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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Summer Stories: ‘Saint Helen and the Spokanites’ by Samuel Ligon

Aug. 16, 2020 Updated Wed., Sept. 23, 2020 at 2:39 p.m.

By Samuel Ligon For The Spokesman-Review

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 –”

“Indians,” our mother said.

“And cowboys!” Garrett said.

“You don’t know a thing about Indians,” Paw Paw said, “nor migrant workers, nor any of the others you take up for.”

“Nor sodomites,” Mee Maw said. “Nor Israelites.”

“They’re just people up there,” our mother said, “like anywhere else.”

The light dimmed in the living room, the first sign of the cloud coming.

“And now His wrath is upon us,” Paw Paw said.

Garret cried as the sky went darker. Our mother picked him up, even though he was too big to be picked up. “It not God’s wrath,” she said. “It’s ash from the volcano.”

“It’s literal brimstone,” Paw Paw said.

“Come here, Seth,” my mother said, pulling me in with my brother. “It’s going to be all right.”

“You don’t have to cry about it,” Mee Maw said.

“He can cry if he wants to,” my mother said.

“I’m not crying,” I said.

Paw Paw had the radio blasting.

“You’re lucky you got out when you did,” he said. “Lucky you listened, for once.”

We’d been in Spokane since the mountain woke up, but Mom said it wasn’t about that.

It was about money.

“It was always in him,” Paw Paw said.

“Don’t,” my mother said.

“To slink and slunk –”

“Leave it,” Mee Maw said.

Lightning sparkled through the falling ash, prickling our necks and arms.

My mother wrapped us tighter.

“The top of the mountain appears to be gone,” the radio said.

“Gone?” Garrett said, and Paw Paw said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“Where did it go?” Garrett said.

“On top of us,” Paw Paw said.

“Was Dad there?” I said, and my mom said, “Of course not.”

“Could have been,” Paw Paw said.

“Leave it,” Mee Maw said.

“Likely as anywhere,” Paw Paw said.

But I didn’t believe him. The camp wasn’t on top of the mountain anyway.

“Get in the car, boys,” our mother said. “We’re leaving.”

I headed for the stairs and my stuff but didn’t know if my old school would take me back.

“I don’t want to go out there,” Garrett said.

I turned and looked at my mother.

Her eyes were closed tight.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Paw Paw said.

Our dad had been gone a long time, but we stayed in Longview and waited. He used to take us to the abandoned camp on the mountain Grandpa Murphy had built, with its falling down cabins and pool full of dirt. We camped there before kindergarten, the next year, too. Mom said I couldn’t remember all the times we camped there, but I did – Garrett pouring water into the lake, how it sparkled as it tumbled from his jug, Mom and Dad on the shore at night kissing.

“Sometimes you can’t see the blessing for the sin,” Paw Paw said.

I was under the card table where the train was laid out, our suitcases piled by the door. It was still snowing ash, but we weren’t allowed out in it. Garrett was watching TV. Paw Paw had made the train and the tracks and the little people who could ride it, pioneers and Indians and outlaws, plus a tunnel from an old cracker can.

“Of course you did the right thing,” Mee Maw said in the kitchen. “The only thing you could do. And this is where you are now.”

“Just don’t say he was there then.”

I heard the clicking of Mee Maw’s lighter.

“Nobody said that,” Paw Paw said, and my mom said, “You said it.”

“He could have been anywhere,” Paw Paw said, “is what I was saying.”

“Are you so mean,” my mother said, “you don’t understand your own words?”

“Don’t think for a minute,” Paw Paw said, “I won’t throw you out again.”

“Leonard,” Mee Maw said.

I was ready to go.

“Constance,” Mee Maw said.

Garrett didn’t notice anything outside the TV.

“Come on now,” Mee Maw. “Let it go for a minute.”

“For the boys,” she said. “For you, too.”

“Is that what you’d do?”

“Can’t you see it might be a good thing,” Mee Maw said, “to let him go,” and my mom said, “No. I can’t.”

“I’m not saying he was a bad man,” Paw Paw said.

“Of course you are,” Mom said. “You say it and you think it and you always have.”

I looked at the people on the train waiting to be annihilated by Indians and outlaws.

Garret jumped off the couch and zoomed around the room, singing with the kids on TV.

