Free lunch

by Amy Espeseth

HE DIDN'T LIKE being considered middle-aged, let alone a senior citizen. Not that he minded the savings now and again, ordering off the seniors' breakfast menu and getting his sunny-side-up eggs, bacon and wheat toast, no butter, for ninety-nine cents cheaper. But to hear himself say 'senior' seemed somehow incongruent with how he knew himself to truly be. He could still chop and carry his own winter firewood, and quite often woke up to his own morning wood – not bad for sixty-three. Only the black-habited nuns who taught him to read and pray at St Francis's stopped him from telling the ditzy waitress all about it: the wood, both kinds; if she cared to see he would show her and she sure wouldn't make the same mistake again.

She had hurt his feelings. Before ordering he had neatly folded the paper, disgusted at the protesters marching against the most recent action in the Middle East. When he mentioned being an MP in Korea, she talked about M*A*S*H being a great show and Alan Alda a gorgeous man. He was stunned that she thought he was a veteran of the Conflict, when he had just been stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. He'd spent three years breaking up drunken fights between raging soldiers on R&R and one year lazily driving the ranking officer from meeting to meeting. Not combat glory, exactly, but nothing to hang his head over. Just like that, the girl had added over a decade on him. So he wanted to shock her, let her know that it was a red-blooded man she was dealing with, not a shrivelled-up codger. He swallowed the saliva in his mouth. Instead of reaching into his pants, he carefully tore the edge of a creamer packet and tapped the contents into his coffee. The powder snowed down and dissolved in a clumpy swirl. He ignored the sugar packets at his elbow.

The blond was back. Her lumpy hips swished beneath the square black apron tied over her jeans. She leaned across the plastic booth and slid his breakfast plate towards him. He grimaced in response to her smile. The dumb cow stood there looking at him.

'Jesus, Kowalski, you're a grumpy old coot this morning.'

He started carving up his eggs and ignored her.

'What's the matter with you?' she said, picking at her long, tacky fingernails.

The nails were a health hazard; probably bits of last week's sauerkraut special were packed under them, mixed with drips of her orange-tinged face paint. He should report her to the health department; they'd close down the diner and then who would feed her various half-breed – Mexican or Chippewa or whatever –babies? Same guy who claimed them, he guessed: no one, that's who. She should learn to keep her legs and stupid mouth shut. The girl was a natural blond, obviously. Not that rare in these parts of the Northwoods; in Wisconsin, a good woman was harder to find than a pale one. There were plenty of Scandinavians, one hundred years removed, to go around. Not that he wanted a regular woman. If he'd wanted one he'd have one. He didn't feel the need.

He stabbed his fork at the wheat toast lying half beside, half atop the quickly cooling bacon curls. Always without butter, the toast had arrived right and the same way for the three years the girl had waitressed at the concrete block restaurant; he didn't even have to remind her, but he always did anyhow. She wasn't that bad, this straggly haired girl; she had somehow been friends with his own daughter, Charlie, in high school. Maybe they were even on the volleyball team together, he couldn't remember rightly. Charlie lost most her friends her Junior year when she found meth. He'd spent half that year pulling her out of various trailer parks, stumbling over empty milk cartons and beer cans. That she even graduated was a bonus. If he weren't a local cop, she'd have been sent away to jail or prison. Or worse, she could've gotten herself knocked up by one of the grease-ball losers out on the fringes of the reservation; he would have lost her forever then, out there among the starving dogs and tyre fires.

But he'd always found out – about the planned raid or the late-night DUI or the petty theft – and made it right or go away before it got too far. And he'd politely visit the amorous young men and explain, tapping his sidearm with long-callused fingers, that it was best for everyone to just stay away from Charlie; it wasn't a threat, it was a promise. Eventually, finally, she settled down and – after he'd had a word to the principal –graduated. With an ashen face, wasted skin and pointy shoulder blades, she marched down the centre aisle of the high school gym to grab her diploma and smile with all the other young folks being released into their exciting, unlimited lives. The world was their oyster. Since rural Northern Wisconsin was their home, the world was more like their prairie oyster, what folks called a feed of bull testicles; but it was theirs, for whatever they wanted to or could try to make of it.

