Thursday, December 27, 2007
I knew him first only as the guy at the end of the block who practiced archery. He’d be out in his front yard with his bow and arrows, dressed in camo no matter the season, a squat, burly man with a chubby baby face and a half-smile playing on his lips, as if he knew something about you that might come in handy sometime. I’d wave, he’d wave, each acknowledging the essence of the other. Such is the cornerstone of rural friendships.
“I hear you’re interested in birds,” he said when we finally met. His voice was gravelly and possessive of an almost-Southern drawl. When I admitted I was, he asked if I’d noticed various species of mammals and birds lying dead on the roads. I had. Growing serious, he lowered his voice and leaned closer.
“You never see a dead crow,” he whispered. “Know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because one always keeps watch,” he said. “And when a car comes along, it yells ‘Kawr, Kawr, Kawr!’”
After that, I was always “Bird Man” to him.
Dennis was famous for his jokes. Nearly all of them were corny, and if the unfortunate recipient couldn’t summon a laugh, Dennis would gladly provide it. Even as his lungs failed, he greeted me with a mindless jest that made me groan, and him cackle.
He was an unlikely source to teach a budding reporter the importance of anonymity. I was a first-year journalist covering the local Christmas parade and felt duty-bound to identify each person in the photographs I took. When it came to Santa, upon whose knees many a child had posed, wariness greeted my request.
“Oh, no,” he said slowly. “You can’t say who Santa is. Santa is Santa.”
After watching him interact with both children and adults, I understood this was no ordinary red-suited imposter. If such a thing as a real Santa Claus exists on this earth, Dennis was his embodiment. Later, when he told me his story, I realized why.
His father, Eugene Ball, had been Santa before him. One Christmas Eve Eugene woke with the flu. He was expected that evening at several houses but knew he couldn’t make it. “You’re going to play Santa Claus tonight,” he told Dennis.
“I’m not big enough to play Santa Claus,” Dennis replied.
“Santa Claus is an elf, you know. He’s little, and tubby.”
Decades later, Dennis remembers wondering if he was little and tubby in his father’s opinion. But no matter: the show must go on. With ample padding Dennis was sent into the night. He was thirteen.
He was a natural. Working fast, getting in and out, was the key. “You come in loud, boisterous, you startle them,” Dennis said. “Don’t let them ask too many questions. Fire one back, give them a moment, fire another. If not, they’ll study everything on you. They’ll sit back before they get in your lap and they’ll study you and study you.”
His most important piece of advice to faux-Santas was this: “You got to know your reindeer.”
His secret identity was closely guarded, even to his own children. It was another lesson he had learned when a niece identified his father from his neatly-trimmed fingernails—which she had manicured the night before.
“They just naturally thought dad had the worst luck because when Santa Claus came, dad was out running an errand,” he said. “When I came home, they’d say, ‘Dad, you missed him again!’ And then one day I was getting dressed and one of them came into the bedroom. I’m telling you, we had to have cardiac, CPR, the whole bit. I just told them, you can’t say nothing. And they’ve all been real good.”
He had the gift of making children and adults feel special—and maybe, in the case of women, a little wicked. One Christmas he made a special trip to the nursing home. One woman who knew Santa’s real identity had promised to make him blush. “She gave Santa Claus a French kiss,” Dennis said. “Santa Claus was very shocked. I was beet red, only nobody could tell.”
He always wanted to show me where he found a woodcock across the levee in a tangle of downed timber, spongy soil and deep grass curling around a wet slough. I’d never found a woodcock and looked forward to going out with him. We’d make plans and then I’d break them, always too busy to go.
Dennis was laid to rest last week. He was 55 years old, one year older than me.
I’m beginning to realize that growing older leads to an accrual of regrets. Our sins of omissions pile up like cars in a California fog and leave as much wreckage. If I had another chance to sit on Santa’s knee, I’d ask for the one thing that keeps eluding me: the wisdom to know when to work and when to share what little time we are allotted.
He told me once that kids kept him young. Unfortunately, they could do nothing for his lungs. But if there is a fitting epitaph for Santa as we knew him, it would be this—that when we were in his presence we were all little kids, and the wonder of the season was the truest thing of all.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
I had walked outside to check conditions before committing to the workday. Inside, coffee was brewing and lights warmed the windows, but outside lay an icy wasteland, though how wasted it would become was lost on me at that moment. The car was heavily sheathed and the road as well, and in the light of streetlamps trees stooped glittering in tormented shapes.
As I stood there entranced at the terrible beauty of the scene, watching the play of light on the gathering ice and my jacket steadily encrusting into a crystalline carapace, there came a dull crack and a muffled whoosh, sharply truncated, like a rifle shot fired into a pillow. Another followed, nearer, with a spray of ice shards jagged as broken glass scattering at my feet. On all sides in the darkness trees imploded and cascaded down, each report a bell-note of escalating hopelessness and panic.
Time was short but I used what I had. I kicked the thermostat to high, turned on all space heaters, made extra coffee and, finally, woke Lori. “You have to hear this,” I said.
We went outside to a changed world. The rain still fell and trees dropped with frightening regularity, as if it were their destiny and none other. The thought came that if this continued nothing would be left by daybreak. Adding to the din was a new sound—the flash and sizzle of arcing transformers.
While Lori cooked breakfast, I gathered candles and flashlights and installed batteries in my headlamp. By its cold bluish light I went back outside and stomped to the shed, where I’d stored four gallons of kerosene. A tree blew apart and fell across the shed and other branches hung precariously above, but I took my chances and entered. Outside sounds seemed louder, sharper, accented by falling ice and branches scraping the roof, as if I stood in a sort of echo chamber. But I did not linger.
The kerosene heater, stored downstairs, hadn’t been used in years. I dusted off the spider webs and carried it upstairs, where I checked the condition of the batteries. Unbelievably, they worked. So we would at least have heat when the power went, which I expected at any moment.
Lori served the last pancake when the lights snuffed out. We ate by candlelight, which would have been romantic under other circumstances but now only served to increase the dread awareness of what was happening outside.
After that, all we could do is sit in the dark and listen to trees falling in the front yard, some exploding against the house. We stayed away from windows. And still the freezing rain drummed on the roof.
There was no dawn, only a minor paling. It served merely to illustrate the extent of the damage. Trees were shattered and broken, leaning crazily, or bowed like white-robed monks in prayer. Fences and power lines hung heavy with ropes of ice. Other than falling branches and toppling trees nothing moved in that icescape, not mammal nor bird nor vehicle. It seemed the end of civilization.
The day passed slowly. Freezing rain continued unabated; the house slowly cooled. We rifled the camper for matches, sleeping bags, an extra thermos and a coffee pot. By mid-afternoon the rain relented and I went outside to inspect the house. There was no damage though several huge limbs had fallen perilously close and several more sagged over the porch. What we now feared was wind, and even as the thought came so too did a shifting in the air, a whisper and a creak, a brittle groan. Trees suddenly twisted like arthritic geezers needing hip replacements. The old willow across the street keeled over in a roar and others followed in its wake. It was the cruelest blow of all.
More freezing rain in the afternoon and light snow at dusk. I grilled pork chops outside while Lori cooked on the kerosene heater. After that we read by flashlight and turned in early. What else was there to do? Without electricity we relived the days of our forefathers, and yet the comparison was inapt. We at least had indoor plumbing, and hot water, insulated walls, high-tech winter clothing and a pantry full of food. But darkness has a way of superseding all other things, and cold, too, and the energy drained is not merely physical.
Gray and bleak and long was the second day. Survival mode reminded me of a propane lantern downstairs, which I resurrected. Simple hot meals were provided by the kerosene heater. Lori left for work in the afternoon and I napped and woke to a darkening house and felt the darkness in my bones.
Night was longer still, and another cold dark morning, alone this time. I started the heater and set a pot of coffee on top and ransacked thermoses for warm dregs. Sheba shied away from my dancing headlamp until I lit the lantern, and then she shyly came to me. The both of us desperate in the pre-dawn.
And what would the day bring? More grayness, I feared. The absence of power is a soul-sucking void. As I jotted notes, I searched for paling on the horizon. At first a faint glow, a saffron and peach slash impaled on ice-honed splinters, the slash blossoming into a sky mercifully clear, blossoming into blue, blossoming into something like hope. The red rising sun ignited the ice into a million bonfires burning bright. I went outside—I could do no less—to step lightly through the ruins.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Something nags at me, a thought, a feeling, a memory. It’s been growing for some time now, growing stronger and deeper, closer to the bone, and yet it remains just outside the edges of my consciousness.
