Alex Pickett: Vultures

After snows, Paul had to drive up to Denali to plow. He would drive an hour and a half up there and plow out the parking lot and driveway so if there were any visitors in the rental cabins they were able to get out. This time, it had snowed from the previous night into this morning, about eight inches total, and he left for Denali around noon. He worked maintenance for Alaska State Parks, in the Susitna District, which covered all state property from Willow to Denali, and plowing was his favorite part of the job even though, on this trip, he had a hemorrhoid and sitting for so long in the truck irritated it terribly. But the snow had stopped and the highway was paved, and up ahead on the highway a hitchhiker stood so Paul decided to pick him up. It was cold out and Paul liked company.
Turned out this hitcher was a woman. She got in and said thanks, and Paul nodded and consciously didn’t look at her. The electric lighter popped and Paul took it with a shaking hand and lit a cigarette. He wasn’t scared, his hands just trembled almost all the time now. Most likely nerves. He had never asked his doctor about it.
The hitcher had on a navy-blue snow suit. A cotton stocking cap.
“Figured someone would pick me up,” she said.
Paul pushed down his eyebrows, looked in her direction without moving his head.
“Someone did,” Paul said.
She laughed, took off her cap. Paul wanted to look and see what her hair did with the cap off but instead he took his hands off the wheel of the truck, tipped the ash of his cigarette into his palm, and put the ashes into his pocket of his coveralls. They weren’t supposed to smoke in the truck.
The woman grabbed the wheel when Paul did this, but she didn’t steer much. Paul didn’t take notice. She moved as though this gesture was a normal thing between them.
They drove past Paul’s favorite spot on this route. Trees on both sides of the highway had been cut away so there was about fifty yards of stumps in both directions for a half-mile stretch of road. They had been cut away for fire protection, so a wildfire couldn’t jump the highway. He imagined sitting there in his truck with fires on each side of him, knowing he was safe. In the summer, Paul thought it looked like a bed of nails, because the stumps were so thin. He told this to the hitchhiker.
“Bed of nails?” the hitcher said. “Can’t see it. The hell knows though, covered in snow. Covered like it is looks more like gravestones.”
Paul looked. They did look like gravestones.
“I’d offer you a cigarette but we can’t smoke in here,” Paul said, smashing the lighted end of his cigarette between his fingers, putting the butt in the pocket of his coveralls, and zipping the pocket. “I do, but I’m not supposed to.”
“My brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law, my sister’s old husband, used to have those e-cigarettes. Think that’s what they’re called. Say,” she said, “you mind taking me up to Talkeetna?”
Paul looked at her fully for the first time. Her hair was sticking up after taking off the hat because it was short and wispy. She was older than Paul, maybe mid-forties. Bags under her eyes. A tough chin and red, crooked nose.
“The hell you mean? Talkeetna’s half hour out of my way one way.” He was going to keep on but felt his voice start to rise, like it did when he fought with his wife. There was no reason to argue with this woman, he knew, when he was only doing her a favor. So when he felt his voice rise he just stopped talking.
The hitcher put her hands by the heat vents and didn’t say anything for awhile. A moose was on the side of the road, waiting to pass over the highway.
“Moose,” Paul said.
“You pay for the gas in this thing?”
“They give me a gas card,” Paul said proudly.
“Anybody back where you came from watching the clock, waiting for you to get back on time. You get in trouble?”
“Willow,” Paul said, then realized she hadn’t asked where he was coming from. “No, they ain’t watching the clock. I’m taking the truck home with me tonight.”
Paul knew she was only trying to talk him into taking her to Talkeetna. “I’m not taking you,” he said. “I can’t.”
“It’s a long trip walking,” was all she said.
The turn for Talkeetna was fifteen minutes ahead and Paul wanted to light another cigarette but didn’t want to take one and not offer one to her. Of course, they might have been watching for him to come back to the office, he didn’t know. There was time to get the plowing done and be back before the office closed if he hurried. But he had the authority to take the truck home and not be questioned, that was a fact. Only he, Mike, and the ranger worked full-time at the district office, and though Paul had worked there the shortest amount of time, and was the youngest by almost fifteen years, he knew more about machines than the other two put together. They knew more about how the district operated, sure, but he’d learn that too, over time. And even though he had been there for more than three years, both the other guys were nearing retirement and had worked together that whole time, so they still considered him new and would band together against Paul whenever possible. This meant that even when Paul fixed something the other two couldn’t they found a way to get a rise out of him, maybe by talking about his wife or his hemorrhoid, which he had mentioned almost a year ago thinking that they of course had suffered at some point in their life as well. Most of the time they all got along though—Paul liked his job—they just liked to push Paul’s buttons more than he liked them pushed. Which was why they liked to push them so much.
