Montana, Wyoming, and the Trinity Alps of northern California are the landscapes of these elegant, rough-hewn narratives where people yearn for grace even as their chances are running out. "Roy Parvin has a sense of what people will do when they have reached their particular limits," says Charles Baxter, "and these wonderful tales are like visions." A recently paroled ex-con tries to outrun a violent past. An out-of-work logger finds an unexpected kind of love. And a woman's journey by rail through a western snowscape becomes a bittersweet tale of redemption.
|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
Read an Excerpt
From 'BETTY HUTTON':
He was a big man who looked like trouble, even with his glasses. A cruel fact of nature that made Gibbs a prisoner of his own body long before he became an actual one, at Pine River or the various and lesser security county facilities before that.
He'd been back in the world for months now and had few things to show for it, chiefly a girlfriend and a parole officer, neither of whom was able to give Gibbs what he really needed or wanted, and, truth be told, Gibbs himself hadn't the clearest idea of what that might be either.
"I guess I'm waiting for opportunity to suggest itself to me," he'd explained to his parole bull. "I think it's one of those little-birdy-will-tell-me type situations."
"A birdy," O'Donoghue echoed, a stick of a man with a third-act sort of look to him. "Now I've heard it all. I guess a birdy beats grifting antiques, though."
"I'm not thinking a bird is going to actually speak to me," Gibbs had said. "Unless it's a parakeet or something." He was not stupid, though it often seemed the world was telling him otherwise. All he knew about was old things or how to make a thing look old. During his last bit in the can he'd seen killing, and what struck him about it was how easy it was. Anybody could do it.
From the deck of Jolie's second-story apartment he could glimpse the Atlantic, if he craned his head, perching on tiptoes. It was October of 1975, the year beginning to die more than just a little, the Jersey shoretown of Barnegat Light wearing theseason like a down-at-the-heels beauty queen, the summer crowds vacating after Labor Day, neon glaze of the arcades finally switched off, revealing a pitted sweep of beach with all the charm and color of dirty concrete, the slack Atlantic crawling ashore, a pocket watch winding down.
But it was what stood at his back, the ocean of land behind Gibbs, that pulled at him like a fide. He'd never been farther west than the eastern fringe of Pennsylvania, had never been anywhere. He'd heard about Montana, though, a place that sounded like everything hadn't yet been decided, where there still might be some time left. A cellmate had told him of the chinooks, the southerly winds capable of turning winter into spring in a matter of hours, sometimes a ninety-degree temperature swing, and it had seemed to Gibbs lying in their dank cement crib, it seemed if such a thing as the chinooks was possible, anything was.
It was a sandblasted fall morning that he happened on the Chrysler, a rust-scabbed Newport parked along a dead end of bungalows clapped shut for the season, the car blue and about the size of a narwhal, its white vinyl roof gone to peel, a whip antenna for a CB the car no longer owned. It looked like the beginning to a thought that Gibbs couldn't see his way to the end of.
As he stared at the car, two things came to mind. That Jolie had been hiding her squirrel's stash of mad money in a coffee can on a high kitchen shelf. And the practical knowledge gleaned from his time at the wall of how to jack an automobile, which indeed proved easy enough, a matter of popping the door, taking a screwdriver to the steering column, touching off the appropriate wires, and then, like some low-grade miracle, the car rattling awake, exhaling an extravagant tail of blue smoke.
That was how it started: with two wrongs. After a lifetime of wrongs, what were two more? Nothing, Gibbs told himself, nothing. It was just possible he'd finally stumbled on the two wrongs that actually might produce a right.
He didn't take much with him: a leather satchel swollen with a few changes of clothes, his shaving kit, sundry effects; a paper sack of sham works: jades and Roman carnelians and openwork medallions; and, shoved between both on the backseat, an antique pistol, a keepsake handed down in his family, more a piece of history than an actual piece, the only article of legitimate value among the lot. Out the back window, Barnegat Light framed like a diminishing postcard. That was where trouble would come from when it did, from behind. He tugged on the rearview mirror, yanked it free from its mooring, and then there was only the gray road ahead.