Our dad might have been at the camp or he might have been anywhere in the world. The only places I ever thought of him were on the mountain or at our house in Longview, on the porch or feeding the wood stove or cooking with my mom at night. Never here with Paw Paw and Mee Maw. The hard part’s not knowing, our mother always said. He could be in jail down in Mexico, she said. Or drowned in the Sound and washed out to sea. He could show up any moment, she used to say. But he never did.

Our dad said there was a spirit in the mountain and all around that place. “You can feel it,” he said. “There’s my father,” he said. “There’s Uncle George.”

Mom and Garrett were still asleep. It was cold up there so early in the morning.

“Like a ghost?” I said.

“Kind of,” Dad said.

“Like God?” I said.

Mee Maw and Paw Paw talked about God, but Dad never did.

“You can call it that if you want,” he said.

“Do you call it that?”

He pulled the coffee pot from the fire and started mixing pancake batter.

“Get me those huckleberries,” he said.

I opened the cooler, the bag leaking purple juice all the way back to the fire.

“Is that what you call it?” I said.

“I don’t call it anything,” he said. “It’s more of a feeling.”

He dropped the berries into the batter.

“How about some bacon,” he said.

I went to the cooler and pulled out the bacon.

“Like a saint, maybe,” I said.

“I don’t know much about saints,” my dad said, “to tell you the truth.”

It got loud in the kitchen again, then quiet. Our mom came into the living room. “We’re going,” she said. Outside, the sky was full of ash. We had to bundle ourselves in winter coats and snow pants and goggles for protection. “Toxic ash,” the radio called it.

“You’ll never get anywhere,” Paw Paw said. “The interstate’s closed.”

“Constance, please,” Mee Maw said. “The boys.”

“I don’t want to go,” Garrett said.

“Don’t be a baby,” I said.

“You’re the baby,” Garrett said.

“Let’s go,” our mother said, and we walked outside, the ash over everything, the sidewalk, the lawn, our Chevy Malibu parked in the driveway.

“Where are we going,” Garrett asked when we were inside the car.

“Home,” our mother said.

He pulled off his hat and goggles and wriggled out of his snow pants.

We were covered in ash.

“I thought this was home now,” he said.

“Hush, Garret,” I said.

“You hush,” he said. “You’re not the boss of me.”

Mom turned on the radio and turned it off.

Garrett didn’t remember our dad.

You couldn’t tell what time it was, just dark, all that ash sweeping and swirling. I had friends in Longview, but Mom said someone else was in our house now, another family.

I hardly remembered him, either. It had been over a year. Maybe two. I didn’t know how long it had been.

“We’ll stay with your cousins,” Mom said. “Till we’re back on our feet.”

The car started bucking and coughing.

“No,” our mother said.

We made it another block before the Malibu died completely.

“Goddammit,” our mother said.

She tried to start it again.

“Goddammit,” she said, pounding the steering wheel with her open hands.

A man knocked on her window. “Ain’t going anywhere,” he said. “Filter’s clogged.”

We sat for a minute while ash covered the windshield.

“It’s OK, Mom,” I said.

But she didn’t try to hide her crying, which made Garrett cry in the seat behind us.

We bundled back up, Garrett sniffling. The streetlights were on, and more people were outside. Everything felt upside down, night in the afternoon, a snow day in summer, all of us bundled and covered in that soft, light ash. You couldn’t help sticking out your tongue to try to catch some. It tasted like pennies, or like water from the lake, just a little on your lips when you came up for air.

There were markings in the ash for days, like on the moon or in the mud by the lake. If you followed those lines, you’d find a dead bug, a bee or a grasshopper, covered in ash. Sometimes there were animal tracks, dog or cat, wolf or badger. I gathered ash, filling jars with it. Everyone did. Moose tracks appeared, bear and cougar and sasquatch and other animals big enough to survive. I imagined them pulling themselves from the ash on the mountain and making their way to Mee Maw and Paw Paw’s patio out back, hundreds of miles from home.

The rest of the mountain would come to Spokane, too, Mee Maw said, but only if I believed it would, only if I prayed hard enough to make it true. The ash became sludge when Paw Paw tried to wash it off with a hose. Someday, our mother said, everything would be just like it had been. But that wasn’t true, either. And the rest of the mountain stayed where it was.

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