Azimuth

by Brian Hart Issue: Spring 2019

The calendar arrived the week before Christmas with a sticky note on the cover. Love, with a little heart. His daughter’s handwriting, her heart. The return address on the envelope wasn’t one he had written down for her. It wasn’t easy to keep up. He could try harder. He hadn’t even met his granddaughter yet. He’d met the boyfriend, though, bragging about the lease he got on a used Volvo. Half of that didn’t summon much promise for the offspring but, speaking from experience, a father’s impact was negligible. No matter what they say. Best laid plans or lack thereof, it all just goes where it goes, water without gravity.

Poster Art of the WPA, it said under the sticky note. January: Lassen Volcanic National Park, a silkscreen of a lakeside vista with Mt. Shasta spewing ash in the background. February: Bandelier National Monument, looking out from the mouth of a cave, a woman in a blue shirt climbs from the earth works on a pole ladder, willows below and pines above. Nice place to weather the ash clouds of January. America’s first fallout shelters. A month by month testament to the profligacy of the federal government.

Flipping through to June—two horsemen gain the mesa to greet the sunrise at the Saguaro National Monument—Miriam had circled her brother’s birthday. Same as if Julius imagined a deer, it would be standing broadside, stamped by crosshairs, waiting for the bullet, so it was that when he thought of his son, he saw him not as a child but as a young man, a soldier, weathering a dust storm on the outskirts of a desert city. He hung the calendar with an 8d galvanized nail on the pantry door.

Middle of February—Bandelier—Julius stood at the calendar and drew a line through the box of his fourth snowbound day. So far, more cloistered than incarcerated. He kept a hand against the wall and leaned on furniture for support as he made his way to the front window.

The force and nearly horizontal angle of the wind made it hard to distinguish the driven snow from the fallen, but through the storm, he caught the white on white, fish belly flicker of daytime headlights, snowmobiles. They weren’t turning off at his neighbor’s. They were coming to him. His second ex-wife, Mary, the yakuza, said that when you’re young you have feelings, but when you’re old you have a feeling, singular. About that, he figured she was right.     

From the hooks in the entry he selected his duck hunting coat, his warmest if not cleanest. He already had his deerskin slippers on, not moccasins. His pants were just pants, not necessarily clean, dried epoxy and silicon on the front, but they weren’t pajamas or something that would embarrass him or make him feel more of the hermit than he already did. The wooden crutches he’d purchased from the no-kill shelter thrift store were no longer necessary but they were at arm’s reach, so he picked them up and went through the awkward door opening, screen door opening, door closing, screen door slamming until he’d danced his way onto the porch.

The wind cut through his pants, and his eyes began to water. Could’ve worn gloves. Standing out here. The snow had wind-loaded against the southern wall of his shop, almost to the bottom of the windows. You know what you should do? The old-boy preamble to unwanted advice. Should cover the glass with plywood before it gets buried and ices over and breaks. Or you could dig them out, keep on top of it. His 8N was in there, chained up with a snowblower attachment, but he’d neglected to fill his jerry cans so there it would stay. This is how it starts. You forget something, then you forget that you forgot something. He needed to get better with writing things down, like he did with the calendar. Keep track of yourself, leave a paper trail. See where that gets you. Again.

A matched pair of green and black Arctic Cats came bounding over the last few drifts into his driveway and stopped twenty yards from the porch. Motors were shut down and the headlights went dark. Julius held up a hand to wave and the riders did the same. They were decked out in Sheriff's Department cold weather gear with patches and reflective bars. Hardshell cases for long guns were bolted onto offsets above the rails. Adorable miniature police lights and SD decals on their hoods. The enticing smell of two-stroke exhaust drifted on the wind. The riders dismounted and staggered around their sleds in the deep snow. They took off their helmets and stuffed their gloves inside. The tall one was named Kinnell, the shorter, the woman, was Barber.

