Local author Robert Boswell shared the title story in his collection “The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards” with Telluride Magazine. The collection has been made into a film starring James Franco, Kate Mara, Natalie Portman, Kristen Wiig, and Matthew Modine, and is set to premiere this year. The first section of the story appears in our winter/spring issue, and the story can be read in its entirety below.
The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards
Assignment 1: Happier Time
As much as anything really happens, this really did.
It was late spring. I was in that drifting age between the end of college (sophomore year) and the beginning of settling down (the penitentiary), and I had taken to the mountains where my friend Clete said the air was so thin you could skip the huffing and absorb it directly through your pores. Clete was living out of a green VW van that had broken down at a scenic overlook a few miles outside the Colorado ski town of Apex. He had taken the tires off the van to keep it from being towed. Perched on the cliff, it looked primitive and vaguely prehistoric.
The Greyhound driver pulled over for me.
“Don’t get too close to the ledge,” he warned.
Evidently I hadn’t concealed the fact that I was stoned.
Clete sat on the metal railing eating a combination of trail mix and Alpha-Bits from a plastic pouch. He was a big guy with brown hair in bangs across his forehead, a ponytail in the back. His body had an imposing quality, not just because of his size but owing to the confident way he moved through the world.
“I’ve got a kilo of shrooms,” he said by way of greeting, leading me across the highway and up a muddy path.
In the shade of pines, he moved a fallen branch and dug up a bag of psychedelic mushrooms. He kept them separate from the van in case some law officer decided to search his home.
I spread my coat over the grass. The coat was blue and bulky but light—insulated by air—made of a petroleum product impossible to stain. It had so many pockets I’d forget about some for months at a time only to discover an old joint, a dime bag, a novel I was halfway through. The coat dated back to my last visit home. I got distracted on the way, a six-hour drive from the university, and arrived three months late. My parents still had my Christmas presents wrapped in elf-and-reindeer paper. The whole I time I was there they complained about their lousy holiday. (As you know, I haven’t seen them since. A person can only apologize so much.) The coat was one of my presents. A man could cross the Arctic in such a coat. It had become my organizing principle. And it was all the luggage I had.
Clete and I plopped our butts on it.
“I recommend this much,” he said and passed me a handful of mushrooms.
It was a hot day, and we stretched out in the shade. Through the trees, we had a view of the highway, the beached van, and the green gorge beyond the railing. Clete and I have been friends for fifteen years. We first met when we were seventh graders. My mother had grown tired of driving me to school when the bus stop was just down the street. Clete was on one knee when I arrived, his chin in his hand. “Spermatozoa are living creatures,” he said, “and we make them.” I did not know his name, and he didn’t know mine. We’d seen each other at school, but we’d never spoken. “They swim, they wriggle, they seek.”
“Is this where we catch the bus?” I said.
“That means we have some sense of God in us,” Clete said. “I feel it.” He put his hand over his crotch. “It’s like a bright, tickling light.”
We’ve been friends ever since.
“They’re kind of gritty,” I said, referring to the mushrooms.
Clete shrugged. He had spent the morning in a wildlife center watching a film on lions. “One.” He counted with his fingers. “They sleep twenty hours a day. Two, the females do the hunting while the males snooze. Three, when pursuing prey, they attack the smallest and slowest in a herd—the baby wildebeest, retarded zebra, gimpy antelope. Given this evidence, what do you think the movie was called?”
I pointed to a couple of girls in short pants bicycling past the lookout point, but Clete couldn’t be discouraged. When he got philosophical, there was no stopping him.
“Lion, the Noble Beast.” He paused to let the irony sink it. “Then I got to thinking how kings just lie around on their royal furniture and tax the peasants. Maybe lions are nobility after all.” Clete had never been what anyone would call a good student, but he could be specific in ways most of us couldn’t. “Take lime popsicles,” he continued. “Do they taste anything like actual limes?”
“Have you been eating these all day?”
“I sampled while I was harvesting.”
“You picked these?”
“They grow,” he said. “Right out of the ground.”
“Mushrooms can be poisonous, you know.”
I studied the remaining mushrooms in my hand, torn between the idea of a bargain high and the possibility of dying.
“I took a library book with me,” Clete assured me. “They’re perfectly safe.”
“So,” I said, eating another but chewing more slowly, “you’ve got a library card.”
“Everything we have, even the rain, comes from the earth,” he replied. “Except for meteorites and certain toxic gases.” He returned the bag to the hole and used the branch like a broom to disguise the topsoil. “I know where there’s a party,” he said.
We hiked down to the VW. The van had no side windows or seats in the back, just a long floorboard he had covered with foam rubber and shag carpet. I tossed in my coat, Clete locked up, and we headed toward town on foot.
“Where are the tires?” I asked.
“Hidden.” He needed six hundred dollars to rebuild the engine. He didn’t have a job but was saving money anyway. “Walking back and forth to town is good exercise,” he said, “which saves on doctor bills and money that would have gone toward gas if the van was running.”
“We’re making a profit just walking along,” I said.
“Picking mushrooms saves on drugs and groceries.”
“How much actual cash do you have?”
He stuck his hand in his pocket and counted the small wad of bills, plus a few coins. “Twelve dollars and forty-eight cents, but this is a buffalo nickel. I’m saving it.”
“Twelve forty-three then,” I said.
I felt the most inside our friendship when we walked together as we did that afternoon, making plans and bumping shoulders, eating magic mushrooms from our fists, hoping we wouldn’t get poisoned.
“I’ve got about fifty bucks,” I told him. “I’d have more but I gave this woman a necklace when I broke up with her.”
“The one with the parrot?”
“How was I supposed to know it wouldn’t come when it’s called?”
“Parrots don’t know what they’re saying,” Clete said. “They just copy sounds. Humans are the same. We talk in the vague hope of finding out what we mean.”
When we reached Apex, he showed me the library and a bakery that set out day-old pastries in the alley.
“Fires are good for forests,” he said.
I smelled the smoke then. The flames were fifty miles away, but the box canyon that held the town had a roof of smoke. It had a purifying odor. I began to feel tall and rubbery and ready for the next thing. We walked a long distance. At some point, it turned out to be evening. Stars swelled from the dark center of the sky to the toothed ridges of the mountains. All the heat fled the air and I thought to ask, “Where we going?”
Clete pointed to a dark house up the hill. A girl named Val was dog sitting for a family spending the summer in Scotland. It was her party. The house had a peaked roof and plank porch. The windows showed a waffling brightness like the memory of actual light. Some kind of Mary Chapin Carpenter warbled inside, and I had a momentary fear of live music.
Clete didn’t knock. The front room held maybe twenty candles. A boom box sat on a high table, its cord connected to an extension that trailed along the floor, out a window, and across the lawn to a neighbor’s outlet. Clete ejected the tape, which drew applause from guys lounging on the furniture.
“I have ‘Texas Flood’ in my coat,” I said.
“You’re not wearing your coat.” Clete lifted tapes from the scatter on the table and held them next to a candle to read.
I wandered into the kitchen. A bone-thin woman, who turned out to be Val the dog sitter and hostess, was mixing a drink by flashlight.
“Thirsty?” She handed me the drink she was making. “Whiskey and ice is my specialty, and it’s all we’ve got.” She dipped into a plastic cooler for more ice. “These glasses are real crystal,” she added, “but they’re monogrammed. I’m afraid to sell them. It’s a small town.”
“I could sell them for you,” I said. “Nobody knows me.”
“That’s so sweet.” She’d spent the upkeep money the family had left on dope. Once the electricity was cut off, she sold the appliances. She was down to the blender and Toast-R-Oven. “I have to keep the phone on for when they call from Dundee,” she said. She had trained the dogs to bark into the receiver. “I got screwed on the refrigerator.” She had traded it to a guy at the bakery for a cooler of sandwiches. “Never do business when you’re hungry,” she advised. Her mouth was small and almost circular, like a split cantaloupe. She noticed me studying her mouth and kissed me. “Who are you anyway?”
I told her I was Clete’s friend.
“Thank goodness,” she said. “I need his help.” She took another crystal tumbler from the cupboard and filled it with whiskey. “Clete doesn’t take ice for some reason.”
“He doesn’t want to get spoiled,” I explained.
She took the drink to Clete and grabbed his arm, leading us to a room with wood paneling, leather furniture, and no windows—a den. People sat around in candlelight studying a guy in a big chair who was staring out of eyes as distant and hollow as those tunnels that go under bodies of water. Val shone a flashlight on him. He didn’t blink.
“What do we have here?” Clete asked. He knew the guy, whose name was Stu.
A bunch of them had snorted PCP, but Stu had done twice as much as anyone else. Now he wasn’t moving.
“Someone egged him on,” Val said.
She turned a nasty gaze on a guy sitting cross-legged on the couch. His head was narrow in the middle like a partially imploded can. He spoke.
“From now on he’s not Stu, he’s Stewed.” His laugh was sniggering and ratchet-like.
Clete asked Val for the name of the laughing man as if he weren’t right there. She answered with the single word “Barnett.”
Clete leaned in next to me but spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. “We may have to teach that one a lesson.”
Barnett quit laughing and drank from a tall glass of something green.
Clete addressed the entire room. “Who, if anyone, knows what PCP is?”
A guy with a headband said he thought the active ingredient had something to do with the manufacture of fluorocarbons.
None of us liked the sound of that.
Clete wanted the full list of Stu’s symptoms.
“He’s grown really quiet,” the headband said. “Pensive, I’d say. And he doesn’t move.”
They all looked at Stu but didn’t know what they were seeing, as if they had entered a cult and weren’t permitted to understand what was staring them in the face: an unconscious man with his eyes open, sitting upright and rigid in an armchair.
Clete wanted to know how long he’d been like this.
Val checked her wrist. “Oh,” she said, “can it really be ten p.m.?”
“It’s ten to twelve,” I said, showing her. She had confused the hands on her watch. A murmur made its way around the room. Several people counted with their fingers. Stu had been comatose for six to nine hours, depending on which of his fellow travelers you trusted.
Knowing the time earned me credibility in that crowd, but it made me wonder how long Clete and I had walked. I was certain the sun had been up when we started.
Then I asked, “Is there any of that stuff left?”
Barnett answered. “Stewed sucked up the last of it and licked the tray.”
