Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Monday, October 24, 2005

Trying to fill the gaps

I remember sitting in a park. It was warm and sunny, and a thin layer of cirrus dimmed the sun, reducing the glare on the pages of my spiral notebook. I was distanced from the others, conscious of them and they of me, and after a time a friend came over and sat down next to me.

“What are you writing about?” she asked.

“Socorro,” I said. Or I think I did, anyway. I really don’t remember much more than her sitting there and me pausing in my recollections, and the sun warming the two of us, and how grateful I was for her presence. It was a long time ago.

I might have told her that I first saw the hotel at half-past midnight when I walked through the cobblestone courtyard and roused the old man sleeping on a couch in the foyer. Of how he walked me to my room, his footsteps slow and arthritic, up a flight of oak stairs that groaned under our passage and down a long dark hall, and how half the tiles were missing in the bathroom, and the window overlooked a fountain whose waters had evaporated decades ago.

I might have told her, but I really don’t remember. I’m sure whatever I said didn’t convey what I wanted to express.

If I had it to do again, I might tell her that sometimes we forget that the heartbreak and loss we experience are uniquely our own, that though friends like her may express sympathy or empathy or any other –pathy, only we know the road we travel. I might say that I was writing down the details of an important part of my life and I didn’t want to forget, that it was an exercise to while away the lonely hours while I waited to go through to the other side and find out who I was and what I might become, and what would be left and what missing.

I would tell her, I’m trying to fill the gaps.

It was a long time ago. I don’t remember much more, and I never did write it all down.

***

I’ve been having dreams lately of being in a car speeding backward, and when I stomp on the brakes there is only a faint slowing. It’s always night and I can’t see what’s behind me, and the pedal doesn’t go to the floorboard but feels solid. I know what it feels like when brakes are bled dry, how the pedal hits the floor with no resistance and the car continues on as if under its own volition, and panic is a brutal punch to the stomach. It’s happened to me before, in the Gallinas Canyon above Las Vegas after I had engaged in drinking and offroad exploration. It’s not like that.

It’s more like I’m being carried off, dragged back to somewhere in my past, and my terror isn’t so much that the car will hit something but that it will take me where I don’t want to go. I’m wild-eyed with fright, both feet on the pedal, both hands gripping the wheel. When I look in the mirror I see nothing but darkness and a few colored lights.

Last night I dreamed I saw Lori get into a car and start the engine. A sense of dread hammered me speechless, and before I could shout the car lurched into reverse and shot away, and her eyes widened in fear and I screamed no no no stop and she couldn’t and the darkness took her and I was left alone on a deserted street, the pavement gritty under my knees.

I think of that young man with his notebook. If I could meet him again I would tell him that maybe some things are best forgotten.

***

I wrote that the airport was two miles out of town, that it was new and empty except for four pieces of furniture, a Coke machine, a candy machine, and a pile of magazines about flying. An old man came in each day I worked there and fell asleep on a couch. We never spoke.

The jet was chained to the asphalt runway just to the side of the terminal. It was a T-33 trainer and the reason I was there. A former pilot wanted it back and had threatened to take it. My job was to make sure he didn’t.

The waitress where I ate was named Melissa. She was very pretty.

At night the hangars rattled in the wind, and tumbleweeds rolled down the runway as if taking flight. Sometimes a car would turn off the frontage road and drive up, and I would stand off to the side and watch its occupants. They came to see the jet.

I wrote that I called Ellen from the payphone. A girl named Betsy answered and put Ellen on. I apologized for calling so late. Ellen said she was reading Dune.

I have forgotten who Ellen was. There isn’t the shadow of an image, a face, a recollection. Only a gap.

***

Last weekend we drove to Manhattan. On the drive back Lori fell asleep, and it seemed for a while that I was alone in the vehicle, distanced from the autumnal landscape and the life I’ve led and the steps I’ve taken to reach this place. That for a sliver of a moment I was that young man sitting in the park with a notebook and pen and a friend who asked what he was writing about, and even as he tried explaining he knew that words would sometimes betray him. That they would never be enough.

I watched crows boiling up over barren fields, and leaves cascading gently to the ground, and the car was like a time machine whisking me from where I had been to where I was going. I glanced at Lori and saw the silver in her hair, and the rise and fall of her breasts, and the reds and golds and auburns of trees beyond her, and I told myself I could not forget this. I must remember, I said. I don’t want to someday look back on this moment and wonder what happened. Don’t forget, I whispered. Don’t forget. Don’t forget.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Not a leaf

Part 4 of 4

So. It was an autumn creek now, damp from recent rains, patined with fallen leaves and walnut husks gone black, and stubbled with stones worn smooth by time and water. It was not the Pecos River, not 900 miles of waterway traversing two states, and I was not the young dreamer, but someone else, older, perhaps wiser, cognizant that dreams can die, or fade from neglect, or reduct to manageable levels. By which, if successful, we are ennobled to stare back at our mirrored selves and not turn away.

