Homesick Creek

Chapter One

Mornings come hard and mean on the Oregon coast in winter. Trees on Cape Mano between Hubbard and Sawyer have only lee-side branches, twisted old men with their backs to the sea. More than a few casually built bungalows and cabins are chained to the rocks so gale-force winds won't take them.

Highway 101, Hubbard's only through street, runs north to Canada and south to Mexico, edging along the black basalt shore and over a bridge that spans Hubbard's small harbor. Moored there are both sport and commercial fishing vessels, piloted by the handful of skippers capable of navigating the boiling deep-water channel at the mouth of the harbor. Everyone has a story to tell about a boat that's broken up on the rocks within hailing distance of home. In 1983 eight realtors on a sport-fishing jaunt drowned in plain sight when their charter boat turned broadside and sank.

For all its tiny size and appearance of sleepiness, Hubbard in 1989 lit its fires early, and nowhere earlier than at the Anchor Grill, which opened every morning at four o'clock sharp. The restaurant was located at the exact center of town, across the street from Devil's Horn, a rocky blowhole through which seawater shot thirty feet in the air when storm seas were running. The Anchor was that rare hybrid, beloved by tourists and residents alike, an easy place with vinyl tuck-and-roll booths, stained carpet and paneled walls, stuffed trophy fish, and the everlasting aroma of chowder, fried food, and beer.

First light belonged to Hubbard's fishermen and pulp mill workers putting in day shifts fifteen miles away over in Sawyer. From seven o'clock in the morning until the reek of fish guts signaled the return ofthe boats in midafternoon, the place was nothing but tourists with their hair, shoes, and umbrellas in various stages of ruination. By evening a good-natured polyglot crowd filled the lounge to the accompaniment of Pinky Leonard on the keyboard and owner Nina Doyle playing the bottles.

Bunny Neary had waitressed at the Anchor for twenty-one years, ever since she was nineteen. A couple of months ago old Dr. Bryant had measured a two-and-a-half-inch difference in the height of her shoulders from lifting and carrying trays, but mostly she liked the work well enough. On a good day she could pick up a hundred, hundred and fifty bucks in tips. And from being there so long, she usually got her pick of shifts.

Not today, though. Beth Ann, who normally worked mornings, had called in with strep throat again. This was Bunny's fourth day in a row covering for her, and she was beat. Being on the opening shift meant getting to the Anchor at three-thirty--three, if she did the whole list of things she was supposed to do before she opened up at four. She hardly ever did, seeing as how no one came into the place at that hour of the morning but the boys, and the boys didn't give a crap whether the salt and pepper shakers were topped off or the half-and-halfs were iced down or the sugars were filled, just as long as the coffee was fresh and hot. At four o'clock sharp they'd be out there in the back parking lot waiting for her, smelling like Dial soap and cigarettes and yesterday's jeans. They'd slouch in and heave themselves into their booths, slap down the newspaper, and call, Hey, Bunny, where's that coffee?
The fact was, though, Bunny would have been beat even if she hadn't pulled the morning shift. She hadn't slept worth a damn all night, not after she'd overheard some woman whisper to her husband over the phone, Just pretend this is about work. Oh, Lord, Hack, do I feel stupid; I didn't think she'd be home.

She let an extra half pull of coffee grounds fall into a fresh filter--the boys liked their coffee strong this time of day, weak as tea when they started coming in off the boats around two--and punched the brew button on the coffeemaker, touching the waiting pot first. Once, another time when she and Hack were on the outs, she'd made a whole pot of decaf without remembering to put a pot underneath, and there'd been fresh-brewed coffee everywhere. The boys had razzed her about it for weeks. Hey, Bunny, did you put a pot under it this time? Ha, ha, ha. Shit.

Oh, Lord, Hack, do I feel stupid; I didn't think she'd be home. You can't talk with her there, can you? So I'll hang up now. I guess I'll just hang up. Here I go. And she'd hung up. Then Hack had hung up. Then Bunny.

