Category: ~ The Earlier Stories

The pre-Mexico stories

The Hair and the Heart

Alain Duprés, a student of musicology and great passions, son of a wealthy patrician, and a distant cousin of mine, left Paris for Morelia early in 1913 in search of the Claude Laurent crystal glass flute that had belonged to Mexico’s French Emperor Maximilian. That poor man had so treasured the instrument that when he was facing his firing squad on a hill above Querétero, the Cerro de las Campanas, on the 19th of June 1867, he asked Juarez, head of the rebelling power, to have the flute placed on a velvet-covered table to one side, so he could be watching the morning sun fall across its silver keys at the moment the bullets took away his breath.

President James Madison had once owned one of these flutes. So had Napoleon. So had Emperor Franz I of Austria. Alain Duprés, my distant cousin, loved things that were historical, beautiful, and fragile. He abhorred violence and was glad to be leaving a Europe that was cantering joyfully toward war. That he chose Mexico is not entirely comprehensible because not far south from Morelia’s central plaza, the rugged volcanic mountainsides were astir with revolution and banditry.

Still, he rented a room for a few pesos a week and looked for a teacher, so he could improve his Spanish. He found Miguel Angel, a medical student, who wanted to improve his English. They walked along the old city aqueduct and talked about Cervantes, Rousseau, and Goethe – in a mixture of English, French, and Spanish. After a few months, they spoke only in Spanish.

Miguel Angel told him about Claudia and showed him a daguerreotype of a young woman who he said was the most beautiful woman alive and that there wasn’t a poet alive who would not fall in love with her. That is when Alain Duprés started to write things down, convinced that he too – since he was so affected by the photograph – must have traces of literary talent.

Miguel Angel liked to visit his Aunt Elena in Erongarícuaro, a mostly Purépecha village on the western shore of Lake Pátzcuaro. Sometimes he and Alain took the train from Morelia to Ajuno, then the Ajuno-Pénjamo line to Erongarícuaro. Sometimes they got off early and walked along beside the shimmering lake through fields of corn, wild cosmos, sunflowers, and marigolds.

Miguel Angel rode in the hills, sometimes with his aunt, sometimes with Alain. When he wasn’t riding, he studied the rich bird life near the lake in front of the town. Claudia lived in a large adobe house at the edge of the marsh. Her mother was Mexican. The previous year, her German father had died of tuberculosis. Claudia liked to sit on the balcony of the house overlooking the lake. Men in carriages and on horseback took detours away from the center of town and followed the dirt road between the walls of the house and the marsh, looking up under the broad brim of their hats, hoping to catch a glimpse of her high cheek bones, dark eyes, and light skin.

Miguel Angel said they had been brought together by technology. He watched the birds with a marine spyglass, a birthday gift from his father, purchased in an antique shop in Le Havre. Once, following the flight of a Lesser Black Egret, he swept the glass past the big adobe house and caught a glimpse of her on her balcony – combing her long chestnut hair. The next time he looked, he saw that she was looking back at him through another spyglass, also made of brass and glinting in the sunlight.

They looked at each other. He touched his hat, put down his glass, and wrote large block letters in his notebook, with many dips in his ink well, Estoy observando a los aves, no espiándole, “I’m watching birds, not spying on you.” He held it up but saw that she had stopped looking. He took off his jacket and pinned the sign to the back of it, then put the jacket back on.

When he looked again, there was a sign propped up on the wall of the balcony, “Do men really carry pins?” Miguel Angel replied with, “Do women carry spy glasses?” He pinned this to the back of his jacket and entered farther into the marsh.

He asked his aunt to accompany him bird watching, and she agreed to go, because he spoke with such passion about the birds he was painting. But when they had set up his easel and watched the great squawking Blue Herons and the Lesser White Egrets for a while, and when she had watched him sketch a heron quite badly, she thought, compared to his usual work, two women – one older and one younger – approached them. In the younger one’s eyes she saw the same intensity she had seen in Miguel Angel’s eyes; and in that moment she understood that she had been invited as facilitator, decoy and, probably most important of all, as trustee of a young man’s love.

Over time, and with the help of his Aunt Elena, Miguel Angel began to court Claudia. And over still more time, that young woman gave him a thick lock of her chestnut hair. With a wry look that unnerved him, she said there were other things to give him, but that this was what was available now – a token, so to speak, of what would soon be his. In a moment nearly religious for him, he tucked the hair into a vest pocket, where it made a slight bulge over his heart.

Miguel Angel liked to ride in the hills above Erongarícuaro. He followed the carriage tracks to the railroad tracks, crossed them and often continued on up the mountain rather than turning right to go to the station. One afternoon, while riding high above the town and approaching the tracks, he happened on lumber merchant Doña Herminia, who was hauling four of her prized pine boards behind her donkey Burra, dragging them at a slant, their ends on the ground bumping over the ties of the railroad and the blue-grey gravel underneath.

She was a handsome woman of forty with flashing dark eyes and an ironic twist to her mouth, and the afternoon was bright and hot. She noticed the bulge and asked him whether his heart was swelling and whether it was creating complications. He explained it was a thick lock of his love’s hair. None of which she heard—because she was deaf—but understood anyway, through lip reading and inference.

She said that was good, especially since he didn’t have to stuff it somewhere else, which some men sometimes did out of pretense; and that he had discovered the true way to use one swelling to produce another. And the whole time she talked, she stroked Burra’s haunches with her hand, or caressed the tooth marks on her boards that gleamed yellow and new in the afternoon sun.

The sound of the bees and the fields of wild marigolds, the pine pitch from the boards, Doña Herminia’s bright teeth and her square goat’s eye pupils, the way she touched Burra and moved her hips when she talked about the connection of one thing to another—all this made it difficult for Miguel Angel. And then she tied Burra to a tree, brought out tortillas and an avocado and ripe nísperos – loquats – and arranged all these on a Purépecha shawl with stripes in cobalt and cerulean blue, all this in the shade of pirules – pepper trees, in a place overlooking the lake but hidden from the railroad tracks, the station road, and any path.

Miguel Angel tied off his horse and sat down to eat with her. She took a níspero, put it in her mouth, and chewed till she had extracted the two of its shiny, smooth, almost indecent looking seeds. She spit them onto her hand and passed them to him, then with a finger slowly pushed them back and forth across his palm. With her mouth full and chewing, her fingers explored first the bulge with Claudia’s hair and then the spot she claimed was influenced by it.

All this made the afternoon lie heavy and spinning with first the sound of bees, then the rumble of a passing train, then the sound of hooves moving over trails they could not see—the wind whispering in the upright swaying drying corn. With her large brown eyes fixed on him, she bent his head toward her. She smelled of roasted corn, chewed avocado, níspero juice, wood smoke, and lavender. From her long, smooth, black Purépecha braid, which she laid around his neck, came the smell of burro and something older, much older, that he couldn’t identify. When she laughed, her body jiggled like congealed chicken blood. Globs of tortillas and avocado appeared and disappeared in her opening and closing mouth. Then, beneath him, she packed everything into one cheek and crooned, “She’s my Burra, but you are my burro!” – all this to encouraged his snorting, which she could see but not hear. Her own half-choked calls of Jale!—the command for a horse to move forward—drew out and became a soft braying. Soft, because this was still a dangerous countryside to be lying about in, and having your mind on something else.

Afterward, as Miguel Angel slept a drooling deep sleep, Doña Herminia slipped out the balled lock of the chestnut hair, put some of it in a pocket of her dress, and replaced the rest.

The four newly sawn pine boards were for Silvestre Vernal, who was an enemy of the great hacienda that occupied the broad mountain basin three miles above them. This was a Spanish family that had ruled in the area as long as anyone could remember. The revolutionary chieftain José Inés Cháves García also operated around Pátzcuaro in 1913, defying federal troops under Huerta and causing concern at the hacienda, to the extent it felt compelled to raise its own militia.

Silvestre Vernal was not a revolutionary. But he was a man with a strong sense of justice. He worked alone, breaking horses and mules for people of modest means. At night, when his sense of justice grew keener, he was a bandalero social who took cattle from the hacienda owners and distributed the meat to the hungry. He was about Miguel Angel’s size, but darker. He cherished his wife and his ten-year old boy Marco. When he and his son rode together, bareback, he would reach back and pat the boy on the thigh and feel a great surge of love for the boy.

