v.i.Prose: "Noam in My Pocket" by Carl S. Mumm
What if the best way to win an argument was to pull a miniature Noam Chomsky out of your pocket and let him do the talking? Bar banter and speculative fiction meet in Carl S. Mumm’s story, our new web exclusive.
Carl S. Mumm has published fiction in the Idaho Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Black Warrior Review, Chelsea, Hawai’i Review and several other journals. In addition to writing short stories, he has recently completed a novel titled System Chain.
NOAM IN MY POCKET
by Carl S. Mumm
“For example, let’s say the two of us started chatting at a party, a party for your Uncle Sebastian, say. You probably don’t have an Uncle Sebastian, though perhaps you wish you did, it being such an awesome name and all, but let’s assume you do and that we’re there with yellow cake, from a mix, on dense paper plates, holding plastic forks. We’d be poking at the cake, standing, probably, since all the reliable benches and chairs would have particular relatives and friends on them, and all the fold-up chairs from your garage would be strewn about the lawn more as a dare, really, than as a place to sit.”
Then this Tom guy puffed on his cigarette like it was fueling his rant.
All I’d wanted was a bourbon and a beer after a long day digging saguaro holes for the front yard of another new desert hotel I can’t afford to stay in. I like coming here after the sun goes down, sitting on the patio next to the prickly pear stand. That’s the best part of desert living, the nights, if you don’t mind the black widows, the scorpions and the tarantulas, and I like those things just fine.
What I don’t like, though, is for some jerkweed to seat himself at my table like he’d been invited and then start rambling, drawing on a butt like it was his mother’s tit.
“You with me so far?”
I grunted at this Tom guy, but not with enough hostility, apparently.
“So all right, it’s outside, say. We’re looking down at the tulips and Kentucky blue grass and other suburban trimmings, trying like hell not to make eye contact, sawing at the cake, maybe dipping forked bits of yellow cake in puddles of pus cream.”
“Pus cream? That something like—”
“Yeah, don’t get ahead of me. So then I might say something like ‘You know, this “ice cream” is probably at least thirty percent pus if the cow had mastitis, and that’s damn likely since most of the American milk supply has rBGH in it. Fact is, we’re probably consuming loads of antibiotics as a result of the mastitis, as well.’ Then there would be an awkward pause and I’d finally say, more under my breath than anything, ‘Sucks,’ or ‘Bummer, isn’t it?’ or more likely ‘Asshole bastards,’ because I say that a lot.”
“I’m sure you’re not alone.” I motioned at the waiter, but he wasn’t looking my way at all.
Tom laughed, dragged at his butt, and shot smoke out his nostrils. I’m not too fond of that smoking shit, but we were outside, so I couldn’t say anything.
“Anyway, I don’t really know you, but I predict that you might bristle at this point in the scenario, you know, at what I said about the pus cream.”
“That’s what you call ice cream, right?”
“Yeah, so hear me out: it’s a phenomenon that is quite common in Americans. Bristling, I mean. We bristle at all kinds of shit: when we get junk mail, when our paychecks are less than we had hoped for after FICA and taxes and dues and taxes on dues, when our girlfriends mack on some other denizen, and when anything at all makes us feel discomfiture. We really bristle at that last one. So, you being an American and odds being what they are, you might respond to me by saying something like: ‘That’s not true’ just because thinking about this stuff makes you uncomfortable. You might follow it with ‘They wouldn’t let that happen.’ And if you have the balls, you might even cap that off with something like ‘You’re full of shit,’ which would make me actually admire you just a little bit more than before. I don’t know why, though. I guess pugilism is just something we humans can’t help but be attracted to, especially the males of the species.”
Tom got all settled with his elbows on the table, shifting into the kind of position you’d get into if you were about to reveal something deep or secretive, his head lowered, eyes open wide. I didn’t want to hear whatever it was he was about to say, since I had known this guy for just five minutes at that point.
Tom lowered his voice. “It’s at about this time in the scenario that I would reach into my left shirt pocket, very gingerly, mind you, and pluck Noam Chomsky out of his hiding place and stand him up on my palm. And he’d take it from there, so I wouldn’t have to.” Tom pantomimed this whole thing as he spoke it.
I understood what he was saying. I dug holes in people’s yards for a living, but I went to college and I knew who Noam Chomsky was and shit. And even though I knew what he was talking about and I could follow his little reenactment just fine, I still didn’t know what the hell he meant. But I was keen to guess.
“You mean you’d start quoting Noam Chomsky?”
Tom shook his head emphatically. “No sir. When I say I’d take Noam Chomsky out of my pocket, I mean that quite literally. I recognize many of the things Noam says when he cites himself in his tiny voice, but I don’t have a small version of Hegemony or Survival or Chomsky on Anarchism in my pocket.”
Tom spoke very softly now, almost mouthing his words instead of saying them.
“Noam is actually buttoned away in my left shirt pocket, living, if I do say so, a very comfortable life.”
I guffawed pretty boisterously, I guess. Loud enough for that damn waiter to finally pay me some attention. I took advantage and ordered us a couple of beers. I mean, that Chomsky bit was a little offbeat, but it was worth a brew, anyway. I figured Tom would drink it, then go pester some other patsy.
Tom glared at me. “You don’t get me. I’m telling you that I’ve got Noam Chomsky, right here.” He patted the flap of his left breast pocket very carefully, as if he had a little derringer buttoned in there or something that he didn’t want anyone to know about.
“I get it,” I said. “It’s funny, Tom. ‘Man walks into a bar’ type of thing. Nice one.”
Tom hadn’t meant to yell like that. He looked all around because his outburst made most of the others on the patio jump and now they were glancing over at us. He nodded in response and smiled nervously. Then he leaned really close to me, so I could smell his stale beer and tobacco breath.
“You know what? I don’t care if you won’t believe me.”
Tom turned sideways and crossed his arms. He crossed his legs after that and focused on the metal tip of his boot, which he started bouncing out of agitation.
That’s all I needed. Clearly, Tom was unbalanced. I had just ordered a round with an insane man who I had just managed to piss off. It made me wonder if the guy didn’t really have a concealed pistol in his shirt pocket that he called Noam Chomsky. Maybe he wouldn’t even flinch at the idea of blowing my goddamn head off. These notions unsettled me a bit. I mean, it could have turned into a stalking situation, this Tom guy suckling upon my fear. Maybe he’d wait outside my house and waste me tomorrow morning or next week or whenever homicidal enthusiasts decide to do these things.
Anyway, after all that figuring, I decided it’d be wiser to smooth things over with this Tom guy, placate the miserable sonofabitch rather than looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.
“So what would Noam say if you brought him out right now?”
Tom pretended he didn’t hear me at first. The beers arrived then. He took one, tugged at it, darted his eyes at me for a second. Then he looked at his boot again and shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Tom. What would he say? You brought it up. OK, let’s pretend we’re in the yard again with the ice cream, I mean pus cream, and I get all annoyed at what you said about rGBH.”
“rBGH. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Monsanto created it to increase milk production in a market drowning in milk. Can you believe that shit?”
“Right, rBGH. I’ve heard of it. So I’m all mad for whatever reason.”
Tom turned and made eye contact with me again. “Like I told you, I don’t know what he’d say, precisely. He says whatever he wants to, but when he does it, it always helps me out so I don’t have to deal with all the ignoramuses, myself. You follow me?”
“Sure. We could all use an advocate. And if you’re going to have someone fight your verbal battles, you can’t go wrong with Chomsky in your corner.”
Tom froze for a second, eyeballing me. “You making fun of me?”
“No, of course not. I’ve read some Chomsky. Not the linguistic material, but his political stuff.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. The guy is just incredible when he gets started.”
“And that voice, so level and matter-of-fact, no matter how caustic or radical he’s being. It makes you feel like you’re an imbecile for even considering disagreement.”
Tom studied me, no doubt trying to determine if my statements were meant as derision. I tried to look calm and trustworthy. I must have passed muster, because he appeared to relax at that point. That was a relief, but I also knew it meant I’d be enduring more of his prattle. Better than living in fear and getting my brains splattered by a bullet, I suppose.
Tom became animated again. He lit up another cigarette and sucked at it till it flared. “You know, one time I was in this very bar and some dickhead from Georgia with this really lethargic accent that only got slower with scotch tried to tell me that there weren’t any more white people in the South who would ever hold slaves if slavery were legal again. I shit you not. He said ‘Y’all should know that people have matured’ and he said it like that, with a t, ‘matured,’ like that.”
“What did you tell him? That there are more slaves in the world now than ever before in history?”
“No, the asshole bastard wasn’t about to hear anything I had to say.”
Tom tilted toward me again. I managed to evade the reek of his breath this time.
“So I unbuttoned my pocket and got hold of Noam just under the arms—he prefers it that way—and placed him on my hand.” Tom pantomimed the actions as he had done earlier.
“Does he always just stand there?”
“He sits sometimes.”
“On your hand? In a lotus position or something?”
“Of course not. He brings out a chair when he feels it’s necessary. He’s got an old-fashion paisley green recliner with wings and a linen doily at the top for his head.”
“He’s got a little chair in there?”
“Why wouldn’t he? That’s where he lives.”
“Good point. Go on.”
“So this Southern guy is staring at Chomsky standing on my hand, and the guy’s mouth just twitches and his eyes bug out like he’s on a bad acid trip or something.”
Tom started to snicker at what must have seemed like a memory to him, so I joined in a little. Then I asked “So how tall is he, anyway?”
“Oh, I’d say the sombitch was six-two, six-three. Big guy.”
“No, not the mature Georgian gentleman. Chomsky.”
“Oh, Noam? He’s maybe three inches, four, tops.”
Now, I realized at the time that I was just going along with this loon so he wouldn’t shoot me later, but I just had to delve into the details a little. I mean, this Tom guy obviously believed what he was saying, so it’s only natural for me to want to understand the logic of his universe, isn’t it?
“How’d he get that way? So small, I mean. Did he fall into a toxic coal slurry? Have one too many X-rays?”
Tom furrowed his brow. “How the hell am I supposed to know?” he barked.
I held up my hands. “Sorry, I was just curious. Because if you’ve got Noam Chomsky in there, and if he’s just a few inches tall, something had to get him that way. Just curious, is all.”
“Are you going to allow me to continue? Because this was classic Chomsky.”
“Why don’t you bring Noam out and have him finish the story? I’d love to say hello. Buy him a mint julep or something.”
Tom narrowed his eyes at me. “I don’t just drag the man out whenever someone wants to see him. We have an understanding: I respect his privacy as much as possible, and every now and then, when the situation warrants it, I bring him out so he can earn his keep.”
“How do you feed him? What do you do, drop peanuts in there every once in a while?”
“Look, the man isn’t an elephant. He’s a human being, for Christ’s sake! He isn’t some sideshow act, juggling and balancing crap on his nose. He’s the greatest, most quoted intellectual in the world. Why would I haul him out just to satisfy your whim?”
“OK, fine. Don’t bring him out, then.”
“Peanuts my ass.”
“Again, I apologize for the interruptions. Please, continue with your story.”
Tom fell right back into narrative mode, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to work the guy up or anything.
“So this Georgian guy freaks, and we go through the whole thing with him being nonplussed at seeing this little man standing on my palm. Then the second shockwave hits about it being Noam Chomsky. Everyone knows who he is, even if they haven’t read him. You wouldn’t think so, but they do.”
“Of course they do.”
“Yeah, so I relax, the burden being lifted off my ass, which is what Noam does for me, like I said. He makes it so I don’t have to engage in endless debate with all these denizens, you know?”
