Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!
 

·

 

I was supposed to be reading Death Comes for the Archbishop for a class I'm taking at the community college, but I got sidetracked by this absolutely ridiculous book my friend Jay slipped into my damn backpack without me knowing about it. I had Death Comes for the Archbishop and this book with me when I rode the bus to work every morning, and Death Comes for the Archbishop got ignored almost until it was too late. The concept of the book I actually paid attention to is that there's an alternate history to Super Bowl XXXVI, the one where the Rams lost the Patriots on that last-second field goal. I've been bitter about that for four years now, so I took a look through the book and started "playing" the game in it. The way it works is, it starts with the opening kickoff and there's hundreds of elaborate play descriptions listed one after the other, but you don't know as you read which ones are the ones you're supposed to use and which ones you're supposed to ignore. It's determined by a numeric code at the end of the description of each play, you cross-reference it with a chart in the back and it tells you which play comes next. So you have no idea when you look through the book what's going to happen. All the plays are there, but the order is impossible to figure out by looking at them and most of them aren't used anyway. I saw some plays in the book that pretty much horrified me, like Kurt Warner throwing a ninety-nine yard interception, so I was on pins and needles for a while over this stupid game. Once I started the damn thing, of course I had to keep going and going, right from the first quarter to the last. It should have only taken three hours but I did it a half hour at a time on the bus and meanwhile Death Comes for the Archbishop just sat there. I'm such an idiot. It's a wonder I got through that class. I can't believe I wasted my time with that book. I'm sure people thought I was a moron for sitting there going through it. If it wasn't for the chance that the Rams would win the game, I would have stopped. The joke was on me anyway because they LOST AGAIN.

    

·

 

I don't know, was it really a love story, this book I read? Could you call it a love story? What does  that mean? I guess you could call it that, sure.
      There's a private detective, a nice guy, married, normal, kind of boring actually, his name is Sumner, and one day a man comes in who wants to find out what happened to his girlfriend five years ago. He was in the middle of the beginning of a serious relationship with this amazing woman who he thought was probably way too good for him, and one day they were in a restaurant and he got up to use the phone. When he came back, she was gone. She just left him a note on a napkin saying she was sorry and she would see him again someday. He ran out of the restaurant looking for her but there was no trace of her. She never came back. Their waitress told him that a man had come in, sat down with her, talked to her for maybe thirty seconds, and that she had gotten up voluntarily and left. So the guy who had been dating her for about five months—his name is Witt—figured of course that she had left him, and it had taken  him five whole years to outlive the shame and the depression of it, so in love with her was he. He pays Sumner to find out what became of her. Only now can he deal with it.

      Sumner is able to do this in about two weeks, mostly over the Internet. He gets a good outline of the story. The woman, it turns out, was married all along, and the man she disappeared with was almost certainly her husband. She had been leading a total double life, stringing Witt along easily. And one day the husband apparently showed up at the restaurant to drag her back to him. Now she's living in Arizona with him, and working for an art gallery. Case closed.

      But the case isn't closed, because Witt has a strange request. Even though he doesn't want to see the woman again, he's willing to pay Sumner as much as he wants if he can find out one thing for him: whether this woman ever really loved him.

      Sumner is baffled. The man seriously wants him to track down clues and go over all the evidence of their relationship not to find out hard facts but to determine whether the woman's feelings for him were a lie or not. Witt is just a middle-aged accountant, he's not rich or anything and can't afford to be throwing his money away on a lark, but he's absolutely haunted and he hasn't been able to have a normal relationship with any woman since this one vanished on him. If he can just be assured that she truly had some genuine feeling for him, he can sleep at night and move on.

      Sumner takes the case, but he can't promise anything, because who could promise results when the job is to investigate emotions? It turns out one of the main reasons he takes the case is that it gets him out of the house, where his own wife has become a burden to him. She's suffering from some kind of chronic and very painful muscle disease which isn't fatal but has made her life a total hell, and even though he loves her and treats her as best as he can, he's starting to lose his mind and their whole husband-wife relationship has almost been completely destroyed.

      He starts to tackle the case, really tackle it. He examines the love letters that the mystery woman and Witt exchanged, he talks to people that she briefly came into contact with during the relationship, he even tracks down someone who she might have cheated with during that time. He goes through old photos of she and Witt together, taking notes about the clothes she wore, what her moods seemed like, what her little gifts to him may have symbolized, where she had to go to get them. He tries to gauge what she was really feeling the day she vanished by finding the waitress who served them and getting her to tell the story again. He tries to find out if she ever swindled anyone else's heart and he finds himself reading some love stories she wrote for her college magazine to figure out what she really thought about the whole subject. He does his best to avoid actually having to talk to her directly, since that's the last thing Witt wants him to do. The things he finds out are contradictory. On the one hand, she seemed to be really happy with Witt, but on the other hand, her disappearance was so swift that it doesn't make sense that she could have loved him. She never even wrote him a letter of explanation. Sumner finds out so much about her that he begins to....you guessed it, fall in love with her. He can't quite seem to determine once and for all whether she really loved Witt, but bit by bit he discovers she is a fascinating, deep, beautiful, mysterious, baffling woman.

      Now Sumner's really confused, because even though he's really reluctant to meet her, he thinks he has to, firstly because he can't come up with a worthy answer for his client yet, and secondly, because he just has to know what she's really like. Adding to this confusion is the fact that it seems like someone is following him. He can't prove it, but it seems like information is a bit too easy to find sometimes, there are no real dead ends, and he gets way too much information from a total stranger working at a vineyard who has very detailed memories of  Witt's overnight trip with the woman there a week before she vanished. He does more research to find out precisely where he can confront the woman in relative privacy, and winds up going to Arizona to a tiny night club where she sings on Sunday nights.

      When he sees her, he can't take his eyes off her. His first thought is that obviously she was just using Witt for something, because there's just no way that a balding, middle-aged accountant could have landed such a woman. Sumner starts talking to her at the bar, pretending he's someone else, being very subtle, trying to get in a roundabout way at her history, but she won't really give it to him. About halfway through the conversation, he realizes that she knows exactly who she is and why he's here. Instead of being mad, she tells him the entire story. At the time she was with Witt, she was married to an American spy who was working in Tehran and was getting more and more involved in his work, and was finally captured. She spent an agonizing year not hearing from him and finally his bosses came to her and explained that he might be dead, and he might not be. So she went fairly insane with grief, and after another six months she started to fight the grief subconsciously by adopting another personality entirely, of a woman who was much more confident, outgoing, exotic, even prettier than she really felt she was. And Witt was one of the first men she met. Literally three days after she met him, she got word that her husband was alive and the CIA was secretly negotiating for his release. But instead of being overjoyed, she was filled with rage at him for all the doubt and the fear that he had inadvertently put her through over his years as a spy, and so she felt herself vanishing from her life and into Witt's. She was completely in shock and not thinking right. The extremes of sorrow and happiness were too much for her and she shut down entirely. She looked for solace in her identity as the 'perfect woman', making Witt ridiculously happy in the way she never could for her spy husband. But it didn't last long, and after a few months she was in the throes of a deep depression, and then one day her husband walked into that restaurant and gently took her away. The next few months were hell, but then something just as amazing happened: her husband the spy left the CIA and changed his life to become exactly the ideal man she had always wanted. He did it out of love for her. He became a schoolteacher, they moved back to her hometown, and they fell in love with each other all over again, in a better way than before, mostly because they were completely different human beings than when they first met.

      Sumner is pretty floored by this story, as you can imagine. The only mystery left to solve is his sense that he has been followed, and she can confirm that it's true, that it was her husband who was doing the following. He did it not to scare him away but to actually draw Sumner directly to her. It had been her idea and he followed her wishes. The reason for the charade was that she had never told her story to anyone. Not even her husband had asked her to explain the whole truth about what she had gone through, and she wanted to confess it all to someone, and Sumner was the perfect candidate: someone who wanted to know the whole truth, who would listen sympathetically, and who she would never see again. Now she had closure.

      Sumner goes away from the bar humbled and stunned, and the next day he goes to Witt, tells him the whole story. And he's happy with it. He chooses to see the woman's love for him as real rather than the symptom of some awful inner stress she was suffering. He's alone, and probably will be for a long time still, but he's incredibly happy with this white lie. It just goes to show you how desperate some people are to believe something if it means that someone seems to care about them.

      The book ends with Sumner walking alongside his wife as they wheel her in for some experimental surgical procedure to heal her muscle pains. It's sort of a last ditch attempt to save her from more years of agony. The nurses leave them alone for a minute and she's slowly falling asleep and he's holding her hand and there's two pages of what's going on in Sumner's mind as he thinks about what kind of miracle it would take for him to be able to re-invent himself for her, the way the subject of his investigation did for Witt, and the way her husband did for her, what kind of courage and dedication it would demand, and whether or not he himself can ever even hope to be the kind of person who could accomplish it. It's a sad ending, because he's not like these people, he just isn't, he's a Witt and not much more. So instead of a love story, the book is more about what it takes to become someone different than yourself, bigger than yourself. And it makes it seem almost impossible, it really does, a one in a million shot, like climbing Mount Everest by yourself. I've done a lousy job explaining the story and I left out all kinds of things, but that's basically what the book's about.