By day, the hacienda’s private troop, federalized by the Huertista government, descended on the town, looking for conscripts – boys fifteen and older – beating those who refused, occasionally hanging anyone suspected of revolutionary activity, and always looking for Silvestre Vernal. Sympathetic railway workers stopped trains and unloaded one or two steers at a time in places where they knew Silvestre was waiting. Soldiers, with their horses and Mauser rifles, began riding the trains, to protect the interests of the hacienda. The leader of this contingent was the handsome Lieutenant Solorio Cortés, the son of the hacienda owner, who felt God had meant him to have the lovely Claudia for his wife. Claudia’s brother Ruben disliked Miguel Angel because he was a medical student with a future more certain than his own, and for that reason he argued for the candidacy of Solorio as his future brother-in-law.

It was not long after this that Miguel Angel invited Claudia ride with him, but her brother Ruben would not allow it. There was no engagement, he said, and there never would be. Besides, the mountains were filled with soldiers and bandits. It was no place for a young woman of good family; that Miguel Angel continued to ride there showed lack of judgment and said a great deal about his character.

Miguel Angel asked Claudia to be his novia – fiancée, and she put her hand on his chest, above his heart, on the somewhat diminished bulge of her chestnut hair, and nodded her head yes, and then crossed herself – but not before looking around to see who was watching, because such things were still dangerous. The former Díaz government had declared it illegal to practice Catholicism. Plus, she was superstitious and feared that a private act done publicly could bring the civil war to her doorstep, along with yellow fever and cholera and knew what else that drifted in on the lake’s mist.

If they were to be together, said Ruben, it had to be in front of the house, between the lower garden wall and the marsh, where he could watch through the spy glass and that way protect her virtue. And so that was where they walked, beside the lake, each time pressing farther into the reeds, choosing areas where the marsh cane was the tallest and thickest. They found an old dugout canoe that Miguel Angel caulked with tar and kept hidden. The marsh was laced with channels, and they used the canoe to reach a hidden floating island made from a mass of dried cane. It was here they spent afternoons when Ruben was away. They lay on their backs, hand in hand, floating, listening to the rustling of animals they could not see. Once, when they had begun to explore each other, a young Black Angus bull waded nearby, grazing up to his belly in the dark water, snaking his blue tongue out to the lilies he could otherwise not reach. They listened to chickens back on land laying eggs and to burros braying songs of love and distress.

Claudia’s long chestnut hair began to replace the power of what was left of the lock he carried in his vest. It had the usual effect on him but also greater because there was so much more of it. And so they placed their clothes in the canoe, where they would be dry, and lay entwined on the floating island. The warm swamp water seeped up to touch their bodies. When she looked up at him, she saw the clear Mexican sky, strange sounds came out of her mouth and brought out in him what Miguel Angel supposed was the burro – and sent rings of waves rippling far into the marsh.

One afternoon, when the sun was warm and the wind in the pines sounded like a distant train, Miguel Angel dropped down from the mountain and came out into a field of marigolds above the railroad line. Far below him he saw the adobe church tower of Erongarícuaro. Closer in front of him, in the middle of the train tracks, he saw Doña Herminia moving south with Burra toward Ajuno, dragging four of her fine boards, with her colt Burrita trotting along behind. Farther to the right, hidden by the curve, he saw the “Porfirio Díaz,” coming from Ajuno, billowing out black smoke as it accelerated on the last stretch before the curve. Burra had stopped, perhaps because she felt the railroad ties trembling. Doña Herminia was upset and pulling on the lead rope. Her back was to the train. Because she was deaf, she could not hear it. She was craning her neck to see if the boards had caught on something. The track made a long curve around the field. Miguel Angel spurred his horse forward. For a few moments, at one point, he was rushing along beside the train. He could see in the windows. He saw Claudia, who was returning from Pátzcuaro. She was wearing Solorio Cortés’s khaki military hat, with its crimson band. He saw her laughing. He saw Solorio siting next to her. He saw Solorio look across at him.

Miguel Angel cut the curve and reached Doña Herminia before the train. He told Alain later, he saw the recognition in her face, followed by her wicked smile. She dangled in his face the piece of Claudia’s hair she had stolen from him. The engineer saw two people, a burro and a horse on the tracks ahead of him, and pulled the brake with all his force.

Doña Herminia yelled, “Hey, Burro! Look what I have!”

Miguel Angel leaned forward in his saddle to grab her wrist. Delighted, she fought him off and twisted away to keep the hair from his grasp. His horse wheeled and broke away. The colt trotted away from the tracks. Burra stepped off the tracks. The engine hit the boards, now turned sideways, with the sound of a canon shot, and wood flew in all directions. Miguel Angel’s horse hurtled forward in panic. Doña Herminia disappeared under the train.

The train personnel found her under the last car of the three cars, where Solorio Cortés’ soldiers rode in one half, their horses in the other. One foot lay by itself outside the rails. Burra and her colt grazed on marigolds that grew beside the tracks. A splinter roughly the size of a machete had passed through the back of Doña Herminia’s head and come out her mouth, giving her two tongues. Her mouth had frozen in a smirk. Clenched in her right fist they found a nest of chestnut hair.

Miguel Angel’s horse eventually stopped running and slowed to a walk, then wandered unguided across the mountain. Miguel Angel thought about Solorio Cortés’s officer’s hat on Claudia’s head. That was when Silvestre Vernal, bareback and with Marco behind, came out of the trees and approached. Miguel Angel knew who he was and was not afraid. He told Silvestre what had happened. They talked for a while and agreed that it was a terrible thing

The train personnel carefully moved the train half a car length forward. All fourteen passengers stood around Doña Herminia’s body. People presented conflicting stories, but the dominant one, supported by the driver, was that a man on horseback had been fighting with the woman now dead on the tracks. It had been a heated discussion, and she broken away. Then he had wheeled his horse and knocked her down intentionally and fled.

It was murder.

The locomotive driver was concerned for any responsibility he might have in the matter, and so he was relieved when he saw something in Doña Herminia’s hand and, playing the role of detective, plucked out the nest of chestnut hair and placed it in his own palm. No one said anything. It was not Doña Herminia’s hair. Hers was Indian black, the color of the urraca, the Boat-Tailed Grackel; and as for the other, there was only one person in the town who had chestnut hair.

Claudia – who had also been standing there – turned and walked away on a path toward town, by herself, without saying good-bye. The other thirteen passengers watched her leave and discussed what it all meant. Lieutenant Solorio Cortés agreed it was murder. He and his troops threw down the gangplank on the last car, led off their mounts.

Far down the line, toward the station, Silvestre’s son Marco saw them mounting. Both Silvestre and Miguel Angel assumed they were coming for Silvestre. They moved into the trees. Miguel Angel also had a sense of justice, and he suggested they switch hats and vests. Silvestre thanked him, and said they should switch horses as well, for the full effect. Marco said he would ride behind Miguel Angel. And then they spurred their horses ahead.

Miguel rode fast toward town. Silvestre raced on toward the station, where there was a trail that slanted up across the mountain.

When Miguel Angel looked back, he saw the troops pursuing Silvestre, and he did not understand. He stopped to watch. Marco gave a cry, then jumped down and ran across the fields toward the station. Miguel Angel heard the shots and saw Silvestre go down and cursed God for allowing such a lucky shot. He saw his Aunt Elena’s horse continue for a bit, then stop. Marco hurried on toward the station, leaping the furrows of the last the last plowed field.

A few days later, in Pátzcuaro, Alain Duprés, my distant cousin, paid 2 centavos for the Saturday, November 1, 1913 edition of the Catholic newspaper La Actualidad. He found the article he was looking for. The author had not signed his name, probably because he was not sympathetic to the Huertista government, nor to the Huerta–sympathizing officer he was describing.

“Erongarícuaro: Last week, on a warm October afternoon, Federal militia under the command of the young, perhaps short-sighted Lieutenant Solorio Cortés captured a man who he said was the cattle thief Silvestre Vernal Blanco. His troops marched the prisoner, hobbled and wounded, through a brilliant carpet of wild marigolds, up to the wall of Erongarícuaro’s train station, where he slumped down to a sitting position, his hat falling forward over his forehead, waiting for the troops to have a late lunch of cold tortillas and avocado.

“According to sources, the lieutenant sat off to one side, attended by his orderly, as if he wished to avoid contact with a common criminal. The train from Ajuno, delayed by an accident, finally stopped in front of the station. Four passengers got off. The prisoner sat on the southern side of the station. He did not turn his head. The four passengers looked at him quickly and then climbed into the wagon that would take them down into the town. ”

“While they ate, not far from the prisoner, the young troops cut the tip off of the one bullet each would soon use, in this manner forming the blunted Bullet of Mercy. When they had wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands, they emptied the bullets out of their magazines, put them away, then levered the special bullet into their chambers, and stood up.”

