Category: ~ The Earlier Stories

The pre-Mexico stories

Cayman

Cayman

“It takes me about ten minutes to get inspired.” This was my typical lament at Collin’s house, where the men gather to write. And so, I took my notebook and went outside for a short night stroll, figuring that darkness was more suggestive than indoor lights. I eased the screen door shut, crunched down the driveway past the four plastic flamingos on the lawn and climbed the footpath and turned left along the dike road that held the swamp back on one side and the Pacific on the other. I crossed the old, riveted bridge, still painted here and there, now closed to cars for safety reasons. Below, beside the black water of the swamp, there against a bank of sand lay–I counted them–seventeen caymans with their narrow snouts and fat bellies, one twice the size of myself, two more only slightly shorter, yet still heavier than me.

I stumbled down the path at the end of the bridge and approached from downwind so they would not smell me. They lay facing the west, listening, I assumed, as I was, to the rumble and thunder of the Panamanian surf. I lowered my profile and crabbed my way toward them, my notebook on my belly and my penmanship pointing skyward. But when I let myself down with a little bump, my legs out straight, with speed that defied vision, there was a thrashing splashing, enough to induce a limbic tingling up and down my spine that they had not come straight at me. When the water settled and my heart slowed and I thought to breathe again, and now with sufficient inspiration, I found my pen and began to write.

I wrote about the Caymans, their eggs, their cousins the crocodiles and alligators and iguanas and lizards, and then acquaintances and colleagues at the university. I wrote as medieval poets do, about chastity and unrequited love.

“Oh horn-browed beauty with yellow teeth,”I wrote, “what is this longing to dance with you in your fetid keep, if only I knew you wouldn’t clamp those shapely jaws on me the bard who sings your scaly charm?”

As I wrote, I noticed bubbled brows watching me from just above the surface, gliding toward me.

“I will write of your belly white like mine,” I murmured on, as I wrote. “But never about that place nearer your tail. What about breasts? Some sort of rounded form that poets love?”
Still silent—to be expected—she drifted closer, rose out of her slimy sink, and dripping waddled up the sandy bank until I thought it wise to back away.”

But something kept me in my place. Was it the look she gave me? It must have been a she, I thought, because I saw some sort of softness below her neck.

Something held me by the left foot. Or was it just the poet’s mood? I read her my poem. She closed her eyes. I like to think she wept.

My audience had grown. Now all seventeen lay at my feet, the moon rose full from behind the bridge.

I thought to sing them an ancient Nordic lullaby. The mood seemed right. We stayed that way until I at least was chilled by the salty mist and decided I should leave and return to the men’s writing group. But when I started to rise, she the Big One opened her eyes, and, with expression, refastened her grip on the tip of my left boot and held me there, as if to say, “One more,” and so I invented something on the spot, “O great beauty of this miserable swamp, the moon thy mother warms thy snout, and even if you now let me go, I would not leave, I love this so.” And with that, she let me go, snapped her teeth in a triple clack. With this signal I saw I was free to go. But since love is fickle and poets, not always honored, I kept looking behind to be sure she had not changed her mind and was considering dragging me back into her murky muck to eat. I climbed up to the dirt road, crossed back over the bridge, and followed my lunar shadow toward the house. Looking back down, I saw the sand bank beside the bog was clear and not one of the seventeen Caymans had thought to linger. The men’s cars were gone, the house was asleep, still guarded by Collin’s four flamingos who never slept. My forty-year old Land Rover Defender growled up a start. My notebook rode beside me, my penmanship facing up, largely unreadable from the speed with which I had written. It was the only evidence of my inspiration. That and a slight tingling in my boot.

Pátzcuaro’s Horses

Pátzcuaro’s Horses

Jon sat in Pátzcuaro’s Plaza Grande, heavy in spirit and no longer young. He sat in the shadow of the great ash trees but in his mind horses lifted their heads, as if they had finally sensed his presence. Then they formed a black-brown river, their tails outstretched. and were halfway across the road before he could react, and then the image faded. His hand dropped and felt the cold stone of the bench. It was not what he needed to be sitting on. It awakened a dull ache halfway down his spine. His wife was waving at him, got no response, hesitated, her hand still in the air, then continued walking toward him. When she finally got his attention, she stopped and called out that she was going to get mangos at the mercado in the Plaza Chica. He nodded, smiled and waved. The image faded more and more, the further she walked away from him.

He had been in Michoacán for three months, and he was still trying to understand. Seeing, not shopping, was what he wanted to do, see the horses that grazed beside the road between Erongarícuaro and Pátzcuaro. In the plaza’s penumbra, although they weren’t there, he could still see them, some with ropes still attached to their necks, some with slipped tethers that now dragged from one front leg, where they had been tied between fetlock and hoof. Now nothing held them away from the road but his own distant and silent imploring.

The contradictions assailed him. In Mexico horses were special, clearly loved, involved in the lives of the campesinos, who treated them as part of the family, walked with them to pastures beside the lake, rode on them, visited them during the day with an entourage of wife, friends, children, burros, cows, and dogs. With so much contact, they were comfortable around humans. He supposed you could walk up to them if they knew you and their ears would not go back. There was no greater pleasure for a campesino, it appeared, than to ride his mare, with all his gear—the saddle with the leather-covered wooden frame and pommel, the sheathed machete, the coiled suspended lazo and, for festivals, the gaban de caballo, the poncho of still oily wool that covered saddle and rider. For summer rains he rode with a yellow plastic poncho, rubber boots, his tightly woven straw hat with a black swallow tail ribbon hanging down in back. And, most important, a month-old colt, free, sleepy, trotting behind, pulled along by the invisible connection with its mother.

In the square, where he sat, a young attractive middle-class woman, perhaps from Morelia, walked beneath the ashes, followed by her brood of two boys nine or ten, on new roller blades and a girl, six or seven, on roller skates. The girl sat down on an adjoining stone bench, while her brothers lurched off around the square with the loud chatter of the privileged. The mother had passed close enough for him to form an impression. She was stylish and at once comfortable in her clean blue jeans, pink blouse above, clean white tennis shoes below. She was young, athletic, and private, a counselor to and protector of her children. There was something about her, the way she walked, the whisper of indecision, eyes empty, that spoke of discontent. Perhaps because it was a Sunday, and the other protector was not with them.

He looked past her, west beyond Pátzcuaro to where he knew horses moved through a 19th Century landscape, a riparian quilt of many greens, interlaced with dirt roads and paths between milpas, corn fields, that swept up toward dark volcanic mountains or downward toward the shimmering lake and its soft bordering marshes where, here and there, campesinos still ploughed with oxen. In his mind, through his failing eyesight, he could see a campesino and his son, on one horse, the boy sitting back on the horse’s haunches, chatting and laughing in tones he associated with a satisfaction he himself had not grown up with, living near Boston. Now and then, the father swung the coiled lazo and rapped down on the rump of a straggling calf. The calf hopped ahead but not too far. With inflamed fly bites on its back, there were worse things than a slow rap from a lazo. They wove back and forth behind the cattle. There was no hurry, only the practical delight of riding herd and, for the animals, the activity of being herded toward pasture.
They passed other horses with children mounted with their fathers, perhaps a girl of nine or ten. They carried bundles of pasto, grass, cut by hand with a short-handled sickle, as feed for pigs or a milking cow. They passed a burro, also heading home, carrying rostrojo, drying corn stalks. When the animal is fully loaded, it is hard to see, the farmer leading it, with his machete looped over his shoulder. It was a walking haycock of corn stalks, slung by knots and ties known by the father and taught to sons, and sometimes to daughters as well. They followed a grassy lane back toward the village and their house, where, warm in the sunlight, a mare grazed close to her colt. The colt stood on legs that were too long, staggered, nudged its mother here and there, looking for teats, sucked once or twice and then looked up at the entourage of animals and people returning from the lake.

