Driftwood

Michael Caleb Tasker Click to read more...

taskerMichael Caleb Tasker was born in Montreal, Canada and spent his childhood in Montreal, New Orleans and Buenos Aires.  He began his university education studying classical music at the University of New Orleans  and has worked as an actor, house painter, ranch hand and a staff writer for Look (Australia).  He has published in numerous literary journals, including The New Ohio Review, The Georgetown Review and The Long Story.  He currently resides in Cairns, Australia.

 

At night, when the temperature fell to freezing and he couldn’t sleep, William Taylor sat out on his porch and watched the blue-black land roll away from him, listening to the soft hush of the snakes, their rattles calling out quietly. He had one of his own, an old one that his son had given him years ago, toothless and poisonless, its mouth crumpled and sad looking. But the black eyes were still mean, sharp, and he could still scare children and a few men too. When children stayed in the guest cabins and he had to do his snake man routine for the families, he brought her out and let her bite him, try to, again and again, striking fast, still not knowing that she was harmless. It scared the hell out of the kids. They always wanted to know her name but he had never thought of one.

It started to rain and the red, dusty earth thickened until it turned to mud and the sound of the rainfall grew louder and he couldn’t hear the snakes anymore, couldn’t hear anything at all. He stood to go inside but saw the light come on in the tack shed. The light flickered, made the shadows swim in the rain, and was gone, blown out and William waited for the smell of the kerosene but it drowned in the rain.

Give them until morning, he thought.

After the war, when he traveled around up north, anywhere to stay away from the boy and his mother, he had found himself often enough in tack sheds or woodsheds, lying awake all night, begging for sleep, begging no one would find him.

He looked down the hill and in the moonlight saw the rain running silver and black over the earth, running toward the arroyo.

“Fuck, it’s cold.” He looked over at the tack shed again and went inside.

He listened to them talk about the murder and shut the radio off when the announcer started with his two cents. Two cents was all that man was worth, he thought, always running his mouth without ever saying a thing. Dead was dead, cut up bad or not. He opened the front door looked over at the tack shed. The sun was low and lighted the shed with a bourbon-colored glow and he wondered where the body had been found.

The tack shed was empty and he thought it must have been cold in there during the night. The smell of rain and wet cats hung in the air. The lantern sat on a rail, the glass smoked and blackened though he hadn’t used it yet. He ran his finger inside the glass and the soot was greasy, still fresh. A shaft of cold air left over from the night ran down his neck and he shook it off.

In the ground outside he saw the vague imprint of a sharp, pointed boot, the toe dug into the dirt. He squinted in the sun and thought the drifter wouldn’t last long, not out here, not on foot. A man would do better to wander the Badlands without water than to roam over these snake-infested rocks. He had found a cluster of them under his truck just days ago, three or four of them all tangled together, right under the front tire, looking like some devil’s dessert and he nearly stepped in them. It scared the shit out of him. He thought they must be getting worse, coming closer, breeding faster.

That afternoon he sat in the threadbare shade of the desert willow out front his house and smoked a cigar. The radio was on in the kitchen and he could hear them talking on the call-in show, in a panic, scared. It was the third girl in as many months. There might be more out there, waiting to be found. William’s cigar went out and he looked at it, the end wet and gnawed, and he thought he should listen to the news a little more. He always turned the radio off when the music stopped and the voices started. Under the cigar he could still smell the rain, hidden in the earth.

They were loud that evening. He heard the rattling in the kitchen and thought they must be setting up a nest under the house. Maybe on the front porch. He had planted marigolds around the house, even threw a few seeds under, but all they did was look pretty when the sun hit them. He went to the window and tired to remember who told him the flowers would keep snakes away.

He saw the shadows move slowly outside and knew he was being watched. The moon was far away, hidden somewhere in the mountains up north, and he opened the front door and looked down at the cabins and over at the tack shed but it was too dark to see anything. The snakes called out to each other and he could still smell the heat from the day, the scorched air and damp, musty earth and he knew someone was looking right at him, watching him, hiding.

He woke in the middle of the night and looked at the window over his bed but they were gone and all he saw was the moon, thin and bright in the sky in a way that made him hungry and when he turned on the radio they were talking about her again, like they knew her. He threw the radio at the wall. It started to rain again and he knew it would be a sharp and cold rain.

William took his Remington with him, hung lazily by his side and opened the shed.
The man lay in the back, asleep, a saddle blanket for a pillow, his arms over his chest and a silly, bashful smile on his face. Streaked, red mud ran across his cheeks like blood and covered his pants and boots. He grunted at the sun in his eyes. Either the man had a hell of a sunburn or it was the first Indian William had seen with blonde hair. It looked like sun-bleached wheat.