“They propped Silvestre Vernal up against the wall he had been sitting against, smoothed his hair and arranged his hat. The prisoner held a hand over the wound on his shoulder. They saw him gaze left and right along the trees bordering the railroad track, as if looking for someone—where a face did appear, it is said, in a stand of pirules, some distance away, just as a ray of sunlight fell across it, as if God had chosen a boy as witness to what was about to happen.”

“When the lieutenant saluted downward with his sabre, two of the rifles misfired, but eight others did not, and the bullets of Mercy danced the bandit Silvestre Vernal against the station wall and left him sitting again, with a look of surprise, until his head fell forward, as if he wanted to study the marigolds which were all about him. “

“The lieutenant coughed asthmatically from the blue rifle smoke, waited for it to drift to one side, then walked slowly through the marigolds, in regulation boots, which were highly polished, so that they squeaked when, according to witnesses, he approached the sitting body. It is said the officer held his arm stiffly at his side and that it trembled. Then he raised his it up and pointed the long-barreled Smith & Wesson, nickel plated, at the soft top of the bowed head, took one large step back to keep from soiling his uniform, and pulled the trigger, therewith delivering the coup de grace.”

“Officer Cortés then leaned over, gripped the man by his hair and brought up the head to see whether the bullets of Mercy had hit their target, which was the prisoner’s chest. Then he leaned still farther forward, lifted his round metal-rimmed glasses with his gun hand – still holding the Smith & Wesson – looked more closely, and saw that the chest had been ripped open and that there was hair growing on the prisoner’s heart.”

“It is said, by the same witnesses, that he was at first moved that God had chosen this way to confirm the evil that had been resting in the man’s soul. Then he rambled along about how disturbed he was to see that the hair was chestnut colored and then, indiscreetly, that the man he had executed was in fact the cattle thief Silvestre Vernal and not a certain medical student from Morelia.”

“In less chaotic times, this writer would hope that a judicial authority would investigate these matters. But there is no such authority beyond Morelia’s city walls, and humanity is so much the worse for it. That the prisoner had hair growing on his heart, the Church, it is thought, on that matter is unlikely to take a position.”

The rest Alain knew because he was there in the back of the crowd when the body was brought into town. It had been tied over a saddle, and the wounds had bled over the face, making the corpse unrecognizable except for what was left of the vest. Claudia was already in front of the Presidencia where the body hung. Friends held her as she sobbed.

News had spread quickly that the murderer of Doña Herminia, the medical student from Morelia, had pushed her in front of the train during some kind of lover’s spat and had already met his fate and now hung head-down in the arches so close to the door of the Pesidencia that you could hardly enter without brushing against him.

Doña Herminia herself lay just to one side on two striped Purépecha shawls of cobalt and cerulean blue, her severed foot placed close to the leg it belonged to and her head on a child’s chair, to accommodate the machete-sized pine splinter that otherwise would have tilted her head forward at an awkward angle. Someone had placed the chestnut hair she was found with in her open palm.

People pushed forward to see the miracle of the hair growing on Miguel Angel’s exposed heart, the same hair – one could not help noticing – that could be seen in Doña Herminia’s hand. The famously flirtatious board merchant, everyone knew, was a few months pregnant, and the child inside her – people agreed – was very likely alive in side her at that very moment. Claudia listened to all this, and sank deeper and deeper into shock. She could not comprehend that the man she loved was dead, nor that her hair—a lover’s pledge—seemed to be everywhere.

Just when she was about to collapse, the boy Marco came up beside her, pulled at her sleeve and through his own sobs tried to tell her that those were his father’s hands and no one else’s. Then Marco’s mother appeared and confirmed, wailing, that it was her husband Silvestre Vernal who hung in front of them. The women who had held Claudia now held Marco and his mother – who held each other and wept.

The crowd ringed them, in silence, and waited while a bowl of water and some rags were brought to wash the corpse’s face to reveal his identity once and for all. And then, just when Claudia saw that it was not her lover, someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she turned to see Miguel Angel standing in front of her, with tears in his eyes.

Alain said it was then he learned what passion was, for Claudia’s face turned from pale to blotches of red; and her right hand came out and slapped Miguel Angel so hard that he stumbled backward and had to be supported by the crowd to keep him from falling. Then she turned on her heel and marched home without looking at anyone.

She did not talk to anyone for a month. She would not talk to Miguel Angel for a year and only let him approach when she decided that the little girl she had given birth to—with chestnut hair—needed her father. Gradually, she forgave him. He became a doctor. They bought an old colonial house Morelia, with a lovely courtyard garden, and moved in.

Alain, my distant cousin, visited them from time to time. He lost interest in Maximilian’s glass flute, since the story around it seemed pale in comparison to the one he had witnessed in Erongarícuaro. Claudia and Miguel Angel had three more children, all of them girls, and all of them with chestnut hair. The man and wife grew very close to each other and lived into their seventies. In strict confidence, they sent Marcos and his mother money, and later sent Marco to the Escuela Libre de Derecho, in Mexico City, to study law.

Solorio Cortés kept his distance from Claudia after the events described above. The locomotive driver, when deposed, reported, in retrospect, that Miguel Angel had tried to pull Doña Herminia away from the tracks, and no case was brought against him. Two years to the day after Lieutenant Solorio Cortés executed Silvestre Vernal against the south wall of the Erongarícuaro train station, his own body, still uniformed, was found hacked by machetes into four pieces, each of which was suspended by a separate rope from the same beam from which Silvestre Vernal’s body had hung, and this time completely blocking the door to the Presidencia. Someone had stuffed two separate lumps of carefully arranged chestnut hair into his mouth, which led to years of speculation about whether it was, in fact, the original hair that had been found in Doña Herminia’s hand, as well as that which had been growing on Silvestre Vernal’s heart.

Sudden Naps

“The blank page is the mirror image of my brain.” My friend said this and then went out in his orchard, looked for buds on his favorite Gravensteins, maybe for meaning in general, then went to the pump house and blew his brains out with the .357 Magnum he’d kept hidden there, wrapped in an oily rag. Next to the well, open like a man hole.

His wife had gone for a walk. When she got back, she ran the washing machine so she’d have some nice things to wear that evening for him—for them both. She couldn’t account for his absence till she drew hot water before starting the dishwasher. If you got the water hot, then the dishwasher didn’t have to run its electrical element to heat the water, thereby saving energy and money.

She noticed the reddish hew of rust in the water, then went through the house looking for him. He would be able to fix it. “Are you in here?” she asked, knocking once on his door, stepping into his room, expecting to see him bent over his computer, typing furiously with two fingers, focused intensely on some plot, some story that would make people laugh or cry or gasp. But he wasn’t there. She went to the stairs, said fairly softly, “Dear?”—then ascended, crossed the Delft blue wooden floor to the far end, bent to look through the finger hole in the simple door, looked through to see if he was sleeping.

This was a man who took sudden naps after asking, “Where will you be for the next half hour? Are you going to be telephoning? If so, could you do it away from the bedroom window?” He always said this with a wry smile, a look of incredulity, a look that said “I know it’s going to be hard for you to remember but I would sure love it if you’d try.”

But he wasn’t there either. The tractor was standing with its mower in the field, with no husband near it. She went around to the shop, looked in, chirped “Jim?” and kept going toward the pond. He wasn’t on the granit bench beside the pond, thinking, watching for the big bass.

She kept going up the hill. He wasn’t in the upper garden, wasn’t weeding his onions and garlic there. She went along the Cypress, checking the aluminum chaise-longue, but it was empty. She came down the hill through the field of North Coast Dry Pasture Mix he would mow again later in the summer when the grass was dry and the thistles were getting ready to give up their seeds to the wind.

He wasn’t in the orchard. She checked his car to see if he was lying with the seat back, listening to a book on tape. She crossed the road, picked her way down the path through the Eucalyptus, edging by strands of poison oak, to his writing cabin. The aluminum and green cloth cot was propped against the wall. He wasn’t there.

He must have gone for a walk—a walk that could last no longer than an hour. Back in the house, she checked the bikes. All three of them were in place. She drew drinking water from the swinging glass carboy, put the kettle on the gas flame, and looked out the kitchen window to see if she could see the blue birds—see whether they had decided to use the birdhouse Jim had put up.

She marveled at the places she had been to find him. He was a hard man to keep track of, so many interests, so many projects: writing, gardening, language learning, cabinet-making, dreaming, thinking, boats, musical instruments, and endless short stories.

