Coeur d’Alene — Chapter 2

Chapter 2

 

Disappearances, apparitions… a thing will happen that remains so unresolved, so strange, that someone will think of it years later… in the dusk and silence, staring out the window at another world.
– John Haines, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire

On the west side of the Bitterroot Range, there was no sudden sinking of evening into mountain and valley. Across the mountains, the twilight faded slowly into the great waters of the lake, the sun settling softly across a hundred thousand flat and fertile acres of wheat.

Although he did not know it, Kev Macht was driving his stolen car across the land where the French and English first settled. They came to the great lake, to fish the depths, harvest the fields, cut down the trees, trade liquor for land, and pillage the natives. But the natives drove hard bargains, and the traders said that they were sharper than most. Indeed, their hearts were thought to be as hard as an awl: the French called them Coeur d’Alene. The white men had thrown away everything they’d had before in order to make a new place for their faith, they were frustrated to find that they were unable to take the land away from the natives.

White men still came to this part of the country, thinking they could achieve something they’d never known before. Kev Macht had done the same. He had disavowed his family and changed his name when he came to the Aryan Nations Compound in Hayden Lake. Macht meant power: that’s what he wanted. He’d shaved his head, cut his skin with a sign, thrown away everything he ever cared about.

Yet after he left the Aryan Nations, it seemed he wasn’t sure who he was anymore. Kev had stolen a Walkman, snuck out at night, got on a Greyhound bus to Coeur d’Alene, and then everything had changed. Something had gone wrong after the bus station.

Now had the old green car – he’d kicked some guy’s ass in the station, and the keys had somehow just ended up in his hand. But for some reason the fight that hadn’t been satisfying. Afterwards, everyone else had gone away, even the priest.

Kev could still hear the little man’s voice in his head, the memory was like a vapor trail drifting with him over the Fourth of July Pass, seeping out of the Silver Valley.

Somehow, even after all these hours alone, Kev couldn’t escape the sound of that voice, each of those words echoing still inside, like floating leaves on the long current of dark highway draining out endlessly behind him.

 


The little man on the bus had worn a disheveled suit. He was thin and bookish, over-dressed and out of place on the late night express from Missoula to Spokane. His tie was askew and the wrinkles in his suit looked permanent. He slept with his mouth open, the breath flickering against the window like a dusty flame. Each exhalation steamed and faded away as the bus moved through the valley. A crooked ornament on a chain bounced on his slight chest, swinging back and forth with each salivating snore.

As the bus accelerated out of Wallace, the inside aisle lights flickered out. The bodies within nodded into the darkness before twitching unevenly awake. The intermittent glare of headlights slanted over the gray faces within, faces that winked in and out of life.

When the snoring stopped, Kev slit his eyes open. There wasn’t any fear in the little man’s eyes at the sight of Kev, which was a surprise. The little man smiled and wiped the spittle off his mouth off with the back of his hand.

Kev remembered smelling her too, a dark elderly woman in the aisle of the bus, someone shuffling towards the rear.

“Stinks,” he muttered. “Damn john stinks enough without a mongrel in there.” He moved one boot towards the aisle, to block her passage. The bus bounced unevenly across a pothole. The old woman in the aisle hesitated.

Out of nowhere, the man next to him slid against his shoulder. Kev flinched as if at a spark. The little man nodded, as if he agreed with everything Kev had been thinking. Day old grey whiskers littered his jaw. Veins filled his eyes with red. Kev decided there was nothing to him.

But when he spoke, it was something different again.

“So?” he said. “We might all stink some on the bus like this, huh?”

“Wha – ?” Kev turned to the right and pulled the dead headphones off his head. The man’s eyes were a striking blue, sharp as stones. Close at hand, the dark woman slid past in the aisle, hugging the other side.

“What’re you saying? You saying I stink?” Kev clenched his fist so that the muscles and the scratches on in his arm bulged out. Two weeks ago, he had taken a needle and a broken fountain pen and marked a swastika into his arm. It had hurt like hell, and the sign was still swollen, angry and red. He looked from under his brow at the little man. “You saying I stink?!” Kev repeated.

