Post Road Magazine #26

Upcountry

Josh Wallaert

Me and my dog Jack, we've got keys to the fiberglass castle. We've got a steel door and two windows. We've got a bear rug and TV. Some people will tell you the castle is empty. You live around here, that's the way you think about things. The castle lies between blue hills at the bottom of the valley. There's the two towers and the drawbridge, and the concrete moat with the Japanese fish. The kids go racing the go-karts, and me and Jack, we take the tickets. Anyone asks about the door to the castle, we tell them it's a maintenance shed. We live here all winter, sweep the snow off the fake grass. We shoot out the streetlights and watch for raccoons. We've got a hot plate, we've got Jesus, and we've got tournament backgammon. You want us, all you've got to do is knock twice on the elf hat.
    Once a year, every year, we get the pilgrims. They come the first week of December and stay until the snow melts in the spring. We get runaway Mormons and high school guidance counselors. We get the losing candidates of state congressional races. They see the castle shining at the bottom of the hill, they come looking for the revelation. Half the time they don't even know why they're here. They've got a flat tire, or they're running low on gas. They've got what they call vehicular failure. They come walking out of the fog, steam rising from their foreheads, looking for a pay phone or a place to stay the night. What they don't figure is me and Jack being on the scene. My dog Jack, he's one-eighth Indian; he knows a pilgrim when he sees one. They ask to use the facilities, we take the distributor cap for safekeeping.
    Oh we're ready when they get here, there's no question. We are equipped for all contingencies. End of November we close the park for Thanksgiving and get set for the pilgrim season. The first thing is clean sheets on the spare bed upstairs. Then it's roll out the linoleum and fire up the space heater. They want pistachios, we've got pistachios. They want dessert, we've got pistachio ice cream. We're like whisky, me and Jack, we're Mother Theresa. We give them whatever they need.
    Rawley and Bird were the pilgrims this year. Bird's a wall-eyed sheep dog. Rawley's an ex-marine. First bona fide fugitives we've ever aided and abetted. They stole the bell from a cathedral in Texas and smuggled it upcountry in the back of Rawley's pickup truck. The day after Thanksgiving, it's in all the morning papers. Late afternoon, I'm sucking turkey bones out back by the pumphouse, catching the fat with the news section, when I see the pilgrims' truck at the bottom of the page. Cops got them on a gas station camera outside Abilene, the truck piled high with scrap metal and concrete, tied down with tarps and bungees, rebar sticking out the back. You could just barely make out the shape of the bell. Next to that's the weather forecast.
    "Well shit," I say to Jack. "Going to snow tomorrow." You been doing this as long as my dog Jack, you know what that means.

    Four in the morning, we're watering the basketball court for the ice rink when the pilgrims' truck comes pulling hard through the gravel lot and slams into the chain-link fence. Jack, he's the sensitive one, he's got the whiskers in his ears. When he hears that church bell ringing out across the park, he's up on his feet, sliding across the ice, and he tears off into the darkness. I follow him through the woods in the maintenance cart, forest of black spruce and forest of white spruce and forest of balsam fir, the snow coming down like Jesus on Sunday, everything white in the headlights. I'm just trying not to hit the trees. Jack's up ahead about eighty feet in front of me, at the edge of visibility, moving in and out of the shadows. The porch lights are out in the valley, and it's dark in the thin of the woods. I figure the pilgrims have taken out a transformer up the road.
    When you've been running with Jack as long as I've been running, you get used to the action sequences. We're always chasing something, me and Jack, and usually it's me chasing him. We go loping up the log roads to the Low Pass junction. We go scrambling down the creek bank where the wolverines drink. It's good for me, keeps the reflexes sharp. I'm not as young as I used to be. The thing about Jack is he's got his own way of getting somewhere. There's no one in the valley that knows the upcountry like that goddamn dog. He knows the kettles and the hollows, and he knows the catwalk and the tunnels beneath the dam. After a while, it's like trying to catch up with some part of my own self, some part that doesn't want to be caught. That's Jack.