It looked over at him seated under the great ash trees, its head still bowed, at the level of the teats. Feeding and connection to its mother were the stronger impulse than standing tall and alert. The mother’s presence and protection made it unnecessary. Plus, it was all too much effort, for colts were always tired from so much growing. The mare was watchful and moved between him and the foal. He could no longer see the foal, partly because of the mare’s position and partly because of the age of the ash trees and shadows of time that he sat in.
Again, it was evening, and a campesino lunged his horse in the area between the road and stonewalls, holding the horse from the end of a long rope which was attached to its halter. The horse, snorting and farting alternately, trotted in a circle around its owner, wearing a shallow circular trench in the soft earth. They were both excited. The campesino turned and grew dizzy from the blur of passing stone walls, road, and dark volcanic mountains, the smell of earth, and the presence of an ownerless dog whose ribcage is showing. The horse’s hooves, a muffled pounding, trembled the earth, and in the falling darkness campesino and horse belong to each other.
By twilight, which tends to be Jon’s only time, the horses were loose and moved over the old paths that eventually crossed the country roads. Flat-nosed three-axled Autocar, Dina and Mercedes trucks with tarps lashed tight over their freight hurtled over these roads. They and thirty- or forty-year old buses spewing black diesel smoke wore heavy steel tubing grates over their radiator grills, grates called tumbaburros, a little Spanish sentence in itself which means something like, “Knocks burros aside,” but also horses. Mules and cows received more supervision and were kept corralled at night.These were the devices that protected them from horses and cattle that wandered across the road at night on legs that snapped from the impact. With tumbaburros there was no need to slow down, whether day or night.
Another animal sat in the plaza and watched with Jon. It was one of Mexico’s ubiquitous ownerless dogs that all look the same and feed in garbage dumps or from wherever they can, especially the ranging females with hanging teats that are desperate to feed their pups. People kicked at them and threw rocks. They flinched and slinked away, always preoccupied with their bottom position in an unforgiving pecking order. From so much effort to survive their responses were dulled. They stumbled against each other when avoiding a stone. They snarled while mobbing a bitch in heat or, distracted, crossed the road without looking to catch up with the families leaving for the pastures beside the lake. Or they cut back and wheeled around into the path of trucks and buses and cars. And died in great numbers and lay on the road for days, before they disappeared . Their bloated legs stuck out at an angle toward the sky. They turned dark, and the air around them turned putrid. There were always two or three dead dogs on our road. It was said that some drivers aimed at them, as if it were a game.
A man walked by Jon with his two children, a girl perhaps thirteen, a boy perhaps ten or twelve. She was as tall as her father, the boy nearly as tall. But he was very much their father, warm and present. It was obvious, as they hung on him, that they looked up to him, assured that he was looking out for them and loved them and treasured them. Jon had two sons. They were in their mid-thirties, but he was not sure what they thought of him, nor if he had looked out for them sufficiently, though he loved them dearly.
But what concerned him now was not so much his sons but rather dead horses. It was not something he had considered entirely possible. Dogs were one thing, but horses, entirely different. The first horse lay on its back in a ditch with its legs straight out and rigid. It lay there for two days, then it was gone. A tractor, an ox team, a truck—somehow responsibility had been assigned and the carcass was removed. From where he sat in the Plaza Grande, he could see it, albeit indistinctly. But how was it lifted into a truck and taken away for rendering? He couldn’t think it through the first time. There was a piece missing. Dead dogs and dead horses on the road? Everyone knew you didn’t stop when you killed something. The legal problems were too great, too labyrinthine, leading to grudges and complications you couldn’t afford to be involved in. And so, in his mind, he moved on.
The second horse lay in the middle of the road on a beautiful morning, when they were on the way to Pátzcuaro. They slowed down to maneuver around it. As they got closer, they saw a dogs ripping at it, a whisp of steam rising from its still warm flesh. On the way home it was still lying there, in the middle of the road. Three dogs tore at the horse’s rectal and vaginal areas where the flesh was softer and more accessible. Another dog lay dead in the road, a victim of its own distraction. The next morning, the horse lay just off the pavement. Now there were seven or eight dogs ripping at it. In one night, they had devoured everything but the rib cage, the backbone and parts of the leg bones, now bare and pink. Its massive head was missing. That afternoon, on the way home from Pátzcuaro, they saw the rib cage lying over near the stone wall, where one or two dogs tore at it. On the next day, nothing. Seven or eight hundred pounds of horse devoured in a day and a half, leaving no trace except a layer of undigested grass from the stomach.
Then what? Under a full cold moon, bored with eating, with their tongues bloody and hanging out, would they try to run down the panicked colt? While, not far off, trucks bellowed through the night, spewing smoke, churning ahead like angry ships?
The rollerbladers clattered by and stopped to ask their mother in whining tones, couldn’t she just please step across the street and bring them cups of the popular homemade ice cream?
They saw the third horse on the road to Salvatierra, on the way to the 25th Cervantino, the International Cervantes Festival held annually in Guanajuato. In area away from villages, a dark form lay on the side of the highway, its legs raised and slanting upward because of the bloated belly. On the way back six days later, its stomach had been cleaned out, the rib cage lay open like a dark basket. Its other parts remained blackened and uneaten, a sign that only slow-eating buzzards had been at work, for dogs would have taken everything, to the last bone, with no time left for the corpse to turn black.
Then later by himself the mountains above Guanajuato, between Schubert and the Ballet Folklórico Nacional, fleeing the crowds, high up on the summit of La Bufa, he walked along the ridge toward the mining village of Calderones and came across two horses, one white and one black black with a white face and two white rear socks, grazing unattended there at the top of the world. They walked away as he approached wondering where they had come from. He found their fresh tracks and followed them along a cattle trail until he came to a grassy green spot at the base of a cliff, a sign that there was a seep higher up. The hoof marks were deep and plentiful and led to a filled water hole. Frogs jump in from all sides when he approached. There were smaller hoof prints he assumed from burros led there with milk cans to fill from the hole for human needs. He climbed higher and the mouth of a cave rose before him. An old stone wall, now tumbled, had formed half a corral to keep animals contained at night. There was a break in the wall, and so he entered the way he could see the two horses had recently, stepped onto the thick carpet of dried manure finely ground from many hooves over the years. On the rear wall at about eight feet he saw an old and skillfully painted painting of a saint. Under the ashes in the square, Jon peered again through dimness to read the name underneath, but it seemed even less clear than ever before. “Aogostino,” perhaps, maybe a shepherd’s patron, but with white skin. The date, even less clear, looked like 1788. And below that, a careful hand in blue paint had written “Animals are not permitted in this space because it is sacred.” He could see them now from the stone bench, the white horse and a black one with a white face and two white rear socks, nuzzling each other, wrapped in each other’s closeness, taking shelter from rain and heat and drought, in their sanctuary beneath the shrine. Then he had looked down and seen human footprints as well, which after some time he had realized were his own joined with those of the horses.

