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Gila River Review
Jessica Johnson

The Failed Hunter

            Feeling around my sleeping bag, I found my headlamp and stretched the strap over my head.  The desert dust coated my throat until it felt sticky and sore.

            I pulled on my boots and squeezed myself through the slit in the tent door.  I emerged just as Bryant appeared out of his own tent.  We grunted our good morning’s and tromped to where David was already parked in a camping chair in front of the fire.   He glanced up at me as he took a hippo’s bite out of a bagel.  Somehow his mouth managed to form words around the giant mass of dough and cream cheese as he asked, “So Nate, you gonna actually kill somethin’ today?”

            I held my hands in front of the fire and turned them over a few times.  “Well if I do, it’s gonna be better than I coyote or rabbit.”

Bryant chuckled behind me.  “Yeah, right.  Like you’re gonna have any more luck than either of us.”

            David took another big bite.  “Better than nothin’.”

            Better than nothing was right.  And nothing was exactly what I had.  I pulled my rifle from the truck and set it down next to me as I sat.

            “What are you doing, man?” Bryant asked.  “You think a buck’s gonna come strolling through our camp?”  I didn’t say anything, just ran my thumb along the rim of the rifle’s barrel.  Bryant snorted and shook his head.  “This hunting ground sucks.”

             David and I didn’t voice our agreement but we both knew he was right.  It was supposed to be a good area—or so we’d heard.  But after the past few days, we’d formed a more accurate opinion.  Jeeps constantly zipped up and down the dry washes around us.  We hadn’t realized our camp was so close to the border.  The Border Patrol had even stopped Bryant once to ask if he’d seen anyone suspicious. But the only things any of us had seen were the gross amounts of trash and discarded scraps of clothing littering the place.

            I picked up my gun and laid it across my lap while we finished breakfast.  We left camp just as the sky began to glow with the first signs of morning and stayed together until full light.  The Tucson sky was as clear as always and thick beargrass and desert broom trees filled the landscape.  Once we tested our walkie talkies, we each set off for our own individual stakeouts.

            I scanned the desert as my feet tromped along the rocky dirt.  I kept my gun at my side with my finger loosely over the trigger.  A sound behind me brought me swinging around aimed and ready.  A doe and two fawns came bounding out from the bushes and I had to tackle my need to pull the trigger.  I squatted down and waited, hoping a buck might follow. 

            Nothing.  I was about to stand and shake my legs awake when I caught a flash of movement.  It couldn’t have been a deer.  There’d been color.  The gravel crunched beneath me as I shifted my weight and strained to see through the plants and shrubs.  My knees started to ache.

            I was close to giving up again when a form sprung up from behind a thick bush.  He ran cautiously, darting his head from side to side.

Slowly I raised myself into a haunch and started after him, my feet tingling with the new flood of blood.

            Suddenly, he ducked down again and so did I.  When he popped back up, I picked up my pace.  Soon I was close enough to hear his footfalls as they pounded against the dirt.  When he squatted down again, I crouched between two tall paloverde trees and prayed my camo would keep me concealed. 

            The man’s sweat had turned the back of his dirty blue shirt almost black.  His head continued to move back and forth.  Despite my efforts, I couldn’t stop the grinding of rocks beneath my shoes as I crept toward him.  He spun at the click of my gun cock.

            “Don’t move,” I said with the butt of my gun tight to my cheek.

He sprung to his feet and threw his hands in the air.  His pants were stained red around the frayed holes in his knees and his dark face was caked with muddy sweat.  His mouth hung open to his short breaths and before I could think what to do next, he began to lower one of his hands.

            “Don’t move!”  I tightened the grip on my gun.

            But his hand continued down until his pointer finger rested on the center of his chest.  His other four fingers curled in with the thumb extended, turning his hand into the universal sign for “gun.”

            “Por favor.”  He stabbed his finger at his chest.  “Por favor.

            My feet fell back a step, and I shifted my rifle.  I stuck my dry tongue out to lick my lips while he just stood with his finger pressed against his chest.

