M.J. Arcangelini: “Triptych for Clayton”

IN MEMORIUM (Dec. 1954 – May 6, 2022)

Through a corner of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness 
we hiked around the back of Quail Prairie Mountain,
to where it nuzzles the upper reaches of the Chetco River.
At the spot where Boulder Creek merges with the flow
we set camp on the high bank where water won’t reach
until winter or spring. This was August, 1976,
the river was low, but that didn’t stop us from fishing.
We scoped out the area, built a fire,
cooked dinner, then planned the next day
of basically doing nothing before
falling off to sleep as the moon was rising.

Clay shook me awake, Shhhhh, he said, pointing
down the bank and across the expanse of stones
to the river’s edge. A mama bear and two cubs
were drinking cool water in the bright moonlight,
their tails twitching toward us. He whispered: 
Grab your camera. But I held off, concerned about
frightening them with the flash. Instead we lay there, 
watching in wonder, hoping they wouldn’t notice us.
After a while, they ambled off easy upriver.
We looked at each other, grins filling our faces,
then slid back into sleeping bags and dreams.

It’s not important what argument started the fight,
there we were, rolling around on the kitchen floor,
fists flying. Clay got me on my back, straddled me,
throwing punch after punch. I was fighting just to
fend off his blows while his wife Sue, with
a terrified toddler holding onto one leg, and
balancing a squirming infant in her arms, did 
her best to talk him off of me. Finally she
handed the kids to her friend, and pried us apart. 

We were best friends.

Sue held Clay back while I lay on the floor
crying, poking around at a bloody nose
and what would become a black eye.

With his pummeling abruptly interrupted,
Clay noticed me sobbing. He helped
me up and out to the car. He got me into the
shotgun seat, then produced from the backseat
a fifth of whisky. I’m sorry, he kept saying.
I didn’t mean it. You don’t want to let anyone
see you crying like that though. A man ain’t 
supposed to cry. He drove us around,
up the river and back, until I could stop
shaking and crying. It’s ok if you’re with me, 
but no one else should see you like this.
I’m really sorry, man.  Have another drink.

The next morning we both told people
some bullshit story about the black eye
and after a while folks stopped asking.

Do you trust me? Clayton asked.
Really trust me?
His face 6 or 8 inches from mine,
his eyes reflected the flickering campfire.
He held a bottle of whisky in one hand,
and his empty dinner plate in the other:
I know every inch of these woods.
He pointed with a sweep of his arm,
played here when I was a kid.
I know my way around in the dark.
You believe me?
Do you trust me?
Then follow me! 
He threw down his plate,
turned and bolted off at a sprint
toward the nearest steep hill. He
shot up into the dark woods like
he’d just set a choker and had to 
get out of the way of the cable.
I jumped and took off before I’d
lose sight of him, he had the whisky.
It was so dark among the trees I had to
follow his rapid footfalls across the
dry forest floor as he ran headlong through
the woods, blindly dodging trees and rocks,
scratching through the underbrush,
avoiding holes and fallen branches.
Me running behind him, just as blind,
amazed that I hadn’t tripped, fallen, or
run into something yet. Then he turned,
headed back downhill and I began to see
the light of the campfire through the trees.
He was waiting for me there, waving 
the bottle around and calling to me to
come get some, telling me I’d earned it.
But when I went for it he yanked it out of 
my hand. I tried again. He held it out of reach.
Our arms were growing tangled and then
we were rolling around on the ground,
laughing, wrestling over the whisky.
Finally he let me have the bottle.
We got up out of the dust and I took
a good, long swig before passing
it back to him and so it went.

We sat, still breathing heavy from the
exertion, passing the bottle back and forth
across the fire blazing between us.

About the Author: M.J. Arcangelini (b.1952 in western Pennsylvania) has resided in northern California since 1979. His work has been published in print magazines, online journals, (including The James White Review, Rusty Truck, The Ekphrastic Review, The Gasconade Review, North of Oxford) & over a dozen anthologies.  The most recent of his six collections are: “A Quiet Ghost,” (2020) and “Pawning My Sins” (2022) both from Luchador Press.

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