A New Essay by Claire Bateman
NB: paintings & photos are also by Ms. Bateman
all material copyright Claire Bateman, 2008
-False Ecstasy in a Red Car
In Indiana, the speed limit is a conservative 55. Though my rented red Corolla demands to go faster, I maintain a consistent 60, as though a ticket would somehow jinx the trip, but my whole body feels claustrophobic, as when I’ve forced my feet into shoes that are a size too small. The poet Stephen Dunn has written, I love shifting from second/to third, that little smooth jerk/into speed, though it’s not exactly speed/ I want, but being in the middle of speed… and truly, I do feel that speed is that pure element I was born to inhabit.
On this trip, the sole purpose of velocity seems to be velocity, the spectacular landscape just an incidental perk that happens to come along with it, and up to this point, I’ve been so lead-footed that most of my driving decisions have been made in the rear view mirror.
In Louisville, KY, I stood for a while before the Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla’s painting Lines of Speed—(this was, as a matter of fact, at the Speed Museum, named, disappointingly, not after that element of my elation, but after James Breckenridge Speed, a Louisville businessman and philanthropist of the last century). Balla’s lines, simultaneously primal and sophisticated, struck me, for all their fury, as a place for the imagination to rest. Yet here on I-70W, as I fight my inclination to click off the cruise control and bear down on the accelerator, I wonder whether or not the idea of speed itself as a form of rest represents some kind of spiritual dis-ease, as with those Tourette’s sufferers who refuse medication because the very alleviation of their symptoms slows their inner world to a rate that seems to them unbearable. I admit that there’s something a little inhuman, even a little unholy, about my affinity for acceleration, which shows up in every area of my life—for instance, I’m the fastest eater I know, and my students always marvel at the pace at which I read. I know that I must be missing many of the nuances and subtleties of life’s experiences.
In fact, Carl Honore, a Canadian journalist who describes himself as a former speedaholic, has recently published a book called In Praise of Slowness, in which he posits that our obsession with speed represents nothing less than a worldwide cultural addiction. But despite all this, and despite the fact that mystics of the major religious traditions are adamant that excessive haste corrodes the spirit, in my experience, sometimes going very fast feels more akin to the absolute stillness of eternity than does going slow, as if speed and stillness are identical twins, while slowness is merely the neighbor kid who hangs out at the house at inconvenient times. Yet my desire for speed is so willful and demanding, and causes me to be so impatient of anything or anyone that impedes me, that it probably represents a lust for those false ecstasies the mystics warn against. I’ve heard that farther west, the speed limit goes up to 75, which means I’ll be able to go 80 or maybe even 83: a little false ecstasy in a red car on a windy day in Colorado? I can hardly wait.
Early on, I decide that this is my trip, and it will be successful only to the extent that my decisions are ir- or sub-rational, and so I make most of my choices by intuition alone, though for a while, I’m haunted by my own logical side: _______ is a great tourist attraction; therefore, I’m obligated to see it. But I don’t go to the Jack Daniels Distillery. I don’t visit the National Corvette Museum. I pass up both the Biggest Prairie Dog in the World (8000 pounds) and the six-legged steer. I also realize early on that every major city has an I-Max, a world-class zoo, aquarium, or discovery-type museum, and a million restaurants, boutiques, cafes, and galleries of various varieties. I give myself permission to skip most of them. Mainly, I just want to drive. My eyes want to trace the outlines of the clouds, and my gaze wants to drink distances where edges become indistinct.
Passing through Caruso, Kansas, where I go into Mountain Time, I realize that the sky is an aria, fluid and completely untranslatable, and I don’t owe myself or anyone else an apology for going west primarily to immerse myself in its mysteries.I have a craving to not be anywhere in particular; I have an insatiable love for the in-between. Of course, when you look at it an existential sense, there’s nothing that can’t be considered “in-between.”
Before I left, anyone who heard about my plan to drive west without an itinerary immediately exclaims, Take me with you! And now that I’m on my way, I notice is that wherever I stop, there’s a gas station or Quik-Mart employee sitting with his or her back against the brick structure, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the interstate as if seeing far out into an ocean where great ships move across the horizon. It’s been said that you never know whether you’re a floater or a sinker until someone throws you in. The deeper into the experience of this trip I go, the more I find that I’m simultaneously light because of my own temporary liberty, and heavy because I’m bearing the weight of everyone else’s unfulfilled passion for escape. And this restlessness doesn’t spring from some kind of postmodern, twenty-first millennium disequilibrium. Consider the 5000 responses to Shackleton’s historic 1901 Times of London announcement prior to his National Antarctic Expedition: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. The men who applied for those few positions must have been sinkers in “normal life,” or perhaps they were phony floaters, fulfilling their ordinary duties in society while secretly sinking within. Throughout the years, I’ve heard people praying for “travel mercies” for their loved ones who were away from home, but as I drive, it occurs to me that the ones who most need divine assistance might actually be those who remain behind.
That’s why it’s difficult for me to understand why so many people have told me that I’m brave for traveling so far, and for traveling alone. Traditionally, it’s assumed that the person who takes to the open road is courageously abandoning the world of order, but actually, my life on the road is the simplest it’s ever been. I have time and space enough to finish a thought, or even to allow that thought to lead naturally to another thought, and then another, while I trace imagination’s currents like a river’s meanders. I can eat when I’m hungry, regardless of what the clock says, and check into a motel when I’m tired. Once a day, I check in with my father and stepmother to let them know where I am. Occasionally, I make other calls to various friends and family members. Once or twice a day, I refresh the ice in my cooler, and a couple of times a week, I stop at a grocery store for cheese and fruit. Because I’m not retracing my route on the way home, I don’t have to memorize any directions, something that is intensely difficult for me under nearly any circumstances. I find that I experience a frighteningly small amount of loneliness, and when I do, it’s much cleaner than the loneliness I often feel in groups of people who may or may not be requiring something of me, either professionally or emotionally. I don’t have to scan anyone else’s feelings and attempt to adjust the conversation or the environment to alleviate any distress someone else may be feeling. I don’t have to think slightly ahead of anyone in a conversation in order to anticipate potential landmines. I don’t have to make any personal compromises or sacrifices on anyone else’s behalf, or juggle various people’s needs, temperaments, or desires for the sake of any whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s true that I have fantasies of teleporting various individuals to the passenger seat of my car, but only briefly. I’d beam in my sons so they could see the storm on the horizon. I’d beam in my stepmother to help me identify the plant life alongside the road. I’d beam in any one of my friends with digital expertise to help me adjust the camera for cloud photos. But then I’d beam them all back home.
I crave storms, but for days encounter only their aftermaths--the blasted tree, the blown-down fencepost--the bodies of the storms themselves having either dissipated or wheeled off into someone else's distance. Yet as I speed through the countryside, I'm aware that the territory around me is aftermath as well--these slopes around me, and the fiercely jutting rock structures farther west, are what glaciation, oceanic recession, erosion, and tectonic restlessness have left behind. As the land starts to flatten out on the far side of Terre Haute, I think of a giant pudding only just now beginning to settle down after a violent stirring--there are still enough lifts and rolls in sight that it seems the mix could begin to churn again at any moment.
Above me skulk the shredded clouds some storm has abandoned, and beneath me breathes a vast netherscape of cavern systems; every state through which I drive sprouts sign after sign advertising THE WORLD’S MOST DRAMATIC CAVERN, NEXT EXIT, GIFT SHOP OPEN TIL 9!! After I pass what must be the hundredth of these billboards, I decide that my next trip will take me through underground America. As the protagonist of John Cheever’s famous short story “The Swimmer” navigates his county by stroking sequentially across all its backyard pools, I’ll traverse the United States by cavern, by basement, by wine cellar, cyclone chamber, drain pipe, air duct, sewer, mine shaft, tunnel, mineral pool, and quarry. Surely there are storms beneath the earth to rival those above; surely there are eddies, wind shears, gales, squall lines, and when I’ve seen all of them, I’ll cross bridges of fire over rivers of fire far beneath the level where the roots of the mountains reach out for one another in a single, unbroken web. Down in the deepest labyrinths where sapphires slough off their skins under sedimentary skies, I’ll rest for a while in Persephone’s kitchen—not the swooning victim of ancient myth, but a young American Persephone, a skinny, spike-haired working girl, pedicurist for the dead, who will offer me little loam cakes baked in an oven that runs on darkness alone. When I leave, I’ll carry one in my pocket so I can strew pieces behind me, creating a trail for my return; looking back, I’ll marvel at the way each crumb glows like a bead of mercury.
Disorientations In my rental car, the CD player is set on random, and I can’t figure out how to change it while I’m driving this fast, so listening to the chapters of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, I hear about young Jim Burden’s train ride from Virginia to Nebraska after I hear about his adventure with the snake out at the prairie dog town; winter brings the death of Pavel before Jim has even met the Bohemians, and so on. At first, this bothers me, but then I begin to enjoy it, as if a multidimensional collage of Jim’s life is unfolding to float freely around me, each episode connected to the others not by chronology, but by tonality and resonance, the way my own life floats around me on this journey--my children simultaneously babies, toddlers, schoolchildren, and young adults; my poems at once unconceived and printed in galleys; my body and soul at once crippled and whole.
I’ve been silent so long, and my mouth is so dry from the rushing air, that I find it difficult to speak into the little digital recorder from which I transcribe notes in the evenings. Not only does my tongue feel swollen, distorted, and not only do my lips have difficulty shaping words, but I can’t always remember what I was intending to say. Sometimes while I’m driving I hit the record button by accident, and later sit in the silence of my motel room listening to my own previous silences inside that afternoon’s wind.
In the back seat, six or eight creased and crumpled state maps have taken on a life of their own, flying up and around the car, refusing to be re-folded, and finally settling down together as a large and ever-expanding nest in whose hollow the digital camera resides. All around me, green fields are straining to be gold and little slopes are struggling to be bluffs in this wind that would blow the cows off the earth’s surface if they weren’t quite so dense, this wind that drove pioneer women insane with its very relentlessness, as if it was mocking their isolation.
Paradoxically, it’s in Kansas that I realize I’m dealing with solitude far better than I’ve ever dealt with social claustrophobia. I also notice that I’m rarely stopping to eat real meals at restaurants, but rather, I’m grazing along the way—a bag of nuts here, a little carton of raisins there, and I’ve become a connoisseur of gas station coffee and cappuccino. One of my lifelong fantasies is to become a trucker just so that I can keep moving.
Along with the wind, associations run wild in my brain—I think of the line “…Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain,” from the musical Oklahoma! and then of the song, “The Farmer and the Cowboy Should Be Friends.” With my hunter-gatherer spirit, I feel much more akin to the cowboy than to the farmer, and I’m happier in the car than I am back home in Greenville where everyone seems to revel in a settled, gardening way of life. I’ve only recently become a homeowner, and this new state of being, though economically advantageous, feels a little confining despite the fact that renters are universally looked down upon as unstable and unreliable, liable to pick up and go for no discernible reason, vanishing into the same chaos out of which they’d appeared.
In After Dark, one of my favorite horror movies, the bad guys are a little clan of poor white trash vampires crowded into a beat-up Winnebago, perpetually on the road in Oklahoma and Kansas, seeking human prey at rest stops, motels, bars, and other lonely places, while the good guys are the ranchers, the rooted folk with real estate and a long history in one place. Thus, the farmers are identified with the living, and the trailer trash with the restless undead, and at some level, I’m always pulling for the undead, even though I myself possess no desire to dine on blood. I find it ironic, however, that my current hunter-gatherer diet is completely dependent on the farmers and industrialists who produced, processed, packaged, distributed, and marketed my nuts and berries. No doubt my soul is doomed to flicker back and forth between the hunter-gatherer and the agriculturalist realms, never feeling quite at home in either one. I’m driving through western Kansas when I find myself wanting to scream because it’s so beautiful, the cloud shadows skimming across the prairie’s slow contours, the cottonwoods and huge sunflowers bent sideways in the wind that sets the wheat and grasses flowing in waves impossible to track visually as they surge into one another, shifting between gold and deep green in the turbulent light.
