This story was originally published in Lookout #38, in early 1993. It’s about living in a mill town, namely Eureka, California, on the North Coast of California. It also has a sound track of sorts, in the form of “Sam’s Song,” which you might enjoy listening to as you read. It’s important to note that while both the story and the song are about a guy named Sam, it’s not the same Sam that some of you from Eureka might know. The story and song are pure fiction, while Sam is very real. He did draw the picture at the top, though, which is a fragment from the cover of the issue of Lookout in which this story appeared.
This is the song:
And the story starts here:
I live on Hawthorn Street, which is on what I guess most people would call the wrong side of Eureka. It’s not like it’s such a bad neighborhood. In fact, sometimes I think that the only thing missing is the white picket fences and it would be the total all-American fantasyland. Like you see in those movies from the 1930s, where all the kids have freckles and cowlicks and say things like “Golly!”
There’s no kids like that around here, though. I hardly ever see any kids at all, except when they’re coming home from school. They don’t play outside that much. Nobody spends much time outside, except when they’re loading up their cars to go someplace.
Which is strange, because this part of town is pretty interesting. I spend a lot of time just walking around looking at the houses. Some of them must be over a hundred years old. Maybe after a while you get used to it, but to me it’s like living in a giant outdoor museum. So far I’ve never walked home from downtown without seeing at least one or two things I never noticed before.
I make that walk almost every day. It’s about a mile, I guess. I could get off the bus a lot closer, but for some reason I like to walk around downtown. Especially Old Town, which is probably the weirdest place I’ve ever seen in my life.
If you’ve ever been to Disneyland, you know how they have this fake Main Street that’s supposed to represent a typical American small town from the last century or something. That’s what Old Town is like, except that it’s almost totally deserted. In the middle of the day you’ll see a sprinkling of wannabe yuppies and artsy-fartsy types, but early in the morning or as soon as it starts to get dark, there’s no one there except for some winos and once in a while some really scary-looking people.
I don’t usually go there at night. My favorite time is early Sunday morning. Especially if it’s all cloudy and gloomy, which you can count on it being about 300 mornings a year in Eureka.
Most people don’t like that, especially where I come from. Even though it’s only about 70 miles away, the weather is totally different there. Like in summer it’s constantly sunny and hot, and in winter it’s a lot colder and it even snows sometimes.
Here in Eureka it’s almost always the same, no matter what time of year it is. There’s this time and temperature sign on the Humboldt Bank on 5th Street, and for the first three months I lived here I thought it was broken, because it always read 54°. In fact that’s what it said today, even though it’s the first week of June. I just talked to my mother on the phone, and she said it was 89° at our house.
Weird how I still call it our house, even though it’s been almost a year since I lived there. Well, it’ll be a year in August. That’s when I came here to go to school at College of the Redwoods. College of the Retards, some people call it, but it’s not that bad. It’s not much different from high school.
Actually, it seems easier, but that might be because I don’t have my parents hanging over me asking me if I did my homework. They’re way into the intellectual thing. My father’s got a master’s degree and my mother has a Ph.D. I think they’re disappointed I’m only going to junior college, but they’re all liberal and open-minded, so they make a big deal of how it’s okay whatever I do as long as I’m happy.
Sometimes I wonder, though, how they could tell if anyone was happy. They’re about the most serious people I’ve ever known. I mean, they smile sometimes, but it’s usually because somebody said something clever on NPR, or when my little sister asks a question like why it doesn’t snow in the summertime. The only time I’ve ever seen them laugh is when they’re watching TV, and they almost never watch TV.
I was never allowed to watch it either, which made me feel pretty dumb when all the other kids would talk about their favorite shows. But after a while I figured out that most of the shows were so simple you didn’t even have to watch them to be able to talk about them. Now I could watch television all the time if I wanted to, but I never do. The people I live with pretty much spend their lives in front of it.
I don’t know why I decided to move in here. Well, actually, I moved in here because it was the first place I found, and I really wanted to get away from home. But what I really don’t understand is why I decided to stay. My parents totally wanted me to move out when they found out that Mr. and Mrs. Olafsen were Christians. I guess I was kind of curious to see what Christians were like, because I never knew any when I was growing up.
But as far as I can tell, they just go to work and come home and watch TV, and eat really awful, smelly things like meat loaf and fried fish sticks. They go to church twice on Sunday, in the morning and again at night, and they hit their kids a lot, but I’d hit them if they were my kids, too. They’re like the total mutant bastard offspring.
