Lenny was in jail and Dinah worked as a maid at the King Salmon motel. She rented a room from a widow at church and bided her time, waiting. It was the late eighties and the arrangement worked as well as could be expected, but when Charlie came along, things changed.
Charlie looked like a grizzled bear. That’s what Dinah thought when she picked him up one afternoon on her way back from seeing Lenny at Northern Pines. In Alaska, even being incarcerated had to sound like a great outdoor adventure. To say Lenny’s in Northern Pines didn’t seem all that punishing; he’d merely stepped into Narnia for the time being, certain to return after learning immutable life lessons.
She had reached her favorite stretch on the uninhabited gravel road that led from Northern Pines to the main highway. The road was meant to put a safety buffer between the jail and the middling town known for its sport and commercial fishing, canneries, and sprawling oil refineries. The forest of spindly pine gave way on both sides of the road to a wide meadow where fireweed bloomed in an uncontrolled purple-pink blaze.
Charlie, released a couple hours earlier, had thumbed the air patiently, batting away mosquitoes that swarmed around his head. Baggy jeans, Army fatigue jacket, duffel bag thrown over his shoulder, he’d ambled along, unconcerned. His thick grey hair was cropped short and bristled in every direction, matched by a full beard that made his head seem bigger and shaggier than it was. Dinah had slowed the car to calm the plume of dust in her wake. She was long-limbed enough to reach across the front seat and roll down the passenger window. Charlie stared at her as the engine idled. He guessed Dinah’s age well enough—around forty. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders, framing gray eyes and a narrow face. She looked like someone who’d been a high school cheerleader. Her wholesomeness was frayed by the lines around her eyes, the tightness in her jaw, but she still knew how to smile. Charlie opened the door and climbed in.
A loner in his late fifties, Charlie had figured out how to use jail time to avoid the dark, cold winters. Three-hots-and-a-cot at the state’s expense was fine for him from November to April. He learned to calibrate the crime and get the time without having to spend all summer inside. During the months when the sun barely set and the rivers choked with salmon, it was better to be at large. It was a bear’s prerogative: hibernate in winter, roam free in summer. Occasionally, because he was human and only metaphorically a bear, he screwed up. It was August. Charlie had a little drunk-and-disorderly problem back in May, which had altered the cycle.
Charlie scanned the meadow as they drove, charting the season. Fireweed grew hip-high with a long flowering stem. The small, tightly packed buds bloomed from bottom to top through the summer. When the top of the stock had blossomed, it signaled the coming of the first frost and lengthening darkness. The top quarter of the buds had yet to flower. There was some time left to enjoy.
Dinah liked to pick up hitchhikers. Her passengers were usually college students who flocked to Alaska during summer to work in the canneries. They were young and knew nothing of her humiliations. She drove an old blue-and-white Ford Bronco, her prized possession. The bumpers were pierced through with corrosion, a delicate chrome lace, from driving the saltwater beaches that ran along Cook Inlet. On her days off from the motel she disappeared along the coastline that consoled her. With Lenny put away, she gave herself all the freedom she could imagine.
Dinah had been an elementary school teacher, until Lenny got caught. The trouble happened in a small town 100 miles away, but the public trial was well documented by every newspaper in the region. Schools didn’t want her around children, though she’d done nothing wrong except marry a man who did the kind of thing no one likes to discuss.
Dinah was a true believer whose notion of righteousness amounted to devoting her life to lost causes. Charlie wore his vices as nonchalantly as a beauty queen in a bikini. He was entering a period of judicial escalation; the judge was getting tired of his antics. Instead of city jail, he was upgraded to the state pen on the last go around. Being locked up in medium security was supposed to straighten him out. The men he’d met at Northern Pines reminded him of his old Army buddies, angry and scared.
“Heading to town?” Dinah asked.
“That’s the general direction. You can drop me at the Lucky on the way by.”
The Lucky Tavern was located on the main highway just outside of town. Ex-cons and refinery workers rubbed shoulders uneasily at the bar. The potholes in the parking lot were big enough to swallow a wheelbarrow, which kept the tourists out. The neon sign in bright orange script spread across the roof line, spelling out the name. The “L” had burned out years ago.
“How ‘bout I take you home, instead?” Dinah asked. From the looks of the dust settling into the lines on his face, she thought a hot shower should be a higher priority. In general, her intuitions couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.
