national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

Williams of the Dog Days

Clare Boerigter  • 
Grinnell College

I. Jonah

His beard is coming in red. I can’t see the stubble any longer, his face beginning to lose its subtleties. We determine not to look at each other. Or night determines for us. Bill Williams, the mountain overlooking, the mountain hanging, is prefaced by four lesser peaks. Ours is not the least, not the lowest; although ridged by telephone poles—a far running wood-and-wire spine—it is possibly the ugliest. The snarl of ponderosas and black-eyed aspen has been felled to civilize this foothill. It protests, downing barbed fences. Angry grasses needle. At the apex of its shaved head, a stump is humbled beneath the whine of electricity. We hear it too from our boulder, Jonah with his knees pulled up, me stretched out, lying back, shifting to match my bones to rock.

We are both Mick’s this summer: his archies, his interns, his crew, his kids. Mick gives us the Kaibab National Forest, lets us feel it through our boots, our backs, our bodies, and we take it—I take it, it becomes mine. In various ways, we become each other’s too. Jonah has seen me every morning for the last forty-nine days, watched me build peanut butter-and-jelly structures in the North House kitchen. He lends me his fleece when it is cold, his button-down when it is wet. I pick up his smell almost without meaning to, add it to the accumulation of details that make him Jonah. When I lean my back to tree bark, he picks up my spinal column—a fractured impression, a rendering in beaded sap—in the fine grains of his fleece. I apologize for altering it, speaking as though it matters, as though he might care.

Tonight we look west as the sun slumps behind the backs of mountains, cars and trucks on I-40 lighting up like bugs. From here, I can see the highway, the Williams Ranger District, Bill Williams Mountain, and Williams, the town of three thousand that I won’t think about, won’t realize I’ll miss, until five months after leaving it. Malformed and backwater, Williams has dug itself into me. No longer a town but an intimation, a site of memory.

In the dark, Williams spreads itself open like a net, a fluorescent tangle. The streetlights push out, roping in houses, Route 66 stores and the Grand Canyon Railway depot. I look for the familiar things, the Sultana and the Safeway, the restaurant that serves seventeen kinds of pie. Beside me, Jonah shifts, crosses his arms, settles into night. The words “A Treasure in Our Own Cool Pines” present themselves in block letters on the Williams’ highway sign. This is the closest I will ever come to believing them.


II.  Milo

He is, among other things, Mexican and Native American. He tells me it was hard, as a kid, when people didn’t treat his mom right, when they stared. He is in his late twenties, an Iraq vet, and when I hold out my hand, palm up, he presses four darts against my fingers and lets me take his turn.

The Sultana is one of Williams’ two bars, its neon sign red, white and flickering. It looks worse from the outside, concrete steps flaking in nickel-sized chunks as they lean up to the door. Inside, there is a dart board, two pool tables, and a drunk middle-aged woman trying to shimmy on the dance floor. The long bar curves back on itself like a gopher snake, the surface slick with finger grease. Milo wants to know what I think the bartender would be like in bed, how she’d use her thick painted nails. She looks tired in the lowlight, her hair—streaked with blonde dye—bunched high on her head.

Milo’s dark forearms taper into delicate wrists and are absolutely hairless. He used to frighten me, such a bear of a man, round-shouldered and buzz-cut. During the fire season, he works on an engine for the Kaibab, sleeping at North House. The first morning I woke up and found him in my kitchen, I couldn’t say hello, watched him punch combinations into the microwave. I didn’t tell him it was broken. We share a bathroom. Never move his shampoo in the shower. Never hang a towel on his hook. When he isn’t wearing lug-soled boots and regulation pants, he puts on flip-flops and manila shorts and small, delicate glasses.

He has a tattoo on that naked forearm of his, the left one, and I look at it as he stretches his arms along the bar, cupping his drink. Stylized flames, the ink colored—not particularly innovative for someone in his line of work. I ask him to tell me about it. He starts with something simple: after Iraq, he can’t sleep, or he wishes he never needed to. He has a dream, and in it, a demon slides under his skin and begins to peel him, to shuck his flesh from the inside out. It grows from within his left forearm, moves up his body to his chest, crawls along his neck—burning him, eating.

He is drunk, and I am drunk, and when he looks at me, his eyes are bottle glass. The tattoo has made things better, he says, the dreams are lessening. He’s working with an artist to draft the demon sketch. He’s going to tattoo it on his chest. Another will follow, more ink riding low on his neck. Milo believes that when it’s over, when the dream has been pricked into his body, he will be allowed to sleep again.

He wakes me a week later. He has come back from the Sultana, and he is screaming at Kev—his roommate, a fellow firefighter, a twenty-something kid with a girlfriend named Carmela and Ivan, a brand-new baby boy. Milo throws something. He wants to fight and Kev—oblivious, always smiling, a little slow—talks to him in his usual sidelong way.