I’ve heard that the Rockies rise in a single wall ahead of me outside of Denver, but it can’t be as dense as this cloud wall rising before me here; I’m driving into a line of sky surf tumbling hugely in slow motion as if to break me even as I speed toward it to be broken. Can it be that the hills on the horizon are made of salt? The sky is pale, sheer, even, and I can’t tell if it’s unusually close or unusually distant. All I know is that I’m driving drunk on sky, pulling a straight line west, skimming through parts of towns, slicing through sections of mountain, listening to snatches of radio shows as they fade in and out in English and Spanish, dreaming my way through micro-reveries, and through the beginnings and ends of storms, but never their centers. I think about St. Anthony, whose desert was honeycombed with caverns, like a sponge. I imagine that he traced his own path backward, arriving at an identical opening on the opposite side of the mountain he’d tunneled through all night. Lifting his hands to the sun, he saw that they were encrusted with what might have been snow, but resolved into tiny white shells dropping from his stiff fingers as he flexed them one by one. Then it was the voice of the ocean he’d heard in the darkness—the voice, or the mountain’s memory of the voice. That’s when the fine mesh of the net encompassing the earth became the branching capillaries of his won eyes, and his tears found their way out between the delicate knots, for he had reached that place in the body where salt flows from a space so small you can find it only by diving through.
It’s in Colorado that I struggle to imagine a visual representation of the relationship between beauty and pain. How to do this? A landscape, a flow chart, a spider map, a hierarchy—none of these seem appropriate or even possible. Eventually, I decide on a simple continuum:
Painful beauty __________________________ Pacific beauty
I decide to locate ecstasy on the left side, with beauty that is searing, shattering, or ominous, and a sense of gentleness on the right. The Rockies on the left, and the comparatively gentle, rolling Blue Ridge mountains on the right. New York City, with all its vibrant harshness, on the left, and a country garden on the right. But the construct swiftly falls apart in my head. Doesn’t gentle beauty, such as the sound of harp music, sometimes make the heart ache? And the experience of beauty- saturation that causes numbness—where does that fit in my scheme? I decide that the map would have to be molten, volatile, multi-dimensional, simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal, forever in flux, and therefore, not a map at all.
I’ve prepared for this trip by packing art supplies—not the huge canvasses the scenery demands, but small squares and rectangles of treated paper. Why do I feel compelled to try to draw and paint these immense landscapes and skyscapes on these nearly postcard-size canvases and sketchbook segments? Remembering those western women who create “tornado quilts” out of a couple of thousand two-inch square patches of fabric field, sky, and wind funnel, I assume that we are seeking to domesticate the wildness around us so that we will feel safe, but then I realize that on the contrary, we are seeking to challenge, invoke, even invite the wildness, luring it through innocuous little portals into our hearts where we can trap it forever. One must go beyond logic to experience what is large in what is small, wrote Bachelard.
If I lived in the little community I’ve just passed, I’d say, I’m from Agate, Colorado, which is about sixty miles east of Denver as the crow flies. But where is it written that we must locate small entities by larger ones, instead of the reverse? Why not say, for instance, Oh, are you looking for the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.? Well, it’s constructed around the Hope Diamond display—find the Diamond, and you won’t be able to miss the Museum. I live on Walmart groceries preserved in my borrowed Styrofoam cooler. Across the nation, the Walmarts themselves are identical even as their populations change: In Indiana, they’re blonde and round-faced, of Scandinavian or Germanic descent; farther west, they are smaller, darker, of various native ancestries. Or maybe it’s just a single Walmart, and I’ve never left it—maybe the Walmart itself is traveling through space and time, and the customers are transformed while I’m examining the red grapes. If I went into the restroom and looked in the mirror, whom would I see? The hyperclarity of the air and light out west make my soul hurt in a way that I wish would never stop. Whenever I try to describe this atmosphere to people who have never left the east, I tell them that experiencing it is like putting on your first pair of glasses—you hadn’t even known that your world’s been smudged and distorted all this time, but suddenly, everything appears smaller and more sharply focused, defined. There’s nothing the least bit heavy or slow between you and what’s around you, only a lucent emptiness that allows everything a burningly vital shape and distance. Paradoxically, then what makes the whole world seem so all-of-a-sudden clean is actually the absence of something, or, to put it another way, a state approaching the presence of nothing.
A little west of Vegas, I try to reconstruct the route I’ve taken, but no matter how many times I examine the map, I run into missing territory, lost roads, a blank day or two I can’t account for. How did I get from Nashville to Louisville? I honestly don’t remember that part, and though I stare at all the interstate lines and numbers, not one of them looks familiar. It’s as if those first days represent the trip’s infancy, and who remembers one’s own infancy? I awoke to consciousness, then, somewhere in Kentucky,speeding west under continent-size, elegiac clouds, ready to learn the world from the inside out. As a Timberland truck passes me on the left, I speed up a little, as if to steal even a portion of its shade. The desert is flying away beside me and behind me into stillness. The heat on the road ahead shimmers like a sheet of ice that recedes as I approach; I imagine diving into it, breaking its surface and plummeting into coolness while the mirage lifeguard’s attention is momentarily elsewhere I’m traveling through the body of the ocean’s ghost, this darkness like a weight of water that keeps me from rising, and here on the world’s floor, I don’t want to ascend to the stars foaming fathoms above me, nor do I want to descend into any of the shafts of sinkholes the desert hides, for I’m at just the right distance from the sky, the horizon, the past, the future. That’s why I’ve turned off the radio; that’s why I’m breathing as quietly and shallowly as possible lest I inadvertently cause some shift in the sage-laden wind or the clouds massing like continents overhead. Even the smallest cough might make the horizon snap loose and retract, or the magnetic poles reverse themselves, but even as I imagine an Aurora Borealis of the desert, veils of translucent topaz and indigo sizzling and hissing above me, I find words of a psalm running through my mind: Those who go down to the sea, who do business on the great waters, see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep. Surely there are wonders around me in this deep—there are bleached and fossilized bivalves; there are spiked, spiny, spindled and stinging creatures poised to release exquisite toxins—but no celestial or terrestrial display could be more wondrous than this tangible black silence that rises from the desert like a long exhalation, one endlessly unfurling underwave left over from Permian seas.
Though I’ve won more than once on an inside straight, I can’t stomach Vegas—after the night purity of the desert, I experience vertigo even just stopping for gas here, instantly sick from all that artificial light. There was a California Avenue in Topeka, KS. There’s a Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas. There’s a Home Depot in the desert near Mt. Zion National Park. And somewhere in California, I see a sign that says: CACTUS FOOD. CACTUS SOIL. LIVE CACTI. DESERT SOUVENIRS. VICTORIAN COUNTRY AND KITCHEN DECOR.
And am I imagining this, or do I actually see a sign that says VETERINARY AND TAXIDERMY? Passing under the uprushing clouds, I decide that evaporation is my favorite natural process. By it we’re spared the burden of perpetually trying to dry off the world, a life weighed down by saturated towels and soggy dishcloths, the misery of water with no natural place to go beneath a scalding sky.
At 77 miles per hour, I realize that I’m not actually in motion at all. No matter how long I’m in the car, the mountains remain at an unaltered distance, the road mirages shimmer but do not change, and the desert scrub seems all the same. What is the boiling point of rubies? Who will write the obituary of water? Because I can’t see the sun, the heat and light seem to come from some directionless source. The only thing that intensifies is the burning sensation in my thighs, the feeling that I must kick and kick and kick in order to get any relief at all. The entire landscape seems like a fever dream. In this state of suspension, important boundaries don’t hold well in my mind. For instance, I’m having trouble keeping straight who’s alive and who’s dead. Is it Huntley that’s still with us and Brinkley that isn’t, or is it the other way around? I don’t like it that the solid wall circumscribing eternity is going gooey on me. Does my erroneous belief that someone is alive provide that individual re-entry into the realm of the living, and if so, in what form? I’ve heard that most of the funerary rites of history exist not so much to assist us to grieve the loss of loved ones as to ensure the deceased stay where they belong, so that the dead and the living can remain appropriately apart—the dead, after all, outnumber us by far, so it behooves us to keep them in their place. But the deserts of the southwest don’t seem conducive to such boundaries, and are host to all manner of phenomena, phantoms, and apparitions, from inexplicable cold spots, to the seven-foot deer that leaves no hoof prints behind, to the ghosts of cowboys sometimes glimpsed sitting at the bar in Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone, where Doc Holliday lived on the second floor, Room 201. When I return to the car after five minutes at a rest stop, I’m astonished that the digital camera on the passenger seat hasn’t burst into flame. Isn’t the desert the incinerator of all that is not supposed to be able to burn? I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley—though his friends and mourners cremated his drowned body, his heart would not burn, so at the end, Trelawny seized his heart from the fire, burning his own hand in the process. Mary Shelley carried the heart with her in a silken shroud for the next 29 years until she died. If Mary were to be transported here to the side of the highway for even a moment, that heart would ignite at its very center, and swiftly turn to ash, indistinguishable from desert dust and sand. I become consumed with a desire to gather sage, and contemplate dumping out my suitcases by the side of the road so that I can cram them full of it. Sage lotion or sage perfume won’t do--they don’t capture even the slightest essence of that true wildness. Like the fairy-tale woman who shrieks, Give me rampion or I die!, I’m desperate for the herb, desperate to take part of the West home with me, and I keep scanning the side of the interstate to find just the right place to pull over, where there’s enough shoulder for the rental car to be safe, and no fences to keep me from my prize. After a few hours of this obsessive searching, I realize that I’ve been aware of nothing but a narrow stretch of roadside for a couple of hundred miles. I look up, and all of a sudden, as if ex nihilo, there are the mountains, pleats and folds coming together to create deeper pleats and folds, and the shadows of clouds gliding over them, as if seeking a place to descend. There’s a pasture on my left where horses and ostriches graze together. There’s an Crossing sign, and a shallow, sparkling creek on the other side of the road. I don’t own any sage, but the rest of the world has blinked into existence again.
In a small town whose name I won’t remember, I pass a sign that reads Adopt-a-Street, but somehow I initially see it as Adopt-a-Storm. I dream about keeping a row of Mason jars in the cabinet under my sink at home, each with its own tiny tornado seedling preparing to sprout in the moist darkness.
I’m going too fast to look into the lit windows of the houses I pass, but I wonder who lives there, and what they might be thinking about. On my cell phone with my son, I marvel about the appalling odds against any of us existing as we do—how could it be that all those specific pairs of ancestors survived long enough to mate, uniting at the precise moments and in the sequence that eventually resulted in any particular conception?—to which he responds, But I am here, and I’m myself, not someone else, so actually, the probability of my existence is one hundred percent. I’ve been inevitable from the start. It strikes me that this conversation is nearly the mirror image of one I had with my stepmother, who remarked to me as we gazed down at tiny buildings and cars through an airplane window, All those people—and every one of them thinks they’re the center of the universe—and I replied, But why shouldn’t every one of them be precisely that?.
For years, I’ve dreamed of climbing the crests of sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park, highest on our continent, and now, here they are spread out in silky, transverse folds and waves before me, but things aren’t precisely as I’d expected. First, it’s nigh on to noon, several hours later than I’d hoped to arrive, and the heat is already scorching all the way through the backs of my eyeballs into my brain. Also, before I can even approach the dunes, I must cross a narrow, shimmering stretch of wet flats where swim-suited, spade-and-bucketed, mud-caked children are enjoying this Colorado version of the beach, with only about five hundred million years between them and the ancient shallow sea of the Paleozoic Era. Clearly, it would take the merest pinch in the fabric of history to squeeze sea and children together, but I’m late for my appointment with the dune, so I refrain from further fantasies about providing the children with a real sea to play in, and I venture onto the flats, thinking, I’ll be back from the top in about twenty minutes. This estimation, however, is based on the apparent distance between the dunes and me rather than on the apparent size of the people already climbing them—some part of my mind is refusing to register their smallness. That’s why I’m surprised when the flats seem to expand as though every step I take is widening the stretch, so that by the time I’ve made it to the far side and am crossing the span of dry sand that leads to the dunes, which also seems to get bigger and bigger, I’ve lost all sense of chronological proportion. Glancing back, I see that the people starting out behind me, and the children splashing in the puddles, have shrunk to shimmering dots.
