JANUARY 2006 – NO. 2
Flotsam and Jetsam
An original story chosen by guest fiction editor Robley Wilson.
Sitting on a milk crate in his apartment, pad and pen and glass of bourbon arranged on a wobbly card table in front of him, Ortega Johnson lights and sucks a cigar until he thinks he will burst. On the exhale he scribbles:
Still waters run deep. This will be his template: adjective, noun, verb, adjective.
It should be easy, he believes in his dark room surrounded by sweet cigar haze, to write his own everlasting maxim. He wants to say something about signs of life on the outside hiding death on the inside.
He tries his own versions:
Bushy shrubs are hollow.
Robust bushes hide vacancy.
Thriving vegetation conceals voids.
He pauses and looks out the window — outside it's a day lovely enough for a boat christening, he thinks.
Ortega wonders if his life truly belongs to him now that he's been given five months to live. They were given to him by a doctor in a white coat, a complete social stranger, yet the man who knew all about Tega's insides — here, these five months are yours. Do what you will with them.
His new short life starts with an urgency for posterity. Or, more precisely — truth preserved. In fourth grade his class made no-cook jam. He was in charge of mashing the fruit in a huge bowl. Floresca Andrescu, the girl with the exotic-for-Montana name and the one he loved, poured in sugar syrup while he mashed. He doesn't remember the recipe, or the jam. He remembers her breath on his cheek, noticing the hairs there for the first time because they tickled when she exhaled. She smelled fruity; it could have been the apricots. He knows that apricots are still his favorite fruit.
After the hospital this morning, he walked home through the park on a dirt path lined with low shrubs about three feet high. His best friend Lyle was waiting for him there as planned. They don't talk about hospital visits or sickness, partly because Lyle will get emotional, but mostly because Ortega asked him not to bring it up.
"Hey, man," said Lyle, catching up. "Remember when we couldn't even see over these shrubs?" He hopped over the shrub and then straddled it with his long legs, awkwardly walking alongside Tega.
"Yeah," answered Tega.
"And," Lyle added. "You always thought that they were full of spiders? Black widow spiders? And you," he recalled laughing, "nearly shit your pants when I dared you to stick your arm in the bush?"
"But I did it, man," Tega said.
"Yeah, man. You did it."
"It was hollow inside, pretty much," remembered Tega. "Not dense like I thought it would be."
Lyle dated Tega's sister Bettina for a while in high school. Tega thought it was strange since they all used to take baths together when they were little. Lyle told him he mostly went out with her so they could be brothers when he married Bettina. Now Bettina lives in Christchurch, New Zealand with her surfer boyfriend. She calls Tega all the time, inviting him — with condescension in her voice (or a schizophrenic accent, he can't tell) — to visit because he's never been anywhere and you know … . She trails off, meaning that he is not long for the world. But he's loathe, embarrassed, to say world when really he's not long for Montana. At the most: Montana and Wyoming.
That's why he loves Laura, she took him somewhere new.
The phone is ringing. It's probably Bettina or his girlfriend Laura. He lets it ring, pen frozen in mid-air, listening spaniel-like.
He hears his recorded voice say: "Hey, you musta missed Tega. Leave him some words."
It comforts him to say his own name. People rarely speak your name out loud these days, instead it's man or dude or sometimes even brother.
In their tiny high school, which is next door to his apartment, he was voted Coolest Guy in the Senior Class — 11 years ago. It is the only title he's ever received.
It's Laura: "Hey honey, it's me. Wondering how your tests came out. I'm sure you're the picture of perfect health and there's nothing to worry about. Call me at work. Remember we're all meeting at Potsy's around four. Oh, and love ya."
Laura rarely says you, she loves to abbreviate. Everything about Laura is compact: her body, her stories, her lovemaking, her love. She's the perfect girlfriend for a dying man.
