Two weeks into his junior year of high school, my cousin Tucker tries to kill himself, but instead blows half his face off. I get a call from my brother, who tells me that Tucker will probably live, sans face, and he’ll be residing in Grandview Hospital’s ICU for the foreseeable future.
“Fuck,” I say. I haven’t seen Tucker in three years. In my memory, he has long limbs and one grey front tooth.
“Beth, don’t come home,” Ray tells me.
“I wasn’t going to.”
“There’s no point in you losing that job.”
“I just told you I’m not coming.”
Ray clears his throat and I can hear he’s been crying. It’s backwards, but between the two of us, he’s the one that can shed some genuine tears.
“How’s Ma?” I ask. Ray has his own place, but he sees Ma a few times a week.
“You should call her sometime and find out.”
“What about Aunt Penny?”
“What do you think?”
I don’t say anything. I know Tucker was big into baseball for a while, but now I can’t remember if he kept with it.
“They don’t have insurance, you know,” Ray says. “This could wipe them out.”
“Call me if anything changes,” I say, because if I don’t wrap it up, he’ll keep this going for hours.
I go to work at noon, and spend the first half of my shift unloading boxes back in the warehouse. This is my favorite part of the job, even though I was hired to work the floor. Back here, we all just put our heads down and move. The boxes are heavy. The cardboard is musty and it smears black dust all over our palms. The shipper, an ice-climber with red hair that sprouts thickly from his entire body, likes me back here because I never put a box in the wrong spot. His real name is Rob, but we call him Bird. He plays oldies on the radio so loud we can barely hear the phone ring. Forget trying to page us on the intercom. When you’re back here, if someone’s looking for you, they better come tap you on the shoulder.
I don’t think about Tucker once while I’m unloading. That’s how the warehouse is; there’s no room for anything else. But once you go through those swinging black doors and onto the floor, it’s a different story. Then you stand around waiting for someone to ask you something and even the little shit eats away at you.
Time barely moves out on the floor. I’ll check my watch six or eight times an hour and then get mad at myself for it. Some of my coworkers refuse to wear watches because they’d spend the whole day staring at them, but I catch them sneaking into the break room to look at the clock almost as often.
Today I’m working with Ben, who will tie people’s laces even without them asking. When we pass in the back, between the metal racks, he raises his eyebrows like he can’t be bothered to smile when the customers aren’t looking.
I’ve been here a year and a half now and I can read people instantly. Some of them want to look at everything – they want to know the specs, the weight of a boot, they want to walk around the store for an hour. Others don’t want to make a decision, and it’s best if I just pick one out and tell them that it fits. I’ll even get down on my knee and pretend to feel their toe if it gets them out the door.
We’re not on commission so I only upsell the people that want it. Ed, the manager, wants every pair of shoes to have at least one pair of socks with them and maybe some insoles. He wants us to cross-sell into other departments. He tells us to remember the things customers might forget: the sunscreen, the water bottles, the first aid kits.
I’m watching a guy pull shoes off the wall and bend them harder than he needs to, like he’s proving something. He’s only a few feet away, but he doesn’t look at me.
“Got any questions?” I ask.
“Any of these not made in China?” He is an old guy with a ball cap and white hair that sticks out in uncombed wisps. His eyes are red-rimmed and watery.
“What kind of shoe are you looking for?”
“Just a walking shoe.”
I smile. People ask for walking shoes all the time. It’s a big joke with us because we divide our shoes into six categories here and ‘walking’ isn’t one of them. Because they’re shoes. You can walk in any of them.
I pick a Lowa from the wall.
“These are made in Slovakia,” I tell him.
I can see he doesn’t know shit about Slovakia.
I point at another one. “These are made in Romania.”
He looks at the price and shakes his head. Then he grabs the Moab, the one-hundred dollar shoe that looks like a hiking boot but feels like a slipper. Old people love the Moab.
“What about these?”
“China,” I say.
“I don’t buy anything they make…” he starts in. Some old men come here and tell me “how it used to be” in a grandfatherly way, because I’m young and a woman and maybe because I remind them of a granddaughter they have or could’ve had if things had gone another way. But this guy is here to tell me how it is. Present tense.
“…they have tiny feet, that’s why I used to be a size ten and now I have to wear an eleven and a half,” he says.
I want to tell him shoes feel tight because he’s old, his feet are spreading out and his arches are collapsing. Instead I bob my head in a way that neither agrees nor disagrees.