“Are you offering your personal services, ma’am? I’d have to say you don’t look the type.”
Dinah’s face glowed red-hot.
She won. Charlie guided her to his ramshackle house outside the city limit. For Sale signs lined the empty street, but few people had bought or built in the abandoned subdivision. Charlie’s house was shaped like a shoe box with the short end facing the street and a couple lean-tos tacked on the long side, each addition smaller and constructed with less integrity than the structure it leaned against. Dinah pulled into the short, rutted driveway. Charlie grabbed his duffle and grunted his thanks. Later that night he walked back to the Lucky, limping as he walked. He nodded to a few of the regulars but kept to himself. The bartender gave him a ride home after closing.
Point Langdon, Alaska was a tiny settlement at the edge of Lake Hansook, a long, narrow body of water hidden in the folds of the Aleutian Mountains. Accessible only by air, 150 miles southwest of Anchorage, the remote location was renowned by hunters who flew in from all over the world. They arrived via bush plane in small groups to stay in the lodge, have one last hot shower and home cooked meal, and to pick up supplies at the outfitter’s cabin. Once prepared they were flown even farther into the wilderness to fish and hunt, mostly salmon and caribou.
The settlement had a zip code but no post office. The main street of the community was a wide gravel runway that began at the water’s edge beside the float-plane dock, plowed past the lodge and ended at a large aircraft hangar, the most substantial building anywhere on the lake. The runway was meant to handle personal aircraft and small freight planes, though bush pilots with various amounts of experience and nerve debated whether a commercial jet could land there in an emergency. The owner of the lodge, the runway, and the hangar was a pilot himself and the de facto mayor of the town.
Perched midpoint along the runway was an air-raid siren operated by hand crank. This relic of WWII was the all-hands warning system. Anyone landing at the settlement for the first time was told to gather at the air strip if they heard the siren. Everyone was a first responder out here.
Besides the 120 or so permanent residents whose rustic homes were nestled into the nearby woods or dotted on the edge of the lake, each summer brought an assortment of misfits, loners, and wilderness romantics who were hired to work at the lodge or the hangar. Few of them realized how it would feel to live in a place with literally nowhere to go.
Dinah couldn’t leave well enough alone; within her being, kindness and meddling embraced. She had married a charismatic imposter with a hidden life, but she had remained pliable and naïve, refusing to become suspicious and hardened even for her own protection. The church had taught her goodwill toward humankind, and she preferred to thrust her energy out into the world rather than reach inside for the bottom of her pain. For her, turning inward was an act of self-pity, not the road to self-understanding and enlightenment. She might have had a point. She returned to Charlie’s the next afternoon with homemade potato soup.
Charlie heard Dinah’s car pull into the drive. He leaned against the front door jamb, sniffing the daylight in a grey-green sweatshirt with bleach stains, worn boxer shorts, and moth-eaten wool socks, his eyes wary and squinting into the sun. A scar on his left shin was red with inflammation. He wasn’t accustomed to intrusion. He smelled a do-gooder.
“Brought some soup,” Dinah said, approaching the porch. “Can I heat it up for you?”
“Thanks, but I’m situated just fine.”
Dinah paused. This wasn’t a church potluck; none were welcome here. She searched for a way around his isolation.
“Lenny says you can’t cook,” she offered. She had called Lenny the night before to ask about Charlie.
Charlie grinned despite his irritation. He and Lenny had gotten acquainted in Northern Pines’ kitchen. “He finally gave up trying to teach me. I was busted down to peeling vegetables and doing dishes. Just like the army.”
Charlie relented and stood aside as Dinah crossed the threshold. Inside it was dark, smelling stale and sharp, a combination of mouse droppings and rotten cheese. With bewilderment he watched Dinah open blinds, clear dirty dishes from the sink and toss beer cans into an empty box, her movements deliberate, calm. She was invader and supplicant at the same time. The soup was heating on the propane stove. Lenny never talked about Dinah much. Charlie only knew she visited Northern Pines regularly. He scratched his sore leg with the heel of his right foot. It didn’t figure in the natural course of things, her being there in his house.
