That first week of school last September,
before classes started, was filled with faculty meetings, committee
meetings, PTA meetings, meetings with administrators, meetings with
textbook representatives, meetings with parents concerned about curricula,
plus meetings with corporate sponsors about what advertisements would be
running in the classrooms that year. On Friday, faculty members
congregated at The Logger to partake of a liquid dinner.
The decor inside the bar was unlike
anything Jake had ever seen outside of the Las Vegas Strip. Jerry Merlino,
who owns the place, had brought lighting kitsch to new heights in his
"drinking palace." Walking in off the darkened town Plaza at six
o'clock, Jake was assaulted by so much neon and brightly colored
incandescent light that he wished for sunglasses. He could see that The
Logger was not the kind of place that would live up to its name.
Jake found much to overwhelm his eye in the
bar. The linoleum floor consisted of 12 X 12 inch glitter inlaid panels
with frayed reflective tape around the edges. The walls were covered with
blacklight velvet paintings that belonged in some Latin American bordello.
He found the motif of zaftig Aztecan women in various suggestive poses, in
equally various stages of nudity, to be an intriguing counterpoint to the
land of political correctness he had left behind in California.
Hanging from the ceiling were Christmas
tree ornaments and bits of broken glass suspended by fishing line. A mass
of driver's licenses were stuck to the ceiling with darts. It would be
some time before Jake learned why. For seats, Merlino had a row of
barstools designed and painted by someone with a Dolly Parton fetish.
Along the wall opposite the bar stood a row of booths colored slightly
more sedately than the floor. In the back were three captain's tables for
the card-playing patrons and behind them, through a door, was another room
where Merlino kept a pool table, and the men's and women's toilets.
Everywhere, everywhere were lights; so many
lights there wasn't any reason to heat the place during the winter. In the
coming months, Jake grew to appreciate the dry warmth of Merlino's lights.
Big lights, colored lights, Christmas tree lights, flashing red lights,
blacklights, full-spectrum grow-lux lights; the entire establishment
served as a cornucopia to extravagance in light and color. And lack of
Jake slid into a booth where he recognized
a woman from the attendance office and introduced himself to the four
other people there. The conversation was distant, but polite. The booth's
occupants were all killing time, waiting for someone else to show up.
Country music, something about, "Leaving your lover on a train to
east Texas," played softly in the background. As the evening wore on,
Jake nursed a series of draft beers while the changing cohort in the booth
puffed through fields of tobacco and slammed down whiskey sours, vodka
martinis, rum and cokes, straight tequila, cheap red wine, sloe gin,
boilermakers, long-necked bottles of Budweiser, and pitchers of beer. He
hadn't seen such heavy drinking since his freshman year of college or his
stint in Southeast Asia.
The fluid complexion of the bar kept Jake's
interest from dulling as a succession of his co-workers; overweight,
balding, and pompous, paraded through the booth. Of course, it's easy to
be interested in such things when you don't know anybody and there is
nothing in particular waiting for you to do at home. Jake must have
fielded the same question a dozen times that night.
"Why'd you leave L.A. to come up
here?" The phrases describing "here" changed with each
interviewer, "...to God's country?" "...to this
shit-hole?" "...to the Pacific Northwest?" "...to the
Pacific Northwet?" "...the land where the sun don't shine?"
"...to the loneliest place in the world?" "...to the land
Jake didn't understand it at first, but as
the evening progressed he realized in the deprecating comments a certain
pride of ownership; a sense of place: the idea that people existed with
some kind of continuity with where they lived. They belonged here, not
because Port Talbot was where they get their mail, but because they
physically and chronologically fit the place. To live here required a
certain type of person; someone who wouldn't let rain or weather,
remoteness, or solitude and economic destitution bring them down. At least
not too far. At least, not as long as there were drinks at The Logger.
That realization made his own reasons for
being in Port Talbot sound naive and uninformed. It explained the raised
eyebrows, patronizing smiles, and head-shaking that accompanied his
"You left L.A. 'cause you wanted
to live in a dark, wet forest? What are you; some kind of nut?"
