By Lee Patton
Frank rowed toward the dock his father used, tucked into a wooded river bend behind the town harbor. It was way past six, but the dock was deserted. Where was his dad?
The seagulls kept acting strange. A whole flock had just followed his rowboat against the incoming tide, wailing. When he passed the mooring basin’s log posts, every single gull landed atop each one, like a formation, going dead quiet.
Where an opening between two log walls marked the entry to the mooring basin, people were acting as weird as the birds, especially since the sun wouldn’t go down for at least an hour. A long line of fishing boats waited to dock all at once, something Frank had never seen. A floating traffic jam. The seagulls kept their log perches like they were standing guard.
Drifting by on a fishing rig in the floating jam, a grown man he couldn’t really recognize waved both arms. Each hand gripped a big fish. The sun was low behind the fishing rig, so the man was just a silhouette. Squinting into the sunlight, Frank waved back, figuring the man was showing off his catch. When the smaller figure at his side yelled “Frankie! Frankie!” it carried, sharp and loud, but when their boat slipped between the log-pile entry, he couldn’t hear the rest. Frank was already across the river, easing beside the little dock.
Before he hopped out of the rowboat, Frank noticed how the incoming tide pushed faint V-shaped ripples against the river water, like the natural rules had been suspended today. Steadying his boat, he tied it with the slipknot his father had taught him. He fastened the chain lock and double-checked its grip.
Looking downriver, Frank saw more fishing boats joining the jam across the river. Behind them, cormorants swooped to disappear against the dark bluff before rising against the sun-stunned sky. Overhead, two gulls collided with each other in mid-air, shrieking.
Now a couple of tourist party boats joined the line, though Frank had never known them to dock anywhere but right on the harbor’s river docks. He still couldn’t spot his father’s small skiff among those bigger rigs.
Frank reached for the sketchpad and watercolors stashed in Lucky Boy and spread his sketches across the dock. Each was an upriver scene like black, mossy Dead Man’s Rock, jutting straight up from the water and a golden pasture where a palomino grazed beside a goat.
Standing over the pictures, Frank sighed. The watercolors struck him the same as catching salmon. That electric feeling when they were wriggling and alive on an unraveling line dried to dullness and even disgust when placed on the dock, inert and lifeless. He knew his sketches and watercolors were getting better, but nowhere near good enough. The moss on the rock looked like oozing green snot. The palomino’s head caved-in like a birth defect.
Every Saturday this summer, Frank and Willy followed their routine. Frank would head upriver from the dock, rowing past the tide line until the brackish water gave way to the Kashaya River’s clean blue-green. He’d paddle deep into the tree-clumped river valley, where in calmer pools he’d let the boat float while he sketched or fiddled with his watercolors. At the same time, Willy would pilot his skiff downriver around the big bend, where the Kashaya formed the heart of the commercial harbor between two steep wooded bluffs. In no time his father would be out past the jetty, rocking on the open Pacific. Past the first or second bell, he’d cast his line for salmon.
“Hey! Frankie!” His father’s call came over the outboard’s drone, cut as he approached the dock, his wake rocking the planks so that Frank squatted to steady his sketches. “Sorry I’m late. There was a lot of traffic on the river just now.” He nodded toward the boat jam, then reached into the hold and popped the cooler’s top. “And I had to fight extra long to bring in this beaut.”
“Wow, Dad.” Frank studied the fat, blue-silver king salmon dangling from his father’s grip. “Must be a twenty-five pounder.”
“Could be. I got a couple more, too, a smaller king and a red snapper. Let’s get these home to your mom. We’re gonna feast tonight!”
Grabbing the cooler while his father tied up the skiff, Frank grabbed the snapper and laid it on the dock beside his drawings, studying its orange, ugly beauty in the water-dappled light. The sun flickered through the cypress trees on the bluff above the river, making the shiny skin shimmy, as if the dead snapper had been resurrected.
Still clinging to the big king, his father hopped out of the skiff to study Frank’s drawings. Everything shook now. “I really like the palomino-and-goat one, Frankie. Can I take it to my office?”
