Smith River: A Short Story by Nathaniel Kennon Perkins
READ LOCAL First boasts Utah’s most comprehensive collection of poets and authors. Today, we feature Utah native Nathaniel Kennon Perkins. He now lives in Boulder, Colorado, and runs Trident Press. Perkins is the author of the novel Wallop (House of Vlad, 2020), the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), the short novel Cactus (Trident Press, 2018), and the ongoing literary zine series Ultimate Gospel. His creative work has appeared in Triquarterly, Berfrois, Keep This Bag Away From Children, American West, Timber Journal, and elsewhere. Learn more at his website: www.nathanielkennonperkins.com.
Ben’s left arm was the only part of his body that was sunburned. He’d been driving west for a few days now. The air conditioner just blew hot air, so he kept the window down.
The so-called “Van Life” was more difficult than the people who posted all those beautiful, romantic photos on the internet made it seem. It wasn’t all lightweight hammocks and sunrises and national parks. These were part of the experience, to an extent, but Ben was learning that life’s garden had more weeds than flowers.
Panhandling in front of gas stations.
Standing humiliated at the exit of a McDonald’s drive-thru with a cardboard sign that read “Hungry Broke Travelin’ Folk—Anything Helps!”
Waiting two weeks for the next direct deposit of unemployment money.
Always looking forward to the beginning of the month when the food stamps card got re-upped. Shoplifting and dumpster diving until then.
He tried to remind himself that the open road and the natural scenery it led to, that outward projection of personal freedom—no job, no real responsibilities—were worth any short-lived degradation.
The sun was setting on June 30th. In the morning, unemployment and food stamps would make Ben rich again. He and Sarah would feel, if even for one day, like those trust fund, social media van lifers.
The Smith River, northeast from Crescent City, up almost on the Oregon state line, was one of the only undammed rivers in California. The water sparkled emerald, and steelhead trout jumped. The 1992 Econoline chugged up US Route 199, winding with the narrow two-lane road that followed the curvature of the river below. They passed tiny settlements of houses that rose like brown stalks of mullein wherever the canyon’s tightness momentarily eased.
Ben leaned forward in his seat and gripped the steering wheel.
“This road is kind of sketchy.”
Sarah stared silently out the window, watching the fading orange light’s effect on the topography and keeping an eye peeled for roadside critters. Their dog Hayduke, some sort of Border Collie mix, did the same.
Their destination was one they had discovered on the website freecampsites.net. It was a trailhead parking lot where you could legally stay overnight. No fire pits or anything, but there was a vault toilet.
Tires crunched on gravel. They got out, let the dog take a shit. They could hear the river below them, but they didn’t go to it now. The mountains were cast in dark blue, and the first stars appeared. Ben put on a sweatshirt. He pulled out the folding table and the Coleman stove, made a dinner of pancakes and jam. It was the only food they had left until they went to the store tomorrow. They rolled cigarettes and drank vodka until the vodka was gone. Eventually they passed out in the van’s makeshift bed, spread across the top of their sleeping bags.
The sun came up and let itself into the van around the edges of the curtains. When Ben awoke, he was covered in sweat. Sarah snored. He slid out of bed quietly. The living quarters were tight, and a rare moment alone was to be cherished. He crouched and pulled on a pair of cutoff jeans. As soon as the door was open wide enough, the dog made a dash for it. Ben followed, easing his bare feet onto the sharp gravel. Except for the dust floating above the dry parking lot, the sky was dazzlingly clear. Another vehicle, a green Subaru Forester with a vanity license plate that read “FAMIL1A,” had parked not far from theirs, sometime earlier in the morning probably. Ben could hear the family’s shouts and laughter nearby, but it wasn’t until he was standing at the edge of the parking lot that he could see them. A worn footpath led to the banks of the river, where the parents and their two young boys were swimming and playing. He pissed in the dry grass, sure that they wouldn’t look up and see him.
When Sarah got up, they decided to wait on breakfast. They wanted to swim first. They picked a spot downstream from the family, a stretch of river that ran between a small waterfall and a highway bridge that passed overhead. They dunked themselves and jumped off rocks. The dog splashed and chased sticks. After a while the family left, leaving Ben and Sarah free to expand their range up the riverbank. They searched for abandoned cases of caddisfly larvae, little cones of tiny pebbles that the bugs made to protect themselves from predators.
Sarah moved slowly through the shallow water, hunting carefully.
She drew it from the riverbed and held it gently between finger and thumb.
Ben put out his hand. She dropped it into his palm. It was maybe an inch or an inch-and-a-half long, a complex construction of stones not much bigger than large grains of sand, apparently abandoned once the insect reached maturity.
“They stick all the rocks together with silk that they excrete from the salivary glands near their mouths,” Sarah explained. “It’s amazing.”
Ben closed his fist, crushing the delicate case. He dropped the loose rocks into the water.
“Why did you do that?”
He shrugged and Sarah shook her head.
“I’m going to chill out for a while,” Sarah said. She got out of the water and laid her towel down on a flat concrete slab under the highway bridge. The dog followed her.
For another ten or fifteen minutes, Ben looked for another caddisfly case. When he couldn’t find one, he went to lie next to Sarah.
She was on her back, her baseball cap over her eyes, skin dry already. Ben reached over, ran his hand down her side. His fingers pulled at the elastic waistband of her shorts.