“Wake up.”

The Indian turned away and William smiled, knew he was awake, faking. He thought about throwing his old snake in the shed, scare the Indian right off the land.

“I’m about to make breakfast if you want some.”

The Indian rolled over and smiled.

“Thought you were just going to run me off,” he said.

“I was taught to be hospitable.”

“I can see that.” The Indian nodded at the Remington.

“Taught to be careful, too.” William stepped back from the door. The Indian stood and William raised the Remington automatically, his finger on the trigger. “Jesus Christ.”

The Indian smiled again, tight-lipped, watching the Remington.

“Fuck, you must be the tallest Indian I ever seen. What are you, seven foot?”

“Six and a half. How about that Injun killer?” He nodded to the Remington. “Any chance of it going down a touch?”

“Any chance of you going down a touch?”

“I stoop when I walk.”

“You’re still too damned tall.” William lowered the Remington and stepped outside and waited for the Indian.

He came out and looked at the cabins that scattered down the sloped land and frowned.

“What’s with all the out buildings?”

“It’s a dude ranch.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m still trying to figure that one out myself.”

“There people staying here?”

“Not right now.”

“You’re the owner, then?”

“No, guy from Chicago. Named Richard.”

“Why’s that sign say ‘Duke’s Place’?” He nodded to a carved, wood sign over the tack shed.

“He gave himself an authentic cowboy nickname.”

They walked up to William’s house and the Indian stood on the porch and looked around, shaking his head a little, frowning a little.

“Last time I was here this was all open land. Free and unowned.”

“Most of that to the west is parkland.”

“Parkland.”

“A national park.”

“I know what you meant.”

William shrugged and went into the kitchen.

“You got a name?” William asked.

“John.”

“John?”

“John.” He followed William into the kitchen and stood in the doorway, watching him, smiling at him. “You expecting some other kind of name?”

“Yeah. Maybe Bigfoot, Sasquatch.”

“Would you believe Long John Silver?”

“Not thin enough.”

“I used to be. Like a beanpole. Birth name of John Silvertail and it was pretty much a given.”

William looked out the window at the clear sky. It was wide open, empty in a way that made him wish he were alone and he knew the wind would be cool, fresh after the night’s rain, the rattlesnakes asleep in the rocks.

“Why you sleeping in sheds, Long Johns?”

“Long Johns are underwear.”

“How about my question? You drifting? Looking for work?”

“Looking for family.”

William started coffee and looked at the Indian. He smelled like leather and wet cats and William grunted quietly to himself and wondered about that cat smell.

“How long you been out there?” He asked.

“A while.”

“How many nights in the tack shed?”

“Two.”

“Before that?”

“Somewhere else.”

“Not my business?”

“Nope.”

“You like scrambled eggs?”

“Oh yeah.”

He ate six eggs like it was nothing and William put bacon in the pan and poured out more coffee and looked at the Indian’s knuckles and wondered where the blood came from. He had tried to wash it of but it was still there, between the cracks of his hardened skin.

“I was fishing,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“The blood. It’s from fish.”

“Okay.”

“Your face sure speaks for you.” He laughed and kept eating, watching William.

William sat on the porch and lit a cigar, the Remington still close to him, behind the bench, and he heard the thunder beating the land though the sky was clear. He had told John to take a bath and offered him clean clothes but nothing was his size except for some socks. The floor in the bathroom grunted under the Indian’s weight every now and again.

He turned on the radio, propped it on the windowsill behind him, and they were still talking, going into detail, not giving the dead any privacy. She had been torn apart, they said, by someone strong as a bear and just as tall, and if it weren’t for all the cutting they may well have thought it an animal killing.

John came out on the porch and William turned the radio off.

“Don’t turn that off on my account.”

“They used to play music. There used to be a man at the station that played Benny Goodman all the time. Now they just talk.”

“Benny Goodman?”

“Big band music.”

“I know. Just wouldn’t have thought you a fan.”

“I love the clarinet.”

John sat down on the bench and kicked his legs out in front of him and wiggled his toes.

“Thanks for the socks.”

“Welcome.”

“It’s nice and quiet here.”

“Now. In the off season.”

“Does it get crowded?”

“Yeah. Sometimes. Lot of families come here in summer. Lot of children.”

“I like children. They’re peaceful.”

“What kind of children do you know? Mutes?”

“I haven’t seen mine in years. I miss them like crazy.”