Dinah put bowls of soup on the table for each of them. She’d just finished her shift at the King Salmon and was hungry. She noticed the stack of mail on the table. Junk, catalogs, bills, notices from veterans’ affairs. Her father had been in the military, she knew what she was looking at. It flew through her mind that her dad had always wished she’d been a boy.
“What happened with the leg?”
“Just a scratch. Brought it back from Vietnam. It flares now and again.”
“You should get it checked.”
“Lady, you’re a curious one to be dispensing advice.” Charlie grinned for a second time, thinking about things Lenny had told him. People never ceased to surprise him, but that capacity wasn’t necessarily endearing.
Through summer the leaves of the quaking aspen trees flashed pale green to silver, turning over in the breeze, tapping out their story in dappled Morse code. Lodge workers, residents, anyone with the time, took boats onto the lake to catch trout or pike, watch trumpeter swans glide through the water in perfect synchronization, spot eagles, explore beaches and hidden coves. Some chanced upon shacks that had been built and abandoned long ago, leaving them to wonder who had been called to that existence.
Others trekked into the woods beyond Point Langdon. Off-duty lodge workers followed a trail to a fishing hole a couple miles away to catch grayling in a small pool at the base of a waterfall. They sometimes hiked up the spine of the nearby mountain for a view of the next ridge line, a fresh vista with a different angle on the lake below. Even if unaware when they first arrived, everyone soon learned the wilderness was closely held territory. The complex and unpredictable life around them ranged from no-see-ums to enormous moose. Humans, in their small numbers, easily became part of the food chain, but they weren’t the best adapted, the most cunning, or the most likely to survive.
Longtime residents instructed newcomers to make a lot of noise, out of respect for the wild inhabitants, announcing their arrival in the bush like a good guest. Even more aggressive animals would rather avoid than confront, mostly. People sang songs or bantered to each other, raucous and loud. Sometimes they brought along one of the local dogs to circle and bark, chasing after birds, squirrels, and rabbits.
Bears watched the villagers as they trekked back and forth through the rough hills. They left sign in the middle of the trail for people to see, letting them know who else was around. On the return from most hikes there would be a fresh pile or two: slushy dark mounds, pungent, full of berries, bigger than a lemon meringue pie. The rule of thumb for hiking was to wear boots and watch your step.
Lenny’s cinnamon rolls won over the inmates. He was allowed to make them on Sundays, serving them up warm at breakfast. He got up an hour earlier than usual on those mornings, which didn’t matter because he rarely slept. The black shadows under his eyes were permanent. Noise ricocheted through the wards, hard surfaces threw echoes of voices, foot falls, cell doors, the TV in the rec room. Lenny was a night owl and an early bird. His only consolation was the food he cooked. He had put on weight, a lot of it. The only argument he’d ever started at Northern Pines was over a Snickers Bar. At six-foot-four, he could stand the gain better than most, but even so he had come to resemble a barrel in his prison coveralls with head and feet protruding from each end. His prison counselor had used words like sublimation. Food instead of sex, food to smother pain. Lenny didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, having been a good son and properly raised. He had never acquired those tastes.
Lenny liked to talk more than listen and Charlie let him. Lenny was tormented by the betrayal of Melody, whom he had fallen for when she was fourteen, one of his students. After four years in prison, he was still baffled that her feelings for him had changed when she turned eighteen and decided to go away to college and maybe have other boyfriends.
Charlie had gotten attached despite himself and considered Lenny a friend. It might have been because after Charlie burned the cinnamon rolls one Sunday, Lenny didn’t yell. He just talked at Charlie some more about himself, told him the stupid things he’d done when he was first learning to cook in the large commercial kitchen. Charlie guessed Lenny was as angry deep down as the rest of the inmates, but he wasn’t trying to take his rage out on Charlie, like some of the others.
When he wasn’t talking about food, Lenny talked about his family or his unrealized dreams. His beautiful mother and despised father, his college years when he missed his chance to make it as a drummer in a rock band, his teaching jobs, and his move to Alaska where he met Melody. Lenny was full of Lenny, Charlie decided, but he was a good storyteller. Even ordinary things were interesting to hear, and the strange stuff was revolting and spellbinding. Wherever he taught, Lenny said, he was the most popular teacher in the school. Charlie didn’t doubt it.
