Uncle Ed’s Packard
24th Annual Tamarack Award Winner
(page 1 of 3)
HUNTERS ALWAYS LEFT THE KEYS ON the dash or in the ashtray or, if they were the suspicious sort, under the floor mat. Safer that way than bringing them along and getting them lost if you tripped in the brush or, heaven forbid, tipped the duckboat. Farrell found the keys in Uncle Ed’s Packard, a smart-looking but temperamental sedan that Ed had gone all the way to St. Paul to buy. Before turning the ignition, he pressed the gas pedal three times just as Ed always did and politely asked the motor to cooperate.
Daylight had broken warm and bright, but by mid-morning things had turned November typical, chilly mist coming down and gray skies all around. Farrell had come four miles on foot, figuring he’d drive over to Nicollet to scoop up Lenora for half a day and get the car back before Ed and his friend stumbled out of the woods with bags full of bleeding redheads and bellies full of schnapps. Rain had dampened Farrell’s yellow hair and his neck, and seeped into his coat, leaving him an aching back and a dripping nose. The skin on Farrell’s knuckles was wet and red. The Packard’s motor rattled and wheezed. Farrell let off, cursed, and blew into cupped hands. After one more gentle touch of gas, he cranked the key again. The car awakened with a roar.
“Thank you,” Farrell whispered. He couldn’t be ashamed of this. He and his mother had no car of their own, and he needed to do some living, after all. He smiled, revved the engine, and fingered a switch on the dash. He mumbled, “Let’s have some heat.”
ED AND HIS CRONY hunted the same place each year. They left their car parked halfway in the ditch, hiked a short bit through brush along Swift Lake, and rowed eastward to a small island at the mouth of a marshy bay. Sometimes birds swept through that way by the score, and the hunters could fire over the cattails from boats or from shore. An old lean-to with a wood floor gave the men a place to escape the wind, swap stories, and sip from their bottles.
“Figure this rain’ll quit?” Ed asked his friend.
“Not on your life,” said the man, known to most only as Kowalska. He liked to tell people he was Polack-Sioux, and with one look at him, no one doubted it.
Kowalska worked in the limestone quarry outside Mankato; all the men did. Ed and his brother gave up the Nebraska dust years ago and moved their families where there was work. The quarry was the first place willing to have them.
“Better warm up with a toot,” Kowalska said.
NOT SO FAR WEST, clouds had coiled themselves into something fierce, and winds drove rainfall against farmhouses and barns and livestock in the pasture. Cold air whooshed earthward, and the season seemed to change in a lone mighty gust. Rain froze against white clapboards, red planks, and matted brown fur. Ahead of the wind, skies darkened with throngs of birds. Ducks by the thousand beat their wings and chased warmth as this new fierce thing swept out of the Dakotas and across the fields of Minnesota.
LENORA WAITED IN THE DOORWAY of Stoney’s Saloon, her father’s place. Leaning her forehead against the glass and watching for the car Farrell had described, a big and beautiful black Packard. Farrell had a funny side, adventurous. He was the sort of guy who’d steal his uncle’s car just to drive you around so you could be alone together and maybe stop awhile down on the river-bottom road.
The rain and wind looked to be picking up, but Lenora didn’t feel like changing out of her skirt. The morning began with such sunshine and warmth, and there’d been no work to do. The whole town shut down for the Armistice Day remembrance. Her father had left before sunrise to hunt, so she enjoyed time to herself, even opening windows to let in the gentle air. She’d dressed for that weather, and now her only concession to the rain was a hip-length coat,
“What you got in that purse?” Farrell asked first thing after Lenora locked up, ran to the curb, and let herself into the car.
“Hello to you, too,” Lenora said.
Even with a cross expression on her face, Lenora looked great to Farrell. She was a fine girl, he thought. She had blond hair, which she always pushed behind her ears, and her lashes were so light they were nearly invisible. Farrell patted her leg. “I meant Hello, darling, what you got in there?”
She smiled, held open her bag, and showed him the two bottles of beer and a silver flask. She closed the purse and slid over next to Farrell. He hit the accelerator and, after they’d passed the western limit of town, crooked his arm over her shoulders.
BIRDS TO THE REAR beat their wings desperately, somehow knowing they were just ahead of trouble. In front of them flew waves and waves of ducks and geese, everything that had been headed south, and a loose haze of local birds, stirred up from daily routines and scared into flight. Many swooped low in the river valley and followed its southeasterly path, ditching out of prairie gusts and taking advantage of the steadier tailwind coursing through the wide valley.
FARRELL GUIDED THE PACKARD slowly along the gravel road leading toward the river, where they could cruise in the bottoms and find a quiet spot to stop for a beer and a talk or whatever else they dared, never much. Lenora sipped from the flask and held it to Farrell’s lips, tipping it up when he gave a little nod. He steered with his left arm and kept his right around her.
“Tastes good,” Farrell said. “I like that warmth in my throat.”
“Me, too,” she said. “I love how you can feel it spreading down from your tongue to the bottom of your stomach. It takes you over.”
Rain, falling ever harder, slapped against the windshield and swooshed away on the wipers. Farrell told Lenora to hold the wheel, which she did while he fumbled with switches until the wipers sped to a frantic pace.
“There,” he said, taking the wheel again. “Now I can see something.”
“I like this car,” Lenora said. “It’s a nice one.”
Farrell steered onto the riverside hill. Down below glowed the headlights of a car creeping upward. Lenora slid to the side, and Farrell put both hands on the wheel, rode the brakes, and kept over as far as possible. Lenora turned her face away when the car passed, but Farrell gave a wave. The man driving the rattletrap of a Ford waved back; the three men with him nodded.
“Just a sorry flock of old hunters,” Farrell said. “Don’t worry.”
“I hope no one recognized me,” Lenora said, scooting back to the seat’s middle. “My father’ll blow steam if he hears I was out here with you.”
TWO COUNTIES OVER Lenora’s father stood alone in the river sloughs where long ago his father and grandfather had taught him to hunt. Birds passed overhead like blasts of wind-driven smoke off a prairie fire. Thick blots of crows swirled by, going like the ducks, going like every flying thing. He wondered about this, wondered what those other birds were doing and why migrating flocks were following a path more east than south. He wondered what his father and grandfather would’ve made of it.
FARRELL TASTED BOURBON ON LENORA'S LIPS, smelled it in her breath, felt it in his eyes. With the Packard idling in a pull-off on the bottom road, they kissed and Farrell moved a hand under her coat and over the soft cotton of her blouse, cupping the hand and feeling the form of her. He was nearly eighteen and had never seen a real woman out of her clothes. He didn’t know how that was ever going to change.
When they’d kissed for as long as seemed reasonable, they stopped and looked at the brown river, its current carrying long naked branches and curled golden leaves. She suggested they drink the beers before they got warm. One at a time he wedged the bottle tops under the window crank and popped them off.