Short Fiction by Michael Washburn

Fancy Meeting You Here, by Michael Washburn

“We could die out here,” Drew said again.

“Where in fuck’s name are we, man?” said Jeremy.

Drew and Jeremy were both gazing at Zach in the dull light inside the aging van.

“You guys think this is my fault. I kept telling you we were running low. And you said, ‘Fuck it, man, don’t bother me now, I want another hit!’” Zach exclaimed.

The three young members of the love generation hadn’t felt the need to be home for Thanksgiving. They’d driven the van through the remotest parts of southeast Washington State, smoking weed, dropping acid, listening to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and a cover of “Reason to Believe,” over and over. Drew had objected to pissing away money on a map because maps are for Boy Scouts, but Zach had rented the van and acted like he was in charge, deciding where and when to stop. Plus, he’d said a few times, “It’s cool, I know where we are.” The weed was so good and the scenery so pretty, it was hard to argue too strongly with the others when they insisted on pressing deeper and deeper into the woods, which were coated with the purest white you’d ever seen.

Once again, Zach stepped out of the purple van, his boots crunching on the snow. The back roads around here meandered and curved and looped back on themselves. Nowhere did you see steam from a chimney or a chain fence marking the boundary of a factory or a plant. The area was a rebuke to anyone who’d thought America in 1971 to be friendly and navigable. Here they were, amid the merciless white, without a gas can.

He breathed in the pure air and kept looking out into the white. Somewhere off in the vast distances was that order, that dispensation he and his pals had rejected. Banks dispensed money, men sat at pristine tables discussing propositions involving nebulous sums, bright children at desks received the rudimentary understanding of how things work, the way things are. Out here was white. They were lost and mad at each other.

For the moment, Zach saw no alternative to plowing along the narrowing road between the firs. He had to get back in the dirty old van. He’d been arguing with Drew and Jeremy for so long and was coming to loathe them.

“I’m really anxious. Let’s smoke a bowl and chill out for a little bit,” Jeremy said.

A little bit turned into several hours. Then, at last, they set off down the trail, turned left, then right, and emerged into a field, somber and silent, with the peaks of mountains to the north and east. The light was dimming. Zach convinced the others they were likely to get even more lost in the dark and run out of gas. He killed the engine and they sat there in the dark, smoking the last of their weed, imagining the Thanksgiving scenes they were missing in cozy homes in Portland and Seattle. Rain began falling hard.

Before he fell asleep, Zach thought they really could die out here. But he couldn’t stay awake no matter how anxious or fearful he felt. As he lay there exhausted in the cold, he experienced the world as both actor and spectator; he saw the planet hurtling through a void of unendurable cold and unrelieved darkness amid the howling of unseen, hostile presences. The world, the universe, reality itself was a construct from which deliverance would be welcome.

You may be wondering: who is this Zach, and who is the voice that speaks to you now, that knows things only Zach could know, if not Zach himself? Like Zach, I am both actor and spectator. I may as well tell you I’m someone that hundreds of thousands or maybe millions of people in this country would like to be, because the secrets to which I’m privy have held them in thrall, have provided distractions from their pitiful, aimless lives for decades now.

Seven hours later, the white cold world surrounded Zach again. Those thoughts about Zach’s friends being potential bad actors must have been nonsense. They were all part of the love generation. After letting the van warm up, they set out again with Jeremy driving and the others looking eagerly around. They made it another mile before Zach, who’d kept an eye on the gas the whole time, realized the van was going to give out in a yet more remote locale.

“There’s no one around out here. The whole world’s at home having a lovely Thanksgiving with loved ones. We’re three losers who picked the worst possible time to go back to nature,” Jeremy whined.

“Let’s turn around,” Drew said.

“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. We’ll have used up the gas for nothing,” Zach said.

“We know this route doesn’t lead anywhere. That’s a big fucking improvement over yesterday.”

“The van’ll conk out before we get half a mile back that way. If there’s any hope, we need to keep going this way.”

“Fuck you, Zach. Whatever happens now, it’s your fault. ‘It’s cool, man, I know where we are.’”

“I wanted to find a filling station and you were like, ‘No, not now, I’m having a cosmic experience.’”

“Pull over right here and we’ll sort this out.”

