by: Chris Thompson
Love, loss and a wolf. Part Two of Chris Thompson’s cautionary environmental tale, Perla…. ((The art used throughout this series is by the prolific and talented Anders Tomlinson))
Find Perla, Part One here!
We could still get lumber and nails and plenty of wire fencing back then, so Van and I built Perla a sturdy pen out behind the house. She had an outdoor area that ran the length of the garage and a corrugated steel roof to protect her from all the rain. Van had designed an elaborate drainage system that funneled the run-off into a half-buried 55-gallon drum, ensuring that Perla had plenty of clean drinking water. Van was crafty like that. He was good with his hands and possessed one of those singular minds that could think in pictures and piece things together mentally that most people couldn’t in real life. When people saw a wall, Van saw a door. I imagined he would have made a great carpenter had things gone differently for him. Or an environmental engineer. Like the ones trying to put the Earth back together. Only maybe Van would have done something right. The gutter system we built worked like a charm, the overflow diverting into a knee-deep channel that we had dug, the muddy water merging with a rushing stream that had sprung up between the neighbors’ house and mine. “If it can be imagined, it can be built,” Van would sometimes say to me late at night, as the evenings fire wore down and we ran out of things to say. “And if it can be broke, then it can be fixed. All you need is time.”
Often, as I lay awake at night, I listened to the endless song of the rain on that hollow-sounding metal roof and thought about time. About how little of it I had left. And about how much of it I had wasted, in pursuit of what exactly I couldn’t be sure. The cadence of the falling rain on Perla’s roof had become the soundtrack to my thoughts, a companion to the violent winds that pushed and pulled at the corners of my home. And it had become a calming melody too. An eternal presence that lulled me gently off to sleep, reminding me that when my thoughts turned sullen, and I could not find any peace, that with Van and Perla I wasn’t so completely alone.
The first time the scrap metal thieves came for Perla’s roof was during the mist-filled hours that now betrayed the colorless dawns. I had been laying awake in bed, awash in thoughts of Helen’s death, when I noticed that the chiming of the rain on the roof had stopped. As I struggled to open one of the massive hurricane windows, I was shocked to see three chicanos wearing the purple and browns of the Scrapper Cartel’s scurrying by below, hauling the bulky, corrugated steel roof off to their idling van.
“Stop!” I had called out instinctively, startling the trio of short, husky men. One of the Scrappers, a pock-faced man with a serpent tattooed upon his neck, had yelled back in an amalgam of Spanish and English: “Que onda, old man? Your perro don’t need no roof. Vuélvete a dormir before we take something mas importante next time, like your house.”
As I lurched back from the window, my heart hammering against my chest, the heel of my foot collided with a chair, flinging it loudly to the bedroom’s floor. The clattering sound echoed thunderously throughout the silent house and a moment later I heard Van calling out in concern from Helen’s bedroom where he often slept.
“What is it, Winst!” He had shouted anxiously, followed by a muffled “Damn…” as he stumbled into the hallway on half asleep legs, knocking into the hutch and spilling its menagerie of figurines across the floor like a bowling ball scattering pins. When he finally found me, I had my back against the bedroom wall, frozen like an escaped prisoner caught in a searchlight, with all the color drained from my terrified face.
“Shhhhh!” I had managed to half-whisper, half-shout, motioning for him to get down. “They’ll hear you.”
“Who, Winst? Who’ll hear me?” Van asked nervously, shifting into a half-hearted crouch. “It’s four-o’clock in the morning, man. You sure you haven’t been having a bad dream? Look at yourself, you’re trembling.”
I managed to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror across the room and he was right. I did look like I had seen a ghost. Had I been dreaming? I wondered. Had I spent too many nights lost in front of the flickering television, watching those shock-news programs that had become so pervasive lately? The ones that hooked their viewers with voyeuristic tales of violence and aggression? That prided themselves on exposing the dangerous cultures that effused the youths of our dying world. Hadn’t I just watched an episode of Live Criminal Files the other night, and hadn’t they done an expose’ on the Scrapper cartels?
“Look out the window,” I hissed, confused as to what was real anymore. “Tell me, is there a white van parked in the driveway?”
Van pressed his face against the thick window’s glass, craning his neck to get a better view. “Not that I can see. It’s still dark out, but the driveways definitely clear, all the way down to the road.”