Eventually, however, I reach the base of the nearest dune, and begin to climb. What most hinders me is not the steadily increasing ferocity of the sun’s heat or the constant of the dune’s height, but rather the inconsistent resistance of the sand itself, which shifts unpredictably under my feet so that with each step I never know whether I will find myself sinking, slipping sideways or back, or making a little bit of progress up the slope. In this universe of perpetual displacement, being of intermediate size and weight does nothing but work against me--I feel that if I were much, much lighter, like the desert mites and beetles or much, much heavier, walking would not be so arduous—if only I could skim or glide upon the surface or sink solidly in and then pluck my feet out step by step. There must be some secret to this climbing--I wonder if wearing snow shoes might help, but then speculate that their bulkiness might make the ascent even more awkward. I feel my kneecaps trying to spring free from their already chronically loose moorings, but I am determined to make it to the top of this relatively small crest and slide down the opposite side, so I invent for myself a shuffling kind of gait that seems to help a little, and at last, I’m there, gazing at a spectral ocean of glare. Because I haven’t brought any kind of dish or spinner, the trip down the other side turns out to not be a slide at all, but a kind of slow scoot, anticlimactic but not unmemorable. Halfway down, I lie back and make a sand angel with my arms, knowing that the wing impressions will soon be filled in and lost. By this point, sand seems to be an element of its own, separate from the earth and stone from which it was ground down; the ancient tides that covered it and the rain that disappears into it only to reappear mysteriously on the other side of the dunes; the air between the grains; and the fiery heat I’ve been warned about in the pamphlet from the Visitors’ Center: “Surface temperature on the dunes may reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat is generated from the reflecting sun in a world relatively barren of vegetation.” I propel myself clumsily to the bottom thinking wryly of the swift, smooth gliding descent I’d been imagining for years. If I’d been seeking the sublime, I’m finding it not in the nearly frictionless speed I’d hoped to experience, but in these curves and ridgelines whose indifference proves even more glorious than any hostility one might attribute to them. “Things are symbols of themselves,” said Ginsberg, and these dunes are intractably themselves, not a vehicle for my transcendence either through velocity or through any apprehension of the death-dealing sublime. But it’s too hot to indulge in philosophical musings. My brain is baking. Turning my back on the ever-extending dunescape, I take a long swig from my water bottle, spilling a fair amount in the process (if I lived here, I’d soon learn to drink more efficiently), and prepare myself for the reverse journey. For the rest of the day, I feel out-of-sorts, dizzy and nauseous, but I don’t regret the climb, forget my newfound respect for sand, or disdain the elemental angel in whose briefly burning wings I reclined.
According to mathematicians, it’s impossible to measure the contours of a coastline or a mountain with absolute precision—unless you’re using a 1:1 scale, you could always measure it at a more incremental level.
Correspondingly, I believe that no matter how many eternities you might stack on top of each other, it is impossible to fully “process” even the most microscopic experience—not only in relation to all other combinations and relations of experiences, but also in and of itself. Thus, we all carry bits and chunks of unprocessed experience within us, suffering perpetual emotional indigestion.
My creed: Everything is inexhaustible. This is life’s glory, and this is why, paradoxically, I feel exhausted all the time. Again and again, Georgia O’Keeffe painted the mesa she loved. She said,
At the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, I admire the resplendent image of the record-breakingly large Coffeyville hailstone under polarized light (17.5 inches in diameter), but am even more intrigued by the story of its discovery and preservation. According to Jay Lawrimore, chair of the The NOAA National Climate Extremes Committee which validates data regarding entities such as the hailstone, “Were it not for the quick thinking of local residents, who found the hailstone and kept it from melting, we would have not known it existed.”
After it fell from heaven on September 3, 1970, how long did it languish before it was discovered? Did it lose any girth while it waited? In what manner did its rescuer(s) happen to find it? If only one person that stumbled upon it, how did she or he happen to ice on hand, or convey it to ice in time? Or if group of people who rescued it, did several of them circle the hailstone, guarding it from other passersby, while the others rushed in different directions, each hoping to be the first to return with ice, the first to contact NOAA? And all of this without cell phones! Was a Styrofoam cooler significant in any of the stages of transfer? I think also of the famously obsessed Vermont resident Wilson Bentley, who after years of experimentation, in 1885 became the first person to photograph a snowflake, having created an apparatus involving a bellows and a microscope.Ah, logistics—apart from them, of what worth would obsession be? Voices from Home Maggie says that the West is like a person you find irresistible because they don’t love you. Craig writes, “It is hard to articulate what it is about the west that is expansive and numinous. I have always felt that sensibility when out there and have no idea of what produces it. Perhaps it has something to do with war. The Revolutionary War and the Civil War and much of the white-Indian conflict (trail of Tears, etc) happened in the east, south and Midwest. To me there is some correlation. The West had its skirmishes but nothing like what happened back here. The scars of war and oppression are long lasting if not nearly permanent. I have been back to places in Europe and felt the woundedness of their histories.” Johnny, a photographer, says he thinks it’s something about the temperature of the light.
But I want details of incidence and angularity of rays; of molecular bindings and loosenings, of barometric variation according to latitude, of the absorption rate of soul into soil. I demand the science of what’s sacred in these winds.
The roadsides of Kansas and Missouri were studded with billboards advertising adult stores and billboards pleading against abortion, some of these within a stone’s throw of one another. Can it be that the Midwest is the place for lovers, or is there so little true passion here that the citizens need a lot of artificial backup and then damage control? But in California, where the signs announce the ease and success of microsurgical vasectomy reversal, everyone is encouraged to repudiate even their repudiations.
1. All throughout this trip, I experience internal pressure from the desire to leave my car by the side of the road and walk out into the prairie or desert until I can’t see any sign of civilization in any direction. This desire represents something more than a fantasy and less than a plan; the open spaces exert such a strong magnetic tug on some subrational part of my soul that I find myself worrying not about my personal fate, though I have no intention of carrying a water bottle or cell phone, but about what might happen to the rental car in my absence. Many times, I do stop and stroll a bit along the shoulder, shaken by the gales of passing trucks, to gather sage to bring home in plastic motel bags, or to take pictures of passing storm clouds. And a few of those times, I leave the interstate entirely and walk out into the flatness, finding places for my feet between sprouting scrub and pocked, burning stones, the sun roar wrapping me so tightly that I can’t even hear it. No one’s watching me, no one knows precisely where I am—there’s nothing to stop me from walking on forever. Just one more step, I tell myself, and then I’ll turn back. But that’s just the phrase the little girl uses in my friend Ron Rash’s novel as she wades into the Tomassee River to her death. Still, everybody has to drown in something sometime, so why not drown in this desert, in these immense clouds dipping their heads down to sip the salt? If there were a fence, I’d climb over it, but because there isn’t, I turn away, disappointed.
2. The editor of the magazine Desert USA has speculated, “Could there be more things lost in the desert than found?” Not only has the equipment of pioneers, miners, and treasure hunters been swallowed up out there, as well as some of the pioneers, miners, and treasure hunters themselves, but according to legend, there’s a 17th century Spanish ship laden with pearls buried deep under the dunes of Southeastern California, stranded there as her captain, seeking a connection between the Gulf of California and an inland sea, was suddenly cut off by a mud slide. However, I’m not tempted to unearth galleons or pearls, but instead, like the aged, wheelchair-bound Edna Hulbert known for hurling bottles containing tiny rolled-up messages into bodies of water around the world, I want to hide something human in an inhuman landscape, though I’m unclear about what that might be and whether or not I would want it to be discovered. A message in a bottle seems somehow inappropriate—perhaps a blank piece of paper in a bottle instead? If so what kind? I settle on an exquisitely thin piece of scrolled cream-colored wrapping paper bound with a coral ribbon. My project would be the precise opposite of Christo’s, since the paper would not wrap, but be wrapped by soil, sand, and stone.
3. It’s always a little chilly on The Golden Gate Bridge, a structure that aspires to be a giant wind harp, and may, if evolutionary forces remain favorable, someday become able to shed harmonic overtones like rain, though not, of course, in our lifetime. It occurs to me that many of the cantilever bridges in this nation are slowly mutating into flutes. The farther along a bridge is in this process, the less likely anyone is to leap from it. The childlike purity of its spirit discourages the deranged and the solitary, who are attracted to the unearthly tones coiled within a suspension bridge, waiting to be released into the wild.
4. Bridge temptations and desert temptations are kissing cousins. Both involve abandoning oneself to a mysterious and enormous unknown that is, paradoxically, both hostile and wholly impersonal—abandoning oneself either abruptly, as from a bridge, or in a more gradual manner, as with a desert. However, unlike the desert, the Golden Gate Bridge provides posted warnings against such behavior, as well as thirteen suicide hotline phones placed at regular intervals (thirteen as a magical number to ward off evil?). Signs inform visitors that it is illegal to throw, not only one’s person, but one’s possessions over the railing; I find myself having to resist the urge to launch my cell phone—so compact, so ergonomic, so streamlined--into a graceful arc ending in the strait below. Also my car keys.
5. I’ve read in Tad Friend’s much-quoted New Yorker piece “Jumpers” that in the early 1970’s, bridge and transportation officials considered constructing a suicide-prevention net of high-voltage laser beams, but the plan was considered too dangerous to implement because of “the possibility of severe burns, possibly fatal, to pedestrians and personnel.” Imagining a web of lights below, a criss-crossing of hot gold threads that emit a barely discernible humming noise as they rest suspended, forever on the verge of vibration, it seems apparent to me that the aesthetics of this set-up would encourage leaping. Who wouldn’t long to plummet into such a shimmering nest?—wouldn’t one simply be caught and sent up again and again, as from a trampoline?—wouldn’t one dance, Gene Kelly-like, across the strands? No, in order to be functional, a safety net or barrier must be not only commodious but unattractive, even downright unsightly.
6. The desert’s beauty is inseparable from its visible harshness. No one has suggested the installation of a desert-spanning bridge whose steel wires could encircle the earth three times. Any safety net or barrier would be completely inappropriate. Nevertheless, it occurs to me with all the force of a revelation that what the desert really needs is a boardwalk! Now in a mood to redecorate, I imagine the mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial lights of Marfa eclipsed by the pulse and strobe of the ferris wheel. What better place than the desert to get your tattoos, your taffy, your fossilized baby hermit crabs? And when you’re stuffed full of funnel cakes and cherry coke, you can lean over the splintery wooden railing to scan for mutated mermaids surfacing through a net of starlight. These are very small, narrow creatures with the heads, arms, and torsos of women, and the tails of scorpions and lizards, which tunnel beneath the dunes, coming up only to hunt insects with their forked tongues. Their vacant eyes communicate no sense of human consciousness; there is no evolutionary connection between them and the much more advanced ocean mermaids. They utter only a kind of dry hissing, unpleasant to hear and impossible to forget.
7. I’m driving south from Santa Cruz on Highway 1 in the dark when over the radio waves of station KRUZ floats the voice of the Dream Doctor, author of Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams, offering me the opportunity to set up an appointment with him through his website if my dream is too personal to talk about on the radio.
After the show fades out as I leave the listening area, I ponder the very idea of doctoring a dream, imagining at first that it must be delicate work, like mending the most fragile of parchments, but then it occurs to me that dreams may be far tougher than those who experience them, since they outlive us. The dream of falling, the dream of exposure, the dream of the house with an extra wing or room that’s somehow been there all along--generation by generation we pass over these narratives in the night on the forced march toward daylight. So mending a dream must be not unlike mending a bridge, with large, stainless steel pins, and trucks full of mortar and cement. I picture the Dream Doctor in a hard hat and coveralls, standing knee-deep in river muck. Most of the time he’s lost in heavy swirls of advection fog, but he doesn’t quit. Would the dreams endure without him? Of course they would, but it’s still worthy work, keeping them in the best possible shape after so much heavy use, night after night, by six billion people.