Jeremy obeyed. The van came to rest on the right side of the meandering trail, at the base of a magnificent fir, whose branches dangled thick with snow, a heavenly adornment. They stepped out.

“We’ve got to explore without using up any more gas. We split up and see what we can find and meet back here in an hour,” Drew said.

Jeremy set off in the direction the van had been going before the latest argument. Drew moved into the woods in what may or may not have been a southerly direction. Zach left the trail in the other direction, clinging to a route made feasible by a slightly lesser density of trees.

All around in the woods, the silence mocked Zach and his pretenses. Think you had a bad dream last night? Just you wait, boy. Tiny flurries of snow slid off the branches, momentarily disrupting the purity of the blue above. His feet crunched and crunched.

The density of the woods receded further. He saw he was coming to a clearing. It was smaller than the field where the van had paused the day before and had a cabin smack in the middle of it.

A cabin.

Zach ran through the woods, ignoring the pain when branches stabbed his leg. Despite his tiredness, he quickly closed the distance until he stood triumphant at the edge of the clearing, taking in the cabin and a blue Plymouth parked beside it. Even on this frigid day, no smoke came from the building’s chimney.

He ran up the tiny flight of stairs and rapped hard on the door. He waited and waited some more. No answer came. He pounded again, and again, and again before giving up.

Not quite thirty minutes later, Zach, Drew, and Jeremy stood at the edge of the clearing.

“I say we break in and find a phone. We’ll apologize later,” Drew said.

“I could have a career someday. I’m not committing a felony because you tell me to,” Jeremy replied.

“Do you want to die out here?”

“Guys. None of us is about to die. Let’s just hang out here for a bit, okay?” Zach said.

They stood there in the snow, held fast by the promise of comfort.

“How about busting into the car? How do you guys feel about that?” Drew asked.

“No. You can go back to the van if you need to.”

“And trust you guys to do the right thing? No thanks.”

They waited as the sun rose higher without relieving the cold all around them in the bright white world. Zach thought maybe they could all go back to the van for a while, but then claustrophobia would join the combustible mix of dark feelings.

Now, when Zach heard the crunching of feet on snow, it took his brain some time to process what was going on. Maybe someone was coming to arrest them for loitering?

A middle-aged man with trim dark hair in a torn raincoat and a business suit emerged into the clearing carrying a satchel. The suit was pretty nice, but he had no shoes on. It was kind of surreal. For all the incongruity of his dress, he seemed quite calm.

“Can I help you young fellows?” the man said.

Clearly, Drew and Jeremy were having as much trouble processing this as Zach.

“Are you all right there, sir?” said Drew.

“Where are your shoes?” Jeremy asked.

“I lost them in the jump. They flew right off,” the man replied.

“The jump?”

“When was this?”

“About ten hours ago.”

“It was pouring last night. You went for a jump?” Zach said.

The man laughed.

“If you want to put it that way.”

He walked briskly past them over the snow in his socks and looked over the Plymouth.

“Christ almighty. Someone’s sure been up to mischief with this jalopy.”

The three kids looked at each other.

“Not us, sir. We just went looking for some help,” said Drew.

The man still studied the car.

“I plan this whole thing so carefully, and then some idiots have to go and do this. The radio’s gone and the tires are shredded, and I’ll bet the CV boots are fucked too.”

“We’re real sorry, mister. Anything we can do?” said Zach.

“Yeah, it’s terrible. I don’t know how anyone could be so disrespectful and chickenshit. Messing with a man’s car when he’s away,” said Jeremy, drawing a look from Zach that said shut up, I’m handling this.

The man turned around and faced them.

“What’re you kids doing here?”
 

“We got lost and we really need a gas can. We were getting pretty desperate.”

“Gas for what?”

“Our van.” Zach’s words had wings on them. At once, the man’s look brightened and his tone softened.

“How about we help each other?”

The three kids followed the man into the cabin, an austere place with bare floorboards and not a picture or poster on the walls, though there was a Washington State flag. They took turns washing up in the tiny bathroom and then Drew and Jeremy sat down on the couch while Zach followed the man into a room in a corner of the cabin you couldn’t see from the southern end of the clearing. He sat down on a wooden chair at a little table directly across from the man.