Toby, who’s 11, is this horrible fat kid with freckles, and all he ever does is watch cartoons and complain because his mother isn’t bringing him his after-school snack (which is more than I would eat in a whole day) fast enough. And Audrey is even scarier. She’s only 7, but she already weighs almost as much as her big brother. She has this really ugly family of dolls she plays with, only she’s always yelling at them and hitting them, like they were real kids. Toby and Audrey both hate me, which is fine with me. In fact, I’d worry if they liked me.
Mr. and Mrs. Olafsen aren’t fat like their kids, just flabby, the way most adults are. They look about as intelligent as a couple of potatoes sitting on a counter top waiting to get diced into french fries. But they seem pretty normal for Eureka.
Once I went shopping with them at Waremart, which was about as close to a nightmare as I’ve ever come while I was awake. They filled up three baskets, and Toby and Audrey were still complaining that they weren’t buying anything good, and meanwhile I was realizing that there’s this whole race of Eureka people who are essentially brain dead.
Every aisle we went down, there’d be half a dozen people who looked just like Mr. and Mrs. Olafsen, and they’d all know each other, and they’d all have something stupid and pointless to say to each other, and none of it would matter, but no one even cared. They just kept pushing their shopping carts and filling them with worthless junk, not really smiling, but looking sort of vaguely content, the way I imagine a truckload of pigs do when then they think they’re on their way to get fed but they’re really being led into the slaughterhouse.
I hope that doesn’t sound too negative or critical. My parents tell me I never have a good word to say about anyone or anything, but I wonder where they think I learned to be like that. Anyway, I guess I don’t totally hate the Olafsens, or I wouldn’t have kept renting a room here after I found out what they were like. Either that, or I’m just too lazy to look for another place.
But in a way, watching them is like watching some really bad TV show that you know is bad, but it sucks you in anyway because you don’t have to use your brain at all, you can just sit there and stare, and tell yourself how lucky you are that you’re not like that. Even though the longer you watch it, the more you become like what you’re watching.
People watch TV, or take drugs, or have sex or whatever to escape, I figure. And what am I trying to escape from? I don’t like to admit it, but I’ve been lonely all my life, or at least as far back as I can remember. Until I was 11, it was just me and my parents, and we did home schooling, so I didn’t see very many other kids.
When my sister was born, I guess they decided it was too much trouble to have both of us around all the time, so they started sending me to school in town. Oh, I should explain that where I grew up is in southern Humboldt County, which is kind of the place where all the hippies went after the yuppies took over the Haight-Ashbury.
Yeah, yeah, I know it didn’t really happen exactly like that, but I like to say it anyway, because my father gets all mad and starts trying to explain what really happened to the hippies. Old hippies are always trying to explain that, but what they’re really trying to explain is what happened to them. It’s like they can’t seem to figure out how one minute they were standing around in Golden Gate Park with flowers in their hair and the next thing they know they’ve got grey hair and jobs and kids who don’t understand or appreciate them. In a way it makes me glad that I don’t have any big social movement to identify with.
In my own case, though, I do appreciate my parents, and I think I even understand them, though I’m sure they wouldn’t agree. Like they were worried when I got my hair cut real short last summer. According to them I was doing it to reject their values (my dad hasn’t cut his hair since 1966; he’s got this long grey ponytail that almost reaches his waist) and establish my own identity. But really, the only reason I did it was because it was too hot to have long hair back in southern Humboldt. I told them that a hundred times, but they kept trying to read some deeper meaning into it.
So why did I keep my hair short after I moved here, where it’s almost always cold? Well, it’s nothing about my parents, but I just don’t feel like getting identified as a hippie. Like at CR, if you’ve got long hair, the other kids are always asking you if you’ve got any dope, or if you want to smoke some of theirs. Personally, I always liked having long hair, I liked the way it looked and the way it felt flopping around on top of my head. But it seems these days that you can’t say or do or wear anything without everyone using it to lump you into some category or clique.
So I try to look as ordinary as possible. Short (but not too short) hair, no bright colors or tie-dyes, definitely no reggae T-shirts, not that I ever liked reggae anyway, which made me sort of an outcast in southern Humboldt. Most people don’t pay any attention to me around here, except once in a while rednecks in 4×4 trucks yell “Fag” if I’m walking on 4th or 5th Street at night, but I think they do that to everyone.
School’s been out for a couple weeks now, and I still have another 17 days before classes start again. My parents wanted me to come back down to the mountains for the summer, but I wouldn’t even think about it. I said I’d get a job at Denny’s or Taco Bell if I had to, but one way or the other I was staying here.