    I'm not one for speeches, but I'll give you this as a fact. This is the last best place in the world. I mean to say officially, the whole sixty acres, this is the last best place per radius. That's good enough for the circumstances. I mean that gives you the basic theory. If you want to get specific, the last best place is forty foot up a defunct radio tower on the hill out back of the castle, where you get high enough that you can see above the trees. We've got a platform lashed up there with four-by-eights so you can sit and do your thinking. We've got a bucket seat we junked from an Aerostar.
    From the radio tower you can see the city at the other end of the valley. That's what you'd call the main attraction. You see the box stores and the swingsets and the giant trampolines. At night you see the football field and the stadium lights and the guy that paints the white lines on the grass. So it's a pretty good place to get kissed. The city kids come out here on weekends to hop the creek and smoke reefer. I try to go running up the hill once a month, hollering and waving the pick-axe, just to keep up the reputation. So that's the last best place if you're looking for the particulars. I mean if you want the definite experience. But you don't need to climb the tower to get an approximation. You've rolled at the roller rink, you've gone at the go-karts, you've pretty much got the idea.
    It's three years now we've been the last best place in the world, and we're the longest running yet. The last best place before us was a juke joint in the middle of the Everglades run by a couple of Seminole Indians. They had the title for six months, and then they got bought out for environmental restoration. Before that it was a vintage carousel on the coast of Maine. Those guys ripped out the hand-painted horses and put in zebras and giraffes, which is an automatic disqualification.
    There's a society in Syracuse that does the calculations, what's the last best place in the world, what's the next best place after that. I don't know the details. I just get the newsletters. What I do know is that it's come down to me and Jack. We've got the corn nuts, we've got the blow darts, and we sell the cinnamon candy. We are the hope and the future of the nation.

    Now I push in the throttle on the maintenance cart and stand up so I can lean through the turns. The woods catch the sound of the river in the distance, and I hear the water rushing on all sides. It's like the river's running right up through my spleen. That's how it happens here in pilgrim season. The whole of the valley is throwing its voice up at you, and there's not a goddamn thing you can do but open your gut and listen. I hear the pilgrims putting the truck in reverse, the tires spinning back into the gravel and snow, and I'm worried they'll take off before we get there. But then the truck comes crashing forward again into the fence, and the bell rings louder across the park. I get that religious feeling in the back of my throat.
    "Goddamn, Jack," I yell. "It's them."
    The fog clears as I'm coming around the bend. Jack waits in a burn at the edge of the woods, forest of quaking aspen and forest of paper birch, and I lean forward and grab him by the collar and haul him up into the passenger seat. Together we ride the last hundred yards to the ridge. I set the hand brake at the top of the ridge and cut the headlights and roll a spliff.
    "Well, there you have it," I say.
    Me and Jack, we've been going up the country all our life together, and before that it was me and Jack's dad. It's people like us that made the upcountry what it is. Back in the Reagan years, me and Jack Sr. found the fiberglass castle abandoned off the side of the highway, tucked behind a waterfall, obscured by a clump of trees, covered up with a billboard for a Motel 6. We claimed it for America. We planted the rock of Plymouth. We've been here twenty-eight years. I'm not bragging. I'm just saying I've done my service. There's no one in the valley that's going to question my commitment.
    Then one day you look in the mirror, and you can see for yourself it's time to pack it in. Me and Jack, we're not getting any younger. Soon as we can find someone to take care of this place, we're handing over the keys. I believe we'll point our noses toward the California ocean and slink off into the sunset. Tell you the truth, I've been dodging so long I don't know how to slink. But I'm counting on Jack to show me how it is. I figure he can teach me how to sniff out the alleys, hang low through the corners, how to hit a shuffle when the cops expect a dodge. I look over at my dog there with his foot on the dash, all dumb and happy, snow piling up on his tongue. I figure he can do that one goddamn thing for me, at least.
    "Shit, Jack," I say. "Who are we kidding?"
    I grab my dog by the scruff of his neck and pull him close and kiss him on the head.