She remembered the dishwasher and ran the water to get it hot. It grew warmer and warmer and, at the same time, redder and redder. Then she remembered why she had looked for him in the first place. She felt the warmth on her hands. She thought about the color. And as the water got hotter, a thought came to her and she turned the faucet to stop it, and watched until the last of the water swirled and disappeared clockwise into the drain—leaving the sink white again.

Bay Laurel

I am fascinated when I run across an example of my father’s school-taught penmanship, that modest but authoritative hand so remote and yet so close—almost forty years after he’s gone. I never wanted to write like him. I really never wanted to know him until after he was gone. Even now, when I see a piece of his writing, I shudder a little and do not want to continue. It is the only thing left of him—except for mannerisms in myself, ways of speaking or clearing my throat, which I recognize as his, as well.

An envelope arrived recently, during a low point in my life when I was feeling more orphaned than usual. There was a cover letter. It was business-like, formal, typed on what we now call an old typewriter, from Muriel Weeks, who said she had hired a detective to find me and was acting on behalf of her deceased mother, Mrs. Molly Weeks, a woman whom my father, it appears, had once known.

The second enclosed letter was a small square sheet of pale-blue paper, with embossed white angels hovering at the top. In a shaky hand, the deceased mother Molly Weeks had written: “For his son in California when the time comes for him to have it.”

The third enclosure was several sheets of faded yellow legal pad in my father’s neat Palmer script—a literary endeavor and in a tone I’d never heard before. It took me a while until I realized he was talking about his own mother, who, at an early age, sailed into dementia and out again like a ship at sea. The first voice is hers, the second his. The younger person he is writing about is Molly Weeks, his early love.

“That will do, William. Stop rocking that chair. Listen to the trees. That could be your father coming back. Maybe it’s time. You want more hot water? Stop rocking, Billy, the cat wants to sleep. Your father’s in the tree. The wind’s blowing from the north and warm, with just the hint of coolness, of Fall, of pumpkins and black corn, and the smell of oak and eucalyptus and bay laurel, the old ones with the close rings, boat builders’ wood, hard as steel, but sweet to the touch, stuff you’d want your oars to rest on, your leathered oars, back and forth across the cheek pieces out of high elevation California laurel. Thole pins and grommets.”

“You want more tea, Billy? You better not. Not before going to sleep. Those heavy blankets, the quilt. Kick it all back and lie heavy like a sounding lead and feel the breeze sinking you down, pressing you into mud, with nothing to hear, no carriages, no cars, just the wind in the trees, like the sound of the river.”

I would wake in the morning and lie suspended between sunlight and dreams, bird songs and the sound of a falling apple, a deer moving through the dry hemlock, the sliver of a moon, the planet star, the glowing pearl of morning.

On the porch outside, stepping between cats, I would find her, the woman who raised me, fed me, taught me, talked me to sleep in the Fall when the wind was still warm, with just a little cool, coming out of the North, flowing over my father’s bed—which he had left forever, and which became mine. And me, sprawled out width-wise, a young leaper in mid-flight, held down by after-sleep and the sound of leaves moving in the morning light.

She often slept on the porch, in the chair I’d left her in. Her cup set aside, her long braids falling over her youthful breast, her eyes closed, and private.

I would feed the cats, moving the screen door quietly, pouring food slowly, whispering to the cats to take their places, wait their turns. Then I eased off the porch and crossed the lawn, over the short mown hay to the black pond to look for fins, to see what was happening–watermen, popping up, swimming down, the sudden swirl of bass, their v-ripples across the surface—then calm.

I checked the sky for mare’s tails, measured the color of the sun, calculated. Would it be hot, how much water was there to go around, for the corn, the garden, the upper pasture, the Angus, and the washing?

When I returned to the porch, the cats were usually gone, disappeared into their daily prowls, or motionless in a field. She stood before the stove, watering her snowy cactus, talking to the red ants, turning down the gas, and poking red onions around in the black pan, olive oil and pepper.

We ate toast, drank rose hip tea, smeared applesauce on black corn meal bread, Indian-style, we imagined.

“This is the way your father liked it,” she’d say, and frown, and then not go on when she read something in my eyes.

At night, before the fireflies, she would sit on the porch, her book would drop down, and then her head, and I would stop mowing and tuck away the scythe on a rafter in the shed and let myself be led to the porch by this cat or that. And I would check her eyes to see how much she was there and how much she could see, especially when my love came and sat in her white dress, looking special for the evening and maybe, when I look back, for me.

We talked, and sometimes my mother would say, “If Billy would stop rocking just a little, we could hear the wind. It’s coming from the north like it should in the fall. My how you smell the fields.” And sometimes she would say things like “…and the pain of others…” or “…the old Chippewa your father knew taught us black corn and onions and how to sizzle it.”

I myself had only eyes for Molly, the way her arms came away from the shoulders where the dress stopped, and the beginning of her breasts there and in front, all brown from the summer, and the pendant of blue that hung there—giving you an excuse to look.

I watched my mother, calculated the depth of her sleep, then rocked forward and kissed my love’s young lips, which met mine—kisses that lasted dangerously long.

Sometimes she would say, “If you would stop squeaking that chair long enough, we could hear the wind.” And sometimes, I just saw her head sink back down from looking, and there was a smile on her lips, and I felt then that she really did still care about my father and that she wanted me to be like him, in every way–including this.

Advice to a Younger Man on How to Choose a Mate

Dear R,

You say you need to make a decision. Quickly. You need advice on choosing a mate. You’re asking me I suppose on the assumption I know something based on the great difference in our ages.

Let me say first, I’m not an expert. But then again, no one else is either. What I have to say–my two cents worth–I like to think applies to a mate of either sex, as well as to a chooser of either sex. Hence, please feel free to interchange the pronouns “her” and “him” when you read what I have to say.

It’s kind of a crapshoot, who you end up with, and I suppose that is why you’re frantic. It could be anybody, and there’s so little to go on. You ask, “How do you know if she’s the right one?” Well, this is what I would ask myself: Do you laugh when you’re around her, is it okay to get an idiot grin on your face and keep it? How about your belly? Is it relaxed, as opposed to tight, and are you policing the muscles in your face when you’re around her?

Look for this. You can say things and not worry a whole lot whether you’re being judged, and it’s okay to just say what you think? In fact, you find yourself quite articulate sometimes, talking about the way you see the world or a particular small segment of it–and you’re not just babbling about yourself.

It’s important to feel free when you’re talking. That means–maybe–she’s not pushing up against the bubble of the world you’re describing. In fact, she’s not pressing at all, and when your bubble is big enough or has been up long enough, it just goes puff, and then it’s her turn, and you listen to her bubble, and you don’t press against it either.

But there are other things to look for as well. Are you bored when you see her on the pillow across from you the next morning? Or is it the beginning of a new scene in the play–lines familiar or unfamiliar that go back and forth with attention and care and respect and a smile?

I think puns and puzzles and conundrums offered back and forth anywhere from 3 AM to 6 AM is a good sign. Are there witty remarks, welcoming hands during joint turnovers in bed when changing the side you’re lying on? Do your limbs, find comfortable resting spots and intertwine easily as you settle into a new position? Is there grace and humor when farts are exchanged at close range, bed clothes clamped down, complaints wailed–but gently, and with love?

Ah, that’s the word. Maybe one that makes more sense when said in context. I like to say, “I know I love you, when….” followed by the context. I don’t begin with that phrase that often, but when I do it’s in a moment of clarity about what it is exactly that I love–and therefore it is a useful way to measure.

For example, I say, “That’s when I know I love you–when you laugh like that.” That’s when I know I love you when you make a stupid joke at 3:45 AM and then roar at your own joke, and it’s cold in the bedroom and it’s winter and dark and desolate outside–except that you push your butt over into my stomach, reach around for my hand, and place it on your stomach or hip or, if your thinking of shocking me a little, on your breast, and I say, “What are you telling me?” And you give a throaty laugh, a wriggle with your butt, and say, “Nothing! Go to sleep, you goon!”

I would also look for someone who is independent, and yet suddenly turns on you and says, “You’re my good friend, aren’t you,” and puts her arms around you. On the other hand, be aware when you are not laughing around someone. A friend once told me about his Mexican mother. Holding her hands behind her, she called him over and told him she had a gift for him. He was just a boy. So he said, “Where is it?” and tried to see behind her. She said, “I’ve already given it to you. It’s the gift of laughter, and if you ever find yourself somewhere and you are not laughing, leave that place immediately.”