One grizzly bear in particular watched Point Langdon. There were as many fish, caribou, moose, and mountain goats as ever. Mountainsides were overgrown with wild berries. The settlement was no larger or more intrusive than any previous summer. There was no accounting for the bear’s keen interest. His motivation was inscrutable. Instinct, curiosity, boredom. A change in the wind.
In nightly perambulations he circled closer. He hewed to the outskirts of the community, snuffling and stalking, but eventually started rummaging through the dump beyond the village in the dusky midnight hours. Residents found the fresh sign and knew a bear had been foraging.
A couple weeks later the bear killed a dog, a beloved companion to owners who had lived at Point Langdon for more than ten years. A week after that he tore down a meat shed where two fresh caribou were hanging, quartered, nearly ready to butcher—the family’s meat supply for the year.
Bears went mad on occasion. A few residents of Point Langdon had witnessed such rage.
Soup led to laundry. At the laundromat, Dinah loaded the machines and noticed all of Charlie’s clothes were worn and colorless. Charlie sat in a chair and felt the oscillating, tumbling machines humming up through the floor into the soles of his feet, up through his limbs and out through his scalp. He thought of his wife, how she had washed his clothes long ago. Neon lights flickered overhead. The checkerboard linoleum, beige and tan, was worn through to the plywood where people stood in front of the dryers, loading and unloading.
A bulletin board was littered with ads for weight-loss programs and requests for the ideal roommate to please call this number. A cat was lost, there was a guitar for sale, extra strings included. He thought he might hang his own sign, “Seeking lost daughter. Last seen, New Mexico.” Who knew? Word might get out. He glanced at Dinah, her rhythmic movements a choreography of industry and loss. He wondered about love as his gaze returned to the spastic flop of wet clothes in the dryer’s porthole window. When had he last seen love? If it were Jess, his daughter, standing there instead of Dinah, what would he feel?
Charlie thought about the laundromat in Albuquerque where he’d stopped with Ida and Jessica more than twenty years before. Jess was a toddler still in diapers. They were moving to New Mexico from Michigan to be closer to Ida’s brother, who owned a construction business and had offered Charlie a job. Since he’d returned from Vietnam, Charlie hadn’t been able to settle down.
Ida didn’t want to show up at her brother’s place with loads of dirty clothes and diapers. They’d been on the road for four days. Charlie remembered that every day grew hotter on the drive south, his throat dry, the back of his shirt soaked with sweat where it rested against the car seat. The laundry bags in the trunk were turning noxious.
Ida was washing and folding, humming to herself. Charlie drifted off in his chair, arms folded over his chest, lulled by the machines’ hum. He jolted to when Jess started to cry. She had wandered away, tipped over and banged her head against the edge of a chair. The gash on her forehead wasn’t deep, but the sight of her blood made Charlie sick to his stomach, worse than in Vietnam. He scooped up his daughter, trying to shush and comfort with an urgency that felt instinctual and foreign at the same time.
Ida scolded him, quavering and scared. He cleaned his daughter’s face with a cool, wet cloth until she had finally stopped crying. He handed the car keys to Ida as she bundled clean clothes into the back seat. Charlie couldn’t let go of Jess. He cradled her, needing a drink, as Ida drove the last leg to her brother’s place.
Charlie didn’t know whether it was the construction work or the marriage. He reenlisted for Vietnam as soon as he could and never went back to his family.
After Dinah got him to wash his clothes, as she put it—though she had done it herself—she started in on housekeeping. Then paying bills. They had adventures. She drove Charlie down the beach in the rusted Bronco. At low tide they built a fire, roasted wieners, and made s’mores, gazing across the wide inlet to the northern Aleutian mountains on the other side, their white peaks gnashing at the blue sky like a row of shark’s teeth. On his birthday she baked him a cake and filled his house with strangers, people he didn’t know or care about from Dinah’s church who came to wish him God Bless and many happy returns. Charlie wanted whisky, not cake.
Eventually Dinah confronted him about the leg. Charlie reared to full height and angrily derided her for interfering where she wasn’t wanted. She left in silence but came back two days later with a plate of sugar cookies. Charlie let her in and no more was said. She drove him to the doctor’s office one day by lying, having told him they were going for groceries. Charlie refused to get out of the car once he realized he’d been tricked.
“Why not get help? It’s paid for. You’re a vet,” she said flatly, as though it was easy to confront the same wound, over and again.
