It's 1935 and jobs are scarce, but Slippery Wilson walks off his job at a logging camp after a gruesome accident kills a coworker. He's headed for Seattle with all his savings; he plans to buy a piece of farmland and be his own boss.
When he stops to help a woman get her car out of a ditch, his life takes a serious detour. The woman is Ellie Hobbs, an anarchist from the docks of Seattle who watches out for her young niece and dreams of flying planes. But right now, she's got one busted nose and has just stuffed a dead man's body into the trunk of her car. So begins the action that will take Slip, Ellie, her niece, and her noisy yellow bird on a heart-stopping adventure up the Inside Passage from Puget Sound to Alaska
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Even though she had never traded sex for money, she was nothing now but a whore with a bloody nose. It was a hard fact to accept…but there it was.
She looked at the man curled in the trunk of the car, blood oiling over his white shirt. She had his broken watch in her hand, its intricate guts at a standstill, the second hand trembling between two painted tick marks on the face. It was only then that she started to cry. Her sobs leaked between her bloody fingers as she tried to stifle the sound. A mile to the west a car hissed over the pavement, and somewhere in the woods a screen door slammed.
She stepped toward him then. Tears flecked off her chin as she lifted the cold arm to place the watch back around his wrist. She was thinking that he might as well keep it, for however stupid it seemed, even in a world gone mad a broken watch could still be right twice a day.
It was May 1935. In April, Amelia Earhart had set a speed record on a solo flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and when she took off again she set another from Mexico City to New York. In the American southwest, a blizzard of dust scoured the tired farmland and the Roosevelt administration began relocating dust bowlers to a communal farming community in the Territory of Alaska. In August, Will Rogers and Wiley Post were to set off in their Lockheed Orion for Point Barrow, and on June 24, the miners of the Alaska-Juneau gold mine would riot when scabs started marching up the street to the hiring hall. All of these things would take on a new meaning to Slippery Wilson in the months to come but just then he was looking halfway up a big-butted Douglas fir tree listening to his bull buck tell him something through a wad of chew.
His given name was Jack, but his parents had called him Slippery. Like many people during the Depression he wanted to be hopeful. Others had told him that life was hard but he had not seen it that way. He had always been stubborn in his optimism. But now he was beginning to wonder.
“Well, I guess you better scamper up there and cut him down,” the bull buck said as he spit out a stream of tobacco juice onto the duff. They were standing in the northern woods of the Skagit River drainage, in Washington State. The wind was sour with the smell of pitch. Ninety feet up in a broken tree, Jud White was slumped dead from his climbing rope, where a partially rotten limb from the fir he was topping had hit him square in the chest. High up in the silent tree, Jud’s torso was at a sickening angle to his waist, his axe swinging from its lanyard attached to his belt.
“You better get up there and cut him down,” the bull buck repeated.
It was just after sunrise and the tired men around him had stopped rattling through the brush. Gray jays flitted in the slash of tangled branches. The hook tenders, who had already oiled up their bones with the first hard half hour of clambering down the cut, stood watching him to see what he was going to do. “No, I’m sorry,” he said to the bull buck, who was standing flat-footed amongst a tangle of rigging cable, “I’m going to draw my pay.” And he started walking out of the woods.
It had been three years since Slip had left the failing ranch in eastern Washington. Roosevelt had promised reclamation and electrification. The high desert country east of the Cascades would be a new Eden. Slip had watched the men hitchhiking with cardboard suitcases to the dam sites. He had picked apples, put up hay, and milked his family’s cows for his entire life, but when his father died and the bank took it all, he decided to follow those men up the river. As if to show him the rightness of his choice, the old cow kicked him one last time while he loaded her into the buyer’s truck, and even then he thought only of the thick, sweet milk she had given.
He sold his logging boots for five bucks to a cowhand with a cleft pallet who had been killing himself working on the rigging crew in his slick leather boots. Slip rolled his two changes of work clothes and a black suit he had used for funerals into a burlap bag that he tied off with a hank of rope. He pulled on his red mackinaw, grabbed his cap, and slung his bindle of clothes around his back. The last thing he did before walking out to the highway was to pull up the loose floorboard near his bunk. Tucked between the joists, Slip had hidden his tool kit. It was a long, open box with a few of the tools he had gotten from the farm before the men from the bank had come for their inventory. There was a fine Swedish handsaw, a brace, an assortment of bits, and a set of chisels that had never been abused. He had a square and a plumb line, a long-handled framing hammer, and a smaller claw hammer for finer work. He had a trim saw and a folding rule. There was an assortment of punches and nail sets and a carpenter’s level. He had a hand-made knife with his initials stamped into the leather sheath. The box had a strong leather sling and a canvas cover so he could travel easily without fear of spilling his tools on the ground.
He dug into his toolbox for a tobacco tin. He opened the tin and put two twenty dollar bills inside. This forty dollars represented his pay for the last two weeks, minus the money the company took out for their trouble. With that forty dollars he had well over two thousand dollars saved, and two thousand dollars could buy a future, with any extra going toward happiness.
Jud White had loved logging and was eager for Slip to love it too. Jud believed in it, he loved the bunkhouse and the tools. He loved the sweat and the smell of it. The rest of the boys worked for their wages and to build something somewhere else. Jud had been right square in the middle of his life. He woke up each morning exactly where he was supposed to be. He had been fully alive cutting trees, right up until the second that one killed him.
Slip shouldered his way past the men crowding toward the foreman’s shed. Already word had gotten round about two jobs that might open up. The skinny men drifted out of the brush like scarecrows come to life. They had been tenting off in the woods or in dry sections of culvert waiting for just this: someone to die or someone to quit. They didn’t care. They needed the work.
