Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

Triple E strokes his goatee. Smoothes it again and again like he is petting a cat. Smoothing it helps him think.

—From The Willow Man

Excerpts: The Willow Man

From Chapter One: Into the Yukon

TRIPLE E HAS DREAMS. He dreams of murdering John Brown. Or at least punching him out. Beating him to a pulp. Just to be mean. Meanness has to be part of it because Triple E hates that senile sonofabitch. But another part of it is — the old man has a roll of Canadian reds big enough to choke a moose. And he has no right to flash that kind of cash and not expect someone to hammer him. It’s a fact of life that a man with so much money shouldn’t be tempting others to take it. And shouldn’t be trying to buy Mercy Justice Jones with it either. Like she’s a piece of meat. Like she’s a whore, a prostitute. Like she has her price because everyone John Brown knows has a price. Triple E too. That’s what pissed him off. That’s what sent him out on a winter’s night to confront John Brown.

“Like I would really sell her,” Triple E mutters. “Like I’m the kind of guy who would pimp her. Old bastard’s got no respect. He needs butt-kickin bad. He needs Trouble with a capital T.” Triple E focuses on the word trouble and fingers the .38 in his parka pocket. He stops the car at the edge of the road and plans his next move. The engine rocks impatiently. The mufflers rumble. The snow on the steep slope beside him is a moonlit blue. The slope rises farther than the road will allow him to go. Brown’s cabin is the last one before the ROAD CLOSED sign. The place where the snowplows turn around, a lonely no-witnesses cul-de-sac perfect for what Triple E has in mind. It’s not a question of whether or not to rip Brown off, it’s only a question of how. Go storming in there with fists flying? No, Triple E is more subtle than that: Hey, Brown, I been thinkin I should listen to your offer, instead of blowin you off like I did. Look here, man, I brought a peace offering. A bottle of Yukon Vodka fresh from After-Hours. Paid premium because I’m serious. Let’s have a drink and we’ll negotiate for Mercy. How much you willing to pay for some of her action?

That will work. Sure it will. Brown will get that crafty-savvy look in his eyes and invite Triple E to sit down. And out will come that roll of reds. He sees John Brown smooth the roll on the table between them. At least a thousand? No, it was thicker than that — come on, it’s got to be two, three thousand. But let Brown name the figure he thinks Mercy is worth, Triple E is going to take it all anyway. Have another drink, John Brown. Here, you can have the whole bottle.

He’s a drinker, a guzzler, always drinking vodka or schnapps in Soapy’s Saloon, hunching over the table (the one in the corner to protect his back) while he watches what’s going on at the bar. His eyes a pair of ice beads. Cobra. Unless he is looking at Mercy or listening to her sing. Then his eyes soften and he looks like his mind has gone to Valhalla. No one else counts for him. Daughter Mamie he calls her. You can’t correct him on that. He will ignore you or turn his venom on you and say: One more word and I’ll —

Triple E strokes his goatee. Smoothes it again and again like he is petting a cat. Smoothing it helps him think. Looking out the window he can see Whitehorse far below. The Yukon River runs through it. Sprawling beneath him are twenty thousand lights — homes, businesses, street lamps, cars. Two-thirds of the population is Canadian, the other third is what he belongs to — escapees from the lower 48. Bright ribbons of ice hug the shores of the city. A channel of water runs down the middle where the ice hasn’t closed. Just above the city is Whitehorse Dam. He thinks about what would happen if the dam ever broke. The river loose. The floodplain flooded. “Free,” Triple E says, imagining the water sweeping north-northwest carrying him and Mercy to that salvation they’ve been chasing. Stuck in Whitehorse for too many months, time has become a heavy mood; the ticking of a clock (its second-hand trashing minutes of his life) infuriates him.

Violet-blue buildings and yards and trees gleam under the moon and billions of stars. He can make out the hospital on the east side of the river and the Dairy Queen and the Esso sign and the library and the tourist center on the west. The streets are full of snow-slush and gravel, crossroads and stoplights. A few cars nose south and north along Second Avenue, stopping at the red light at Main, tail pipes steaming. Late night people, bartenders and waitresses yawn towards home. Him too, that’s where he should be, the little gray cottage on Nisutlin Street, he and Mercy cuddling. He knows what he’ll tell her: Look here, Carrots, that old bastard tried to buy you like a piece of meat. That’s why I robbed him. Look here, Carrots, I got his money. We’re rich, Carrots, we’re outta here. Next stop Anchorage. No more pickin guitar and singin for tips in Soapy’s. No more bussing tables and washing dishes and shit. No more livin hand to mouth. Fuck Merrill and Heather and Soapy’s Saloon. They been usin us. We don’t owe them nothin, Carrots. We’ll put you on the stage and call you Justice Jones. That’s the name for the bright lights of Anchorage. That’s where girls like you can get famous. Not in Whitehorse. Whitehorse is a backwater. Whitehorse is nowhere. What’s the good of being famous here?