“This,” Julius said, the wind drilling into his ear, “if you missed my nonverbal cues, is me not inviting you in.” He shifted his weight to his hands to give his armpits a rest. Perhaps they hadn’t heard him. He hadn’t spoken out loud for the better part of a week. “If you’re here to serve me papers,” he said louder. “I’m not home.”

Barber said something to Kinnell, then plucked a bright blue stocking hat from her coat pocket and pulled it on. She waded through the snow toward the house with her helmet in her hand, working her legs like a swimmer coming out of the ocean and stopped at the foot of the buried stairs.

“Why would we serve you papers, Julius?” She held up her helmet to shield her face from the wind.

“St. Alphonse’s sent me to collections,” he said.

Kinnell approached using Barber’s tracks. “That’s outside of our purview, Mr. Packer.” His shaved head was already dusted with snow. “Can we come in?”

“We can talk out here.” When he spoke, Julius could feel the ice that had formed on his mustache touch his lower lip. “Or are you cold?”

Kinnell nodded, yes, obviously.

“Not as cold as the taxpayers once they get the bill for your ten thousand dollar snowmobiles.”

“You’d rather we walked?” Barber said.

“You don’t want to know what I’d rather.” Julius hauled the screen door open and waved them inside and clattered after them on his crutches. Half of his left foot had been removed in August. That’s what he told people, but it seemed like less than half to him, even with the toes. If he were to weigh the two parts, the half he kept would be heavier. But then again, it was still attached, anything is heavier if you’re still carrying it. Not really worth arguing. Sometimes half is just that, even if it isn’t.

Kinnell and Barber stomped the snow from their boots on the mat and had a look around. After lunch, Julius had done the dishes, wiped down the counters. The chairs at the dinner table were pushed in and the salt and pepper shakers were placed neatly beside a stack of napkins. The blanket on the couch was folded and the remote for the TV was on the coffee table like he never used it, never slept there. Ship shape. He’d built this house, but he didn’t talk about it.

“You can hang your stuff there or by the stove.” Julius gestured to the hooks in the living room.

They hung their coats and helmets on the hooks and made for the wood stove. Once they were out of his way Julius put his crutches back where he’d found them and hung up his coat. He could feel them watching him as he hobbled to the kitchen.

“This is what I was looking for.” Barber tossed her gloves on the hearth and nudged them closer to the stove with the toe of her boot. She faced out, toward the kitchen, with her hands behind her over the stove, bounced a little.

Kinnell dropped his gloves on top of Barber’s, then used the edges of his hands to shuck the melting snow from his head onto the stove where it hissed and popped into steam.

Julius poured two mugs of lukewarm coffee and shut them in the microwave, set the timer. “Better watch your pepper spray doesn’t blow up,” he said, making boom hands.

Kinnell ignored him, but Barber touched the red canister on her belt to make sure it wasn’t getting warm and moved slightly away from the stove. At one point she’d been married to the county’s attorney, the prosecution as Julius knew him, but he didn’t know anymore. She didn’t have a ring. Kinnell was looking at his phone, tapping the screen with pink fingers. Barber moved from the wood stove to look at the photos on the wall, his Remington prints, stopped in front of The Luckless Hunter, his favorite.

“What’s this about?” Julius said.

Barber took off her stocking hat and shook it dry, folded it and shoved it into her back pocket. With her short, messy hair she looked like Rizzo from Grease. “I take it the helicopter didn’t wake you up then?” she said.

“You’ve lost me, darling,” Julius said.

“Your neighbor had a heart attack,” Kinnell said. “Darling.”

“When was this?”

“Last night, not late, eleven or so,” Barber said. “They had to Life Flight him to St. Al’s. He’s lucky there was a break in the storm or he would’ve been riding behind one of our tax burden snowmobiles.”

“Is he dead?”

“No,” Kinnell said. “Stable, is how the resident PA called it.”

“Leo, decommissioned at St. Al’s,” Julius said. “Enemy of my enemy.” He winked at Barber but his eyes were watery and he could tell he didn’t pull it off. “He liked to invite himself over a bit too much. He’s not a bad guy.”          