He grabbed some letters for friends in the bunkhouse, promising to post them when he got to a mailbox. He shook hands with the Filipino cooks and bent down to shake the hands of the truck mechanics in the grease pit. He wished them all good luck, then he walked south and stuck out his thumb. The saws on the landing were rattling in the cut as a crew lowered Jud White’s body down from the tree.
Dew was still on the grass alongside the road. The morning wrens and sparrows were calling to each other in the shade. Just under the whine of the saws, he could hear the white noise of the Skagit River roiling down the valley.
He got a ride with a kid from Sedro Woolley, who talked about his girlfriend and asked him for gas money. He got another ride from a salesman whose car was burning oil at an alarming rate, so Slip asked to be dropped off by the river, preferring to walk a while rather than be stuck with the salesman when the car broke down. As the salesman drove away, a cloud of exhaust hung like a storm squall moving in.
He walked along the river, thinking of the dough in his toolbox and about a piece of ground he might be able to buy. Every time the thought of Jud White’s body welled up from the sickness in his stomach, he choked it back down and would think instead of the place he would build, maybe along a river with a few fruit trees and a loyal cow of his own.
Slip had been an active baby, always trying to wriggle out of his grandma’s arms. He arched his back, twisting and kicking at the cradling bath towel or the pair of strong arms reaching out for him. “This boy’s slippery,” the old woman had said, and the name stuck. Teachers heard his name and assumed he would try to get out of his studies. Girls chased him at church picnics instead of the greased pig. When he started working on the big dam project up the Columbia River at Grand Coulee, other workers assumed he was going to drop his rivet gun off the scaffolding. But he never did. In some ways his name was the anvil his personality had been forged against. If anything was true about Slippery Wilson, it was that he wanted to stick.
Near a bend in the river road, a new Lincoln was pulled over with its left front tire hooked down into the ditch. The Lincoln had wire wheels and fine chrome headlamps mounted outboard of the grill. The rear wheels had scuffed two ditches in the soft dirt of the road’s shoulder. A blonde woman in a housedress and a cardigan walked around the back of the car, looking under the bumper and running her hands along the edge of the chrome. The wind riffled her short hair, and as she knelt down Slip could see the thick muscles of her thighs pressing against the fabric. When she stood up and turned, he saw the blush of rising bruises under her eyes and some redness under her nose as if maybe she were getting over a cold.
“You wreck your car?” he called out to her.
She turned quickly and almost jumped away from the trunk. “What?” she said, shielding her eyes to look at him.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Slip said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No… no…” the girl said.
It was then he noticed that her hands were shaking and her skin seemed sickly pale. “Are you all right? Would you like some help?” He waved at the front of the car and took off his wool cap with a short brim, aware now of how shabby he must look to this girl.
“Yes,” she said, and he set down his tools.
It would take weeks for him to understand what he was feeling as he walked toward the blonde woman. There would be storms and killings to come, there would be beatings and long hours of recrimination, but still he would try to hold on to his original impulse: the sound of the river with a beautiful woman standing under a tree. All he wanted to do was help her in a way that he hadn’t been able to help Jud, or his parents for that matteror even himself. He wanted to make something right, on this fine morning when he was headed out for his fresh start. But, of course, by the time he recognized his mistake it would be too late. The future, like a breaking wave, would have washed over him.
“Somebody run you off the road?” he asked.
She looked up from where she was still running her hand along the edge of the rear bumper. She looked at her fingers and then up at Slip. “I hit a dog back a ways and I was just looking to see if there was any damage.”
“Must have scared you.” Slip said.
“What?” she asked, not taking her eyes off his.
“Hitting the dog. It must have scared you.”
“Oh that, yes, it was frightening.”
Slip walked to the front of the big Lincoln and bent down to look at the front bumper.
“Don’t bother with that,” she said, putting her fingers lightly on his shoulders. “Let’s just get the car out of the ditch.”
In ten minutes the Lincoln was back out in the road, engine idling and a thin haze of exhaust slithering along the road.
Slip was panting and gathering up his things when she walked over to him with a paper cup of river water for him. “Thank you,” he said, “that’s nice of you.” Then he folded his kerchief and gestured down the road. “Can you give me a lift?”
“Oh… sure. Where are you heading?” She nervously wiped her hands on her dress and walked around to the passenger’s side, and then seeing she was in the wrong place, walked back around the car with Slip following her.
“I’m headed to Seattle for a bit. I’ve got a friend who runs a barbershop,” Slip said.
“You need a shave?” she said, still wiping her hands.
“I suppose I do,” Slip said, and he doubled back toward the trunk to open it.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said, looking down at her feet. “You look fine.”
Slip smiled at her, and he too looked down at her feet as if the answer to what was to happen next was down there somewhere.
“Here,” she said, suddenly waking up. “Just put your things in the back here. I...I don’t have the key for the trunk.”
“All right.” He smiled and opened the passenger door.
Slip settled into the front seat and she got behind the wheel. In reality the car smelled of cigarettes and whiskey, but Slip could only smell the cedar trees along the river. Her hair was dyed blonde and was showing dark roots. Her eyes were the cobalt blue of a medicine bottle. The steering wheel was about as wide as her shoulders and she gripped it as if it were the wheel of a ship. She looked around for the starter button down on the floor and before she remembered that it was already running, she pressed the starter, and it shrieked in distress. She jammed the gears then with a grinding lurch wheeled out onto the road.