Man is the Measure of All Things

Meghan Kenny

The Vandermies invited Russell to their house in Ketchum for dinner. He drove on a dirt road that wound through the base of mountains that looked so smooth of sand they might slide down from the smallest movement upon them. It was dark and cool in the valley, but the sun was high, still on the tops of the hills and mountains where they would hike for dinner. He’d been here many times while working on the house, but he was still unsure of landmarks and turns. He looked for the wooden walk bridge that crossed over the Lost River half a mile before their driveway. The river ran to his right; birds flew back and forth over the road, low and fast, seeming to just miss the car by chance or luck. He came around a bend, sure the bridge was less than a mile away. Then, just ahead, Russell saw two four-wheelers on the rocky berm. There was a man waving him to stop.

Russell pulled over and rolled down his window. “What is it?”

“We’ve lost one,” the short hairy man said. “We’ve lost one, and you’ve got to help.”

“Lost what?” Russell said.

Another man, red-haired and large, came up from a dip behind the embankment and said, “I can’t see a goddamn thing. Can’t see or hear or nothing.”

Russell stayed in the car. The men wore worn canvas pants and long-sleeved shirts in the heat. They were tough, Russell thought. Men who could stand the heat in those clothes killed things, fixed busted engines, and spat on people if they felt like it.

“Is this an emergency? Can I call someone?” Russell stopped himself before he held up his cellphone. They already knew he wasn’t tough; he didn’t have to prove it. He wore a short-sleeved collared shirt and khakis. He hoped they couldn’t see the leather loafers he wore without socks. He’d bought them that day at a men’s store he’d never been in because of the prices. But when the Vandermies invited him for dinner, he knew the crowd would be wealthy, and it would be his chance to make an impression.

“We don’t have time for that. We need your help,” the short man said.

“What I mean is: is this serious, is someone hurt?”

“It’s serious,” the redhead said, “or we wouldn’t be asking for help.”

“It’s just that I have a dinner to get to; people are waiting for me,” Russell said, pointing in front of him, as if people were down the road waving for him to hurry.

The short man walked toward the car. Russell hit the automatic lock and pushed in the clutch.

“Look, Jack,” the short man said, standing in front of the open driver’s side window. “Get out of your car and help us find what’s missing.” He stood close enough that Russell smelled his bourbon breath.

“My name isn’t Jack,” Russell said. “What are you two doing?”

The redhead cradled a shotgun, and spat chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth.

“Get out of the car, Jack. We need help,” the short man said, touching Russell’s shoulder as if they were pals who’d just had a fight and were making up.

“To find the last person you shot?” Russell said, and laughed nervously, a snort.

“Funny, Jack. Good one. Let’s go—we’ve got to eat dinner tonight, too.”

Russell thought about getting out to help with whatever awful mess they had made. He knew some survival skills from an EMT course in college, but that was twenty years ago.

The short, hairy man was still leaning against the car when Russell let out the clutch, his heart beating so fast he could hardly breathe or feel his arms or legs. He peeled out, tailing and sliding on the dirt. He was sure he was saving his life. He looked into the rearview mirror but couldn’t see anything through the dust cloud. He never heard a gunshot. Russell thought they must have expected him to cave in once he saw the gun and get out of the car like a fool. Forget it. He wasn’t dying that day.

He just wanted to pass the wooden walk bridge, get to their house, and get the hell up the mountain to have some wine and red meat with a bunch of rich people who might hire him to work on their homes. He needed new clients. He had a wife and five-year-old daughter. He had to feed them, pay the bills, save money to send Olivia to college. If he didn’t get more clients soon, and pull in two thousand more a month, he’d have to get a nine-to-fiver. He’d have to go back to working a shitty job as a teller at Cold Creek Bank just to make ends meet.

When Russell pulled into the Vandermies’ driveway, he was winded as if he’d been running. He turned off the engine and sat. I’m alive, he thought. I might not be alive if I had waited another minute. He looked around and found his backpack. In it were two bottles of California Zinfandel to carry up as gifts, swimming trunks for the hot springs on their property, a fleece jacket, a camera, and a box of newly-printed business cards. He lifted the pack to the front and held it in his lap.