 

·

 

Mrs. DeLean gave me a book to read because I finished My Side of the Mountain before anybody else in class did, and she said I could do a report on it for extra credit. The book was for sixth graders and above but I got through it no problem. It was a very good book. It was about a man who came to a little place in Kansas in the year 1881 and tried to open up a place that wasn't really a bar, because you could drink anything there except alcohol, which everyone in the town thought was just really strange so no one really went to his place. He was a really nice guy and he was always joking with everyone and he was trying to be a writer. He wrote stories about the future all the time and was always having ideas about what the future was going to be like. He talked to people about his ideas but they just looked at him funny, even though they liked hearing about them. The thing is, almost all his ideas eventually came to be real, it's just that no one had thought to invent them yet! If you concentrate really hard on the things he's dreaming of in the book, you realize he's talking about computers and the Internet, and big sports leagues, and TV, and going to the moon, etcetera. He imagines all of them, but no one thinks he's being realistic because it's 1881. The place he opens in town is even too far ahead of his time, because no one in Kansas really knows what a coffeehouse is, which is exactly what's he's running, like a Starbucks! So he doesn't make any money and the money he showed up in town with was left to him by his grandfather and soon he has to close his coffeehouse, which is sad. But he's always cheerful and makes fun of himself and his crazy thoughts and people really like him for it. Then he starts to have some really hard times, because winter comes around and he doesn't really know how to get through it by himself. So he gets help from the only employee he had at his coffeehouse, which is a girl named Beverly, who is so shy she barely talks, and not even that pretty they say, but she always loved to listen to the man's dreams about what the future was going to be like. She shows him how to cut logs and raise a garden and do odd jobs so he can survive. She shows him how to cook things so he isn't so wasteful and how to heat his little cabin so he won't freeze to death. After a while they fall in love, even though he has to do all the talking, because she never breaks out of her shell. It's so sad! He tries to get her to be more outgoing, but she was traumatized when she was really young and now she's afraid of her own shadow. He tells her he's going to marry her if he can just survive the winter, and a bad flu comes and a lot of people die and he has to help his neighbors and no one wants to hear his ideas for a while, but the important thing is he learns to do hard work for the first time in his life, and he helps the girl get past the flu, and in the meantime he spends all his nights writing a novel by hand, a big long science fiction novel with all the ideas about the future he's ever had. Finally spring comes, and he finishes the book, and his fiancée reads it and she loves it, but no one in New York wants to publish it because it's so far out. It doesn't matter to him. He marries the girl and he becomes a farmer and they live happily ever after, and he stops thinking about the future all the time and they raise their children. A long time after he dies, one of his grandkids finds the book he wrote in an old dresser and publishes it and the man becomes famous, but only after he's been gone from the world for a lot of years. It was a really good book with a happy ending.

 

·

 

I wish I understood modern photography, I really do. There's a book on my shelf at home, I'm not even sure how it got there. It's all these pictures of a guy in a suit wedged into places people just don't normally get themselves wedged into. For instance, there's one of him standing in his suit on the bathroom counter in a Holiday Inn, his face and his torso and his knees pressed against the wall. There's one of him lying perfectly flat and straight in between the rows of seats at a crowded baseball game, again in a suit and with a look on his face like he just doesn't particularly like it or dislike it, he's just there and not caring. I guess the point is to show how much we're really just objects like anything else in the world. I hope it was worth the thirty dollar cover price. All I know is that I'm absolutely certain it wasn't me who paid for it. But who did?

 

·

 

I read this book last month. I'll tell you about it.

      It begins with a twenty-two year old man riding in the back of a police car. He's been arrested for some unspecified crime, and he's looking out the windows of the car as it cruises through the slums late at night, and this man is thinking that he has one last chance to change his life if he really wants to do it, he's at an unpleasant crossroads, and if he keeps going like he's going, he'll eventually be doomed to the kind of misery that he sees rolling past the windows of the police car. and he'll never get out of it. It's come to him all at once, very very clearly. His eyes have been opened.

      His name is Cleve. His friend Trent comes and bails him out of jail at three in the morning, and they go back to Trent's apartment beside the campus where he's a graduate student. Trent knows all about Cleve. He wasn't especially surprised to get the call from jail. He doesn't even ask specifically what his offense was. And he knows that whatever he says, whatever advice he gives or how many times he tells Cleve that he's headed for a bad fall, Cleve is going to be out of the apartment at dawn, doing something else to get himself in trouble.

      And it's true, but this man Cleve's trouble is a different kind of trouble. The next day, just as the sun's coming up, he's standing on a dock at the grungiest edge of the city, watching a slow cargo trawler creep by. He's been watching it every day for a week, and he knows it always floats past at the exact same time, and always a certain short distance from the dock. He's been mentally measuring the leap over the water onto the trawler and thinks he might just be able to make it, although even if he does, he has no idea where the trawler is really going or how long he can stay on it before someone spots him and boots him off or calls the police. But it doesn't matter to him. He has to try the jump, he absolutely has to, and he does. He runs down the dock and leaps off it and just does make it, injuring his leg pretty badly in the process, barely avoiding slamming into the side of the trawler and crashing down into the water. He's on the trawler for two whole days, with no food and almost no water, without anyone seeing him, and he finally jumps off a full state away. He hitchhikes back to Trent's apartment a happy man.

      Cleve's problem is a strange one. Even though he's very intelligent, he can't seem to live a normal life, he absolutely has to keep challenging himself physically each and every day, to have some experience that's new and different, to push himself, to never repeat the actions of a single day. And so at twenty-two he's basically homeless, living in the hills just beyond the campus he used to attend classes on, spending his days foraging for food and showering on campus and working out and walking vast distances to exhaust himself. And always he has to break into people's houses but not rob them, scale cliffs, drink himself silly, train for triathlons he has no intention of competing in, sleep on the roofs of buildings he's scaled, do brutal day labor, jump on trains. He knows he isn't normal but he can't bring himself to live any other way. What disturbs him so much is the idea of time rolling away in front of him and at the same time gathering so much weight behind him. He just wants there to be a now; his awareness of anything else, a past or a future, suffocates him. Spending a single second thinking about either the past or the future is death to him. It makes him physically feel his life slipping away. There's no word for his disease.

      His latest project begins the day he returns from his trawler adventure. He goes into the nearby mountains and he bribes a park employee to take him to the spot where a camper was recently mauled by a black bear, because he wants to stalk it, empty-handed, limping because his knee is still banged up from the trawler incident. He wants to somehow come face to face with the bear, just to see what happens.

      The book's a love story. On campus there's a girl.

      Her name's Helen. She's about to graduate from school, and she's an activist in every sense of the word. She's spent all her free time for the past two years organizing student protests of a war currently going on in North Korea, which America refuses to enter fully despite having promised to help a starving mass of people try to overthrow a corrupt government. The war's been going on for almost three years, and Helen is exhausted by it, worn out by all the protests her intense little group has managed to stage, which have only managed to keep alive the barest spark of student interest in the issue. It just isn't sexy enough and too much of the country doesn't seem to mind that these North Koreans are getting starved to death. While Cleve, who she hasn't met yet, is out in the woods stalking his bear, there's an incident with one of her protests, it gets out of hand and two students get their arms broken resisting arrest and a cop gets hurt. She's called in and threatened with expulsion from school with just two months left before graduation because her iffy organization of the protest was partially responsible for things getting out of hand. This really hurts her badly, she's a nice, docile person and to think that she screwed up and caused someone to get hurt causes her to lose a lot of sleep.

      Cleve spends five days in the woods trying to track his bear, all the while getting farther and farther away from humanity and eating almost nothing. At one point he's totally lost in the mountains.  Finally he knows he's on the black bear's trail. He goes into a strange mental zone of intense excitement, anticipation. In the middle of day six, he sees it. But there's not going to be any confrontation because the bear is dying, it's lying on its side in the middle of a clearing. Cleve walks right up to it and looks into its eyes as it slowly dies, and then lies right beside it for two hours, staring at it, touching its fur, trying to learn something, anything, and thinking about his life but coming up with no solutions. Above everything, he's terrified of becoming like that bear, a creature that used to be powerful and awesome but which eventually became mundane and meaningless. Cleve refuses to die that way. He wants to live with constant risk and constant exploration of what he can get his body and his courage to achieve.

      He happens to meet Helen a week later. She's off campus, working an information table at some minor protest in the city, and Cleve sees her and recognizes her from the times he used to notice her when he was still a student, before he dropped out. He goes up to her and asks her questions about the war in North Korea, he wants to know all about it. Just talking to her is a surprising thing for him, since he's one of the quietest people on earth. She realizes he doesn't know anything at all about the whole thing, zero, because he's mostly been in his own world for the past three years, which amazes her. He walks off with a bunch of flyers and a strange feeling about this girl, sort of a subtle identification with how much she cares about her cause and getting involved with things that are clearly over her head.

      He finds himself at loose ends for the umpteenth time, and he starts a new risk project at the school, which is sneaking into the campus pool late at night and teaching himself how to high dive. For three straight nights he crawls through the roof of the place like a burglar, and in almost total darkness he hurls himself off the diving board again and again into the water. It only comes out after a few nights of this that he's learned, through Trent, that Helen works at the pool a few hours a week.

