Dredging the Pits
Oak Tree marched through the Arcata redwoods, past the mom-and-pop shops with their recycled glass art. His face hurt real bad, and he figured his soul must be busted. Then he heard, wherever you go, there you are, and wondered whether the voice came from within or beyond his head.
The sunlight cut through the canopy, highlighting his neon-green shirt, slightly tanned skin, and long greasy hair seeping out a San Jose Sharks cap. Ahead of him stood hundreds of redwoods, their bark colored an earthy mixture of burnt clay and dusk; and from them, thousands of branches green with life.
Better here in piney, welcoming woods than the streets behind him. All those white folks cluttering the crosswalks—obstacles created only for him, a long series of hippy phonies mocking him.
The trees here lacked shoulders for him to force between, and never judged. Never pulled their saplings close while they eyed him. Never asked what hid in his backpack. Trees were pretty all right in his book.
Ahead, a damp bench surfaced from the woods; a concerned voice suggested, sit down, rest. He obeyed, digging around in his pack. A partially-depleted phonebook, already torn until the yellow pages, sat nestled beside piles of pens he’d found on the ground.
Finally he retrieved his sketchpad. Flipping through pages, he passed a creased corner—he stared, entranced by the person kneeling beside the bubbling tar pit. Though part of him knew he’d drawn the scene earlier that week, the picture still pulled him in.
He smiled, brows furrowed, imagining the situation firsthand:
Fumes rippled from the ground, and Oak Tree found himself kneeling at the edge of the viscid black pool. He felt the sun’s hot, humid breath across his neck and shoulders as he inhaled the sulfuric musk; his eyes singed from the burning air and swirling dust. Steaming asphalt hissed at his fingertips, and the oily surface contorted, one enormous luminescent muscle, flexing.
He closed his eyes and dove face-first, immersing himself in the bubbling tar pit. Oil poured down his throat and he welcomed it.
He then gasped, lungs filled with heat. Tar drowned him there in the woods—he died, he choked, he died, he choked, he choked.
Night began where he ended, darkness as he reached, falling always, drifting sometimes, pulling himself deeper into the pool.
Reaching through the unknown, he felt another mass in the muck. He seized it and pulled the form close. It bobbed against his body, thin and wasted.
He turned the page, returning to the surface when he should have been swallowed. Accompanied, when he should have been alone.
He clawed his way out, finally dragging himself upon the dirt and sand shore. All of him seeped, his body a filled pocket, squeezed. Tar bled from his eyes and oozed from his ears. He gagged, then ran his fingers around the roof of his mouth to pull out grass and clumps of hair.
He turned the page, realizing some blotchy form lay at his feet, dredged from the tar pits beside him. A timid voice peeped, what about him? He wasn’t sure until he looked up, noticing a dust-faced duo emerging from nearby bushes. The teenage girl had dirty, blonde dreads; the boy held a handmade sign.
Oak Tree threw his pad in his backpack, then turned to them. “Careful now. Don’t interrupt a man when he’s communing with his art.”
The two shook their heads quickly. Dreads said, “Sorry guy, just wondering if you got anything… you know, worth sharing.”
Oak Tree looked her over, sizing up her thin waist, then grinned. “How old you kiddies?”
“Seventeen,” said Dreads. “He’s a few years younger.”
“Thirteen,” said Oak Tree. “That’s how old I was when I left home in Fresno.”
He laughed angrily, hearing a concerned voice demand, drive them away, they’ll drag you down. He refused. “Been tramping about California ever since, wandering highways, exploring shitholes and the trash inside ‘em. Eleven years, counting, and here you are.”
“Look, if it’s a big deal we can fuck off.” Dreads looked a little worried, and started to walk away. “Just hoped you might be able to help.”
Oak Tree grabbed her by the wrist, yanking her down with a tug. “Now you sit and listen.” He regarded the pair while he looted his pockets. “I ain’t prone to gifting people, but your scared eyes remind me of my lost Devochka.” He put his arm around Dreads and pulled her close, breathing her in—she smelled like wet grass. “And since you asked so nicely, I might got something for you nomads-in-training.”