Sex? Ah, that’s probably less important than you think, if you have a friend. No one should have to prove anything. Friends can give each other presents, and I think love making, being made love to is like present giving. You give pleasure, you receive pleasure, you wrap the package a little differently each time–a different bow, a different paper, a different image directing your caresses–always being careful to present a gift that you know the other likes, because you have asked her how to give. And being gentle, and listening for the message, in the breathing, the murmurs, the trembling, the racing heart, the opening mouth, the fluttering tongue, the soft sighing dilating pupil.

Do not be too close. Friendship thrives on indirect intimacies, offered in the context of respect. That is the most important word. Analysis kills, questioning is oppressive and limits the other’s freedom. Do not demand loyalty. Such a demand only limits your own freedom. There are no guarantees, ever. Loving comes with a risk. If your mate goes away, you have acted with respect and self-respect. Therefore you are not broken. You knew the risk, and you lived as if you were alive, not fearful and dead. A man or woman upon whom you make no demands other than respect is freer and more likely to be able love you back–and to respect you.

So these are my answers to your difficult question: Are you just as happy to see her in the morning? Have you learned not to make each other over into the image of yourself? Have you put aside the power struggles? Will you avoid giving each other unnecessary pain? Will you continue your affection as you would continue watering a plant?

Are you man enough to face your own aging and therefore be able to face hers? Can you see her watching you be gravely ill or dying, or you her? Can you imagine approaching the challenge of aging and death together? Is she friend enough and present enough for that? Whether you stay together, or not?

Are you man enough to create a group of men with whom you can talk, and who will love you indirectly and be your male family, so that she does not have to be your entire family?

Are you man enough to tell your story each day, without directing sidelong blame at her? Can you insist that she just listen and not try to tell your story for you, or fix whatever is bothering you?

Are you man enough to negotiate meaning, so that you are sure that you understand each other’s commentaries on the world, or on each other? And are there signs that each of you will lead and let himself be led, when you act together?

Are you both wise enough to leave space between you, so that you can go your separate ways during the day, but spoon together with trust, in that warm bed, in this sometimes wintry 3 AM desolate world?

I hope this helps…

Your Friend,

S

The Men’s Writing Group

They approach the house in one’s and two’s. Some of them have been coming for fifteen years or more. Still there is fear, the urge to pee. But instead they reach down, gather up the strands of their intestines, the pieces they have dragged along behind them for years–the results of encounters with other men. They draw in deep breaths to ease the tension. They smooth a hand over the place on their stomachs, just below the umbilical wound, just above the pleasure wound, now shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, and stamp their feet to shake off the rain that has not clung to them. Like small boys, they have wide alert eyes and hope for the best. They step forward gingerly. Most of all they want to feel affection directed at them from other men. But they are not accustomed to offering affection in return—and therefore pitifully little of it is shared. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up for the greeting, or proffer a hug, and if so with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads, or their stricken stomachs where there is no feeling now because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men. And how is it even possible to gauge the possibility of reciprocated openness if we have not mastered the art of it, not in the course of thirty, forty, fifty or two million years?

And why should we really, when we sense–just beyond–the hidden carcass that one of us may have placed in a cave or the crook of tree or under a heavy rock, before entering the house? And isn’t that the smell of woman—whose woman?—that someone has carried in on his clothing, an odor that narrows pupils and asks the question: Exactly in what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Colt, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?

We ease ourselves into chairs. The smiles are inviting, there’s a tendency to over-compensate. At intervals, there is wheezing, laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down. The boundary between concerned inquiry and irony is thin. We can mistake openness for blood and start to peck at the sacrificial runt. Like turtles, we retract our necks and paws, our kindred feeling. And so, little is said and little is risked.

We write. We read aloud. We discuss. Carefully. We dissect without picking up the instruments, without incisions. And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our women’s questions, we are often at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? they ask. Did he mention his woman friend? Did you talk about hope, dreams, fears, illness, death, sexual tenderness, the miracle of touching, success or failure in being close with this or that companion, lover or wife?

And then, on hearing little, our mate begins her deep breathing–the soft engine re-starting at our side. We lie awake and run through the evening again, like old bears who have come back from lumbering through cold forests, where we smelled scat and scent, and anguished over the scratch marks of rivals on fifty trees, if even one, and pondered the prints and tracks and tail sweeps of countless threats–earlier prowlers passing over the snow and through the dampness of hollow, draw, ridge, and swale.

We retrace the path of gestures, tones and glances. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness. We re-measure the temperature, flavor, brightness or sudden movement, implications, signals and intent of everything we have taken in. It is a long chronicle, accurately kept and true, recorded carefully, in essence complete.

We see that we have noted exhaustion, boredom, vulnerability, pinched souls, even a lover’s bloom. The whole time as we watched on this evening the males in our group, we saw far behind them their dogs, leashed, but showing a curled lip and a yellowed warning tooth. Their eyes, the men, I mean, were soft with fear, their writing hands longing, generous perhaps–the pulse of their hearts beating out–each in a different rhythm–what remained of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.

As we write, at the men’s group, perhaps we forget for a while the meat, the scent of carcass, the stiffening kill, which would belong to the strongest of us in the end. But I have to say it–what I am thinking. I do not trust these men. We hunt momentarily together, as if in a truce required by nature–so that we don’t die of loneliness, but always at the risk of a blow of  irony that comes too quick and is hard like steel and cold.

Perhaps if the conditions were right, and if we were fishermen and our steel boat was sinking, I ask, would I give up my survival suit for any of them? Or they for me? I would for either of my children. I would give it up for my mate–the one who sleeps on, leaving behind for the moment her amazement at how little men know about each other.

Or would I give it to one of them as well? Since each one may be as kind as he is dangerous, as generous as he is treacherous, as much soft as competitive. Then the steel plates pop, in the middle of the icy night and sixty tons of boat roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other man along with it. This happens in less than ninety seconds and in the numbing water you have one immersion suit between the two of you, and you say to your companion: No, you take it, your children are young. And he says: No, you take it, you are older than I am and not as strong.

And in the end, one of us holds the other in his arms, and when he can almost no longer keep his gaze on you, and begins to slip away, you hold his face close to yours, and you say what has to be said, what it is you feel and what is true. O my dear friend, I love you. I love you. I have always loved you.

It Is Wrong To Steal

Those before me came first from New England and then later from Arizona, where my great-grandfather Edwin and his wife Sarah went broke during the depression of 1890. That was when the Apaches of San Carlos, on the Fort Apache Reservation, east of Globe, began to starve and came and stood in silent lines at Sarah’s back door, where–day after day–in sunlight and drizzle and drifting powder snow she gave away all the food they had, over and over, cooked and served each time in the same few blue enameled dishes until they, she and Edwin, had no money and also began to starve.

The winter of 1890-91 saw the price of silver fall and the winter hard and cold, endless in its duration, with coughs and fever stalking them, finally driving them to their bed, where they huddled and shivered and clung to each other, too weak to go for help. The lines of starving Apaches thinned and disappeared, until there was only the sound of the wind at the back door.

A day passed, then two, and on the third a young Chiricahua sat astride a horse, leaned to look through the window of the bedroom and rapped twice–each time, a rap rap–then silence. The horse stomped and stepped forward, then backward. My great-grandparents heard something hit the ground–a man in moccasins. They heard the door push open, movement in the front room, and then they saw a young face looking through the bedroom door.

Soon a fire was burning in the kitchen stove, and heat–at first just the sound of it–stole cat-like through the door into their bedroom. They heard plates banging, the sounds of cooking, and then the young Indian appeared with two bowls of beef soup with pieces of fried bread floating on top.

The boy helped them sit up, spooned from one bowl into two mouths, then spooned from the second bowl till that too was gone. He lay them back to sleep, covered them with a hide blanket he had brought, put a pitcher of water near the bed–then faded away. They heard the sound of horse’s hooves on frozen ground, and then there was silence again.

On the following day, they heard the sound of more horses. Over the next several days, some say as many as twenty Chiricahua entered the house. They were warmly dressed and snow-dusted. A few of them had come all the way from of Agua Prieta and the mountains to the south–and deeper into Mexico. It was a place where the dangers of the coming hunger had been anticipated and food had been set aside for those in need.

Three grown women–one quite old–stayed with my great-grandparents for a week, nursing them and cooking. They stuffed the open chinks in walls with bits of old blankets to keep out the cold. The young man, whose name was Walks With Snow, also came and went, bringing food–once a calf, which the women rendered and cooked and shared with Sarah and Edwin–and with other Chiricahua.

