|Posted by JH Benigni on October 16, 2014 at 1:15 PM||comments (44)|
The Road (excerpt)
by Cormac McCarthy
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There'd be no surviving another winter here.
When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
When he got back the boy was still asleep. He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup. He spread the small tarp they used for a table on the ground and laid everything out and he took the pistol from his belt and laid it on the cloth and then he just sat watching the boy sleep. He'd pulled away his mask in the night and it was buried somewhere in the blankets. He watched the boy and he looked out through the trees toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.
I'm right here.
An hour later they were on the road. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks. In the knapsacks were essential things. In case they had to abandon the cart and make a run for it. Clamped to the handle of the cart was a chrome motorcycle mirror that he used to watch the road behind them. He shifted the pack higher on his shoulders and looked out over the wasted country. The road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise. Along the shore a burden of dead reeds. Are you okay? he said. The boy nodded. Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire.
They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the door. A metal desk, a cashregister. Some old automotive manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father's house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.
A quarter mile down the road he stopped and looked back. We're not thinking, he said. We have to go back. He pushed the cart off the road and tilted it over where it could not be seen and they left their packs and went back to the station. In the service bay he dragged out the steel trashdrum and tipped it over and pawed out all the quart plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs one by one, leaving the bottles to stand upside down draining into a pan until at the end they had almost a half quart of motor oil. He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can.
On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered. At the top of the hill they stood in the cold and the wind, getting their breath. He looked at the boy. I'm all right, the boy said. The man put his hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the open country below them. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke. Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. The boy leaned on the cart and adjusted the wheel. What do you see? the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glasses. It's raining. Yes, the man said. I know.
They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he'd seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods.
When it had cleared they went down to the cart and pulled away the tarp and got their blankets and the things they would need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their camp in the dry dirt under the rocks and the man sat with his arms around the boy trying to warm him. Wrapped in the blankets, watching the nameless dark come to enshroud them. The gray shape of the city vanished in the night's onset like an apparition and he lit the little lamp and set it back out of the wind. Then they walked out to the road and he took the boy's hand and they went to the top of the hill where the road crested and where they could see out over the darkening country to the south, standing there in the wind, wrapped in their blankets, watching for any sign of a fire or a lamp. There was nothing. The lamp in the rocks on the side of the hill was little more than a mote of light and after a while they walked back. Everything too wet to make a fire. They ate their poor meal cold and lay down in their bedding with the lamp between them. He'd brought the boy's book but the boy was too tired for reading. Can we leave the lamp on till I'm asleep? he said. Yes. Of course we can.
He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
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|Posted by JH Benigni on October 16, 2014 at 1:10 PM||comments (0)|
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|Posted by JH Benigni on October 6, 2014 at 10:15 AM||comments (0)|
The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots—2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.
They were called legs or grunts.
To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.
Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodacolor snapshot signed Love, though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera. At night, sometimes, Lieutenant Cross wondered who had taken the picture, because he knew she had boyfriends, because he loved her so much, and because he could see the shadow of the picture-taker spreading out against the brick wall. The second photograph had been clipped from the 1968 Mount Sebastian yearbook. It was an action shot—women's volleyball—and Martha was bent horizontal to the floor, reaching, the palms of her hands in sharp focus, the tongue taut, the expression frank and competitive. There was no visible sweat. She wore white gym shorts. Her legs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked and carrying her entire weight, which was just over 100 pounds. Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that left knee. A dark theater, he remembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, and Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember the feel of the tweed skirt and the knee beneath it and the sound of the gunfire that killed Bonnie and Clyde, how embarrassing it was, how slow and oppressive. He remembered kissing her good night at the dorm door. Right then, he thought, he should've done something brave. He should've carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long. He should've risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should've done.
What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.
As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio, a killer, 26 pounds with its battery.
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds.
As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60, which weighed 23 pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded. In addition, Dobbins carried between 10 and 15 pounds of ammunition draped in belts across his chest and shoulders.
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum. When it was available, they also carried M-16 maintenance gear—rods and steel brushes and swabs and tubes of LSA oil—all of which weighed about a pound. Among the grunts, some carried the M-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighed 10 ounces. The typical load was 25 rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping. Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down—not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle—not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else. It was a bright morning in mid-April. Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself. They stripped off Lavender's canteens and ammo, all the heavy things, and Rat Kiley said the obvious, the guy's dead, and Mitchell Sanders used his radio to report one U.S. KIA and to request a chopper. Then they wrapped Lavender in his poncho. They carried him out to a dry paddy, established security, and sat smoking the dead man's dope until the chopper came. Lieutenant Cross kept to himself. He pictured Martha's smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her. When the dustoff arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and that night Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be there, how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down, he said. Like cement.
In addition to the three standard weapons—the M-60, M-16, and M-79—they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They carried catch-as-catch-can. At various times, in various situations, they carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C-4 plastic explosives. Lee Strunk carried a slingshot; a weapon of last resort, he called it. Mitchell Sanders carried brass knuckles. Kiowa carried his grandfather's feathered hatchet. Every third or fourth man carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine—3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades—14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade—24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.
In the first week of April, before Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble, an ounce at most. Smooth to the touch, it was a milky white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg. In the accompanying letter, Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him. Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly, and what she meant by separate-but-together. He wondered how the tides and waves had come into play on that afternoon along the Jersey shoreline when Martha saw the pebble and bent down to rescue it from geology. He imagined bare feet. Martha was a poet, with the poet's sensibilities, and her feet would be brown and bare, the toenails unpainted, the eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March, and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. He imagined a pair of shadows moving along the strip of sand where things came together but also separated. It was phantom jealousy, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. He loved her so much. On the march, through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture. His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing. He would feel himself rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness.
What they carried varied by mission.
When a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps, and extra bug juice.
If a mission seemed especially hazardous, or if it involved a place they knew to be bad, they carried everything they could. In certain heavily mined AOs, where the land was dense with Toe Poppers and Bouncing Betties, they took turns humping a 28-pound mine detector. With its headphones and big sensing plate, the equipment was a stress on the lower back and shoulders, awkward to handle, often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth, but they carried it anyway, partly for safety, partly for the illusion of safety.
On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds and ends. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene. Lee Strunk carried his slingshot; ammo, he claimed, would never be a problem. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&M's candy. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. They all carried ghosts. When dark came, they would move out single file across the meadows and paddies to their ambush coordinates, where they would quietly set up the Claymores and lie down and spend the night waiting.
Other missions were more complicated and required special equipment. In mid-April, it was their mission to search out and destroy the elaborate tunnel complexes in the Than Khe area south of Chu Lai. To blow the tunnels, they carried one-pound blocks of pentrite high explosives, four blocks to a man, 68 pounds in all. They carried wiring, detonators, and battery-powered clackers. Dave Jensen carried earplugs. Most often, before blowing the tunnels, they were ordered by higher command to search them, which was considered bad news, but by and large they just shrugged and carried out orders. Because he was a big man, Henry Dobbins was excused from tunnel duty. The others would draw numbers. Before Lavender died there were 17 men in the platoon, and whoever drew the number 17 would strip off his gear and crawl in headfirst with a flashlight and Lieutenant Cross's .45-caliber pistol. The rest of them would fan out as security. They would sit down or kneel, not facing the hole, listening to the ground beneath them, imagining cobwebs and ghosts, whatever was down there—the tunnel walls squeezing in—how the flashlight seemed impossibly heavy in the hand and how it was tunnel vision in the very strictest sense, compression in all ways, even time, and how you had to wiggle in—ass and elbows—a swallowed-up feeling—and how you found yourself worrying about odd things: Will your flashlight go dead? Do rats carry rabies? If you screamed, how far would the sound carry? Would your buddies hear it? Would they have the courage to drag you out? In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer.
On April 16, when Lee Strunk drew the number 17, he laughed and muttered something and went down quickly. The morning was hot and very still. Not good, Kiowa said. He looked at the tunnel opening, then out across a dry paddy toward the village of Than Khe. Nothing moved. No clouds or birds or people. As they waited, the men smoked and drank Kool-Aid, not talking much, feeling sympathy for Lee Strunk but also feeling the luck of the draw. You win some, you lose some, said Mitchell Sanders, and sometimes you settle for a rain check. It was a tired line and no one laughed.