“I saw my boy four years ago. Another four will do before the next time. Longer even.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do. He’s an entitled asshole.” His cigar went out and he looked at it, chewed up to a stubby inch and he threw it out into the marigolds. The thunder rolled through the sky again and he looked for clouds or rain but it was clear. He reached back and turned the radio on and someone was making a speech, promising justice for the girls, promising to let them rest in peace.

John switched it off and stood and looked out over the land. He had to hunch so his head didn’t hit the awning. He looked down at William, his eyes black and angry looking, lost in foul thoughts, and his mouth twisted into a shy smile.

“Why you switch that off?” William asked.

“I thought I heard a motor.”

“So what if you did?”

“You wouldn’t get in trouble for taking me in?”

“It’s my damned house.”

“Is it?”

“And there wasn’t any motor. There’s nothing to hear out there but snakes and thunder.”

“I should get going.”

“Stay the night. On the couch.”

“No, I think I’ve imposed long enough.”

“Suit yourself. It’s going to rain really hard soon enough, though.”

“How do you know that? The sky is clear.”

“Thought you types could read the weather.”

“Indians?”

“Hobos, drifters.”

John looked at the sky again, looked over the land, his face rigid, hardened by the wind and his blonde hair burned brightly in the sun. He was still sweating from the heat of the bathwater and his shirt pressed against his shoulders and his arms and William looked at him and thought about the rifle, behind the bench, hard to get at quickly. John turned to him and smiled. It was a silly, shy smile, the same smile little girls gave him when he handled a snake and they thought he was some kind of magic.

“I sure can’t read the rain up there,” John said.

A snake rattled at them and they looked down at the floor.

“Damn things are under the house, aren’t they?”

“I’d say so.”

It didn’t rain but the wind picked up and blew the thin pink flowers from the desert willow, scattered them over the dirt in front of William’s house and they died quickly in the heat. William came out of the tack shed and looked at his house and felt crowded and tight-chested just knowing that Indian was in there and he thought about when he got back from the war, how he felt crowded all the time. Maybe he should go back north to the mountains, he thought, leave the house and the job and all the goddamn snakes to the Indian. He emptied a bucket of soapy water on the ground and looked down the hill, to the cabins scattered in the Cimarron trees and he was glad there were no guests.

John came out on the porch eating an apple and shielded his eyes to look at William. He looked like the owner already.

“What you doing down there?” He asked.

“Cleaning.”

“The tack shed?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought it was pretty clean.”

“It was.”

“So why did you clean it?”

“There was some awful smell in there. Like wet cats.”

“What the hell do wet cats smell like?”

“Like wet dogs but worse.”

“Okay.” John took another bite of the apple and smiled. “Say, I noticed some steaks in your freezer. It may be asking too much but I’m a heck of a cook with steaks if you want me to make them for supper.”

“Alright.”

John smiled and pushed his hair back, off his forehead. Wind blew and over the hills the air was thick and red with the small clouds of distant dust-storms.

William looked at the sky and wondered if it rained hard enough would it flush the snakes from under the house. He shook his head to himself. Territorial fuckers would probably just come back anyway.

He went up to the house and started sweeping the porch and he heard the steaks searing in the pan and felt like a housewife, or a couple of old maids and he wanted to be alone again.
“God damn.” He put the broom away and went and sat at the kitchen table and lit his cigar.

“You smoke that in the house?” John asked.

“My house.”

“Okay.”

He got up and turned on the radio, turned it loud, and fingered the dial, switching stations, looking for music, getting angry with all the voices. He settled on the weather report but it only told him what he already knew and he cursed to himself when the weather finished and they started in on the girls again. A few months ago, one of them was sure she was being spied on at night, through her bedroom window, someone watching her in the dark, but her father had laughed her off, told her there was nothing out there but miles of empty land.

The last girl had been seen in town with a man, tall and blonde and handsome. Some kind of drifter no one knew. It was all the police had to go on and they held onto it tight, repeated it, and the announcer said the police were gunning for this man and William cringed. He looked up and found John watching him and he turned off the radio and blew smoke in the air. He cursed himself silently for smoking inside, the house would stink for days now. John licked his lip, kept watching him.

“By that description there, that could almost be me.”

“They said handsome.”

John turned back to the counter and started slicing onions and William thought he sure knew his way around a knife.

“I used to be thought handsome.”

“I figured that.”

“But they didn’t say Indian. They would have thrown that in. Nothing you folks like more than gunning for an Injun.”

“It’s because you guys scream funny.”