They thought I was crazy; most people in southern Humboldt think Eureka is only slightly less than hell itself. “Wouldn’t you at least rather live in Arcata?” they said. (Arcata is a college town about six miles from here, where all the students have long hair and throw frisbees around, and the men have beards and thick glasses and drink cappuccino, and the women are like my mother, with about three times as much education as they ever get a chance to use.)
It’s kind of a citified version of where I grew up, which of course is exactly why I don’t want to live there. You might think I hate my parents, or at least their way of life, but that’s not it at all. In fact, a kid couldn’t ask for a better family, and even if it was kind of lonely on the mountain, that was more because I chose not to spend a lot of time hanging out with the other kids.
If anything, my life back there was too perfect — no, that’s not it, it’s more like it wasn’t my life at all. Everything was arranged for me, and all I had to do was enjoy it, make the most of it. That’s okay for a while, I guess, but I want to make some kind of life for myself, even if it’s kind of a mess compared to what my parents provided for me.
So you probably think I’m a hypocrite for letting my parents support me. Not exactly a life of your own if someone else is paying the bills, is it? Yeah, I guess I could get a job, but they pay so little that I’d spend all my time working just to pay for rent and food. That’s not exactly much of a life either. Besides, my parents have plenty of money, and as long as I get good grades in school, they’re happy. So I guess for now, going to school is my job. Which means I’m on vacation now, so I should be doing something special to celebrate.
But I don’t know what that might be. So far all I’ve done is walk around a lot more than usual. Today I went to the theater on F Street and saw some really stupid Arnold Schwartzenegger movie. I left before it was over because I got tired of seeing him beat people up and kill them, and I didn’t even get half a block from the theater before some lunkhead who’s probably been raised on a steady diet of movies like that tried to start a fight with me.
It was unbelievable, really. I was standing there waiting to cross the street when someone shoved me. He was wearing a Eureka Lumberjacks (I think that’s the high school football team) shirt, and he was about twice, or maybe three times as big as me. I asked him why he pushed me, and he started accusing me of being the guy who tried to pick up his girlfriend at some party last weekend.
I told him I’d never been to any parties in Eureka, and he yelled that I was a liar and why didn’t I have the guts to fight like a man. All the time he kept pushing me, and I was looking around wondering if I should run or what. A few people stopped to watch, but nobody did anything.
It seemed like he was just about ready to hit me when a police car came around the corner. The cops slowed down and were looking at us, and I tried to look back as if to say, “Help,” but they just sat there staring. The guy who was trying to start a fight suddenly walked away, saying, “You’re lucky this time, but you’d better watch your ass. I’ll be around, and I’ll catch up with you one of these days.”
“He’s really a dork, isn’t he?” I didn’t know who was talking to me, but when I turned around I saw that it was one of the people who’d been watching. He was a kid, maybe my age, or a couple years younger. He was small, anyway, about three inches shorter than me, and real skinny. His hair was super short, or at least the sides were; he had on one of those stocking caps, the kind sailors wear. I noticed he had a couple of earrings, too.
Basically, he looked kind of weird, not dangerous weird, but enough so that normally I would have been too nervous to talk to him. But I guess I was so relieved to avoid getting beaten up that I forgot about my normal shyness, and I just smiled at him.
“He went to my high school. He was always picking on me,” the boy said.
“What happened?” I asked. “Did he graduate, or just get tired of bothering you?”
“No, I graduated. Well, at least I passed the equivalency test. I was really tired of high school. I was supposed to go to CR, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“So what do you do now?”
“Mostly walk around Eureka, and write stories, and drink coffee.”
“That’s what I do too, except for the part about drinking coffee.”
“You don’t drink coffee? How come?”
“Just never got in the habit, I guess. Besides, it didn’t seem like it would taste very good.”
His eyes got all wide. “Coffee not taste good? Coffee tastes total good. Why don’t you come and drink some with me?”
I almost always say no when someone invites me to do something, just a habit, I guess, but I don’t know, I guess I felt like doing something different, so I said okay. He took me to a place called the Gourmet Gallery in Old Town, and when I started to get some money out, he said, “Wait, I know the girls here, they’ll probably give us coffee for free.”
He knew them all right, but it seemed like they were used to him asking for free coffee, because they argued about it for a long time, until I offered to pay for both of us. “Are you sure you can afford it?” he asked.
“Yeah, my parents support me,” I said. Some kids might be ashamed to admit that, but I don’t mind.
“I guess mine do, too, but they don’t give me any money.”
“Why don’t you get a job?”
“That’s what they say. But it’s not that easy. For one thing, I like to stay up at night and sleep in the day, and most jobs want you to come in and apply in the mornings.”