"Environmental-types aren't too
appreciated around here, you know. Best keep your mouth closed about
hugging trees and loving owls."
"Port Talbot is a real place, not some
sort of living history museum of logging."
"If you've got half the brains you
think you do, you'll open your eyes to the fact that all that tree-hugger
stuff you heard back in California is just a load of B.S."
"Ever since that fellow at the forest
service caused the Cherry Creek Sawmill to close, people have been awfully
sensitive about how saving the ecology means someone loses their
Sometime during the evening, Jake found
himself sitting in the booth with the high school's four P.E. teachers,
their faces a blur in his mind. He had just fielded the question of the
night when one of the coaches commented, "It takes a hundred years
before anyone accepts you around here."
"Why's that?" Jake asked.
"Too much inbreeding." The man
smiled to show he was kidding.
The second coach added, "Folks around
here don't trust outsiders."
The third coach contributed, "And it
doesn't help that, except for the forest service employees, you make four
times as much money as anyone else."
"Anyone else who works," added
"Don't forget those trouble-making old
farts in leisure village." This from coach Number Four.
"Leisure village?" Jake queried.
"Fogytown. Along the west shore of
Azazel Bay," Number Four supplied.
Jake had seen the impressive row of
expensive homes along the water.
"Retired people," stated Number
Two with disgust. "They come up here, with no ties, no children, and
no interest in anything except their IRA disbursements. Problem is, they
help organize the commuters living in Newtown. They vote more often than
anyone else and they vote down school levies, road bonds, and funding for
libraries. The only thing they support is less government and more
"Can't argue with that," Number
"Sure you can. There's a million
people in jail in America. That's more people than in college,"
Number Two replied.
Number One countered with, "If you do
"Yeah. And if the glove don't
fit..." said Number Three.
"Except our law enforcement is county,
not city," argued Number Two. "They can vote for all the cops
they want but we're never going to get anything except for Sheriff Moody
and those three dimwit deputies. Any real crimes, like whoever killed that
stupid spotted owl, never get solved."
Number Three interjected, "Same thing
with those protestors a few years back."
Jake's ears pricked up. "What about
"Speaking of pay, don't forget about
the guy that runs the only mill in town," Number Four butted in,
changing subjects from crime to economics. "Given what Owens pays his
help and what lumber goes for these days..." He left the rest of it
hanging, reached across the table and tapped Jake on the chest with a fat
finger. "I'm trying to build a house and you wouldn't believe what
clear Doug-fir two-by-fours are going for."
"That's because the environmentalists
won't let any trees be cut down," said Number One.
"It's that stupid owl," Number
Three agreed. "Good thing somebody killed that one, if you ask
"So who asked?" Number Two jumped
back into the debate. "We've cut down all the first growth and now
they charge us just as much for the crap timber they haul out." This
coach spoke with the authority of someone convinced that he was correct on
"What about the storekeepers?"
said Number Four.
The four P.E. coaches plainly had practiced
discussing these topics. There was no rancor between what should have been
disagreeable camps on opposite sides of the issues. In fact, they kept
switching viewpoints the moment someone began to agree with them.
Number Three tapped the table with an unlit
cigarette to emphasize his point. "They've got to be pretty well-off,
considering the prices we pay in their stores. Wait until you need to buy
a light bulb."
"Hey, bar keep! Another pitcher over
here," Number Four shouted.
"Let me tell you a story, John,"
Number Two, the know-it-all, began.
"Oh; right." He gave Jake a
curious glance. "That some sort of Biblical name?"
"Some sort," Jake agreed.
Without missing a beat, the coach went on
with his story. "You see, this fellow moved to a small town with his
wife and baby. They lived there the rest of their lives, died, and got
buried in the town cemetery. Pillars of the community and like that, so
everybody was sad when they passed on. Their kid got to be mayor, owned
the biggest business in town, lived to ninety, and when he died, on his
tombstone it said, "He was almost one of us."
