Monday
Feb142011

West of Here

By Jonathan Evison



Alongquin Books
February 2011
496 pages
978-1565129528

 

  

When Timmon Tilman set off from the Crooked Thumb Trailhead, fully outfitted for the backwoods to the tune of six-hundred-and-fourteen dollars, not to mention an additional eight hundred dollars in stolen merchandise, five stolen library books (including the Olympic journals of Charles Haywood), an aluminum skillet, along with modest stores of jerky, minute rice, and Snickers bars, he had no intention of ever returning to civilization. When the board had asked him what future he envisioned for himself, Timmon had told them simply, "A place of my own." When they asked him what kind of work he’d like to do, he told them "Something with my hands." And when, in conclusion, they asked him if he had a goal in life, Timmon said, "To live my life one day at a time." But what Timmon had wanted to say was: "To be left alone."

His GoLite frameless backpack was anything but light as he set out along the lower Elwha. He was already on his second Snickers by the time he reached the dam, where he paused to take in the grandeur of it. Having skipped his parole meeting, Timmon knew that Frank Bell was shitting bricks, just as sure as the district court had already issued a bench warrant. If they ever caught up with him, he was fucked. But nothing could temper his optimism as he paused to marvel at the last vestige of civilization he would ever lay eyes upon, or so he hoped. Hooking his fingers through the chain link fence, a cool mist kissed his face, and he was glad to be alive, and even gladder to be alone. In his bones he could feel the frothing white water as it roared over the spillway, pounding the river a hundred feet below. A rainbow hovered above the mist. He could hear the faint humming of the turbines from the bowels of the dam, and from somewhere deep within himself he could hear the same humming. And for all the noise, it was quiet.

But even as Timmon was basking in this solitude, there came the frantic mirth of children from the parking slab behind him. Twenty of them, at least, which he figured for third graders with a few adults in their midst, flooding out of a dingy yellow school bus and gathering in a chaotic scrum in the parking lot; frenetic, full of life, bouncing off of each other like dirty-faced electrons, clutching brown bags, bonking each other on the head with them. How long before life put the fear in them; not the boogeyman fear, but the rational kind, the everyday kind, the kind based on facts and observations and the cold hard mechanics of the world? How long until they clutched their brown bags tighter and stopped bouncing off of each other? Timmon wanted a cigarette but resisted the urge.

The big people herded the kids in a squiggly line toward the viewing area, where they jostled for places along the fence, clutching the hexagonal links in their grubby fingers, tugging at the mesh, kicking it until it rung like shattering icicles, clambering up it despite the protestations of their chaperones.

The calmest child of the bunch, a saucer-eyed girl in red rubber boots and an unseasonably warm jacket, gravitated toward Timmon immediately and took her place beside him along the fence, a few feet removed from the others, where she peered alternately at the spillway and the sluice gate, sneaking frequent glances at Timmon’s tattooed hand. He did his best to ignore her. But something about the dirty fur lining of her coat, something about those three long feet separating her from the others, would not allow him to.

A frizzy-haired woman with an underbite quieted the group, issuing various edicts and instructions as to the occupation of their hands and feet during the presentation, before she began reading from her blue factoid sheet, projecting her voice over the roar of the spillway.

"The Thornburgh Dam produced over six thousand kilowatts of hydraulic power in its heyday with its twin turbines..."

"Psst. What’s that blob on your hand?" the little girl asked Timmon in a dry whisper.

"Nothing," he said, looking straight ahead.

"Mm." She bit her lower lip and tilted her head a bit to one side. ‘It looks like a liberty bell, sorta. A dark blue liberty bell. With angel wings."

Timmon had to look at her. Something in her singsong voice melted him, and hearing it, a little cloud of regret passed over him, but did not linger. "Yeah, well it ain’t."

Timmon could feel the persistent eyes of the girl on him again and tried in vain to ignore her curiosity. Sneaking a sidelong glance at her, he could see the downy blond hair of her face glistening in the sunlight. It was a good face, honest. Not cute, just unsullied by disappointment. And that alone was enough to make her beautiful. But her beauty was fading. Give her a year. Wait ‘til next summer when she was still wearing that jacket, and began to see herself from outside of herself, and three feet was no longer a big enough buffer against the rest of the world.

"What about that one?" she whispered. "What does omward mean?"

Timmon gave a little sigh. Loosening his grip on the fence, his manner softened somewhat. "Onward, dummy. Not omward."

"Oh. Well, what does it mean?"

"It means keep going."

"Hm," she said, biting her lower lip once more. "Going where?"

Timmon gripped the fence tighter, and let the question pass. But she tugged at the dangling strap of his backpack.

"Well," she whispered. "If you’re going to keep going you’ve got to be going somewhere, because going isn’t a place."

"Wherever," he sighed.

The girl furrowed her brow and scrunched up her mouth, setting to work on the information.

"...in 1992 the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was passed. The act called for the removal of the dam by the year 2007. However, in recent years the act has..."

"Wherever isn’t a place, either." The girl whispered.

Timmon fished a Camel out his GoLite and sparked it up. "Yeah, well, now it is."

The girl knitted her brow.

Timmon’s voice, or perhaps it was his cigarette, attracted the attention of one of the chaperones, a stern little woman, squat and gray as a government building, who shot Timmon an icy glare and a frown as she took the girl by the shoulders and shepherded her away.

The girl looked over her shoulder, her little forehead still wrinkled. Even as Timmon released his grip on the fence, hefted his pack, and took leave with his cigarette dangling from his lips, he could feel the girl’s eyes stuck to him.

