“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” Chekhov must’ve been happy when he wrote that. And why are we happy to keep pushing that boulder up the literary hill when we know that it is just going to roll back down and we’re going to have to start all over again? Because putting out issue after issue truly does make us happy. We believe that great writing is as essential to our well-being as bread and wine and a roaring fire. It is also an honor and a thrill. A thrill to be surprised time and again, even from work that comes from beyond the grave. Frank Stanford, the gritty Arkansas poet nicknamed the “swamprat Rimbaud,” died nearly forty years ago, but recently a cache of unpublished gems surfaced and we’re delighted to share them with you. Then there is the family of Tin House writers we’ve long known and who never fail to dazzle us with their ability to show us the world anew. In this issue Joy Williams channels the spiritualist Georges Gurdjieff visiting the Arizona childhood home of Susan Sontag and Ursula K. Le Guin leads us into a brutally unforgiving desert in her parable “The Jar of Water.” Any slings and arrows of outrageous submissions are worth it when you get to read new poetry from Dorothea Lasky and Richard Siken. Throw another log on the fire and join us in forgetting whether it is winter or summer.
Current Issue #62
Fiction:Joy Williams, Alejandro Zambra, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dean Bakopoulos, Rebecca Makkai, John Benditt, Josh Weil, Madeline ffitch NEW VOICE
Marcus called out level and chalk line and finishing hammer, nail gun, drywall, and joist hanger. He called out two-by-six, angle finder, button caps, stepladder, and spray foam. At twelve thirty he called out lunch and he sat in his truck to eat a bologna sandwich, and he suspected that his boss, Gordo, hated his own child. Marcus was working on Gordo’s new house, designed to be a mansion if they could get the roof up before winter. Meanwhile, Gordo and his wife and child lived in the old house smashed right up against the new one. Gordo called it a shithole, swore to level it to the ground once his mansion was complete.
It was pretty much already winter if they were honest but they didn’t talk about it and worked by shop light until they couldn’t feel their fingers. Shop light, Marcus called out each night into the cloud of his breath, LedgerLok, spider bit.
Gordo said he liked mountain biking but Marcus never saw him do it and it was difficult for Marcus to believe that Gordo had any kind of carefree hobby. Gordo was the only rich person that Marcus knew personally. He came from Los Angeles, where he had been a contractor to the stars. When Marcus ate his bologna sandwich, Gordo watched him, working his mouth, pretending not to watch. Marcus was back at work inside half an hour, calling out speed square.
They had met when Gordo dragged a trampoline out into the street and put a piece of cardboard on it that said “FREE.” Driving past, Marcus thought that if he took the trampoline home, maybe someday he would have children.
“You got kids?” Marcus asked Gordo when he parked next to the trampoline.
“A son,” said Gordo.
“Won’t he miss this trampoline?” asked Marcus.
“He’s not like other kids,” said Gordo. He looked at the tools in the back of Marcus’s truck. “You know anyone who needs work, let me know,” he said. “I’ve got to get my new house up before winter or my wife will kill me.”
“Who else have you got working for you?” asked Marcus.
“No one, goddammit,” said Gordo. “In this town it’s like maybe I’ll work after I finish this beer and smoke this joint, well not on my dime. These guys don’t seem to get it, I’m not from around here, I’m from out there, and I don’t put up with that shit. My wife’s got FBI clearance, she’s a financial consultant. Unlike some people. I met an expert who showed me how to get the most from my employees.”
“How?” asked Marcus.
“If you work for me, you call out the name of everything you do as you’re doing it.”
“Everything?” asked Marcus.
“Every tool, every task,” said Gordo. “That way, not only do you know what you’re doing, but I know what you’re doing. You think if you had to call out everything you were doing on the job site, you’d call out ‘finishing a six-pack’? Or ‘scratching my ass’? Not likely. This expert, he was an expert in time motion. It’s a method. It cuts down on unnecessary activity and I know I’m getting my money’s worth.”
Marcus had no wife, but a wife was what he wanted, and he knew that one day a big woman would walk out of the woods, out of the gathering darkness, and claim him. So he had bought a small piece of land and a goat. The goat was intended for milk. The land was five acres and still not paid off, and Marcus waited there for the big woman. He waited, sleeping in his trailer on the edge of his land, right up against the road. He kept the goat tied to a stake under a piece of roofing, and he was afraid of the dark. So Marcus agreed to help build Gordo’s new house, though he could tell from the beginning it would be a trial.
Marcus took the trampoline home but the trampoline had a hole in it, and also, Marcus could think of nothing so foolish as a grown man jumping on a trampoline all alone. Slowly, Marcus was filling up his land with important materials. Each piece was to attract his wife, to show her that he was a man of means, of big plans, but sometimes he worried his wife might not really get it, might not understand why he needed two cargo carriers and an oversized drab net with a hole in it and a metal toolbox housing a persistent wasps’ nest and a refrigerator turned on its side and a long cafeteria table, all left out in the weather. A wife might want to get rid of those things.
Nevertheless, Marcus brought the trampoline home, past all the predatory dogs. He was afraid of the dark, but he pretended not to be. He left the trampoline in the back of his truck and fed his goat, who stamped at him, reproaching him with yellow eyes. The goat was meant to forage, but he had not yet figured out a fence and did not want to let her off the stake while he was gone. Marcus shoveled some alfalfa to her. Quickly, he went back and forth to his woodpile, and he built his fire while it was still light out. He pissed, brushed his teeth, and spit the toothpaste into the bear grass, all this while it was light, and then, as the sun disappeared, he shut himself tightly into his trailer, and turned up the lantern. I had better build a house, thought Marcus. That is what a big woman would really want. But instead he sat in his trailer and looked out the window.
Through a sparse screen of blackberry bushes, he could see the thieves who lived across the road. Happily, they leaned on tire irons in their driveway, loosened lug nuts, revved engines, drank cloudy water from a milk jug, and threw pieces of plastic onto a large fire. They showed no regard for the sunset. As far as Marcus could see, they were all men, but Marcus knew they were a family because most of them had the same last name, and he knew that families usually included women, and he knew that when the thieves scoped people’s property, they carried with them a mean little baby sucking on its fist, silent and bald with glittering eyes.
Marcus watched them now, and he saw the biggest one, the oldest one, the dad thief with the gray beard, mop his face with a large rag, and heave a tractor tire upright so he could roll it into the fire. Marcus could see a plastic doll with one missing leg in the creek. A young thief stood on the sandstone bank, throwing glass bottles at the doll. He held the baby over one shoulder. The doll sank. The baby threw his arms into the air. Everyone, it seemed, was busy except for Marcus.
At work, Marcus called out piss, and Gordo came around the house and said, “My wife saw you pissing in the bushes, and she asked me why aren’t the locals house trained, so why don’t you go inside our house if you need to use the bathroom. Just take your boots off. What kind of operation do you think I’m running?” Marcus didn’t want to enter Gordo’s house, but he saw no alternative, so he went around back and in through the screen door. The heat hit him in the face, thick, yeasty, demoralizing. The living room was in the basement. Batteries, diapers, and boxes of wet wipes loomed in the corners of the cramped rooms. Marcus could hear Gordo’s son screaming up on the first floor, and beneath that, the ticking of a mechanical swing. The only light came from one small window above the sofa, and Marcus made out a large framed jigsaw puzzle on the wall. It was a photograph of Gordo and his infant son, sleeping together.
Shuddering, Marcus found the scummy bathroom. He pissed and washed his hands with vanilla-scented antibacterial soap. Back outside, he yelled extension cord and picked one up and plugged it in. He built a shitty wall. Marcus considered the jigsaw puzzle, and it was an outrage. A lie. Well, not a lie, but an outrageous omission. Here was an exact case, Marcus thought, of the exception proving the rule. Because everyone has to sleep sometime. So if you accuse someone of being an unrelenting fucking asshole and the only time when this is not true is when he’s asleep, then you have been proven right.