“He takes over for you.”
“Right. So Noam tells the guy he’s full of shit.”
“Really? That’s what he said? ‘You’re full of shit’?”
“No. He said it in his own specific idiom, turning his hand at the wrist as he spoke, voice all monotones and even.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Who, Chomsky or this Georgian guy?”
“Chomsky, what was Chomsky wearing?”
“Oh, you know, that bulky Irish blue-gray wool sweater he has. And, I don’t know, maybe brown slacks, kind of comfortable looking shoes, no wingtips or anything.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Yeah, he likes to be at ease. Nothing fancy. So anyway, he says to the guy ‘The nature of humans allows all kinds of behavior. Every one of us, under some circumstances, could be a gas chamber attendant or a saint.’”
“He really said that?”
“Yeah, and you should’ve seen this guy. He was all put off and wanted to argue, but Noam wasn’t going to take any crap. He made this hulking Georgian guy look like he was five inches tall.”
“That’s still taller than Noam.” Tom looked at me, perplexed. “You said Chomsky was three or four inches tall, so if this guy were—”
“Yeah, OK, you know what I mean. Two inches tall, then. Anyway, Chomsky cut him right down to size.”
I have to admit that at that point I was kind of digging these little scenes Tom was painting. The booze might have had something to do with it, I guess.
“That’s a good one,” I said. “What do you think would happen if your Noam Chomsky went up against the real one?”
Tom cocked an eyebrow at me. I think he believed his forehead, in general, was much more expressive than it really was. “What do you mean ‘real one’? I’ve got the real one. Are you implying that I have some kind of forgery? A counterfeit Chomsky?”
“Yeah, I guess I was sort of saying that. That was stupid of me, sorry.”
“Damn straight you’re sorry. What kind of asshole bastard do you think I am?”
“That’s right!” I was starting to feel a little giddy at that point, and really thought I was playing along with light-hearted banter. “What kind of idiot do I take me for?”
Well, that was enough for Tom. He popped right out of his chair, pulled his arm back, and clocked me good, right smack in the nose. I was so damned surprised that I didn’t do a thing to stop it. I saw his big mitt closing on my face, but I froze up, as if I were conducting a scientific study of it or something.
The blow made me tumble over backwards in my chair, and I rapped my skull hard on the ceramic tiles. My fighting instincts kicked in then and I knew I had to get to my feet, because if I were as insane as Tom, I would have started kicking my ribs in at that point to keep me recumbent. He’d thought of it faster, though. I felt those metal tips dent my side once, twice, three times before I managed to grab hold of his foot so he couldn’t loose it on me again.
For some reason, my latching onto his boot was unanticipated by Tom. He stumbled around, cursing and muttering. I kept tight custody of his boot, not wanting it to add to the aches in my side. My face was just numb. That wouldn’t start hurting till the next day, after the bruises bloomed.
All of a sudden, Tom pulled his leg back to escape and he slipped clean out of his boot. That made him fall flat on his ass. He looked foolish as hell, too, and Tom knew it.
By this time, all the people on the patio had determined we were more intriguing than their own conversations and there I was, on my side by the prickly pear stand, arms still wrapped around Tom’s boot. Everyone was waiting to see how it’d all turn out.
I don’t know why I did what I did next. Maybe it was because Tom looked all red in the face, more from embarrassment at being the center of attention rather than from any anger against me. It was a gamble or maybe just foolhardiness on my part, but I deduced at that point that it was more likely Tom housed Chomsky in his shirt pocket than a derringer or brass knuckles or shuriken or some other damn thing. Besides, once I saw him blushing over there, what else could I do but exploit it?
I yelled into the hollow of his boot: “Who you got in here, then, Tom? If you’ve got Noam Chomsky in your pocket, then who’s in here? Hello? Oh look!” I pretended to see something on the insole. People were laughing now, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the show. I could see Tom squirming in humiliation.
“Stop it,” he whispered at me. The guy had just sucker punched me and now he was pleading. Can you beat that?
I just shouted more vehemently into the boot. “Oh, who’s this? Cornel West relaxing in the mini hot tub? Ralph Nader on a wee StairMaster? Come on out, guys!”
This really amused the patio crowd. They must have known about this Tom guy. He probably sat at each of their tables on previous occasions, plaguing them with cigarette smoke, foul breath, and interminable twaddle.
Tom got up, and I stood with him so he couldn’t gain advantage.
Instead of attacking, he pointed at me with a trembling finger and said: “All right. You’re going to have to eat that boot now.”
“You mean this boot?” I held it out to him. “I wouldn’t want to destroy the habitat of—”
“Enough!” he roared. He held one hand flat and unbuttoned his left shirt pocket with the other.
My most recent figuring about what this guy would and wouldn’t do struck me as wildly miscalculated at that moment. Sure as hell, I thought, he was going to yank a little pistol out of that pocket and really lay on some hurt.
But he didn’t.
He dipped two fingers into his pocket and scooped out this tiny man by gripping him beneath the arms. Then he placed him on his outstretched palm.
I thought it might have been a doll or maybe a mouse or something onto which my brain was projecting a diminutive human image, so I approached. Closer inspection revealed it to be none other than Noam Chomsky, wearing the same blue Irish wool sweater Tom had spoken of earlier.
“How can that… I mean, how can you—be you?” I stammered.
The great miniaturized linguist appeared weary. Tom had obviously recalled Chomsky at an inopportune moment, perhaps mid-sentence in yet another volume of excoriating social criticism.
The tiny Chomsky locked eyes with me and spoke:
“Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries.” His voice was quite audible, for some reason. Perhaps he had some kind of wireless amplification system down there in Tom’s pocket, next to the rest of his furniture. “When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.”
Tom cracked a smug smile, exposing his brown teeth. “I told you. I told you he was in there.” He nodded at the great scholar in his palm. “Go on. Tell him some more.”
Before he continued, Noam winced. Whether it was from Tom’s halitosis or the volume differential of the bastard’s voice, given his relative size, I can’t be sure. “Willingness to be puzzled by what seem to be obvious truths is the first step towards gaining understanding of how the world works.”
Tom straightened. “How awesome is he?”
“Of course he is,” I whispered, more to myself than anyone else. “He’s Noam Chomsky.”
Noam turned to me then. “If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I’m a professor at MIT, that’s nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it.”
Noam beckoned me closer with a wheeling forearm. I bent down, assuming he wished to share something in private. He covered what must have been a microphone on the collar of his sweater with his hand.
“I’m a prisoner,” he whispered. “If you have any amount of decency at all, please facilitate my escape.” He displayed no emotion, but I detected a subtle sincerity that I’d heard him employ in online lectures. “I’ve been detained here for months, and there are so many things I still wish to do in my life.”
“What do you want me to do?” I said, realizing too late that Tom could hear me.
“Don’t be obsessed with tactics but with purpose,” Noam responded. “Tactics have a half life.”
I felt Tom’s suspicion looming over me.
“What’s Noam saying? Why is he talking in your ear?”
That’s when I stepped back, wound up, and slammed Tom’s boot heel into his face. That distracted Tom enough so that I was able to snatch Noam from his palm with my other hand, drop the boot, turn, and run like a rousted rabbit into the bar.
I sidled between tables to get to the front door. On my way out, I almost trampled our waiter. He stepped aside with aplomb, expertly balancing the beer bottles and shots on his tray to avoid spillage. I felt Noam in my hand and realized I was squeezing too hard from all the excitement. I loosened my grip, took out my wallet with the other hand, and managed to drop a twenty onto the waiter’s tray. I don’t know why I did that. All of me wanted to get the hell out of that dive.
By the time I got into my car, Tom was staggering onto the gravel parking lot, his hand clapped over one eye. I don’t know what he was screaming at me, some invective or other.
The engine started, no problem, and we were gone. I steered awkwardly with one hand, holding Noam in the other, and we raced into the darkness.
“You OK?” I asked.
“Marginally,” Noam replied.
Tearing down that empty street, a new feeling struck me, a sense of relief, for sure, but also a glimpse into my own future, and for once in my miserable life, looking forward seemed less bleak than looking back. For in my hand was perhaps the most intelligent man on the planet—in my hand.
I looked down at Noam, and he knew. It must have been painted all over my face.
“You rescued me because Tom was wrong to keep me, correct?”
If I nodded in agreement at that point, it might not have been very convincing.
Noam’s voice rose with a trace of urgency now. “I must ask you to recall the principle of universality: if an action is right or wrong for others, it is right or wrong for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of right or wrong, good or evil.”
A fat grin stretched across my face at that point. Though I didn’t intend it, such an expression writ so large overhead must have been intimidating to Noam.
He gave it one last try. “There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster.’ Instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. It is probable that the most inhuman monsters, even the Himmlers and the Mengeles, convince themselves that they are engaged in noble and courageous acts.”
All I could do was shake my head at that point. Chomsky was everything Tom said he would be and more.
I let the wheel go free for a few seconds, unbuttoned my left shirt pocket, and lowered Noam inside.
v.i.Prose: "An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile" by Rick Bass
Rick Bass’ story “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile” is featured in TMR 38.4 and is adapted from his most recent collection of short stories For a Little While, to be published in March 2016. Rick Bass, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for his memoir Why I Came West, was born and raised in Texas, worked as a petroleum geologist in Mississippi, and has lived in Montana’s Yaak Valley for almost three decades. His short fiction, which has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, GQ, and Paris Review, as well as numerous times in The Best American Short Stories, has earned him multiple O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes as well as NEA and Guggenheim fellowships.
Adapted from the book FOR A LITTLE WHILE by Rick Bass. Copyright © 2016 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile
It was late March in Montana, which meant fall in South America. At the bottom of the world, things were upside down. The leaves of the trees along the rivers were gold, orange, yellow.
Wilson had been out of work, out of logging, for over a year. A snag had broken off when he was sawing and had fallen and shattered his ribs, punctured his lungs. Belinda had been gone almost a year by then. He hadn’t seen that coming either.
He had been drinking hard over the winter—well, longer than that; maybe a few years, depending on what hard meant—but planned to stop for this trip, spring break with the girls. Or to slow down, anyway. It was almost the same thing. It felt like stopping. The girls lived with him, in Montana, but soon enough, they would be gone altogether: grown up, departed also.
He didn’t need to drink. He liked it, but he didn’t need it. He knew that was the stance of someone who did need to drink, but he was different. Well, actually, he needed it, but he could go a little bit without it. Beer was safe. He was drinking too much but he could stop. He would stop, he promised himself, for the trip.
In North America Belinda had told him he was a bum, but in South America he could be . . . well, whatever the opposite of that was. He was pretty sure he could stay off the sauce. Chile was said to be good wine country.
His older daughter, Stephanie, had just turned eighteen, and asked most of the questions in the family. Lucy, fifteen, answered them. In a few months, Stephanie would be off at college: gone forever, he believed. Though he didn’t have the money to pay for her college—there was that small detail—nor for their journey to South America, nor for much of anything else, really. Even their cabin in the woods—built by Wilson—was no longer secure. Workers’ comp hadn’t been enough, and then had run out anyway. Soon enough he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage. He felt life draining away and, panicked, topped out his last credit card. He needed this trip with the girls, one grand last hurrah before everything changed.
He’d asked Belinda to go with them. She was living in Oregon. He asked not with any hope for reconciliation—there remained only the final legal and financial disentanglements—but wanting to believe she might, for old times’ sake, come on the trip, that they might recreate some semblance of a family, if only for a short while. But she’d refused. “It’s a farce,” she said. “There’s no money.”
