That evening, his Dad came home with a ten-pound steelhead and had Steve take a picture of him holding it on the front lawn. He then cleaned the trout there on the grass with a fillet knife, a silvery bright female, called a “hen,” almost three feet long, and pulled two huge skeins of red eggs from her belly, which he set aside.
“I didn’t think they had eggs in May,” Steve said.
“It’s a late winter steelhead. Summers spawn at the end of the year.”
Steve watched him a minute and began to turn back toward the house. “Wait, Chuck. I understand you had Tess over.”
He felt guarded. “Yeah?”
“I’m concerned about this girl, Charles. Has she told you anything about what she’s been through?”
“No, just that her dad was a drunk.”
“She vandalized the last school she was in, did you know that?”
“No. What did she do?”
“Spray-painted ‘assholes’ across the main doors.”
He didn’t care. Actually, as he thought about it, he had to fight not to smile. She probably shouldn’t have done it, but she probably had a good reason.
“I’d prefer if you not get too close to this girl. I know she’s pretty and everything, but people hardly ever beat these problems, you understand? I mean, hardly ever.” Steve’s mind felt like a blank stretch of wall bouncing back the words. His dad regarded him closely for a second, then shook his head. “No, you’re not listening. Okay, look, you’ve got a good head. I feel bad saying this to you, but if I didn’t, I’d be shirking my duty.”
“So she can’t come over with the guys?” His guts went cold.
“No, I’m not saying that. I think having her as part of your club is great, for all of you, but maybe not this one-on-one stuff. What’d you do today?”
Steve didn’t feel inclined to answer but decided being coy or defensive wouldn’t help. “She came over to play that game. Her character is behind. It’s kind of like a running score; if you don’t keep up with the other players, you can’t compete.”
“Well, I sure don’t understand that, but it’s your business. Is she caught up then?”
“More or less.”
“Good. Say, could you get me some more newspaper and that jar with the borax, from the garage?” His dad looked down at his bloodied hands.
Steve returned a minute later with the paper and the jelly-jar a quarter full of white powder. His dad’s fingers left a slick of blood as he opened it. Once he’d plopped the gelatinous skeins inside, he shook it to give them an even coating. He set the jar aside on the lawn and then wrapped up the guts in the newspaper. Steve followed him over to the trash, where he stuffed them deep down.
“You’ve got to get salmon and steelhead parts where the neighbors’ dogs can’t smell them.” He said this every time he brought a fish home.
“Yeah, I know. They get sick. Say, Dad, I realize Tess had a hard time, but she’s incredibly smart. I learn a lot from her, and Mr. Harrison said that she needs steady people.”
“Look, I’m not dumb, Chuck. I know you’ve got a thing for this girl. Everything Alex says is right, but even he has misgivings.” Steve followed him back to the lawn, where he picked up the fillet knife and began to slice the fish crossways into steaks.
“Jeez, Dad, she’s just my friend.”
“You’re smart and sensitive, and obsessive like your mom. I know you’ve got some insecurities, but you’re at the edge of some big changes. I’m not going to lay down the law with you, but I want you to try hard to understand, Chuck. A person like Tess has a different road to take. That’s all. There’ll be a lot of pretty, smart girls coming up. When you graduate high school, I’ll send you to Europe. You can backpack through the Netherlands and Germany like I did — that’ll really open up your world.”
“What the hell does that mean?” He felt his temperature rise, but anything he said would only confirm that he had a stupid crush.
His father shrugged, grinning. “Here, could you put this in the door of your fridge downstairs?” He handed over the jar of eggs smeared with fish blood. “Maybe I’ll get a couple Chinook with these.”
* * *
The next morning dawned as sunny and warm as the day before. Steve joined his parents for breakfast in the kitchen. On Sundays, they tried to eat together in lieu of going to church. When Curt, a Catholic, asked him about his religion a couple years ago, he’d given some evasive replies, and Curt declared him an Agnostic. “Religion,” said Steve’s dad once, “is like collecting ancient postage stamps — not my hobby. I guess someone’s got to make it their business. But people don’t need religion to be good, and it won’t keep them from being jerks. My religion is a fine day on the river and a view of the mountains.”
The sun was just over Hood, and Steve’s mom had abandoned her plate to sip coffee by the bay windows overlooking the rear yard. Her long auburn hair glowed in the light, a few stray translucent strands waving free; she still had on her bathrobe, but she held herself with the severe dignity she always managed. Two streets below, a cul-de-sac poked out to the edge of a slope, and a small crowd of people had gathered, shielding their eyes and straining northeastward. Steve approached the window for a better look. “What are they doing?”