“Anchorage is what we started out for,” Triple E reminds himself. “Not Yukon Territory, not Whitehorse.”

Windows below are winking out. A fog is rising from the river, making everything hazy. Looking straight ahead he judges the distance to where the road curves. 100 meters, maybe. On the other side is the turnaround and John Brown’s place. Triple E drums the steering wheel. His left foot taps the floorboard. “Why am I so nervous?” he asks. “I’m young, he’s old, I can take him.” He licks his wind-burned lips. He thinks of saying to her: Carrots, get up, get dressed. We gotta boogie. We’re headin west. And seeing her bounce around like she does, like she’s ten years old, her eyes glittering, her voice chanting, Ya-huh, ya-huh!

Easing the car into gear, he creeps forward. The road leads past clusters of pine. On his right is Grey Mountain angling up. When he comes through the trees he can see that Whitehorse and the river are slowly being swallowed in fog. Seconds later a yellow window comes into view; an eave dripping with icicles. A battered pickup is parked a few feet in front of a frosty door.

THE PLAN IS TO GET HIM DRUNK. Make him helpless. But Brown won’t cooperate. Old and decrepit as Brown is, he still out-drinks Triple E, who is trying to be businesslike — asking again and again, “How much will you give for her? Give me a figure. Work with me, old man.” But he won’t give figures. He keeps riffling the money with his thumb, like a gambler with a stack of cards, while shot after shot of warm vodka disappears down his throat. And his cheeks get red. And his white beard shivers. And his disposition turns surly. And he starts accusing Triple E of kidnapping that daughter, that Mamie.

“You took’r from me. You took’r to this frozen land forsook by God, left to devils like you,” John Brown says. Adding brusquely, “You buzzard.”

Triple E loses all patience. “Mamie your ass, you senile fuck! I don’t know no Mamie, I only know Mercy what you keep callin Mamie! You need glasses, motherfucker. Blind as a bat.”

Brown fires back, “Motherfucker blind bat you!” He mumbles motherfucker three more times as he pours the last drops of vodka into his selfish glass.

“Selfish fuckbutt,” growls Triple E.

“You stole my Mamie. I taken her back, you thievin buzzard.”

When Brown christened Mercy Mamie in Soapy’s Saloon, resurrecting her as his daughter, who minded that? Nobody. Triple E had minded a little but had backed off. Because Mercy hadn’t minded at all. Make an old man happy to believe Mamie has returned to him, she had said. That was Mercy’s loving heart sometimes. She would get in a giving mood and give. What’s wrong with that? Nothing wrong with Triple E in a taking mood either. Because Triple E knows what Brown is really after. Filthy child molester scum of the earth. Brown puts on the doting papa mask, but Triple E knows an incestor when he sees one. Except this one is not the easy prey he should be. Booze doesn’t mellow him or put him to sleep. It makes him loud and arrogant and aggressive. And when he keeps saying Mamie for Mercy, he makes Triple E loud, arrogant, aggressive too.

“You call her Mamie once more, I will punch your lights out, fool!”

“Fuck you will. Just try, you pissant punk.” Brown clenches a fist and accuses Triple E again, says, “Took’r my Mamie to this frozen God forsook land.”

“One-note Brown,” says Triple E. “It’s all you know is one note.”

“Run Mamie north to Whitehorse to hide from me. But now you see who you fuckin with, ey? You see who the tracker is.” Brown fluffs his beard proudly with both hands. “Indians got nothin on me. I can out-track a bloodhound, you pissant punk.”

“Fuck you in your beard up your ass. Fuck you up your nose in your ear.”

“Sportin my Mamie, filthy-full-of-shit boy.”

Triple E feels the vodka blurring his tongue. Mucking his judgment.

“Broke a ole man’s heart,” Brown whines, rubbing his nose. His seamed face, his eyes contort with suffering. “My Mamie. Papa’s baby. Papa’s comin for you, Mamie!”

“Shit for brains cretin, you mean Mercy! Mercy’s NOT yours, man. She’s mine, she belongs to me Triple E!”

Brown points a finger fat as a .12 gauge shotgun shell. “Ain’t yours, you lyin sack of turds. You pimp-whored her, fuzzynuts, fartbottomboy! Sellin her on the street!”