Henry Dobbins ate a tropical chocolate bar. Ted Lavender popped a tranquilizer and went off to pee.
After five minutes, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross moved to the tunnel, leaned down, and examined the darkness. Trouble, he thought—a cave-in maybe. And then suddenly, without willing it, he was thinking about Martha. The stresses and fractures, the quick collapse, the two of them buried alive under all that weight. Dense, crushing love. Kneeling, watching the hole, he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but his love was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered. He wanted her to be a virgin and not a virgin, all at once. He wanted to know her. Intimate secrets: Why poetry? Why so sad? Why that grayness in her eyes? Why so alone? Not lonely, just alone—riding her bike across campus or sitting off by herself in the cafeteria—even dancing, she danced alone—and it was the aloneness that filled him with love. He remembered telling her that one evening. How she nodded and looked away. And how, later, when he kissed her, she received the kiss without returning it, her eyes wide open, not afraid, not a virgin's eyes, just flat and uninvolved.
Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressed together, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue. He was smiling. Vaguely, he was aware of how quiet the day was, the sullen paddies, yet he could not bring himself to worry about matters of security. He was beyond that. He was just a kid at war, in love. He was twenty-four years old. He couldn't help it.
A few moments later Lee Strunk crawled out of the tunnel. He came up grinning, filthy but alive. Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyes while the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about rising from the dead.
Worms, Rat Kiley said. Right out of the grave. Fuckin' zombie.
The men laughed. They all felt great relief.
Spook city, said Mitchell Sanders.
Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. He lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was a swollen black bruise under his left eye.
The cheekbone was gone. Oh shit, Rat Kiley said, the guy's dead. The guy's dead, he kept saying, which seemed profound—the guy's dead. I mean really.
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit's foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They'd found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.
You want my opinion, Mitchell Sanders said, there's a definite moral here.
He put his hand on the dead boy's wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa's hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.
Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.
You know. Moral.
Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy's head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It's like with that old TV show—Paladin. Have gun, will travel.
Henry Dobbins thought about it.
Yeah, well, he finally said. I don't see no moral.
There it Is, man.
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous. In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters—the resources were stunning—sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter—it was the great American war chest—the fruits of science, the smokestacks, the canneries, the arsenals at Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat—they carried like freight trains; they carried it on their backs and shoulders—and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.
After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.
He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed 5 pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth.
He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.
All he could do was dig. He used his entrenching tool like an ax, slashing, feeling both love and hate, and then later, when it was full dark, he sat at the bottom of his foxhole and wept. It went on for a long while. In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real, and because she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, a poet and a virgin and uninvolved, and because he realized she did not love him and never would.
Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. I swear to God—boom, down. Not a word.
I've heard this, said Norman Bowker.
A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping.
All right, fine. That's enough.
Yeah, but you had to see it, the guy just—
I heard, man. Cement. So why not shut the fuck up?
Kiowa shook his head sadly and glanced over at the hole where Lieutenant Jimmy Cross sat watching the night. The air was thick and wet. A warm dense fog had settled over the paddies and there was the stillness that precedes rain.
After a time Kiowa sighed.
One thing for sure, he said. The lieutenant's in some deep hurt. I mean that crying jag—the way he was carrying on—it wasn't fake or anything, it was real heavy-duty hurt. The man cares.
Sure, Norman Bowker said.
Say what you want, the man does care.
We all got problems.
No, I guess not, Bowker said. Do me a favor, though.
That's a smart Indian. Shut up.
Shrugging, Kiowa pulled off his boots. He wanted to say more, just to lighten up his sleep, but instead he opened his New Testament and arranged it beneath his head as a pillow. The fog made things seem hollow and unattached. He tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprise. It seemed unchristian. He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn't there and he couldn't make it happen. Mostly he felt pleased to be alive. He liked the smell of the New Testament under his cheek, the leather and ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were. He liked hearing the sounds of night. Even his fatigue, it felt fine, the stiff muscles and the prickly awareness of his own body, a floating feeling. He enjoyed not being dead. Lying there, Kiowa admired Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's capacity for grief. He wanted to share the man's pain, he wanted to care as Jimmy Cross cared. And yet when he closed his eyes, all he could think was Boom-down, and all he could feel was the pleasure of having his boots off and the fog curling in around him and the damp soil and the Bible smells and the plush comfort of night.
After a moment Norman Bowker sat up in the dark.
What the hell, he said. You want to talk, talk. Tell it to me.
No, man, go on. One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian.
For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them. Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slow motion, frame by frame, the world would take on the old logic—absolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was the burden of being alive. Awkwardly, the men would reassemble themselves, first in private, then in groups, becoming soldiers again. They would repair the leaks in their eyes. They would check for casualties, call in dustoffs, light cigarettes, try to smile, clear their throats and spit and begin cleaning their weapons. After a time someone would shake his head and say, No lie, I almost shit my pants, and someone else would laugh, which meant it was bad, yes, but the guy had obviously not shit his pants, it wasn't that bad, and in any case nobody would ever do such a thing and then go ahead and talk about it. They would squint into the dense, oppressive sunlight. For a few moments, perhaps, they would fall silent, lighting a joint and tracking its passage from man to man, inhaling, holding in the humiliation. Scary stuff, one of them might say. But then someone else would grin or flick his eyebrows and say, Roger-dodger, almost cut me a new asshole, almost.
There were numerous such poses. Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it.
They found jokes to tell.
They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they'd say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn't cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn't quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talked grunt lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender's supply of tranquilizers, how the poor guy didn't feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was.
There's a moral here, said Mitchell Sanders.
They were waiting for Lavender's chopper, smoking the dead man's dope.
The moral's pretty obvious, Sanders said, and winked. Stay away from drugs. No joke, they'll ruin your day every time.
Cute, said Henry Dobbins.
Mind blower, get it? Talk about wiggy. Nothing left, just blood and brains.
They made themselves laugh.
There it is, they'd say. Over and over—there it is, my friend, there it is—as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going, there it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because Oh yeah, man, you can't change what can't be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking well is.
They were tough.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.
By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure. They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers. Pussies, they'd say. Candy-asses. It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace of envy or awe, but even so the image played itself out behind their eyes.
They imagined the muzzle against flesh. So easy: squeeze the trigger and blow away a toe. They imagined it. They imagined the quick, sweet pain, then the evacuation to Japan, then a hospital with warm beds and cute geisha nurses.
And they dreamed of freedom birds.
At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. Gone! they yelled. And then velocity—wings and engines—a smiling stewardess—but it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons and high screeching. They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It's over, I'm gone!—they were naked, they were light and free—it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification and global entanglements—Sin loi! they yelled. I'm sorry, motherfuckers, but I'm out of it, I'm goofed, I'm on a space cruise, I'm gone!—and it was a restful, unencumbered sensation, just riding the light waves, sailing that big silver freedom bird over the mountains and oceans, over America, over the farms and great sleeping cities and cemeteries and highways and the golden arches of McDonald's, it was flight, a kind of fleeing, a kind of falling, falling higher and higher, spinning off the edge of the earth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where there were no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing—Gone! they screamed. I'm sorry but I'm gone!—and so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.
On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha's letters. Then he burned the two photographs. There was a steady rain falling, which made it difficult, but he used heat tabs and Sterno to build a small fire, screening it with his body, holding the photographs over the tight blue flame with the tips of his fingers.
He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too, but mostly just stupid.
Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.
Besides, the letters were in his head. And even now, without photographs, Lieutenant Cross could see Martha playing volleyball in her white gym shorts and yellow T-shirt. He could see her moving in the rain.
When the fire died out, Lieutenant Cross pulled his poncho over his shoulders and ate breakfast from a can.
There was no great mystery, he decided.
In those burned letters Martha had never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. She wasn't involved. She signed the letters Love, but it wasn't love, and all the fine lines and technicalities did not matter. Virginity was no longer an issue. He hated her. Yes, he did. He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love.
The morning came up wet and blurry. Everything seemed part of everything else, the fog and Martha and the deepening rain.
He was a soldier, after all.
Half smiling, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross took out his maps. He shook his head hard, as if to clear it, then bent forward and began planning the day's march. In ten minutes, or maybe twenty, he would rouse the men and they would pack up and head west, where the maps showed the country to be green and inviting. They would do what they had always done. The rain might add some weight, but otherwise it would be one more day layered upon all the other days.
