Fiction and Drama
A death in the forest
Genitals have their own lives, his beloved Nina had said at the close of an argument over whether even the most besotted husband could be trusted one hundred percent faced with the permanent sexual temptations the world provided. It was the kind of conversation that went with the early days of a marriage, of their marriage. He had been rebutting her silly but fiendish thought experiments and had gotten tired of the game. She was a genius at imagining inescapable sex traps. There could be a nun suffering from hysterical blindness that would probably become permanent unless she received a sacrificial screw from somebody’s husband, alas. He looked around. Good thing there were no nuns on the plane, at least none in costume. When you’re traveling you’re nothing, until you land, which is what’s good about it, Ned thought.
Nina, riding in furious pursuit, felt like bucking in her seat to make the plane go faster through the night. She was still enraged. She felt like a baby. She thought, You are a baby: No, he is, he is, my lamb.
Maybe the matronly, pleasant-seeming woman sitting next to her was wise. She was old enough to be. Anything was possible. And it might not hurt to talk to an adult other than my incessant mother, she thought. She had to call her mother when they landed, first thing. It’s just that she won’t shut up about my pregnancy, she thought. Her attempted pregnancy, was what she meant. She regretted telling her mother about it.
I love my mother, she wanted to tell the woman next to her. It was just that her mother was overflowing with pregnancy lore that had nothing to do with reality. She’d been unkind when her mother said, You smell differently when you’re pregnant, because she’d said in response, Oh really? how do you smell then? with your uterus? All her mother had been trying to say was that there was a change in the odor a woman’s body gives off during pregnancy. But then her mother regularly declared that there was a mystical “subtle body” inside or surrounding or emanating from every human being and that if you could see it, it told you something. It told you about the essence of a person, their secrets, for example. It was all about attending closely enough to see them. They varied in color and brightness. Her mother claimed she could see them, faintly. She wanted Nina not to be oblivious to the subtle bodies of the people she met. That would protect her from deceivers, whoever they might be. Ma suggested Ned be on the qui vive also.
Dinner, as they called it, was done with. She seemed to have twisted her napkin into a rope and she wondered if her seatmate had noticed. The woman wasn’t being especially friendly to her. Usually the people she happened to sit next to were.
Yes, she was enraged at Ned, but also felt sorry for him. May God help you my lad, my Ned, she thought. He would be dumbfounded when he realized she had sprung after him, done it, like that, like a savage beast dropping everything herself, the same as he had, like a child, an adolescent, a child. He had never seen her truly furious, never once in three years of marriage. He had seen her agitated, and he had seen her annoyed, but never this. I am war, she thought.
No question he deserved tenderness, which he got. On her own, she had quit referring to his beloved clique of college friends as clowns. He hadn’t asked her to, but the term had stung him, a little. And this despite the fact that they had been clowns manqués, a troupe, goofing on the world under the baton of their maestro Douglas.
She had to control herself. She needed to be calm and alkaline. She thought, I wonder if he thinks I love taking Clomid and standing on my head après sex, with him holding my feet in the air. He had left her a barely readable note. Twice since leaving he’d called her, and each time she’d answered, I am not answering this phone.
Everything had been left for her to deal with, not only everything involving the nonprofits, not only the missent invoices and the complaints about the metallic aftertaste of the coffee they were getting from their co-ops in Belize, but calls about the demonstration he was organizing, the same calls over and over again, because this was a coalition. She hated coalitions. And why did Ned have to be the chair? She made an involuntary flinging-out gesture that startled her seatmate, who flinched. Nina tried to bury the gesture in a show of policing her tray table. She doubted that the woman was deceived. Ned could be annoying without meaning to. Talking about getting pregnant he had said, about his own attitude to it, I can’t decide whether I’m ambivalent or not. Which was a ghostly survival of the talky badinage-based humor of his circle of clowns, by which she meant friends, sorry. It was a slightly funny thing for him to say, but the subject wasn’t funny.
Nina had the window seat. She raised the window shade to study the night. Why did stadiums where no one was at play have to be lit up like Christmas, why? But why everything, really, and why had that woman writing her up in the Contra Costa Times described her as sharp-featured, why? Because she wasn’t. And why hadn’t the woman mentioned her award in the story saying that she was the best accountant the nonprofits in the Bay Area had ever heard of? She considered her reflection in the window. Why not angular, instead of sharp-featured?
Well she was going to take the bull by the horns and talk to her co-passenger. It was ordained that the woman’s wallet was going to be exploding with snapshots of unblemished grandchildren. She would deal with it. She needed to talk. She needed to be with Ned, now, before the thirty-six hours were up, so they could do it. Had he forgotten or did he just not care? About family-making, he did feel old for it sometimes. He was 48.
The woman beside her opened her purse and extracted a paperback, which she seemed to be handling rather reverently, like a missal. Nina was curious. The woman moved unsubtly away, taking her elbow off the common armrest.
Nina entertained the idea that the woman had sensed a core truth about her, which was that she always wanted to know what people were reading. I can’t help it, she thought. She always wanted to know. It had been embarrassing from time to time when people saw her craning around inappropriately to get a clue about what they were reading. It was just that knowing made her feel better. Somebody could be reading Mein Kampf. And she didn’t like people who covered the books they were reading in little homemade kraft paper jackets. She couldn’t help taking that as a challenge, apparently. Definitely the woman was getting tense. But she might as well relax, because Nina already knew what she was reading. She had figured it out in a glance. But I’m clumsy, she thought. Anxious, she thought it again. Then she passed her hands down her sides, for no reason.