The little man glanced at his arm and grinned. “Hey,” he said. “Sure, I stink, you stink, we all stink. I’m just saying we all stink a little.” The man’s eyes flickered around, as if to take him in and everyone in the bus. As if they were the same. It was unsettling.

“– Stink different too,” he continued. “I’d agree with you there. Seems to me that we gotta put up with each other’s stinks. After all, we all got our own, don’t we? Because we’re each one of us God’s children. That’s all I’m saying. We’re all God’s children.”

Then he turned and looked directly at Kev. The little man didn’t seem to care about his rage, how important it was. And because of that, it was as if the engine turning over inside Kev had gone into vapor lock. Something was gone from him.

Kev rubbed a hand over his face and looked away from the aisle. “Huh,” he said. “Whatever floats your fuckin’ boat.”

But the man just grinned again, as if he were pleased Kev had spoken at all. He held out a hand. “I’m Arlen,” he said. “Father Arlen Bowman.”

“Who the fuck you the father of?”

Arlen stopped talking. “I have a little girl. She’s not here,” he said. Then he grasped reflexively at the thing on his chest, holding it up for a moment. “But I’m also a father in a different way. I’m an Episcopalian priest. Some people like to call me Father.”

Kev leaned closer, looked at the thing on the chain – it was a cross, a wooden cross. “Father?” he said. It made him see the little man differently: a priest, a father.

The priest let the cross fall to his chest and shook his head. “Just call me Arlen. And you are… ?”

Kev looked down the aisle and ran a hand over the bristles on his head. “Fuck who I am,” he muttered.

Now he looked out the window of the green car, remembering that moment, staring again at his own face, reflected as a vacant blot.

 


Kev downshifted as he came out of Idaho into Washington State, where construction barriers and flashing signals marked the transition between the new highway and the old route of Interstate 90. Near the turn-off for Rathdrum, the words glimmered on a green highway sign with a broken light: “SPOKANE 26 MILES.”

If he let his eyes close for a moment, he could see the little man’s blue eyes staring at him, unwavering and clear. His voice was strong, he held out his hand again.

“So,” said the little priest. “What’s your handle?”

Father Arlen was like no one Kev had ever met.

“Kevin Macht,” he said, and then he took the Father’s hand into his. “It means ‘power’ in German. I go by Kev.” But he still gripped the little man’s hand hard, cracking his knuckles and bringing tears to his eyes.

Arlen grinned, and rubbed his knuckles. It was unsettling to Kev. In school, they only wanted to keep you quiet and brainwashed. In Juvie, all anyone cared about was how fucked up you could get, and out at the shelters they only cared about how strong you were, if they could fuck with you or not. And in Hayden Lake, at the Compound, it was how angry you could get, and who did you hate worse: the Jews or the mongrels? But the little preacher didn’t seem to care about any of that. What did he care about?

As the night drained on, his voice never faded. Even as the grinding monotony of the highway reverberated up through the axles and the shocks into the undercarriage, rocking the people around them into uneasy slumber, Arlen stayed awake. He asked questions about Kev, more and more of them. And before he knew it, Kev was talking too, telling the little man things he hadn’t told anyone in a long time.

“ – See, some kids got their folks coming to see them in the joint all the time. But not me – no one ever visited me except for my friend Doug Worthson. He’s the only guy stood by me – and so Doug’s the guy coming to pick me up at the bus station tonight…”

Kev’s voice trailed off. Someone was moving forward in the aisle, swaying from side to side. Her hand glanced across his shoulder on its way to the next seat.

“I understand,” Arlen was saying. “It’s not fair. Every one of us needs – ”

And then Kev realized that he hadn’t even reacted when the mongrel bitch touched him. All the shit he’d been saying had made him weak. His reaction was delayed, like voltage that sings across the circuit, bouncing you off the wire. The burn comes after.

“– You think you know it all, dontcha?” Kev blurted. “You think you know every fuckin’ thing I’m going through! You don’t know anything!”

Father Arlen stopped talking. He turned towards him again, his eyes empty of feeling. “No,” he said calmly. “You’re right. I don’t know anything.”