The trail ran along a low bluff on the west side of the reservoir for a half mile, until it diverged in a southwesterly direction and began to gain elevation, switch-backing up the western slope of the valley. Clear cutting had mottled the low foothill country in a checkerboard pattern, and cut huge swathes into the higher elevations. Timmon passed no one along his way. By the time he stopped for his third Snickers at the top of the ridge, he’d put all thoughts of the little girl and civilization behind him. He sat on a downed fir and loosened his right boot, which was chafing his heel, and smoked a cigarette and looked out over the lake and beyond the valley, where he could see a series of rugged spurs spread out in a wide arc from the north to the east, some of them scarred by landslides on their steep faces. Surely, somewhere out there, on the banks of some nameless stream, at the foot of some nameless mountain, was a home for Timmon Tilman, two-time loser; a sun-dappled place where he could pass his days unencumbered by the existential hell of other people, a place to be left alone, a place so remote that the smoke of a campfire would not betray his existence. No more offices, no more leering desk clerks, no more meaningless toiling in muffler shops. No more Gooch, no more walls, no more cells. Just wide open spaces and bountiful wilderness, a place where he could engage the circle of life, no matter how grueling the business of survival might prove to be, no matter what the result. Even if he died of starvation out there, at least he’d die hungry.

Crumpling his Snickers wrapper, he threw it on the forest floor and got to his feet. Spurred on by a burning impatience, he trudged onward, down the ridge and over the saddle and through the next gap, where the trail leveled out in a narrow thickly wooded valley and rejoined the river along a low bank. The water flashed silver and white in the sunlight. Where to stop? Where to begin his new life? Onward! Onward through the broad-shouldered foothills and into treeless high country and over the divide until Timmon Tilman ceased to exist, until the past and the future ceased to exist, and all that remained was the difference between life and death. By late afternoon, he was exhausted. A blister had formed on his heel. He stopped where the river emerged boiling from the mouth of a gray canyon, and sat on a massive rock, and unburdened himself of his GoLite bag with the clink of caribiners and the thud of his empty thermos, and smoked the last cigarette of his life.

He chose a small sandy clearing along the bank in the shadow of the canyon to set up camp. He spent twenty minutes wrestling his camo-spotted bivouac tent into shape. He gathered firewood and started a smoky fire. He ate jerky and another Snickers bar and wished he had another cigarette. Taking up Haywood’s journal, he read distractedly for a few minutes until the sun began to set, whereupon he decided it was time. He fished the pint of Smirnov out of his GoLite and uncapped it, and held it out in front of him and took a long hard look at its contents before braving a tentative sip. The old familiar sensations visited him at once; the icy hot sting on the back of his tongue, the shiver, the welling of giddy anticipation in his chest, as though he were standing on the edge of a precipice and couldn’t wait to jump. The second sip was less tentative. On the third sip, he took the leap.

He passed out four feet from his tent, his withering dingus still moist in the clutches of his right hand. It was with some confusion (and a whopper of a headache) that he awoke the following morning to the patter of voices from the trail. Slowly, he climbed to his feet and panned the surrounding understory with a periscopic gaze. A rustling in the nearby brush froze him. His heart set to racing. Stealthily, he inched his way toward the rustling. After a half dozen steps, he was frozen in his tracks by a sustained and hair-raising shriek.

Through a tangle of huckleberry boughs, the source of this deafening wail was revealed in the person of a pudgy blue-haired lady with her pants around her ankles. The force of her scream had sent her tumbling backwards from her squatting position, where she was grounded like a capsized tortoise, paddling in thin air, a fountain of urine saturating the elastic waistband of her jeans. Timmon rushed to her aid. The old lady’s caterwaul reached its blood curdling crescendo just as Timmon leaned down to extend a helping hand, whereupon the helmeted head of his dingus grazed her chin. Her terror met an abrupt end when she passed out cold. A choked little gurgling sound suggestive of oysters emanated from her throat. After that, she remained perfectly still, leering up at Timmon like Lot’s wife.

This wasn’t happening. No fucking way was this happening.

Now the rest of her group came hobbling through the underbrush, arriving just as Timmon managed to wrestle his manhood back into his pants.

There were five of them; all of them in their seventies, at least. They all had matching green pullover sweatshirts with a little patch on the breast announcing their affiliation with the Sequim Seniors Sierra Club. A spindly-legged old sport in a safari hat and high-pocket shorts pushed to the forefront immediately.

"Mildred!" he screamed, rushing to her prostrate form and kneeling upon spindly legs. He began groping for a pulse. "Oh, dear God. What is the meaning of this?" he demanded of Timmon. "Who are you, what are you doing out here?"

"I... I was just... I was camped over there and I heard... and then I... I was just... and then she was... and ..."

"Somebody go for a doctor!" said High Pockets. "I’ve got a pulse!"

The four old people looked at one another. They all had walking sticks. The lady with the enormous sunglasses might have been blind.

"You!" demanded High Pockets, indicating Timmon. "Go for a doctor!"

After a slight hesitation, Timmon jumped into action, breaking toward his campsite, where, in a whirlwind of activity, he struck his tent, rolled it up, and stuffed the remaining gear into his Go-Lite. As he strode through the brush toward the trail, High Pockets shouted after him.

"Hurry up!"

Timmon hurried toward the trail, his thoughts harried. What if somebody wanted him to make some kind of statement—a ranger, a cop? Wouldn’t he look guilty running? What if the old battle axe croaked and they thought he had something to do with it? What if they found his dick print on her chin or something? Forensics was a bitch these days.

Reaching the trail, Timmon hesitated. His unmolested solitude had been molested, perhaps irreparably. His fate was now inextricably tied to another. Go east, and he risked exposing himself as a fugitive. Go west, and he might never outrun the decision to turn his back on the old prune. His stomach was in knots as he took his first tentative steps eastward, only to stop again, and reconsider. Here he was, a free man, still planning his escape.