            My radio crackled and I heard Bryant say something I couldn’t understand.  A soft breeze blew a tendril of hair against my temple and the butt of my gun became slick under my sweaty hand.  Slowly I lowered my weapon. 

I heard the man’s intake of breath as my eyes drifted toward the ground.  “Go,” I said.

            Even before I glanced up again, he was running.



Harley Davidson: Marriage Counselor

            “What did you do?”  Angie stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the organized, massive heap of polished chrome, leather seats and two wheels.  Even a pair of leather tassels—like the hairs of Medusa, hung from each of the handles.            
            Jack stood with one hand on the bike and the other on his hip and his chin out.  “I bought it for us.  You know I’ve talked about it forever.  So I did it.  I took off the next two weeks of work so we can try it out.  You know…get away.  I was thinking Yellow Stone.”  
            
Angie snorted.  “You’re joking.  You have got to be joking.”  
            
“Why do you think it’s such a bad idea?”
            
Angie had a horrifying image of herself straddling the back seat, her love handles and double-D’s jiggling under the vibration of the beast.  “Oh, I don’t think it’s a bad idea.  I think it’s a crazy idea.  And I think you are crazy for even considering it.”   
            
Jack shoved his hands into his pockets.  “Look, I just thought this was something we could do together.”  He exhaled.  “If you don’t want to come, then I’ll just go by myself.”
            
“Okay, so really when you say, ‘get away,’ you mean away from me.”
            
Jack threw his head back and groaned.  “You always do this.  You always turn everything around and get so defensive.  I wasn’t trying to insult you.”
            
“No.  I think insult takes very little ‘trying’ on your part.  It’s just your given talent.”
            
Jack threw his hands in the air. “You know what?  I’m done with this.  I’m leaving on Saturday.  And you know what else?  I’ve decided you’re right.  I really don’t want you to come.”  He then turned and walked in the house.
            
Angie’s throat felt choked and hot as she watched him leave.   The happy times of her marriage, five years ago, had grown foggy in such a short time.  How could he pull something like this without talking to her?  Because he didn’t care what she thought.  Maybe she should pack up and leave on her own vacation.  There had to be a way to make him see what a stupid idea this was.

 

#

            Early Saturday morning, Angie sat at the kitchen table sipping on a chocolate Slim Fast malt.   Jack came in and made no comment to her being fully dressed, with her makeup and hair done.  He just started digging through drawers and opening cupboards. 

            Angie watched.

            There were a couple of times that he stopped, glanced over at her, and looked as if he wanted to ask her something. Then his eyebrows drew together and he continued his hunt. 

            Finally, Angie held out her hand. “Looking for these?” Dangling from her finger was the new set of keys to Satan’s two-wheeled chariot.

            He threw his hand out to grab them, but before he was able to, she whipped her hand back.

            “What are you doing?” he asked.  “I told you I’m going and you’re not going to stop me.”

            Angie shrugged. “Fine.”

            “What?”

            “I said, fine.  But I’ve decided I am coming with you.”

            “What?  Oh, heck no.  It’s too late.”

            “I won’t give you back your keys until you agree to let me come.”

            “I have another set of keys.”

            “But do you have another helmet?  Because you won’t be able find that either.”

            Jack grabbed the edge of the counter and dropped his head.  Angie was worried his fingers would dent the vinyl.  Then his head snapped up.  “You know we’ll be camping, right?  Sleeping in a tent and all that.”

            “So—so when you talked about going to Yellow Stone you meant camping?“

            “Well I was going to stay in a lodge but when I decided to go alone, I decided to camp.”

            “Well I don’t hate camping.  I would just rather sleep in a hotel.  But if that’s your plan, I’m fine with it.”  She dropped her gaze.  “It might be fun.”

Jack snorted and ran a hand through his dirty-blonde hair.  “Fine,” he bit out.  “We’ll see how much fun you have.” 

#

            “You filled up all the storage space.”  The bike was well made for two people with a nice big seat in the rear, as well as large compartments for storage on both sides and rear.   But Angie still managed to pack it to the brim.

“Well there’s really not a lot—hey!  What are you doing?”