Russell eyed his glove compartment, where he kept a pack of Marlboro Reds. He hadn’t smoked in three weeks. Because he was responsible for Olivia, he didn’t want to smoke any more or die from cancer, but it made him feel better just knowing the pack was there in case of emergency.

“Fuck it,” he said out loud, and took the cigarettes and put them in his backpack. Russell thought a glass of wine and a cigarette would calm him down at the top of the mountain. That was just what he needed.

Russell walked toward the house and saw John Vandermies coming down the trail. Russell waved and took a deep breath. He didn’t know if he should tell him about the men on the road; he didn’t want to scare anyone and ruin the evening. The Vandermies were a prominent family in town, and it wasn’t every day he got invited to their house for dinner. But this night he did, because he’d done some renovations for them. He put in new bathrooms with deep cedar Japanese-style soaking tubs, green glass wall tiles, and glazed concrete floors with hints of burgundy swirled throughout. John called him an artist of the home, and invited him to meet the right people. “These are the clients you want,” John had told him. “People with money falling out of their pockets.”

“Russell Parker,” John said, with his hand out to shake. “We’ve been meaning to have you over for some time. I’m sorry Isa couldn’t make it.”

“Our daughter has bad poison ivy.”

“Unlucky,” John said. “Don’t want to infect a sitter.”

“And Isa wants to make sure she doesn’t itch and get scars.”

“Life will scar her soon enough, won’t it?” John slapped Russell on the back.

“Soon enough.” Russell said, and wiped his forehead with a bandana. He couldn’t stop sweating. John headed toward the trail, and Russell stopped.

“Did you forget something?” John said.

Russell walked back to his car and locked it.

“Nothing to worry about out here,” John said.

“In case of bears,” Russell said.

“Is your car an automatic?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t have to worry.”

“OK,” Russell said. “Well, it’s locked anyhow.”

John stood smiling, so Russell smiled back. John was athletic and strong, his hair going white. Russell guessed he was close to sixty but looking good.

“The house looks great, John.”

“Many thanks to you, Monsieur Artist. We’ll show you how it has shaped up when we come down after dinner for a soak.”

Russell hoped John wouldn’t call him Monsieur Artist all night. The name was fruity, and besides, though he was there to network, he didn’t want to be known as the renovator all night. He wanted to feel like a rich man for once. For just one night.

When they got to the top of the trail, Russell shook hands with the other company, who looked clean and well-dressed for having hiked up a small mountain. They all stood around the firepit with glasses of wine and tans. In their white and khaki pants and cable-knit sweaters, they looked like people who played tennis and golf. John handed Russell a stemmed glass and told the group how Russell had locked his car in case of bears, and how he’d told him he didn’t have to worry since his car wasn’t an automatic, and that Russell believed him. Everyone laughed, and Russell smiled and thought John didn’t need to be an asshole about it. He wondered if telling him about the men on the road with shotguns would make him sing a different tune. Then maybe John would jog down the mountain to lock his house. But Russell didn’t want to say anything; he already felt like a klutz among these tennis types.

Russell turned and looked out over other mountains. The sun lined up to go down between two peaks, like in the movies. Russell chuckled to himself and wondered how the rich got it all, even the sunsets. He lit a cigarette and was glad he was invited, and even a little glad Isa stayed home with their daughter. Russell felt good to be there with people he didn’t know well, all of them bronzed and handshake-polite, and he felt important and wished for these people to wonder who he was and want to find out.

He stood with his head high, looking out over the valley, and pretended all this was his. He thought there was nothing wrong with having goals, something to work toward, and nothing wrong with wanting to be rich. He could see down the sloping valley to the river and the dirt road he came in on. He scanned for the men on the four-wheelers, but he didn’t see anyone. They’d probably left, or found some other sorry fool to stop and help them. Maybe he was nervous about coming up here and overreacted. Maybe the men were just drunk and aggressive about finding some wildlife they shot. Another glass of wine and he wouldn’t give two shits if those guys came up the mountain. Surely John Vandermies would pull his weight, give them some grilled lamb and calm them down.

“Hello there, Mr. Russell,” said Elaine Chalmers. She was tall and lean, and walked toward him carrying a glass of white wine she held in front of her as one might hold a tissue, as though her glass was light and fluffy and something she might throw off to the side at any moment. Six months earlier he’d salvaged wide pine boards from an old barn in Vermont, refinished them, and put them in as flooring in her five thousand square foot cabin.