A tattered map inside the Chrysler's glove box ran as far as Harrisburg. After that, Gibbs imagined himself, past the banks of the Susquehanna, falling out the other side of the country, running free, into territory unbound by state lines or the iron sway of laws.
He drove clear around the circle of hours, until all the license plates on the road read Wisconsin. Gibbs pulled off to refuel, him running on flames as much as the car. A gas jockey shaped like a butterball stepped out of the office and Gibbs stood to stretch his legs, to take measure on the endless table of land fleeing to every point of horizon. At the far corner of the lot, tethered to a pole, was the strangest animal he'd ever seen, looked like he didn't know what, devil eyes set high on its head.
Gibbs said, "What kind of dog is that?"
"It's a goat," the gas jockey told him.
Gibbs nodded heavily. "I didn't think it was a dog."
"Michigan," the jockey said and it took Gibbs a few beats to catch his meaning and then he remembered swapping plates the evening before at a reststop outside Franklin, Pennsylvania, with a listing Travelall bearing Michigan tags.
"Yeah, the Lions and Tigers. Motor City."
The jockey asked what he wanted, couldn't have been any more than seventeen, all pimples and baby fat. Over his heart: Hank stitched in script. Gibbs glanced around for anybody else and there was no one. Back at Pine River, a whole class of inmate specialized in burgling gas stations, called it striking oil.
"What do I want," Gibbs laughed. "Well, Hank, I want it all."
"I meant gas."
"Right. Good man. Fill it with regular. Knock yourself out.
Hank propped the hood. On the pump, the scratchy spinning of the gallon dial. The roll of money that Gibbs had filched from Jolie bulged the pocket of his trousers, the size of a baby's fist. He sized up the goat as it grazed leggy plants in a flower box.
And then a strange thing.
It was as if the person who was Gibbs vanished altogether and he could see the entire scene like it was in front of him, a big man standing in the filling bay, a teenager under the hood of a car wiping the dipstick with a rag, the numbing horizontal of land on all sides. And he watched to see what the big man would do, waiting for the squeal of the hood's hinges as it dropped, the blackjack crunch of it slamming the jockey on the crown of his head, laying him out on the oil-splotched concrete, peaceful as an afternoon nap.
It was the pump boy's hand reaching over the lip of the hood that brought Gibbs back to the there and then, the hood gently closing, Hank leaning on it till the catch held fast. Gibbs stared off at a windbreak of buckeye chestnuts, his heart throttling, the dry rattle of the few leaves still on the branches.
Hank pulled a part from a pocket, massaged it with a rag as if trying to screw it into his palm. "You're missing a rearview mirror, you know."
Gibbs said, "I've seen enough of what's behind me."
Nothing left to do but pay. He was spooked yet. Hank appeared none the wiser, doling out change slowly, making sure to get it right.
Gibbs folded himself into the Chrysler. In a few moments he'd be back on his way. For the time being, though, all he was was afraid. A close call, he told himself. Easing out the filling bay, he rolled down the window. "It's a funny world, Hank," he said, pointing at the goat. "Things aren't always what they seem. You know the one about wooden nickels, don't you?"
TWO DAYS LATER and it was Montana.
Thus far it wasn't entirely what Gibbs had expected. The sky was indeed big and everywhere. But Hokanson, his cellmate from Pine River, had mentioned mountains. He'd told about mining, too, the strikes of gold and silver. "An occupation," Hokanson had promised, "where nothing's required other than doggedness and luck." Gibbs had liked the sound of that.
For a distance of miles the road banded the tracks of the Great Northern and he raced a train with a string of cars long enough almost to be considered geography. There were no posted speed limits, so Gibbs could open the Chrysler up.