Frank laughed. It was an old joke. Mr. Willy Flanagan’s office was really the janitor’s closet at Iron Harbor Elementary School, smelly with disinfectant and a weird sink cut into the floor. And at least thirty of Frank’s sketches were taped helter-skelter on the closet walls and behind the door. “Sure, if you’ve got room for one more.”
Plucking the old newspaper from the cooler, Frank wrapped the snapper and tucked it inside. They would give it to the old widow who owned the dock. He gathered the drawings into his pad, pressed it under his arm, and started up the steep trail to the pickup. Willy followed behind, hauling the cooler. Once they climbed the worn path through the brush and up to the bald dirt lot where the old widow let them park the pickup, a rusty blue Dodge named Bernice, Frank and Willy loaded the artwork and the cooler. They turned back down the trail a few paces into the blackberry patch.
“Look, Dad, tons more ripe ones than last week.” Under the tall, bare pine trunks that lined the old lady’s property, the sun poured over the berry briars. Frank stopped and planted his face in the rays before the sun went behind the opposite bluff, lost in the dazzle of slanting yellow-gold light and deep shadows.
“Get pickin’, Frankie,” his dad said, motioning him down the little paths cut between the berry bushes. “Your mom’s going to be wondering what happened to us.”
They filled Willy’s cap with the ripest berries. “I tell you,” his father said, “this is why I fell in love with California, Frankie. Fresh salmon for dinner, fresh blackberries for dessert. Even the richest man can’t have that back in Ohio. Here, we’ve got it for free, all season long. It’s a hell of a thing.”
When they reached the place where the briar trail topped a steep bluff, Frank saw Daisy, the old widow, standing on the rocky verge. Aiming at the mooring basin right across the river, she stared into binoculars. She let them down when she heard Frank approach, so they fell against her skinny chest. “This so-called tidal wave that’s coming down from Alaska. You’ve heard about it, boy?”
Frank shook his head. He didn’t exactly know what a tidal wave was. Something like the red tides that dumped hundreds of dead fish onto the beaches? Anyway, he was a little leery of the old lady. Since he usually roamed the bluffside trails while she chatted with his father, he hardly ever saw her up close. She was so thin that her polka-dot dress hung on her like she’d borrowed it from a fat friend. Her hair hung down too, long, straight, and gray. Her skin was all wrinkly and she had those slanting Japanese eyes. Frank was amazed she had a name like “Daisy” and spoke in everyone else’s flat, familiar way. Frank just wanted to tell her about the red snapper. He knew she loved the taste. Some guy at the bait store said she even ate it raw.
But Daisy wanted to talk about the tidal wave. “See how the Kashaya River gets so squashed between these big bluffs before it pushes out to sea? If the big surge really is coming, it will gush into the harbor like water overflowing in a bathtub. Every boat in the harbor is going to knock into every other boat like rubber duckies. And if that’s the worst that happens, boy, we’ll be lucky. Very lucky.”
Old Japanese prints the traveling art teacher showed at school clicked through Frank’s mind like slides on a Kodak carousel. Pen-and ink waves with foamy breakers, monstrous, arched to devour a village, their white spume like teeth. He heard heavy breaths in the sudden silence and briefly felt his father’s hands on his shoulders.
Willy reached through the briars to extend his open cap to the widow. She smiled and selected a single berry between her long, claw-like fingers.
“So Daisy,” Willy asked, “was there a warning siren? I didn’t hear it out past the second bell.”
“No, no siren yet. I don’t know why. It’s been on the radio. And now, look at those poor foolish people, their rigs lined up like ducklings in the mooring basin. It will just mean more boats whacking against each other, in closer quarters. The radio says it will be here within an hour or two, Willy.”
Daisy talked about what happened before she was taken to California as a little girl, back in Japan. Waves so huge boats got shoved on top of her three-story school. Trees, roots and all, left balancing on bridges, and a baby girl, still clutching her toy bear, draped on a branch of that sideways tree. “Still breathing. A miracle. Most weren’t so fortunate. These really aren’t tidal waves, Willy. We all call them that, but there’s nothing tidal about them. Earthquakes cause ‘em, like the one they just had up in Alaska today. Seismic uproar sends them to shore. The true word is tsunami.” Daisy said it was a Japanese word. “I don’t care about my old dock,” Daisy went on, “but it would be a shame if your skiff got damaged.”