As the sun welters into a cloudbank a solitary ray escapes to ignite a red fox perched sphinx-like atop a rounded hay bale, behind whose flame the somber woods melt away into gray obscurity. When the fox swivels its fine-furred head to study my passage light glints off its obsidian eye, and for a brief moment we two sentient beings join in wordless communion. The fox wears a Mona Lisa smile, and me hurtling past in my cocoon of steel and glass recognize within that fathomless expression, that tenebrous orb, the talismanic attributes of all that other place was not.
After that, everything is so much clearer. I enter the small town of Barnes and exit within seconds, its span a half-mile at best, and one more town to go before my own rises from the horizon, huddled around its tall grain elevator.
The irony is not lost on me that what I’m doing is the exact thing I refused to do in my other life. Indeed, it’s what brought us here, though pushed might be a better term. And yet any comparison is dubious at best, more mathematical formula than actual substance, for what the fox saw from its hayrick throne was the vision I craved for myself.
I never did like traffic or populated areas. Shortly after moving to Las Vegas, New Mexico, I picked up two female hitchhikers who needed a lift to Boulder. Having nothing better to do, I drove them there. That night I slept on the floor of what can only be described as a mini-commune, a canvas-sided jungle boot as rough pillow, my conservative mores at odds with the free-love, dope-smoking, long-haired cahoots I was suddenly cast among. Driving home I encountered Denver at its worst rush-hour hell, and I swore I would never live in a place that congested.
So much for oaths. For twenty-six years Lori and I lived there, the last ten on the northwest side with a splendid view of the Front Range, at least when it wasn’t veiled with smog.
It was fourteen miles to my job just east of downtown Denver. It doesn’t sound like much now—the distance, say, between Blue Rapids and Frankfort. But getting there in the morning, and leaving there in late afternoon, required a commute of at least an hour. Some days were much worse, as when it snowed or rained or threatened rain or snow or when stupid drivers decided to crash into other stupid drivers and really jack things up. I was thankful we didn’t live on the south side of the metro area, where traffic was generally much worse.
And then the news came that my company would be moving to the extreme southern edge of town—which meant a one-way commute of thirty-five miles. It didn’t take long to do the math and decide it was time to find something else to do and somewhere else to do it in. So we packed up and moved to Kansas.
And here I am with a morning commute of thirty-five miles. No wonder the fox was smiling.
Sure it’s only two days a week, but still. What I refused to do in Denver I willingly agreed to here in the hinterlands of Kansas, and if that sounds hypocritical then one needs to study the various routes within both commutes and decide which one best suits my persona. That other was endless traffic, often at a complete standstill, and this is wide open where few other vehicles are ever encountered. A splendid swap for one so chary of humanity.
Most of the time I stick to the old White Way from Blue Rapids to the intersection of K-15, passing Fawn Creek and Coon Creek, where a red-tailed hawk or bald eagle is usually sentinel on top of the dead tree near the road, and north across Mill Creek into Washington. Some mornings I take K-148 north and cross the Little Blue River, always slowing down to take a gander—an act that in Denver would likely prove fatal. Once or twice I took the Greenleaf road, a narrow blacktop wending through farmland and wooded thickets. Someday I want to make the trip on dirt roads just to see if it’s possible.
This, then, is my morning commute—an equivalent distance to that which I balked at in Denver. And yet it remains incomparable.
This is not to say we don’t have traffic snarls or collisions. The other morning on the way to work I ran into a sort of rural traffic jam. It was the middle of our local rush-minute and I was forced to wait for four trucks, two cars and a school bus to go by. I tried not to be too impatient. What the fox held in its liquid black eye was mine now.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
And into your heart at the same time. – Jim Harrison
Mill Creek is low now, embroidered with a ragged fringe of thin ice sharp as razors. The colorless sky above reflects through a wild tangle of twigs and branches, irregularly splintered by the upthrust arms of trees long drowned. The beauty of water is in its many moods, only a few of which are controlled by that vast arc above. A few days ago I was driving home from work in the half-gloom of dusk when out the window I saw a roadside pond still holding a bright blue heaven though all around was gray and light bleeding away. It seemed an inconformable reflector, or a sapphiric window into a distant world beneath our own.
Today Mill Creek has none of that. Its sinuous track is a quicksilver snake weaving through winterwoods, mirror to a polar sun banking into nothingness. I could shatter that sky with a stone but there seems no reason to so I remain still. Overhead a skein of snow geese soundlessly wings southward. The north wind rises. A storm is coming.
Not far from here a man took his life. Years past a fellow employee at Burns Security put a shotgun in his mouth and yanked the trigger. Before that but not long before I would sometimes place a loaded .357 Magnum against my temple and pull the trigger as far as I dared. I could be accused of not being entirely serious or else I would have applied a little more pressure but that misses the point.
Sometimes I’m amazed to still be standing as I wasn’t always sure I’d reach this age. Now that I have I’m finding it addictive. The hammering of a woodpecker against a hollow trunk or the skirl of leaves drifting onto the still surface of the creek have enough loveliness within them to smother even the most intractable mood, though getting to the point of being able to see such beauty is often impossible. Clinical depression has been likened to being at the bottom of a dark cavern, which paints a merely adequate picture for the unafflicted. Toss in nightmarish creatures closing in and the inability to reason and the image is more comprehendible.
What I’m trying to say is I wish I could have met Robert Glenn Bennett on his way to the tree where he ended his life. Being here is an uncomfortable intrusion into a stranger’s most intimate affair and I question my motives even as I wonder if my intent, hopeless as it sounds, was to intercept him. But I am too late and know it. And still I’m drawn to this place.
Whatever drove him was apprehensible, acceptable and remediable. Let’s get that out of the way first. Let’s also ditch any half-baked theory about his being weaker than the rest of us, as those stonecasting moral stalwarts among us would have us believe. I didn’t know Bennett so I can’t sit in judgment but I suspect that something hounded him into those woods, something he had no defense against. Even the most undaunted creature wearies of retreat.
Being here carries another burden, that of survivor. Perhaps it’s a stigma burned into my forehead, my own scarlet letter, but it seems that those closest and dearest to me questioned my motives the most. Beneath it was an accusation that I was dancing too close to the edge, that my own peculiar madness would swallow me whole in those barren woods and like Bennett I would enter and never return. One morning before work I slipped a .380 into my pocket and saw a look of shock and mistrust on Lori’s face. I assured her it was because of the remoteness of the place and it was mostly true, though I left out the part about feeling exposed and somehow watched when I was there earlier in the week. I wanted to say, “It’s not for that,” a term which required no accounting. And I didn’t. Nevertheless it hung in the air like a guilty thought, and I hurried to leave.
I was looking for the tree. Armed with a crude pencil sketch, I headed uphill from the road and immediately realized the futility of it. Trees look more or less alike and yet the one I sought was singular in form. I pushed through thickets of red-berried buckbrush and tripped over half-hidden branches and reached the top of the hill and turned back, knowing I’d gone too far. The tree when I found it stood out from the others. I placed my hand on it and felt an immense emptiness that might have been sorrow or something greater. Unbidden, the pistol slid into my hand, a cold, icy comfort. I held it in a blank state of mind until a chickadee scolding from an adjacent tree pulled me back, and I tucked it back in my belt and walked away.
I don’t begrudge Bennett for doing what he felt he had to. Our lives are controlled by so many outside forces but in this alone we have the final say. It might indeed be that this is all the control we possess, our single godlike power unless we consider love.
The rising wind whets its knives on my exposed flesh. I’m reminded of once coming indoors with ears so cold they burned, and Lori cupping her hands around them laughing and the warmth in her hands and eyes exploding through me like heat lightning. I pick up a dead leaf and drop it into the creek. It alights soundlessly but fractures the sky’s pallid reflection with tiny ripples that spread and weaken and slowly become still. I say a prayer for Robert Glenn Bennett, wishing him peace and fortune on his journey. While I’m at it I say one for me.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Is the journey inwards
Of him who has chosen his destiny.
— Dag Hammarskjöld
Just south of the bridge over Mill Creek I turn right and bounce down a hardpacked dirt road past an auto body shop where the road deteriorates into ruts and hard edges and the woods, now stripped of foliage and singing in the bitter north wind, close in as if mantling the lumps of rusted machinery, smashed cars and scattered piles of appliances and hot water heaters, the detritus of a failed civilization remitted to the forgotten places. The road curves sharply and drops into the lower fields. I park and set the brake and listen to the engine tick as it cools. The gray sky shades to a deeper gray and the woods grayer still.
He was here when the world was green and Mill Creek swollen with rainwater roared as it plunged foaming over the dam. With a bungee cord in his pocket he left the road and walked uphill on a faint trail skirting the fenceline.
He was here and I am following though where he went I cannot follow. But I can follow a little ways behind.
Once I took the same journey. I returned. He didn’t.