He gave her four individually crumpled dollars even as a voice hissed, keep them, you need to keep them. “Now you take these before I lose my goddamn mind. Go past the overpass, and grab yourselves a couple McChickens. Buck apiece deals are a steal, especially when bacon’s involved.”
Leaving the two speechless, Oak Tree made a quick bow. He mumbled as way of apology, then wandered deeper into the woods.
The labyrinth of trees had a feeling about them like an electric current—Oak Tree swore he could feel it, magnets in his skull carrying him forward, drawn to some ore floating erratically through the woods. Exploring in this way until the sun began setting, he hoped clues would signal some kind of arrival.
A hawk landed on a branch ahead. It turned, eyeing him.
A voice yelled, hide, now, you have to hide.
Then a voice whispered, why, why, just curl up and die.
His pack felt particularly heavy, and he veered behind a massive redwood stump to sit. He tore off his cap and hung it in on his knee so he could rub his dried-out scalp. “Just remember it ain’t worth it,” he said, watching loose hairs and dandruff fall. It covered him in a dust that reminded him of the tar pit, the mucky form drawn to the shore. “None of this is.”
But then he rose and continued to walk. He felt the trees, the fog, the ferns. Leaves ran when he approached. He saw a banana slug on its way. He touched it, giggled.
He tried making a list of all the times he’d fucked up, the number of friends’ homes he’d been thrown from, the accusations of hate that he couldn’t believe, but never denied.
New forks kept emerging in the woods and he pursued them without care, alternating, weaving, lost one minute, only to find himself just after in a familiar place.
Eventually he paused, surprised—gunshots fired just ahead. Unsure, he waited until more rang out, sending birds fluttering out of their trees. What sounded like a platoon of horses neighed all at once. He wondered if he’d stumbled upon some olden day cavalry.
Loud, drunken laughter roared out. Music played, and gunshots softened. It all had the magic of movies, and he now wondered if some carnival was taking place in the woods.
He jogged toward the sound. The noises kept coming from different areas, so Oak Tree thought himself a blindfolded-fool playing Hot-Or-Cold with cheaters, telling him he was getting “Hot” when he was most certainly not, leading him through the forest for their jollies.
Stop, a voice commanded, almost tripping him as he obeyed. It’s behind you, over your shoulder.
No, no, no, keep going, said another, and he paused yet again. He waited, trying to figure which way to be pulled.
Finally he pinned down the sound’s location: an enormous cluster of redwoods grown so close together they fused into one mega-trunk. Looking up, he saw an equally magnificent cluster of domed tents, suspended high like some tree house metropolis.
An old white man leaned over a branch, silent as he looked Oak Tree over. Then his entire face lit up, broken teeth and all. “My God! That you, Steinman?”
Oak Tree looked the man over in return. “Sorry, sir, no dice.”
“You sure ‘bout that?” The man looked confused, even a little hurt.
“I’d never lie to the old guard,” said Oak Tree. “Can’t say I’ve seen you before. And besides, my usual company’s not much fond of trees.”
“And what kind of company’s that?”
“The type that’s never around, ‘cause you’re actually alone.”
The man nodded. “Well, Steinman, you ain’t tricking me with all that philosophy mumbo-jumbo.” Then he disappeared behind a branch. Oak Tree didn’t know what to do, listening as the gunshots and hollering took place above. Then the man came back, smiling as he yelled something.
A long, tangled rope came swinging down, nearly whipping Oak Tree’s face.
“Told ya, watch out!”
Oak Tree gripped the knots of the long rope ladder, climbing up as he swayed with the wind. The ground moved further away, and he closed his eyes to avoid looking down. For a second he almost slipped, fumbling blind, but opened his eyes to snag hold. “Steinman, you old drunk!” laughed the old man. “Hope you got plenty to share with the rest of us!”
Oak Tree was breathless when he got to the top, amazed at the many hollowed tents fastened to plywood, nailed down to the tree itself. Some walls were exposed to make use of the trunk like an enormous shelf—all types of pots, skillets, and cooking gear hung from thick nails hammered at odd angles. A clothesline stretched like a tangled kite string, weaving through trimmed branches with damp clothes hanging from it.
The older man approached him, dressed in a fine St. Vincent de Paul’s coat like homeless royalty. Oak Tree laughed a little, then saw the man frown. “God, wha’ happened to your face? You never been a lady’s man, but shit.”