“He doesn’t smell so good,” Clete noted.
“Is there a hospital in this town?” I asked, adding, “I’m new.”
“There’s an on-call doctor,” Val said. “He doesn’t like this kind of thing, though.”
Clete held a stubby candle right up to Stu’s face, staring hard into the wanky eyes. Clete said, “Wilt thou be made whole?”
It got the ratchety laugh from Barnett, but Clete was dead serious. One time in Oregon he asked a highway patrolman who had pulled us over for driving without lights whether he didn’t “relish the dark world.” We spent what they called a cautionary night in jail, but everyone was very nice to us.
Stu made a sudden shuddering movement with the top half of his body. He raised one arm from the chair and held it aloft. Pointing to our hostess, he said, “V-V-V.”
Val, as if to encourage him, tugged at her short skirt, wiggling her butt against her leather chair. The place had great furniture.
A tremor passed through Stu’s arm and made his hand dance, as if he had discovered something miraculous or gotten electrocuted. His face contorted with the effort of speaking.
“V-V-Val,” he said at last. His eyes settled on Clete. “Cl-Cl-Cl-Clete.”
“Cluck like a chicken,” Barnett yelled.
Clete turned to him. “You should get down on your knees.”
A girl in a tube top and cutoffs called out, “You insensitive bastards!”
We waited for her to follow up, but she just crossed her arms and pulled her feet up onto the couch.
“She can’t mean us,” I said to Clete.
Stu’s trembling finger indicated one person after another, moving around the room, naming the witnesses. He included the dogs, the big blond retriever, Ruff, and the yappy white terrier, Ready. When he came to me, who he didn’t know from Adam, he said, “K-K-Keen.”
That’s how I got this name I still use. To call it an alias is only technically correct.
Eventually I went off to explore. The candlelit house had wild, watery shadows on its walls, a fickle stream of bouncing light and insistent waves of dark, like scales of light on an actual stream. A breeze would agitate the candles, and the walls became the wide chopping sea. Human forms at the base of the wall, their heads upturned to watch the dreamy business, seemed to be praying. Some of them touched my shoulder or the soft places above my hips and said forgettable things about the brilliant, rocking light.
Later, I got hungry and found a jar of maraschino cherries in the cupboard. I filled my mouth, sweetness trickling down my throat. I thought I might hunt down a bed. In the stairway, I came across the body of a dead girl and swallowed one of the cherries whole. She lay on her back, her head higher than her feet, staring through an open skylight. There were no candles on the stairs. I had to let my eyes adjust. She was dressed in a green tube top and nothing else, but the body seemed innocent, her skin as soft as the cherries that pressed against my tongue.
The soles of her feet were black, and a trickle of blood ran over one pale thigh. I couldn’t decide whether she had fallen down the stairs or given up on the climb and taken a seat, only to die in the process. Her face may have been in moonlight, as it was impossibly white. One thing was clear—she was not supposed to be looked at like this. I unbuttoned my shirt and draped it over her.
“Thanks,” she said.
I jumped back and tumbled down the stairs to the landing, hitting the back of my head. When I came to, she was gone and Clete was kneeling beside me. Other people were stepping over my torso to go upstairs or come down.
“These creatures have strangely human qualities,” Clete said, “like recuperating ghosts.”
He lifted his eyes to follow their movement. Even in this situation, he and I thought of these house squatters with a combination of condescension and ironic pride, owing to the van and our independent living skills.
“How many people are at this shindig?” I asked.
Clete didn’t answer. He waited for the landing to clear. Then he leaned close and whispered, “Wilt thou be made whole?”
It was time to go home.
Coming down from the mushrooms, I realized how high we had been and how long it would be before we were fully grounded. Along with that came the tedious desire to have never taken the stuff. With psychedelics, there was always a lingering descent, during which time you were not high but could not sleep or relax, like a hangover that begins while you’re still drinking and spoils the whole evening. It comes with a bottoming-out feeling. The designs you’d imagined and the new light that you’d shed on your life grow dim and dull and disappear as you nose-dive. Your mind strains to retain some sense of what it was that had you smiling and optimistic, but you can’t touch it. The dream of the high, as well as the high itself, vanishes, and the asphalt’s cracks remind you that you’re no kid and less young with every plodding step. Hallucinating has taken you no closer to understanding what it is you mean to do with your life.
Clete and I marched down the wide street to the heart of the little town, the bare streets and dark houses clucking disparagingly at us. In one window, beyond gauze curtains, an orange light licked at the dark world and dim figures crossed and recrossed the floor. A cold wind taunted the domestic bushes along the street and made my skin prickle and bump. I had lost my shirt to the approximately dead girl and longed for shelter, my nipples turning to squat little stones.
“I should have brought my coat,” I said maybe a hundred times.
“We’re at ten thousand feet,” Clete said, removing his shirt and handing it to me. “The nights are always cold.” He was wearing a wife-beater underneath.
I buttoned up the shirt, which was several sizes too large for me. When we turned on Main to head out of town, the sleeves rippled like a swath of skin separating from my body.
Morning arrived. The sun should have heated me up, but my body held tenaciously to the cold. We stopped at a diner on the highway and ate eggs. Clete told me about the party, as if I hadn’t been there. Stu had come around enough to have several drinks and pass out.
“His essential movement is to seek unconsciousness,” Clete said.
Our booth had bad springs, which put our heads close to our eggs, a handy convenience this morning. A scrambled bit of egg escaped my mouth and hit the plate. Its brief contact with my palate had turned it an unnatural red, the color of maraschino cherries.
“Do I look funny?” I asked Clete.
Clete shrugged. “I’ve known you too long to say.”
The food sated something in me deeper than hunger. Three walls of the diner were made of plate glass that needed cleaning, and we spent a long time watching a smeary light shift over the pines and aspen and wide stretches of high grass. The waitress had big eyes and narrow shoulders. Her nametag read “Kale.” She knew Clete and would only talk in his ear, which made me a little paranoid.
“I’d introduce you,” he said, “but she doesn’t like talking to strangers.”
“Is this really the right line of work for her?”
She went from table to table, listening and nodding, pointing to the menu. She’d whisper to one person, who’d speak to the others.
“Her legs are nice,” I said.
“Every man in here is half or more in love with her,” Clete said. He got her to scrape leftover eggs onto our plates.
“This guy’s omelet has a weird spice,” I said.
Clete forked a bite and savored it a moment.
“Cigarette ash,” he said.
We stayed in the diner until the eggs and coffee had worn down my chill. Clete paid the shy waitress, and we hit the pavement again, happy for the heat of the sun. He carried a white paper bag bearing the diner’s logo—a possibly cross-eyed elk. Inside were packets of salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, and nondairy creamer.
Twenty minutes down the road, the peak of a tall black construction crane appeared. We watched it a long time before we got close enough to see the van. At the end of the crane’s long metal wire was a big round magnet, which snapped onto the van’s roof. Tireless and thoroughly defeated, the van rose up into the air. We joined the others—a crowd had gathered—in applause when it was set down on a flatbed truck. This was a terrible loss for us, but it was a great spectacle.
“We can kiss that one good-bye,” Clete said.
“My worldly possession is in there,” I said.
There was nothing to do but get the bag of mushrooms and hike back to Val’s.
This series of events—losing my coat and the drugs and other secrets and luxuries of my life, along with being given a new name by someone mumbling out of a coma, and encountering the not-quite-naked-or-dead girl to whom I gave the shirt off my back—combined in an almost scientific way to make me swear off drugs. I was twenty-nine years old and wanted to change before I hit thirty. Clete and I developed a plan for me as we ambled back, a plan that would work all that summer and beyond. Even after I left the mountain, it stuck. The plan had four parts.
One: I would not get a job. There’s always some guy with a goatee and great weed to turn you on during a break, or some friendly braless girl tired of washing dishes or mowing the graveyard or sweeping up the pencil shavings in Rosa Parks Elementary School who lights a joint or drops a line and offers to share. Work was a haven for drug users and I couldn’t risk it.
Two: I’d use willpower and the help of friends who, even if high themselves, would discourage me from joining them.
Three: The mushrooms, being organic and free, didn’t count.
Four: In order to be realistic and give the plan half a chance of working, I would stay drunk as much as possible.
A few people—including you and the therapist they assigned me when you had the flu—have since pointed out that as many people are done in by booze as by any drug or family of drugs. But Clete and I saw it differently. Being drunk was a momentary lapse into happiness, like drifting off while listening to a song about sex, whereas the drugs I craved were symphonies. They played at that low level just below the timbre of thought, a mattress of sound you could sleep on for days or a lifetime. Liquor relaxes the brain and lets the fool in you rise up, while the drugs I loved kept me still inside myself, permitting me to reside there in something like peace.
That’s a hard thing to give up, and it’s easier if you’re drunk.
We moved in with Val and lived in the dog-sitting house three months. Without rehab or an arrest to keep me in line, I became Keen and did no drugs.
You asked for a happier time. That was it.
Assignment 2: Considering Others
A lot of people lived in the house that summer. It was hard to say who did and who didn’t on any particular day. I had the boy’s room, and almost nightly I had to kick strangers from my bed, which was made to look like a sports car.
Our regular lineup, however, included only a few of us.
Stu: Except for Val, Stu had lived in the house the longest. He had the teenage daughter’s room and a job at the library, which lent out videos as well as books. He stole tapes he thought we might like. (The big-screen television was gone, but we had a portable hooked to the extension cord.) He had a nervous habit of chewing his toenails with his teeth, the indecent fragments littering the carpet like exactly what they were—little scraps of us we no longer needed. When I complained, he claimed I was jealous.
“Of what?” I was genuinely stumped.
“I can put both my feet all the way behind my head,” he said.
I shrugged. “I can wiggle my ears.”
This comment earned his contempt. “You can’t pick up girls wiggling your ears.”
The obvious question occurred to me, but I was shy about asking.
Stu went on, his voice dipping confidentially. “Your ears are not your best feature, Keen. You shouldn’t draw attention to them.”
Lila: She was the girl all the boys wanted to fuck. In any community of a certain size, there is always such a girl. I once worked in a landscaping crew, and we all wanted the foreman’s wife. She wasn’t beautiful or even particularly acceptable, but she was present and we liked the way she carried her tools.