Marcus didn’t know that once Gordo drove all night across three states to see a specialist and yet his small son cried and cried and continued to hold his body completely stiff. His cries took on a high-pitched bleating. A person could get impatient, the books said it was normal, how could Gordo teach a son like this to make money and not be taken advantage of in this world, to let people know who they were dealing with? Only when the boy slept would he let his limbs go limp, and the drool would spin out of him fine and steady as a spider’s web. He didn’t care about trampolines. He didn’t care about wheels, cranes, or mulch piles. Angrily, Gordo wore his son’s tiny winter hat because he could not find his own hat, and still he called his son “that little asshole.”
The thieves cut into Rudy’s toolbox and stole his thirty-six-inch chain-saw bar. The thieves walked right into the yurt of the mill operator and took her springform pan and two rounds of antibiotics. The thieves took the crossbow from the front room of Aldi Birch’s place, just walked in, opened the coat closet, and took it. The thieves drove their pickup truck around and around on the front lawn of Seth Cordy, who would not allow them to swim in his pond. He ran outside shaking his fist, and the thieves drove right over his pear tree, crushing it. So again, there was a neighborhood-watch meeting.
Everyone knew who the thieves were, and the sheriff knew too. At the meeting, held at the yurt of the mill operator, the sheriff’s deputy told people what they already knew, which was that the baby was how the thieves made themselves more appealing. The sheriff’s deputy told the people what they had already experienced, which was that the thieves would come over with the baby and would offer to buy things from you or say they had lost their dog. The thieves liked to say, “I’ve walked these hills all my life,” and gaze wistfully around. And though it was a pretense, it was also true. The people at the neighborhood-watch meeting agreed that it might be harder to be the thieves than it was to be the people that were being stolen from. Drugs and suddenly you’re older and your dad, the head thief, is still telling you what to do, and you can’t get any real respect. Rudy offered to patrol the road with his semiautomatic, which he felt would give the thieves an even chance. The sheriff’s deputy sighed and drank the cup of coffee that was offered to him.
Marcus came back from the meeting and his goat was gone. The stake was pulled out of the ground. The rope had been cut through. Marcus looked across the road, at the thieves’ compound. One strand of wood smoke trailed up from the chimney of the double-wide. Framed in the doorway, he saw the silhouette of one thief, the blooming tip of his cigarette. As Marcus watched, the man raised his hand and waved. Marcus waved back. The man rose. And then the crunch of gravel and the young thief crossed the road and stood before him, holding the baby, spitting at the ground, and squinting at Marcus. The sun had gone down, which Marcus didn’t like.
“This is Bexley,” the young man said, shoving the baby into Marcus’s arms. The baby, a squirming damp bundle in a nappy hooded jumpsuit, farted loudly and began to hiccup. “He’s my kid. Just like his dad, too, the little shit. I’m Dustin. You’re Marcus. Learned it from the mailman.” He took a bottle from the hip pocket of his coveralls, handed it to Marcus. “He’s probably hungry,” Dustin said. Marcus offered the bottle to Bexley, who clamped down immediately and sucked, his breathing coming in squeaking grunts. He kept his unfriendly gaze fixed on Marcus, who held him out slightly from his body, unsure. Marcus bounced him. Bexley screeched. Marcus stopped bouncing him.
“So you bought the place?” asked Dustin.
“That’s right,” said Marcus.
“You from around here? Haven’t seen you,” said Dustin.
“I’m from Washington County,” said Marcus. “Came down here to find work. Found this piece of land.”
“This place isn’t really for living on. It’s more of a hunting place,” said Dustin.
“Well, I’m living here,” said Marcus.
“I was thinking of buying that trampoline. Is it for sale?” asked Dustin.
“I was thinking of keeping it,” said Marcus.
“You got kids?” asked Dustin.
“Not yet,” said Marcus.
“Before you got here, I almost considered this place to be mine, for how much we were over here, growing up. No one ever lived here. We used it for hunting. My name is carved into more than one tree. Have you seen that?” asked Dustin.
“Not yet,” said Marcus.
“What happened to your goat?” asked Dustin.
“It must have got loose,” said Marcus.
“I haven’t seen it,” said Dustin. “But you shouldn’t leave a goat tied up all day.”
“That’s true,” said Marcus.
“One goat gets depressed, just like one person. Hate to see that. You should have at least two,” said Dustin.
“You’re probably right,” said Marcus, and began to feel guilty.
“You hunt?” asked Dustin.
“Haven’t got a gun,” said Marcus, then thought to add, “But I’ve always wanted one.”
“If I still wanted to hunt on this land, what would you say about that?” asked Dustin.
“I don’t see any problem with that,” said Marcus.
“We could go out together sometimes,” said Dustin.
“Really?” said Marcus.
“Sure,” said Dustin. Delicately, Bexley spit up down Marcus’s arm. He did not change his cross-eyed glare.
“He only does that to people he likes,” said Dustin, his face solemn. Then he grabbed Bexley and swung him up in the air. “Come on, Tiny,” he said. He pitched his voice high, sang out, “Hoody hoo hoo! Goony goo goo!” He snuggled the baby down into the bib of his coveralls, against his flannel shirt. Bexley frowned and gave a dry cough.
“Come over sometime,” said Dustin. “I’ve seen you looking over. Come over to the fire. Drink a beer, whatever.”
“Okay,” said Marcus. “Thanks.”
“Sorry about your goat,” said Dustin, “But like I said, you can’t just keep a goat tied up outside like a dog. They’re meant to forage.”
“Yes. You’re right. Thank you,” said Marcus. Dustin pushed back through the blackberries and went across the road, with Bexley punching the air in front of him.
Marcus went into his trailer and pulled the blinds over the window that faced the road. He hoped the blackberry bushes would get bigger. He considered what Seth Cordy had told him at the meeting, that you don’t want to get too friendly with those guys, but then you don’t want to get on their bad side either. Look at what they done to me, said Seth Cordy. I’d see less of them if we were friends. Jiminy. If you care about your pear tree.
During the first snow, Marcus showed up to work and Gordo had a moving van parked at the dead end. He told Marcus they were going to pick up a planer, an upright band saw, and a table saw that he’d bought off a woman whose husband had stuffed her into a construction dumpster. “He thought she was dead but she wasn’t dead,” said Gordo. “He’s in prison. It’s a good business opportunity.”
“Do we have to call out what we’re doing while we’re there?” asked Marcus.
“No,” said Gordo. “It might freak her out, so just call it out on the inside.”
When they got there, the woman was waiting in the snow with her two sons, all of them wearing earmuffs. She was beautiful and her sons were noisy and disturbed, dragging pieces of tarps and overpronouncing words. Snowball had six syllables the way they said it. Marcus hoped they had been asleep while their dad stuffed their mother into a dumpster but he worried that they’d been awake. The beautiful woman laughed breathlessly and had false teeth. This is what happens, thought Marcus. People lose their teeth. It happens to everyone. It’s the thing that levels the playing field. This could be her, thought Marcus uncertainly, and threw snowballs at her children. One son hit the other son in the penis, and he fell to the ground, rolling in the snow. “It kills, it kills!” he cried.
“I hit you in the nads!” the other son yelled. Nads had three syllables the way he said it.
“Don’t do that,” Marcus told him.
“My dad’s in jail,” the son said.
“That’s true,” said the beautiful mother, overhearing. “I tell them it’s okay to talk about it,” she said. “We had a domestic-violence situation. It’s okay to talk about it.”
