Jim Dodge


For my Father

in Memoriam

The temple bell stops.

But the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.


Copyright © 1983 by Jim Dodge

1 Some Family History

Gabriel Santee was seventeen years old and three months pregnant when she married 'Sonic Johnny' Makhurst, a Boeing test pilot and recent heir to a modest Ohio hardware fortune. The ceremony was performed in a crepefestooned hangar at Moffit Field, witnessed by a score of Sonic Johnny's drunken buddies. The bride and groom exchanged vows while standing on the wing of an X-77 jet fighter. Two months before Gabriel came to term, the same wing tore off the plane at 800 miles an hour over the Mojave Desert with Johnny at the controls. After a bitter court battle with one of her late husband's previous wives, Gabriel inherited his estate.

* * *

On March 7, 1958, nine days before Johnathan Adler Makhurst II's third birthday, Gabriel took him to Plomona Reservoir to fish for bluegill and have a picnic. A sudden rain shower swept the lake just before noon, sending them scurrying back to the car. Together in the front seat they shared his favorite lunch of hotdog sandwiches, pickles, potato chips, and Nehi orange drink. When they'd finished eating, they snuggled together on the front seat and watched the rain falling steadily on the lake. 'Do you think it's going to stop, Johnny, or should we give it up?' Gabriel asked, but Johnny had fallen asleep.

When Gabriel looked back out at the lake, a duck was circling in through the rain. It landed twenty yards from the end of the rickety northside pier. When the rain stopped a few minutes later, Gabriel settled Johnny, still asleep, across the front seat, gathered some sandwich scraps, and went down to see if she could coax the duck in close enough to feed. At the end of the pier she slipped on the rain-slick wood, cracked her head sharply, rolled into the water, and drowned.

* * *

Tiny-as Johnathan Adler Makhurst II came to be known-remembered little about his mother's death, but what remained was vivid. Waking alone on the front seat of the car. Beads of rain on the windshield. Calling for her. How hard it was to open the door. Calling for her as he walked out on the pier. Crying for her. The soggy sandwich scraps, the rotten gaps in the railing. His mother floating face down as if she were looking for something she'd dropped on the bottom of the lake. A large bird swimming around her body. The explosion of water and wings when he screamed.

In Tiny's wrenched memory, grief-shocked and baffled by time, the bird he came to remember was a swan, immense, stately, white as marshmallow cream, neck elegantly curved, eyes of bottomless grenadine. If he'd known it was a duck, he might have been more careful when he found Fup.

* * *

Early April, 1878, in the middle of the worst drought ever recorded in the Kentucky hill country, Jackson Santee was delivered to life. Sixteen hard years later, ignoring his kinfolk's warnings of disastrous folly, he set out forty years behind everybody else for the gold rush in California. While the last luckless diehards scoured the deep Sierra, Jake Santee staked his claim on a little feeder creek within a few hours easy walk of the best whorehouse in Angel's Camp. He didn't hit a lode, but there was enough, if judicious, to comfortably last the rest of his life.

For the next two years he traveled California on horseback. He was not judicious. Three marriages-the longest lasting seven weeks- seriously dented his bankroll. Gambling covered his drinking, but the drinking gave him crazy visions. Always one to follow the inner light, Jake invested lavish amounts in highly speculative ventures, learning the hard way that sometimes when you put your money where your mouth is, it's only to kiss it goodbye.

His fourth marriage lasted one day. Polly was a San Francisco librarian. The practicality he admired in her, and which he thought might temper his recklessness, unfortunately carried into the bridal chamber. When she opened a book and began to read, Jake settled with her in cash on the spot. He won some of it back playing poker in the waterfront saloons, but then his luck turned cold. He skidded for weeks. Then, with less than $1000 left in his poke, his luck returned in a highrolling game at the Barbary Hotel. He won $17,000 and the deed to 940 acres north of the Russian River along the coast. He rode out the next day to look it over.

* * *

He was taken by the color of the river. It had the same dense clarity as the emerald Crazy Joe Kelso wore. It was late September, and where shafts of sunlight penetrated the redwood canopy and touched the water, he caught the gleaming flash of salmon moving upriver to their spawning grounds. His horse belly-deep in goldenback ferns, he rode by the river as far as he could then headed up toward the Gualala. His property was at the end of a long ridge, both slopes thick with redwood and Douglas-fir. There was a large two-bedroom cabin in the sturdy shade of a huge walnut tree. In the quiet evening, he could hear the ocean eight miles away. He made himself at home.

He invested in sheep and for three years made a decent profit until an epidemic of pulpy kidney wiped out the flock. He considered the loss an Act of God that just happened to coincide with his growing boredom. He sold 120 acres for bankroll and spent the best part of the next three decades traveling the western states playing cards. He didn't get rich, but he got by.

When he was 61, he married for the last time. She was the wholesome daughter of a Sacramento grain broker, and it was as close to love as he'd been. They returned to his ranch on the coast and raised horses. The marriage lasted 15 months and produced the only child he would sire. Three months after Gabriel's birth, his wife, babe in arms, ran off with a shoe clerk from Fort Bragg.

Jake sold the stock and drifted again, discouraged but not deeply disheartened. One night playing cards in Nevada City he stepped out in the alley to piss and saw an old Indian man lying crumpled against the wall. When Jake went over and stopped to help him up, he saw the man had been stabbed several times and was near death. Jake turned to go for help, but an iron hand seized him by the ankle. 'Whoa, pardner,' Jake said, 'it wasn't me that done it. I'm on my way to fetch a doc.'

The Indian shook his head, but let go his grip on Jake's ankle, motioning him to bend down. When Jake knelt by his side, the Indian thrust a piece of paper into his hand and said in a wheezing, gurgling whisper as he died, 'Drink this. Be still. You'll live forever.'

Jake opened the folded paper. It was a recipe for whiskey. 'Don't look like it did you a whole hell of a lot of good,' he said to the Indian's corpse. But something in the Indian's glazing eyes held him, and without looking at another card that night, Jake returned to his hotel room, packed, and headed home to the ranch.

The whiskey helped him keep still. One hit of Ol' Death Whisper would drive most humans to their knees; two produced a mildly hallucinatory catatonia. The recipe produced a distillate that Jake figured was close to 97

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