“We shouldn’t be buying stuff from them,” he says.
“Yeah?” I say so that it could be a question, but maybe not.
“I won’t buy anything they make. It’s all cheap crap. They don’t know quality.”
I can see he wants me to fight back, to try to sell him something, but instead I say, “Let me know if you change your mind,” and I head to the back where I’ll wait for him to leave.
On my break, I go sit in my car. It’s been raining; the parking lot is damp and the clouds are hanging low enough that I might brush my head against them. I check my phone, but no one’s called. I think about Tucker and I wonder what was in his brain in the millisecond between pulling the trigger and the impact. I remember hearing a story on the radio about a guy who tracked down all the people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge but survived. Every single one of them said that, on the way down, they’d had a change of heart.
Coming from the dull grey into the fluorescent light makes me squint. I have two hours left in my shift, which feels like it started three days ago. In footwear, Ben is wedging a shoe onto a toddler while the mom talks on her cell phone. I give him a little wave, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
I spend the next hour organizing socks and emptying the dressing rooms. Now that traffic’s down we have to float between clothing and footwear, which is a lot of ground to cover. Most days, clothing gets ignored and the dressing rooms pile up. I don’t mind dealing with it.
If you go in a dressing room just after someone’s been in there, you can smell them. Not their sweat or their shampoo, just their scent. Like if you rubbed your nose against their neck. Something about the clothes coming off makes this happen. This is my second favorite part of this job, these private moments with humanity. I’ve heard that scientists somewhere proved that attraction is based mostly on smell and I believe it; I’ve fallen in love maybe half a dozen times in these empty dressing rooms. But nothing’s ever come of it.
When I have a half hour left, a guy waves me down to help him with backpacking boots. He’s maybe in his mid-thirties with black hair that’s been shaved close to the scalp and straight white teeth that could land him in a toothpaste commercial if he wanted. His crisp blue button-up is tucked into a pair of snug jeans and he is wearing a shoe we carry, the Riva. It has a hiking sole, but it’s suede and you could maybe wear it to the office if you had the right kind of job.
I run through his options, the reasons why a stiff boot is best for carrying a heavy load. He nods along and runs his palm over his head like maybe this is a new haircut for him.
I pull him three different styles like we’re trained to do. Four is overwhelming and two is not enough. While he tries them, we talk. It’s easier to feel chatty when the end of your shift is coming up.
“It’s my first time in Montana,” he tells me, though he doesn’t need to. I know he’s from a city and he wants nothing more than to have an authentic interaction with a local.
“Where you from?” I ask.
“What brings you out here?”
“I’m going to do a trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and then go up to Glacier National Park.”
“Who you going with?” I ask.
“Oh,” I say, surprised. I’ve been in the Bob maybe ten times and I still wouldn’t do it alone.
“I’ve always wanted to come out here and I finally got the time.”
“Did you drive?”
He nods, pacing up and down the aisle.
“How long it take you?”
“About twenty-three hours,” he says. “I did it in two days.”
“They’re long states going sideways, aren’t they?” I say because I’ve driven that stretch more than once.
He smiles and soft creases split his face. “Not much out there once you hit the Dakotas.” He leans back and looks up like maybe he’s remembering something private.
“How they feeling?” I ask.
“Only okay,” he says. He sits on the bench and starts loosening the boot.
I open the next box, remove the tissue paper, and pull the laces out. “Did you bring gear from Chicago?” I ask, handing him the left.
“Most of it. I ordered a couple things and had them shipped here. Couldn’t do that with shoes though. Got to try them on.” He pulls the laces tight.
I show him how to walk the incline, to make sure his heels don’t slide on the way up and his toes don’t touch on the way down. He goes up and down, staring at his feet the whole time.
He narrows it down to the TPS 520 and the Renegade, which are both solid; it makes me respect him, that he’s buying the right thing. The TPS 520 is the better boot of the two, but some people who haven’t backpacked much complain that it’s too stiff, too heavy, so I don’t push it.
“You guys have bear spray here?” he asks.
“You ever used it?” he asks.
“Never had to, but that’s how you want it.” I smile to keep it light, but I wonder if he knows that when you come across a bear in the woods, with your heart thumping and your legs cold, you have to take your time to look for the hump in its back, the size of its ears, the shape of its face. The color of its fur tells you nothing. Some grizzlies look almost black and some black bears are golden, especially if the sun’s on them.