“Maybe the best place is right where it is, Daisy. Nothing else to knock against. Anyway, there’s no time to get my trailer out of storage. But we can save Frankie’s rowboat. Come on, son.”
As he hustled down the path to the dock behind his dad, Frank was shocked that Daisy followed them, sure-footed and steady. She undid the knot in one smooth, split-second move and helped Willy guide the little rowboat around the dock. She lifted the prow against the muddy bank and joined Willy to grab the gunwale and lift the boat higher. Frank stretched his arms against the stern, shoving Lucky Boy blind, higher up the slippery bank, trailing Willy and Daisy.
Without really needing Frank’s help, they dragged Lucky Boy into a level spot high above the river. Seeing the rowboat nestled in the soft loam under a stand of pines, Frank released his caught breath. He sure never wanted to lose Lucky Boy, the best gift he ever got. He still loved the jolt of his dad’s big fake-out on Christmas morning. When he got Willy’s used watch as his big present, Frank had tried to pretend he was excited. Frank’s big brother hinted that he’d been too bad, too sinful, for anything but a cheap old Timex. Willy told his brother to simmer down and asked Frank to go outside and bring in some firewood. At the woodpile, Frank spotted his real gift behind the steamy mist from his own breath. The brand-new, fresh-paint, square-stern rowboat rested beside the stacked cordwood. Giant red ribbons cinched each oarlock. Willy had kept it secret, enlisting the woodshop teacher’s students to build Lucky Boy at school without telling anyone else in the family, a feat that amazed Frank and his brother almost as much as the rowboat itself.
Standing over Lucky Boy now, Willy huffed while Daisy took a single deep breath.
“Why don’t you come into town with us, Daisy?” his father asked. “You’ll be safer there, and my wife’s going to fry up dinner soon as we get home.”
Daisy kissed Willy on the cheek. It was a day of impossible, sudden moves. A day of wonders. “I’ll be fine.” She pointed up to the bluff’s top. “You know very well my house is just as high up as yours, Willy Flanagan. Exactly eighty feet above sea level. Now, you better get home to Sophia, who’s probably worried sick. And I had better stick around the harbor. It wasn’t for nothing, all those years, that I was a nurse. I can help out if the big wave hits.”
A line of cars and pickups crawled the hill up Harbor Drive, everybody from the eateries, fisheries and docks trying to get to higher ground all at once. Willy swerved around the last car in line and headed toward the ocean, instead of away, though the heart of the harbor. “We’ll take that shortcut above the jetty. The last time there was a tidal wave warning,” he told Frank, “people went on to the jetty to watch it.” He shook his head in disgust. “They were damn lucky it was a false alarm.”
Frank braced himself against the glove box as the pickup rounded the sharp curve just before the jetty. A few other trunks and even passenger cars were trying for higher ground on the short cut, too. As Willy downshifted to make it up the two-track dirt road that hugged the bluff, Frankie hunched even more, readying himself for the rough squeal that always sounded between second gear and first. “Now, I’ll feel better when ol’ Bernice gets to us to the top of the bluffs.” Shifting the gear into first, but leaving in the clutch, Willy patted the dashboard. “Don’t let us down, girl.”
As he engaged the clutch, the gears screamed, stuck like circling gulls for long, gut fluttering seconds. Bernice even began to roll backward. Finally, first gear locked into place. Breathing again, Frank took one last glance toward the jetty, the cove, and the open Pacific. He wondered if he would be able to see the giant wave on the ocean’s horizon, but instead, he was rocked back on a big bump. He ended up staring through the back window’s dust. “Look, Dad, isn’t there some guy lying on the jetty?”
Willy stared ahead, crawling up the short cut. “He movin’?”
“Flat on his back,” Frank said, now hoisted on his knees. He leaned further toward the back window, his nose almost against the glass. “Kind of flailing around.”
The flailing man was smack in the middle of the jetty’s flat-topped concrete rise, where it jutted from the river’s mouth out to sea. “Some little kid’s holding a fishing pole, standing over the flailing man. Maybe the man’s sick.”