The woman had bent the front cover of the paperback around to conceal the spine, and now she was slanting the book so that Nina would be required to contort herself to make out what was on the page. The woman’s dual mission seemed to be to read and at the same time keep what she was reading secret from Nina. It was silly because the cover art featuring embossed foil bolts of lightning and a cross on a blood-red field declared that the book was an entry in the genre of Christian theological thrillers that had gotten so popular. That was the last thing Nina needed to think about, the end of the world. Well, she couldn’t interrupt this person when she was reading. Because reading was sacred. It was to my mother, she thought. The number of times her mother had found her reading intently when it was time to set the table, and given her a pass, was legion.
She wouldn’t mind getting into an argument on Christianity. Because she had a new standpoint on the subject since she had happened to marry a sort of Jesus, a secular Jesus, of course, not that Ned would tolerate that description. So far as she knew, he had never done a bad thing, except for like a complete asshole going to the funeral of fucking Douglas, the world’s greatest friend — going and just leaving her a few messages. Douglas, never Doug, the rule for addressing the world’s greatest friend.
Nina had her own reading matter but she was too hyper to read. Two poems in Poetry magazine had irritated her. In one poem, the gist was that the reader goes to the seaside, and it’s the sea shouting Help! the sea saying Help! to humans, something like that. And then in another one, the poet seemed to say It’s closing time in the old fort and you have to go and you can’t find your sons, so what to do, you just go back to the cannons and you’ll find them hanging around there. Everything was upsetting. And there was nothing interesting about the interior of a plane. Her seatmate swallowed a cough. Planes were unsanitary. She was breathing recirculated air, and it was Ned, his impulsiveness, Ned, who was to blame. Her fury was rising again.
She knew why it was. Things she wanted, things she thought she had, being jerked away from her without warning and at the last minute, always upset her, based on patterns in her absurd childhood, patterns she had studied and parsed and studied until she was sick unto death of the subject. But her therapist had been a Freudian, and being sick and tired of it wasn’t a reason for letting go of something. The reverse! And after years of staring at the facts, she had no idea, still, how she should feel about her pixie parents — up, down, sad, send them to the firing squad? How should she feel about the elf shoes, with their pointy toes curving back toward her little shins, that her mother had gotten on sale, making her wear them to school, insisting they were perfectly normal? She remembered the giant celebration her parents had given when her father finally got into the Screen Extras Guild, in his fifties, was that sane? She had no idea. They did this, they did that. For any ailment, they medicated her with bark tea. Her mother had become an astrologer because it was such a portable occupation. But then they had stayed stuck in Los Angeles forever. Linda, her mother’s best friend and worst influence, had branched out into astrology for pets, dogs mainly, and tried to get Ma to take it up, which she hadn’t.
But then finally, late in the day, turning 34, she had found Ned, and gradually gotten him to want a child, and to really try, with her. And then this. She thought, I take the pills, I get the shot, he vanishes! It was outrageous.
It all had to do with le grand Douglas. Douglas had been the head of Ned’s clique in the ’70s, the spokesmodel, when they were undergraduates, which would make it Douglas’s clique, actually. They had been a group of wits, in their opinion, of superior sensibilities of some kind, was the idea. Everything she knew about Douglas was irritating. He even had his own term for the effect they were going for: perplexion. So elegant. And there was his legendary pensiveness, the way he would sometimes hold up his hand in a certain way to signal the group to stop talking so he could finish a thought he wasn’t sharing. Then he might jot something down on a scrap of paper or he might not. The point, to her, seemed to be to show that whatever was going on around him was subordinate to the great private productive secret-not-necessarily-related-to-anything-his-groundling-friends-were-talking-about trains of thought that Douglas was having.
And one thing she could not get out of her mind was that when Douglas had been the ringmaster of the group at NYU he had demonstrated that he was the world’s champion of walking out of the Thalia, walking out on foreign films he personally found highly overrated and taking his pack of stupid fool friends along with him. She had been incredulous, hearing about that, and about Ned obeying Doug, essentially. And Ned had told her about the group going to see Last Tango in Paris. And Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando were having precoital fooling around and in the course of it she has to pee and she goes into the toilet in the vacant apartment they’re carousing in and the camera follows her and she pees but gets up without wiping or using a bidet or anything and then they had gone on to have sex. So quelle horreur and that was enough for Douglas, who found the hygienic omission a good enough excuse to lead his minions out immediately. His position had been that the omission fatally attacked the plausibility of the scene. They had been very severe about cinema, Ned’s group. It was amazing to her. They had walked out on Brando at his professional and physical peak. So why had they kept going to the Thalia led by someone who was so sensitive that half the time their money would be spent for nothing?
And what she did know with certainty was that Ned had been abandoned, abandoned gradually, and then finally, by this man he was racing ahead of her and her ova to praise and bury, and it had been painful, muted but painful, to Ned, over the years. And she knew that the abandonment had gotten more painful for Ned as Douglas got half-famous in the world, debunking forgeries, significant forgeries. And Douglas had remained closer, Ned had known for a fact, to the three other friends. She had no idea what had led Douglas into the “questioned documents” business, but something had, and he’d made it pay. He’d proved that some sensational papers revealing that Alfred Dreyfus was in fact guilty of espionage were right-wing forgeries. And then someone had forged Milan Kundera’s so-called Love Diaries, and Douglas had shot that down. And then he had married the leading gossip columnist in Czechoslovakia, the radiant Iva, a consensus great beauty. And he had gotten her over to the US and put her in a tower in the woods, in the Catskills, near Woodstock. And they had lived in it, and there had been an inheritance, and when the internet came, there would be little fragments from Douglas to Ned, avant-garde tips on nutrition or postings from the Committee for Ethical Tourism which proved there was nowhere in the world you could go for a vacation except possibly Canada. She had always wanly hoped to get revenge on Douglas. Because there had truly been a superior soul in their little grouplet, and that had been Ned, her lad, her Ned. And there was another thing that had driven her crazy about Douglas. At first through the mail, and then by fax, and then by email, had come a stream, a very intermittent stream, of short papers and notes from Douglas, who had become eccentric and was proposing various universal solutions to the problem of the persistence of evil in the world, in human relations. And some of them had been items like monotheism, and then it had been declining terrestrial magnetism, and there had been others. Like his theory that gradual anoxia was driving mankind crazy, based on the shrinking percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere compared with the much higher oxygen content in air samples taken from bubbles in ancient Egyptian glassware. And then it had been estrogens and antidepressants infiltrating the water supply. Of course it would be very nice if someone could prove that unkindness was caused by pollution.