“I don’t what your experience of the world has been. Maybe under your scruffy exterior, you’re just as careerist as anybody. Maybe you’ve put your faith in banks like most people, and you have no idea that when you put your money in a bank, it’s gone and all you get in a return is a statement of what you’re theoretically entitled to. Theoretically. And you may think that the banks antedate the railroads, but in reality, they’re in debt to them and have to meet a requirement to ship their bullion and dollars, their negotiable American currency, over obscure routes to a site with great vaults way out in the desert. The feds are complicit. In every FBI field office in the country, there’s a registry of those who’ve given up more than their civil rights by turning down a contract to make bombs or jets. You hear about mid-level managers and sometimes upper executives offing themselves all the time and you chalk it up to stress, or a failing marriage, or what have you. Never to the loss of every liquid asset they ever had.”

The outlandishness of all this was a bit stale, even for 1971, and Zach found it hard to listen.

“But never mind, Zach. You’re a kid and none of this is on your radar. All you want are bong hits and boobs. For all your make-believe bohemianism, you’ve never conceived of an exit plan. A way out, a jump from the back of the plane when things get unbearable. There’s always a couch or a mattress in some house or van for you, Zach.”

Zach didn’t contest the point. He looked into the stranger’s eyes warily as the man went on.

“Well, let’s talk about me for a moment. You don’t want to hear this. Adults are supposed to keep order and it’s scary when things get so messed up for adults. It’s like the gods are fighting at the end of the world, right? But this is how it is. A bunch of mob guys with casino interests are after my ass for some debts I’ve incurred. They’ve heard about the hijacking by now and I know they’re closing in on this area before the cops even figure out where to look.”

“The hijacking?” Zach said.

“Don’t worry, you’ll hear all about it soon enough. You and the whole world. Now listen. Six grand in cash for each of you guys if you get me out of here,” the hijacker said, opening and closing the satchel, flashing stacks of bills.

Zach considered this.

“The van’s almost out of gas.”

“Don’t worry, I know where we can go.”

In Zach’s mind, this experience would always be new and bracing no matter how many times it replayed. At the same time, he’d come to consider it with such studied hindsight that he’d forget that that hindsight had not been present from the start. His response to it became part of his self-schemata. Hello, D.B. Cooper, fancy meeting you here. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives. Even great writers can be wrong.

“It sounds like a swell deal, but I need to discuss it with the guys.”

The hijacker nodded.

“Don’t you and your chums get any ideas about the money, Zach. I do know a few things about how to kill a person.”

Zach, Drew, and Jeremy stood outside in the snow.

“We’re the luckiest kids on the planet. The guy says he’ll give us six grand apiece if we get him out of here.”

“Have you seen the money?” Drew asked.

“Oh, yeah.”

“How do you know he’ll give any to us?”
 

“The guy just hijacked a plane and he’s got two hundred grand in that satchel. I don’t think he’ll mind parting with a little to bring off the perfect crime.”

“I’m in,” Jeremy said.

“I’ll go along for now but this fucking well better be what you say,” Drew muttered.

They went back inside, where the man stood in the living room holding a duffel bag in addition to the satchel. The bag must have been under the boards in this cabin. Zach guessed it contained weapons. The hijacker appeared to read his mind.

“Don’t worry, I won’t ask the love generation to do anything that’s against their values.”

They led the middle-aged man, who now sported winter shoes—though he hadn’t replaced his torn raincoat—over the narrow trail wending south to the van. Zach climbed into the driver’s seat, and the stranger sat down beside him. They set out.

“I know where we can get gas,” the man said.

But they went on until they were running on fumes, and Zach thought the van would stop moving any second.

“Just how much money is in that satchel, anyway?” asked Drew, standing right behind the two front seats.

“Why are you so interested? Enough to pay you what I said I would,” the hijacker answered.

“How much, man?”

“Two hundred grand. I know. I counted it before I let the passengers go free.”

“What if they hadn’t come through with the money?” Drew asked.

“That was never a concern.”

“But what if they hadn’t?”

“How stupid are you? If a single passenger got hurt, or if they found in court that the airlines or the cops delayed the release of the passengers for any reason, the lawsuits would’ve been ruinous. You don’t think I thought all this through?”