He crumples the paper that he wrote on and throws it at the phone. "Fuck." He swears, but for no good reason; he just feels like saying it. Maybe he says it because of Laura. Biting his bottom lip with the fu and then thrusting his lips forward with the uck. It feels nice to swear, precise and loaded with meaning.
Two years ago, when he'd just met Laura, she suggested a weekend away. He'd never had a weekend away, he'd never left Montana. They planned a trip to Yellowstone, stopping at hot springs during the day and camping at night. Laura bought him a rucksack and he packed it a week before they left for the trip.
Right now he feels expectant, like he is looking forward to going somewhere new. He feels like he felt the day of his high school football playoffs, the morning when they left for Helena. The night before he couldn't sleep even though he knew for sure that they'd lose the game.
Tega pulls the rucksack from the top shelf of his closet. Still inside is a crumpled Yellowstone map, the creases making ghost rivers where there are no rivers. First he packs some boxer shorts and a few t-shirts. A pair of jeans, a fleece pullover, the sweater his sister knitted for him, a stocking cap, and a blue and yellow striped scarf from college. He carefully wraps his bonsai tree in an old undershirt and leaves it to protrude from the front pocket of the rucksack. His dad gave him the tree when Ortega was fifteen, the day his dad left and never came home.
He remembers as he goes. Tree from dad — dad gone. Sweater from sister — sister gone. Tiny brown stuffed dog from real mom — real mom dead. Florida postcard from step-mom Julie — Julie gone. All inside the rucksack from Laura and Laura is still here. And he is still here. He never left, except for one year at college in Bozeman before dropping out.
He packs a couple frozen burritos and a few packets of vitamins--out of habit. Then he grabs his keys and bourbon and paper and pen and walks out the door, saying goodbye to his fish, Merle.
Still waters run deep. Boats made of trash rush by in the gutter, slipping into greasy grates that either warn or boast of their eventual destination: the ocean. Tega doubts that the Snickers wrapper will actually make it the 750 or so miles west to the ocean. It will probably only get as far as, say, Spokane, or maybe only to Coeur d'Alene. And who is to say that the water draining into the grate won't travel east instead of west? If that is the case and the direction, then perhaps Fargo will be the final destination.
When he was a kid, he thought that he would grow up to explore. What do you want to be when you grow up, Ortega? I want to be a astronaut. I want to be a captain. I want to be a safari man. I want to be a digger (he meant archaeologist). At college he took an anthropology class and was disappointed. All he learned was that if he had a kid with a brown-eyed woman their kids' eyes would most likely be blue. Hardly information for an explorer. He considered the military and shortly after was diagnosed. The military wouldn't have him.
At the park some old men are playing an early afternoon card game. The winos are already claiming body-sized patches of grass for the night and a few lucky ones have staked the benches. Tega nods to these men and they nod back. One of them, Crazy Larry, used to be a radio operator in Vietnam.
He sits down near the shrubs and gets out his bourbon. It is late autumn. The shrubs are losing their leaves and are mostly brown and rough, not really green anymore.
He tries a few more phrases and his mind drifts. He recalls this art history professor he'd had in college saying: You can't create in a vacuum. Tega would picture this frustrated little artist, covered in dust and cat hair, blowing around inside of a vacuum cleaner, pissed that he couldn't paint a picture.
Possibly, thinks Tega, I'm a visual person. Not a writer.
The streets in this town are named after letters of the alphabet or dead presidents; the one museum has a couple busted Indian baskets; the shops are obviously named: Lisa's Knitting Store, Al's Market, Pets Galore, Books 4-U, Fred's Hardware, Grandma's Kitchen Table. It is a town where most everyone says what they mean and anything beyond the town limits is considered outside. He will die in the vacuum.