“You’re worse than my ex-wife,” Charlie roared at her. He meant it. Dinah’s persistence was incomprehensible. No legal claim or family blood obligated them one to the other, but there was no obvious way to dismiss her, either. It was like trying to deny himself oxygen. Begrudgingly, he felt he owed her for the soup, the laundry, the order in his life that was gaining the upper hand over chaos.
He got out of the car, radiating fury.
The doctor prescribed antibiotics and a new topical salve. The leg eased up over the next few days. Charlie was pleased and exasperated.
Even in summer, violent storms rattled down the long lake, churning through the mountains. Float planes and skiffs at the dock had to be doubly secured, aircraft tied down. Hunters waiting for a plane to retrieve them and their kill from the bush had to fend for themselves for an extra night or two. The inhabitants of the small cabins that hugged the shore watched the lake take on the sheen of obsidian. Clouds lowering, wind rising, heavy showers brushed in over the mountains. Hard raindrops torpedoed the lake surface with a dull metallic hiss. The wind blew in long wheezing huffs, pausing to gather force and exhale again. The timbers of the cabins creaked, expanding and contracting like rib cages.
The bear was out there, lying low under the trees. Big storms were bad for hunting. The aspens bowed and gyrated overhead, tapping their ecstasy.
By late November, Charlie was back in Northern Pines. He had started one of his drunken brawls at the Lucky, but this time he brought his unloaded handgun to the party. He waved it around in front of a bartender he’d never dreamed of hurting. Charlie apologized to the young man as cops held his arms and hauled him out of the bar. The bartender punched him in the face just to keep things even. “Apology accepted,” he said. Charlie got his ticket back inside for the winter.
Dinah alternated visits to Lenny and Charlie. The rules prevented visitors from seeing two inmates at once. They were always, almost, together. Their disjointed conversations went around like a game of telephone. Dinah to Lenny, Lenny to Charlie, Charlie to Dinah, and back around the other way. They talked about other lives they’d lived, things they wanted to do someday, the town gossip, the prison gossip. Stories accumulated. Nothing painful, nothing relevant. It was an intricate art.
The leg got worse because Charlie didn’t take care of it in jail. When he had served his sentence, he came home drunk to a clean house; Dinah had a key by then. She helped him file his income taxes. Dinah believed she could pay for sins she hadn’t committed. She thought she could earn the love she wanted and wasn’t too proud to labor for it.
She and Lenny had just finished college when they met. They were at a church-sponsored training session in California, teaching college students to be counselors at kids’ summer camps. She was engaged to someone else, a guy she’d dated for the last two years. He was steady and kind. They liked to play tennis together. He was set up to follow his dad into the insurance business in the Bay Area.
But when she met Lenny, his warmth and charisma eclipsed anything she’d felt before. He was a full head taller, and when he laughed and wrapped his long arms around her, she flooded with delight. She knew after dating a while that he had dark moods, that he wanted to be the center of attention. But her father saw something more, something troubling, though he couldn’t find the words to name it. He forbade Dinah to marry Lenny. Infuriated by her father, Dinah forgot her qualms and quickly accepted Lenny’s proposal. The wedding date was set for three months ahead, in late spring.
All the years later, Dinah still wondered what happened. Had she failed Lenny somehow? When exactly had he changed? Was he born with a time bomb inside? Maybe something had detonated the day he met Melody.
For two years Lenny and Dinah embraced Charlie, assuming his gratitude, rarely noticing his unease. As a bear, Charlie believed his habits were inborn, unchangeable as the seasons. He spent winters in the warm Northern Pines kitchen with Lenny, soothed by his endless monologue. With summer came Dinah and her improvement projects: his health, diet, hygiene, finances. She got Charlie to walk with her on the beach on sunny days, which he came to appreciate, if not enjoy.
After the storm, the villagers were occupied with repairs and getting hunters in and out of the bush. Some almost forgot the bear. Many hoped he had moved on or lost interest. But his prints were found again the next week, circling the perimeter of the Point. The next week he attacked a Piper Cub in the wee hours, ripping through the canvas skin and crushing the metal frame of the plane’s body as though it was made of brittle sticks. The muddy paw prints on the tail of the bright yellow craft were as astonishing as footprints of the Sasquatch.
