“Tribes” by Lane Talbot

Red police lights revolved beneath a spread of morning lightning. Two Kahota squad cars sat parked askew atop the rise in the middle of the road. Chickie’s motorcycle was the only other vehicle in sight. He braked to a full stop at the two officers—one man, one woman, both natives; they wore reservation patches on their shoulders. The woman’s hair was tied back in a thick black plait shot through with bright white lines like stripes. The nametag above her badge read Drinkwater. Chickie tipped back his helmet, lifted his goggles to meet their eyes. They looked at his battle vest, his helmet, his face. The woman did not speak. The man said, “Sobriety check point.”

Chickie said, “It’s ten in the morning.”

“Doesn’t matter.” The cop examined the surfaces of Chickie’s eyes, smelled the air before his face. Satisfied, he stepped back and said, “They run three shifts at field. It’s always somebody’s happy hour.”

“You here for work?” Drinkwater asked.

“Just passing through,” he said.

The male officer read the patches on his vest and said, “Minotaurs. What you got planned for us?”

“Huh?” he said.

“Heard what the bikers did to the boomtowns in North Dakota. That what you here for? We got enough of that, fuck you very much.”

Chickie shook his head. “Not at all. It’s just me. I have no plans.”

The cop narrowed his eyes at him.

“Like I said,” Chickie said, “just passing through.”

The cop looked to Drinkwater, then sighed in a way that said Carry on.

Chickie revved the engine and drove on. The air was heavy with water and the pinoaks were exploding green. He passed yellow road signs that read “Tsunami Evacuation Route” and rows of empty vacation houses built on the gray and misting beach. The air fanning off the ocean was gray, chilled and packed with mist. He gunned through town once and spotted the shuttered K-Mart. He checked the time on his phone and circled behind to the disused loading docks. He stood the bike and removed his helmet. He should have taken his vest off earlier. It was a mistake to show it to the police, even if one of them already knew he was on his way. He drew it off his shoulders and rolled it into a saddlebag beside disassembled pistol components hidden in a travel toolkit.

The cop car wheeled around the back and the woman officer from earlier was the only occupant. Drinkwater neither cut the engine nor left the vehicle. She manually rolled down the window—her shoulder jerking with the effort—and looked up at Chickie. “I want you,” she said, “out of town in twenty four hours.”

He nodded. “Do my best.”

She handed him a folded sheet of printer paper. “Your man gave his name as Oliver Washington. It looks like the name and soc are both real. He come out of California.”

He examined the paper. A copy of an employment contract with Ocelot Oil. He examined the signature of Oliver Washington. He recognized his father’s scratchy, weak signature.

She spoke, “You got twenty-four hours from right now to conclude whatever your business is. I don’t want to know any details.”

“You won’t have to,” he said.

“That is your man then?”

He folded the sheet and put it in the pocket of his jeans.

“Okay then.” She drove away, struggling to roll up the window while steering. The motion looked painful.

It took another forty-five minutes of riding up the empty switchbacks before he encountered the activity that indicated an oil field: the fat trucks growling up and down the mud roads, the long line of construction sites, filthy men in private vehicles. A roughneck stood at his truck on the roadside, urinating on his own tires, eyeing Chickie as he rode. These men were likely well-used to seeing bikers follow them into boomtowns and workcamps. Chickie imagined that a biker like him was viewed as a scavenger. A vulture following their industriousness to poison it. Kind of true, in his case.

The engine of his bike popped like gunfire in the cold air. Its sound rippled away as he climbed up further into the hills, away from the men who eyed him with open suspicion. He followed the road and the Ocelot signs until he was up in the cliffs. A print of tire tracks left the road and snaked over a bridge of planks laid across the mud. He followed at low speed. At a dry pullout of high grass and cold clay, he stood his bike and removed his helmet. He walked a short distance through the mud and the trees and found himself staring down a cliff onto the coastline. He realized he was looking at the extreme edge of America. A silver gauze hung over everything. The roaring beach was like a wisp. It was very difficult to discern the water from the sand and the dirt from the clouds. The roll of the ocean was so loud in his ears that everything seemed silent. It was as if he was looking at mysticism itself. He walked back to his bike, rooted in his saddlebags, pulled out half a barbecue sandwich wrapped in foil, ate it and cleaned his fingers with a wet nap, and then assembled his pistol.

