Gabe Herron


Gabe Herron lives outside a small town near Portland, Oregon with his wife, son, and daughter. He’s had a winning story in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. His fiction has appeared in Portland Review, [PANK], and Prairie Schooner. He has worked at Powell’s Books for thirteen years.

Mr. Kimberk's Kindness

When I found Mr. Kimberk downstream, he was leaning against a Douglas fir that had fallen across the river. He was all wet down one side, smoking shag-tobacco, and eyeing the riffle on the other.

"My legs listen to me about as good as pond turtles once my feet get cold," he said. "What happened to your chin?"

"It was a black hawthorn, I think." I'd run chin first into a thorn when stumbling off a log. I'd forgotten about it—let the blood drip dry.

"They'll do that," he said.

I opened my creel with my free hand—two brook trout uncoiled on watergrass. He asked me where I'd caught them. I told him. He gazed at the tip of his cigarette as if he could see the exact place I'd taken them from—a curling wisp of smoke turning into a spumescent waterfall. He didn't tell me about how he'd gotten half-wet.

I didn't ask.

"I found this.” I held out the bone.

"I see that."

"Can you say what it's from?"

"Well, where'd you find it?” He scrunched his cheek up against his eye and scratched the side of his neck.

"Stuck in a sandbank below the logjam."

Mr. Kimberk thought about that. You could use his mouth as a level most days, but today he pulled down on his chin and forced a smile." Mind if I have a look?"

"No, sir.” I handed him the bone.

He held it away from himself to let his eyes work over it. "Below the logjam?"

"Yes, sir."

"Could you show me?"

I was happy to have found something of interest to him. Mr. Kimberk's spent his whole life up here, except for when he was in France and Germany, so it's hard work showing him a thing he hasn't seen before.

He followed me upstream, his eyes on the streambed, moving as his age allowed. I showed him the sandbar I'd plucked it from, but he could tell that much for himself. My meandering tracks leading to a little hole in the earth where they'd deepened due to my pulling efforts.

"Here's where," I pointed.

"I see that.” He nodded—looked around himself, and then upstream to the tangle of logs, "You think you could help me up in there?"

"Yes, sir."

I think that's about the only time I'd heard him ask for help. He hadn't even asked for help the day I found him pinned upside down under his quad machine. I think he asked me where his hat was. But I knew enough not to spend time looking for it. He told me to stay away—he was hurt bad—just get the hell away from him. Then he asked for a drink off my grape soda. Then he spat it out and screamed at me—a curse. Anyhow, he doesn't remember any of that, and I don't remind him either. It was just luck I'd found him out there at all—trespassing as I was on his land, hoping to find some morels to cheer my mother with. She'd fry them in butter, sometimes with breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese.

After that, Mr. Kimberk and I got to be friends.

"What do you think it is?” I asked.

"Can't say, not exactly . . . on second thought, I can make it on my own."

I watched him work his way around a boulder. He crossed over to the clay flat on the other side, where the water is shallow and slow in the summer, and then back over to the logjam. He moved in and out of the sunlight, green leaves glowing above his head, shadows scrolling down his back—gossamer and bugs floating through streaks of light. No one had ever been so kind to me as Mr. Kimberk. I vowed that if his own didn't move back to care for him once he got too old to cut his own meat, then I'd do that much for him myself.

It took him a long time to reach the parts of the logjam that interested him. He spent a longer time poking around up there. I got distracted by a school of minnows that didn't seem too bothered by my standing in their living room. He was halfway back to me before I looked up again. His face was leaden, so that I thought he'd caught a chill.

He was moving careful as he walked down with the current.

"What'd you find?” I asked.

"Can't say.” He looked at my hand, reached out with his own. "Let's tuck that back where you found it, son. I'm awful tired today."

I was so pleased that he'd called me son, I couldn't think beyond it. There was lots of stuff I'd have liked to ask, but my dad had me in good trim as far as not asking many questions. It was my habit to spend a long time puzzling a thing out for myself before I'd dare ask a question. That didn't much work to my advantage in school, or hell, anywhere else for that matter.

I followed Mr. Kimberk down water until we got to the path that leads to North Mill Road. We could walk back to his place from there. He didn't say much. He laid his hand solid across my shoulder. He'd never done that before.

"You're a real good boy, Peter Green." he said. "Don't let no one tell you different.”

I felt I might float out of my squeaking sneakers with his unexpected praise. I may have too, if not for the heavy of his hand holding me to the earth.


He kept the dogs off me while I cleaned my trout next to his garden.

"You staying for supper?" he asked.

It was strange to be asked. I ate supper with him about every weekday. He'd stopped having to invite me a year ago.

"If it's all right?” I smiled down at a row of mounded potatoes.

He smiled too, "Always enough for one more.”

It wasn't just the he fed me dinners most nights, but he fed me good dinners: beef and corn, trout and baked potatoes, soda biscuits with thick gravy from pan drippings, pork he'd traded for beef, beef he'd traded for chicken, chicken he'd traded for venison, venison he'd had made into sausage by trading the butcher for butter, all of it served with baby carrots and peas in the spring, or parsnips, turnips, and other roots in the winter. The kind of dinners that could stand you through to the next, if you didn't run across breakfast or lunch along your way.

"I was thinking you might stay over the night. You could take that old army cot, go and sleep under the stars by the pond, or up in the hayloft. It's good sleeping up there summers—stay up late and watch TV if you want. Hell, I don't care."

"I'd have to ask."

"Of course, after dinner then. Run and get me a pint a green beans outta the cellar. I've got bacon we can fry these fish with."