Three nights later, I lie down, push my legs into my sleeping bag, make out Milo on the front porch. He keeps the lights off. His shoulders are curved in, head low, the smoke from his cigarette passing through window screens and into my room. I breathe it in. I want to ask him about Iraq, about his mother, but we never really speak again.


III.  Jude

His hair is getting too long, tucked up under his cap, and I will remember him like this, driving through Williams, his right arm on the console between us, the belly of his brown wrist touching mine. He’s a Brown County boy, and it is something I like to do with him, talking about Indiana and the places where—despite the four years of difference—we both grew up.

Tonight, he makes me nervous, or I make me nervous, or we do. It is that—it is really that he has a girl. We talked about her for the first time four nights earlier, or I asked, our bodies—my spine a notched curl against his breastbone—rounding the hammock low over Arizona cheatgrass. He never mentions her, I hardly know her name, but she is unmistakable when he buys postcards or reads to me from his black book of songs. We play a game with lines—never talk about it—we pretend. I let him touch me, find little ways to touch him: his forearm—perfectly sun-gold—beside mine when he drives, his hand warm against my temple, my ear, the loose long strands of my hair, his silver-ringed fingers on my calves, my thighs, the low dips of my back. But we never cross over, and what passes between us can never be enough. For that, he will apologize just once.

As we slide by Williams, a clean knife through fat, I thank him for getting me from the Amtrak Station, a strip of pavement lost in the forest and miles outside of town. We have not seen one another for three days, not since I asked about her. A topographical map would show my route as a blue line, an arc out to Santa Fe, a spur into Taos, a swift cut through Albuquerque, a fall from New Mexico to Arizona, and passing blow on Flagstaff until I am here, I am back —Williams.

He is good to me, the best yet. I set the music to a band from our hometown, lean my head against the open truck window, suck the night sky and the Williams lights and the road into my chest. The nerves in my stomach start to ease, to wane, to settle. Jude is still Jude. He tells me what it is like to be caught in a cloud of bioluminescent organisms, the weight of the sea stacked around his head and shoulders. He tells me what it is like to have known the elevation and the air of forty-six different states. He tells me what it is like to sink a blade meant for meat into the bone of his left thumb. I realize that it will be okay between us. It is going to be all right.


IV.  Carson

He laces a cord through the twin eyelets on his Stetson. The last one blew away, rolled right out of the front seat of the truck. The second is white, and the cord hangs like a phantom noose around his neck. Sometimes he treats me like a little sister. He gives me half an avocado, shows me how to eat it with a jackknife, tells me to clean the blade when I’m done sectioning the fruit, watching me wipe it off on the leg of my black Dickies. Under browning junipers, he passes me bits of tuna fish on crackers, carrots. When we break from our archaeological survey in the Kaibab, when we unhook our eyes from the ground, he watches me climb stately ponderosas, calls me doll, and tells me not to bust my ass. Carson is a Williams native, which is why he talks funny. A Tempe crack house, a flat in London, a British woman and a Mississippi university have all failed to beat them out of him, his beautiful, dusty, inbred words. Buzz worms. Lurpee. Shin spears. Hogswaddle. Boys n’ berries.

It is only a mile from the ranger district into Williams—baked asphalt, two cow guards, an anemic strip of highway—but after a ten-hour workday, Carson offers and I accept. His snub-nosed truck predates seat belts, but it’s alright because the only Williams cop I’ve seen is plastic, a drooping mannequin posed inside a parked cruiser on the east side of town.

Carson takes the long straight driveway past the firefighters’ helipad and out of the ranger district. He downshifts and steers with the heel of his hand around the bending service road, its blacktop scratched with rumble strips. Williams welcomes. The I-40 exit, two motels and a pancake house. The Bill Williams Statue looking startled in its coonskin cap, musket pressed to thigh. A bisected Route 66 corrals the downtown, gives Williams two main streets with a single block between. Both are one-ways. The well-leathered Germans on their Harleys, the Japanese women with their sunhats, and the two fast-talking Australians we meet in the Sultana find this division unnavigable. When I am licensed for a forest service truck, Mick puts on his best boss face and tells me to watch out for the Williams tourists. They’re a stupid bunch, and salivating for the Grand Canyon; they can’t wait to leave Twisters, the soda fountain diner, can’t wait for the train to grease along its tracks, can’t wait to put Bearizona, the drive-thru wildlife park, behind them. They jaywalk. They weave. They drive all the wrong ways. Carson eyes them, his Stetson a white smear on the dash. I don’t mind them much. They keep things interesting. Williams—a town cross-hatched by vein-roads, the major artery, Route 66, long since severed—owes itself to them.