The microwave beeped, and Julius opened the door and yanked the mugs out and set them on the counter, announced the lack of cream, milk, and sugar. He wasn’t going to serve them.

“Thank you.” Barber lifted the mug to her face to smell the steam and sipped.

Kinnell took his, too, but went for a head tilt eyebrow lift thank you instead of speaking. He’d been in the Army was the word. He still had an Army haircut. Julius wasn’t impressed. His son was younger than Kinnell, wouldn’t be out for another year and a half at the earliest.

Barber took her phone out when it buzzed, glanced at it, put it back. “So, after what happened with your neighbor, we wanted to make sure you were all set, that you have supplies to last a few more days.”

He rested his hands on the counter and leaned forward. “Thanks for coming by, but I don’t need any help.”

“This storm could go clear into next week,” Kinnell said.

“I didn’t ask you to come here,” Julius said.

“We know you didn’t,” said Barber, smiled. “But the thing is, nobody can say when the plows will make it out this far. Two of them are broken down. They’re trying to get another on loan from Adams County, but you know as well as anyone that we could see spring before that happens. I guess this is what we get when we don’t have a decent mechanic at the county shop anymore.”

Julius doubted he had the circulatory force required to blush. “You think I wanted to retire?” he said. “I’d rather be working. I can promise you that.”

“More complicated than just retiring, wasn't it?” Kinnell said. “Credit for time served, probation.” He took a sip of his coffee and glanced at his partner. He looked bored. He probably looked bored in Iraq or wherever he’d served. Bored kicking in a door. Yawning while returning fire. To you, I’m just another bullshit elder, one continent to another. Don’t trust me. Don’t trust anyone. I wouldn’t. We’re all waiting to betray you.

“I just meant,” Barber said, nodding to her partner. “I just meant that they always managed to keep equipment on the road until they lost you.”

Julius liked her, for obvious reasons. She said the right things, coddled him a bit, used his first name. Too pretty to be a cop, went the refrain. Too smart to do anything on accident. Too bad she didn’t come alone. That would’ve been nice, just sit and drink coffee, talk about the storm. Poor Leo. And unlike Kinnel, Barber hadn’t been there when he’d been arrested, but she knew the story. Everybody did. There’d been an article in the paper detailing the credit card business, or embezzlement as they called it, and it’d mentioned his health problems, that he was no longer eligible for insurance through the county’s plan.

He washed their cups after they left. He didn’t watch them go but he heard the snowmobiles start and cackle and zing out the road.

The sun went down. In preparation for the coming ice age, instead of using the microwave, he warmed leftovers for his dinner in a cast iron skillet on the wood stove. After he’d eaten, he washed his plate and his fork, then topped the cast iron with water to boil clean. He took down the unopened bottle from the cabinet above the fridge and placed it dead center on the table like it was a trophy or maybe a vase of flowers to lighten the room and downplayed it as a threat or a reward for what he considered an adequate amount of time before he broke the seal and poured.

He had his boots on and was zipped into his insulated coveralls with his duck hunting coat on top and his hood over his old blaze orange shop hat, wool-lined work gloves. The unnatural white light from the porch bulb made the blizzard seem like it was made of ash and swarming bees. Another gift from Miriam (heart—love) this one for his birthday. LED light bulbs, a whole case of them, paid for by the environmental justice group that employed her to design the glossy mailers they sent out begging for money. With your generous donation you’ll—after taxes—be financing each side to fight the other. There were seven more bulbs in the house, saving him money and daring him to live for another 12.7 years.

He found the firm snow left by the snowmobiles beneath the wind-pack and tried to stay with it. His foot didn’t hurt for once. He should’ve gotten out of the house sooner. He should do this more, get into shape. He could hunt turkey in the spring, catch a steelhead on the little river. He knew some spots. Come fall, he might even try for deer. Still young enough and changeable. He’d pull out of this. Then, as punishment for his bullshit optimism, he stepped off the track and fell over in the soft snow and had to crawl to the top of a drift and roll down the other side to stand up. Snow stuck to his cheeks and hurt like a sunburn as he pawed it away with his gloves.