And Ned had always been dutiful and sent some sort of reply trying to argue, shorter and shorter replies, because Douglas almost never, and then never, had had anything to say to Ned in return, no expansion on the particular subject.
Douglas’s group had thought very highly of itself. They were going to be social renovators of some unclear kind, had been the idea, by somehow generalizing their friendship. Ned could still get solemn, talking about those times. She didn’t get it. And part of the original group idea had been that they would always be a unity, helping each other, maybe creating a compound in the wildwood for summer vacations or maybe crafting some excellent retirement collective. Right, she thought.
One thing she knew and Ned did not, was that there is no permanent friendship between men, among men. Something goes wrong, somebody marries the wrong person, somebody advances too fast, somebody converts, somebody refuses good advice or bad advice, it didn’t matter. It went up in a flash, it went up in a flash like magnesium paper set on fire in a magic show. She thought, It’s not always great with women, either, but it can be. Women can have friends, it’s more personal, she thought. Although in the great design of things, women were getting to be more like men. There were more tough cookies around, and liars.
Well, Ned was her friend, her deep friend. He didn’t realize it, exactly. He thought everything was love with them, but it wasn’t. She would have been his friend whenever. It was a standard fantasy when you fell in love to imagine you could go back in time and find your beloved growing up, appear there, save him or her, get together as adolescents, by magic, and go on together, fighting for one another, into old age, never wavering. It was a pure friendship fantasy. Not sexual.
And that was why she was enraged at the man, enraged. She had to get this rage out of her, so she could kill him when she caught up with him. He was an idiot. He was reckless. He was hopeless. He had shit for brains. He couldn’t be counted on. He was a fool. These people had hurt him in the past, Douglas had. She only knew some of it.
She was moving around too much in her seat. The woman next to her was unhappy.
She offered the woman her uneaten dessert, an industrial brownie still in its packaging. Nina had watched the woman devour her own brownie in two bites, earlier.
“No,” said the woman, quite forcefully.
She thinks I’m affiliated with Satan, Nina thought.
His great friend was dead.
Ned wanted to embrace his dead friend. An imaginary burning feeling ran across Ned’s chest and down his arms. He wanted to embrace his friend. Where Douglas’s body was, even, Ned didn’t know. No clue whether it had been removed from the estate, no clue what shape it might be in wherever it was. Nobody could have gotten there from the West Coast any faster than he had. And still he was late. Except that when the call had finally come from Elliot, it had already been too late, whatever he meant by that. He meant something. Your thinking is choppy, he thought.
Douglas had died when his riding mower had pitched him down into a ravine, the mower on top of him, when the ground at the edge had given way. So he had been buried once already.
These were the Catskills, all around. The upward road he was walking on ran through terrain jammed with trees still dripping from a monster rainstorm he had just missed. It was trees, trees, and glimpses of hills farther off, also burdened with trees, as Douglas might have put it. The ruts in the unpaved road were running like brooks. It was all uphill. There were regular trees in their last leaf, intermixed with unwelcoming, bristling evergreens. It was four in the afternoon.
It was muggy. This was not where he would choose to die, in a ditch in this vicinity. What had Douglas seen, dying, his neck broken and mud sliding over him? No friend near, no one around, black mud engulfing him.
Ned shrugged off his rucksack and, holding it against his chest to give his shoulders a break, continued on. He had brought too much reading matter and had so far only managed to get cursorily through three recent issues of the Economist. That had been during the San Francisco to Houston leg of the trip, before guilt had shut him down. He was agitated about the war that was coming and guilty that he’d been forced to drop the little he was doing in the effort to stop it. There was going to be a march — the Convergence was what they were calling it — to protest the rush toward war in Iraq. It was looking immense. Feeder marches from all over Northern California would culminate in San Francisco. Contingents were coming from as far north as Eureka, for Christ’s sake. There was a coalition for the Convergence, his coalition. It was funny, the anarchists were the easiest to deal with and the Quakers were the most difficult. Oh and of course he felt like shit about leaving Nina with so little notice, and leaving exactly when the timing on their personal project was so critical. He couldn’t think about that.
He had come to a rude plank bridge across a gully occupied by a roaring brown torrent. Spray was coming up through gaps in the planking. The bridge meant that he was better than three-quarters of the way up the road to Douglas’s estate. He supposed it had to be called an estate. It did, after all, have a whole variety of buildings on the property, including a stone tower. And this had to be the bridge that some of the taxi services in the area would go no farther than when delivering visitors to Douglas’s. He had been given this piece of information by the Trailways driver when he dropped Ned on the highway between his scheduled stops. The driver had also mentioned the tower, and, overall, that the locals didn’t like Douglas, or hadn’t liked him.
Ned started across the bridge and then stopped. It came to him strongly that he needed a better idea of how he looked before he arrived, and there was no sign of a mirror in the roadway. His eyes itched. Visine, he needed. There was none in his toiletries. In fact, his toiletries amounted to a toothbrush and deodorant picked up in an airport shop.