So this waitress was – whether he liked it or not – part of Charlie, old smiling Charlie with her curly brown hair braided back, kneepads on, all suited up for volleyball. Small-town girls like the two of them had lived a lot and seen worse than him by the time they were twenty. But they didn't need more grief, especially from grizzled old men. He put down his fork and stared at the black-aproned hips swaying away from him, towards the greasy kitchen. 'It's nothing,' he said. 'We're all bastards before coffee. I'm just a dumb Polack.'

'You and half the county,' she shot back over her shoulder, refilling decaf and regular coffees as she walked among the red booths. Pete Kowalski grunted his low laugh, ate a forkful of eggs and dry toast, and returned his attention to the newspaper.

At the counter he paid for the finished meal with a ten and wandered back to the table to leave the change as a tip. The pile of crumpled bills looked ridiculous, though, so he retrieved the folding money but ignored the shrapnel. Better under than over, my pocket than hers, he thought. Over-generosity would look like an apology, and he didn't owe one to the waitress or anyone. Once he was outside in the pick-up, he pulled out the four bills, smoothed them flat and slipped them into the visor's metal clip. He started the engine, listened for the whine of a suspected belt problem, then clunked the truck into gear. It was the start of September, and the leaves of the birches and maples had already started to turn brilliant purple and yellow. The weather was still nice, sixty or seventy every day, but with a crispness that hurried everyone – man and beast –towards preparations for the soon-coming long winter.

As he drove the straight, gravel township roads he occasionally slowed the pick-up to wave at neighbours laying in firewood or to avoid a crossing rabbit. By the time he got home, he thought his son-in-law might be awake and ready to help check the baits. Pete drove down the quarter-mile driveway that cut into his forty acres of pines and parked in the wide clearing between his tidy log house and the trailer he'd placed opposite. The brown mobile home was second-hand, bought from his mother's cousin, but a nice enough place to start. Early that spring in March, even before the lakes had thawed, in one fell swoop Charlie had introduced him to both her boyfriend and the idea of being a grandpa. She told him at the table of their regular Friday night fish fry in the bar. Their dinners, two deep-fried with fries and one grilled with baked, no sour cream, had just arrived. Pete wasn't drinking but Charlie and the nervous boy, Scott, made up for it as best they could. Scott had his skinny arm wrapped across Charlie's even skinnier slumped shoulders. The boy had squinted his eyes and swallowed hard: he was scared, but was doing his best impression of a man. Charlie had dropped the bomb and looked across the table at her daddy; other than pushing his floppy hair out of his eyes, the boy had sat still. 'I'll do the right thing, sir,' Scott had said slowly. The fish cooled on the plates. Pete looked at his baked potato. The jukebox changed songs.

The men had looked straight at each other. Scott's eyes held a strange mix of pride at proving his manhood and fear of being made to prove it more. It was the same look Pete had given Charlie's grandpa twenty-something years prior. Then, Pete's former father-in-law had sat silent for ten minutes before walking away from the kitchen table, grabbing his barn coat and heading outside to milk. Back then, as a man nearing forty holding the hand of the farmer's pregnant nineteen-year-old, Pete had known he got off lucky. But times change; Pete reached across the table, ignored the boy's flinch and shook his pale hand. 'I know you will, son,' he said. Charlie started breathing again. She hailed the waitress, told her the good news and happily ordered another round. Scott had smiled in his twisted-lip way and that was both the end and the start of it.

Summer had passed with a quick courthouse wedding and fall had begun soon after; it was nearly time for Charlie's baby when Pete rumbled into the yard, parked the pick-up truck and honked the horn. Scott stumbled out of the mobile home, pulling on a blue-checked flannel over a T-shirt while running in unlaced boots. The older man waited in the warm truck. Glancing at the rear-view mirror, he smoothed down his short-shorn hair: grey all right, but not completely bald yet. His glasses sat a quarter-inch too high above his squat Polish nose, but he still had all his own teeth – dingy and dinged, but not too bad. He snaked a pinch of tobacco out of the round tin in his jacket pocket and slid it between his teeth and lower lip. Then he cracked the door for a quick spit as Scott climbed in the other side of the cab. The tangy odour of sweat followed him into the truck; the unmistakable methane skunkiness of marijuana lingered beneath the sweat. Pete wound down his window farther, spat more brown tobacco sluice and put the truck into reverse.

