In my hurry
I have scoured
While we are here patrolling our lives, moving about, now and then we meet, not with great frequency I must admit, most memorable people. They, in turn, haunt us one way or another until our last vision fades away, be it a turn of their face, a hand’s movement in sweet gesture, a universal shoulder announcement as they change direction, or attitude, or deference. Perhaps their impacts are from what they don’t do as well as from what they do.
Apple was such a person. She was a highlight marker, bright, nay, brilliant, who was on stage all her life. She knew who she was and where she was going. Often she predicated another’s actions, like a cue from the side. I saw it early, yet what a mistake I had made, thinking I was rushing around on my own. All the time, I was being chased.
Now, hanging on a road sign, night worry working its way, trollops in my gut giving out names I can’t remember, a single light marks a hillside, and the edge of night sneaking up on me. The arms of fatigue put forth hands that put forth fingers that touch with foul fervor. I am alone and like it less than last night in a half crowd of other loneliness. The one witness recalled, real as an open blouse, bona fide as underpants dropped the fabulous and witchy length of long and perfect legs, hangs on with her imagery locked in place. Not anything more than 100 pounds, gymnastically adroit when aboard, mouthing she was performing the orange squeeze: I am getting you ready for breakfast, wherever you end up, which will not be on me again, or vice versa. The morning-promised vice went on its rampage, the last ounce ushered into place, heady, sticky later on if only she had left it alone, but oh no, not this imagery aloft in my morning walk who cleaned as good as any kitchen lady at her finishing. Wipe down. Wipe out. How do you like those oranges, my faultless mister in the night?
Now, staring at the next light, the one on the hill known before, the climb to a barn and a gingerly small house that looks down on the sea, the exquisite and lightsome lady there, I bring back the crowded room of smells, liquor on its final legs, dregs at their last cries having found a frame to reside in, sometimes headless, and the little madam of taste that crawled up beside me at the bar, that creature of eyes emblazoned with stories, cheek bones like flint at early manufacture, lips that might stretch a river wide, sex itself having a rest after a heady ride. I’m cheap, she said, a 100 pounds of cheap that two drinks can buy for the night. I liberated myself for a nightly prison. But I’m good at being jailed, being sent off for a one-night stand or a lay-down, or however you’ll have it. I never get too talkative. I don’t let my mouth get in the way of anything that comes up real. Morning comes too soon, too smelly, too late for some right here, right now. There’s not a good piece in this whole joint. All you’ve got to do is ask me.
You dress well, I said. I touched her fabric and was charged with electrons in a shocking move, a whole laboratory of jump, tingle and broadcast. Her dress, thin, blue as a forgotten bird’s egg, rigged like a sail’s caught a fresh wind off shore, hip marks saying a vault could be ajar, was right next door to ignition. Right there. Gas-like. Bang! Poof! How do you come across with that heat? Where does it come from? Are shock-proof measures required? Does it have a switch? An off-on switch? A toggle switch? A switch you can see in the dark? Is it universal? Global? A trip around the world? Are you switchable?
Oh, I always need to attract, she said, unfazed, not falsely shocked, not speechless for a single breath, her eyes bouncing, lit. Smallness is too cute for some people, but not taste, those nectars we know. The smile lurked again, a half lip’s worth; alliterations do not alienate any matching interests.
Speaking of that, your clothes match well. You are keenly coordinated. What color, or colors if rainbowed, if I may ask, are your underpants? Do they match?
I never wear them, not out here, not out of prison. One drink and I’d put them back on if your thing is getting them off. I’ve known guys like that, who never get all the way home. Not really. Never really. Too much macho waiting for show. Too much vanity in the way. You know the kind who’s afraid to read the sex manuals because he’d know in a fucking second how much he’s missed on the way here getting to be forty and near the end. Once I told a guy four or five times he ought to read the good book on sex, and he thought I was ridiculing him or was just playing games, but I was balliky bare-ass waiting for him to come down where I wanted him desperately and he missed it all. I was lying across the seat of the car and in love I think, my nipples talking to his mouth, saying all the good stuff about attention and how he should be more alert. Only later I found out his wife was hardly the clean type and that foul odor drove him too far afield even of the cleaning lady. I don’t know where he went, or if he ever went down, to Australia or any place else, but I hope he’s had a good voyage. He was cute too, but even his fingers didn’t know what to do, or had not paid attention, never mind his being a good talker. He called me Sam and he loved me, that I know, but could not let go the hard aversions he was trained on. When I touch it all the way every night, it’s for him where I left him, on the seat of that old Plymouth convertible parked in a field at the end of a dark lane, a February chill sneaking into the front seat slyer than he was, my Mr. Wanderlust.
Was he not averse to you or something you did or had contemplated? Was it all his fault?
I had intruded on another’s family, with the father, and Mr. Wanderlust had his family broken up by the same kind of intrusion. The paired reality hit me but it was only later, after he had gone, that I cemented my own intrusion, getting what I wanted where I wanted it. The revelations do not demand too much explanation; we are what we are. I am the animal mother, the bitch leader, the caller of signals, like the unerring quarterback or like the Pace Car at Indy. I know where I am going and what I am doing, and if you’re what I think you are, you won’t be far behind me.
One lip curled at my understanding. Oh, yes, I like how your eyes light up at my word play, saying you are alert, that you are in the game.
You read everything at first light, don’t you? I like that. There’s no bullshit here. I want you on. I want in. I passed my oral exams a long time ago, in the last century.
Her left shoulder moved at further introduction, a breast easing to view, as though it were pure and virginal in its utility, its horizon never at assault, its whiteness further expanding, demanding, commanding, imagination at play, its memory on the move. I contemplated the artful exposure, my mouth stilled with silence, with admiration. Parts of an old story began to unfold, a noun leaked free, a verb, an adverb shook loose in my mind, a mystical story, outworldish, outlandish. Then, oh, fucking loveliness, right then, a fairy of a nipple stood in place, swearing its softness, elfin, impish, exquisite, truly virginal yet truly erect, saying the pot of gold was at hand. My little 100-pounder, without underpants in place, sliding effortlessly on eggshell blue silk, everything moving in place, replied: You’re like the wide-eyed kid in the front row at school, the one who sucks up everything that comes his way, who gets an A in every exam and every test and every dinky quiz thrown at him except how to get out of the classroom if there is a fire. Do I read that you have missed something here? Are you not my Mr. Wanderlust come back again?
You mean, from that old Plymouth convertible, where you had shared another man with another woman?
That old altar is yet in place, locked away for the evermore, the sense of urgency that drove me there, undressed me, put me prone and lascivious, hangs about dense as a dream nearly gone over the edge, but never letting go. Always, the night temperature of that far field of that dark lane touches with its long reach, the way it slipped in through the canvas top, came up through the fabric of the seat, set my sweet little ass on fire. Oh, the subtle ironies that impale me.
I’ll meet you in the barn.
We went home, by different routes, to the house on the hill, the single light still lit, the mow in the barn piled high with fresh hay, me and my salty actress.
On the way up a single leaf shone with a ray of universal light. She was never far afield no matter what old Chemkin said. I had found Apple’s orchard.
“No One Can Find Us” by Nels Hanson
“If I knew the way, I would lead you home—”
I didn’t know where I was and remembered the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” when I didn’t see a sign. We’d come up from the lake and gone in the dining room entrance. “The desk is right beyond the Custer Room,” the girl at the register had said.
High above the flagstone floor and leather sofas a complicated network of shadowed raw beams and angled supports held up the pitched roof. The inn was all rough-cut barn lumber three stories tall. Unlit lamps with red metal shades were suspended from joists, shining orange with the flames from the 10-foot granite fireplace.
The room seemed alive with eyes and a silent hiss. The hotel reminded me of pictures of hunting halls in Bavaria, except for the modern skylights and the airy color of the wood. Everywhere, on the walls and from each niche and corner, wild animals stared out.
Elk. Deer. Rocky Mountain sheep and goat. A cougar and a bobcat, heads of black and brown bears. Mallards and Canadian geese in flight.
A prairie chicken ran from a notched-eared lynx. A hovering taloned hawk. The great horned owl watched from a heavy varnished limb.
A new face with glass eyes waited each place I looked. It was like a dead Noah’s Ark, some weird flickering cave where killed game gathered between lives, and then I knew I’d come the right way.
On a wall of river stones like an altar hung an illuminated 12-foot tapestry of Custer.
His long gold curls in the tilted spotlight flowed from his slanted yard-wide hat with crossed cavalry sabers, framing his electric-blue eyes and blonde pirate’s mustache with the single line of goatee down the chin. The Civil War hero and Indian fighter last in his class at West Point wore a fringed leather jacket with gold epaulets. The silver barrels of matched pearl-handled Colts reached beyond their holsters, nearly touching his boot tops.
One lowered hand held a map, the other a telescope, as he gazed forever toward his blundering destiny.
A lit walnut display case stood under the hanging, full of artifacts from the Little Big Horn—a ragged 7th Cavalry banner, dented bugle, an unearthed revolver without grips, empty cartridges, an army belt buckle, brass buttons, a yellowed letter—
In dim flowery script the salutation read, “Dear Precious Son Ambrose in General Armstrong Custer’s Army.”