      One night Cleve is going through his improvised routine on the high board when he slips off it. He hits his head as he descends from the top of his dive, and when he enters the water, he's holding on to only the barest thread of consciousness. But someone's been watching him, and of course it's Helen. She's known about his break-ins and dives almost from the beginning, and she's let herself in at odd moments during the night just to see what he's doing. When Cleve doesn't come up from the water, she dives in and rescues him, saving his life. She drags him out of the water and when he becomes totally conscious again he just thanks her awkwardly and refuses an ambulance and walks off.  He knows he was seconds away from death and he's rattled pretty badly by it. Helen's totally baffled by him and just watches him go.

      She knows he's friends with Trent, because Trent's been in two of her classes, so she goes to see him for a little more information about Cleve. Trent tells her exactly what Cleve's psychological problem is. It started in his first year of high school, after his father threw him out of the house, and Trent's been there all through it, even joining him on some of his more sane escapades. He's like Cleve, kind of a man's man. Trent's a baseball player who might be drafted by the pros, a fitness maniac, a mountain biker, and sort of a womanizer. Both he and Cleve have a fierce streak of intelligence in them, but only Trent is ready  to use it to secure some kind of future for himself. Helen's attracted to gentler types, she doesn't understand either one of them, but obviously she's interested in Cleve's psyche. She could do without the whole macho aspect of his thinking, but he's so different she feels like she has to reach him somehow.

      Near the end of part one, Cleve does something that requires more bravery of him than any little stunt he's tried in a long time. He walks to Helen's apartment one rainy day and knocks on her door, and when she opens it he says he has something he absolutely has to tell her. When he hit his head on the diving board and fell into the pool the week before, he felt his life slipping away, and it literally passed before his eyes, just like it supposedly happens to people. He saw an image from his childhood, an image of being disciplined by his father, who was a world-famous economist who died the year before. He saw his mother, who died when he was four, and his sister, who's lived in Iceland for years, all in scenes from his life. But then he claims he saw something else, which was a scene from what was obviously his future. In it, he and Helen—who he barely knows, remember—were standing together in a gas station parking lot in wintertime, and as the snow fell on their shoulders, they were shopping for a Christmas tree together. The image was so powerful and undeniable  that Cleve simply had to tell her. And there's absolutely no sense to Helen that he's making this up. He can't express what he might be feeling for her, though, because when it comes to human interaction he's lost. So he leaves again with Helen further confused by him but definitely falling in love. As she lies in bed that night she tries to picture herself in the gas station parking lot, and shopping for a Christmas tree as the snow falls with Cleve beside her, years in the future.  

      A few days later she's getting ready to go to Washington for a peace march, and not knowing where to find Cleve, she goes to Trent, who's packing to leave school and tells her that Cleve went hitchhiking to Atlantic City, where if history is any judge he'll probably gamble everything he has, which he does sometimes. So she figures she might be done with Cleve, since she's going back home to Pittsburgh after she graduates. She doesn't know if she can re-arrange her life to keep running into this person and solving his mystery, so maybe it's finished with him and she'll just never know him. She has all kinds of shame about being  threatened with expulsion from school after behaving so perfectly all her life and conforming to what everyone's always wanted of her. Her view of herself has taken a hard sudden blow and she can't deal with this Cleve character right now. She takes the train to Washington and gets caught up in a huge peace rally on the Mall, again protesting America's refusal to help the people in North Korea fight their government, and all kinds of groups converge and something goes wrong up on the speaker's podium near the Korean War memorial, punches start to get thrown and soon there's a melee going on and Helen's in the middle of it, watching beating eating other and getting jostled around and stepped on. Tear gas gets thrown and there's a stampede and some cop grabs her and she just loses it, she hits back, she flies into a rage that's been building for five years, she becomes absolutely terrifying. Cops pin her to the ground and she's shrieking and yelling, having almost lost her mind. They stick her in the back of a van with eight other people. She's sitting there for maybe thirty seconds, waiting for the police to drive them away, and then she feels a hand grab her by the shirt and yank her out of the van hard, so hard she gets thrown to the ground and breaks her hand....and it's Cleve standing over her. He pulled her out of the van. He had gone to Washington to find her. He pulls her through the crowd, shoving people out of the way until they're in the clear. They hide in an alley between two buildings and he calms her there, and holds her hand. That's how part one ends, and you know they're going to be together. There's no question about it, none.

 

 

Part two starts two years later. Trent is driving a flashy sports car to a small private hospital in Texas, more of an expensive health farm, to once again bring Cleve back from some trouble. He's been in this hospital for almost three months, recovering from having about half the bones in his body broken in a fall. What he was doing to make this happen, we never know, but obviously it wasn't just any accident. It came about because of the way he lives. Nothing much has changed for him. All we know for sure is that it was the final straw that sent Helen away from him after their being together, involved, for almost two years. Helen never went back to Pittsburgh after graduation.

      Trent wheels Cleve out of the hospital in a wheelchair. Trent has paid for his therapy, which he's been able to do because he's now playing pro baseball in the Yankees farm system, about to be called up to play in the big leagues. During the time he was almost paralyzed, Cleve went a bit nuts from being unable to move and so he used the one part of his body that was completely workable, his right arm, to siphon off some of his energy by painting, doing six or seven paintings a day, of anything he could think of, knowing he had no talent for it. He just had to do something, so he painted all day and all night and when he leaves the hospital he leaves them all behind, not caring.    

      Trent takes Cleve back to his place in New York and right away Cleve tries to get Trent to go find Helen and talk to her, try to convince her to come back to him. Trent isn't even sure where she is, only that she's said she just can't have Cleve in her life anymore. Trent's always a loyal friend and so he tracks Helen down, she's working at a Planned Parenthood clinic about ten miles from the campus she and Trent graduated from, and he talks to her. At one point he gets a little too drunk, and starts talking about his own problems, which have multiplied recently, and he tries to kiss her. It freaks her out and he apologizes profusely, he's just lonely, for some reason his baseball career, which is going swimmingly, isn't making him happy at all. Helen forgives him but gives him a sad message for Cleve, which is that she needs much, much more time before she can see him. She just doesn't understand his drive to live like he does. She hadn't realized it outweighed even love. It wasn't even much of a contest. Trent tries to defend Cleve, he says what Cleve is doing is what every man deep down inside craves to achieve. It's a demonstrated dominance over the physical world and the ability to live entirely in the moment they're given, trapped by neither the past nor the future.

      When Trent goes back to New York and gives Cleve the message from Helen, he can't accept it. He knows that this woman is the only thing keeping him somewhat grounded, and he goes to her, and tells her he wants to marry her, and that he'll try to change. It's almost comically hollow. He's had to hobble to her on crutches to say this. There's no way he can change. He was never able to before. She says goodbye. And Cleve is literally gone the next day, vanished. This time, Trent doesn't try to find him. He's got his own life to lead.

      The book follows their lives, the three of them, back and forth for a while, none of them seeing or contacting the others. Cleve abandons his crutches (before he's supposed to, of course) and volunteers through some program to work in Russia, where he finds himself in an orphanage day after day, confronted by absolute misery, trying to change himself through selflessness. At night he wanders the countryside and starts experimenting with extreme fatigue, going for days without sleep, seeing what that's like. After three months of this, he stows away on a freighter and leaves, headed for Niger, where he doesn't have much of an idea of what will become of him but which seems as far away a place as he can find.

      Helen, meanwhile, works day and night at Planned Parenthood and tries not to think about anything else, but she meets a man she likes, who happens to be involved in the latest war movement to hit America. This one revolves around the fact that the North Koreans, in finally crushing the opposition rebels that threatened their government, obviously committed hideous acts of genocide, which America just won't respond to. She becomes involved with this man who is one of the leaders of the movement to get America to act and hold the Koreans accountable. She's drawn to his strength and his dedication and little by little she finds herself getting heavily back into activism after the short stretch of a life when Cleve took up most of her attention and effort.  She's moving on, even though a large part of her absolutely can't let go of him.

      Trent gets caught on the saddest path of the three of them. It's kind of a surprise since he seemed so confident in part one. He starts his career with the Yankees in terrific fashion but he's drinking too much, still confused as to why he can't enjoy his life. He thinks he's wasting it. All the years of being so popular and athletic and having everything go his way feel like an accident he didn't deserve. Deep down he really wants to be Cleve, unbound, uncommitted, a conqueror of every possible moment, but he doesn't know how to make that work any more than Cleve does. He keeps womanizing, he gets into fights. At one point during the baseball season he has a DWI arrest and he's suspended from the team for his drinking.