Why is it that I feel a less powerful emotional reaction to the sky when I’m in it –in an airplane or on a mountain—than when I’m looking at it from a wide, flat place—desert or prairie—and why is that that I have almost no reaction at all to the fact that I breathe chunks of it into my lungs all the time?
In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though it is often the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing…Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.” However, I don’t find it poignant or tragic, but rather, hilarious that I long for the sky even as it is being pumped through my veins.
Along the Coastal Highway
The scenery along Coastal Highway l is so radiant I’m surprised I’m not dead yet—I should have driven over the edge a dozen times, since I can’t stop gazing at the cliffs, the sea, the wheeling and diving birds, the slant-racing clouds, anything but the twists of the mountain road to which I should be paying close attention. There are numerous overlook spots, and I stop frequently to get out and stare into the wind until my eyes are so tear-stung that I have to jump back into the car. The digital camera electronically informs me that it is totally exhausted, and though I’m disappointed, today actually seems an appropriate time for its battery to give out—this part of the world is too spectacular to be photographed. In fact, the farther west I’ve gone, the fewer pictures I’ve taken—the camera’s small, boxed-in view diminishes every scene I try to place inside it.
After about forty-five minutes of driving time, significantly longer with stops, I notice a sign announcing the New Cameldoli Hermitage, Chapel, and Retreat Center. Curious, I pull off onto the side road, which winds around and around as it climbs, seemingly ever more narrowly. About halfway up, or what I imagine might be halfway up, I see a bench right by a cliff face, and I can’t resist sitting there with my watercolors to attempt a very small painting of the hills and sea from that vantage point. A bird flies down to the bench, an extremely inquisitive bird who perches right next to me and seems to actually demand attention. Maybe it’s used to being fed, but all I give it is conversation, so it flies away a few times, always returning after a short while.
Eventually, I decide that my painting needs a rest before I continue to torment it. When I think about driving the rest of the way up the hill, timidity overtakes me, so I head downward. But when I’m a little way along Highway 1, I feel compelled to turn back, as though for some reason, I need to visit that chapel. This is ridiculous, I tell myself. For one thing, I’m not Catholic, so they might not want me there. For another, it’s probably all men, and women might not even be allowed to be on the premises. Not to mention the fact that the Vatican kind of creeps me out. But just the same, I find myself turning the car around. This time, I get a little farther up the mountain before shyness again overcomes me and I retrace my now familiar route down to Highway 1. I go about five or ten minutes south before I find myself choking under a wave of inexplicable grief whose intensity astonishes me. O.k., I think, for some reason I really must go up; there seems to be no way around this. And so I head back up, my stomach clenching the whole way. I finally arrive at a fork—there’s a sign pointing to a forbidden monastery in one direction, and to a chapel and bookstore in the other. The little store is closed (later, I’ll look up the monastery on the internet and discover that the monks make their living by baking and selling fruitcake—but who on this planet actually buys fruitcake, let alone eats it?), so I start cautiously toward the chapel when a man approaches me to ask the time. I don’t know, I tell him. It turns out that he is doing some kind of grounds-keeping work, and he is trying to find out if it’s time for the six p.m. chapel service so that he can be sure to avoid mowing near there during worship. My cell phone informs me that it’s 5:45. After inviting me to attend, he shows me to the chapel entrance, stopping to point out a stunning stone wall with a cut-out through which I can see ocean and sky merging into each other, or separating from one another, in a combination of blues so intense I feel as though my lungs are being ripped out of my body. This is the edge of the world, he tells me, then vanishes into the garden as I slip into the chapel, which is coolly, resonantly silent, with simple wooden lines, possibly the purest, sparest worship space I’ve ever seen.
It doesn’t take me long to find myself settling down inside. I think about how I really am, absolutely, at the absolute edge of the world. I think about how impossible it is to evade or escape the personalness of God. For some reason, I think of God’s face, about the phrase in your face, and about how that’s how God is, while at the same time allowing everyone a terrifying freedom. A not particularly oft-quoted line from the Book of Revelation comes to mind: ….from Whose face the earth and heaven fled away, and there was no place found for them. No place because there is no place where God is not present? By this time, the monks, all robed in simple white, are filing in, as well as a handful of other people—retreatants, groupies? When everyone is seated, the chanting begins. I follow stumblingly along in the little service book that presents the 150 Psalms according to their yearly liturgical rotation. It’s a leisurely, meditative service, and part of me chafes at the slowness even as another part of me gratefully absorbs it through my pores.
I turn the page, trying to keep up, and there it is, unexpectedly, the psalm for that day, and here I am, chanting it with everyone: If I flee to the edge of the world, You are there. There is no place I can run from Your Face. Looking around, I see tears on people’s faces, and sense peace flowing almost palpably between us. The service moves along, and everyone stands up, and I assume that it’s time to go, so I head toward the archway, but then I notice that I’m the only one there—woops, the service isn’t over; they’ve all just moved through some other doorway and they’re chanting something else. I decide that I’ve gotten what I came for, and that I don’t need to try to locate them to join in whatever closing rituals they’re performing. So I drive back down the mountain, and onto Highway 1. If in the realm of all possibilities, there is a version of me who chose not to attend the service, and who is therefore now some thirty miles ahead of me down the road, I feel not even the least inclination to try to catch up with her.
In the Gila, New Mexico Burger King, I am appalled to behold an infant propped up in its carrier on one of the tables. What is a baby doing here? This land is clearly not baby-sustainable. But if there must be a baby, it should be calciferous, with chipped chalk fingers and toes, and cracked onyx eyes.
Here in New Mexico, where conservation is everything, it’s illegal for a restaurant server to either pour you water or refill your glass without asking. Kelley Sturgeon of Albuquerque tells me that in this desert climate, you have to drink long before you’re thirsty. She says she’s gotten so dehydrated that white powder—the very salt of her body—has appeared on her skin, her flesh drying up from the inside out.
In Conchise, Arizona, I’m struck by the graffiti in the women’s restroom. There must be something about this spot in the desert that elicits confessions and declarations, for here women traveling back and forth through Tucson and El Paso have proclaimed their passion for everyone from Jesus to “Sasha’s cousin.” One woman has written, HAPPY ENDINGS ARE FOR REAL! I’M LIVING A FAIRY TALE LIFE! It’s not until a hundred miles later that I first wonder what’s been written in the men’s room, and wish that I’d checked. This turns out to be one of my major regrets of the trip.
During the first part of the trip, when my Corolla’s right front tire began to go flat, the Hertz emergency guy I talked to on my cell phone warned me not to stop in East St. Louis, but to try to make it to the St. Louis airport. It’s dangerous in East St. Louis, he told me. Oh, are you from there? I asked. No, he said, but I saw that Chevy Chase movie where they get lost in East St. Louis and while they’re asking directions, these guys are taking off their hubcaps…. Many miles further west, glimpsing a stand of palm trees, I thought of Gilligan’s Island. When I saw a sign for San Jose, the Burt Bacharach song Do You Know The Way to San Jose? began to torment me. Passing a dust devil, I flashed on Coyote and Roadrunner, courtesy of Looney Tunes. As I drove through the basalt hills of Highway 152, I thought, This is where James Dean met his death. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, my brain sings, Eat RICE-a-Roni, the SAN FranCISco treat! The trouble with knowing names and places via the icons of popular culture is that when you run into the real things, they seem derivative, even humorous, definitely diminished. I remember some years ago my children who, beholding a particularly glorious sunset from their car seats in the back of the station wagon, commented excitedly, Look, Mommy, it’s just like on ‘The Lion King!’
Nobody knows where the honeybees are going. They’re not dead in the hives; they’re just gone. There’s a name for this--Colony Collapse Disorder--but no explanation. Nobody knows what happened to the Anasazi, only that they abandoned their dwelling places and left many of their goods behind. And on a merely personal scale, this trip is full of soon-to-be lost information and experiences—for instance, a few hours ago, I figured out the way from the motel to the interstate, but I won’t come this way again, and my memory of this particular configuration of roads will soon disappear, never to be revisited. Somewhere within me, it will simply vanish.
I wish I could create a comprehensive catalogue of all the experiences from which one hasn’t been able to extract a moral, a formula, a lesson, or a rationale—because their contexts are irretrievable; because they are by their very nature nonrepeatable events; because—who knows why? This catalogue would exist for its own sake, a little exercise in purity, an anomaly in our culture consumed with the worship of products, sound bytes, easy steps to efficiency and mastery.
In the west, mornings are generally clear, with a few wisps of clouds near the horizon. As the day progresses, the clouds mount up into glorious, full-bellied cumuli, then into more threatening cumulonimbi which may or may not actually deliver rain, at least in your vicinity, though you can view storms a hundred miles away, sometimes impressive dumpings of heavy rain, other times, as virga, rainfall that evaporates in the heat and dry air before it ever reaches the ground.
My friends have long considered me to be a cloud junkie, but I didn’t know until recently that there’s a FLICKR group of that name. “Cloud Junkies” boasts 123 members and 901 photos. Yet also on the site is a registered complaint about the way everyone wants to post their own cloud pictures, but no one wants to comment on those of others. Maybe this is my tribe, all of us so agog we’re speechless—or merely self-absorbed.
When author Katherine Harmon was compiling cartographical research for her book YOU ARE HERE: Personal Geographies and Maps of the Imagination, she learned that there are multiple conflicting designations for the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. For some hikers, it’s the Mason-Dixon line; for others, it’s Harper’s Ferry, Center Point Knob, or the Cumberland Valley road walk. But even as just one traveler, I can’t quite determine the halfway point of this trip. Chronologically and geographically, it must be the eleventh day, in the Muir Woods about half an hour north of San Francisco, where I stand among giant redwoods at twilight, wondering whether they are drinking in or exuding silence, and then I turn back to head south and then east. Spiritually and emotionally, though, it’s on June 17 in Texas where, sad that I’m on my way out of the west, I exit Interstate 10 without any particular plan, and get on North 77 toward La Grange. It’s on that road that I find myself pulling over to park by a cornfield, and walking into it until I can see nothing in every direction but stalks taller than me, so that all around me there’s nothing but green stillness with an occasional rustle of breeze, and overhead, a charged and searing blue. I sit on the dry earth and listen to the world’s pulse until my spirit has soaked in whatever balm it knew I would find in this place, and I’m able to think about leaving. Later, I’ll sketch the ears and blades, filling in the negative space with blue where the sky comes down to the ground or rises up from it, but I won’t paint the corn green—I’ll leave it canvas-white, ghost-corn that I, statistically a little past the halfway mark of my own statistical lifespan, have haunted only briefly.
On my way out of Texas, about three hours from the Louisiana border, I pass a large green easy chair abandoned on the shoulder of I10. It’s quite serene there, a presiding figure at rest against a frenzied background of cumuli and eighteen-wheelers. In my travels in the Southeast during the last ten years, I’ve seen all kinds of strange roadside detritus, even a globe of the world poised intact and perfectly upright on its stand on the side of I75 North between Chattanooga and Atlanta, but on this trip out West, except for this lone chair, I’ve seen nothing but sloughed-off tire skins of such varied shapes and dimensions—some elongated, spiky, and tentacled, some chunky and dense-- that they appear to have been shed from the beasts of widely varied species whose pasts have molted along with their hides, littering the interstate highways with the place-memories of stampeding herds.