Jake stared stupidly at the story teller.
"That's just the way small towns are;
you never belong unless your parents were born here."
The beer, the noise and second-hand smoke,
the lateness of the hour, and all the talk helped deaden Jake's senses,
and the lights in The Logger stopped being quite so bright. The
music had risen in volume with the crowd until the bass, boom-boom-boom,
throbbed in Jake's head.
The booth had emptied for the umpteenth
time, as the occupants got up to circulate, when a solidly built man,
slightly gone to seed, sat across from Jake. He was accompanied by a
stocky fellow with closely cropped hair who was dressed in well-worn
jeans, red suspenders, a red flannel shirt, and heavy work boots. A dirty
red bandana, smudged with oil, stuck out of his front pocket. There was a
line of moisture that clung tenaciously to the thin mustache over his lip.
He sat, sullenly, next to the seedy man and laid a heavily beat-up yellow
metal hard-hat on the table. He took a long pull from a can of beer.
"Walter Payne," the first man
announced with slurred speech, offering a meaty hand across the table.
"Lots of people call me 'Hawk,'" he added with a wink. Jake took
the hand in his and felt the barest hint of a grip. The skin on the hand
was heavily laden with lanolin. Payne slipped his hand out from Jake's and
used it to tug nervously on a crop of wiry hair. Little flakes and tufts
of it floated down to the table and the floor. Somehow, despite all the
hair pulling, Walter Payne was still able to smoke one cigarette and hold
"Jake Benveniste," Jake replied.
Even in the smokey bar Jake could smell cigarettes on the man's clothing
The logger sitting with Walter Payne awoke
from his stupor and stared at Jake. A hint of recognition flittered across
A collision of scents descended onto the
three men in the booth. A group of young women from all over the bar had
instantly gravitated to the booth with the two new male arrivals. One
woman, with dishwater hair and big hips poured into tight jeans, sat
beside the sullen logger and instantly began to tickle his ear. He swatted
at her hand like he would swat at a fly. "Leave it alone," he
"Aw, Billy," she replied.
"You liked it last night."
Billy made a face. "That was last
night and I was drunk." He pushed her hand away again and looked at
Jake some more. "What sort of name is that? Ben what?" The smell
of beer and bad breath wafted over the table to Jake.
"Benveniste," Jake politely
repeated. He smiled a little at the drunk.
"That some kind of Jew name?" An
idiot grin swept over Billy's face and he nudged Walter Payne in the side.
Jake's face froze and his eyes narrowed. An
old, familiar, tenseness swept through his body. His hands, which were
below the table top came out onto the surface, the right one flexing open
and closed. Instinctually, his feet gathered up below the bench and he
flexed his knees. "Jewish? No," he said slowly, thoughtfully.
"Not that I'm aware of. Of course, I probably don't get around as
much as you do," he added with the finest trace of sarcasm.
The sudden frost in the air drove some of
the women away. Here was trouble, sure enough. Walter Payne slapped the
muscles of his friend's back and said, "Sure doesn't look Jewish to
me." The joviality in his voice was phoney and everybody knew it.
"Then why does he..."
Walter Payne interrupted his friend.
Without the blitheness this time, firmly, wanting to get the accuracy just
right, "He doesn't look Jewish to me." Bits of hair rained down
upon the table. Payne reached inside his jacket and brought out a pack of
cigarettes. He pulled out one and added it to the already lit butt in his
The woman who was pestering Billy began to
tug on his arm. "Let's go someplace else, Lover."
"That's a good idea, Billy. Why don't
you let Roseanna buy you a drink across the street," encouraged his
friend. He picked up the pace of hair pulling. Jake wondered how the guy
could have any hair left with the way he pulled it from his scalp.
Roseanna cast a grateful look at Walter
Payne. "Thanks, Hawk," she said.