If it weren’t for the power poles he wouldn’t know where he was. He’d brought a flashlight, but it was still in his pocket. Better to have one and not need it, same as firearms, can openers, and wives. What hadn’t he said that about? Before he left the house, sitting with the bottle, he’d made the necessary decisions, or more accurately, decision. If he lost his way or got hurt and couldn’t go on, the cold would do the job. He’d just lay down. Keep it simple for the insurance, for his kids.  

He trudged on with his rolling, cockeyed gate, arms swinging out of time, propelling him forward. When he came to the mostly buried V-posts of the cattle guard that marked Leo’s driveway, he plowed through a last drift and made the turn. With the change of direction the drifts shifted longways instead of across, and if he hugged the ditch on the south-side of the road, he had smooth sailing.             

The fog lights on the gable of Leo’s detached garage emerged from the storm like a ship. Julius shuffled up against the man door and turned the knob and bumped it open with his shoulder.

He was swiping the walls, looking for a light switch, when he tripped over something and went ass over tea kettle into a hole or an air mattress. Unharmed, but in the dark, severely confused. He finally got his flashlight turned on, pulled himself up and stood, surveyed the inflated floor of the bright yellow whitewater raft he’d tumbled into. He climbed out and found the lights. Leo’s pickup was parked in the other bay. Bikes and kayaks and one of those little float tubes people use for fishing mountain lakes hung from wall hooks. Beside his immaculate workbench, a pool cue holder type thing with fishing poles, one for every day of the week. The fluorescents buzzed overhead and the concrete floor looked as if it had been waxed. The garage fridge was stocked with Miller Lite in bottles, and he had one down and a second in his hand as he went back outside to find a way into the house.

The doors were locked but the window in the bathroom was open a crack. Julius finished his beer and pitched the empty into the woods. He returned to the garage and found a ladder, one of the foldable-in-six-different-ways-types that confused him before pinching his finger.

His first instinct was to go in legs first but he was too stiff to duck his head and the window was too narrow to allow him to bend at the waist. So he went in head first. Once he had his hands on the floor, he walked himself forward until he could pull his legs in and flop to the ground. Took him longer to stand up than to get in.

The house was warmer than he’d thought it would be. He found the lights and tried the bathroom faucet and it flowed steady so the pipes weren’t frozen. He slammed the window shut and smeared the snow he’d tracked in around on the tile floor. An issue of Powder Magazine on the back of the toilet. The cover had a skier foolishly close to a precipice and carrying speed judging by the fan of snow behind him.

Ten minutes later, he had Leo’s high dollar Jotul wood stove going. He spread his coat, boots, gloves, and hat below the hearth to dry but kept his coveralls on. As he sat down in a leather armchair, the familiar smell of diesel and engine grease wafted upward.

Decent four point muley mount above the mantle, a couple of taxidermy steelhead, a wall of books to his right, sixteen feet at least of built in bookcases. On the opposite wall was a glass case with fishing lures, red and white Mepps, like you’d see in a museum or Cabelas. Family photographs here and there. No TV.  He had house plants, more than a few.

“The hell do you do with yourself?” Julius said, but the question was as much for him as it was for Leo.

The furnace kicked on, and Julius sat forward and tipped to his feet. Foot and a half. I’m getting back on my foot and a half. Be back on my foot and a half soon. In the hallway off of the kitchen he found the thermostat and switched it off. He suppressed the urge to follow the dark hallway to the bedrooms or up the stairs to what he supposed was the loft or master bedroom. He didn’t want to see how Leo lived. The garage was enough. He turned off what lights that he’d turned on. He put another log on the fire and shut the damper, sat down again in the leather chair. The fire was doing its job.