The woman on the bench, with the Nike shoes and pink blouse, might have been watching him, because of the way she turned her head away quickly when he looked her way. But the question faded and she faded. A friend had recently told him a story about the shortcut to the Uruapan highway from the Erongaricuaro-Pátzcuaro road. It was a rough dirt road, and the last part of it was an abrupt rise. When they came up over the lip, he said, there was a dead horse lying on the side of the road and five Purépecha Indians, three children and their parents, dressed in their best clothes, sitting on the horse. It was a cold day, and so it was possible, the friend reasoned, that death had been recent and they were keeping warm while waiting for the bus, or maybe, he thought, they were simply communing with a beloved and valued animal.
Now Jon could see the marsh in great remembered clarity, the lush flatlands beside the lake with the slow motion flight of a blue heron or two, the private studied stalking by lesser egrets, and the black, nervous freshwater cormorants. Cattle fed up to their bellies in water, fifteen or twenty of them, making the sounds of vast African splashing herds, strange and glorious—Mexico’s water buffalo, pulling at fat grasses and ignoring the carnal pleas of the young bull with his bowed and swaying head, showing the whites of his eyes.
Far from the village, in this remote, perfect world of eating, movement, and water, Jon had approached a campesino trying to increase the tension of a barbed wire fence with a crowbar, then nailing it tight. They talked. Philemon had had three wives and seventeen children, ten of them now dead. He was seventy-eight and had worked in Jon’s California hometown in the Fifties picking apples. His father had lived to be a hundred and one. He had little contact with his living children who were all in the States. He couldn’t read or write, and so letters were useless, telephones too expensive. Jon held the crowbar after Philemon has hooked the wire and tensed it, while Philemon nailed. They work together. One of the staples fell, and Jon coildn’t find it. Philemon picked it up and asked Jon how his eyes were, and Jon told him he was going blind, a rare disease, the steady degeneration in the cellular connection that permited vision.
They were quiet for a while, sitting on a grassy bank with the sun on their backs, listening to the cattle moving through the water, the croaking of a blue heron, the egrets’ fussing, the young bull’s suffering. Jon told him about the Purépecha Indians sitting on the dead horse, as if they had been waiting for the bus. He asked him why they were doing it. Philemon’s Spanish grew clearer or maybe Jon was listening more intently.
“It’s just a place to sit,” said Philemon. “If it’s not smelling and rotting, it’s a place to sit.
“You don’t think it’s that when something so large and so Mexican and so good dies, it uses a big share of death, more than it needs for itself, and then there’s less of it, less death, for the people sitting on the horse, and that then life is better and stronger for the living?
“Sure, that’s it,”said Philemon, nodding, his smile warm and friendly.
“And that the horse’s soul is still there, and then it passes into the people who are there right close to it, and they profit from its goodness and beauty?”
“That’s even better.” Philemon paused. “Look, my friend” he said, the hammer hanging at his side. “The truth is I don’t really believe in all that. I believe in God, although you don’t see me in the church very often.” He stopped for a moment. “But you know, my wife believes in it. My third wife,” he added, grinning. “She believes that’s why all her children lived. The goodness of animals. The innocence of horses. That’s the word I use.” There was another pause. “But I think it’s because I married her young and strong.
“And pretty?” .
“Yes, very pretty!” The old man laughed and reached into his breast pocket and fished out a squashed package of cheap Alas.
“Do you smoke?”he asked, and fumbled one out.
“No. Thanks.”
“Good! You’re still young.”
And then he lit up, the match, his hand trembling, and they sat with the sun on their backs, listening some more to the big sound of cattle moving in water.
Just then the boys pass by again on their roller blades, ignoring their sister’s pleas to wait for her. Jon rested his hand the cold stone of the bench, then leaned forward and got up and realized that His wife was standing right in front of him, studying his face, and holding two large ripe and blushing mangos for him to smell. And then he put his arms around her and held her tight and felt the warmth of her body, but also the two mangos she was pressing against his back, like the young breasts she had pressed against him when they were young.

The Down from a Thousand Geese

 

 

There was a student at the university where I taught German. He was an aerial photo analysis expert during the Vietnam War or, as the Vietnamese say, the American war. His job was to guide B-52 strikes on villages and troop concentrations in Laos and Cambodia, strikes which had been forbidden by the US Congress. He had been instructed to target villages where crops had been planted in straight lines, this being an indication, according to higher moral authorities, that the villagers were communist. He began to vector the bombing runs as far away from villages as he could without being caught by his diligent superiors. He also turned to heroin for relief from thinking about the people he had already blown to pieces in the Arc Light attacks, where each time a five square miles of terrain was obliterated by the B-52 bombing pattern. Eventually he refused to serve and was imprisoned and served time in the US military prison, and then came to my state university from San Quentin Prison, whereupon he was elected the student body president and went on to receive many honors.  For many years he was the president of the Vietnam Veterans’ Restoration Project, a veterans’ organization which built eight medical clinics in Vietnam. The US Veterans Administration never recognized his disability claim for post-traumatic stress syndrome. After hearing him talk about his war and post-war experiences, my love and I ate at a local Chinese restaurant. While waiting for our food I wrote the bulk of what follows on paper napkins.

The Down from A Thousand Geese

My Great-Great-Great Uncle Chu Li was half Chinese, half English—the son of an English merchant and a warlord’s daughter. My relatives continued to marry non-Chinese to the extent that you would be hard pressed to see any Asian ancestry in the contours of my eyes.

Chu Li ran away from home because, he said in letters to those who were born after him, there was more cruelty there than there was down on a thousand geese. His grandfather, the warlord, sent out searchers and warned them that they would die if they did not find Chu Li.

Meanwhile, Chu Li wore a disguise and sat on the bank of a great river, thinking about the beauty of the world and the pettiness of human beings. One day the warlord himself came to cross the river. While the group waited for the boat to ferry them over, the warlord asked the young man sitting on the bank if he would care to be one of his soldiers.

The young man, who was Chu Li, answered, after some thought: “If I declare my loyalty to you, what obligations will you have to me?”

The warlord waved his hand impatiently. “I will give you one ten-thousandth of what I earn in a year, plus food and shelter and rice wine enough.

“But will you care for me like a grandson?” Chu Li asked.

The great man waved his hand dismissively but did not leave. “A grandson obeys his grandfather. The burden of respect rests on him. Therefore, that is how I would treat you.”

“You mean, Your Lordship, you would never walk with me beside a great river, holding my hand, teaching me wisdom and how to laugh? You would never show me which pomegranates to pick and how to eat them?”

“You are to be my soldier to help rule my country, not a soft mother’s child who eats pomegranates all afternoon.”

“What about my mother, if she were to pass?”

“If she were pretty with breasts and hips, I would order her to show her respect by lying with me with her legs spread so that I could show her my power and domination.”

“Your lordship,” said Chu Li, “I do not think I would want to be the grandson of one so powerful, so impatient, so unwilling to learn.”

At that the warlord raised his sword and struck Chu Li on the shoulder with the flat of the blade, sending him rolling in the dust of the riverbank.

When the boat crossed the river with the warlord, who was Chu Li’s mighty grandfather, a cable broke and the boat turned over and sank and all the horses and men were drowned. Only the warlord still swam above the waves. Chu Li entered the muddy water and swam to him and held him by the beard like a goat. The water had washed away Chu Li’s disguise, and so his grandfather recognized him.

“I will throttle you like a goose when I have you in my hands again, you impudent mother’s boy!”

At which, Chu Li let him go.

“Why are you drowning me?” shrieked the warlord.

“I am not drowning you, old man,” said Chu Li. “I am only obediently not interfering in my punishment, so that you may be unobstructed in your absolute right to choke out my life.”

At which the warlord hissed: “You will die by my hand,” and sank beneath the waves, heavier than the wet down from a thousand geese.

Uncle Manny Takes the Wave

 

 

Uncle Manny Takes the Wave

 

My Uncle Manny once told me over a wickedly scrumptious Bear Claw and coffee at a country restaurant run by a religious cult that his secret goal was to be able to stand in front of his own mirror and point to his mat of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” He was already sixty, so I was careful to keep my reaction to a supportive nod that would hide any trace of doubt.

 

When Uncle Manny got to the beach, he found his former student Holly with three of her friends pulling on their wet wetsuits. It was February, eight o’clock in the morning, gray and cold and a light sprinkle falling and little hope of any sunlight that day.

 

Holly was glad to see him. He was her former professor in a section of the War & Peace Lecture Series, where he had also been a lecturer and had given talks on genocide Guatemala, Mexico, and Chechnya.