Billy allowed himself to be pulled from the
booth. He stood, unsteady on his feet. He reached for his hard hat,
missed, tried again and missed again. Jake lifted it and held it out to
him but he still missed grabbing it. Finally, Roseanna snatched it from
Jake's grasp and shoved it on Billy's head. Another insult escaped from
Like a cat, Jake slid out of the booth and
used his left hand to grab Billy by the collar while his right hand cocked
back to throw a punch. The swiftness of the movement surprised everyone,
including Jake. He released Billy and sat back down before anyone else
could react. Jake could feel his ears burning, his heart thumping wildly,
and his stomach churning butter.
"Fuckin' fairy," was all Billy
managed to sputter. He gave Roseanna and any of the remaining women close
by a toothy grin. "Pussy's too afraid to fight." He gave a
short, triumphal laugh. "Gonna go home and tell your mama?"
"Billy," his friend said sharply.
"Knock it off." Any trace of drunkenness in Walter Payne was
sloughed off like a snake's skin.
"Faggot can fight his own battles,
Hawk." Budd finally licked off the line of moisture that clung to his
mustache. "What are you doing it for?"
Jake kept his seat this time but there was
no mistaking the violence in his words. "That's why we have lawyers,
shithead. And there's nothing you can do to me that I can't have my lawyer
return to you in spades. If you lay one of your greasy fingers on me, I
can make sure the court gives me everything you own from that broken-down
piece of shit Ford you drive to your hard hat. You'll be so dirt poor for
the rest of your life you won't be able to buy a gas can to piss in, much
less run a chain saw."
Roseanna pulled harder on Billy and
succeeded in getting him out of the bar before the man could think of
anything else to say.
The taste of anger still heavy in his
mouth, Jake watched the woman with big hips drag Billy away. Then he stood
up and walked toward the men's toilet. People by the back door made way
for him. In the back room he bumped into a man playing pool with a pretty
woman with auburn hair. She wore comfortably cut slacks and a tailored
shirt. She turned her head to catch him in the corner of her eye. She then
leaned over the table trying to make some outrageous shot. He stared at
her just long enough to admire how nice the stretch of her body looked.
"Excuse me," he mumbled to her partner.
On the ugly brown paneling of the restroom
was the familiar literature, "Those who write on shithouse
walls...," "Here I sit, brokenhearted...," "Fuck
You," and, "For a blow job, call..." Jake leaned into the
rancid porcelain fixture for a full minute before his bladder emptied
completely. "Well, that made a good impression," he mumbled to
The pretty woman was standing beside the
pool table when Jake got out of the restroom. He felt as if her eyes
followed him as he walked away. As he passed the booth on his way to leave
the bar, Walter Payne beckoned. "Hey: Sailor! Can I buy you a
Payne grasped Jake by the arm and pulled
him back into the booth. With the same false joviality as before, Payne
remarked, "You sure gave Billy a good talking to. Shut him up right
away! What are you drinking?" Payne's tobacco representatives had
been reduced to one. It dangled from his lower lip, stuck there like in a
Jake was thinking he'd had enough to drink
already and was wondering how he could get out of this when the woman from
the poolroom stepped up to the bar and had a seat at one of the vacant
stools. She wore a thick sweater tied around her waist. She immediately
became engaged in conversation with her neighbor, one of the Port Talbot
High teachers. Jake didn't remember seeing auburn-haired woman at the
faculty meeting that morning but that wasn't unusual considering there
were forty other people in the room at the time. "Draft," Jake
"Draft beer, not students, eh?"
"What?" Jake asked in a daze.
He'd certainly had too much to drink already but that didn't seem to faze
anyone around here. Maybe he hadn't had enough?
"I'm having whiskey," Payne said,
almost as a challenge.
"Beer's fine," Jake replied,
refusing to bite.
A bit disappointed, Payne said, "Be
right back, then." Back to being drunk, the fuzzy-haired man rolled
to the well, spoke some words to the bartender, and waited for the drinks.
He gave the "high sign" to several people including the woman
who had caught Jake's attention. When Payne returned to the booth, Jake
asked about her.
"That's Janet Webster. She teaches
English. Want to meet her? We go back a long ways." The brag in
Payne's comment was obvious.