    The park grounds are splayed out like a miniature Wisconsin, sixty thousand square miles collapsed into sixty acres, the barrens and the muskeg, the fen and the swale, the dells and the drumlins covered with snow. The only thing glowing in the whole of the valley is the cab light of the pilgrims' pickup. The bell lumps up under the tarp. I let Jack go, and he scrambles down an open wash to the parking lot. By the time I'm halfway done with my smoke he's running circles around the truck. I watch him running like that for a good ten minutes, working the snow to the bare ground, and I push in the clutch and coast downhill. I get out my deputy sheriff's badge and my long black flashlight, and I walk over to the truck and give it a good rap on the glass.
    "Pilgrims," I say. "You're surrounded."
    Rawley is sitting upright in the driver's seat, singing June Carter and Johnny Cash. He's got one hand clutching the steering wheel and one hand knuckling Bird behind the ears. His head is gashed open above the left eye, but he just keeps singing. If somehow you could pack up your sorrows. He's wearing this false moustache soaked with blood that hardly sticks to his face, and the uniform of a United States marine. Clearly, he's a different sort of pilgrim. The stripes belongs to a gunnery sergeant, but he looks too young to make rank. I figure him for about nineteen. For a long time he's sitting like that, staring out the windshield, his voice getting softer and softer. You would lose them, I know how to use them. Give them all to me. Then I knock again with the flashlight, and he whips his head around and rolls down the window and throws his hand through the frame.
    "Well shit," he says. "You must be Tucker."
    I shake his hand and tell him my name is not Tucker.
    "I'm Rawley," he says. "This here is Bird."
    He puts his hand up to his eyes, like I'm blinding him with the flashlight. I click it off with my thumb.
    "We're deserters," he says.
    "You're pilgrims," I correct him.
    "I hear you've got a place for the winter."
    "Well shit," I say. "How'd you hear that?"
    I can tell right off he's got a sense of destination. You see this in soldiers sometimes, this sense of purpose. Ex-soldiers, whatever. They know how to make a mission out of it. Most of the pilgrims we get at the castle, they don't have a clue. You send them down to the bait store to buy salt jerky, they come back with teriyaki. You tell them to put on Skeeter Davis, they start in with the Doris Day. It takes them weeks just to get their bearings. They've got the wavelength, but they haven't got the frequency. Can't make it without me and Jack telling them how it is.
    First thing Rawley does when he steps out of the truck, he asks me which way's north. He looks at me like we're old friends, like we're father and son, and he motions for me to hand him the flashlight. Honestly I can't discount the possibility I've got some unknown offspring out there. He's counting on his fingers, making some kind of calculation. Then he follows the truck tracks out to the center of the lot and stands there, turning in a circle, taking in his environs. He puts his index finger up to catch the wind. The snow's falling all around. He stops with his back to the highway and shines the flashlight up the hill to the castle and shouts across the lot, "That must be the cathedral."
    Then he takes three steps forward and collapses.
    Not a good sign for the future caretaker of the last best place in the world. I put my coat down on the snow and drag the fugitive on top so he doesn't freeze to death. While he's lying there with the lights out, I take the liberty of going through the truck. Jack noses around the kid's body for a bit and then climbs up into the cab with Bird. Not my business, but I can smell the romance. The truckbed is filled with all kinds of junk, old boat parts and wire and nuts and knobs. I'm careful to remember where everything goes so I can restore it correct. I dig my way through to the middle and clear out a space where I can sit down next to the bell. It's bigger than it looked in the newspaper pictures.
    I kick the bell with my boot but it doesn't sound, so I hit it softly with a lead pipe and it gives a clear ring. I don't know a lot about church bells, but it seems to be the real thing. I look over my shoulder to see if the kid's awake, but he hasn't moved, so I hit the bell again harder. The sound wave passes through everything in the back of the truck, fence posts and window frames and old air conditioners. Everything made of metal shimmers. Everything made of concrete is dead. I hit the bell a third time to feel the buzz in my arms and legs.

    After that I carry the kid on my back up to the castle, and I sew up the gash in his forehead with a piece of line. Jack shows Bird where to take a piss, and then they come in and lay together beneath the table. I put the teakettle on the fire to get lit. I boil a couple of eggs and put them on a plate with a sliced tomato. Rawley wakes up and starts looking around at the furniture like he's never seen a mohair armchair in his life. He's playing with some kind of hunting knife, opening it and closing it, turning it over in his hands.
    "Damn," he said. "This is great." He strokes his false moustache. "What is this place? Some kind of hideaway?"
    "Some kind of something like that."
    I sit down across the table, and we stare at each other a while. I'm taking a risk here, harboring a confirmed war deserter. I am aware of the legal implications.
    "You got a last name, soldier?" I say.
    "Walker," he says. "Rawley Walker."
    "You got prospects?"
    "I'm good with my hands," he says. "Machines. I can fix things. I thought maybe I could help you out. Lay low for a while."
    I stare at him.
    "Just until things die down," he says.
    "You got the love for your country?"
    "What?"
    "You got the love for your country?" I say again.
    "Oh," he says. He looks down at the plate. "Okay, I get it." He pushes his chair back from the table and starts to get up. "I'm sorry," he says. "I won't bother you. I got the wrong—"
    "Sit down. Do you have the love for your country, Sergeant Walker?"
    "Yeah," he says. I see a flash of anger in his eyes. "I mean, yes, sir. Of course I do."
    I grab the knife from his hands.
    "You can sleep upstairs."