Nothing Wilson didn’t already know. “I’ll make it back,” he told her, though his ribs, a year later, still hadn’t fully healed and he didn’t know when he’d be able to work again. “I know it’s been a little rough, but I can get us out of this.”
She refused to have anything to do with it. “Go ahead,” she told him, “burn it all. I don’t care anymore.”
He supposed he understood how she could think he was becoming a bum.
It didn’t used to be that way. The bars: Trixi’s in Ovando. The Murray in Livingston, and Gil’s. The Home Bar in Troy, site of an alarming number of shootings. Charlie B’s in Missoula. Wherever there were big trees and chain saws to cut them down with, there were good bars, where the real business was drinking, to numb sore muscles and still the vibrations of the big saws. Anyone who ran a saw knew where they were.
He was not an alcoholic back then. Each night he had walked home to his hotel from such places, weaving a bit, but possessed of an athleticism that allowed him to correct any imbalance. A tightrope walker of fallen logs. Stopping to look up at the stars and watch his breath leap in exultant clouds, like smoke billowing from a slash pile. Not a drunk. In a few hours he’d be booting up to go back into the woods and run the saw all day. Burning the days on the elixir of joy and adrenaline, living a life that had meaning. Under such rigor and focus, he had flourished.
The day he met Belinda he had not been drinking. He was hauling a load of pulp to the old paper mill in Frenchtown, coming up out of the Bitterroot with a trailer of burned logs. He’d been idling in Missoula traffic: Reserve Street, August, 104 degrees. He would have liked a beer, had six cans bright and shiny in the ice chest—back then, a six-pack might last him a couple of days—and her car was stalled in traffic right in front of him.
He pushed the gears into neutral, set the parking brake—five tons of burned lodgepole glinting and shimmering black in the haze of late summer. The hills beyond town were still burning from summer fires. He climbed down and walked over to her car. He could feel the soles of his boots softening against the heat of the pavement.
Her window was already down. “Who are you?” she asked. Her eyes were hidden behind the designer sunglasses she would always wear in the years to come, her smile warm and engaging.
“I was sent to rescue you,” Wilson said.
“You goddamned took long enough,” she said. She was wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a yellow T-shirt. She’d just applied lipstick; he thought it might have been the first thing she’d done when her car overheated. He thought she might be an actress.
The traffic parted around them. Anyone driving by would have thought they were passing an accident.
Belinda got her purse and gym bag, locked the doors, and handed the bag to Wilson. She walked with him back to his truck and climbed up into the cab from the passenger’s side.
That night they went up to Rock Creek, drove way up the canyon to the swinging bridge, suspended far above the shimmering rapids. In the cold heart of the canyon they sat on the bridge’s old planks—the bridge slung low in its center with their weight, like a belly, so high above the rapids. They drank beer and watched the stars, with the scent of forest fires farther back in the mountains sweet-smelling in the cool of the canyon. Then they lay on the bridge and slept with their heads tucked together, no need for a blanket, the river low and loud far beneath them.
They got married and he stopped going to bars. Soon enough the girls were born. Everything got magnificent, everything was perfect.
Why Peru, why Chile? Like so much in his life of late, it was almost all about instinct, with little if any calculation or reason. A kind of falling, a kind of leaping. It was true he was fascinated by the rock work of the Andes—stone walls and churches that had withstood the diminishments of the centuries—and wanted the girls to see that. He wanted to lay his hands upon something that had endured, and would go on enduring. He wanted to see two stones, three stones, four stones fit so tightly together a dollar bill could not be squeezed between their seams.
He’d checked out a few travel guides from the library, not quite the most current editions, and had printed out a map and made some reservations on the Internet.
In Peru, the first temple on their loose itinerary was in a small town with a long name that Wilson didn’t even try to remember. They’d driven the rental car up a long unmarked road of crushed white limestone. They passed wicker stalls, thatched-roof huts where vendors sold leather goods: purses, bags, hats. Tiny burros stood in the shade, swishing their tails, their backs loaded with what seemed impossible burdens.
Wilson used to pay close attention to things—back when he’d gone into the woods every day—but now there were times when he seemed to see almost nothing. In these fugues, the world’s sights and sounds came to him as if he were underwater.
At one point he noticed the girls clutching bags; they must have passed through a market. He couldn’t recall. He looked at their bags—full of trinkets for their friends back home, he imagined. Such thoughtful young women, so fully engaged in everything. And they were definitely watching him. How badly he wanted a glass of wine at lunch, and a beer in the evening. A once-in-a-lifetime journey. He deserved it! But he would wait. At least until they were more settled into the trip.
Worse than their watching him to see if he was going to drink, his daughters appeared to want from him some kind of guidance—not where to go or what to do, but the deeper kind—and when he noticed this, all he could think to do was try to keep them from seeing quite how bad a spot he and they were in. He could think of nothing witty or charming or courageous or even intelligent to say.
For Stephanie, the questioner, he knew it was harder to ignore the various intimations of trouble; she tended to believe the worst of a situation—a defense mechanism, he understood, a way to prepare herself for when things went sour, as they had all too often in the past few years—while Lucy preferred to see the best in everything, whether it deserved it or not.
Their guide at the temple, a short elderly man with skin the color of a dried fig and large silver glasses—like a little owl—had been talking for some time. He was telling them about the Dominicans, who, Wilson gathered, had painted all the lurid murals after stripping the walls of the gold with which they were lined. They had razed much of the structure with halfhearted malice, a kind of bored destruction. But they had gotten tired before they finished the task and so built their church upon the ruins. And then one day they, too, vanished.
“This way,” the little man was saying, and at first Wilson had the thought the man was trying to take care of him. But the guide turned his back on Wilson and was bending the herd down one hallway and then another. “Follow me,” he said, leading several tourists by the elbow. He was beginning to work the softies—the old ladies, young professional couples—for tips, sizing up his marks.
“We are walking through the corridors of what was once the richest place on earth,” the guide said. “The most beautiful place.” In his fervor, the guide had developed the trace of a lisp, and whether it was affected or evidence of true emotion, Wilson could not be sure.
It was excruciating, watching the other tourists—German, British, Japanese—lean forward, made rapturous by these whispers of wealth. All Wilson wanted was a drink. A nice cold beer in a frosted glass with a lime perched on top of it. A pale golden lager with the South American sunlight strafing through it, a cyclone of bubbles rising through that light with their vortex of promise. His hand, reaching slowly for it.
The guide unclipped from his shoulder strap the case he’d been carrying and set it down on a nearby table, then flipped the locks open. Wilson had thought it was a camera bag, but the guide lifted the lid and stared down as if gazing at an artifact—a great treasure he had been saving for the point in the tour when the travelers became worthy of it.
The case held a series of wires, a small black box with red LED digits, and a tiny gray plastic cup, which the guide placed on the tip of his left index finger. He turned the machine on and watched as the digits melted, then reestablished: 96, 97, 98, 99, 100.
The guide smiled. “My blood oxygen,” he said, “is good. I notice that some of you are looking pale. We are at a great elevation here. You are not used to it. I must take your oh-two counts. I am responsible for you.” He took the cup and placed it on the tip of the finger of the eldest woman, slipping it on as he might a wedding ring.
“Ninety-four, ninety-five. . . . Oh, lady, I think you had better sit down for a minute.” He rested his hand on her back and led her to an ornate emperor’s chair made of dark carved wood. The guide patted the old lady’s hand and moved on to the rest of his marks.
Mostly ninety-eights. “No one ever has one hundred,” the guide said. “I am the only one.” He did not place the cup on the children’s fingers because, he said, “Children are immune to the changes in elevation.”
Wilson knew this to be untrue but did not protest. He looked over at Stephanie and Lucy and saw that they were all right, they did not appear weak or afflicted with malaise in any way. Sturdy. Then, without knowing what devilment seized him, he held out his own hand for the guide, who glowered—time was wasting—but came over and fitted him nonetheless. No tip money here, Wilson’s eyes said, illumined with brief mirth, and he and the guide watched as the meter pegged 97, but no higher.
“Perhaps you should sit down,” the guide said, not kindly, “and have a cup of coca tea.” Wilson’s eyes hardened. He knows, he thought, how can he know?
The guide was already turning away, packing up his apparatus.
“Come on,” Wilson said to Stephanie and Lucy. “We need to go.”
“Wait,” Stephanie said, “I have a question.” At first Wilson thought she too wanted to have her oxygen tested, and was surprised to hear her ask the guide, “Those Dominicans—did they ever bury their victims alive?”
The guide was taken aback. His mouth, as though instinctively, began to form itself into a no, but then—perhaps because Stephanie, with her straw-blond hair, freckles, a small nose, and pale blue eyes like a saint, was so unthreatening—he admitted he didn’t know.
Now everyone looked around as if seeing the temple anew, with empathy not only for the way the great temple had been reduced to rubble, but also for the way its inhabitants had been forced to swallow the dirt heaped upon them by their destroyers as their voices and very breath, shovelful by shovelful, had been taken from them, until finally they were gone.
Lucy—looking much like a younger version of her sister, but slighter, almost delicate—raised her hand.
“Of course they did,” she said: as if she had been reading about it for months, years, beforehand.
Her voice has changed, Wilson thought. When did that happen?
Back at the hotel in Lima that night—the fourth night of their journey—Wilson tripped over one of their suitcases in the room and, as he was falling, hit his head against the wall. His shoulder was dinged, and his head scraped, but he was otherwise okay. Nevertheless he saw in the girls’ eyes the fear that he had been drinking, which annoyed him, as he had assiduously avoided a drop since arriving in Peru.
He tried to think of a way to reassure them he was in control. But to say I’m not drunk would be to acknowledge that it was sometimes a problem. All he could do was dust himself off, and make a to-do about placing the suitcase in a corner, where it should have been in the first place, rather than where anyone could trip over it.
He didn’t like seeing fear or even discomfort in the girls. He remembered, randomly, a line from a children’s book he had read to them when they were little: She was not raised in the jungle to be frightened of a lion. If they wanted to be worried about something, he thought, the more understandable concern would be money. When he thought about their finances, he couldn’t breathe—what use was there for a logger who could no longer run a saw? The thought was burying him, and he tried to avoid it.
And yet Stephanie, with her typical intuition and prescience—as though she were wired directly to his heart—asked later, while Lucy was in the bathroom, “How bad off are we?”
He flinched at her use of “we.” He still wanted to believe it was all his burden.
But Stephanie had noticed he wasn’t buying food for himself when they went out to eat. He’d been gathering fruit from hotel-lobby baskets and eating flat breads and grapes—whatever was free on restaurant tables.
“It’s a tight spot,” he admitted, “but it’ll be okay. It’s the eye of the needle, is all. We’ll get through it, and then we’ll be on the other side.”
“How?” she persisted. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll cut more trees,” he said. He looked around at their brown-carpeted room. It could have been a hotel room in Billings, or Havre, or Stevensville: anonymous, soul-sucking. The real life, the real world, was on the outside. Oh, how he wanted a drink. For his ribs, if nothing else.
“Dad,” she said, “you can barely tie your boots some mornings.”
He paused, wondering when she had seen that. “I’m healing up,” he said. “I’m recovering.”
She wanted to believe him, and yet wanted not to be fooled. He saw this in her—the way she existed perfectly, and with some effort, in the middle: sharp-eyed, vigilant—and he felt a flicker of guilt for it. He was the one who existed at the edges and extremes, he thought, forcing others to hold on to the middle.
Sometimes it seemed to him there was a chapter missing from his life. A part he had neglected to live, something he had left undone, and that all of this tension and unease was solely his burden and responsibility. That he possessed in his essence something unlovable that communicated itself to the world, making him then ever more so.
