D.B. and the Dairy Queen

The thing that I remembered most about D.B. Cooper was the way my sister relayed the news across the back porch to her neighbor Chuck as he’d pulled into his driveway with a carload of screaming children. I just wished she’d waited until we’d gotten off the phone to holler out her version of what happened. I could hear Chuck’s astonishment amidst the slamming of car doors, what? really?, the amplification quality of those rotary phones from 1971 oh so wonderful, but what I especially heard was Lindsay’s follow-up, how that blamed idiot jumped from 20,000 feet with nothing but a parachute and a prayer! Even though all of this was twelve  ago, I still wished she’d waited until we’d hung up.

My sister generally didn’t pay any mind to such stories. Here’s Lindsay: sitting at the kitchen table in an oversized orange flannel, playing Solitaire, waiting for the bell to ring on the toaster oven while Matt ran around the trailer with his Indian headdress and plastic tomahawk, screaming for his Poptarts. Though the hijacking and the famous leap were on the national news, the only reason it seized even a fraction of her attention was that D.B. had jumped in the airspace somewhere in the southwestern Washington area, allegedly not too far from where we lived in Battle Ground. The entire region had no choice—after they’d locked their doors—but to talk about it. Gossip gradually developed, and theories soon abounded as to what mill the hijacker—under disguise–had found work at, what out-of-the way bar he was tending.

I stood in front of her double wide and wondered what I was doing. I was broke as a joke, I reminded myself, that’s what I was doing, and if there was anything remotely true about what she told me on the phone a couple of hours earlier then, hell, I wanted in. For some time, work had been slim pickings so I didn’t have a lot going on. I’ll be blunt: the barbecue I’d just treated myself to down at Marvin’s was about as good as it got. Parachute and a prayer, well, maybe Lindsay had been right about that but there was also the two-hundred thousand dollars that Mr. Cooper had demanded and received. Two thousand of which had been discovered just three years ago, though most of it mutilated, in the sandy banks of the Columbia. And a soon-to-be-seen amount that my nephew had come across earlier that day. Allegedly.

Inside, she ushered me across threadbare, dusty carpet back to the washroom, at the other end of the trailer. Her cats, bony and frightened as usual, scattered when we entered the room, and after stepping past a collection of Clorox and boxes of Tide I looked down at a wet, muddy mass of leaves, weeds, and clumps of dirt, all clinging to the brittle encasing of what looked to be a small garbage bag.

“You’ve got to be joking me,” I said, leaning in for a better look. The bag was riddled with holes and tears, smeared with clay and through a huge hole in the middle there lay a block of bills, the ends severed and chewed off. My eyes darted from the dirty white of the center of the money to the white cotton of Lindsay’s lint-laden bathrobe  to the whites of her eyes. “Did Matt really come across this?”

She nodded, reaching for a red duffel bag on top of the dryer. Short and squat like me, and at barely five feet tall, my sister’s shoulders weren’t much higher than the dryer’s lid. “Did he ever,” she said. “But here’s the really interesting part.” She stuck the bag out for my inspection. “This is what we were able to salvage.” Inside was another large block of money, also damp and dirty, many of the bills slightly frayed and torn but still intact, spendable, all 560 dollars of it, she said.

“Took us hours to sift it out from that mess,’ she said, “but we managed to do it.” With both hands, Lindsay lightly jostled the bag up and down like a colander over the kitchen sink, and the vile and moldy smell in the room worsened.

“Wow,” I whispered, my senses flooded with the age and the scent but most of all, the loot of the moment. “Where exactly was he?”

“He was somewhere down at the Flats, on his three-wheeler, messing around.”

“At the Flats? You let him go that far on that thing?”

“Of course I didn’t. But when was the last time Matt listened to anything an adult told him?”

I nodded, fixed on the gridwork of Grants, the rows of jumbled Franklins inside the bag.

“Are you sure this is part of that hijacker’s ransom? D.B. Cooper?”

“Vince, the older I get, the less I’m sure about anything. But Matt was down there, only a mile or so from where they found that money a few years ago. You remember all that, don’t you?”

“Of course. Right after Dad died. They found it on right off the Columbia, near the Miles Plateau. But are you sure he was in that exact area?”

“That’s what he told me,” she managed to say through a huge yawn, which she didn’t bother covering with her hand. “That entire area had been zoned off for the longest time, after they found the money. But it’s been a while. Plus, you know how sneaky your nephew is. Said he’d found some kind of mini-ramp at the bottom of a hill, and he was just having a good ole time, going up and down it. He was coming down that hill and he ran right over it.” She pulled her wispy hair back out of her green eyes. My sister had the thinnest hair of anyone I’d ever known. “There’s been so much rain down there, and then after all those storms we just had, who knows what all’s been stirred up.”

We walked back down the hallway, and I asked if she was excited about finally having some extra dough in the house, but then she started in on how muddy Matt was upon returning from the Flats, how he’d almost gotten the bathtub drain clogged up. We entered the living room and there he was, watching us.

“Son,” she said with irritation. “What are you still doing up? It’s after ten.”

“Mama, I just wanted to see Uncle.” He stood there in the dim hallway, stick-skinny, wearing shorts and a dark pajama top plastered with bright yellow cobras.

“Hey boy.” I offered my hand slowly and he seized it, while rubbing his eyes.

“Did Mama show you what I found?”

I told him that she had, doing my best to not look impressed. He stared at me, stringy brown hair, dark freckles, a face so young yet so fearless.

“Uncle Vince, I want to take you down there and show you. I found this really cool ramp. Plus, there might be some more of that money.”

“It’s late,” said Lindsay. “Me and your uncle are going to talk it over.”

“Mama, I’ve got a feeling there’s a lot more money down there. You said so yourself.” Lindsay rolled her eyes, weary, while my nephew plugged on with his plea. “If we wait too long, somebody else’ll find it.”

“How far is it from the 77?” I asked.

“The what?”

“You know. The 77?” It’s hard to exchange a familiarity with local highways with a thirteen-year old. “I mean, could you hear any traffic from a distant road or anything?”

“There’s nothing like that. It’s deep in the woods, Uncle. It’s pretty far, even for a three-wheeler or a motorcycle.” I’d probably need him after all. “It’s near the river, but way past the Flats.”

“Okay, that’s that,” Lindsay butted in, putting her houseshoed-foot down. “Bedtime.” She nudged his elbow but Matt didn’t budge.

“Uncle Vince, you aren’t worried about having to take us down there on my three-wheeler, are you?”

“Excuse me?”

“I can drive us there, you know. If you’re worried about your knee.” My face darkened, and judging by his reaction he noticed it. “You know, um, how it’s bothered you since that football game.” He paused. “You aren’t still mad about that, are you?”

Little bastard. Lindsay and I knew a thing or two about negligent fathers ourselves but there was absolutely no wonder that Matt’s daddy didn’t bother to spend much time with him.

“What?”

“You know, when you fell down hard and—”

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, I just didn’t know if you were still upset over that.”

“I was never upset over that.”

“Matt,” Lindsay cut in, this time with a no-bullshit voice. “I’m not going to tell you again. It’s late. Now go.”

He shirked away slowly, and though the outline of his body grew dimmer, the grin was there, unmistakable. “Night,” he muttered softly as he entered his doorway, the little yellow cobras thinning into the black air of the bedroom. I ran my tongue across the back of my teeth vigorously, then bid good-night to my sister.

(To read more of this story, contact John!)