“It’s okay to talk to me about it,” said Marcus and was not sure if she heard him. How will I know? wondered Marcus. How will I know when my big woman arrives? Gordo tried to move the three-hundred-pound upright band saw by himself. “Fuck it,” he said and he got a dolly. He got the moving van stuck in the snow. He told the sons to get the hell out of the way.
On the way home from work, Marcus stopped and picked up a six-pack. He parked behind his trailer and walked across the road. He found Dustin and another young man, leaning against a gleaming dirt bike, in the garage. Bexley kicked in a car seat near his dad’s foot, sucking furiously on a pacifier.
“Marcus,” said Dustin, “what’s happening? I was just telling my cousin Clyde.”
Marcus stuck out his hand, but Clyde just looked at it.
“He’s from Washington County,” said Dustin. “Thought he’d try his luck here.”
“I brought some beers,” said Marcus, holding out the six-pack. Clyde took one.
“Clyde’s shy,” said Dustin.
“Are we taking this thing out tonight or what?” asked Clyde, rapping the bike’s fender with his knuckles.
“Fuck if I know,” said Dustin.
“Where’s Faith? She’s coming over to watch Bexley, right?” asked Clyde.
“Fuck if I know,” Dustin said. “Bexley’s mom,” he told Marcus. “We’re still together and everything, but we had some trouble so she went off.” Marcus nodded.
“You’re not still together,” said Clyde, “More like you wish you were.”
“Fuck you, Clyde, don’t spread my shit around the neighborhood. Can’t even say hello to Marcus and shit, and then just open your mouth to say shit you don’t know shit about.”
“That’s okay,” said Marcus.
“Totally uncivilized,” said Dustin. “But it’s true, what he’s saying, kind of. She’s my true love. Are you married?”
“No,” said Marcus. “But I wish I was.”
“Technically I still am,” said Dustin, “but we need to renew our vows or something.”
“None of that for me, man, no thanks, too much trouble,” said Clyde.
“Fuck you, man, it’s heaven,” said Dustin. He finished his beer, then took another from the six-pack. “Precious treasure. I’d do anything for her.”
“Except live with her,” said Clyde.
“Fuck you, Clyde, you don’t know a thing about it,” said Dustin.
“Too much strife,” said Clyde. He used a plastic Kroger’s card to separate a pile of chopped-up white powder, then leaned over the seat of the dirt bike and snorted it up his nose.
“It’s not what you think,” said Dustin, catching Marcus looking. “It’s a painkiller. It’s for his pain.”
“Yeah,” said Marcus.
“You work?” asked Dustin.
“In town,” said Marcus. “For that new guy at the dead end.”
“The guy from LA?” asked Dustin.
“Right,” said Marcus.
“He’s got a lot of stuff over there. Just lets it sit out. That must be how they do it in California,” said Dustin. “Anyone told him his mansion is going to slide down the hill into the river?”
“I’ve told him that myself,” said Marcus, “but he won’t listen. Hey, if he wants to pay me.”
“Right?” agreed Dustin. “I’ve done that kind of work before. Does he need more guys?”
“You never worked an honest day, who are you kidding?” said Clyde.
“Fuck off,” said Dustin. “I swear you’re pushing it, Clyde.”
“Who’s going to take care of Bexley while you work a job?” asked Clyde. “Faith? Hope you don’t think I’m a fucking babysitter.”
“My boy goes where I go. I can take him to work with me. I know my rights,” said Dustin. “What do you think?” he asked Marcus.
“I don’t know,” said Marcus.
“What if I come by tomorrow?” asked Dustin.
“Talk to him. Why not?” said Marcus.
“See, Clyde? Fucking asshole,” said Dustin. Bexley dropped his pacifier, began a high, fluid-filled wail. They finished the beers.
Marcus had returned to his trailer and turned up the lantern when the big woman finally came. He saw her appear out of the darkness at the edge of the woods, flickering through the last line of ash trees. She blended momentarily with a sycamore. She separated from it, emerged into the meadow. The big woman had his dead goat yoked around her shoulders and it bled down her front. She wore baggy white polar-fleece pants tucked into the tops of her boots. The pants were covered in burrs, mud, and goat hair. She wore a dun man’s coat and a hat with flaps that came down over her ears. She was one of the biggest women Marcus had ever seen. She carried the goat up to his trailer. Marcus spit on his hands, rubbed his face to redden his cheeks, smoothed his hair, opened the door.
“Found this goat in your woods,” she said. “It was dead, torn up by the coyotes.” She dropped it on his cinder-block steps. Marcus could not think what to say.
“Is it your goat?” she asked. He nodded.
“Please. Stay,” he said.
“Here?” she asked. She smelled like vinegar. Up close he could see deep craters on her face, below her left eye.
“Here,” he said.
“I can’t stay. I’m just resting,” she said. “This is my shortcut. I’m going to look at my boy across the road. I heard the coyotes, and I wanted to see what they were after. You know, my name is carved into a tree back there,” she said. “Have you seen that?”
“Not yet,” said Marcus.
“You been back in your woods at all?” she asked.
“Not yet,” said Marcus. “You could show me, maybe?”
The big woman looked at him, screwed up her mouth. “Are you creepy?” she asked.
“No,” said Marcus. “I’m just new around here.”
“I’ll decide for myself,” she said. “Maybe later.” She looked both ways and strode across the road.
Dustin stepped into the road and waved Marcus down after work. Marcus slowed his truck and rolled the window down. Dustin leaned in on his elbows.
“You want an apple?” Dustin asked, pulling one from the pocket of his sweatshirt.
“That’s all right,” said Marcus.
“It’s a Gold Rush,” said Dustin. He bit into it.
“Okay, thanks,” said Marcus. He took a bite and handed it back.
“I stopped by Gordo’s,” said Dustin.
“I didn’t see you,” said Marcus.
“Well I saw you,” said Dustin. “That guy ever put anything away?”
“I don’t know,” said Marcus. “Did you talk to him about work?”
“Nah, man, that asshole wants me to yell out everything I do as I’m doing it.” He stared searchingly at Marcus. “That’s right, I heard you doing it, you sorry sap. I’ve got a shred of dignity left. I may be poor but fuck it, Gordo can shove it up his ass for all I care.” Dustin rapped on the roof, took another bite of the apple. “Faith told me she found your goat,” he said, chewing and watching Marcus.
“The coyotes found it first,” said Marcus, looking at the steering wheel.
“Things are good with me and her now,” said Dustin. “Never better.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Marcus. Dustin stepped back from the truck and put the apple to his mouth. Marcus pulled away, watching him in the rearview mirror. Dustin didn’t move until he had eaten the apple down to its core. He stood for a moment, hands at his side, then swiveled, wound up, and pitched the apple core hard against a red oak, so that it flung sparks of white flesh out into the cold.
When Marcus saw Faith again, it had been raining all night and all morning, and she was down in the creek trying to get a log out of the culvert. Marcus walked down his driveway, and stopped on the low bridge above her. She looked up at him, rested one end of the log on her shoulder, put her raw red hands on her knees, and breathed. Marcus could see the goat’s blood still crusted on her neck and on her dun-colored coat.
“Creepy guy,” she said, “culvert’s jammed up.”
“Do you need help?” he asked.
“Yeah I need help,” she said. She laughed. “Dustin won’t provide. He wraps Bexley up in T-shirts, won’t change his diaper but twice a day ’cause we’re running low, don’t have money for more. Assistance cut me right off, said I wasn’t telling the truth about where I live. It’s fucked. It’s totally fucked. Wish I could keep Bexley with me but Dustin’s dad’s the one with the money. I’m just moving from place to place. Odd jobs. You want to see my list, here’s my list,” she said. With one hand, she dug in her pocket, then reached up to Marcus with a scrap of paper, the log end cradled massively next to her left ear. On the list was diapers, wipes, blankets, towels, onesies, snowsuit, bottles, formula, rent, phone bill.