As Lewis and Clark prepared for their expedition, it was thought by many that they might actually find mammoths and other extinct creatures in the North American interior. I too have been on the lookout for beasts, but this aspect of the trip has turned out to be mostly a disappointment, even on the Taylor Creek Trail of Kolob Canyon in Utah, where a million warning signs all but guaranteed me I’d see a mountain lion, so I was more than ready, even eager, to raise my arms over my head to make myself as big as possible, to shout, throw rocks, and, if necessary, fight, but no dice—I glimpsed only a small, skinny skink which slips swiftly away, unwilling to wait for a photo-op. I did see a couple of prairie dogs sitting alertly on the shoulder of 70W not too far from Arches National Park, and some boringly fenced bison scratching their shaggy sides against spindly saplings at the Armand Bayou Nature Center outside of Houston, but the most intriguing creatures show up on my way home, and in the most unexpected places: a coyote loping across 10E about forty-five minutes outside of Houston, so well integrated with urban spread that I’d swear it stops in the grassy median to look both ways—and a cat expertly making its way between white stretch limos in New Orleans’ French Quarter. These seem the opposite of extinct, thriving in environments for which their original genetic templates were not designed.
Why am I so reluctant to go home? My friend Mary has expressed it perfectly: There is a dearth of sky in Greenville. And my friend Johnny has remarked that after he moved from Kansas to Greenville, he felt as though he was always passing through a tunnel, since everywhere he looked there were tree branches coming together to close him in.
I believe that we suffer in this way because the Greenville sky has already fallen, and is continuing to fall, its viscous surface seeping into all the cracks and potholes of the downtown streets, and, like a trance, covering the city’s bandaged traffic lights and gas pump hose handles, its gouged-out construction sites, its bridge angels who have for so long endured concrete fatigue and cracked timber pilings. The sky drapes itself moistly over the willow oaks, trickling down toward the root-wounds where fungus long ago entered, hollowing out each trunk at its base, so all the trees are filling up with self-interred sky, not at the speed of light, but at the speed of liquid glass.
Because it’s everywhere, you can’t see it, yet if you were to gather it all in one place, it would so weightless and transparent that you could pull it through a gold pinky ring, and if you were to lay it out flat, you’d find it couldn’t possibly be more shallow.
Sky as a Bell of Silence
Didn’t hear the dunes singing.
Didn’t hear coyotes.
Didn’t hear the famous Taos Hum.
Didn’t listen to the radio in the desert, only the low wind that comprised the silence.
I knew all those other sounds were out there, free-roaming, but I felt no need for them or for their shadows in that charged quietness where sleep seemed permanently unnecessary, irrelevant.
Standing now at the edge of a Louisiana bayou, I want to lie down inside the heavy green murk ringing with a shrillness of insect voices.
The South is sleep itself, hypnosis, pure.
I realize that some part of me will always be broken as long as I can’t see the entire sky all the way down to the horizon. So I’ll survive by assuming that my personal history is like those of the feral children you hear about from time to time, lost or abandoned babies reared by wolves, by bears, even by sea lions—but in my case, it was the trees of the southeast that fed, sheltered, and educated me, even though they understood I wasn’t one of them. Their songs lulled me to sleep each night in my cradle of roots and moss, and in the spring, my favorite maple satisfied my thirst for sweetness, begrudging me nothing as her blood trickled over my tongue.
Just a few days after I began my trip, W. Mark Felt disclosed his identity as Deep Throat.
Not long before I got to Laguna Beach, a resident named Al Trevino grabbed a
garage-sale painting as he escaped from his home during the June mudslide, and soon
after, learned that it was worth half a million dollars.
As I passed through Las Cruces, New Mexico police had just released the name of the long-lost student whose skeleton was recently discovered inside a car at the bottom of Burn Lake.
Around the time I was navigating New Orleans, two people from my town of
Greenville, South Carolina flipped their car during a high-speed chase in Louisiana; opening the trunk, the police discovered a decomposing corpse.
All throughout this world and who knows how many others, objects, events,
and entities are being brought to light with painstaking delicacy, with
astonishing violence, and with every manner and at every rate of speed or
stillness in between, and at the same time, things are falling through,
sinking, sifting down, hiding and being hidden.
What is the largest that can be lost? What is the smallest that can be
Somewhere in the Mississippi delta, smoldering in a mesh of rotting
cypress roots and scheming to go ever deeper, there’s a thumb-size green glass
medicine vial containing three of the four ounces of brandy allotted to soldiers
in the War of 1812.
And even home is not without its mysteries. Beneath an unmarked field a few miles from Bristol, South Carolina, not quite suffocated under thirty feet of kudzu and red clay, there might be a cathedral carved entirely from alabaster, rumbling and ready to rise.
The trip was made possible by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.
Fiction for Spring - Short Story by Nicole Hefner
Nicole Hefner 's poems, stories and essays have appeared in many publications including Painted Bride Quarterly, Forklift ,Ohio, New York Quarterly and
lingo. She was a finalist in the Iowa Review Award for Literary Nonfiction and was named notable reading for The 2004 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches at New York University and lives with her fiance in Brooklyn.
The Week in News
There are days when I make no sense. I am thirsty, I say, and stick cotton balls in my mouth. I am hungry, I say, and do not eat. I crave warmth, I say, and undress myself, stand in the cold rain. This morning, I want love, and Love lies sleeping four thin walls away, but I do not go to him, instead, I lock the door, thumb through things.
There is news but news would take me out of my home and around the corner; I’m not yet fit for the light of the deli, so I’ll have to content myself with what I have in arm’s reach. On my desk, next to a bundle of pushpins, I keep a small gray book called Exquisite Pain. In it, a dark-haired woman catalogues the days after a painful break up in which she travels the world. On one page a shiny red telephone sits on a cold bed; there is also a moon (there is always a moon). Underneath it reads, “28 days ago, my love left me.”
The spine of the book is terribly unforgiving; to open it is to use all of your strength.
II. A Blonde
Confession: on the afternoon of Anna Nicole Smith’s death, I was randomly Googling her; I imagine this fact will haunt me until the afternoon of my own death. It’s just she’s so stunning, and I was trying to think of names of birds and Googling starling and wren, red-winged blackbird and white-tailed dove, and before I knew it Anna Nicole Smith was crawling towards me, her black eyeliner, wild, empty eyes, and I was thinking, my God, she’s gorgeous. I thought of a boy I loved when I was nineteen, a boy who was a cashier at Target and gave me my first typewriter, who read me Song of Solomon and cried very publicly for days when I broke up with him; I thought of Anna Nicole ringing up RingDings at Walmart, and somehow that boy’s lanky body and Anna Nicole’s mouth—it all came together—it was all flesh, all what we are: flesh.
III. The Student
I arrived to class nearly empty-handed. Textbook? No. Handouts? No. The students stared at my expectantly. This was not a dream; this was Monday. I rummaged through the contents of my bag. A tampon would get me nowhere, lip gloss, ink pens. Finally I found a CD, one my friend had given to me at lunch. I put on Strange Fruit. Write, I said. Now? They said. Yes, I said, but wait!
I remembered the pear I had packed in a paper sack for my mid-afternoon snack. I drew it out of the bag and placed it onto the desk; quarter-sized bruises dotted its flesh, but I thought from their chairs, the students wouldn’t notice the imperfections, or if they noticed, wouldn’t care. Now, I said, write.
Days later I discovered that many of them did not know the English word “bruised.” I remembered my mother digging her fingers into my wrist. Growing up, I nearly always had four blue gumball-sized spots just below my wrist bone. It looks so bare now. In the classroom, the students wrote and wrote, and then Youpeng read:
He wants a pear, he read. All he wants is just a single pear. It is such a long travel that makes him feel thirsty, out of energy and frustrated. He is far from home, and has no idea of where he is heading to. But he needs to take a break now. And there is the pear, a big beautiful yellow pear lies just in front of his face. He wants the pear, but he can’t, because it belongs to another person, his teacher!!!
The summer before I made the bus trip to New York City, I lay on the Oklahoma grass every night, sipping warm beer, not a single earthly light but the red ember on the end of my cigarette, and I searched for shooting stars. I saw hundreds and hundreds that summer, so many—it strikes me now—that I probably should have worried that space was collapsing in on us.
V. Big Bird
Out of Atlanta, a new study shows that the rate of autism is much higher than previously believed. And now, sitting in New York, decades later, I remember my first time in Atlanta; it was there that I saw my first crazy person. I was six; we were at a stoplight on our way to a Brave’s game, and a man walked down the street in a Superman cape. My brother elbowed me in the backseat of the van.
“Stop,” I said, but then followed his gaze. We said nothing at first, afraid to mention anything to our father, certain that this was something only children could see, but as the man got closer, we noticed dad looking at him too.
“Is he real?” Joe asked.
The light changed, and a hot rectangle of sunlight moved across our legs, as our father explained to us that it was very unlikely the man was actually Superman. He was sick, he explained, not sick like going to die sick, like your valves are clogged or there’s something growing inside of you or pop goes your brain sick, not going to die sick, he said again, or gross sick, just sick, he said, and then noticeably—even to me at such a young age—he changed the subject, started talking about the Murph slamming one out of the park.
But the new study, the one out of Atlanta, shows that as many as 1 out of every 150 children now has autism. I once heard a parent of a child with autism tell a story about taking his son to the beach. The boy was four and was searching for sand dollars. He walked away from the family and searched and searched; his father followed him. The boy searched for over an hour and, in all that time, he never looked back for his family. Not once. Imagine never looking back.
When I am in a room with a child with autism I am insanely animated. It’s as if I believe that if I jump up and down and flap my wings hard enough I’ll reach him.
VI. Another Blonde
When Princess Diana was killed I cried for two weeks. I’m not even a crier. Really. I mean I cry at Rudy, and there was the time in the early 90’s in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel long after the ducks had walked the red carpet that I cried for hours over an Oprah episode. The man I was with sat smoking by the window; he asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. And then, last night dancing in the kitchen with another man, the one who will be my husband, I cried very hard, even harder than I had cried in Memphis because I was suddenly desperately afraid that he would die, maybe even before he became my husband. “Don’t die,” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Don’t die,” I said again, but my mouth was crowded with cotton balls and my throat, bone-dry.
“Say it again,” he said. “I can’t understand you.”
The dishwasher churned, and I couldn’t get close enough to him, and we danced and cried for quite a long time, then filled our water glasses to keep by the bedside in case we woke up thirsty.
VII. The Professor
Fresh cut mango and hearts of palm, I sit across the table from a man who in another life could have been my father or husband but in this life is my boss. Sir, I sometimes call him, but feel awkward doing so. He orders a glass of good wine. He knows wine, so I have what he is having. We talk students and writing, this book and that, but then he tells me a story.
He and his wife were newly wed. (I imagine so new that she still had rice in her hair.) The two were living in D.C., and, come summer, every week, his mother who was in Arkansas where she ran the bus station in Hamburg, would pack a crate with green tomatoes and send them in the heart of the bus all the way to the capital. Somewhere around Nashville the flesh of those tomatoes would start to ripen, and by the time the bus pulled out of Knoxville the juices were churning, but it was those last hours on 81 North that would make those tomatoes the best tomatoes he would ever eat. And so, week after week, he and his bride would drive, their windows down, to the bus station where, salt shaker in hand, they devoured those tomatoes before even leaving the parking lot.
I stare at him. I want his story. I want the tomatoes.
I think of Youpeng and the pear.
VIII. Book Burning
I used to smoke. For years, I smoked and smoked and smoked. Got a light? I’d say like a good blonde. One terrible September I quit, because (and this is not news) I had a hack that the doctor told me was smoker’s cough which would only worsen, she warned, until I died. My very own death rattle! Imagine.
This morning, though, I wish I still smoked because if I still smoked I would have a lighter and if I had a lighter I could burn page after page of this Exquisite Pain book with its shiny red telephone and its unbreakable spine and its whiny dark-haired broken-hearted girl traveling the world while her ex-lover sips espresso out of a tiny cup with his new girlfriend. There are people, I want to tell her, who have never seen Shanghai or D.C. or a deli in Brooklyn, people who will be dead by spring, people whose children are lost to them. You don’t know pain, I want to yell, and great gulfs of flame will balloon out the windows.
My love, still living, will wake. He’ll call through the four thin walls. Is something burning?
IX. Blondes in Space
When my brother feels lonely, he calls to tell me jokes. Maybe I will call him later. Here’s one:
A Russian, an American and a blonde were having lunch one day.