His name was Robert Glenn Bennett and he disappeared from Washington on August 2, 2007. He was 46 years old and married to a woman he called his dream girl. I had no part in the news or the search that went on for weeks, nor did I meet his family. I was no more connected to the case than any other reader, a spectator only and only then half-interested. Car troubled had stranded him on his way home to Alabama. When his father arrived he found the vehicle at the campground on the south edge of town with everything in it, expensive cameras, lenses, food. His dog, too. The creek was swollen with rains and the search focused on that raging current. Nothing was found. The car was towed away. The family returned home. It could have been the end of the story, or what passes for the end when there is no end. It could have been, but it wasn’t.
And all the while I crossed that selfsame creek four times a week, twice incoming, twice outgoing, and all the while Robert Glenn Bennett grew on my heart like the expression of a thought that had no words but only feeling and the feelings dark and lonesome and inexpressibly sad.
Why this was so I cannot say. People disappear all the time. Sometimes they’re taken and killed, their bodies hidden in woods or shallow graves. Sometimes they simply get on a bus and leave, start over elsewhere with a new name and a new persona. Sometimes the bodies are discovered weeks or months or years later. Sometimes nothing is ever found.
Robert Glenn Bennett was found three months later, his body beneath a tree, cord tight around his neck and no evidence of foul play. Which means that something drove him to these woods, drove him to the most desperate act imaginable, one few people can accept and fewer still comprehend.
I step from the truck and the rising wind rakes my face and stabs my eyes until they blur. My mind is a wild tangle of thoughts and emotions and I say aloud to no one, “I never asked for this,” though what I wanted to say, meant to say, was “Please remove this from me.”
I have so many questions, more questions than answers, and none to be answered in this lifetime. The odometer read a little over a mile from the campground if he walked the road but I don’t think he would have when he could have escaped attention by crossed the field or following the creek to the main road. It’s what I would have done. The bridge was the only way to ford the waters. If anyone saw him he must have been an unremarkable sight, a man walking his dog on a warm late-summer day. A man walking to his death.
Before coming here I’d looked at his photos on the Internet. Those taken of him and his wife reveal a man totally at peace with the world, totally in love, utterly content. What changed? Scrolling through brought me to a blank screen that I puzzled over, and then to an image of an incomplete circle of tiny rectangles, shaped like a string of pearls or diamonds in a necklace, smaller at the end where the clasp would be and larger at the opposite end. It said, simply, MoonOnlyWC.
At the bottom of the page is a single comment.
“Bob – I love you and I am here for you. Come home. Love you bunches. Judy.” The date is 19 Aug 2007, 19:51.
At that moment my heart stopped and only fitfully restarted thereafter. I have not stopped thinking of him since.
A man at a local business said he didn’t understand why anyone would commit suicide. “Nothing’s worth doing that,” he said. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” As if it were really that simple. And then, with a harder edge in his voice, he thumped his chest and said, “When the going gets tough, I get going.”
Sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough fall apart. They disappear into summer woods and never come out.
I understand that kind of thinking. It’s the toll depression exacts.
Visibility is fading fast and the cold burns my resolve. I take one step and another and follow him into the trees. I think that sometimes this is a road we all take, but some come back, and some, like Robert Glenn Bennett, do not. And while I know that the distance between thinking about something and doing it is a universe away, I also know that sometimes it’s the closest thing of all.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
At least that’s what I tell people. What I tell Lori is completely different. “Let’s knock the back wall out and extend the house twenty feet so we can actually move around in here,” is my usual refrain, and it sounds like an excellent plan until we consider the cost. At which time we’re back to thinking cozy.
The lateral file cabinet is four feet long. On top of it sits a bird cage large enough for a resplendent quetzal or a cockatoo. Buying it was a serious case of overkill considering what it was intended for—a pair of diminutive zebra finches, one gray-striped and orange-cheeked, the other snow white.
These were not our birds but belonged to our youngest son. When he was taken from us after a violent act they became, in essence, all that remained of him. They became our wards. My first act was to increase the size of their cage in order to give them more freedom to fly. I’m sure Freud would have found a deeper meaning in that, a fact which only now rises to the surface.
I’m not sure birders make good companions to captive birds. There’s that wild versus captive aspect that must be dealt with, and depending on the intensity of your birderness it can either be rationalized or insurmountable. When I was banding birds in Colorado, one of the leaders vehemently made it known that new species were not countable on our life lists because of their captive status, however temporary. This distressing bit of news came out of a comment I’d made about a dusky flycatcher we’d snared. After his vociferous fulmination on the subject I further antagonized him by claiming the flycatcher after releasing it back into the wild. He had no ground to stand on and knew it. I’m positive the humorless bastion of self-righteousness neither owned birds nor countenanced their keeping.
Some exotic birds make better companions than others. Parakeets and parrots, for example, are sociable and enjoy interacting with people. Zebra finches do not. They’re hyper and standoffish and are ideal for someone who wants as little contact as possible with a pet. Fish are no doubt similar but don’t sing which is a strike against them.
To this union a third was added. We named her Snowy on account of her plumage. At first she was a joy, curious about her new surroundings and gusty in her singing, and then after a while she was merely a third zebra finch demanding food and water.
When we moved here the finches rode with me in the front seat of the Ryder truck. By then we were back to two, the mother having passed on. Since Lori followed behind in our car the birds were my only companions for the better part of two days. We conversed as best as we could though admittedly I did most of the talking. For the most part they remained safely ensconced within their nest box with an occasional meep or grumble about a rough patch of road, and when we drug them into the hotel room the male, Greystoke, strutted out and yammered on at great length how he was going to kick everybody’s ass and give us more food and water right this instant, damn your eyes.
When we arrived at our new old home the lateral file cabinet was snugged against the south wall and the birds went on top. And there they stayed, year in, year out, singing, preening, eating, bathing, flying to and fro in that vast interior space that was only a ghost of true freedom, and otherwise ignoring us.
In May 2003 Lori asked if I’d seen Greystoke lately. I had but couldn’t say when. Her words filled me with dread. I looked in the cage and saw Snowy, but not her father. A tap on the side was usually sufficient to roust him, but there was no activity in the nest box. I reached into the cage and removed the box; inside, Greystoke lay against one wall, a desiccated fluff of gray feathers. Such was our relationship with the birds—so little notice taken that one lies dead for who knows how long before we even notice. Guilt got a lot of mileage out of that one.
As books and tech gear piled up in the back room I envied Snowy her space on the file cabinet. I envisioned all the things I could do with it, and not just once did I consider setting her free. But the cruelty of the idea sickened me and I wondered what kind of man I was becoming.
This past week Snowy collapsed in a heap and struggled to rise. I removed her from the cage and held her while she gasped for air. She weighed almost nothing, an insubstantial puff whose history inextricably linked us together and to another time and place. Within moments she stiffened and was gone.
I’m accustomed to the whir of wings, both inside and out. Sometimes it feels one and the same. The flutter of movement, a soft susurration of birdsong or birdcall, a chip, a meep, the rustle of feathers, the splash of water—these things have been an inherent part of our Kansas adventure since we moved into our century-old house on the edge of a prairie town seven-and-a-half years ago.
I now have the extra space I so wanted. I’d rather have the bird.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Events during that time are vague at best, the stuff of nightmares only dimly recalled. My dreams were feverish, with the same scenario endlessly repeated and me flopping in sweat-stained sheets unable to sleep or fully wake. My restless legs tormented me with an unseemly vengeance. The toilet, a squat ceramic altar of last resort, mutely received my gradually-diminishing offerings until my ribs felt staved in. I shivered, I shook, I heaved, I retched. During this spell autumn finally arrived with stunning rapidity, and frost sawed the joints of the leaves until they fell in heaps or scattered on November winds like windblown mariners. By day our house was assaulted by hordes of Japanese lady beetles swarming the air and sneaking uninvited through entrances known only to themselves. And late one night, while the stars were crisp and sharp, came our very own Grendel.
Its arrival was announced with a crunch of bones and the almost-scream of something being dismembered. A sharp thud against the wall, an inhuman growl, feet scrabbling ground that offered neither escape nor foothold. Sheba bolted for her cage. I froze at the desk, my blood congealed twice over.
Our rabbit is not the only one who believes that monsters stalk the night. In better times I might have blown this off to a bobcat or coyote, but the sickness that riddled my carcass had wiped out any sort of reasoning or logic, leaving in their place an all-encompassing nausea and exhaustion and a mind that preferred white space over thought process. In that blank state of mind, fighting back thoughts of rushing to the bathroom to give up the pittance of food I had earlier ingested, I gathered the pellet rifle, broke the barrel, inserted a heavy pellet, and snapped it shut. I slipped through the door as quietly as possible and padded around the house.