“Actually what I meant is that I’m worried about you moving that log on your own,” said Marcus.
“Get down here then,” said Faith.
He came clumsily down the bank. He knelt, reached forward into the creek, and rolled the butt end of the log onto the bank without lifting it. Faith held her end steady.
“Are we going to talk about this?” he asked her.
“Just get it up on the bridge,” she said. “Now would be good. This thing’s fucking heavy.”
“On the count of three?” he asked.
“Just fucking do it,” she said. She lowered her end of the soaked log so that it rested against her chest. She clutched it with both arms and began to stagger forward one step at a time, her boots filling with water. Marcus followed her down into the creek, lifting his end of the log, fighting to find any kind of hold on the slimy bark.
“Get on the same side as me, goddammit,” Faith gasped. Marcus could not see how to do this, but somehow ducked low and moved underneath the log. He made it to the other side and wrapped both arms around it. “Maybe we should take a rest,” he said.
“Fuck you walk forward,” said Faith through gritted teeth. They did so and made it to the bridge.
“Push it up,” ordered Faith.
“On three,” said Marcus.
“I can’t hold it anymore, asshole,” said Faith, and gave the log a mighty shove up over her head, getting her end onto the bridge. Marcus scrambled to follow her lead but the great weight of the log came down on him, he could no longer hold on, he stumbled out of the way, and his end swung out over the creek. Bodily, Faith shoved against him and got behind the log again, and together they shifted the thing back so that it rolled full length onto the bridge and lay still and dripping. They climbed out and sat on it.
“I’m soaking wet,” said Marcus. “Are you okay?”
“You’re an idiot,” said Faith.
“Are you still married to Dustin?” Marcus asked.
“We have an understanding,” said Faith. “He can’t tell me what to do. I’m the boss.”
Marcus wanted to show her all that he had collected. With a great eager swelling of his heart, he wondered what she would think of the cafeteria table. He liked it because it folded in the middle so that it would store neatly in the house he would build. If ever there was a big family Thanksgiving, they could bring out the long table and unfold it with no hassle. First he would have to affix new hinges because the current ones were rusted through. The sun came out from behind the clouds and the sky was white. The turkey vultures plummeted from vast heights, then flocked back up on banks of wind.
“Do you have my list?” asked Faith. Marcus pressed the piece of paper in his damp breast pocket.
Gordo began the day by talking about the pencils that kept slipping from behind his ears. “I told those morons at the hardware store, I have connections,” he said.
“They didn’t know who you were?” asked Marcus, marking a two-by-eight. He could feel Gordo’s eyes on him, suspicious. “People around here, they don’t know the people I know,” said Gordo. “They look at me and think I’m just some asshole. Everyone around here is such a nobody they think I’m a nobody. But they don’t get it that if I made one phone call, I could get them shut down for this pencil shit. I could talk to the top guy and heads would roll. Just one phone call.”
“Did you tell them about your wife’s FBI clearance?” said Marcus.
“You want to be a wiseass today? Is that it?” said Gordo. “What is that you’re doing? Did you forget what I told you?” Marcus called out circular saw. He made the cut. Then Marcus looked at his tools strewn about the first floor of Gordo’s mansion. He looked at his chapped hands. He thought about Faith’s list. “What are you pausing for? It’s my money you’re wasting,” said Gordo, and started up the table saw. Marcus tilted his head back. He thought about how big Faith was. He thought about her baggy fleece pants. He thought about the goat’s blood. Marcus called out piss. At first Gordo didn’t hear him. So Marcus called piss louder. “You’ve got to be loud if you want to keep this goddamm job,” said Gordo. So Marcus called out piss as if his wife and child were stuck under a bus and the only way to save them was to call out piss louder than anyone else had ever called out piss. And he did it. He saved them.
Inside Gordo’s sweltering dark house, Marcus could hear the screaming son, the ticking of the swing on the upper floor. He paused, let his eyes adjust. Carefully, he took stock of the cases of diapers stacked in the living room next to boxes of powdered formula. In the bathroom, there were rubber ducks in descending sizes, a pair of carmine-red rubber pants, baby nail clippers on the windowsill. There were bouncy chairs, board books, Pat the Bunny and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. On a shelf below the jigsaw puzzle, there were two breast pumps, one manual, one electric. There was a machine that mimicked the rhythm of a mother’s heartbeat.
When Gordo unplugged the shop light that night, Marcus asked him, “Mind if I leave my tools inside your house? It’s supposed to be below freezing. At least the batteries.”
“Whatever,” said Gordo, so Marcus took his empty duffle bag inside.
On his land, Marcus cut a piece of the large drab net and used it to patch the hole in the trampoline. He got the trampoline up on its legs and inspected the springs. They were rusty but they held when he applied his weight. He swept the trampoline and assembled the safety net around its perimeter. He pulled his folding chair out of his trailer and sat in front of the trampoline, looking at it. He drank a beer, thought it through. He got up and brought his duffle bag from the truck, set it beside the trampoline. He unzipped it, folded open the top, sat back down in his chair, and opened another beer. He looked at the trampoline. He looked at the case of diapers peeking out the top of the duffle bag, nestled beside the carton of baby wipes, a medium-sized rubber duck, a box of formula. The sun began to set. He heard the thieves rev their engines. He smelled the rich rubber smoldering in their campfire. He stayed where he was.
When Marcus came back to work, Gordo was pacing back and forth, chewing his lip and shaking his head. He held his roaring hatless boy, whose arms and legs stuck straight out, his small face a mask of discomfort. The boy hit his dad and screamed. Gordo grabbed the boy’s hands and forced them to his sides.
“Someone stole my shit,” shouted Gordo over his son’s cries. Marcus couldn’t help it, his stomach lurched. Saliva filled his mouth.
“Two pieces of plywood gone and my transit level. A box of Liquid Nails. Five bags of concrete. What the fuck?”
“Well?” said Gordo. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
“I went to a neighborhood-watch meeting,” said Marcus.
“I can’t lay the subfloor today. This fucking meth town.” The small boy screamed. His face turned purple, but around his eyes his skin was pale.
“What are we going to do today, then?” yelled Marcus.
“We?” said Gordo.
“If we can’t lay the subfloor?” asked Marcus.
“There’s no ‘we,’” said Gordo. “I don’t need your kind around here.”
“My kind?” asked Marcus.
“Telling all your scumfuck friends to come and load up whatever shit they can carry. My wife says I should press charges,” said Gordo.
“Fuck you,” said Marcus beneath the son’s squall.
“What?” asked Gordo, covering his son’s mouth with one hand.
“I quit,” called out Marcus. He turned to go.
“Are you stupid?” asked Gordo. “I just fired you,” but the boy’s screams drowned him out.
Marcus waited in his trailer. He stoked up the fire. He poured lamp oil into his lantern. He cut up an apple and some cheese. He watched the apple turn brown. He watched the cheese dry out. The sun went down.
Marcus could hear the thieves shooting beer cans over at their campfire, but he kept the blinds drawn. He heard their joyful hollers, the engines revving on their dirt bikes, the bikes racing up and down the road. Marcus didn’t look. His duffle bag sat in the corner, still full. Marcus tucked in his shirt. There was a knock at his door.
Faith stood outside, holding Bexley in his car seat. Bexley was asleep, snoring as loud as a grown man.
“You came,” said Marcus.
“Invite me in quick,” said Faith. Marcus stood aside and she moved past him into his tiny living space. She set the car seat on the fold-out table. She tossed apples and cheese into her mouth.
“You got a curtain?” she asked through a mouthful, then saw the sofa cushions. “These will do,” she said, and built a small pillow fort around the car seat, obscuring Bexley from view. “Let’s be discreet,” she said.