If it’s a black bear, you want to make noise, act strong, don’t give up ground. If it comes at you, fight back, hit it in the snout, flail, scream. If it’s a grizzly, best to play dead, cover your neck, go into the fetal position, and hope it loses interest. Bear spray might work on either of them, but not if you’re facing the wind, not if it’s raining, and I’ve heard of people unloading the whole canister before the bear even gets close enough to notice.
“You grow up here?” he asks. He’s got the Renegades on for the second time.
“I grew up in Helena,” I lie. He doesn’t want to hear that I came from Ohio and I picked out Missoula for no reason. Might as well have closed my eyes and stuck my finger on a map. Ma said she could understand it if I had something out there waiting for me, but not like this. Like I was running to a big empty space. Whenever I talk to her that’s where we end up: how cruel it was for me to leave for no reason at all.
“Where’s that?” He kicks his toes into the ground.
“About an hour and a half from here.”
He nods. “I think these are the winners,” he says, pointing down at the Renegades.
“Alright,” I say. I check my watch; only seven minutes left. There’s no point in explaining the break-in period because he has no time. He will likely get blisters and that’s the sort of thing that can ruin a trip. I should tell him to pick up some moleskin, but if I do I’ll end up staying late. Instead I box up his boots and wish him luck. He shakes my hand, thanks me, and we go our separate ways.
I call Ray on the way home.
“How is he?”
“Still in a coma,” he says.
“How’s he look?”
“I haven’t seen what it’s like underneath all the bandages.”
“Do you think he knows he’s still alive?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you think Tucker knows he’s not dead yet?”
“He’s in a coma,” Ray says. “It’s like he’s sleeping.”
“I know what a coma is.”
“He’s got a tube doing the breathing for him,” Ray says, his voice cracking.
“Do they know when he’ll wake up?” I ask.
“Not sure.” Ray breathes into the phone. “I’ll pay for a ticket, you know, if you want to come home.”
“You should at least call Ma.”
When I get home, at ten, I crawl into bed next to Jill. We don’t see each other much these days because when she’s not in class, she’s working. She’s a phlebotomist at the hospital and she’s in the Reserves, too, so she drives to Helena one weekend a month for drill.
Neither of us has ever said the word forever about this relationship, but it’s nice sleeping next to someone, having evidence of another person in the apartment. Also, I like her cat.
She rolls over to me and curls into my back. “You okay?” she asks. She’s got a barometer on me like you wouldn’t believe.
“You’re lying,” she says, rubbing her nose between my shoulder blades. I can feel her breath on my skin.
“You’re sleeping,” I whisper.
It’s true because she goes quiet and she doesn’t move again until she gets up to pee a few hours later.
I won’t tell her about Tucker. It’s just the kind of thing she doesn’t need to know. If I did, she’d tell me to talk about it, process my feelings, which would be trying to undo two and a half decades of doing it another way.
I don’t see her in the morning because she slips out of bed at seven for her shift, and I don’t wake up until nine. I feel the mattress decompress when she leaves, and then the cat comes and tucks herself by my hip. The cat’s name is Modie, but I call her Moe. Jill talks to her high-pitched and squeaky, but I like to give it to her straight.
“I had a dream someone was trying to get in the window,” I say, rubbing her ear between my fingers. She’s staring at me, but it seems more like she’s looking right through me.
“But it wasn’t this window. I think it was a different window.” Moe stands, walks a circle and settles down again.
“What should we do today?” I ask. There is sunlight pooled on the bed. I stretch my arms and then roll my face into the pillow.
It’s my day off, and I could spend it another way, but I plant myself on the couch and flip through the channels on our TV. There are sixty-one of them. I watch one sitcom after the other, losing track of the people and the storylines. I can’t tell which breaks are just for commercials and which mean that a new episode is starting. I think of Tucker, of what it might be like for him to wake up and realize he’s still alive. I wonder if he’s dreaming in his coma or if it is just an empty blackness, like the sleep I get when I drink too much.
It’s two weeks later when a couple of policemen come into the store. By now, Tucker has come out of the coma and claimed the desire to live. He’s had one surgery to repair some of the damage and odds are he’ll have to have plenty more. They have plans to graft skin from his legs to replace what’s missing on his cheek, Ray tells me.
I haven’t seen cops come in the store like this, but I figure it has something to do with shoplifters or a customer passing bad checks. We get girls every other week with purses big enough to stuff two down jackets into and they hit nothing but the North Face racks. Long after they’ve gone, we find tags and security sensors that have been cut and shoved into pant pockets.