      Thousands of miles away, you see Cleve next in one of the worst places on Earth, literally. He spends two months in a town called Dirkou, in Niger, on the northeastern edge of the Sahara Desert. The town is situated beside the Ténéré, or the "Void" as people call it, which is a one hundred and fifty thousand mile stretch of the Sahara where there's absolutely nothing, no life, no people, just flat desert in every direction and horrible heat and cold. Dirkou is nothing more than an awful way station with a whorehouse and a bar and some shacks, no plumbing or electricity even, and Cleve spends his days there making drinks, fixing trucks and jeeps that come in from the desert, and sometimes going into it on three week trips with salt gatherers. He feels nothing and is in some kind of perfect but awful sync with the Void. He's waiting for something to strike him, he knows there must be something left to do that's bigger than anything he's ever done, but his thoughts of Helen paralyze him. Then one night he's sleeping out in the open when some Nigerian freedom fighters come into Dirkou to rest. When he looks into their eyes, he begins to have a sense of what he's ultimately destined for, the biggest experience a man can have in this life. Instead of being elated, though, he's frightened. Just before he leaves Niger he's hiking in the desert, having gone two days with no sleep, when he enters a kind of fugue state brought on by the fatigue, and once again he finds his life passing before his eyes, but this time not because he's dying. He has the vision of shopping for a Christmas tree with Helen again, something they never actually got to do together, but it's just as powerful as the first time. He also has a scary vision of himself armed with a machine gun in a forest and doing battle with an enemy he can't see. The vision ends with Cleve being burned alive by napalm. He comes out of it determined to become a different person any way he can. He's finally mature enough to mean it this time. But just like when he was in the back seat of that police car at the beginning of the book, it just doesn't seem like he's going to be able to do it. He's fighting a disease  that's much stronger than he is.

      Back in America, a year has passed since Helen last spoke to him. She's deeply involved with that man whose activism goes beyond the level of commitment she used to have, and she can't seem to be apart from him despite the fact that he's often cold, calculating, and sometimes verbally abusive. His strength overwhelms her, like Cleve's did. She follows him to protests, organizes them for him, finally quits her job and begins working for him. She happens to see Trent at one of the protests. He's just standing there quietly, seeming like he's in a daze. He's quit baseball entirely, is fighting his drinking and is obviously looking to be part of something. He's even gotten married, to a French woman who's heavily involved in women's rights, but it feels like it's not going to work. They part with neither one of them mentioning Cleve.

      Cleve makes his way back to America and drifts across it for a few months, working his way to New York, where Helen is. Sometimes when he sleeps he has dreams of the Nigerian soldiers beckoning him to come fight with them. He tries to block it all out. When he eventually reaches the east coast, he gets a fairly normal job in a warehouse and for the first time he goes to counseling. He seems to be desperate to straighten himself out and avoid taking the final step toward what he knows would be the ultimate experience. What it is is never actually mentioned yet, but it's obvious.

      Something happens to Helen as Cleve gets ever closer to her. She's shocked to find herself being physically abused by her activist boyfriend. It goes on for a full month, and then when she looks in the mirror one morning she has a breakdown, totally ashamed at what has happened. She gets in her car and drives to Pittsburgh  to her parents' home. She knows once and for all that she is completely done with trying to change the world. She will never go near another cause again. All she wants is to sit in a room and write books for children and see no one, talk to no one. From the beginning of the story she's been slowly going in the opposite direction as Cleve, trying to reduce life to the simplest and most mundane things.

      Cleve finds out where she is. To do this he has to meet the man who abused Helen, and he's able to get out of him what happened. It's all Cleve can do not to destroy him. For three more months, he resists every urge to contact Helen. Instead he throws himself into fixing up a cabin in the woods which used to belong to his father. He spends his days at his warehouse job and his nights making the cabin into something not only livable but almost idyllic. He even decorates it with a few of the paintings he was able to rescue from the hospital. When he's finished his work, he goes to find Helen. When she sees how he looks, and hears about how he's done with his old life, is in counseling, is working, and has created a secluded spot for himself and her too if she wants to come back to him, she's overwhelmed. She's been completely weakened to a shell by her experiences and she falls back in love with Cleve within hours, and as he takes her to show her the little world he's built for them where they can hide from everything, they're both blissfully happy for a day, and temporarily afraid of nothing. And as you read the book you think, finally, finally, maybe they've made it.

 

 

Okay, part three.

      It starts with a helicopter buzzing the treetops in the South Korean mountains at sunrise. Cleve is in the helicopter, in military fatigues, looking down, holding an assault rifle. We don't know exactly what year it is, or how much time has passed. Another man in the chopper with Cleve is telling him not to look too close down there, because somewhere in the forest there are almost a quarter of a million North Korean soldiers hiding and waiting to fight. Cleve knows it. He's just emerged from the deadliest battle of America's major war against the North Koreans,  which was so many years in coming. The war began when North Korea suddenly invaded the south, and in the battle Cleve just spent two weeks fighting,  two thousand U.S. soldiers died. It was already a legend. When his fellow solider in the chopper hears where Cleve has just been, he insists on shaking his hand again and again, thanking him, praising him, blessing him. He can't believe he made it out alive.

      The helicopter lands on the edge of a small, deserted shantytown somewhere in the mountains, and Cleve gets off it all alone, and the helicopter takes off again, leaving him there. Waiting in the clearing for him is Trent. They're both soldiers now. Cleve was rewarded for his heroism in the biggest battle of the war with the option to go where he liked for a week to bide his time during a cease fire which was declared by the North and South as soon as the battle was over. Instead of going on R and R, Cleve went off to find Trent, who's been waiting for him for two days. He's stayed behind while the rest of his platoon moved on without him, and all he's doing is standing guard in this utterly deserted hill town. When the two of them are reunited, they hug and laugh at this minor miracle which has allowed them to spend some time together. To Cleve, Trent looks older than he really is, unshaven, too thin, and all his smiles are forced.

      They spend the first night walking around the bombed shacks and telling each other stories of where they've been in the past eight months. Cleve doesn't want to talk much about the great battle, which Trent understands.  Instead he tells Trent about the story he thinks he'll remember most if he ever gets home. He met a man in one of the first units he served in, a man named Deacon, who learned that his own brother, who was a communist, had been living in North Korea for eight years, a confirmed traitor. Deacon vowed to track his brother down and kill him. He was that deeply patriotic. He'd had no contact with his brother since they were fifteen. Everyone was amazed at the coincidence but they never thought Deacon would ever find his brother. But he spent most of what he made as a soldier trying to track him down, and he finally did. Deacon wrote to his parents one last time, telling them he was going to kill his older brother. They begged him not to, they told him that the brother was just confused, he'd been mentally ill all his life, and he should be forgiven. Deacon ignored them. He traveled on his own, going AWOL, toward the border of North and South Korea, and he found his brother there living and working as a prison guard, and without a word he shot him in the head. Then he made his way back to his unit. The army never found out about the murder. He served two months in the stockade for desertion and then they gave him a dishonorable discharge. It's just a story told by Cleve in the middle of the bigger story.

     He and Trent build a fire and hunker down for the night, figuring they'll join up with a passing unit in a couple of days, but there's almost no troop movement going on, since any major repositioning of troops might threaten the delicate cease fire. The war could end in two days or it could go on for two more years. It's all very shaky.

     The next morning Cleve wakes up to the sound of gunshots. He finds Trent very satisfied, since Trent thinks he's killed a sniper who was pestering his unit ever since they got to this non-town. Together they go off into the hills to search the sniper's body for information. They find something very interesting on the man's body. It's a crude map of the area. It suggests there's a town only a mile away, hidden in the hills, which contradicts Trent's own military map of the area. Cleve and Trent take a hike toward the place and they find it. It's nothing more than a big clearing and three makeshift buildings, but behind it is a wooded area where the ground has been disturbed, and they find that hundreds of South Korean civilians have been massacred and buried there. Where they came from, they have no idea. Going into one of the little buildings they find something even scarier, which is the bodies of three American soldiers, long range reconnaissance men, shot and hung from posts. Cleve contacts the closest unit and reports this, and as he and Trent slowly bury the bodies of the servicemen, a high-up military type radios Cleve back and tells him that they have some information suggesting there's a massive enemy buildup going on in the mountains around them. Their intelligence hasn't quite been good enough to establish this as a fact, but it seems like the North Koreans are violating the cease fire with the South very cleverly, moving thousands of soldiers on foot through the mountains. Only seismic sensors buried in the ground have picked up the movement. Of course, the Americans are doing the same thing too. The entire cease fire feels like a big charade. Cleve and Trent are told to withdraw to the town they came from and wait for further word. So they go back, and as they trudge along they take note of the geography of the land between their post and the place they just came from and figure out that the trail is a perfect place to run a huge amount of soldiers through on the way to a large Marine base ten miles to the west. If there's going to be an attack from the east, they figure, the way the North Koreans would go is directly through the town they're hanging out in. They spend a nervous night in the town, not retreating yet to join another unit because Cleve feels the need to serve as a scout. They go out on foot in the middle of the night, creeping around very carefully and looking for any sign of enemy movement, but they don't find any. They're sidetracked a bit by some irritating gunfire from the sniper that Trent thought he'd killed. He starts to believe that he didn't get the right guy that morning. But who the armed North Korean he did kill that morning really was, they just can't know. Why that one soldier was all alone, they just don't know. After a few random shots in their general direction, the real sniper gives up for the night. Trent takes it very seriously and is filled with anger that he hasn't been able to kill him. He absolutely seethes, and it becomes really clear that he's not even remotely the same man he was when the book began. The confidence is gone, even his good looks are supposedly gone. The drinking, the sense of failure, the bad choices, it's obvious that Trent was headed for some very dark times and maybe the war actually saved him from total madness by giving him a purpose.