Kev knew right then that they were in a different place. But he couldn’t stop talking. And Arlen stayed there, looking at him. It was as good a reason as any to tell him to go to hell. “ – Fuck you, Mister Know-It-All, if you got all the fuckin’ answers to life – ”

Arlen shook his head wordlessly, as if to emphasize that he did not have answers. Suddenly, Kev felt as if he were trying to talk himself into something. And he didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.

Kev raised his voice in frustration. “– tell me this then, why the fuck you here, huh, if you know it all? You’re just a loser on some godforsaken bus-to-nowhere, with all the shitty bums and the whores – why the hell’r you here?”

Arlen sighed. “You want to know why I’m here.” It was a flat statement, but it seemed to provoke something in the little man. He turned his face towards the window, his eyes blinked rapidly. Kev wondered if the little priest had finally flipped his lid.

Then Arlen spoke out loud. His voice hadn’t changed. “I guess it’s only fair. You’re here because you’re running away from something, and I – ”

“See, you got it wrong already,” interrupted Kev. “It was those fuckers that – ”

Arlen held up a hand. “As far as I can make out, you’re leaving Hayden Lake on your own, am I right? You wanted to hear my story, so let me tell you. I’m here because I guess I’m not running away. I guess I’m running to someone, to something. I’m not sure what yet. I was helping someone. And it kind of turned sour.” Arlen sighed. “He, uh… ”

“What did he do? Who was this?”

“I told you,” Arlen turned to face him. “It went sour – he started calling me. Called me all the time. I think he was asked to do it. Wanted some information. It was in a notebook I had. He did some juvenile things at first. Broke windows in my church.”

“I woulda fucked him up,” muttered Kev.

Arlen nodded, as if the thought had crossed his mind. “But things changed then. I got him talking about his situation. He talked some, I listened some, and he seemed to hear me when I talked. I think I was kind of helping him for awhile. Maybe if I can listen to him more, we can get him to a place where he’s willing to bring in the police. See, he’s not the guilty party at all, instead it’s – ”

“Dude.” Kev leaned forward, glowering in the priest’s face. “You haven’t answered the question. Why the hell are you on this bus?”

“Well, I got him to agree to meet me. In person.”

“How’d you do that? You gonna pay him off or something? You got money?”

Arlen blinked in surprise. “Yes, I suppose I do,” he said slowly. “I have money – I hadn’t thought of paying him something.” He touched his front pocket, where the bulge of a wallet rested. “But no, he’s meeting me because he’s going to get something else.”

“What’s that?”

Arlen gave a slight grin. “I told him I have the notebook with the information he’s been looking for.”

“So, you got the notebook with you?”

Arlen shook his head. “No, actually, I’ll explain the situation to him when we meet – I’m sure he’ll understand. We can go get it. For safe-keeping, I gave it to a friend.”

Arlen sighed again, as if ashamed of what he was about to admit. “See, he anted it up a notch earlier today. I was over here in the Silver Valley, with my friend, and with my daughter. But then he took her. He stole my car and my little girl …”

 


Kev remembered Father Arlen’s face changing after that part of the story. The terror welled up in him, his voice grew shrill and fearful when he talked about his girl. Up close, his face was pressed with reddened wrinkles. Even at the memory of the hitch in Arlen’s voice, Kev could feel his nerves going jittery, he needed another pill.

“I can’t let anything happen to her,” said Arlen suddenly. “God, he can’t hurt –”

“So this guy who took your car, he’s like someone you know?” said Kev. “A bud?”

“No, not really…” said Arlen hesitantly. “The only way I can get through this is to think of him as…. my neighbor. God will help me, God will – ”

“Well, if this guy is your ‘neighbor,’ he’s a shitty one, that’s for sure. He’s torturing you, man. Messing with you. Calling you all the time, he broke the windows in your church, now he took your car, with your little girl. He’s fucked up. He’s fuckin’ you up.”

Arlen drummed his fingers on the seat, looked out the window. Suddenly, he looked haggard, any belief in his future stripped from his bones.