"Hey, Bunny, bring me that maple syrup there, would you?" Dooley Burden called from two tables down. Bunny had known Dooley all her life. He was maybe sixty-four now, and the stringiest thing Bunny had ever seen; he looked like if you were to bite into him, he'd be nothing but tendons and gristle and a little tough meat, like an old dry rooster. When Bunny was little, Dooley had worked a couple of seasons as deck crew for her father, but then it turned out he was epileptic. He managed to keep it a secret until he had a seizure forty miles out, fishing for black cod. He'd worked down at his brother's fuel dock after that, until he fell a couple of winters ago and pretended he'd been going to retire anyway. Now he just hung around town razzing all the young fishermen about their joint-venture seasons and their on-board microwaves. The boys let him talk. They'd heard about how he'd flopped around on the deck with the cod and the trash fish so bad they'd finally had to lash him to a hatch cover to keep him from twitching himself clean over the rail with his eyes rolled back in his head. And they knew about how his turd of a brother, Carlin, never once paid him more than fifty cents above minimum wage in all those thirty-eight years of pumping diesel at three in the morning, while Carlin was busy taking vacations in Hawaii and sailing around the San Juans in his forty-five-foot sailboat like some kind of goddamn son-of-a-bitch big shot.

Bunny set down a sticky little pitcher of maple syrup on Dooley's paper place mat. The place mat came right back up and stuck when he went to pour syrup on his sausage links, next to his eggs, over his short stack. He'd ordered the exact same breakfast every day for the last twenty-one years.

"What's the deal with Beth Ann?" he asked Bunny, who was so tired she was just standing there watching him. Beth Ann was one of the younger waitresses, twenty-three. The boys liked to send her for more coffee just to watch her walk away. "She got a new boyfriend? She's sure looking nice these days."

"New perm," Bunny said. "Plus she's on that liquid protein diet."

"Aw, I like my women with some meat on them," Dooley said, like he'd even had a date in the last fifteen years. He took a big bite of egg and slid his coffee cup toward Bunny so she'd top it off.

"Well, if you'd just told her that to start with, I'm sure she would have called the whole thing off. You've got a little piece of egg there on your chin," Bunny said, pointing.

Dooley shrugged, flicked the egg off with his finger, drank some coffee. "Hack going to buy that dirt bike he was looking at?" he asked Bunny. "That two-fifty? It's got beans, that bike. It's a good piece of machinery, and the boy was asking a good price. You tell Hack I said so."

"What dirt bike?" Bunny said. "He hasn't said anything about another dirt bike."

"Aw, hell," said Dooley. "Guess I've stepped in it now, huh? You think he's coming by this morning?"

"Doesn't he always come by?"

"He's late, though."

"Yeah," Bunny said. She had tried the house a couple of minutes ago. The line had been busy. Busy, at five-fifteen in the morning.

You can't talk with her there, can you? And now there was some dirt bike deal he'd never told her about. She set her coffeepot on the table, slid into the booth across from Dooley, and poured herself a cup of coffee.

"You been keeping him up too late?" Dooley said, and winked.

"Don't he wish." Bunny drank half the cup down, picked up a fork, and cut a bite out of Dooley's soggy short stack.

"What's the matter, honey?" he said, sucking a tooth.

But Bunny just finished her bite of pancake, sighed, and hoisted herself up from the table. "Nothing. Just tired of getting up at three in the morning to take care of you boys."

Back at the waitress station Bunny threaded her name tag through the little round name-tag eyelets stitched into the blouse of her uniform. Bunny. Her real name was Bernadette. Bunny was something Hack had started and gotten almost the whole town to go along with. He used to say he called her Bunny because she had such a nice tail. That was Hack. He'd been a wild one when they first started going together fifteen years ago. She'd met him his second day in Hubbard. It had been a sunny June morning, and she and her girlfriend Anita had been sitting on a blanket above the bay gossiping and keeping an eye on their kids, Anita's Doreen and Bunny's Vanilla--Vinny--both of them almost four years old. Of course she hadn't been called Vinny then.

Hack had stumbled up, scaring them half to death before he got close enough to show them that easy smile of his. He'd spent the night under the bridge, and he was shivering, still part drunk, his fatigue jacket soaked with old fog. He came right up to them and asked Bunny if he could borrow her blanket for a minute; he was about to die of cold, he said, and if there was one thing he hadn't been able to stand, ever since he could remember, it was being cold. That was one of the things he'd liked best about Vietnam, the heat.