Like how they pranked him. They knew he had a fear of snakes so any chance they got they would yell “Snake!” and throw a rubber hose or a broken snow machine belt at him. After a few months of this Paul stopped flinching and would grab the hose or belt out of the air, until the ranger bought a garter snake at a pet store and threw it to him. Ever since then Paul has moved out of the way when something was thrown to him.
“Know what I did today?” Paul asked.
“Took out all the bolts in their desk chairs so when they sit down they’ll fall right over.”
She laughed and said, “Who?”
Paul looked annoyed. “Wilber and Mike.”
“That’s a good one. Know a guy who threw out his back after someone did that to him. Couldn’t get off the couch for a week.”
A jolt of heat went through him. He had removed the bolts in their chairs after finding a lifelike snake in his top desk drawer that morning and almost falling off his own chair. Wilber, the ranger, had bought the snake during a trip to Arizona and had mailed it to Paul, and ever since then it popped up from time to time. Paul wished he had cut the thing into pieces when he first opened the package.
But the chair prank. Wilber had a bad back, he wore a back brace over his ranger uniform even when he wasn’t lifting anything. Paul and Mike made fun of him about it behind his back. Paul took out his cigarettes and offered one to the woman who took it. Soon the lighter popped out, she lit up, and didn’t roll down her window.
“Not that I don’t want to take you,” Paul said, trying to light his cigarette on the cooling lighter so he spoke through pursed lips, “just that if anyone sees me, you know, someone I work with or someone from a different district,” he couldn’t gather his thoughts. The lighter wasn’t lighting his cigarette. He jammed it into the slot and blurted, “I can’t just go wherever I want to go.”
“I get it,” she said, slumping down and flicking the ash of her cigarette onto the floor mat. “Just that you’re a nice guy, and you never know who’ll pick you up out here. Thought maybe I could even buy you a beer when we get up there to thank you.”
The turn was in five miles. As he drove he wondered why he wasn’t taking her up there. Did he think he’d get caught, or was it because he just wasn’t supposed to? He knew other people did worse things: he talked to people in other districts who bragged about smoking pot in the truck or taking the truck down to strip clubs in Anchorage. The more he thought about it the more taking her up there didn’t seem like such a bad idea. The chair prank made him want to avoid getting done plowing in time to return to the office, and he thought how even though she’s trying to trick him into taking her, she still was in a bad spot and needed his help. And sure, this, that is, picking up a woman hitchhiking, was a top-five sexual fantasy for him, since he picked up so many hitchers and so felt achieving it was a real possibility, even if he didn’t plan on ever cheating on his wife. Not that he was attracted to this woman, with her frozen cheeks and crooked nose. But she was a woman. Sex aside though, it wasn’t right to leave her in the cold, and he probably wouldn’t get in any trouble anyway. And even if nothing happens he can at least think about what might have happened the next time he has sex with his wife. Without saying anything, only sighing and shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Paul decided to take her where she wanted to go.

At the bar, the Settler’s Inn, Paul miserably drank the beer the woman bought him. He always did this, got himself into situations where any solution made him miserable. If he had not picked her up, or left her at the turn like he should have, he would have been miserable for leaving her out there like that. Now he was miserable for having driven so far out of his way, not getting his work done. The reasons he came up with just prior to making the turn left him now, and he wished he was still driving north to Denali. Plowing up in Denali was his favorite part of his job, and he was only able to do it a few times a year. The drive was nice, of course, but even the actual plowing. He had a system. He went from the outside-in, plowing the perimeter of the lot and working in to the middle. It wasn’t the most efficient system, but he liked to see the pattern form, the snow dropping away from the edges making smaller and smaller rectangles of snow until it all disappeared.
Now he was here and ever since he had turned down the road the woman, whose name turned out to be Wendy, hadn’t stopped talking. She told him what he assumed to be lies, like how her brother worked picking bananas for Chiquita Bananas and that she had had a boyfriend who lit a kid on fire as a joke. When they had gotten to the bar she had gone over to the phone and made a call and he had considered leaving, but instead sat at a table until she brought him his beer. He thought if he left he might always wonder what would’ve happened if he had stayed.
“You know this town was what they based that show Northern Exposure on? You remember that show? Or you too young?”