I remembered what Hugh Edwards, the bartender in Ingot, had said about a world of symbols, that everything was a shadow cast by a thought. The elaborate Custer Room was the reflection of someone’s mind—of David Hamphill’s, owner of the famous Lakeview Inn.
A moose with smooth white antlers like a pair of giant fluted clam shells loomed over the open doors. I thought of the live moose standing in the autumn Vermont road as the tour bus approached and Hugh’s father and mother and two sisters entered the blind turn and after that Hugh quit teaching philosophy at Princeton and moved to Montana.
I went into the bright lobby and stepped back.
A seven-foot grizzly with bared teeth and angry brown eyes reared from a rock pedestal. Its front legs were thrust out, one higher than the other in a posture of attack.
The sign dangled from the lower set of claws. I’d seen a live grizzly close up from across the moat at the Portland Zoo. I’d watched wild grizzlies at a distance from a fishing boat in Alaska. Two of them walked along the shore, 50 yards apart, their noses to the rocky ground.
I’d only seen a stuffed one once, in a bar in Fairbanks. In the lower 48 I thought it was illegal to have them.
I touched the crescent five-inch claw, sharp and smooth as the fang of a sabertooth cat. It was hard to imagine an Indian, some forefather of Emma’s or Wes Blackdeer’s, killing one with a bow and arrow for a bear robe and necklace.
But to them it was a god, a magical creature. A totem animal. You became the bear.
My great-grandfather had killed five of them in Oregon with the heavy Sharps rifle that hung above the mantel at the ranch.
Then I remembered Ray and his drunken story of the hibernating grizzly thrown across the canyon by the snow cat’s cable and pine tree slingshot and how Joyce had frowned and lowered her head that morning in her kitchen that seemed a year and not two weeks ago, my first day in Montana when Tug and I pulled in from Oregon.
I realized this was the first time all day I’d been alone. My thoughts were jumping up and down, back and forth.
I’d driven a stranger’s borrowed pickup, a Crow Indian’s, and got into a boat on a windswept lake with his sister, in case her boy was drowned and not with in-laws in Calgary.
Her son was lost, her ex-husband’s whereabouts uncertain.
I’d met her in a town of 184 people and in the Silverado Bar we’d heard the summary of a thesis on the origins of mystical religion, from Hugh who seven years ago had stepped back from meaningless death to write down his vision of redemption, how gravity was love—
“I picked all the maple leaves and threw them in the air and waited for them to fly off into space. And you know what? The leaves came down again.”
I crossed the polished oak floor to the desk.
On an easel facing the main entrance leaned a stylized portrait of the Sleeping Child monster.
A talented commercial artist had painted it. In blues and greens the picture showed a happy, friendly sea serpent with big fried-egg eyes and a smile, its rounded head on its long neck sticking up through white mist. Below the monster’s fins you could see the lake’s stone city. Striped tropical fish swam past a castle with towers like Disney’s Fantasyland and open pirate chests sparkled with Captain Kidd’s treasure.
A rack held postcards of the hotel, the green lake, and the underwater rock formations—the cliff wall with square windows, the dome and the arched bridge strung with fishing lures.
By accident, Emma and I must have crossed over the lake’s main natural wonders that passed through the spotlight, below the lens of the special upside-down periscope.
I saw the terraced pyramid and the rearing broken horse, the long curving ramp to the round tower without windows. The slanting slashes in the stone above the wide door did look like runes or backward numbers, words you’d try to read in a dream.
One card showed a floating log with a branch and I glanced at a locked case that displayed painted, miniature Sleeping Child monsters.
They had spiral horns, bat wings and sharks’ teeth, vampire incisors or horizontal ivory tusks like a narwhal. A few looked like seahorses blowing curling complicated smoke, Chinese dragons with popping eyes and nostrils and upraised ears. A red-eyed snake with webbed feet and a beaver’s tail curled beside a blue turtle that walked on clawed fins. A snarling wolf’s head protruded from either end of its orange shell.
A printed card said Indians from a local tribe had carved them.
I took in all the mouths and glaring eyes. For a moment I imagined it was a storage place for personal nightmares. A monster was reserved for each guest in the hotel.
“Can I help you?”
It was a boy behind the desk.
“Are you looking for the dance?” he asked. “It’s not till 9:30.”
He was young, with pink ears. They’d made him cut his hair for the job. He reminded me of myself, when I’d worked for Uncle Ernie in the Redmond store.
“I’m here to see Mr. Hemphill,” I said.
“Hamphill,” he said.
“Hamphill. I had an appointment at one but I’m late. I’m the weekend intern.”
The boy frowned.
“From Northwestern College,” I said.
“I don’t know about it.”
He wore a white metal nametag that said “Kevin.”
“Dr. Adkins set it up,” I explained. “He told me to give Mr. Hamphill a message.”
“Mr. Hamphill’s not here. If you were going to be late you should have called.”
“I got hung up on the road,” I said. “Engine trouble.”
Something about the boy began to irritate me, maybe the fact that he’d forced me to lie. His eyes drifted from my face to my clothes.
Kevin bent slightly, trying to see around me.
“We’re supposed to wear ties.”
“It’s in my bag,” I said. “I just got here.”
I didn’t want to get into an argument. I wanted a room for Emma and me.
“Maybe Mr. Hamphill left a message,” the boy said. “Sometimes he leaves notes on his desk for the staff.”
Kevin didn’t move.
“Would you mind looking?” I asked.
The boy seemed reluctant to leave the desk unguarded but he turned to check Hamphill’s office.
He returned in 30 seconds and showed me a small page torn from a personalized tablet:
From the Desk of
David Jennings Hamphill
Owner and Manager
Lakeview Inn and Resort
State Highway 54
If Ryder from Kootenay shows up, give him his room. Note what time he comes in. I’ll be in at 11:15 Sunday morning after church.
D. J. H.
Hamphill had been waiting for me. He’d written “Sunday morning” instead of “tomorrow” so there wouldn’t be any mix-up. He’d be there at 11:15, not 11 or 11:30.
The aggressive ease of the handwriting on the bond paper put me off.
Then I had a good thought. In a Portland park, walking past a bed of blooming roses shining from the morning’s rain, I’d overheard a ragged wino ask another if he went to church.
“Oh no,” the second man shot back. He shook his white head with honest distaste. “I’m too religious for that—”
It always made me happy to remember the unshaved man in the army coat.
The boy leaned behind the desk and came up aiming a camera.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s the rules—”
The flash went off and I blinked.
“Here,” Kevin said, turning the register.
The book was on a swivel, anchored to the desk. I picked up a pen on a long chain. It was like the military, signing to take out a jet or the taxpayers’ billion-dollar submarine.
The ledger was huge and old-fashioned and must have held 60 years of guests’ signatures, the names of the living and long-forgotten dead, beside lines for guests’ comments. Joyce’s name was in it somewhere, from when she was single and attended her legal conference, before she got pregnant by Ray.
The page looked fuzzy after the flash bulb.
“President Hoover and Clark Gable stayed at the Lakeview. Pat Boone used to come for a week each summer. Their signatures are there.”
I wrote my name on a fresh white page, just below a Mr. and Mrs. Van Deusen from Toronto, Canada—
“We have enjoyed our travels in the United States and most especially our stay at the Lakeview Resort.”
I thought of writing, “Finally made it to the lake, found Emma, looked for her son.”
“It came out okay.”
Kevin examined the snapshot from the Polaroid.
“You want to see it?”
“Do I get a room?”
He pushed a bronze key across the counter.
“325, third floor.”
“You know,” he said, putting down the photo, “Mr. Hamphill’s very religious. He goes to church three times a week.”
Had the boy seen Emma?
“So do I,” I said.
“You do?” asked the boy.
“I was almost a preacher.”
“English Catholic. The Church of England.”
He watched me with wide blue eyes, not knowing what to say.
I was tired of him and started back across the lobby, past the easel and the smiling serpent who wore the white fog like a cape.
But I realized what I’d said was true in a way.
As a kid I didn’t go to church, my parents never went, and I didn’t like the look of the bare clapboard building or the somber black-suited children with combed hair on the steps on Sunday mornings as we drove to Sunday breakfast at Grissom’s Café.
But for a year, a hawk feather in my hair, I’d been a part-time outdoor preacher to the animals. I’d found my dad’s mother’s Bible and taught myself a few prayers that I’d say aloud as I looked out the loft at the scarlet pillars of the Three Kings until Tommy the peacock started to crow beside me on the hay.
When no one was around I’d tell the 23rd Psalm to the cows, talk to the dogs and dole out food and pats on the head exactly even. “Good dog,” I’d say, then turn to the other and say “Good dog,” not to Willy and Chance but to the dogs that came earlier.
I’d say a prayer for Tommy when we played hide-and-seek and he found my hiding place and ate the golden corn from my palm. With his blue neck feathers like glowing coals he looked like he’d come from heaven.