Maybe he looked all right. He was wearing a new tan corduroy hacking jacket, a good blue dress shirt straight from the cleaners. Nina had found the jacket in a Junior League thrift shop she surveilled like a spy. He had all his hair, curly, graying, but still. Somebody in their group, he couldn’t remember who, had said it was a fact of life that people tended not to take people with curly hair seriously. But curly or not, he had his hair. He remembered that it was Douglas who had made the crack about curly hair. My weight is OK, one sixty-three is good, he thought. The Timberland boots he was wearing gave his five ten and a half a little help. Elliot was the tallest in their group, six four and an ectomorph. The boots had been purchased by Nina and never worn. She had a mission to get everything together they would need when they went camping at Stinson Beach. They were going to be serious about camping. They had gone once. Stinson Beach was a good choice for starters because it wasn’t that far from Berkeley. So camping there could fit neatly into weekends and not protrude into their insane work life. They wouldn’t burn up hours getting to where they were going to rusticate.
He kept calling Nina. At some point she was going to talk to him. And she would forgive him. Because she was forgiving. She would be getting deluged with calls for him, emails, faxes.
He should have brought a novel, plucked something from Nina’s shelves of uppermiddleclassics. She called them that. Something by Louis Auchincloss or Barbara Pym or Frederick Buechner or Thornton Wilder, people he was not uninterested in reading. He felt guilty over not reading a piece of worthwhile fiction when the constraints of travel made it a completely justifiable waste of time, which was not what he meant. He should have brought along something with a story to it. Well, he hadn’t. And he hadn’t really tried to pay attention to the Ulster County countryside, either. Why Douglas had chosen to settle in this particular part of the forest was a question. The bus trip had been a montage interrupted by naps and daydreaming: sharp hills, thick forests crowding down close to the road, motels and restaurants and trailer parks, an inner-tubing center, a splatball drome, gun shops, a pottery studio with a huge stucco golem in front holding a sign saying Feats of Clay. A lot of the businesses seemed to be shuttered. It was the end of September. Maybe everything was seasonal. And on the subject of not paying attention, he remembered a couple of years ago when they had been flying over the Rockies on a brilliant clear day and he had chided Nina for not paying attention to the grandeur below and she had said I find scenery beautiful but repetitive.
He was at a halt, there at the bridge. His pants cuffs were drenched dark. He was 48. Of the friends who would be there, Gruen was the youngest. Nina was 37. He would be meeting Douglas’s widow for the first time. She would be a wreck. Douglas’s son was 14, and Ned had met him briefly when he was a toddler. Elliot would be there, stooping down for embraces, and Joris, all of them.
He was hesitating. He wanted to go back down to the general store. It seemed urgent.
He needed to hurry. There could be more rain. The forest didn’t offer much prospect of shelter. Visible here and there among the trees were boulders, huge and mottled with great scabs of lichen. A little lichen goes a long way, he thought. As shelter, the boulders were irrelevant.
He was proud of his life but he wasn’t enjoying it as much as he should. The thought surprised him. It was his own formulation, not an echo of a quote. It was probably true a lot of the time. Recently, though, he couldn’t complain.
He turned back.
This was a store Douglas must have frequented for years. The Vale, it was called. It was clearly from the 1920s or so, a shrine to the period, in its way. The signage said they sold Sundries, along with Bait, Lotto, News, Coffee, and Adult.
The Vale was a collation of disparate buildings populating a flat, boggy strip of land fronting the highway. Going up, Ned had skirted the place. If he’d known he was going to come back down, he could have parked his rucksack at the place. He liked his Swiss Army–issue rucksack. He liked carrying the rucksack of an army that had never fought a war. His enjoyment of that fact was enough to outweigh the pack’s unwieldiness.
The Vale’s centerpiece was the general store, a barn-like log structure set on an unusually high stone foundation, with verandas along the sides and a deep front porch on which was arrayed a miscellany of seating — barstools, a piano bench, a porch glider, car seats, a church pew. A cinder-block annex housed a propane sales and service operation. Adjoined to that was a decommissioned sky-blue double-wide trailer connected to the annex by an improvised tunnel formed by stretching plastic sheeting over a succession of metal arches. Strings of ancient faded blue-and-yellow Grand Opening pennants encircled the three buildings at the roof line, drawing the elements of the Vale together. Western music, and occasional indications of hilarity, leaked from the trailer.
Ned set foot on the broken lattice of planks and duckboard that had been laid out on the mud in front of the store entrance. Splendid single lodgepole pines stood at the four corners of the general store. Ned had observed, coming down the mountain, that the personal hinterland of the Vale was essentially a dump site for derelict machinery and other ejecta — there were cairns of hubcaps, short columns of discarded tires, piles of scrap lumber, huge bins wreathed in vines.
Ned mounted the front steps. He stepped into a fluorescent blaze. He felt at first that he was alone in all the light and music of the cavernous establishment. Nina called fluorescent lighting lighting for robots. Music from a ballroom dancing exhibition showing on a TV set fixed high in an angle of the room contended with pop singing from someplace else. A police scanner interjected occasionally. The pop music was, he saw, due to a radio on the checkout counter behind which someone was sitting and watching. Ned had missed him initially because he was half-hidden by the monumental antediluvian cash register and he was seated in a wheelchair.