      That afternoon, just before dusk, something big happens. Cleve doesn't want to go to sleep and so he's awake when he sees North Korean soldiers in the woods in the distance. He wakes up Trent and they hide. The soldiers come out of the woods, five of them, and they start to search the remains of the town. Cleve and Trent aren't able to get good shots at them, so over the course of a half an hour, they inch their way from spot to spot, desperately trying to keep out of sight until they can see each other and coordinate some kind of attack. The whole thing is described second by second, this weird, elaborate choreography, Cleve and Trent trying vainly to get into a position to start shooting, sneaking along the ground between rundown shacks, crawling through barns, trying to keep silent and out of sight while keeping track of where the five soldiers are, and two times the soldiers get agonizingly close to Cleve, so close he has to hold his breath, but they still don't see him and he holds his fire. He finally gets to signal to Trent and they're poised to start shooting when the five soldiers gather up again and head back into the woods. Cleve and Trent come out of their hiding places. You realize that during the entire hundred-odd pages since the war part of the story began, there hasn't been a single shot fired between two soldiers.

      Cleve calls in what just happened to his command, and the reply he gets is chilling. There's been definite intelligence  that thousands of North Korean ground troops have amassed in the forest right in front of them, nothing but foot soldiers, and an attack is certain. The cease fire is about to come crashing down, but American troops absolutely can't be seen to have broken it, so they're trying to hang on by shoring up the defenses of the Marine base to the west just in case the attack does come. Trent is told to retreat to an area two miles west of the little town to be picked up by a chopper and head to the base, but Cleve is given the option to stay where he is and continue scouting, running for it at the first sign of any major troop movement in the forest. He chooses to stay of course, and forces Trent to get going. It's almost sundown. Trent is actually shaking. He's obviously glad to go. He picks up his things and starts to head west, and ten seconds after he starts out, Cleve hears a distant shot, and then Trent screaming.

      He runs over to Trent, who's been shot in the head. The sniper he couldn't find and kill has gotten him. He's lying on the ground and screaming loud, and crying, he can sense what's happened to him, and Cleve is trying to stop him from kicking and thrashing around but Trent is obviously going to die, the blood is just pouring out of his head, it's horribly graphic, and all he's screaming again and again is, I shot that little girl, I shot that little girl, and we have no idea what he means, but he's obviously desperately sorry for something he did, and within a minute or so he goes still in Cleve's arms, with this horribly sad look on his face, like he realized how little his life amounted to in the end, how little he'd been able to do with it after he'd been in such an enviable position to do whatever he wanted to.

      You don't get Cleve's reaction to this, at all. He just sits there, holding Trent in his arms. He sits and sits, and the next thing you know, it's full night, and he's sitting somewhere else, against the side of a shack, staring out into space, completely empty of emotion. There's blood all over him.

      After a while, he hears something. It's movement in the forest, maybe a mile away, and obviously the time has come, there's enemy movement out there. The sounds increase little by little, but Cleve can't see anything. He hears the sound of an engine, and a tree falling somewhere. Then it goes silent for a little bit. Cleve stands up, but instead of running to the west, he turns and very slowly he walks out into the middle of the field closest to the woods. On the way there, he takes off his shirt despite the freezing cold. You can't tell what he's thinking. There's more sounds from the forest, from far away still, then they go quiet once again, for longer this time.

      Cleve walks to the middle of the field, facing the woods. He sets his gun down at his feet, and he looks up at the stars, and he breathes in and out, over and over again, and he closes his eyes, and all he hears is the wind, and at that moment, he finally has the one thing he's been searching for all his life, the one moment of perfect awareness of the present, and the biggest shock to his system of all time. His best friend is dead and he's standing in an open field, facing thousands of an enemy he can't see, his gun at his feet, alone in the world under the stars, and his emotions are going in a thousand different directions at once, all of them in some strange perfect balance, and it's such an enormous situation that he's become bigger than life, bigger than time. And only war could bring this to him. Nothing else. War, the most shattering, the most awe-inspiring experience a man can have. What it's like to be him just then is described over the course of a good five pages, and finally Helen's name is in there, and Cleve feels himself floating out of his body entirely and his spirit floating into the woods in front of him, and watching he and Helen there walking through the trees, just touching them in wonder. It's a good vision for a moment but then in the vision all the soldiers who died in the battle that made Cleve famous for his bravery are standing around them in a gigantic circle, watching the two of them sadly. Then the vision ends and Cleve is fully conscious again, and there's just silence from the forest. He gets down on his knees, and he just waits.

      The book cuts to the next morning. He's waking up in that field. He's still all alone. He gets to his feet, and he walks into the forest. Just a few hundred yards into it, he starts to find guns, hundreds of them, lying on the ground, and evidence that last night, hundreds and maybe thousands of the enemy were right here, but now they've disappeared entirely, leaving everything behind, a total mystery. What's happened is that the cease fire not only held, but the war came to a sudden end when America dropped a small nuclear bomb on a North Korean city, which happened almost at the exact moment that Trent died in Cleve's arms, hundreds of miles away. The North Koreans retreated everywhere, and they surrendered over the course of just a few hours. Cleve came within a few hundred yards and an hour or so of being overrun. The war is over. Cleve just stands in the woods for a long time. He's the only living thing left for miles.

      Finally, after two hundred pages of not knowing anything about Helen's fate, it's revealed that this has all taken place almost three years after she and Cleve saw each other last. There have been hints that it's been a long time, little hints once in a while that make it seem longer and longer since they've seen each other, but when you know it's been three years, it's kind of a jaw dropper. Their time in the cabin together didn't last. Cleve and Trent were drafted to fight in Korea, and when they both refused a real chance for a safer assignment and chose to join the infantry, Helen left Cleve.  The book ends with him writing a letter to her as he's flown back to the United States, a letter that's deeper than he's ever been able to be, because he's finally been broken of his illness. The war did it to him, it took a war. He writes to Helen that she was right in what she believed, that he could have been cured long ago if he'd just been able to give himself over to her, find some way to keep his eyes closed to what he thought were the biggest possibilities of life, when now he'd gladly take just being in love with her, marrying her, having children.  But his sickness was too great and he lost her forever. Choosing to go to war was the very, very last straw and she moved on. He thanks her though, and tells her that it was her who got him through the war, because for the past three  years he used her image, her ghost, basically, to cling to as things got more and more frightening, and she slowly became the most immense force in his existence. The images he had of her merely sitting under a window and reading or cooking a meal in their little kitchen became more powerful than any adventure he'd ever had. At first he hated himself for his weakness and hated it that he had to cling to a memory every day. It was the antithesis of everything he'd struggled for. Instead of living in the present no matter what, he essentially lived for three full years in the past, in order to survive. Even his moment in the field  facing the enemy ended with a vision of her. Now he's grateful to her for saving him every day all during that time. The very last scene is of Cleve walking through the airport in Pittsburgh in his military uniform—he chose to make it a career—and he's content, in his mid-thirties, older and wiser, a normal man at last, and he sees Helen there near one of the gates, preparing to leave on a flight somewhere. She has two small kids and she kisses her husband goodbye, and hugs her parents who are there too, and Cleve watches her disappear down a hallway and into a plane, and then he turns himself and moves on.

 

·

 

I have the first three volumes of Unfinished Cinema and I'm waiting for a fourth one to come out. Each volume has three movie scripts in it, but they're quite not formatted normally, they're more casual and less rigid than that, and they're scripts for movies that were never made and never will be made. You're supposed to kick back and read the scripts and direct them inside your head. You come up with the shots and the cast and the cuts and the music, all inside your own brain, and the movies belong to you forever. There's no chance anyone will ever make them. It's kind of a nice thought.

 

·

 