“Yeah, that could be a problem, I guess.”
“And besides, I don’t want to work at some fast food place. I think I’d get sick from the smell of all that greasy meat, and if I didn’t get sick from that, I’d for sure get sick from the sight of all those fat, greasy customers.”
“What kind of job would you like to have, then?”
“I’d really like to work in a book store. But I don’t know if you’ve noticed; there aren’t very many book stores in Eureka. Probably one for each person that knows how to read, which adds up to maybe two or three.”
“Well, I read, and I guess you do, so that’s two already.”
“Right, and if we keep looking, we might find one more.”
“Don’t you like Eureka?”
“I think I do. I’ve hardly been anywhere else. I know I complain about the people here a lot, but I figure they don’t know any better. Besides, they’ve probably all got brain damage from breathing pulp mill air and drinking pulp mill water.”
At last, I thought. Someone besides myself who thought about the pulp mill. The mill is the biggest and most noticeable thing about Eureka, yet most of the people act like it’s not there. My first day living here, I noticed this really awful smell, like dead rats being barbecued in a pit of sulfur. I mentioned it to Mr. and Mrs. Olafsen, and they looked at me like I was crazy.
“Smells all right to me,” Mr. Olafsen said. “He probably means the pulp mill, dear,” said Mrs. Olafsen. “Oh, that,” he grunted. “I never even notice it. I don’t know why that would bother anyone.” “He didn’t say it bothered him, dear, he was just curious about what it was.”
Well, it did bother me, in fact it was almost enough to make me sick, but I didn’t say so, because I got the impression from Mr. Olafsen that it was almost unpatriotic to complain about the pulp mill. Mrs. Olafsen later told me that there were some hippies and environmentalists trying to stir up trouble about the mill being unhealthy, and that really irritated Mr. Olafsen. “It’s probably best not to talk about it to him,” she said.
But it wasn’t just him. One day when it was hard to breathe, and the plume of smoke from the mill was blocking out so much of the sun that it seemed all grey and overcast even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I mentioned to the guy at the corner grocery store that the pollution was really bad today. He looked at me as if I’d just said all the meat in his display case was rotten, and his prices were too high, and his wife had bad breath and acne.
“Whaddaya mean? A little bit of smoke too much for you? There’s a lot of guys’ jobs depend on that smoke. We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for that smoke.”
I tried to explain that I wasn’t out to destroy anybody’s jobs or his business, all I was saying was that the smoke was really thick that day, and maybe it would be nice if they’d fix the mill so that it didn’t pollute so much.
“Yeah, and whose jobs are you gonna get rid of to pay for it? Are you gonna be the one who goes and tells their wives and kids they can’t earn a living no more just ’cause the air don’t smell sweet enough to suit some prissy environmentalist?”
I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t a prissy environmentalist, that I’d just been trying to make conversation, but I got the feeling he wasn’t in the mood to be friendly. A lot of my conversations end like that, which might explain why I’m so shy.
Another time I mentioned the pulp mill in my Environmental Science class at CR. The teacher asked us to name potential sources of air and water pollution, and the kids were suggesting all sorts of things, half of which don’t even exist in Humboldt County, but not one person said the pulp mill. So I finally raised my hand, and the teacher just nodded and said, “Yes, there are those who contend that the pulp mills produce unacceptable levels of pollution,” and then he moved on to the next subject.
After class, some kid cornered me and said, “Hey, you know my dad works at the mill, and he makes an honest living at it. You’re not even from Eureka, are you? Maybe you should keep your mouth shut about things you don’t know anything about.”
Eventually I decided that it was best to keep quiet, and after a while you do get used to the smell. In fact the last time I went down to southern Humboldt for a visit, I almost missed it, and when I got back, it wasn’t till I smelled that familiar stink that I felt like I was really in Eureka again.
Not that I’ve learned to like it. It still makes me a little sick some days. I guess every city has some bad things about it. But I started thinking a lot about the pulp mill. It’s almost like it became this living thing.
I see it every morning, as soon as I step out of my door. It’s right down at the end of my street, well, not really, it just looks that way, as if my street was a conveyor belt that feeds right into this monstrous boiler that everything gets sucked into and vaporized into sick-smelling smoke that comes pouring out the top. Once I even felt like the street was pulling me along, and I had to turn around real quick and go the other way, because it was too scary to even look at the mill.
I told that story to my new friend, and he nodded. “I have bad dreams about it. Once when I was little, I dreamed that the mill was this creature that could walk, and it came right up my hill to my house and it was going to eat me, and every time it opened its mouth, it was full of flames, and it had eyes, and they were full of flames, too.”