When Sarah and Edwin could walk again, without the Indians’ help, the women rolled up their sleeping robes and rode away with Walks With Snow. But first there was hugging all around and tears and thanks–from both sides because the Chiricahuas were the relatives of the starving San Carlos Apaches whom Sarah and Edwin had helped survive.

The Chiricahua had not been gone more than a day, two at the most, when the sheriff from Globe arrived, with six heavily armed men, looking for an Indian who had been taking calves from the vast 40,000-section Madison holding on the south bank of the Salt River, twelve miles to the northwest.
Edwin, who had been a brevet colonel in the Civil War, on the Union side, and who was at home on horses, accepted one from the sheriff, and agreed it was wrong to steal. He said he would lead them where he was sure they’d find the thief and took them–even in his weakened state–some fifty miles due north, in the opposite direction from the route the Chiricahua had taken toward the Mexican border.

At some point, my great-grandfather said he was too faint to continue and they would have to go on without him. He told the sheriff he would return the horse as soon as he could. He was sure, he said, they would find their man camped beside a certain stream which meandered vaguely northwest through a land he made sound real and distinct and so plausible that the party rode some twenty miles more before they gave up and took a short cut back to Globe and to the warm fires of their snug and–because they were really mostly shopkeepers and merchants–still fairly prosperous homes.

Available

Before my father died, he had a nurse call the house in Boston where I was staying. I caught the phone so that my brother and mother would not be disturbed. It was two thirty in the morning, April 30th, my mother’s birthday, a warm spring night with light rain. The nurse said my father wanted me to come back to the hospital, he had something he wanted to tell me. I asked which name he had used, mine or my brother’s. She said my name. I said, okay I’d come.

I drove to the hospital. It was three when I arrived. I was already exhausted from a long day of visiting, waiting—watching my father fight for his life. His heart was giving up.

The nurse on duty was Nora. The one I had a crush on. A dark-haired Irish beauty, tall, charming, a warm smile, dark eyes—prettier than you could imagine.

She asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I said that would be fine, I was exhausted and needed a boost.

“Cream?” she asked, and I said yes.

“It’s just a plastic holder and a paper cup,” she said.

“That’s fine,” I said.

She handed it to me with her elegant, brown, I imagined Galway–Lisbon fingers. I saw the gold ring. She was not available. And because I was so weary and she was being so kind, I said: “Ah, you’re not available—I see the ring.”

And she, who may have been just as batty from being on the night shift so long, said, “Available for what?”

I was too tired from everything that had happened to fall victim to my usual shyness, and I just grinned at her–lovingly, I’d have to say.

After a moment I said, “My father wants to talk to me.”

“I know, “she said. “You’re not available.”

At which we both laughed, and I turned away and went down the corridor over the shiny linoleum into my father’s room.

He lay on his back with oxygen at his nose and tubes in his arms. He was small, shriveled, white-haired, unshaven—and bright-eyed in the way I imagined people were when they were possessed.

He croaked something–dark, indistinct words. I asked him to repeat it. He cleared his throat, reached out a bony hand and tugged on my sleeve. I brought my head closer to his, leaning forward in the bedside chair.

“A long time ago,” he said, “when I was your age, I took a walk near our house. It was a country lane, a dirt road.”

I knew the one he meant. It was a paved road now.

“There were almost no houses then,” he continued. “It had been raining. I turned into the dirt road. A woman was just starting down the road ahead of me. I believe I knew she was Mexican. She had the broader shoulders, the narrower hips, the slender legs, slipper-thin plastic shoes with almost no heel. She was poor. I knew she was headed to the Owen’s house far down the lane. They were wealthy but also a little stingy and preferred to pay the very lowest wages. As I came up behind her, she turned to assess my approach. As I passed her, she turned her head away from me . She was trying to make herself inconspicuous. I said Buenos días! and lifted my hat the way my father used to, although mine was just a baseball cap and his, a full–brimmed felt one. She replied with a Buenos días! from her side. I walked on ahead, satisfied she was no longer afraid.”

I helped my father drink from a glass of water.

“Several days later I took the walk again,” he continued, “down the same dirt road. It had been raining. I saw her tracks in the sand and knew they were from her modest slipper shoes. Her step turned slightly inward. I knew this was her, with her long-suffering poverty and dignity and vulnerability. Someone who could be frightened by a strange gringo coming up behind her.”

“The road turned, and I could see her up ahead. I followed along behind her but this time took pains not to overtake her. This is the part I want to tell you. When I looked down again a little later, her foot prints were gone and in their place were the prints of a deer, a young one. I tried to understand this, but couldn’t. My mind wandered away on its own walk. When I focused on the surface of the road again, the deer’s tracks were gone, and those of a fox–I know the print–had replaced them and continued on down the road, weaving slightly, the way foxes do when they’re not well. I found this disturbing. Soon the tracks changed again–I could see the print of the heel of her shoe. And then there was nothing. But she was still up there ahead of me.”

He was silent for a while. He closed his eyes and his breathing was labored. I waited, watching him, thinking about the time of night and the situation itself, how tired I was, about how long this might go on.

My head jerk up when he began again. His eyes were duller, his voice softer, more serious, an earnest whispering.

“I called you here because I have been thinking about that woman.” He paused, watching me. I nodded, to show I was listening, although all I really wanted to do was just sleep.

“I think she was so poor and so sad maybe that she left this life as we know it and entered some other place.”

He looked at me. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, but my expression must have given me away. He was not convinced and felt he had to explain it to me again.

“She left because she was so sad, so poor, her prospects seemed so hopeless.”

“Maybe she went and came back,” I said. “Maybe her being Mexican and poor and at that place on the dirt road in a foreign country were all just very tentative.” I didn’t hear the conviction in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice was heavy with fatigue. “No, she left because she was so poor, and the ones she went to do not judge people the way we do here.”

He paused and took a deep, halting breath that was too slow, like someone who isn’t sure he’s still interested in breathing.

“That’s what I want you to remember about me,” he said.

I nodded.

“Do you understand?”

I nodded, even though I didn’t understand. I could see his eyes watering, and the man who never seemed to have touched me or held me my whole life whispered, “Kiss me, my son,” and I stood and leaned forward, hardly able to see him because of my own watering and, avoiding the tube to his nose, kissed him on his barely responding lips and then lay my head against his and wept.

After a while I collected myself sufficiently to realize he had stopped breathing. His eyes looked somewhere else. There was a smile on his lips, and he seemed serene. I was very sad and, I think, also more hopeful than I had ever been for some time. I can not say why.

I sat in the chair again. I watched him for I don’t know how long. I heard soft steps behind me now and then. Once when I focused, I noticed someone had closed his eyes. Dawn seeped through the window. At some point I felt a hand on my shoulder, light like a bird, and then once touching my hair. And finally I heard Nora, the lovely dark Irish beauty say, “There’s a telephone call for you—and I was wondering if you were available.”

“Available?” I repeated.

“After the call,” she said. “Maybe some breakfast.”

And then, as I stood up and let out a long sigh, she put her arms around me and held me and felt warm and substantial and very familiar.

“What about the telephone?” she said.

Love Patagonia Style

Dear Martha,

Thank you for returning my clothes and my jackknife. It is not easy to understand what has happened. You are in your new warm home, with bright windows and skylights, clean wide Persian carpets. You have the privacy and sense of home you’ve always yearned for. How silly of me to have worried about theft. It wasn’t high school boys, it was you all along, teaching me, I suppose, about the absurdity of possessions during a time when you had to live in a slanty old farm house with a backdoor made of plastic sheeting with an inch of straight daylight showing underneath—and skunks fighting under the un-insulated floor.
One blue Patagonia jacket, one pair of running shoes, my soccer uniform, and my Swiss army knife—gone from the seat of my Toyota pickup truck, now mysteriously appearing in a paper bag on the truck’s hood. No mystery left. No questions. Except for one. Why did you bother to tell me after these six months? Why not right away, or in a year? Or not at all?

Dear Nick,

I am sorry I took the clothes and the knife. Such an indirect message, such a strange way to say good-bye. I hid them under the bed during our final month together—during the hours you spent fuming and pouting, in bed, turned away from me, and only two and a half feet above the missing items. That thought provided me with a malicious satisfaction, a delicious revenge against a man who read L. L. Bean catalogs during his treasured private moments in the bathroom while I sat in the living room beside the ridiculous stove, seeing my own breath—warmed only by my reading of feminist politics and social psychology .

But now you have your things and I derive some satisfaction knowing your world is complete again, even though I am gone.