“But what if—”

“Sit down and shut up, okay?”

Clearly, the man’s vehemence startled Drew, who was used to lording over others. Not more than a minute later, the hijacker said, “Zach, would you stop the van and come out and stand guard while I take a piss?”

The van halted again. Zach and the hijacker went out behind a tree at the trail’s edge. The hijacker didn’t really have to piss.

“What’s going on with this guy Drew?” he asked.

“Nothing at all. Who wouldn’t be curious in the face of this?”

“I don’t trust him.”

“We’re the love generation. We’d never hurt anybody,” Zach said, suppressing his annoyance that the stranger knew all their names but was still a cipher.

“All well and good. I just want you to know that you’ve staked your fortune on Drew. If he tries anything, I’ll deal with both of you in an appropriate manner. Yes, that’s a threat. Got it, Zach?”

They climbed back into the van and set off again.

“The van’s going to stop any second now,” Zach said.

For a time, the hijacker acted like he hadn’t heard. But then, as the van edged over the crest of a small hill, he pointed to a gap far off in the trees.

“Stop there.”

When the van came to rest, the hijacker got up, clutching the satchel and the duffel bag, stepped out, and walked over the snow to the opening at one end of a path. At the other end was a house with a shingled roof. The three stoners watched as a heavyset man with a thick whitening beard appeared at the gap in the trees, and the hijacker handed him something. The older man disappeared for a minute, then returned clutching a gas can.

The journey went on without incident until the trees finally thinned out, and the van passed onto a vast plain at the base of a range of mountains with streaks of dull gray rock visible under the snow. Then the van entered a zone of mucky terrain where too much rain had fallen for the water to freeze quickly. At the foot of a knoll, where stalks poked through the white, the van got stuck again.

The three stoners got out behind the van, with Zach and Jeremy on either side of Drew as they began to push as hard as they could.

“How do you know he’s not gonna jump out right now and take off and to hell with our eighteen grand? Or drive right away when the van’s unstuck?” Drew said.

“He’ll just get stuck again,” said Jeremy.

“Shut up, Jeremy. You’re like a piece of furniture. You never have anything to add, you’re just there,” Drew shot back.

“Fuck off.”

“Listen, guys, the man in there has a certain air about him. He’s ex-special forces or Green Berets, and he’s extremely serious about getting shit done. Please don’t fuck up the prospect that’s in front of us,” Zach said.

“He’s got two hundred fucking grand in that satchel, and he’s a criminal scumbag who just hijacked an airliner. And you want us to work with him?”

“We’re the love generation, remember, Drew?” Zach said before the three jumped back in, and the van set off up the knoll.

At last, the van moved freely again through the bright day.

“How’s life?” Zach said to the stranger beside him.

“Beautiful. I’m coming to trust people more and more.”

“I trust you.”

“What about those guys back there? Do they want to kill me and take all my money?”

“Oh no, sir. We know you’re a fine upstanding citizen and we’d never do such a thing to you.”

But Drew, standing behind them, took an unmistakable glance at the satchel full of money at the stranger’s knees. The van moved on through the white day.

“Do you believe in God?” the hijacker asked Zach.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“I could use a bourbon and soda right about now. Do you know what I’ve just gone through?”

“Only in the most abstract sense.”

Again, the van ran into a mire and the stoners had to get out and push. When they got back inside, the stranger sat quietly in the driver’s seat.

Way off at the northern edge of the field, close to the mountains, white plumes rose from a couple of vehicles bearing southward. From inside the van, it wasn’t possible to see more than the glinting roofs of the vehicles, but the hijacker had no doubt at all.

“Well, guys, we’ve got some bad customers coming this way.”

“They could be anybody,” Zach said.

“This is hardly a place most people would come to if they had a choice.”

“We came here.”
 

“You’re not most people.”

The hijacker pressed hard on the gas, and the van sped toward the row of trees at the eastern edge of the plain.

“Fuck this. I don’t want to die here. Give us our van back, mister,” said Drew.

Zach looked at Drew in exasperated disbelief.

“I signed the papers and I’m not asking for the van back. Just get us out of here,” he told the hijacker.

The vehicles to the north drew nearer and nearer. The van rumbled and bounced and plunged into another gap where the slush had failed to freeze, its wheels spinning futilely.