I’d just wanted to say things that would make them feel better because I felt bad myself and no one ever said anything, never gripped my shoulder asking, “How you doing, Billy? Huh? You hang in there, son.”
Only Uncle Ernie, when he came through twice a year. Jenny had tried, but she couldn’t fill the hollow the early years had scooped out. It wasn’t her job.
Maybe my parents didn’t know what to say or no one cared that much. I was seven when my grandfather died in a veterans’ home and I stayed three late summer days and nights with a woman named Opha Peters in Grassdale, while my mother and father drove to Medford to meet Uncle Ernie and make arrangements and attend the funeral.
Opha’s house was thick with cigarette smoke and yellow oilcloth hung at the cupboards. She was poor, that wasn’t her fault, but she called me “Hon” in a tired irritated way that told me she didn’t mean it. She made me say a prayer before I ate.
Her husband was dead, missing in action in Korea, and his service picture watched from the nightstand by the double bed.
On the coffee table by the sofa crouched a rhinestone-eyed carnival black panther Opha warned me not to touch. The first night I dreamed it was loose in the house, padding silently from room to room with crystal eyes.
If I went outside I had to sit on the front step where Opha could see me. She cooked ham hocks and white beans with too much mustard, and sat smoking and watching while I ate the yellow food I never saw her touch. I had to finish the bowl before I could sit on the stoop.
She wouldn’t let me close the door when it was time to take a bath. She ran cold water and told me to undress, stood in the doorway and gave sharp instructions as I washed and quickly dried myself. She put me to bed at seven, while it was still light for hours.
Each evening I heard her laughing at reruns of “Amos ’N Andy,” then pretended to sleep as she put on her gown in the dark and sat on the dresser bench, smoking a cigarette before she lay down beside me and I listened to her hoarse breathing until I finally fell asleep.
I thought about death the whole time, about my grandfather with white hair and a cane and hearing aid who had breathed mustard gas in World War I and what had happened to him, if they’d buried him yet, if they were sure he was dead when they put him in the long box.
I worried that my parents would get in a wreck and wouldn’t come to get me. Or that they didn’t plan to come back and on purpose had left me with Opha, that Opha’s house was death and it would go on forever unless I could run away, unhook the bedroom screen while Opha slept, or sneak out the front door past the black panther. I could run to the police and tell them to call Uncle Ernie. Opha was mean but as thin as my grandfather and I thought if she woke up I might be able to break her hold or knock her down.
The last day, Opha found me playing with the hook to the window screen and made me sit for an hour beside her on the couch. That night my parents pulled up and I ran out of the house and hugged my mother as she stepped from the car.
“Where do people go,” I asked her, “when they die?”
She’d told me about the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters and Merope, the sister who married a mortal and you could hardly see because she was hiding.
“I don’t know, dear,” my mother said. “Ask your dad.”
I looked up at my father and he shook his head. He said he didn’t know that they went anywhere.
“They’re just there, in the ground.”
I stared past the dipper of the Pleiades and the million silent stars and said with doubt like a lead weight in my chest, “I’m pretty sure they go to heaven—”
“Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t count too much on it.”
When I got low or worn out, I’d start to think of my folks, but I hadn’t remembered Opha in years.
She must have been dead a long time now, I thought, as I passed the angry grizzly holding the welcome sign and went out under the painted gold and blue plaque:
The George Armstrong Custer Room
The eyes of the wild trophies glinted with the firelight. I thought that the slaughtered game didn’t agree with Professor Adkins, they didn’t like Hamphill’s famous hotel—
I heard three sharp chirps and stopped.
Small wings flickered among the high web of beams before the bird lit on a joist.
It sang happily, on and on, glad to be safe inside. The linnet or sparrow had flown in from the cold, sensing the coming snow, and found a perch in Hamphill’s graveyard, a living bird among the dead.
Maybe it was calling to the other sparrows that it had found a haven. Or talked to the fallen game whose bright eyes and dark mouths made a loud silence.
One night soon the sparrow would lead them—the untamed animals would strike, leap down off the walls, charge with fangs and beaks and lowered horns through the surprised and frightened guests, run Kevin and Mr. Hamphill through.
I didn’t like the kid taking my picture. Or the tapestry of Custer looking like a macho Western Jesus. Or the crumpled bugle and the tattered banner in the special case. A young soldier’s lips had tried to purse against the tinny horn, sound the retreat as Custer screamed the order and the wave of mounted warriors charged them from the trees.
A week Tuesday we had a high ruckus, the cow got sick and your little sisters had no milk.
The black ink had turned pale on the fragile paper. When I saw Professor Adkins I’d tell him I didn’t think Hamphill should put war gear on display—the holes in the battle flag weren’t from moths but arrows.
At Wes’s bar in Kootenay the relics were fake, sprayed with gold paint. I’d threatened to blow the toy bugle, warn the absent husbands that Wes Blackdeer was on the hunt. The machine portrait of the Last Stand hung in every tavern in the Rockies.
I’d never been to the Custer Battlefield but in a bar I’d seen a program on TV. They did ESP experiments there. The narrator wore a head set and waved an electronic wand across the dry grass, explaining that it was an active zone, frantic with energy. Everyone was still alive, all the crazed ghosts yelling and racing across the bloody ground where two worlds had collided.
The battle around the low hill raged forever—Golden-haired Custer still hoped to be president and again he’d split his force in three, sending Reno and Benteen upstream. He led his 264 men and young nephew into the valley where 4,000 Sioux and Cheyenne with 18,000 horses waited along the bank of the Little Big Horn River.
Sitting Bull had performed the Sun Dance the night before and slashed himself 100 times. He streamed with blood and saw the vision of the blue shirts dropping like grasshoppers into the grass.
Crazy Horse watched in his prime from the willow shade, the yellow lightning bolt drawn on one cheek. His eagle headdress nearly touched the sand, the black stone was tied behind his horse’s ear—Now he raised his feathered lance as the horse leaped into the light.
“It’s a good day to die!”
Black Elk was only a boy, hardly old enough to fight but eagerly he ran forward, answering his chief’s call that would echo all the way to Wounded Knee.
I realized I was stalling, trying to catch my breath.
Emma was from the Little Big Horn. Crow scouts had been with Custer.
I turned from the woven portrait and crossed the wide stone floor to the lit gallery of Western art and back to the walled alcove.
On the long leather sofa a large middle-aged man in tooled boots and an expensive tan Western suit sat with his young pretty wife, who held a red-haired baby. The baby was sucking on a green sponge rabbit.
Emma had left the chair and sat beside the mother, closely watching the baby’s pink face. Emma didn’t see me come up.
I touched Emma’s shoulder.
“Goodbye,” she said to the woman. Emma leaned forward and stroked the baby’s hand.
Emma stood up.
“It’s time to go to sleep.”
“Goodnight. You two have a nice evening—”
The blonde woman smiled warmly but her husband looked at Emma, then at me, with narrow eyes in a wide loose face.
He was 20 years older than his wife and had a sour, suspicious look. He had the tight lips I’d seen on cops and bad bosses, mouths that got that way from only saying “no.”
I realized he looked like the actor Charles Durning, in the movie “True Confessions.” He pressured the cardinal’s assistant, Robert De Niro, for a building contract. I had a sudden odd thought that it was Mr. Hamphill.
I picked up my bag by the chair and we crossed the flagstones to an elevator as Emma stared toward the high-ceilinged room of animals.
“What’s in there?” Emma asked.
“You don’t want to see it.”
I pushed the lit button.
“You don’t want to take the stairs?”
“We’re too tired,” I said.
The door opened and we saw ourselves in a gilt-flecked mirror attached to a wall of knotty pine.
We looked tired but not odd. We might have been a happy couple ready to relax for the evening, not two strangers facing a possible tragedy.
We stepped in and turned. As I pushed the third button I thought of the fallen man, the construction worker at the Elgin Hotel in Kootenay, whose ghost was supposed to haunt the brick shaft, to ride the roof of the car up and down and sometimes tap a message.
The door closed.
“I’ve never been in an elevator before,” Emma said.
The floor jerked and she reached for my hand.
“It’s all right.”
“No, I have to ask you a question.”
“Do you think there’s another world?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Like Hugh said this morning?”
It was the question I’d just remembered, the one I’d asked my parents outside Opha’s.
“Yes,” I said.
She gripped my hand tighter.
“So do I.”
The elevator stopped and we got out into a quiet, candle-lit hall.
The pegged walnut floors gleamed under Navajo throw rugs. The filaments in the brass lanterns wavered like candle flames, throwing yellow light across antique-framed paintings.
The rooms were all custom, different sizes, and the corridor bent from one to another like maze. It took a while to find the way.
I saw 325 across from a desert scene of a lone Indian rider in the Impressionistic style of Remington. The white sand looked like snow.
I looked both ways down the zigzag hall before I brought out the key.
“Is everything all right?” Emma asked.
I remembered the kid with the camera. Kevin.
“Just being careful. I just got here.”
I put the key in the lock.
“People are touchy.”
“Like my ex-husband.”
“You worried he followed you?”