Fifteen miles from the workcamp, the little makeshift R‘n’R village stood marked by a rings of mudded pickup trucks, trailers, rumbling gennies, picnic tables, what was once a drive-in movie theater, and riverside shacks. It was only four in the afternoon but Chickie could see the sky darkening as he walked among the rows of speaker posts in the overgrown lawn of the drive in. He would need to check himself for ticks later. A woman hung out the door of a trailer. She drank something from a red Dixie cup and stared at him openly. He walked towards her and found himself automatically drawing an unopened pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his sweatshirt. He peeled the cellophane as he walked and slammed the pack against the heel of his hand in a drumbeat. He drew a cigarette and held it up to the woman in an offering.

“Thanks,” she said, accepting it.

He lit it for her. He put the pack away without taking one himself.

She exhaled a jet of blue smoke. Some spotlights pumped on. “I heard your bike,” she said. She was an Indian woman, young, intelligent eyes, very bad skin.

“The mud’s hell on it.”

“I bet,” she said. “You should buy yourself a truck if you’re gonna stay.”

“I might.”

“You ain’t here to work, I can tell.”

“No, I’m not here to work.”

“You want business with me? Or you want business with my boss?”

“I’ve got a weird question for you,” he said. “You see many blacks come around?”

“Sure,” she said.

“I’m looking for one in particular. Older man. Older’n most you see around here probably. He’s got one clouded eye.”

“He got a name?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what name he might give though. Oliver Washington, maybe.”

“I probably can’t help you very much. Why don’t you go into camp and ask around?”

“I don’t want to go into the camp.”

“You don’t want this guy to know you’re coming, huh?”

He pulled a few twenties out of his wallet, rolled them and handed them to her.

“Come see me tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll tell you if I saw your man. If you can’t find me, just ask one of the girls. They know me as Lita.”

It was twenty minutes after nine when the first line of trucks brought the men in. Chickie watched through an electric night vision telescope from the trees as the men passed beneath the cones of noisy light and through the blue beams of truck headlights. The men smoked tobacco and marijuana and gripped whiskey and beer bottles by the neck as they walked into the rings of women. A truck would pull in, hardly even brake, and the men would offload and the truck would start the ride back into camp for more customers. Every time he saw a black man, he focused hard to see if it was his father. He sat back in the hard-packed clay and waited, watched.

By midnight, the R’n’R village had gone insane. Three men threw themselves down atop a picnic table and set about choking one another while watchers stood by and commented as if they were spectators at an event. A complex and industrious odor of car exhaust and many different kinds of drugs filled the air. Fires were lit and men who could not walk straight got into their trucks and drove into the woods, away from the village, away from the camps. A strange and almost tribal wail carried briefly on the wind. Chickie decided that anyone he encountered here tonight, anyone he spoke with, would not at all remember the conversation in the morning. He left his position, collapsed and pocketed the telescope, and walked towards the pandemonium. His pistol felt heavy in a holster inside his jeans above his ankle.

No one paid him any notice as he walked among the trailers and the bonfires. A man sat in the grass naked from the waist down, picking at his own leg. Another stood close by murmuring to himself and performing a severe and obvious heroin lean. Chickie walked by Lita’s trailer and found the door shut, some pleasured screaming inside. He walked on toward the drive in where some dome tents had been pitched. Men stood grouped at the open fly of one and Chickie walked toward it until he understood why the men were there and what they were doing to themselves and he turned around and saw Lita and a young white with a shaved head walking directly at him and the man, pointing at him, said to Lita, “Is that him?”

Chickie smiled and drew out his pack of cigarettes. He began packing them and drew one as the pair approached.