            After Jack had cleaned out half of what Angie had packed.  She stood watching as Jack slung his leg over the seat.  The bike bounced slightly with his weight.  “Are you coming or not?” 

            Slowly she climbed onto the back and felt the bike drop even lower.  The giant motorcycle felt wobbly underneath her.  She didn’t know where to put her hands.  So she dug her fingers into her own thighs, trying not to leave bruises. 

            Jack started the engine and Angie felt the rumbling in her chest.  Suddenly the bike took off and Angie nearly flew off the back.  She flung her arms around Jack’s waist.  He glanced over his shoulder but didn’t say anything.  Angie’s cheek pressed tightly to Jack’s back making her teeth dig into the side of her mouth.

            It was already evening when they left Mesa.  The wind hitting Angie’s cheeks wasn’t hot but it wasn’t cool either.  The plan was to drive to Yellow Stone National Park, hitting a few hot spots along the way.  Their first night they would spend off the road near Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon. 

            Unfortunately, Angie and Jack were not well acquainted with someone named Tom Tom and Jack ended up needing to stop just north of Scottsdale to get back on the right freeway.  Jack made a comment about the gas mileage not being as good because of the weight they carried and as they got back on the road, Angie seethed all the way to Flagstaff.

            Night had fallen and the asphalt looked like a black river beneath the glow of the headlight.  Jack chose a spot to set up camp just off the main road on the way out of town. 

            Angie listened to the dim woods around her and stared into the darkness.  She then dug out the insect repellent.  She smirked as Jack coughed at the cloud of fumes she built around herself. 

            Sometime later, Angie lay shivering as she counted the snores coming from Jack.  Finally she climbed out of her sleeping bag, pulled on every one of her three pairs of socks, fleece pants and denim jeans, along with her long-sleeved shirt and hoodie.  After climbing back in, she pulled the cord of her hoodie tight around her face so the only opening was a small hole left for her nose and mouth.

            Angie first heard the chattering of birds, then she became aware of light on the other side of her eye-lids.  Slowly she opened her eyes, barely seeing through the hoodie air-hole that had come slightly open during the night.  As her eyes focused on the bright wall of the tent, her stare was met by another pair of eyes—or four pairs of eyes, and four pairs of hairy legs clinging to the wall of the tent.  The scream that scraped out of her was raspy from her dry sticky throat.  She shot to her feet, still inside her sleeping bag, only to trip forward into the opposite wall of the tent.  The tarantula was launched into the air and she felt the soft plop of it land on her back.  With another shriek, she swiped at the creature, sending it flying again. 

            Jack scrambled from his bag as Angie tore through the tent door.

Once outside, Angie continued her hysteria with dancing on tip-toe, and a long, drawn out squeal from her nose. 

            She stopped when she heard the sudden, “Whack!” and “Got it!” from inside the tent.  Then, “—Oh, uh…”

            “What?” she asked, standing shivering.

            “Well it crawled under your, uh, bra.”

            She sniffed.  “Do I have tarantula guts on my bra?”

            “Uh, yeah.”  He sounded almost sorry.  Which he should have been.  She had only brought the one bra.

            Angie stood braless as she stood watching Jack finish packing up camp.  She put her hands on her hips.  “I want to drive.”

            Jack laughed.

            “No, I’m serious.  If you can do it, I’m sure I can too.”

            “There is no way I’m letting you drive.  I’m not interested in dying before I get to go on a real road trip—alone.”

            Angie’s hiking boots crunched across the dry ground and twigs as she marched up to him. “Well I’m not getting on again unless you let me drive.”  She folded her arms across her chest.  “Besides, I don’t intend to drive far.  Just for a few miles.  So I can see what if feels like.”

            Jack let out an exasperated sigh, let his shoulders sag and looked up at the sky.  “Why are you like this, woman?”

            She waited.

            “Fine. Whatever you want.  That’s all that ever matters anyway.  Just as long as you get what you want.”

            Angie shrugged but didn’t meet his gaze.

            Jack handed her the keys and then, for the next ten minutes, showed Angie how to work the gears and brakes.