“I’m thirty six,” Paul said. He remembered the show. Joel. Ed. That fat Indian.
Paul had turned his work phone off. If they called to check in on him he didn’t want to know about it. They’d give him hell, because he was supposed to have his phone with him at all times, but it was better than them knowing he was having a drink with a woman when he should have been plowing.
“Know what my dad did?” she asked. “He was the caretaker at the cemetery over in Tok, where I grew up. In the winter he’d have to go out there anytime anyone in the area died, load them into a Conex trailer, because it was too cold to dig into the ground. Then when it warmed up they’d take them out and bury them. Every day in the late spring they’d have two, three burials.”
“I went to Wilber’s mom’s funeral like that last June, even though she died in January,” Paul said.
She nodded, took a drink of her beer, and continued talking.
“Did it until he was seventy five and died when his house collapsed in a storm. But this one time I was with him, helping him out, we were waiting for a service to get over, just sitting on the trailer where we kept the tools, watching it from behind the priest or reverend or whatever. Preacher. And as soon as it gets over my dad fires up the tractor and we go over there.”
“Sounds about right,” Paul said.
She nodded. “Took away the chairs and turf, lowered the casket and I jump down on it, rock it back and forth and work the straps out from underneath, and while I’m down there I hear this lady, fat lady with goddamn sequins in her black dress, come up to my dad and call us vultures.”
“Goddamn vultures. Because of how we were sitting there behind the preacher waiting for it to be over. I mean, I’m not more than fourteen years old.”
“Vultures,” Paul said.
“No worse creature than a vulture,” she said. “You ever been called a vulture?”
He shook his head. He had though, a couple months before. While waiting outside Wilber’s office to tell him how his paycheck hadn’t yet reflected his raise, he heard Wilber tell the person he was speaking to on the phone, “Hold on one minute while I get rid of this vulture.”
Music was playing in the bar. The radio was tuned to the station that broadcasts out of the town, so every so often they would hear a local DJ speak, and then hear country music that was popular in the nineties. When Paul took his wife and two daughters to see Talkeetna two summers ago, when it is busy with climbers waiting to get flown out to the base of the mountain, Paul parked across from the station and they watched the DJ talk inside a big glass window while listening to her on radio. Her mouth would move a couple seconds before they would hear what she said. At least initially, the girls, especially, were fascinated by this. Soon, though, everyone but Paul had lost interest and wanted to see the rest of the town, but Paul didn’t like how busy it all was in town. Didn’t know what was wrong with watching the DJ. His wife ended up getting out of the car and going to a bar where Paul found her after her third drink.
In a different bar, same town, now, with this woman. It had a different feel. He was doing something wrong but manageable, and this woman made it exciting in a way he couldn’t put his finger on. She made it a risk.
“Say,” she said after a long silence, “let’s just say I’m being friendly. Can we say I’m friendly? Am I friendly?”
Ever since the vulture conversation Paul was okay with her, so he nodded.
“Just for laughs, let’s say I made a suggestion,” she said.
“You’re friendly,” he said. He saw this conversation building to something, and felt himself ready to take hold of the situation: to rent a room in this place and take her to it, or to leave her in the bar and go plow if she suggested that he take her to another place he didn’t want to go. Either way he felt the situation would soon be resolved.
Before she could go on, though, a man walked in and when she saw him let out a laugh. “Tuffy,” she called.
Tuffy was a big guy, round, with a white beard that was stained yellow around the mouth. He sat down at their table and began talking to Wendy as though they were already in the middle of a conversation. They talked about people Paul didn’t know and they didn’t fill him in on who they were. This agitated Paul and he shifted around in his seat, patted his pocket for a cigarette but didn’t want to have to offer this guy one. He coughed but they didn’t look at him.
He went to the bathroom and put some Prep H on his hemorrhoid. His wife called it Prep H when she wrote out her shopping lists though she actually bought the store brand. She’d leave it out on the bathroom counter for him, still in its package, so he would know she had bought him a new tube, and he’d quickly hide it under the sink, behind the bucket that caught the water leaking out of the pipe. He wished she wouldn’t put it out in the open like that but he never said anything because he was grateful to her for always remembering to buy him more.
Soothed, he decided to walk out of the bathroom, say goodbye to Wendy, wave off any thank-yous, not look at the guy with the beard, and drive up to Denali and plow. There was still enough light. All told this side trip would have wasted about two hours of his day. He wouldn’t take a lunch so it wasn’t a big deal. He’d get a microwave burrito on the way.