“Hello, Elaine,” Russell said.

“Russell,” she said, and touched him on the shoulder. Her gold bracelets clinked. “So good to see you.”

She wore a white blouse unbuttoned low. Russell could see the lace of a white bra through her shirt.

She tilted her head to one side and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “Let’s sit down.”

They sat in foldable canvas chairs.

“I’m so sick of these people,” she said. “They’re a bunch of fakes. It’s nice to see a person with a real job and life. How is your real life?”

“The real life of the working class is just fine. Nothing glamorous. Are the pine plank floors holding up?”

“Oh, yes. I tell everyone you’re a good lay.” She raised her eyebrows and smiled.

“Whatever brings in the business, Elaine.”

She put her hand on his thigh. “My, you’re warm.”

“The hike up,” Russell said.

Elaine was not married. She’d had two husbands, and left them after having a child with each, taking half their money with her. Everyone in Ketchum and Sun Valley knew she was set for life. She was the kind of woman who announced what she wanted and then got it. She wouldn’t get it with Russell, though. Russell loved his wife and his daughter; he wasn’t a cheater or a sleep-your-way-to-the-top kind of guy, and even though she was rich as hell, he wished Elaine would take her hand off his thigh.

“You generate a lot of heat,” Elaine said.

“Elaine.” He scooped up her hand and lifted it like a wounded bird. “Let’s behave.” He placed her hand on the armrest.

“Oh, please,” she said. “Spare me.” She stood and strode to a group of others. Within minutes they all craned their necks, looked at him and laughed, throwing their heads back, their mouths open, some wiping tears from their eyes. Elaine winked at Russell and held up her glass. He faked a smile and lifted his glass toward her, and wondered what was wrong with these people. Did having money make them narcissistic assholes, or was this just who they were? Were there rich assholes attracting rich assholes atop hills and mountains all over the world?

A motor echoed below, and he knew it was the four-wheeler. Its rev and low rumble came closer. Russell felt as though a swarm of bees flew into his chest.

“Monsieur Artist,” John called, and waved Russell to join him. He held a bottle of red wine and stood by the cool, dark former mountain-lion cave he’d had Russell smooth out, seal, fit for a door, and then outfit as a wine cellar. He poured wine into Russell’s glass and said, “Cheers, Russell. These men need renovations, and I told them you’re the man for the job.”

“Peter Harvey.” A man held out his hand and Russell shook it. “I love John’s cement floors. I want the same floors. Can we bargain?”

The skid of sand and crunch of twigs and sagebrush under the tires of the four-wheelers approached. Russell flinched. Didn’t anyone else hear the noise? Russell wondered if he should run. Run now. Run for his life.

“Don’t be a cheap bastard, Pete,” John said. “You make in an hour what it costs for one of those floors.”

“We can bargain,” Russell said, “but first I need to take a leak.” He wanted to get out of there. Survival instinct. His body was ready to run. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. His senses were as high as they’d ever been. He felt like an animal. He turned toward the woods, but Pete grabbed his upper arm.

“Hell, I won’t cheat you out of full price. I just like to negotiate. It’s what I do.” Pete slapped him on the back with his other hand.

Russell smelled the four-wheelers’ exhaust. It caught in the back of his throat.

“All right. Full price, then.” Russell leaned back to get free, but Pete held his grip.

“I prosecute people. Put them away for life. Do you know what it’s like to have that power?” He didn’t even look at Russell when he spoke, but up toward the sky, as though his thoughts were inspired from the gods. Who did this guy think he was, Caesar? Jesus Fucking Christ?

“I build things,” Russell said. “I don’t determine anyone’s future but my own.”

“Good man,” Pete said. “That’s an honest answer and an honest living.”

“It’s the only answer I got.”

The hum and rev was just below the rise of the hill and the dinner party.

“I’ll tell you what that power is like.” Pete’s grip tightened; it felt like the blood-pressure band at the doctor’s. Tight. He felt his blood stopping where Pete pressed. It hurt.

“Before you tell me anything,” Russell said, “you need to let go of your death grip or I’m going to piss on your loafers.”