The place was packed with things. Shelving rose almost to the ceiling. The aisles were narrow. Overhead a web of clothesline had been strung, to which articles like swim fins, butterfly nets, snorkel tubes, packs of sparklers, and saw blades had been clipped. An umbrella stand held a collection of grip sticks to be used for securing items from the web or the top shelves. In urgent printing, the sign on the container warned that these devices should be used only with the help of staff, and that any injury, damage, or product breakage resulting from unsupervised use would be the sole responsibility of the customer. There seemed to be no organizing principle: a display case contained fantasy knives and stuffed animals. A rotatable cylindrical rack bore condoms, sunglasses, shrink-wrapped jerky and pink plastic cap guns. He had to conquer his distraction. He needed to be a customer if he was going to use the toilet. He had to buy something. All the newspapers that were left were local. But he needed . . . Visine. And he needed a comb. He needed to check himself out before the encounter with his friends. Ridiculously, that was why he had turned around on the road and come back to this place. Men weren’t allowed to carry pocket mirrors around with them.
He approached the cashier, a delicate old man, handsome, with perfect silver hair, someone who could be a spokesman for dignified old age, except of course that he was in a wheelchair. On closer inspection, he seemed to be a mouth breather. Tacked to the wall behind the old man was a POW/MIA flag showing a GI prisoner, in silhouette, hunched over in dejection. Ned took off his rucksack and set it down where the old man could see it, to reassure him.
“Hello,” Ned said, suppressing an impulse to extend his hand to this person who was so neatly gotten up. He was wearing a starched dress shirt buttoned to the neck, a red cardigan without a spot on it, and he gave off a pleasant scent of aftershave. Ned knew what the man reminded him of. He was the patrician Dutchman, the old burgomaster, or even count, who stands up to the Nazis in a movie written by Lillian Hellman.
Ned said, “I wonder if you have Visine. Eye drops. And a pocket comb.”
“Acourse,” the old man said. So not the patrician, then, Ned thought.
Ned was directed to the bottom shelf where the Visine should be. It was somewhere among the goods in the shelving directly opposite the cashier. Ned understood that there would be another place to look if the Visine failed to be there. The Visine he found was actually Murine. The shoulders of the tiny bottle were coated with grime. It would do. He quickly paid for it and the comb that had appeared on the counter next to it. He wondered if the old man had procured it from his own pocket.
Paying for the purchases, Ned understood something correctly that he’d misinterpreted. There were two black streamers hanging down, one on either side of the MIA flag. Ned had perceived them as something like crepe, something to emphasize the message of the thing. But in fact they were ribbons of tape black with dead flies. Little cylinders of fly trap tape were also countertop impulse items. He collected his change.
Ned said, “The other thing is the New York Times. I’m going to be around here for a few days. I’m staying up the hill . . .” He waited to see if this information brought any reaction from the old man, who pursed his lips and held them pursed for what was arguably an unusually long time.
Ned established that the Times came most days, early afternoon, and that the old man would try to save a copy for him, if it came. Ned sensed a little coldness now, coming toward him. By asking for the Times, Ned had obviously identified himself as a beloathed liberal. This man was concerned with the victims of war and now there was going to be another one. There could be more MIAs for him. Ned was tempted to say something useless.
A large soft mouse-colored old dog, a Labrador, came out from behind the counter and stared at him.
“Could I use your restroom?” Ned asked.
“Acourse,” the old man said, gesturing unclearly to his right. Ned worked it out. The restroom required a key, which was hanging on a hook at the end of the front counter. Ned reached for the key without realizing that the fine chain running through the hoop of the key also ran down through holes punched in two tire hubs. So there was a certain clangor, of course. Ostensibly this arrangement would be to keep the key from being lost or mislaid, but probably it was also for merriment when the uninitiated grabbed for the key without paying that much attention, as he had done. The restroom was straight back and to the left. He had to pass a vast display of periodicals taking up all the wall space between the counter area and the cross aisle at the back.
He scanned the selection as he passed. Pornorama! he thought.
There was everything. A man could want. Naughty Neighbors through Gent through Plumpers through a startling one, Whorientals. Breasts for all. Back near the counter the main news weeklies formed a thin right-hand margin to this field of pink plenty, and there the Weekly Standard predominated, with the last three issues preserved for sale whereas only the current issues of Time and Newsweek were available. Interestingly, a shower curtain shielded the last quarter of the array of porn. It could be slid aside. The design on the curtain represented the world: through the blue translucencies between the continents, images of handsome male heads and muscular bodies were discernible. Picturesque as all this was, Ned couldn’t linger.
A bald, youngish man, very heavy, was seated behind a workbench in a slot punched into the middle of the back wall. Ned crossed in front of him and nodded. The man was repairing a fly rod. As he slumped back in his chair to notice Ned more comfortably, and as his chin sank into his fat throat, his dense, short-cropped yellow beard presented as a sort of Elizabethan ruff along the bottom of his face. Ned thought he had an intelligent look. His arms were lavishly tattooed. He wondered if this could be the fine old man’s son. He hoped not, back there all day and probably expected to keep an eye on porn browsers in case they were tempted to take something or whisk something with them into the toilet. Not much of a life for this fellow.
Ned couldn’t help but be curious about the tattooed images the young man was displaying, which led straight to a question of etiquette, which was whether it was polite to look at the demons and crosses and daggers decorating his giant arms. On the one hand, they were put there to be noticed, and on the other hand, it would make you look gay. If that bothered you. It was best to treat it like wallpaper.
On the restroom door was a primitive cartoon of a figure that was female on one side, half a skirt, and male on the other, half a top hat.
In the restroom, Ned was quick about everything. He was pointlessly a little proud of the thick, shaggy limb of urine he produced. He rinsed his face with cold water, which was all there was. He decided he looked OK. A little red, white, and blue sticker in the corner of the dull mirror read Pataki? Ptui!
The bridge was well behind him. It had seemed sturdy enough.