Lita looked to him and said, “You find your man yet?”

He held out a cigarette for her and she automatically took it. “I guess I’m not really looking for anything.”

“Don’t lie,” the man with the shaved head smiled.

Chickie tipped the pack of cigarettes toward the man. Want one?

The man ignored it and said, “We call him Scythe. The guy you’re looking for. Old black dude, one strange eye. Why you looking for him?”

“‘Scythe’?” Chickie said.

“Old black dude. He’s the only old black dude here. He’s gotta be seventy. He’s a trencher. Tough as balls.”

Chickie shrugged. “Well, like I said, I’m not really looking for anybody. Looking for work.”

Lita narrowed her eyes at him. “He’s lying. He’s looking for Scythe.”

The man with the shaved head smiled, his eyes were bright in the moonlight. “I’ll take you to see him. He’s real close by.” The man looked at Lita, then back at Chickie. “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” The man jogged off.

Chickie stood there in the darkness with Lita. He knew that he had fucked this whole thing up—bet on the wrong horse. She lit her cigarette and said, “They’ve got a couple cabins up in the woods. The cabins have been there forever. That’s where he is now.”

“You didn’t tell me that before.”

“Why would I?” she asked. “Because you gave me eighty bucks?”

Yeah. “Why’s he up there?”

“Because it’s fucking crazy up there. They do whatever they want. It’s real bad.”

The man with the shaved head returned with friends, three men of various sizes, all looked strikingly sober. One with a red beard stared hard at Chickie and coughed repeatedly into the air before him.

“What’s your name?” the man with the shaved head asked Chickie.

“Bob,” Chickie said.

“Follow us, Bob. We’ll drive you.”

“I got a ride. I’ll follow you.”

“No,” the man said. “It’s too easy to get lost. Just come with us. I’m Ike by the way. Come on now.”

Chickie and Ike sat in the bed of a pickup as it tore up into the mountain. The night air was freezing at forty miles an hour. The truck slid all over the mud road and it seemed more than likely that Chickie, Ike and the two men in the truck would all die together on the road before they ever arrived at any cabins. The truck banked hard to the left and Ike toppled over Chickie and lifted into the air for a moment before he fell back down hard. “Hey!” Ike shouted, banging his elbow against the window behind the driver’s head. The driver eased off the pedal.

Chickie kept his hands in the pocket of his hoodie.

Ike looked at him. He had to shout to be heard. “Why are you looking for this guy? You a bondsman? A cop?”

“No. He’s my family.”

“No shit. He’s your grandfather or something?”

Why not? “Father.”

Ike sat back and his face hardened. He lifted his shoulders. “So why are you looking for him?”

Chickie said nothing.

“It’s kinda fucked up, man,” Ike said. “We got a real tight circle here. We don’t see anybody come into our circle asking questions. That’s not how things are done, y’know?”

“Just looking to say hi to my dad.” Better dial it up. “This a fuckin’ problem for you, bro?”

“No, man,” Ike said. “Scythe ain’t my dad.”

“Why do you call him Scythe?”

Ike shrugged. “I didn’t come up with the name.”

Chickie returned Ike’s stare.

“You ever been in an earthquake?” Ike shouted.

Chickie didn’t respond.

“There’s a fault line off the shore here. Every five hundred years or so a big fuckin’ earthquake happens, and a wall of water just erases everything in its path. All this will be gone. We’re due, too! Makes you think. Just a big fucking wipe out. Blank slate.” Ike stared hard at Chickie.

It was close to thirty minutes before the truck slowed down. Three separate campfires burned in a line. It was an old campground. Chickie counted three cabins, one with the roof staved in. The driver of their truck blasted the horn and jammed on the brakes. The truck slid in the mud to a shaking stop. Ike hopped out of the truck bed immediately. He ran off into the darkness and Chickie tried to follow him with his eyes but the others were getting out too, going in separate directions. The driver cut the engine and pocketed the keys and jumped out of the cab and ran toward the cabins.