But these guys go into the back office to talk with Ed and then just after that he comes out onto the floor and waves me over. He tells me that they have some questions for me, which saps all the moisture from my mouth and throat.
They’re waiting for me in the banking room, which is the only room in the office with a locking door. It’s too small for three people. There’s a safe in one corner and a tiny window that looks out toward the rest of the office. We sit across from each other and our knees almost touch.
The first cop has a long face and drooping eyes that remind me of an old hound our neighbor had growing up. His hair is thinning on top, but he’s taken the time to comb it back and put product in it that makes it shine.
“I’m Officer Pascoe,” he says, pulling out a picture and handing it to me. “Do you recognize this man?”
I look at the picture. It’s a close up of a man’s face with a big wide smile and hair hanging almost into his eyes. The corners of the photo are worn, like they’ve been played with too much.
“His name is Andrew Egan,” the second one says. He has a round face with blue eyes that are too close together. “Goes by Andy.”
I look back at the photo and the guy maybe looks familiar, but I can’t place him.
“He was in here a couple weeks ago buying gear. Hiking boots and bear spray.”
That shakes something loose. “He shaved his head,” I say. “His hair was much shorter.”
Officer Pascoe nods, writes something down in his tiny notebook. “His family hasn’t heard from him in a while. They’re worried.”
I look back at the photo – Andrew’s teeth look white but not quite like they did in person.
“Did he tell you his plans?” the second one asks.
“He said he was going into The Bob and then to Glacier.”
“Is that all?” Officer Pascoe asks, holding his pen in the air.
“He said it was his first time in Montana. That he’s always wanted to come out here, but never had the time. And he was alone.”
Officer Pascoe nods, but doesn’t write anything down.
“How long has it been since they heard from him?” I ask.
“It seems this was one of the last places he stopped. That was—” he pauses to flip through his little book, “—fourteen days ago now.”
I nod, fingering the edges of the photo.
“Thanks for your time,” Officer Pascoe says as he stands. “Unless there’s anything else you can think of.”
I get out of my chair and shrug, because there’s nothing else I can say. “Here,” I say, holding the photo out to him.
“Thanks.” He tucks it into his pocket, and opens the door for me to go.
I wander back out to Footwear. One by one they call the rest of the staff back to see what everyone remembers. I go over and over what I said to Andrew, but it doesn’t add up to anything special.
The day floats by with people talking about it: in the break room, at the shop counter, in the warehouse, and even on the floor, right in front of customers. There are a thousand reasons a man might go missing, but all we can talk about are the bears; the Bob’s full of them. Last year, some guy from Michigan was killed by a grizzly, and it was easy for us to shrug it off because he’d done everything wrong. This feels different. I never saw that guy’s face. I never had the chance to tell him what not to do.
I forget that Jill has left for Helena already because her car is still parked out front of our place when I get home. She carpools with three guys from her unit and last night she had to retell me about each one because I can never keep them straight. She calls them by their last names, and though she tells me that the Army is full of meatheads and assholes, she smiles when she talks about them.
When I open the door, I can feel that the place is empty, except for Moe, who doesn’t show up until I’ve thrown my bag down and turned on the TV. At first I think Jill has maybe left me a note because there’s a little piece of paper on the counter, but when I go to read it, I see it’s just a nest of scribbles, like she was trying to get a pen working.
I make a point of watching the local news. There is Andrew’s picture cut in with stock footage of mountains, a newscaster creasing her brow in concern. There is a hotline to call if you have information.
The cat and I sit together on the couch. “I know that guy,” I tell her. “His name is Andrew, but he goes by Andy.” Before I can say anything else, Moe gets up and goes into the other room.
I call Ray. In the last two weeks, he’s offered to buy me a ticket home four times.
“How is he?” I ask.
“He’s eating better,” Ray says. He likes to talk as if he’s sitting all day at the hospital, but I know he’s hearing from Ma, who’s hearing it from Aunt Penny.
“I had two cops come visit me at work today,” I say.
“Now that he’s up a little more I think he’d really appreciate a visit from you.”
I pull a thread from the seam of the cushion. “Is that what he said?”
“It makes a difference. Having people around.”
Sometimes it feels like Ma is talking right through Ray’s mouth. “I haven’t seen him in three years. And even then it was just for Christmas, with everyone.”
“It’s good for him to know he has support.”
“Maybe I’ll call him.”
“Yeah, right,” Ray says.
