Summer Stories: ‘Red Zone’ by Ben Goldfarb
Aug. 2, 2020 Updated Wed., Sept. 23, 2020 at 2:40 p.m.
Author Ben Goldfarb
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.
The fishing tackle lay where he’d left it, in the muddy bilgewater on the canoe’s floor. Rod, tacklebox, carton of nightcrawlers dug up from the woodpile. Hank threaded a crawler onto his hook and flung the rig. The bobber vanished into the mist, landed with a distant plop. Hank leaned forward, the rod light in his fingers, the canoe adrift.
His canoe. His dock. His cabin. He hadn’t yet gotten used to the pronoun. The place had been theirs, though Hank’s own ties to the cabin ran deeper than Mark or Rebecca could fathom. They loved the place in their own shallow way but were not of it. Not the way Hank was. The sealant that bound its logs practically ran through his veins. His father had laid the final cedar-shake shingles on the steeply pitched roof in 1950, or so his mother told him – the year Hank was born. He’d never lived in a world without it.
Whether the world would let him have it, though, was another matter.
Two years of legal wrangling had finally concluded that winter – the dispute resolved in Hank’s favor, as he’d known it would be. The deed to the cabin had arrived in a manila envelope in late March, liberated from the purgatory of a lawyer’s filing cabinet. Hank gazed at the document reverently, held it to the dingy light that seeped into his cramped kitchen in Kelso. He touched his mother’s signature, faint and spidery. She’d struggled to hold a pen by the end.
The mountain stirred that week as though in response to this seismic development, smudging the crisp blue sky with a mile-high tower of steam and ash. Hank watched the footage, awed but unworried. The mountain had backdropped much of his life, and he’d seen it in all its moods: flame-lit at sunrise, engulfed by cloud, bone white in spring, slate-colored by fall. Nothing it did could surprise him.
But humans were more reactionary than mountains, and by the time he drove up in early April – the deed folded in his glove compartment, months of canned food in the bed of his F-100 – the Red Zone had been established. Near the mountain, the road to Spirit Lake became a crime scene, choked with hasty concrete barriers and signs that read “Hazard Area.” A Forest Service cop lowered his razor-burned face to Hank’s driver-side window. “You got a permit?”
“I got a place on the lake,” Hank said.
“You still need a permit,” the ranger said. “Scientists and law enforcement only. Governor’s orders came down last week.”
Hank stared. “For some steam?”
“Gonna be more than steam, brother.”
“Doubt that,” Hank said. He slapped the steering wheel and turned the truck back the way he’d come. He drove slowly this time, scouring the roadside wall of Doug fir, and after a few miles found what he sought, an overgrown logging track knifed into the timber. He glanced into the rearview to make sure no one was on his tail, then swung onto the old Weyerhaeuser road, leaving asphalt behind.
He stashed the truck behind an alder thicket, loaded his Army-issued rucksack with supplies – plenty of food at the cabin, but who knew how long this inanity would last – and set out. Hank hiked through clearcuts and stands flagged for harvest, waded streams swollen with frigid melt. He’d come up on a Sunday, and the woods were empty of loggers. He reached the cabin by sunset, just as the last pink blush of day lit the wispy steam billowing from the mountain’s summit.
Hank got his first bite after 20 minutes on the lake. He reeled in the rainbow, slit its throat and slipped the stringer through its gills. The fish bobbed alongside the canoe. The mist was burning off, and he could see the mountain now, its profile distorted by the tumorous bulge that had grown near its summit, staving in its peak like the dent in a fedora.
For weeks the mountain had been restive, disgorging black columns of ash that roiled like midsummer thunderheads and flashed with lightning. Once he swore he’d seen a blue flame flickering above its crater, eerie and alive. At night the cabin shook, tin camping plates and mugs clattering like false teeth in the cabinets. But the volcano had gone silent for a couple of days now, and Hank suspected the show was over.
