Now in its seventh year, The Spokesman-Review’s short-fiction series, Summer Stories, is bigger than ever with 17 stories running from May to September. This year’s theme is Mount St. Helens in honor of the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Washington’s most famous volcano. Stories will appear Sundays in Today.
It was quiet for 140 years. Then, in March, the mountain began to rumble: earthquakes, bursts of steam, blue flame, ash clouds that sparked 2-mile bolts of lightning. All spring, the volcano seethed, spewed and shuddered, magma bubbling up its throat and pushing the north flank out 5 feet a day. Five feet. Like a new human being every day.
It was a Sunday morning in May, and Ben had just left Angela’s dilapidated Seattle apartment building in good spirits. After a year of flirting, yearning and maneuvering (and with the aid of some Jack Daniels added to the espresso they sipped while playing chess at Last Exit on Brooklyn the night before), he’d finally gotten Angela to invite him home. A stupefying soup of oxytocin, dopamine and seratonin swirled through his veins.
As a matter of fact, I never wanted to kill my neighbor’s cat. But sometimes things happen, and sometimes one thing leads to another, and sometimes you’re just kind of swept along in a landslide, and then all of a sudden you’re trying to hide a dead cat. It happens. It all started like three days ago, when the ash started falling.
Paw Paw said it was just hippies on the mountain got smote. And fornicators. “Nary a Christian among them,” he said. “What about my Grandpa Murphy’s camp,” I said. “Closed,” Paw-Paw said. “And they was Catholic anyway – not Christian.” “Catholic is Christian,” my mother said. “And it’s not just hippies up there.” “So blame your lesbian governor,” Paw Paw said. “If that makes you feels better.” “Dad,” my mother said. “Lesbian?” I said. “Everywhere,” Mee Maw said, “with their pantsuits and raucous talk.” “Not like the good old days,” Mom said, “when we were all miners and loggers and prostitutes.” “Prostitutes?” Garrett said, and Paw Paw said, “You don’t know a thing about the good old days.” “Nor loggers,” Mee Maw said. “Nor miners. But it used to be –”
When Mom fell in love with the man of ash, we tried, at first, to be happy for her. We vacuumed, we mopped, we sang. We swept up the ashes without complaint. Even then the thin film of him settled beneath our fingernails or whirled up at us from a plumped cushion, catching in our eyelashes. We muttered to each other as we combed him from our hair. We couldn’t be rid of him even when we were alone.
Hank went down to the dock before dawn. Dirty spring snow lingered along the cobble path that led from cabin to lakeshore. The mist hung so thick that he heard the canoe before he saw it, the rhythmic clunk of aluminum on wood. He flipped the bowline off its cleat, knelt on the damp timbers, grabbed the gunwales and lowered himself into the boat, which rocked and then settled. The dew that soaked the aft seat crept through his jeans. He pushed off the dock with the wooden paddle and the canoe spun away, its snout pointing toward the glassy heart of Spirit Lake, a compass needle to true north.
1. Feast As a contemporary, urban Indigenous woman who visits the outlet shops and the suburban malls for all of her hunting and gathering needs, it’s important to always give a blessing of gratitude to the designers, manufacturers and salespeople who gave their lives so I could shop at this JC Penney and purchase this 70% off Pashmina scarf. And it’s important to pay respects to the Pashmina’s spirit by tearing the receipt from the clerk’s hand, stuffing it into my mouth and consuming its raw, potent and wild power.
Hugh Hubert, the proprietor, founder and sole employee of Hubert & Sons Long-term Catastrophes, sat at a grimy table and tried not to smile. He asked, “Have you considered volcano insurance?” The client, a spindly, dark-haired man named Jake, shook his head. The two men sat in a bland, damp room on the second floor of a strip mall in Kalama, Washington, along the banks of I-5 and within a stone’s throw of the turgid Columbia River. It was a balmy 65-degree January day. The accumulated ice from a cold snap two days prior had nearly melted, its legacy water pooled along the town’s main drag.