As is increasingly difficult for me. I am fading even as my dreams fade. I am passing away. So: it was an autumn creek now, and I an autumnal man, and the last leg of this journey was before me.

Down I went, and down, the declination less, the bed wide and deep, with fewer feeder creeks adjoining, and those narrow and grassy-banked. The only sound that of my footsteps in the dried leaves and the toc-toc of my hiking stick as it glanced off stones. A half-buried metal drum signaled the sad and sorry spectacle of the disrespect mankind affords the natural world.

My way was barred by a downed tree. Beyond it the stream cut sharply westward past heaps of riprap. I balanced on a tree bole and walked down carefully. Maneuvering around a tangle of limbs, I peered around the bend and saw another severe turn to the right, deeply grooved, mucky, an accretion of trash and sticks and concrete slabs tilting up like ancient monoliths from a forgotten race. As I stepped down from the log a sharp-shinned hawk appeared like an apparition and flared in my face with a burst of wingnoise and golden eyes and I heard a snap and something tore into my right knee.

The hawk was gone. A blink, no more. The pain continued. A stick was wedged through a hole in my jeans, and as I extricated it I checked for damage. Some skin missing, a trickle of blood, nothing debilitating. I suspected it was a snare but found no indication of it. But wariness intruded on my solitude, and as I approached the first houses and heard the hammering of metal echoing through the trees I stepped lighter and kept to the deeper shadows.

Someone was above me on the bank. Something was being dragged, something heavy and metallic, and I forced my way through saplings and ragweed as silently as thought, hunkered down, moving fast. The first bridge came into view and I slipped into the darkness beneath it. A car rumbled overhead. The air itself seemed to vibrate.

I didn’t pause but hurried on. The stream narrowed into a brush-choked gulley, hiding me from bordering houses, and soon I came to the bridge over Highway 77. A fishing spider guarded the entrance but let me pass. Like ancient petroglyphs, the walls were patterned with a series of muddy handprints sequential to a heart now capped with a representation of hair. Letters within the heart were indecipherable, but farther on, near the north entrance, were more inscriptions of lovers long gone. I wondered if their loves had been true.

For a hundred yards now I felt exposed, hastening down a stream now treeless as it entered the fairgrounds. I wanted to be hidden from the eyes of men. Only when I bulled through a copse of weeds and sunflowers did I feel safe, and then kept the pace past the scattered buildings and beneath the latticed footbridges and out the far side, where the bottom opened up and water pooled in low places and the whistle of a tree frog sounded through the woods. Towering cottonwoods jutted through the canopy. So massive were the trunks that it seemed I had entered an old-growth forest, a remnant from the dawn of time.

Shadows deepened; minnows flitted through the pools; yellow butterflies wove the air. There was current now, a true stream, and each step triggered a leap from tiny chorus frogs. I ranged the stream, picking the easiest course, slowing now to relish the shade.

I broke into the open near the levee. The stream wended into twin rectangular culverts twice my height. Under the ground I went, my footsteps echoing, accompanied by a whisper of moving water. Near the outlet was a stretch of muck that swallowed my boots, but I was near the end of things and would not be deterred.

The final stretch snaked through high banks of weeds and vines, narrow-bottomed, muddy, so I clawed through the vegetation to gain the high ground and paralleled the stream with the sun hot on my shoulders. The blue river opened up on my left and swung past in an arc and I dropped down a steep bank and stood beside the confluence.

It was so quiet. And so sudden that it took me a moment to catch up with myself. The years melted away and I was a dreamer still. And I knew it was a minor victory but a victory nonetheless. A sharpie flew across the river and back and quartered the sky. A squirrel scolded from the woods. I felt giddy and uncommonly free.

A leaf floated past, spinning slowly on the sluggish current. It bounced over a riffle and purled and bobbed and was carried captive downstream. I thought of how I often felt imprisoned to time and demands not of my own choosing, an inmate without choice or say, and yet I have legs and mobility and spirit and have used them to this conclusion. I have seen the beginning and the end of a creek that might be named Juganine or named nothing at all, and though my imprint upon it will never be the name of my beloved, it bears my footprints from start to finish.

I stood there until the leaf disappeared around the bend. The sharpie crossed the river and flew southward. I watched it go and turned to follow. My legs carried me up the hill. I am not a leaf.