Hank appreciated the mountain’s histrionics: the frequent flyovers notwithstanding, it kept the lake quiet. The Spirit Lake of Hank’s childhood had been utter cacophony – the growl of outboard motors, the screams of waterskiers, the braying laughter of men grilling hot dogs. Mark and Rebecca had contributed to the din. They’d been a high-spirited, rowdy pair, always cannonballing off docks and banging screen doors and jostling for prime marshmallow-roasting position. Hank, nearly a decade younger than his siblings, spent summer days alone, excluded from their canoe races and wrestling matches by dint of his youth.
By the time he was 10, they’d both slid from his life – Mark to college and then law school in New York, Rebecca to California to do, well, something. His father was long dead by then, too. Hank vaguely recalled a towering, genial presence, redolent of gin and sawdust, placing a kind hand on his shoulder.
Through it all, the cabin remained – snug, solid, stubbornly well-crafted. Every May, Hank and his mom left Kelso the day school let out, trunk loaded with groceries and board games. They spent summers in the mountain’s protective shadow, fishing off the dock by day and reading by firelight at night in companionable silence. Her energy had waned since her husband’s death, but that suited Hank fine. When she went upstairs to lie down in the afternoon, he split wood or searched for elk sign. At school, Hank was a solemn, inscrutable shadow; the cabin, without his raucous siblings, offered a refuge where no social stigma adhered to solitude. Where the only cohabitant, his mother, seemed to require as much personal space as he did.
His eyes on the bobber, Hank briefly tried to compute the date. He’d kept count for a couple weeks, then lost track in late April. Now it was mid-May, he was almost certain. The 16th, maybe. Or, no – the 19th. Not that it mattered. He had nowhere to be, no dependents and an infinite supply of fresh fish.
From the silence, he knew the Red Zone was still in place. He’d decided against using the fireplace, which made for cold nights, but Hank suspected that he’d catch crap if anyone saw smoke curling from the chimney. He wasn’t sure if the authorities could force him out, but he had no desire to deal with a fresh-faced Smokey Bear-type imploring him to save himself. The cabin had only just become his, and you couldn’t pry him out with a crowbar.
Yesterday morning, he’d thought briefly that the blockade had lifted. He’d been reading on the couch – Conrad, an eternal favorite – when he heard engines, doors slamming, male voices. Sharp knuckles rapped on the sturdy pine door. Official knuckles.
“Anyone in there?”
Hank held his breath, eased back into the couch. He heard two sets of boots shuffling on the porch, muffled voices, the words “evacuation” and “unoccupied.” The door rattled against the thrown deadbolt. The boots thumped away.
When the men were gone, Hank crept upstairs, raised his binoculars to the bedroom window and peeked out. Up and down the lake, his neighbors bustled from cars to cabins, cabins to cars, loading cardboard boxes into trunks and backseats. He deduced the situation: The governor, still laboring under the delusion that the mountain was dangerous, had suspended the Red Zone to let homeowners collect their belongings. Sheer idiocy, Hank thought – if the mountain really was at risk of erupting, why let folks in at all?
All day, he watched people he’d known since childhood prep for a catastrophe that would never come. There was Andy Ailey, owner of the most decrepit powerboat on Spirit Lake, tossing duffel bags into his Olds. There was Lisa Webster, whom he’d once seen sunbathing topless, taking a smoke break after filling her Pontiac with trash bags of clothes. Through the binoculars, they seemed as tiny and inconsequential as termites, twitchy with aimless industry. He felt a sudden, crazy suspicion he’d see Mark and Rebecca among them, then remembered that his siblings had no claim here. Wherever they were, it wasn’t Spirit Lake.
It was only natural that Hank, now a man, had gravitated again to the cabin in 1972. He’d tried living in Kelso after discharge, he had, but his stint in the jungle still hovered over him, somehow tugging his strings. Bar fights, lost jobs, a hazily remembered car crash. A night in jail, then two. “This right here is your one war hero pass,” the sheriff told Hank the morning he let him out. “Don’t think you’ll get another.”