“No. He’s gone. Anyway, my brother wouldn’t tell him where I was.”
I unlocked the door and we stepped in.
It was a wide, high room with square, hand-cut beams and varnished cherrywood paneling.
A black-bear rug lay spread across the wood floor in front of the white river-stone fireplace.
The king-size bed had a carved headboard and a quilted coverlet with gold braid around the edges.
A white leather sofa with a red-and-black-striped Indian blanket thrown over the back sat in front of a pine coffee table with copies of Architectural Digest andTown and Country. Two wingback suede chairs were arranged on either side of the hearth. A bright copper bucket overflowed with kindling.
A picture of a sailboat on Sleeping Child Lake hung above the mantel, not a machine-painted picture but a real one, a good one, and I remembered how green the lake was. Maybe the artist got to stay free and paint at Hamphill’s inn.
French doors led to a balcony overlooking the water.
I wondered how much the room rented for a day, if it was a special suite or if all the rooms were the same. Adkins had told me I’d see that the Lakeview deserved its four stars.
“Pretty elegant. There’s a sofa,” I said. “I won’t have to sleep on the floor.”
“No,” said Emma. “It’s beautiful.”
The bathroom was just as impressive. A thick blue rug with yellow trim lay on the terra cotta floor. A copper sink gleamed below a shield-shaped mirror and tall fluted handles.
There was a sunken stone tub and a big glassed-in shower.
“What is it?” Emma looked down at the bidet.
“I don’t know. Some French thing.”
She held up a thick yellow towel.
“Take a hot bath if you want,” I said. “I’ll take my shower when you’re through.”
“You don’t want to go first?”
“No, go ahead.”
I found a wool Pendleton blanket and extra down pillows in the closet and laid them on the white sofa.
I opened my bag and on the coffee table set out clean underwear and socks and a pair of Levis, a comb and toothbrush, razor and shave cream.
I put the keys—my Elgin key, Emma’s truck keys and the room key—next to my wallet and watch and the antler Sleeping Child.
I gazed again at the painting above the fireplace. The artist had captured exactly the vibrant green of the water, carefully mixed the colors, got the white caps for contrast. You’d never know below the waves there was a whole city of sandstone with domes and towers, arches and streets.
I sat down in the chair and as I leaned back I felt something in my shirt pocket.
It was Hugh’s note, his name and the title of his unpublished book, The Other Atlantis. I dropped it on the table and heard the shower.
I looked down at the black bear stretched out on the walnut floor, its lacquered open mouth half the size of the grizzly’s in the lobby. I remembered the radio show, “Kootenay Cavalcade,” and the argument at breakfast in the Stockmen’s Cafe, about whether to kill all the bears, when the lost hikers were attacked by the grizzlies.
I leafed through a magazine, studying the modern houses and gardens of the attractive rich, in Santa Fe, Jackson Hole, and Spain. I was examining the abstract fountain in a raked, gravel Zen garden in Carmel when I realized the shower had stopped.
I got up and slipped on my jacket and stepped out onto the balcony.
The air felt a little warmer, the way the cold seems to slack off before the snow finally starts to fall. Under the clouds, the mist hung just above the water. I watched the buoy light blinking off and on, reflecting on the lake and the underside of the fog that again seemed illuminated by silent blue lightning.
He don’t love you
Like I love you.
If he did he wouldn’t
Break your heart.
The dance had begun. I could hear the band playing from the dining room, the old ’50s song. Beyond the high windows shadowed couples swayed slowly through the dim light, like the beautician students passing the glazed door in the Elgin.
The great quotations,
He says all the things
I wish I could say—
I turned up my collar, remembering the boat and the flooded city, the viewer Emma wouldn’t look through.
Things might have been different, if it weren’t for Emma’s boy.
But then we would never have known each other, Emma would never have come to the lake.
“Your turn, Bill,” Emma called.
I went in and she was sitting on the bed in her sweater and skirt and bare feet.
“The shower felt good,” she said.
She had a dry yellow towel around her neck. Red showed in her cheeks. Her wet black hair was combed down her back and I felt a sudden wave of tenderness and wanted to take her in my arms.
I picked up my things and laid them out beside the copper sink and closed the door.
I took a long shower, standing with my eyes shut under the strong hot water.
I shaved, turning one tall handle until the water steamed, and then used a fresh face towel. I put on my Levis and undershirt and went into the bedroom.
Emma was in bed, her leather skirt and her sweater folded over the suede chair where she’d set her purse. Now she looked at home, like a beautiful, rich woman under the brocade cover, her black hair spread across the fresh pillowcase. She might have stepped from the fancy magazine.
“That felt good,” I said. “I was tired.”
“Me too,” Emma said. “I’m sleepy.”
I turned off the lamp and lay down on the sofa with the blanket over me. Even in the dark the room felt expensive.
It was the way it smelled, scrubbed and varnished and freshly vacuumed and perfumed. It was the thick pile of the bathroom rug or something in the towels or curtains. Rich people wouldn’t be aware of the scent, just like poor people wouldn’t recognize the stale scent of their old houses, like Opha’s house.
“You need another pillow?” Emma asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You warm enough?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thanks.”
I looked out the French doors, watching the blue light shine off and on across the water. The music from the dance played softly but I thought I could almost make out the tune and some of the words. It sounded like the Anne Murray song that used to play on the radio.
“Can I have this dance for the rest of my life, will you be my partner . . .”
After a while Emma said, “Bill?”
“Tell me about your life—”
“It’s not very interesting,” I said. “There’s not much to tell.”
“Tell me,” she said.
I was too tired to paint a pretty picture.
“I grew up in Oregon, on a ranch outside Grassdale. My folks didn’t get along too well. My dad drank too much and played around, then my mom started in. I was glad to leave home.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I went to college in Corvallis for a while, then dropped out, worked at one job and another. I was married for two years, then divorced.”
“Do you have any kids?”
I didn’t want to talk about Jenny, see those scenes again.
“I started traveling around.”
“Everywhere. I’d do one thing, then quit and do something else—ranch work, working in the woods, fishing.”
“What kind of work do you know?”
“Horseshoeing,” I said. “Chain-saw repair, driving wheat harvesters, forklift, bulldozers. Road work. I can set a charge of dynamite.”
I saw in flashes each shop or field, the angle of the light where the lost dust floated.
“I ended up working for my friend’s brother-in-law, in Kootenay at the mill, pushing sawdust from under the saw. It nearly made me deaf. A week ago I got a telegram.”
“From your wife?”
“From my uncle. He has money. He said he’d bought a little tourist motel on a lake in Washington. Lake Chelan. He said if I’d go to the hotel school for a while, when I got out I could manage the motel. He sent me some money.”
“You live in Kootenay now?”
“In the Elgin Hotel. The bottom floor’s a movie.”
“I know it,” she said. “The tall building. I’ve been to Kootenay. In high school for majorettes. I went to the big theater.”
The way Emma said the name, Kootenay sounded like a big town. To her I realized it was.
She’d never have family that had a ranch, or a rich uncle who owned hotels and could loan her money and send her to school.
Or call the state police and find her son.
I looked out the glass doors at the blue light.
“Don’t be sad,” Emma said from the bed. “I’m not.”
“I’m okay,” I said. “I was just thinking about some people.”
I saw the new faces I’d met in Montana—Ralph telling his story of the sheep ranch before the war and the lightning, the foreman’s son killed with the horses, his hair gone white like snow.
And Birdie still so pleased, 70 years later, that she had found the dime frozen in the millpond in Anaconda.
“The chandelier in the lobby? It has 5,000 crystals.”
That first day at the Elgin they’d explained that they weren’t married but shared the room to split the rent. Last Sunday after “True Confessions” they’d walked up the steep aisle of the theater holding hands and held hands as they headed toward the cafeteria for Sunday chicken dinner.
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day—
The sampler hung on the wall of Joyce’s bedroom where she slept with her baby. I saw Joyce driving by with her new haircut, the note with the single star she’d left on my door. Maybe she felt hopeful because her brother Tug and I were friends, and Ray’s sister Denise and Tug had got together.
I’d fed her boy and he laughed and smiled. Charlie played happily with the antler Sleeping Child and cried when he thought I’d take it away. He’d lain asleep on Joyce’s bed, his small face flushed as we’d kissed and nearly made love.
Like Tuesday’s Child, who was full of grace.
I wondered where Wes was tonight, if he was okay, or if a lucky hunter with a big opening-day buck roped to the hood was about to pull into the carport and stumble toward the bedroom, his face happy and red from whiskey and frost.
“Call me Custer,” Wes had joked that first night over beer when I’d asked about Sleeping Child Lake and he insisted he only fished and hunted out of season, staying home when all the white sportsmen were in the field and their wives were home alone.
Wes had never seen the ocean, just like Emma hadn’t ridden in an elevator.
Why couldn’t they have met and had kids?
“Do you want to hear a story?” Emma asked. “Before we go to sleep?”
“Okay,” I said.
“In a white meadow it was snowing,” Emma said softly in the dark. “A rabbit looked carefully out of her burrow.
“She was waiting for her husband. He’d gone to see if there was any green grass in the woods.