Monday, October 10, 2005

An interlude for naming rights

Part 3 of 4

“The glory and the nothing of a name.” Lord Byron

Connie Nugent has lots of files. She has files on city council meetings dating back to the creation of Blue Rapids; files on agendas, on resolutions, on social groups and their meetings, on businesses past and present; on the evolution of the town square, on Riverside Park, on the waterworks (which were the most advanced of any town in Kansas at the time). Woven throughout those files is our town’s narrative, from its bright beginning to its long slow decline. And somewhere, she says, there’s a brief reference to a Juganine. Maybe a horse once renowned at the race track here. Or maybe it was a prize bull exhibited during the early days of the fair. It’s in those files somewhere, she says. She just can’t remember where.

While she looks, I’m thinking of the Judith River in Montana. Not that I’ve ever seen it, but its name has resonated with me for decades since reading that William Clark named it for Julia Hancock as he and the Corps of Discovery worked their way up the Missouri River. At the time I thought it one of the most romantic things a man could do. I wasn’t aware that little Julia would have been around thirteen years old at the time, and, in fact, that when Clark had last been with her she would have been a waif of ten. The man apparently liked them young.

Even so, naming the river in her honor must have scored points with Julia’s father. I imagine Clark rapping on the door of the Hancocks’ Virginia plantation, a bouquet of flowers in hand, and who should answer the door but Mr. Hancock himself. Though Julia’s suitor is one of the most famous men in America, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s over twice her age. Mr. Hancock is understandably dubious. Mr. Hancock makes no move to allow Clark egress.

“Why,” he intones sonorously, “should I let you woo my daughter? Good God, man, she’s only fifteen!”

“Well,” Clark stutters, “I did name that river after her.”

“Major tributary?”

“It looked pretty big.”

“What a jolly good fellow!” Mr. Hancock exclaims, ushering Clark in with a gallant sweep of his arm.

Something about a name gives its namesake power and permanence. In the book of Genesis, the act of naming was the first thing God commanded of Adam. Parents often agonize over what to name a child, as if the name itself somehow bequeaths nobility or intellect. But these days naming rights rarely extend to points on the compass. There are few William Clarks about, and fewer unexplored areas.

Which leaves the stars and little no-name creeks like the one running past our house.
I seem determined to name something after my wife. Even as I plunged downward from the crest of the hill and vowed to place her name upon it, I was uncomfortably aware of the time I tried casting her name to the heavens—literally.

“An eternal home for your name in the night sky!” I’d read in an ad, and if that didn’t catch my attention, the next line did: “The perfect gift for a loved one!” Surely a star is loftier than a river, and here was a way to upstage Clark. The company offered several packages to fit my budget (Couples Stars! Constellations! Galaxies!) and even included free shipping. But an annoying little doubt crept in as I was fixing to give them my credit card number. A few minutes of research exposed star-naming as an utter sham.

And yet, and yet, there had to be a way to name unnamed landforms. In my spare time I rooted around the Internet looking for information, and after several days I found it at the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Included on their Web site is a form for naming geographic entities, which I began gleefully filling out. Somehow, though, I skipped the part where it says the nominee must have been dead for at least five years. When it was pointed out, I felt I had run into a wall at full speed.

Dead.

I walked outside and stared at the ribbon of trees and felt defeated. I questioned my motives for wanting so badly to place my wife’s name on something as eternal as a star, as a stream. Was there a trace of conceit, of pride, one of the seven deadly sins? Or was it something more benign, an old-fashioned romanticism hearkening back to that of Clark? I could not say.

But my way was barred, I knew that. All that remained was to proceed to the end.

The next morning I stepped outside to go to work and lightning shattered the darkness, silent flares of light exploding in the treeless west, and overhead a gibbous moon flitting between scudding clouds unseen in the velvet night. No breath of wind, no distant rumble of thunder, only the metronomic pulse of crickets. I stood by the car and thought of the cold front sliding down from the north, how it would drag migrants in its wake, and change, too, how it would shred summer’s final hold and replace it with an ascendant autumn, and how even if warm days returned they would be as insubstantial as dreams, transient, pale shadows of what once was. I got in my car and drove eastwards, the headlights sweeping the road, and lightning overtook me and engulfed in perfect lambency the wooded ridges beyond the river. Thus summer died.

It would be an autumn stream now. It would be named Juganine or named nothing at all, neither obscure nor famous but simply there. On a cool morning with leaves drifting to earth I slipped from the house and crossed the field and the woods swallowed me.

(Conclusion next week)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Life and death on a creek with no name

Part 2 of 4

Moving water knows only one direction. Down it goes, and down, always seeking the path of least resistance. And if we are to know a creek, a stream, a river, we must see as it sees, how each waterworn stone, each blade of grass or shrub or bankside tree, each oxbow or cutbank or run, each gravel bar or exposed root, owes its shape and placement to the insistence of the water’s progress. But before I can follow this little creek down I must see it as it never sees itself. I must do what it can never do. I must first go up.