Hank went to Spirit Lake to cool off for a few days. He stayed five years. In summer, he fished; fall he hunted elk; winter he plowed through 10-foot drifts in a snowmobile checking a trapline. Mark and Rebecca, who’d both ended up in Seattle after their wanderings, visited sometimes – his brother with a whiny pack of sunburn-prone kids, his sister in the company of a smug conscientious objector. No one had anything to say to him. Hank grew a beard. Other families along the lake, who’d known him as an odd but gentle child, nodded politely and avoided chitchat when they ran into him buying beer at the general store. When he needed conversation, he sought out Harry, the profane old guy at the lodge who’d pour whiskey and Cokes and swap war stories. Harry bobbing in the Atlantic after his troop transporter was drilled by a U-boat; Hank hunkering in the jungle as ragged lightning lit up Khe Sanh.
And he had his mother, of course. She came up often to read on the porch, stick her toes in the lake, watch the mountain change color with twilight. She was a secretary at a dentist’s office now, and it occurred to Hank that she’d started working again so that she’d have an excuse to go back to Kelso each Sunday evening to escape the dolorous man her boy had become. When they read together by the fire, he often looked up from “Lord Jim” to find her watching him, flickering shadows etched in the deep crevices of her face.
Still, when she’d gotten sick in ’77 and refused hospitals and hospice, there was no question who would assume her care. Hank boarded up the cabin and moved back to Kelso to spend the next year by her bedside. Mark and Rebecca flitted in and out, dropping off flowers and fruit baskets; it was Hank who peeled the oranges and fed her the segments. It was Hank who read Austen aloud to her, who held her papery hand, who brushed her lank hair and threw away the clumps.
Hank brought up the cabin in the final weeks of her life. He’d gathered from conversation with Mark, her executor, that joint ownership would fall to all three siblings – an arrangement he found intolerable. Let his brother and sister have the money, the Kelso house, whatever jewelry hadn’t been pawned. The cabin meant nothing to them and everything to him. Hank, with her bedside as his bully pulpit, had convinced his mother of this wisdom and persuaded her to hire a lawyer to change the will – or, more accurately, let the lawyer that Hank found change it. Three weeks after she signed the new document, she was gone.
The legal proceedings began a month after her death. Mark and Rebecca, wielding the phrase “undue influence” like a battering ram, argued that their scheming younger brother had manipulated a senile woman. Hank’s attorney, hired out of the yellow pages with some G.I. savings, pointed out that their mother had been nail-sharp to the end. Why, she’d completed the Sunday crossword two days before she died.
His siblings fumed to no avail. Hank knew they would never speak again, that the narrative of the devious brother who’d seized the family home would become enshrined in their own histories, passed down through generations like a heritable disease. Decades from now, grandnieces and grandnephews he’d never meet would tell the story, their outrage still fresh. We had a summer house on Spirit Lake until some mean uncle stole it. Well, let them.
After two hours, Hank had caught four fish, enough to last a few days. The snow-filled couloirs that veined the mountain gleamed in the morning light. Spirit Lake spread before him like a mirrored plain. He guessed it was 7:30 am.
His thoughts wandered to his brother and sister: Mark teaching him to pierce the thick pale band at the nightcrawler’s midsection so the trout couldn’t nibble it off the hook; Rebecca pointing out the elk picking their way across the mountain’s face. When the Red Zone ended, Hank decided with a burst of charity, he’d let them come to the cabin for a day or two. Give them a chance to sift through the photos and knickknacks that clotted the cupboards and shelves. Salvage a few keepsakes.
Hank bore them no ill will, he’d told them repeatedly – at mediation sessions, over the phone and finally in formal letters on his lawyer’s stationery. They simply had no purchase here. They had their own lives; the Spirit Lake house was his. And he knew they’d been wrong about their mother’s mental state – unlike them, he’d been there for her. She’d given him the house not because he’d manipulated her, but because she alone knew what it meant to him.
Hank spun the canoe toward the shore, toward the cabin with the pitched roof that squatted in the lakefront pines. From a distance, the place looked weathered and durable, sculpted more by nature than by man – a landscape feature as eternal as the forest or the mountain itself. It was his habitat, he thought, as surely as the bear’s cave or the owl’s tree hollow, and he’d been right to claim the only place he’d ever felt at peace. He had a sudden vision of himself as an old man rocking on the porch, ankle crossed over knee, the lake stretching before him to lap at the mountain’s toe. Hank dipped his paddle and headed for home.
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