Having forgotten, Oak Tree touched the egg carton frame constituting his nose—pain shot through his eyes and he nearly screamed from its intensity. Then he remembered lying in a parking lot, the stink of piss, white security punks kicking his face as he flailed to block them. Fights came so naturally to him that he stopped caring when one snuck up. He began to wobble, almost tripping on a partially rotted plank of wood.
“Whoa, whoa there, Steinman!” The old man came forward, putting an arm around Oak Tree to pull him back. Before he could contemplate that sudden breach of privacy, the man continued, “You look something awful, lemme tell you! I think it’s best you get a little dinner and calm time with the others. Doctor’s orders!”
Strike him, strike him, push away, said a growly voice. Oak Tree bit hard on his tongue until things went loud, and then quiet.
“What’s wrong, Steinman? You trippin’ out or something?”
“No, sir. Just seeing ghosts again, that’s all.” He tried smiling, and once again the man nodded. Led across the creaking wood-on-wood floor, Oak Tree noticed flowerpots filled with unmatched silverware and huge wine crates of umbrellas.
Just around the corner, he heard the gallop of horses and laughter. A cannon fired.
The next room was as spacious as a school bus, as several particularly large tents had been sewn together to form a sort of banquet hall. Two large couches sat against the massive trunk, each so large the complications of getting one hoisted baffled him. Facing a little stack of milk crates formed like an entertainment center, four or so guys sat, smoking pipes and drinking Lagunitas; they watched a blurry western on a small black and white travel TV, the same Oak Tree was used to seeing in some rich kid’s suburban, though this catered tree-town struck him as a reasonable replacement.
One of the guys—a man with tin foil stretched across his eyes like a mask—noticed them and said, “Holy shit, what’s wrong with that guy’s face!”
All eyes shifted, moving from the blurry screen no wider than a shoebox to look Oak Tree over. “Yo, Doc,” said some guy in a hoodie. “You bringing random people here?”
The rope escape seemed more tempting by the second, but the older man beside him regained his attention. The old man named Doc grew red, his face a fiery radish. “Why, this here’s Steinman.” Doc pulled him close, sounding like he might cry. “An old pal o’ mine from the bar days before your time, returned to me after all these years.”
“Say now.” The man with tin foil nodded his head. “I recognize him! Sorry it took me a second, Steinman. You know, with the face and all.”
“No trespasses conducted, friend,” said Oak Tree, bowing. Somebody laughed, they’ll believe anything, anything.
Hoodie looked like he might get up, and perhaps Doc noticed this as he turned off the TV. “All right, all right, enough small talk. Now let’s make us some DINNER!” The group all jumped up from their couches, laughing and hollering as they retrieved pots and pans from different rooms. Some climbed up branches, grabbing cooking stoves and butane, while others dug into camping backpacks, producing a canned feast-to-be.
While all this took place, Oak Tree noticed Hoodie approach him.
“So, Steinman, I’m sure you know the rules. What you throwing?”
Oak Tree smiled. Then he remembered a guy named Steinman had been asked a question. Then he remembered he was apparently Steinman, and blinked before going to open his pack. “Fraid I don’t got much besides my trusty phonebook and sketchpad.” He pulled both out and set them on a table of ever-versatile milk crates. “And some plastic bags.”
The market’s logo on the bag set off voices of alarm inside his head, reminding him of his smashed face. The fat arms of an older white woman gripped her cart, watching him suspiciously. He’d been ordering thick slices of each of the most expensive deli meats, food he could never afford—Oak Tree, the Supermarket Bandit striking again.
“That’s great!” returned him from his flashback. The man with tin foil reached over his shoulder, snatching a handful of bags. “The inflato john’s been needing some new catchers!”
“Not that your pervy ass minds those public shitters,” laughed Hoodie. “Am I right?” The two of them chuckled, and Oak Tree tried laughing along with them. Then he realized he sounded angry, and that the two had gone silent.
The Tin Man gave him a nod, then faded into the chaos. Most likely to test the new bags. Just the two of them now, and a voice told him, pack and run, pack and run. Oak Tree refused and stood his ground, gripping one of his pens in his pocket tight in preparation. Then he noticed this and released, pulling his hand out to fold it behind his head, safe from reach.