He has five months to get his phrase, his maxim, his sentence of wisdom to stick. Then, after he is gone, his friends will repeat it: Remember what Tega always said? Man, he was brave. He will be a legend, maybe they will name this park for him. Families will picnic in Ortega Johnson Park, softball games will be played in Ortega Johnson Park, couples will be married in Ortega Johnson Park. On the sign dedicating the park to his memory it will read:
ORTEGA JOHNSON MEMORIAL PARK
Leafy bushes belie emptiness
— O. Johnson, 1975-2004
His phrase will spread like the gospel. And hundreds of years from now people in China and Madagascar will use his axiom, not knowing from whence it came, to illustrate, to punctuate, to cleverly describe their feelings of hollowness despite an exterior appearance of well-being. Maybe.
Looking down to the ground, Tega sees that he has pulled up handfuls of grass, a pile on each side of his thighs. If only creating came as naturally to him as destroying. Perhaps his legacy should be unwritten. Something not about lying or dying. Something obvious and truthful.
He can't stop thinking of the ocean. How he's never seen it in person. How he finds it hard to believe that it's salty.
He gets up from the grass and walks towards Potsy's, a little drunk and a little discouraged. He sees Mary Margaret, an old homeless woman snoozing on a park bench, and he sets his bonsai tree next to her. Houseplants for the homeless. She says she's a nun, maybe she is. He'd read somewhere about nuns and gardening, that they possessed the devotion needed to grow healthy, voluminous plants.
At Potsy's it's the same. Musical and red and smelling of stale beer and dust. The eponymous dog, Potsy, is in the doorway and he lifts his heavy head when Tega steps over and through into the bar. His friends are near the back, they've gathered to celebrate his good news. They are playing pool and they wave to him and they don't know.
Laura is here, wearing a red sweater and a denim skirt.
He told her once that red was her color. He didn't really know what he meant by that, or how a color could be someone's. What he meant was that she bloomed in red, her hair caught fire in red, her eyes exploded fireworks in red, her body hummed electric in red. He ought to write it down for her — those things he just thought. He's never told her that he loves her, just says me too when she says it first.
He goes to the bar and Jake, the bartender, automatically hands him a soda.
"How about a Rolling Rock instead?" Tega suggests.
Jake turns down the corners of his mouth and raises his eyebrows and nods. "Sure, man. On the house, this one."
Laura runs over and gives him a tight hug. "Well? What did they say? How do ya feel?"
He lies: "Too early to tell anything, I have to go back in five months and get retested."
"That's good, right? You're fine, right? Everyone's excited to see ya!"
He takes her hand and they walk to the pool table where Lyle and Justin and Steve and Steve's bitch girlfriend, Leah, are all gathered. They all say hey and good to see ya and cheers, man. Leah acts like she's posing for a photo shoot — leaning hard on the pool table, her butt sticking out, wagging, periodically taking long drags from her cigarette, squinting her heavily painted eyes. Tega went out with her in high school, back before she was skanky.
Leah had her 15 minutes of fame. A Hollywood movie was shot nearby and she was in a crowd scene. Topless. To look at her now you'd think she thought she was Cindy Crawford or something. Fifteen minutes of shame more like it. Most people on the street look at the ground, blushing, when they pass her. Tega has seen it happen.
Tega gets in on the next game, partnering with Lyle; they play Justin and Laura while Steve and Leah make out in the back. Tega makes every shot he calls and Lyle slaps the table. "We're on fire, man! Unstoppable," he shouts.
"Not bad for a sick dude," jokes Justin.
They all sort-of laugh and Laura squeezes him off a sympathetic look, scrunching her nose and blowing a kiss. There's a lifetime of loving in that look.
Tega decides that this is when he will say it. Not I love you, Laura, thanks for not leaving me when I got sick. He can say that later, in private. Now he will say the phrase. His bit of wisdom.
"Well," Tega says loud, clearing his throat.
Everyone pauses and they look at him.
He can't remember it, he drank too much, there're too many eyes on him. He can't recall if he had decided to go with the bush or the shrub metaphor. Shit, he can't say it. "Never mind," he says. His thoughts are drunk, mutinous sailors.
They play four more games and he drinks four more beers. He sits out the next game and Leah comes to sit by him.