"Not now," he said. "Maybe
later." He stifled a yawn. To change the subject he brought up Billy.
"He a friend of yours?"
"A town like this? You stay around
long enough and the people you knew when you were in school are the people
you know when you grow up. Or out." Payne smiled and patted his
expanded waistline. "Billy Budd and I played football together in
"Oh?" Jake commented
noncommittally. "What position?"
"Nothing fancy. Billy ran with the
ball and I made sure no one got in his way."
"Did he drink as much then?"
Payne burst into hearty laughter.
"He'll be barking to the porcelain God by the time Roseanna gets him
to her place."
"Must be hard to cut down trees with a
"What's his problem?"
"With you? I think you reminded him of
"Is he that way with everyone who
looks familiar to him?"
"Only with the ones he didn't
like." Payne laughed through his words. "He's my friend, right?
But Billy isn't what I'd call very smart." The man's face sagged as
the alcohol took over from the merriment in his voice. "He joined one
of those militias a few years back. They wear camouflage and drag their
scrotums through the woods, playing army. Like a bunch of kids."
Apologetically, "They have to hate somebody."
"Sure. They don't know enough to
realize how much they hate themselves. What they are. Who they've
"So what do you teach?" Jake
asked abruptly. He didn't really care who Billy Budd hated.
"Got me pegged as a teacher do you? Am
I that obvious?"
"Only teachers from the high school
have been sitting in this booth all evening. So, I assumed..."
"I'm the art and photography teacher.
And I get to do the school newspaper and the Yearbook if we ever get the
money again." Payne tugged at his hair a little and asked,
"What's your subject."
"Oh!" Payne replied. Shaking his
head, he continued with, "So you're the new biology teacher. The guy
you're replacing, Mr. Farrel, was my biology teacher in 1969."
"What's with your hands?" Jake
asked. "They're so bleached."
"Stop bath and fixer."
"Why don't you use tongs?"
"Probably should but the darkroom is
small and when I'm developing prints I can never seem to find my
tools." Bluntly, "Where you living? New or Old?"
"New or Old?"
"Newtown is the development down the
hill, close to the state highway," Payne explained. "My buddy,
Owen Owens, built it. Selling houses to the Seattle crowd they say is the
only thing that kept Port Talbot from turning into a ghost town after
Cherry Creek closed down."
"Oldtown is up here. The original
town," Payne added.
"Old, then," Jake replied.
"Not too many places for rent up
here," Walter dug. There's Mrs. Spooner's place on Cliff Street or
Mrs. Hardy's on First and D."
"That's the one," Jake said.
Jake considered how to answer. Mrs. Hardy
talked to herself a lot; but when Jake spoke to her, the old woman was
lucid enough. "She's all right," he finally said.
They nattered on a few minutes more. Payne
explained his passion for photography and his successful attempts at
restoring antique cameras and recreating the techniques of pioneering
nineteenth century photographers. Payne surprised Jake with his passionate
account of "touching off a load of flash powder." Finally, the
photography teacher's attention wandered toward two young women, girls
actually, who stood at the well, talking to the bartender. The older of
the two was pleading for something. Jake could tell by the girl's body
posture: All her weight on one hip, stuck out like a deformity, while the
opposite hand and arm made wide asynchronous circles and the head bobbed
backwards and forwards, left and right. The speech was missing but only
because the music was too loud to hear it. Eventually she got two beers in
"They look a little young to be
drinking, don't you think?" Jake asked.
"Sure are," Payne responded. His
eyes dug into the two girls, feasting on them.
Jake looked closer at the girls and tried
to divine their attraction to the photography teacher. The older one had
henna hair, short and with a wave. Her features were pleasant, nothing
striking, and her figure lithe. The younger girl had red hair pulled back
into a pony tail. The blush on her face seen from this distance could only
be freckles. She had the tall gangly and boyish figure of a teenager.