Dear Martha,

Thank you for your letter. Yesterday, I went up onto the hill and cut a dead tree, which was as thick as the distance from the tip of my middle finger to my elbow. I always get nervous around tree cutting because of all the weight and forces involved. I miscalculated, and the top of the tree I was felling got tangled in the branches of the tree next to it and would not fall all the way down.

It is better in such cases to hire a tree expert. But you know me. Instead, I thought and thought, and looked for a place to make the critical cut, in such a way that all the forces contained in the caught tree would neutralize each other, and the tree would continue its fall without incident.

Instead, the enormous weight and the hidden tensions unleashed an explosion and splintering, such that a piece of wood about the size of a man shot past me. It caught my Patagonia jacket at a spot between my shoulder blades and tore it nearly in two, barely jiggling me in the process—and left me in a cold sweat and with some nausea. It is not easy to hang on to a tree, hold a running chain saw, and throw up, all at the same time.

When I stopped shaking, I thought of you and realized how pleased you would be, knowing I had probably been given a lesson in what is valuable, and what is not.

Dear Nick,

I am glad you survived. I am not glad you have finally lost your Patagonia jacket. I have changed my mind about the symbolism carried in your jacket. I am glad instead you are still climbing trees, still make wood to heat to the old house. There was some bit of warmth–in another sense–in those fires. I can even say I miss them now. Somewhat.

Dear Martha,

I am sending you the halved Patagonia jacket. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what it means. Perhaps as a final gesture of our relationship. You can toss it, if you like, or hide it under your new bed. I have become superstitious about Patagonia jackets and have decided–in my new relationship–to no longer to wear them.

Dear Nick,

Here is your jacket back. I don’t need it. I also have a new relationship. To soften the sting of this news, one last communication from me: Hank insists we each wear pink Patagonia jackets when we go out.

Take care.

Dear Martha,

You might be amused to hear I finished the back door after all this time. The house is insulated now, and painted, too. And I have begun tunneling underneath the house as part of the first step in bringing up a foundation and driving the skunks out forever.

This morning I was vacuuming under the bed, and thought of you. I looked around, found the old torn Patagonia jacket, and spent the rest of the morning sewing it back together. After all, we do still talk.

Dear Nick,

Forgive me for sticking this note under your windshield wiper. I had the chance, so I thought I’d do it. A friend of mine said she saw you at the American Peace Test action at the Nevada nuclear test site last April—handcuffed and in the men’s cage. I think it’s wonderful you were there.

Dear Martha,

It was good to see you at the play last Saturday. I liked your friend. She was very funny, and you looked better than I have ever seen you—with your wit, your warmth, the irony in the turned up corner of your mouth.

This is an odd world. Yesterday I noticed my hand-sewn Patagonia jacket was missing from the front seat of my Passant. I hope whoever got it is warmer now and appreciates its long history.

Fondly, Nick

Dear Nick,

I have your jacket and, after a great deal of thought, I’ve decided it’s not going to be enough, and I want what comes in it.

Love, Martha

First the Joining

I had gone to bed early. That is one of my favorite things to do. It is like Christmas, or vacation, to watch the deepening shadows, the last glow of day, hear the slosh of the waves against beach—ancient sand, I like to think, ground up stones from temples to Apollo. Just beyond the promenade outside the old hotel.

I lay on my back, spread eagle, which is my way to relax. On the top sheet, clothed only by the soft Mediterranean air coming through the windows. I must have slept, drifted off, sunk down into the weariness of a day of water and sun and walking across ancient landscapes, greeting the small gray lizards on warm rocks, who took bits of processed cheese from the tip of my finger and were no different than those Alexander the Great considered his equal companions on the earth.

It is all the easier, this dropping off, this going to sleep earlier, after forty.

There was a noise at the door. I thought at first it some play in the latch, the door responding to a shifting draft. Then I heard a clear knock. My first concern was for my nakedness, my second for my loneliness in the world. And the disasters that could break over me. A telegram about one of my two sons—drowned while surfing, a blow against the head.

I opened the door wide enough to speak but also to hide my nakedness. It was the artist from the beach, a young French–English woman I had spoken to and admired. She had passed me carrying a wicker laundry basket with wet wash she intended to spread on the breakwater’s dark rocks, and I had retracted my legs some, so she could maneuver through the space between me and a snoring sanglier of a German, who–judging from his color–could soon be served with a side of rot kohl and, in his mouth, an apple .

Out from under her straw hat, she gave me a cheery thank you, and I said something like, this way—with my legs pulled back—she wouldn’t drop her basket on my head. She said I shouldn’t worry, the clothes were freshly washed. And I had said–all smiles and charm–in that case go right ahead and drop them.

Later she returned, in her long blue dress, and set up her easel where the wild bore had been cooking. And we talked—I from where I sat on my rotting, about-to-rip, candy-striped beach chair, with my notebook; she standing at her French easel, leveling it in the sand, holding her brush in her teeth like a bone.

While she painted her clothes, which were now spread out on the dark rocks of the breakwater, and while the waves sloshed close by, we talked about Greece and the history of its admirers.

We brought up names. Many we weren’t sure of. Winckelmann, Flaubert, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and Edwin Dickenson. We ruminated on what people hoped to find when they came to Greece, and on how to address a theme–a motif–so that when you worked it, it didn’t become just one more variation on a cliché.

She said she mostly painted headlands and points, and moored fishing boats, sometimes villages and children and goats. She said she thought the ancient essence of Greece could still be glimpsed in the rectangular pupils of its goats. In this painting, with her wash lying over the stones, and the boats in front and the sea behind, she used blues and oranges and emerald greens, all of them set off by bold darks, which gave a convincing depth that, in my opinion, was almost troubling. I read her a poem I had written beside the roasting German about the shadow of sorrow one can feel in the face of immense beauty—by which I meant Greece, its mountains, dark islands, and seas. I told her how I had suffered for a long time from my sense of separation from the world I observed, until I realized I was made of the same carbon matter it was.

Her name was Alex. She was French and English. Her language showed the accents and richness of both cultures. When she said “boat,” her lips came forward, rounded, as if she were blowing out a birthday candle. When she smiled out from under the brim of her straw hat, her dark eyes caused a yearning in me, powerful at first, then fainter when I remembered how many women I had yearned for–and not found. There were a thousand reasons–psychologists knew all of them–why she would never be the woman I wanted to see in her. I think for the first time, in that moment—pivotal for me—I decided to toss aside ideals and take the risk of living in the real world, without any assurances, without expectations, without any guidelines but kindness.

When the light weakened, she packed up her things and got ready to leave. She paused beside me for a moment, holding her basket of now-dry, folded clothes against her hip, with her box of paints and brushes on top. In her free hand, she held the easel folded up and vertical, with her wet canvas still clamped against it. I could tell she was pondering something. She was studying me, not quite ready to speak. The wind played with her black hair, her long blue dress.

“What do you want?” she asked, holding my glance with her dark eyes.

I was speechless. This was a question I had never directly asked myself. It was also unsettling that someone else was asking it.

“Sex and applause,” I said, twisting and weaving. “The first followed by the second.” I said this with one of my smiles, being clever and evasive, but also laughing a little at myself .

“I believe that’s true,” she said.

“Maybe love,” I said, shifting about in the arena of discourse.

“No, I think it’s the former,” she said, and the corners of her mouth rose, as she found humor in it all.

“And laughter,” I said.

“What about sadness,” she asked, still holding the basket on her hip, one brown foot jutting seaward.

“Ah, sadness. That’s the key. I don’t think men know how to grieve. And I’m a man. We’re too busy coping, surviving, searching for meaning. We stagger along stuck full of arrows, and we pretend they aren’t there. We place crosshairs on the forehead of a boy from the next town and squeeze the trigger, full of certainty and righteousness. Plastic floats beneath the surface of Homer’s wine dark sea. Men can only grieve over the someone they love when one or the other of them is dying. Sadness is a dark subterranean river—that is always there.”

She looked alarmed, but then took a deep breath, and shifted the basket, then nodded, and said she we should talk another time. I said good-bye and did not expect to see her again.

Two steps away, she turned around briefly and said, “Good answer.”

I had said farewell as many times as there were years in my life. I watched her go, examined her bottom, the way the off-shore breeze pressed the long blue dress against the curve of her legs, the way she pivoted on the balls of her feet, swinging her heels inward, to gain traction against the sand. At the narrow stone boardwalk, she turned and—I like to think—smiled at me and tossed her head in a kind of wave. But I don’t see that well, and all I can say for sure is that she then turned and entered the hotel and was gone.