He drew a high line through the eastern end of the state, through flat prairie grasslands and fields already disked for winter wheat, through one-horse towns so small they hardly rated as towns at all, a grain elevator at the outskirts, then a short business strip, usually a grange hall and a church or two and a cross-hatching of streets off the main, the neat rows of side-gabled houses at the edge of the frontier.
It was not until after Devon had spread across the front windshield and out the back, after Ethridge and Cut Bank had come and gone, not until Blackfoot that he saw the mountains. They rose before him, out of the west and yellowed plain like a wave, and Gibbs drove toward them, his anticipation gathering like a wave itself.
He made Glacier as the sun was emptying from the sky. The calendar still said October though it felt later than that now, the mountaintops webbed in snow, switchbacked roads cut high onto the white shoulders, as if with pinking shears. A different world from the one he'd left behind: wilder and somehow older.
It was late enough in both the day and season that the guard at the gate to Glacier just waved him through, and Gibbs wheeled the Chrysler down a park road lined with the tall green of Engelmann spruce and Doug fir, pulling up at a lake a couple miles on.
It was lovelyhe had no other words to match up with the landscapeonly lovely and cold. The lake looked even colder yet and it stretched out before him glassy as a marble, the smudge of twilight already descending, the surround of mountains holding a few clouds within their spires like a cage. A solitary bird flew low over the water, the lake reflecting sky and bird so that it looked like two birds on the wing. Off in the distance, he could see the road following the contours of the shore.
In the foreground: a beach of fine pebbles, a woman and a little kid seated at water's edge. Gibbs couldn't remember his last real conversation that hadn't concerned gas or lodging, and with the day guttering like a candle all he wanted right now was to share the moment with someone, an exchange of pleasantries that he associated with regular life.
He skimmed through what he had to say for himself. So many places and things in the last few days, the mad rush out, but all the hours and miles of driving bled in a dreamy smear now.
The kid didn't look more than a year and change, just a tyke scooping handfuls of stones, flinging them into the shallows with both arms, exclaiming a pleased trill of gibberish with each throw.
"He has all the earmarks of a major leaguer," Gibbs said, coming up from behind.
The woman started as if a gun had been fired over her shoulder.
Gibbs smiled at her as harmlessly as he could, showing his impossible teeth, wideset as tombstones in a cemetery. "Just look at him," he said softer, indicating the boy, "throwing with either arm, swinging from both sides of the windmill."
The woman regarded Gibbs, a shielding hand over her eyes to block the last light, like an explorer gazing off into a great distance. Her surprise resettled into a pleasant face, her hair not blond or red but falling somewhere in between, the kid's coloring pretty much the same and it suited them both. Gibbs figured she was younger than him, though not by a lot, a bit late for family rearing. That was how it was done these days, sometimes not even a man in the picture, which could have been the case here.
"I never know what to call them at that age," he said. "Babies or toddlers."
"Elliot," the woman said and smiled herself.
The kid held up another handful of rocks. Gibbs winked and the boy tossed them, pockmarking the skin of water.
"A handsome little man," Gibbs told her. "A crackerjack. I'm sure you get tired of hearing that."
"Oh, I don't think so," the woman said.
"No, I wouldn't think so either,' Gibbs said. He liked her smile, how it closed the space between them, held nothing back, no room for anything but it. It made him feel more than who he was.
A diving platform a hundred yards off bobbed and slapped at the water, the far rim of the lake now more an idea than a physical thing.
"They say you can see two hundred miles" the woman said. "On a clear day. That's hard to believe."
"That's something," Gibbs agreed. "Two hundred miles."
"I read it in a brochure."
"Well, then it must be true."
In rapid strokes the day dimmed, clouds blacking out, pinprick of stars here and there. The wind kicked up a chop on the lake, like pulled stitching. Gibbs watched the woman button the kid against the evening chill, the coat ill-fitting, perhaps a hand-me-down or from the church donation bin. The kid squirmed worse than an eel, wanting no part of it, wanting only the rocks. The woman persisted as if nothing was more important than this, than making sure the kid was warm, her face tired yet burnished with devotion, a face that said to Gibbs that things might not have been the easiest but if she got this simple task right, then maybe life might tell a different story for the boy, a hope that attached to her like a shine.