 

She wanted to know what he was doing there.

 

“Jogging, getting some air,” he said. “And you? Surfing? So early in the morning and in weather like this?” The truth was, he knew she often surfed there weekend mornings and had hoped to run into her.

 

“We had a sleep-over,” she said, “and we’re going to do a little surfing now and let the water wake us up.”

 

She was pulling on the top of her suit. She wore a sweatshirt but had extracted her arms from its sleeves and was working herself into the top of the wetsuit without revealing anything. Once suited, she hopped around on the balls of her bare feet, getting her board out of the car, waxing the top and cracking the windows on the old Toyota Four Runner for her dogs

 

“Want to come?”

 

I could, he thought. He had the new wet suit in the back of his truck. He had his  stately ten-foot longboard, which he had never tried to use, and he found Holly attractive.

 

“I’ve actually been thinking of taking lessons.”

 

“You got a wet suit with you?”

 

“I do…”

 

“Well, then, come on out with us!” she said, gathering her ankle leash in one hand and the board in the other.

 

“I’d be embarrassed,” he said, making a clever joke out of the truth.

 

“Have you used it yet?” she asked, smiling and with no trace of mockery.

 

He hadn’t. He’d only tried it on in the shop’s dressing room. It still had the tags on it. And that had been three weeks ago.

“I’m backing into it slowly.”

Holly’s smile was friendly, maybe even a bit more than friendly. Or was it also partly puzzlement over his phrasing “backing into it,” one more bit of irony she half expected from him and never quite got? Was she pondering these things, he wondered, or was it just him?

It was darker overhead and raining a little stronger.

“Come on with us!” she said, in a voice that was clearly an invitation, possibly on more than one level.

He knew he was too old. On more than one level.

Then she introduced him to her friends as one of her favorite professors. Her friends were Heather, Annie and Willow. Names like that. Friendly, warm, interested faces. No judgment. In their minds, perhaps a few unformed questions about the matter of his age.

“We just go out and have fun,” Holly said, over her shoulder. “See you!” and he watched them trotting over the gray beach, like otters approaching a stream. Holly skipping sometimes, her little frame, her neoprene-covered bow sprit, maidenhead breasts heading seaward, her rounded aboriginal bottom moving above her strong, youthful legs. A delightful sisterhood of young working women, carrying their hand-me-down boards that they’d inherited from their boyfriends present and past. He watched as they trotted then, full of confidence, bent over to wrap their leashes around their tanned ankles. Then he watched as they walked deeper into the waves. toward the spot where the lagoon emptied into the surf as a tidal river and where, he knew, Great White shark were known to feed.

The next time he looked, Holly was up on a three-foot wave, turning and twisting like the very best of them. They were, he decided in that moment, the real thing, and he was not.

He watched them for a while, standing in his black rain-proof running pants, his windbreaker, in his Gortex running shoes. He recalled a story his priest had told him. How the priest had an assistant for a while, a big Irishman with a mop of red hair, big workingman’s hands, a broad smile and a kind heart. And how for some reason everyone began referring to the likeable assistant as “The Priest.” And how he, the smaller man, the real priest, would go home at night, look at himself in the mirror and say, “I’m the priest, damn it– I’m the one who’s the priest!” That is what Manny wanted to say one someday. “Damnit, I’m the one who’s the surfer.”

We know this little secret this from Uncle Manny’s diary, from a passage that Aunt Stella had forgotten to purge with her black magic marker—the last entry before he finally left for Hawaii to take surfing lessons.

God only knows how his mind was working. We learned from his short, barrel-chested instructor Brent McNab—the Hawaiian great-great-grandson of Episcopalian autocrats who had ruled Hawaii and suppressed Hawaiian culture and independence—whom we were  later able to track down at Waikiki Beach, that Uncle Manny had done extremely well for a man his age. He had learned to leap into a surfer’s crouch almost immediately, had figured out the timing required to catch and take a wave, to stand up, balance and choose a path right or left away from the part that that was beginning to break. More astonishing was his seemingly instinctual ability to slant down across a wave’s face and then shoot up again and escape over the crest just before then wave broke. Casual observers, as well as Manny himself, agreed that he was well on his way to being the real thing.

But we also learned that on his sixth day as a surfer, he entered a Z.A. – a zone of arrogance, as Brent Macnab put it. Brent had told him not to surf in waves so large that he would not be able to hold his breath for the time they broke and held him down. On this occasion, he had also overlooked the lesson about applying only certain kinds of wax on the top of the board and only in certain amounts. It appeared in hindsight Manny’s talent for quick learning had not extended to attentive listening, for he had not internalized Bret’s two warnings.

On the day my Uncle Manny actually did become the real thing, Shinsaku Umahashi, a Japanese  camera man for The Japan Times with a new extra-powerful telescopic lens had set up his tripod on Diamond Head, a volcanic formation a good mile and a half from Waikiki Beach and happened to focus on one particular wave because of its size. He could make out the man sitting on his longboard in front of the rogue wave. He noticed the shock of gray hair and concluded it indicated he was observing a surfer of much experience who would put on a worthy display before the might of the enormous wave. Then he noticed the dark shadow in the water between the wave and the surfer and how it approacing with about the same speed as the wave. Both the wave and the shadow had almost arrived when he started filming.

In the water, Uncle Manny lept up as the wave lifted him, then found himself sloping along the face of something that was simply too big. Some said it had been easily twenty feet high from trough to crest, and poorly shaped, as they say in the parlance. Too steep and too unstable—impatient, as it were, to avalanche forward and unfurl all its tons of water not in sequence but all at once, in a thundering, frothing, churning, downward explosion.

Well, the long and the short of it was—according to Brent Macnab, who was watching him through binoculars—that Uncle Manny saw the problem and, for all his inexperience, realized that he had to leave his board and get in the water right then and there and disengage from the wave. But because of the matt of white hair on his chest, McNab thought, he found himself wedded to the over-waxed top of his rented Waikiki long board and therefore had to hurtle forward with it, until he was airborne, tumbling end over end through the air in front of the monster wave before he disappeared beneath it and the board came up broken in half, still overly waxed, with much of Uncle Manny’s white chest hair. But without Uncle Manny.

Instructor Macnab, the Honolulu Metropolitan Police Department, and the US Army, whose park-base the Fort DeRussy Military Reservation all this had happened in front of, all had their different theories, but in the end settled on the version that a large shark must have been in the wave with Uncle Manny and had taken him out to sea for a snack and then dropped him somewhere farther out beyond any ZA, where what was left of him – whatever part of him that had escaped sharp teeth, must have been nibbled into extinction by lesser fish and crabs as it drifted away and eventually sank, without Uncle Manny ever wearing his wet suit, the one he’d left in Northern California, and without ever returning to the frigid waters where he could have frolicked with Holly and her young feminist working class otter sisters, or even stand in front of his own mirror and point to his matt of white chest hair and say, “I’m the surfer. I’m the surfer. I’m the real thing.” That is, until editors at The Japan Times shared a film clip of the Waikiki incident where “an older experienced surfer” had met with a double nemesis, an event they gave the ghoulish title 本物だった The Real Thing. With most of the emphasis laid on the size of the wave, the age of the surfer and the fact that he was most likely eaten by the very large shark that had been in the wave with him. When the clip played on American channels, Holly and her friends discussed it in solemn voices, while Holly wept.

 

 

My Father’s Loves

 

 

My Father’s Loves

 

When my father died, in 1976, notes began to appear.

First, on a piece of blue paper, placed in his journal, “There are no hints given. The coffee hits the spot. The biscotti are making me non-literary and not inclined to edit the novel. The moon is full. The air is cold. My yawns weigh me down. All of me still in the first person. There is a philology book I am supposed read: The German Language. It is 800 pages long. I am going for a walk. Would you like tea when I get back? Do not ever forget I love you. Mary Ann.”