He was almost there. It was a whole hilltop, green, treeless, broadly convex, like the top of a cupcake. It was extensive. His feelings reminded him of what Nina had said about Cézanne’s landscapes, that when you see them, you relax. Now he could see the tower, four stories tall, like a stone hatbox. Tower? he thought. Oh, a short one. And roomy-looking. A gravel path branched off from the road and led to the summit, and the tower. He couldn’t believe the tower. It was short and it had a parapet notched for archers or shooters, defenders. He couldn’t imagine anyone he knew living in such a setting.
He was agitated. But maybe something good could come out of this. This disaster. Their group had been talented. Letters they had written to the Aegis in college had always gotten attention. Maybe the others and he could collaborate on a statement against the coming invasion, in their old style. Their letters hadn’t all been on the frivolous side. Some hadn’t.
“Hi yourself. To what do I owe the honor of thisum.”
Nina sighed. It was her mother’s way to break off her sentences once she was satisfied that her respondent knew what she was obviously going to say next. Thisums and theums were major building blocks in Ma’s discourse. It was odd. Her mother was an odd woman, an odd woman but lovable and she loved her. Her mother didn’t trail off as though she were trying to think of the next word. It was just laborsaving. That was how her mother saw it.
“I’m not calling to honor you, I’m calling to give you my whereabouts, such as they are, so you won’t worry.”
“Yeah, but Nina, what about theum?”
It sounded Greek, but Nina knew what she meant. It was the march, the demonstration, the Convergence. Her mother was a sentimental communist, a very nice old communist living in El Nido, a nice old lady communist apartment complex owned by a nice old rich lady communist widow. It was a family, there. Ned called it Birobidzhan after the ghetto province Stalin had tried to corral all the Jews in Russia into, to raise chickens. And in fact in El Nido, they had raised chickens, until the city made them stop. They still had a victory garden. Her mother was a communist and a practicing astrologer. She had slept with John Garfield before she got married. Nina’s father had been proud of it and would drop it into conversations.
Nina said, “Where I am is in Kingston, New York, in a bus station and I’m waiting for a bus to take me to Phoenicia, New York. You can only get me on my cell phone, do you understand? And don’t worry, the march is going to be enormous. I’ll tell you about it. I’ll call you when I can.”
“Hey, don’t hang up Neen! I don’t know where you are in New York. And why are you in New York?”
“Ma, I wish to God you would get a computer and take a course. I’ll pay for it. It’s so much better for keeping in touch.”
“I have no time. I’m too old.”
“Listen to me while I explain where I am. I can’t talk to you forever.”
“How I wish you could!”
That was her mother being ironical. It was kind of funny.
“Ma, OK, why I’m here. We’re supposed to be getting me pregnant. You know. So Ned gets a phone call saying that an old friend died, died, not even dying, dead. But Ned just ran out and got on a plane and left town. I got this in a message on my answering machine . . .”
The thing was to not keep getting enraged over it.
Ma said, “Oh Nina, was it yourum?”
Sometimes her mother baffled her.
“My what?” Nina asked. And then she had it. “Oh my sharp tongue, you mean? No, there was no argument, so not my sharp tongue, Ma. What sharp tongue, anyway, you absurd person.”
“You have a sharp tongue, Nina.”
Her mother never took anything back. Her usual move was to repeat what she’d said but in a tiny voice.
“I didn’t get a chance to use my socalled sharp tongue. Now listen. Ned’s friends at NYU were — call them a clique — all top students, a clique but serious, this is hard to explain, they were wits, too, according to them . . .”
“What do you mean by that? Wits?”
“My very question. Here’s an example. They’re in with other people having a regular conversation on some subject. And one of Ned’s friends inserts a line from a popular song. Right in the middle of things, and with no ado at all Douglas might say to Ned, I don’t care what people say Rock and Roll is here to stay, and Ned would say You dig it to the end. And the conversation would just go on. It’s just adolescent, Ma.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Anyway, the bandleader of this wonderful group died suddenly and his widow, also known as the most beautiful woman you ever saw, begged Ned to come. So he went. Because she was upset. Everybody from the group was going, so he called me at work and I was out so he left a message informing me, Ma. And we’re working on a baby . . .”
“Nina, you shouldum.”
Nina had to control her tone. “I know. We should adopt. I know your position . . . So I got on a plane myself. He doesn’t know that yet.”
“Ma, I never met him. He turned out to be rich. And boy was he a whiner. I live in a dying forest, he wrote to Ned. I read that over Ned’s shoulder and I felt like saying, Well, move then, you can afford it.”
Everything was getting to her. She was looking at a block of identical posters on the bus station wall. Each of them had been neatly defaced with the word faggot inscribed in italic marker pen on the forehead of the lead singer of a group called Blue Papa.
Her mother loved Ned. “I love Ned,” Ma said. Who doesn’t, Nina wanted to say. Ned and her mother had been on the same page in the matter of adoption. She’d had to fight to convince Ned they should have their own child. Christ, what a battle. Finally she had won. What she wanted was Ned’s essence, what he was, because he was a lovely man. And face it, she wanted her own essence to go on, too. She was OK, and went well with Ned, as the harsh angel he needed. He should really be a Christian. He was. Be anything, but hold me in your arms, she thought. And then she remembered how much he had laughed last week when she’d said Let’s go lie down and call each other honey. She wished sometimes that Christianity was real and that there was a heaven so he could go to heaven, and she would be willing to go to hell for her transgressions. There would be a God and Ned would believe and he would be safe. But he couldn’t be a Christian because science was true. And his good friends were all secular. She wasn’t religious herself, but for some reason she had pushed Ned to go with her to a couple of Quaker meetings. Society of Friends. She was attracted to what they called themselves. But it hadn’t worked. It had to do with the silence at the end of the proceedings where people are supposed to speak as the spirit moved them. The spirit had moved Ned to argue with some of the things the spirit had moved other people to say. And that hadn’t been appreciated.