The steaks were close to raw in the middle. Blood ran down John’s fork and he licked it off, smiling, and William pushed his plate away, his steak untouched.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Don’t know how you can pass this up.”

“I’m tired. Gonna lay down.”

“Like a nap?”

“Yeah, like a nap.”

“In your bedroom?”

“Where the hell else would I lay down?”

John shrugged and started in on William’s steak.

He fell asleep quickly with the soft afternoon sun coming through the open window and the wind that came into the room was warm and dry with no smell of rain and he woke every few minutes, sure that John was standing in the doorway, watching him sleep, and he thought about the girl telling her father someone was outside her window.

Her neck had been snapped, like a bear toying with a cat, before they started in with the knife. William woke and went to the toilet to throw up.

William tried the phone but the line was dead. He followed the wires until they disappeared under the house, into the crawl space and he stood with the sun at his back and listened to the snakes. He thought knowing his luck they would have set up camp right on the power box. He hadn’t heard of snakes eating through wire before. John looked down at him from behind the window, his face blurred by the warped windowpane, and he grinned, or William thought he did.

He started down the hill toward the cabins. The desert wind blew cold, steamed William’s breath, and he knew it would be freezing that night, cold even in his house with the fire burning. The sun broke in long, rust-colored shadows over the land and spilled over the rocks and he went into the only cabin that had a porch. Richard called it the honeymoon suite but William wondered what kind of man went on a honeymoon with his children.
He dialed Blair twice before that girl he had picked up.

“This is William Taylor. Blair around?”

“No, sir.” Her voice was high, like she wanted to sound younger, cuter, than she was, wanted to sound like she had once been, long ago. “He’s out with all that’s been happening.”

“I can imagine. Tell him I called.”

“Okay.”

“Tell him to come see me as soon as he can. Tell him to come armed. I can’t find my damned Remington.”

“Huh?”

“Just tell him to come, armed and in a hurry.”

“Okay.”

“Did you write it down?”

“No, I can remember that.”

“Write it down.”

“Okay.”

He hung up and thought she wouldn’t write it down. Not now that she had been told to. There was a radio on the counter in the kitchenette, the window looking down toward the corral, where the horses lived during the season, and William went and turned it on, listened to them mumbling, their voices frantic and always running. He wondered where they learned to talk like that, without breaks, without tone or volume and he closed his eyes and he heard the indignant wailing of a clarinet. Not Benny Goodman, but it didn’t matter.

John was waiting for him on the porch, sitting on the bench, his face dark and hard as carved wood, but he smiled. Out in the rocks the snakes were waking, calling, their rattles going quietly in the dark.

“Where you been?” John asked.

“Working.”

“Doing what?”

“Taking care. It’s what a caretaker does.”

“Down in the cabins?”

“Yeah.”

“It still hasn’t rained.”

“No, not yet.”

“Still think it will?”

“Yeah, now it’s dark out. It’ll rain. Sometime tonight.”

“I don’t know.” He looked down at William. “You okay?”

“I’m good.”

“Troublesome nap you had earlier.”

“I guess.”

“I saw your snake. There’s something wrong with him.”

“He’s got no teeth.”

“That’d be a blow to the ego, for a rattlesnake.”

“I guess.”

“You catch him yourself?”

“No,” William said.

“Around here, it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

William looked at him, at his dark, happy eyes and girlish mouth. His head was full of people he didn’t want in there, like it had been after the war, and he needed to move, to run, and no matter what he did he could never breath right, never feel clear, not for years.

It rained just before dawn and William lay in bed and thought about the girls. They would have been pretty, he thought, with healthy skin and smooth, softly scented hair. They didn’t say it on the news but he knew it by how they spoke. The gloomy, pink light of daybreak came into his room, through the open window, with the clean, wet wind and he listened to the rainwater run over the ground, building up as it ran down the hill, toward the arroyo. The snakes had finally shut up. He wondered if they could swim.

His house was empty, the blankets folded at the side of the couch and he went out on the porch and looked out over the land and over at the tack shed and it’s door sat open and there was no one around for miles. The moon still hung in the dark end of the sky and it lit the desert willow and the wet earth with a tired, lonesome-looking glow. Thunder rolled across the desert and the rain picked up, hit hard into the dust and William smiled to himself. He liked the bad weather.

He was oiling the children’s saddles on his porch when Blair drove up and ran from the car. Within two feet he was soaked through and he stopped, stood still in the rain, looking around him, his wide, alligator smile breaking his face in two and he looked up at William and laughed.

“This is some rain,” he called.

William nodded. Blair walked up onto the porch and shook himself off.