Lila was pretty, but something about her life kept her discouraged and a little sour. She moped from room to room as if looking for her keys or purse, too preoccupied to respond to the typical direct address. Her body was bottle-shaped, but not Coke bottle. More like a flask. Yet every guy there wanted to get her square butt in bed. It might have been her slutty eyelids and the dark eyes they hid—eyes the color of bark but with a luster her attitude seemed to deny. I had a powerful sex drive in those days. My brain, bored without drugs, let my body have full rein, and it demanded Lila.
One day she told me that her first language was German, but she quit speaking it when she started kindergarten. Now she couldn’t remember any of it—a whole language lost inside her. I thought maybe that was what she was looking for when she meandered about the house, the language she’d been born into.
After I’d lived there a month, and only then because she showed up in the green tube top, did I realize Lila was the dead girl.
The dogs: Ruff, the golden retriever, was always happy to see you and generally optimistic about life, the way a dog ought to be. Ready, the terrier, reminded me of my third-grade teacher, who had her nose in our desks during recess, looking for something she could use to dim the day. Ready barked at the mailman. He barked at the neighbors. He barked at every single one of us who lived the house. He barked at the sound of the toilet. A red hummingbird feeder in the backyard sent him into mad barking convulsions. Let in the house, he did laps around the kitchen, sniffing out disorder.
Ruff would wait by the tub when I got out of the shower and gently lick my legs, but Ready would sniff my toes, bark, and occasionally gnaw my Achilles tendon. Many evenings he would latch on to a pant leg and growl while whatever chump who got nabbed—often me—swung his leg back and forth, the little dog careening.
Val: A familiar kind of sweet-hearted addict who couldn’t say no to anybody. She loved heroin because it let her remain kind. Her junk-sweet heart opened the house to any loser who came along.
Clete summed her up best: “Her dilemma is that she’s alive.”
One day she and I were in her room (the master bedroom, which seemed only fair), running a chisel around a window that wouldn’t open. Without electricity, we relied heavily on breezes. After we got it loose and propped up a ski pole to keep it open, she told me she had learned the secret of masculine behavior.
It sounded like something I ought to know.
Her ex-boyfriend, a Mexican guy from Oklahoma, had told her that some nights he’d say anything to get a woman in bed and other nights he wouldn’t fudge the truth at all. It could be the same woman, and he could be feeling the same desire.
“You’re all bastards and saints,” Val explained. “It’s just a matter of luck which day matters—the one when you’re being good or the one when you’re bad.”
I found out the Okie Mex confessed to this after breaking Val’s nose in an argument over something stupid like who did the laundry last or what kind of vegetables are okay to feed a dog. The confession was his way of apologizing and letting himself off the hook.
When she finished her story, she went to the drawer in the nightstand where she kept her junk. She cooked the stuff in a glass tube over a Bunsen burner. (The boy had a chemistry set.)
“I’d offer you some,” she said, “but Clete says I can’t give you drugs.”
“I don’t shoot up anyway.”
I’d only ever snorted heroin because I had a stubborn and wholly genuine fear of needles. Val listened while tying off with a paisley necktie from the closet, smirking only slightly and trying to hide it. I was touchy about this subject. As a teenager, I’d driven a hundred miles an hour in residential neighborhoods to prove I wasn’t afraid of dying, just of needles.
I helped her slap her arm and hunt down a vein, but I couldn’t watch the needle go in. She still wasn’t convinced. Even when the rush hit her and she fell back on the floral bedspread, the look she gave me had near equal parts of ecstasy and doubt.
I told her about waiting in line at a county clinic to get a vaccination. I was maybe six and watched each kid ahead of me burst out crying. They give shots better now, but back then it was just swab and stab. When it was my turn, I lost it, kicking the doctor in the head and eyeglasses.
“I blacked out. My mother had to tell me what I’d done.”
It had taken awhile to tell the story. Val had sunk into the lowest parts of her reclining body. She had to turn her head to make her lips work.
“It’s not fear,” she said. “Just weakness.”
She meant it in a nice way, trying to defend me and doing such a lousy job of it that she pulled me on top of her and let me screw her.
While we were fucking I thought about how this junkie friend of mine from high school had died shooting pool. He fell onto the table after making the three ball. I think he was dead a couple of shots earlier, but his body kept on eyeing the cue ball and following through. He hit face first, breaking a tooth, which I found and stuck in my pocket. We took his body to his parents’ house and left it in the yard. I memorized the address, put the tooth in an envelope, and mailed it to them.
That experience let me see how weakness (we’ll call it that for now) can be strength. None of that crowd went to his funeral but me. The family tried to have me arrested. “He was a friend,” I told the cop. I didn’t mention that mainly I wanted to see that tooth, which, sure enough, they’d glued back on. I know that sounds cold, but I couldn’t really see his death as a tragedy. Not for me, anyway. I did almost cry a little, but the sunlight on his coffin had a spunky kind of brilliance, which made me happy to be alive and weak and wearing a suit.
I didn’t tell Val this story while we were screwing, but I may have been distracted because when she couldn’t come and could barely, for that matter, stay awake, she said, “Just go ahead. Don’t wait for me.”
A few minutes later, the ski pole slipped loose and the window slammed down with a bang, and I came so suddenly I didn’t manage to pull all the way out.
“Don’t worry about it,” she told me. “That was really great.”
Clete: Some months before Clete moved to the mountains, he and I went to our ten-year high school reunion and found ourselves at a party in somebody’s crowded house. Twelve framed photos lined the dinner table, one for each of the dead in our class—all from drugs, or driving stoned into the giant saguaro by the post office, or drowning in a bathtub (that was about drugs, too), or falling over face first onto a pool table. These were people we thought of as friends or at least people who wouldn’t screw us over when we were too high to know better. They were all dead and it was a dull party.
Someone called Clete’s name and then mine. It was a guy who we’d named the Flirge in high school because he was a liar and he’d smoke your pot without ever bringing his own or offering to go in on some. His family had a swimming pool, so we put up with him but no one liked him. One time we were in the pool (on acid but that doesn’t have anything to do with the story) and the Flirge starts in all nonchalant about raping a girl, like it was this thing he’d done and he wasn’t going to lie about it.
Clete gave me a doubtful look, then said, “Where’d this happen?”
“A parking lot,” the Flirge said. The girl had passed out. He leaned her over a hood and did it to her from behind.
“What kind of car was it?” Clete asked.
“Black Mercedes,” the Flirge said.
“That has a hood ornament.” Clete is the kind of person you can’t slip much past. “You wouldn’t bend her over a hood ornament.”
“We were on the side by the driver’s door.”
“Too high,” Clete said. “You’d have to fuck on your tiptoes, which is fatiguing.”
My point is, the Flirge was the kind of guy who lied about whether he had raped a girl, and he didn’t chip in for drugs. You know the type.
He found us in this crammed full room and said, “I’ve been looking for you guys.”
I was thinking, Let’s flee, and giving Clete let’s flee looks. But Clete was thinking, People can change, and he gave me a look that said, If even the Flirge can shape up . . .
“I got married last night,” the Flirge said. He wanted us to meet his wife. “Wait right here?”
Sure, we said. The Flirge knifed through the crowd, so excited to introduce us to his wife that I was willing to believe Clete was right. We started enjoying the party more. Clete and I talked to a girl who’d had a thing for me in high school. Her husband had just got a job with NASA, and their firstborn was walking but not talking except for “muh” and “duh” for “Mom” and “Dad,” and she had another bun in the oven right now. All the time, I was recalling how crazy she’d been for me and how that baby could be calling me “duh” and how that could be my bun in her oven, and it seemed like somehow I’d even given up a chance to be an astronaut.
I was straining to figure out why I hadn’t liked her back when, but then I realized she was still talking and I remembered: she had a big mouth.
Was it worth not walking on the moon to avoid this fat mouth for the rest of my life?
But it was a sacrifice, too. It seemed like I’d given up some portion of the heavens in order to have integrity and look for true love and avoid endless small talk.
About then the Flirge reappeared. The woman with him wasn’t beautiful, but she had on a sweater that fit in a certain way, short happy hair, and a face you’d always like to see. I could tell she wasn’t a big mouth by the way she smiled at people and walked close to her husband, and I thought, What a weird honeymoon.
I was also thinking the Flirge had made out all right. He’d turned a corner and would never pretend he’d raped a woman again, even if maybe he might bring cheap wine when you invited him to dinner or make waitresses figure separate checks. What’s the big deal about that? In my head, I was commending Clete for recognizing this and thinking what a rare friend he was and also how I’d like to screw the Flirge’s bride. I wanted to marry her. You can tell sometimes.
Here’s the unbelievable part: I was happy for the Flirge. I felt a wide-open kind of gratitude that rarely descends on a person. I’ve been that happy maybe three times in my life. It thrilled me that such a loser could turn it around.
He led her right to us, but at the last second he looked away. He bumped into us as if it were an accident. Right then, I knew. He was still the Flirge and about to prove it.
“Hey,” he said. “I want you to meet my wife.” He leaned in close to us, made a quizzical face, and said, “What’s your names again?”
Without even a second to register this, Clete moved his head right past the Flirge to his wife. He said, “You’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life.”
She smiled for less than a second, less time than it takes for the television to come on after the remote is punched—that’s how fast the human brain is—and then her features made tiny complicated twists and small turns. We left them like that.
I could tell you about a thousand other nights like that one, but the point is always the same: Clete is the kind of person who knows what it is to be alive and the knowledge causes him no shame. How many people in your acquaintance can you say that about?
The others: Many other people did stints in the dog-sitting house. A guy we called Skins slept on the couch without a sheet for a month and turned it brown. When he left he stole Stu’s boom box, a weedeater, and two decks of cards. One guy—I don’t remember his name—pretended to be an opera singer and made voicey proclamations about art. Another one—we called him Heller, which might have been his name—tried to prove he could levitate by sitting on the bathroom scales and showing us how his weight diminished the longer he meditated. Clete saw through the act. “His butt is sliding off the feet marks,” he told me, but we didn’t say anything to Heller, who had only that one trick. Another guy who insisted we call him Hawk liked to argue about whether the world was flat. “What?” I said. “It’s a big conspiracy?” He explained: “Put a level on a field and that shows it’s flat. That’s what flat is. Sure, the planet is round, but the earth is flat.” There was a chunky girl I won’t name who went down on every guy in the place during her weeklong stay. Some of us tried to like her, but she had her own agenda.
