Alice and Jimmy Mac
I came home and my wife was gone. I knew she was gone because my car was there. It was a black Alfa Romeo from my bachelor days with a sun roof and if Alice were home she'd be out driving. We had a long driveway and I had time to think about this. Then I notice two guys in cheap suits fucking with my car. Fucking blue suits and tie. I didn't see them, I was thinking about Alice.
I did a one-eighty and I jumped uphill out of my car. One was already at the driver's seat. The other jumped in his side and stood up on my seats out the sunroof and shouted to me, "We got papers." I was running right up to the front of the car. The driver hit it. The guy standing disappeared into the sunroof hard because when I jumped over the hood and to the side to get him all I caught was the edge of the opening. I held on. I guess it was a ninety I did when I parked. What I meant was that the Chevy blocked the driveway horizontally. It was Alice's car and they swerved around it, straight out the driveway and this collection agency goon floored it with me hanging on for the sake of my property.
The guy inside beat my hands to get them off to dump me, then my elbows, then my shoulders. He pointed a gun to my face when I got halfway in. I kept coming. I grabbed across for the wheel, shouting, "I'm a crazy Vietnam veteran. I am an insane Vietnam veteran. I am a lunatic and give me my car back I paid for it." They weren't loony enough to shoot me. The driver wasn't strong enough to stop me from grabbing the wheel and skidding us into a guard rail broadside to stop. I'm still suing those two, and the collection agency, and the bank. I pay what I owe.
My friend Jim McKinney Jr. had a hard lifetime. He was short, and ugly, and when he was little his dad was often in jail. He got a bad start, but his life was a lot harder than it need have been. He took a lot of trouble for his friends, and got a lot of it from other people.
I owe little Jim a lot. He grew up with me. It was always given that we had each other in mind. I met Alice through the wake I held to pay something back to Jim. I held that wake over Jimmy to get back at his business associates, his partners, clients, and competitors who put the squeeze to him gratuitously, and never let up.
Jim got bullied the first day of first grade, every day of the whole first week by the same third grader. After Friday he told his mother he would never go to school again in his whole life, he was not going to school on Monday. His ma told his dad. Jim's dad told him he was too going, every day. Jim's dad got the story of the bully out of Jim. Big Jim said not only was Jimmy going to school, he was going to go up to that big kid every time he saw him and punch.
Jim did that. Every time he saw his persecutor he ran after him, and jumped him, swinging his arms around like kids do. He got thrown off, and kicked down, and sat on three or four times every day at school. Jimmy'd come home with his clothes torn and with bruises, all dirty. His dad ate it up. Jim went back every morning and did the same thing. After two weeks, the bully turned and caught little Jim, while they waited in line to enter the building, just as Jim made his first attack. The bully caught him in two hands and promised never to ever bother him again. He was exasperated from being hunted all the time, and tired of catching a lick or two every time he creamed Jim, three or six licks a day, every day.
Jim had the special charm ever afterwards of not tolerating grief. Except when he was in the Navy it never was much of a problem to have Jim mad at you--he was really tiny. Not a real problem, but it was a threat and an aggravation. Most people who give you grief do it gratuitously, for no reason, and if you give them any kind of a reason to let you alone they will.
I wish I could have got the government to attend the wake.
When he was sixteen, police caught Jim way inside another man's house. He had two short crowbars he'd made himself, and some rolled weed in his jacket pocket. He'd brought some smoke along against the shakes but got so excited about breaking in that he forgot to either do it or dump it.
At the station house the officer on duty spread the burglar tools and the narcotic out on the desk. A passing cop gave Jimmy's right name. The officer on duty asked if he was Big Jim McKinney's son.
You've got to remember, this is long before every minor jackass who broke the law had rights. Torture's simple. You have to teach infantry about blisters, and even then you have to inspect their feet every day, but torture comes naturally to those who want to do it. They opened a telephone book on Jim's head and beat the yellow pages with a club. In the morning they told him he could go to Vietnam or go to prison. He pitched what was in his slop bucket on them through the bars when they came back for his decision. So they took him to the recruiting station, but the Marine Corps wouldn't take him, even as a favor to the cops. He was too scrawny, his teeth were too rotten, and he was morally degenerate. They took him back to the precinct, and let him use the phone. His dad's motorcycle club bailed him out. The sergeant at arms of the club told him about a new crab boat going north that needed a cook. That Saturday Jim sailed from Seattle for the Bering Sea, where he stayed two full crabbing seasons.