We’ve heard rumblings for two months, news of little earthquakes, hundreds of them. Explosions of steam, dark ash covering snow-clad summits. But let’s be honest. I’ve heard rumblings for years. I know the signs: Shivering teacups as a hand smacks a table. Explosions of steam you can feel, the heat coming right off his skin. Dark ash, a mood edging in. A shift in the atmosphere, a foreboding that makes you step oh-so-carefully and turn the doorknobs oh-so-slowly.
My brother tells me that as a baby, on the day I said my first word, my father’s voice was already hoarse from yelling at my mother. When I took my first steps as a toddler, stumbling into my sister’s open arms, a warm embrace that I’ve tried to remember because I don’t ever want to forget her, my dad already had a limp from diabetes. When my cousin taught me to ride a bike, a used Schwinn that looked as though it’d been salvaged in a house fire, my father drove off in our only car. He said he was leaving for good, that he was never coming back. I chased him down the middle of Fruitvale Boulevard, crying. I was young and scared. But everyone else knew better, even my father, because he didn’t take anything with him and was back in time for dinner.
Our big sister Theresa ran away forever on the day that we climbed onto the roof and threw sandwich baggies of hot pee at her boyfriend. Her disappearance wasn’t part of the plan, and the three of us definitely paid for what we did. But if ever a guy deserved to be hit with bags of hot pee, it was him. Manboy, we called him. He worked as a dishwasher and got kicked out of school for selling weed, which was fine with us, but he had a mustache and looked more like her uncle than her boyfriend, which was not fine with us at all.
They were fighting again. They’d come to Seattle because her dad had a meeting, but Becky knew they also came because of the fighting. “I have to go to Seattle for a few days for business,” he’d said last week. “I’ll be back Sunday night.” “Sure. Go. I’ll just stay here and wait for you. That sounds like a dream come true.” Her mom’s voice was sweet. But Becky knew from experience it also was sticky. A trap. “Joanne, the counselor, said sarcasm isn’t an effective way for us to communicate our feelings.”
I saw my twin sister working at the Waffle Hut outside Kid Valley, her hair longer and grayer since we last spoke. That was nine years back, when mom died. An aneurysm seemed to have been waiting and waiting for just the right moment, and then POP! Mom’s gone. Sixty-seven and healthier than either of us, knocked to the ground by a tiny gremlin, right there outside the Goodwill. I didn’t think my sister saw me, but I was wrong. I was usually wrong about Ellen.
Clara was 15, but when Miriam looked at her, she could see her as a baby still. She’d been a fat baby, and Miriam had complained endlessly about what it felt like to carry her – aching back, aching shoulders, constantly wrestling with an animal that wouldn’t take responsibility for its own weight. But now, now she’d give anything for those clearly assignable aches, anything to have her baby press a fat cheek into her face, slobbering her baby slobber onto Miriam’s skin.
College hadn’t worked out for Yeller: He had not even learned to drink well. By spring, his second sophomore year at Eastern Washington University – Eastern Washington State College three years before, their mascot, the Savages; little Indians with tomahawks remained in the athletic facility’s brick walkway – Yeller was an Eagle and a fairly lost bird.
If it weren’t for my daughter’s fever, I might never have talked to Susanna. But we live in a world of rules, and the rule at preschool was no preschool if your kid has a fever. And that’s where it started, this strange set of events: my wife, wrapped in her ruby robe, holding our daughter on her lap and handing me the thermometer. It was a Tuesday. I rinsed the thermometer and fetched the children’s Tylenol. I held the baby and pressed a cold cloth to her flushed cheeks while my wife got dressed and poured herself a cup of coffee. She called in at work. Then, because the baby was sick and my wife would stay home, I didn’t have to stop at the preschool on the way to the archive, which is how I got there early.
1 It came as Father said it would come, a shroud over the sun, a night in the day, a black pall upon the earthly coffin of the wicked. 2 At the campground, the Forest Service man came and asked for $16. “Don’t my taxes already run this place?” Father asked, but the Forest Service man told him it was still $8 a night for each campsite, and our large canvas tent was taking up two of them. “You could get a motel for $16,” Father said.