“I’m sorry,” Pete said. “I got caught up. Go, go.” When he released Russell’s arm there was a rush through his biceps: blood flow restored. Russell’s hand was pins and needles. He shook out his arm; Pete had practically put it to sleep. Russell walked quickly behind the cougar cave toward the stand of cottonwoods and larger boulders where he could hide. His foot slipped on sandy ground going up a small incline, and he fell on his knee.

“Aw, fuck,” he said. Red wine splattered on his pant leg like drops of blood. He kept the wineglass with him; he figured he could break off a shard to use as a blade.

“Careful there, buddy!” Pete yelled.

“I got it,” Russell said. “Just a slip.”

“Or too much wine?” John laughed and slapped Peter’s back, and he laughed too.

“Shut the fuck up,” Russell said under his breath. He wasn’t sure why these rich people kept laughing at him. He didn’t see what was so hilarious about being afraid of a bear, not wanting to cheat on your wife, or falling on your knee.

Russell got up the embankment and moved deeper into the darkness of the trees. “Now we’ll see who’s laughing, you bunch of wine-sipping ass-faces,” Russell said, looking down at the crowd. Though no one could see him, he flicked them off with his middle finger. Then he crouched behind a boulder and thought about his wife.

Isa had been tired, distant, and crabby the past six months, but he didn’t take it personally. Having a kid and a job was exhausting; he was tired and crabby, too. Neither of them got enough sleep, or had enough sex or any time to themselves. Three weeks ago, as Russell hurriedly pulled on his boots to get to work, he’d bumped into the nightstand and disloged from Isa’s copy of The Great Gatsby, which she was teaching in her eleventh-grade class, one of those loose scraps she used as bookmarks. On it was a phone number and the name Nathaniel. Isa taught at the private Community School; the richer the kids, the more issues they had. She called parents daily. He hadn’t given it a second thought; it was probably some kid’s dad.

But now Russell squatted behind the rock and thought, Nathaniel Nathaniel Nathaniel, who the fuck is Nathaniel? The name reminded him of Faneuil Hall in Boston, Daniel Boone and a coonskin cap, and reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and his English teacher asking whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom? In high school, he thought hate and love were too far apart—one violent and one sweet—so he wrote a four-page essay and got a C on it. But after ten years of marriage and a child, he thought perhaps, at bottom, they were the same. He loved Isa. He loved her so much that if Nathaniel were someone other than a parent, if he were someone she was fucking, someone who could ruin the life they had together, someone she loved, then yes, he could hate her for it. Hate her because he loved her, and maybe only because he loved her. Survival instincts, that was all there was to it. It was all about staying alive, and keeping who you loved and what you needed.

The red four-wheeler crested the hill, dust pluming behind as it bounced and rushed over sagebrush and rocks toward the party. Russell waited, he wasn’t sure what for. The moment was uncertain. The sky darkened. Streaks of orange tracked through the sky like flames. The circle of tiki-torch flames flicked and waved. He smelled citronella. A bat dove and turned just in front of his face, and he felt the wind from its wings and its tiny black leathery body. He leaned his forehead against the rock, and it was bumpy and cold. Was Isa screwing someone else? Was that why they hadn’t touched in months? Why was he scared and hiding behind a rock in the dark? His gut said, Get off the mountain and go home now. It was the same voice that told him to let up the clutch and drive up the mountain. And so which was it—did he want to be up or down this mountain? Was he willing to work for these arrogant, condescending kinds of people? His legs tingled from crouching. He lifted his head above the rock. No one had moved or seemed concerned. Elaine’s bangles glinted gold against the firelight.

Russell was raised in Missoula. His father and grandfather took him and his two brothers hunting in the fall and camping in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in summer. He knew how to hunt and kill bear, deer, duck, and chukars. He knew these types of men; they were the type in his family: drinking, reckless, angry, fighting. Men he’d left behind long ago. The kind of man he chose not to be. But they were inside him, not far beneath the surface; they were in his DNA.

The four-wheelers parked in front of the fire, and the engines cut. The chatter and clinking glasses continued as before. The woods darkened. Russell was sure no one could see him, so he stood to get a better look.

The big red-haired man waved John Vandermies over. “We have something for you,” he said and raised his eyebrows. John walked toward the men and shook their hands.

“We lost one,” the red-haired man said, “but we found the other two.”

Jesus, Russell thought, did they kill dinner?