In the first few months of their relationship, her laugh had been beautiful and freely given. Recently, she’d replaced this sign of mirth with a simple, scoffing “Pshh.” She made this noise now. He wasn’t sure how to interpret it.
Sensing his hesitation, she grabbed his hand and pushed it lower.
He turned to face her. He touched her and she moaned. He took her hand and put it on himself.
He got to his knees and started to pull her shorts off of her.
“Someone’s going to see us,” she said. “Let’s go back to the van.”
“I think we’re okay. I want to do it here, under the bridge.”
She shook her head.
“What if that family comes back?”
The dog politely looked in the other direction.
They drove back to Crescent City, through the canyon, through part of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and to the Safeway. They wandered through the aisles, dazed under the fluorescent lights, loading their cart with cheap dry or canned goods that wouldn’t need refrigeration.
“What if we get something nice for ourselves for tonight? A treat of some kind,” she said.
“I don’t know. We could get some ground beef and make hamburgers.”
They used unemployment money for the things they couldn’t put on the food stamps card: a pouch of Bugler tobacco and some rolling papers; a handle of vodka; and dog food, the expensive grain-free, organic kind.
They filled their water jugs.
Ben flew a sign by the exit of the grocery store parking lot, but nobody gave him any money.
At a gas station they took turns approaching people who were fueling their cars, going up to them with an empty five-gallon gas can and saying, “Excuse, ma’am, could you spare a splash of gas to help us get back on the road?”
Neither of them particularly enjoyed this task, but it was Sarah who really detested it. She said it gave her stomachaches and panic attacks. Still, Ben made her take her turn. It was his unemployment and food stamps they were living off of. She’d never applied. She said couldn’t put up with bureaucracy. The van was his, too, and he wouldn’t let her get away with not pulling her weight. He thought about Sarah’s mother, who never worked, but married often. Started going to church again when there might be any charity money in it. From a distance, Ben admired this spirit, but he was wary, realizing it was a stick he might someday end up on the short end of. He didn’t mention these specific preoccupations to Sarah. The one time he had compared her to her mother, she’d slammed the passenger door on his hand. So instead of saying anything at all, he just sat there. Once Sarah cried herself out, he reminded her that they still hadn’t managed to fill up, and it was her turn. It paid off. Some yuppie in a new Tacoma apparently felt bad for her. He had them pull the van around to the pump so he could top off the tank.
They didn’t talk on their way back to the parking lot campsite. They listened to a cassette tape of The Best of Patsy Cline and looked out the windows. The dog slept on the bed in the back. The sun was starting to get low again already.
The road was quiet until some asshole in a blue Chevy truck pulled up right behind the van, tailgating them, practically touching bumpers. Ben’s eyes went to the rearview mirror. The Chevy’s windshield was tinted. He couldn’t make out the face of the driver.
“What is this idiot doing?”
Sarah checked out the side view mirror, didn’t answer.
The truck followed them like this for maybe a quarter-mile before passing them on a tight curve where the oncoming lane was separated by a solid line.
“This guy’s a moron,” Ben said.
“Fuck him,” said Sarah, but the tone of her voice indicated that it wasn’t the driver of the Chevy that she was mad at.
The truck zoomed off, disappearing around a bend.
Another mile and they caught up again. The Chevy was parked on the shoulder of the narrow road. The door was open. The driver stood outside the vehicle. He was in his mid 40s maybe, white, wearing a ball cap, t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and flip-flops. He smiled as they passed. Raised his hand in a friendly wave.
Ben felt reassured somehow. Maybe the guy wasn’t such a crazy asshole after all. Sometimes you just had to give people the benefit of the doubt.
But then, almost immediately, the truck was on their tail again, seemingly even closer than before.
“What the actual fuck?”
Ben fought the urge to tap on the brakes. No harsh lesson he could teach this dickhead was worth the risk on this dangerous road.
The truck pulled around again. Passed again. Disappeared up the road.
“I’m not into this at all,” said Sarah.
Ben gripped the wheel tightly.
“There he is again,” he said.
The truck was once again parked on the side of the road. Ben slowed slightly in the approach, wanting to get a good look.
Apparently, this is exactly what the driver had been counting on.
Again, the driver was standing outside the open door. But this time he was naked from the waist down. Shaved pubes. Flaccid penis. The look in his eyes was blank. He looked dead, like there was no joy or excitement left that the world could offer.
“Ew,” said Sarah.
Ben slammed on the brakes.
“I’m going to kick his ass.”
He started negotiating an awkward three-point turn in the oversized van, pulling across the oncoming lane to do so. The flasher jumped back in his truck and flipped around neatly. By the time the van was facing back down the canyon, the Chevy was gone.
Ben pulled over onto the shoulder and punched the steering wheel until his hand hurt.
“How does he know we don’t, like, have a gun or something?” he asked.
“How do you know he doesn’t?”
That was a good point.
More carefully now, the adrenaline starting to fade, Ben turned the van around once more, and drove back up to the parking lot campsite.
Once parked, neither of them bothered to get out. In turn, they climbed between the seats and back to the bed.
Sarah made sure the window curtains were pulled all the way shut, no gap left that someone might see through.
“Are the doors locked?” she asked.
And that’s how they spent the evening. Lying in bed, not touching each other, the dog between them. In a grocery bag, unrefrigerated on the floor, the hamburger meat started to spoil.