She comments: "I don't know what everyone is talking about, Tega, you look fine to me."
He glares at her, his vision snowy from beer. "Thanks," he says.
"But I don't know," she continues, brushing his arm with her long red fingernails. "When oaks are diseased they have the prettiest leaves."
Suddenly he hates. He hates this inside space, this smoky dank bar, the suffocation it represents on every level. He hates the insignificance of him and a bunch of his childhood friends gathered to cheer him up, but really it's just another excuse for them all to get drunk. As if they ever needed an excuse. He hates that they all get to go on living life, and five years after he is gone, here they will be, drinking and shooting pool and not even thinking about death, not even thinking about life. He hates them.
"You bitch." He mumbles, his mouth on the beer bottle opening.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing, forget it. Did you make that up? About the oaks?"
"Yeah, pretty good, huh? I just thought of it." She smiles.
"Nah. It's stupid."
"Whatever, Tega." Leah hisses, stubbing out her cigarette and walking away.
"It doesn't mean anything." He calls after her loudly. "You don't even know!"
He has to go somewhere, so he walks outside and exhales, his breath making white puffs. He decides to go to the movies. He couldn't find Laura to say bye, didn't see her, maybe she was in the bathroom. It's like this when you drink. You forget about consequences and feelings and feeling.
On the long way downtown he sees Mary Margaret, fresh from her nap, carrying his bonsai. She crosses herself and hugs the little tree closer. He wonders if people will call her the bonsai nun from now on.
All that's playing is a romantic comedy and he despises those. He feels like a war movie, or a western or at the very least an action movie. He walks past the theater and then he's standing on the playground of his old elementary school. The rucksack is on his back and he sits on a swing.
The kids are at home right now, eating dinner and doing homework; it's quiet and autumn. The wind rustles dying leaves on the trees and blows through great piles on the ground. He and Lyle used to play this mean trick on each other. They'd rake leaves for their moms and then hide a big rock or a rake in the middle of the pile. Tega would tell Lyle that he could have the first jump, and Lyle fell for it every time. One time he cut his butt cheek open and Tega's step-mom, Julie, had to look at his ass and put some alcohol and Band-Aids on it. Later, Lyle told him that he got a boner when Julie was blowing the sting off the alcohol.
He never told Julie that story, but she'd get a kick out of it. He should call her, he thinks he has her new number in Florida. He wonders if her new husband is good to her. If she ever got pregnant like she wanted to. Last time they talked she said to send some photos of himself and Laura. He never did because he doesn't have any. Photos are for when you go somewhere out of the ordinary, to record yourself in strange places, to say look I was here, I have proof. He cries and he starts to swing hard and high, pumping his legs, his rucksack adding to gravity, pulling him back. He wears himself out, panting replaces crying, and he lets the swing come to a stop and he drags his feet in the gravel.
Next to the elementary school is a train station and so he goes there and charges a ticket to Seattle on his Visa card. It's so easy to go places, he never realized. Seattle is by the ocean and he's never been.
On the train he watches time and space fly past as the sun rouges the sky. When he focuses his eyes close he perceives his movement at near warp speed and when he focuses to the horizon it's as if he isn't moving at all. He forms his own theory of relativity and falls asleep wondering if he could taste the ocean. Do people drink it? And wouldn't it be funny if it cures him after all these years of tests and drug therapies and chemo and even acupuncture.
When he wakes it's dark. A young woman and a kid are sitting across from him. She has her arm around the little boy and the little boy smiles and hides his face in her side. He looks about four years old, that age right before you learn that there's more to the world than your mom and your house. So it's fitting that she is reading Swiss Family Robinson aloud to the boy — to prepare him for shipwreck.
He pretends as though the woman is Laura and he's not quite sure if he is the father or the little boy in this fantasy. He goes back and forth, proud of his family, confident of his fatherhood; comforted by his mother, reveling in the cuddle. He finds it equally easy to imagine himself as son or as father. Before he resisted the son role, he resisted the father role. And now he finds he wants both. Now he realizes this.