Halfway down the drive Scott slapped his hands on his jeans. 'Shit, Pete. I forgot my wallet.' Pete stuck out his lip and shrugged. The boy was pretty upset. 'But, man, I needed to remember it today. Charlie wants something before the baby comes. She'll be pissed.' The boy looked distressed, and pushed his shoulder hard against the truck door. After coming into painful contact with the seatbelt, he pulled it around him and buckled into the fabric seat.

'I got ya,' Pete said, keeping his eyes on the road. Of all the times Scott had forgotten his wallet – usually because it was empty rather than as the ingenious plan of a $4.99-lunch-scamming criminal – Pete believed him this time. Scott seemed genuinely upset, even rattled. 'I got ya,' Pete said again, and at the next stop sign he reached into his wallet and fished out a fifty from the thick wad. Handing it over, he saw the boy's hands were shaking slightly. Pete nodded to Scott's rambling promises of a quick payback. With his pension, he didn't need the money; with interest rates the way they were, Pete made more retired than he did when he was full-time on the force. But he knew the boy had his share of pride, even if it was a strange version; never had he met a man so content in poverty – happy with a burnt-hood Chevy with powwow stickers on the bumper – and so under-the-thumb, following Charlie's orders to drain the macaroni in the sink rather than the pan, and so on. Pete was happy to pretend it was a loan.

 

IT WAS TO avoid injuring the boy's stunted pride that Pete had gotten Scott the job. Rather than help them directly with money, he'd started looking for odd jobs around his own place and put out the word that his son-in-law was willing to work. In April, right after Pete had started worrying about supporting the coming baby along with the attached burden of its father, he'd stayed late enough one night at the local to overhear his fancy neighbour complaining into his beer. The man was rarely up from Chicago, and then usually roaring around on jet skis ruining the fishing on the Fourth of July, or just long enough to fill his deer tags during his Thanksgiving break. That night, he'd made the trip up north to try and sort out whatever was setting off the alarm system in the guest quarters over his vacation home's five-car garage.

During the year prior, while the land was cleared and the enormous house assembled from the white pine logs, Pete had only nodded through the brush at the dark-suited man whom the building foreman addressed formally. But that night, as he nursed his second beer and the businessman downed his eighth Jack-and-Coke, Pete swivelled on his bar stool and quietly spoke. 'Coons.'

'Excuse me?' The man put down his glass and twisted his thick neck beneath its cable-knit sweater. He looked at the man who had spoken and recognised him from somewhere. Then he looked around the bar at the restless unemployed locals wearing jean jackets and feed caps; he could sense the joke – or maybe violence – coming. Folks up north here often resented outsiders buying up the land the old families could no longer afford to keep, especially lake land, taxes like they were. The businessman was white, like most of them in the bar outside of the Indians that occasionally lurched across the reservation line ten miles away, but 'coons' didn't seem to be an overly friendly term regardless. Reflexively, he gripped his keys.

'Dirty coons,' Pete said again. 'You've got racoons struggling with the wire or tripping the sensors.' He stuck out his hand. 'I'm your neighbour, Pete Kowalski.' After driving the drunken man, Patrick Denham, home and then coming by the next afternoon with a six-pack of beer and a set of traps, Pete had made a loyal friend. So when, that same afternoon, Denham had told him that he had saved up enough preference points to get himself a black-bear licence that year, Pete offered the services of his reliable son-in-law to plan, prepare and maintain the baits. Scott would provide the sweat and Denham would enjoy the harvest. That the boy had never baited nor hunted bear before Pete chose to keep to himself; they'd work as a team, and the skinny bastard would catch on soon enough.