“Say, that your rig out there? Parks truck?” Tuffy asked Paul, with admiration, before Paul could say goodbye.
“Biggest one we got. For the major jobs. Plow detaches,” Paul said.
Tuffy whistled.
“See, I told you,” Wendy said to Tuffy, then she smiled up at Paul and winked.
Tuffy shook his head to one side and held it there. Paul sat down.
“You work down in Willow?” Tuffy asked.
“Nancy Lake State Park. I’m one of three guys down there to take care of the whole park, plus plow for the whole Susitna District in winter. Park alone’s almost twenty-three-thousand acres.”
Tuffy leaned towards Paul. His breath smelled like beef stew. “I ask you something?” he said.
Wendy smiled. “We’re friends. Ask him anything.”
Paul nodded and took a sip of the fresh beer in front of him.
“Just as friends,” Tuffy said, “if I said we could make some money together, would you be interested?”
“Money?” Paul asked.
“You need money. Everyone needs money,” Wendy said to Paul.
“I got some,” Paul said, a little confused. “Just had a baby but still was able to buy myself a new Glock forty five with what was left of the dividend.” It was February and everyone in Alaska had just gotten their check from the state for letting the oil companies drill on their land, twelve-hundred dollars per Alaskan citizen. The forty five was locked in a case with three other handguns on a shelf in Paul’s bedroom closet.
“Can always use more though,” Tuffy said.
Paul shrugged and nodded. He didn’t think much about money when he had a job.
“You wouldn’t have to do anything,” Tuffy said. “We just need to use your truck. Couple hours. You can stay here if you like. I can handle the work.”
“My truck?”
“You know he’d bring it back,” Wendy said. “Could never get away with stealing a big truck like that. Decals and everything. They’d catch him quick. Nowhere to hide anyway, it’s Alaska.”
They were smiling at him, and that was the only reason he didn’t get up and walk out the door, drive up and plow. “What you need it for?”
“Five hundred dollars. All you have to do is sit here and drink beers Wendy buys you. Be back in three, four hours tops.”
Paul took off his ball cap, wiped his head as though sweating, then remembered how nobody there knew yet that he was bald so he quickly put his cap back on.
“Is it legal?” He didn’t know why he asked, since he wasn’t considering going through with it.
Tuffy looked towards the door where a woman with two big dogs had just walked in and Wendy nodded her head to the Travis Tritt song on the radio.
Their not answering annoyed Paul. They could at least tell him what was going on, considering they were asking him to risk his job. He stood, reached behind the bar to a coffee mug full of matchbooks, and lit a cigarette. Wendy took one for herself but Tuffy did not. Paul exhaled, laughed through his nose, and said, “Jesus.” He was done with them.
The other two looked at each other, the man moved his open hand across the table as though to say, It would have been nice, but no big deal.
Paul excused himself to go check his phone and then go to the bathroom for one more dose of Prep H before heading off. Good to know what to do, to have gotten himself in this situation but to now get himself out of it. It wasn’t these people’s faults. They were nice enough. They just happened to want him to do something he didn’t want to do. He’d heard of stuff like this and didn’t want to be a part of it. A State Trooper was arrested the previous year for delivering supplies to meth labs deep in the woods. Said in the papers that the way the meth dealers figured it, nobody’d question it if they saw a police vehicle out in the middle of nowhere.
Meth labs weren’t any of Paul’s business. His business was getting up to Denali before it got too dark, plowing, and going home. Realizing this made him relieved.
Outside, he was struck by all the white after being in the dark bar. A nice little town when it wasn’t busy with climbers. Just a street really, a few bars, couple souvenir stores, the town square down the block with an old horse-drawn carriage inside a building with a glass front. Paul could see there was a plaque in front of it. A man was sitting on the ground, propped against the glass, his head tilted down and legs splayed in front of him. When the man’s head snapped up Paul shivered, lit a cigarette, and turned on his phone.
One new message, from a half hour earlier. It was Mike, he had apparently begun speaking before the message began recording.
“…heading to the hospital. Wilber’s hurt. Came back from plowing up at the trailhead and Wilber was flat on his back in his office. Looks bad. Where are you? Pick up your damn phone. His chair was broke. You know anything about it? Mine was busted too. Yours was fine. Hope to hell you didn’t have anything to do with this. Call back.”
Paul put the phone back in his pocket and took two steps towards his truck, then stopped and didn’t move for a minute. The man by the carriage display stood up and walked wobbling towards him. Paul went back to the bar and straight into the bathroom.