“Don’t be hard on Ned,” Ma said.
“OK I won’t. I’ll take it out on his friends.”
“Nina, you’re going to get pregnant. I know it.”
“You’re seeing the future again?”
Her mother did think she could see the future, and not only the economic future, with socialism just around the corner. She had intuited that Nina was going to grow up to be a writer because as a tiny child she had liked the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. I’m still waiting to become a writer, she thought. She wouldn’t mind that.
“Don’t worry about the future, Neen,” Ma said.
“Maybe I should see a shrink,” Nina said. This was teasing. Her mother was dead set against psychotherapy. In adolescence when Nina had once proposed that she might need to talk to a psychiatrist, Ma had said You don’t need a psychiatrist, it’s all in your head.
Nina said, “Ma I love you.” She thought, His enemy friends can go to hell. Ned was under an illusion. He thought friendships between men were superior. Because — and he had said this! — men didn’t want anything back from their true friends, it was all affinity. They didn’t, for example, want a baby from them, want them to be a provider for babies, or need them to be on-call confidants. Men are simple, she thought.
“Neen, I love you all the time,” Ma said.
“I know you do. I’ll call you. These people don’t think Ned’s important, Ma. They know nothing. They don’t know anything about the Fair Trade movement which he’s practically a god in. He’s helping poor people, the cooperatives . . .”
“Oh honey I know and I lost the catalog you sent me, the coffee catalog.”
“I’ll send you another one.”
“Oh and Nina, I know you have to go, but don’t wear buckskin,” she said with real anxiety. Ma was referring to a buckskin jacket, fringed, that Nina loved.
This never dies, Nina thought, Because with the long black hair that you want me to cut and because I’m so fierce and all, and because looking Sicilian makes me look like a Cherokee in the buckskin. “I don’t even own that jacket anymore, Ma,” she said, which wasn’t true.
“OK then, that’s good. And go easy on the cursing. Remember if you’re working with a lot of men you get used to cursing. If these people where you’re going live in a castle they might not like it. You told me that his friend lived in a castle. I remember that.”
“My bus is here, Ma. Be good.”
Closer up, the tower looked a little ragged in outline. It was built out of shale flags. There were big windows in every story. It would be hell to heat. It was a major thing, this dark edifice, not a toy, not a tree house. You could put a few families in it.
A running figure, a young man running, flashed twice across Ned’s field of vision. The runner was circling the tower. Ned waved vigorously, but the sturdy figure kept running and then failed to reappear. He had been bare-chested, strangely, given the weather. He had been wearing torn jeans, and on his head, a red bandana, like a pirate or rap singer. He looked tall for 14 or 15, but he had to be Hume, Douglas’s boy, who of course would be upset. Probably that was why he was running. I would want my son to be upset if I died, not to mention my daughter, he thought. He was going to be an old father, the kind kids wouldn’t prefer, which couldn’t be helped. There had been trouble with Hume. Elliot would know, Ned thought. I pray to god it isn’t something ugly and predictive of hell. People who had children assuming they were creating future friends were rolling the dice.
The gravel creaked under Ned’s boots. The tower’s grounds were, Ned now saw, not entirely treeless. A quince tree stood at one corner of Douglas’s famous physic garden, which lay behind a gated wire fence. Douglas had alluded to his quince tree more than once. This garden would be where he had raised herbs and other exotic botanicals, presumably for fun.
Someone darkly dressed was squatting next to the quince tree. This figure’s back was toward the tower path, toward Ned. It was his friend Elliot crouching there, smoking. Ned called out and Elliot stood up and, turning, shot his cigarette butt away — furtively, Ned thought. Ned began to trot toward his friend. He was full of feeling. Elliot was a decent man. Ned’s eyes felt charged, not ready to let any tears out, but close. From this vantage, Ned could see other buildings set lower on the descending far side of the hill — a vast rustic ranch-style house with smoke rising from a chimney . . . a wide garage, sheds, other structures. Elliot was waving. He shouted, “Ahoy, polloi,” an ancient nothing from their student days.
“Ahoy yourself!” Ned said. It was the same Elliot, still thin, professionally tan, now. His dark hair flowed back from not quite the center of his head. He pressed his hair down. He was working up a smile for Ned. It always seemed to take a little effort for Elliot to erect a smile. The group had accepted the responsibility to keep Elliot, with his default permanently resigned expression, cheered up. His long, serious actorly face was unlined. He undoubtedly had the same effect on groups that he’d had in olden times: when he arrived, people would be concerned to place him, figure out who he was, exactly. His height was part of it, of course. Elliot’s smile came, and his teeth, Ned noted, were à la mode, that is to say unnaturally white. Nina had perfect god-given teeth, like her mother. Nina was good-looking. But compliments made her nervous. The whole subject made her nervous. Maybe because your appearance was so luck of the draw. She turned away questions touching on her looks. Someone had asked her what color she would say her green-brown eyes were, and she had said they were olive drab. Elliot was rich. The two men embraced.
They stood back from one another. Both said, “Ah, man . . .” with feeling.
Elliot was wearing a black leather trench coat worth a fortune. He had the collar up for drama, or possibly protection against wind. There was no wind. A dead calm prevailed. The sound of water draining from the tower’s downspouts stood out in the stillness.
Elliot smelled of cigarette smoke. It had been understood among the friends that smokers were the ultimate fools. But the fact was that Elliot had smoked modestly and privately back then. And considerately. It was up to him. Ned doubted that smoking was popular in Douglas’s household. In truth, Douglas had been generally intolerable about it. At one point, he had picked up some antismoking flyers featuring medical photographs of specimens of leukoplakia, the condition just prior to oral cancer, and had dropped them around in lecture halls and the Commons room. But he hadn’t harassed Elliot, or not very much.