The flashlight threw a cold blue flame. Its illumination was moody and ghostly and seemed to heighten the dance of shadows. The far trees proved a slatted barricade framing the distant lights of town. Underfoot the grass was damp and spotted with soggy leaves. The yard was empty.
I was drawn to the gaping darkness of the shed. As I approached the doorway something large hurled out and skittered sideways. It scaled the fallen hackberry without hesitation and disappeared into the greater darkness as if taking flight. So brief was its appearance that I was left with nothing but motion to identify. Not a bobcat for its long tail; not a coyote nor fox nor raccoon, but something else. Inside the shed was the bloodied pelt of a rabbit, and in a corner was another.
The image my enfeebled brain evoked was of a fisher, a large furbearer of the far north. As this is patently impossible in the wilds of Kansas, I chalked it up to Grendel, the monster of Beowulf. Under a blanket of stars anything is possible.
Having one’s stomach forcefully emptied is bad enough but the real trial comes afterwards. The refilling is prolonged and fraught with setbacks. It’s actually a form of food amnesia. The stomach remembers nothing and the taste buds are whacked out and it’s never sure what will taste good, bad or even stay down. My craving for coffee and spicy foods was erased with nothing in its place to fill the gap. Compounding the healing process was the discovery of a hiatal hernia. My first try at food was oatmeal—which isn’t much of a meal but it was a start. It stayed down. That in itself was a minor victory.
Lori met the beast the following day. She walked to the shed to retrieve something when it bolted out at such speed that it caught the doorjamb and became airborne and ricocheted off her shoulder. “It’s a cat,” she said later. It was the biggest cat she’d ever seen.
I saw it there in the dusk as it left the shed, stalking out to hunt. Feral cats have been described as nature’s perfect serial killer, but beside that they also possess an almost preternatural sense of their surroundings. It knew my location and the direction of travel before I knew myself. It slipped out of rifle range with a gracefulness that left me impressed in spite of myself.
A call to the police chief netted a live trap, which I set out one evening as light bled from the sky. Opening the can of cat food for bait almost doubled me over. It’s not just the stomach that has to learn how to walk again. The flu had left me with heightened olfactory senses but they were far too squeamish to derive much pleasure from.
Each night I ate a little more. Each morning I checked the trap. I shook out the neighbor’s cat, and then another, and not for the first time wondered what goes on in our yard when we’re not looking.
I knew Grendel was trapped before I poked my head in the shed. The cat snarled and paced and threw itself against the metal grid as if by force alone it could gain its freedom. Its talons raked the air as it hissed and spat. For a long moment I stood there in the dark watching it, queasy as its fury, the very hatred it projected toward myself and all who would reign it in.
Lori was up when I walked inside. I took the rifle and slipped a box of pellets into my pocket. Her look was one of opprobrium.
“I take no pleasure in this,” I said, and went into the night to slay the monster.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
It neared midnight again. Lori in bed but my eyes wide awake. I sipped whiskey hoping it would dull me into sleep but I feared another night like last, when my legs twitched and the music in my head would not silence. Tomorrow was the start of the workweek and I hated the idea of it. I feel I was born for the idle life but can’t recall a single Parker who lived it.
I’d fallen under the spell of a past that was before my time. The small box of black and white photographs my mother gave me was a puzzle of nameless faces and unnamed places I needed to understand if I was to understand myself. We change over the years, generations finding their own voices and customs, but underneath it runs the same blood, refreshed with that of outsiders through marriage and love. I wanted to find that past, to fathom it fully, to get beyond this failing of mine where I cannot untangle relationships beyond the shallow umbrella of parents, grandparents, siblings. I wanted to go back.
Lonny, too, went back, jouncing down dusty oilfield roads in search of the old homestead. He doesn’t mention when, or what age he was, but the house was completely gone. He wandered alone searching for signs of his past and found little. There was a concrete stock tank, a new windmill, but that was all. He looked for a dugout he and his brothers had made but the winds and sands had erased it. I can see him there, an older man, trying to piece together the ghosts of his past, sifting through the mesquite and catclaw for something he could name and call his own. And finding nothing. With all trace of his life removed, the land a stranger and he to it, he turned back for the car when something caught his eye. In the sand at his foot glittered an ancient shell casing. He reached down and picked it up and scrubbed it clean. It was a .32-20 shell. Age had blackened it but the caliber markings were still readable.
His father had owned a lever-action rifle and a single-shot handgun in the selfsame caliber. He doesn’t say but I’d wager he rolled it in his fingers and held it up to squint at the markings and slipped it into his pocket where it rattled against a handful of coins. He had to remind himself to start breathing again. And suddenly he felt eyes upon him, presences, a host of people watching him as he glanced around, wet-eyed, wondering, a small smile slowly breaking across his weather-beaten face.
But perhaps that’s just the writer in me, romanticizing the unknown. Maybe he stood there with the shell loose in his fingers and felt a deep sadness well up, and felt the years hammering at him as they had the old house, busting it down and sweeping away all evidence that here a family had tamed a wild and desolate land with nothing but dreams and iron will. Maybe he dropped the cartridge in the sand and stepped on it and smoothed it over until it disappeared like the traces of the wooden well tower, the chicken coop and the outbuildings, the single-room house laid plumb with the North Star.
But Lonny was a writer, and he wrote, even if we have little evidence of it other than a few scattered pages rapped out while camping beside a lake in an unidentified state. Sometimes it’s not what we say that’s important but what we don’t. In the quiet post-midnight hours of another day, exhausted, my eyes gritty and bloodshot, I scrambled between the lines, between the periods and commas and line breaks, hunting the man who haunts my dreams. And the more frantic I searched, the more I found myself.
Writers look beyond the ordinary, an innate mysticism that can only be interpreted in terms of spirituality. We are called to write. And his calling was somehow passed down to me. I cannot deny it nor wholly comprehend it, and like the genetic quirks that plague me—my trick knee, my restless legs, the blood pressure that threatens to explode my heart—it’s hereditary. But it is also a gift. I might question it, and at times distrust it, but now, for the first time in my life, I can accept it. This was Lonny’s gift.
Weariness staggered me. Pushing away from the computer, I shambled toward bed and the plains of West Texas. I was seven paragraphs into tomorrow and I wasn’t finished. Hell, Lonny and I were just beginning.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
So I tossed and turned and my legs jitterbugged with longing to follow my thoughts into the sunblasted scrublands near my hometown of Pyote, and twice I rose and paced the floor, peering out each window to see the neighborhood at night, the skies bright from reflected citylight, and I thought about writing to calm down but more than anything I wanted to sleep and so tried again. It did nothing to lull me. As the sun slashed across the eastern horizon and blackbirds ascended like a ragged cloak from their nightly roost along Big Dry Creek, I returned to the keyboard struggling to get this thing straight.
The source of my turmoil was a brief memoir my great-uncle Lonny Parker wrote while camped on the shores of Beaver Lake. It had arrived in a manila envelope, a gift from my mother, who said I would find it interesting—her term for any written archive from the family. She knew I kept a diary, and had for decades, but she didn’t know that I constantly struggled with the idea of writing, the need for it, as if life was not real unless first being mulled over, filtered, and then recorded.
A diary is a window into a writer’s soul, and Lonny’s was no exception. It was 1968. He must have been in his late sixties then, hair silvered, maybe a slight stoop to his walk. Hunched over a manual typewriter, rain on the camper’s roof keeping time with the hard clack of the keys, he wrote, On my trip to South Texas and West Texas which I started last February I wrote for my own satisfaction, sending you a copy of the high lights of the trip and ended it when I reached Kermit Texas, and the vicinity where I was raised and where I lived until I was 31 years old. I have now decided to continue this trip to make my file complete and to pass away some time. I made me notes of happenings after I wrote the last chapter, so am now trying out my memory, and that is what most of this chapter will be about, MEMORIES.
My mother said he always loved to write but couldn’t spell worth a damn, which was odd due to the fact that he rose to prominence in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Enforcement in St. Louis, Missouri. That says something about talent, skill and determination more than schooling, of which his was poor. My father said it was Lonny who led him into a life outdoors, and he tried modeling his life after him. I never knew the man.
His tale begins in 1908, when they moved across West Texas to homestead and raise cattle. Texas was the frontier, still wild and unsettled. They traveled in a covered wagon, his mother taking the reins, his father leading a pack of horses. I come from a line of true cowboys.
As I cooked dinner last night I was captivated by his tale. Enough of Lovett’s Porch song will make a man hungry for a plate of steaming hot enchiladas, and so I spent an hour washing dishes and then dirtying up the kitchen again. With Lori still not home I moved onto my own porch and sat in a chair, the air crisp and turning colder, unable to read about pioneering in Texas with four walls hemming me in. I needed space. His writing moved me, the uncomplicated simplicity of it. When I came across one line my heart skipped a beat. Sometime in the first years of our stay on this ranch our grandfather Tom Wade Parker, Grand mother and Aunt Barbra settled on a place north of ours and built a little home. Seeing my name shook me. My mother always said I was named after several relatives, a smorgasbord of uncles, not after one particular person. And here I was, staring back from the print.