“You kids have got to work for your money now, okay?”

“If we get out and push, how do we know you won’t take off without us?” Drew said.

The vehicles drew closer, the plumes rising higher into the sky.

Then, to the kids’ astonishment, the hijacker thrust the satchel into Drew’s arms. Zach felt the stranger had misunderstood Drew’s reasons for not wanting to get out and push, and he resented the man’s presumed knowledge of their minds and motives. Nevertheless, the hijacker had at least tried to put one concern to rest.

“I don’t think all the money’s here. I’ll bet he stuck some in his sleeve or his sock or up his ass,” Drew said.

“We don’t have time to count it. Let’s go,” Zach said.

The three kids went outside again. Cursing, panting, straining their muscles, they edged the van forward just far enough for it to gain traction at the pit’s eastern edge. Within a couple of minutes, the van made it across the plain to the tree line. But, in the absence of anything resembling a trail, it could not enter the woods.

“Do you kids want to die here?”

The hijacker put the van in park, reached into the duffel bag, and withdrew an M1 Garand rifle, what looked like a foreign-made assault rifle, two Colt pistols, a Smith & Wesson Model 59, and a bowie knife. He proffered all but the assault rifle.

“Give me the money back and take these.” The young men obeyed.

“That’s some heavy firepower, man. We’re the love generation,” Jeremy said, beads of sweat running down his pale face.

“Let’s do this, guys. We’ve come this far,” Zach said, understanding the hijacker’s predicament to a degree, and empathizing with the man.

I can tell you without fear of contradiction that Zach’s feelings were quite genuine. He looked at the stranger across a generational gulf. But this hijacker, who bought his plane ticket using the name Dan Cooper, but who came through a reporter’s error to be known in the popular mind as D.B. Cooper, embodied qualities that members of Zach’s generation aspired to, even if they couldn’t articulate the nature and foci of their malaise. D.B. Cooper was the manager, the supervisor, the mid-level citizen who said Enough’s enough, I’ve seen what loyalty to this way of life gets a man and if that’s what loyalty is worth, no dare, no act of defiance is out of the question. He strapped on the satchel full of cash and lowered the rear stairs of the jet and jumped; he leapt right out into torrents of rain falling through the cosmos, grinning and laughing as the two hundred-mile-an-hour winds propelled him like a human bullet through the violence and chaos of the squall, and in his daring and reckless act, he took on a quality of American-ness even as he fled from all the parts, all the building blocks of his identity as a citizen. He pulled the chord and the chute bloomed against the night sky and carried him to a spot in the frozen landscape where no one really thought he could survive.

Let there be no illusions about the heinousness and depravity of what this man did. He was a lunatic and a criminal, yet he couldn’t fail to fixate some of us when his story came out. Writing about him, I sometimes feel that I’m writing about myself, about the identity I could have grown into, that I met an older version of myself in the boondocks on that cold day, or maybe the identity in whose voice “I” presume to speak right now never even existed.

This is hardly the point in the story for a digression.

The young men and the hijacker moved away from the van and found hiding places in the gaps in the bushes or at the bases of enormous trees. They waited and watched as a quartet of men in business suits, overcoats, and winter boots approached the van, their breath rising into the air. These men too were armed, with pistols and shotguns. One of the suits, which belonged to a slender man in his thirties, was really elegant. Another of the searchers wore a beige overcoat I could have sworn I’d seen in the window of a store on Pine Street in Seattle. They looked into and under the van and checked out the trees and bush immediately around it. Then while three of them talked, the fourth propped his shotgun against a fir tree and unzipped his fly. Behind them, a fifth man was coming through the clearing with a pair of ferocious hounds on a leash.

From his position behind a cluster of bushes, the hijacker signaled to the three stoners. At this moment, his look was kind of hard to gauge. It was possible he didn’t expect them to be able to do what they must.

Maybe I should clarify what I said before about the hijacker not understanding the young people he’d met on this Thanksgiving Day in 1971. You might have thought he underestimated our gentleness, our pacifism, but I think in fact he had little idea of our bloodlust as members of, you guessed it, the love generation.