Planes were the livelihood and the lifeline of the community. The people of Point Langdon were without illusion; there was no taming the untamable, but their sense of peaceful cohabitation shattered. Vigilance tightened every chest.
It had been six years of visiting room conversations and phone calls for Lenny and Dinah. The prison ward only had a wall phone. Lenny had to talk standing up. Inmates spent less time on the phone due to the discomfort and lack of privacy. His knees ached from years of standing on the concrete kitchen floor. His ears rang from the relentless din. He wondered what Melody looked like. Who was she with now? He had been a considerate, tender lover. Had she found someone as caring? Whenever he mentioned her name in group therapy the other sex offenders called him on it. “Live in the present,” they said, “kill the fantasies.” This was the sanitized version of their outcry.
Dinah was starting to go grey. She thought about Melody and Lenny too, but she never expressed herself on the matter.
Lenny and Dinah were sitting on orange plastic chairs at their usual table in the windowless visiting room they were used to. Other couples and small family groups were talking in low voices. Closed circuit cameras monitored the no-contact intimacies of friends and loved ones. The uncertain future made them awkward around each other, like frightened teenagers discussing an unwelcome pregnancy. Lenny drummed his fingers on the empty seat next to him. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he got out in two weeks. He’d been looking at the forms from the parole office. Another labyrinth of rules and expectations, as foreign as prison culture had been. Parolees were assigned a P.O. They must meet on schedule and on time. Pass drug screenings. Follow instructions, say the right things, do the right things. Be worthy of a second chance. Be grateful to family and friends. Be patient in re-adjusting to life outside. Stay in therapy, find employment. Stay busy. The list was debilitating.
Dinah had the same forms. She carefully studied the instructions on living arrangements. Lenny couldn’t live near children or schools. That ruled out renting an apartment in town, or most places affordable on her motel wages. When or where Lenny would find work was unknowable.
“What do you want to do?” she asked. She’d been looking around.
“How should I know?” Being on his own, Lenny thought, would be less irritating. With Dinah to consider, it further clouded his anticipation of freedom. Instead of a fresh start he would return to the same domestic quandary with its tensions and demands. But she’d hung around all these years, capable and self-reliant for the most part. The prison shrink said he needed a support system. Lenny had his doubts.
“If this is too difficult for you…” Lenny deflected. It was an old habit of placing his misgivings on her. He stopped himself, shrugged it off. Fingers still drumming, he wanted a glass of water.
“More difficult than… what?”—he caught the edge in her voice—“Prison?” She knew what he was getting at. The marriages that outlasted the crime, trial, conviction, and years of separation often broke up just before release dates. She wouldn’t stand for it.
“Look, it’s just easier than trying to re—” Lenny tried again.
“For whom?” In anger Dinah willed herself not to understand, to be affronted at all costs. It worked to hide her panic. She had sacrificed the years, been alone, still married, only to feel his rejection once again. It wasn’t that she loved him, exactly. But she wasn’t done trying.
In a visiting room full of strangers and cameras, this was their version of a screaming match. Dinah changed the subject to repair work on the Bronco and her attempts to wean Charlie off booze.
She didn’t know that when Lenny and Charlie were together on the inside, they laughed about her attempts to stop his drinking. She insisted it was bad for Charlie’s leg. They all knew she was right.
The sound of the wailing siren carried for miles through the calm night, into the woods and out onto the lake, where the water bounced the sound outward, like ripples from a tossed stone. Point Langdon’s inhabitants arrived at the runway in a steady stream: groggy, frightened, disheveled, one in chest waders, another still in pajamas. They brought whatever they imagined an emergency might require: a gun, a hunting knife, a garden hose and bucket, a shovel, first-aid kit, blankets, flashlights.
They heard the revving two-stroke engines of fat-tired ATVs at the end of the runway, down by the hangar. A half-dozen men had boxed in the mad bear, circling him on the four-wheeled vehicles. The beams of the head lights crisscrossed in the night. A few of the men had formulated a plan after the destruction of the plane. They used rotting fish laced with a sedative, luring the bear from the woods near the dump.
The hangar lights illuminated the scene like a boxing ring in a dark arena. The villagers squinted into the light, drawn toward the danger, unable to turn away. The bear was spinning in circles to face his attackers, wheeling and unsteady, confused by the bright beams. Even half-drugged he was an outraged, bellowing, brown dervish, muscles rippling, yellowed teeth bared. He reared and staggered. One of the men stood, straddling his machine as he aimed his rifle.
