"Ghosts of Salmon" | Pittsburgh City Paper

"Ghosts of Salmon"

The following is one of the "lost chapters" excised from the published version of Honeymooners, Chuck Kinder's 2002 novel based on his friendship with writer Raymond Carver. Pared down from an original 3,000 pages, Honeymooners depicts the literary exploits of Jim and Ralph -- fictional stand-ins for Kinder and Carver, respectively -- and their troubled relationships with the women in their lives: Lindsey and Alice Ann.

Three more chapters will follow in the weeks ahead.

Jim Crumley's favorite Richard Hugo story goes something like this. One summer night back in the days before Hugo had become famous and honored as an important American poet and was, indeed, still a legendary, drunken madman, Crumley had been out at the Am-Vets dancing with an Irish-Indian girl who he had loved faithfully for almost an hour. Suddenly Hugo showed up as wild-eyed as Crumley had ever seen him. Hugo had had a horrible experience earlier that night. He had reluctantly dined at a university dean's house with certain other members of the English Department, where after hours of drunken chaos and disaster, they had put him to bed in a downstairs guest room. Hugo had eventually returned to consciousness with the horrible realization that he had shit himself.

The bed was a ruin, so Hugo had managed to squeeze its soiled mattress through the window and then hop out on it. He'd tugged the shitty thing two blocks to the Higgens Street Bridge, where he tossed the evidence into the river and watched it float in the moonlight like (to his poet's eye) a great, dead salmon. Now Hugo needed to save himself with snow. Only the burn of snow from the high country could freshen Hugo's sorry flesh.

Out in the parking lot Hugo climbed behind Crumley on his ancient surplus Harley, and they sped up the midnight valleys toward the dark mountains, the rear wheel spitting gravel on the twisting curves. They found snow, finally, on the northern face of a cutback. Hugo stripped off his clothes and rolled in the snow, talking in tongues unknown to Crumley. Crumley made a snowball and hit Hugo in the head with it. Hugo quit babbling and he belted Crumley back with a snowball of his own. Laughing and shouting, the two of them wrestled in that shallow skin of frozen snow.

On the way back down the mountain, Crumley's cold skin felt like fire. Blizzards, frozen lakes filled his mind's eye, a landscape sheathed in ice. But inside he had never been warmer, wrapped from behind in Hugo's huge bear arms of fur, as the Harley split through that dream of ice.

Years later, soon after Jim Stark and Crumley had become pals, when rumors drifted back that Hugo had been spotted on the drunken roam again, Crumley set out to save him. Lindsey said she had to go out of town to visit a sick old family friend, so when Crumley asked if Jim wanted to join him, Jim jumped at the chance.

Jim and Crumley picked up a cold case of beer, and on Crumley's hunch drove 80 miles to Trixi's Antler Bar in Ovando, Montana, an old haunt of Hugo's. Sure enough, there were reports that an aging, burly drunk, who alternately wept and recited poetry, had held forth for hours before leaving for Two Dot to check out the beercan collection in one of Two Dot's two bars. By the time Jim and Crumley reached Two Dot, this poetic drunk had moved on, saying he was going on to the 666 Club in Miles City. From there this poetic drunk had headed south to Buffalo, Wyoming, to write an epic poem about the Johnson County Wars. Or so he told the barmaid. As it turned out, this poetic drunk never made a move without discussing it at length with everybody in the bar, which made him easy to follow but somehow impossible to catch.

In the following days, Jim and Crumley covered the west, touring the bars, the whorehouses, seeing the sights. They circled, wandering in an apparently aimless drift in Crumley's El Camino pickup, chasing a ghost across gray mountain passes, then down through green valleys riddled with the snows of late spring. At every stop Jim put in a call to Lindsey, to see if she had returned, letting the fucking phone ring off the wall.

You must be in fucken love, Stark, Crumley said at one point. -- You're mooning around like a schoolboy with his first boner.

You've got it wrong, Jim told Crumley. -- Hell, I'm still a married man.

Christ, Stark, what's that got to with it? Married men are allowed to fall in love. Sometimes even with their wives. Pop me another beer, son, why don't you.

I don't know if I ever loved my wife, Jim told Crumley. Jim took a beer from the cooler behind his seat, handed it to Crumley, then opened one for himself. They were driving in a vast, anonymous Nevada desert, country even Crumley didn't know well.

Well, I loved all my wives, Crumley said. -- And I still do. The only thing any of my wives had wrong with them was me.

So what happens if we actually run Hugo down? Then what?

We get him out of any trouble he's into. Bail him out of jail. Break the old fart out, if it comes to that. But don't worry about that. This old drunk we're trailing ain't Hugo.

How do you know that?

Hugo grew up. He quit this sorry shit cold. Just like in a country song, he found the love of a good woman, sobered up, started behaving like a grown-up. Of course, he's boring as hell now, but basically I'm glad for him. He was killing himself. These barroom rumors we're trailing could be 10 years old. We're on the trail of Hugo's drunken ghost if anything.

Then why are we doing it?

Well, why the hell not? Pop me another cold one, son, if you don't mind.

Finally Jim and Crumley lost all track of time, of how many days or weeks they had been at their search. The details had become vague in that vast, anonymous Nevada desert. The facts had become fuzzy. But what do they finally matter anyway? Facts. For a story is a story is a story. And who would wish to clutter, and perchance ruin, a perfectly good story with dubious facts?

Jim and Crumley later swore that they had found themselves circling their own tracks. The stories they began to come back upon were their own, stories of things one or the other of them had said or done -- stories told by people who swore they had been on the scene, but who seemed unable to recognize Jim or Crumley returned in the flesh. Somewhere along the way, Jim and Crumley had taken to weeping easily themselves: Any sad country song could set them off, lamenting all the lost love in their lives. They swore they took turns unplugging jukeboxes in dangerous bars and daring any cowboy biker to make a peep before a recited Hugo poem's end.

Jim and Crumley had stopped at a park of trailer-whorehouses somewhere out on that vast, anonymous Nevada desert. In the trailer-bar Crumley talked with a sad, young redheaded whore who claimed she had once humped a burly drinking man who wept easily and recited poems as he pumped away on her. She could not recall when exactly this had happened, for she had lost track of time. She could not recall where exactly it had happened either, for she had lost her sense of place as well.

Jim led the sad young whore off to her trailer. Whereupon Jim plumbed the depths for the least notion of lust but could not find it. Jim lay there on the crushed, yellow sheets, and hit off a joint. He asked the young whore what it had been like fucking a man who spouted poetry in the heat of passion.

Most men like to talk dirty when they're doing it, she told Jim. I liked them poems better than dirty talk I can tell you, she said. She reached over and touched Jim and then asked, What's the matter, hon? You sick or something?

I got hurt in the war, Jim told her. Oh, that dirty war, she said.

Jim zipped up his jeans and pulled on the snakeskin boots Lindsey had given him and he left the trailer. Jim saw Crumley stretched out the hood of his truck, staring into the night sky. Jim staggered out into the desert, a landscape blasted by moonlight and shadow. The dry, sweet desert air smelled like Lindsey's skin. Jim ached for her. In his mind's eye, the moon shone like the ghost of some great dead salmon.