Saturday, April 5, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Three: The Worst Thing

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When she heard about his night at the rest area, Zasu let him move in right away.
            “But I swear,” she added. “If that credit report comes back with multiple bankruptcies, your ass is right back out! And don’t tell anyone, ‘cause they’d probably fire my butt.”
            Shawn made impassioned promises, and spent the next hour shuttling his stuff up the stairs. He turned his bass drum sideways for a table and spilled out the contents of his pockets, then headed to the tub for a long soak. He barely had the energy to towel himself off before collapsing on his rolled-out sleeping bag.
            Two hours later, he woke to a sunbreak (an indigenous Northwest term), and peered through the half-open blinds to look for his mountain. Alas, she was hiding behind a sandbar of gray, flecked with sunset salmon.
            Freshly invigorated, Shawn slapped on his few clean clothes and went for a drive, tooling up Sixth Avenue to find a club district with all the usual fringes: vintage clothing, used records, tattoo parlor. When that gave out, he cut left and found a small coffeehouse at the edge of a large shopping center.
            When he saw the sign on the door, he almost had to slap himself. Open till midnight – on a Monday! It was true: the streets of Tacoma were paved with gold.
            Sitting in the back with a mocha and a News-Tribune, he began to notice things. For one, the place was populated exclusively by polite, clean-cut youths (a far cry from the Ellensburg Goths at Café Bovine). And there was a Bible on his table, next to a napkin reading “Proverbs 3: 3-16.” Then there was the music: pretty standard anthem rock, but peppered with words like “lift,” “found” and “divine.”
            Shawn went to Jeff, the friendly-seeming barista, and asked him, as matter-of-factly as possible, “Hey Jeff, is this place sort of a Christian hangout?”
            “Oh sure,” said Jeff. He was a college kid with one of those chin-liner beards. “Nothing official, but the owner is pretty active at church, plus there’s a Christian college up the street. Hey, can you excuse me a sec? Got a song I’ve been dying to hear.”
            Jeff headed into the back. A second later, a hip-hop drum track rolled from the speakers, then a professorial voice listing all the synchronicities of Earth’s survival (orbits, rotations, distance from the sun) that precluded evolution.
            “Isn’t that a cool song?” asked Jeff. “I can’t believe we teach evolution like it’s some kind of fact or something.”
            “Uh, yeah,” said Shawn.
            “You know that eruption at Mt. St. Helens a few years ago? They found spots in the resultant mudflow that precisely mimicked natural phenomena that had previously been dated as being billions of years old.”
            “Wow,” said Shawn. he looked at the clock above the smoothie machine. “Oh, man! I was supposed to be at a friend’s house fifteen minutes ago. Take it easy, Jeff.”
            Shawn got into his car, thinking, I am not about to ruin a perfectly good late-night hangout over a theological debate. He turned onto 19th and began muttering all the pro-Darwin arguments he might otherwise have used, lacing them with big fat obscenities. He was headed up a small hill when he saw a little white mutt scampering along the sidewalk. Shawn kept a careful eye on the little dog, which is why he didn’t see the big dog until it was too late. Before he could hit the brake, there was a loud thump at his left bumper, and a sickening yelp.
            “Jesus! Shit!”
            Shawn regained his steering and pulled into a side street, where a yard full of dogs erupted in a chorus of accusatory barks. He got out and walked back to the main road, half-expecting to find a slushpile of former dog. What he saw was a black Labrador, sitting awkwardly in the turn lane, still and calm. Shawn wasn’t really sure what to do, so he knocked at the nearest house to see if they could call animal control.
            “Yes, we did that already,” said the woman, a middle-aged Hispanic lady. “Did you see who hit him?”
            “Yeah, said Shawn. “It was me. Poor guy, he’s so dark, he ran out in front of me and I didn’t see him.”
            “Well, be careful if you go out there. I heard a wounded animal can be kind of snappy.”
            But someone had beaten him to it. A fortyish blonde woman was slowly approaching the dog, hand held out, speaking in reassuring tones. By the time Shawn got there, she had the dog’s head in her lap and was stroking his graying snout.
            “Poor thing. Did anybody see who hit him?”
            “Yeah,” said Shawn. “It was me. He’s so dark I didn’t see him.” God, he thought. How many more times do I need to make this confession?
            The blonde woman had to leave for work, but she left her card with the Hispanic lady and said she’d like to adopt the dog if he turned out to be a stray. Shawn fetched his car, pulled into the lane behind the dog and switched on his flashers. He draped his windbreaker over the Labrador and knelt beside him, petting his head and making sure he didn’t move. He was relieved to see that the line of fluid trailing from the dog’s hindquarters was not blood but probably urine.
            Shawn sat there another twenty minutes, legs falling asleep, asphalt biting into his thigh. He checked occasionally to make sure the dog was still breathing, and spoke to him in apologetic tones. Two different cops showed up, ten minutes apart, to ask who hit the dog.
            Welcome to Tacoma, Shawn. Try not to kill the animals.
            When the guy came from the Humane Society, Shawn helped him slip a blanket under the Labrador and load him into the back of the truck. Once they had him settled, two pre-teen girls came around the corner in their pajamas, saying things like “Omigod! Is it Baby?” and, “She isn’t dead, is she?” Shawn took the opportunity to head back to the sidewalk. He wrote his address on an ATM receipt and handed it to the Hispanic lady, asking her to send a note if she heard anything about the dog.
            When he turned back around, he was surprised to find that everyone had cleared the scene – except for another cop, who had pulled in behind Shawn’s car.
            “Sir!” said the cop. “Is this car disabled?”
            “No,” said Shawn. “I hit a dog, and I was… No, it’s fine.”

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