Assignment 3: Family
Most nights we sat on kitchen chairs in candlelight immersed in some form of inebriation, and talked. The roof over the back porch had a leak that should have been fixed, but we liked to sit on the softening planks and breathe in the odor of the rain-sweetened wood. The morning sun dried it out, and the afternoon rain softened it again. The porch was like a great dark lung that would, days before the end of our summer, collapse.
One night on the porch has stuck with me. Clete got us going. “This man has to raise a boy who isn’t his own son but his brother’s, and the brother died because of this boy in a boy-caused auto accident or house fire or poisoning incident that kills the parents but not the boy. The man who has to raise him one day gets the hiccups and to get rid of them he drinks water upside down.”
“Standing on his head?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what kind of story it was.
“Like this.” Clete got a glass and demonstrated, bending at the waist and drinking from the opposite rim.
“That really does get rid of hiccups,” Lila put in. Several of us were on the porch.
“The boy watches him drink this way. And you have to understand that the man hates the kid because he’s ruining his life. He doesn’t want some diaper-needs-changing kid hanging around. Also he blames the death of his brother on the kid. He doesn’t act outright mean to the boy, but it slips out.
“He sees the kid drinking this way and he encourages him. ‘That’s the way to drink,’ he says. The boy goes around all the time drinking upside down. The man thinks it’s funny to see this kid drinking upside down. He takes a mean pleasure in it.”
“Insensitive bastard,” Lila said. Stu and Val and some others were there, too. “But what this does,” Clete said, “is give him an outlet for his anger. It lets him get to know the boy. He feels sad for his brother and for the boy. When the kid is old enough to go to school, the man tells him, ‘I was only fooling about drinking that way. You don’t have to drink that way.’ But the boy says, ‘I like to drink this way.’ The man says, ‘Kids will make fun of you if you drink that way.’ The boy says, ‘I know, but this is the way we drink.’ He raises a glass of water in toast and they bend over and drink upside down together, and the screen goes black.”
“This was a movie?” I said.
“He’s kind of a smart kid for kindergarten,” Lila pointed out.
“They could be in some remote place where school starts later,” Clete said.
“It’s a beautiful story,” Val said. “It’s perfect just the way it is.”
“It is a good story,” Lila agreed.
Lila’s respect for the story made me want to tell one of my own. I was drunk enough to just start off and see where it would go, but right as I opened my mouth I remembered a girl named Eve I used to know. She was a pal’s girlfriend—beautiful girl with hair so pale we used to say it was the color of spit, and who was diagnosed with brain cancer and given six months. I visited her in the hospital after her surgery and she asked me to be one of her pallbearers. It’s a hell of a thing for a living person to ask, especially a pretty girl no older than you with bandages on her head.
“Sure,” I told her. “Doesn’t look like you weigh too much.”
That got a laugh out of her.
But she didn’t die. Instead, she dumped my friend and got together with a guy who robbed convenience stores. They put together some money from their various robberies, and when she finished chemotherapy they moved to Alaska. I saw her once long afterward at that same high school reunion. Her hair had never grown back and she wore a scarf over her head, but she was still beautiful and married to the robber, who sold cars now and they had a summer cabin on the Oregon coast.
“What a time we had for a while there, huh?” she said to me.
We wound up sitting in her car and somehow started kissing. We had never done that before. I pulled my head back just a millimeter or so and spoke softly.
“They said you were going to die.”
“Disappointed?” she asked.
We kissed some more. Maybe she wanted me to take her to bed, but that didn’t happen, which led to my story petering out in a nondramatic fashion.
“I remember her,” Clete said once he was sure I was through. “She never did die.”
“That’s a lovely story,” Val said.
“That robber guy,” said Lila. “He thought it was just an adventure with a dying girl. But it was his whole life.”
Anybody can go to a bar and hear some character complain how the world has never lived up to his potential and his own nowhere life is everyone’s fault but his own. All you have to do is sit on the wrong stool. To get to the good stories, you have to make an effort. You have to become a regular part of someone’s life and keep mostly to yourself so when you offer a word or answer a question she can see you’re giving up something to talk to her. She starts to trust you, even owe you. You can’t just sit next to a woman and expect this stranger to unfold her life like a shirt she’s asking you to wear.
What I’m saying is, this was the first moment I thought Lila might like me.
Stu started in on a dream he’d had about deep water, a dental assistant, and walls in a room that flapped like the loose vinyl roof of an old car. I have opinions about other people’s dreams. They tend to be like paintings by surrealists who don’t have any goddamn imagination.
The dream ended badly (by which I mean it was tedious). He tried to redeem the story by wrapping his feet behind his head, which reminded me that he wanted Lila as much as I did. He didn’t even have to get up from his chair, and just sat like that.
In situations like this we relied on Val to have a kind word, but even she couldn’t comment. She did save him, though.
“I had a boyfriend who could bend his thumb flat against his arm,” she said. “Like this.” She bent her thumb flat against her arm.
Lila touched her nose with her tongue, inserting the tip in either nostril. We had to hold a candle up close to see, and we must have singed her hair. There was that burnt hair smell.
I told them about my idea of what makes a tragedy and how there really weren’t many. A death (you can’t have a tragedy without a corpse) could qualify only if it didn’t once make you think: I’m glad it’s him and not me.
Val disagreed. “We’re all tragedies,” she said. The assertion made her stand up and cross the porch. She sat on the ice chest, right across from me, and patted my knee. “But you told it really beautifully.”
Clete took it a step further. “The real question is, What would you kill for? What would it take for you to claim the life of another person?”
“I’d never kill anyone,” Val said. “Not for anything.”
“Then that’s who you are,” Clete said.
“I tried to strangle my boyfriend when he wouldn’t quit whistling,” Lila said.
“Well,” Clete said.
“That can be irritating,” I put in.
“You weren’t really trying to kill him,” Val said. “You were just upset.”
“It felt like I was trying to kill him.”
“Then that’s who you are,” Clete said.
Stu spoke. He was sitting normal again. “The guy I get dope from sticks a gun barrel in my mouth every time I buy. To remind me what he’d do if I rat on him.”
“Every time?” I said.
Stu nodded. “Some people won’t deal with him for that reason.”
“Bad business practice,” Clete said.
“It tastes like oil,” Stu said.
Our conversations felt like more than talk, as if we had made ourselves into a crew held together by something greater than happenstance or geography or the luck of free housing. I had the feeling we mattered as a group. Only to us, I guess, but I was happy with that.
I was happy.
Assignment 4: Accepting Responsibility
I found a metal detector among the kid’s toys. Since I couldn’t work and needed booze to stay sober, we hit upon the idea of combing the run under the ski lift for coins. The first day Clete and I found over nine dollars and barely made headway up the mountain. The lift was running, taking summer tourists up for views. Some of them tossed change down to us. We actually got most of the cash that way. The remainder of the summer was defined by this mountain we had to sweep. It gave us a goal and a direction: up.
We came home that first day tired and exuberant, bearing a frozen pizza (the oven was gas and hadn’t been sold) and a six-pack. Screaming started as soon as we entered. We found Lila towel-wrapped in the bathroom screeching at the tub. Ready was bouncing his long nails on the porcelain, yapping. The terrier had carried a mouse into the tub where it couldn’t escape and then tortured it to death. A mouse head lay by the drain, and Ready’s bloody paw prints made the tub a crime scene.
Clete got toilet tissue and picked up the rodent remains.
“Good boy,” he said to the dog.
Lila was too grateful to complain about our ogling her thighs and a portion of her hip where the towel parted. She even agreed to watch a movie with us after her shower, one of the videos that Stu had stolen from the library. Clete went to hook up the extension cord, and I hunted for the tape. When I couldn’t find it, I sought out Stu. He was sitting on the cooler on the back porch smoking a joint, wearing my old coat.
“Where’d you get that coat?” I asked him.
“The Goodwill store behind the fire station.”
“Find any drugs in the pockets?”
He eyed me suspiciously and then began thrusting his hands all over.
I didn’t want the coat back. It was an important part of the life I’d left behind. While he was searching, I asked him about the videotape.
“How did you know?”
He’d found one of my trademark blimp-shaped joints.
“Never mind,” I said. “Where’s the movie?”
“I took it back,” he said proudly, still rummaging. “Sneaked it back in. They never knew it was gone.”
I suppose I pursed my lips.
“You know how a library works at all?”
“There’s a fucking book in here,” he said, meaning the coat.
Lila suggested we go to a bar. We didn’t have any cash left from our day of detecting, so I took the elaborate Mickey Mouse clock from my room—which didn’t work anyway without electricity—and we headed down to the secondhand store and then on to the Blue Board Tavern—a splintering hardwood bar that used to be a laundromat and still had a wall of dead dryers in the back, each staring out with its one enormous eye. The clock brought seven dollars.
The tables in the Blue Board were the color of ballpoint ink. We claimed one and started talking.
“I moved to this town because it’s too small for me to turn tricks in,” Lila announced. “People would talk.”
“A sensible plan,” Clete said.
“I live in fear of becoming a whore.”
“Everyone with any judgment does.” He then described my plan for self-improvement. I could sense myself rising in her esteem, but she directed the conversation back to Clete. She wanted to know why he had come to this place.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said. “Haven’t you noticed?”
She gave him a look and maybe I was giving him the same look because she seemed to think of me as an ally. She and I got up and marched out into the street. A shower had passed over while we were drinking. The streets were slippery and glistening. The air was fresh and free of smoke. Without any warning, she took my hand and we walked to the middle of the town’s empty thoroughfare, our eyes on the mountains.
Her hand in mine opened a window in my head, and a damp wind blew right through it. Above the paltry row of buildings, a forest ascended the mountainside, the trees green and vibrant. At the open end of the box canyon, the sun had dropped out of sight, but sunlight spotted the high trees, lit a distant waterfall, and colored the rock faces. What had we been thinking? The sky was shot through with turquoise and the last yelps of sunlight like a gaudy stone on a gold band.
“He’s got us on this one,” Lila said softly.
She clung to my hand as we went back into the bar, aware that we had been mutually grazed by the speeding, startled sensation of what it was to be a living creature.
“We won’t forget again,” I said as we made our way to the table.