“A black wolf was waiting too.
“The wolf walked in a circle, sniffing the snow outside the rabbit’s house.
“The little rabbit watched the wolf and then the edge of the forest where she kept looking for her husband.
“‘Where can he be?’ she kept thinking. ‘Why’s he so late?’
“But each time she thought it, she realized she didn’t want him to come home. The hungry wolf would get him.
“‘Stay away,’ she thought. ‘Wait for night.’
“Then she saw him.
“The rabbit was running through the last dark trees toward the white meadow.
“She wanted to warn him about the wolf, to jump outside their burrow and pound her foot against the snow, to tell him to go back.
“But there was nothing she could do.
“If she tried to warn her husband, the wolf would catch her too. There would be no one to take care of their children.
“Anyway, she knew it wasn’t any use. Against the new snow her foot couldn’t make a sound.
“Now she saw her husband run into the meadow.
“He was running very fast, straight toward the wolf. Everything was backwards. The rabbit was like the wolf and the wolf was like the rabbit, her husband was running to catch the wolf.
“‘Stop!’ the little rabbit wanted to cry. ‘Don’t you see the wolf? Go hide in the woods! Come back tomorrow!’
“But she couldn’t shout because rabbits have very quiet voices, they can only talk to other rabbits when they rub their noses.
“Her mate ran faster and faster across the white meadow toward the wolf. The soft snow flew up from his feet.
“Now he was only ten jumps, then five jumps, then three jumps from the wolf’s nose. The wolf was still sniffing outside the burrow.
“Any moment the wolf would look up and see her husband. The silence of his running feet wouldn’t protect him anymore.
“The rabbit in the hole started to turn her head, she couldn’t bear to watch. She was trembling. But she loved her husband very much and couldn’t look away, even if this was the last time she saw him alive.
“She watched the rabbit run right up to the hungry wolf, right under the wolf’s nose, right next to his long black whiskers and white teeth and hot smoky breath—
“The wolf’s eyes grew narrow, his wide mouth started to open.
“Then the rabbit jumped into the burrow and the rabbit wife heard the hungry wolf sneeze and the snow flew up in a cloud.
“The rabbit wife started to cry.
“She was trembling again but this time because she was so happy that the wolf hadn’t got her mate.
“She kissed the rabbit’s nose and rubbed her ears against his. She put one paw on his chest.
“‘I’m so glad you’re safe,’ she whispered three times.
“She couldn’t believe he was still alive, that the wolf hadn’t eaten him.
“’There was no need to worry,’ said her husband.
“She was so glad he was home but suddenly she was angry too.
“Now she stood back, frowning at him.
“‘Didn’t you see the wolf? He almost got you! Why weren’t you more careful? What would happen to our children if the wolf caught you?’
“‘I saw him,’ said her husband.
“He nuzzled her nose.
“‘There wasn’t any danger,’ he said.
“But his wife was still upset.
“‘You have to be more careful,’ she said. ‘Remember our little rabbits.’
“‘But he didn’t see me,’ said her husband.
“‘Are you crazy?’ asked his wife. ‘You almost jumped into the wolf’s mouth.’
“‘Let me explain,’ said her mate. ‘Then you’ll understand.’
“Her husband turned and before she could stop him he jumped out of the burrow where the wolf was still sniffing.
“He ran in a circle around the wolf, round and round, faster and faster, but the wolf didn’t look up.
“The rabbit stopped and stepped up to the wolf’s nose and nearly touched it with his own.
“Then the rabbit hopped back into their house.
“‘You fool!’ his wife cried. ‘Do you want to get killed? If you don’t care about me at least think of our children.’
“‘He can’t see me,’ said her mate. ‘He can’t see you either.’
“‘Why can’t he see us?’ the rabbit wife said.
“She wondered if the wolf was blind.
“‘Because we’re invisible,’ her mate answered.
“‘Invisible?’ she asked. ‘What do you mean?’
“She was afraid the rabbit would jump outside again.
“‘You can see me,’ said her mate, ‘and I can see you. But the wolf can’t see us. He can’t smell us or see our tracks or hear our feet pound the snow.’
“‘Why not?’ she asked
“‘Because,’ said her husband, ‘no one can find us who can’t feel our love.’”
The blue light blinked at the French doors.
“That’s a good story,” I said.
I’d seen the rabbit running cross the snow toward the wolf and the rabbit watching from her hole.
The ending had caught me by surprise.
“It’s an old Indian story. My grandmother used to tell it to me. I tell it to the kids at school. It’s a winter story.”
“I like it.”
“I told it to my son.”
I didn’t say anything.
She hadn’t told me his name or how old he was.
I wondered if the red-haired baby with the green rabbit had caused her to tell the story.
“I told it to him sometimes before he went to sleep.”
I wanted to jump up, throw on the light and call the police.
It was worse at night. The nightmare was back, the lake and the boat and looking down through the viewer for the baby. It had gone for a little while at dinner but now it was stronger then ever.
I wanted to get up and hold her in my arms, but I was afraid I’d frighten her.
Then the blue light blinked calmly, off and on, the blue mist lit up and again I wasn’t sure what was true.
“Good night, Bill,” Emma said.
“Good night,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“In the morning,” Emma said.
I lay there, listening to Emma breathing.
After a while I sat up.
She looked asleep, her head turned and her black hair like a wing across one cheek.
As I watched her I wondered who she really was.
Her parents were dead. She’d told the man at the dock about rafting on the Yellowstone.
She’d been to junior college and taught kids and older people to read. In high school she’d been a majorette and visited the Elgin Theater and seen a movie before she had a son, before her drunk husband said it wasn’t his and cut her.
In the boat she’d lifted her blue sweater to show me her scar.
One thing was sure.
Somewhere, something had happened to her, something terrible she couldn’t defend herself against and probably hadn’t seen coming.
Just like everybody else, I guessed.
Except she’d lost her child, or thought she had, even if he was alive and well in Calgary.
I could hear the dim music playing from the dining room where people were dancing.
I lay back, remembering the day that from early morning had promised snow that hadn’t come, how in the cold light Emma had followed me outside the tavern door with the porthole, where the crow had cawed and flown by and caused Hugh Edwards to mentioned Poe’s “Raven” and then the white albatross from Moby Dick.
I’d driven her truck to a lake we’d seen together for the first time and she’d begged me to go out in the boat and then later when the water got rough and I said we should go in she told me what she was looking for.
Again I saw the whole secret city that lay under the green water, the wrecked white boat with the red Mercury motor and my quarter falling until it quit shining and became a dull green circle.
It must have finally reached the rock floor, 1,200 feet down, and would lie there until the end of time.
Maybe it was still falling.
Now it glinted again, catching the light.
I started to drift off to the distant murmur from downstairs.
“My love, my darling, I hunger for your touch—”
“Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers song.
“And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much—”
Emma and I were in the boat again, we’d decided to stay out and keep looking.
The fog had dropped lower, just a foot or two above the lake.
Through the viewer I saw the dome like the Capitol, then something lying on the stone bridge above the sunken motorboat.
The fishing lures shone, reflecting gold green light across the black-haired boy’s face and bare chest.
I pointed. Emma stood up, fuzzy in the mist, like a shadow.
I dived straight into the green water that was clearer than the air.
I swam and swam down the trail of the spotlight, down the rock dome’s smooth curve, watching the boy in the lit circle to see if he moved, until I reached out and caught him by one arm.
I swiveled, pushing off from the bridge and kicking my feet and stroking with my free arm as I pulled him up the light like a ladder.
“I got him! I got him!” I thought. “Hurry!”
I had hardly any air.
We broke the surface, the boy first.
I kicked hard and pushed him high into the mist.
Emma took him, holding him in her arms.
“Is he all right?” I asked. I couldn’t see them.
I held the gunwale.
“He’s just cold,” she said from the fog. “He’s breathing.”
But suddenly he wasn’t breathing and she was crying, sobbing as she tried to breathe into his mouth.
She rubbed his hands and the soles of his feet. He lay on the floor of the boat.
I gripped the gunwale to pull myself aboard.
I knew I could save him, with CPR I’d got an old man’s heart started in a bar in Susanville.
I was halfway in when something caught my legs and squeezed tighter, something immensely strong, twisting me around so my hands slipped from the boat and I saw the lake rise and rush toward me.
I was pulled fast straight down past the rushing water, then straight up with a jerk.
Up through the green lake I saw Emma leaning over the bow, swinging the heavy oar at a long green sharp fin that flew out, cutting the hull in half and throwing Emma and her boy into the air.
They somersaulted into the fog.
Then they were floating down out of it in slow motion, like clouds.
Emma reached for her son as I was yanked upward through the water, now the huge thing was leaping and caught her and the boy in the air with a single ringing snap of its flat mouth.
The fog touched and merged with the water as I drowned—
I woke up gulping. My chest heaved and the room went back and forth.
Like the belly of a whale, the doors and walls of the room were bathed in a milky, wavering light. It eddied across my wallet and keys and the antler Sleeping Child on the coffee table.
