Skook: The Story Continues
A while since I put up a chapter, so here’s another
I got my son cleaned up and dry and powdered his butt with Johnson’s baby powder, just like my mother and grandmother did for me. Then I warmed his bottle and slipped in a teaspoon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, without my wife around to monitor. That was the way I liked it when I was his age, and my son seemed to like it just as much.
I read over my notes while he worked on the bottle, and the two dogs curled up at my feet. I could hear the wind pick up outside, coming up the Gorge, and the light shifted; clouds must be rolling in from the coast. It was late autumn and the temperature was probably dropping, but my son made a warm bundle in my lap. It was one of those moments of contentment that come along once in a while to make life worth getting up for in the morning. I wasn’t far behind my son in drifting off to happy dreamland, untroubled by the strange end to my interview with old Mr. Tuchi.
The dogs woke me with ferocious deep-throated barking; Labradors are nothing if not protective. The barking didn’t bother my son. He was sound out. I gently eased him down on the old couch and got to the door in time to see Petoskey climbing out of his old pickup. I told the dogs to hush and they instantly obeyed, their job done. When Petoskey came in, they swarmed around his knees wagging happily. They already knew he was a dog person. He gave them both a good ear rub and butt scratch, and asked if there was more coffee.
“Not only coffee, but some wild blackberry pie my wife baked,” I told him. “Right off the bushes behind my house.”
His smile was a happy one. “Your wife’s mom was the best baker in these hills. I wonder if it rubbed off.”
“If it didn’t, it’s still plenty good enough for me. Dig in.”
We settled at the little kitchen table and for a few minutes just addressed the pie. I was still in my stranger-in-paradise mode back then, thinking life just couldn’t get much better even if I did live in a strange little town on top of a prehistoric cataclysm.
He pushed his pie plate back with a sigh. “I have to say she’s a chip off the old block. Tell her that for me, will you?”
I said I would. “Now, tell me about the wild men.”
He shook his head. “So many of those immigrants came straight out of superstitious little villages in the Old Country, you know. Vampires and demons and ghosts — all of that was just kind of the accepted thing.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I grew up in the Deep South with a grandmother everybody believed was a real witch.”
He laughed. “No lie? Then you probably understand how these old timers get some of their notions. Mr. Tuchi used to claim that when he was out hunting, he saw these wild men of his catching salmon, down in the water just like those bears in Alaska.”
“I wonder if the local black bears do that?”
“Dunno, but if you squinted just right you could turn a bear into a wild hairy man, scooping fish with his hands. Ever field-dress a bear?”
“I’m more of a duck hunter.”
“Should have figured that, with your Labs.” He smiled when Paka came and leaned against his knee, staring up at him soulfully. “Okay to let her lick my pie plate?”
“She knows a sucker when she sees one. Go ahead.”
I called Harry over and put my plate down for him so he wouldn’t feel slighted. We sipped our coffee and the dogs slurped happily.
“What about a field-dressed bear?” I said.
“With the fur off, the body looks almost too much like a human’s,” he said. “A bear with a bad case of the mange — it happens — could maybe look like a primitive man wearing furs.”
“Mr. Tuchi seems to have built up a whole thing around them: salmon eaters who don’t like poachers,” I said. “Like stories mothers tell to scare their children into behaving.”
He nodded. “The lowland Scots once had a lullaby to the effect that if the children didn’t behave the Black Douglas would get them.”
“Petoskey doesn’t sound like a Scots name,” I said.
He smiled. “I read a lot, winters when it’s too wet to work my mine.”
“Speaking of which,” I said, “it looks like a storm blowing in out there.”
“Getting to be that time, all right. You want to take a walk through the town here? I can show you some stuff.”
“What town?” I said.
“This is what’s left of Lower Fairfax. Back in the day it was a real rip-snorter, like Mr. T. said. Hotel and all.”
“It’s hard to imagine,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I loaded the boy into his nylon and aluminum papoose rig and put him on my back. We walked out through a swirl of falling maple leaves across the glade, the dogs romping ahead, noses down. Halfway to the river’s edge, Petoskey paused and went to one knee, feeling among the low brushy growth.
“Ah. Here it is.” He stood and lifted, and a wide heavy metal trap door groaned up out of the ground on rusty hinges.
“I would never have guessed that was there,” I said.
“The cellar of the old hotel,” he said. “The first ones who got into it after they tore the hotel down, and carted off all the wood and the stone, found some neat old bottles and stuff in the cellar. It’s been picked clean long since.”
“How big was the hotel?”
“At least two stories, with the whole front made out of Wilkeson sandstone, and a bar with a dance floor off to the side.”
