by Sid Gustafson
This isn’t a bad story, just a short story about what happened in Oregon. My folks had divorced the year before and Dad flew the coop to Astoria to work on a fishing boat. I rode with my sister on the bus out to spend the summer with him, a twenty-hour trip from Big Timber, Montana. Well, we were on the same bus anyway. She was one of those geeks who wanted to sit in the front and all, and did. Not me. I wasn’t that type. Of course we fought over it, she thought she was my boss, but she couldn’t make me stay up front with her—no way—and I told her so. Pretty soon I think she preferred me in the back. So there I sat, in the very back row, next to the toilet. I got to inspect everyone who took refuge in the can, study their toilet habits—reefer smoking, drinking, jerking-off. The congealed odor of all the nasty things men do to ease the pain of living settled into me on that ride. All the depravity in the world flushed down that toilet, all the way to Oregon, me not two feet from it all. In Post Falls an Idaho couple got on and went in the toilet together as the bus lumbered over the nuclear nothingness of eastern Washington.
When we got to Oregon our dad wasn’t at the bus station, and by that time Sis and I truly hoped he would be there. My dad was a pothead, a Vietnamian drug addict. I guess it was a rough war, he never seemed over it. Didn’t feel like he cared that much for us, but he probably did. He mostly worried about himself—whined a lot, that’s why mom distanced him. But that’s just the way he was, and even I smoke the stuff myself once in awhile. I can see how someone with a worried soul might get addicted. It does take things away, especially that sticky Oregon greenbud. Anyway, we spent the summer in Astoria. I can’t say we spent it with our father, because he was never really there. We were near him though, and that turned out to be important.
I got a job at Fort Clatsop, a sort of hokey setup, a rebuilt fort that was supposed to reconstruct Lewis and Clark’s boring stay at the mouth of the Columbia two centuries ago. Boy, did it get that right. I was in charge of cleaning the latrines and tidying up after all the gawkers that showed up and bought phony coonskin caps at the curio shop. My sister waited tables in town at the Vegan Café, an earth pilot setup where the pretty people ate broccoli omelettes to chip away their hangovers.
Occasionally I got to run the admissions booth when the employees in on duty went off into the woods to smoke spleef and check on the psilocybin hatch. It must have been the weather in Astoria that created the need for everyone to carry themselves away, all that drenched grey. When I was put in charge, I let everyone in free, unless I didn’t like their attitude, then I charged double, and occasionally got called on it by some of the more attentive tightwads. I didn’t make much dough at Fort Clatsop, but Sis made good money at the restaurant with her tips and all. I did learn some important things working there though—like every last Clatsop Indian had been exterminated by our ancestors, not one left today.
One day the sheriff came to get me in a heavy, flat rain. Told me Dad was lost at sea, fell out of the fishing boat shrimping in a squall. Sis cried for two days till Mom showed up.
That afternoon, before driving back to Montana, we three sat on a friend’s porch and watched the Columbia River mushroom all the crap from America into the sea. Foghorns wrenched and tightened our sorrow. Seals we couldn’t see yarped back at our sobs, seals swimming with the souls of the drowned. There never was a funeral, no body. It’s a good thing, because I might have believed he was dead. But he’s not, you know. Dad was a good swimmer—a Navy Seal. Besides, the rum-soaked captain of the boat stopped by that day and told me he was wearing a lifejacket when he went overboard. That night I had a dream Pa made it to shore and ran away from a life he couldn’t handle, ran away to a safer place.
It all happened twenty-three years ago today.
Every time I ride a bus it’s like I’m on a field trip to find him.
And I still ride in the back.
Sid Gustafson writes, skis, teaches horses, and practices veterinary medicine in Montana, where he, his children, and parents were born. HIs third novel Swift Dam, will be published next year in New York City. He teaches equine behavior at the University of Guelph, and represents the health and welfare of racehorses worldwide. He has written for the New York Times horseracing column The Rail since 2008. ?You can visit Sid Gustafson at his website here: www.sidgustafson.com