“It’s good luck, Captain,” the boy at the crossroads store in Idaho said, when I’d given him money for a sandwich and he made me take the carved elk antler.
I looked over at Emma sleeping as the whitish light washed around her.
I got up and stumbled through the white shadows into the bathroom. I closed the door and switched on the light.
I stared into the mirror, then turned on the tap and splashed cold water on my face. I felt like a kid who had night terrors and needed to sleep with a nightlight. I remembered the happy cartoon picture of the Sleeping Child monster in the lobby, the carved figures in the glass case.
Then Wes Blackdeer’s mother holding my arm, staring at me as she asked, “You believe it? Do you know the prayer?”
She’d been talking about the Sleeping Child, not the monster with the sloping head. She had one on her shelf, at her house on the Cottonwood Reservation, and I’d taken out mine to show it to her.
“‘Sleep deeply until you wake,”’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘“Until both worlds are one.’”
On the way back I’d asked Wes again about Sleeping Child Lake.
“I don’t know,” Wes said. “Sometimes people go there. They don’t come back.”
I shut off the light, remembering the sparrow that sang among the rafters and bright eyes.
I stepped past the shadowed foot of the bed and the sofa and the bear rug with its raised jaw. I slipped open the glass door to the balcony.
No rounded monster’s head broke the surface of the lake.
The moon had come out between a break in the snow clouds, a white oval that made a V-shaped wake like a road across the water to the shore and gravel lot to our window. The fog had disappeared and the cool light of the buoy blinked, reflected and jostled by the waves.
The dance music was gone, the dining room’s big windows dark. I breathed the chill air, shivering.
It was cold and clear, without any wind.
I looked over my shoulder.
Emma was half-sitting in bed with the blanket around her.
In the shadowy moonlight from the lake, she lay in a grotto where light shimmered upward from moving water.
“Go back to sleep,” I said. “I just had a bad dream.”
She watched me, then with a white hand opened the bed covers.
In the moonlight she was lovely, like alabaster.
“Please,” she said softly.
I closed the balcony door and moved to the bed through the rippling light.
Emma opened her arms.
She was wearing something white on a thin chain around her neck. She saw me notice and raised the pendant from between her breasts.
“It’s the Sleeping Child.” She smiled in the dark. “Like yours.”
She drew me down and I felt her trembling.
“Emma,” I whispered, “you’re beautiful.”
Her fingers touched my cheek and then she laid her head on my chest and I stroked her hair.
She took my hand and pressed it hard against the raised scar on her stomach. She closed her eyes, then turned and kissed my mouth.
In the sweetness of her kiss I understood we were meant to meet, we’d found our way through a maze of paths to each other’s warm arms.
Later I watched her peaceful, sleeping face, remembering her story about the rabbits and the wolf that couldn’t see them.
“No one can find us who can’t feel our love—”
We lay in the Lakeview Inn in the dark with the moonlight at the French doors falling across the bed, lighting Emma’s cheek and closed lips and the small white Sleeping Child that lay at her breast.
After we went to the police in the morning, after I’d helped her find her son and get him back, I’d ask if she wanted to go to Lake Chelan.
I hoped she’d say yes.
I watched her for a while, her soft lips and the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth, her smooth brow, the sleeping baby of white antler rising and falling gently with her breathing in the moon-washed room.
Emma and I had fallen on safe ground, like Hugh Edwards’ maple leaves. Maybe he was right, that gravity was love.
I lay back and touching her warm side I said a silent prayer for her and me and her son, without knowing his name or who I was praying to, maybe the Sleeping Child.
I was praying to anything that was good that might be listening, that watched out for the sparrow in the rafters and the two rabbits in the snow.
Tony found a mystery in an old book of equations he bought at a used bookstore. It was September and he was taking his first university class in thirty years and thought the old book would help him remember how X could equal Y.
Tony thought the math class could help him get away from thinking too much about his wife’s death from two years ago. Or, maybe he needed to think less about his daughter Claudia dropping out of college after getting pregnant back in April. After all, they did get married and the father will graduate next year. Tony was glad he found that mystery in the math book. It was something else to think about. It came from a postcard dated May 1969.
The backside read, “Drink cheap alcohol and dream the dreams.” The front side showed a passenger train crossing a long bridge over a placid river. A man’s scrawl laid across the bridge’s high arches and stated, “I hid an emerald. Who finds it will become a hero.”
Tony did not believe this because why would anyone write something like this on a postcard and put it in an old math book. Over the next week, the scrawled words kept pestering Tony until October brought cold air and he missed signing up for the university class. To avoid the cold and Claudia who moved in until the baby was born, he researched missing emeralds at the downtown library.
In the microfiche files from 1969, Tony read a newspaper article about an unnamed, thirty year old man who died from a heart attack on a passenger train between Fredericksburg and DC. The conductors said the old man’s last words were, “I found a magical emerald and mounted it on a ring.” He promised to come back as a ghost and reveal to whoever believed in ghosts where to find the ring. Tony wondered if riding a commuter train along the same steel tracks the man died on would help.
Tony started his search with a lot of energy, which was every time he rode the commuter train, which was five days a week to work. Each day, he picked a different train car to ride in. He searched the seats, overhead racks, and window edges for some sign of the ghost. Tony wanted the emerald ring ghost to see him looking. He believed that it was fate for him to find the postcard and he had only to find the train ghost in order to find the ring. Tony found that ghosts could be elusive.
After three weeks, Tony thought he should be focusing on something a lot more realistic. Really, he was getting confused and lost track of what train car he looked on. Tony had hoped his dead wife would come back and help him look for the emerald ghost. Maybe, I should organize a séance to ask her, he considered. Tony wondered why the paper did not print the man’s name or why the post card had no address. Tony considered asking Claudia for help since they both rode the commuter trains, just on different schedules.
“I don’t know who he was.” Tony tried to explain to Claudia. They sat at the kitchen table one evening eating supper and waiting for the baby to move again inside Claudia.
“If you thought like a detective you would have looked up obituaries,” said Claudia. She ate white rice covered with spaghetti sauce.
Tony refused to read obits since he had to list his wife in one. “I’m hoping that his ghost will help me find the treasure. I think that if I find that emerald ring, we’ll be all right.”
“There’s something wrong about chasing after that emerald ring. As if that dead man is trying to change your destiny.”
“I thought he was a part of my destiny.” Tony considered the act of a dead man altering his future as unrealistic, yet believable since he believed in ghosts and was trying to locate one.
“The whole thing sounds suspicious. Anyone hiding things and keeping secrets is up to no good. If someone has to keep secrets, then they’re usually doing things that aren’t right.”
Tony finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen. He couldn’t think of any secrets he would keep from his daughter. But, the dead man had secrets such as where he hid the emerald ring. This could be proof that secrets led to obsessions and maybe they were the same. Tony obsessed over these thoughts until he went to bed and dreamed about the book of equations.
That evening, the train stopped on a long bridge with concrete arches rising high from the undisturbed river below. Outside his rectangular train window, Tony looked down at an unopened wine bottle placed on a concrete breakout ledge that was big enough for one person to stand on and get off the steel tracks if a train came. His commuter train crawled onward and toward the next station like water seeping through a tight crack. A stop later, Tony got off on a concrete platform and under blue awnings.
“I thought I saw that ghost you were looking for,” said one of the older conductors. Tony stopped detraining. “But, it was just a greenish reflection off some bottle.”
“On the bridge we went over. It was brief, but definite. A flash of green light.”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“I’ll keep looking.”
Tony wondered why. He only mentioned it to a few people. Commuters sometimes had a lot of empty time on their hands, he concluded.
In early January, the baby erupted from Tony’s daughter. The husband came the next day. His parents the day after. On the third and fourth day, they all rested at Tony’s house until Claudia came home. On the fifth day, the other grandparents went back to their other lives. On the sixth day, the father left to finish college. On the seventh day, Tony and Claudia celebrated the first week of Alice’s life in between her crying, eating, peeing, pooping, and sleeping. They took turns sleeping.
Three weeks later at two in the morning, Tony found his granddaughter Alice asleep and she did not need his words to continue sleeping. Tony picked her up anyway to be sure she had not cried out for him. Since he had her up, Tony whispered details about his treasure hunt. He let out a deep sigh taking care not to blow in her small face as Alice’s tiny head rested in the thick, hard crook of his forearm. Tony’s daughter Claudia snored quietly in the adjoining bedroom.
As he put Alice back in the crib, Tony whispered to her, “On the commuter train this evening, I saw a woman that looked like your grandmother. She wore an emerald ring. Emerald’s are only good to share with.”
“I want to help you get through this,” Tony said to Claudia the next evening. Staying home with the baby, Claudia surfaced as an eccentric cook who took her mother’s old recipes and made them extravagant in flavor. Tony thought less of his wife’s smell that sometimes surfaced in the oddest of places of the house as if her ghost lingered where it was hard to find.
“We are getting through this,” Claudia said. Alice in her arms burped. This was followed with a course of spittle and a string of formula that the baby let flow out of her mouth like vomit was another form of language. Claudia left the table to clean her daughter.