I got a very bad case of the creeps reading a really cheesy book I found at my sister's house in the country. I was staying there overnight, you know how it is out there, there's nothing to do, so I went to bed early and picked a book off the shelf, some silly horror thing, but it turned out to be the worst case scenario of what to read out in the country. Even though it was completely ridiculous, it gave me the heebie jeebies just because of where I was and how quiet it was in that damn house. It was about a woman living in the middle of freaking nowhere, and she freaks out one night because she thinks she sees something move out of the corner of her eye, a HUGE black spider that shoots under the door and out of the room, and she gets the shakes because it was so enormous and she can't get to sleep. Her neighbor from down the road knocks on the door, he just happened to show up to introduce herself, so she tells him the story and he says he'll look for the spider, and he starts to prowl around the house for it, and he doesn't find it, so he starts talking to her, and after about a half an hour she gets a feeling that the guy is very very strange, and not who he says he is, and all of a sudden he starts calling her Mildred when that's not her name, and what she realizes is that Mildred is a ghost he keeps seeing. The woman gets so freaked out that she excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and she climbs out the window and just starts to run, not knowing if the guy is a psycho but too afraid to find out. She runs to the first safe house she knows about, which is almost a half mile away. She runs up to the door and knocks on it and a guy lets her in. She feels ridiculous but she very carefully explains what happened and wants to know if she can call her sister in the city to come get her so she can spend the night at her house. The problem is, the guy has no phone and no car. He just farms all day and is totally cut off from the world. He knows of the man who came over to her house, though, and he tells her he should explain what the guy's deal is. So she agrees to sit down, he brings her tea, and he says that after he explains what the Mildred guy's problem is, he'll walk her back to the house. So he begins a long story about the guy and who Mildred was, except there's some inconsistencies in his story which he denies, and he slowly starts to accuse the woman of not being able to understand the way they live their lives out here because she's a city type, and then he starts in a very subtle way to accuse her of being Mildred's ghost! He's as crazy as the other guy! When the woman begins to understand this, she makes a break for the door, and the guy whips out a butcher knife and runs after her. She screams bloody murder and runs out into the night, and he chases after her, but eventually she gets away, and she tears through the woods and runs and runs, desperate to see any kind of house, but there's nothing, and finally she comes out on a road but she's too afraid to stop so she runs to a house on a hill beside it. She collapses in a heap on the lawn and a guy comes out and takes her inside, and he calls the police as she sobs and sobs, and he lets her lie on the sofa while he stands guard at the door with his shotgun. She passes out from fear, and when she wakes up the police still aren't there. She panics but the guy tells her she's only been out three minutes or so, and the police station is almost five miles away, and they should be there in a minute.  He picks up the phone after another three minutes and asks where the hell the police are, and they tell the guy that he gave them the wrong address, and now they'll have to backtrack, etcetera. When he hangs up, the woman gets really quiet, because now she's imagining that every human being on the earth is out to kill her, and she says absolutely nothing, she just listens for the sound of sirens. But they don't come. The guy says to her, Listen, here, take the gun, and what I'll do is sit outside in my car and I won't move, I'll just look out the window to make sure the crazy guy isn't coming, so you can trust me. And he sets the gun on the floor and backs away and opens the door and goes out to his car. She watches him through the window. And he just sits there in his car. She's borderline insane with fear now, so the silence starts working on her imagination. The house creaks and she hears a door open. She gets up and she walks real slow to the cellar door, which is open, and she looks down into it, and she hears a shuffling from down there, like someone's feet moving. Her heart is pumping and she doesn't know what to do. She creeps back to the front door with the gun in her hand and she peers out toward the guy's car....and he's not inside it anymore. At this point, I was ready to get up and go sit in the living room and turn the TV up full blast, because I was wigging out. As badly as this book was written, I was holding it with white knuckles. Anyway, to make a long story short, the front door is suddenly kicked in and the owner of the house is standing there with a dead woman in his arms. He looks at the woman holding the gun with a completely crazy look in his eyes and he says, "Well, Mildred, I did what you told me, now will you set me free?" And he starts to laugh like a psycho. The woman pulls the trigger of the gun and there's no bullets in it, and she turns and runs toward the back of the house, but the back door is locked, and the guy grabs her from behind and she flees down the cellar steps into the darkness, and at the top of the stairs the guy slams the door shut so she's left with no light whatsoever. After a couple of minutes, she hears the same kind of small skittering sound that the mysterious spider-thing made when she saw it back in her house at the beginning of the night,  and at that moment, as soon as she hears that, her mind snaps completely. She goes utterly insane, so insane she basically leaves her body. There's four full pages then of her imagining herself on a sunny beach in Key West, sitting there and ordering a Tom Collins and having it brought to her, and running her feet through the sand, and watching the waves and all the people on the beach, and thinking how great it is to have gotten away from her job and her irritating ex-husband. It goes on for so long it just becomes funny. You know she's gone mad and her body is back in that cellar and something unbelievably nasty is about to happen to her. It just never does. The book ends with her on the beach, and a guy coming along and telling her that if she wants to join the last parasailing group of the day, it'll cost her seventy dollars and she should go to the other side of the beach now. She sits there considering whether to do that or just keep sitting there and tanning and drinking and maybe taking a nap....and that's it. End of story. I don't know if that's the best ending for a horror story ever or the worst and most insulting. I'm still standing here telling you about it, so I guess that's something. I read the whole book lying there in the guest bed, starting at ten and ending at two. I guess that's something too.

 

·

 

I got very, very paranoid after reading a book about a group of terrorists planning for a major attack on America, but they keep running into logistical problems and the plans keep dissolving, until one of them comes up with a really simple plan to send out ten men into ten forests in California with ten gallons of gasoline and ten matches to start simultaneous forest fires. That's it, that's the entire plan. Perfect, devastating. The fires wipe out millions of acres, it devastates the economy of the state, it kills about four dozen people, it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to fight them. And all it took was ten men with cans of gasoline. Scary.

 

·

 

Nora down the street gave us a children's book as a housewarming gift. This was before I realized that Nora has a very strange sense of humor. We didn't even know her that well when she gave it to us. It sat around for a few months and then one night I had nothing to read to Daphne and I got the book down from the shelf and started reading it aloud to her. It was about a big tomato who stood on street corners and urged people who passed by to eat more tomatoes because they were healthy and delicious and so forth. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there was a big carrot who stood on street corners asking people to eat carrots because they were full of vitamins and good for your eyes and such. Then one day the carrot gets a little too close to where the tomato is standing and the tomato tells him to move on, and the carrot snaps back at him, and they get into a fight and both of them are arrested. From then on, whenever they encounter each other on the street, they exchange words and it always blows up into a major fistfight. There's headlines in the newspaper every week: TOMATO AND CARROT CHARGED WITH PUBLIC DISTURBANCE. Parents whose kids had begun to eat their vegetables because the tomato and the carrot were so nice and funny and silly now start to complain that the kids are actually a little scared of them now. On their own, they're good-natured veggies instructing people about nutrition with a little song and dance, but when they see each other, there's always a brawl. They're ordered by the court to stay away from each other but two days later they tear up a record store in a huge fight. The American Vegetable Concern sues them and in the end the court says that they have to submit to being eaten. That's the children's book Nora gave us. Things have changed since I was a kid. I thought it was pretty inappropriate. Daphne just loved it.

 

·

 

There's a book called Off Topic that's just great, it's interviews with celebrities, all the biggies are in it, but the concept of the book is that there's absolutely no discussion about their careers or their aspirations or their work or anything even remotely like that. No politics either. They're asked questions about their favorite cereals, their memories of riding the bus in junior high school, what they got their mothers for Christmas last year, which stupid games they have on their computers, what kind of junk mail they get....I mean, if you're not fascinated spending a half hour reading a discussion with Cate Blanchett about what kind of rules she adds when she plays Monopoly, or a debate with Clint Eastwood about how many sunny days in a row is too many, then I just don't understand you.

 

·

 

What happens is that a totally normal woman who doesn't get out much goes over to her cousin's house for a fourth of July barbecue. She's there for a while, she has a couple of beers, she eats, and everyone goes inside to be lazy and watch some TV, and it gets a little late and everyone starts to watch one of those shows where they do bad reenactments of crimes and tell people to be on the lookout for the people who committed them. The woman gets in her car at around ten and heads a few miles back home, and she pulls up at a stoplight, and instantly she gets a weird feeling about the car in front of her. She recognizes it from somewhere, and when the light goes green she realizes it's the car from one of the reenactments she saw about an hour before. She can't believe it at first and she tries to talk herself out of it, but she just saw the license plate number on the show, and this is obviously the car connected to a couple of brutal murders that happened just two months before in the adjacent state. The woman doesn't have any time to think and no cell phone so she follows the car for a bit, frantically trying to decide what to do, and then the car gets on a long country road and she has no choice but to keep going. She's keeping an eye out for a police car but there's none to be seen, so she has to keep tracking the car. It makes a lot of turns and she takes every one, getting a little bit better at keeping a safe distance as she goes along, and then suddenly the car gets on the highway and she's committed to it. She's hoping that the car will go through a toll or something so she can tell someone to call the police, but it just isn't happening. Miles and miles go by and she starts to panic and finally the car gets off the highway and starts cruising very slowly down a side road, and then it pulls over completely. The woman goes ahead of it and stops on the shoulder. She tries to keep an eye out behind her to see what the car's doing but the lights are turned off, so she gets out of her car and runs to the nearest house. There's nobody home. She jogs over to the next one, which actually has plenty of lights on, but no one answers there either. Then she sees someone walking up the shoulder towards her from that car. Just then, a police car cruises past, with perfect timing, and she hollers bloody murder and the cop actually hears her and stops....and it turns out that when the cop questions the man who got out of the car, it's not the right one. The woman got the license plate wrong. The driver has nothing to do with the crime she saw on TV.