That uniquely figured sandstone was Wilkeson’s one remaining claim to fame; there was Wilkeson sandstone in the state capital buildings. A small quarry, back off a spur of the county road, still milled small amounts of it for architects and builders. The old machinery that did the heavy milling work was powered by coal; they were Petoskey’s biggest customer. My mother-in-law had fronted her retirement dream house, which I now called home, with slabs of the stuff. Now, as hard as I stared at this uneven ground, I couldn’t visualize a two-story stone-fronted hotel on a busy street. I shook my head as he lowered the trap door back into place.
“The Northwest doesn’t take long to cover up any trace of civilization, does it?” I said.
“You think that’s something? Come on over here to the river.”
Paka splashed happily in the shallows, trying to tempt Harry in to play with her. No dice; Harry was the most water-averse Labrador I ever saw. He would go to work if he had to, when there were ducks on the water, but beyond that, uh-uh. Petoskey pointed to a jagged outcrop of rock, festooned with creepers and moss.
“What do you suppose you’re looking at?” Petoskey said.
“I have no idea.”
“It was a buttress for the railroad bridge that came through here and crossed the river to Lower Melmont. Melmont was the end of the line. They had a roundtable there to turn the locomotives around. But you won’t find a trace of it anymore. They tore up the steel for scrap in the Second World War. Same for the tracks through here, and on the bridge itself. I don’t know how they missed that trap door. The river took care of the rest of the bridge one spring flood season.”
“My god, it’s like looking for traces of a lost civilization,” I said.
“Well basically, that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “The lost civilization of the seven coal towns. Did you know that Tacoma owes its existence to these towns?”
I’d seen the blackened snags and sagging piers along the Tacoma waterfront, all that was left of the sprawling coal docks from the age of coal-burning ships, but I thought his statement sounded a touch grandiose. I told him it sounded like a case of the tail wagging the dog as we followed my dogs back toward the cabin.
“Oh, no,” he assured me. “These coal reserves up here, especially Wilkeson’s, is what made Northern Pacific push a railhead into Tacoma. Tacoma was just a wide spot on the mud flats then, but it was the closest salt-water access to the Wilkeson coal reserves.”
A gust of wind kicked across the meadow. The temperature was definitely dropping. “You need to let me show you how to get to Upper Melmont next,” he said.
“Where the turntable was.”
“Nope, that’s Lower Melmont, like this is lower Fairfax. Upper Fairfax was up there on the county road where those folks built that Swiss-looking house a few years back. Mildred Fenton told me she was coming up to her Melmont cabin with one of her special cases tonight, so she can show you where the turntable was, and where the coking ovens still are.”
“Mildred is the granddaughter of one of the real old-timers who ran the biggest mercantile in Wilkeson, back when it was quite the boomtown. The population was put at five thousand in 1903 when he opened his doors. Kids from Carbonado would sneak down to buy penny candy from him to avoid paying company-store prices.”
The Wilkeson I was getting to know was a narrow string of old homes, weathered house trailers and maybe half a dozen businesses strung along either side of the rusting rail spur and the county road. The two largest buildings were an Eagle’s Lodge and the Wilkeson-sandstone school, where my wife went to grammar school before they shut it down. I was learning how tight and clannish the surviving townfolk were; my wife’s having attended grammar school up here made her an honorary member of the clan and gave me entrée by dint of marriage.
“Five thousand,” I said again. I wondered if he was pulling my leg.
Petoskey jingled his truck keys and looked up at the racing clouds. “Definitely a storm brewing. Yep, five thousand. Last census? There were 284 of us, not counting dogs, cats and chickens.” He grinned. “Most people in Tacoma have no idea they have a town to live in because of us. How does that Roman saying go? Sic transit Gloria Mundi?”
Petoskey was a surprising man. I liked him quite a bit. I got him to take half the pie to his wife and kids, and he seemed pleased at the homey gesture. He said he had to go “outside” tomorrow, as if leaving the Gorge was a major voyage. We agreed to meet up on the county road at nine, so he could show me how to get to Mildred’s isolated Upper Melmont cabin, in her family since the glory days. She now worked “outside” herself, at the Soldier’s Home in Orting. He told me her special charges were very old, shell-shocked veterans that she brought up with her on a rotating basis to escape the regimentation for a while. I thought it seemed a fine thing for her to do.
He hesitated, already in his truck with the engine running. “If you’re curious, Mildred has some of her own ideas about Mr. Tuchi’s salmon-eating wild men. I suppose there could be another whole story in that. Like a fairy tale, you know? If that kind of thing interests you. See you in the morning.”