him.
"I'm not arguing."
They dragged Andre to the lawn chair and worked the sleeping bag over him, then zipped and buttoned it tight, so only his face was exposed to the cold. Smoker found a halved tamarack round and propped his brother to one side, same as parents with pillows keeping babies from choking on their own stomachs.
Finished, Smoker made for the car and heat. Pork said he wasn't coming.
Smoker warmed until his hands stopped aching, then dropped the clutch and backed away. Light poured over Pork's back and head and his brother sleeping, then slid off them. Smoker wondered if Dede would end up at his place. Him there first would be a shock to her. He smiled at that, imagining her returning, shutting the door quietly, blinking at the lump in the bed that was him. The room would be cool, and she would undress quickly, then crawl under the sheets and trace his shape with hers, redrawing him for the warmth of it. She'd sleep and he'd wake, alone, with nothing but her breathing and the wind sighing and the walls creaking as if they were set to close over him.
The next day, Andre got married. Pork and Smoker stood straight, half-drunk again in their tuxedos. Nobody said a word about his lip. The reception was in the tavern. The proprietor gave the wedding party ten dollars' worth of quarters for the jukebox as a gift. Andre and Claire stood holding hands and punching in their favorites. The juke light made them glow. When the music took up, Andre set his open hand in the small of her back and his other palm met hers and they were dancing. Andre's mouth opened and closed and Smoker could see he was singing.
He didn't care much to dance himself, but when Dede tugged his hand and pulled, he followed. She kissed him and he parted his lips and whispered into her ear small things that neither of them would remember. Past the bar, Pork sat alone at a table. He had unbuttoned his jacket, and his damp shirt stuck to him where he'd sweated through it. He held a glass of brown bourbon, turning it in his hands. When he saw Smoker watching, he tipped his drink. Dede, humming to the music too, stopped and breathed in, surprised when Smoker suddenly pulled her closer.