The trouble was, it was not in my father’s handwriting. Nor in my mother’s. My father had glued it into his journal in such a way that it was hard to open. And Mary Ann was not my mother’s name.

He wrote that he had found her note stuck behind the frame of her bureau mirror, once when he was snooping around.  “It was folded in the middle, the way she used to part her hair, tucked away for the times I might need to read it.” With the date in his hand, “January 3, 1956.”

That was the first note.

Not too long ago, I found the second note.

My mother had asked me to repair the top drawer of her bureau. The drawer was binding and was hard to pull in and out. I knew a few gentle strokes with a wide-angle plane and a little sanding would do the trick. There, hidden from prying eyes, under the liner paper, was a scrap of paper and words written in my father’s hand, written twenty years after the Mary Ann’s note.  “Up at 5, gone for a walk, we’ll have coffee together when I’m back. Don’t forget I love you.”

That morning my father went to the river in his gray felt hat, wrapped in his brown herringbone woolen overcoat, and puffing his pipe, a neighbor said, and doing the stroll he loved so much, past the mill pond, and down the lane through pines, over the glacial sand toward the salt river skirted with ice, and slipped into the black river without his pipe or coat, or felt hat which he left hung over a the post at the end of the town wharf.

After the funeral, we walked to the river—my mother went by car, she grieved too much to walk—and we threw wreathes of white florist flowers into the river and sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

 A trusty shield and weapon

He helps us free from every need

That hath us now o’ertaken….

 

Six months later my mother discovered my father’s journal, and out of it dropped the message to him from Mary Ann. My mother read the diary, and a jealousy seized her so great that she was hospitalized for a week and nearly gave up her will to live. When she returned home, steadied between my brother and me—both in our early forties and undecided in our need for her to live or not to live, she asked us to assemble all my father’s papers, place them on the table beside her bed, and then leave her alone.

That night, she called me at my home in Cambridge. My wife and I had gone for a walk, and my Cynthia, our fourteen-year old daughter, talked to her troubled grandmother for over an hour. She could not sleep, her grandmother told her, without knowing what had become of this Mary Ann. She had to talk with her, if she was still alive, and could I, Cynthia’s father, call her back immediately, no matter the hour, and pledge my support in this project. Cynthia said she talked about love and passion, and about the excruciating pain of jealousy felt in the permanent absence of the person one loved. And then she cursed my father and wept and asked Cynthia if she believed in love, and whether she thought youthful passion meant more than the love between those who are old. My Cynthia is wise for her age, but these questions, she said, about youthful passion required an adult response, not hers.

Two years passed, and I spent many hours searching through records, telephoning relatives, interviewing my father’s surviving friends. And then I found Mary Ann, in West Arlington, alone in a brick house, with a black Labrador retriever and a hired companion.

At first, she pretended senility, the passage of years, forgetfulness, always disputing her identity as my father’s old love. After three visits I decided I would learn nothing, and I asked her to forgive me for disturbing her. Two days later, she called me. She could not sleep, she said. There were things to say, but they didn’t concern me and would I come for her the next morning? She wished to talk with my mother. And it would be a private meeting.

The next day was impossible for me, but the following Sunday afternoon I drove her to Marshfield. My brother had already arrived, to be with my mother as she waited. I led Mary Ann to the house, the Labrador following behind. My mother met her at the door—cordially, graciously, as she had always welcomed guests. She guided Mary Ann toward the living room and the crackling fire. She turned and asked my brother and me to walk to the river and see what the tide was. We protested that we already knew the tide. She said we looked peaked—that was her expression, in two syllables, and we needed a walk. It would do us good. My brother looked at me. Then Mary Ann asked us whether we could walk the dog. That she loved the water.

“She could swim in the river. It’s a place she would love.”

How did she know about the river? I thought, and had she swum there naked with my father?

My mother advanced on us, driving us back through the kitchen, and Mary Ann guided the dog to the door. “Her name is Lucy,” she said with a smile,

And then, more softly, “Maybe she can tell you the rest of whatever you might want to know about me.”

Then Lucy, my brother, and I watched the old women walk stiffly back into the living room and settle at opposite ends of the couch. I grabbed a few things I had set aside in the clothes closet, one of them my father’s felt hat, which I put on my head, and his pipe, which I put in my pocket.

Outside, snow began to fall around us in heavy flakes. We moved around the outside of the house so we could look through the living room windows. We saw the old women nod their heads as they talked and to our surprise laugh, not just once, but again and again. And then they cried and held each other and were soon sitting together in the center of the couch, where they looked at pictures from photo albums and drank tea, then sherry, and then more sherry.

The snow had built up on our shoulders and our feet had grown cold. Lucy the Labrador had found other things to do and wandered farther and farther away from us, skirting the yard, a dark busy form against the whitened pines. Finally, she pulled us away from the windows, and we followed her down the lane, past the mill pond, down over the glacial sand, crunching and squeaking in the fresh snow, until we reached the banks of the river and stood and watched the her plunge into the black water and swim toward the opposite bank—and be swept downstream by the tidal current, so that we called to her in alarm. But she climbed up through the salt grass on the far bank, bounded upstream, reentered the water and, using the drift of the current, returned, intelligent and proud to the very place we stood.

The sky had cleared, and the moon appeared big and round and bright. The Labrador walked to the end of the town wharf and shook her coat, so that the spray glinted in the moonlight for a moment, then disappeared. And we laughed and said she was a hell of a dog, and that we’d better get back before the two old ladies killed each other or got drunk and had heart-attacks or the dog got pneumonia. We needed a drink anyway, and when the dog stood beside me for a moment, I reached down and felt her, and she was black like the water of the river, and warm, and very much alive. The last thing I did, with my brother’s agreement, was take a last smell of my father that still lingered on inside rim of his hat—the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp and smelled my fingers. Then I lay down and launched my father’s felt hat, inverted like a boat, with his pipe in the middle. Then I stood up and the three of us watched as the hat began its journey seaward. I held the dog by the collar until her impulse to rescue the hat passed. It had started to snow again, and we stood for a while at the very end of the wharf, trying to see whether we could hear the big flakes hitting the water. A lost cause because of the way dog’s soft panting filled the night.

“How long will it float?” my brother asked, and I said I didn’t know much about the seaworthiness of felt hats or the buoyancy of pipes. Or, for myself, just when the water would extinguish his smell.

 

Why My Hair is White

 

 

Why My Hair is White

 

 

One evening, upstairs in a Connecticut brown shingle house on Long Island Sound, I stood in front of the mirror as usual, naked as usual, and oiled my hair a slippery black, smearing downhill flat against my skull with a viscous goo a friend brought me from Alaska, walrus oil—something to encourage my hair, to bring on new things, and maybe old ones as well. And then I lay back, showered and cool on the smooth, expensive summery sheet so soft and was bathed a second time in wind coming through the evening screens on both sides of the wooden room.

I never expected the results. A cry full of longing rose up out of the sloshing cove. It was more a sobbing toothy singing, possibly the walrus cow we’d heard of, even though I know you’re thinking it was the wrong latitude. Yet there were connections. My own Clarissa was gone, drawn beneath that moody water back in another summer, sailing alone—an accident, best not mentioned again, even to myself. I thought nothing of it, the cries briefly confused with memory. I lay on my aunt’s guestroom bed, lingered instead at the edge of boyhood, adolescence, young man love, times full of hope and expectation and yearning in memory of Clarissa’s sun-warmed skin, her breasts, her fears, my hopes.