When I drew the door back toward me, the one in my room, in the dark of that evening of the soft wind and the waves, I saw Alex standing before me, barefoot as at the beach, with a long white dress and holding a bottle in front of her and, in her other hand, two long-stemmed wine glasses.

“Do you like Retsina?” she asked. “With goat’s cheese and raw garlic and Greek bread?”

“I like Retsina,” I said, still poking my head around the corner.

“I don’t have any goat’s cheese or garlic,” she said.

“I don’t have anything on,” I said.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, and came through the door.

We sat on the bed, drinking the Retsina. Me clothed only by the wind and lit only by the deep Aegean night. We talked about the things we liked in the world: cities, books, films, and friends. Then we talked about things that threatened us most. I spoke about abandonment and betrayal. She talked about severed relationships, remoteness in the midst of closeness, the conflicting expectations of lovers, the absence of gentleness, walls of defensiveness. Last of all, about violence and anger.

When the bottle was empty, and I think we were both feeling the Retsina, she asked me if I knew what she was wearing, and I said a long white, probably cotton, shift. She said I was mistaken, that I was affected by the wine. She asked for my hand, and I wondered how that could determine the color of her dress. She held my hand higher than, say, the level of her knees, higher than her waist, and placed it against a soft curve of bare skin.

“How did you manage that?” I asked.

“I just decided to do it.”

She held my hand against her.

“I mean take it off without me knowing.”

“Timed to the slosh of a wave.”

“I can feel your heart,” I said. It was not something clever. I could feel her heart, and its beat was slow and steady.

“Is this a moment that joins or separates?” I asked.

“Joins,” she said.

“Then separating?” I said.

“First the joining,” she said. “First the basket full of wet wash, then my painting of the clothes, then your poem, then a declaration on grieving men, then your nakedness, now my beating heart.”

“I’m not a superman,” I said.

“I’m not a pin cushion,” she said, “—or a jukebox.”

“How about lips?” I asked.

“And lips,” she said, and she raised my hand still farther, until the tips of my fingers were touching her French and English mouth—which I could tell was smiling.

A Letter to the President

I saw you on television the other night, Mr. President, and so we certainly know a few things about you. I just thought I should let you know a few things about me. You know, make it kind of even. And to tell you I am leaving your country and going to another. I thought I’d try Colombia. I like my violence overt. Perhaps if I’d been better at math, I would have stayed closer, perhaps have a brick house in Georgetown, perhaps moor a Herreshoff sloop in some tidal creek in Maryland, swept by the flight of herons.

I am not a bad person. I suppose you could say I am a weak person. If something comes along that makes me famous once-removed for a moment, what’s the harm in it?

And so, to the reason why I am writing you, Mr. President: Renal Lauswald was my roommate in the Fifth Form, at the Regency School, in Bristol, England. My father designed war ships for His Majesty’s Navy. And then for your Navy.

That was more than forty years ago, and I know someone like you might spot it right away, and say that I am an unreliable witness, because of all the time lapsed. And then there’s all the added information your people will pick up eventually, namely that I was repeating the Fifth Form. Still, keep in mind, my mother was an American, and I am therefore also a citizen of your country.

The point is, you just appointed Renal Lauswald–also a citizen, I may point out–to the point of the most secret of secret agencies in your government. (How would I know this? An article in the New York Time’s culture section)—no, not the one we hear about, with three letters. The other one, with five letters. And better that you appointed Renal, rather than me. He was so smart at this school on the sheep-tinkling knoll, with its bees waxed floors and gas wall lamps, and he fretted so much about getting anything less than one hundred percent on everything, that they made him an instructor in math, chess, Monopoly, and, for fun and relaxation, the game Battleship.

I, on the other hand, fell into crisis every time I was faced with a verbal arithmetic question. You know, a train is approaching a stalled car, somebody’s parents, at a crossing, and the woman is pregnant and very much in love (looking like photos of my mother in her thirties), her whole life in front of her, and the question is: how much time will he have, my father, to get her (and the beginnings of me) out of the 1941 Hillman, if the train is going such and such a speed.

Or, like in modern terms, if a Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile at a terrorist wedding, and the missile approaches at 1,400 feet per second, and 3.8 miles away the twenty-year old Toyota pickup truck—the one that’s carrying the bride and groom and is all filled up with flowers and children and garlic and three kabob-bleating lambs—is bouncing along from the other direction at 37.5 mile per hour, and the bride groom, grinning, already singing her the traditional song “I gave you my heart, now I leave it to God”—if he shows his white teeth every nine seconds, how many times can he smile before the wedding is 100% called off and the garlic is overdone?

The point is, Mr. President, Renal would be able to solve that problem in a few seconds, without using any paper, and without displaying even one of the frowns you and I use when confronted by baffling information, such as the Constitution or the Geneva Convention.

In strictest confidence, there is something regarding Renal I should warn you about. After all, he slept two beds away from me, on the other side of Ping Pong Pawley, there under the medieval rafters. His stomach was in constant turmoil over, I suppose, his father’s expectations of him (Isn’t that usually the case; it was in my own), and his breath was so sour because of it, that I was glad to sleep next to the window, which I opened quietly—after his breathing had slowed and his mouth turned to dried snake skin and he tried to force air through his stress-pinched nostrils. How do I know this? Because I would ghost past him at night on the way to the common lavatory)

Mr. President, this is petty, I know, but Renal stretched his blankets and top sheet very tightly, military style, as if in unconscious preparation for his looming career. Then, sitting on his pillows, he would worm his feet, then his legs, then the rest of his body, under the sheet and blankets, like a larva returning to its cocoon. He did this with great precision, so as not to loosen the tuck. (How do I know this? I could look right across Ping Pong Pawley’s bed and see Renal’s rituals) Then he lay on his back, his arms folded behind his head with his elbows out, constrained as if by straightjacket, rigid. Then the vapors began to rise out of his cracked-open mouth, rigor mortis et somni, and I would get up to open the window and let in the night air. While he lay on his back making dry strangling sounds, I lay on my side breathing in fresh black winter air, listening to the last dying pings of the hot water radiator, and trying to remember the principal parts of irregular Latin verbs, fero, ferre, tuli, latus (to carry). Or, in the variation I now prefer: defero, deferre, detuli, delatus (to inform against, betray).

I have no memory of him in the morning when he rushed hollow-eyed out of the room, in his usual state of morning panic.

But the most important the thing, Mr. President, is the conspiracy of his nose and upper lip—the likes of which you can confirm the next time you do a white couch sit-down with him. The package curves out and down, as prehensile as a tapir’s snout, and suggests a generalized tumescence—like something on a mad Roman emperor, or on various members of the House.

I do not go so far as to say that this is a red flag, Mr. President, a warning about character. Plenty of good citizens have big brains and tumescent snouts, but still approve of water boarding and chip away at those things that could restrain us from war. Not that Renal Lauswald has ever taken a public position on any of these patriotic pursuits.

I hope I’m not coming off as a tell-all, Mr. President. I’m not really that type of person.

Renal left no other impressions on me, so he may be okay—and may not have demanded an investigation of Abu Ghraib or opposed the 9/11 Commission—and I like that in a man. He is probably one hundred percent behind you, Mr. President—which is the way it should be. Lock step when it comes to terrorism.

Maybe I ought to have written this letter earlier, Mr. President, but you must be a very busy, as I am, getting ready to go off to Colombia. That’s Colombia, South America, Mr. President, not the university in Manhattan.

In closing, Mr. President, let me thank you for your attention and wish you much success with your new head of the Other Agency. I know it’s curious, getting this information from someone like me, but if you just stand upwind when you make joint appearances at functions, you should have no trouble leading this country the way you have been right up to this point.

One further matter, Mr. President. Because of the underlying confessional nature of this letter, and because I must have seen something of the confidant in you, let me rhetoricize a bit more and ask, as a matter of conscience, was it me, then, finally, who opened the window at night, against his haunted breath, and began the long process of exposing him to things out beyond the lead-puttied window, where darkness conspires to suspend useless law and break the socialist social contract?

Or was it when I crept to his bedside each night after he had fallen asleep, and tightened the bed clothes still more, and lay his extra pi
llow across his mouth, so that he struggled for breath, gasping and calling out in tongues, for the next eight hours, possibly incubating, in part, the very demons we have now let loose across the earth—in the end making myself instrumental in the application of God’s will, such as to visit upon all the wedding parties of Afghanistan our own Divine and Collective Justice?

Yours sincerely,
George Aesop
Princeton ‘76
Hotel Langley Porter
401 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94143