Charlie Fuller eased his rig off of the interstate to a rendezvous with a dead friend. The sun was westering over the Colombia River, but still high above the rim of the Cascades. He squinted into the glare as he swung the pickup into the parking lot of the overlook. He rolled his truck to the far end of the asphalt, killed the engine, and stepped out into the heat. Ignoring the view, Charlie stretched two hours of road strain from his neck and shoulders. It wasn't like Lenny would complain about punctuality. Lenny was dead.
He ran long fingers through his dirty hair, then slipped a hat over the mess of it. He pulled the smudged hat brim down to his eyebrows. His back was to the river and the sun, ignoring them both. The heat of the sun baked into Charlie's body, ripening the funk of two days without a shower. Two days of racing; two days of adrenaline sweat.
Tractor-trailer rigs groaned out on the interstate, belching black smoke as they climbed the steep grade from the river. A Jake-brake snarled from a big rig as it fought the pull of the hill down to the long steel bridge over the Colombia. The percussive beat of the engine brake echoed off the rock walls.
A low trailer was hitched to the back of Charlie's pickup truck. He walked around the trailer, hands feeling each tie-down strap and hook point. Squatting at the rear of it, he examined the load with eyes trained by long habit and hard lessons. He nodded his head, satisfied that the two race bikes were still vertical to the trailer bed. Sure of his load, he walked back to the cab of the pickup.
Charlie opened the driver's door and stood leaning against the roof bar. He folded his arms across the roof, ignoring the rasp of grit and road dust against his bare skin. Heat shimmered above the blacktop parking lot. There were two cars near the entrance to the overlook. Charlie could see people near the information placards. Tourists with out-of-state plates snapping pictures of themselves with the view of the coulee in the background. Nothing to worry about; they'd be gone soon. He shook his head and squatted next to the open door of the truck.
This is stupid. You know that, right? Yeah, you know it, but you're doing it anyway, just like you always do. This stop adds two hours to the run. Hell, you could just as easily talk to Lenny from Ritzville. He wouldn't know the difference, and there's good pie in Ritzville.
Ignoring the question as well as the answer, Charlie reached into the cab of the pickup. He fetched a small shoulder bag from the passenger seat, then closed the door and checked the lock. Slipping the bag over his shoulder, he turned to the West. A vast panorama spread out before and below him.
An immense coulee swept north to south beneath the overlook, a rift gouged six hundred feet deep through the Colombia Plateau. Cataclysmic floods carved the coulee long ago; churning walls of water and rock that were unleashed when the Missoula Ice Dam burst. But that was fifteen millennia past. The mighty Colombia was tamed now, trapped in a long narrow lake above the Priest Rapids Dam. Jet skis cut the water under the trestle bridge that spanned the waters of the lake.
They had scattered his ashes from that same bridge, letting the wind take Lenny's mortal remains far out over the rippling water of the lake. Charlie had not been there on that day, had not been a part of that long line of motorcycles. It was more than a year after the fact before he heard of Lenny's death. A chance meeting in a small cafe in Cashmere; an old friend sorry to break the bad news. Still, that funeral procession must have been something to see. A line of bikers blocking the bridge, ignoring the impatient airhorns of the big rigs. Lenny would have gotten a kick out of that. The man did love to cause trouble.
Charlie made his way to the edge of the coulee, threading a path through broken rock and clumps of sage. Cliffs of columnar basalt fell to the surface of the lake; the stair steps of giants. He scrambled over the edge of one of the cliffs, lowering himself into an alcove formed in the volcanic rock. A natural bench thrust up from the floor of the alcove. When he was settled, Charlie rummaged in his shoulder bag. He pulled out a bottle of water, a cigar, and a small pouch. With tools from the pouch, he clipped and lit his cigar. The smoke of it swirled around the rock chamber before the wind pulled it up and away. The same wind danced across the surface of the lake far below his perch.
Hey Lenny, here we are again. How have you been keeping yourself? Yeah, I know, still dead, but other than that I mean. I'm on my way back from Spokane, like always. Did pretty good this weekend. The bike was running like a scalded dog. I managed to get on the podium for a second place. How about that shit?