“If we ever fail to look at those mountains,” Lila said, “without realizing they’re there, we should have to cut off our arms and legs and gouge out our eyes.”
“You’d have to change the order,” Clete said. “The arms shouldn’t go first.”
He had the bag of mushrooms on the table, dividing them into three equal parts.
“Doing this in a public establishment doesn’t trouble you?” I asked.
“I picked these this morning, while you two and the rest of the mortal world were asleep,” Clete said. “Anyone watching will just think we’re earthy types.”
We ate mushrooms and washed down the grit with beer. Lila surprised us with money of her own and bought pitchers. It occurred to me that Clete couldn’t be sleeping much, as early as he was getting up.
“I sleep inside myself while I’m awake,” he explained.
That pretty much got him rolling. He declared and philosophized, his mouth full, his brain brimming with thoughts and theories, observations and sidebars. We all talked excitedly for a while and then settled down to our communal swallowing and a happy gulping silence. The conversation, even after it was over, kept a good feeling swinging among us like the movement of a rocking chair after the person is up and gone.
Then Clete began afresh. “People want you to believe you treat a disease by identifying it and then killing it off with the right poisons,” he said. “That requires a belief that the sickness and the person are two wholly separate entities. That’s like thinking the clouds don’t belong to the sky but are just happenstance passing through.”
We nodded or made appropriate grunts. Now and again I’d realize that Lila and I were still holding hands.
“People who think about the world aren’t usually violent, which leads me to assume that violent people don’t consider the world around them,” Clete said. “I knew a woman who liked to pretend she was the star of her own television program to the extent that she wouldn’t swear because there’s no swearing on television. She’d only have sex with the lights out. Everything she did took her to the next episode, and she’d think about how the show should end, editing her day down to its hour format.
“My point is, she may have been sick but she wasn’t violent. As long as she imagined an audience and the Nielsen ratings hinging on her actions, she had to behave. Is that sickness separate from who she is, or the product of who she is?”
I started in on this teacher I had in high school, a delicate young woman who spoke so softly you had to strain to hear any portion of her speech. It was work to catch a single word. She walked around the room while she talked, and every head would follow her. She was easily the best teacher I ever had. After the winter break, she came back with a microphone and a speaker that hooked to her belt. We didn’t have to strain to hear her, and it didn’t take but a couple of class periods to understand she was no better teacher than the others. It was the quality of our attention that had been different.
“I was in that class,” Clete said. “We read Macbeth and Catcher in the Rye and watched that Romeo and Juliet where Juliet does partial nudity. Miss Axelrod. You sat directly in front of me, and one day you had a condom stuck in your hair.”
“Was it a Mr. Microphone?” Lila asked. “I had one of those in middle school.”
“Another one of our teachers used to confuse me for my father,” Clete said. “He was old and I don’t think he was ever very bright, and he had taught my father. Now and then he’d call on Everett, as if I had become my dad. Which makes me think about that feeling of being transported, and how the weirdest thing—a kid like me sitting at a desk—can transport you thirty years, back to when you were young and had a brain and most of the time a hard-on, likely as not, for some junior girl in a short skirt you were supposed to be teaching.”
This reminded me of the girl I dated when I worked construction who liked to call me Daddy while we were in bed.
“I remember her,” Clete said. “Her family raised minks.”
“What’s your real name?” Lila asked me. “It can’t be Keen, can it?”
“What does ‘real’ mean?” I shot back.
“What does ‘name’ mean?” Clete put in.
“What does ‘mean’ mean . . . mean?” Lila said.
What a night that was! We swept out of the bar and up and down the lighted streets, our arms linked in Gene Kelly fashion, smiling and shuddering with the joy of being the people who got to inhabit our very own bodies. Nighttime rinsed the light out of the sky, and we found ourselves on the bank of the dark little river that cut through the side of town opposite our house.
“Fish know water,” Clete said, and we entered into a somber and wondrous bout of nodding. Lila and I may have wept a little.
Then we one by one began to add to the river from our own churning stomachs.
“I had no idea I was getting sick,” Lila marveled. That set the tone for our happy retching. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings,” she said. “If I’m pissing you off with this puking, just say so.”
Clete found a tree we had to look at, a big winding thing with branches and leaves and a miraculous balance.
“It just erupts out of the earth,” Clete said. “It goes up. What it means to be a tree is to send limbs up and roots down.” He dropped to his knees and touched the base of the tree. “This is the center, right here. Touch the tree’s heart.”
We got down and fondled the bark.
“I had a boyfriend,” Lila said, “who had a dog-and-pony show with a guitar at this café on weeknights. Not real singing but funny-talking kinds of songs about getting a life into which some rain must fall or fixing your car with chewing gum and spit. I took him for granted so much he wrote a song about a girl who cuts off her own nose.”
“To spite her face,” I said.
She shook her head. “To make her breathing holes bigger so it’s less work to inhale.”
We followed a crooked path that ran along the river, which was a shallow and fast-moving affair that made a gorgeous noise. We began hearing things in the river’s music, voices and shouts and engines running. The rush of water seemed to give off sparks, which meant we were hallucinating but it didn’t feel that way. It seemed instead that the river must always spark into the night air but usually we fail to see it. We were witnessing the daily miracle of moving water on a planet that was moving itself, spinning through the dark marvel of space.
We came upon a sandy bank often used as a party spot, and an actual voice called to us.
“Pussy,” the voice called. “Here, pussy, pussy.” Ratcheting laughter followed, and Barnett stumbled onto the path. “You’re all pussies,” he said, “especially him.” He tried to look over his shoulder and nearly fell.
Stu lay on the bank, flat on his back, either sleeping or passed out. He was wearing my coat, which made me feel oddly proud and responsible, a little jealous, possessive, and nostalgic. I was feeling a lot.
Clete stepped off the path to put his ear to Stu’s chest, while Barnett did almost the same thing with Lila’s breasts, thrusting his face against her chest and clacking his teeth. She pushed him away and I took a swing at his chin, smacking him on the side of his head. He collapsed in such a complete fashion, Lila and I burst out laughing.
“He respires,” Clete said of Stu. “But we’re going to have to carry him home.”
“What about this one?” I pointed at Barnett.
Clete bent over him and slapped Barnett’s cheek. Barnett didn’t rouse. Lila gave him a sharp kick to the ribs. He jerked and moaned, but he didn’t wake up.
“He’s the one who kind of raped me,” she said to Clete and at the same time took my arm. She was explaining why I had slugged him, as if I’d known all along and acted out of gallantry.
While we were contemplating what to do, a crescent moon appeared above the dark line of the mountainside, and a coyote loped by on the opposite bank of the river, pausing to stare at us while we stared back at it, and then it continued on.
“Was that a wolf?” I asked.
“Coyote,” Lila said. “I used to see them by the side of the road every morning when I worked at a bakery down valley. I’ve never seen one this close to town.”
“It might have been a dog,” I said.
“Or a vision of god,” Clete said.
“I got fired from that job for stealing éclairs,” Lila said. Then: “Why would god stare at us like that?”
“To remind us we’re human,” Clete said. “And he’s human.” He nudged Barnett’s face with the round toe of his boot. “We can’t leave him to the elements.”
“Sure we can,” Lila said. “Especially if god’s got his eye on him.”
She didn’t want to wait alone with Barnett for fear he might come to. She hefted Stu’s feet. Clete gripped him under the arms. They carried him off. I stayed with the inert Barnett, watching the stream, listening as its noise receded and a deep quiet settled in, a silence like I had never heard before. I couldn’t even hear the thoughts in my head.
Clete tapped my shoulder, waking me. It seemed like he had just left, and he had. Stu had woken up before they reached town.
“Lila’s staying with him in case he doesn’t remember where he’s going,” Clete said. “You think we could wake this one?”
Barnett’s body sprawled unnaturally on the sand, one arm trapped beneath his back and the other crooked over his neck, his face as white as porcelain, his mouth spread wide, the tongue not pink but the red of hard candy.
“I’ve got an idea,” I said.
I was inspired by the need to pee. I unzipped and pissed on Barnett’s face. His head rocked to one side and he puckered his lips expressively, but he didn’t come to. After a while, it got pretty redundant but I hadn’t peed all night.
“You could damage your bladder holding it so long,” Clete said.
“Now what?” I asked.
“You were on the right track,” Clete said. “Just thinking too small.”
He grabbed Barnett’s hands and I took hold of his feet. We rocked him back and forth a few times to get some distance and hurled him into the river. He made a big splash. His body dipped below the surface, then bobbed back up.
But he didn’t stand. The current pushed him downstream. The reflection of the moon played over his body.
Clete and I scrambled after him along the river’s edge, and then we each waded out into the icy water after him.
Barnett eddied briefly near a wide spot, twirling face down, but the water was deeper there and Clete and I each fell trying to reach him. By the time we were on our feet again, the current had reclaimed him. We tromped through the water, high stepping and flailing. Clete dived for him, but the river kept him just out of our reach.
I gave up at the footbridge, climbing up to watch his form slide away, shivering in the night air, not at all sure I had the strength or warmth to make it up the hill to the house.
Clete, though, kept on, ducking under the bridge and skipping down a little rapids, somehow remaining vertical. I heaved myself off the bridge and trotted along the river’s edge, my legs aching and beginning to wobble.
At a bend in the river, Clete fell and when he got up the current knocked him down again. I went in after him and dragged him out. Barnett was out of sight.
“I don’t feel so good about this,” I said.
“It’s some consolation that he was an asshole,” Clete said, “but we really shouldn’t have killed him.”
That was the full extent of our eulogy for Barnett. How and whether we were going to make it home was playing with our minds. We crawled along the riverbank, debating whether it might be warmer to remove our wet clothing.
“I don’t see how it could be colder,” I said.
Clete laid himself flat on the high river grass to undo his belt and jeans. The river had taken his shoes and one sock. I had both my shoes but only one sock, which was puzzling.
“You’re not a careful dresser,” Clete said.
We left our clothes in a pile, and worked our way across town and home. A few people pointed. They were the only people on the streets. Fortunately, Lila was on the back porch with Val when we came in. We dried off and dressed and were standing beside the open and roaring kitchen oven by the time she realized we were home.
“Stu’s fine.” She offered me her hand and I took it. “Where’s the jerk?”
“He slipped off,” Clete said somberly, stepping away from us. He left the kitchen.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
I kissed her and shut off the oven.