“Holy Mary.” Willy turned to catch the scene on the jetty, then slowed Bernice even more, until the pickup was shimmying up the bluff no faster than somebody’s grandma would have climbed it on foot. His father exhaled, with a long pffft that sunk his chin into his neck. “All right.” His fingers, which had gripped against the bumps, now tapped the top of the steering wheel. “Let’s go down there and see what’s the matter with that guy before the tidal wave comes.” He let the clutch fly open again, letting out more shrieks until he dropped the gear into reverse. “Help me out, now, Frankie. Keep looking backwards.”
“Dad! There’s a car coming up behind us.”
Sure enough, the car nudged behind them, honking, a shiny yellow Impala convertible you’d never expect, dirtying itself on the short cut.
Willy honked back, braking, scooping backwards with his hand. “Hey, buddy,” he yelled out his open window, “I need to get back down.”
The man slammed his brakes, then leaned over his windshield. “Get that piece of shit out of my way, you dumbass redneck!” He wore a clean pullover shirt and sunglasses, a party boat guy. “Now!”
“Or maybe, you can ease your car backwards a short way?” It was only about thirty yards back down. “Otherwise, I’ll have to do some damage to your bumper, because I’m rolling back, now.” Sure enough, Willy eased the clutch again and let it scream as Bernice slipped backward, rolling straight toward the Impala’s front grille.
“Jesus!” the Impala guy cried out, turning backwards just in time. He ended up at the bottom, turning wide to let Bernice go by.
Not bothering to try to shift Bernice back into first, Willy just kept going backwards across the whole jetty parking lot until his rear bumper smacked the log barrier. He left the engine running as he hopped out, crying, “Come on, Frankie.”
Frank scrambled behind, up and over the rip-rap wall that edged the concrete slab. He hurried on top, able to run a lot faster, but Willy was even quicker. He’d never seen his father move with so much speed, even hurtling over the metal barrier in front of the foghorn station. Ahead, where the whitecaps spewed the ocean side and green, glassy waves swept the river side, Willy crouched over the flailing man. He touched the little boy’s arm as the kid stood over both of them, gesturing as he said something to Willy. The kid clutched two fishing poles, which shook with each word.
When Frankie caught up, hands on his knees as caught his breath, he noticed the boy’s eye patch and realized it was no little kid. It was Lonnie, Lonnie Riley, his best friend in fifth grade, trying to revive his father.
Willy turned back to Frank with a grim smile. “Pete Riley, wouldn’t you guess? Lonnie says he passed out here. Been drinking all day.”
“He said this spot had the best fishing,” Lonnie said, still gesticulating with the fishing poles, “Then people told us about the all-clear order, Mr. Flanagan. But I can’t get him to listen.”
“Okay, Pete,” Willy said, “get up now or I’ll give you a taste of what happens during a tidal wave.” When Mr. Riley laughed, but didn’t move, just scuttling against his back like a flying crab that landed upside down, Willy grabbed two of the empty bottles scattered across the slab and between the rip-rap rocks. He hurried down to the river side of the jetty and scooped each one full of water. Then calm and steady, he carried the bottles over the rocks until he had them over Mr. Riley’s head. Willy dumped cold sea water right over his face, so that he sputtered, staring wide-eyed, beard soaked, and finally raised his head. Just as he did, Willy emptied the other bottle over his hair.
Mr. Riley yelled out now, a wordless roar, and shook his hair from side to side. “What the hell did you do that for, Willy? I’m probably gonna catch pneumonia now.”
“It’s better than drowning, Pete. That cold salt water fills up your lungs, you really will be good for nothing. Come on now,” he said, more quietly, and took Mr. Riley’s arm, helping him up. Lonnie set down the poles and stepped close to help Willy get his father to his feet.
Frank saw that Lonnie’s cheeks were tracked with tears, even seeping out from under his eye patch, falling in a steady trickle like he really was a little boy, not a pint-sized sixth-grader-to-be. He knew Lon would hate to see him cry, so he took up the fishing poles and followed behind as Willy and Lonnie helped Mr. Riley stagger back along the jetty slab. From this angle, the whole harbor spread, spot-lit by the very last rays of sunlight. He could see the line of cars and trucks heading up the bluff along Harbor Drive, the last stray ones, with nobody else behind them. The Impala was gone. Not a single boat rocked at its normal place at the river docks. No fishermen emptied their nets or fastened down equipment. Even the Coast Guard station looked abandoned, the cutter gone. No tourists sat on the upper deck at Pirate’s Cove, laughing and leaning over the rail to watch the sun set. The four of them on the jetty might be the last people left in the whole harbor.