“I got you some things from your list,” said Marcus.
“We can talk about that later,” said Faith. “That’s not why I’m here. Well, not the full reason. It’s more about how we moved the log together.”
As she stepped toward him, they heard the dirt bikes roar up and idle at the end of the driveway.
“Don’t worry,” said Faith. “We like a fight. My money’s on you.”
“I don’t like a fight,” said Marcus.
“Just stay quiet,” said Faith. They stood still, while Bexley snored and the dirt bikes swarmed around them, on either side of his trailer, churning up the mud. The engines sputtered down and many men dismounted, whispering, stifling laughter. Boots crunched past the trailer window. Faith reached for Marcus. She held him. He let himself be held. They waited. Nothing. They heard the men move past the trailer, then keep moving. Their sounds faded off into the meadow. Many lady beetles landed on the oil lamp. No one came to the door.
“Well,” said Faith, stepping back.
“They’re on my land,” said Marcus. “What are they doing?”
“I guess we got a little time after all,” said Faith.
“The only thing is, I’m worried Dustin will kill me,” said Marcus.
“I do what I want and Dustin knows that,” said Faith. She put her hand down the front of Marcus’s pants. “Look,” she said. “We’re already doing it. This is doing it, it’s doing something.” Marcus got hard right away but wanted to be polite about it. He wanted things done the right way. He said, “I’m afraid of the dark.”
“I don’t believe it,” Faith said.
“That’s because I pretend not to be.”
“What’s the difference between pretending not to be afraid of the dark and not being afraid of the dark?” she asked.
Marcus put his arms around her. He said, “Have you heard that song I would do anything for love, or what about the musical Oliver. Have you seen that? Do you like musicals? Would you climb a hill, pick a daffodil, because that’s how I feel about you, like I would do anything,” Marcus said. “I guess there are a lot of songs like that probably, isn’t that true? It’s a feeling people get, even when they don’t know each other very well.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s the point.”
Marcus was afraid and happy. He believed her when she said she was the boss. She went to her knees before him and undid his belt. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”
The confrontation Dustin owed Marcus, the interference of the law, the foster care system, the eventual loss of the land—look for it in the public record. The next day would come, and then the next. They would come later. Now, here inside the warm trailer, Bexley snored, and Marcus and Faith murmured. Outside, a great cacophonous groaning rose up, a mechanical wheezing, as if the bellows of the world had opened in Marcus’s acreage. In the meadow, the thieves jumped on the trampoline. They were in their stocking feet. Though they meant to be menacing, it was too dark to make out much besides their vigor, their startled laughter, their boots lined up neatly in the bear grass. They wore headlamps, and the lights tossed the shadows around as they leapt up and down. Their faces loomed crazily in and out of sight, showing outsized noses and deep eye sockets. The trampoline itself was a sinking sea of black ink, rising back again and again, lifting them up on its swells so that they sprang into the air.
Poetry:Dorothea Lasky, Richard Siken, Jane Hirshfield, Carey McHugh, Frank Stanfrod, John Koethe, Deborah Landau, K.A. Kays, John Kinsella, Julia Clare Tillinghast NEW VOICE
I FEEL PITY
BIRDS HOVER THE TRAMPLED FIELD
THE ONE NOT CHOSEN
SECOND THOUGHTS ON A NEW TATTOO
NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY
THE USES OF THE BODY
HEAT GOES OUT WALKING IN THE COLD
Features:Alia Volz, Joshua Foster
My parents meet on a blind date in 1976. Richard with his leather cowboy hat and hand-painted jean jacket, Meridy with her purple turban and kohled eyes. He reads her aura; she reads his tarot cards. The first time they make love he has an epileptic seizure during the night and urinates in her bed. Nothing is simple.
On their third date, he takes her to an Italian restaurant in the Castro, the kind of place where “That’s Amore” plays on an infinite loop. “There’s something important I have to tell you,” Rich says. “I am carrying a spirit-child with me, a little boy, and he’s ready to be born into the here and now.”
Most likely, Meridy doesn’t believe him. But there is delirious magic in his way of speaking. A few weeks later, he looks into her eyes after lovemaking and says, “There. Now you’re pregnant.” So she is.
Rich names their unborn son Galen, after the ancient Greek physician. Meridy plays along, not questioning his intuitions. But during her pregnancy, she reads the science fiction novel Dune, by Frank Herbert, and secretly chooses the feminine name Alia. Just in case.
After a thirty-two-hour natural labor and an episiotomy, a baby girl is born. Rich is so shaken by this dramatic turn that he flees the hospital and debauches himself in a gay bathhouse until dawn. Then he slinks back to the postpartum room and confesses.
The birth announcements are discarded and new ones printed with the name Alia. Meridy becomes Mom, a name she will always treasure. Richard becomes Dad, but not for long.
When I am four, Dad goes on a Native American–inspired vision quest in a terrible place called Death Valley. It feels like he’s gone forever. The night he returns, I won’t get off his lap no matter what. Perched on his tree-trunk thigh with his lanky arms casually locked around me, I feel safe again.
“On the seventh night of my quest the temperature dropped,” he says. “I ate the last of my peyote buttons and zipped up my sleeping bag. I must have slept for a while, because I awoke during the night with stars dancing around me. It took a moment to realize that it was snow.”
I have to stop him here, because I don’t believe it can snow in the desert.
“Well believe it, kiddo. Hot and cold. Yin and yang. Life and death. So as I was saying, this beautiful fresh snow was falling on my face. Then up in the sky, the snowflakes suddenly came together to form the word Firefeather. I knew it was meant for me.” He grins, his eyes brilliant. “That’s why I’m here on this planet. I am a flame of illumination in the darkness of human consciousness.”
He is not Richard anymore; he is not Dad; he is Firefeather.
I love this story! I lie in bed that night and imagine the sky sending special messages just for me. In the morning, I change my name to Fireflower. I tell everyone about it. I tell my stuffed animals and Mom.
When I tell Firefeather, his face reddens above his beard. His eyes are icicles. “You’re really unbelievable, you know that?” He says this in a bad way. I tug dead skin off my lip. “You can’t just copy another person’s spirit name.”
I hate my given name. It’s too weird. Other kids make fun of me. I’d rather be Christina or Melissa. Or Fireflower, which is strange but beautiful, a name worthy of a princess. I tell him I am going to be Fireflower anyway, because that’s what the sky told me.
“Naming is very serious,” he says. “You have to earn it the proper way.”
I tell him I went on my own vision quest while he was gone on his. Except that on my vision quest it didn’t snow. I saw my name written in the clouds, even before he saw his. I beat him to it. So there.
“This isn’t a fucking game!” he roars. He yanks me over his knee and spanks my bottom. I run to my room, wailing. Mom yells at him. Her voice fills the house, and then the woods, and then the sky. They fight over my new name for a long time.
Firefeather suffers petit mal and grand mal epileptic seizures, the result of diving headlong into a shallow riverbed as a teenager. These electrical storms fry his brain, leaving him confused, sometimes delusional. Antiepileptic meds reduce the seizures, but erase swaths of memory as a side effect. Minutes and years slip into the nada. It seems random, what stays and what goes.
He’s like the Winchester Mystery House, that oddball construction of walls without ceilings, stairs that lead nowhere, floors suspended in midair. His personality is intricate but the history that supports it is half missing.
Periodically, Firefeather stops taking his meds, believing they dampen his perceptions. When he wanders through the wilderness on vision quests, he does so in this unprotected state—collapsing into seizures, alone, and then awaking alone under the naming sky. He takes LSD, peyote, and psilocybin to spin out even farther.
As a child, I accept that he is seeking inspiration from Great Spirit. As an adult, I cannot fathom why he is so reckless with his brain. Or how, as he chases spiritual awareness, he fails to notice the little girl staring after him, hoping he’ll come back.