I won’t take you down all the dark pathways. The literal journey that led to these reflections has probably exhausted you enough. My favorite memory from our days of free love is imbued with light, or more exactly, with the flashing lights of the ambulance, outside which a paramedic half-heartedly tried to console me one night in the summer of 1970. I could tell he kind of relished what happened to the lot of us when our march for legal pot ran afoul of some good old boys. I tried to be civil, believe me, but then they began yelling and got physical, and in one surreal moment I was trying to outline our case, to explain this point and that point, while someone smacked my head and drew blood. Then the real violence began. I was a scrawny, longhaired kid and no match for dudes more than twice my weight. At the end of it, I lay in the street with my right ear nearly torn off, in front of all the grinning Middle American folk. A formative experience, you might say.

Jeremy feigned a lunge toward the van, fell, and let out a cry. The men in overcoats turned in unison and started toward us. I don’t know whose round blew off the head of the man in the $800 suit, but it might have been mine. Shotguns blasted and men cursed and cried out. The hijacker fired his automatic coolly and professionally. The enemy in the beige coat fired his pistol repeatedly and a round went through Jeremy’s forehead and erupted in a red spray behind him. Drew fired his Colt maniacally until the remaining strangers concentrated their fire on him. They didn’t kill him but disfigured him badly before the hijacker and I dropped them.

I went out there, with the knife, and set the hounds free with a quick stroke. May they live and prosper.

“I underestimated you, Zach,” the hijacker said with a look of profound respect.

I’ve finally got this down on paper. I’ve been writing from the same narrative viewpoint as Zach, and you may think I am Zach. In a sense, I am.

But of course, I am not that puerile young man. As I sit here in a hot dusty apartment in Marrakesh, finishing this manuscript, I need not maintain any tone of respect for that young fool who stumbled onto something whose significance he had not the wisdom or the vocabulary to begin to comprehend. I am dying, and I will make no effort to hide if one of the millions of obsessed people out there should ever find me.

But they probably won’t.

Anyway, what matters now is that people become informed and draw their own conclusions from the story of the grinning lunatic who leapt and plummeted through cosmic rain over a savage landscape.

Expert opinion has long held that D.B. Cooper didn’t survive the jump. I just want people to know what happened in the second act.

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of When We’re Grownups (2019) and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit‘s 2018 fiction contest.

Interview with Michael Washburn

 1.      How long have you been writing?

I’ve been a journalist for most of my professional life and have written fiction since high school. During that unhappy time of life, certain books gave rhyme and reason to the misery and inspired me to want to write.


2. Is writing your full-time job? If not, what is?


It is my full-time vocation. It would be nice if we could have demanding office jobs and then come late at night and sit down to write, but try it. You’ll find that you’re constantly deferring the thing you most love to other times, other circumstances that may or may not materialize. It’s not a great way to live.


3. What inspired this work?


A decades-old mystery. The Cooper case is mind-boggling. He was a dangerous lunatic who recklessly endangered many people. Could a person really be crazy enough to jump out of a plane into two-hundred-mile-an-hour winds, over the Pacific Northwest in winter, wearing a raincoat, a business suit, and loafers? Evidently so. The story invites the imagination to fill in the spaces around this enigmatic lunatic—his backstory, his motives, his personality, what happened after the hijacking.


4. What writers or artists inspire you and your work?


There are far too many to list. But I am drawn to the experimental, the curiosities, the literary outlaws, such as William Burroughs, James Purdy, Weldon Kees, Miroslav Krleža, Ödön von Horváth, Walter Abish, Curtis White, and B.S. Johnson, to name just a few.

And I would certainly include the great modern French authors, and not just the ones people always name—Camus and Sartre—but many who are less known in America, such as Philippe Sollers, Roger Grenier, Marcel Arland, Henri Bosco, Jean Dutourd, Paul Guimard, Jean Giraudoux, J.-B. Pontalis, Eugene Dabit, Sebastian Japrisot, Paul Nizan, and others.

Don’t know them? You should.


5. Where can we find your recent or future work? (please provide links).

My most recent short story collections are Stranger, Stranger and When We’re Grownups (Adelaide Books). They are available here:


6. What would you advise those interested in becoming published writers?

Read the best that has been thought and said. Absorb many different genres and styles. But be a highly discerning reader. Read, read, read, read.