“So hey,” said Hoodie. “Got some pot? Could throw on some jays.”
“Alas, I’m only a stoner when it’s offered,” said Oak Tree, shrugging. A little uncomfortable, he started to lean back where he stood.
“You at least carrying any pills?”
“Same for them, too,” sighed Oak Tree. “Though these days that’s not much my style. And I’m all the worse for it, trust me.”
“Sorry to hear that, Steinman.” The guy paused, examining Oak Tree’s strange posture with a raised eyebrow. “Look, I’m not trying to be a hard ass. Just we got a good thing going–”
“You’re certainly quite cozy,” said Oak Tree, leaning even further back as if aiming for a Limbo stick.
A snarl spread across Hoodie’s face. But before another word was said, Doc materialized, straightening Oak Tree’s spine as he embraced them both. “Now I’m glad to see the two of you getting better acquainted.”
“Indeed,” said Oak Tree. “In fact, I was just thinking I could share some doodles of mine. Like a contribution of sorts.”
“Excellent, excellent,” said Doc, pulling them both close. “The stew’s simmering, and the TV’s nearly out of batteries. Nothing like a show to lighten the mood.”
* * *
The group gathered in the makeshift living room, the smell of cooking being the most prominent guest by far. Oak Tree smiled at the many eyes watching him, biting into another day old roll covered with butter. Apparently one of the guys had an in with a local cashier, getting dairy items at half price if they’d fallen on the floor.
After sipping from a water bottle, he met eyes with Hoodie. “So when we gonna see that children’s book?”
Butter ran down Oak Tree’s fingers, and he started licking it off, only to stop when the others stared. “Sorry folks, anyone here rich in napkins?”
“That’s the only thing we ain’t got,” said Doc with a laugh.
“Nothing unmanageable,” said Oak Tree, pulling out his phonebook. He flipped to a random page and tore it out delicately, then used it to wipe his hands. Ink smeared everywhere. Done, he retrieved his sketchpad.
He opened to the area just before the crease, showing an entirely black page, thickened from layer after layer of ink. Hoodie furrowed his brows, trying to figure out what he was looking at, and a few others looked confused. Oak Tree smiled and flipped the page.
The second scene looked like the first, only with a large bubble swelling, about to pop.
Then the next page zoomed back further, no longer just blotchy darkness, but now more clearly the tar pit, framed within a ring of sand.
“The fuck are we supposed be looking at?” said Hoodie. Oak Tree flipped the page.
Now the group’s faces showed surprise and then interest, noticing the slender young man kneeling by the dark lake’s edge. But then their faces shifted to shock when he began his dive. The pages flipped faster, and some of the men covered their mouths, watching the contorted pictures of the figure drowning, gasping, a single floating face in an abyss.
“Don’t y’all worry,” said Oak Tree. “Just the story of my life, that’s all.”
He showed the figure swimming until he found the other floating mass in the muck. Then he showed the figure returning to the surface. He came onto the dirt shore, dragging the other form behind him, and began digging into the blackness—the skeleton of some cute, useless, four-legged thing now dominated the page, revealed as the figure wiped tar from its remains.
Though Tin Man’s brows raised high above his mask in true artistic appreciation, Hoodie’s face looked like a folded accordion, all frowns and wrinkles. “You know what,” said Hoodie. “Dinner’s nearly done, and I can’t eat if I see any more of this shit.”
A few laughed in agreement and Oak Tree closed his sketchpad.
Doc wiped his sweaty forehead, red as the aftermath of a habanero. “Hey now, hey now, enough of that. Steinman’s always been a thinking guy, and ya can’t hold that against him.”
More people laughed before starting to load up on food. Soon everyone filled their mess kits, complementing their meal with personal stashes of liquor; Oak Tree watched the group sipping Ancient Age and Charles Shaw.
“Here’s to your show earlier,” snorted Doc, passing the plastic handle of Seagram’s 7 after a sip.
“Danke, sir, much obliged,” said Oak Tree, stopping his glugs only when the booze nearly raced back up. A few people cheered, Tin Man included. You could choke on it and nobody would care, said a voice.
“Hey guys,” said Hoodie. “Since this is Steinman’s big night, how ‘bout a game?”