In the bathroom, his coveralls unzipped and the seat of his pants pushed down, there was a knock on the door.
“Paul, let me in a second.” It was Wendy.
“Let me alone,” he said. “You’ve gotten me into enough trouble.” But she hadn’t, he knew. He had gotten himself into this.
The door didn’t have a lock and she let herself in. Paul brought his hand in front of him, his finger was covered with cream.
“The fuck you coming in here for? Didn’t I just tell you to let me the hell alone?” His voice was rising now but he didn’t care. He hoped he would never see her again.
“Just figured you were leaving,” she said, hurt. “Thought I could do something for you for being so nice. Looks like you might’ve started without me though.”
Paul didn’t know what to do. All he wanted was to finish up and leave.
“Here,” she said, grabbing him and turning him around, spreading his legs apart like it was a strip search. Strong, this woman. Still had on her snow suit.
She rifled around deep in the pockets of his coveralls, grabbing around his groin. God she was strong. He instinctively tried to pull her hands away but they wouldn’t budge. His foot slipped and he had to steady himself on the wall.
Breathing heavily, his mind went blank and for a moment he hoped she would find what she was looking for. Everything else dropped away.
“There it is!” she said, clutching his testicles and giving a vicious squeeze.
He reared up, yelped in pain, but she only increased the pressure. She held him like that, nearly lifting him off the ground. Soon he stopped flailing and shut his eyes and begged.
Finally she let him go, and he collapsed in a heap. Something in him felt damaged. He couldn’t speak or move, and had trouble breathing.
Looking down at him, she scrunched her mouth to one side, making herself ugly, so ugly that Paul couldn’t imagine ever having considered having sex with her. She scrunched her mouth to the other side and let out a humming sound.
“The keys.” she said.
Paul said nothing, he just kept his eyes on her and tried his best to breathe.
She reached into his pocket, but his hand was already on the keys, his finger through the ring. He had instinctually grabbed them after she had let him go. She tried to yank them from him, but he held them firm. He knew how strong his hands were after working with them this long. She would have to kill him to get those keys free. She kicked him twice in the side, hard, and he managed to keep looking at her while gripping the keys tighter in his hand.
For a minute she looked at him, and every so often she’d shake her head like she was dismissing an idea. She kicked him again, almost like a question, but didn’t even bother trying to pry the keys loose. She turned away, turned back towards him, said, “Tuffy’s going to kill you,” then reached down and took off his hat, said, “later baldy,” and walked out.
For a long time he sat like that, his back against the wall, one hand on his balls, the other still holding the keys. There was no lock on the door, so every so often a guy would open it, say sorry, and close the door. One guy stopped for a minute, saw Paul’s bald head, the Prep H on the counter, Paul’s hand on his balls, and the guy yelled to his friends, “Look at this poor asshole!”
His phone buzzed but he didn’t pick it up. A waiter came in and told him to get up. Paul rolled on his side and his stomach hurt. The waiter pulled him up and led him out of the bar.
It was dark, the truck’s windshield was smashed. Cracks extended from a hole in the center like lines from a poisonous bite. Paul stumbled down the street with one hand still holding his testicles as though they might fall completely off if he let them go. He checked the message. Mike again. He said some campers out at Denali called. They couldn’t get out because the lot’s not plowed. There was concern in Mike’s voice. “Everything okay buddy? Oh, and Wilber’s fine, I was just messing with you about the hospital. Both our seats were on the ground by the time we got back. You’re supposed to just loosen the bolts, not take them out.”
There was a bench on the sidewalk and Paul sat on it. He decided to wait there for a while. Something felt deeply wrong, even though he knew he wasn’t in any immediate danger. He knew fully well he almost lost everything. I’m okay, he repeated to himself as he sat on the bench looking out at the town. They aren’t going to come back. It’s dark but it’s not late. This’ll pass and I’ll go up and plow. I’ll make it up there. I’ll keep my head out the window if I can’t see well enough. If that’s what I have to do I’ll do it. I’ll take the truck back to the shop tonight, tomorrow I’ll tell them how I got up to Denali, went in the ranger station to warm up, came out and the windshield was busted. Maybe a few years from now I’ll tell them all about all this, even the Prep H, tell them how she grabbed my balls like that, how I held on to the keys, how the truck was fine, just broken up a litte, and how I went up and plowed and came back and everything was all right. They’ll laugh, but I held on. He’d tell them: Dammit, I held on.

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