The next evening, Tony took an earlier train and stopped by a dog pound. No, he had no idea what he was thinking except that Claudia had Alice and he wanted something, too.
The fox terrier smelled Tony first. Unbeknown to Tony, but noticed sometimes by his fellow workers, he had a sweat and sour tinge to his skin that at first made the fox terrier howl loudly. Tony walked over to her cage and brought his face to the fox terrier’s wire cage. She sprung out with a quick lick through the wire mesh. The dog seemed to be smiling which felt good to Tony.
On the way home, Tony called out names until the fox terrier barked at ‘Mary’. Mary had no clue what Tony said. The name just sounded like small bells. She was glad to have her paws on solid ground instead of a wire mesh.
“Don’t bark when we go in. Alice may be asleep.”
Tony opened the door and Mary dashed in letting out a howl that echoed deep into the foyer. Communication was always important to her.
“Why did you name her ‘Mary’? Did you forget that my mother and your wife’s name was ‘Mary’? What are you trying to say here? Do you think this mutt is my mother and your wife reincarnated?” The questions flowed out of Claudia’s mouth like blood from a cut artery.
“The dog liked the name.”
“How many names did you try on her? One?”
“I tried a lot and she liked ‘Mary’.
At the tiny bell sound, Mary let out another howl that she was hungry. Claudia stomped into the kitchen where Mary stood howling. “What do you want?”
Mary thought it obvious since they were in the kitchen with lots of food smells. Mary made it simple by thrusting her head toward the pantry where she smelled potato chips.
“She’s hungry,” Claudia said. She filled Mary’s bowl with pellets from the bag of dog food taken from Tony’s sweaty hands. Mary kept such a close eye to make sure all the bowl space became occupied with pellets, that some fell on her long nose. As Claudia put away the bag, Mary flipped a quarter of the hard pellets behind the food bowl for safekeeping. Just in case the people forgot her, particularly since she was a new experience for them.
In the meantime, Tony walked away to check on Alice which left Claudia to take Mary, her mother’s namesake, outside for a pee and poop.
In the chilly air under a full moon, Mary thought this a good family to love and who would love her in return. Despite their arguing.
“It told me to take a chance on it,” Tony told Claudia who came in with Mary.
“It’ll stay locked in the house most of the time. You’re trading it one prison for another.
“It’ll have our attention and protection.”
“We don’t know where it came from.”
“It came from the pound. When you brought Alice home, she came from the hospital. The pound is just a big hospital.”
“You logic is ridiculous.”
“It had all its shots, been cleaned, nails clipped, and teeth brushed. It’s better taken care of than me after riding the crowded commuter train.”
“I hope it’s been spaded or neutered or whatever they do to make them not attract other dogs,” said Claudia. “We don’t want any unwanted pregnancies.”
That night, Tony dreamed that the 1969 ghost was telling him something about destiny. Tony did not want to end up a ghost like this one wandering the ethereal world talking to real people about their destiny. Instead, he hoped Mary would be able to tell him the mystery of the ring. The wife, not the dog.
February entered with a blowing snow that imprisoned everyone inside the house. Tony cleared a good patch of snow for Mary which she appreciated. Except, the snow bank was much more fun and Mary came out of it each time with ice balls dangling from her fur. Claudia cleaned off Mary to keep from mopping up small puddles as Tony came in dripping with melting water. Mary gave Claudia a surprise lick for not complaining.
“Nothing ever happened to me until my wife gave birth to Claudia,” Tony told Mary a week after the snow began to melt. He laid in bed with Mary next to him watching the clock approach four in the morning. He had less and less time to get to the train.
“When Claudia was growing up, I cluttered my office cubicle with her toys that she no longer wanted. People complained that I had too much. But, this was where I spent most of my life other than the train. When they moved me to a cubicle farm, I got rid of my office files so I could keep all of the toys. All these years, I realized that all I could remember of Claudia’s childhood got mixed in with images of my fellow commuters. I do not want to remember other commuters. I want to remember what family I still have.”
The bedroom air stayed still and quiet in those early morning hours. Outside, Tony could sense the raw movement of thousands of commuters starting their daily journey. He sighed.
Tony stayed home that day and played with Mary in the melting snow. Eventually, Claudia came out with Alice bundled so much that she looked like a snowball.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, Tony decided to look again for the emerald ring. He bought a merlot in a green bottle with a tassel hung around the neck and a green stone attached. On second thought, Tony decided he did not want to drink red wine out of a green bottle. Instead, he sat at the kitchen table after Claudia and Alice had gone to bed and looked in the old book of equations.
Tony calculated the distance across the train bridge and where he saw the green wine bottle. He found that by a factor of ten the distance was equal to that between Fredericksburg and DC. Would he walk across a train bridge where the wine bottle sat? Mary at his feet looked up with a definite ‘no’ in her eyes.
The next evening on a Friday, Tony watched for that wine bottle. The train went fast, but it was there on the ledge unmoved by the train’s speed. When he got home, he liked Mary pouncing at his feet and the rich, warm smell of Claudia’s Italian cooking. Even if it tasted like Spain.
“Treasure hunts are only good if they end up with a treasure.” Tony told Claudia that evening after supper. Tony’s desert was a small dish of chocolate ice cream with a slice of mozzarella mixed in. Mary waited at Tony’s feet to lick his bowl.
“That dead man is making you look foolish chasing an emerald that probably doesn’t even exist.” Claudia ate vanilla ice cream with olive oil drizzled on top.
“Maybe you’re right and the emerald ring is just a piece of green rock with metal around it.”
“By the way, I talked to my supposed husband today and we’re getting a divorce. His parents convinced him Alice wasn’t his.”
They ate their ice cream in silence for a few minutes. Mary was glad she hid those few pellets of food behind her bowl.
“Someone needs to make sure your mother is all right on the other side. I think the train ghost is making sure of that as long as I’m looking for his emerald ring,” Tony said.
“You don’t know any of this. It’s all in your imagination. I don’t think there’s any emerald ring to be found,” Claudia said. “All the treasure of the world has been found just like all the songs have been sung and poetry has been written.”
“I want to give you a chance at hope. I think that the combination of words and music are in its infancy and there is much more to be discovered.”
Tony looked down at Mary and placed his not quite eaten ice cream next to her front paws. Tony looked at his daughter and said, “I wanted to give you the emerald when I found it. I wanted you to have a treasure.”
“Everyone here is my treasure.”
Mary smiled, but no one saw since she had ice cream drying on her whiskers.
“We are all in love. We just never know it,” Claudia said while cleaning Mary’s chocolate face. “The love comes when one person pays attention to someone else. The four walls of any house can quickly become a home with the subtle, warm glance of a fellow person.”
Claudia finished with Mary followed by a few soft swipes on Alice’s puckered face to pick out the drool. “If you think there are still words to be discovered, maybe you should spend your time on the train writing them down.”
That night, Tony put the old book of equations in his bottom bureau drawer and closed it. He decided he did not need his life derailed by something like a mystery. He turned onto his side in the fetal position. Mary licked his ear once and curled against his warm back. Through the bedroom wall, Tony listened to Claudia sing a lullaby to Alice. Mary hoped the child would be able to get the off key singing out of her head.
There was a fear went forth and it entered the homes of nearly all the citizens. It passed all the way to the horizon, past the saltmarsh and the shoremud, past the seacrows scolding it for impertinence, past the farmers first and then the fishermen and then even the tourists with their tan corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows and their boxes and boxes of Bermuda shorts and their culottes and their unfinished woodworking projects and their brand new ethnic clothing. It spread even to the scuba divers who surfaced looking for the signs of a storm and found none.
Then a hermit came down from the mountains and said, “Draw nigh.” And the people drew nigh, for the hermit was something they had forgotten. And the hermit said, “When I am ill, I come down the mountain to see who I really am.”
“We are not ill,” said the people. “We have simply come to see the hermit because he does not live in a correct manner,” said the people. And the hermit laughed, but not too hard, so that he would not offend them.
And the hermit walked out into the field where the people had gathered and began chasing rabbits. And the people laughed.
Pretty soon the people were chasing rabbits towards the hermit so they could watch his funny antics as he tried to catch them. Of course, the hermit never caught any rabbits, but when most of the people were in the field chasing rabbits towards him, he stopped and began laughing even harder than the people had laughed. And the people and the hermit were laughing so hard at each other that the rabbits became very confused and they caught them.
You could almost see the fear receding from the people’s hearts and the horizon beckoning once again to researchers and Winnebagos and pup tents and executive leadership retreats and seminars on the art of sensual massage and wilderness hiking renewal achievers and herbalists and new age urban insomnia children.
And the hermit went back to his mountain, refusing several offers of honorary doctorates and chairs in religious studies programs and ate berries and roots and tried hard to live in his own inadequate body.