“Splendid, splendid idea!” said Doc. “Any proposals?”
“Lick the Slug!”
“Charley Murphy’s Revenge!”
“I know,” Hoodie interrupted, “let’s play the Hate Game. It’s been a while.”
“Been a while since what?” asked Tin Man.
Hoodie flashed a wicked grin. “Been a while since I had so many things to say.”
“Excellent, excellent,” said Doc. “We’ll have Steinman go last so he can figure it out. Remember, though, no pausing!”
And so they began.
“I hate the fucking train police! Swear they take pleasure cracking skulls.”
Doc spoke up: “I hate ‘em damn junkies, always stealing your stash when you hide it!”
“I hate scabies, ‘squitos, rats, flies, and Jewbats!” said Tin Man.
“I hate wasting my time on shit that doesn’t make sense,” said Hoodie.
“Fair enough folks,” said Oak Tree. “Guess I hate my pops and hunger and the cold. And the heat, too, of course. And television, especially corny ol’ westerns.”
Everyone laughed, except Hoodie.
“I hate folks believin’ crazy supernatural stuff,” said Doc. “Horrid, horrid!”
“I hate people sniffling during fine dinners! Damn humane society critters!”
“I hate them Downs-kids, allowed to be store-greeters when I can’t get nothing,” said Tin Man.
“Gotta hate them low cut tops women always wear. Just waiting to catch ya in their damn shame traps!”
“Hate feeling like I’m haunted,” laughed Oak Tree. “Like some kinda ghost story’s unfolding in my head.”
“I hate when your Fruit Stripe flavor disappears,” laughed Doc. “And you’re stuck chewing yucky shit, but it’s your own damn fault.”
“I hate burning myself on the stove when I’m heating beans or my socks!”
“I hate leaches and freeloaders,” said Hoodie. “People trying to fuck up a good thing.”
“I hate how we force our fellow human beings into corners,” said Tin Man.
“Well, I hate people getting fat off the land,” said Oak Tree, starting to lean back again. “Getting fat, and forgetting who they are.”
“Hate people lacking a connoisseur’s touch,” said Doc with a glug. “Classless bastards!”
“I hate how we look at the ground, instead of saying hi to the people in front of us!” said Tin Man.
“I hate the days that never last long enough!”
“I hate people wasting my time with faggot-ass art,” said Hoodie.
“Well, I hate white trash,” said Oak Tree, “so there.” A few people chuckled politely and Doc gave enthusiastic applause, but Oak Tree continued, leaning so far back in his seat his chest could be used like a table. “No bluff here, folks. I hate knowing what you think of me. Hate knowing you all want to spit on my busted face. Hate how comfortable you white folks get, no matter how fucking bad it gets for the rest of us.”
Hoodie just sat there, glaring until Oak Tree finished speaking. “You talk a lot of shit for someone with white skin.”
“I’m not white,” snorted Oak Tree, leaning forward. “I’m Sicilian.”
“Fellas, fellas,” said Tin Man. “I’m thinking Steinman’s not really clear ‘bout the game.”
“Oh I’m clear ‘bout things,” said Oak Tree. “Clear that I don’t belong amongst Tarzan trailer trash.”
“All right,” said Hoodie, “I’d set down that plate if I were you, Steinman. And run.”
“Speaking of that.” Oak Tree held out his arms and dropped his plate, spilling beans and chicken broth all over the nylon floor. “I especially hate how you folks keep calling me Steinman.”
“Well you never fooled me, fucker.” Hoodie jumped up and ran at him.
A multitude of voices stirred inside Oak Tree’s head. Fight him, fuck him up, yelled some as he readied his jagged knuckles; why don’t you run, run, run, demanded others, making him almost trip on a bottle of wine. A group of voices laughed and he winced. Hoodie was nearly upon him, arm wound for a swing, and the voices roared for conflict.
But Oak Tree refused, trying the first thing that came to mind—he lunged forward, wrapping his arms around his assailant’s legs. “Th-the fuck is this?” Hoodie tried punching at Oak Tree’s head, but couldn’t land a decent blow without losing his balance. “Let go and fight, faggot!”