    It snows all day and into the evening, and me and Jack hole up in the fishing shack down by the creek. We leave the pilgrims back at the castle to get settled. There's canned tuna in the cupboard. I figure they can take care of themselves.
    We watch the snow fall into the water until the light disappears. It's cold enough to stick in the high branches of the trees but not cold enough to freeze the creek. We bunk there for the night, me and Jack in the hammock, with only each other and a sleeping bag for heat. I wrap my arm around his belly and pull the bag over our heads. I'm awake long after he's snoring, thinking about this retirement business. Somehow I don't see myself handing over the keys to someone in Rawley's position. War deserter, national traitor, I've got no problem with that. But you've got to question the judgment of someone that lacks the good sense to shoot himself in the leg and get kicked out the old-fashioned way.
    Naturally that's not the sort of thing you share with Jack. That dog's got a mind like a wild salmon. You give him something to think about, you better have a firm hold on the fishing pole or you're liable to be up shit river with a hole in your lip. He's a good dog, but he's not much of a thinker. I'm on my own in the arena of moral reflection. That's just the nature of the arrangement.
    It snows all the next day and into the night, and Rawley comes shambling down from the castle with Bird. He's favoring one leg, and I can see he's still pretty messed up from the crash. He sits on a tree stump about fifty feet down the bank and lights a fire with cedar branches, warms up some rocks for heat. I come out of the fishing shack and walk down to where he's sitting and sit on the next stump over. That's about twenty feet away. Too far to have a conversation. I know it's awkward as soon as I sit down, but I figure it'll be worse to get up again. I've got to show some leadership.
    Rawley looks at me sidelong and grins. He's still got the blood in his moustache.
    "You know you're famous in the service?" he says.
    "Right," I say. "Keep talking, soldier." I'm trying to keep it friendly. "Outside the valley there's no one that knows about this place."
    What I'm doing is I'm figuring out his angle. I know he's trying to play me, but I don't see where he's going yet.
    "No, I swear, it's true."
    I'm watching him real close, studying his face as he talks.
    "There's a guy I used to bunk with. Had a picture of your cathedral he used to keep in his wallet. Got it from another soldier on his way out when we were coming in."
    "It's not a cathedral," I say. "It's a castle. And it's not mine. I'm the caretaker. Me and Jack."
    Rawley's got his hands out in front of himself, rubbing them together over the fire. He looks like some kind of maniac with that gash in his head. He stares straight ahead at the creek.
    "Well, this guy, he was always carrying that picture, everywhere he went. He'd say, 'When we get out of this hole, that's where I'm going. I don't care about being a citizen.' He means house, kids, you know, all that. This guy's wife had left him, so he was seriously angry. He was always passing that picture around, like other guys had pictures of their girls. 'That's the last best place in the world,' he said. That's how he talked about it. 'When I get out, I'm going straight up the country. I don't care about nothing else.'"
    Jack gets up from my feet and walks over to the fire and lays down next to Bird, and they fall asleep. Now it's just me over here on the tree stump. I can see Jack's fur rising and falling with his breath.
    "It meant a lot to him, your cathedral," Rawley says. "He carried that picture through some pretty dark times."
    "Well, I don't know," I say. "Never heard of him. Maybe I'll send you a letter if he comes around."
    Rawley turns his hands over and studies the nails like he's inspecting for dirt. I think he's going to be silent, but then he says, "Motherfucker got his kneecaps blown out a couple of weeks before I left."
    He coughs up something from his lungs and spits into the fire.
    "Kid," I say. "That's a terrible story."
    "Oh, it's not bad. He's alive."
    "I don't care if he's alive. That's a terrible story. You should know that." I adjust my tree stump in the snow. "That's a terrible thing to say to a person. Anyway, I'm retired. That's one thing you ought to know about me. I'm retiring. I'm not going to be here when he comes."
    "I'm sorry to hear that," Rawley says. "Very sorry to hear that."
    "If he ever comes," I say.