Carson rolls to a stop, jerking the keys from the ignition. I look out across the Safeway parking lot. At the end of it, a Dairy Queen pokes out of the pavement, an arrogant, self-assured building. I ate there once, and because this is Arizona—where second amendment rights are prized—when I pulled my head back from my red plastic spoon, I almost wiped my lips along the handle of a handgun. The woman—t-shirt tucked into a big-buckle belt—let her husband order for her, standing back from the press of bodies. She threw her hip, slotted it into the negative space above my table, pressed the gun in close to my upturned, sunburned nose. I looked across at Carson, tightening napkins under fingernails until he got up, ushered me out the swinging glass door. That woman: my eyes never found her face, just the cowhide holster—just the gun.

I cross the parking lot, walk in through the gliding Safeway doors. My upper arms register the air-conditioning in a sprawl of gooseflesh, and I hurry because, hand-crank window cracked, Carson must be warm. I walk the aisles. This was the first Williams building I set foot inside, the first I got properly acquainted with. It once took me twenty minutes to find the orange juice, separated from the milk by Southwestern logic. Here, punky kids trace memorized paths along the white-and-brown flecked floor. An Indian family practices English phrases in the corner. A brother-sister pair—unseemly in their attractive, tall blondeness—bickers by the magazine rack in Swedish or German.

I avoid eye contact with the cart boy and the stock boy and the manager.  An old woman clips her fingers along coupon edges, slowing the checkout line. The cashier—like the cart boy, stock boy, manager—has a strange, drooping look about him. A hangdog face lengthens his jaw, loosens lips over teeth. Maybe he was dropped on his head as a baby. He smiles, scans my Safeway discount card, says pleasant, forgettable things.

In the truck, I sit with plastic bags between my feet. Hot dogs perch on cherry tomatoes and knock up against jaw-snapping granola bars. Two jugs of juice pin a slender sack of pita bread between their sweating shoulders. Carson tells me about the crack house—an alternative to the dorms at Arizona State University—and about the girl who’d lived there with him, a skinny part-time student, part-time stripper. The day that she’d offered on a palm all the teeth she’d unmoored from her head was the day that Carson had packed and left.

I listen for the story and for the sounds, for the way Williams has insinuated itself into him. He can take himself out of this town, but those beautiful, dusty, inbred words will never take themselves from him.


V.  Johanna

They are catching up with us. Hitchhikers, vagrants. The man has a backpack, the woman a duffel bag. She wears a scarf hitched low over her let-down hair. Dark stubble obscures the southern hemisphere of his face. We cross to the other side of the road. It is that in-between time, light and dark brushing wrists, and we are walking our way out of Williams. We, the runners, know the weight of pavement, the intimacy of streets. Johanna met Williams through back roads and side lots and cemeteries. I left leg patterns on Williams’ edges, punching knees through stiff snake-grass.

They make us nervous. We are on Williams’ peripheries, we are heading for North House, and they are unsettled, they are unsettling. The man calls across to us, asking after the cigarettes we do not have. I answer, overly loud. When we cut back from the road toward the ranger district, they pass away toward the highway, and my hackles drop.

The service road to the district runs parallel to I-40, but it is a slow night and the darkness expands without the interruption of headlights. Bill Williams Mountain imposes itself. Head tipped back, I fail to find Draco. Johanna skims her feet along the ground as though afraid to leave it. Together, we have covered many miles, many switchbacks, many mountains. Now it is that we gentle over the metal grating of a cow guard with our delicate ankles. Behind us, the lights of the hotel and gas station fall as we walk.


VI.  Clare

I run through Williams on a hot dry day, the sun a yolky egg in the wide-eyed sky. The light burns the air, my cheeks, the narrow ribbon of skin along which my hair is parted. Lawns bear the burden of pale grass—stalks hard, waterless—and the tar roads have been bleached of their black. Young boys in white pads and plastic dart in predestined patterns around a high school football pitch. A long-snouted shotgun leans against the bench of a parked truck, its windows open and inviting. I cross one of the many large, empty streets, a happy mutt snuffling behind. I drop my shoulders, shake my hands at the wrist hinge, straighten up from the neck. Carson has told me that I run as though I’m falling, a graceless clap of heels to pavement.

I turn by his mother’s house, think that my knowledge of Williams is ephemeral. I have this day, these moments, people and memory. I have the sound of a dog barking and the feel of sweat on my scalp. I have the stock boys from Safeway and the bartender from the Sultana. I have just one summer between nineteen and twenty and I have spent it here, I have surrendered it to Williams, given it over, released it.

There are no clouds; it is bright, clear in a way that startles my blue, bleached eyes, sears my vision in sharp, sun-dazed whites. In the quiet, I run. It is the last of the dog days in Williams, Arizona.