At the same time, I heard the gravelly crawling on the driveway, the sigh of elms, I felt the moon’s full blue, the cat’s mentioning something about shadow and the invasion of territory. And not until the moon had slipped in through the screens on the other side of the wooden room, on the side away from the sea, did I sit up on my stretched sheet and peer out over my white legs to see her, massively huddled at the foot of the bed, with her weight bowing down the floor, and probably the old beams below it, and eclipsing my aunt’s disordered shelves of vacation mysteries.

What can I tell you? How much I pitied her? Not my aunt with her lipsticked cigarette stubs and her unfinished glasses of Scotch, but my sad blubbery visitor with her big eyes, one turned sideways, spy glassing me, calling on me to explain myself and the stuff in my hair, the cruel trick of the oil, the impersonation of friends in frigid worlds I would never understand. I thought to look at the tube, the one the oil had come in. Was there some writing on it, something I should have considered, some warning? We sat that way for a while, waiting for the moon to move on and leave us for the elms, the sand tennis court, the cove where the boats lay rocking, asleep, including the one which had carried my Clarissa to her grave beyond the reef. A plunging fifteen-foot nun she had cut too close to, which spilled her over the side, then repeatedly drove her under until like Ahab she rose and fell with it, entangled in its mooring chains, no longer afraid.

I felt I owed my visitor some explanation, sitting there with my hands on my knees, she with her flippers touching the brass bed on one side, and Agatha Christie on the other, her tail, wet against the white porcelain of the toilet all the way into the adjoining room.

“Do you have some kind of message for me?” I asked. “Is there something I need to know? Or is it only something about my hair?”

I fully expected her to disappear, as all apparitions do, fade into shadows, join familiar contours, become clothes flopped over wicker rockers, lumped blankets on pine chests, towels on the floor, the shadow of a door in the mirror. But she shifted and sniffed the sniffing of twenty dogs. I smelled seaweed and fish breath, ripe squid and sour sand, dead eels and mud at low tide and most curious of all, the hardest part to tell, the smell of sunlight and wind on a young neck and cheek, the wry wrinkle, the corner of a mouth, she who could mock me in water, at tennis, a flurry of legs while dancing, wrestling and breathy in bed.

I hesitated, something cold uncoiled in the stomach.

“Clarissa?” I asked, fearing my own voice, fearing what the question might bring.

“Clarissa, is that you?”

But there was only more sighing from the flippery, undulating mass, the one eye cocked in my direction and that seemed to say, “Watch what you say, think, and do. Watch what you remember, ask to repeat. And stop oiling your hair with oils to which, God knows, you have no right. And above all, leave the dead alone, do not disturb their sleep, nor their drift, as they tack through dark water. Get lotions from the earth, its plants and such. Take memories from the living. Walrus fat is for walruses, and life for the living.

And then something pressed me back upon my sheet, where I placed my hands, my fingers intertwined, over my chest, and sank back down into summer sleep, determined to leave well enough alone, as I’d been told .

In the morning she was gone. But not the water on the floor, nor the smell of the sea. I rose and showered long, scrubbed and purified, revealing my hair as what it was—preternaturally white, and resolved never again to use what was in the tube, nor yearn for the dead. And since then, I have gone dry, tousled, feathered, fluffed and never flat. I have a girlfriend. I am kind and say “I love you.” And almost all of me means it. I’m reformed and renewed, in every way, with abundant confidence. Except that I do not sleep naked in moonlight on sheets pulled flat beside the sea, nor yearn for things I cannot have, and do not ever peer at that spot between Agatha Christie and the porcelain toilet, in that wooden room, above the cove and the bobbing, breathing, sighing sea.

 

The Go-Between

The Go-between

There was a knock, and then he opened the thick door, peered in at me from under his dark brows, took two steps into my cramped quarters —that was all it took to reach me —and handed me what looked like a poem, or at least something in verse. I squinted. Maybe it was an epitaph, perhaps meant for my own stone. All manner of things ran through my mind. A toasting song that the crew needed help with. I did not know which thing it was until upon reading the beginning verses, I realized it was some sort of codicil in matters of love. I looked up from my circle of light, sitting there as I was at my small ship’s desk, with Grey’s Anatomy opened before me and my flasks and instruments behind me.

I reached out blankly and took the writing from his rough hand into my smaller, smoother, ever so slightly trembling one.

“Translate it into German,” he said, boring me with his black eyes and adding a surly “Sir,” then shut the door and was gone.

Why would the mate ask of me such a thing? And in such a tone? So that my other hand wanted to drop down and lie upon my pistol. Was it mutiny on deck? But why? Weren’t we westering along the Gulf Stream, like an evening star ourselves, bound for the Caribbean Islands, perhaps Jamaica or Dominica or Cuba—all places where I knew Germans were as unlikely to be come upon as the Asian races might be on the mighty Saint Lawrence to the north.

The Rebecca, an eight-gun, eighty-ton frigate, had a whole leg bone in her teeth and was doing a smooth prance from the night wind steady over her beam, so that we rose and fell in a comfortable dependable rhythm, the kind that lets a man sleep deeply in his coffin-narrow berth or think unfettered thoughts under the swinging oil lamp above his cramped desk, there to wander in his mind and think of his childhood and mother and even of a woman who smiled at him and invited him to have a cup of cold spring water and linger under a Maritime pine on a hot day, if he might want to. So scratches my quill in ink as I tell you this story.

But this new duty seemed apart. I normally treated injuries caused by rum, hence falling, knife work, more often scurvy, tarantula and rat bites, and the dripping pox.

But I set about to translate what the mate had handed me, and it came out like this, only thanks to my early Lübeck schooling, half remembered.

 

Gentle lady, so soon the grave

So quickly life flows us past.

I should give everything for

a moment, when you choose me,

and I choose you.

And you smile at me,

And I hold you against me

Into all Eternity

I dipped my quill the right amount and paused to call up again my schoolboy dose of Minnedichtung mixed with the language of the doomful Baroque.

Sanftes Wesen, wir huschen ins Grab,

Was meint ihr

Wie das Leben vorüberfließt.

Was ich alles gäbe

Für den Moment,

Wenn Du mich wähltest,

Und wir uns vermählten

Und Du mich lächelst an,

Und ich Dich an mir halte,

Bis in alle Ewigkeit

 

 

I had no sooner blotted the last line, than there was a knock at the door and the mate reappeared and stood over me with conspiratorial impatience and the smell of danger. I rolled the parchment quickly, tied it with a scarlet ribbon. For I had an inkling. And handed it to him, only briefly passing my eyes over his. But there was nothing I could read there, and then he nodded and was gone.

 

Is this what I was hired to do? Not work on wounded bodies but write poems for unseen courting? They had not trained me for as much at the Bristol Medical Maritime Academy. Not for this.

 

And so, I took two steps of my own out from around my desk and opened my own door and walked the dark fo’c’sle passageway between bunks of forms drowned in sleep and took the ladder furthest forward, climbing up through anchor chains, mildewed jibs and pitch smeared hawser rope and popped up just aft of the great oak bowsprit with its longhaired figurehead, her overboard nets and their sticky salt coating, emerged into moonlight and the roar of the bow wave just below. And sat down upon a capstan and let my eyes accustom themselves to night – when, just then, the Rebecca rounded up into the wind and began to slow, canvas luffing, flapping with boom and clap enough to wake the sleeping watch below, except that dark figures were already in the rigging to wrap and calm the sails, the way trainers do with wild animals, as I saw them back when I was a boy and things were more clear.

 

A dark form rode up beside us, a ship as tall as a cliff, also slowing, not fifty yards away. This when I as an officer should have stood up and gone to the captain and informed him of the conspiracy, except that my body as if in thrall to the anchor capstan, was turned to wood and would not rise.

 

A boat left her side, and one from us as well. Someone shouted an order. Someone gave explanations and excuses. A voice with authority ordered marines, with muskets.

