Power Lung Kid by Cameron Scott
A name is a thing that fits. A thing that suits. Knows no bounds.
A name is also a thing that dresses.
But sometimes names are just plain wrong. Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” The little punt-able poodle down the street named ‘Killer.’ The German Shepherd a few doors down that goes berserk at her fence every time you pass by on your walk to the supermarket. She’s named ‘Daisy.’
Not to be dog-centric on this whole name thing, but there are also dogs whose names make you feel sorry for them. This was how it was for ‘Bear,’ an underfed cow dog with a broken rib kept chained up to a fifty-pound set of steel links.
I met Bear one warm September afternoon, the same afternoon I met his owner, the Power Lung Kid.
I’d driven through most of the night, and slept on top of my truck for a few hours, just north of Winnemuca. When I stopped to unroll my sleeping bag, dust rose from the ground in small puffs. Depending on how you look at it, the back of my truck was full of stuff or stuffed entirely full and so I climbed on top of the hood, scooted over the cracked windshield, and rolled out my sleeping bag over my topper, falling asleep to the sound of coyotes.
For what might have only been an hour I lay draped over two Yakima rack bars until I suddenly woke up.
Looking around I noticed a green laser scope searching the landscape for something to shoot. It passed over me and lingered. Jesus, I prayed. Cocooned in my sleeping bag on top of my truck would have been a stupid way to die. Maybe the stupidest ever. Man mistaken for a giant caterpillar, found shot dead on the top of his truck, thirty rack of Busch Light suspected, suspects sought.
Eventually the scope quit searching over the landscape, doors shut, and red taillights disappeared beyond the hill. I stared for a long time at the stars, fell asleep as the sky began to lighten, woke up at dawn, and felt like I hadn’t slept at all. Dust coated my mouth and tasted like iron filings. The sun hit the tops of the Antelope Range as I drank the last of my water, turned the key in the ignition, and winnowed mile after mile from the road.
One minute I’m fighting to stay awake between the yellow and white lines, the next I’m pulling into the ranch where I’m supposed to be taking on a part-time handyman job. I supply the tools, they supply a small stipend and a furnished trailer. Thing is, there are two other trailers next to mine. One for the Power Lung Kid and one for his dad. I walk around the corner and discover Bear, half cowering, half pulling at his chain.
Both of the other trailers are empty for the time being.
Ponderosa pinecones litter the ground. Around the second box I’m unpacking from my truck I catch a glimpse of a tall scrawny black hared kid stumbling in from the road. It takes a minute for him to cross through the ponderosa and bunch grass. “Name’s Bill,” I say when he gets close enough to shake hands. “Power Lung Kid,” he says. I catch a whiff of the sour smell of alcohol that’s been drunk the night before, overlain by a the reek of pot as he pulls away. I search his bloodshot eyes and don’t know why, but give him a smile. Suppose I’m just used to being friendly.
“Just getting in, man. Had a wild night. Buddies dropped me off over on the highway. You must be the new guy.”
“That’s me,” I say, chancing a brief glance at the open back of my truck. “Glad to have gotten in. Had a wild night myself, just outside of Winnemucca.”
My boss Amos, the Kid’s grandfather, told me this boy would steal from me the first chance he gets. And although he doesn’t look more than fourteen, he stumbles a bit before he plops himself down against the trailer wall wanting to know what I’m doing here. After all, Chiloquin has a small-town, tough-as-bricks, economically depressed methamphetamine reputation.
I knew a little bit, but not much.
Back in 54’ the Klamath Tribes faced termination of their tribal history after selling, or being stripped of, 1.8 million acres of land. They achieved the restoration of federal tribal recognition in 1986. Truth was, it was the spring-creeked ranchlands and timbered mountains that brought me here. Plus the job.
“That a fly rod case in the back of your truck?” he asks.
“Sure is,” I reply. “I do some guiding in the summers. Haven’t ever figured out what to do with myself in the winter. Was just about going to shoot myself if I spent another cold snap breaking ice out of the guides on days I wasn’t pounding nails. Figured I could use a change of scenery and decided to come out to Oregone.”
“Oregin,” he quickly corrects me. “Oregin.” I say.
“We’ve got a few ponds full of trout in the back pasture. We should go fish.”
“I gotta’ finish unpacking.” I say.
“Sounds good,” I reply.
Turns out the Power Lung Kid can talk. Barely thirteen his favorite past times are getting drunk and getting high. When I ask him about school he responds:
“Won’t let me.”
“I’m crazy as shit. Got kicked outta the middle school, too many fights. Then went to the alternative school and got kicked outta there, too. Caught smoking weed down by the creek when I was supposed to be in class, or something. They’re all lame anyway. Right now I just do what I want until my dad figures out what to do with me.”
When we finish unpacking the back of the truck he leaves as abruptly as he came. “Gotta go. See you around.”
“See you around.” I say.
That night, just before heading off to bed and hitting the lights, I pause for a breath or two near the bathroom, which is within leaning distance of the stove, which is within leaning distance of the front door. My heart pounds in my chest as I flip the deadbolt and head to bed.
Next morning I’m woken from sleep by someone pounding on my front door.
“Be there in a minute,” I yell, dressing and wiping the sleep from my eyes. What the hell. Expecting Amos, the Kid’s grandfather, to finally greet me or maybe Joe, the Kid’s dad, I walk from the bedroom, through the small living/dining area covered in yellow pine, past the two-burner kitchen, to the front door.