Each page of Lonny’s diary opened up new vistas and questions. I’m reeling from it all, so much so that I pored over the genealogical tables my mother gave us just to see where my relatives came from. They migrated ever westward, coming from Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, the Deep South. Their sympathies were southern during the War Between the States, and one, an artilleryman, was gravely wounded at Antietam. Another came from Kansas, giving me one measure, however miniscule, of inheritance to that state. Texas was their final stop.
The places Lonny lived and worked and crisscrossed on horseback are a litany of place names from my past and present. He settled around Pyote and Monahans, bought cattle and sheep in southern New Mexico, broke broncs for the Army around Terlingua and the Big Bend area, saw his family go bust during the drought years. The cattle died, sheep consumed everything in sight like wooly locusts until only dust remained, powdery, deep, blowing like ashes on the wind. He and his brothers chased roadrunners and rabbits and killed them with well-placed stones, and dressed and cooked the rabbits over mesquite coals. They went barefoot, stopping only long enough to pull mesquite thorns from their leathery soles.
His was a world in passing, the last full generation of cowboys in my family. My father recalls saddling up at three a.m. to head down to the Pecos River to gather the cattle for branding, a ride of seven or eight miles. But even that was fading, victim of a new economy and an encroaching war. My father rode horses in his youth and flew fighter planes before he was twenty, a fact that still amazes him.
(Conclusion next week)
Thursday, October 25, 2007
He was walking from his hometown of Neenah, Wis., to the Grand Canyon— his destination with a “big hole,” as he called it—in part to recreate an artistic vision gone stale. It was also, admittedly, a midlife crisis of sorts, a “fat” (his words), fifty-year-old man trying to outrun a sense of loss and decrepitude. Besides a renewed interest in capturing the perfect image, what he found during the next 122 days was an America most people had thought lost.
“It’s an America most everybody else in the country would like to think of as us,” he said. “When you ask an American, any citizen, what they think an American is, they’ll recite these virtues that they hope they can live up to—but that Middle American actually does live up to. It’s not that they try to, it’s just ingrained in them.”
Edwards was in Vermillion last Monday while retracing his route to fulfill a promise. His return was supposed to be part of a book tour, but the book has so far proven elusive. Still, he had promised people that he would return, and here he was, photographs in tow. A small portfolio of his work was displayed at the Vermillion Public Library.
“People actually threw things at me in Wisconsin,” Edwards said. “When I crossed into Iowa people waved, crossed the street to greet me, stopped on the side of the road to give me food and water, and invited me into their homes. It was almost freaky.”
But it was in Kansas, when crippled by a stress fracture, that he found hometown America.
He spent three days recuperating in Vermillion, and then, a few miles down the road, in Frankfort for the same span. Residents paid for his meals, ferried him around, and local businesses put him up in a bed and breakfast until his foot healed. And then he entered Washington County.
“It turned out, walking from Vermillion to Clay Center, walking as much as I did, I gained weight,” Edwards said. “Barnes was ready for me. And then from Barnes it was like the ball just kept bouncing down the road. And they’d not only feed me when I got in their home, they’d give me this care package to keep me going. When I tell people this, they look at me like I’m crazy.”
He was treated to food at Our Daily Bread and ensconced at the Dh Ranch south of town. The beauty of the country mesmerized him.
“That was like storybook land out there,” he said. “It was Wizard of Oz land. Rolling hills and double-rutted dirt roads leading out to this farm. It was marvelous. I had the whole place to myself, and the fridge was chock full of food, and I did my laundry and took a shower twice a day, and I ate like a pig the entire time I was there.
“And I rolled out the next day—or should I say I waddled out the door— and it was the beginning of the worst day of the trip.”
The wind blew 40 miles an hour and the temperature climbed to triple digits. He quickly became dehydrated, his small supply of water evaporating under a raging thirst. A passing motorist gave him a bottle of water, which he drank that night while camped in the cemetery at Kimeo. His tongue swelled so much it stuck to the roof of his mouth.
On the road to Green he came across an abandoned schoolhouse. On inspection he found a faucet which dribbled red chunky water when turned on. Though it gagged him, he drank it anyway.
It was a hard lesson learned hard. After that, he carried more water.He talked of other adventures, blessings by Navajo holy men, nights of sleeping in roadside ditches, hunting shade and perfect light for the perfect black-and-white large-format image. When he reached the Grand Canyon he considered staying, but finally consenting to return home. And when he got in a car and took off, he found the speed dizzying—and terrifying.
On his return trip, Edwards planned on stopping at a select few places where people extended an extra measure of hospitality. “The first thing I noticed on my drive out here was, ‘that’s a long walk,’” he laughed.
He also intends on reshooting some images with a larger camera.In a lull between library visitors Edwards wandered outside and crossed the street to stand in the shadows of a series of metal grain elevators silent and rusting in the early autumn afternoon. High cirrus clouds flirted with the sun. Pointing to several places he photographed on his inaugural trip, he suddenly plopped on the ground and framed the grill of a truck against a skyline of twisted, half- destroyed elevators. “That’s it!” he cried. “The light is perfect! That’s the composition!”
Thursday, October 18, 2007
If he moves fast and ducks into the bedroom Daryl nails him with his .38.
Three steps and it’s over.
Through the open door came the sound of a vehicle thundering down the alley. My ears strained for footsteps but the car drowned it out. It roared past the house pelting gravel and broken glass against the fences. In its wake fell a preternatural silence, and like the snuffing of a candle the dread presence was gone.
I waited a moment more, ears screaming for something to latch onto, a scrape on the linoleum floor, the rustle of clothing, heavy breathing, and hearing nothing stepped into the doorway, sweeping the kitchen with the shotgun. Night spilled through the open door. I quickly crossed the room and closed it.
Dolly was inconsolate, sobbing hysterically on the living room floor. Daryl radioed our partner with an update and told him to go home. We worked to get her calmed down and in the process tried calming ourselves.
“What was that?” he asked when we found a moment alone. I had no answer.
Later, I let myself out the back door and walked back to my car. The night was full of menace and the shotgun a welcome weight in my hands.
We returned the next night, same procedure, arriving hours early, little talk, curtains closed tight, TV on low. But a new element had been introduced, a horrific dread that cloyed the air like smoke from a fire, choking our lungs, sapping our energy.
The night dragged on endlessly. Daryl and Dolly dozed on the couch while I sat in the entrance to the kitchen, the shotgun cradled in my arms. I thought it possible that this time he would come in quick and low, so I listened for the unmistakable sound of a hand on the door knob. But I also expected to sense his presence long before the knob moved. And this time, I vowed, there would be no three-step rule.
It was much later when a pall descended on us, quick as lightning, amplified by the ringing of the telephone. Dolly stifled a scream but reached for it, lifting the handset with palsied fingers.
“I know they’re there,” a male voice said.
She dropped the phone. Daryl snatched it up, listening intently to the hum of silence. But the connection was unbroken, and in the intervening seconds I believe our heartbeats, loud as they were, meshed into a sort of malefic rhythm that would bound us somehow across all time.
Without speaking, Daryl set the phone in the cradle.
Very few neighboring houses provided views of all entrances to Dolly’s house. The man could well have lived next door. But the phone calls set a pattern over the next several days as Daryl returned alone, varying his arrival and entry point each time. The calls came early or late with maddening irregularity. It was as if the man’s goal was to keep them off balance, a cat-and-mouse game or power play, with a young woman’s sanity or, perhaps, her life, hanging in the balance.
Our gambit set him back, made him more cautious, but we never doubted that he was watching our every move. Nor did he never allow us to doubt it. His calls were too short to trace. He hid in darkness. He was always there, even when he wasn’t.
Shortly thereafter Dolly vacated the house and moved in with Daryl. We hadn’t rescued her, as my chivalric fancy had imagined. The dragon outwitted the knights. And yet believing her and offering our assistance was more than any other would do. If we didn’t succeed in our mission we at least brought about a standstill, and created a barrier the presence could not cross. Under the circumstances, perhaps that in itself was enough, and all that could be hoped for, or expected.
The man escaped to prey on others. I like to think, however, that realizing he’d been expected, that a trap had been laid, poisoned his nerve whenever he gathered the night and went afield to cause mischief. And that he understood at some point his luck would run its course, and a time would come when a yawning abyss would cut him down in a spray of red mist.