 

In the walrus moon, across the water, at the bow of each gig, as they came closer to each other, their crews no longer rowing, their oars suspended, I could make out two figures standing, one handing something to the other, a smaller figure, a woman perhaps, because of the pale skin of her face, from which a hood had fallen, and the long dark hair which fell waving down, not unlike the figurehead just beside me.

 

The oarsmen held the boats together. One raised a small hurricane lantern. She read by both moon and lantern light, looked up and gave a small cry. And they held each other. He climbed from his boat up onto hers, stood, teetering on the gunwale – when a volley of shots broke out over the moonlight and the sighing sea. And he fell back into the arms of those who had brought her. Then the tenders drew apart and began returning, the foreign one now closer to me, so close that I could hear the woman’s moans. Already drums rolled on our deck, and orders of arrest were being spoken.

 

The men in her boat rowed for their ship, dipping their oars at requiem pace, passing close enough, so that I could see her holding him across her lap. Then they disappeared around the stern of the great ship that had been beside us and had come from where I do not know. If the lady had come to us, I might have been able to save him. In the morning, there was no trace of the other ship. An investigation was already under way. And the mate, when I saw him, gave me a glance meant to warn. And I, because his eyes looked sad, returned his look with the slightest nod, since I was as much implicated as he.

 

 

 

 

The Men’s Writing Group

 

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. Instead, they reach down, gather up loops of dirty blue intestines, their own, pieces they have dragged along behind them for years, the result of encounters with other men. They draw in half-breaths to ease the tension, so their wounds can recede like so many snails’ heads. They smooth a hand over a place on their stomachs, just above the other vulnerable place, which rides along shriveled and apprehensive. They knock, open the door, shake off the rain. Like small boys, their eyes are wide and alert, and they hope for the best. They talk in short bursts. They want to feel affection and gentleness directed at them from the other men who are already in the house. But they themselves, the new arrivals, are not accustomed to offering affection, and so little of it is passed forward in either direction. They do not know whether to shake hands, whether to stand up from the sofa for the greeting, whether to proffer a hug, and with what intensity, and for how long, and how close to bring their heads or their already stricken stomachs where there is now no feeling whatsoever. Because there is something profoundly off-putting about a gathering of men, if you are a man, and if you are not an up-and-at ‘em kind of fellow, triumphant in card playing, business, sports and war, or some other kind of plotting and trouble.

 And how is it even possible to gauge openness, if we have not ever really mastered the art of openness, not in the course of forty-five, fifty, sixty or two million years? And why should we really, when we sense, just behind it all, 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? Meat that will not be shared. And isn’t that the smell of woman that someone has carried in on his clothing, the scent that narrows eyes, flares nostrils and evokes the question: In exactly what place have I left my sling and stones, my obsidian knife, my Navy Colt.45, and am I sure that all seven chambers are oiled, and primed with cap and ball?

 But still, we ease ourselves into our chairs. The smiles seem inviting, but is it just the tendency to over-compensate? At intervals, there is wheezing laughter, snorts, sweet moments of more than a little letting down, when abruptly something changes, and we are brainless beady-eyed chickens again that have spotted a weakness and we begin to peck at the one who through too much exposure and brief forgetting has called attention to himself and immediately becomes the recognizable sacrificial runt.

The boundary between concerned inquiry and beaked irony is obsidian thin. The self-revealing phrase is met with a response that drips with cleverness and irony. And so, it is safer to say nothing. Nothing real like doubt, worry or sadness that afflicts the stomach and the sad little boy place below it. And so, but for an obsidian syllable or two, this time blood was not spilt, because none was offered.

 And when we trundle home and crawl into our dark warm beds and meet our mate’s sleepy inquiries, we are at a loss to explain how our male companions were that night. Was so and so healthy? she asks. 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 closeness with this or that companion, lover or wife? And when our mate begins her deep breathing, a 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 urine, took in scratch marks on fifty trees and pondered the prints and tracks and sweep of tail of countless other lonely co-dwellers who also wander across hollow, ridge, and swale, looking for food and meaning. We squint out into the bedroom’s darkness and re-measure what we thought we had measured the first time. An unnatural increase in volume, a sudden unexplained movement, a missed inference, the possible intent of all the words uttered. We noted exhaustion, boredom, isolation, pinched souls, perhaps a lover’s bloom. The whole time, behind them we’re sure we see flickering images of their dogs watching us, for now, leashed, but also showing curled lips and yellow teeth and eyes dark with fear. Like us, seeking soft longing in their masters’ generous hands, and in the hidden pulse of hearts beating out, each in a different rhythm, what remains of the five billion heart beats each of us is granted.

 And as we wrote, at the men’s group, we forgot for a while the meat, the scent of the carcass placed in the crotch of a tree, the stiffening hunted flesh that will belong to the strongest of us in the end. But still, I have to say 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 do not die of starvation and loneliness. If the conditions were right and we were fishermen and our boat was sinking, 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, when the steel plates pop, in the middle of an icy night, as my mate sleeps warmly on beside me, and sixty tons of trawler roars and moans and plunges out of sight, nearly sucking me and one other writer down with it in exactly ninety seconds, you have one survival 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 no longer keep his gaze on you and eyes start to break, you hold his face close to yours, and you say: O my dear friend, I love you, I love you. I have always loved you.

The Fence and the Sadness of Men

 

The Fence and the Sadness of Men

 

I was standing by the fence on the morning of the stillest day of the winter. Frost clung to the ground, the eucalyptus were mute and dying, their outer branches at least. I saw him at some distance. John Burrows on his 1949 John Deere row tractor, the high ping ping of the engine carrying across the cold fields.  It was the A model with the close-together front wheels and the overall tricycle look. Its twenty-five or thirty horses were geared down to make a powerful ploughing machine and an unstoppable widow-maker when one of the two rear wheels climbed a stump or dropped into a hollow, tipping the tractor over sideways and pinning the driver under too much weight for him to breathe.

I imagined him smoking but had heard he’d stopped since Alice had died. The one thing he treasured most he gave up as a way of being with her when he normally would have been with himself. A neighbor said he also wore his wife’s scarf, a cream-colored Angora sort of thing that farmers did not wear and felt uncomfortable about even when their wives wore them. But John had changed, and he was dangerous to laugh at. At least, no one dared to and wouldn’t have anyway.

We talked about him in Booth’s Cafe. How he wore the scarf, and the pipe in his mouth, upside down because of the rain—except that it wasn’t raining, therefore some sort of half-mast gesture. We talked about his farm and how it needed painting and plumbing and tanks that needed to be cleaned and cows attended to. Gary the vet had come of his own accord finally, with an excuse that the county required it of him—an inspection for sleeping sickness, or something like that. But we all knew that Gary had come because of John’s grief and had spent as much time watching his friend as feeling cows’ udders and the veins in their necks.

 

The whole time Gary was there, John drove the tractor out across the corn stubble and frost, leaving herring-bone tractor tire tracks, crisscrossing the fields enshrouded in frost and cold and bereft of meaning, navigating this way and that with no discernable pattern. That was what worried Gary, whose father had walked across his own fields with a shotgun and blown off an ear out of desolation when Gary’s mom died. Gary had come after him, found him, and led him home, the old man not being able to hear a thing, weeping, and laughing about how he’d missed and what a goddamn fool he’d been and how much he loved Gary. And then he had stumbled, and the two of them went down, fell and then got up on their knees and held each other for the first time in their lives and wept and held each other the way the frost held the fields.

Gary couldn’t keep inventing reasons to watch over John. He’d made four long veterinary visits that same week, and his receipts were showing it. He called and suggested maybe I should find something to do up by the fence, that John would come by eventually—and so I’d just gone straight over, driving the pickup up the gorge road, stopping briefly to see if I could see trout in the black icy water beside it, then on up to the ridge that separated the Burrows farm from ours.