            Angie’s heart chased her breath as she pulled the bike onto the road.  It felt heavy.  Thankfully the road was straight for several miles.  But soon she found herself approaching a bend in the road.  She slowed, then heard Jack yell into her ear. “Don’t slow down!  Just lean into the turn!”

            Lean into the turn?  Was he crazy?  If she leaned, wouldn’t that bring them closer to the ground?  She took a breath and slowed even more.  When they got to the bend, Angie did not lean into the turn.  Instead, she tried to compensate her weight for Jack’s and the bike’s—by leaning the other way.  The bike shook.  She lost her balance.  One side of the bike hit the ground and skidded, sparks flying.  There was a shriek of metal on pavement.

            Fortunately, Angie was able to swing her leg out from under the bike before it was squashed. When she hit the ground, she rolled. Not unlike a child rolling down a grassy hill—only if the hill was flat and the grass was hard gravelly asphalt.  Finally she came to an abrupt stop on her back with her arms and legs splayed.  She was vaguely aware of the fact that if not for her helmet, her head would probably have been cracked.  She smelled burned rubber.

            Then, she remembered Jack.  Quickly she sat up, wincing at the ache in her arm.  She looked around for her husband before seeing him a little ways off, getting to his feet.  She got up and half-ran, half-limped to him.

            “Are you ok?”

            He didn’t answer.  This was her fault.  She knew that.  But he just turned and limped back to where the lifeless motorcycle lay like a great wounded monster.  The crash had scarred an entire side of it and one of the storage compartments had ripped off.  Angie rubbed her wrist as she went to Jack and the mutilated motorcycle.

            “We need to use your keys,” Jack said quietly.  “Mine flew off somewhere. We’ll never find them.”

            Angie’s eyes went wide.  “But I didn’t bring them.”

            “You forgot your keys?”

            “No,” she put her hands on her hips.  “I intentionally didn’t bring them.  There’s a difference.  You had yours so I didn’t need them.”

            Angie saw the muscles in his jaw working as his eyes peered down the road at an oncoming car.  The large pick-up pulled to a stop and a middle-aged man in a brown cowboy hat stuck his head out the window.  “You folks need some help?”

            Jack grunted as he pulled the bike back onto its wheels.  Angie picked up the broken compartment and followed him to the truck.

            The ride back to Flagstaff was painful.  Not just because of her aching injuries, but also the stinging silence that followed them all the way there.  Angie told herself it was the smell of fresh pine, and dry grass making her nose run and eyes burn. 

            Once they got back into town, they were dropped off at a gas station.  While Jack went to call his friend, Ray, Angie went inside for something really sweet and hopefully really fattening.   She went to the small freezer next to the cash register and stared through the glass.  Her eyes found an super-size ice cream Snickers.  Perfect.  She pulled it out of the freezer and held it while she turned to watch Jack through the gas station window.  He leaned against the phone booth with his forehead pressed to his arm, talking into the phone.

            When she came out, Angie gently put her hand on his shoulder.  He had hung up the phone now and was just standing there in the same position.  The only part of him that moved was his back as it rose and fell with his breathing. 

            “You want some?” she asked as she held up the opened Nestlé’s chocolate chip ice cream sandwich.

            He stared at it.  “That’s my favorite.”

            “I know.”

            Suddenly Jack’s shoulders started to shake. Was he having a seizure?  He had tears in his eyes.   He sat down on the sidewalk and she sat next to him.  
            “Thanks,” she said.

            He tried to chuckle.  “For what?”

            “For not yelling at me.”  He shrugged and she added, “I think was should do this again.”

            His eyebrows shot up as he stared at her.  But before he could respond she said, “And I promise not to ask to drive.”

            He was silent for a moment, then reached over and took a bite of the ice cream sandwich.


Jessica Johnson is a stay-at-home mother of two who is working on her Creative Writing Certificate from the Maricopa County Community Colleges.  She has won awards in poetry and creative non-fiction from Mesa Community College.  Her stories are like her children.  She loves to watch them grow and see what they are going to do next.

 

 

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