What I have never been able to explain is an evil so pervasive that it conjures its own malevolent atmospherics. For the sake of reference I claim this was a man, but a mere mortal cannot radiate such life-draining hopelessness and terror. Demon, vetala, shayatin, asura, succubus, incubus—mankind has tacked names on such evil since the beginning of language, and for most of humanity they’re only fanciful terms, ancient myths or words to frighten children. I only know that such descriptions are empty and inadequate when one comes under the influence of such malignity.
From my vantage on the Kansas plains I am sometimes taken aback at these episodes, almost incredulous, as if they were something read in a novel or overheard in a conversation, something that happened to another. But in my dreams there are no such illusions. In the shadows of perpetual night, at the end of dark corridors or behind closed doors where the sound of running water can stop a heartbeat, that which we confronted still watches, still waits, still hunts.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
– William Blake
Lori said, Are you all right, and I said, No. I stared at the ceiling and the slatted bars of sunlight inching down the wall and thought I had never felt such dread, that a terrible new benchmark in nightmares had been set. But the thought dredged up something deep within me, something the dream had disturbed, or awakened.In the dream I walked with an unarmed guard down a dimly-lit hallway redolent with an underlying odor of death and decay only partially masked by sterilants. Double doors opened onto a dusty industrial yard illuminated by a single vapor light. As we moved into the yard tin sheds and misshapen lumps of machinery withdrew into the shadows. A dog broke at our feet with a yelp. Startled, the guard cursed and hurled a rock after it.
Other than the thudding of our hearts, the silence was absolute. Unnerved, we tried to laugh it off, but it fell flat with the sudden click of a door latch behind us. Such dread fell on us that it was as if all light and hope were extinguished. The guard bolted for the building, crying oh no oh no oh no. Hard on his heels, I followed.
We burst into the corridor and listened. No sound other than a faint running of water issuing from an unmarked door down the hall. We approached with legs gone weak, the dread deepening with each step until it became almost too much to bear. We stared at each other, trying to summon the courage to open the door. I drew my pistol. He gingerly turned the knob.
The water stopped.
Do we scream in our dreams? I bolted awake so fast I never had the chance. For long afterward my chest squeezed the breath out of me. Lori asked what happened but I wouldn’t say. It was all I could do to convince myself that I was in Kansas, that the dream hadn’t been real, that it was just my overworked brain descending into its own mysterious hell. But once it was real.
I didn’t know the girl well. She was a dispatcher and I was a field technician so we rarely saw one another. What I did see I didn’t like—she was loud and crude, almost obnoxious. When she began coming to work with stories of being stalked, few people believed her. But I was a sort of knight errant, a throwback to the days of chivalry, and her stories got to me. The fear in her eyes was no invention.
Her name was Dolly. She told me that almost every night a knock on the front door augured a presence that sucked the very air from the room. The presence would circle the house, rapping once on each window until it reached the back door. The knob would turn until stopped by the lock. Milk bottles were smashed on her porch. In the latest incident her cat was gutted and left on her doorstep.
The police took reports, beefed up patrols, but the man kept returning. She considered moving but didn’t have the money.
When I called the police I was told there was nothing they could do unless they caught the guy in the act. “What if we catch him?” I asked.
“Make sure he doesn’t walk away.”
One afternoon I parked several blocks from her house, walked down an alley and slipped through her back door. From a duffel I removed two pistols and an Ithaca double-barrel shotgun sawed off at eighteen inches. An hour later a friend named Daryl came through the front. He had a two-way radio borrowed from work and a rusty butcher knife. He dropped the knife into the sink. “Found it,” he said.
Six blocks away another friend was waiting in a company truck. Our dispatcher was told to act immediately upon our signal. We were ready, and soon dusk filtered down and night fell.
In that day, in that place, it was not so hard to decide to take the life of another. When blood is spilled all constraints are relinquished. The predator must become the prey. We made small talk in subdued voices, the TV turned low. Hours passed. I wasn’t so naïve that it hadn’t crossed my mind to doubt her. As midnight approached Dolly whimpered once and curled into a fetal position.
A double tap on the front door.
The sound unleashed a primal fear that liquefied our bones. It was as if a dark cloud had fallen on us, smothering us in paralysis and a terror greater than any we had known. It thickened the air like fog. Daryl crawled for a position inside the bedroom and I scrambled for a place just off the kitchen where I had an unobstructed field of fire, but it was like moving through molasses.
A rap on the front window.
I snapped the shotgun open and checked the loads. Two double-00 buck shells, each capable of cutting a man in half. The latch closed with a crisp snap echoed by the release of the safety.
Tap. This immediately behind me. My skin crawled.
Daryl told our partner to remain in position. “He’s here,” he whispered.
Three windows to go. I pulled the .45 from my belt and verified a round in the chamber.
Dolly lay on the floor, arms over her head, trembling violently.
I moved behind the wall, braced the stock against my shoulder, barrels down. We would to let the guy get halfway into the room before taking him out.
Time stopped. Sweat trickled down my sides. I could scarcely breathe from a sense of doom that permeated the air.
The doorknob turned with agonizing slowness. After a long pause, the door cracked an inch.
Behind me Dolly moaned like a wounded animal.
My finger slid to the forward trigger as the door swung open.
(Conclusion next week)
Thursday, October 04, 2007
“Would you mind pointing that some other direction?” I asked.
She was, admittedly, an aberration. Most of the customers I dealt with were pleasant if not a little paranoid. (Understandable since I was an alarm technician.) Some were poor, most were lower-to-upper middle class. A few were obscenely rich.
If you’re wondering, yes, the rich are different from you and me. If I had to sum up my impressions, I’d say as a rule they’re arrogant and demanding, their kids are obnoxious, spoiled and supremely conscious of their elite status, their houses are too big and too ugly, and they suffer from excessively poor taste in art and household furnishings. They drive nice cars, though.
This introduction is an apology for what follows, an illustration of the type of people I dealt with for 26 years. Prior to that I worked with gun-crazed bullies, alcoholics, losers, cowards, and lowlifes. There were a few real keepers there, too. Moving to rural Kansas offered a new class of individual, the stoic, staid, hard-working, near-mythic Midwesterner of traditional values and beliefs. God bless them, I love them all. But working in a retail environment has introduced yet another category of humanity, one I’m finding hard to cope with.
I’m not talking about the mother with the kids from Hell, the wife who wants to browse and the husband who wants to shoot himself, or even the woman who piled over a hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise on the counter and said, “I’ll give you seventy-five dollars for that.” Sorry, I’m not that desperate.
No, I’m referring to the customers who are so assured in their beliefs, so positive that they alone possess the answers, that their god has bestowed upon them a special dispensation of perception and clear-eyed cognizance, that they have no other choice than to share them with me.
A good example is the older gentleman who came in several weeks ago. Uncommunicative to the point of taciturnity, he deftly ignored my welcome and shuffled through the shop, grimacing at each item as if it held occultic meaning. I went back to adding up tickets. On his last approach he stopped in front of the cash register and said, “You know why America is in such bad shape?”
Startled, I shook my head.
“Because of those places men go to look at naked women.”
He said it so grimly that I almost laughed. When I asked if he was referring to gentlemen’s clubs (an oxymoron of note), he nodded, his eyes dark and brooding.
While I think the cause of America’s troubles are more complex and layered than the simple presence of businesses catering to lechers, one look at his expression cautioned against lengthy debate. “Whoa,” I said, drawing out each syllable as if the breadth of his erudition was overwhelming. “I think you’re onto something.”
A few days later a woman entered the store and marched right up to me. Flashing a gift certificate, she announced she was there to redeem it. “I really don’t need much,” she added. “All I need is Jesus.”
I stared at her. “Huh,” I said. I should have said, “Uh-oh.”
For the next 45 minutes I was privy to her conversion—every bit as dramatic as that of Saul of Tarsus—her church-going history (Baptists are Nazis, Methodists the chosen race), her theory of literature (“The only book you need is the Bible,” definitely not the thing to tell an author), the reason for America’s demise (abortion, gays), the way to peace in the Middle East (missionaries and bayonets), plus dozens of real-life Jehovian encounters, all of which were incontestable and meant to bring me to my knees. So zealous was she, so impossible to interrupt, that we stayed an extra 35 minutes after closing before I could politely usher her out the door.
I’m a nice guy, really I am. I love to listen and I love to talk. But where do these people get off thinking I care one whit for their outlandish opinions? I could overlook it if it was just a few kooks, but they seem to be multiplying. I need a way to combat them without going on the attack.
I’m thinking T-shirts. Something to get a subtle message across, such as “The answer to world peace is an asteroid,” or “The problem with America is you.” It’s tempting to wear an “I’m a godless liberal humanist pro-gay pro-prairie dog” T-shirt just to jerk their chains but that could instigate midnight bonfires. Plus, I’d probably get fired. The one I like best says, “Your prejudice is your own. Don’t blame God.” Problem is, I don’t know if these yahoos can read.