The Russian, sipping her espresso, said, "We were the first in space!"
The American, biting into a RingDing said, "We were the first on the moon!"
“So what?” said The Blonde who was crawling on the ground and looking seductively into the camera, “We're going to be the first on the sun!"
The Russian and the American shook their heads. "You can't land on the sun, you idiot! You'll burn up!"
“Duh. We’re doing it at night!”
Summer is so far away, was so long ago, is so long from now. Yesterday, it was so bitter cold that my hand, even in its glove, grew numb as I walked along Court Street talking to my mother about wedding dresses. I wanted to turn around and go home but made my way anyway, across the bridge and past the court house where a woman dressed all in navy took deep heaving sobs between drags of her cigarette, up through Chinatown with its strung pigs and clear-eyed fish, into Soho and finally to the coffee house where I was meeting a friend. I was bundled, completely bundled, certain that all of the layers would keep me from suffering. My friend hadn’t arrived yet, but the man she has loved for the better part of her life was there drinking a cup of tea and reading poems. When I realized the zipper of my coat was stuck he stood up from his chair to help me with it. I think it was then, out of the corner of my ear, that I heard the news about Anna Nicole. As my friend’s love worked the zipper of my coat, I became suddenly, intensely aware of being alive, of flesh and hair and mouth and heart. All evening I had to sit on my hands to keep myself from reaching across the table and feeling the faces of the people I love.
XI. An Astronomical Ending
In other news this week, Astronaut Lisa Nowak, drove six hundred miles to kill a woman who she believed to be a romantic rival. Nowak, who flew as a mission specialist aboard shuttle STS-121 last July, operates the robotic arm during the Space Shuttle Mission’s spacewalks. She appears, however, to have been so deeply in love with fellow astronaut William Oefelein that she gave up everything to be with him: her children, her dignity, the moon.
I imagine her floating around in outer space, the earth a silly far flung ball; her hand maneuvers the giant robotic arm and she thinks of William, how he ran his fingers the length of her body, how he held her hips and kissed the flesh above her ribs, spine, collarbone. But even with that giant robotic arm—the most enormous arm in all of the galaxy—she couldn’t touch him.
XII. Back on Earth
My husband who is not yet my husband has woken up; I should have gone to him hours ago. We meet in the kitchen where I cried so hard, and I take a knife to the flesh of a pear, cut out its bruises, slice and salt it for us to eat.
From the kitchen window, the moon, even in this morning light, is visible, but it’s been ten years since I’ve seen a shooting star. In the skies I’ve grown accustomed to, the stars are so neat and spare they might be nothing but a handful of pushpins; and I know, this morning, reaching over the table for my love, that it could all be felled with a single flick of a thumb.
Editor's Selection for Winter - John Updike
Autumn - 2006
None of them knew the color of the sky. - Stephen Crane
My 9th grade English teacher, Mr. O'Leary, told us this nine word beginning of "The Open Boat" formed the best opening line in American literature.
He told us that in 1959. Perhaps someone has surpassed Crane since then. But I loved Crane's short story and love it still.
Remarkable, as well, is the heartbreaking truth of Stephen Crane's own tragically short life (1871-1900). Mr. O'Leary told us Crane believed that you had to live an experience in order to write about it truthfully and powerfully. Reportedly, Crane died of the effects of exposure in his own open boat experience. Yet he was able to write his one and only novel, the immortal Red Badge of Courage, never having fought in a single battle.
For the autumn issue of NLR, we take a look back at one of the great writers of 19th century American literature. A giant whose reputation was built on a single novel and a small number of published short stories.
THE OPEN BOAT:
I am cruising down Market Street when I see her. I have been driving distractedly, glancing out the side window to the view of San Francisco laid out beneath me, to the white layers of fog parting over the Bay. The city is new to me, it is the place I have always dreamed of, and when I arrived here last week via Highway 1, thinking what that meant, that this was the first highway, the alpha of all highways, the beginning of a system of traversing and leaving and arriving thought up years ago, it was like coming for the first time upon some foreign place that I had seen in my memory for years, a place to which I have never been but which has always appeared more vividly in my mind than the town where I grew up. Now, looking out at the Bay Bridge stretched over the gray water, I am wondering how it is that I have lived my entire life without driving this winding street through this perfect stretch of city.
At the top of Market a walkway gently arches over the street. This walkway, too, is a figment of my imagination; that is, the walkway was imagined by me long before I ever saw the real thing, so that when I did see it, four days ago, I averted my eyes from the traffic and stared in ecstatic awe at the thing I had thought up, that had been thought up likewise by someone else, or by a committee of someone elses whom I never knew, who nevertheless had my exact-same vision.
My walkway, I have been thinking ever since. My city.
I haven’t been up on the walkway yet, have only viewed it from my car, because I am afraid that if I go up there and observe the walkway from a different perspective it will become not the thing I thought of, but something else entirely. So I drive up and down Market Street fifteen or so times a day, but not once have I seen anyone walking across the suspended path. Thus, it has occurred to me that the path is not there at all, but continues to be the figment I always believed it to be, so that if I pulled into one of the so-called driveways crouched beneath the tall houses crowded onto the hill and took the spiraling path that leads up to the walkway and placed a foot upon the cement, the whole illusion would give way beneath me and I would fall to the street below, making an unfortunate and bloody ruckus. I drive back and forth hoping for some sign that I have not made this bridge up, waiting to see an actual body walking across it, or a bicyclist bicycling, or a runner running, or an escapee escaping. Someone.
Today there are two. Two girls, one dressed in black, one in white, one thin and one not so thin, one blonde and one brunette, each holding a broom with both hands. The girls face one another, their feet wide apart, knees bent, shoulders thrust forward. Their dresses are long and flowing and seem to be made of silk; they have no sleeves or straps but are wrapped around the girls’ bodies sarong-style, so that they move the way wind might move, waltz-like and impromptu, defying prediction. The thin blonde in the black dress swings her broom at the plumpish brunette in the white dress, brings it up to her cheek in slow motion, and the girl in the white dress responds likewise, moving her face away from the broom, lifting one leg high and turning in a complete circle and bringing her own broom down against the legs of the girl in the black dress, who turns now and lifts her broom again, aiming at her adversary’s waist.
I have slowed to watch the girls, living proof of the reality of my walkway. The other drivers seem not to have noticed this demonstration, or not to care, speeding past in complete indifference. Approaching the underlip of the bridge and fearful of losing sight of the girls, I ease the brake down with my foot so that the car is barely moving at all. Someone behind me begins honking just as the plump girl in the white dress raises her arms, hefting the broom high above her.
There is a sense of unloosening, I feel it in my gut even before the dress that moves like wind has fallen away. It is as though I am standing inches from the girl and can see the knot slipping just above her soft breasts, the silk sliding over her chest, her thighs, the whiteness of her skin and the thick lovely folds of her bottom and the twin dimples above the place where her cheeks press outward from her back revealed as the dress moves up and outward, suspended above the girl and the broom for a long moment before it floats downward, falling away from her, over the edge of the walkway, descending to meet my windshield and passing over the glass in a quick caress before a corner of it catches on the side mirror. I take the white silk into my hands and pull the fallen dress into the car, soft and full into my lap.
Having passed beneath the walkway I look in my rearview mirror and see her, the naked, dark-haired girl, shaven clean of pubic hair and all fresh and pink in the wind, her breasts upright and round, the broom standing at her side, bristles up, her fingers curled around the handle in an absurd mockery of An American Gothic. The girl looks stunned and accusatory, as if she might leap over the bridge and confront me, the driver with out-of-state plates descending the hill with her dress. She drops the broom and crosses one hand over her breasts, cups the other between her legs, then turns toward the girl in the black dress as I round the curve, one hand plunged into the soft mound of silk.
The wind has hands that take me up. Out there the Bay shimmers, the water pushes the cool hands toward me. Down there the cars move, the buses screech to top the hill, the workers come home, the drivers watch. Up here it is the two of us. She wears only black, even in summer, the city’s coldest season. I wear only white. We are a simple entity, two halves. Up here on the bridge, or down there in our tiny house which we inherited from our father, our house with its high narrow windows, here or there we are in opposition.
She challenged me to this duel, a game having only two rules: we must move at a fraction of our normal speed, so as to bring on exhaustion more quickly. The one who stops first loses. The one who loses leaves. To the victor goes the house, the turquoise carpet from Turkey, the yellowing walls of the bedrooms, the old gas stove, the pointy roof. It is too late for us to live together. I have chosen a man she despises. She has chosen no one, or rather, she has chosen me. She believes she is my mother, my teacher, my cook, my one-who-knows-best. Five years since our father died, and she has named herself my guardian, though I am nineteen and do not need to be guarded.
I am certain of my victory, for I am the strongest. She eats only vegetables and grainy things, stringy plants that grow in a window box above the kitchen sink. Her legs beneath the black sarong are thin. Her arms become tired while vacuuming. She has not made love to anyone in years and I believe, though she protests, that she is too weak for passion. Only days ago she came upon me in the living room, sitting on the couch, my hands propped on the shoulders of the man whom she despises.
“No more,” she said, seeing his head plunged between my thighs, my fingers tracing the path of moles on his shoulders as I sat up, hips thrust over the edge of the cushions, loving the image of him bowed before me. “Not in this house.”
“The house belongs to both of you,” he said, propping his chin on my thigh to take up my side. A practical man. A man not unlike my sister, possessed by an argumentative disposition.
That night, after he had left and we had fought until our throats were sore from shouting, she proposed the duel. I wondered aloud whether it wasn’t overly dramatic.
“Then come up with something better,” she said. The same words, I thought, that he would have chosen.
At first I am ashamed to be standing here on the walkway, the silk clinging to my thighs, to my stomach that will not shrink, to my body that is too big. For years I tried to make myself smaller, until I met him, the man who said, “I love your size,” pressing his hands deep into the skin of my back, resting his cheek against my inner thigh.
The straws of the broom brush my face, a cue that it is my turn to move, to lift my leg and turn and come back around to her. The dance proceeds. We have been up here for an hour at least. I am becoming tired, but I am determined to outlast her. Then there is the gust of wind, the lifting, the quick parting of silk from skin. I see the dress suspended above me, airborne, and understand that I am naked, on display.
A woman’s hand reaches out of a window. I see a flash of red hair through the sun roof of a silver car just before my dress disappears with the hand. Covering myself, I move toward my sister, thinking that she will come to my aid, that she will be the mother she has always been, that she will sacrifice her own modesty for my own. I am waiting for her to unfold her dress, to wrap me up in it.
“I win,” she says, then walks away, leaving me naked above the traffic. A chorus of honking starts up, and there are heads emerging from car windows, and children waving, and the chill of the fog on my skin. I crouch low to the sidewalk, my knees drawn up to my chest, my face buried in my knees. I try to make myself small, so small no one can see me. Soon my bones feel frozen.
Belly-down, I crawl toward the far end of the bridge, the opposite direction from our house, her house now, the house I lost to her. My lover’s house is only a couple of hundred yards away, the purple house on the hill. I don’t care if the wife is baking, the children watching television, the whole sweet family gathered round. He will have to take me in. The fog has drawn in close like a zipper. I make my way through the small squares of yard, the short driveways packed with cars, crouching behind fenders and blue garbage cans that have been set out for morning. Coming upon his purple house I go down on hands and knees, crawl around back like a cat come home for supper. There are lights in every room. Music drifts from the windows. I raise my head just above the sill. On the rectangular rug with green fringe around the edges, he is dancing with his wife. The children sit at the corners, clapping and singing, getting all the words wrong.
I tap the window screen. The whole family looks my way. The youngest boy, Jimmy, runs over and presses his nose against the screen. “She’s naked!” he announces.
Tami, who is ten, asks, “Mother, is it wild?”
The six year old, Simon, whom his father considers clever, says, “I spy me a nudist. The nudist is at the window. She ain’t wearing any clothes.”
My lover’s wife runs over and grabs the children. I say his name but he pretends not to hear me. “Call the police!” his wife says, as if I have not just said her husband’s name, as if I am some stranger.