“Is that coffee I can smell?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Got a spare cup?”

“It’s on the stove, help yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He took off his hat and boots and set them near the door and went inside. William moved a saddle off the bench to make room for Blair and he came back and sat down, holding his coffee near his mouth. “Took me a while to figure out which William had called me.”

“She didn’t write it down?”

“She can’t write. That’s the only explanation. Told me some man had called. Think she might have called you a dude.”

“Long as she didn’t call me a dud,” William said. “You armed?”

“Got something in the trunk.”

“She tell you to come armed?”

“No. But I was a boy scout.” The rain ran down Blair’s clothes and pooled like dirty, watered-down blood on the floorboards. “Everything okay, William?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Solitude getting to you?”

“No.” He shook his head. He looked at the tack shed and knew inside the ground would be wet, soaked through, the smell of cats still strong as the wind pushed on the thin walls.
“No, I guess it wouldn’t. Not you at any rate.”

“Had a drifter come through.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I let him stay the night.”

“He steal something?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t looked. Didn’t think to. Not with all this talk about those girls on the radio.”

“Shit.” Blair sat back. “Not you too.”

“Me too what?”

“You been calling up the stations? Making an ass you yourself?”

“No. Just listening. I heard the description of your drifter.”

“Which one?”

“There’s more than one?”

“Yeah. I hate those radio programs. All the crazies call up, shouting, screaming, calling for heads and saying I can’t do my job right, making shit up. They used to play good music on those stations.”

“I know.”

“So, what? You took in a drifter who fit the description?”

“Yeah. Biggest, blondest Indian I’ve ever seen. Come to think of it he was the only blonde Indian I’ve ever seen. Must have been seven feet tall.”

Blair grinned, his eyes murky and lost, out in the rain. Wind blew the cold air at them, threw the rainfall around in the sky and settled quietly. “I knew a blonde Indian once,” Blair said. “Years ago. Had this crazy yellow hair, looked like a goddamn canola field. He worked the rodeo, rode bulls. He was on his way to being a big-time rodeo star. Had a stupid name, but not like you’d expect from an Indian. Long John Silver.”

“That’s who I took in.”

“Long John Silver? No. He died about fifteen years ago. Maybe more. Found his body over in the National Park, but before it was parkland.”

“Drifter I had said his name was Long John Silver. Birth name was John Silvertail.”

Blair grunted. “Same name, different Indian. Like I said, my Long John Silver is dead.”

“How’d he die?”

“I don’t know. He was found all cut up, high in the rocks, over west in the tableland. But they never tried too hard to figure that one out. They didn’t try too hard, back then, with the Indians.”

William woke before dawn and it was cold, well below freezing, as cold as it had been many of those nights, after the war, when he had traveled aimlessly in the north, hiding. He made coffee in the dark, the smell filling the house and went out on the porch and walked down to the desert willow, walking slowly, carefully, sure there were snakes waiting to be stepped on, waiting to bite. He used to catch them, when he was younger, when his hands were faster than his thoughts, and he’d hold them high, under the jaw and watch their black, killing eyes soften to sadness as they waited to die.

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Discussion

4 Responses to Driftwood

  1. Elliot Sanders says:

    I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this story. It reminds me of a Cormac McCarthy setting. I love the descriptions of the land.

  2. Dear Elliot,

    Thank you for the kind words. The story owes a lot to James Lee Burke, I think, and should you want bigger and better keep an eye out for JBL’s In the Moon of Red Ponies.

    M

  3. Cara Scott says:

    My favorite part about this story is the pacing. It is fast enough that the story never has a chance to get tiring, yet still slow enough that the build-up and reveal at the end come at just the right time to put the most power in the surprise. Pacing is pretty hard to get just right, but this story managed it. I loved how my mind jumped around throughout the story, first inferring that John was the murderer and then later trying to comprehend who exactly John is.

    The dialogue in this story also works very well. I enjoy how it allows the story to progress naturally, without sounding forced or unrealistic. That can also be hard to do, but it is done well here. It also characterizes John and William, and by allowing their characters to develop through dialogue the story avoids “telling” rather than “showing.”

    I also think the images of snakes are great throughout. They aren’t overdone, and they really work as symbols here. I love it when short stories such as this one are able to use deep symbols, as I have found it can be difficult to fit such symbols into so few words. I read John as the personification of the snakes — hidden away but potentially dangerous — and I really liked that.

  4. Dear Cara,

    Incredibly kind words. Thank you. Very nice of you to take the time to say such things.

    Many thanks and take care,
    Michael

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