“Can’t do that, sir. Can’t let me hurt you.” Oak Tree squeezed Hoodie’s legs even tighter. “Even if everyone wants blood… I won’t let it happen, don’t you worry.”
Hoodie gave up on attacking, instead trying to pull himself free from Oak Tree’s grip. “Get this crazy shit off of me!” Doc rushed over before anyone else could, putting himself between the pair as Oak Tree let go. Hoodie stomped away, saying, “That fucker’s out of here now! I don’t care if you have to shove him over the side.”
Something had gone horribly wrong, but Oak Tree couldn’t apologize. Hadn’t done that in a long, long time. Besides, he didn’t want pity—dangling acceptance from a fishing line. Fuck, he’d rather die than ask.
Doc regarded him. “Well, well, guessing that’s closing time.” The old man untangled the rope, then looked up at Oak Tree. “Steinman, you didn’t mean all that, did ya? What you said…”
Oak Tree shook his head and gave the old man a hug. “No sir, I’m just a messed up soul. Always jumping, playing Chicken with the ground.”
The old man nodded and hugged him back. “The ground wins every time.”
“Indeed it does, sir.” Oak Tree remembered his phone book, and pulled away to retrieve it from his pack. He ripped a page out, and sketched a picture right there in the moment with a thick sharpie—one tree growing out of another. He signed it, then gave it to Doc.
“You sure you gonna be leavin’ just like that?” asked Doc. “Where will you go?”
“Sorry, sir, but I’m not sure. All I know is you’ve done right by me, so I got no regrets.” He looked to his side; you’re so close to the edge.
The old man looked confused, which made Oak Tree ashamed as he took the rope. Once he’d started his way down, he looked up, managing to see Doc pin his picture to the tree.
Deep in the woods, dark and cold, Oak Tree found a little dip in the trail, an armpit of the earth. He pulled out his ever-trusty phonebook, then began peeling pages. One by one he took them and balled them up, making a little pile like crumbled leaves.
He lay in the grass and dirt, pulling the pages over to begin covering himself. The remaining pages in his phonebook now became his pillow, and his head rested as he hid from the frigid air. He thought about his pen and pad, wishing to sketch something quickly, but it was too dim for that now. He closed his eyes, pulled into the scene.
Covered in tar, he looked down at the sad, exposed skeleton on the dirt. Maybe the thing was too damaged, said a voice. Maybe you’re too damaged, whispered another.
Oak Tree shook his head, cried a little, laughed a lot, then walked in a circle before coming back to the shore, newly centered. You just need something better.
His lungs again filled with tar as he sunk through the pit once more, eyes blinking through the most searing chlorine imaginable, arms stretched out, searching. Scalding sludge clogged his nose, sealed his eyes and ears, and would not release him.
He found something new, something much larger than before. His arms could barely wrap around the mass, but he struggled nonetheless, feet kicking through liquid asphalt and all its surrounding impossibilities.
Oil ran from his body as he crawled ashore, one arm pulling him along, the other dragging the body-sized clump behind. The muck drained from his body—from every pore, an overturned bucket of tar—and he inspected the large mass in the sand, poking around to try making sense of its form.
Reaching near the top, he found a little knob, no larger than a button, and gripped it. Pulling it, he proceeded to unzip the tar like an enormous, layered coat, revealing an unscathed young girl within, thick dreads soaked.
He pulled her body up, holding her so she dangled in his arms limp above the ground—the homeless girl from earlier, his lost Devochka returned, drowned in his arms. He tilted her head, then brought her mouth to his. Just breathe, he heard. Breathe and fill her lungs.
Beneath the mucus of the tar, her green eyes snapped open.
He remembered himself and seized up, shaken awake in his phonebook nest, terrified as he opened his eyes, dropping her. A swirl of badness crept inside him, a coldness he couldn’t shrug away, and again he felt like he might never be alone.
But then something calmed him, caught him in his decline and left him warm. Something closed his eyes, soft on the grass, and let him sleep. It’s why I’m writing this, I think—it’s love, love, love.
Christopher Morgan is Editor for Arroyo Literary Review. Sometimes he sits at his keyboard, banging on it like a child on a piano; other times, he’s in bed, not sleeping. This story is dedicated to Rohbi “Oak Tree,” as he wanders through his mind. http://andlohespoke.tumblr.com/