As if to cry out their desertion, the harbor siren keened. Mr. Riley wanted to hoist himself into the truck bed, and tried to use the fender for a step up, but he slid back to the ground. He kicked Bernice’s rear tire. “Damn this old piece of crap, Willy!”
“Hear that siren, Dad?” Lonnie asked. “We gotta get out of here.”
Willy helped guide Mr. Riley up and over the fender this time, but released him so the drunk man landed hard on his butt. He settled against the cab, looking backwards, pulling his sweatshirt hood over his head to cover most of his face. “Can’t let anybody see me in your shit Dodge, Willy.” He crossed his arms like a sulking kid. “What about my pride?”
“I’ll make a nice, slow parade down Main Street, Pete, so everyone can get a good look at your pride. Now, settle down back there, and hold tight, because we’re getting the hell out of here.” After Frank set the poles in the truck bed, careful to keep them as far as possible from Mr. Riley’s boots, Willy gestured for the boys to climb in the cab.
They had the short cut all to themselves. Cars and trucks lined the bluff’s edges above, people sitting on hoods or standing on the very rim with binoculars. In Bernice, Lonnie had the middle seat, and as they rattled up the bluff, Willy kept his hand on the back of his head.
“Is the tidal wave going to mess up the river banks, Mr. Flanagan? I mean, for good?”
“Just a minute, Lonnie.” Willy tuned in the radio, which was so old it only pulled in one station and made cracking, high-pitched EEE-noises as he fiddled with the dial. That gave way to the Early Warning System noise, like sharp, metallic bleats, and then a short report, “unconfirmed,” that the tidal wave had already slammed into a harbor and seaside lumber mill on the central Oregon coast. “Fatalities and massive property damage expected. Stay tuned.”
Lonnie lowered himself firmly back in the seat. Frank studied Willy’s expression, which didn’t change. He just stared ahead, gripping the steering wheel as Bernice tottered left to right over every deep rut and fog-softened puddle. “That part of Oregon’s pret’ near three hundred miles north of here,” Willy said. “And that town’s right at sea level. We’ll be fine. Most of Iron Harbor’s homes are on the bluff.”
“Daisy told us the wave’s going to slam between the river cliffs.”
“She said it might,” Willy put in. “You know Daisy, Lonnie?” They were on top of the bluff now. A few smart alecks drinking beer on their hoods laughed, applauding Bernice’s progress. Frank turned to see Mr. Riley, still sprawled against the cab, trying to shrink further into his hood. Willy just waved at the smart alecks, and went on: “You and Frankie were some of the last babies she ever birthed. Before she retired.”
“Yeah,” Lonnie said. “My mom worked with her once. My mom said Daisy had to stay out in the desert during the War. In a prison.”
“Not a prison, just a kind of fenced-in camp,” Willy said, turning towards town where the short cut met the Shoreline Highway. “They came for Daisy even though her son was fighting with the 442nd in France.”
“Did you and mom try to stop them?” Frank asked, watching Main Street go by like it was any other day. Safeway, Western Auto, Penitenti Men’s and Boys’ Wear, Kovačević Specialty Boots. Did town look this way, all ordinary, when they came to put Daisy in the camp? “Did she put up a fight?”
Willy fought with the squealing clutch at the traffic light. “It wasn’t like that, Frankie.” It took Bernice almost a block to engage second gear, all the way past the company store and the county building. “It was wartime. People obeyed. But when Daisy got released, when the war was over, your mother was the first person she came to see.”
“Because Daisy and your grandmother were friends. Young immigrant women helping each other. Because Daisy helped birth you boys. Because your mother wrote to Daisy the whole time she was in the desert.”