“Wow. I was starting to think I was the only one that it bothered.”
“No, I think it bothers a lot of people, but no one will say anything about it because it’s supposed to be good for jobs.”
“I guess. My dad works there. He thinks it’s great. He wants me to work there too.”
“Really? How much does it pay?”
“Way more than anything else around here. But I don’t think it’s worth it. My dad’ll probably be dead by the time he’s 45. Or he might as well be, anyway.”
“Yeah, I know a lot of people like that. Or at least that’s what it seems like to me. I feel kind of bad thinking that about someone, though. It’s like you’re saying their whole life isn’t worthwhile when there might be all sorts of things going on inside their head that you don’t even know about. But I guess you know your dad pretty well. What’s he like?”
“I don’t know anything about him except that he must be insane. Or else he had a lobotomy or something. He’s like a robot. All he does is go to the mill, and come home and watch television and drink. Oh yeah, his one big night out a week, he goes bowling with the same slugs from the mill that he works with everyday. I mean, all that’s bad enough, but the scary thing is that he doesn’t seem to care. He acts like people are supposed to live that way.”
“I think most people do live that way. At least that’s what I hear. My parents don’t. Almost no one where I grew up does.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, almost none of the people have regular jobs. A lot of them grow dope, or have businesses that they run out of their own homes. Like my parents, they translate books for some publishing company in Europe. It’s all done through the mail. Sometimes my dad doesn’t go into town for a month or two at a time. He doesn’t like crowds, and to him a crowd is like anything bigger than our family.”
“Did your parents ever grow dope?”
“Sure, when we first came to the mountains, before I was born. Actually, they were pretty much full time dope growers until about 1980. That’s when they got hooked up with that translating deal. Then they supposedly quit growing because they didn’t want to set a bad example for me.”
“Yeah, well my dad denies it, but I know he still grows a few plants for himself. I found them, and then I watched him sneaking up there to take care of them. We had a big argument, and he accused me of spying on him and not treating him with respect, so I decided it was easier to go along with him and pretend it wasn’t happening. Not that I care whether he grows dope anyway. I hardly ever smoke it myself.”
“I never do. It makes things too weird.”
About this time the cafe was closing, and as we got up to leave I realized that the coffee was having an effect on me. I felt all edgy, like I wanted to go somewhere new, or do something I’d never thought of doing before.
At the same time, it was getting late, and normally I would have started home by now. I automatically began to say goodbye to my friend, which is when I realized that I’d been talking to him for over four hours and I didn’t even know his name.
I asked him, but it seemed like he didn’t hear me. Instead he asked, “Do you want to go down by the bay?”
I’d walked along a little bit of the waterfront before, but only in the daytime. It was almost totally dark now, but I guessed nothing too bad could happen as long as there were two of us. First we walked out onto this little dock at the end of F Street and sat there for a little while listening to the waves splash against the wood. You could hear voices, too, from somewhere across the water. The moon came up. It was just past full, and everything seemed very bright.
Then we started walking along the edge of the water, except where there were buildings in the way. I’d heard a lot of homeless people lived under the docks and in the abandoned buildings on the waterfront, and I saw some of them. At first they made me nervous, but most of them scuttled away when they saw us coming, the way crabs do.
We walked almost all night, going really slow, stopping to look at everything. Sometimes we’d both stop at the same instant, for no reason at all, and stand there for the longest time looking at… well, looking at nothing, except that night even nothing seemed like the most important thing in the world. It was weird; I never felt like that before, never felt so comfortable with someone that I didn’t have to say anything, never felt like someone knew what I was thinking and feeling almost before even I knew it.
I know I might be giving the wrong impression; the way I’m talking, it sounds like I’m writing some kind of love story, but that’s not how it was at all. Yeah, it was romantic, but not that kind of romantic, more the kind of romantic you think of when you go off to explore distant planets or figure out the secret of time travel. It’s like our bodies weren’t even there.
Once I turned and looked at him, all lit up and sort of eerily glowing in the moonlight, with his face hardly showing at all except for that strange little smile he wears sometimes, and I swore I could look right through him as if he were no more than a transparent sheet waving in the breeze in front of the buildings of downtown Eureka.
By the time it started getting light we were down at the end of Wabash Street, and he took me out to the end of this pier. We sat there for an hour or maybe even two, until the sun was well up in the sky. It might sound peaceful, but it wasn’t, because just a few hundred feet from the end of the pier was the pulp mill, and it made a terrible racket that never stopped the whole time we were there. It was a constant roaring that made me imagine some giant beast that fed on human flesh and would only stay in its dungeon as long as it received an uninterrupted supply of food.