Chickie left the truck bed. He was very aware that there was no one within miles on his side. If something went wrong—when something went wrong—he would have no one. He thought this as he walked toward a fire between the cabins.

Ike jogged up to him, grinning strangely, saying, “Hey stand right here. Stand right here and turn around slowly, do a full circle.”

“Huh?”

“No big deal. Just do it.”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Chickie said.

Ike grinned—his eyes were reflective. “I think you better do it.”

Chickie looked at the cabins on either side of him. He stood in the fire’s heat and light and did a slow revolution, observing the men that were standing here watching him, evaluating him, and the dark cabin windows which housed who knows what. He knew that he was being shown to these men, and to his father probably—to Scythe—who was almost certainly behind one of the windows, staring at his son. I have really, really fucked this up. He had given away his every ounce of advantage. Kiss surprise goodbye. Hi Dad.

Ike ran into the cabin with the caved-in roof.           

Chickie counted six men. They all stared at him. Red Beard stood, arms crossed, coughing hoarsely.

Ike ran out of the cabin. “Good news,” he said. “We’re gonna let you talk to Scythe. But not right now. He’s a little fucked up right now. Let’s give it some time. Might as well get comfortable.” Ike sat himself in a lawn chair by the fire, drew a knife from his boot and opened up a bag of cocaine on his lap. He dipped into it with the knife and snorted off the blade. He waved Chickie closer with the knife.

“No,” Chickie said. “I’m good.”

“Come on,” he said. “We’re friendly.”

Chickie stood by the fire, hands in his sweatshirt. “If he doesn’t want to talk now, I’m gonna leave.”

The clutch of men loosened into shadows and cabins.

“How you gonna leave?” Ike asked. “Nobody’s gonna let you take their truck. Just sit tight. Or don’t, I don’t fucking care.”

Chickie stood at the fire and tried to keep a tally of the men at the campsite in his mind. He needed to be mentally organized. He knew he had to keep track of these men who could so easily do whatever they wanted to him here.

“So how come you’re tracking your dad?” Ike asked, snorting a bump off his knife.

“I told you, don’t fuck with me.”

“My advice,” Ike said, “is to give the tough guy shit a break. Right now we’re friendly. Let’s keep it that way till after you’ve talked to your old man. You see that stump over there?” He gestured with the knife to a grouping of low tree stumps beyond the fire. A heavy yellow nail gun lay on one. “I like that stump. That’s our party stump.”

Red Beard coughed into his hand, looked at it, and wiped it down the front of his shirt.

“My dad,” Chickie said, “used to be a badass biker man.”

“See?” Ike said. “That’s the spirit. Lighten up. Socialize with me, bro.”

“We were in the same chapters. You heard of the Minotaurs?”

“Nope. Who are they? Black motorcycle gang?”

“Our chapter is out of Illinois,” Chickie said.

“Illinois,” Ike said, rubbing a finger in his own mouth.

“My father—Scythe, as you call him—was a charter member. He got the boot though.”

“What happened?” Ike asked.

“Found out what he was doing to his girlfriend’s sons. They were six and nine.”

Ike stopped snorting but did not look at Chickie.

Chickie continued, “He left after that. Vanished before we could do anything. That was five years ago. We been looking for him ever since. Me in particular.”

“I bet,” Ike said. “Children, huh?”

“Six and nine.”

Ike turned to him and looked him dead on. “You ever been to Utah?”

“Passed through,” Chickie said.

“The parts of Utah I’m talking about, they’re fucking crazy. They got these Mormon cult cities where the ‘elders’ will just straight up evict the teenage boys to, I dunno, remove the sexual competition. So these young teenage boys, who have never known anything but their cult, they find themselves thrown out into the world with no education, no money, nothing. A lot of ‘em drift up here. A lot of ‘em work in the oil fields because nobody cares. Nobody cares what you know, nobody cares who you are. It’s like us. We don’t care. We take all comers.”