Leo volunteered at the alternative school, sponsored a team at the science fair. They’d gone to nationals once, maybe twice. It was in the paper. He’d worked at Boeing until he retired, an engineer of some sort. Widowed, not divorced. Years ago Julius had overheard one of the ladies at the post office say that he made his money in ceramics, not kilns and coffee mugs, but some other, high-tech version that had been used on the space shuttle.

Of course Julius had to get up to piss and when he did, it was more brown than yellow and syrup-like and he couldn’t seem to shake himself dry. He had to wipe himself like a woman and even after that he didn’t feel like he was clean or finished pissing. The skier on the back of the toilet would die before he ever had these types of problems.

Back to the fire, the leather chair with studs on the arms, the flames whipping at the meager square of glass in the stove door. Tired, dead on my foot and a half. He reached for the recliner lever but there wasn’t one. Just a chair. What’s the point of that? Then, did I shut the damper? I think I did. Why’re the flames so high? Burning wood like you’re getting rid of evidence is why.

He woke to voices. A door shut. The fire was only a glow. The lights in the kitchen came on and he sat up and worked out how much time it would take to get his boots on, his coat and the rest, but he couldn’t, what, make a run for it? They, Leo or whoever, knew he was here or they would as soon as they saw the fire.

“Hello,” he said, his embarrassingly small voice. He stood and cleared his throat, got some guts. “Julius Packer.” In his socks, he limped across the room and switched on the lights and accidentally the ceiling fan. Upon entering the kitchen, he came face to face with two men and three, make that four small to medium-sized children. Leo wasn’t with them.

“I built a fire for the pipes,” Julius said. They stared him down as a group, as a party. No wives. “I couldn’t find a key so I came in through the bathroom window.” He was starting to wonder if they spoke English, but he’d heard them speaking, hadn’t he? Or was it just the door that woke him? “Like I said, my name’s Julius Packer. I’m Leo’s nearest neighbor. I walked over last night to make sure the pipes didn’t freeze.”

“I’m his son, John.” Tall, dark-haired with a beard. “This is my brother-in-law, Zach.” Shorter, stocking cap, also with a beard. “One of these is his,” he said, motioning to the kids, “the rest are mine.”

Julius shook Zach’s, then John’s hand, and nodded hello to the kids.

“What time is it?” Julius said. “I fell asleep.”

John checked his phone. “It’s a quarter to six already.” He glanced at his brother-in-law. “We drove from Spokane. I thought we’d be here around midnight, maybe one.” John shoved one of the boys in the chest. “These kids have been troopers. Hell of a long drive.”

“I bet,” Julius said. The children went by him, into the living room.

“Is there something wrong with the furnace?” John said.

“I wouldn’t know,” Julius said. “House was an ice box when I got here.”

The son went down the darkened hallway. “Switched off,” he yelled. Frustrated with his father as only a son can be.      

“We brought a ton of groceries,” Zach said to Julius. “If you want to stay for breakfast.”

“Thanks, but no. I have my own fire to tend.”

John was in the other room telling the children to get out of their snow clothes. Julius followed Zach out of the kitchen and watched as the kids kicked off their boots and coats and hats and mittens in a heap, burying his gear. John opened the stove door and pitched in a too big hunk of wood.

“How’d you all get here? To the house, I mean,” Julius said. “You didn’t hike in from the highway, did you?”

“Roads are plowed,” John said. “They even did the driveway.”

Zach was helping one of the girls get out of her boots. “We bundled these guys up not knowing if we’d have to walk all the way in.”

It took Julius a moment to figure out what he was seeing. The girl was missing her left leg below the knee. She caught him staring.      

“How about one of us gives you a lift home?” John said. As he turned he saw that Julius was gawking and changed his tone. “Won’t be light for another hour or two.”

“I can walk,” Julius said, looking away from the girl.

“My dad mentioned you’ve had some problems,” John said. “With your health and otherwise.”

My reputation stumps out before me, a canvas sack with a dollar sign slung over his shoulder. “You get to be my age and you start thinking maybe you should’ve done things a bit different.”