Jim seldom mentioned his days crabbing. Alice told me about the industry. Alaskan crabbers work a sixty hour day, sleep four hours, and do it again, following their line of pots back and forth fifty miles out from land, as long as the season lasts. The season is in winter. Calm seas is fifty foot swells. There are usually storms. The Fish and Game closes the season when fifty million ton have been taken, it doesn't matter by which ship. So sometimes in competition for the crab the men don't sleep at all.
In the early days when Jim sailed there was big big money in it. It was the kind of work you can't pay someone to do. Men getting thirty dollars an hour would have quit. No wage is worth dying for. Crabbers work for profits.
Jim's share as cook for his first two month season was ninety thousand dollars. Jim was lucky and had a skipper who believed in money he could spend. Lots of ships went down from the crew's overwork. They'd over-load, or pull up two crab pots at one time and capsize, or just get so tired they couldn't help when the boat iced up. Men commonly went overboard to rest.
They also shot each other up. No one was ever calm and rested, and there were always a gun around. The boats carried a lot of cash. The big port was Kodiak, where inland there's a Marine base where they send you if you ball up too bad to court-martial. A friend who trained there told me that he was off-duty in the port once when the fleet was in, and he saw a machine gun mounted on one bridge, and still-drunk crabbers firing on gulls with their M-16s.
I think Jim enjoyed the life. He came back to Seattle after two years to spend some money. The police were still interested in him and he joined the Navy. He went overseas. He did underwater demolition and reconnaissance.
Think of what it must be to have someone else's memories!
Jim and I never lived in the same house, but we were neighbors after the war, as we had been as kids. We lived nearby each other in several small settlements in Humboldt county. Martin was in and out those four years, and other friends from home or from outfits overseas and in the states were nearby as well.
My parents moved to an island in San Francisco Bay while I was in Laos. I drove down Route One slowly to see them, from Seattle, where I'd flown to as quickly as I could manage, after discharge. My parents brought me near the Bay Area, and I may have attracted my friends, but that might not be the cause of our living there. We might have settled there anyways. There was tract housing, very cheap to rent, built in speculation, out in the country and sometimes almost all vacant. There were young families with kids. There was lots of easy money around for young men.
Just about anyone who drives down Route One through northern California wants to live nearby.
Jim came to do business. I was living by diving when he came. There was an oil spill in the Bay, and I was paid to swim across the bottom from day to day to keep track of the oil pools that accumulated there. Jim taught me things about diving that helped me do that. He wouldn't dive himself. Many of the men who survived the kind of work Jim did for the Navy died as civilians doing jobs for the oil company. Jim wanted money he could spend.
He came to Kelseyville on his bike. He had some Alaska money, and his service pay. He rented a house and bought a Chevrolet. He drove down to San Bernadino in his crewcut, with a dope farmer's whole crop boxed up the back, sloppily, with clothes and kitchen stuff hanging out. He stopped in Oakland on his way back.
You may not know that Jim's dad is past president of the Seattle chapter of the Diabloes Motorcycle Club. He's got that tattoo filled in. The Diabloes first got big when the Hell's Angels got into organized crime. The Diabloes MC became the prestigious club that was still individual outlaws, as long as that lasted. As president, Big Jim put up a lot of roving bikers that passed through Seattle, including Angels who were traveling, keeping away from the Oakland and Berdoo scenes, where even the Diablo chapters became drug rackets.
With his connections Jim clued into those scenes very well, with his first Chevy full of prime domestic marijuana. He was godsend to those guys. They couldn't control their supplies before Jim came. They couldn't control the docks, so they had no say in setting prices for stuff from overseas. Nobody they knew could cross the Mexican border without getting searched. They didn't really know about airports. Their only supplier was the mob.
Then came Jim with good dope from Humboldt County. Hippies who had moved north from Berkeley had got way into that country to cultivate their interests alone. You had to be hip to ever find them. They grew the first commercial grade homegrown. They wouldn't deal with the mob. They couldn't deal with the bikers.
My hip biker veteran friend Jim McKinney got to be a very important man. His friends the hippies expanded their fields. Jim never made another run himself, but Chevies and Oldsmobiles drove south every harvest.
Jim got a piece of the profits from both the growers and the sellers. The Angels would front him cash, and he would take a cut. From the balance he would make a price to the grower, and take a cut of that. He made lots of money every two month season. He paid our friends well to drive, and gave them cars.
