Petunia’s as old as I am. I push my finger into the broken speaker on her foam dash. It’s funny, I say, that plastic won’t decompose, but it will break down into smaller pieces. Petunia’s dash is split from the sun, like cracked skin. She wears a white garland of cloth tassels on her windshield.
“It’s like I have fake eyelashes on,” says B, “when I look out the windshield.”
Kristi just sort of quit her job. So we’re going camping. She’s got this huge knife on her belt, and I make fun of it, but only because I am jealous. I have no reason to wear a knife like that. I have a leatherman, which I keep in my backpack. The knife on my leatherman mostly slices cheese. I use the other tools for all sorts of things- cutting my fingernails, sunglasses repair. Once I used the “saw” tool to cut the bolt-lock on a freight container, when I was riding the highline in late October. I was cold, and being cold makes you restless. I wanted to see what was inside. I hoped it was something exciting, like cans of fruit cocktail or spam (kidding, don’t like spam). I sawed and sawed in the dark, as my train hurtled through North Dakota or some crap, and finally the bolt snapped in half. I opened the door. The contents of the freight container consisted of Styrofoam takeout containers. Boxes and boxes of plastic bags of Styrofoam takeout containers. Not exciting. But at least I got to use my tool for something butch.
Kristi’s knife is huge, and it hangs off her belt in a special case. Like, lookit my huge knife! Sort of like the ones worn by people who work in produce departments. It’s cool that produce workers get to carry nice knives in leather cases. If I had that job I would pretend the knife was for defense. I would tell people it was for the tarantulas that came in banana boxes.
It’s fucking hot, so we’re going to the mountains. I’m so lucky Kristi wants to go camping, and that she wants to drive Petunia. Petunia’s a little diesel Toyota pickup. She’s got a white campershell and her tailgate says ‘5-Speed DIES’. Hot stuff two years ago. Little diesel pickups disappearing off craigslist faster than free particle board bookshelves, running or no. Now, with the price of diesel and the scarcity of real recycled biodiesel, not so much.
“I could sell this thing,” says Kristi, “and get a much nicer gas truck.”
Why don’t you? I ask. Kristi shrugs. Selling a car is hard.
There’s no-one at the lake. It’s Monday, in the off-season, but the weather is hot, like July was supposed to be. It’s a great time to be unemployed, as long as you don’t feel like a big failure because you accidentally quit your job, like Kristi. Kristi’s an electrician’s apprentice. She got hooked up with the apprenticeship through the Oregon tradeswoman’s program, which gave her all sorts of idealistic encouragement. The program taught her what sort of work electricians do. The program taught her about safety- methane sinks. Don’t climb down into empty grain silos, don’t lock yourself in a closet with your own farts. The program did not prepare her for the shitty people she’d have to put up with on the job, the shitty people everyone had to put up with, now and then. The snappy co-workers, the verbally abusive journeymen. The program didn’t tell her that most everyone she worked with would refuse to wear respirators when they worked, exposing themselves to toxic dust and fumes, and because of this she would work without a respirator too, better that than ask for one and seem like a whiny william. And no-one in the program told her she would end up at a job in hood river, an hour east, and that she’d have to drive there every day, and that she wouldn’t be reimbursed for gas. And that there wasn’t shit she could do about it, there was no-one she could complain to, because she was just an apprentice, and if she had a problem with her job well then she could just quit, no matter she would lose the two years of the apprenticeship she’d already completed, two years towards the four she needed to become a journeyman, and once she was a journeyman she could say Fuck You and work wherever and with whomever she wanted.
But she couldn’t keep driving to Hood River. She’d go into debt, just from gas. So she did the only thing she knew to do- she asked to be laid off. She’d been told that it sometimes worked. And if it worked, she would be assigned to a different, closer job. But sometimes it just pissed everyone off.
The folks she was working for got pissed, and told the program that she’d quit.
We climb out of Kristi’s truck and look at the lake. The lake is still, and ringed in hemlocks. The earth beneath our pale feet is soft, brown needles and loose dirt. The sky is bare and blue, and for once in these high mountains, it’s Hot. This lake, this forest, any other time of the year might be too cold, to rainy, too buggy, too something. But right now, we are in paradise. We are in paradise, and there is no-one here to ruin it. The sun is bright and this lake belongs to us, and this is the way it’s always been, cool and still and ringed in huckleberries, waiting for us.
We strip off our clothes and jump into the lake, splashing our arms and gasping for breath, dog-paddling in a circle. Kristi and B have floaties, a giant vinyl cherrio painted like a truck tire and a red vinyl mat, respectively, and they paddle slowly on these floaties, naked in the sun. A little out from the shore we find a raft, some floating logs tied together with twine. We climb onto it and dive off, scattering the lazy newts that paddle just under the surface, tiny arms moving like human babies. The water is clear and glorious, rays of sunlight bounce off the floor of the lake, where our shadows lie like sea monsters.
That night, the silence is so complete it hurts my ears. It’s a full moon. I lie in my tent and feel as if I am already dreaming. Such a silence does not exist, anywhere. The moon rises like a spotlight, and then sets again.
The next day we walk to a different lake, and swim, and then lie out on rocks in the sun. The slope behind us is tumbled rocks, and pikas beep out alarm. All around us the lake is ringed in grasses, and below us we watch newts paddle about aimlessly, drifting on the warm surface of the water, or resting on the soft blue lakebottom. I decide to swim across the lake, and then change my mind. We walk back to our lake on the soft forest path, and swim again. We argue over which lake is better. I lie on the floaty and paddle across, pretending I am going to the open sea. This is not a seaworthy craft! I cry. I turn back when I notice some hikers on the far shore. My back becomes sunburnt.
“Why,” says Kristi, towards the shore in her vinyl tire, “isn’t the whole purpose of my life to be out here?” She’s speaking in a normal voice but I can hear her, across the lake, because there is not a sound, anywhere. We are in a dream.
We make brown rice pasta with pesto on it, also prosciutto from the store and tomatoes from B’s garden. There’s a forest fire nearby, and a haze of smoke has fallen over the sun, making the light orange, like sunset. As we are packing up, a family pulls up to camp. Just in time.
The drive back is hot, shin to shin in the cab of Kristi’s truck. I hit the preset buttons on Petunia’s old radio- a squawk, and then nothing. Radio doesn’t work, says Kristi. I imagine that if the old radio did work, it would only play sad country songs from the eighties, tinny like an aluminum can. Which is of course why the radio does not work. Kristi’s staring into the sun, but she’s not even squinting. She’s got big brown eyes and she’s still got that knife strapped to her belt. I can tell she’s thinking about her job, about how she tried and tried and in the end, it was all for naught. I want to tell her that she’s better than that, that we’re all better than that. But sometimes when the only choices you have turn out to be not good enough, there aren’t even any words left to talk about it.
On 205, Petunia’s clutch stops working. Kristi pulls the truck over and reaches behind the seat for a bottle of brake fluid. Which is also clutch fluid. She pours some in a pumps the clutch. It works again. We get back into town and we’re all hot and tired. My chest feels sunburnt. I say goodbye to Kristi and her friend. I’ll see you when I get back, I say. Kristi’s going fishing for a week, north of here somewhere in BC. I give her a hug and imagine her with her huge knife, cutting open fish and staring at the water, not saying a thing.