Chickie’s father stood on the porch of a cabin. His eyes—one yellow, one milk-fog—looked inhuman in the firelight. He looked as thin as a cane. He looked at Chickie plainly, blandly. There was no connection in the look.

Ike looked to Scythe, then back at Chickie. He shouted, “Hey somebody bring me the tenderfoot!” He closed the bag of cocaine and put it in his pocket. He stood up and gestured with the knife. “These kids that come up here. They don’t know a thing. They can’t protect themselves. Nobody is looking for them. They’re like little invisible virgins—they hardly even exist. We bring ‘em up here. The smart ones learn to enjoy it.” He pointed to the stumps. “We take a tenderfoot to the stump there and if they won’t bend, we fucking nail ‘em. I’m serious. We take a nail gun and we fucking nail their hands, their ears, anything. Where they gonna go then?” Red Beard dragged a naked boy out of a cabin and threw him into the dust. The boy’s body was purple. His entire face was a bruise. He did not cover his nakedness. On the porch, Scythe coughed deeply. It was a rasping scrape that shook his whole body. “Watch this,” Ike said. He grabbed the boy by the hair and dragged him over to the stump.

Chickie’s stomach was a hard ugly stone. He took a knee and drew the pistol from the holster above his boot. He held the firearm with both hands and aimed it at Ike’s head.

“There it is,” Ike smiled.

Someone tackled Chickie from behind. The pistol bounced out of from his hands and he landed hard in the fire. His palms and face were in the fire. He pushed his way out of it but the other man was atop him. They scrambled together and Chickie got to his feet, patting down his shirt, coughing pure heat. He squeezed his eyes open and shut. Someone kicked out his legs and two men held him down, knees in the dirt, looking at his father. He wasn’t going anywhere. He had given himself away. He shouted to his father, “Fuck you, man! You fucking predator!

Ike stood a yard away, grinning, eyes gleaming.

Ike chuckled and lifted a nail gun off the stump. “Come here, Bob.”

Scythe said nothing, did nothing. Just watched with his vulture’s eyes.

Red Beard grabbed Chickie by the arm and walked him towards Ike. The boy on the ground cried. Chickie shook the man off of him and looked at Ike. “Listen to me. My guys know where I am.” He pointed at his father. “We know where he is. The fucking police know he’s up here. You let me and the boy go, and I’m gone. We won’t come back. We won’t come after him. But if you don’t. They’ll be here fucking tomorrow. And they’ll fucking kill you. They’ll kill you all.”

Ike looked to Scythe. This was Chickie’s moment: he grabbed the nail gun in Ike’s hands, reversed it and brought it to Ike’s face. Ike was too surprised to resist. He only inhaled as Chickie applied the gun to Ike’s cheekbone and fired a nail into his sinus. The nail—in an instant—occupied space in the man’s face. Ike threw himself and, screaming, clawed at his nose. Red Beard stepped backward in shock. Chickie looped his arm around his throat and pressed the nail gun to his temple. He looked around at all the men staring at him. “Get up,” he said to the kid.

Chickie walked Red Beard to his truck and said, “You drive. Kid get in the truck bed now please.” All the men stared at this. Chickie looked to his father on the porch and said, “Fuck you, dad.”

Red Beard coughed all over the steering wheel as he drove.

“Faster,” Chickie said.

“Just take the truck. Leave me,” the man said.

“Keep driving.” They approached the R’n’R village in the dawnlight. The fires were smoking. Men were strewn about. Lita wandered around naked in the midst, she looked very happy. “Drive through it,” Chickie said. “You’re taking us all the way back to the highway.” The truck rollicked through the little campsite at full speed, headlights illuminated, horn blasting, a naked child in the bed. Everyone’s head turned to track the vehicle as it whooshed by.

The sun was fully up by the time Chickie was satisfied that they were not being followed. He ordered Red Beard to pull over and park. The man’s hands were shaking as he spoke, “Are you going to kill me?”

“Get the fuck out,” Chickie said.