“No,” I say to the wife, the children. “I’ve been here many times. There’s a blue rug in the orange bedroom. The toilet leaks when you flush it. The right rear burner is missing on the stove!” In this manner I attempt to validate myself, to assert my right to be here, but the wife is not listening. She is dragging the children upstairs, and they are screaming bloody murder. My lover stands in the hallway, holding the red rotary phone.
“There’s a mad woman at my window,” my lover says into the receiver. “She’s not wearing any clothes.”
A naked woman on a bridge won’t last long, not here or anywhere. I make a U-turn at Mars and head North on Market, planning to restore the dress to the girl. In the time it takes for me to reach the walkway, the girl has disappeared, and a yard sale has sprung up at the foot of the bridge.
A cardboard sign says, “Everything must go.” A man slouches on the ground beside a small silver table with one broken leg. He is wearing an unusual sort of hat with a blue feather tucked into the band. The table is beautiful in an orphaned way; quite clearly it needs a home. The man is also selling a red feather boa, a snapping turtle in a yellow cage, an old sewing machine, a Speed Racer lunch box, a pair of army-issue binoculars, and a box of steno pads.
I park the car illegally in someone’s driveway and leave it running. “How much is this table?” I ask the man, knocking my knuckles nonchalantly against the surface, as if the table barely interests me, as if I could take it or leave it.
“Why don’t you take the steno pads instead?” he says. “I can let you have the whole box for fifty cents.”
“No,” I say. “I stopped for the table.”
“This snapping turtle is seventeen years old,” the man says, thrusting the cage in my direction. “Her name is Darren. She makes a fine pet. She eats very little and needs only to be walked twice a week. You can have her for seventy-five cents.”
“I’ve never been good with turtles. How about the table?”
“A feather boa has many uses. You may tie back your curtains with it, or create an interesting border for your doorway, or wear it out on a special evening. This feather boa costs ninety cents, and that’s my final offer.”
I picture myself in the white dress that fell from the sky, the feather boa draped dramatically around my neck. “I’ll take it,” I say. “And the table?”
The man lets out a long, disappointed sigh. “What do you plan to do with it?” The blue feather in his unusual hat distracts me. I am unable to articulate.
“I just moved here,” I say. “I’m going to put it in my kitchen.”
“The table is five hundred dollars.”
I tell him that his table is not made of gold. I tell him that his hat is ludicrous.
“Where do you come from?” he wants to know.
He doesn’t believe me. “What’s the capital?” he demands.
“Okay,” he says to the turtle. “She’s an honest woman. Ten dollars.”
I pay him and put the table in my trunk. He waves as I drive away, and I wave back, but then I realize that he is not looking at me. He is bidding farewell to his table.
The kitchen of my new apartment on Diamond has three beveled windows, through which I can see the bluish beginnings of the Bay. Down below, boys in tight jeans and cowboy boots walk dogs with frightening leather collars. To the East is a hill bearing rows of houses, the most startling of which is a deep, lovely shade of purple. Sitting at the new table that totters on its broken leg, I have visions of my own heroism, the lengths to which I will go to restore the naked girl’s clothes.
In this vision I go out into my city. I take the dress that was given to me, the dress that fell from the sky. I place a foot upon the walkway, the walkway which exists, truly, and which will not collapse beneath me. I stand above the traffic, clutching the white silk that is prone to falling. At last she arrives. She is naked, as when I left her. She holds one hand over each breast as she steps onto the walkway and moves toward me, her sweet thighs slapping together, her belly beaten pink by the wind. “Please,” she says, stretching out her hands to receive the dress, revealing the dark of her nipples, the shadows gathering beneath her breasts. In this city that is mine, this city that I dreamed long before I saw it, on this walkway that I built years ago in my mind, I persuade her.
“Come with me,” I say. She takes my hand, and I lead her home. On the high bed I lay her down, touch my mouth to the white instep of her foot, press my fingers into the cushion of her calves, and lay my head upon her stomach, hearing the deep pulse of her womb. Many nights gather beneath her eyelids. Her legs are heavy from dreaming. She is a replica of myself from many years ago, before I dreamt of cities and bridges. On the dress that fell away, the dress she sent down to me, I detect my own smell, the print of my own fingers.
I sit at my table in the apartment that is mine alone and gaze out at my city, dreaming of the rescue. I spread the dress on the table and admire the soft grain of the silk, a blue stain the size of a quarter just above the lower hem. I stand and wrap the dress around me, tie a good knot that will hold, and position myself in front of the long mirror in the hallway. The 37-Corbett clatters by, spewing soot within inches of my window. The passengers stand, clinging to straps that hang from the ceiling, gazing into my hallway. I pull my hair away from my face, push my belly out to make it round.
I think of my mother at the fruit stand in this very city, some thirty years ago, her hands traveling over ripe mounds of tangerines. She sees my father’s eager face beneath a sailor’s cap; he is running toward her. As he lifts the cap from his head and begins to call her name, she drops three tangerines into a paper sack, presses a quarter into the vendor’s open palm, and turns away. In the end, following the advice of her own mother, she will come back to him; but in that moment at the fruit stand my mother is alone and fearless. Walking away, she breaks the skin of a tangerine with her fingernail, tears the skin from the flesh of the fruit, lets the juice spill down her hands. She turns a corner, and my father’s voice fades beneath the low howl of a foghorn. In that instant she forgets him. She is not my mother. She is no one’s wife. She is a woman set free in her new city, thousands of miles from home.
I heard her voice before I saw her, her sing song dancing the air of Casa de Paella in Barcelona. Something Scandinavian?
"Perhaps we could take a boat to Majorca tonight, Bertie. I've heard it's wonderful...the biggest of the Balearic Islands."
"Fine idea, Ingrid," a male voice answered.
I braced myself. Ingrid might be as old as forty talking to her even older husband, Bertie.
A second male, "If we go down to the harbor right now, we could get our tickets, have dinner, get drunk."
"I thought you were dee-runk already, Sammy," Bertie's voice said.
A night cruise to Majorca, I thought, the next chapter in my Homeric odyssey after four days on the French Riviera my unburdened by an itinerary.
"It's my last little summer of independence," I told my fiancee grandly. "After this, I'll be buckled into my seatbelt for the duration."
Diane and Mom wanted to track me, buckle me in from a distance. But I saw sympathy in Dad's eyes. Chained to his insurance agency for twenty-three years, he bore the hopeless look of a zoo lion.
The threesome behind me was about to leave. I summoned my courage and turned around. Ingrid smiled into my soul. Back then, I believed in the perfect woman theory. That there was, out there, some goddess who was ideal in every way, designed by God for me alone. Diane was okay. Lovely enough to win a part of my heart. But the woman before me was Aprodite.
I had fallen for five women in five days, women I saw on the train or in restaurants or along the beach in Cannes. Now, I fell in love with Ingrid believing, in my arrow-pierced heart, that I would love her forever. She was one of the Sirens in my eighth grade copy of The Odyssey. I loosed my bonds and sailed toward the song of her voice.
"Excuse me. I happened to overhear you might go to Majorca tonight. I was planning to go there too," I lied. "May I join up with you?"
We were all about the same age. Europe in the '60s was jammed with young people wandering train stations, museums, beaches; crowding into the Caves in Paris to sway to the voices of Edith Piaf imitators. You picked up with someone who was headed the same way and broke off with them when they were going some place else.
"Sure, I'm Bertie from England. This is Ingrid Deceto. She's named after Ingrid Bergman," he laughed. "And the one with the pirate patch over his eye here is Sammy from Australia. The patch is genuine, the man is a fake."
I shook hands with my Cyclops.
"Hi, I'm Lance Bloom from New York - Manhattan." My name was Larry and I was from Rochester. "So you're from England," I said to Bertie, "and you're from Australia. Where are you. from, Ingrid?" I stammered into her beauty.
She wore her dark blond hair long. It was pulled together behind her neck by a sapphire ribbon that matched her eyes. She was prettier than the black and white Ingrid of Casablanca. Her face was all fine lines, full lips, high cheek bones. The Spanish sun had awakened freckles across the crests of her cheeks and along her bronzed arms.
"I'm from everywhere. Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, London. When I was nine, I was from Istanbul; when I was thirteen, Athens; when I was seventeen, London. That's where I'm from now, London. We live along the Thames. We always live near the water. My father is with the Danish Foreign Service. I'm from everywhere and nowhere."
We paid our check, headed for the harbor along rain-wetted streets, past little shops exhaling leather-coffee-roses and restaurants where paella bathed in large tubs, midnight blue wine rose from the center of each table in label-free bottles. The afternoon sun rode our shoulders as we reached the harbor. Along the pier, diesel fumes and fish smells mixed with the light stench of oil tankers. We booked deck passage on a ship called La Zanzibar bound for Palma, Majorca. It was part passenger-part cargo ship and carried boxes of bananas.
I was glad I wasn't engaged to Diane; glad I hadn't strapped on the seat belt yet. My freedom tasted like the 1959 Bordeaux I drank down to the dregs two nights before at a Cannes restaurant and sounded like the guitar I purhcased in Barcelona.
During our walk to the ship, I collected delicious facts about Ingrid. Since I now loved her, everything was delicious. She wore a sleeveless white blouse with a pocket over the left breast, cotton shorts the color of the sea, leather sandals with a single thong that separated her first two toes. Her nails were polish-free. Her face was its own cosmetic.
The scent of bananas straddled the mid-section of the ship as we boarded. We made our way to the bow, carved out a spot against a tarp covered load of lumber. I was careful to secure the spot on Ingrid's right so I would be free to drape my left arm around her shoulders leaving my right hand free.
Instinct informed me that my competitors would not challenge my Ulyssian power. Sammy was anti-power anyway. "I'm an anarchist. All rules are evil," he announced on the walk to the harbor as we passed a couple of Franco's policemen decked out in shiny black tri-corner hats and toting submachine guns. "Men who enforce rules are bloody devils."
Pale, sunken-chested Bertie was T.S.Eliot. In between tubercular-sounding coughs, he smoked oval Galois Disc Blue cigarettes stored in a brown leather cigarette case with gold trim.
"You seem chronically depressed, Bertie old man," Sammy teased.
"You don't understand me," Bertie grumbled, his arms crossed, a Galois stuck to his lower lip. "I own a dry sense of humor - too sophisticated for a goddamned Aussie."
Sammy laughed and gave Bertie a hug. Ingrid laughed too, the sound smiling up from deep in her throat.
Sammy withdrew a bottle of Chianti from the blue canvas bag looped over his shoulder. Bertie produced a wedge of Stilton from his bag. I shaved four slices with my pocket knife and handed them out. Someone broke into a case of the bananas and passed bunches to everyone. The four of us sat down on the wooden deck, leaned our backs against the canvas tarp, devoured the wine, cheese, bananas as the ship steamed away from the collapsing sun.
An hour later, I took out my guitar and sang, "Unchained Melody." Ingrid joined in. I took her singing of "I hunger for your touch," as a personal invitation.
By midnight, Sammy and Bertie were asleep and Ingrid and I were a couple. Beneath the stars, she slipped on a blue sweater adorned with snowflakes and mountains and trees. I was glad the sweater buttoned down the front as I wrapped her with my left arm.
I confessed as much of my life story to Ingrid as I could: my degree from Dartmouth with a major in English literature, my acceptance to Columbia Law School; how I was embarrassed by my rich family, how I admired JFK and thought it was time for me to start marching with Martin Luther King; my two nights in jail for drunk driving. I didn't tell her about Diane and how this was my last summer before I buckled up.
She listened with her eyes, her lips and the space between the buttons on her sweater. The breeze kept slapping a yellow forelock back and forth. Each time it flopped in front of her eyes, she would flick it back with her right hand. All the while, I studied her lips and tried to figure out how to kiss them.
"Just think," I said. "We'll both be parents some day."
"I don't know about me," she replied. "Children are a lot of responsibility."
"Well, I hear the process of conceiving them is lots of fun."