Jim's whole success was the illusion of negotiation. He handed money back to the Angels, telling them he had beaten the growers down. They'd hand it back to Jim as an option on the next harvest. When Jim made his price to the growers he always allowed for "windfalls" he would lay on them later, thousands he'd say he gouged from the Angels.
But there's always someone to eliminate the middleman. The Angels accused him of cheating, and let the membership know he should be dead. One grower put out the word Jim was fixing the price, and the farmers lay in wait for him on the small roads. The mob saw him friendless and put out a contract, to disrupt the new market, to move in. Jim split the county to a small town, in another state, in a corner of it far from any interstates.
In two years times had changed and Jim came back. He did like the area. He died in bed soon after. A doctor has told me that happens. A paramedic said that he'd tried to rescue a Cambodian who died with equally little reason.
In those days no friend's death was sudden for me. I bet it was sudden to Jim, though. He had two quiet years to slow down. He had a day between his two heart attacks to realize. Alice's death was sudden to me, as real as Jim's own was to him.
After I wrecked my car I walked. The cops didn't know who to arrest when we woke up at the hospital and talked. They got a doctor to put me to sleep and let those guys out. I walked home logy and Alice still wasn't there this time though of course neither was the car.
She wasn't in the kitchen, she wasn't in the dinette, she wasn't in the bedroom. I was hurt. I still do hurt from the wrench on my shoulder when the car started and the shock to my back when I stopped it. Right then I couldn't stand. I couldn't sit down. I tried laying on our big bed. I couldn't stand the pain there and forced myself to ease down onto the floor beside it. Then I couldn't get up though I felt no improvement where I was. The phone was nearby but I couldn't dial it. My fingers had held my door key and opened the house but now they didn't move. I started bellowing for Alice. She didn't come.
Alice was my wife. Alice was a limnologist. Alice was a surface geologist, a hydrographer. She knew about lakes. Alice knew a lot. Alice was a surface geologist who didn't care to work for Shell. Alice came with me on walks in the Muir Woods and fishing off the leper island in San Francisco Bay.
The phone rang. That hurt. I hit it. All my strength was just enough to rattle the receiver in its cradle, and it rang again with an extra, painful, reverberation. Like when you kick a garbage can while it's still shaking. I lifted myself all I could and hit it again. I fell back to the floor. All my weight was enough to knock the receiver off, to stop the ringing, which was all I wanted. My phone is my own. I call people with it. I answer calls I ask for.
I was busy screaming, "Alice!"
I heard them calling me on the phone but I kept shouting, "Alice!"
I heard, "Mr. Thornton. We have a bad connection."
I got the receiver to talk.
It was the hospital I'd just come from, the desk that had received me at six. They had been trying to reach me all day.
Alice had been struck while getting the mail. They didn't tell me that. They just told me she died. Now I couldn't get my fingers off the phone, couldn't roll away from it, couldn't get up to walk somewhere. Alice couldn't do anything. The phone made that noise, I shouted and shook. That was my night.
There weren't any neighbors not at work to see the accident. The car never stopped. The paramedics, who were my friends, did their best, as did the Washington State Police.
The ambulance crew broke into my house after their shift. They cared for me and told me what I know about her passing.
I didn't do anything like I did when Jim died. Acting I think is matter of ceremony you perform when it's something you've felt before and you know what to do.
I owed little Jim a lot. I held the wake to pay him back, to pay his clients and partners and competitors. It was the thing to do. I owed him more afterwards for meeting Alice. After Alice died my debt to him was responsible for everything I had and lost in her. At the time, I owed him and simply paid back.
Jim left me everything. In the day he had, he had his bail bondsman's lawyer make out a blanket will. There were no debts. Everything was paid for in cash.
I turned it all back into cash and closed Jim's accounts. I did it the morning I heard he was dead. I wasn't working steady. I got the phone call, went to the lawyer, went to the bank, called a second-hand jobber, and I had all of Jim's substance in my jeans by three. Then I made a list for the party.
Jim hated funerals. I don't know anyone who went to his. The last funeral I attended I had to be there. I was pallbearer. I wasn't a friend of the family, I didn't know him. I was the right height. Every Sunday when I was in training in Texas it was an even chance if you were six foot two you would have to carry the coffin of a fellow Green Beret who had stood under a bomb in Vietnam. The unknown soldier I would carry was entitled to a military funeral, and I was obliged to help him in it. They were miserable and hot funerals. It was distressing to talk to the father and mother about the deceased.