Frank stared ahead as they crossed the Buttermilk Creek bridge, then glanced seaward to the logging road trestle. He wondered if the tidal wave would knock down the old pile of logs, then sweep it all to sea. Would it wash up, just more driftwood, in Japan or someplace? When they reached Lonnie’s lane and bounced on the gravelly ruts past the Italian cemetery, Willy asked if he’d like to take one of the salmon.
“Sure,” Lonnie said. “I can ask my dad to help me clean it. Then you just fry it, right? In a pan?”
“What about your mom?” Frank asked as they pulled in to a dirt lot and scrambled out of Bernice. Lonnie’s trailer backed up against Cue Ball’s tavern, which was on the highway. Through a thicket of scotch broom, the sun was going down between a telephone pole and Cue Ball’s outdoor toilet shed. A lady was coming out of it, checking her lips in a compact mirror. “Can’t your mom cook it?”
Mr. Riley was trying to climb out of the truck bed but slipped, sliding over the fender. Willy extended a hand, but Mr. Riley raised his, muttering, “I’m okay, now, I’m okay.” He straightened his sweatshirt hood and paced a few steps toward the trailer door. Before he went inside, he turned back. “But Marcie’s not going to be cooking any salmon for Shrimp and me.” He slammed the door. “No sir.”
“Why’d he say that, Lonnie?” Willy asked.
Frank reached for the cooler, ready to wrap the fish in newspaper and pass it to Lonnie. “Is your mom okay?”
“Yeah, I think.” Lonnie leaned against the passenger door, hesitating. “She went to that mission. Last week.”
“The one in Guatemala?” Frank asked. “When is she coming back?”
“Soon, we’re hoping.”
The Rileys’ phone got disconnected right after school let out, and it had hardly been two weeks since Lonnie started vacation Bible school at his mother’s church. Frank couldn’t believe Lonnie’s mother really took off for that mission. No wonder Mr. Riley was dragging him to jetty fishing on a Saturday. He was probably dragging Lonnie everywhere.
“Hey, Lonnie, we’ve got to get home now,” Willy said, “but I’m going to smoke fish tomorrow, after Mass. Why I don’t smoke this salmon for you, instead, and bring it out in the afternoon? Then you and Pete can just snack on it.” Willy moved toward the driver’s door. “You gonna be okay, kid?”
“Yeah.” Lonnie backed toward the trailer door, smiling, now, his eyepatch still all googly and wet. “Yeah, come out tomorrow!”
“Then we’ll pick you up for Scouts on Wednesday. Okay, Dad?”
Willy nodded, climbing into the cab, but Lonnie kept walking backwards. “Maybe.” He indicated the trailer with his thumb, and as he did, the lights inside flipped on. “I still got that eye operation next week. If Dad, you know. Gets better.”
When they swung back toward town, there was just enough twilight left for Willy to perch Bernice high above Buttermilk Beach, just for a minute. “See the crazy people down on the beach, Frankie? There, under the trestle, waiting to see the tidal wave. Don’t ever let me catch you being that stupid.”
Leaning out the passenger window, Frank strained to make out shadowy figures, maybe teenage girls, running back and forth at the water line. He could detect the white foam churning under the trestle logs, just like it did every high tide.
Did they really stash Lucky Boy high enough to escape the monster wave? Would it smash ashore in Japan, next to what was left of the old trestle? That would kill him.
One single day, and the whole floating world had slipped from its moorings. Change could surge faster than tides. It even came for Daisy after she’d already drifted all the way from Japan as a little girl, only to wash her into the desert behind barbed wire. And Lonnie’s mom, as a grown woman, untied herself from Iron Harbor only to sweep to shore down in Guatemala. Was coming loose the main law, not staying attached?
Willy reached across the seat, grasping in the darkened cab for Frank’s arm. “Look down there, son, can you see?”
Frank couldn’t see the girls now, but caught the boom that pounded over their birdlike shrieks, the echoes of their screams.
Lee Patton was a finalist in the 2001 Lambda Awards for his first novel, Nothing Gold Can Stay (Alyson Books); his second novel is another literary mystery, Love and Genetic Weaponry: The Beginner’s Guide (Alyson Books 2009). Interconnected short fiction appeared in Au Bon Pain: Six Stories, One Life (JMS Books 2012). His story “The Last Imperial” appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review in 1998. More at leepatton.net.