He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her.
No more fantasies, he told himself.
Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead.
Briefly, in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha's gray eyes gazing back at him. He understood.
It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.
He almost nodded at her, but didn't.
Instead he went back to his maps. He was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence. It wouldn't help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on he would comport himself as an officer. He would dispose of his good-luck pebble. Swallow it, maybe, or use Lee Strunk's slingshot, or just drop it along the trail. On the march he would impose strict field discipline. He would be careful to send out flank security, to prevent straggling or bunching up, to keep his troops moving at the proper pace and at the proper interval. He would insist on clean weapons. He would confiscate the remainder of Lavender's dope. Later in the day, perhaps, he would call the men together and speak to them plainly. He would accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender. He would be a man about it. He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, and he would issue the new SOPs in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, a lieutenant's voice, leaving no room for argument or discussion. Commencing immediately, he'd tell them, they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of march. They would police up their acts. They would get their shit together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order.
He would not tolerate laxity. He would show strength, distancing himself.
Among the men there would be grumbling, of course, and maybe worse, because their days would seem longer and their loads heavier, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. He would dispense with love; it was not now a factor. And if anyone quarreled or complained, he would simply tighten his lips and arrange his shoulders in the correct command posture. He might give a curt little nod. Or he might not. He might just shrug and say, Carry on, then they would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward the villages west of Than Khe.
|Posted by JH Benigni on October 5, 2014 at 8:15 AM||comments (0)|
Hills Like White Elephants
By Ernest Hemingway
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this siode there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
'What should we drink?' the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
'It's pretty hot,' the man said.
'Let's drink beer.'
'Dos cervezas,' the man said into the curtain.
'Big ones?' a woman asked from the doorway.
'Yes. Two big ones.'
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
'They look like white elephants,' she said.
'I've never seen one,' the man drank his beer.
'No, you wouldn't have.'
'I might have,' the man said. 'Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything.'
The girl looked at the bead curtain. 'They've painted something on it,' she said. 'What does it say?'
'Anis del Toro. It's a drink.'
'Could we try it?'
The man called 'Listen' through the curtain. The woman came out from the bar.
'Four reales.' 'We want two Anis del Toro.'
'Do you want it with water?'
'I don't know,' the girl said. 'Is it good with water?'
'It's all right.'
'You want them with water?' asked the woman.
'Yes, with water.'
'It tastes like liquorice,' the girl said and put the glass down.
'That's the way with everything.'
'Yes,' said the girl. 'Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe.'
'Oh, cut it out.'
'You started it,' the girl said. 'I was being amused. I was having a fine time.'
'Well, let's try and have a fine time.'
'All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn't that bright?'
'That was bright.'
'I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it - look at things and try new drinks?'
'I guess so.'
The girl looked across at the hills.
'They're lovely hills,' she said. 'They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the colouring of their skin through the trees.'
'Should we have another drink?'
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
'The beer's nice and cool,' the man said.
'It's lovely,' the girl said.
'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.'
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
'I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.'
The girl did not say anything.
'I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural.'
'Then what will we do afterwards?'
'We'll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.'
'What makes you think so?'
'That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.'
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
'And you think then we'll be all right and be happy.'
'I know we will. Yon don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it.'
'So have I,' said the girl. 'And afterwards they were all so happy.'
'Well,' the man said, 'if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple.'
'And you really want to?'
'I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to.'
'And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?'
'I love you now. You know I love you.'
'I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?'
'I'll love it. I love it now but I just can't think about it. You know how I get when I worry.'
'If I do it you won't ever worry?'
'I won't worry about that because it's perfectly simple.'
'Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me.'
'What do you mean?'
'I don't care about me.'
'Well, I care about you.'
'Oh, yes. But I don't care about me. And I'll do it and then everything will be fine.'
'I don't want you to do it if you feel that way.'
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
'And we could have all this,' she said. 'And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'
'What did you say?'
'I said we could have everything.'
'No, we can't.'
'We can have the whole world.'
'No, we can't.'
'We can go everywhere.'
'No, we can't. It isn't ours any more.'
'No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back.'
'But they haven't taken it away.'
'We'll wait and see.'
'Come on back in the shade,' he said. 'You mustn't feel that way.'
'I don't feel any way,' the girl said. 'I just know things.'
'I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to do -'
'Nor that isn't good for me,' she said. 'I know. Could we have another beer?'
'All right. But you've got to realize - '
'I realize,' the girl said. 'Can't we maybe stop talking?'
They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.
'You've got to realize,' he said, ' that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.'
'Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along.'
'Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want anyone else. And I know it's perfectly simple.'
'Yes, you know it's perfectly simple.'
'It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it.'
'Would you do something for me now?'
'I'd do anything for you.'
'Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?'
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
'But I don't want you to,' he said, 'I don't care anything about it.'
'I'll scream,' the girl siad.
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. 'The train comes in five minutes,' she said.
'What did she say?' asked the girl.
'That the train is coming in five minutes.'
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
'I'd better take the bags over to the other side of the station,' the man said. She smiled at him.
'All right. Then come back and we'll finish the beer.'
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
'Do you feel better?' he asked.
'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.'
|Posted by JH Benigni on September 25, 2014 at 3:10 PM||comments (0)|
Fiction May 28, 2007 Issue
by George Saunders
Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc. etc., and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc. etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!
But no. When she, a third time, said, “Wow, guys, check that out,” Abbie said, “O.K., Mom, we get it, it’s corn,” and Josh said, “Not now, Mom, I’m Leavening my Loaves,” which was fine with her; she had no problem with that, Noble Baker being preferable to Bra Stuffer, the game he’d asked for.
Well, who could say? Maybe they didn’t even have any mythical vignettes in their heads. Or maybe the mythical vignettes they had in their heads were totally different from the ones she had in her head. Which was the beauty of it, because, after all, they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.
Still, wow, that cornfield was such a classic.
“Whenever I see a field like that, guys?” she said. “I somehow think of a haunted house!”
“Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!” Josh shouted. “You nimrod machine! I chose that!”
Speaking of Halloween, she remembered last year, when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that! Oh, family laughter was golden; she’d had none of that in her childhood, Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed. If Mom and Dad’s cart had tipped, Dad would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick, distancing herself from Dad, while she, Marie, would have nervously taken that horrid plastic Army man she’d named Brady into her mouth.
Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his GameBoy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, “Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?” Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.
Hence this Family Mission. And as far as Robert? Oh, God bless Robert! There was a man. He would have no problem whatsoever with this Family Mission. She loved the way he had of saying “Ho HO!” whenever she brought home something new and unexpected.
“Ho HO!” Robert had said, coming home to find the iguana. “Ho HO!” he had said, coming home to find the ferret trying to get into the iguana cage. “We appear to be the happy operators of a menagerie!”
She loved him for his playfulness—you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say “Ho HO!” and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger.
In the back seat, Josh made the git-git-git sound he always made when his Baker was in Baking Mode, trying to get his Loaves into the oven while fighting off various Hungry Denizens, such as a Fox with a distended stomach; such as a fey Robin that would improbably carry the Loaf away, speared on its beak, whenever it had succeeded in dropping a Clonking Rock on your Baker—all of which Marie had learned over the summer by studying the Noble Baker manual while Josh was asleep.
And it had helped, it really had. Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing and said, like, “Wow, honey, I didn’t know you could do Pumpernickel,” or “Sweetie, try Serrated Blade, it cuts quicker. Try it while doing Latch the Window,” he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately, and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses.
So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, “I hardly consider you college material.” At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.
Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodelled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.
This time would be different, she was sure of it. The kids would care for this pet themselves, since a puppy wasn’t scaly and didn’t bite. (“Ho HO!” Robert had said the first time the iguana bit him. “I see you have an opinion on the matter!”)
Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good and she had at last found her place in it, “Ho HO, ho HO!”
Callie pulled back the blind.
Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.
There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world. From the three holes in her wood fence she’d been able to see Exxon (Hole One) and Accident Corner (Hole Two), and Hole Three was actually two holes that if you lined them up right your eyes would do this weird crossing thing and you could play Oh My God I Am So High by staggering away with your eyes crossed, going “Peace, man, peace.”