Coughing, Red Beard opened his door and nearly fell out. Once his feet were under him, he ran away back up the road. His body swung in a strange, infantile way, as if he had not ever run before.

The child shivered in the truck bed. His lips were blue. His eyes were unfocused. He wasn’t looking at anything. “You have to wait,” Chickie said. He took off his sweatshirt and gave it to the kid. He turned the heat full up and told the kid to get in the passenger seat. Chickie floored the gas pedal and burned down the highway, passing honking oil trucks and men who were giving him the finger.

Chickie blasted the horn until the woman cop came out of the café with a deeply annoyed look on her face. She walked across the parking lot toward the truck, saw Chickie, then the boy. She ran to Chickie’s window and said, “What the hell?”

“You have to take him. He’s hurt.”

“What happened?”

“They’re sick up there. I don’t know what it is, maybe tuberculosis. I don’t know if this kid has it but you gotta get him to a hospital.”

She looked as if she was about to say something, then stopped. She ran around to the passenger side door, opened it, and pulled the kid out.

Hours later, after Chickie had showered three times in a truck stop bathroom, he left the car in the parking lot, and walked down the highway to a motel next to a Burger King. He bought food at the counter and brought it to his room. It sat cooling at the desk while he vomited in the bathroom. He went to the phone and began making the series of calls that would bring him back into his tribe without his father. He made one additional call about which he felt very unsure. After hanging up the phone, he went in to the bathroom and took out all of the bath towels. He carried them downstairs to the crappy indoor pool and laid them all on a deck chair. The pool area was empty. He went to the gift shop and bought six beers out of the cooler and brought them back to the pool where he disrobed down to his briefs and walked his body down into the cold water. He sat in the overly chlorinated water drinking beer for half an hour until Drinkwater showed up in her plainclothes and walked over to his side of the pool. She stood over him and said, “What’s your plan?”

“To leave.”

“Why haven’t you already?”

“I wanted to ask you a question. And to tell you something.”

She showed no sign that she had heard him say anything.

“My question,” he said, “is how is the boy?”

She reached into his six pack and grabbed herself the final beer. She twisted the cap and took a slug. She said, “He’s got nerve damage. Multiple injuries—none of them nothing.”

“TB?”

She shrugged. “I hope not. Results tonight.” She looked at him. “What did you want to tell me?”

“My father is still up there. My people may not accept that. They may want to come back.”

“Don’t let them,” she said.

“I will try,” he said. “I will.”

“But…?”

“There’s a problem. My bike is still up there.”

She huffed. “You can probably kiss that goodbye.”

“I know that. But listen, remember that I brought that kid down from there. I think that earns me some points. Maybe your investigation doesn’t connect that bike to me. Maybe you just lose the license plate and scratch out the VIN. Maybe you just take my dad in and that’s it.”

She sipped beer. “I never asked for you people. For any of you.”

“I know that, too,” he said. “But you did accept our money.”

She set down the beer and said, “I’m gonna go now. You should too. You don’t have a lot of time.”

He nodded.

She said, “You did save that kid. You probably won’t hear about your father, but nothing—or nothing good—is going to happen to him.”

“I don’t want to hear about him. I’ve seen and heard enough.”

“It’s over for you?”

“It’s over for me,” he said.

“Convince your people of the same.”

“I will.”

She stood up and left the motel through the lobby.

*

She could still smell the pool chemicals even as she left the motel, crossed the parking lot, and got into her personal vehicle. She turned the engine and maneuvered out of the parking lot, onto the street and began her drive back into her territory.

She passed the corporate restaurants and the construction zones, and the bikers, and the truckers, and the cop cars, and every single thing she saw—no matter how foreign or familiar—gave rise to a wave of displacement whose fatal crest, she thought, would be here any day.  

###


Lane Talbot’s work has been listed as notable fiction in Best American Mystery Stories and published in Berkeley Fiction Review, ThugLit, Able Muse and elsewhere. His MFA is from Southern Illinois University.

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