It wasn’t far. Down the road to where it turns west, into a field chest-high with grass and thorntrees and white asters crowned with yellow and orange butterflies, past gnarled clusters of scarlet-stemmed pokeweed heavy with their deadly purplish berries, angling lower toward the dark line of trees delineating the perennial creek whose name may be Juganine or may be nothing at all, as if that could be, a thing on the earth without a name. When even the tiniest insect carries its own appellation by which it is recognizable, when every star has its own number, every flower and seed its own nomenclature. When to be innominate is to be cast off or worthless, and why should that be when this little creek or ravine or gully (words already falter under its namelessness!) is singularly responsible for divorcing the westernmost two streets from the town proper as if we were a peninsula jutting into a sea of grass, so that as I walked it was if my steps led into a deep forest a thousand miles from civilization, and only the towering grain elevator shining white in the sunlight anchoring me to this place. Juganine, or something else? I had my ideas, my own dreams, dreams that lay dormant for years and now stirred to life. This creek would have a name. It would be given by me. I passed under the foliage, stepped down a grassy declivity, and stood in a sandy scrape patterned with the tracks of raccoon and deer.

My hiking stick tap-tapped the sun-dappled gravel, its carbide tip skittering off larger stones to sink into the soft damp sand. An elongate pool lay hard against the right bank, sprinkled with the first golden leaves marking autumn’s arrival. Narrow-mouthed toads, looking like formless lumps of clay, leaped into the water leaving ghostly contrails of silt. The stream snaked into a clearing, one bank carved deeply into the rich fertile soil, grass thatched, stratified with shards of flint and limestone and geodes. Sunflowers and ragweed grew prolific in the sudden light, and then I plunged back into the shadow world.

A deep gash on my left indicated the confluence of the eastern branch. It was narrow, choked with deadfall and laced with cobwebs. I realized here that any idea I had of keeping to the stream channel was irrevocably doomed. This was not the headwaters of the Pecos River but a prairie creek of such slow-moving pace that all manner of vegetation grew abundant and riotous, and occasionally broke free to float downstream and wedge in impenetrable barriers.

My goal was to keep to the main branch, which topographic maps indicated came in from the west. I passed an opening on my left where sumac blazed scarlet and the air glittered with dragonflies. Beyond it the channel was filled with large stones, scattered as if toys left behind by some gigantic child. The elevation steepened. Hopping from stone to stone, I passed beneath the railroad trestle far above me and entered a wide level curve pitted with the tracks of cows. The middle branch was a narrow cedar-choked ravine. A few hundred feet beyond I stumbled over a huge fallen cottonwood and faced an array of cows staring intently at me. They seemed in no hurry to move. I was in no hurry to disturb them, so I retreated to the middle branch. My plans were already coming undone.

Up I went, sometimes walking in the channel itself, sometimes forced to find a path beside it. I came to a downfall and skirted it and the narrow game trail led me past a deep cut at least 20 feet in depth. It appeared to be carved by a tremendous force of water, abruptly culminating in a sharp drop-off with a gentle valley beyond. Spider webs made lattices between the trees, and I hewed them apart with my hiking stick.

The final section of streambed was impassable. I broke out into the deep grasses and walked beside it. Up I went, and up, the valley opening at my back and a Cooper’s hawk rising past on a thermal. Only at the crest of the hill did I stop and look back to see the creek as water sees it, and I could not because of the vegetation. There was no rivulet or snowfield but a shallow bowl.

I looked out and saw the green path tumbling to the Big Blue and plunged down, elated and happier than I could remember, stepping fast, moving free as water, seeing how it cut and carved and wore and eroded and cascaded over the detritus of aged woods. How it was sometimes gentle and sometimes temperamental and always lovely beyond the telling. How it was like a woman. I will name this Lori Creek, I swore. I will mark the land forever with her name. Not Juganine, but a name worthy of its beauty.

Down I went, down like water, until I saw the west fork through the cedars and a dark shape to my left and the drone of insects was like a scream and the dark shape turned its head and swiveled its ears toward me and where its eyes should be were two seeping white stumps. I froze in shock.

It was a calf, wandered blind into a deadfall, kneeling now as if expecting rescue or death and not caring which came first. Iridescent blowflies matted its fur. A long ropy tongue flicked out and wet its greasy back and the flies rose and settled again.

I backed away from the horrific sight, suddenly queasy, cognizant of its helplessness, and my own. Its sightless eyes tracked my footfalls as I left it behind.

Down I went, down like water, but I had already reached a depth no stream could reach.

(To be continued)