Still, the idea lingered that he could always saw his way through the forest and into the light; that if only he had worked harder at controlling the journey, everything would have been better, and he would have been loved more. Somehow the world had gotten the upper hand on him when he looked away.
He remembered crossing the Missouri River once, on the old ferry near Virgelle, when he and Belinda and the girls had gone on a rare vacation. A two-day drive from northwest Montana out to the prairie, up and over the mountains and into the forever flatlands. Summertime. They’d followed country roads. Grasshoppers clicked up in front of them and gravel tinkled against the undercarriage of the car. Mourning doves, feeding on sunflowers, sprang up from both sides of the road before the car’s approach, the doves’ wings fanning as if spreading alms. The girls were nine and six.
Wilson had it in mind to go see the White Cliffs near Geraldine, and the sandstone rock where William Clark had carved his name, two hundred years earlier.
By the time they reached the crossing at Virgelle it was dusk, with the last of the day’s light sinking into the chalky soil like an animal bedding down for a nap. In the tall grass at the edge of the broad river a tilting hand-lettered sign, its red paint sun-faded, directed them to push a buzzer mounted on a pole, as if ringing a doorbell. The ferryman would come over and pick them up.
The river, the color of chocolate milk, made deep gurgling sounds and ran with great force, carrying an occasional cottonwood trunk, but the girls trusted everything. Across the river a deer stepped out of the grass and lowered her head to drink from an eddy. She lifted her head and watched them.
Behind the deer, in that dimming light, stood a big white house within a grove of wind-bent cottonwoods, their leaves summer-thick. A deep porch encircled the house, and Wilson imagined the shade of the trees kept the house cool, as did the high ceilings. A tire swing hung from a branch of one of the largest trees. He wondered briefly about the family who lived there. He pictured their lives filled with an almost unbearable happiness.
Even as they were looking at the house it was vanishing, as the onrushing darkness rolled over it like a surf and the night covered the house. A light flared inside and moments later a figure emerged, accompanied by all manner and sizes of children, as if in a controlled evacuation. The silhouettes made their way to the river, where the barge lay canted on the shore like some wreck from a distant war.
A lone cable of frayed steel, anchored to concrete blocks, spanned the distance to the far shore. A motor started, and the barge began laboring toward them, low in the water, battling the current. Only now that the barge was broadside to the current could they see how truly strong the river was—quick, deep, relentless.
Midway across, the motor faltered, then stopped, and the ferryman lit a lantern and went into the engine room. A few moments later, the engine coughed back to a start and the journey resumed, and Wilson’s heart flooded with the sweet sensation of being rescued, an emotion no less pleasurable for the fact that he and his family were in no actual danger.
The barge—still straining, but resolute—breached their shore, sending up wavelets of fish-smelling water, and they saw now that the ferryman was a woman. Wilson counted ten children with her. Some stayed on the barge, while others leapt off even as she was releasing the winch that lowered the gangplank.
The barge was not much wider than their narrow car, and Wilson realized it had been built back in a day when all cars were small: Model As, Model Ts. If it had lasted this long, surely it had one more run in it; and with the ferrywoman motioning them aboard, he and Belinda and the girls got back in the car and eased forward onto the ferry, which bobbed under their weight. As if running late, the ferrywoman pulled the gate up behind them quickly. Before they knew they had started, they looked down and saw that they had reversed direction and were plowing the Missouri.
Stars; a crescent moon. A heron flew downriver, its wing beats unheard over the throb of the motor. The silhouette of the slender cable above them—their tether—trembled like a fishing line.
The barge was tilted—one side sucked slightly down into the upstream current, and the opposite side pitched up—and without a railing. Yet all around them, the woman’s children rolled and tumbled like puppies. One of them, a boy, climbed up onto the hood and peered inside at them, made silly google eyes. Nasty boys, Wilson thought. Damn, I was lucky.
A warm breeze blew through their open windows. Beside them, the ferrywoman lit a cigarette, watched the ferry’s progress, and leaned in Belinda’s window. Like a winged harpy, another of her boys leapt from out of the darkness and onto her back, fastening himself to her. A few sparks from her cigarette jarred upward, but other than that, she seemed not to notice.
She told Belinda, “You can get out, if you want.”
They stepped from their car. Wilson held each girl’s hand too tightly—they wriggled in his grip, accustomed to it and resisting it at once. With the caution of horses going onto a frozen pond, the four of them walked to the bow of the barge to look out at the moon, and at the darker line of the shore toward which they strove. Wilson’s head filled with images of how, if a sunken log, current-driven, jarred against the barge, the girls could be pulled from his grip and spill into the big river. He marveled again that there was no railing.
And yet: the air was delicious, a true wind now. Belinda’s and the girls’ hair swirled and clung to their faces. Wilson had never experienced a power like the current beneath them. He felt it, electric, through the iron boat. Still gripping the girls’ hands ferociously, he turned to kiss Belinda. She smiled at him, but stepped back then, somehow nervous. Or was it more than that?
The engine struggled—missing but never quitting. Midriver, the sagging cable keeping them on track seemed more insubstantial than ever.
The ferrywoman joined them out on the bow.
“Are all those yours?” Belinda asked.
How do they know not to leap in? Wilson wondered.
The ferrywoman’s cigarette glowed brighter. “Yep,” she said. There was neither pride nor exhaustion in the statement.
“Does this thing ever break?” Wilson asked, pointing to the cable. Imagining the swirling ride downstream, spinning in teacup circles.
“It never has, for me, yet,” she said. Wilson noticed that she spoke in commas, as if accustomed to a life of rowing. “It did, once, to the woman before me,” she said.
That might have been the place, Wilson thinks, deep into his excavation, a continent away from the land of his heart. How tightly he’d held on to the girls’ hands, and how fitting and proper it had been to do so. They had been little, back then, mountain girls who knew nothing of big rivers. It had been terrifying but exhilarating, and after they reached the far shore and paid the ferrywoman, they continued through the black night of the prairie with the windows rolled down, the air washing over their arms and the afterglow of the experience illuminating their blood, as if with an effervescence.
But they had continued on, deeper into the night, and he had not changed.
In a light rain, Wilson and the girls visited another ruination. It was an outdoor shrine, one of the largest in Peru—out in a broad and green valley, with hewn boulders so immense they radiated their own life force and gravity.
The Incas had believed the stones possessed their own wills. Their new guide, a clean-shaven Peruvian who had studied history at Purdue not so long ago, told them that the outline of the boulders, which wandered the meadow in sinuous fashion, was actually arranged to form the perfect shape of a mountain lion. The anatomy was precise, with each bone-to-body ratio exact. The stone puma was half a mile long.
“You can see it from outer space,” the guide said, “but here on the ground, you can see none of it.” He cast his hand toward the horizon. “There are no mountains high enough to give a clear view of this structure. How did they get it perfect? It is a mystery. You cannot see it. You cannot know it.”
The guide seemed to descend then, to the bottom of a cool, deep well within himself, dwelling there for a moment or two before reemerging with a slightly different, more compassionate bearing—and Wilson thought, I could have a drink with this fellow. A man with two countries, two continents.
The guide, having kicked back upward from his brief introspection—like a conch diver rising to the shimmer of light above—looked at his clients now with tenderness. “Do you think this structure was built during a time of war,” he asked, “or a time of peace?”
“War,” said a middle-aged British man; his son, a round behemoth, nodded in agreement. There was no doubt about it, and like the cheepings of birds, the word war, war, rose now from the lips of many, a staggered, murmuring assent.
The guide, serene from the place he had visited moments ago, shook his head.
“I myself think it must have been a time of great peace,” he said. “Such care and attention could not have been possible during the strife of war. No. I think the puma was built as an offering to the Inca god, and to say to all, Look at how powerful we are, do not attack us.
“It took fifty years to build,” the guide said.
The rain was coming down harder, and the tour-goers pressed in closer against one of the puma’s boulders, having no idea whether it was a haunch, paw, or neck, seeking only respite from the cold rain; but there was no protection.
Vendors appeared, selling plastic ponchos and plastic puma key chains. Stephanie bought a key chain and handed it to Wilson. “Not as fierce as our Montana lions,” she said, and laughed. How much she looked like her mother when she laughed.
Another vendor, clad in a metallic sandwich board—an aluminum beer keg cut in half and wrapped around him—waddled toward them with a hissing propane stove attached to the improvised metal jacket, which possessed various nozzles for the dispensing of hot water, cocoa, or coffee.
The apparatus steamed in the mist. The vendor carried paper cups and a change pouch. The silver keg looked not unlike the armor conquistadores had worn in their malicious advance centuries earlier, and Wilson bought the girls hot cocoa, and a coffee for himself, and nearly wept at the injustice that there was no brandy, no rum, no anything, just lukewarm coffee and cold rain.
The guide was still talking. “Fifty years and twenty thousand workers,” he said. “It would have taken one man a million years to build this. But working together, they did it in fifty. Each man wanted to build something that would last forever. Which they did. You are standing in it,” the guide said. “You are in the remnants of greatness.”
That afternoon, in Lima, they went to a large outdoor market. They stopped on the way to watch a military celebration on a great lawn, some kind of anniversary, rows of horses in military dress and men in heavy wool uniforms sweating in the bright equatorial sun, bedecked with guns and swords, their leather boots creaking. A general came out onto a third-story balcony and spoke to the throng, his words unintelligible and strident. The horses were sweating too, their legs and chests laced with thick veins. Wilson and the girls walked on, away from the megaphonic soundscape of the shouting general.
The market was crowded, tables jammed up against one another, overflowing—birdcages, woven shawls, wallets and purses, wooden carvings. The girls, rather than seeking curios for themselves, collaborated on a purchase for Wilson: a pair of handmade leather dress shoes, a fawn color, soft and delicate, only ten dollars, and a well-tailored blazer to match, the same amount. What does a logger need with these things? he wondered, and then had a chilling thought: Maybe they think I won’t recover. Maybe they’re picturing a second part of my life, one where I’m no longer in the woods.
Back home, such luxuries were unthinkable—he would never have purchased these things for himself—and he felt a catch in his throat and his eyes mist.
They like me the way I am, he thought, but maybe they just want me to look a little better. He examined the beautiful jacket and could not imagine ever wearing it, but touched the clean new fabric, beheld it as he might the raiment of a king.
The rush of traffic and jackhammer clatter of Lima agitated Wilson. But at the Hotel Ajo there was an extravagant garden in the lobby, an atrium of orchids, bromeliads, and birds of paradise, along with dining tables set next to splashing fountains—a great calmness, like that of a greenhouse. It was here that Wilson devised a plan. He would lie awake as the girls fell asleep, waiting until around one am, when he would go downstairs and out on the town to find a drink—just one, or maybe two—and then return to the room, brush his teeth, and change out of the clothes in which he had taken the drinks. Not that he would spill anything, he was not that kind of drinker, but the girls would be able to smell the sharp fumes of vodka clinging to the fibers of his shirt, or the oaty scent of beer. After changing out of his clothes, he would sleep until seven or eight, ready to begin the day.
It was workable, he decided. It would not take him away from his daughters. It would not take him away from anything. It was a simple solution and there were plenty of hours in the day.
Damn it, he thought, walking out the door barefooted, carrying his sandals in his hand. It had all gone by too fast. Now would come college, then jobs; boyfriends, husbands, children, grandchildren. He could feel the last of it falling away.
The hotel was at the edge of an upscale suburb, but, as seemed so often the case to him down here, the rich existed shoulder to shoulder with the less fortunate. By turning away from the glow of town and toward the darkness, he would be able to find what he was looking for soon enough.