When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed. Once they found him way over on Testament. And that was across I-90. How had he crossed I-90? She knew how. Darted. That’s how he crossed streets. Once a total stranger called them from Hightown Plaza. Even Dr. Brile had said it: “Callie, this boy is going to end up dead if you don’t get this under control. Is he taking the medication?”
Well, sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t. The meds made him grind his teeth and his fist would suddenly pound down. He’d broken plates that way, and once a glass tabletop and got four stitches in his wrist.
Today he didn’t need the medication because he was safe in the yard, because she’d fixed it so perfect.
He was out there practicing pitching by filling his Yankees helmet with pebbles and winging them at the tree.
He looked up and saw her and did the thing where he blew a kiss.
Sweet little man.
Now all she had to worry about was the pup. She hoped the lady who’d called would actually show up. It was a nice pup. White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it. And if she took it Jimmy was off the hook. He’d hated doing it that time with the kittens. But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs. Plus, he’d been raised on a farm, or near a farm anyways, and anybody raised on a farm knew that you had to do what you had to do in terms of sick animals or extra animals—the pup being not sick, just extra.
That time with the kittens, Jessi and Mollie had called him a murderer, getting Bo all worked up, and Jimmy had yelled, “Look, you kids, I was raised on a farm and you got to do what you got to do!” Then he’d cried in bed, saying how the kittens had mewed in the bag all the way to the pond, and how he wished he’d never been raised on a farm, and she’d almost said, “You mean near a farm” (his dad had run a car wash outside Cortland), but sometimes when she got too smart-assed he would do this hard pinching thing on her arm while waltzing her around the bedroom, as if the place where he was pinching were like her handle, going, “I’m not sure I totally heard what you just said to me.”
So, that time after the kittens, she’d only said, “Oh, honey, you did what you had to do.”
And he’d said, “I guess I did, but it’s sure not easy raising kids the right way.”
And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids “Hooked on Phonics,” why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d got to wrestling around and (she had no idea why she remembered this) he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.
Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.
So what she would love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.
Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.
Outside, Bo hopped to his feet, suddenly curious, because (here we go) the lady who’d called had just pulled up?
Yep, and in a nice car, too, which meant too bad she’d put “Cheap” in the ad.
Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!,” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.
Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was dragging its rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, a moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was was deeply sad.
Please do not touch anything, please do not touch, she said to Josh and Abbie, but just in her head, wanting to give the children a chance to observe her being democratic and accepting, and afterward they could all wash up at the half-remodelled McDonald’s, as long as they just please please kept their hands out of their mouths, and God forbid they should rub their eyes.
The phone rang, and the lady of the house plodded into the kitchen, placing the daintily held, paper-towel-wrapped turds on the counter.
“Mommy, I want it,” Abbie said.
“I will definitely walk him like twice a day,” Josh said.
“Don’t say ‘like,’ ” Marie said.
“I will definitely walk him twice a day,” Josh said.
O.K., then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain’t hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent: My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .
Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these—
Marie stepped to the window and, anthropologically pulling the blind aside, was shocked, so shocked that she dropped the blind and shook her head, as if trying to wake herself, shocked to see a young boy, just a few years younger than Josh, harnessed and chained to a tree, via some sort of doohickey by which—she pulled the blind back again, sure she could not have seen what she thought she had—
When the boy ran, the chain spooled out. He was running now, looking back at her, showing off. When he reached the end of the chain, it jerked and he dropped as if shot.
He rose to a sitting position, railed against the chain, whipped it back and forth, crawled to a bowl of water, and, lifting it to his lips, took a drink: a drink from a dog’s bowl.
Josh joined her at the window. She let him look. He should know that the world was not all lessons and iguanas and Nintendo. It was also this muddy simple boy tethered like an animal.
She remembered coming out of the closet to find her mother’s scattered lingerie and the ditchdigger’s metal hanger full of orange flags. She remembered waiting outside the junior high in the bitter cold, the snow falling harder, as she counted over and over to two hundred, promising herself each time that when she reached two hundred she would begin the long walk back—
God, she would have killed for just one righteous adult to confront her mother, shake her, and say, “You idiot, this is your child, your child you’re—”
“So what were you guys thinking of naming him?” the woman said, coming out of the kitchen.
The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick.
“I’m afraid we won’t be taking him after all,” Marie said coldly.
Such an uproar from Abbie! But Josh—she would have to praise him later, maybe buy him the Italian Loaves Expansion Pak—hissed something to Abbie, and then they were moving out through the trashed kitchen (past some kind of crankshaft on a cookie sheet, past a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint) while the lady of the house scuttled after them, saying, wait, wait, they could have it for free, please take it—she really wanted them to have it.
No, Marie said, it would not be possible for them to take it at this time, her feeling being that one really shouldn’t possess something if one wasn’t up to properly caring for it.
“Oh,” the woman said, slumping in the doorway, the scrambling pup on one shoulder.
Out in the Lexus, Abbie began to cry softly, saying, “Really, that was the perfect pup for me.”
And it was a nice pup, but Marie was not going to contribute to a situation like this in even the smallest way.
Simply was not going to do it.
The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look, Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.
But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.
Callie shouted, “Bo, back in a sec!,” and, swiping the corn out of the way with her non-pup arm, walked until there was nothing but corn and sky.
It was so small it didn’t move when she set it down, just sniffed and tumped over.
Well, what did it matter, drowned in a bag or starved in the corn? This way Jimmy wouldn’t have to do it. He had enough to worry about. The boy she’d first met with hair to his waist was now this old man shrunk with worry. As far as the money, she had sixty hidden away. She’d give him twenty of that and go, “The people who bought the pup were super-nice.”
Don’t look back, don’t look back, she said in her head as she raced away through the corn.
Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that, and she also knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots. Ha ha! She wasn’t stupid. She just made bad choices. She remembered Sister Carol saying, “Callie, you are bright enough but you incline toward that which does not benefit you.” Yep, well, Sister, you got that right, she said to the nun in her mind. But what the hell. What the heck. When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology. She was never going to be really slim. But Jimmy liked her the way she was, and she liked him the way he was, which maybe that’s what love was, liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get even better.
Like right now she was helping Jimmy by making his life easier by killing something so he—no. All she was doing was walking, walking away from—
Pushing the words killing puppy out of her head, she put in her head the words beautiful sunny day wow I’m loving this beautiful sunny day so much—
What had she just said? That had been good. Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get better.
Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?
She did. ♦
|Posted by JH Benigni on September 25, 2014 at 3:00 PM||comments (0)|
Fiction September 15, 2014 Issue: The New Yorker
The Dinosaurs on Other Planets
By Danielle McLaughlin
From the ditch behind the house, Kate could see her husband up at the old forestry hut, where mottled scrubland gave way to dense lines of trees. “Colman!” she called, but he didn’t hear. She watched him swing the axe in a clean arc and thought that from this distance he could be any age. Lately, she’d found herself wondering what he’d been like as a very young man, a man of twenty. She hadn’t known him then. He had already turned forty when they met.
It was early April, the fields and ditches coming green again after winter. Grass verges crept outward, thickening the arteries of narrow lanes. “There’s nothing wrong,” she shouted when she was still some yards off. He was in his shirtsleeves, his coat discarded on the grass beside him. “Emer rang from London. She’s coming home.”
He put down the axe. “Home for a visit, or home for good?” He had dismantled the front of the hut and one of the side walls. On the floor inside, if floor was the word, she saw empty beer cans, blankets, a ball of blackened tinfoil.
“Just for a few days. A friend from college has an exhibition. I wasn’t given much detail. You know Emer.”
“Yes,” he said, and frowned. “When is she arriving?”
“Tomorrow evening, and she’s bringing Oisín.”
“Tomorrow? And she’s only after ringing now?”
“It’ll be good to have them stay. Oisín has started school since we last saw him.”
She waited to see if he might mention the room, but he picked up the axe, as if impatient to get back to work.
“What will we do if the Forestry Service come round?” she said.
“They haven’t come round this past year. They don’t come round when we ring about the drinking or the fires.” He swung the axe at a timber beam supporting what was left of the roof. There was a loud splintering but the beam stood firm, and he drew back the axe, prepared to strike again.