“Secret Lives of the Hatless” by Rich Ives
And this would have to be the version of the story in which the stones do not talk and the people do and probably the plants would stay in one place unless the people moved them and not talk either unless they merely whisper in faint breezy answer when the people talk to them and someone would have to walk the dog if there was a dog and someone would have to feed the cat if there was a cat unless the people let their domesticated animals wander about freely scavenging for themselves but they wouldn’t do that nosir because the people’s parents and friends would think less of them and you can’t live like that no not if you’re sensitive and don’t scratch your behind in public or make disgusting noises in the bedroom with the window open I mean I guess if your life’s going to make sense you have to have some guidelines to go by even if other people don’t believe in them because after all we’re not all ruthless and we have still another version of a good example to set by golly yessir with all that generous warmth rising up like unquestioned prayers from the lowered tops of all those trusting heads of ours don’t you see it’s just one of the ways we can explain our losses besides singing a capella or rubbing up against trees and calling softly to the various physical manifestations of our desire to feel the heat of our life’s argument even as it continues escaping the calculated pretense of exterior appearance.
You’re in prison and they’ve given you hammers. They’re the ones who put you there and they’ve called your mother to the center of the confusing event. They’ve awarded you steaks.
You know what they want, but you don’t know how they want it. It’s not a game. It’s your antecedent finally revealed.
Whistle it home, or just chew on the eggshells?
Your daughter’s a stoolie. Or is she just another hammer? She has too much to say, but you’re not sure if she says it.
“Forget the past,” you tell yourself, thinking about it.
Whose overzealous oven folded your sex kitchen? A setting of hammered bread and suicide access. The “accidents” burning the numbers off your wrist. The signal for one stroke, no blood.
Just when you think it’s safe to abandon safety, here comes the Warden’s Surprise. They let you out. It’s still a prison. But not a single visible hammer. You call your mother. You tell her you’re ready to pay the price. You forget to pick up the steaks.
Meanwhile your daughter the stoolie closes the century alone, but alive. “It’s the future,” you say to yourself, and it is, but the future’s its own prison.
You pick up the maiden sticks.
One stroke. Two strokes.
No one knows how you want it.
It hurts now and you want more.
The sticks are not alone but have no one to tell them apart.
It’s not a game. The hammer fits.
If there’s a house here, it’s unfinished.
No one who lives here can find the right nail.
It’s only a rumor, but it could be true.
The door whispers and whispers. You can’t understand what it says, but you think you know what it means.
It’s enough to make you question your convictions.
I wanted to understand why the first juncture was not the real juncture. I wanted to know why a false juncture even existed. And I wanted to know why “existed” had such a phony ring to it. I wanted to know a lot of things and a lot of things were not forthcoming, but some things were, and they were not the things that explained certain other things like when to expect a valid juncture.
If you believe it, sometimes that makes it true, so I started believing in junctures. So I guess I experienced one. I mean I believe I had one transition me. So I experienced getting from one thing to another. So I could go on. I could continue with a clear sense of the new direction being different from the old direction, which wasn’t a bad direction, just, well, “old.”
So I closed the door.
Meaning I wanted to go outside, but another juncture occurred, and I didn’t.
It was cold out there, but I still wanted to go.
Meaning, even at that age, I recognized the urge to squeeze when caressing a lover’s throat, and I wanted to. As I squeezed into her I mean, as she tightened her body’s grip on me. I was thinking about the future that hadn’t happened yet, but that I was already beginning to understand.
So I didn’t go outside.
Where it was raining. Where the sun was.
How do you say “wait” the way water does, or sunshine?
Because I want you to imagine it. Like I did, before it happened.
I want you to be me the way I used to be.
And I want you to save me from an early demise. Which hasn’t happened yet, of course, but could if what I’m asking isn’t impossible.
Notice I haven’t given you a description of the exceedingly ordinary suburban house in which the “real” juncture may or may not have occurred. Notice I haven’t described the rain. Notice the contradictory insertion of the symbolic optimism of green hillsides in the ordinary town. Now try to imagine the young girl’s secret words for desire. Notice the boy’s volley of verbal trophies disguised as accusations. Listen to them mouthing the same words, the ones they can’t use with each other yet. Notice nature’s defiant green thrust through the carcass of a robin.
Meaning I had decided to stay inside, but a juncture occurred.
So I went outside, and you were there.
Which we didn’t fully understand yet but sort of, and it was very dangerous after the juncture.
Because now this involved at least two of us.
Because one of us might have something to say.
Because it wasn’t obvious which one.
“San Francisco Carnival”
“Frozen” by Barbara Coe
The closet. His closet. Our whole life together reduced to things found in this wardrobe and the memories attached to them. My arms are unable to fold, stack, or bag any of the clothes I stand in front of. I have no thoughts, no feelings. There is only an abyss. This void has a temperature. It is an unwelcome glacier eclipsing me, imposing itself over me, dense and uninhabitable. The mass of the thing hidden beneath the surface. A dangerous magnitude of what I cannot see or touch. Impossible to navigate.
I’ve been through his desk, books, and pictures, but there is something profoundly different about the closet. Here, I actually feel him. I stare at the items in front of me. A small crack leaks something warm and familiar through the ice—I tug at my favorite T- shirt of his. It slides off the hanger and empties into my hand. The weight of the cotton slight and supple from the years of weekly wash. Black with red print from New York’s MOMA with the tag lineFear No Art. The cut a perfect fit for his athletic shoulders. He wore it on weekends. Our days. Stolen afternoons at films, at restaurants, and later in bed. I pull it toward me, hold it close to my chest.
The warm trickle widens and a memory begins to flood my body. Elevator dancing. Long before his illness, whenever we were alone in an elevator, he would grab me, bring me close and begin to slow dance, gently humming into my ear. The warmth deepens. I feel his hand reach for my arm, pull me into his chest alongside this soft cotton. I hear his heartbeat and feel the moistness of his breath along the curve of my neck. When the elevator stopped for another passenger, he would release me and we’d stand side by side waiting for the intruder to leave so we could continue our waltz.
The memory ends. The warmth recedes. The crack seals.
My fingertips grip the shirt at the shoulders. I silently fold back both sleeves, leaving an undersized silhouette of his form. I drop the top half over my left forearm, the neck and shoulder lines now turned away. My opposite hand slowly creases it in half once more, exposing only a small patch of abdomen. I place the small square I have made on the rack above the hanging clothes. Again, I am frozen.
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.
Leah Miranda Hughes was born a Southern poet in Dalton, GA. While her hometown thought it best that she move to Atlanta, they allow her to visit. She puts her shoes on to cross the Mason-Dixon Line. She earned degrees in English and American Literature from Oglethorpe University and Georgia State, and an MFA from Queens University, Charlotte. Teaching jobs provide funding for her ink and paper habit.
Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review,Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. An interview and 18 hybrid works appear in the Spring 2011 issue of Bitter Oleander. In 2011 he has been nominated twice for Best of the Net and once for the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Thin Air Creative Nonfiction Award.
Michael Lee Johnson is a poet and editor from Itasca, Illinois who lived for 10 years in Canada during the Vietnam era, and has published in 25 countries. He runs five poetry sites, and his published works are available at http://poetryman.mysite.com.
Tom Lombardo is a poet and writer who lives in Midtown Atlanta. He is poetry series editor for Press 53, a literary publisher in Winston-Salem, NC, and was editor of After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery, an anthology featuring 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. His poems have appeared in journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India, including Southern Poetry Review, Ambit, Subtropics, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Atlanta Review, New York Quarterly, Chrysalis Reader, and others. Tom’s nonfiction has appeared previously in Chrysalis Reader and other publications and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Press, 2009. His criticism has been published in New Letters, North Carolina Literary Review, and South Carolina Review. He earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte.
Tom Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His short story collections are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, from Press 53, NC; and From the Quickening, from Pocol Press, VA, which also issued his memoirs, A Collection of Friends. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, appeared in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, and has 260 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. He has appeared in 4 issues of Rosebud Magazine and 7 issues ofOcean Magazine. His novels include Vigilantes East, An Accountable Death, Death of a Phantom Receiver (an NFL mystery), and a manuscript, Murder from the Forum (an NHL mystery), is in the hands of a literary agent. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, September 2011, is Korean Echoes. The Westering, a collection of short stories, will be published by Milspeak Publishers in 2012, and will be followed by at least 8 more collections in the series. His work is in/coming in Ocean Magazine, Nervous Breakdown, Stone Hobo, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Canary, Subtle Tea, Red Dirt Review, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, Nashwaak Review, and Qarrtsiluni.
Follow Mike Smith on Twitter at @missinggeorgia. Plus,check out his blog, The Showbiz Kids.
Stanley B. Trice has published stories in national and
international magazines and won several local writing contests. He is
a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers Club, and the
North Carolina Writers Network. During the day, he commutes by train to
Northern Virginia where he works on budgets and legislative issues.
A.D. Winans is a native San Francisco poet and writer. He edited and published Second Coming for 17 years. He is the author of over 50 books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. His work has been published internationally and translated into eight languages. In 2002, a song poem of his was performed at Alice Tully Hall, NYC. In 2006, PEN National awarded him a Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature. In 2009, he was presented with a PEN Oakland Lifetime Achievement Award. Late this year or early next year, NYQ will publish a book of his political poems, spanning over 50 years.