      This happens about seventy-five pages in. What happens after that is that the woman feels like an idiot for a couple of days, but then she starts driving around at night, just following people in their cars. The whole experience after the barbecue was the most intense feeling of fear and excitement she'd ever had, and she finds herself driving around from midnight till dawn, following cars just to see where they're going, trying to have some kind of experience or insight or adventure, which she's had absolutely none of in her life. Nothing happens at first, but one night she follows someone driving a little strangely and witnesses a nasty roadside fight between a man and a woman, and soon there's a night after that when she follows a guy who realizes he's being followed and confronts her at a gas station. They talk and he slowly seduces her, and she follows him back to his house, and nearly has sex with him but in the end she climbs out the bathroom window and gets back in her car and drives away, not knowing what's becoming of her. She's dragging herself into work in the morning exhausted every day but she can't kick this habit she's found. She almost stops it all when she follows a very loud group of people in a car who run off the road and smash into a tree, killing everyone. She's there alone with the wreckage for a good two minutes before someone comes, and it makes her sick. She has a feeling that this is all leading somewhere, though, and she can't stop until she has some kind of closure. It's clear that absolutely nothing has ever happened to her in her life, so she needs something big to come along. On the last night of her jaunts, she drives around without finding any hint of anyone interesting to follow until almost three in the morning, and then she spots a bookish-looking girl coming out of a college parking lot and getting into a lousy little Jetta. So she follows her. The girl drives and drives and the woman follows her every move, and it slowly becomes obvious that she's picked this girl to follow because she reminds her of herself, bookish and probably shy and inexperienced about almost everything. Then, weirdly, the woman starts to tailgate this girl a little bit, just slightly, really following her close, and making every turn she makes in kind of an exaggerated way, not so much following her as stalking her. And it starts to become clear that the girl in the Jetta is driving faster and making more turns because she's afraid of this person behind her, thinks maybe she's being stalked by a crazy person, and the woman senses this and grabs onto it, this is what she wants. She wants to snap the girl ahead of her out of her little world and give her a shock to her system, just like she herself needed one except it came too late in life to do much with it. It becomes a cat and mouse thing, a little dangerous, with her trying to subconsciously "rescue" the girl in the Jetta with this chase, until the scared girl floors it on a country road and so does the woman, and suddenly the Jetta girl screeches to a halt when a police car comes over a hill, and the police car stops and the Jetta girl gets out pointing and crying, and the cop steps out into the middle of the road to flag the woman down. The woman slows down to a stop, then turns and peels out and starts driving across a field beside the road, just recklessly flooring it, and she approaches a line of trees and that's where I put the book down and my wife took it back to the library the next day. And I just never got a chance to go back and check it out again. Things just cropped up. Now I don't even know if I can remember the title or the cover.

 

·

 

I think I understood the book I just read, but I'm not sure. If I understood it, then it was really interesting. If I'm wrong about it, well, then it kind of sucked. It was extremely short, which is why I bought it. That and the cover—you put a beach on the cover of a book, and put snow on that beach, and have the book be about anything other than women finding themselves, and I can't resist for some reason. In the book there are two men on the beach. One of them is a writer and he's burned out and drinking too much and can't write anymore, and the other is a guy with no job who for some reason is hassling him terribly to keep writing. This goes back and forth for a hundred pages or so, with the writer obviously getting sicker and sicker and the other guy having no sympathy for him and needing him to write and somehow insisting that his own survival depends on it. My guess after reading this was that the writer was really a writer, but the other guy was actually supposed to be his creativity. He's trying to give the writer ideas and he's trying to find a way off the snowy beach onto a warmer one and sometimes he's really affectionate with the writer, but then sometimes he disappears entirely or fills the writer with confusing ideas or nonsensical rants. The writer eventually strangles the guy and goes to sleep on the beach and freezes to death. Now if I'm not interpreting the book correctly, all of this was utterly pointless. If I'm right, well, then, it's not bad, not bad.

 

·

 

Read it. All I can say is: a ninety page poem about the world of professional competitive eating. And it won some big poetry prize. Really, read it.

 

·

 

My favorite book from last year was Quincy Vorheusen's Movies in Review, which is supposedly 'reconstructed' from a big box of index cards found in the basement of a weird loner after his death. The guy allegedly wrote reviews on index cards of every movie he ever saw and the editor of the book claims to have compiled it using all the reviews. The joke is that Quincy Vorheusen, who nobody knows anything about except that he worked in a video store and irritated everybody, was secretly the worst film critic in the history of man. Every single one of the reviews in the book is totally absurd, wrong-headed, or just misses the point of the movie completely. So when he reviews The Godfather, for example, he calls Robert Duvall 'Robert Duvalier' and says the movie is stupid because never once does anyone in the movie think to go to the police with all the problems they're having. He has an unbelievable irrational hatred of Dustin Hoffman, he loves every movie Sarah Michelle Gellar was ever in because according to him she's "a work of art that Leonardo Da Vinci couldn't have created in his wildest dreams," he completely confuses Wait Until Dark with Seven, and he thinks The French Connection was a documentary. There are about seven hundred reviews in the book. The best one is his review of Fitzcarraldo, but I won't ruin it for you.

 

·

 

I have no idea what the cover photo of eight or nine bolts of lightning over a field somewhere has to do with the book I read, but it was a cool book. I really hated that cover. Bolts of lightning—ooh, it must be dramatic, right? Lightning means excitement and drama! What garbage. But it was a great suspense story. The FBI is called in to investigate an unbelievably strange scene. There's a rented bus stopped on the side of the road in the middle of the Arizona desert, and on the ground nearby are eleven people and the driver, all dead, all of them executed but none of them robbed. When the FBI starts piecing together the identities of these people, they find out that none of them knew each other, and they had all gotten aboard this bus after making elaborate arrangements to hide the journey from everyone they knew. They're people from all walks of life, normal human beings, and for whatever reason they lied to their spouses or bosses about where they were going on the morning that they were found dead. What's even more mystifying is that they absolutely cannot figure out where the bus came from or where it was going. The bus was a cheap thing rented from a tiny company run by the driver himself, all of the passengers having chipped in forty dollars each. They go exhaustively over every possible piece of forensic evidence, but none of it seems to make any sense. Nowhere in the history of these peoples' lives is there a clue as to where they were going, how they knew each other, why they hid the trip from everyone, and why the bus was hijacked and everyone murdered. The weirdest piece of evidence is a little clay sculpture found nearby, a little sculpture of a pair of hands clasped together. No fingerprints. That, and the fact that one of the people killed had been a domestic spy for the CIA for a few years a decade before. The CIA connection brings pressure on the FBI to put out a lot of misleading information about what they found so that the media won't start to investigate it too closely.

      The FBI's lead investigator on the case, whose name is Brand—no, Brandt, is of course totally fascinated by all of this, never having seen anything like it. He and his team pore over the evidence for months, amazed at how none of it seems to link to anything relevant. It's nothing but dead ends. Of course this is totally unacceptable to Brandt and the people above him in the FBI, and the CIA types who want to know why their old employee was on this bus and whether he was the real target of the murders, even though it just wouldn't make any sense to kill him since what he used to do for them wasn't really a matter of life and death. Six months later, there's dozens of leads going in every possible direction, a hundred different theories as to what the sculpture of the hands meant, and you see Brandt following every possible thread. Finally he catches onto one, there's a little-known commune all the way across the country that sells the hand sculptures to make money. It turns out they bought them from a crippled artist who died eight years before, he made hundreds of them. By investigating the commune, Brandt starts looking into the life of the man who set it up, who beat a  kidnapping charge a long time ago. By looking into that case, he finds a family connection to one of the people murdered on the bus. By probing that, he uncovers some kind of affair that person had with someone connected to a ex-CIA spy who vanished. It all just goes around and around and after a whole year, it winds up going nowhere but back to the beginning, and Brandt becomes seriously depressed at the thought this incredible case can't be solved.

      Ten whole years go by. Brandt is still with the FBI, not as young and energetic, but more intense and driven. No one's ever solved the case of the mysterious bus trip, but one day he gets a call from an ex-agent who's been retired for five years and says that he found something interesting at an estate  sale where he lives in New Hampshire, a crude diagram of what looks like the spot in the desert where the bus and the bodies were found. The owner of the house where the diagram was sold in a box with a bunch of junk is questioned and he reveals that it probably used to belong to a man who used to rent out his basement. They track this guy down and it turns out he's serving a life sentence for taking $5,000 from the Mafia to murder a professional soccer player over a drug debt. When he's grilled about he map, he tells Brandt that the map and some instructions were sent to him out of nowhere two weeks before the murders, along with a note saying that if he followed the instructions by hijacking the bus and killing everyone on it he would be given $400,000 and could collect it from a post office box in Provo, Utah. But he never went through with it, the situation was too strange for him. He threw the map in a box and forgot about it and threw out the note and the envelope it came in. While the FBI checks out his story they also go back through a mountain of records to find out who might have rented a post office box in Provo at that time and whether or not the request for the murders was connected to the Mafia. It takes two more months to find out that there's not enough information to act on, and in the meantime, the man in prison hangs himself, leaving a note that says he's sorry for all the bad things he did in his life and drawing a pair of clasped hands at the bottom of the note, mystifying Brandt even more. This all leads to a hundred little investigations into the prisoner's life, the forensics of the map, the organized crime connection, and more research into the meaning of the hands. And none of it adds up or leads anywhere workable. At some point Brandt and the people working with him realize there's nowhere to go with what they've got and Brandt sinks into a deep depression. He starts chasing leads that are incredibly thin and he finally has to force himself away from the case before it consumes him.

      The last part of the book takes place fifteen years after that, with Brandt retired and living in the Maryland suburbs. He's slowly dying of Parkinson's disease. One day he's on a train going to see his son when he picks up an issue of Harper's that someone left behind and starts leafing through it. There's an article in there about a reclusive novelist living in Russia who writes eerie crime stories. One of his novels was about seven people who had mysteriously been traveling together on a small bus that had been stopped in the countryside. The people were murdered by a weird secret society called the Prayer Council. Brandt goes on the Internet and finds out this novel was published two years before the incident in Arizona, and by tracking down a couple of reviews in Russian magazines, that many of the details in the book recall what happened here in America. He uses his son, who now works at a low level at the FBI, to contact the KGB and see if they've ever investigated the novelist. They have, concerning the disappearance of his wife a decade before, something which was briefly mentioned in the Harper's article. The KGB sends him some copies of the man's early novels....and the first one he ever wrote ended with him writing his name and adding a tiny sketch of a pair of clasped hands.

