Red, White, and Blue

Second place, the 12th annual 'Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest

I sit crumpled like a sack lunch in the coach class of a discount airline 30,000 feet above northern California, somewhere between the crystal meth garage labs of the San Gabriel Valley and the leafy marijuana acreage of Humboldt County, when we start bombing Saddam again. As the plane touches down at Portland International ignorant of international events, a flight attendant with a voice like pump Reeboks lets out a big "Whhhhhhhheeeeeew!" over the loudspeaker and the whole cabin titters in that self-congratulatory budget travel type of way. On the fluorescent and concrete planet outside the airport, I find a cab whose driver shushes me. He flips his meter on and his radio up.

The President is talking. We are at war with Iraq.

"Is this good or bad?" I ask, halfway hoping to egg the cabbie on. Crackpot cabbie conspiracy theories might dilute the day like a highball.

"Too soon to say," he says. Once the President gives way to a muffler shop commercial, he turns the radio down. "In town for business or pleasure?"

"Neither. I'm saving my sister."

"From what?"

Three weeks ago my sister Samantha woke up under an overpass in a light blanket of snow next to a corpse with swollen, blue limbs and a red, battered face.

"You know," I say, giving him my best George W., "From the evildoers."

The cabbie breaks off eye contact by reframing the rearview mirror. He's got no time for crackpot customers.

"Martin. You made it!" Dad says, acting like I've just joined him at the shuffleboard court of Club Med. The motel room is cheerless and modest, without a mini-refrigerator, which means Dad has to keep his beers, both empty and full, in a plastic bag beside the bed, which he finds preferable to the open book accounting of an ice bucket or sink. With forced fraternity, he offers me a "brewski." I decline, thinking that this makes me different than him.

He wants to talk about the tricky mountain pass he "greased through" without having to put snow chains on his Subaru Forester, a car unaccustomed to the forest. He's manic with relief. He's sixty-five and has never traveled on a road that required snow chains. He bases all of life's decisions on avoiding additional and potentially unnecessary skill sets. If his life were a commercial, the tag line would be "Why start now?"

The trip is my idea. It's a new skill set: the search and rescue.

end story

Sam knew the victim in a way; it was a transient camp – everyone knew each other, and no one knew each other. The Clackamas County detectives questioned her, the only witness, but ultimately gave her more answers than she gave them. She had blacked out, knew only the blue limbs and the red face. The detectives told her about her "friend" Murphy who admitted to arguing with the victim before beating him to death with a frozen tree limb.

Sam demanded to see Murphy, a fifty-six-year-old schizophrenic who received disability along with a handful of restraining orders over the years. When the detectives refused, she decided she loved the man, that she found a cause worth fighting for. She had known him five days. A whirlwind romance.

The police dropped her back off at the trailer of her previous beau, Todd, a tweaker, a meth-head, young and strong. Sam had moved to Portland to be with him. She had moved to the transient camp to be away from him.

A few days later after the murder, on Sam and Murphy's one week anniversary, she called my mom from a laundromat payphone to moon over Murphy. She thought he was gentle and odd and gray-stubbled, like Michael Stipe, lead singer of her once favorite band (back when Sam had things like favorite bands). She asked my mom's opinion on various Irish-sounding baby names. She asked about conjugal visits.

end story

I shower as Dad watches the news and repeats it to me. No sign of Saddam or any resistance. This could be the shortest war ever.

The day starts to feel historic.

Using a pizza box for a desk, we unwrap a map and draw up our own plans like Patton. We decide on a soft approach. We'll go in the morning when she's hungover, vulnerable and needy. Dad will park down the block. I'll go alone on foot. Dad would scare Sam, but I'm her big brother and I've never failed her. She'll trust me. She'll need me.

Dad scours the map and frets over his role of getaway driver. Where will he park? What if it's not safe? What if Sam runs? Is there any pizza left? We decide we need to do some reconnaissance work.

end story

Dad eases the white Subaru, subtle as a space shuttle, into the darkened trailer park, which looks like every episode of Cops. Shirtless men ride banana seat bikes through the shadows and shiny puddles even though it's forty degrees out, exhaling little locomotive steam stacks over their bent handlebars.