“Yes, you might be right,” he said. “But he’s not going to hurt her – he’s just a little anxious right now, and I have to stay calm, I can’t get too – ”

“Dude. This guy is fuckin’ with you. And now he has your kid, and – ”

Then Arlen looked at him, his sharp blue eyes filled with an impenetrable answer. Despite the residue of speed in him, Kev suddenly felt a shiver, something that got through his skin and deep inside. Somehow, Arlen knew more about the insides of people than any of the blustering Aryan kids at Hayden Lake.

Kev looked down at his own chest and tensed the muscles in his arms. The shirt he wore showed a death’s head with horns, eating a bleeding woman tied up with chains made of snakes. The snakes bled too. Somehow, it hadn’t made the impression he’d hoped for.

Arlen looked back out the window. After a moment, he spoke again, if he were continuing an interrupted thought. “… So I’m going to get my child back, yes, but also I need to talk to him. He needs something no one seems to have given him yet. Redemption.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?”

“A way to move on.” Arlen looked at him, blinking his blue eyes. “Hope.”

“A way to move on,” muttered Kev, remembering what Arlen had said in the bus. “Yeah, wouldn’t I like some of that now too.”

 


The light poles outside the windows of the car floated past, disappearing as they reached his reflected face, flickering on the windowpane. They sank out of the wake of the car, as if they were satellites, revolving ceaselessly.

Kev pulled a hand over the sharp bristles on his skull. He remembered wondering if the little priest had just made it all up. Maybe the little girl was just the last rotten residue of some bad meth leaching out of the little man’s brain. He remembering thinking that maybe the priest would even leave his thick wallet unguarded.

Kev looked down at his bloody knuckles gripping the wheel. Damn, it hurt to punch someone that hard. He’d been willing to fight. He’d proved that, in spades.

He’d told the priest, straight out, after he swallowed the reddy. “You meet up with this fucker at the bus station, I’ll take him out for you.”

The priest didn’t want him to make trouble. “I don’t need you to fight for me,” he said. “You’re a son of God, I wouldn’t want you to do that to another.”

Kev rubbed his palm across his aching bloody knuckles. “Ain’t nobody called me no son of God,” he said. “I been called a son-of-a-bitch plenty, but never no son of God.”

But after the priest said that, it had all gone sideways.

When Kev took the reddy, he’d decided it was time to fuck someone up, even as Father Arlen held onto that little wooden cross, and kept talking. “Once she’s safe, I’ll be able to tell everyone… I’ll tell you now, this is the true story…”

The only minister Kev had ever met before was Reverend Butler at Hayden Lake. This one had been different though. He was a fuckin’ righteous piece of work.

 


Kev recalled opening his eyes when the shriek of the air brakes woke him. Then he stared through the glass of the bus window, seeing if there was someone he could scam a ride off.

While the people picked up their coats and shuffled past, Kev heard Arlen’s breath come in hurried uneven gulps. The little man moved as he slept, turning his head nervously as if to see through closed eyelids, twitching his hands, holding someone off. When Kev moved his arm, the body of the little man jumped, as if from an electric shock.

In that moment, Kev glimpsed a face on the other side of the bus window. Down in the station. A little girl. The expression in her eyes burned into him, fear grown into a vast exhaustion. Kev’s hair prickled on his scalp. The girl was real after all.

She came towards the bus, dragged close beside a man with dragons tattooed on his arms. Under the fluorescent lights of the station, her face gleamed a stark white.

As Father Arlen twitched and shivered next to him, the thought came to Kev that she was in the wrong man’s nightmare.

She swayed back and forth, stepping to a dance only she could hear. The dress was close to her skin, it moved when she did, shimmer in a dark dream.

Kev stroked a hand across the swollen swastika on his arm. Then he took hold of the little man’s shoulder, shaking him until there was a sound, a choking rattle in his throat.

“Good God, what is it?”

“Hey, Arlen,” Kev said. “Is that her? That your little girl?”

What happened after he saw the girl was something Kev tried to forget. The memory had stayed with him in the car. Part of him remained there forever, watching her dance in the thin and wavering light, as if the rest of his life never happened at all.

 

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