What we held was a wake. I spent every cent on liquor. Then I got on the phone. I called everyone who loved Jim. I couldn't get his dad. I called and left messages at work for the girlfriend of one of the brothers at the Seattle Diabloes. I called all the local divers.
David Winklie answered the phone before it rang. He's like that. He was a drinker before serving. We shared a six-pack once after a dive together, and he told me how he stopped drinking altogether once. It was right after he got overseas, and the effect lasted until New Year's after he was discharged. What had happened was he had a binge with a friend from his compound. The two were only off-duty for the night, but duty was very slack where they were in American territory. It was a supply and services depot. The perimeter was only there to protect the materiel and cars against the black market. So they felt safe staggering out past the guards. They got separated and slept in ditches. Dave woke up near a water buffalo's wallow. His friend's head was stuck by itself on one of the horns.
Dave said of course he'd be there. I called up Mouth and Allen and the rest of Jimmy's drivers. I called up all the country fuck-offs he used to party with. I called up Martin, and got him.
Then I got in the car. I called on the dope farmers. I invited each to the wake. Aging hippies like to drink. I got addresses from one and drove to Oakland. I talked to the Oakland Hell's Angels vice-president and his particular buddies. They promised solemnly the full attendance of all available brothers. The vice-president said he'd see to it personally the Berdoo Chapter would be pleased to send an honor guard.
It was all easy. Motorcycle goons will do anything if you talk about honor and ceremony and doing right. The growers still felt cheated by Jim and thought they'd get a little back in alcohol. Neither the bikers or the growers had any memory, it seemed, of the trouble they had put Jim to and the attempts they made on his life.
I was so pleased I went around and invited all the ordinary assholes too, the social acquaintances Jim had who irritated him in everyday life. I do wish I could have got the government and the mob. The wake was going to be quite a large function, just counting Jim's enemies. And of course all of Jim's friends were coming to mourn him properly.
I can't say looking at it that the wake was ucted for revenge. It wasnt like getting back at your little sister. Getting it together was a ceremony, organizing it was something to do. The inspiration to go through those motions was certainly revenge. We carried it on with exuberance, though. There was nothing mean in our conduct. I know it was constructive or Alice wouldnt have been attracted to it.
Alice watched me when I parked my truck near Lake Konocti. She watched me get out of the cab and let down the gate to set up the party. I tapped a keg and opened the cases of whisky. I took the twist-tie off the garbage bag the half kilo was in. I didnt know she was watching me.
Dave Winklie was with me. Im surprised he didnt notice her. I thought he was the only other person. Konocti is a lonely park, and it was early Friday morning.
David and I took a bottle and sat. Alice tells me she started taking specimens again.
She said she saw us set up on Saturday morning and Sunday. She said Sunday we looked chewed up and happy. Monday morning she saw me all alone and left her jacket on me as I slept.
Friday was for the ordinary assholes. The party got swinging in the afternoon. All Jims local friends were there early, since few of us worked. As the drinking got on, one by one there would be words and an old friend of Jims would naturally take out one of the deceaseds old everyday tormentors. That evening the farmers arrived from the country and got their clocks cleaned. All Saturday and Sunday Angels from the South and Diabloes from the north arrived in pairs and threes, just fast enough to feed a steady brawling too vicious for the cops to bother with and too small for the county to feel obliged to do something about.
I fought drunk three days Theres something wonderful about violence with no shrapnel and men to care for, with no money involved.
That was how I buried Jim. Alice liked me for it.
Alice woke me up Monday evening. She made me pick up around the truck. She drove me home, and stayed with me, and didnt leave.
Only someone who hated ambition as much as she loved me could have done what Alice accomplished in getting me out of California and up to apprentice in the shipyards at Bellingham. Alice stayed four years in the Alaska fisheries after getting her Masters Degree. She was between seasons looking at lakes when she saw me. When she told me after living with me half a year that it was worthwhile making what I knew was a good life, I knew that she knew that I understood her. I had to listen to her.
I loved to listen. Alice spoke clearly. She used her fingers to point to things. She told me that plants and animals are usually eaten alive, that the trash I would have left at Konocti was much part of the lakes she loved as the fish were. Once a door was jammed and I explained to her how any key is a crank in its special lock, turning the bolt. She, What if the bolt were three feet long and you stood cranking it, hard at first, with less effort as it came along, until the door clicked toward you on the threshold, swung free in your easy grasp, and you stepped into the building open to do as you pleased? She had a special quality.
When Alice died I had nothing to say or do in response to the situation.
Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999