Tapping the Source
Ike Tucker was adjusting the Knuckle’s chain the day the stranger came asking for him. It was a sunny day and the patch of dirt in back of the Texaco was hot beneath his feet. The sun was straight overhead and dancing in the polished metal.
“Got a visitor,” Gordon told him.
Ike put down the wrench and looked at his uncle. Gordon was wearing a greasy pair of coveralls and a Giants baseball cap. He was leaning on a doorjamb and staring across the dirt from the back porch. “Gone deaf on me now too?” he asked. He meant deaf as well as dumb. “I said you got a visitor, somebody wants to talk about Ellen.”
Ike brushed his hands on his pants and went up the step, past Gordon and into the building, which was both a gas station and a small market. He could feel Gordon behind him, tall and round, hard as a stump, following past the shelves of canned goods and the counter where half a dozen old men twisted on their stools to stare after him, and he knew that when he was gone they would still be watching, their sorry faces turned toward the screen doors and the cool sagging porch where the flies found shelter from the heat.
• • •
There was a kid waiting for him in the gravel drive that circled the pumps, leaning against the side of a white Camaro. Ike guessed the kid was close to his own age, maybe seventeen, or eighteen. Ike was eighteen. He would be nineteen before the summer ended, but people often took him for being younger. He was not tall, maybe five eight, and skinny. Only a month before, a highway patrolman had stopped him on the way into King City and asked to see his driver’s
license. He had not been out of the desert since he was a boy and outsiders generally made him self-conscious. The kid in the drive was an outsider. He wore a pair of pale blue cord jeans and a white shirt. A pair of expensive-looking dark glasses had been pushed back to rest above his brow in a mass of blond curls. There were two surfboards strapped to the roof of the Camaro.
Ike picked a rag off the stack of newspapers by the front door and finished wiping his hands. The stranger had already managed to draw a small crowd. There were a couple of young boys, Hank’s kids from across the street, looking over the car, together with Gordon’s two dogs, a pair of large rust-colored mongrels that had come to sniff the tires. Some of the old men from the counter had followed Ike outside and were lining up on the porch behind him, staring into the heat.
The kid did not look comfortable. He stepped away from the car as Ike came down the steps, Gordon following. “I’m looking for Ellen Tucker’s family,” he said.
“You found it. Here he is, the whole shootin’ match.” It was Gordon who spoke.
Ike could hear a couple of the old men behind him chuckle. Someone else cleared his throat and spat into the gravel lot.
Ike and the kid stared at one another. The kid had a bit of a blond mustache and there was a thin gold chain around his neck. “Ellen said something about a brother.”
“I’m her brother.” Ike still held the rag. He was aware that his palms had begun to sweat. Ellen had been gone for nearly two years now and Ike had not heard from her or seen her since the day she left. It was not the first time she had run away, but she was of age now, a year older than Ike; it had not figured that she would return to San Arco.
The kid stared at Ike as if he was confused about something. “She said that her brother was into bikes, that he owned a chopper.”
Gordon laughed out loud at that. “He’s got a bike,” he said. “Right out there in back; shiniest damn bike in the county.” He paused to chortle at his own joke. “Hasn’t been ridden but once, though. Go on an’ tell him about that one, Low Boy.” He was addressing himself to Ike.
Gordon’s younger brother had a bike shop in King City where Ike worked on the weekends. Ike’s bike was a ’36 Knucklehead he’d put together on his own, from scratch. On his only attempt to ride it, however, he had dumped it in the gravel lot and driven a foot peg halfway through his ankle.
Ike ignored Gordon’s request. He continued to watch the kid, thinking that it was like Ellen to make up some damn story. She never could tell anything straight. Things were too boring that way, she had said. And she was a good storyteller, but then she had always been good at just about everything except staying out of trouble.
“You’re her only brother?” the kid asked, still looking somewhat dismayed. He watched as one of Gordon’s dogs raised a leg to piss on a rear tire, then looked back at Ike.
“I told you he’s the whole shootin’ match,” Gordon said. “If you’ve got something to say about Ellen Tucker, let’s hear it.”