Their teamwork since April had involved Pete scouting three baiting spots and sourcing discarded bread from a local distributor, as well as purchasing several barrels of gummy worms and candy hearts. Scott had tried to help. He'd ridden along to the bakery and eaten some of the week-old hotdog buns. He'd also suggested that the best way to trick a bear would be with honey. Pete had had the pleasure of informing him that, regardless of what the cartoons insisted, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources had forbidden both picnic baskets and honey as appropriate bear bait. No animal products of any kind – not dog food, nor raw meat, not even fish grease – could be mixed in with the bear's approved meals of candy cigarettes, maple syrup, granola bars and liquid smoke.

They'd started early in the spring, just when the bears were wobbling out of hibernation, to accustom their prey to the feeding sites. In the first couple months they checked the baits weekly to see whether bear were coming in and what food and sites they liked. But for the three weeks prior to the hunting season they'd been monitoring them daily. Focusing their attention on the spot near the swamp that was most frequently hit, the men wanted to learn the patterns – time of day, order of procession, size and sex – of their bear diners. Clunking into a lower gear, Pete slowed the truck. He'd driven around the edge of his property on section line roads to avoid tracking scent directly from his yard to the bait. Last thing he wanted was a 300-pound black bear demanding gummy worms from a heavily pregnant Charlie. So, instead of hopping on four-wheelers and cutting through the unfenced woods that he and Denham shared, he'd taken the vehicle the long way around. Pete and Scott would walk and haul the bait along the partition line.

The swamp sat in the middle of the eighty acres that was divided between the neighbours. All one parcel, the land was once, and owned by Kowalskis since land started to be owned. Pete had spent many boyhood afternoons at the swamp: laying traps for weasel, fox and mink; shooting coyote and whitetail deer; poking long birch branches down into the muck to see if he could scrape the top of the Model T his father had promised him was there. But the biggest treasure, the one that appeared in Pete's dreams from when he heard the story at six years old until today, was an asteroid sunk deep in the quagmire, low down, in the middle of the muddy swamp. He thought he could dig it out and sell it to scientists or a museum, he didn't really care – except, of course, he wouldn't sell it to terrorists. But he knew that it was worth something, it had to be worth something, and that whatever that something was, it was his. Ten years earlier Pete had subdivided and sold the land to a developer. It was right about the time Charlie's mom had up and left, and he'd come into some debt – people whispered about the Indian casino and blackjack – but both stories, about the woman and the gambling, were better left untold. So he sold the land, but the asteroid story wasn't something that would ever be told or sold, especially to tourists.

It was ten o'clock by the time they tramped back to the swamp, and the sun had gotten brighter as it rose higher above the trees. Carrying several pounds of liquorice and six tin cans of expired blueberry pie filling in his backpack, Pete was feeling the heat under his quilted coat and his hands were sweaty on the .44 rifle he carried. Season didn't start until tomorrow, but nobody had told that to the bears, so he always came prepared. Scott was hauling dry donuts in metal buckets; he was a regular sugar daddy to the bears, even though Pete kept cautioning him not to over-sweet the bait. After a brief pause in their calling the birds quickly resumed their songs as the men snapped branches and climbed over fallen logs. Pete and Scott had made this trip at the same time for the past five months, May to September, and daily for the previous twenty days. Even the birds were used to their presence. They'd fiddled around a bit with skipping days and halving portions until the bears had started coming in to the bait during daylight. Bears didn't like sharing their donuts, so they'd started to come in earlier to get the food before scavengers and had unsuspectingly yielded to the schedule planned for Denham's hunt.

While Scott was reassembling the bait, tamping the food into the stump they'd hollowed and setting the lid and heavy rock atop it to deter hungry deer, he twisted that twisted lip and looked over at Kowalski. 'Hey, do you feel sorry for the bear at all, Pete?' he asked. 'Like because we're tricking them and it ain't fair or something.' The boy was scratching the dirt and piling leaves to cover his tracks.