She turned and walked toward the house. The Dennehys, their nearest neighbors, had earlier that week sown maize, and a crow hung from a pole, strung up by a piece of twine. It lifted in the wind as she walked past, coming to rest again a few feet from the ground, above the height of foxes. When they first moved here, she hadn’t understood that the crows were real, shot specially for the purpose, and had asked a discomfited Mrs. Dennehy what cloth she sewed them from.
After supper, she took the duvet cover with the blue Teddy bears from the hot press and spread it out on the kitchen table. There were matching pillowcases and a yellow pajama holder in the shape of a rabbit. Colman was on the other side of the kitchen, making a mug of Bovril. “What do you think?” she said.
“You couldn’t possibly see from that distance,” she said.
“It’s the same one as before, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “But it’s a while since they visited. I’m wondering, is it a bit babyish?”
“You’re not going to find another between now and tomorrow,” he said, and she felt the flutter in her eyelid start up, the one that usually preceded a headache. She had hoped the sight of the duvet cover might prompt an offer to move his stuff, or at least the suggestion that she could move it, but he just drank his Bovril and rinsed the mug, setting it upside down on the draining board. “Good night,” he said, and went upstairs.
Next morning, she started with his suits. She waited until he’d gone outside, then carried them from John’s old room to their bedroom, across the landing. The wardrobe there had once held everything, but now when she pushed her coats and dresses along the rail they resisted, swung back at her, jostling and shouldering, as if they’d been breeding and fattening this past year. For an hour she went back and forth between the rooms with clothes, shoes, books. The winter before last, Colman had brought the lathe in from the shed and set it up in their son’s old bedroom. It had been a gift from the staff at the Co-op on his retirement as manager. He would turn wood late into the night, and often, when she put her head around the door in the morning, she would find him, still in his clothes, asleep on John’s old single bed. There began then the gradual migration of his belongings. He appeared to have lost interest in the lathe—he no longer presented her with lamps or bowls—but for the better part of a year he had not slept in their bedroom at all.
Colman had allowed junk to accumulate—magazines, spent batteries, a cracked mug on the windowsill. She got a sack and went around the room, picking things up. The lathe and wood-turning tools—chisels, gouges, knives—were on a desk in the corner, and she packed them away in a box. She put aside Colman’s pajamas and dressed the bed with fresh linen, the blue Teddy bears jolly on the duvet, the rabbit propped on a chair alongside. Standing back to admire it, she noticed Colman in the doorway. He had his hands on his hips and was staring at the sack.
“I haven’t thrown anything out,” she said.
“Why can’t the child sleep in the other room?” He went over to the sack, dipped a hand in, and took out a battery.
“Emer’s room? Because Emer will be sleeping there.”
“Can’t he sleep there, too?”
She watched him drop the battery back into the sack and root around, a look of expectancy on his face, like a boy playing lucky dip. He brought out the cracked mug, polished it on his trousers, and then, to her exasperation, put it back on the windowsill.
“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby anymore. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about . . . ” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pajamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, headed across the landing. Later, she found his pajamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.
Colman was on the phone in the hall when the car pulled up in front of the house. Kate hurried out and was surprised to see a man in the driver’s seat. Emer was in the passenger seat, her hair blacker and shorter than Kate remembered. “Hi, Mam,” she said, getting out and kissing her mother. She wore a red tunic, the bodice laced up with ribbon like a folk costume, and black trousers tucked into red boots. She opened the back door of the car and the child jumped out. He was small for six, pale and sandy-haired. “Say hi to your granny,” Emer said, and she pushed him forward.
Kate felt tears coming, and she hugged the child close and shut her eyes so as not to confuse him. “Goodness,” she said, stepping back to get a better look, “you’re getting more and more like your Uncle John.” The boy stared at her blankly. She ruffled his hair. “You wouldn’t remember him,” she said. “He lives in Japan now. You were very small when you met him, just a baby.”
The driver’s door opened and the man got out. He was slight and sallow-skinned, in a navy sports jacket and round, dark-rimmed glasses. One foot dragged a little as he came round the side of the car, plowing a shallow furrow in the gravel. Kate had been harboring a hope that he was the driver, that any moment Emer would take out her purse and pay him, but he put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and she watched Emer turn her head to nuzzle his fingers. He was not quite twice Emer’s age, but he was close—late forties, she guessed. Kate waited for Emer to make the introductions, but she had turned her attention to Oisín, who was struggling with the zip of his hoodie. “Pavel,” the man said, and, stepping forward, he shook her hand. Then he opened the boot and took out two suitcases.
“I’ll give you a hand with those,” Colman said, appearing at the front door. He wrested both cases from Pavel and carried them into the house, striding halfway down the hall before coming to a halt. He put the suitcases down beside the telephone table and stood with his hands in his pockets. The others stopped, too, forming a tentative circle at the bottom of the stairs.
“Oisín,” Emer said, “say hello to your grandad. He’s going to take you hunting in the forest.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “Bears?” he said.
“No bears,” Colman said, “but we might get a fox or two.”
Pavel shuffled his feet on the carpet. “Oh, Daddy,” Emer said, as if she’d just remembered, “this is Pavel.” Pavel held out a hand, and Colman delayed for a second before taking it. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, and he lifted the cases again. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”
Kate remained in the hall and watched them climb the stairs, Colman in front, the others following behind. Pavel was new, she thought; the child was shy with him, sticking close to his mother, one hand clutching her tunic. Colman set a suitcase down outside Emer’s old bedroom. He pushed open the door, and from the foot of the stairs Kate watched her daughter and grandson disappear into the garish, cluttered room, its walls hung with canvases Emer had painted during her goth phase. Colman carried the other suitcase to John’s old room. “And this is your room,” she heard him say to Pavel as she went into the kitchen to make tea.
“How long is he on the scene?” Colman said when he came back downstairs.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “I don’t know any more than you do.”
He sat at the table, drumming his fingers on the oilcloth. “What class of a name is Pavel, anyway?” he said. “Is it Eastern European or what? Is it Lithuanian? What is it?”
Buy or license »
She debated taking out the china, but, deciding it was old-fashioned, went for the pottery mugs instead. “I expect we’ll hear later,” she said, arranging biscuits on a plate.
“She shouldn’t have landed him in on top of us like this, with no warning.”
“No,” Kate said, “she shouldn’t have.”
She found the plastic beaker she’d bought for Oisín’s last visit two Christmases ago. It was decorated with puffy-chested robins and snowflakes. She polished it with a tea towel and put it on the table. “Every time I see Oisín,” she said, “he reminds me of John. Even when he was a baby in his pram he looked like John. I must get down the photo album and show Emer.”
Colman wasn’t listening. “Are we supposed to ask about the other fellow at all now?” he said. “Or are we supposed to say nothing?”
Her eyelid was fluttering so fiercely she had to press her palm flat against her eye in an effort to still it. “If you mean Oisín’s father,” she said, “don’t mention him, unless Emer mentions him first.” She took her hand away from her face and saw her grandson standing in the doorway. “Oisín!” she said, and she went over, laid a hand on his soft, fine hair. “Come and have a biscuit.” She offered the plate and watched him survey the contents, his fingers hovering above the biscuits but not quite touching. He finally selected a chocolate one shaped like a star. He took a small, careful bite and chewed slowly, eying her the way he had eyed the biscuits, making an assessment. She smiled. “Why don’t you sit here and tell us all about the airplane.” She pulled out two chairs, one for the child, one for herself, but the boy went around to the other side of the table and sat next to Colman.
He had finished the biscuit, and Colman pushed the plate closer to him. “Have another,” he said. The boy chose again, more quickly this time. “Tell me,” Colman said, “where’s Pavel from?”
“What does he do?”
The boy shrugged, took another bite of biscuit.
“Colman,” Kate said sharply, “would you see if there’s some lemonade in the fridge?”
He looked at her, a look both guilty and defiant, but got up without saying anything and fetched the lemonade.
They heard footsteps on the stairs, and laughter, and Emer came into the kitchen with Pavel in tow. Opening the fridge, she took out a litre of milk and drank straight from the carton. She wiped her mouth with her hand and put the milk back. Pavel nodded to Kate and Colman—an easy, relaxed nod—but didn’t join them at the table. Instead, he went over to a window. “They’re like gods, aren’t they?” he said, pointing to the three wind turbines rotating slowly on the mountain. “I feel I should take them a few dead chickens, kill a goat or something.”