He walked, alert, looking for a light, any light. The bars he passed were all closed; the streets were narrow and uneven. He felt extraordinarily sober but intended to change that. A cat dashed across the street in front of him, then stopped and looked back, as though believing, briefly, that Wilson might have something for it.
At last he came to a building where he could smell alcohol, could hear bar sounds: voices and the delicate clink of glasses and bottles. As if he had prayed the place into existence. But it didn’t seem like a real bar; instead, it was simply a large room with a low-leaning adobe doorway where, inside, some people were drinking. Definitely not a tourist haunt, just a local drinking room. Was an invitation necessary? He hoped not.
He stepped inside: dark, with a dirt floor. Three haggard old men sat at the bar—more of a long, high table—drinking slowly, heroically, so drunk that it took great effort and willpower for them even to lift their mugs, which they did from time to time.
All manner of local characters were present. Wilson had barely gotten his first drink before a man sidled up and, with no explanation, took a deep breath and then sat there, quivering and turning blue, for long moments that melted, unbelievably, as if into years, until the man finally gasped, and sucked in a double lungful of what surely was the sweetest-tasting air imaginable.
Once he had regained his composure, the man explained that he was an ex–conch diver who, long ago, had been able to hold his breath for five minutes. Although he could no longer go quite that long, it was a tradition, he said, that any time he held his breath for three minutes the recipient of this demonstration had to buy him a beer. Wilson obliged.
There were others in the strange room: a man who said he used to be a sword swallower; an old gaucho with holes in his dusty boots, through which the tips of his battered toes protruded; and another fellow who claimed to be an ex-general. The house specialty was a dark rum drink served from a large clay urn with bright wedges of lime floating in the top of it.
No Americans, which made Wilson comfortable. How wonderful for this late-night stroll to have brought him an authentic, nontourist experience, and how very much his drinking had come in handy here, helping him to achieve it, and to be accepted—welcomed even!
A lady appeared, an American he thought at first, but no, Argentinean born and raised, it turned out, black eyes, smile as wide as an alligator’s. She was luminous in the darkness, wearing a simple bright yellow sundress, and her skin was dark, though as she drew closer he saw how sun-damaged it was. She sat down on the stool next to him and held his arm, speaking to him in accented English. Her facial expressions were extravagant—the lift of her eyebrows, the pursing of her lips—and labored, as if in slow motion.
She had a blue-sequined box with a strap on it, like a case made to carry an accordion but with breathing holes punched into it, and she said the box was full of guinea pigs. Wilson had not yet mentioned his daughters, but she urged him to buy one, to buy more, one for each of his children. She too was drinking the dark rum from the urn, and offered to help name the guinea pigs, if he would buy them.
He guessed the woman to be in her midfifties. She still possessed a haggard allure, but the aura of shipwreck was strong upon her now.
Her silvering hair was lovely, and when she smiled, her lined face was festive, promising a great merriment to which she must once have been accustomed. Yet the instant she stopped smiling, it seemed that she was sinking, and no one cared any longer to hazard a rescue.
Wilson felt a compassion for her, a surprising bond of intimacy. And as they drank and talked, he came to understand that she could see inside his own fall. That she understood his love for his daughters, his distress at his family’s ongoing dissolution, and the widening gyre of his daughters’ growing-up lives. The dawn of his own physical diminishment—he who had once been nothing but physical. Maybe, he thought, they could hold each other up for a night, and he reached out and put his hand on her arm, just to see how she would take it; and she smiled at him.
This was how it had been in the rough bars and logging camps of his youth, he remembered. Long nights of great fun and nothingness, an unending scroll of meaningless encounters. Now he had nothing again. A loneliness greater than the sum of its empty parts.
He knew he was leaning on his girls like a drunken sailor, and they knew it too. He understood, briefly, during one of the drinks, that he needed to lighten up and let them go.
In an effort to stir more drink-buying, the bartender turned on a staticky radio. Wilson and the guinea-pig woman danced. He was having fun now, he thought, but with the terror of a greater loneliness yet. The small of the woman’s back in his hand felt like an animal that might bolt, or charge him. He wanted to get home to his girls, but kept waltzing. Finally he leaned in and rested against the woman. It would take thirty, forty years to come to know her fully. The idea astounded him. He needed to get back to the girls before they were gone.
When the dance was done, Wilson had three more rum-and-lime drinks—drank them until after they had lost their limey, fizzy luster. The conch diver had long ago fallen asleep at his table, though in his sleep he had a troubling cough.
The guinea-pig woman had a million stories, as he’d known she would: as if she were composed of stories. Her fatigue seemed to elicit them. They came flowing from her now, as though they were the essence of her sleep, and her dreams. She loved animals. She had run a zoo, she said, where she lay down to sleep with the elephants. She stretched a long, languorous arm toward him, and he noticed a jagged scar on the inside of her elbow. She leaned closer against Wilson and laid her head on his shoulder. There were more stories. She had worked on a sailboat in the Galápagos, taking people out to swim with dolphins and even whale sharks, whose spots, she said, look like the lights of cities sunk to the bottom of the sea.
She looked down at her scar, massaged it as if with great affection. “But I have a dark side too,” she said. “I have spent time in jail.” She said this as if she had nothing to do with it, and was as puzzled by it as she would be by an unexpected turn in the weather.
Wilson did not betray his surprise. “Well, a lot of people have,” he said, “at least for a day or two.” He squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.” He started to ask why but sensed, even in his growing inebriation, that if she wanted him to know, she would have told him; and he imagined that if he was patient, he would find out soon enough.
“I must be a dangerous woman,” she said, her head still on his shoulder.
He glanced down at her and smiled. She looked up then, and he touched her cheek. She was no longer young but it still felt good to Wilson for someone to care enough to make up such stories. He ordered yet another drink.
The woman looked over toward one of the room’s dark corners, where a large man was watching them unhappily. “He does not like you,” she said. “He does not like us talking.”
Wilson asked if she wanted another drink but she said no, that she was done. She sat with him while he finished his and told him a convoluted tale of family—sisters and bad husbands, wronged and complicated women, harsh circumstances, strife. Wilson tuned out the second half of it as he had been doing with the tour guides—his endurance for almost everything was gone—and then the woman was saying that the story had made her sad, that she was going outside to clear her mind of such things. She asked if Wilson wanted to join her.
He was surprised to realize that he did not want to go any further. He was hammered, and ready to call it an evening, but walked out with her to say good night.
Outside, she lit a cigarette and drifted away from the weak light in front of the drinking room. She seemed lost, still troubled by the last story she had told. She stopped in front of a hedge with large pink blossoms that seemed to glow in the darkness. Their scent was sweet, like too much perfume, almost overpowering. The tip of her cigarette glowed, and she was visible only in dim silhouette.
After a minute she turned toward him and nodded, as though finally coming out of her funk. As he walked toward her, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
It was the big man from the bar, disturbingly close—he smelled like a dog in need of a bath, and was angry. Wilson understood he was about to be struck, but before the big man could hit him, the guinea-pig woman’s face loomed in front of him, leering now.
He was confused and realized only then just how drunk he was. The woman’s face was garish, streaked as if with war paint: as if she had applied it for this very occasion. She raised a brick—at first he thought it was a loaf of bread, that she wanted to feed him, and he felt a great hunger—and then, though without great force, she struck it against his head.
He felt his teeth and nose break, or so it seemed, and he was so stunned he did not even fall, though he wanted to. Now the big man hit him twice in the face hard and fast, so quick that Wilson understood he was a boxer—the man hitting him twice when once would have been enough, as he was already on the way down, but then checking his third swing—and Wilson’s knees sought the pavement, and then his elbows, a mendicant.
The woman was reaching in his pocket, wrenching his billfold from him, while the man kicked his ribs, once on each side, as if to drive the air from Wilson’s lungs so that he could not cry out for help, but Wilson had no intention of crying out for help. His ribs were not yet fully healed from his logging accident and yet here they were, being broken yet again.
The sensation of their breaking was so familiar—half a world away—that it staggered him. When the tree snag had broken, his first thought was How can something I love hurt me? And here it was again, muted but the same: he had been feeling affection, though certainly not love, and yet look, his ribs were now broken all over again.
Just a mugging! he thought, with the raw sorrow of loneliness, of foolishness. I would have given them my wallet. He felt her going away somehow, felt both of them leaving, and he thought, I miss her.
He crawled, slithering toward and then into the sweet-scented hedge, and heard them laughing as they walked away.
The wallet didn’t matter. He’d spent most of his cash on the drinks, and the credit cards were useless. His luck continued. His passport was in the room along with most of their traveler’s checks, which he had allowed Stephanie to look after on the trip. She enjoyed being the organizer, the indexer, of all things large and small, in this regard not unlike her mother. He felt warm, cared for—relaxed, even though in pain.
He lay there for a long while, napping, happy in a way that mystified him and yet for which he was grateful. As if he had somehow gotten what he had been wishing for.
When he awoke, roosters were crowing and the day was not quite light. He rose and weaved down the street, still a little drunk, trying to find his way back to the hotel but not sure where it was and unable to remember its name, or even what it looked like.
But, feeling that his great luck was continuing, he arrived, after walking a long time, at a wrought-iron gate he recognized, and saw a cat in the garden he remembered—a small black cat with a white tuxedo vest. Wilson pressed the buzzer and limped up the steep steps and went inside, back into the familiar garden, where the desk clerk looked at him with concern but said nothing. He passed an elderly couple seated already for breakfast—damn their normalcy, their sweet and enduring matrimony. He felt a desire to harangue them. Instead, he hobbled up to his room, tried to sneak in quietly and crawl into bed, but the click of the door awakened both girls, who sat up and looked at him as if without recognition.
His shirt was torn and bloodied, his bloody nose had dried to a crust, a tooth was chipped, and one of his eyes was purple-black already.
He smiled his new crooked-toothed smile at them and they both began to cry immediately, and hurried over to him. They hugged him far too hard—he could barely stand to have his ribs touched—and he yelped, which made them draw back.
They smelled the rum and cigarettes, and cried harder as some of the pieces came together, while he in turn could smell sharply, even through the dried blood in his nose, their clean nightclothes. They smelled of home, smelled faintly of the forest and of wood smoke, of their shampoos and soaps. He knew those scents, and he was loved. He saw the fear in both their faces, but another thing, too, like anger, and he wanted to explain, to defend himself: This was not my fault; this was not my doing.
Something dark—darker than a storm cloud—passed across his fevered mind and, as if paralyzed, he watched it sail from one side of his mind all the way to the other, with its chill and its pure silence. Then, in the electrical storm of his brain, he thought: How amazing that despite all this I am still in charge. How amazing that I am still in control.
There was a feeling that they all needed to say something, and yet there seemed to be no words that could suffice, for no one spoke. Some glances around at each other, but nothing else.
He blacked out then, after watching the black cloud, and slept.
When he awoke, the girls looked pale and exhausted. He hurt far worse than when he’d gone to sleep.
While he’d been passed out, Lucy—fifteen!—had gone to a pharmacy and in pidgin Spanish purchased gauze bandages and wraps, tape, antibiotic ointment, and a tear-open packet of two aspirin, while Stephanie had sat beside him, wakeful, to make sure he did not vomit while sleeping and choke. He woke once to hear Lucy asking “Is he going to be all right?” and saw Stephanie look at her sister as if across a gulf greater than three years.
They still seemed unable to speak of it, the three of them struck equally mute, and with no discussion, the girls helped him into the bathroom. Wilson coughed and nearly fainted from the pain—he gripped their shoulders or would have fallen—but he had been down this path before and knew not to panic, to take shallow breaths, little sips of air, like a man who after swimming a great distance—days and nights—finds he must rest and tread water for a while.