They embraced again. Each told the other he was looking great.
Ned was finding it hard to talk normally. He said, “I came right away after you called, this is so fucked. God. Fuck. It’s terrible. What happened? What happened that I don’t know about?”
Elliot put his arm around Ned’s shoulders. He started to say something but then stopped, clearly considering his words, which made Ned a little uneasy. Elliot was a stockbroker and a Juris Doctor. He had given financial advice to Douglas, and legal advice, too. Ned was prepared for Elliot letting it be felt that he was in a different, or even official, relationship with Douglas’s family. This was going to be something more than the usual benign reserve Elliot projected and that intrigued people and made them want to reassure themselves that it wasn’t caused by anything they might have done. Ned supposed he had to live with it.
Ned said, “I want to see Douglas.”
Elliot shook his head, saying, “No, you can’t. They took the body to Kingston.” The special relationship had made its appearance.
“OK, but I want to see him anyway, the physical Douglas.”
Elliot nodded rapidly, but signifying understanding and not assent. Ned didn’t like it. Ned said, “Have you seen his body?”
“I did, before they took him.”
“Well. What’s going on? Is there going to be a wake? A funeral service, what?”
“Right now I don’t know. I don’t know what Iva can take. Douglas is going to be cremated. She’s fragile. We’re trying to figure this out.”
Ned said, “And what about Hume? I just saw him running around back there, around the tower, if that was him, without a shirt on.”
Elliot grimaced. He said, “He’s upset and he’s out of control. To some degree. He has an exceptional arrangement with his parents. He . . . lives outdoors a good deal, and he has just about agreed to homeschooling, after a debacle, two of them, with private schools. Douglas built a cabin for him last year. For his independence. He rejected it. He let them do it and then rejected it.”
Ned said, “How could this happen?”
Elliot said, “It was a complete accident. He drove the mower too close to the edge of the ravine. That’s what happened . . . the autopsy was today.”
Ned felt himself shaking, and to quell it, clutched his hands together behind his back and clenched his arms.
“Take that thing off and give it to me,” Elliot said, pointing at Ned’s rucksack. “Christ, is that the same one you had when we climbed Storm King?”
“It is,” Ned answered. “Storm King and the Shawangunks and all of them. It’s the only one I’ve ever had.”
“You’re loyal to your possessions,” Elliot said.
Ned felt a moment of trivial puzzlement. Was Elliot being critical? All it could be was a reference to the fact that he didn’t, had never, thrown things away wantonly, while they still had some use in them.
“You’re a masochist. Give it to me,” Elliot said, guiding Ned toward an ornate door in the base of the tower. Ned held on to his pack. Elliot scrutinized him. “Ned, you need to rest. Come in and rest. We’re all here.”
Elliot had the door open. Ned was moving reluctantly. It was a concession to go in instead of mobilizing somehow to get to Kingston. He was tired. He murmured something about Kingston but without force. He knew it was in the nature of a reproach to Elliot.
Elliot said, “It makes no sense to go to Kingston. All this is being worked out, Ned.”
Elliot patted Ned’s shoulder, then pressed him forward, being less patient. Ned said, “All of us are here?”
Ned stopped abruptly, putting Elliot off his stride. Elliot stumbled slightly and began coughing. The coughing went on. Ned was alarmed.
“Why are you coughing?” is what he came out with, surprisingly to himself. Maybe it was anxiety that something was wrong with this friend, too, now, someone trying to do his best under stress. He knew what Nina would say. Ned, she would say, you’re displacing. Displacement behavior meant getting aggrieved about something that was standing in for something else.
The ground-floor room was sizeable, with a high wood-beam ceiling. The walls were lined with blond wooden filing cabinets, to a height of five feet or so, and above the cabinets ponderous shelving held oversize books and binders. Everything was fitted to the curve of the walls, and all the woodwork was polished to gleaming. The books here seemed to be in the reference category — serials, in bound volumes, quartos, sets. Ned wanted to look more closely at them and also at the items laid out on an oceanic work table pushed against one of the three broad windows. He could see a lightbox on the table, and an array of optical instruments. How long would it take, Ned wondered, to get used to the postcard-quality vistas of placid nature the windows provided? The temptation would be to drift into witless contemplation and then wonder where the time went. And who dusted and cleaned and polished all this? Someone.
A steep and narrow stone stairway ran up to the next story. There were red-orange oriental carpets on the floors. Whether they were top of the line, someone like Claire would know. Immediately he wanted to move past the thought of his ex-love and, with a little effort, he did.
Elliot was beckoning impatiently from the stairs.
There was a definite burnt smell in the air and a fireplace jammed with ashes, white paper-ash.
Ned said, “Everybody’s upstairs, right?”
“Joris is out walking and Gruen is taking a nap. You’re all on the third floor. We were up drinking last night.”
Ned winced inwardly at that. It was another part of all this that he had missed.
Elliot came down a step or two, reaching toward Ned. He said, “Take your pack off, for Christ’s sake, it’s a monster. Give it to me.”
Ned ignored Elliot’s move.
Elliot said, “You’re all on the third floor, keep coming. I’ll show you your bed. It’s dormitory style.”
“Where are you sleeping?” Ned asked.
“I’m over in the main house . . . There’s a reason.”
Ned said, “I need to see Iva, of course, before I do anything, don’t I?”
“Not yet,” Elliot said. “Not yet.”
Elliot kept a forefinger pressed to his lips the whole way up, screwing his head around at intervals like an idiot, to show that he wasn’t kidding about silence.