“Gotta lighter?” Asks the Kid. I’m unprepared, after the heat of August, for the blast of cold air that cuts through my t-shirt. Behind him the pasture stretches back until it hits the low-slung volcanic rock and aspens that rise into the ponderosa, spruce and fir of south-central Oregon.
“What do you need it for?” I ask.
“Sorry, don’t have one.”
I turn around and grab a bowl from the shelf, pour in Lucky Charms, followed by whole milk.
“Want a bowl?”
“Close the door,” I say. The Kid wanders in, taking a quick glance at the unpacked boxes we’d brought in yesterday and at the fly tying vice and feathers strewn on the table. “You know why I’m called the Power Lung Kid?” he asks, taking a seat then leaning back in his chair.
“No,” I say, doubting it’s because he’s a cross-country runner.
“It’s because I can take a hit so big it can fill up the entire room,” he says.
He takes a bite of Lucky Charms.
“From a big ol’ snake bong,” he adds, “with a snake running all up the side, with three different chambers that hold water, and you take the hit through the snake’s mouth. And yesterday—yesterday, my buddies Wolf and Bud decided they would take me with them to make a sale, since it is always a little bit safer to have a kid along. …”
As he talks, I think about getting out of here, not away from the Power Lung Kid, just out. Out of the trailer. Out on a river somewhere.
When he stops talking I lean back, mirroring him.
Day number two. No Amos. No Joe.
“Let’s go fishing,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I’m leaving in fifteen minutes. Grab your stuff if you want to go.”
I don’t know what to expect, but soon he’s back with an old spin rod, a pipe and baggie.
“You going to fish in jeans?” I ask.
I give him another look. “Let’s go,” I say.
I follow him through a green metal livestock gate and we strike out across the pastures. As we draw closer to the basalt hill, I can see a small creek winding along its edge. The ground turns spongy in every direction as the Kid heads toward a tree that’s fallen across the creek.
Just across the creek we pass the skin and bones of a coyote strung up on the barbed wire fence that abuts the hill. “To keep other coyotes away,” says the Kid.
I gaze back across the half mile of pasture full of cows and see someone driving toward us on a quad.
The Kid waits, and I wait, and for once he is quiet.
As Amos draws near, the quad is dwarfed by his size. Two fifty. Three hundred pounds. His eyes shift over me. “Listen,” he says as he cuts the power to the four wheeler on the other side of the creek, “looks like you two are going fishing. Kid, remember what I told you, no catching fish and leaving them on the bank to rot. Bill, keep an eye on him, will ya?” I raise my hand in a low wave, and then he’s gone, tearing back across the pasture.
“So that’s your grandfather Amos?” I ask. The Kid nods. “Not much for hellos, is he?”
“My grandma’s pretty sick,” says the Kid. “Besides her, he keeps focused on work and isn’t much for anything else.”
The Power Lung Kid hops the fence next to the coyote and sets off down an old firebreak road. I follow, and as we come up and over a shallow rise, a pond sits on the other side. Spring fed and azure blue, clear to the bottom and maybe thirty yards long by twenty yards wide, trout cruise everywhere.
Unable to help myself, I make a circuit around the pond, catching rainbow after rainbow, peppered by the occasional brook trout. The Kid watches me. Nothing hitting his lure, he reels up, and sits down. Out of nowhere he’s lighting his pipe. “Hey,” I say as I make my way back over to him, “Why don’t we each keep a fish and I’ll cook us lunch. You ever cast a fly rod before?”
Handing over my prized fly rod to the Power Lung Kid, I watch as he unspools some line and back casts, catching the fly up in a tree. “No problem,” I say, walking over and digging it out of the branches as he tugs on the line. “Alright.” I let go of the fly as he casts forward and the line and fly land on the water.
For not the first or last time in my life I’m saved by a trout hungry enough to dart up at the half-sunken dry fly surrounded by tippet and inhale it. The Power Lung Kid sets the hook and smiles. “Not so hard,” he says. I take a seat and throw him an occasional tip as he begins to undo his own hooked tree branches and knots. Over the next hour he catches just enough fish to hold his attention.
“Let’s go,” he says suddenly. I have him carry the fish we’ve kept for lunch as we walk back across the pasture. Half way to the trailers, Amos comes tearing up to us on his four wheeler again. “Goddamn it, Kid, I told you I don’t want Bud and Wolf hanging around here. They pulled in here a half an hour ago looking for you and I drove them off before they could cause any trouble.” The Power Lung Kid stares down Amos, Amos stares down the Kid, mutters under his breath, and tears off again without even looking my way.
“I was supposed to meet them at noon,” says the Kid as we set off again, hopping a small creek, cows moving out of the way. I look at the Kid, two trout dangling, fingers hooked through gills. “Missed them, I guess.”
Plates empty except for a pile of bones and fish skins, we sit outside. “Pretty good,” says the Kid, “my grandma can do better though.” As we talk I hear Bear give a sharp bark. “Shut-up Bear,” yells the Kid, shoulders tensing as he stands up.
“Hey Kid,” I say, “I’ve got an idea. Think Bear would like these fish skins?”
“You’re crazy, man,” he responds, but grabs the skins from our plates and is met by Bear jumping all over him. “Hey Bear,” the Kid laughs. “Hey now Bear.”
When the Power Lung Kid finally wanders back, wiping the dog slobber and hair from his hands, he sits back down. “What are we doing tomorrow?” he asks. “Whatever we want,” I reply.
Written by Cameron Scott