Charlie watched swirling patterns of wind dance across the waters of the lake. He smoked his cigar. A slate-gray falcon slid through the warm air in front of the cliff, floating past just below the opening of the rock alcove where he sat. The pragmatic voice in his head spoke up. You understand Lenny isn't going to answer, right? He's dead. Charlie took another pull on the cigar and pushed the voice aside.
Hey Lenny, the old bar is gone. Seventy years that heap stood there and then they go and tear the whole damn building down. It was the developers that finally got the place. Progress and all that. Jesus wept, you wouldn't know the old neighborhood now. I can't go there anymore. I feel lost, like someone has erased the landscape and redrawn it, which is pretty much what they've done.
Do you remember trying to kickstart your Matchless out there on the sidewalk? That was my benchmark for how drunk you were. Everybody gone but you, me wanting to clean up the bar. You'd be out there trying to fire that big thumper up, swearing and muttering. I'd have to stop you before that damn kickstarter threw your skinny ass over the handlebars. We'd wheel the Matchless into the bar and you'd stagger off to find a cab. The boss would always bitch about it when he showed up in the morning. Then you would come in, all bleary-eyed and charming, and somehow smooth it with him.
Chrissakes, Lenny, what the hell happened? Did it all just get to be too much for you? I know the Black Dog was always there, nipping at your heels. No one knows it any better than I do, right? Look at me. Five years clean and that bastard is still sniffing around my door. Did you invite him in, that old Black Dog? Is that what happened?
You'll laugh at this, but there are a couple of young guys I'm working with, guys in the program. They say that I'm an example to them. Imagine that; like anyone would ever want to be like me. It made me think of how I always looked up to you, sort of like a big brother. Now look at us, will you? Yeah, smartass, I know you're invisible. It goes with being dead. Damn, I miss you, Man. All these years gone, and I still miss you.
I remember that night you decided you needed to get into a fight. The boys were sitting at the round table, talking trash about brawls they had won and lost. It was mostly bullshit. Then you blurted out that you had never been in a fist fight. After they razzed you a bit, you decided that you didn't want to die without knowing what it was like to punch it out with someone. One of the boys volunteered and the next thing I know, you pulled that Smith and Wesson .41 out of your boot and slapped it on the bar. Hold this for me, would you Charlie? Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Good thing there weren't any strangers sitting at the bar or it would have been my ass. I tucked that heavy hunk of metal under the plank while you went out in the alley to see what it was like to trade punches. You were bruised and battered when you came back in, but you were smiling.
There was more stuff that happened after, but somewhere in there I stopped remembering. The sequence of things gets all jumbled and the thread of it comes unraveled. Now I can only make out glimpses of it, but I can't keep them straight.
Then I was gone, you know? The Black Dog finally cornered me one night; way up there on the Aurora Bridge and me all alone. I don't even know how I got up there, but there I was. That water is black as hell from the top of that bridge, black as that damned dog. I'm here to tell you Brother, you look over that railing, it's a long way down. I'm standing there and I can feel that cold steel railing under my hand. All I've got to do is swing myself up and over and it's done. It's cold; cold and dark and raining, but I'm sweating. I've got the flop sweats and old Black Dog is just sitting there. Those yellow eyes of his are boring into me. I wish I could say that I told him to go to hell, that I walked away like a man. But I didn't, Lenny. I ran. I ran like a scared little kid, blubbering and crying. Black Dog, he just comes trotting after me, those big paws splashing in the puddles.
I don't remember the rest of that night. I barely remember the next day, climbing those creaky wooden stairs to my first meeting. About the only thing I can call back to memory is those stairs. The twelve steps of the program were painted on the risers. Any poor bastard climbing those things couldn't help but see them. Those old boys at the AA hall probably thought that was a hell of a joke, the steps painted on the steps.
Truth be told, most of my first year clean was shrouded in a fog. It still is for the most part. Sometime into that second year sober, I heard you had given up the life. I can't remember who told me, but they said you stopped dealing, got yourself clean. They said you had a little house on Vashon Island. I want you to know I wished you well, Lenny, I really did. But I couldn't handle any part of that. The old timers around the tables, they were always warning me about slippery places and slippery people. I was scared to death of slipping. So I turned my back on all of that, you included. I regret that now, I do. Maybe things could have been different, but that's probably bullshit. Sitting around those AA rooms, I learned I don't have control over anything or anyone. That's a hard lesson to learn.