Could he get better without talking about this? he wondered. How close to the edge was he? Correction: How far past the edge? His first honest thought in perhaps years. He didn’t like the weight or density of it and quickly shoved it away. Beer, he thought, I need a beer.
“I know you’re probably a little worried,” he told them. His swollen, abraded face throbbed. He felt the roughness of his chipped tooth with his tongue. His sheets were bloody. He knew he looked a fright.
“What happened?” Lucy asked. “Were you drinking?”
“I don’t know,” he told them. “Not really. It was just a mugging.” He saw the look on both their faces and paused. “Well,” he said, “yes. I was drinking a little. Not too much.” He shook his head. “I guess someone might say I had a little too much. I won’t let it happen again.”
Lucy’s eyes watered, but she didn’t cry. She had already cried.
Stephanie wanted to take a break from seeing ruins, so that same day, because Wilson was so sore, they took a cab across the city to one of Lima’s museums. In a moment of further humiliation in the hotel room, he had asked Stephanie to chip in the few hundred dollars she had on her debit card, from babysitting, to supplement what remained of their traveler’s checks. He hated to ask, he said, but he needed the extra help to tide them over. They rode through the traffic-clotted streets, through the horns and heat and the meat smoke of curbside vendors, to one of Lima’s museums, where the highlight for all three of them was the spectacular, even gothic, retablos: hammered-tin dioramas filled with doll saints and angels, some wreathed in barbed wire, all of them untouchable, anguished, beautiful. The figures were jammed into miniature houses that were too small, as if the saints and angels were poised to fly out of the boxes that housed them—and although each retablo was similar, each one was different, too. The girls lingered for some time, unable to look away from the tortured Madonnas.
After the museum, the day had cooled enough that Wilson decided they could walk back to the hotel, three miles distant. Walking like an old man, slow and steady, he found himself daydreaming, pondering how the girls had studied the retablos with the same intensity with which they had once considered their dollhouses and the sagas that attended each doll. Always, perfect families.
When he finished his reverie and looked around, the girls were gone—a sea of strangers swarmed around him, all flowing the same direction he was going: and whether the girls had gone ahead, or he had passed them by, he had no idea, no intuition, and knew instead only the ancient and agonizing panic of solitude.
He surged ahead, certain at first they were in front of him; but after a while, he reversed his thinking, imagined that the minute they saw he was not with them, they would have stopped, and that he had therefore passed them by already, so he went back. And in this manner he traveled back and forth, doubting and re-doubting, before finally steadying himself enough to recall where he had last seen them, and return to the nearest street corner, and wait, right on the edge of the street, hoping to make himself visible.
His return to the corner worked. They had indeed gone on without him, and now looped back and found him. “Where were you?” Stephanie asked, even as Wilson was asking the same of them.
“Please don’t do that again,” he said—almost a scolding. “I can’t take it, not down here.”
They both looked at him with an expression he recognized as one of his own, like parents frustrated with a child who’d repeated the same mistake once more, and it occurred to him that from their perspective, it was he who had gotten lost.
There were few injuries more painful than broken ribs—the jagged edges of the break irritating the surrounding tissue with the expansion and contraction of every breath, and the wound so slow to heal, always. He took Advil with the wine he was now openly drinking at meals. Lucy said she’d read that too many Advil were bad for one’s liver, and Wilson assured her he’d be careful and not overdo it. It surprised him how quickly they had all become accustomed to the frightfulness of his black eye and the abrasions and lacerations scattered across his face, one of which might have benefited from stitches, though it had bandaged up pretty well. He wondered if they were accepting this new visage because it was the face that fit him now, or simply because they loved him.
He felt the girls eyeing him as he drank, but there was no mistaking that the Advil and alcohol together eased the pain in his ribs. He had started with several glasses of wine or beer, taken like medicine, throughout the afternoon and evening, but by the day before Machu Picchu, he was having an entire bottle of wine with lunch. The girls eyed his fourth and fifth glasses, the rich plum color, with skepticism and disapproval, but they let it go, perhaps granting it to him as a necessity.
And they were eating in restaurants, which, Wilson told himself, had certain standards and clearly approved of his consumption and demeanor and did not consider him a drunk. Far from it: it was important for the waitstaff, as well as the girls, to see that he was a man of great capacity, one who could not easily be brought down by the weaker forces of the world, the mugging notwithstanding. In a big life, there were always exceptions.
In truth, the broken ribs were a blessing; Wilson didn’t know what he’d do without that excuse. He imagined he’d have to find another, and was glad not to have to.
The girls were definitely rawer now, though. Even he could see that. Frightened, but also—could he be mistaken?—somehow more awake.
He felt good, beginning with that fourth glass of wine. The fifth was fine, more than fine, but it was the fourth glass that really took the edge off his pain and everything else. He needed to relax. It was important for the girls to see him happy. When he finished the bottle and the waiter asked if that would be all, he pretended not to want any more. He was proud that when he paid and rose to leave, he was in no way incapacitated, nor would it have been apparent to anyone else that he had been drinking. He just moved a little more slowly, but that was because of his recent injuries. The girls glanced back and forth at each other. He knew there was really nothing they could say, not right now, anyway. He was in control, for at least a while longer.
The day of their Machu Picchu excursion, Lucy woke them before the alarm went off. Wilson stirred slowly, and when he opened his eyes to the dim room—another soulless accommodation: no artwork, only two beds, thin carpet, ugly orange curtains, fully drawn—Lucy stood there looking at him, as though she’d been there for a while, watching him sleep. He felt a great distance from her, and that she had been regarding him, considering him, the way she had once studied the characters in her fairy-tale books.
They boarded the bus to Machu Picchu just before dawn. It had rained heavily in the night but was only misting now. They rode up a narrow winding river canyon, the diesel double-decker bus groaning and swaying, precipitous cliffs visible out one side of the bus and then the other. Today, Wilson thought, I am going to drink only one beer, a good Incan beer, simply for the taste. His aches and pains were slowly subsiding, and the mugging was far enough in the past for him to convince himself it had had nothing much to do with his being drunk.
He looked over at Lucy. In a heartbeat she would be Stephanie’s age, and then gone, too. He studied the darker blue and green flecks in the blue of each girl’s eyes. Chips of minerals, each chip a repository for the most amazing sights they’d seen together, both here and back home.
The tour-bus guide was speaking over a microphone. “No one knows why Machu Picchu was built,” she said. “Some think it was a place for sacrifices. Another theory is that it was a retreat for the kings, a place to rest and relax.”
No sooner had the bus at last circled into the empty muddy parking lot than the fog shredded to tatters before the rising sun. The mountains, earth brown and jagged as the fins of dinosaurs, stretched up through the wisps and shrouds.
They disembarked, stood in line to receive their passes, then edged through the already crowded turnstiles and entered the hallowed playground of royalty. Other travelers shuffled around them, but inside the park, there were any number of stone stairways and terraces that could be traveled; the clots and masses dispersed.
Wilson and the girls had received their own guide. What great luck, Wilson thought. We can ask any questions we want. He’d been fucking up the whole trip, he knew—paying attention only intermittently, and even then without true focus or resolve. His life was passing by with the speed of a plummet. Try hard today, he told himself. Be present. Try.
But already the guide was talking too fast, gesturing and animated, and though Wilson tried to listen and engage, to ask questions and learn, he couldn’t. The concentration required was too overwhelming.
They went up, they went down. The steps had been worn smooth by the passage of feet across time, with their own adding to the smoothness. The guide’s words simply would not attach to Wilson’s mind—it seemed there were catacombs inside his head, spaces through which the words passed—and he tried to slow things down, but it was coming at him too fast: the verdant terraces, the teeth of the sunlit peaks opening all around as if to swallow them.
They were walking between those teeth now, and the rain clouds and fog wreaths kept peeling back and away as if funneling down a drain. Ivory torrents of waterfalls plunged down forested canyons on the other side of a great cleft. Far below, at the bottom of the cleft, surged the rushing river along which their bus had labored to get them here.
The guide was saying that the headwaters of the Amazon were on the back side of Machu Picchu. He was saying something about lookouts and sentries being posted, though against what danger was not clear—a threat so obvious it apparently did not need to be named. He said they would flash mirrors to one another across the great distances from one peak to the next and would blow conch shells to sound further warnings.
Much of the talk went past Wilson, but he became aware that what had started for the girls, earlier in the day, as a kind of determined happiness was giving way to something more natural. Their smiles were the most free and unguarded he had seen on the trip. They snapped photos of each other on promontories and in stone cottages. Everywhere they turned, they saw majesty, beauty, here at the top of the Incan world.
And there was farther to go—a special hike, through the last of the forest and up to the very highest peak, torturous and straight uphill. They passed through the next turnstile, narrow as a birth canal, and continued on, ascending now, with the help of ropes, over haphazard steps. The path felt like a secret passage and the girls charged up it with great spirit. Wilson followed, the stones slippery and mossy, the spray of sunlit waterfalls moist with rainbows.
The girls emerged at the top with even wider smiles. Nowhere higher to go.
Lucy posed swanlike for her sister, on one leg, arms outstretched atop the cone-shaped peak, all the world below her.
He was proud of them, and as if crawling up from some pit, he realized that part of the reason they were so capable was that he’d been screwing up these last couple of years. These last three or four years. They were tough and resilient, stronger than he’d known. He’d almost ruined the trip, and yet they were happy. The novelty of this idea—that their happiness was unmoored from his own and they could go on without him—struck him hard and deep; jarred something in him that, while good, still felt more like fear than pleasure.
If, even in his blindered state, he could see this, how much more was he missing? He gaped at the mountains around him with the sudden intensity of a man trying to burn away fog with the focus of his will alone; but the effort made his head hurt, and he found that still, or only, he wanted a drink.
Another memory. Who is chosen to stay; who is chosen to leave? As a child Wilson had been a poor swimmer, yet drawn, now and again, to the very thing that could destroy him. On numerous occasions, while other children splashed and plunged in waters where he could perceive no bottom, he would edge out, pale and tentative, toes gripping the bottom, stretching his child’s frame upward until the water was up to his thin chest, then his neck, then his chin. A buoyancy, a toppling.
Still, he would push a bit farther: hopping, bobbing on his toes, trying to join the others. If he fell forward, he would be lost. How many times in his life had he approached this invisible but distinct barrier? Balancing on as little as one toe, sometimes. And yet, always, he had been lucky; always, he had been saved, as if by the hand of another. Fate went his way and he made it back into the shallows, when so easily he could have been lost.
He had not remembered this in ages. Maybe his mind was coming back to him. Maybe he was getting better.
In Santiago, they boarded a bus that was the cleanest Wilson had ever ridden: a double-decker that, for less than ten dollars, would drive them southward, down the coast toward Patagonia, ever farther down-country, down toward the narrows, where the once-robust continent thinned to bits and fragments, a chain of islands, each lovely and distinct but isolate, and requiring ferries to reach. Often, the bus came to the end of land and had to board a ferry. The bus seats reclined into beds, and with the bus uncrowded, they all had their own spaces, with pillows and light blankets. They rode through the night, lulled and sleeping well, and awoke on Easter morning to a brilliant sunrise, the road still rumbling beneath them. A smiling bus stewardess brought them hot coffee and tortillas. Shortly thereafter, on the big overhead screen at the front of the bus, a showing of RoboCop began.