Firefeather lets me tag along to water the marijuana crop deep in the woods behind our house in the Mendocino foothills. I love to visit our plants, to see the star-like green crowns swaying above my head, brushing the sky. I am five or six, and I have to scamper to keep pace with his long legs. Blond curls bounce down my back to my waist. I have freckles and snaggleteeth and my belly button is an outie, though it will soon turn inward.
We stop at the old tool shed so he can fill his water bucket. Daisies have cropped up by the spigot. I pick one for its bright-yellow face, its fuzzy greenish guts. A red-tailed hawk cries overhead. I spin the daisy in my fingers.
Firefeather stands behind me. He bends toward the severed stalk and releases a gob of spit. “O Great Spirit,” he says, “thank you for this gift of beauty. I honor your creation with my water.”
He takes my daisy and pushes its stem through a buttonhole in his denim shirt. He smiles at me and tips his cowboy hat. Only his pink bottom lip shows through his red beard.
I break off another daisy to keep. My spit dangles like a spider from my lip and a breeze blows it back against my shin.
He watches with blue-sky eyes. “What do we say?”
“Thank you, Great Spirit.”
Arriving at the marijuana garden, we find our plants quivering under an invasion of blue-and-orange-striped caterpillars. Their gruesome, beautiful bodies spiral around stalks, hang from leaves, and writhe over one another.
Firefeather gawks in dismay, his skin rinsing pink, then white, then pink.
“Did you forget to spit?” I ask.
He dumps the wasted water on the ground and hurls the bucket against the trunk of a nearby tree. “Goddamn it! Fuck!”
I trap several wriggling bodies in my cupped hands and scurry home alone. Tiny sticky feet. Delicate bright fur. They tickle my palms until I must shriek, but I am careful not to squash them. I put my pets in a jar, adding a fistful of leaves and twigs.
“Who are you?” I ask them over and over. “Whoooooo are yoooooou?”
Firefeather undertakes several vision quests over the years, and each time he comes home altered. Once, he returns from the Shasta woods wild-eyed and trembling, claiming he’s been bitten by a rattlesnake.
He rolls up his lavender bell-bottoms to show us. His calf is only scraped, the bite a hallucination. But I’m little and my acrobatic imagination sees puncture wounds, blue haloes ringing the weeping holes, his skin yellow as pork rind. I cry inconsolably, certain he’s dying of snakebite before my eyes.
A lifetime of snake-infested nightmares and phobic behavior begins with this moment. My reality is made dubious by his unreality.
Tall grass whispers against my bare shoulders, shivering my spine. Walking alone, I move slowly, carefully. I pound a stick on the ground to warn snakes of my approach. Firefeather says they are more scared of me than I am of them, but that seems impossible. He also says that if I keep my eyes peeled, I’ll be amazed how many live in these woods. Hundreds, thousands.
At the creek, the grass is vivid green, even in summer. The birds and I have already stripped the blackberry bushes of ripe fruit. I hope I spat enough that Great Spirit will grow more blackberries soon.
The creek bed is full of maroon and mustard rocks. They live in the water and if you make them leave, they turn dull gray and die. When I step on the board that straddles the creek, a gleaming red snake wriggles out from underneath. I scream. The birds scatter. The snake climbs onto a rock, and I realize it’s only a salamander with a red stripe.
The almost-snake leaves me nervous, but I’m nearly at Wind Cloud’s house. His flute rides the breeze through the eucalyptus trees, and I follow the sound. My heart trails behind like a balloon on a string.
The door of the wooden shack hangs open, the flute sings loud and clear. When he sees me, Wind Cloud lowers the instrument from his lips and smiles. He is always home when I want to visit. He’s home forever.
“Well, hello, Fireflower,” he says. “I thought you might come along today.”
He’s a real Indian. Frizzy gray hair haloes a soft face decorated with wrinkles. His chest and round belly are the color of manzanita bark. He never wears a shirt, because it’s always summer at his house.
Wind Cloud sits in his wicker armchair and plays his flute. There isn’t much room for me, just a tiny patch of concrete I can twirl on, if I feel like twirling. But there isn’t enough space for ballet arms.
He is the only person who calls me by my spirit name, and he doesn’t care if I earned it the proper way. Later that summer, we relocate to a yellow house in the middle of town. My spirit name stays out in the woods with Wind Cloud.
Mom throws a slumber party for my ninth birthday. She’s recovering from a car accident, and grinds around in a wheelchair, or hobbles on crutches. Huddled in our sleeping bags, my third-grade friends and I tell ghost stories under the soft strobe of Christmas lights.
Firefeather has been upstairs for days, drawing mandalas. Mom can’t climb the stairs, so there’s a lot of yelling between floors. When she sends me up with messages, I find him hunched over his bright, intricate designs.
During my slumber party, Firefeather slips downstairs and out the door, telling Mom that he’s going to see the Dalai Lama. The police find him thirty miles down the highway, raving, his chest bare to winter rain. He insists that the three of us—himself, Mom, and me—are reincarnations of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. They wrestle him to the ground.
This is the Christmas we hide from him.
Mom and I stay with friends in a double-wide trailer across town. She explains that Firefeather has gone off his epilepsy pills and is having “one of his episodes.” He isn’t himself.
“Who is he, then?” I ask.
“You know how your father gets.”
Hiding is like a game but not a fun one.
In January, Mom takes me back to our yellow house to exchange presents with Firefeather. I haven’t seen him in three weeks, not since my birthday. Mom makes me promise not to give clues about our hiding place. Like that I’m sharing a bed with my friend Karma. Or even that there are horses in the pasture next door.
Firefeather’s pale eyes stare from a naked face, no eyebrows or lashes. His chin looks vulnerable and petulant without the red beard. There’s no hair on his head, chest, arms, or legs.
He watches me like I have something valuable I’m not sharing with him, like I’m hiding a key.
“Why are you wearing a dress?” I ask, as if his clothing choice is the part that doesn’t make sense.
“It’s a sarong.”
I recognize the elephant-print piece of fabric knotted around his waist as one that usually hangs in his studio window as a curtain. Mom takes a seat on the couch, saying nothing.
“Hang on,” Firefeather says, squatting to plug in the Christmas tree. “There we go.”
I give him a wool sweater, which it looks like he needs. He tugs it over his bald torso, and though it doesn’t match the sarong, he is more recognizable with it on.
Firefeather gives me a board game called Wildlife Adventure. The goal is to match endangered species to their natural habitats. Ibex in Ethiopia. Tapir in Malaysia. Anaconda in Venezuela.
Sitting on the floor, he reads the rules aloud from the box top, pronouncing each word precisely, in a tone and cadence I’ve heard my whole life. It’s the same voice that used to read me The Wonder Clock fairy tales at bedtime. I watch the colored lights blink, and let his voice carry me back to a safer Christmas.
In the car on the way back to the trailer, Mom asks if I’m scared.
“No,” I lie, hating her for making me leave him.
We never move back into the yellow house. Firefeather’s psychosis passes, but Mom says she’s had enough. Our little family breaks. From then on, Christmas with my father is in January.
He tells me it’s always the same. A beautiful light floats into his peripheral vision, containing all colors of the spectrum—like a mandala. When he tries to look at it directly, everything turns black, until the seizure ends and he regains consciousness. If he resists looking, Firefeather believes, he can avoid the attack. But it’s too beautiful to ignore.
He says it’s like looking at God.
Firefeather’s obsession with mandalas blooms. He spends hundreds of hours at the drafting table with his compass, rulers, and colored pencils, producing these vivid, kaleidoscopic drawings. They plaster his walls.