“Your ass! Me and her is how it is, old fool. Ain’t nothin gonna change that. I made a vow. I made a promise to her mom that I would —”

Brown shuts him up by pounding the table and bellowing, “I’m the vower here! I’m the vower! I say old gooseberry will find your sty! Will find you kill you dead! Never you fuckin with John Beaver, you bitch! John Beaver axe your chicken head!” And down comes his fist and the table splits — cups, bottle, everything clattering over the floor.

John Beaver, who’s him? Are you John Beaver or John Brown, old man?”

The old man hesitates, eyes twitching like an energetic fly. “You blowed my cover, fluffynuts,” he snarls. “You know my name! How you knowed my name?”

“You just said it!”

“Gooseberry havva kill you for that!”

“You can try, you old fucker, John Brown, John Beaver, old gooseberry devil, whoever the fuck you are!” Triple E jumps back and goes for his gun.

Who could have known how swift and strong the old man would be? He is bow-backed and his hands are callused and warped from years on traplines, hard winters living in the bush. Wrinkles so deep it looks like a lynx tried to swipe his face off. He has a weightlifter’s neck and sloping shoulders. He is bald-domed and silver-maned and quick. He backhands Triple E, one hard-knuckle smack knocking him over. The old man is bending to him then. He doesn’t go crazy, doesn’t go wild with arms and feet flailing the way streetfighters fight, but works methodically on Triple E’s face. Then on his body, seeming to think out each blow before delivering it. The beating isn’t painful. Beatings never are. Afterwards the healing is painful.

DÉJÀ VU TRIPLE E YOU’RE IN TROUBLE AGAIN. Battered and bruised and nearly unconscious, he is jolting from one side of the pickup bed to the other. The pickup chatters over an ice-hard road, heading God knows where. Triple E hears the broken muffler bellowing beneath him. He hears the fenders and gate chains rattling, the leaf-springs chirping madly. Ice fog swirls above him. Exhaust gases blow through rust holes. The tires spin and the rear end fishes this way, that way as Triple E is thrown here, there, here. Each jolt bruising another bone. He wants to raise his arm to protect his head, but his arm won’t move. I’m paralyzed, he tells himself. That old bastard paralyzed me. His head slams against a fender well and he floats in fragments over the lip of the world. Words whispering like shadows moving through his brain — Triple E, this is it, you’re finally dying.

HE WAKES IN STILLNESS and thinks for a moment it was all a nightmare and he is safe in bed in the cottage with Mercy. He sighs with relief. Opens his eyes to look at the clock and sees fog. He hears the gate bolts sliding back and the gate crashing. The icy air burns inside his mouth. John Brown grabs Triple E’s ankles and drags him across the rusty bed, rust spurs tearing his clothes and his skin. He is hoisted out. Hoisted up. His legs don’t belong to him. He slumps to his knees on the snow-packed road. He wants to cuss the old devil, tell him to take his fucking hands off, but the noise coming from his mouth is warped, “Fug-uv!”

Brown’s hands are brutal. They grip Triple E’s throat, cutting his oxygen. Triple E orders fists, but his hands won’t obey. He tries to knee Brown in the groin, but his knee ignores him. He has the gun in his pocket, but he can’t reach it. Brown drags him backward, heels trenching the snow, arms useless as rags, to a cold railing and the sound of water rushing below.

In Triple E’s ear Brown roars, “Fish food, fish food, fartbottomboy!”

He is pitched over the side. His body falling. Slapping the water. Riding the current and sinking slowly, his seams opening. Triple E feels small (coho-salmon size) swimming through walls of water that cannot be scaled. There is nothing but black water wherever he looks. His palms pressing against black water, pushing through black water there and there and this place too. Tiny Triple E drifting down, down. A drop of rain in the heart of the Yukon. The pressure on his ears becomes a vise. His boots touch bottom and drag through the mud. How bad am I drowning? he asks himself. As he drowns he wonders how many unknown, unfound men have drowned the same way. How many pitched into black water on a winter’s night? Into black water how many pitched over how many years — eons and eons? How many Triple E’s vanishing without a trace, their bones embedded, how many? His reform school counselor flutters nearby. She beckons him and he knows this is the part where strobe light particles will replay his life. She has a watery smile, sympathetic eyes. She holds out the book she wrote — Art and Soul: a Search for Spirituality in a Technocratic World. She tells him to open the book. She promises all the answers are there. All you need do is use that wonderful mind of yours and you’ll have the world in your pocket, she tells him. He pats his pocket, pats the gun and knows he should have kept his hand on it, instead of thinking he could draw faster than an old man’s fist.

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