"Yes, sir.” And I did run when he asked me to fetch a thing. He'd tell other grown men I could out work them. I'd believe it too. What a fine way of praising a boy while insinuating the laziness of a man.

He was on the phone when I got back, and stayed on it a long time after, longer then I'd ever seen him talk on it before—even to his own daughters.

We sat down to supper.

It wasn't long before there was a knock on the door. It was Sheriff Quick. Mr. Kimberk put on his barn coat and opened the aluminum screen door. Sheriff Quick nodded towards me. I nodded back. I knew him from answering about a million of his damn questions about my mother after she left us without a forwarding address. I wasn't sure how to feel about him now, but more and more, I was starting to think he was better than all the things my dad had to say about him. Mr. Kimberk seemed to think he was okay, and there had to be some good to him for that, because Mr. Kimberk wouldn't like a person for no reason. In fact, lots of days went by where he didn't like anything at all, not unless it was absolutely necessary.

Coffee was offered and refused.

They stepped outside.

I decided I'd stay up in the hayloft that night. I knew Mr. Kimberk didn't think much of the television, other than for watching baseball, and there wasn't any baseball on, so I wasn't going to stay up late watching TV. I could do that at home. I didn't much want to stay alone out by the pond either, with animals coming in for water all night, although I'd never admit such a thing to Mr. Kimberk.

The hayloft was almost empty—awaiting this year's hay crop. I followed Mr. Kimberk up a ladder that was a little loose all over at once, as a good homespun ladder should be after too many years of service. He swept a bare spot on the floor with his boot; dust rose to the evening light. He stretched out the army cot, and opened the loft doors, so that I could get a good look at the evening sky. It smelled like a hay barn does, but less so after the doors swung open. A summer breeze blew through, going real gentle, carrying the good sweet evening air in on it.

"I forgot to call my dad," I said.

"I called over. He said it's fine.” This was mostly pretense, because we both knew my dad didn't give two-shits where I slept or ate, so long as it didn't get in the way of whatever he was doing next. Mr. Kimberk started down the ladder, and then clamored back up. "Almost forgot.” He reached into his barn coat and pulled out two Payday candy bars.

My favorite.

"Thank you."

"You need anything else—you come on inside. You won't wake me 'cause I don't hardly sleep.” There were sirens coming up the valley from the junction road. "You're a good boy, Pete. I wished my own had turned out as good as you."

I didn't know what to do with such praise but turn my face red with it. I'd always suspected he liked me all right, buying me my first fishing pole back when he'd discovered no one had bothered taking me fishing—things like that, but he'd never said so much aloud before.

"Sleep good.” He clicked down on the dusty cotton string hanging from the only light bulb. The sounds of his descent into the darkness. I clicked on the flashlight he'd set atop an apple crate. I turned it back off so my eyes could get used to the night. I heard him opening and closing the side door—the sounds of his dogs following, the closing of a screen door. I stretched out across the top of the sleeping bag. It smelled like a pillowcase that had been stored in a cool dry place for a long long time. The warm evening breeze made it so comfortable up in the hayloft, I almost fell to sleep without eating my candy bars; the sweet grass and tree pollen mixed together, crickets calling, frogs croaking, a view of the stars above the ragged blue ridge behind the tawny fields—deep-space stars so dim you can't hardly see them at all.

I used my thumbnail to cut into the candy bar wrapper at the notch. I pealed it back as softly as possible; took a bite—chewing, holding on to all that perfect salty sweetness as best as I could—knowing how good it all was made it even better.

I rustled around.

The cot squeaked.

I felt good under the weight of my own tired muscles.

Mr. Kimberk brought this cot back home after the war, wood and heavy cotton duck, better than the bed I slept on at home: a blow up mattress with a slow leak, so that I'd have to wake up nights and blow into it if I didn't want to awaken on the hardwood, which I did most mornings, minding the hardness less than the effort of inflation. I ate the candy bar as long as I could and decided to save the other. I fell off to sleep better at nights if I knew there was something good about the coming day, something certain, something that can't be taken away like a promise. I heard more sirens coming up from town and wondered what they were about.

I fell off to sleep.

That night they surrounded our place and hauled my father off for the final time. Of course, there was a whole bunch of stuff about it in the papers. I didn't read the papers. It would take me most of that summer to get the rest figured out for myself. There are some things people simply will not tell you to your face—even people paid for telling others the worst—things like: who it was hung up in that logjam, and whose femur it was I'd held in my very own hand, not recognizing it for what it was.

Mercifully, that kind of knowledge moved into me slowly, so that I had time to forget the true size and shape of it, to where I couldn't perfectly remember its waterlogged heft, or how it had darkened to green at the one end, and become tobacco stained in the middle—the slickness of the ball on its end. It was the kind of knowledge that did not move swiftly at first, but came on slow, like an afternoon thunderstorm from a long ways off. How you make good plans to find yourself some shelter, a big fir a few bends upriver, a rock overhang in a quarry about a quarter-mile off. You believe you've timed the storm's arrival with your own, but somehow it always moves a little faster than you'd expected, so that you're caught out in it, and just a little surprised by it every time.

I had a head full of Larry Brown when I wrote this story. He died before he could finish A Miracle of Catfish, but he left behind some notes about its final chapters. That's how this story got its start, just fooling around with those ideas, those characters, but then it took a few turns on its own, made me its passenger, and drove itself to the end. So, I don't mind calling it Larry Brown fan fiction. A Miracle of Catfish was Larry Brown at his very best, and what breaks my heart was the direction his writing was going when we lost him. I just love how that guy wrote. We are so lucky to have what he left behind himself.