Both were dressed as if in uniform: loose
chambray shirts, baggy and understated faded jeans with holes in the
knees, and running shoes. The henna-girl absently rolled her tongue around
the beer bottle's top. Such guileless sensuality surprised Jake. Next to
the girl, a burly man with a Santa Claus beard and dressed in a plaid
shirt, soiled chinos, and hiking boots, looked on in amazement.
"You know, Jake," Walter Payne
said, "One time or another, I had both of those girls in my
photography class." There was the same braggadocio Payne had used
minutes before with Janet Webster.
Jake was confused by the man's devilish
grin. "The redhead on the left doesn't look old enough to vote,"
he noted. Normally, any man who has taught high school longer than a year
or two loses his infatuation with teenaged girls. They may look nice but
the moment they open their mouths they become teenaged girls. "I
suppose the one on the right does, or will be able to soon."
"Oh, they both do, you can be
sure," Payne said, deliberately misinterpreting Jake's observation.
"The law looks the other way when it
comes to underage drinking in this town?"
"Oh, sure. Sheriff Moody's not
supposed to, of course. But no one complains as long as they don't make a
"Yeah. As long as they don't drink too
much and pass out or throw up all over the place. Kids can't hold their
liquor," Payne added. "Besides, her friend, Stacey, is twenty.
That's almost old enough."
"That makes a difference," Jake
Payne continued, ignoring the bite in
Jake's voice. "A lot of the girls at the high school get knocked up
their senior year. The ones that don't, they get pregnant soon
"Sounds pretty sad."
Payne waved a dismissive hand and bottomed
out his whiskey, sucking in a mouthful of ice and giving it a serious
crunch. "Most of the boys around here are like their fathers. They
figure that a woman's place is under a man." He pointed past a man
with a pocket protector filled with mechanical pencils to a young man on
the other side of the room, sitting at a captain's table, leaning his
chair up against the wall. Like Billy Budd, the fellow wore heavy,
high-topped leather boots, high water pants held up by suspenders, and a
long-sleeved plaid shirt. "That's Tommy Jenkins. He and Stacey were
married a year ago last summer; shotgun wedding. After they baby came they
divorced." Payne smacked his lips. "Happens all the time."
"Who takes care of the kid?"
"Stacey's mother, of course."
"You mean, she isn't here too?"
Jake said, the sarcasm again creeping into his voice.
"Nope. Garden Club meeting or
something like that, I bet. Her daddy is Don Howell. Owns Don's Drugs on
the Plaza next to City Hall. They're loaded."
"And the girls come here every Friday
and Saturday night to get picked up, right?" Jake finished the story.
Payne nodded his head. "Whole town has
gone to shit since Cherry Creek closed down." He smacked his lips
loudly again. "I've been waiting for that redhead next to Stacey ever
since she was in the tenth grade."
"How old is she now?" Jake asked
"She's a senior this year. You'll
probably have her in your AP biology class. Helen Thomas is her name.
Father's retired. Ex-Forest Service, I think. Helen's the smartest student
in the whole damn school except for the banker's kid."
"What about her friend?"
Payne sadly shook his head back and forth.
"Stacey is something else. She's trying to finish up her GED in
"I'm impressed. Mother of a one-year
old and all that."
Payne made a face. "Her mother's
Payne gathered his feet under his chair and
lifted his body, pushing his hands, roughly, into the table. "Now, if
you'll excuse me..." He lurched toward the two girls at the bar and
after a few steps wheeled about on his heels, almost falling over. He
caught himself just in time.
A disturbance beside the bar involving
Janet Webster and her pool partner caught Jake's eye. The partner, a
well-dressed fellow with a good head of hair, had Janet Webster by the
Another man, grinning foolishly, looked on.
His nylon cap with an embroidered Smokey the Bear patch on the brim
identified him as a forest service laborer.
The pool partner barked something at the
woman, yanked her off the barstool, and she slid ignominiously to the
floor. Jake didn't approve of men treating women that way so he stood up
to see what he could do about it, and that's how he met Janet Webster. He
wasn't trying to get involved with her but sometimes things just worked
out like that.