Even years later, as an adult, I fail to understand what drives his hunger for the divine. Why doesn’t he take the obvious hint, and stop trying to look at God?
I begin calling him Daddy after the divorce.
The new name is a rebellion, insisting on hyperfamiliarity when he is nowhere nearby. I am ten, eleven, twelve. It’s an era of cat sweatshirts, leggings, and Keds sneakers. I live with Mom in San Francisco, while Daddy remains three hours north in the dry countryside he loves. When Mom answers the phone and says, “Oh hello, Firefeather,” I cry, “Daddy!,” screeching the word as only a prepubescent girl can.
Our visits dwindle to two or three per year. I miss him so much, I need so much of him. He complains of gas prices, car trouble, traffic. So Mom drives halfway. We do the pass off in the parking lot of a roadside diner. Gripping one parent in each hand, I force their fingers to touch.
Daddy lives alone in a loft decorated with things I remember from our former life. There is the poster of Kali the Destroyer, wearing her belt of severed human heads, blood from their ragged necks dripping down her thighs. Daddy’s altar stands in a corner, his precious objects arranged in precise order on purple velvet cloth: a Tibetan singing bowl, a deck of tarot cards, an eagle feather, a Paiute ceremonial rattle. His smell has grown stronger in solitude, muskier. I inhale fierce, replenishing lungfuls of his air.
We spend these weekends sitting on the braided rug in his loft, playing cards or Wildlife Adventure. His allergies are just like my allergies; we sniffle in tandem. He gives me a cloth handkerchief for blowing my nose and says I can keep it.
The Magical Mystery Tour spins on the turntable, the song “Hello, Goodbye” bounding through the loft.
He kneels to feed a fresh log to the old-fashioned woodstove. The iron door is still open when he collapses backward and sprawls on the rug. Thinking it’s a game, I pounce, diving to steal contact while he’s defenseless. But he doesn’t respond. He’s laid out like Snow White, motionless, hands at his sides.
His fingers curl into claws. His eyes open halfway, but they are white, nobody home. There’s a metallic smell, like lightning.
A wooden spoon is important, I remember that much.
I scramble for the wok, still fragrant from the savory stir-fry he made for dinner, and grab the cooking spoon smeared with tamari and juices of organic vegetables.
His arms and legs jerk spasmodically. Foam oozes from his lips. I squat beside him, gripping the spoon like a talisman that should awaken him from cursed sleep, but I don’t know what to do with it. I’m crying so hard, and I can’t remember how the spoon is supposed to work.
Ten minutes or ten hours later, the shaking subsides.
Blinking up at me, he slurs, “Did I have a seizure?” saliva sputtering around the words.
In slow motion, he stands and staggers out the front door. From the threshold, I see him out among the evergreens, washed blue in moonlight, breathing. The air is sharp with pine and cedar. Staring up at the sky, lips parted, he sways on his feet.
He doesn’t answer. I wonder what he sees up there, what messages he receives. I want to be out under that sky with him, to somehow sneak into his vision, but I’m afraid to move.
When he finally comes back inside, I wrap myself around him and smash my nose into his flannel shirt. He still smells like lightning, but with something toxic underneath, like burning plastic. He goes to bed early with an iced washcloth on his forehead. I lie on the floor next to him in my sleeping bag and watch shadows move across the ceiling.
The confessions begin when I’m fifteen.
“There’s something important I need to tell you,” he says, always that phrase. “I’m homosexual. I’m attracted to men. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him every time. “Just be yourself.”
But it’s not okay with him. He gets involved with a guru who claims that homosexuality creates an imbalance of yin and yang in the world—contributing to global conflict and environmental collapse—and this makes things harder for him.
Some glitch in his seizure-burnt mind makes him forget that we’ve had these conversations. So he starts over from the beginning. He comes out of the closet to me at least a dozen times over the years.
It’s almost funny, a good gag for a modern sitcom.
“Remember that time I left you waiting?” he says. We’re in a park near the house I share with my husband. People are jogging, diddling with cell phones, bagging dog excrement.
“Oh . . . which time?”
“Ha-ha,” he says—not laughing, just pronouncing the syllables.
But I’m not kidding. I’ve waited so many times—hundreds, thousands. I’ve waited for him my whole life.
“I mean the time I left you waiting outside the library. You must’ve been twelve. I came to the city to see you and I was supposed to pick you up to go to a museum or something. But I was like an hour and a half late. Let me tell you, you were pissed.”
I don’t remember this, and don’t particularly want to. But like all of his confessions, this isn’t for my benefit.
“Well, I want you to know that I was looking at gay porn. I’m an addict and there isn’t a lot of access to gay porn where I live. Well, there is now, but there wasn’t then. So every time I came to the city, I spent hours in porn shops getting my fix. I’m sorry.”
I have no recollection of the library incident, though it’s a believable scenario.
I’m thinking that he’s a twofold asshole, first for leaving a younger me stranded on a city street, and second for telling me about it now, in the park, when all I want is to enjoy our biannual visit.
“It’s really okay,” I say, hoping the moment will die a natural death. “I don’t even remember that day.”
“I’m so sorry.” He’s crying. Liquid streams down his cheeks. His eyes are a washed-out blue, like gouache mixed thin with water.
I once cared too much. Now I feel almost nothing.
I feel used.
This conversation is not for my benefit.
It seems, forgive the pun, masturbatory.
Firefeather works in construction for a few months. One day, three coworkers approach him on a job site. I’m not there to see this, of course, but he tells me about it over the phone. The men are brown-skinned and black-haired, could easily be Latino. They wear somber expressions.
“So you’re Firefeather,” says one of the men.
“That’s an Indian name, yeah? We were wondering what tribe you are. The three of us are Paiute.”
“Well,” Firefeather says, caught off guard, “I am a reverend in the Church of the Holy Man . . .”
“What is your tribe, Firefeather? Who gave you the name?”
He tells them about his vision quest, how his name came from the sky, but he feels stripped naked before these men, and does not present the story with the full detail it deserves.
“Oh I see,” says the spokesman, smirking. “We were just wondering because you don’t seem like one of us.”
The moment is tense, but Firefeather mumbles an awkward apology and the Paiutes back off, having made their point. Soon thereafter, he visits the DMV to relinquish his spirit name and reclaim the ordinary Anglo-Saxon handle his mother gave him.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” he says when he tells me the story. “But I guess it was a lesson I had to learn.”
The child who named herself Fireflower enjoys this tiny revenge.
But I also see the innocence in my father’s wish to be named by nature. He is so earnest. My heart aches for him, just a little, when he’s forced to abandon that dream.
I can’t bring myself to call him Rich to his face, and after all this time Dad feels like a name that belongs in a different family. Mostly, I avoid calling him anything. It’s amazing how easy it is to hold a conversation without using someone’s name.
We’ve become long-distance phone friends. Four or five times a year, we chat, our conversations clotted with jokes. We both like it better this way, knowing we can hang up and return to our separate lives.
I’m sitting alone in a downtown bar, sipping a rye manhattan, when I notice a voice mail from him. Using a goofy cartoon voice, he says, “Oh, dear daughter, I simply cannot believe you wouldn’t tell your old dad that you’re a movie star. Imagine my surprise when I’m watching a trailer for a documentary about Burning Man and there you are.”
But I wasn’t at Burning Man.
I return his call a few days later, and we chuckle over the blunder. “You have a doppelgänger,” he says. “I could’ve sworn that was you.”
He sends me a link to the trailer. I try to find the woman he thinks I am among the usual Burning Man images of fabric whipping in wind, art installations under construction, and dust-caked revelers wearing tutus and goggles. I spot a couple of redheads in the clip, but no one who could be me.
My father’s idea of me is tenuous, at best. He’s not sure what I look like, let alone what I care about, or who I am inside. I realize this will always be the case. Whereas I would know him anywhere, from any angle, in any guise, by any name.
