- Sat Jun 23, 2018 4:01 pm
Dust swirls upward in columns of sunlight before settling on ferns along the edge of an easy bend in a rutted dirt road. The old truck, with its mismatched driver-side door and dented front quarter panel, is the first to pass by here in three days. A high oak canopy closes overhead, marking the dry sand and cobble with illusionary, shifting flecks of midday sunlight. The road carves its way north through a swath of rolling hardwood forest, one of the few scars across an expanse of national forest land that runs clear north to the abrupt, battered edges of the Straits of Mackinac. To the west the hardwoods race upwards, checkered with old clear cuts now choked with stands of poplar and birch that hide century-old white pine stumps - broad, crosscut-scarred erratics. East, the upland falls away into a cedar and hemlock swamp bogged with black mud and moss, divided by a twisting current of spring water that slides over powder-fine yellow sand. In a few months men would come down the road to hunt grouse and deer in the old clear cuts, but soft afternoons in June normally brought only the static of cicadas or an abstract rush of wind through the tree tops. The man in the truck with the mismatched door wears a faded blue cotton shirt, sleeves loosely pushed up to his elbows. His left arm tips out of a rolled down window, the other hanging slack from a loose grip on top of the steering wheel. Long grey hair, still streaked in places with its former sandy brown color, strays out from beneath an old red ballcap, its brim frayed and stained with engine oil and dirt. He lets the truck roll between ruts down the center of the road, figuring nobody else had been down this way in a while, nor would they anytime soon. He’d never enjoyed sharing, and figured it might partly explain the comfort he found in solitude. A white mutt dog with a brown eye patch and a bobbed tail stands in the passenger seat, front paws planted on a window sill, head as far out as it can reach. The dog turns and grins at the man, its tongue lagging from the corner of its mouth, short tail working furiously. The man smiles back. The fern-laced curves certainly look familiar, though the county must have widened the road at some point. He watches the dog’s nose work. The mutt has a reliable nose for game birds, half-eaten sandwiches, and old places. They were close now, and it must smell the same, which was good. How anybody could smell the tang of a cedar swamp or the earthy depth of an oak forest and want to change anything, was foremost amid volumes of other things he’d given up on understanding.
With the truck idling in a space in front of the corner store in town, he’d fished a cigarette from the new pack broken open on the dash, and hung it from his mouth, unlit. Flakes of white paint curled away from the mottled dark of dry rot on the plank siding, an Anheuser Busch sign with a jumping bass welcoming fisherman had been taped up, its upper left corner had fallen down and the same sign from the previous fall with a whitetail buck welcoming hunters showed underneath. The mutt dog laid in the seat next to him, its water dish on the sandy floor mat. It napped, not worried over the pause. Wind through the window was nice, but so was the spot of sun on its back and the smooth drumming of an old diesel truck. The man concentrated on the oiled, worn place in the leather wrapped steering wheel where he hung his hand on long drives, then remembered he had pulled in to the lot thinking he might head inside the store for a cold six pack and directions. Or maybe just the beer and a Rand McNally. He traced a crack across the truck’s windshield with his eyes and decided against the map, with its insistence on everything having a name. If the road had a name now he wouldn’t like to know it. Its berth onto the two lane blacktop used to be unmarked except for the swirl of dirty tire tracks across the pavement and a scattering of gravel. Summer tourists, their expedition-grade coolers stuffed with beer and sandwiches for a day on the lake ripped right by, windows rolled up against the dust and heat. Through the windshield he watched a pair of cowboy boots climb down from a lifted Chevy, followed by tan legs, jean shorts, white tank top, and the face of a young woman. He watched her breeze across the parking lot, a long braid of dark hair trailing down her back. She was followed by an equally young guy with barstool muscles and a tattoo of an eagle diving for something unseen on his bicep. An unsuspecting prey was the idea, the man guessed. The young woman pushed through the store’s door and the young guy jogged the last couple steps, catching up in time to grab her butt underneath the bottom of her shorts. She squealed and laughed, wheeling around to hit his arm, her braid flipping over her shoulder. They were gone inside the store.
A six pack with five cold beers in it lays sweating on the floor mat by his feet as the man pushes in the clutch and pulls the shifter back into second gear, engine braking the truck as it crests a rise in the dirt road and coasts down a steep curve. The last few maple and birch trees hold back at the hilltop, watching the truck’s tailgate slip into the thick cedars below. He almost misses the overgrown two-track where it peels off the road to the right, should’ve missed it, if not for a last second flash of familiarity brought on by the left turn of the main road at the bottom of the hill and the sudden darkness of the cedar swamp. Without thinking about it he pulls in far enough to hide from the easy view of a passerby. The mutt dog is out the open window in a flash as the truck’s engine shutters to a stop. The man loops a finger through the empty ring in the six pack, shoves open the door, makes his way around to the back, and drops the tailgate. The dog abandons his patrol around the truck and is up into the bed in an instant, pushing its face close to the man’s, staring at him at eye-level with a wide, tonguey grin, entire back half wagging, bobbed tail a blur.
“Step aside, you goof” The man says grinning, swiping the old puppy aside with one arm and reaching for a stained canvas bag with the other. From the bag he pulls hip waders, a short, three piece graphite fly rod in its sock, a small reel with floating line, and a dented cinnamon Altoids tin. The tin in his front pocket, a beer open on the tailgate, and the mutt dog back to jogging in dutiful circles around the truck, the man lets the heavy silence of the swamp settle in on his shoulders. Here, now, with the fading two-track stretching out beyond the hood of his truck, he relaxes, knowing for sure there is at least one more walk to the stream between him and the rest of his life.
They all wanna be Hank Williams
They don't wanna have to die