'Feel sorry for them?' Pete stood up and braced his hands on his lower back. He'd been checking the game camera, unlocking the metal cage that protected it from attacks by thieves, vandals and bears – the last because of the food scent the men transferred to the camera each time they touched it. The game camera told them what animals were coming in to the bait – they'd seen opossums, skunk and plenty of deer besides bear – and how they came. Here at the swamp site, it had been pretty regular for months: baby bear toddles in first, like clockwork at noon, with momma following close behind; big daddy waits about ten or fifteen minutes and then ambles in, starts eating, waits to be shot. They'd been through it all with Denham several times: both were nice bears, he'd almost make a trophy running near four hundred pounds and she'd be over two hundred for sure.

'Shit no, I don't feel sorry for them,' Pete said. 'Dammit, Scott. In this world, if someone makes a bed for you, and you don't wonder what his angle is, you deserve a bullet between the eyes.' The older man started re-caging the camera. 'There's no such thing as a free lunch, son, even if it's only smushed bread and liquid smoke.' Scott laughed, and so did Pete.

Denham had already driven up from Chicago two weeks ago and watched the tapes from the game camera. The plan was for him to drive up again tonight and be set to go out tomorrow, solo on the Saturday opening morning. The businessman had a couple of weekends scheduled to hunt up north during the month-long season, and didn't need to do much but watch the first day, so Kowalski wasn't going to hurt the man's pride by guiding him. They'd finish setting this final bait and that would be almost the end of the deal. If Denham needed help on Sunday or any of three following weekends, the older man would assist him; he'd try to bring Scott along to help, carrying gear or hauling the carcass home, if the boy could pull that much weight. They'd probably use the four-wheelers.

Like always, Pete coughed three times and Scott banged the bait bucket twice. Since the bait had been hit so consistently, they knew the family of bear was probably waiting just a couple hundred yards away. Staying predictable with the bait, especially sticking to a leaving routine, reassured the prey that all remained right in their free-lunch world. The game camera had shown the group hitting the bait sometimes less than twenty minutes after the men had left.

Pete turned in a slow circle and looked around, aware that the bears were close by but that he could not see them. His family's woods – what with the ice storms in winter, all the lightning strikes in spring and the occasional tornado in summer – were falling down. What wasn't splintered but still standing was on the ground, decaying in long lumps under leaf litter. The value of the timber was depreciating as rapidly as the land value was climbing: God wasn't making more lake views. Slicing off a section of land homesteaded by their great-grandparents wasn't an easy choice, but for some folks it was the only option. People were being forced off their land. It was a hard truth.

When the men made it back to the pick-up, it was past time for lunch. Flipping down the visor to shield his eyes from the noon sun, Pete noticed the four smooth bills clipped neatly to the vinyl. He hummed for a second as he fiddled with the AM radio to hear the midday funeral announcements. 'How's about we head to the buffet?' he said. 'Celebrate a job well done.' Only a half-mile into the reservation, the casino's restaurant served an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.99: barbequed ribs, battered walleye and shrimp by the pound; coffee was extra, but pie was included.

He was skinny, but the boy could eat; folks reckoned he had a hollow leg. Scott gazed out the window. 'Why don't we just stop by the diner instead?' he asked. 'It'd be quicker, and Charlie'll kill me if I don't get to Wal-Mart. We've got a car seat on layaway, and your fifty's the final instalment.' He stayed staring at the trees; the casino was a touchy enough subject, but avoiding the casino was even worse and the boy didn't need to exasperate his father-in-law. He also didn't want to hurt him.

If Pete knew why the boy tried to turn down his offer, he didn't let on. 'Ah, it's all right. Wal-Mart's open till late. We'll just get us fed and then go.'

Avoiding the valet parking, Pete steered the pick-up into a spot near the back of the parking lot. The truck was dwarfed and almost hidden among the campervans, super Winnebagos and silver-bullet RVs. As they passed through the glass doors, the tall La Couteray tribal policeman nodded at Pete as a blond female security guard checked Scott's identification. Police always knew their own. Used to be, regular folks would avoid even the slightest eye contact with law enforcement, even former cops, when they were drinking or gambling. But they were both legal now, at least on Indian land, so people didn't cringe as Pete and Scott walked by. Neighbour ladies lifted their permed heads away from the blinking machines just long enough to nod hello and the local men sitting at the blackjack tables did the same. The uniformed dealers barely registered their presence, but the lights and the bells accounted for that.