“There’s genetics, too,” John said.

“They didn’t have to Life Flight me, did they?” Julius said. It wasn’t a question of toughness, but he’d taken it that way.

“I guess not,” John said.

The brother-in-law laughed a little but kept his attention to the kids.

“I have some boots and things buried in there somewhere,” Julius said, as he approached the wood stove. The kids scooted to one side and John presented Julius —in all seriousness—with a three-legged stool for him to sit on while he laced up his boots.

“Your dad’s going to be OK, then?” Julius said, nodding thank you and sitting down. Even with his heavy wool socks on, it was clear that his foot was malformed.

“Should be,” John said. “They tell us that they’re releasing him this afternoon.”

Julius organized the laces on his left boot and shoved his toe filler into place, loosened the laces further so he could get his foot in without banging it around too much, a process that was more difficult than it seemed it should be.

“I’ll be sure to tell him you stopped by to get the fire going,” John said.

“I’ll leave that up to you,” Julius said. The girl was watching him now. She’d noticed his toe filler and his floppy sock that covered the neoprene pad. He reached down and crushed the emptiness in his sock with a squeeze, smiled at the child. She didn’t smile back.

The wood stove was making a huffing sound as it gasped for air, and when John opened the door the cloud of smoke that rolled out sent the children scattering, laughing and screaming, to the kitchen.

“Goddammit. Sorry.” John shut the door and blindly opened the damper and followed the kids.

Julius sat in the smoke and pulled on his boots and quickly laced them and tugged the pant legs of his coveralls over them. Before he stood, he fished around until he had his coat and gloves and hat.

“Sorry about the smoke,” John said.

The brother-in-law was unloading a big red cooler into the fridge, and he’d organized the kids into a bucket brigade to help. “How about a cup of coffee?” He had a bag of coffee in his hand. “Won’t take a minute.”

“No, thanks. You folks have a nice day. I’m going to head out.”

Outside, grateful for the fresh air, Julius pulled on his gloves, stood on the porch and watched the snow torment the flood lights. A trace of vehicle tracks led under the closed garage door. They must’ve moved the raft and tipped it against Leo’s pickup to make room. He imagined them working together, as a family. On three.

He’d tried to not play favorites, tried to be fair, but a six year old with flashburn is a tough thing to explain. I told him. He’s a child. He won’t look again. Cheryl took his kids away for a year, off to Oregon with her parents. The last straw. Formative years. While they were gone he finished the house by himself. Got to where he hated the sun for setting, for quitting. When Cheryl came back she wanted to try again. Julius disliked the sentiment. Try again. What did she think he’d been doing this whole time, waiting? He asked for the divorce, not her. The yakuza—fifteen years younger, divorced, no kids—had worked the front desk at the lumberyard. She’d moved in before he’d finished the drywall. She called it body art. The Suburban and the bulk of his savings went with her when she left, but it was probably worth it.

The deadbolt slid to behind him. The porch light flicked off. They didn’t know he was standing there. He hoped they didn’t. The garage lights were still on. He couldn’t understand how he’d slept through the noise of the plow.

He moved off the porch to the driveway, easier going with the road plowed. When he got home he’d call his daughter and tell her how he’d broken into the neighbor’s and fallen asleep, about the little girl. She didn’t know the difference. But of course she did. All she knew was difference. I’ll be there soon enough. His daughter liked that kind of story, or he thought she did. His son, on the other hand, would focus on the breaking and entering, the bathroom window, and—not that the information would ever be volunteered—but he’d question the lie about turning off the thermostat. Why am I always defending myself to you? You didn’t make out so bad. Your little sister worships you, only because of me.

He took off his glove and reached for his flashlight, but he’d misplaced it. He wasn’t going back. He knew the way. Picture a deer.



Brian Hart

Brian Hart is the author of the novels Then Came the Evening, The Bully of Order, and Trouble No Man. He lives in Idaho with his wife and two small children.