He covers his mouth with both hands and quietly says
The woman's voice is softly animated as she reads. She does all the voices — deep and bright and high and fierce. Tega closes his eyes again and listens. The Robinsons are taking stock of what supplies can be salvaged. Flotsam and jetsam. What has separated from what once was whole.
The best part, Tega remembers, was that only the Robinson family lived on the island, and no one could leave because there was nowhere to go. And they weren't really lost because all the people they'd want to find them were already there, with them on the island. They were stuck together for better or for worse. It seemed right to live that way — with minimal options. It created a resourceful gratitude that his father never understood. Maybe his mother did; she died of cancer too. Maybe he is already dead to his father.
When the woman and the little boy get off somewhere in Idaho he imagines that they are heartbroken to leave him as he watches them walk away down the boarding ramp. In the wee morning hours he arrives in Seattle and goes to a motel where he calls Laura.
"Where are ya? I'm so worried! Ya just left, Ortega!"
"Seattle. I don't know why."
"Oh. Well." She sounds surprised, but cautious. Her voice grows small and squeaky. "When are ya comin' back?"
"I don't know." He answers.
"I've been up all night." She starts to cry on the other end. "What's goin' on, Tega?"
He explains about the phrase and how it probably drove him to travel because he thought maybe he'd find inspiration or some other metaphors not native to Montana if he went to Washington. And about how once he heard that his father was working somewhere near the train station in Seattle. He asks if she ever noticed that riding on a train was like very precise flying. He mentions the little boy and asks Laura if she'll read him a book when he gets home. He tells her that every family should live on islands and families should be the whole world to each other — a world of families on islands. He emphasizes the difference between islands and vacuums.
"The closer I get to this," he tells her. "The shallower the water, the rougher it gets."
He knows now that he is not still waters and he is not a Robinson; he is the ship that wrecks — sinking, disappearing while the family is left to piece and figure and make do. He is the vessel that causes.
ORTEGA JOHNSON MEMORIAL PARK
The boat that triggered ingenuity.
"I've got to leave something worth salvaging, something useful," he explains. He feels the cancer brewing inside, mixing with beer and determination and this unconquerable need to be remembered. "What?" She's coughing and sobbing. "Come back now!" she yells, although he thinks she probably doesn't mean to yell. But he's glad that she does. It means a lot that she yells for him.
"I love you, Laura," he says finally. And he hangs up.
In a liquor store called Pacific Liquors he waits for the old man behind the counter to finish with a previous customer. While he waits he looks at photos beneath glass on the counter. There's a younger old man and a woman kissing under party hats. The old man surrounded by young kids, grandkids perhaps. There are lots of pictures of family and friends and Tega notices that the older the man appears in the photos, the fewer people surround him. In what appears to be the most recent photo, Tega guesses, the man is alone, leaning on this very counter, his wrinkled unsmiling face framed by the liquor bottles behind him.
"That's my life." The old man points at the photos. "I'm thinking about arranging them so they face me, instead of facing the customers."
"Yeah," Tega agrees. "You definitely should."
"You want me to tell you something?" he asks, leaning forward, covering the photos with his heavy arms.
Tega nods, "Okay."
"You kids don't know what it's like to get old." He leans back, folds his arms and levels his gaze at Ortega.
Ortega grins. "Which way to the ocean?" He asks the old man, suddenly feeling giddy.
"Well, two blocks thataway." He points. "But it's a port, not really a beach."
On the counter is a display of disposable cameras, Tega removes all five from the rack and pays, stuffing them in his bag. He thanks the old man who waves at him, or possibly shoos him away.
As the sun rises, Tega walks down to the ocean and drinks a briny handful. A fishing boat crosses the horizon and Tega takes his first picture. He holds the camera at arm's length with his back to the ocean, hoping he captures both his face and the boat in the frame.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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