Because Kowalski had always been a good local cop, noticing everything but knowing when and how to keep his mouth shut. Allowing a couple to finish an argument without intervention and looking the other way when a family took care of a problem uncle, but bringing a guy in when necessary, when he was causing more trouble than he was worth. Tourists were fair game: they couldn't even speed Kowalski's county roads without paying a hefty fine. But the locals had earned some leeway, and Kowalski gave it to them. And that's why they gave him his respect; he was due it.

Beneath beaver skins stretched round and shoulder-mounted twelve-point bucks on the wall, the men ate leisurely, working their way through plates of mashed potatoes, chicken and cornbread. Pete tried to balance what he hankered after with what he knew was most expensive, occasionally eating a shrimp just to get his dollars' worth. Scott stuck mainly to the ribs, wearing proof of his dedication from ear to ear. When they were sated and the lovely waitress with straight black hair to her hips had cleared away the plates, they decided to make a move. Weaving their way among the flashing quarter and dime machines, the two men looked at the murals illustrating the traditional ways of the La Couteray: braves hunting each animal according to its season and women harvesting the wild rice by moonlight. Decorated in Northwoods finery, antler chandeliers and pelts of every kind, the great hall of the casino was hypnotic.

As Scott turned into the restrooms to clean his face, Pete fingered his jacket pocket. 'I'll just push these four bills through. Found money, you know,' he said. 'Burns a hole and it's lucky. Be a shame not to.' Without a word, the boy went into the bathroom while the older man started feeding the machines, using their metal edges to smooth and resmooth the bills. When Scott returned, Pete was sitting at a blackjack table halfway through what looked like winning hand. His father-in-law winked, so Scott smiled back and grabbed a free soda pop off the tray of a passing hostess. He eased himself into a leather chair near the bar. They had plenty of time.

 

SCOTT WAS WAY past free pop, beyond fifty dollars' worth of cheap beer and deep into hard-spirits debt by the time Pete shook his shoulder. It could have been any time, day or night, any season of the year; there were no windows in the place, the sun and the moon were blocked. 'Up, boy. You've had enough.' Scott had fallen asleep in his comfy chair, and now his father-in-law was treating him like a sidewalk drunk. After trying to settle the bill with a tapped-out credit card Pete looked pleadingly at the fresh pit boss, who waved at the bartender to comp the tab. Head down, Pete walked off slowly towards the exit, briefly turning behind him to wave in frustration at Scott to come. Still slumped in the deep chair, the boy was a rumpled pile of rags, and Pete felt sweaty and shabby in his work gear. 'Jesus,' he said, loud enough for people to turn their heads. 'I got to feed and clothe you. Do I got to carry you too?'

'I ain't done yet.' Scott slurred. 'You arrogant bastard.' He slipped lower down in his chair and slapped his hand hard on the bar. 'Another one,' he said to the bartender. 'Right now.' A white man, but with a long grey braid hung over his shoulder, the bartender raised his bushy eyebrows and looked over the sprawled, drunken boy to the rigid-shouldered man walking rapidly towards them. He'd let the boy sleep there the entire shift, encouraged by the nod of the pit boss standing near a gambling man's shoulder: maybe not a high roller but a regular, for sure. He was about to press the crisis button hidden beneath the bar when he recognised Kowalski. Relaxing, he nodded, turned his back and kept cleaning glasses.