I could hear the tractor long before it came up over the horizon. Then I could see him. There was purpose in his life again, at least enough to have him follow the line of the fence and not just make crisscrosses all over the fields. I tapped the fence post in front of me as if it needed something, banged on the top strip of the barbed wire a few times, testing for tension. I walked around the pickup, kicking the tires, checking the pressure. And then it occurred to me what needed to be done. I opened the hood and pulled one of the distributor wires off and dropped it down through the engine onto the ground and continued bending over the engine, poking around at nothing.

I heard the tractor stop. That was a good sign. John sat looking at me, and I watched him, gazing into his sad eyes, looking for some indication of what his intentions were. He sat for a long time, his Alice scarf hanging down like a college boy’s, his pipe inverted, his hands red and blue from gripping the iron steering wheel. I said nothing. No greeting seemed appropriate. And he—I hadn’t required anything of him—he just sat there, the engine running, the white sun above us sailing slowly toward the dying eucalyptus grove to the west.

“My truck won’t start,” I managed to say eventually. His face remained as before. With just the hint of a smile appearing at the edges of his mouth, as if he saw through my ruse.

His lips moved.

“What?” I shouted. But not that loud. His mouth opened further. I wanted to say, “How are you?” But I already knew how he was.

“I miss Alice,” he said.

I was unprepared for that. He reached up and took the pipe out of his mouth. I mounted the wire fence, jumped down on the other side and approached the tractor. He handed me his pipe, stem-first but didn’t let go when I took it. His eyes brimmed and filled so much I wasn’t sure he couldn’t see me. The pipe trembled and I continued pulling him by the pipe, at the same time taking another step toward him, pulling him past his tipping point, until he came away from the tractor, slipping down onto the field, and I knew what to do, although I had never done it before and held him while he cried and then couldn’t hold back myself and let loose, the two of us howling like two sad dogs, Gary said, who had returned for the fifth time that week and had followed the most recent herring bones across the field and along the fence until he saw us. He stopped his truck a little way off and shut off his engine and listened to the cries and howls, he said, coming across the dark field, the ping ping of the tractor swallowed up by the silent clinging frost, and the cold white sun curving westward.

The next day, at the Booth’s café, where the town’s most silent farmers—all of them my friends—met for coffee late mornings after milking, feeding and mucking, someone asked Gary how John Burrow’s cows were doing, as if Gary might have veterinary information that could be useful to all of them. The question was slow and neutral. And so Gary began to tell the story. Everyone stopped talking. Even fierce Agnes Booth stacked dishes in slow motion so she wouldn’t miss a word. Not a farmer met Gary’s gaze as he spoke, he said later. He told about telling me to go up and wait by the fence, that John would come along. How he had let himself in the field and had followed the most recent herring bone tire track until he had seen the John Deere and me standing beside it. He said he couldn’t tell whether we were talking. That I was just standing there, and John was holding out what appeared to be his pipe. A farmer stirred sugar into his cup, clinking the spoon against porcelain. A big red hand came out from the man beside him and calmed the stirring. Someone else blew his nose quietly into a red bandana with his eyes closed. One or two others rubbed at something in their eyes with their forefingers. Men folded the flap of an ear forward to hear better. Gary told how I had pulled on the pipe until John had swiveled around in the steel bucket seat and come down into my arms. That was when Agnes Booth, without a sound, and with her head down, withdrew through the swinging door to the kitchen, easing the door shut behind her and studying the farmers for a moment through the round window, as if realizing the gathering had suddenly become something very private and foreign. Then Gary told them about John and me howling like sad dogs. Which is when the men gasped, coughed, sniffed in mucous, and said “God!” to explain why they were crying and suppressing the tears with heels of their powerful hands, trying to recover with deep, deep breaths.

A week later, in a soft voice, Agnes told me she had thought a dam was about to burst and that that was the the reason she had left the room, that she hadn’t known whether it would be water she would be able to swim in. A week later, I was there when John Burrows walked into Booth’s Cafe without the scarf, sat down, ordered Agnes’s coffee and lit his pipe.

 

 

The Curve of the Earth

The Curve of the Earth

 

One day, they say, a man my grandfather knew— actually it was my grandfather—fired up his tractor early and chained on the twelve-by harrow and started across the black earth, in his wake a cloud of crows swooping down over the damp soil. He followed the curve of the earth, toward a distant boundary where, as his story went, maybe the lovers were below deck, he peeling her bathing suit off her brown body, exposing white skin, curly hair, and sighs, while the seacocks opened, popped inward, and the tractor disappeared from the earth’s round, sailing over the horizon, leaving only the crows, and worms exposed to beaks  and cries and sun and the sadness of young people’s death, lovers with flowers in their hair and flushed cheeks, dying into each other. That was the sort of thing he said, my grandfather.

There were other things, too. It was the summer my grandmother got up on the roof and refused to come down or to speak to him until he promised to keep his rutting to himself, at least to ask first and to try thinking about her the way he first knew her, standing between the sunlight on the counter top and the glowing jars of apple sauce, peaches, and cherries. And the flurry of snow, holly trees, and red berries. Didn’t he remember her with lipstick, her chestnut hair in a knot and her lower lip undiscovered, her blue eyes unkissed, their breath like steam between words. Did he remember her blue eyes, the sunlight on her white aprons, the silver buttons specially sewed over the round of her breast?

When my grandfather disked or harrowed and I sat on the fender holding on, the sun circled around the field and finally dropped like a duck coming in to land—over near the bog with the rushes and herons and turtles and quiet newts. I shouldn’t tell you these things, he used to say, but how will you know if I don’t. You don’t want to be like me in every way.

The dust followed us across the field before the rains, making arabs of us, or indians, or pirates, unrecognizable to ourselves, sailing across vast planes, lovers caught below with flowers, and preserves and touchings of joy and sighs and bathing suits that fell off just when the tingling reached boundaries like the far end of the field, and disappeared just at the curve of the earth.

I saw things drown in the furrows of that sea. Thistles, mugwort, tar, small flowers, and surprised potato bugs, who didn’t know the ship was filling, too much in love, slipping bathing suits, candles, ice cream, the preserves on the window sill, still golden in the last of the afternoon’s sun.

My grandmother stayed on the roof for something like nine months. At least the whole summer. At least it seemed that way. Grandfather said she was giving birth to someone he didn’t know—to a woman who sang not only in church but also alone in the bathtub which she had placed outside at the edge of the garden, overlooking the field so that when he passed he would see her and remember what she could have been but never became, because of his intrusions at night when the fields sleep their damp sleep.

When the nine months had passed and the wheat rose and fell in swells, with us sailing before the wind on the red-seeded sea, my grandmother—who had not spoken since she first climbed the roof—all at once did speak to my grandfather when he had just switched off the tractor and stepped down over the hydraulics and jumped ashore.

“William?” she said. That was his name, and it was a question. He didn’t really hear her because of the seacocks and bathing suits and dust, I suppose. And she said it again: “William?” standing there in the claw-foot bathtub in the garden near the rhododendrons, naked, her hair up in a knot, and, as he still likes to tell it, with lipstick on her lips and the sun catching her chestnut hair, no longer twenty, nearer fifty, as I recall. And that was when it struck him, what a wonderful woman she was and he actually knelt before her and cried and apologized for his damn tractor and said other things about seacocks and dust and would she teach him to see her the way she had always been, and other things, a lot of it hard to understand after a world that curved into the distance all the way to the bog, with drowning flowers, thistles folded under, and the smell of tar weed and hope, and crows swooping down over the wake of his red tractor and the fresh earth. That’s all I remember really—with variations. Memories that come around like the morning sun, and set, and are never ever quite the same, except that they’re always true.