    Monday it snows and Tuesday it snows, and we spend our days down by the creek, me and Jack and the pilgrims. Mornings I take the cart up to the wood pile to get more logs, and we sit around the fire, heating up rocks. Wednesday it's colder, and the snow settles on the water. We watch the snow melt until it doesn't melt at all, and then we watch the freezing. I carve a slide whistle out of an alder limb with Rawley's hunting knife.
    "Can I ask you a question, soldier?" I say, after three days of silence.
    "What's that?" he says.
    "Why'd you steal that bell?"
    "Can't really say. I was thinking you could use it, I guess."
    "What am I going to do with it?"
    "I don't know. Ring it?"
    Thursday morning the storm breaks, and the sun is shining. The pilgrims start unloading the pickup truck.
    "You're going to be staying awhile then," I say. Not really a question.
    Rawley hands me a sheet of corrugated plastic. "Long enough."
    I help them stack the scrap metal and junk out back by the go-karts and cover it with a tarp, and then we head up to the castle. The pilgrims back the truck up to the moat and start messing around with the winch. I watch from the upstairs window. I like the way they work, the two of them together, with rehearsed precision. Me and Jack were never that efficient. A few hours later, they've got the cathedral bell hung up between the turrets with an old tractor axle, and a rope hanging down to the ground. I fix a twenty-ounce White Russian in a thermos and go outside to lean on the truck.
    "Well," Rawley says. "What do you think?"
    "Let's hear it."
    He picks up a piece of gravel and throws it up toward the bell and zings it right in the center, a real soldier's throw.
    "It's got a nice ring," I say.
    "You got a bell like that, you're going to be calling them in from a hundred miles away."
    "Listen, Sergeant," I say. "You know, me and Jack—"
    He cuts me off before I get to the next part. "Yeah, I know." He puts a loop in the rope with a knot I've never seen before. "You go on up the hill, and let me know how it sounds from there."
    I take the snowmobile out back of the castle. I carry Jack in a sling around my back, and I climb the radio tower. When I get to the top, I give my best war whoop. I haven't whooped like that since I was a young man. Rawley rings the bell, and Bird starts barking from the parking lot. Then Jack's barking too, and the bell is ringing, and I'm war whooping real good until my lungs can't take it. I lean back in the Aerostar seat and hit my inhaler hard, and Jack lays down on the platform, and we watch the sun set over the city. We're singing "Harbor Lights" and I'm drinking the White Russian, and we keep singing until we hear a door slam and an engine start. Rawley's truck pulls out of the parking lot and eases down the highway heading south.
    "What do you know," I say to Jack. "The kid pulled a fast one on us."
    I pull him up onto the Aerostar seat, and he puts his head on my leg.
    "Didn't see that coming," I say. Though if I'm telling the truth, I probably did.

    Now, me and my dog Jack, we're what folks used to call patriots. We've got a fix for duty. We have a moral obligation. Every day at sunrise we go up to the wood pile and light a Roman candle, and we sing the national anthem. We've got the wood stacked twelve foot high in a horseshoe round, which makes for a natural amphitheater. The open side faces out into the valley, and you can hear us singing for miles. Jack's got this thing he does with his throat, sounds like the scratch of a record album. Me, I sound like Elvis. And I'm not talking about the velvet Elvis. I'm talking about the Elvis Presley that went around wearing concealed weapons under his jumpsuit. You hear us singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky," it makes you want to press your fingertips into a steeple.
    I'm not saying this is the best place there ever was. It's just the only one that's left. Twenty years ago there were best places everywhere you went. Hot springs that didn't have boards of directors. Bowling alleys that didn't have lasers. Going upcountry, you were bound to hit three or four a week. These days it seems like nobody knows where's the upcountry's at. Some folks don't know something about nothing if you can't point nowhere on a map.
    Me and my dog Jack, we've still got the keys to the fiberglass castle. My shoulder's getting stiff, and it's fair to say we're rusty on the attack. But we've got a few years in us yet. What we've been doing lately is I'm teaching Jack to ring the cathedral bell. If he starts down by the windmill and gets a good run on it, he can jump up and get the pilgrims' knot between his teeth. You don't see him when he's about to do it, because the trees block your view from the ticket line. But then the bell rings, and you look over, and you see Jack rising up through the white pines, rising up above the castle wall, and down again, holding onto that rope, jerking his head around like he's playing tug, like he does in his sleep. He weighs enough to ring the bell twelve times at high noon. Then he just kind of hangs there, reverberating.



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