His mom extended a finger past her cup handle. “Something big’s going on. It’s the mountain.”
“The mountain” usually meant Mt. Hood, but that’s not where the crowd directed their attention. A fat column of slate-gray cloud thrust up out of St. Helens’ white skirt, the top pointing eastward. His dad got up from his chair, and turned on the fourteen-inch TV at the kitchen counter. An alarming closeup of the volcano was being shown, with the local news-station logo underneath: the cloud boiled with growing fury.
Steve’s dad turned up the volume: “…As many as forty researchers still remain within the restricted zone. Experts say that everyone should remain as far from the mountain as possible. Roads are being closed in a wider area and travelers rerouted west. People are ordered to evacuate the Toutle and Cowlitz drainages, as volcanic flows may cause those rivers to crest at record levels. The ash is expected to fall on Yakima within hours. Crowds there have already begun stocking up on particle masks, and duct tape to seal windows. We now bring you a professor from the US Geological Survey to explain what is happening…”
“My God,” said Steve’s dad.
* * *
The next day at school, the eruption of the mountain seemed to raise the background energy of both students and teachers. There was a horseshoe-shaped crater where the dome of the mountain used to be. From an initial height of ten to twelve miles, the ash plumes had died down to a burble; however, a secondary eruption of human excitement now followed the initial shock. The old hermit Harry Truman had focused the human dimension of the event, much more than the dozens of researchers reportedly killed. They, after all, were doing their jobs. Truman had remained out of stubbornness, although a rumor circulated that he’d changed his mind and had been getting ready to leave.
A few callers to local radio shows eulogized Truman as a romantic, principled character. Tess’s attitude reflected the more general opinion.
“He was an idiot,” she said, picking at her lasagna casserole. “He wanted attention for being a coot, and now he’s really famous—for getting himself killed. Him and his poor cats. And how many people risked their lives staying around to get him to go?” She was in full punk attire, but her face flushed with excitement and she had a nervous energy that belied her indifferent words.
“I guess so. I feel bad for him if he finally wanted to leave, and I feel really bad for the other people who got killed,” said Steve. The explosion had carried the force of a big atom bomb; forty to seventy people had been killed and many homes and bridges destroyed close to the mountain. On the news the previous afternoon, they’d shown pictures of the Yakima streets, ash falling at midday like snow against street lamps, under a sky as dark as an overcast midnight. It made him think of Soviet missiles and the nuclear-winter scenario he’d heard about on TV. No one had died in Yakima, though, and volcanic ash wasn’t radioactive.
Tess said, “You know who I feel bad for? Ian Curtis.”
“Did he get caught in the eruption?”
She rolled her eyes. “He was the singer for an English band called Joy Division. He died yesterday. Killed himself.”
Tess shrugged. “He had epilepsy and got seizures a lot when he performed, and his personal life was bad.”
“You really liked him, huh?”
Tess shrugged again. “I just heard a little of his stuff. They mentioned his death on the radio, but I’d already been reading about him. At Powell’s I get old Rolling Stone and NME magazines. Say, I was thinking I’d make you a tape with some punk like the Buzzcocks and Sex Pistols; I’ve got a boombox with two tape decks in it.”
A couple girls walked by the table; he and Tess looked up and saw it was Emma and Libby. They waved at Tess and belatedly acknowledged Steve with a nod.
“You’re friends with those guys now?”
“I dunno. I think I split their pack, though. Beth is still in their group, but if you watch, she’s kind of an outsider. When they gossip, she has to kind of nudge into the circle.”
“You make them sound like dogs.”
“ ‘Bitches,’ you mean? Nah, but there’s a lot of drama in their group. Emma is pretty cool. I think we could be friends.”
“What about Libby?”
“I don’t know yet. She’s kind of sly, says less than she’s thinking. Maybe she’s got a hardass mother or something. I haven’t figured her out. She had some crazy drama with her boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend?” Steve hadn’t known that Libby had a boyfriend. He figured all the guys were beneath her.
“He doesn’t go here. Some girl from his own school named Genevieve started getting friendly with him, and Libby had a fight with her about it. Genevieve then ratted him out for selling drugs or something, so Libby’s really out to get her.”
Steve was flattered by the gossip, even if he really didn’t quite get the situation. “Wow,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it all seems pretty stupid to me,” Tess said.
She grew pensive. “I’ve been thinking about the adventure,” she said. “I think I know the new power I want….”
Steve smiled privately. He’d made a bigger impact than both Mt. St. Helens and Libby Marshall.