“Those things have caused no end of trouble,” Kate said. “Our neighbors say they can’t sleep at night with the noise of the blades.”
“Perhaps not enough goats?” he said.
She smiled and was about to offer him tea, but Emer linked his arm. “We’re going to the pub,” she said. “Just for the one. We won’t be long.” She blew Oisín a kiss. “Be good for your granny and grandad.”
The boy sat quietly at the table, working his way through the biscuits. “We could see if there are cartoons on television,” Kate said. “Would you like that?”
Colman glared at her as if she had suggested sending the child down a mine. “Television will rot his brain,” he said. He leaned in to the boy. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you and I go hunt those foxes?”
The boy was already climbing down off his chair, the biscuits and lemonade forgotten. “What will we do with the foxes when we catch them?” he asked.
“We’ll worry about that when it happens,” Colman said. He turned to Kate. “You didn’t want to come, did you?”
“No,” she said, “it’s O.K. I’d better make a start on dinner.” She walked with them to the back porch, watched them go down the garden and scale the ditch at the end. The boy’s hair snagged as he squeezed beneath the barbed wire, and she knew that if she went to the ditch now she would find silky white strands left behind, like the locks of wool left by lambs. Dropping into the field on the other side, they made their way across the scrub, through grass and briars and wild saplings, Colman in front, the boy behind, almost running to keep up. The grass was in the first rush of spring growth. Come summer, it would be higher, higher than the boy’s head and blonder, as it turned, unharvested, to hay.
They reached the pile of timber that used to be the hut, and Colman stopped, bent to take something from the ground. He held it in the air with one hand, gesticulating with the other, then gave it to the boy. Goodness knows what he was showing the child, she thought, what rubbish they were picking up. Whatever the thing was, she saw the boy discard it in the grass, and then they went onward, getting smaller and smaller, until they disappeared into the forest.
An hour later, her husband and grandson returned, clattering into the kitchen. Oisín’s shoes and the hems of his trousers were covered in mud. He was carrying something, cradling it to his chest, and when she went to help him off with his shoes she saw that it was an animal skull. Colman went out to the utility room and rummaged around in the cupboards, knocking over pans and brushes, banging doors. “What are you looking for?” she said. The boy remained in the kitchen, stroking the skull as if it were a kitten. It was yellowy-white and long-nosed, with a broad forehead.
Colman returned with a plastic bucket and a five-gallon drum of bleach. He took the skull from the boy and placed it in the bucket, poured the bleach on top until it reached the rim. “Now,” he said, “that’ll clean up nicely. Leave it a couple of days and you’ll see how white it is.”
“Look,” Oisín said, grabbing Kate’s hand and dragging her over. “We found a dinosaur skull.”
“A sheep, more likely,” his grandfather said. “A sheep that got caught in wire. The dinosaurs were killed by a meteorite millions of years ago.”
Kate peered into the bucket. Little black things, flies or maggots, had already detached themselves from the skull and were floating loose. There was green around the eye sockets, and veins of mud grained deep in the bone.
“What’s a meteorite?” the boy asked.
The front door opened, and they heard Emer and Pavel coming down the hall. “The child doesn’t know what a meteorite is,” Colman said when they entered the kitchen.
Emer rolled her eyes at her mother. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “It smells like a hospital in here,” she said.
Pavel dropped to his haunches beside the bucket. “What’s this?” he said.
“It’s a dinosaur skull,” Oisín said.
“So it is,” Pavel said.
Kate waited for her husband to contradict him, but Colman had settled into an armchair in the corner, holding a newspaper, chest height, in front of him. She looked down at the top of Pavel’s head, noticed how his hair had the faintest suggestion of a curl, how a tuft went its own way at the back. The scent of his shampoo was sharp and sweet and spiced, like an orange pomander. She looked away, out to the garden, and saw that the afternoon was fading. “I’m going to get some herbs,” she said, “before it’s too dark,” and, taking scissors and a basket, she went outside. She cut parsley first, then thyme. Inside the house, someone switched on the lights. She watched figures move about the kitchen, a series of family tableaux framed by the floral-curtained windows: now Colman and Oisín, now Oisín and Emer, sometimes Emer and Pavel. Every so often, she heard a burst of laughter.
Back inside, she found Colman, Oisín, and Pavel gathered around a box on the table, an old cardboard Tayto box from beneath the stairs. Overhead, water rattled through the house’s antiquated pipes: the sound of Emer running a bath. From the box, Colman took some dusty school reports, a metal truck with its front wheels missing, a tin of toy soldiers. “Aha!” he said. “I knew we kept it.” He lifted out a long cylinder of paper and tapped it playfully against the top of Oisín’s head. “I’m going to show you what a meteorite looks like,” he said.
Kate watched as Colman unfurled the paper and laid it flat on the table. It curled back into itself, and he reached for a couple of books from a nearby shelf, positioning them at top and bottom to hold it in place. It was a poster, four feet long and two feet wide. “This here,” Colman said, “is the asteroid belt.” He traced a circular pattern in the middle of the poster, and when he took away his hand his fingertips were gray with dust.
Pavel moved aside to allow Kate a better view. She peered over her husband’s shoulder into a dazzling galaxy of stars and moons and dust. It was dizzying: the unimaginable expanses of space and time, the vast, spinning universe. We are there, she thought, if only we could see ourselves. We are there, and so is John in Japan. The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. She looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No,” Colman said, at exactly the same time that Pavel said, “Very likely.”
The boy turned to Pavel. “Really?”
“I don’t see why not,” Pavel said. “There are millions of other galaxies and billions of other planets. I bet there’s lots of other dinosaurs. Maybe lots of other people, too.”
“Like aliens?” the boy said.
“Yes, aliens, if you want to call them that,” Pavel said, “although they might be very like us.”
“I’ll agree to a pre-nup if you’ll agree to a non-compete clause.”Buy or license »
Colman lifted the books from the edges of the poster, and it rolled back into itself with a slap of dust. He handed it to Oisín, then returned the rest of the things to the box, closed the cardboard flaps. “O.K., sonny,” he said, “let’s put this back under the stairs,” and the boy followed him out of the kitchen, the poster tucked under his arm like a musket.
After dinner that evening, Kate refused all offers of help. She sent everyone to the sitting room to play cards while she took the dishes to the sink. Three red lights shone down from the wind turbines on the mountain, a warning to aircraft. She filled the sink with soapy water and watched the bubbles form psychedelic honeycombs, millions and millions of tiny domes glittering on the dirty plates.
That night, their first sharing a bed in almost a year, Colman undressed in front of her as if she weren’t there. He matter-of-factly removed his shirt and trousers, folded them on a chair, and put on his pajamas. She found herself appraising his body as she might a stranger’s. Here, without the backdrop of forest and mountain, without the axe in his hand, she saw that he was old, saw the way the muscles of his legs had wasted and the gray of his chest hair. But she was not repulsed by any of these things; she simply noted them. She got her nightdress from under her pillow and began to unbutton her blouse. On the third button, she found that she could go no further and went out to the bathroom to undress there. Her figure had not entirely deserted her. Her breasts when she cupped them were shrunken, but she was slim, and her legs, which she’d always been proud of, were still shapely. Thus far, age had not delivered its estrangement of skin from bone: her thighs and stomach were firm, with none of the sagginess, the falling away, that sometimes happened. She had not suffered the collapse that befell other women, rendering them unrecognizable as the girls they had been in their youth, though perhaps that was yet to come, for she was only fifty-two.
When she returned to the bedroom, Colman was in bed reading the newspaper. She peeled back the duvet on her side and got into bed. He glanced in her direction but continued to read. She read a few pages of a novel but couldn’t concentrate.
“I thought I might take the boy fishing tomorrow,” he said.
She put down her book. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she said. “He’s had a busy day today. I was thinking of driving to town, taking him to the cinema.”
“He can go to the cinema in London.”
“We’ll see tomorrow,” she said, and took up her book again.