The kid rested his hands on his hips. He stared for a moment back down that stretch of two-lane that led away from town, back toward the interstate. It was the direction Ike had looked the day he saw his sister go, and he stared in that direction now, as if perhaps Ellen Tucker would suddenly materialize out of the dust and sunlight, a suitcase tugging at her arm, and walk back to him from the edge of town.
“Your sister was in Huntington Beach,” the kid said at last, as if he’d just made up his mind about something. “Last summer she went to Mexico. She went down there with some guys from Huntington. The guys came back. Your sister didn’t. I tried to find out what happened.” He paused,
looking at Ike. “I couldn’t. What I’m saying is the guys your sister went with are not the type of people you want to fuck around with. I was beginning to pick up some bad vibes.”
“Just what do you mean by bad vibes?” Gordon asked.
The kid paused again but allowed Gordon’s question to go unanswered. “I split,” he said. “I was afraid to wait around any longer, but I knew Ellen had family out here. I’d heard her talk about a brother who was into bikes and I thought . . .” He let his voice trail off and ended with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Shit.” The word came from Gordon, spat into the dust. “And you thought her big bad brother was going to do something about it. You came to the wrong place, pardner. Maybe you should take your story to the cops.”
The kid shook his head. “Not hardly.” He pulled the shades down over his eyes and turned to get into his car. One of the dogs jumped up, putting its paws on the door, and the kid shooed it down.
Ike left Gordon behind and walked across the gravel to the open window of the car. The heat on his back and shoulders was intense. He stood at the window and found himself reflected in the kid’s shades. “Is that all,” he asked. “Is that all you were going to say?”
The glasses swung away and the kid stared at his dashboard. Then he reached for the glove box and pulled out a scrap of paper. “I was going to give somebody this,” he said. “The names of the guys she went with.” He looked at the scrap for a moment and shook his head, then passed it to Ike. “I guess you may as well have it.”
Ike glanced at the paper. The sunlight made it hard to read. “And how would I find these people?”
“They surf the pier, in the mornings. But look, man, you’d be stupid to go by yourself. I mean, you start asking around and you’re liable to get yourself in trouble. These are not lightweight people, all right? And whatever you do, don’t let that old guy talk you into calling the police.
They won’t do shit, and you’ll regret it.” He stopped and Ike could see small lines of perspiration beneath the dark glasses. “Look,” the kid said once more. “I’m sorry. I mean I probably shouldn’t have even come out here. I just thought that from what your sister said . . .” His voice faded.
“You thought things would be different.”
The kid started his engine. “You’d probably be better off to just wait it out. Maybe she will turn up.”
“Do you think so?”
“Who knows? But unless you can get some real help . . .” He shrugged again. And then he was gone and Ike was standing in the Camaro’s dust, watching the white shape of the car shrinking against the heat waves. And when there was nothing left but that patch of sunlight and dust, the ever-present mirage that marked the edge of town, he turned and walked back across the gravel to the store.
The old men were all out on the porch now, whispering in the shade and sucking down Budweisers. Gordon caught Ike’s arm as he started past. “I’ve known all along something like this was coming,” he said. “That girl’s been headed for a bad end since she learned how to walk. Shit, the way she lit outta here, hitchhiking, wearing those tight jeans all up her ass. What the hell can you expect? We won’t see her again, boy. Make up your mind to it.”
Gordon released his grip and Ike jerked away. He went through the store and stood on the back porch, looking down into the yard where he and his sister once scratched their names into the ground. They had dug out the letters with sticks and then Ellen had poured gas into the letters and set them on fire and the fire had gotten away from them and burned down Gordon’s pepper tree and scorched the back of the store before it was put out. But his sister had said that it was all right, that her only regret had been that the fire had not taken the store and the rest of the fucking town along with it. He could hear her saying that, like it was yesterday, and when he closed his eyes he could still feel the heat
from those flames upon his skin. He went down the steps, into the grease-stained dirt, and began to collect his tools.