"You hear?" she laughed. "So are you telling me you have no first hand experience with the 'process'?"
"Certainly not!" I said, as if shocked. "How about you?"
She cast her head down. "My, what a question."
"Give me your answer."
"I've heard that it's quite dangerous for a young woman." She paused, pushed back from me. Her eyes turned dark. "Look, Lance. The most important things about me you can never know. I am completely different from you. I live a very strange life. A life you could never, possibly understand."
Bertie coughed. Sammy stirred and called out, "Nuclear nightmares ... bloody Reds'll kill us all unless we learn to fly through the air with the greatest of ease."
We laughed. "Leave me alone," Sammy grumbled from the mystery of his sleep talking, his shoulders twitching, his eyes sealed shut.
"Okay," I said. Sammy relaxed and resumed snoring.
It was only then that I noticed, as Ingrid's left hand slipped over the top of her thigh, that she was missing the little finger on that hand. In its place a tiny nub twitched.
She looked down at the hand. "It happened when we were living in Istanbul, a dog attacked me on the street. I was fourteen. Two men pulled the dog off of me but he took my little finger with him. I thought no boy would ever like me. My dad wanted to find the dog and kill him. I told him that wouldn't bring my little finger back." She tilted her head and smiled up at me. "Do you feel strange to have your arm around a cripple?"
"You aren't a cripple. You're the prettiest woman I ever saw."
"Thank you, Lance. I think you are very nice looking yourself."
"Ingrid. I know we just met, but I feel I know you so well, that we were meant to take this trip together - to be together."
She didn't answer. But amid the perfume of bananas and the double sheen of the moon smiling from sky and sea, she snuggled closer, didn't stop my hand as it slipped under her sweater.
I planned to stay awake all night sketching Ingrid with my fingers. Some girls know how to kiss and others don't. The bad kissers keep their lips thin and hard or relax them so completely they go all wobbly like the gunnels of an unlashed boat you're trying to board. Ingrid's lips were twin pillows, soft as spring rain and firm as her breasts. She murmured something in another tongue.
"What did you say?"
"The Danish is hard to translate, exactly."
"Then what did you say, approximately," I murmured.
"I said you have the gift of kissing."
I returned my hand to her left breast. "You have the gifts of a goddess, a Siren."
Soon after midnight, we both drifted into sleep.
I dreamt I was back in Rochester. Ingrid and I were sitting on the couch in my living room necking when Diane and my mom walked into the room. Diane was carrying a giant scimitar. She lifted the long curved blade above me. I tried to raise my arm to block the blow but I couldn't move. The sword came down between Ingrid and me, cutting off Ingrid's right arm and slicing into my left. Ingrid cried out at Diane, "You have crippled me." Then her detached arm floated across the room and slapped Diane so hard that Diane's head fell off.
For me, this is a typical nightmare. I awoke with numbness along my left side, shook my arm to life, gazed at a dawn soft as bath water. A few panels of sun trimmed the top of the single mast soaring above us.
"How did you sleep, old man?" Sammy asked a grouchy looking Bertie.
Bertie switched off his horn rimmed glasses and drew on a pair of sunglasses. The emerald disks made him a bored T.S. staring out at the wasteland of the world.
"Weird dreams," Bertie answered. "How 'bout you?"
"Sammy spent the night preaching about the evils of nuclear war," I interjected.
"Oh God, was I talking in my sleep again?"
"You were very entertaining," Ingrid said.
Sammy looked toward us, "Well, you two seem to be getting on well. A regular couple I'd say."
We gathered our few possessions, headed for the gangplank. The city of Palma snaked a vast sidewalk along its shoreline. Low, sand-colored buildings with rosy tile roofs and a few taller buildings slept amid the fronds of hundred of palms. Above it all, a 14th century cathedral reigned .
We found a café, ordered coffee, bread and cheese. I was more than Ulysses. I was Zeus, my goddess under my sway. The Mediterranean, all of Europe, was mine. I picked up the check and we wandered out to survey the town.
Sammy got a map. "Santanyi, that's the place!"
"Where is that?" Ingrid asked.
"Southwest of here. There's a nice new German resort down there. Very reasonable."
We took a bus along a road who's paving got more and more sparse until it gave way to plain dirt just beyond a town called Campos del Puerto. We jolted and jarred along, dust clouding through the open windows, until the driver dropped us off in the middle of nowhere.
We walked about a mile across desert like land. Bert and Sammy walked ahead while Ingrid and I straggled several yards back.
"I hope I haven't made Bert and Sammy jealous," I said.
"That's unlikely," Ingrid said.
"Now why is that? I would think any man would want to be with you and would be upset if any other man tried to get in his way."
"I guess you don't get it about Bert and Sammy.
"Lance, don't you understand? Bert and Sammy are boyfriends."
"You mean. they are homosexuals?"
"I mean they love each other. It's not such an unusual thing in Europe as it may be in the U.S. Europeans are more tolerant of what's different."
All of us were sweating by the time we found the hotel, rising white and new, miraging shifting shoulders of the sea. Sammy's arm wrapped Bertie's waist. He withdrew it as we arrived at the entrance to the hotel.
"Now why is it we want to stay in a German hotel on a Spanish island?" I asked.
"Because the damn Germans are always so clean and neat and orderly and I'm already sick of cheap Spanish hotels," Bertie grumbled.
Bertie was right. The place was clean and neat and orderly and stunning and rose like an ice castle above the little cove. Herr Gottfried said, "We have just opened and I am pleased to give you our best rate - six dollars per room."
We booked two rooms one would be for Ingrid and the other for the three men. For all I cared, Bertie and Sammy could sleep in the same bed while I slipped off to visit Ingrid.
The manager put some cheese, sliced apples and bread on a plate. We ate at an umbrella table set up on the edge of the sand. We drank two bottles of Chianti and by the end of the second one I was feeling very happy and very powerful.
"How about a swim?" I proposed.
"Yes. I'm still very hot," Ingrid said.
Bertie and Sammy exchanged glances. "Not us," Sammy said.
The hotel was mostly deserted and only one other couple, an older pair, perched on the sand in the bright sun. As Ingrid and I passed by I heard them conversing in German, wondered if the man was someone my dad had tried to kill just a couple decades earlier.
Ingrid wore a pink and white beach towel around her and let it fall to the sand when she got to me. Her bathing suit was a two piece. White. The sight of her in so little clothing took my breath away, her narrow waist, the handfuls of her breasts.
"You look.so.lovely," I stammered.
"Well, thank you."
She turned, dashed toward the water, her thighs jostling lightly, her shoulders swingingback and forth. She reached the water, paused a moment, then slid into the low surf. I followed. The water was warm, the air tender, the six o'clock sun angled orange.
Ingrid stroked toward a rock several hundred feet from shore. She was an astonishing swimmer and though I had been on the swim team in high school, it was all I could do to stay close. She reached the rock way ahead of me and shouted, I won, when she touched it.
"You had a head start," I complained.
"Okay. We'll have a second match." She pulled herself halfway up on the rock, took a breath, didn't seem tired. The blue hair ribbon was long gone and her locks hung to the tips of her shoulders in clumps, water dripping from each, tracing its way down her neck, across her shoulders, between her breasts.
"Let's swim for that rock," she shouted. "Ready. Set. Go."
The second rock was further out, sat at a sharp left diagonal from the shore. I swam next to her, smiling as I turned my face toward her, grabbing at her to hold her back a little. I reached the second rock just barely ahead. But I sensed she let me win.
"Well. I guess we're even now," I said.
"You cheated, of course, grabbing onto me. And here I am swimming with a disability," she said, holding up the hand with the nub. "
"You're very competitive for a girl."
"What makes you think I'm a girl?"
"Everything about you, especially now that I've gotten such a good look."
"Looks can be deceiving."
"There's nothing deceiving about that figure of yours. It's perfection."
Her top was tied in the back rather than hooked. She reached around and untied it. I thought she was going to take it off. Instead, she just tied it tighter. The two of us laid down on the rock like a pair of seals. It was barely large enough for two people and the Mediterranean licked our feet. I thought about sharks, couldn't for the life of me remember if any inhabited the Mediterranean. The second rock was isolated around a bend from the hotel cove. Ingrid and me, the wide cloudless sky, the delicate lips of the sea kissing our feet, surging around our thighs.
I was Zeus at rest, gentle, tender, at ease. I looked over at my companion. Nothing with Diane ever felt like this. Not even on New Year's Eve the year before when we almost went all the way in the back of her Dad's Cadillac. With Ingrid, I was at the top of a peak. Diane down in some valley out of sight, small, insignificant.
"Ingrid. I think we were meant for each other."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. It is."
"Maybe or maybe not."
"There's no maybe about it, Ingrid. I know I love you."
She lifted her face from the smooth surface of the rock and studied me. "Yes. I do think you are in love with me."
"You say that like you are a doctor who has just diagnosed a condition."
"Perhaps that's true. Perhaps you have just a condition and it will pass. But remember what I told you. I have a condition of my own that will not pass. If your love is true, it will change me. If it's not, well."
"Look, Ingrid. My love is permanent. I am sure of it as I am that this." I looked around for the right analogy to prove my love. "As sure as this rock is solid."
At that moment, a larger wave washed over the rock and over both of us. We stood up, shaking like drenched dogs.
"Don't you think that's a bad sign?" Ingrid laughed.
"It's a good sign. The rock is still here in spite of the wave. We are standing on it. I think this must be our own island. I can't think of a better place for what I want to say. Ingrid, will you marry me?"
"Oh Lance, my strong sailor. You do love me. You're so sweet."
"Sweet, maybe. Serious, absolutely. Ingrid, I have lots of money or at least I will have. My father is very successful and my mother comes from big wealth and I'm the only child. You need to marry me and we need to have lots of children."
She smiled at me from Mt. Olympusl. I didn't feel like Zeus any more. I was a human in the hands of her celestial power. She leaned up, kissed me. I ran my hand up and down her naked back. I thought she would say yes as soon as our lips came apart. I thought how the two of us, embracing there on that pedestal of the sea, must look like some grand romantic statue, twin ornaments atop the crown of the vast silver Mediterranean.
Ingrid didn't answer. Instead, she wrapped a long sad gaze around me. A single tear escaped each eye. Then she turned and dove into the sea.
When she surfaced, she was laughing. She had removed her white top and flung it at me. She rose up in the water just far enough for me to gain my one and only look at her breasts. She flashed me her smile warm as noon, then plunged back down into the Mediterranean, a mermaid returning to the deep. I called to her. Then I saw the flick of her fishy tail, iridescent in the bright sun as she vanished beneath the waves.
I return every summer to Majorca with Diane and our three kids. Bertie and Sammy are still together and we all remain close. I give the pair free lodging at my hotel whenever they wish.
Bertie never believed my story about Ingrid. But Sammy did. Bertie thinks I killed her. Sammy knows I loved her.
"Why can't there be mermaids?" Sammy would say to Bertie. "Sailors have been seeing them for centuries. Maybe she's the Lorelei and she swam off her perch in Copenhagen down past the rock of Gibraltar to Spain and to us. Why not?"
Bertie would scoff and shake his head. One of them thinks I'm a murderer but he's never tried to turn me in. The other believes my love and my story.
I bought the hotel in Santanyi, renamed it The Lorelei. The statue of Ingrid I commissioned rises up from our little rock beyond the view of the cove. The likeness is good, right down to her high cheek bones and full lips. When I die, a statue of me will be mounted on the other half of the rock embracing my Ingrid. People can come to the hotel and hear the story of me and my mermaid and shake their heads like Bertie or believe like Sammy.
Some summer days, I swim out to our rock. When I arrive, I perform a little ritual. First, I pull myself up next to the statue and wrap my left arm around her bronze shoulder. Next, I cast my eyes out to sea watching for signs of my mermaid's return. After she fails to appear, I turn and kiss my statue full on the lips.
Then I swim back to my hotel. I still have the Germans manage it. Like Bertie says, they're so neat and clean and orderly.
Story and Photographs ©Erie Chapman, 2006