Colman put away the newspaper and switched off the lamp on his side. He settled his head on the pillow but immediately sat up again, plumping the pillow, turning it over, until he had it to his liking. She switched off her lamp, lay there in the dark, careful where she placed her legs, her arms, readjusting to the space available to her. A door opened and closed, she heard footsteps on the landing, then another door, opening, closing. After a while she heard small, muffled noises, then a repetitive thudding, a headboard against a wall. The sound would be heard, too, in Emer’s old bedroom, where the boy was now alone. She thought of him waking in the night among those peculiar paintings, dozens of ravens with elongated necks, strange hybrid creatures, half bird, half human. She imagined specks of paint coming loose, falling on the boy in a black ash as he slept. Colman was curled away from her, facing the wall. She looked at him as the thudding grew louder. He was quiet, so quiet she could barely discern the sound of his breathing, and she knew that he was awake, for throughout their marriage he had always been a noisy sleeper.
As soon as she reached the bottom of the stairs the next morning, she knew she was not the first up. It was as if someone had cut through the air before her, had broken the invisible membrane that formed during the night. From the utility room she heard the boy’s high, excited babble. He was in his pajamas, crouched beside the bucket of bleach, and beside him, in jeans and a shirt, his hair still wet from the shower, was Pavel. Oisín pointed at the bucket. In the pool of an eye socket something was floating, something small and white and chubby.
Kate bent to take a look. Her arm brushed against Pavel’s shoulder, but he did not move away or shift position, and they remained like that, barely touching, staring into the bucket. A film of tiny insects and bits of vegetation lay upon the surface. The white thing was a maggot, its ridged belly bloated. Oisín looked from Pavel to Kate. “Can I have it for a pet?” he said.
“No!” they said in unison, and Kate laughed. She felt her face redden, and she straightened up, took a step back from the bucket. Pavel stood up, too, ran a hand through his wet hair. The boy continued to watch the maggot, mesmerized. He was so close that his breath created ripples, his fringe flopping forward over his face and almost trailing in the bleach. “O.K.,” Kate said. “That’s enough,” and, taking him by the elbow, she lifted him gently to his feet.
“Can I take the skull out?” he asked.
Pavel shrugged and glanced at Kate. He seemed downcast this morning, she thought, quieter in himself. She looked at the skull and at the debris that had floated free of it, and something about it, the emptiness, the lifelessness, repulsed her, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of the boy’s small hands touching it. “No,” she said, “it’s not ready yet. Maybe tomorrow.”
Emer didn’t appear for breakfast, and when finally she arrived downstairs it was clear that there had been a row. She made a mug of coffee and, draping one of her father’s coats around her shoulders, went outside to drink it. She paced up and down past the kitchen window, her phone to her ear, talking loudly. When she came back in, she called from the hall, “Get your coat, Oisín. We’re going in the car.”
Oisín and Pavel were at the table, playing with the contents of the Tayto box. The two-wheeled truck and the soldiers had been commandeered for a war effort. “I thought Oisín was staying with us,” Kate said.
Emer shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “He’s coming with me.”
“I’ll drive you,” Pavel said quietly, getting up from the table.
“No, thank you, I can manage.”
“You’re not used to that car,” he said. “I don’t have to meet your friends. I can drop you off, collect you later.”
“I’d rather walk,” Emer said.
Colman was in his armchair. He had a screwdriver and was taking apart a broken toaster, setting the pieces out on the floor. “Listen to her,” he said, to no one in particular. “The great walker.” He put down the screwdriver, sighed, and stood up. “We’ll go in my car,” he said. He nodded to Oisín—“Come on, sonny” —and without saying more he left the kitchen. The boy abandoned his game and trotted down the hall after his grandfather. Already he had adopted Colman’s walk, a comically exaggerated stride, his hands stuck deep in his pockets. Emer gave her mother a perfunctory kiss and followed them.
After they left, Pavel excused himself, saying he had work to do. “I’m afraid I’m poor company,” he said. He went upstairs, and Kate busied herself with everyday jobs, though she didn’t vacuum, in case it might disturb him. She wondered what he did for a living and imagined him first as an architect, then as an engineer of some sort. She put on her gardening gloves and took the waste outside for composting. The garden was a mess. Winter had left behind broken branches, pinecones, and other storm wreckage: the forest’s creeping advance. She remembered how years ago a man had come selling aerial photographs door to door. He had shown her a photo of their house and, next to it, the forest. She had been astonished to see that, from the air, the forest was a perfect rectangle, all sharp angles and clean lines. Raising the lid of the compost bin, she tipped in the waste. There used to be a bench on the patch of concrete where the bin now stood. In the early years, when the children were at school and Colman at work, she’d often been seized by a need to leave the house and would put on a coat and sit in the garden, reading, as the wind deposited pine needles and bits of twig in her lap. The Dennehys, she knew, had thought her behavior odd, and Mrs. Dennehy, meaning well, had once mentioned the matter to Colman.
Noon passed, and the day edged into early afternoon. She listened for the sound of Pavel moving about the room overhead, but everything was quiet. Eventually, she went upstairs to see if he would like some lunch. She knocked and heard the creak of bed springs, then footsteps crossing the floor. When he opened the door, she saw papers spread across the bed, black-and-white street-scapes with sections hatched in blue ink, and thought, Yes, an architect after all. “You could have used the dining-room table,” she said. “I didn’t think.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I can work anywhere. I’m finished now anyway.”
She had intended to ask if she could bring him up a sandwich, but instead heard herself say, “I’m going for a walk, if you’d like to join me.”
“I’d love to,” he said.
She put on her boots and found a pair for him in the shed. They didn’t climb the ditch but went through the gate and took an old forestry path that skirted the scrub. Passing the pyre of timber that was once the hut, he said, “I saw your husband chopping firewood this morning. He’s remarkably fit for a man of his age.”
“Yes,” she said, “he was always strong.”
“You must have been very young when you married.”
“I was twenty-three,” she said. “Hardly a child bride, but young by today’s reckoning, I suppose.”
They arrived at an opening into the forest. A sign forbidding guns and fires was nailed to a tree, half the letters missing. He hesitated, and she walked on ahead, down a grassy path littered with pine needles. She slowed to allow him to catch up, and they walked side by side, their boots sinking into the ground, soft from recent rain. They stopped at a sack of household waste—nappies, eggshells, foil cartons spilling over the forest floor. “Who would do such a thing?” Pavel said.
Buy or license »
“A local, most likely,” she said. “They come here at night, when they know they won’t be seen.” Pavel tried to gather the rubbish back into the bag, a hopelessly ineffective gesture, like a surgeon attempting to heap intestines back into a ruptured abdomen. When he stood up, his hands were covered in dirt and pine needles. She took a handkerchief from her coat pocket and handed it to him.
“Does it happen a lot?” he asked.
“Only close to the entrance,” she said. “People are lazy.” He had finished with the handkerchief and seemed unsure what to do with it. “I don’t want it back,” she said, and, grinning, he put it in his own pocket.
It was quieter the farther in they went, fewer birds, the occasional rustle of an unseen animal in the undergrowth. He talked about London and about his work. She talked about how they’d moved from the city when Colman got the job at the Co-op, the years when the children were young, John in Japan. She noticed his limp becoming more pronounced and slowed her pace.
“Thanks for going to such trouble with the room,” he said.
“It was no trouble.”
“I was touched by it,” he said, “especially the bear duvet and the rabbit.”
She glanced at him and saw that he was teasing. She laughed.
“She didn’t tell you I was coming, did she?” he said.
“No, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sorry it caused awkwardness,” he said. “I know your husband is annoyed.”
“He’s annoyed with Emer,” she said, “not with you. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
They had arrived at a fallen tree, and, sensing that he was tiring, she sat on the trunk, and he sat beside her. “How long have you known Emer?” she said.
“Not very long.”
She tilted her head back and looked up. Here there was no sky, but there was light, and as it travelled down through the trees it seemed to absorb hues of yellow and green. A colony of toadstools, brown puffballs, sprouted from the grass by her feet. Pavel nudged them with his boot. They released a cloud of pungent spores, and, fascinated, he bent and prodded them with his finger until they released more. He got out his phone and took a photograph.
“I’ve seen Oisín three times in the last four years,” she said. “Emer will take him back to London tomorrow, and I can’t bear it.”
He put the phone away and, reaching out, took her hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t understand why Emer would live anywhere else when she could live here. But then I guess I don’t understand Emer.”
“I’m a stranger to him,” she said. “I’m his grandmother and I’m a stranger. He’ll grow up not knowing who I am.”