Three shots. One hit the bear in the head, the second drove into his shoulder. The third bullet missed as the bear thudded onto the runway, blowing out the tire of a four-wheeler across from him. The adrenaline-riddled rider of the maimed vehicle lost sense momentarily and instinctively pointed his rifle back at the shooter, one of his own neighbors, a good friend. The man on his right sent up a hellbent curse and knocked the gun away before more blood was spilled.
The bear had landed slumped forward on its belly, neck outstretched. His front legs were long by his side. The paws were facing up, the size of frying pans, the foot pads textured like rough-cast iron. The bear was a steaming mountain of gamey meat and coarse fur that smelled like blood, rotten fish, and tangy sweat. The lodge owner, one of the men on the four-wheelers, would soon notify Fish and Game of an unlicensed kill. The state had paperwork for events like this, to explain and justify unusual occurrences in the far-flung wilderness. The forms were tedious and thick as a lawyer’s brief.
Dawn finally extinguished the night. The breeze held off and the aspen leaves were still, keeping their own counsel.
The three of them knew that Northern Pines inmates weren’t allowed to associate with one another after release from prison. It was a serious parole violation. Charlie was the only one thinking it through, while Lenny and Dinah were fixated on the marital cliff they were rapidly approaching. Charlie cared for Lenny and Dinah, though he knew he shouldn’t. His rhythm was broken by attachments. Winter in prison would be bleak without Lenny. Summer would become a never-ending temptation to be with them both, or a craving to draw Dinah away and siphon her energy doing things Charlie never managed to do for himself. He knew they couldn’t all be together, but he couldn’t imagine them apart. He was snared in his emotions.
He cleaned the house as Dinah had taught him to do. He went through his papers, organized them in a drawer and wrote a letter. He hitched a ride to the hardware store for the few supplies he needed.
With the roll of thick plastic sheeting and the staple gun he’d bought, he spent the next day in the lean-to furthest from the main house, the one he’d used as a garage when he’d had a car. He moved the clutter of boxes, tools, and fishing poles out of the back corner. The studs were exposed, and foil-backed insulation ran between the evenly spaced 2 x 6’s. Charlie began at the top, climbing a ladder that wobbled on the uneven dirt floor. He worked from the corner out in both directions, from the ceiling to the floor, patiently stapling plastic to the studs. The pain in his shin made him gasp every time he reached high on the ladder or crouched low on the ground. In the end, sweat beading down his face and running into his beard, arms and legs shaking, the corner was cased in plastic.
The next day, when it was time, he thought he would be nervous, terrified. He expected to chicken out in the end and not go through with it. He thought about all the combat in Vietnam. For the last week he had tried to revive the belief that he was a trained killer, but, in his head, it sounded like a prayer. As he put the gun in his mouth, he thought he would see his life flash before him, but instead he glanced up and noticed the ceiling wasn’t covered. He knew it would upset Dinah. She wouldn’t waste money, paying someone else to clean. But he was already squeezing the trigger, wishing he’d thought of all this earlier.
When Dinah found Charlie the following day, she thought maybe he had passed out after coming home drunk, judging from the way he was slumped in the corner. It took a few seconds to register. The plastic rippled out, flowing over the floor like the cathedral train of a wedding gown. Spattered blood and tissue haloed above Charlie’s head, like an explosion of red-purple fireweed blossoms. Other than the ceiling, the remains were confined to the plastic. Dinah understood how his efforts, preparing the scene before the fact, had made Charlie’s leg throb. The coroner dismantled the sheeting slowly and wrapped the body in it, as though swaddling a baby.
On the kitchen table Dinah found the title to the property legally transferred to her name along with the deed to a worthless parcel of land in New Mexico. She ignored Charlie’s letter, and would for a long while. Charlie tried to write, without really knowing how, that he was torn between Lenny and Dinah’s miseries and good intentions. But in the end, he was satisfied by a solution everyone could live with.
Dinah called Lenny later that night without much to say. He wondered about the quality of her voice, precise and distant. Hollow. She held onto things sometimes. Lenny never inquired about these passing moods. Everything would work out, she said, just like always.