The men lifted a blue tarp from a trailer hauled behind one of the four-wheelers. There were two teenage boys gagged and tied on the flatbed. They squirmed and flailed like fish on land.

Elaine Chalmers gasped. Pete Harvey looked at John with a cocked head and bunched lips. The group circled around the boys and blocked his view. Russell stuck his hand inside his wineglass and pulled back, breaking off a piece. He put the palm-sized jagged glass in his pocket and carried the broken stem down toward the fire.

“No need to panic,” John announced to the group, and everyone hushed for an explanation. He pointed to the short hairy man and the big red head. “These fellows help me keep my land in order.”  Then he pointed to the two boys. One had blond hair and the other had brown. “And these hooligans were stealing, and I wanted a chance to meet them personally. I apologize that it had to happen in the middle of our gathering, but we’ve been looking for them for two days.”

“What did they steal?” a voice called from the crowd.

“Why don’t you ungag them,” John said to his men, “so they can tell everyone what they’ve stolen?”

The men ungagged the boys. Then they stopped squirming and were quiet. They were scared.

Russell stepped forward into the firelight. The red-haired man looked right at him. “Oh, hello,” he said.

Russell’s grip on the glass tightened. He felt the sting of a cut on his finger.

“You know each other?” John asked.

“We’ve crossed paths.” The redhead winked at Russell. Then he slapped each boy on the side of his head. “Tell them what you stole.”

“What did we steal?” the brown-haired boy said.

John stepped closer. “Yes, boy. What did you take that doesn’t belong to you?”

“You can’t do this. This is illegal. We didn’t steal anything,” the blond said.

The men looked at John. John took a sip of wine and kept his eyes on the boys. He shook his head back and forth. “Stealing is illegal.”

“We didn’t steal anything,” the brown-haired boy said.

Russell tilted his head sideways to get a better look and recognized the brown-haired boy. His nose was slim and pointy like a shorebird’s. He was one of Isa’s students: a poet, a cross-country skier. His name was Tucker. Then Russell looked back at John, who was smug and smiling.

“They’re just kids,” Russell said. “Let it go, John. I know this kid. He’s my wife’s student.”

“You know this kid?” John asked and pointed at Tucker.

“Hi, Tucker. I’m Mrs. Parker’s husband.”

Tucker smiled crookedly, confused.

“This is insane,” Russell said and looked at John. “You never did anything stupid when you were young?”

“No, I didn’t.”

The red-haired man’s lip curled, and he spat dip from the side of his mouth. Then he put his finger over his lips and said, “Shhhhhh.”

Tears ran down Tucker’s cheek. Russell felt the violence rise in himself. He felt his father and uncles, he felt the ugly impulse, the electricity in his arms and legs.

“None of you are going to say anything? You’re OK with this?” Russell asked, looking around.

People backed away from the four-wheelers, behind the tiki torches, and into the shadows, as though if they couldn’t be seen then they didn’t need to have an opinion. They could look the other way because they could afford to.

“Relax,” a voice said from the dark of the crowd.

“He has two boys who go to school with your kids bound and gagged on the back of a wagon,” Russell said.

“Nnnnn.” The redhead grunted, spat dip again, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“Step off, Russell,” John said. “This isn’t your business.”

“We’re not like their kids,” Tucker said. His voice cracked. “Our parents work three shitty jobs to send us to that school. We live in Gooding. And their kids. . . .” He stopped.

“Quit your crying,” John said.

“What did you steal?” Pete Harvey stepped forward, as if in court.

“Yeah, what did you do?” a voice cried out from the dark.

Everyone waited. The fire embers popped and floated into the night above. John shifted from one foot to the other, and his nose twitched. Elaine Chalmers coughed. A throat cleared. Someone put a hand on Russell’s shoulder from behind to draw him back, as if to say, It’s not worth it. Let it go. Join us. Russell dropped the shard of glass, and he wanted to go home—now. He wanted to get back to Isa and his daughter. He wanted to know all was OK, and make sure they were cared for, safe, his, but he did not step back. Tucker and the other boy lay on their backs, looking up at the sky. The tiki torches created a ring of fire, and the only ones inside it were Russell, the two men with the four-wheelers, and the boys who were tied up like animals. Defenseless. Waiting to be told what they deserved and what the world thought of them.

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