When Pete grabbed his arm, Scott knew he was done. Kowalski had dealt out a few beatings in his time, most in uniform. But the man knew that this boy had taken more than his own fair share; almost six months ago, after the initial shock of Charlie's pregnancy wore off, Pete had investigated enough of Scott's alcoholic family to concern himself with genetics. That the boy came from a family of dirtbags was clear, but Scott himself was a gentle sort, always on the receiving end of the household violence. The boy would never raise a hand to his girl. Instead of the punch Scott had already braced himself against, Pete just shook the boy's arm and lightly pulled him out of the chair. 'We better head off, son. I'm tapped out,' he said, with a small wave of his hand. And in the parking lot, when Scott remembered and started crying over the wasted fifty and blubbering about the car seat for the baby, Pete gently hushed him. 'Don't worry about the wife, son. A guy's got to live a little.' His father-in-law steered him like a child among the enormous humming tourist vehicles, toward the truck. As he held Scott's shoulder the older man softly, almost inaudibly repeated, 'I got ya,' and again, the boy knew he could believe him.

Worse than they'd imagined, it was past four in the morning by the time they finally staggered into the pick-up and started her up. Pete had imagined scraping the frost off his windscreen and then driving home in the dark, ashamed by their shenanigans but hopefully pouring Scott into bed without waking Charlie. A twelve-hour-plus bender, however, was more difficult to explain or excuse. Looking over at Scott, already snoring with his head thrown back against the seat, he was jealous of his drunkenness. This was going to be one of those screaming scenes, one with flying frying pans, high heels, and cursing recriminations that he'd sworn he'd never have to endure again since he quit both his marriage and the force. Pete didn't have the strength for that tonight, so he leaned back against the headrest and tried to sleep. He caught his own reflection in the mirror: his eyes had the hollow, beat-up look of a collar and the corners of his mouth were caked with dried spittle. He was an old man, all right, just a stupid, broke old man.

But there was nothing to be done. Scott was nudging him and the sunlight angled in the vehicle windows in an afternoon kind of way when Pete awoke; it was past two o'clock. Adjusting his glasses, he swiped a large hand across the steamed-over windscreen and smeared a clear spot. After revving the truck for a good fifteen minutes the old man drove home, straight along the section lines. He was rehearsing his excuses as he passed Denham's place. Rusted cars and beat-up pick-ups lined the short driveway. Worried that the businessman had injured himself or worse, shot and killed some local hunter, Pete raced his truck up the gravel track and stopped with a spray of rocks near the crowd that had gathered in front of the colossal garage.

As Pete pushed his way through, the crowd parted to reveal Denham sitting on his tailgate, smiling widely and roaring, 'No bear-tag soup for me!' Downing the beer their benefactor had provided, the neighbour men and women nodded politely as the bear killer explained that no true hunter was willing to start the fall hunting season empty-handed. Their host continued to expound on his plans for his coming whitetail season– he might do bow, rifle and muzzle-loader this year – and truly cram that monster freezer with venison.

Charlie was there, hair and belly hanging out, and drinking beer from a can. She'd wandered over after hearing the gunshots at noon, and she was the one who'd called all the neighbours to celebrate the harvest. The girl shot them a look, but then just tilted her head, smiled and threw Scott his own can. She turned her head and shook it a bit at her father, and again smiled her strong smile and threw him a beer. 'Daddy,' she asked, 'why don't I ever remember you bagging a bear?'

Kowalski glanced through the crowd, angling his yellow half-smile at his family, friends and neighbours. He cracked open his own beer. 'Never felt the need to shoot a bear.'

It looked like a stunted dog. Sloppily thrown in the back of the expensive truck, the cub was already stiff with rigor and cold. He'd been dragged back to the house intact, not even been field-dressed; leaves and sticks were stuck in his fur and in the wide wound in his side. No one had told Denham, but they all knew; from the looks exchanged among the locals, they all knew the asshole had screwed the pooch. But it wasn't out of respect for the tourist who shot the baby bear that they kept their mouths shut. Jobs were hard to come by, and the boy Scott could be kept busy care-taking Denham's property over the winter. Pete would have to find work too, maybe pick up some security job or a few shifts at the packing plant. They had kept quiet out of respect for their neighbour. They were all starving ticks on a skinny dog. Kowalski knew all of this and he appreciated it. Folks looked out for each other up here.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.