Sam – somewhere along the line he’d finally told me his name – seemed to hear me thinking. He looked over at the mill, then back at me. “Satan lives over there,” he said. He was dead serious. Me, I wasn’t raised to think too much about God or Satan, but I very nearly believed him.
Right after that the wind changed direction, and the giant cloud of smoke that came pouring out of the mill started drifting toward us. I’d never been this close to the mill before, and pretty soon the smell was getting unbearable. Even still, I didn’t want to leave, but finally Sam stood up and said, “I have to go look for a job today.”
“You mean you’re not even going to go to sleep at all?” I asked. “Won’t you be too tired to go looking for jobs?”
“Sleeping’s boring,” he grinned. “And I’m always too tired to look for a job. But if I don’t get one, they’re going to kick me out of the house.”
I started to say that he could always come stay at my house, but something stopped me. For one thing, I hardly knew anything about him, and besides that, I didn’t think it would go over too big with Mr. and Mrs. Olafsen. Instead I said that maybe when he got a job, he and I could get a place together, that I was getting sick of the place where I was living. I was, too, though I hadn’t realized it until that instant.
Sam smiled. “That would be cool.” Then without saying anything else, he walked away. I was too surprised to say anything, to call him back and ask him where he lived or when I might see him again. I stood there feeling like a total imbecile, probably with my mouth hanging wide open. From the other end of the pier, Sam turned around and waved. I tried to motion to him to wait for me, but for some reason all I could do was to give a kind of half wave in return. He walked up the street toward town and didn’t look back again.
I went home and slept all day. It must have been seven o’clock in the evening before I felt like getting up. In the next room I could hear the television banging away with some kind of shoot-em-up, I couldn’t tell if it was cops and robbers, or cowboys or what. Toby and Audrey were squalling at each other at the top of their lungs, and Mrs. Olafsen was yelling at them to shut up.
I wanted to go outside, but I didn’t want to have to walk through the living room to get there, so I did a strange thing: I took the screen off my window and climbed out into the yard and left that way. It was the first time that I ever remembered sneaking out of a house, and it was fun, even if I was only playing some sort of game with myself.
I didn’t know where, but I knew I had to go someplace. I started walking down B Street. I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was. Some kids yelled at me, and even made out like they were going to chase me, but I didn’t pay any attention to them, and they drifted away. The fog had come in, very thick and low, and it made it seem a lot later than it was.
It was getting dark by the time I got to Old Town, and everything was closed except for a couple bars. I realized by now that I was hoping I’d see Sam, but I didn’t have any idea where to look, so I just wandered around the streets. Some guy asked if I could spare some change, so I gave him everything I had in my pocket. It was more than a dollar, and he was so surprised that he forgot to say thanks.
I even walked up and down some of the alleys in Old Town. They didn’t seem so scary anymore, just mysterious and spooky, but in a nice kind of way. After a while I went down by the water, but there was no one around there either, except for a couple of guys drinking. They didn’t pay any attention to me, and eventually I walked home.
I went looking for Sam every day that week, but I didn’t see him again until Friday. He was coming out of the Gourmet Gallery as I walked up F Street. He didn’t act surprised, he just smiled and said hi, as if we ran into each other everyday.
“What happened to you?” I asked. “I never saw you again.”
“Nothing happened to me,” he said. “Oh, except I met this girl and she invited me to come to her house in Arcata. She said she was an artist and she wanted me to be her model. So I stayed there for a while, because things aren’t too great at my house right now. But she wasn’t a very good artist. I think she wanted to have sex with me.”
“Well, after a while I was pretty sure, but then I left, because I felt weird. It seemed like sex made her feel sad.”
I’m not that comfortable talking about sex, so I asked him what the problem was at home.
“The same old thing,” he said. “They want me to get a job or to get out of the house. My father doesn’t understand why I won’t go work at the pulp mill with him.”
“What does your mother say?”
“She understands why I don’t want to work at the pulp mill, but she says that if I can’t get a job anywhere else, then I should take what I can get.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Find a job, I guess. I don’t know, nobody wants to hire me. I think they think I’m weird, maybe because I have earrings and stuff.”
I hadn’t thought that much about it, but it was true. Sam wasn’t the kind of person you expected to see when you went into your typical business. I wondered what he could do.
“Look what I made,” he said. He dug into his back pack and fished out a stack of pages.
“What is it?”
“It’s the first issue of my magazine. I’m going to print it now. Want to come?”