Maybe I had been dreaming?
“How about Perla? Anything different about her pen?” I quickly spat.
“No, not that I can…wait! Shit, Winst! Will you look at that! Her roof’s gone. The damn thing’s up and disappeared! It couldn’t have been the wind that done it. Those bolts we put on it could survive a hundred hurricanes.” Van pulled himself back from the window, leaving a faint smudge of his expired breath on the chilly glass, and limped over to me. “Did you see something? You trying to tell me someone stole Perla’s roof?”
“Yeah….that’s why I shouted. I couldn’t hear the rainfall on the steel anymore and when I looked out the window, there they were, these Scrappers down in the side yard, hauling away Perla’s roof. One of them threatened me and I panicked.”
I had to pause as another wave of fear washed over me. I flirted with nausea, the taste of bile on my tongue heavy and sour. Replaying the encounter in my mind wasn’t making me feel any better and I ran my trembling fingers through my hair, trying hard to concentrate on not getting caught up by my racing thoughts.
“The last thing we want is trouble,” I eventually spoke, my voice less anxious but now slightly annoyed. I was upset at the Scrappers for their intrusion into the sanctity of our little world. “Especially from a bunch of fools who fight their battles with violence instead of words. These Scrappers, they figure the world is theirs for the taking, piece by fucking piece. We need to be more careful.”
“Listen….” Van said, hobbling over to stand before me on his bruised foot. “Everything’s going to be fine. We have each other. The first chance we get, and after we’ve got you good and calmed down, we’re gonna put that spare piece of steel you’ve got down in the basement on Perla’s pen. I don’t think they’ll be back this way again. They’re like locusts, these Scrappers, they strip a neighborhood bare and then they move on. But there’s plenty of abandoned houses around these days for them to skeletonize. I’d be surprised if they came back and started sniffing around ours any time soon.”
After a hurried breakfast, and a shot of the good whiskey I kept above the fireplace for emergencies, Van and I bolted the spare piece of corrugated steel to Perla’s pen. It wasn’t as large as the original, but it worked just the same. It was a bit past nine-thirty and there had been a lessening of the rains, enough so that we could get the job finished without getting completely soaked. By that time we had reasoned the metal thieves were good and gone, sleeping away the daylight in whatever house they had chosen to hide. The Scrappers were a nocturnal lot, performing a function no different from an earthworm or a vulture. Hastening the world’s decay while its inhabitants slept, transforming the landscape back into its natural state of inert uniformity.
We spent the afternoon discussing our options. I was apprehensive that the Scrappers had made it this far North. California, and the greater Southland’s, with their endless abandoned communities, was supposed to have kept The Cartel busy for years, decades even.
“Maybe this was just a scouting party?” I wondered aloud. “Or a splinter group trying to make a go of it out on their own?” But Van wouldn’t hear any of it, dismissing my misgivings with successive waves of his hand. In his mind he had it all figured out.
“California’s been picked clean,” he said as we sat in the study, taking a lunch of tinned ham, olives and saltines. “Took The Cartel ten years what the experts predicted would take fifty. No, the Pacific Northwest is the new frontier, despite what the news programs and the politicians might say. It’s a classic example of exponential growth. These Scrapper Cartels, and I mean the main ones, the big guns based out of Tijuana and Juarez. They’ve grown so large that they have to keep expanding just to support their ballooning size. The experts have gotten it all wrong. I figure we’ll be hearing a lot more about The Cartel setting up camp around here. Violence hangs around that lot of carrion like a shadow, following them wherever they go. Can’t do what they do without snapping a few necks. But don’t you worry, Winst. They ain’t gonna come ‘round here and bother us again. There are plenty of other houses for these hoodlums to covet and fawn over, ones that are much more plentiful in the materials needed to support their piffling fiefdoms.”
In my naivety, and with Van’s calming, seemingly rational words, I had convinced myself that the Scrappers wouldn’t bother us again. That there were endless neighborhoods for them to harvest, certainly ones without cantankerous old men and hungry wolves still occupying its homes. Everything will be fine, I kept reminding myself as the hours blended into days, dissipating the angst that had taken root within my thoughts. They’ve already forgotten about us.
To be Continued….