If you’re looking for answers to the questions that have befuddled man since the dawn of time, I am not your man. If you think you know the answers, please keep them to yourself. We’ll both be ignorant in our own benighted ways.
As for the woman with the pistol, I learned she was a new wife who found the mansion too big and too silent. When I was ready to leave, I saw the .38 stuffed in the couch cushions. With her permission, I gingerly removed it and dropped the hammer. She thanked me and let me out, quickly closing the door on a dark night swimming with sharks, predators and serial killers, and not only in her imagination.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Dakota Ridge was reached by a trail zigzagging up the hill’s face, but the first third of a mile was straight up an old fire road. From there it branched to the right and ascended at a slight cant. Most people went that way. I always pushed to the summit and followed the ridgeline a quarter-mile or so to the bouldery scrape where we made our stand. Besides getting the worst of the elevation gain out of the way, the ridge gave expansive views of land and sky that my eyes ceaselessly roved. Arriving at the top, I’d drop my pack under a juniper and take up a position along the cliff. I’d sweep the southern horizon with my binoculars, gazing with a steadfastness that can only be described as obsessive. We watched for something out of the ordinary, something foreign, something moving. We watched for migrating raptors.
And more than that—the long silent hours, the often grueling conditions, the dominative view and the unflinching scrutiny of all that lay beyond us, created a hyper-reactivity that placed us in two realities, that of the near and the far. While our corporeal bodies inhabited the ridgeline, our thoughts, our consciousness, our spirits, were borne away in unimaginable flights to the farthest reaches of land.
A proper road trip should have only a minimal concept of destination and no time constraints for reaching it. Though in the past I’ve always tended to micromanage our forays with the mistaken idea that any variable is too many, our last excursion was done in a spirit of adventurism that was both refreshingly liberating and absurdly naive. I would call it planned nonplanning but that implies intent rather than a complete breakdown of time management. Time is indeed manageable but only if time is available. Such was not our case. Last Monday we headed out with four days off, two potential destinations in as many states and a map to only one of them. If that’s not a proper road trip, I don’t know what is.
Iowa! It was our first time there and shockingly close to home. As I confided to Lori, this proves my abysmal lack of geographical knowledge of states east of the Missouri River. Or north of Kansas, for that matter. I blame my upbringing in the West, where states are big honking landmasses stretching to eternity. Living in Colorado and New Mexico, I knew where I was in relation to other neighboring states. In Kansas, I know only that it’s four hours to Oklahoma, six to Colorado, nine to New Mexico, and thirty minutes to Nebraska. Missouri is somewhere around two hours away, I suppose. Two and a half. Beyond that, everything’s a guess.
It’s time to dust off my old highway atlas. In retrospect, the Loess Hills of Iowa could not have been more personalized for our interests. Besides being a geological oddity found only along portions of the Missouri River and in northern China, it has the Midwest’s only hawkwatch site, situated on a steep ridge overlooking the checkered fields of the Missouri River Valley. Throw in inexpensive rental cabins, deep deciduous forests, exotic flora, scenic byways and wineries—all within three hours of home—and we felt like we’d stumbled upon Shangri-la.
But most impressive was the observation deck rising 55 feet from the edge of the bluff. It was impossible to not compare it to Dakota Ridge, where I’d spent so many hundreds of hours. The tower not only offered 360 degree views but at its base was a nature center with climate control and flush toilets. We never had it so good.
I was a birder first and a hawkwatcher second, and if I now identify myself as the former it’s only for convenience. Not all birders are hawkwatchers and not all hawkwatchers are birders. Most birders actively seek out birds, while hawkwatchers stand for hours, days, weeks, months on barren outposts, freezing, shivering, roasting, burning, windblown, sunburned, bug-bit, beset with boredom, eye strain and sudden bouts of pulse-pounding excitement, just to watch a bird fly by.
Not land, mind you. Fly by. Here one minute, gone the next. Adios.
At Hitchcock Nature Center I was suddenly back in an element I had almost forgotten. It was a homecoming of sorts, and as we began climbing Lori said “Don’t wait for me” and I was off, dashing up those stairs, all 64 of them, until I gained the crows-nest. The view was breathtaking. To the south the narrow band of hills rolled like a dragon’s spine toward Council Bluffs, and to the west the Great Plains unfolded into infinity. Small farms and terraced fields reached eastward to an indistinct horizon. But it was to the north I looked. Without conscious thought I lifted my glasses and scanned the sky in a wide arc.
Rain moved in that evening. The following day was stormy but sun broke out in the afternoon. We again climbed the tower and met Jerry Toll, leader of the site, who asked if we would remain as long as the storm would allow and take atmospheric measurements and log sightings. For two hours we watched before thunderstorms sent us packing. A cold front had arrived, but the next day promised northern breezes and a break in the weather.
There was no dawn, only a slight paling. Heavy fog blanketed the hills. Water dripped from the railing and beaded on the big 20X nautical binoculars mounted on a stand as we joined Jessica Hannan at her post. Coffee and small talk faded into the mist. Several hours later a breeze whispered through the trees and the fog began to lift. Patches of weak sunlight spotlighted fields golden with dryland corn and the soundless glide of vehicles on I-29. Through the binos I followed the ridgeline down to a hawk winging toward us. In an instant it all flooded back. The distance wasn’t that great, but it was farther than any road could ever take me.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Autumn migration is more about leaving than arriving, containing an equal measure of sorrow and exhilaration. It’s a time of great changes on the land, summer’s heat giving way to crisp mornings, the first yellowed leaves spiraling down to carpet the roads. Goldenrod and sunflowers blaze like miniature starbursts in the ditches and on the fringes of woods. Breezes shift to the north, redolent of transformation, subtly scented but unmistakably boreal, in contrast to late summer’s mugginess wafting up from the Gulf, some of it pushed far inland by hurricanes. In Orion’s wake Sirius beacons in the predawn darkness. And one by one the birds depart and the skies become empty.
The sense of loss I feel each autumn is mollified somewhat by the thrill of witnessing the great migrations of birds and other forms of life, notably the monarch butterfly and green darner dragonfly. It doesn’t end there, of course, for all around us migrations are taking place, some in elevation only, such as grouse and ptarmigan in the high country, and some from outdoors to indoors. This latter is an unfortunate seasonal occurrence most visible in the sudden surge of rodent population within our walls, followed by a flurry of trap-setting and sharp glances from my wife, who acts like it’s my fault this is happening.
Women do not like mice. Wives, especially, do not like mice because it means the husband is not doing his job of keeping them out. I was recently surprised to learn that female rabbits do not like mice, either. We were sitting in the back room, Sheba and I, when a mouse zipped past us and slithered beneath the computer desk. She sat up, ears cocked forward, and then her head swiveled and she gave me a withering brown-eyed look that let me know she did not approve of sharing quarters.
I’m rapidly familiarizing myself (again) with the low growl Lori utters whenever she spots a mouse scampering down the hallway or darting along the kitchen counter. The sound is closely followed by malicious looks directed toward my person and triggers an irresistible urge to check the traps I’ve already set. Like zombies or vampires, that look can only be assuaged by warm corpses.
Recently I read an article by Edward Hoagland where he described the interplay of life inside his house, with wasps in the rafters, mice nibbling his books, a line of ants marching in formation, skunks under the porch. It seemed quaint and homely, a rustic home in the Vermont woods (or maybe it was Maine—somewhere back East, which is my description for everything beyond the Mississippi)—sharing quarters with our fellow creatures as if a house could, and should, welcome them all. But I wondered then, as I do now, if he was married or single. I wondered if he was familiar with the look of opprobrium that says do something about it.
I’m happy to report that there are three fewer mice to carry on this morning. Two were killed yesterday and another last night, so perhaps the body count makes up for my egregious failing to do something about the huge wolf spider that scared Lori witless. It welcomed her home as she entered the house but her yelp signaled her displeasure at both it and me. When I rushed to her aid it was insinuated that our future matrimonial bliss teetered upon the immediate removal of the arachnid. It was a magnificent specimen, one I was loath to tackle, and so I helped her with her bags and served her a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. When I looked a few minutes later the spider was gone.
Gone but not forgotten. I go through this every year so it should be old hat by now. I root around for traps, check our supply of glue boards, and set them out in likely waystations. I dispose of bodies. I tell her that cats are out of the question. I try to find entry points but with a limestone foundation the house is as air-tight as a block of Swiss cheese. If we knew everything that lived inside these walls it would curdle our blood.