I think back to the night of his seizure in the loft, the sharp smell of evergreens, moonbeams through tree branches. My father scanning the sky for his God. Me looking at him. I memorize the contours of his upturned face rinsed pale in moonlight.
Lost & Found:Marcia DeSanctis, Jon Michaud, Victoria Patterson, Michele Filgate, John Fischer
At 9:00 PM on Easter Sunday, 2014, I parked my rented Citroën in front of the Hôtel Continental in Pau, France. It was odd to imagine my family together back home in Connecticut tucking right about then into a roast leg of lamb. I was given a circular room in the corner bay, with three floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto the main street. The ’70s orange carpet was splotched from decades of spilled mystery liquids, but the room’s Belle Époque bones were elegant and strong. Someone had set a chocolate bunny wrapped in foil upon my pillow. That, plus a box of minibar peanuts and a bottle of Kronenbourg 1664, was my Easter dinner.
The main street was spooky from disuse, either because it was late on a holiday evening or because it was Pau. There is not much to see in this provincial city on the northern edge of the Pyrénées unless you follow the Tour de France or are a fan of Henry IV, who was born in the castle in town and was, in fact, an excellent king. Also, it is not far from Lourdes, so the faithful tend to overnight here, sometimes in the afterglow of miracles. In 1907, Edith Wharton visited both places during one of her crisscrossings of France, documented in a series of dispatches for the Atlantic and later published, along with stories from two other automobile trips, in A Motor-Flight Through France. During this particular trip, her husband, Teddy, had the flu; their traveling companion was Henry James; and, in Paris, she had been introduced to Morton Fullerton, with whom she would shortly begin a passionate love affair, but never in this memoir does she give that, or much else, away.
Wharton—or, more accurately, Wharton’s book—is why I was there, heeding my margin-note exhortations. “Do this!” I had written and circled twice while reading about her voyage to Pau, the place she called “that astonishing balcony hung above the great amphitheatre of south-western France.”
Edith Wharton is a touchstone, a high priestess, an object of obsession and sometimes envy, not least due to the fact that she was wealthy enough never to be bothered with rinsing so much as a teacup while she churned out masterpiece after masterpiece. At one time, I feared her for the dark sorrow she portrays in Ethan Frome. In New England, they teach this book in high school, and after that, no one much cares for sledding. Later, I worshipped her for the soaring complexities of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. But it is in A Motor-Flight Through France that she appears to my contemporary eye as most rare and enlightening. Is it possible to express sentiment without sentimentality, emotion without excess, and to reveal something without stripping yourself bare? Yes, and Wharton mastered it. Simply stated, this book that helped define the travel-writing genre during one of its golden ages now defies it. Today, it is refreshing and unusual to read a memoir that is about buildings and sky rather than love and loss.
The book was brought to me by a friend who was writing the introduction for a reissue of Motor-Flight at the same time that I was engrossed in a lengthy assignment in France. At first, I found it cold, detached, a dull compendium of places ticked off an itinerary. Almost no relating of meals indulged in across the four corners of France, no marital discord, no drunken benders with Henry James—in fact, little hint of much alcohol at all. This book was absolutely no fun. But when I returned to it in the course of my research, I felt its subtler shades of brilliance. Thus discovered, Wharton became my guide in two ways, first and most obviously as my chaperone through France. She’s led me past the dormant volcanoes of the Auvergne, the “lonely tossing expanses of summit and ridge and chasm that suggest the mysterious undulations of some uninhabited planet,” as well as the country’s waterways and châteaux, through the doors of many churches that, due to her rapturous storytelling, cease to blend into a single stone-cold edifice. Instead, they emerge as individualized triumphs of quirk and composition—“the finest thing about it is the Cardinal Uncle’s nose,” she writes about the cathedral in Rouen, followed by a discourse on how a man’s greatness used to be embodied in that one stately feature—and as almost-human keepers of stories. “To have seen so much and now to stand so far apart from life!” she writes of Vézelay, a vault containing a thousand years of memories.
Secondly and more subtly, Wharton became my guide through the sheer freshness of the book’s old-fashioned execution. A Motor-Flight Through France is a travel book that carries the reader on a literal journey rather than a journey of self, with an awakening that is visual, cultural, and utterly immersive but not overtly spiritual—free at least of the risk of vanity with which that word has come to be imbued. It folds the contents of Wharton’s brain (an archival knowledge of history, art, and letters) into the childlike purity of her discoveries—of landscape, of architecture, and, heaven help us, of place. “One’s first feeling is that nothing else matches it—that no work of man, no accumulated appeal of history, can contend a moment against this joy of the eye so prodigally poured out,” she writes while whizzing along the Mediterranean coast, with its “Virgilian breadth of composition,” between Toulon and Saint Tropez.
Wharton did not set out from Paris in her (chauffeur-driven) automobile three times in 1906 and 1907 to find her self, and if she did, she had the bon goût to keep that quiet. Instead, she hit the dusty road in search of France, adventure for the sake of adventure, through towns that she had seen before only through the windows of train compartments. She was a born itinerant, raised at least in part in villas and grand hotels around Europe with her restless American parents, but always carted about the Continent by railway. Two threads of Wharton’s life—intellect and exploration—were joined on her many grand tours through Italy, Morocco, England, and France, where she lived permanently after her divorce.
“The motor-car has restored the romance of travel,” she writes in the first line of Motor-Flight, and we share the novelty, her “delight of taking a town unawares,” at the same pace—both desultory and brisk—that she does. “The unseen villages have been given back to us!” she writes. We are right there with her, fueled by her passion, propelled by her language, and enticed as she is by what awaits across the valley. We trace the lines of her voyage, but they do not lead us much closer to Wharton.
A woman of legendary privacy, she would not have it otherwise. She was, perhaps, too much of an aristocrat (and a Victorian) for the confessional. Yet the book is full of emotion, even empathy. “Each, in its few inches of marble, and in the confinement of his cramped little niche, typifies a special aspect of the sense of mortality—above all of its loneliness, the way it must be borne without help,” she writes from Dijon upon seeing the The Mourners, the tomb sculptures of John the Fearless, a Duke of Burgundy.
As a writer who travels, I seek, unlike Wharton, what is expected of me in a travel essay: the sort of epiphany brought on by the act of geographical displacement. The narrative arc, the human reveal, the story—these are crucial elements in tales told from far, far away. Mercifully, I guess, my own midlife state of bewilderment has been long and generous, a source of mysteries whose solutions are clearest when I’m somewhere I can’t readily be found. My travels to France, Rwanda, Haiti, and Russia, among other places, have become journeys of perspective out of which I aim to mollify personal chaos. But when a trip yields no self-referential fruit, I can be lost. Once, in an off-the-beaten-track place in Peru, when words of descriptive detail were painting rainbows in my brain, I pitched a story to an editor back home. “It needs an emotional crossroads to make it work,” she replied.
Consider Edith Wharton. In 1907, when she embarked on her second motor flight, she was forty-five years old. She was surely in the throes of midlife; God knows what her hormones were up to. She was childless, her husband was chronically ill, and she had already begun her written correspondence with Morton Fullerton. Her heart must have been racing, but we are left in the dark.
She keeps her distance from us and even from herself, writing throughout of “we” rather than “I,” as she imparts her meditations about place after place like a jeweler stringing rubies on a necklace. Wharton’s expertise on all things French gave her a head start as she set off and still she allows herself to surrender, delightfully, to France and its textures, colors, and light. The book doesn’t come with an exegesis on the meaning of life, but its art is defined by the other message it imparts. Know yourself, the book seems to tell me. But know something else, too. This is wisdom I plan to slip into my carry-on the next time I take flight.