“I need to lie down,” I said.
We kept kissing and holding each other, bumping through the house. It sounds heartless and insensitive to say I forgot about Barnett drowning and drifting downstream like a log, but kissing Lila combined with my own near-drowning incident to erase it from my head. I sank back into the night as it had been before we killed him. Lila and I rambled through the house holding hands so deliriously that we became one creature and stumbled together into the bathroom to pee.
Stu was on the toilet, wholly conscious and masturbating by candlelight.
“Don’t you ever knock?” he said, turning the page of a comic book: Daredevil.
That was the last little push we needed. Lila followed me to my bedroom and climbed between the sheets of my car.
“Promise me . . . ,” she said.
I waited for the rest of it a long while. Finally I just said, “I promise.”
Assignment 5: Understanding Mistakes
The same night that Clete and I killed Barnett, Lila and I became lovers. The next day she retreated a little. I found her in the kitchen writing in a notebook—her diary. She glanced at me and went back to her penmanship. I said good morning in an overly jolly voice. She lifted a hand without looking up. When I went to the faucet to get a drink of water, she hunched over the journal. All I could read were the words my right mind.
Clete and I worked the slope that day with the metal detector, but he was not his usual self. We discussed what he called “the slaying” in undertones.
“Stu remembers almost nothing,” Clete said.
“We should have told Lila.”
I waved the metal detector, and Clete searched wherever it beeped.
Clete shook his head. “Then she’d be a party to it. She’d have to turn us in or accept a portion of the blame. I went this morning and got our clothes. They’re on the back porch drying.”
A couple on the ski lift called out to us and threw down coins. We waved to them and walked to the spot where the change had fallen.
“I went back to where we tossed him in,” Clete said. “I wanted to look for footprints and so on, but people were camping there. They must have come in the middle of the night.”
“My pee is there,” I said. “Can they use that to convict me?”
Clete didn’t think so. “I’m more concerned with what Lila will want to do once the body is found. She’s the only one who can point a finger.”
“She may be having second thoughts about being my girlfriend. She wasn’t what I’d call affectionate this morning.”
“She’s not a morning person,” he said. The detector beeped, and he fingered the grass. “The other thing is the coyote. We were given an omen, and we still screwed up.”
“I guess I really shouldn’t have pissed on his face.”
“Look at this.” Clete lifted a hotel key from the grass. “This is another sign.”
“The guy just emptied his pocket,” I said.
Clete straightened and held the key up above his head.
“We’re being given another chance. We aren’t lost yet.”
We showed the key to the lift operator, and he let us ride to the top of the slope. It was not the top of the mountain but a ridge several hundred feet above the town. Clete spotted our couple standing at the overlook. I let him talk to them. I hadn’t been up this high before and wanted to take in the view. I located our house and the library, the bakery, the hardware store, the diner, the piece of road where I’d first held Lila’s hand, and the sandy spot by the river where we’d killed Barnett. It seemed to me that I was getting to know this place.
Clete took his time returning the key. For a terrible moment I thought he might be confessing. I decided to sweep the area near the lift’s exit. I found a nickel right off. Then nothing for a long time. The platform was wooden and slatted, and I got a beep at the edge. It could have been a nail, but I got on my knees and worked my fingers between the slats. I came up with a gold band—a wedding ring.
Clete returned waving a twenty-dollar bill. “I told him good deeds were their own reward, but he tossed the bill on the ground. He goes, ‘You scavenge for coins, don’t you?’ I figured he had me.”
I showed him the gold ring.
“There’s your omen,” he said. “Figure out what to do with it.”
That evening, Lila sat beside me at the kitchen table while we ate the frozen pizza that we had brought home the day before. It had thawed and it cooked funny, but we ate it. A fly fisherman had found Barnett’s body two miles downstream. The news was all over town.
Lila asked us exactly what happened.
“Don’t lie to me,” she warned.
We told her the truth, although I left out the part about pissing on his face.
“How hard did you try to save him?” she demanded.
Clete led her outside where our ravaged clothes were draped across the porch railing.
“If Keen hadn’t saved me, I would have wound up in a liquid grave myself.”
“The current took him,” I said. “We couldn’t catch up.”
She squinted thoughtfully. “He had the kind of body that looked like it would float.”
I understood this was meant to corroborate our story.
“We couldn’t just leave him there,” I said.
She considered this calmly, which reminded me that she’d hated Barnett and had tried to kill her ex-boyfriend for whistling. But when we returned to kitchen table, she said, “Why didn’t you just carry him up the hill?”
Clete and I sat on that one for a while.
Finally I said, “Given the advantage of hindsight, that does seem the better plan.”
“There it is,” Clete said sadly. “What it would take for us to kill a man. We didn’t want to carry the little weasel up the hill.”
Lila said, “He didn’t have the kind of body that looked like it weighed much.”
“We’re guilty of something,” Clete said.
“Something ugly.” She stood abruptly, knocking over her chair. “Don’t tell Stu,” she said. “Or Val.”
We agreed. She took my hand and led me up to my bed.
“Human life,” she said.
I didn’t know whether she was talking about us or Barnett dying. We crawled onto the single mattress together. We fucked and fucked and fucked.
I wish I could say Barnett’s drowning was the end of our association with death. Clete would later argue that tossing him in the drink had pried open mortality’s door. That’s maybe why we both felt responsible a few days later when Val woke up dead. She let out an otherworldly grunt that somehow each of us heard—Clete on his mat in the hallway, and Lila and I in our narrow convertible. We all jumped up, me in nothing but a T-shirt and the morning erection, Lila in my boxer shorts, one of her pale arms across her breasts. Clete was fully dressed. We followed him to the master bedroom. The smell was identifiable and unpleasant—excrement on flesh. Val’s mouth and eyes were open. I thought of the first night I met Lila, seeing her dead on the stairs, which made me unsure.
“Anything we can do?” I said.
Lila cried, “She’s dead, you moron!”
Clete touched Val’s cheek, and then said, “It’s up to us to care for the dogs.”
No one wanted to redeem the sheets. We wrapped her in them and toted her down the stairs and out to the porch, where we ran into Stu, who had been up all night smoking dope and watching the backyard. He was wearing my coat.
“Is that real?” he said, meaning the body.
“It’s Val,” Clete said. “Help us get her over the rail.”
I wound up with Val’s head. Stray hair sticking out from the wrap bothered me in a way I can’t describe. Clete hefted her midsection, seemingly oblivious to the damp, unhappy odor. Lila and Stu carried her legs and feet. When we stopped to rest, I tucked Val’s curls inside the sheet, careful not to glimpse her face.
Clete guided us up a difficult makeshift path in the hazy light of dawn. We switchbacked through an aspen grove and found an actual trail, which guided us up above the trees. We left the path and scrambled to Clete’s mushroom patch. He had a shovel stashed there, and while he retrieved it we set Val down carefully. It seemed almost inconceivable that this unpleasant-smelling lump was our friend.
We took our time picking a spot with a good view of town and the rim of mountains on the other side of the box canyon. Clete had each of us lie there to get a feel for it. We huddled together on the ground and stared at the cloudless sky, the entire world busily getting on with creation all about us.
Perhaps, here, I should mention that our burying Val without an official ceremony or license or even a coffin is a crime I have not, technically speaking, confessed to. I’m leaning on your (legally binding) pledge of confidentiality, and acting on your encouragement to be frank. The truth is, none of us even considered calling the authorities. A heroin overdose encourages questions and inquiries and search warrants, which would have opened our lives up to a form of scrutiny we did not covet.
The digging was hard. At one point, I threw the shovel back like an ax to swing it down against the unforgiving earth, and I hit Clete in the forehead. He staggered backward.
“Sister Christ,” he said. A moment later, he added, “I’m all right.”
I apologized and kept digging. The hole did not look like a grave. Its sides were jagged, the walls far from perpendicular. But Val’s body was small and fit nicely. We filled in around the body and patted down the dirt. She didn’t make much of a mound. We dug up some plugs of grass and tossed them on the grave to combat erosion.
“One of us should say a few words,” Lila suggested.
The job fell to Clete. “Val,” he began and hesitated. None of us knew her last name. He was bleeding. The shovel blade had opened a wound directly above his nose. Blood and black earth marked it. “Dog sitter, landlady to the lost, junkie, snorer, a former honor student. A woman who fed dogs. Who gave them their heartworm pills.”
The list was long. Spread out beneath us lay one of the wealthiest small towns in America, peaked roofs covered in real shingles, rambling condominium compounds, satellite dishes, green lawns, and the shining windows of main street, which looked like forgotten pockets of brilliance, the spare change of some lazy god glistening in dawn’s slanting light. Those windows radiated intelligence, a careless and irreplaceable genius among the ordinary stucco and frame. They made me think of the discontinuous luster of Clete’s splendid brain.
“Lover of sadness,” he was saying, “keeper of the damned.”
I was so grateful to have him with us.
Thunder sounded, which seemed appropriate but didn’t please us. The rain began. We stalled, feeling we ought to say or do more and yet eager to make our way down the mountain. We were united in the essential embarrassment of needing to go on living.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Lila said, weeping. “Who dies?”
The sky rippled with light and split open like a walnut.
A few weeks later, after a flood of guilt and worry and actual rain, I returned to Val’s grave, which was now covered with mushrooms. I ate them. I’d consumed enough to know the ones to avoid. Sitting by her gravesite, recalling her generosity with me from the moment I met her, I thought maybe I should have done a little better by Val. I felt sick about it, and then I understood that I was actually sick. I’d eaten poison mushrooms and was dying.
I lay down over the grave. We, Val and I, were neighbors again. I rocked against the moss and earth to get comfortable, the two of us together, lying as if in bunks, shipmates in the hold of a great vessel. My body would melt into this ground and sink down through the soil and through the bones of Val and on down to the rock, where it would pool and be reabsorbed into the planet. And it meant nothing. All we thought about and did, whether we behaved well or badly, the hard days when we could barely stand up straight and the good days when every sound and shade of light seemed a gift—none of it mattered. Val and I were the waste any kind of life leaves behind, the proof of imperfection that everywhere marks this world like the wounds on this very mountain left from the mining days. I had done not one thing with my life that had real consequence for anyone but the many people I’d disappointed and the one person I’d killed. I lay there, knowing that for a few minutes more I would see the sky, hear the minor havoc created by the breeze, smell my own rank and dying body, and the world would not take any notice. I meant nothing.