I struggle to connect these people to my life.

We skulk around on foot, struggling with the addresses – some are scrawled in black marker right on the aluminum, some use all different fonts like a ransom note – when my cell rings. Mom says Sam just called. She's hysterical. Todd's kicking her out. She wants money for a motel room. She needs help.

Here we are: her two knights in shining anoraks.

We modify the plan. I take the door. Dad takes the perimeter with my cell phone in his hand, 9-1-1 already entered, his thumb above the "Send" button like a detonator. I step between a weight bench without weights and a shopping cart full of rain-soaked laundry. I knock loudly.

I wait. Knock again. Looking around the porch, I see black, lug-soled shoes I recognize as Sam's. They look sad and tired, like shed skin. Barbells are stuffed beneath the corner of the trailer to keep it level. In the background, my dad waves his detonator thumb at me, his eyebrows question marks.

When a door clangs open on the opposite side of the trailer, I can't help but think of the title sequence of The Odd Couple, Sam's favorite television show growing up. Felix is talking to Oscar who lies beneath a pile of clothes. Oscar wakes up at the opposite end of the bed with Felix miffed at having been talking to Oscar's feet. As long as Sam and I shared a room growing up, I regret that I was never able to pull that gag off once.

"What?" a gruff voice asks, more weary than violent.

"Get Samantha," I say.

Todd's silhouette seems slightly confused, but almost bored. "Why? Who are you?"

"Her brother. Get Samantha."

He ducks back inside. After a few minutes, he pops his head out again. "She's not here."

"She's there. She just called my mom from your phone."

Same thing, ducks back inside. A few more minutes of cat and mouse. "She's asleep."

"She's not asleep," I say.

"She just went to sleep."

"Bullshit."

Todd shrugs, "Sorry, man." Shuts the door.

Dad and I look at each other, our bodies confused with buckets of unused adrenaline. I stand there, stupid as a statue, feeling the neighbors watching me.

A cop car passes by and we chase it down waving our arms frantically, our adrenaline eager for action. The cops listen sympathetically to our story. They know Todd.

The cops knock, go inside, and bring Sam out in her pajamas. She holds herself in a hardened, unrecognizable way. Her eyes are still blue, but flinty now, no longer shy. She's the same building, but under new management.

"What are you doing here?" she asks.

"Trying to help you."

"I didn't ask for this," she says.

I tell her that she did ask for this. She asked tonight. She's asked fifty times over the last six months in frantic phone calls in the middle of the night. We're here because we care. We love her. We want to help. It all sounds like bullshit.

"Well, I'm fine."

I say, "You don't seem fine."

"I was asleep. I'm going back inside."

"Can you talk to us for a second? We came a long way."

"No."

One of the cops tries to bait her into talking. "You sure got some bad taste in men."

Sam gets right in his face "What do you know?" Todd pulls her back like a marlin.

"You're just a fucking cop!" she screams.

end story

When we get to the car, I see Dad cry for the first time. I tell him that we'll let her cool off, that we'll talk to her later. But I'm wrong. We'll stay three more days in Portland trying to get her to see us and talk to us. And we'll fail.

end story

On Monday morning I cancel my flight and toss my bag into the back of the Subaru, the engine running, the radio blaring news about our impressive military progress in Iraq.

"You sure you want to drive seventeen hours?" Dad asks.

"I don't really feel like rushing back to work," I say.

"You just want to see me use those snow chains, don't you?"

"More than you know."

Leaving Portland is like taking a sad Star Tour of Sam's life. On the right is the mall where she didn't work. On your left is the laundromat she called us from. Just ahead is the Western Union where she cashed our checks. And just now we're passing over the white woods where she woke up next to a corpse with swollen, blue limbs and a battered red face. end story

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