Speaking of hard lessons, do you remember stealing that girl from me? That was cold-blooded, Man. You knew I was hot for her, even if I can't remember her name now. Whatever her name was, I was seriously gone on her. I spent a month birddogging that girl, chatting her up. You waited until I was just about there, then you swooped in and carried her off like it was nothing. And it was nothing for you, you cool bastard. Her leaving the bar with you, me standing there showing my bare ass to the world. I asked her right to her face: Would you rather be with him than with me? I actually said it out loud, in front of the both of you. She just laughed and slipped her arm into yours. You threw me a wink and turned her out that door. A week later, you and I were as tight as old homies. That's just who you were Lenny. And I guess that's just who I was, letting you do me like that.
One of the last things I remember is when you blew that kid's boombox to hell. Why we didn't end up in the slammer is a mystery to me, but we didn't. Fools, drunks, and the angels that watch over them, right?
We were down there at the bottom of the hill, where the old bridge crosses the cut. I must have had the night off since we were down there together. At least I think we were. Some punk kid was leaning up against the wall above the train tracks. He had a boombox perched on the wall, turned up loud as hell. I guess you took offense at the kid's taste in music. Turn that shit down, Kid. You're disturbing my Wa.
His response was about what you'd expect, but he didn't count on what was coming next. Your knee coming up and your left hand falling to you boot. That .41 magnum was in your hand so fast it was a blur. There was the flash of that thing going off, then the thunder of it echoing off those old buildings. One shot and that boombox vanished in a cloud of plastic splinters, spinning off the wall and clattering down onto the train tracks. The kid took off running like the hounds of hell were on his heels. He probably ran all the way to Ballard before he stopped, the poor bastard. You just laughed and slipped your pistola back into your boot. C'mon Charlie, let's go have us a drink.
I can picture it all in my head, as clear as if I'm watching a movie. I guess I can't swear to it happening exactly like that, but it might be true.
I ran into Mick on a run to Cashmere. That's how I found out you were gone. I was riding my old BMW. Mick saw it parked out in front of the cafe and recognized it. I look up and he's standing at my table, that cockney drawl hard as a nail. Wotcha, Mate? How you been keeping, Charlie? He slides into a chair and in a tick we were having coffee and pie together, talking about the bad old days. I mentioned your name and Mick told me the story. He must have seen the shock on my face, or maybe it was the tears starting up in my eyes. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you, Mate. I believe he truly was.
Mick kept the story short. I guess there wasn't much to say. You turned your back on all of it, the dope, the booze, the old neighborhood. You left all that behind, but not the pistola. You moved into a little house on Vashon Island and became a recluse. Two years, you lasted two years. Then you put that four-inch barrel in your mouth and pulled the trigger.
Maybe you figured you'd be safe on an island, hiding out in a little house tucked back into the wet firs. The cold waters of Puget Sound probably kept the people away, just like you planned. But you forgot about the Black Dog. He doesn't need a ferry to get to an island. He swam across just fine, didn't he? He shook that water off, not even the least bit tired. Then Black Dog, he came looking, nose down and sniffing.
Mick steered the talk away from your last days. It was a kind thing to do. We kicked the old days around until we finished the pie. Mick picked up the check and said he needed to be riding. He told me to take care of myself. Two down, awright Mate? He slapped me on the shoulder and then he was gone.
The cigar between Charlie's fingers was burned down to a stub. He took one more long pull, watching the smoke dance away over his head. He field-stripped the butt, scattering the brown tobacco. The broken leaves cast tiny shadows across the rough basalt floor. Charlie squinted into the sun from beneath the brim of his hat.
I need to be rolling, Lenny. It's still two hours back to Seattle, and I have to unload the trailer and all. We're back in Spokane over Labor Day, so I'll stop by on my way back. The wind in the rocks was the only reply he got. What the hell did you expect? C'mon, let's get out of here.
Charlie Fuller climbed out of the alcove and onto the broken plateau. The wind swirled across the broken rock, rattling the sage. He felt his hat lift and raised a hand to clamp it to his head. Charlie could see his rig in the empty parking lot. He set out across the broken ground.
Behind him, the afternoon sun baked the basalt columns. The heated air flowed up the cliffs. A falcon rode the updrafts, gliding silently along the cliff face. With sharp dark eyes, it hunted careless mice amongst the rocks.