They got off the bus in Chilicote. Somehow, with all of the cabs, rental cars, the bus, and other logistics, he had gone almost a day and a half without drinking. That evening, they ate in an open courtyard just off the town square overlooking the ocean, dining on fried whole fish, every fin intact, the crumbs of the delicate batter that crusted it glistening in the late sunlight, the hot flesh white and clean—fish that only hours earlier had been swimming in the blue water they beheld. He did not order a beer, despite noticing the price: twenty-five cents for a liter.
He drank a cold Coke in the bottle instead, along with his daughters, and they admired the way the sunlight, so different in the Southern Hemisphere, caught the gleaming batter crumbs as well as the rinds of freshly cut lemons that decorated the heavy white plates.
Afterward they walked around the square, where young parents were pushing toddlers in strollers or taking their small children to get ice cream cones, as Wilson and Belinda had once done.
They walked back to their hotel, a mile outside of town and up a hill: past the crab nets drying in the late-day sun, the nets glinting with an occasional ungleaned minnow; past the dock where one- and two-man boats, all freshly painted—red, green, yellow, orange—lay overturned, brilliant as Easter eggs. In the blue water beyond, a bright red boat puttered away from the bay, a single fisherman heading out again, and Wilson imagined he could live this life, could be that man.
The air smelled extraordinarily clean.
Back at their room, which had two small beds and a kitchen with a white table, lace curtains fluttered from the breeze through the open windows, and they went out on the balcony and watched the bay—never were there more than two or three boats on it—and, after that, the sunset. He badly wanted a glass of wine but gave himself over to not drinking, as if opening his heart with a blade hewn of obsidian, and gave the girls his sobriety, if only for the evening.
After dark, they found a deck of cards in a drawer and played games they hadn’t in years—Speed, Battle, Paradise Lost, childhood games of chance. Then he read to them: the only book they had, which Lucy was reading for school.
Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. “Scout,” he said, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”
In the autumn light of southern South America that evening, here at the very bottom of the world, time seemed to be made of amber, as if they were all three only just now setting out on the great journey of their lives. He watched the comforting routine and leisure with which the girls prepared for bed—Stephanie brushing her teeth so carefully, and Lucy combing her hair almost carelessly, and yet at great length—as if time had lain down and stopped, while the curtains continued to stir.
When he went to sleep, Stephanie was at the small kitchen table, writing letters—one to Belinda, he was sure—like some Victorian traveler of yore. He thought about saying Tell your mom I said hey, but remained quiet, and slept well.
In the morning they pushed farther south, deeper into wonder. They boarded another ferry, bound for another, even smaller island—countless stony clumps of isolated landmass, surrounded by such sweet blue. They left the ferry’s observation room and stood on the deck, leaning over a railing, smiling in the sun and warm wind. He reminded the girls to put on sunblock. He put some on as well. His scratches from the guinea-pig woman barely stung. He felt strong. He was starting to breathe more easily; he thought his oft-cracked ribs were beginning slowly to knit back together.
He was better when he didn’t drink, he thought. So much better.
But oh, how good a cold beer would taste. It was only late morning but already the sun was warm.
Dolphins swam alongside the boat, and they seemed to Wilson to be smiling at him. He remembered the stories of how they would rescue sailors who had fallen overboard, and he leaned closer, studying the merriment in their eyes, imagining their hearts to be too large for the bird-size ribs that encased them. He admired the silvery way they knifed through the water, inhabiting it without resistance: liquid electricity, liquid joy.
Without a word, but with a euphoria so large in his heart it felt monstrous, Wilson climbed over the railing and leapt in.
The ripping splash that filled his ears did not at first seem to be in any way associated with him, but then he understood that it was. Underwater, everything felt immediately better than it already had.
The water was cold, and he gasped, swallowing some, then kicked for the surface and burst back to the top, cold, refreshed. Gasped louder, sputtering.
He was so thirsty he could drink the whole damn ocean, he thought. This was no good. The sweet feeling he’d had for a moment was slipping away. He would wait until it returned.
A small wave caught him unawares, and he swallowed more water, then spit it back out again, choking and coughing. It was saltier than other ocean water he’d tasted, and it made him even thirstier. He treaded water, admiring the blue sky, the blue sea. The blue ferry, only a short distance from him now. Not too far away yet. As long as I stay here, he thought, I’m safe. Maybe I’ll just stay here all day.
The girls appeared at the railing, at first panicked but then, when they saw he was all right, embarrassed and confused—had he fallen, or had he jumped? But when he smiled at them, they smiled back, and laughed. They studied him closely; and he, in turn, looked up at them. The ship’s captain had joined them, his hand on the round orange lifesaver buoy, prepared to toss it. More passengers appeared at the railing—some curious, some amused, others alarmed.
Everyone stood by, ready to help.
It was the beginning of Wilson’s spring, if no one else’s. Pretty much the first day. Never mind that it was already fall, down in Chile. As if months, even years, had passed by uncounted.
He continued to tread water and look up at the ship. All he had to do was raise up a hand and ask.
v.i.Prose Online Exclusive: "A Stirring in the Blood," an essay by Jen Hinst-White
“This epistolary essay felt risky to write, and not just because of the challenges I mention in the opening paragraphs. Inviting readers into any room of your life can suck some of the energy out of it: the space is now public; it is scrutinized, maybe no longer quite so potent. That principle has proved helpful for me when writing about personal tragedy—it draws out some of the sting—but here, I wondered about draining off the power of a fruitful creative partnership. A handful of times in the course of a human life, you chance upon ‘a brother from another mother, a sister from another mister’ (if I can use a silly phrase for a profound thing), and those bonds are worth guarding. But risky essays are sometimes worth the risk.
“For me, those soul-siblingships always seem rooted in writing or spirituality, so other hazards loomed. Writing about writing seems awfully self-referential, especially for a writer as early in her career as I am. Writing about spirituality risks sentimentality or alienating the reader. But both subjects, here, seemed unavoidable. I hope I managed it.
“A few final behind-the-story details: 1) When I say ‘music both sacred and profane,’ I am calling on those terms in their musical sense. Eli and I don’t often find ourselves in the same city, but when we do, we still get together to record songs. 2) The writing program that launched this whole thing is the Bennington Writing Seminars, itself a place where the sacred soaks the secular. And 3) Milo, my baby, is now a toddler, healthy and wild—and I am back at my desk again.”
Jen Hinst-White’s writing has appeared in The Common, Big Fiction, the Southampton Review, Image Journal’s Good Letters, Cactus Heart and elsewhere. She is a regular reviewer for ImageUpdate and blogs at jenhinstwhite.com. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she was a Liam Rector Scholar.
“A Stirring in the Blood” is the first in a new series of TMR web prose exclusives.
A Stirring in the Blood
By Jen Hinst-White
Midway through the white page, my girls scrawl black
lines like a reading of the squiggly-slack
electric activity in the heart, a muddied
Telecaster caked with the blues-bloodied
earth of a Jug’s Bend, Mississippi
—Elijah Burrell, “The Scribbling Blues”
You have written a book, and for months now I have struggled to say something about it. When two writers are good friends, and one publishes a book, it seems fitting for the other to reply in writing, even if only to dash off a flattering Amazon review; but I’ve failed even to do that. I try and then scrap it all and wish I had the inspired abandon of your scrawling girls in “The Scribbling Blues.”
The problem is this, I suspect: I can’t separate this piece of art from the friend who made it. And our friendship, in particular, is fruitful and rare; it sings a music sibling-strange, both sacred and profane; and when things border on the sacred, you do not go telling the town crier.
Since you appreciate wonderful sentences, here is one that I found in the New York Times recently, from a writer musing on the cloistered chemistry of creative partnerships. (Sarah Lewis, it was. She was reviewing of Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book on the power of creative pairs: duos like McCartney/Lennon, Wozniak/Jobs, and many others less illustrious but equally charged.) Such pairings, Lewis writes, are rife with “private languages,” “private realms.” And now here comes the sentence, wonderful because I have never heard this particular truth expressed this particular way, especially not in our very public age:
“The pair is a precious unit—private, generative, even holy.”
I tread warily, then, on the ground of this story. Still, there is a story to be told. And your book is too good and cost you too much in blood to go unsung. Let us see, then, if I write you a letter—if I pretend no one is listening—if I can speak more freely.
The first time you saw me, you said, was a summer day in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and I was carrying my firstborn in a nut-brown sling. I was the only one there with a three-month-old baby, so I was difficult to miss.
I beg your forgiveness for not remembering the first time I saw you or anyone else in that whirligig blur of that time: we were there for an intensive grad-school residency, and I was channeling all my limited powers into books and breastfeeding. I remember only the creak of wood floors and stroller wheels, the smell of milk-dotted pages, of coffee and the tick-tick-suck of my hungry babe as I nursed him before running off to the next lecture.
So you and I didn’t get to be friends until more than a year later, at our penultimate residency, when the baby was weaned and toddling, I’d finally finished the novel I’d been laboring over for years, and I emerged blinking into the waking world again.
One night, someone organized a musical open mic at the campus bar. I probably sang some sweet Irish thing with mischief and fiddle on the side. And you played melancholy alt-rock on an acoustic guitar.
“Maybe we should try one together next time?” you said.
Making music with other people is one of my deepest pleasures in life, one of the things that working parenthood had mostly put on hold. “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s.”
We were both surprised, I think, at how easy the harmonies were.
If this sounds like the beginning of a love story, well, of course it is—but not of the predictable romantic kind. I deeply loved and was heartily married to the man I’d loved since high school, and so were you to your own high-school love. What both you and I needed, I suspect—though I don’t think we’d been looking for it—was a creative partner. You and Polly had two young children, as Rob and I had our one. You both had demanding jobs back in Missouri, just as we did in New York. And this meant you were struggling hard, as I was, to navigate that threefold vocation: family and work-that-pays-the-bills and, finally, somewhere in there, writing. After graduation, when I got too absorbed in mothering and job to put pen to paper, your occasional text message often called me back: Listen to this song. Read this poem. Whatever you sent me, it was often the grain of sand that spurred the pearl of a new piece of writing.
Martha Graham once said that for artists, there is “no satisfaction whatever”—only a “queer divine dissatisfaction.” You seemed to know that queer divine dissatisfaction as well as I did. Each of us was trying to brew something potent for another human being to drink: a cup of wine wherein we could share the mysterious aching experience of being alive. Liam Rector, the poet who founded the writing seminars where we met, used to call it “the communion between writer and reader.” I don’t know about you, but only on the rarest graced days does my wine come up to snuff. Still, we labor, and try to be honest about the ache. And over time, that labor yields poems like the ones you write: poems that trawl the past, asking big questions, poems that long for fathoms-deep things, all the while knee-deep in a muddy, weedy world.
Of all your poems, here’s one of my favorites—or a sip of it, anyway. It’s never been published, to my knowledge; I smuggle it into this letter like a Prohibition bootlegger, and I hope you won’t mind.
I AM JUST A LIMITED ELIJAH
and how I’d love a spilling pull
from that fermented cupful
he swallowed, be word-boozed like the
pit-livered voice of Swansea.
To toil in the Jordan,
camel hair stole immersed,
the glaze of honey on my breath,
bald locust heads washing past
my knees on down
to the Dead Sea…
The biblical Elijah, of course, was a fire-casting prophet; John the Baptist, “the glaze of honey on his breath,” said he came to blaze a trail for “the light, the true light”; and the “pit-livered voice of Swansea,” I’d wager, is the same Welshman who raged, raged against the dying of the light.
Later in the poem, after invoking these three shaggy, fiery howlers, the “limited Elijah” takes the measure of his own fire. “Sparkle,” he calls it. “I sparkle,” he says, “like ditch weed”—the roadside marijuana that connoisseurs don’t bother to smoke.