Gibbs felt he was spying on them. He drifted back to the car, sat behind the big circle of steering wheel. In the dark, the woman's face stayed with him. A raven flapped over the windshield, like a hinged W; across the way, twin pearls of headlights throwing cables into the black. Gibbs would have bet down to the green felt of the table that the boy was an accident, all she had to show for bad times and worse memories.
There was still her hope, so much it seemed to extend to Gibbs as well. She could have gathered up the kid back there, turned tail, the daily papers full of accounts of what could happen to a woman and a child alone in the night. A face that held that much trustGibbs would have stolen another auto, driven another nineteen hundred miles just to look into another such face.
He reached for the paper sack on the backseat, withdrew a jade piece he could identify by touch alone, stood out from the car and double-timed back to the lakeshore, fearing the woman and Elliot might have moved on, but they were still there, turning to Gibbs as he approached, as if waiting.
He bent to show what was in his hand, told about the fish, which was green and long and slender, fashioned with incised fins and a squared mouth. "From the Shang dynasty," he said. "It dates back to well over a thousand years before Jesus. Something this ancientin its own way, it's a lot like seeing two hundred miles, isn't it?" Gibbs was tempted to hand the jade over to the boy but thought the better of it because it just might wind up in the drink and gave it to the woman instead.
She turned it with a careful finger. "It's pretty," she said and it was. In some circles it wouldn't amount to more than a passable imitation, but it was still pretty; he'd even gone to the trouble of filing an edge off one corner of the tail. By his lights, all that should be worth something.
"For the boy's college fund," Gibbs explained. He'd not see her after tonight, would never see her again, but maybe they'd remember him for that.
The woman switched her gaze from the jade to him.
"How do you like that, bub," Gibbs said, poking the boy in his tight round of belly. The kid ducked behind the woman, peeked out.
"I'm Claire," she said.
"Gibbs," he told her. "My name's Gibbs."
He thought she'd beg it off, a gift from a stranger, but she curled her hand around the jade, shook it like dice. She swept her other arm back behind her to bring the boy forward. "Look at this, Elliot," she said, then studied Gibbs, a face like a question. "Well, we thank you, Mr. Gibbs."
"No, it's just Gibbs," he said. "There's no mister about it."
IT WAS FULL NIGHT when he quit Glacier. The road wound amidst close hills and, high above, points of stars flashed. He had everywhere and nowhere to go.
He thought the random thoughts of a man behind the wheel of a car. He considered his kid brother, hadn't in the longest time and now he did. Miles was a scientist who researched genes. The last time Gibbs had seen him was the old man's funeral, before Pine River. After the burial, Miles had talked about his work, the fact of DNA carrying the code of a person's makeup, down to the soul practically. Gibbs followed the spiral of explanation the best he could, nodding like a woodpecker, until all the talk of markers sounded only like poker. Miles grew increasingly fidgety and Gibbs had wondered if maybe there wasn't something else his brother was trying to tell him. In the end Miles had said maybe it wasn't such a good idea for Gibbs to contact him for a while, his forehead crumpling like paper. "It's just that I have a wife now and there's the kids," he said, leaving the thought unfinished, for it to spin in the air between them like flies, "It's okay, Miles," Gibbs had assured him. "If I were related to me I wouldn't want to know me either. No harm, no foul."
As it turned out, it'd been like mourning two deaths for Gibbs, that of the old man and Miles, too. And he was the only one left.
There'd been Hokanson, the sole opportunity for fraternity that custody had afforded. Hokanson was a nasty piece of work, a transfer from a distant facility out west, his crimes so monstrous that he was remanded thousands of miles back to the tidal flats of Jersey for his own safety. None of the other numbers could say exactly what he'd done, only talk, but even the hardest cases swung wide of him.