Two days ago the sighting of a broad-winged hawk simmered my autumnal stew of melancholy and elation. It hunted above the ridgeline south of our house as if searching for thermals, little more than a freckle against a distant bank of clouds. I shucked my binoculars from the case and studied it, thinking it at first a Swainson’s hawk, but the wings weren’t narrow enough. When it finally banked I could see the diagnostic white-on-black banded tail. Failing to locate a thermal, it sailed away accompanied by three vultures.
I longed to join them in freeflight over the Flint Hills and on past the curve of the horizon to lands I will never know. Having once tasted flight and now relegated to the earth, I feel like Icarus grounded, disconsolate, incapable of doing more than stare in awe at the unfettered sky, yearning for what can never be and yet consolate in my own feeble way for having been part of something much larger than myself, even if only as a bystander, even if only from outside to within. The skies clear. Mice and spiders invade. Autumn is here, and all the world is in motion.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Of all the things that happened afterward, it was that failure to recognize the severity of the situation and act upon it that sticks with me most. That sticks in my craw. From my earliest days I was taught through example that a man’s place was to protect his family. When murderers escaped from the Santa Fe Penitentiary and fled into the Pecos Mountains where we were camping, my father, and all the other male campers, carried pistols openly. When a mysterious and unseen mammal threatened us in the selfsame mountains my father commanded his sons to form a circle around our mother while he investigated armed only with a wooden cudgel. Men were the protectors. Men were the first line of defense. And knowing this meant that men must remain ever cognizant of all external threats and to act without hesitation. Our gender dictated constant vigilance and preparation.
And me, I stood there like a fool while the driving rain tracked in a wide southerly arc from the south-southwest to the east and back again, as if the house had slipped its moors and spun on a storm-wracked sea. The harbinger of what was coming, and me rooted to the spot like a stalk of asparagus, unable to do more than mutter some inane remark about never having seen rain act that way before.
Not long before I had heard the weather radio squawking about a particularly nasty storm moving directly toward Blue Rapids from Clay Center. It was coming fast and would cover the forty or so miles rapidly. When I fired up Doppler radar on the Internet to get a better view, I saw a red slash like an arrow expanding from Concordia in the west to the lower border of Marshall County. Late season storms usually amount to little more than flash and bang but something about this one made me uneasy.
I stared out the window at skies shading to black with a slight greenish tinge like an old bruise. Lori announced she was going to a meeting down the street, a statement I found utterly out of sync with the dire events forming just beyond the ridge. There ensued a brief discussion over the merits of attendance versus security. Slightly disgruntled, she put her purse down just as the rain intensified on a rising gale and began its spin across the lower cardinal points.
I said something. The directional shift was mesmerizing, so bizarre that it slipped past my reasoning leaving only a blank slate and a single extended how? that hung unanswered in my mind while the rain reversed course and tracked back to its original source.
With a deafening roar the view detonated in a white wall that rocked the house. Sheba flew from her cage and crouched wild-eyed as if uncertain where to run. Rain poured through the window air conditioner and sprayed across the room. I grabbed a handful of dish towels and clapped them to the window but it was like holding back a flood. Lori took Sheba as the power went out and the battery backup started beeping. So many noises vied for attention that it was impossible to decipher their origin—creaks, pops, groans, rattles, all nearly drowned out by splintering thunder, hammering rain and the banshee scream of the wind.
And then it relented, a matter of a minute or so, and we could see trees thrashing violently as if being electrocuted. Leaves filled the air like some form of green birds, and still the rain lashed the house in sheets, though it was lessening even as the thunder moved off to the east. We took stock of the house looking for drips or broken windows but found nothing out of the ordinary. I peeked out the front door and saw tree limbs sprawled across the yard, some as tall as small trees. But it was when I looked out the back window that I saw the reason for our power outage.
The magnificent hackberry that shaded the back corner of the yard was now flat on the ground, parts of it draped across the shed, the fence flattened. The shredded power line snaked across the sodden ground. My stomach lurched at the sight. This has been our constant dread, for the tree had been hollowing out for years and would have to be taken down soon. Now it was a moot point.
I called Westar and relayed the news, and as dusk fell we lit candles and gathered headlamps and flashlights. To the west a new wave of storms was brewing. Not knowing when the power might be restored, I went to work for two hours so I wouldn’t worry about waking too late. And when I got home I saw a light shining in the window, and deep ruts carved through the wet grass where Westar had driven.
It wasn’t until dawn the next day that we were able to assess the damage. Trees were shattered and the ruts would take years to repair, but the house was sound. Sounder than my heart, for in the following days my mind returns to that shapeshifting rain, a half-rotation at minimum, something so far out of the norm that I should have seen the danger in it and yelled for Lori to take cover. That I didn’t is like where the tree once stood, a hole in the sky that might never be filled.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
It’s always tough when you realize life isn’t what you thought it would be, or should be, for that matter. The hard thing to swallow is the knowledge that few people living in America have a right to feel this way when conditions in Darfur, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the slums of Nigeria or Rio de Janeiro, where landfills constitute the primary residence for thousands of unfortunate families, are so savagely unimaginable. Knowing this and still trying to wallow in self-pity is silly indeed because guilt robs whatever dubious pleasure one can summon forth.
So what’s left to do? Down a high blood pressure pill and count the things that make this life bearable. Hit the road and try to outdistance yourself, or barring that find some moving water and ponder it long enough to become absorbed in its ebb and flow. If I lived closer to the ocean I’d collapse on the beach and let the sun, sand and pulsing waves take me away, but since this is Kansas the best I can do is rivers or lakes, and lakes have never done much for me. They’re just big puddles, static and lifeless other than at dawn and dusk when reflectivity and shadows transform them into a palette of color. But moving water fires my imagination.
Drainages are the roots of oceans, delving their fibrous tentacles to the highest reaches of land and linking us metaphorically if not physically to the tides. The sum of their numbers equals the Pacific, the Atlantic, the turquoise Caribbean, the landless Southern Sea. I’ve never been good at math but this is math I understand. All the little things adding up to something bigger, the process called confluence.
With a very rare day off from work and a map I did the arithmetic: Corndodger Creek, DeShazer, Clear and Cedar creeks, the Johnson Fork, Robidoux Creek—itself comprised of Snipe, Skeeter and Dog Walk creeks—the Little Timber, Irish and Weyer Creeks, flowing together in two major forks that converge near the small town of Vliets to become the Black Vermillion River, and the combined amalgamation of waterways rolling into the larger Blue Earth River a mile south of the Black Vermillion Marsh. It was as good a destination as any and far better than rotting away inside four walls where a computer terminal perpetually radiated an indictive form of arithmancy.
I was in for a surprise when Jim Mayhew, my shamanistic codgernaut partner, showed up as I was leaving. The last time we’d met he was shaved, groomed and dressed in a dark suit, the model of propriety so proper I almost didn’t recognize him. Now he was dressed for the outdoors, his craggy face grizzled with a thatch of graying whiskers, his pale eyes almost hidden beneath the bill of a baseball cap. His smile infectious, as always.
He didn’t need to be asked twice. We piled our things into the truck and headed east and then south, descending through narrow drainages into the broad valley of the Black Vermillion, where the sky opened up into a clear blue vault and the rounded green hills withdrew as if shrinking away. Crossing the bridge we saw the river for the first time, a sluggish brown current disappearing around a willow-lined bend studded with the imploring arms of dead cottonwoods. Nebraska rains had filled the banks, with flecks of foam indicating water levels were still rising.
A narrow road splintered off toward the convergence through fields of soybeans and locusts but I didn’t trust it, having seen this selfsame area inundated under floodwaters not long ago. And anyway walking seemed a better method of losing myself into the intricacies of nature, the hue of sky, a curling tendril of vine ending in a lone white blossom nodding in the breeze, a mockingbird’s indecipherable ramble, the mad scramble of toads fleeing a shallow rut. Jim and I hopscotched one another as we stopped to photograph minutiae that caught our attention, or paced in tandem where muddy pools allowed, and never did we glimpse the river until we broke from a shallow fringe of woods into a treeless scrape where the remains of past parties huddled around a broken fire ring. Just beyond a strip of weeds the river rolled past, viscous, more earth than water, a perfect storm of silt bearing down on the embankment to the south.
To our right the waters of the Black Vermillion converged with the Blue Earth River. The demarcation of their currents was visible in a paler chocolate hue that hugged the bank and eddied and swirled around unseen obstacles. It was uncannily quiet, with neither birdsong nor drone of crickets, our voices muted as if we stood in some holy place. Upstream a johnboat with two fishermen drifted until it, too, passed our location and was lost around a bend.
I want to lie and say I wished the river would bear me away, or baptize me into a new existence, one more successful and courageous, less tainted with moodiness and indecision, but I realize it could never have been otherwise. The rivers wed into a larger whole, eternally mated on their way to the sea, and I stepped back alone into a life I no longer understand.