Clete appeared above me, huge as the sky. He had that talent you can’t teach—how to be wherever it is you’re needed most. He’d come to harvest the mountainside but saved my life instead.
“I ate poisonous mushrooms,” I told him.
He slipped his hand behind my neck and made me sit. He inserted his other hand in my mouth, which made me gag and vomit.
“You’re fine now,” he said, and he was right. I’d taken a short journey in the direction of death, and I’d come back.
Assignment 6: Mental Health
I ran into Barnett in a bar later that summer, a couple of weeks after his body had been mailed off to his miserable parents. He slouched on the next bar stool. I didn’t know what to do.
I decided to ignore him and drink my beer. A tap on my arm made me turn. Barnett slugged me on the cheek. I was knocked back but didn’t fall off my stool. Even in the afterlife, he wasn’t what you’d call brawny. He kept pushing with his fist against my cheek. The drunk on the other side of me threw his arm out to catch me. For a moment, Barnett’s fist pressed my head into the drunk’s embrace and held it there.
The bartender nabbed Barnett by the collar. It was a workingman’s bar, and they were quick to take action. Barnett was identified as the offender and hustled out the door.
“You know him?” the bartender asked, setting a free mug of beer before me.
“Kind of.” I didn’t want to reveal that I had recently killed him.
The man who’d caught me, a guy with tiny eyes like they’d been pecked in his face by a medium-size bird, said, “Maybe he doesn’t like your face.”
“That would explain it, I guess.”
I understood at that moment why killers so often poke a hole in their best-laid plans by yapping about it in a bar. It isn’t to unburden the soul but to prove your superior knowledge of the subject matter.
I finished my beer and hiked up toward the house, meeting Clete and Lila and Stu coming down. They were taking the dogs for a walk. Since Val had died, Clete had taken over their care. He conversed with them and had begun reading to them: the Bible, newspaper articles, a book on UFOs, and Harry, the Dirty Dog, which was their favorite. He had told them about the source of the water that came from the tap and now he wanted to take them on a hike to a high stream fed by a deep snowpack so they could see it.
“They should know this stuff,” he said, inviting me to join them.
I didn’t talk about my encounter with Barnett until we’d passed through town and started up the trail on the other side of the river.
They were understandably skeptical.
“He hardly had a personality,” Stu pointed out. “No way he’s a spirit.”
“It was Barnett,” I said, although having to put the story in actual words had made it sound unlikely even to me. My jaw hurt, though, which was comforting.
“Somebody or thing popped me in the jaw,” I insisted, reminding them that I’d identified him as Barnett before he punched me. Why would a stranger hit me? What are the odds of that? Ghost seemed more probable.
“So you’re the kind of person,” Lila said, “who sees a creature from the beyond and just goes on and drinks his beer?”
We were on a trail that took us out of the city and into a mountain canyon. A stream bisected the canyon. It had been loud and fast earlier in the summer but was little more than a trickle now. Time was passing. The summer would end. The people who owned the house would come back, wondering where their house sitter and major appliances were. We’d have to move on.
Clete said, “Seeing Barnett is another sign. A major one. Could be you created it with your own brain, but it doesn’t matter.”
“My brain bruised my jaw?”
“The mind is a powerful instrument.”
That set Stu off. “That’s nothing. Someone’s mom in Singapore or Taiwan City lifted a bus to get it off her kid. Her brain squat-lifted a bus.”
“Other people in the bar saw Barnett,” I said.
“Nobody ever lifted a bus,” Lila said. “A taxi, maybe. Were there passengers?”
“I made a girl call out my name one time,” Stu said, “just by using my mind and wishing her to do it.”
“You were about to sit on a burning log,” Lila said, turning to us. “He was warming himself at the fireplace and forgot.”
“We ought to make a fire tonight,” I said. “It’s cold enough.”
“I wasn’t talking about you,” Stu said to Lila. “You’re not the only girl on the planet.”
“If it was a real ghost . . . ” Clete began and paused to think.
Stu said, “Why would Barnett’s ghost want to slug you, anyway?”
A conspicuous silence ensued. We all quit walking.
“Who are we to speculate on the motives of the newly dead and/or undead?” Clete asked.
He reversed direction and began heading down the mountain. The dogs had got ahead of us on the trail, and we went back without them.
Assignment 7: Educational and Financial Plans
Stu wore my coat all the time, even in the warmth of daylight. Clete called him “the old you.” As in, “I know you’re ready to sell the dinette set, but what’s the old you think?” Or “If I left it to you and the old you, the dogs would starve.”
The old you got caught selling library books at the used bookstore and was fired.
“I’ve enrolled at Colorado State, anyway,” Stu said. “I can get seven thousand dollars in student loans. Add that to my savings and I can be a student for a year.”
We had a party to say good-bye. Each of us did an imitation of him coming out of his PCP blackout, performances that he loved. When we were out of his earshot, Clete argued that Stu was never the same after the coma.
“I didn’t know him before,” I said.
“He was different,” Clete explained.
Otherwise, the party was pretty much an ordinary night. They smoked dope and drank; I drank. We listened to Stevie Ray Vaughn and the warbling female singer who had been on the boom box when Clete and I first entered the house. She was Lila’s favorite, and we were a democratic crowd.
Six days after he left for college, Stu came back.
“Snafu,” he said, taking off his shoes and socks in the living room to chew his toenails.
I wasn’t quite sure whether he meant some mistake had forced him to drop out, or it was a mistake for him to even try college. I wondered and wanted to ask, but he had locked onto his big toe—the thumb toe—and the time didn’t seem right.
“We kept your room just the way it was,” Lila told him.
We were tougher on wayfarers than Val had been. Usually there were only the four of us, plus the dogs. Clete explained to the dogs the hazards of running off versus the rewards of travel, and then nightly he opened the door and shooed them out.
“They’ll never learn otherwise,” he said.
Ready continued torturing mice in the tub. Clete had determined that the dog climbed from the wicker basket next to the toilet, up onto the toilet seat, up to the tank, and then down into the tub. It was an impressive stunt with a mouse in your mouth.
One morning I found Lila on her hands and knees in the bathroom wearing white panties and the shirt I’d given her on the night we met when I thought she was dead. She was cleaning the tub with the dish sponge. We’d been lovers more than a month. I liked her butt a lot—the whole bottom half of her body. For that matter, everything from the neck down.
“That’s the kitchen sponge,” I pointed out.
She wasn’t really getting up the blood, anyway. Ready had slung this one around decisively. He was a weird dog, and this had become his pathetic ritual of self-worth. We’d hear the frantic scrambling of the mouse and then hateful paws against the porcelain every third or forth night. Stu had commented, “The bathtub is always changing colors,” but we were generally content to toss the dog out of the tub and let the blood wash down the drain while we showered.
Lila liked baths and was not content, but she wasn’t really cleaning the tub, just moving the blood around.
“You need to run some water,” I told her.
“There’s an idea,” she said, scrubbing no harder.
Since burying Val we’d had tension in our relationship. Lila would grip my arm in the night and say, “We should have called for an ambulance. What if she could have been revived? What if we buried her alive?” I didn’t have a good answer. All I could do was remind her that Clete had been with us. “He was stoned,” she said, “and he doesn’t sleep.” I didn’t have an answer to that either, but it comforted me that Clete had been with us.
You really couldn’t do a worse job with mouse blood in a white tub than what she was doing.
“That’s my shirt, you know,” I said.
Without facing me, she whipped it off, buttons pinging off the porcelain. She tossed the shirt in the tub and used it to direct the blood toward the drain. I was torn between the glancing view I had of her hanging breasts and wanting to plant my foot in her behind. We each reminded the other of what was completely wrong with us and couldn’t be fixed. It made me hate the sight of her and also seek her out.
“You want to get married?” I asked right then. I still had the ring I’d found with the metal detector. It was in my pocket.
Her head swiveled around. A glare from the girl in the panties. She went back to the blood.
“I guess,” she said.
Assignment 8: Emotional Support
The wedding obscured the fact that the dogs had gone out one night and not come back. Clete’s faith in their intelligence kept him from worrying initially. Then we were busy setting up a ceremony. Lila, I discovered, got checks general delivery from her parents. She paid for the license and the justice of the peace, who did the official business, but I asked Clete to say some words.
“We are gathered here to unite in marriage Lila and Keen,” Clete began. “Others may be seated.” Stu and the justice of the peace sat down.
“Any time people gather to witness the joining of man and woman in wedlock,” Clete said, “certain questions come to mind. A: What do we know about these people? B: Why have they decided to make this commitment of a lifetime? C: How in this age of divorce have they found the courage to make the leap of faith it takes to marry?”
He paused, as if to field answers. No one raised a hand.
“A: About the bride and groom, we know nothing. We may know details of their lives, but none of us knows what lies in their hearts. This marriage is a pledge of each to the other, that he or she will plumb the depths of her or his heart. We do not marry because we know the other. We marry because we desire to know the other.
“B: Also a mystery. Commitment is the function of marriage, not a prerequisite. Let’s zero in twenty, thirty, or, health permitting, fifty years from now. These two will have discovered their answer. For the moment, theirs is not to wonder why but to answer the wild demands of their hearts and loins.
“C: More mystery. Consider that the bride didn’t know the groom until two months ago. Consider that the groom’s behavior over the summer has been less than ideal. Consider, too, that both the bride and groom are dropouts and unemployed. You might think it’s an absolutely stupid time for them to marry.”
He paused again.
“But the problem with ‘why’ is that love knows no why. Love knows only yes. Only I must. Only this is and must continue to be. Only now. If Romeo and Juliet had been willing to put things off a bit, they could have run off successfully. They were stupid not to. Yet their love wouldn’t have been the great thing it was. Is it better to die for a great love than to live in a tepid one? Love––” He hesitated. The office door was open, and a couple of secretaries and one marshal had stopped to listen. He waved them in. They joined the ceremony. Clete picked up where he’d left off. “Love demands of us not sacrifice because nothing matters but the beloved. It demands of us not promises of fidelity regardless of health or wealth, because neither money nor physical suffering matters in the face of that love. Love demands only one thing: our stupid willingness to give over to it. It’s a dumb thing to do, and it’s the thing which, more than anything else, ennobles us.