Hokanson and Gibbs, though, had got on without incident. After lights-out, he'd tell Gibbs stories of Montana, that eerie, raspy voice, almost like metal-on-metal, the trail of words leading into the nameless hours.
The facility at Pine River was erected on marshy land, hard by the steady rustle of the Atlantic. On nights of particular full moons the water table rose, the floor of their matchbox quarters awash in brine, and on those nights Hokanson's words were of unique comfort. As long as he talked, that barred world went away, the murmurings down the cellblock row of dangerous men crying and praying and talking in their sleep, the stories sticking with Gibbs long after Hokanson had gone, tales of a place big enough that there still might be room for someone like him.
HE STAYED THAT NIGHT outside Glacier in a town called Hungry Horse, in an efficiency unit at a motel, a room with mismatched burners on the gas stove and a stale ammonia odor, like a convalescent home. Gibbs suspected he was the only guest for the evening but later heard a car trunk slam and the scrabble of a key finding the lock, then the door to the next room swinging open on creaky hinges. A woman's throaty voice carried through the shared wall. "You already told me more than I want to know," it said and then a deeper voice answering, unintelligible, little more than a grunt.
Gibbs woke during the middle of the night to a train whistle. A picture came to mind, an old-timey locomotive chug-chugging through the pleats of hill, a plume of smoke mingling with the feathering evergreens, a soothing image.
Sleep seemed like another place he'd left behind. There was a light outside the curtained window, the moon, the same moon shining over the shoretown in Jersey he'd fled although it didn't feel that way. He mulled over what he knew about motels, how they were largely a charge card business these days, whatever cash on hand probably secured in a strongbox. And he could sense the impulses edging in, as familiar and thick as blood, and he tried to think of something else. He thought about the Claire woman from earlier, from the lake, how her hope seemed to flow as easy as instinct, as easy as breathing, a gift. Gibbs would have given almost anything for such hope. Years before, he'd forsaken drink and at the time it'd seemed like the hardest thing in the world but he now understood it wasn't.
A dog barked out on the road and down the way another answered it, back and forth, and he could imagine the chorus being picked up in houses further down the line, the call and response carrying all through Montana, as long as the road stretched, and he suddenly felt far away from anything he'd ever known. Gibbs dropped into sleep, picturing again a locomotive, a mare's tail of smoke over a steel trestle bridge and a bottomless gorge below, the warm sensation that he was arriving at some destination but wasn't quite there yet.
FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Gibbs was content to stay put, operating without purpose, letting the hours assume their own shape. He had money in his pocket and he put up in motels and ate as if he'd the key to the king's larder.
He whiled away an afternoon in Kalispell watching planes wing in to the airport. In Whitefish he found a park with a lake that was not as big or majestic as the lake in Glacier, and along the rocky beach, a canoe. Nobody was around and Gibbs paddled out.
An overcast day, gray mountains ringing the horizon and merging with sky, the lakeshore vacation homes perched on stilty legs, dark and empty. From experience he knew one couldn't count on finding anything of value in such places but you never really knewsometimes you got lucky. Gibbs considered the steep A-frames like possibilities, then paddled back.
Happy hour: sounds of drinking, lively discussion about if it might snow wafting out of the avenue bars. He walked to the end of town, suppertime in the boxy hall-and-parlor houses. He watched in the dark as he would a TV with the sound off, tried to envision himself inside among them.
He used to taunt his prey, in the prickly moments before hands got thrown, used to ask, "Do you know physics? Do you know what happens when an object comes up against an immovable object?" To a man they'd been more chump than victim, would have done the same to him if they could havethat was what he told himself then, what he repeated now. And he watched the cheery scenes on the other side of glass, brothers and sisters passing servings around kitchen tables, Gibbs taking it in like something he needed, almost like food.