I looked at his magazine as we walked. It wasn’t like any magazine I’d ever seen. It all looked really handmade. Everything was written out, and most of the pages were decorated with pen and ink pictures. One part of me wanted to say that it looked like something a kid in elementary school would do; another part realized that simple as it was, I could never do anything like it.
A lot of the drawings were of the pulp mill, and there was one really funny one where the plume of smoke over the mill turned into this monster with big fangs and it was chasing little kids down the street. I know that doesn’t sound funny now, but it was.
Then I turned another page and suddenly saw a picture of myself sitting with Sam on the end of the pier. It didn’t look that much like me at first, but I knew right away who it was supposed to be. I was flattered. I’d never been in a magazine before.
“What are you doing this magazine for?” I asked.
“Just to do it. And maybe so people can find out who I am.”
“I usually try to keep that secret.”
“I used to, too, but I found out people are afraid of what they don’t know, and I don’t like people being afraid of me.”
“You’re like Casper,” I laughed.
“Casper who?” he asked.
“Casper the friendly ghost. You know, in the comics. He’s really nice, but everyone’s afraid of him because he’s a ghost.”
“Yeah, I feel like that a lot.”
“Like a ghost?”
“Yeah, or invisible. Sometimes I think I’m not even here.”
I looked at him for a long time, and he didn’t say anything. It was like he had forgotten and let show more of himself than he had intended to, and now he was waiting to see what I would make of it. Or maybe if I would somehow use it against him.
There was a copy shop over by the post office where Sam knew the girl who worked there, and I guess she was letting him use the machines really cheap, or maybe for free. We were there for hours. Sam would print bunches of copies, then we’d sort them out on the floor and put them in the right order and staple them together. It was pretty weird to see how a bunch of disconnected pages could turn into a magazine that made total sense.
Well, maybe not total sense. I pictured my parents and their friends back in southern Humboldt reading Sam’s magazine, and I realized that they wouldn’t understand most of it. I felt farther from home, and older, than I’d ever felt in my life. It was like before, there’d always been this road, kind of long and winding, but a road all the same, leading to this bridge into a warm, comfortable world where everything still fit together, even if it was all too safe and predictable.
Only now the road was all torn up and rocky, the bridge was in flames, and my parents looked across the canyon at where I used to be in a kind of speechless agony. There was this old country song that went, “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.” For the first time I realized what it meant, that from now on the only home I would ever have was the one I made for myself.
All this time I’d been absent-mindedly folding and stapling magazines. Then there were no more pages to put together, and Sam said, “Come on, let’s go over to the Power Station.”
I thought he meant the electric plant a few miles south of town, which seemed like an awful long way to walk, and not that interesting a place to go anyway. But the Power Station he was talking about was only a couple blocks away, and was a sort of punk night club where they had bands playing. There were kids hanging out all over the sidewalk in front, and some of them were scary-looking, like the one with an anarchy symbol cut into his hair and a bicycle chain rapped around his neck. But most of them seemed nice, even if they looked a little weird. There were a few kids who looked like they were only about twelve years old, and about half the kids looked younger than me. Sam seemed to know almost all of them.
He went around passing out his magazines to people. Sometimes they’d give him money for; usually a quarter or so, but he gave away more than he sold. It didn’t seem to bother him. After a while I heard music starting inside, and I asked Sam if he was going in to see the band.
“I don’t have enough money, and what money I do have, I want to save for food.”
I offered to pay his way in, because I was curious to see what it was like inside. At first he didn’t want me to, but finally he let me. It was really crowded in there. I expected, I guess from seeing movies and TV shows, that the punks would be beating each other up and being really violent, but mostly they were just dancing or standing there watching the band.
I was surprised, too, that the music wasn’t nearly as harsh as I had expected. In fact, it almost sounded like a mixture of hippie music and punk rock. Somebody told me that the band’s name was Nuisance, and that they sang lots of songs about marijuana.
“That should make you feel at home,” said Sam. He liked to tease me about where I’d grown up.
I kind of liked the band, even if they did remind me of Southern Humboldt a little too much. In a way, they helped me appreciate it, too. It sort of made me realize that not many kids get an opportunity to grow up in a place so unique.
Then the show was over, and Sam and I walked home. I mean, Sam walked with me all the way to my house, and then went on his own way. For some reason, I kept forgetting to ask him where he lived. Whenever we were together, we would talk about all sorts of stuff, but it would usually be all philosophical and abstract, never down to earth things like “What’s your phone number?” or “Do you want to meet me in Old Town tomorrow?”