“Do you, Lila, take Keen with all the stupid and hopeless love that you can offer?”
Lila said that she did.
“Do you, Keen, take Lila with that same dumb, blind love?”
“I do,” I said.
“By the power vested in this man over here, who will speak presently, I afford to you all the rights and privileges and chores accorded to all brides and husbands, partners and lovers, sweethearts and pals.”
Clete kissed first the bride on the lips and then the groom (me).
The JOP kept his part short, and we were out the door.
Assignment 9: Decision Making
We spent our wedding afternoon in the master bedroom, which we’d moved into after Val’s passing. The honeymoon ended after ten minutes of sex and an hour nap. Clete stuck his head in and called my name. Sweat dotted his forehead. He had the dim, scared look of a survivor.
“What’s with you?”
“We have to go to the dog pound,” he said. “We need money.”
Ruff and Ready had lost their collars long before Clete and I arrived at the house. The pound had already held them beyond the normal three days. Charges had accrued, one hundred thirty-five dollars each to free the dogs. If they weren’t out by 5:00 p.m., they would be destroyed.
Even after the ceremony, Lila had a hundred and twelve dollars. Clete had spent his money on our wedding present (an antique ceramic sculpture of a Greek orgy). I’d spent my money on a haircut and a clean shirt. Stu had not properly registered at Colorado State. His student loan had been denied. He’d spent his savings on the trip over and back. He owed all of us money. We had enough to save only one dog.
“This is damnation territory,” Clete said.
His words were like worms in my ears. I had to literally shake my head.
“Which one do we save?” I said this many times on the walk to the pound.
Clete wouldn’t answer.
The pound guy’s nametag read “Carl Dernl.” He wouldn’t budge.
“Some people shouldn’t own dogs,” he said.
Clete put his arms around me. He slid one hand down and stuffed the bills in my pants’ pocket.
“Pick one. Whichever choice you make, I’ll support it.”
He took a big breath and left me with the lolling, trusting tongue of Ruff on my palm, and the jittery nipping of Ready at Carl Dernl’s institutional pant leg.
How I decided on my wedding day which dog would live and which would die I can’t entirely explain until I admit that Barnett probably had redeeming characteristics that I had failed to evaluate or notice at all. Lila, I should add, often decided that someone had “kind of raped her,” a way to forgive herself for crawling into bed with guys she didn’t really know. Stu liked drugs, and it wasn’t entirely Barnett’s fault that Stu had no common sense and snorted so much PCP he toasted his brain. For that matter, Barnett never did anything to me or Clete. He wasn’t a good person, but we should have been more careful with his mortal package.
“I’ve got a life,” Carl Dernl said. “Make your decision.”
The great eye of god saw into me. I felt whatever humanity I’d mustered trolling out and filling the room like a sacred and noxious gas. I breathed as much of it back in as I could. I hated Ready and loved Ruff. For that reason I felt I had to save Ready. Otherwise, the decision was too individual, which lacked respect for the size and weight of the decision.
I can’t explain it any better than that. I took the miserable little dog home with me.
Assignment 10: What I’ve Learned
On the day the family whose house we had trashed, bartered, and partially destroyed called from the airport, Lila and I took Ready with us to the bus stop. Clete said we were obliged.
“If there’s one dog here, they’ll know the other is dead and they’ll suffer. If they’re both gone, they’ll assume Val kidnapped them, and they’ll just be angry.”
Clete and Stu stayed on the mountain. I don’t know how they avoided arrest. Maybe the authorities never looked for anyone but Val. The bus driver was the same one who dropped me at the lookout, but he didn’t recognize me. Lila and I rode all the way to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Lila’s sister lived there and had an extra room. I still didn’t think I could risk working, but Lila got on at a florist shop. She likes flowers. We’re still officially married, even now.
For a year, we got by. We heard reports about Clete, but we didn’t have a way to reach him. About Stu, we didn’t even hear rumors. One night Lila and I went to see a band called Sawed Off and Sewn Back Together at a bar in El Paso, Texas, forty-five miles away. Lila’s sister was there, too, and went home with a Cuban medical student. We had to take Ready with us and leave him in the backseat. He barked if left alone, and the landlord had already given us a warning. I was the better drunk driver and took the old two-lane home to avoid the highway patrol. The road meandered by small towns and cut through a pecan grove. Lila was passed out in the back seat when I drove her sister’s car into an abutment for an irrigation canal. It smashed the front end pretty good on the passenger side, but Lila and I were unhurt.
The accident only temporarily woke her up.
“I’m sorry,” she said to me, “but I can’t keep my eyes open.”
She crawled out of the ruined car and trudged off into the pecan orchard to sleep. After sitting in the wrecked car long enough to count my legs and arms and other important features, I decided to join her. I had to climb over the seat and use the backdoor to get out. I found her lying beneath the limbs of a pecan tree. I laid my body beside hers. The stars in the river valley were as bright and numerous as they had been on the mountain, shining down on us without judgment or even interest.
I hadn’t thought to see if Ready was hurt. He bled to death while Lila and I slept on the damp earth. That’s how I wound up killing both of the dogs left in our care. But Ready had lived for a year with Lila and me. How can you put a value on that? (Keep in mind that’s seven people years.)
I had to deal with the sheriff the next morning, but I had sobered up and claimed a blown tire. He had totaled an El Dorado one time after a blowout and was sympathetic. The tire had actually blown after we hit the concrete, but I reversed the order. I caught some flack for my expired insurance, but the incident didn’t get me into legal trouble. The abutment was not damaged in any way but the cosmetic, and how good does concrete have to look?
Lila and I got through the towing, the legal papers, and the pet burial. The wreck was an incident that could have been a disaster but wasn’t. Lila’s sister even found an old Isuzu pickup one of her friends wasn’t using that we could drive. But Lila kept thinking about Ready bleeding to death while we slept. She was convinced if she’d stayed awake or I had a brain, we could have saved him. Before long she quit sleeping altogether, which affected her floral arranging. Then one day she told me she had to turn me in for Barnett’s death.
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” I said.
“Not sleeping can make a person crazy.”
I couldn’t tell whether she meant she’d go crazy or that she already had and turning me in would be the proof of it.
“You keep killing people,” she said.
Her list started with Barnett, of course, and included Val, which I had nothing directly to do with, and Ruff, who technically wasn’t a person, and Ready, who wasn’t even a good dog. Logic, however, had little weight in this argument. We talked for a long time. I made several good points, and she agreed to think it over a few days.
But she didn’t sleep again that night and in the morning, an hour or so after she left for work, the same sheriff who had been nice to me in the groves knocked on the front door.
“I hate to bother you,” he said, “but your wife came by and told me you’d murdered a man.”
“I wouldn’t call it murder,” I said, which I realize now was a slip.
It was a friendly arrest but handcuffs are required in such proceedings, and I was pretty down about the whole episode. I plea-bargained my way into this cell for three years with good behavior, eligible for parole after nine months.
It’s been eight months and counting.
It’s an irony, I suppose, that Barnett is in this same prison. He’s a jackal and you shouldn’t give him parole, but he’s the closest thing to a friend I have in here—and he’s a dead man. He tells me things. Like that Stu moved to West Virginia after he left the mountain. He started a Mexican restaurant, got married to a kind woman, and they have a baby. This was Barnett’s way of showing me I’d misjudged him. He’d kept up with Stu while I hadn’t, even though I had the advantage of being alive.
When Clete visited, he arrived in the early morning, strolling down the concrete corridor with the rolling stride of a man familiar with confinement only in the abstract. His head was well above those of the guards who led him, and he sniffed at the prison air experimentally. Despite his years in the van, true confinement wasn’t an odor he knew.
The white scar on his forehead, where I had hit him with the shovel blade, had taken the form of a crescent moon. His eyes were calm, his nostrils wide and pink. He stood straight and walked easily, not with the phony, inflated carriage of incarcerated men. There was no fear in his spine. He was tall and poised, a fully developed human male. Clete was an adult, and I suddenly understood that I had personally been acquainted with only a very few real adults in all my life.
“Even though this place is exactly as I was led to expect,” he said, “it’s also a lot worse. You must be miserable.”
I told him that I was and at the same time it was okay.
We didn’t talk about my keeping him out of prison. Clete is not his real name. I could have gotten less time by divulging it, but neither Lila nor I would do that.
Instead, he said, “You made the right decision saving Ready.” He had told me this before. “You picked the hard road.” I thanked him for that, and he moved to a different subject. “The man’s family,” he said, and I understood he was talking about Barnett, “has moved to Portland, Oregon. His mom and dad and one little sister. A ranch-style house with an unkempt lawn. I rented a mower and took care of it. I would have trimmed the hedges, but I couldn’t find rental clippers.”
I asked him about Lila.
“She’s getting a lot of sun. Her skin is golden. She may move back in with her mother or maybe with me.”
I know you can check the visitor roll and see that I haven’t had any visitors whatsoever. I’m not trying to fool you. It’s just that there’s only so much you can feel, and the rest you have to pretend. I felt for the dogs and Val. To feel for the man, it helps me to have a messy lawn to think about and the presence of my friend.
Clete understands me. He would know that the darkness of this place and the terrifying movement of my life into it have bruised my marriage and maybe even my mind. I hear things through the open window: automobile engines claiming combustion, the human jingle of voices, the shattering of leaves on windy days.
Clete would look me over in these ridiculous overalls, my hair shaved short, and he’d nonetheless recognize me. He’d raised his arm and point.
“K-k-k-Keen,” he’d say.
This is as close as I can come to saying what I’ve learned: you can’t know whether what you’re doing will have good consequences or bad. So there’s nothing to do, I guess, but to obey the law and slough off the responsibility there.
There is one last thing I remember: all the dogs in town barked at us—at Clete and me—when we walked to the party that first night not knowing what we were getting into, that I would meet my wife and think her dead, that we would wind up killing both the pets, that Val would become our friend and die, that we would manslaughter Barnett, that I would get a new name and make a life for myself that I could survive—but it would lead to a drowning, an overdose, pet fatalities, an automotive crash, and incarceration. The dogs barked, and the windows showed their watery light, and we walked fearlessly up the hill and into the best and worst parts of our lives.
Which pretty much wraps things up. The decision is all yours now.
Am I a threat to society?
I await your decision.