He squatted down next to Bunny, and there was something hopeful about him that Bunny liked, as if he was expecting good things to happen any minute; he had the scrappy, take-me-home look of kids who get away from their parents too young. So she gave him the blanket. He'd meant to find a better place to stay than under that bridge, he said while he wrapped up, but he'd closed the last tavern--did she know that one, the Wayside?--and by then it was too late to find anything, plus he hadn't seen the town in daylight to know where to find a room. Wrapped up in her blanket, he talked for an hour straight, until the kids started getting hungry and they had to go. Bunny was going to let him keep the blanket, which was just an old flannel one with a hole in the middle, but he gave it back with that slow smile of his and said, Maybe sometime you could show me some other ways people keep warm around here. If I stick around.

Oh, Bunny had said over her shoulder. I bet you'll stick around.

Hack. He'd been something special to look at with his big, rangy body, pretty green eyes, neat brown beard, and a tongue that showed pink as a cat's when he yawned; in fact there'd been something catlike and clean about him all over, even that first time. He'd only been back from Vietnam maybe three months by then, so mixed in with the other things was that half-crazy, what-the-fuck gleam in his eyes you saw in vets a lot in those days. But Bunny had seen that same look all her life in fishermen who'd seen a boat or two go down. Her father had had that look as long as Bunny could remember. In a fishing town everyone knows men who've walked right up and hung their toes over the edge.

Meantime, Bunny's boyfriend, JoJo, had already been gone a couple of months, and it looked like he wasn't coming back this time. He hadn't left her any money either, so she and Vinny had to move in with Bunny's folks, and that wasn't working out. Her father was always ragging on her that she should have made JoJo marry her after she'd had Vinny. Plus, no Hubbard man would date her because they knew how crazy mean JoJo would be if he ever came back and found out. And it was true that he'd beat the holy crap out of you if he was in the mood. Bandy little guys like JoJo took up the slack by being twitchy.

Not Hack. Hack was big and slow and agreeable, and Bunny decided right then, on that first day, that he'd be good to have. She knew she had the kind of looks Hack could live with: okay face, better-than-okay figure, and a walk that said uh-huh. She also knew that even though he still hadn't found the back-home good time he'd promised himself while he was over there in Vietnam, he was ready to rest awhile. And a man like Hack didn't rest alone. So when he started showing up every afternoon at the Wayside with that mouth of his going steady and smooth and her brand of cigarettes stuck in his pocket, she was ready. She let him buy her a beer sometimes but not always, showed up some days but not others, and never explained one way or another. And she ignored him. Nothing drove Hack crazier than being ignored. He'd come sit down next to her, and she'd pretend she was busy reading in the newspaper about something going on over there in Poland or Africa or someplace. Pretty soon Hack would start talking, some little pay-attention-to-me foolishness, and when that didn't work, he'd bump her barstool or throw little balled-up napkin bits at her, and she'd ignore that too, until he'd finally grab the paper completely out of her hands and lay half his body across the bar in front of her. He moved her and Vinny into a nice rental with him before the end of the first month.

For a couple of years after that he'd done odd jobs around town, and on weekends he raced stock cars over in the Willamette Valley with some buddies he'd met. He liked to race, but it was mostly so he could be around the cars. He talked to Bunny about them all the time, even though she didn't understand one thing he was saying. He referred to the cars as "she," and if he was anywhere near one, he'd stroke and pet its sides and hood and inspect it all over for little hurt places. Bunny had seen him stare at some piece of junk in his hand for an hour trying to figure out a new thing to try, and there would be love in his eyes. She went with him when she could get Anita or someone to watch Vinny, and on the way home they'd usually pull into the Patio Courts or the Hi-Time Motel and screw on the thin, scratchy sheets for hours. More than anything, more even than cars, Hack loved to screw. His touch was so good Bunny sometimes thought that if God Himself did it, He would do it like Hack. Oh, pretty lady, he used to say to her. The way you make me feel.

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