In the next few days I found myself wishing I’d made some arrangements to get in touch with Sam, because, weird as it might sound, I really missed him. It’s not like I was in love with him or anything, it’s just that I’d gotten used to this sort of comfortable, easy-going feeling that came from being around him. When he wasn’t there, it seemed like something was missing.
I read his magazine a whole bunch of times, and I’d imagine writing stories or drawing pictures and helping him make another issue of it. In fact, I sort of started this story thinking that maybe I could put it in his magazine, but then it got way too long, and besides, I don’t think he’d want a story that had so much stuff about him in it.
Every day I’d walk around Eureka for hours, but I never saw him. If I ran into any of the punks, I’d ask them if they knew where he was, but either they’d act like I was some kind of dork not worth talking to, or they’d say something like, “Nobody ever knows where Sam is. Sam doesn’t even know where Sam is.”
School started again, and though I went to class every day like I was supposed to, I didn’t really notice the hours that went by in class, on the bus to and from there, doing the homework that I didn’t do that much anyway. I still found plenty of time to walk around, and for the first time in my life, I started drinking. I don’t know why, it just seemed like something to do. One night I went down to the store and hung around until somebody that looked cool came along, and asked him to buy me some beer. I was surprised at how easy it was, and even more surprised at how much fun it was to get drunk.
I wondered what it would be like to get drunk with Sam. I pictured us sitting alongside the waterfront, laughing at stupid stuff and making fun of the pulp mill. One time I woke up at about four a.m. in the Olafsens’ backyard, and couldn’t remember how I got there. After that I eased up on drinking a bit, but I’d still get a six-pack a couple nights a week.
It was a Tuesday, I think, or maybe a Thursday, and I was hanging out in front of Larry’s Supermarket, across the street from the post office, hoping someone would show up that I could get to buy for me. For some reason, hardly anyone was shopping that night, and I drifted off into some stupid daydream. I remember snapping out of it when I heard a couple car doors slam.
I looked up and saw a bunch of mill workers. I didn’t pay much attention to them, figuring they weren’t the kind of guys I should ask to buy beer. It wasn’t until they came back out and were getting into their car that I noticed something familiar about one of them. He was small, and had a gentler, softer way of moving than the others, and… no, it couldn’t be, but it was…
“Sam!” I yelled, but they were already driving away. I felt like an idiot, trying to catch up to a car on foot, but I did it anyway. I watched the tail lights blur into a line of hundreds of cars, and yet I still knew which set was attached to the car with Sam in it. Half a mile down the road, I could see it turn into the bowling alley.
It was a dumb idea, maybe, but I kept walking. I had to catch up to Sam, had to find out what had happened, what he was doing, even though a part of me already knew.
The wind picked up. It seemed to find its way under my collar, up my sleeves and pant legs. It was colder than usual, and the fog hanging over the city was so thick that you might as well have called it rain.
By the time I got to the bowling alley, I was feeling so damp and cold that I was almost shaking. The parking lot was jammed full of cars. It was league night, no doubt. The place would be packed with pulp rats.
A few months ago, I would have been scared to set foot inside. But I was a different kind of person now. For the first time in my life I felt like I was deciding things for myself. Instead of wondering what I should be doing, I was doing it.
I hate the smell of cigarettes and cheap beer. I can’t stand the sound of men laughing twice as loud as they need to. Country music drives me right up the wall. So you can imagine that pushing open those glass doors and setting foot inside was like crawling up the bowels of hell.
Nobody paid any attention to me. I guess I don’t look as weird as I feel. I walked straight over to where I guess I knew Sam would be. He was standing there with a bowling ball in his hands, sort of holding it up in front of his chest as though he were getting ready for his turn, laughing at some joke somebody had just told.
He looked all wrong. Even his smile seemed forced or twisted, like some perverse sculptor had come along and stuck it where it didn’t belong. His eyes seemed cold, too. Not mean or evil or anything like that, just blank. The emotion I was used to seeing there was gone, as though it had never existed.
When he noticed me, his nostrils flared out slightly, as if he were angry or afraid. Something about the way he stared at me told me I shouldn’t come any closer, shouldn’t try to enter into the world he’d decided, for reasons I guessed I’d never know now, to join.
“Goddamit, Sam, you here to bowl or are you going to stand there staring into space?” I heard one of the men yell. Sam looked at me for just a second longer, as if I were a mildly interesting pebble on the beach, then stepped over to the lane and hurled a perfect strike.
Someone slapped him on the back and handed him a beer. I turned around and walked all the way back to downtown Eureka. There wasn’t much traffic, and over all the sounds of the city, louder even than my careening and colliding thoughts, I could hear the grinding roar of the mill.