Queer, divine dissatisfaction.
The title of your poem sometimes rattles around my head on days when I have given everything and still fall short—in life, in writing. When I flounder at my desk, fail at mothering, drown at work, when details trump wonder, I am a limited Elijah. I want the whirl of a holy cyclone, but here I am all gummed up in the muck.
Did you hear back from that agent? you texted me one day.
She says… I tapped back… She says she loved the plot, the characters, the setting, and the writing. But she didn’t “fall in love.”
Ellipses appeared; you were replying. Somebody will, you said.
Maybe so, maybe not, but I didn’t wallow. You and I were walking a twin journey, trying to see our books into print. But I could afford to go slowly, querying literary agents as time allowed.
You didn’t have that luxury. Around the time that you and I became friends, your mother was diagnosed with cancer, a cancer with a complicated name. She’d been battling it for two years now, and the treatment options were dwindling. She was always the greatest champion of your writing; as a young teenager you won a newspaper essay contest with a piece praising her. Some people, faced with the death of a parent, move up their wedding dates or pray the parent will hang on long enough to see them graduate from college. You—you needed to publish that book soon, or she would never hold a copy of it in her hands.
You’d been submitting the manuscript regularly to poetry presses, but no one was biting. The poems were potent, but something was off: “They don’t play well together,” is how you put it. Some of them needed to come out, and you had nothing yet to replace them. And all the while you drove your mom to treatments as time seeped away.
Ellipses again. You texted me a link. I’m thinking of doing this.
I tapped through. Another friend of yours was organizing a walkathon-style challenge to raise money for some worthy cause. Except it wasn’t walking. It was writing a poem a day for a month.
Do it, I said.
YOU should do it, you said.
I think I have plans in February.
You knew exactly what they were, too. I was seriously pregnantjust weeks from my due date now. This accounted, in part, for my patience with the publishing process: I was about to be very busy.
Anyway, if a genie had offered me one wish at that moment, as much as I wanted to see my book in print, that’s not what I would have asked for. My first birth was difficult. My second pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. What I wanted, more than anything, was to see this baby delivered—safely, easily, uncomplicatedly delivered.
Fortunately, all seemed healthy so far. In the evenings, Rob and I sat on the couch, watching my belly earthquake as our son-to-come rocked and rolled like a one-man mosh pit. His heartbeat was strong, he was facing the right way, and I was content.
Do that poem a day thing, I wrote. I mean it.
So it was that I found myself eight-and-a-half months pregnant and receiving a poem every morning.
That you sent them at all was surprising. I didn’t expect that you’d share any of them for weeks, at least. I mean—committing to writing a poem a day is like buying a dairy cow. Each day, the poet hauls himself out of a warm bed for the chill, dark walk to the barn, hoping to find heavy udders; and the poems, often, will be as raw as fresh milk. You wait until the cream rises.
But every morning I hefted myself out of my own warm bed, hip ligaments aching under the weight of my rock-and-roll baby, and when I checked my email, there it was in my inbox: a new poem. Every morning. You were crazy.
You don’t have to send me these, you know, I wrote. The time stamp was usually after midnight. You were teaching all day, spending evenings with your family, and then staying up late to write these poems.
I want to give you your money’s worth, you said. I had donated a little bit to the effort, not because I am the kind of virtuous soul who cared about your friend’s worthy cause, but because I am a hedonist greedy for more good art in the world, and wanted to spur you on.
First came the here-and-there poems, still assembling themselves—gorgeous language and the hot flicker of fresh-caught thoughts, but things still getting themselves in order, fuzzy and wriggling the way new poems often are. It was such a privilege, such a pleasure; I wasn’t writing, but it was so heartening to know that you were. Every once in a while I sent you a note back about this or that thing I liked.
And then one day, this poem appeared. It was called “Blood.” It described the transformation of an entire town’s water supply to blood—the faucets, the rivers, the sprinklers in the gated communities. And then these final frightening, enticing lines: “Folks fought seven days/to answer the question of how, not why.”
The next day, you sent a poem called “Frogs.”
The day after that, “Lice.”
You were visiting the plagues of Exodus on a contemporary Midwestern town.
The poems were chilling and eerie and sometimes blackly funny. And they were different than anything you’d ever sent. They had a dreadful weight to them. Nobody could call this the sparkle of ditch weed.
You are on to something good, I wrote you.
As you were doing this daily ritual, I was doing a weekly one. Rob knew what I was doing, and my mother, but I wasn’t telling anyone else—including you—because it wasn’t clear yet what it meant, exactly.
Each week I walked into a laboratory where a woman tied my arm with a tourniquet, scrubbed the crook of my elbow with a rough pad soaked in alcohol, and probed for a good vein. Because something strange was happening in my blood.
My platelets were dropping. Each week, the count was lower. The more they dropped, the riskier my birth would be.
I refused to worry. Until Valentine’s Day, when I went in for my routine appointment with the midwife. She studied my chart line by line, and then looked at me. “How do you feel,” she said, “about an induction?”
I shielded my belly with my hands and breathed evenly, as if her words didn’t terrify me. “Why?”
“You have thrombocytopenia,” she said. “Your platelets are dropping more quickly now and won’t return to normal until you deliver the baby. We don’t like to induce, but I want to schedule you for next week.”
I’d heard horror stories about the force of induced births: contractions fearsome in their intensity, a complicated cascade of interventions. Dizzy,I lay back on the table, white paper crackling under me, and I asked for juice.
It was a few days later, with still no hint of contractions commencing, that I finally texted you: Pray for labor.
I will, you said. Then you added a cheery postscript: Try walking, sex, and eggplant parmigiana! Ever helpful, you.
Thanks. We haven’t tried the eggplant yet.
But labor did not begin.
That Sunday I went to Mass at the local Franciscan friary. A handful of us stood in a circle around the altar, passing the chalice: The blood of Christ, we said to each other, the cup of salvation. After the service, a ninety-two-year-old friar put his hand on my belly and prayed that my baby would be safely delivered. Outside, deer browsed the fields.
Meanwhile, you were slaying livestock. The plague poems continued. The herds lay strewn in pastures/ for miles of road, you wrote. Foals, in midnuzzle with dams,/ dead…
The night before my induction, I cried until the wee hours. Contractions were coming, but they were weak and irregular. I took a warm bath that morning and drove with Rob to the hospital in my softest shirt, the one I’m probably too old to wear: Love Will Lead the Way, it says.
I feared so much. Complications and their corresponding remedies. Needles and drugs; labor not progressing; that cascade of interventions. Some unforeseen danger to my baby.
But I was a match for those induction drugs, it turned out. I had been practicing the breathing for months. The contractions rose and crashed like breakers, and I breathed through it all, my arms around my husband’s neck. Three minutes of pushing, and there was the boy. Unspeakable joy. They put him on my chest.
Then they took him from me again. The cord had been tangled tight all around his body when he was born. He was blue-gray, the color of his daddy’s jeans. “Come on, baby,” the nurse said, flicking his heels. “Give me a good cry.” He didn’t.
“Is he all right?” I said.
“He’s breathing, he just—” She began to rub him briskly.
I don’t remember what I was thinking during those moments or even what I was feeling, or how long it went on. All I remember is him, him in the nurse’s arms and not in mine, the littleness of him as she rubbed him and coaxed him and he didn’t cry, this baby who’d felt so strong kicking and rolling in my belly—this little gray baby.
But she rubbed him and rubbed him. She rubbed him to pinkness. Blood radiated through his torso and then, finally, slowly, into his face.
Soon, he was at my breast.
The next day, the final plague poem came.
I didn’t see it until I was waiting to be released from the hospital. I’d dressed my newborn in warm crimson clothes, and he lay in the bassinet—snoozing, birth-bruised and perfect. For a long while I watched him, then sat at the window, looking down on the ambulances as they came and went; then, idly, I checked my phone.
And there it was, the final poem in a terrible crescendo—the last of the plagues. The reason the Hebrews brushed their doorframes with blood.
“The Loss of His Firstborn,” it was called.
I read it. Walked to the bassinet. Checked to make sure the baby was still breathing.
We’d named him Milo. It means mild, peaceful, merciful.
My phone rang. The car was packed and the wheelchair ready. Rob returned; I hugged him tight. He gave me the baby.
That last poem was hard to read, I wrote you.
It was hard to write, you wrote back.
Before fate’s flood of misfortune,
I learned to make the good wine…
Call me Crescendo Maker, Grape Crusher.
Bring forth your water pots and watch me work.
—from “The Archipelago of Bats,” Elijah Burrell
On the first of February, the first of those twenty-eight poem days, the snow moon was a sliver past new. You took all you’d learned and you made a new thing, and you did it again the next night—every night, making anew, till the moon waxed and waned back and you’d done it; you’d written your poems, a double-fortnight’sworth.
And it started to become clear. What needed to go into the book, what needed culling. Clarity came slowly, but it came. And of course it sang of your mother, front to back.
You called it The Skin of the River. Fitting for a limited Elijah.
And then a press said Yes.
Scant months later, she held it in her hands in her hospital bed.
Scant months after that, you sat by the bed as she took her last breath.
You did what you set out to do.
But still she is gone. I know you well enough to know you would trade every book you’ll ever write to have her back—as I gladly would have chosen Milo’s life over every book I might ever write.
Neither of us gets to make that choice, of course. Or do we? We do get to choose how to spend our own breathing, heartbeating days on this earth. So why do we spend a single one of them writing? Why choose the creation of a single page over an hour with our flesh-and-blood loves, when any of us could die at any moment?
I read a striking paragraph recently in an essay called “Why Do We Write?”:
William Butler Yeats observed that ‘neither Christ nor Buddha nor Socrates wrote a book, for to do so is to exchange life for a logical process.’ In other words, there are those who write and those who live.
—Kristopher Jansma, Slice Magazine, Issue 12
Well, okay, Yeats. When you put it that way.
But what if writing is something more than just a logical process? In the course of his essay, Jansma explores about a dozen reasons we write, but the one that rings truest to me—and I suspect will to you, as well—is a quote from Jonathan Franzen, who says that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing” is “to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” There it is: Liam’s “communion between writer and reader.”
And when it is a true communion, we return to our flesh-and-blood lives changed. An inch closer, maybe, to being the humans we’re meant to be. We are changed because we have touched something fundamentally real and vital—which is to say holy. Not the schmaltzy, pastel-positive, Sunday-School-simple kind of “holy.” I mean the messy, passionate, blood-sweat-and-tears, rock-and-roll kind of holy—190-proof love. The ecstatically distilled lifeblood of all that lives.
I see you writing like that, Eli. I see it in every poem where you enter the cockleburs and creek-splash of your memories with all your senses sharp and awake, searching for something, something, left there for you. I see it when you stumble out onto the prairies of the imagination keening like a psalmist—
Before You made the light, took the light
away, hovered over the waters, bloodied them,
grew flowers from nothingness, sent locusts
to plunder them…
—with all the truthful gall of lines like those, and the dread-filled questions that follow.
I see it there, but not only there. I see it in the poems of wonder at your daughters—in the love poems for Polly—the “pleasure in the mouth” of poems like “Divinity”—
There is more, but I won’t. You have made a fine case of wine, my good friend. So go and make some more.
And for me: Please pray for my labors. I’ve written so spottily since my second babe came, and I want me back at my desk, too. I am a limited Elijah, scared to come up empty, but I stand knee-deep in the river and press in deeper. I look for the squiggly-slack activity in the heart. I wait for a stirring in the blood.
Cheers & love,