I let it pass. “Is he looking any better?”
“The right side of his jaw is pretty much gone.”
“Can they fix it?”
“Maybe. But it’ll cost more than they got.”
“Has he said why he did it?” I ask.
Five days later they find Andrew’s body a few miles past Upper Holland Lake. I read about it in the break room at work. From what they can tell, he got off trail, and fell. His leg is splintered, but his body is intact. They can tell he survived the fall because there is gauze that he tried to tape over the wound. They’ll have to do an autopsy to figure out whether it’s the exposure or the dehydration that got him. The story in the Missoulian doesn’t mention it, but I know what shoes he was wearing.
No one is surprised because every year there are deaths like this, people getting in over their heads. In the spring, two freshmen dove into the Clark Fork to celebrate the end of finals and one of them never came back up.
I try to imagine Andrew’s final minutes out there with the woods closing in around him, how lonely a death that must have been. The article doesn’t say why he was off trail. He could’ve been spooked by something or maybe he saw a bird and wanted to follow it a while. I wonder whether he would have taken the same fall with another pair of shoes. That’s the thought I can’t shake all day, even when I leave work and go sit by the river.
It’s something I used to do more of when I first moved here and didn’t have a car. I had friends that I only spent time with next to the river – drinking mostly and sometimes throwing rocks into the water. Now the sun is cutting sideways through the trees and their shadows are reaching for the bank. An osprey swoops and settles on a branch overhead. It has a fish in one claw and is clutching the branch with the other. The fish is still alive; it thrashes, its tail whipping back and forth. I watch it struggle, but the bird is staring off into the distance, which at first looks like apathy, but it’s not.
Tucker must have chosen the last shoes he’d wear, must have picked out a shirt and pants and known that would be it. He must have settled upon his last thought carefully and then had it all flip on him when he pulled the trigger. I wonder what the last thing to pass through Andrew’s mind was, or maybe a slow death feels more like falling asleep with thoughts going thin until they give way altogether.
The fish’s gills are working now, trying to turn air into water. It’s stopped the full-bodied thrashing, but its tail is still twitching. The osprey is waiting it out. It’s patient and there’s a certain dignity in it, letting the fish die on its own time. When I was a kid, my dad took me fishing and if we caught something, he’d hold it down and knock it in the head with the wooden sheath of his knife. He always told me that he was putting the fish out of its misery, that it was the right thing to do, even though it looked cold and violent.
Jill isn’t home, but I can’t remember why. Moe greets me at the door with the sort of feline ambivalence that won me over in the first place. She circles near me, but not close enough to touch.
“It’s been a bad day,” I say, and she flips the tip of her tail toward me.
Moe sits on my lap while I drink a beer, which is meant to take the edge off, but instead makes my insides feel like a coiled snake.
I call Ray.
“Do you know why he did it?” I ask. The question has been gnawing at me, not because I can’t understand that kind of despair, but because Tucker never struck me as the type.
“He still hasn’t told anyone.”
“No, I mean do you know why he did it?”
“How would I?” he asks.
“What do you think? You think it was something specific?”
“I don’t know. He wasn’t very popular you know.”
“Most people aren’t,” I say.
“Only compared to you.”
“Fuck you,” Ray says.
“It has to be more than that.”
“Does it?” he asks.
“Yeah. It does.”
There is a long pause, which doesn’t happen much with Ray. Then I can hear him crying. I hang up.
After another beer, Moe and I watch the news. Andrew’s face comes up, then footage of the search and rescue team standing around at the trailhead. They got his body out on horseback and there’s a shot of a horse tied to a tree, its skin twitching. They don’t say whether that’s the horse that carried him down or not.
There is an interview with the sheriff, a man by the name of Steve Boyle. He has a grey mustache and kind eyes that make you feel like he wouldn’t be so bad to run into, even if you were breaking the law. He reminds viewers that venturing out alone is never a good idea, all it takes is one misplaced step, but he says it like it might not be the worst way to go.
I sip my beer. The newscaster is winding up, trying to look sincere but not shaken. She shuffles papers on the desk. Someone has put too much makeup on her face. She creases her brow to show concern, sadness even, but her bright red cheeks make it look like she’s embarrassed. The camera angle shifts to the man. He has the expression of someone trying to look serious. He reports on a single car accident out towards Great Falls. A map takes over the screen with a cartoon starburst along Highway 200 to show where it happened. One person is dead, two are in critical condition. Authorities are still investigating the cause.