“He already knows who you are. He’ll remember.”
“He’ll remember that bloody skull in the bucket,” she said bitterly.
Very softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb. His touch was gentle but inquiring, as if there were something about her that might reveal itself through the skin. She pulled her hand away and got up. Standing with her back to him, she pointed to a dark corridor of trees that ran perpendicular to the main path. “That’s a shortcut,” she said. “It leads down to the road.”
This route was less used, tangled and overgrown, obstructed here and there by trees that leaned in a slant across the path, not quite fallen, resting against other trees. Ferns grew tall and curling, and the moss was inches thick on the tree trunks. In the quiet, she imagined she could hear the spines of leaves snapping as her boots pressed them into the mud. The path brought them to an exit by the main road, and they walked back to the house in silence, arriving just as Colman’s car pulled into the driveway.
They were all back: Colman, Emer, Oisín. Emer’s mood had changed. Now she was full of the frenetic energy that often seized her. She opened the drawers of the cabinet in the sitting room and spread the contents all over the carpet, searching for a catalogue from an old college exhibition. Oisín had a new toy truck that his grandfather had bought him. It was almost identical to the truck from beneath the stairs, except that this one had all its wheels. He sat on the kitchen floor and drove it back and forth over the tiles, making revving noises. Colman was subdued. He made a pot of tea, not his usual kind but the lemon-and-ginger that Kate liked, and they sat together at the table. “How did you get on with Captain Kirk?” he said.
“Fine,” she said.
Emer came in from the sitting room, having found what she was looking for. She poured tea from the pot and stood gazing out the window as she drank it. Pavel was at the end of the garden, taking photographs of the wind turbines. “Know what they remind me of?” Emer said. “Those bumblebees John used to catch in jars. He’d put one end of a stick through their bellies and the other end in the ground, and we’d watch their wings going like crazy.”
“Emer!” Kate said. “They were always dead when he did that.”
Emer turned from the window, gave a sharp little laugh. “I forgot,” she said. “St. John, the Chosen One.” She emptied what was left of her tea down the sink. “Trust me,” she said. “The bees were alive. Or at least they were when he started.”
Oisín got up from the floor and went over to his mother, the new truck in his hand. “If I don’t take my laser gun, can I take this instead?” he said.
“Yes, yes,” Emer said. “Now go see if you can find my lighter in the sitting room, will you?” She made shooing gestures with her hand.
The child stopped where he was, considering the truck. “Or maybe I’ll take the gun and I won’t take my Lego,” he said. “They probably have loads of Lego in Australia.”
“Australia?” Kate said. She looked across the table at Colman, but he was staring into his cup, swirling dregs of tea around the bottom.
Emer sighed. “Sorry, Mam,” she said. “I was going to tell you. It’s not for ages anyway, not until summer.”
In bed that night she began to cry. Colman switched on a lamp and rolled onto his side to face her. “You know what that girl’s like,” he said. “She’s never lasted at anything yet. Australia will be no different.”
“But how do you know?” she said, when she could manage to get the words out. “Maybe they’ll stay there forever.”
She buried her face in his shoulder. The smell of him, the feel of him, the way her body slotted around his, was as she remembered. She climbed onto him so that they lay length to length, and, opening the buttons of his pajamas, she rested her head on the wiry hair of his chest. He patted her back awkwardly through her nightdress as she continued to cry. She kissed him, on his mouth, on his neck, and, undoing the remainder of the buttons, she stroked his stomach. He didn’t respond, but neither did he object, and she slid her hand lower, under the waistband of his pajama bottoms. He stopped patting her back. Taking her gently by the wrist, he removed her hand and placed it by her side. Then he eased himself out from under her and turned away toward the wall.
Her nightdress had slid up around her belly, and she tugged it down over her knees. She edged back across the mattress and lay very still, staring at the ceiling. The house was quiet, with none of the sounds of the previous night. She could hear Colman fumbling at his pajamas, and when she glanced sideways she saw that he was doing up his buttons. He switched off the lamp, and after a while she heard snoring.
She knew that she should try to sleep, too, but couldn’t. Tomorrow, they would return to London: Oisín, Emer, and Pavel. Come summer, her daughter and grandson would leave for Australia. Pavel, she assumed, would not. She thought of Oisín sleeping, and pictured him waking early the next morning, sneaking down to the bucket at first light to get the skull. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she went downstairs in her bare feet.
A lamp on the telephone table, one of Colman’s wooden lamps with a red shade, threw a rose-colored light over the hall. The door of the sitting room was partly open, and she thought she heard something stirring. She went to the door and, in the light filtering in from the hall, saw a shape on the sofa. It was Pavel, banished she presumed by Emer, with a rug over him and using one of the cushions as a pillow.
He sat up and reached for his glasses on the coffee table. He appeared confused, as if he’d just woken, but she noticed how his expression changed when he realized it was her. “Kate,” he said, and she was conscious, even in the semi-darkness, of his eyes moving over the thin cotton of her nightdress. He had stripped to his underclothes, and she saw that his body, like her own, was no longer in its prime but was strong yet, young enough still. She remained in the doorway. He said nothing more, and she understood that he was waiting, allowing her to decide. After a moment, she turned and walked down the hall to the kitchen.
In the utility room, she put on a pair of rubber gloves and, dipping her hand into the bucket, lifted out the skull. It dripped bleach onto the floor, and she got a towel and dried it off, wiping the rims of the eye sockets, the crevices of the jaws. She sat it on top of the washing machine and looked at it, and it returned her gaze with empty, cavernous eyes. Not bothering with a coat, she slipped her feet into Colman’s Wellingtons and carried the bucket of bleach outside.
It was cold, hinting at late frost, and she shivered in her nightdress. In the field behind the house, the pile of newly chopped wood appeared almost white in the moonlight, and moonlight glinted on the galvanized roof of the Dennehys’ shed and silvered the tops of the trees in the forest. There were stars, millions of them, the familiar constellations she had known since childhood. She tipped the bucket over, spilling the bleach onto the ground. For a second it lay upon the surface, then it gradually seeped away until only a flotsam of dead insects speckled the stones. ♦
|Posted by JH Benigni on March 19, 2014 at 12:30 AM||comments (0)|
THE J.H. BENIGNI WRITER’S STUDIO
Description: Each session, we will do a lesson on a craft element of creative writing (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and dramatic writing), discuss the week's reading (provided), do in-class writing exercises, and workshop each other’s work. If you have anything you are currently working on, you may bring it to class, and if there is time at the end, we can discuss it. You are not obligated to share your writing if you don't feel comfortable doing so. The course is designed to be a fun exploration of an interest in creative writing and to develop students' writing. All levels of writers are welcome, and course work can be as simple or as challenging as we make it, tailored to individuals' needs and preferences. The aim is to complete a work of creative writing that you are proud of by the end of the course. All levels of writers are welcome.
1. Gain a basic knowledge of four creative writing genres and be able to craft poetry and prose of your own
2. Identify, analyze, and discuss craft elements at work in contemporary creative writing
3. Provide feedback to peers’ writing according to guidelines presented in class
4. Have a working knowledge of submitting creative writing for publication
· Journal or notebook and something to write with
· Internet access and a working email account
1. Unlocking your Creativity
2. Writing the Short Story
3. Points of View
4. Creating Characters
5. Writing Dialog
7. Dramatic Writing
8. Markets, Competitions and Opportunities
Class Dates: Application Deadlines:
The Summer 2015 Workshop Open Enrollment
will meet alternating Saturdays from
1 pm – 3 pm, June 27 to August 22.
J.H. Benigni is a writer and photographer from Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared online and in print publications such as Smith Magazine, The Critical Point, The Bremerton Sun, and is forthcoming in Voices From the Attic. She is a former military journalist, earned an MFA in fiction, pedagogy, and travel writing from Chatham University, has been a member of Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops, and holds two writing awards. She currently teaches writing at Point Park University, CCAC, and Mount Lebanon Community Education.
To enroll, email a writing sample to [email protected] with J.H. Benigni Writer’s Studio in the subject line and a brief message in the body describing your interest in the workshop. Tuition is $75 per class. Class dates and times are subject to change, and class availability is subject to enrollment. Tuition is due on the first day of class.
For more information, please send an email to [email protected]