      Brandt's health is getting very bad and his son is trying to get him into the hospital but now he seizes on this information. Brandt collects a mountain of information about the novelist and slowly connects him to the very bizarre possibility that he had actually been on board that bus that had gone into the Arizona desert. The novelist had been traveling in Texas back then after applying for a teaching job and certain facts and flight records pinpoint him as being in Arizona briefly for no obvious reason. But now Brandt has begun to have hallucinations because of his Parkinson's. His brain is fading and he's unable to connect things the way he used to and sometimes he forgets what he knows and what he just imagines. He knows he's close to understanding the whole picture but he's racing against his own body. He can't walk more than ten steps without having to rest, he shakes, he can't swallow sometimes. One day he's at the hospital, sitting outside on a bench, waiting to go in and probably hear the doctors say he can't go on, when a young woman sits beside him and says, "We're ready to tell you everything." She hands him a card with a date and time on it and the address of a park, and then she runs to an idling car and is driven away. Brandt is confused because the date on the card has already passed. It's only hours later  that he realizes he's simply imagined it's passed. He can't trust any of what he sees or hears anymore. He has two days to go before the meeting. He doesn't tell anyone about it and he goes to the park at midnight two days later and waits. He passes out at one point because he's so sick. When he wakes up, he has a powerful physical feeling that he has only days to live. He just knows it. He feels like he's inhabiting a dead body. The end of his life is incredibly near. Out of the shadows comes a very tall man who's only in his twenties. He tells Brandt that they've chosen him to reveal the truth to because they know he's been following the case for years and years. Brandt only half-hears the man speaking, he's so weak. From moment to moment he's not even sure where he is. He sees two people sometimes speaking to him, sometimes just the man. The man is incredibly vague with facts and the upshot of what he says is that Brandt has just begun to go down a long path which will lead to complete knowledge of what happened to the people on the bus, and how it relates to the group of people who decided they had to die. The man in the park says it's just the tip of something much deeper. That's the last thing Brandt really hears, because he loses consciousness one more time.

      When he comes to, he's in the hospital, having caught pneumonia out in the park, and he can barely move or speak. He was found in his apartment, passed out on the kitchen floor. His son, who is his only living relative, comes to his side. As Brandt lies there, he tries to form complete thoughts about his life and the whole sweep of it, but all he can think of is the agony he feels that he can never know the truth of what happened, and can't even know for sure if there even really was a man in the park. The mystery of whether or not there's a God, or what the meaning of life is, or why he essentially is going to die alone after trying to be good all his life, all these things are only distantly sad to him compared to the lack of a solution to case of the murdered people in the desert.

      At the very end of the book, Brandt has died and his son is going over the notes his father wrote at the very end, things about the investigation, and he's thinking how tragic it was that his father lost so many years of his life to it. The last notes he took make no real sense and it's obvious that Brandt hallucinated some things that he thought he knew about the Russian  novelist, small things about his works and what he truly wrote about and if he was even still alive. And his description of the man in the park is bizarre and contradicts itself. Then the son finds one small object his father placed into his notebook which is definitely real and incontrovertible. It's something the mysterious man in the park apparently slipped into Brandt's hand before he passed out. It's a Polaroid, at least twenty years old, showing the artist who originally created the clasped hands sculptures sitting on a sofa in what looks like a small dark rec room. He has his eyes closed. Beside him on the couch, dressed only in jeans and a T-shirt and looking very reluctant to be photographed, is the man who was at the time the picture was taken president of the United States.

      The son takes the photograph out to the woods and burns it. He never mentions it to anyone, and promises himself he'll try not to lose one moment of his life in thinking about the case ever again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A long time ago I had an affair with a man a few years younger than me. It was selfish, stupid thing to do and it ended badly, but there were some nice times. Once in a while we would be in on a rainy or a snowy day, and he would read to me, just take a book down from the shelf and read to me for an hour, two hours. It was wonderful.

      Something strange happened once when he read to me. I remember the exact day. It was in early December and it was sleeting outside, and I had laid down on the sofa with some tea and he was sitting on the edge of the ottoman. He had taken a novel from the shelf, a love story, and he told me he would read until I dozed off, which was nice. He had a nice voice. About five pages into the book, though, there was a paragraph he read which seemed odd to me for some reason, and I couldn't quite figure out why for a few minutes. Then I really couldn't keep listening, though I didn't say anything. What happened was, the author accidentally shone  through his own words too plainly. It was something about his description of a woman, and it took me out of the story completely, because I realized they weren't the words of some anonymous professional storyteller but a real flesh and blood man who had just let too much of his own life onto the page. I could clearly see him somewhere in a small house, writing at a wooden desk with the sleet pouring outside, desperately trying to convince some reader somewhere of his honesty and his intelligence instead of his sad love for a woman he had fictionalized but who had obviously broken his heart. I could see him laboring all day and into the night, doing the only thing he really knew how to do, which must be one of the loneliest things in the world, and I didn't think he could be all that happy. He had let himself slip too much into his own book, just for a moment, but a moment was all it took to ruin it. So I let Ward read on, but I drifted off, and I felt a little sad for every writer who ever existed and stayed in their room and put everything they had into words when they had no idea if anyone anywhere would understand them. Most of them are normal enough I guess, judging from how their books are written, but some of them seem totally lost, wouldn't you say?

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Read me one more chapter, my patient love,

The universe is coming to an end:

The ocean must roil,

The hero must rise,

And then it's back to life again.

 

If I could stay inside this tale

To walk these vivid lands,

I'd choose a page,

Give a thief's goodbye,

And steal the dreaming from your hands.

 

 

 

—poem written in the private journal of Helen Colgate,

inspired by a reading of her favorite book, A Wizard of Earthsea, 

and dedicated to her lost love,

 the soldier and tortured dreamer Cleve Murrow,

 during his first month of fighting in North Korea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward the Close of November

 

 

After withstanding his seventh no-fault heartbreak in seven years, Frederick left his job and sat down to watch television for a few days. He slept a great deal, lying there on his sofa, and often couldn’t remember what he’d watched just hours before. He saw all the new fall sitcoms and dramas, plus a lot of things on public television, mostly the kids’ shows that came on during the afternoon. Late at night was when things got fuzziest. After a while, Frederick’s body became overly accustomed to the sofa and didn’t want to let him get up.

He tried to avoid watching the news, but on Thursday night something there caught his eye. A thirty-two year old woman—exactly Frederick’s age—had just lost her fiancée in a train wreck outside Leeds. It was the second fiancée she’d lost. Her first one had died of cancer five years earlier.

Her face never appeared on the television screen. A friend of hers was quoted as saying that all the woman wanted now in the world was to go back home to her mother’s house, and stay there.

Frederick watched two more days’ worth of television. The woman’s name stayed in his mind mostly because he made a conscious effort to keep it there. He went to the phone book on Saturday evening and found her address in Groville as well as her number, and he dialed it, and she answered on the third ring.

He explained to the woman that he did not know her, but that he had seen her story on TV, and he was concerned about her. She thanked him, and told him she was all right. They got to talking about what they did for a living. She worked in the Groville Mall, in one of the offices upstairs that coordinated the mall events they put on from time to time. He told her he was thinking of going back to his old job as a proofreader for the circuit court, and that he had just withstood his seventh no-fault heartbreak in seven years, and that he was afraid it would kill him if he didn’t get off his sofa soon.

They spoke for fifteen minutes or so, and then he asked about her plans to return to her mother’s house.

"Where does she live?" he asked.

"In Holcastle," she answered.

"That’s about fifteen miles away," he said.

"Yes," she replied, "fifteen or so." She began to cry, just a little. She might have already been crying; it was difficult to tell on the phone.

There was some silence then. He could hear her holding the phone away from her mouth.

"I’ll carry you there," he told her.

"No, that’s all right, I’ll be fine," she said.

He said again, "I want to carry you there."

Her name was Lenore. The next morning Frederick drove to her house and knocked on her door. It was answered by a pretty woman in an oversized Disney sweatshirt and new blue jeans. Lenore’s hair was long and dark.

"Are you ready?" he asked her.

She nodded, said, "Okay."

Lenore came out onto the porch and locked her door behind her. Frederick crouched a bit and secured his arms beneath her, lifting her with some effort. She was a little heavier than she looked. He hadn’t taken more than three steps with his burden when she closed her eyes and put her arms around his neck. The wind shifted her hair over her face, and she seemed not to mind this.

Frederick began to walk down Old Blanchard Road carrying Lenore as best he could. The first half-mile was not so bad, but he began to fatigue quite suddenly after that, and had to set her down for a minute. He told her he would probably have to do quite a bit of that, and she understood.

The occasional car passed them on Old Blanchard, cars heading toward the intersection of 3 and 319, and one out of every seven or eight cars would slow to a crawl beside Frederick as he walked, and a driver or passenger would ask if everything was all right. At first the concerned citizens were thanked with a quiet nod, but Frederick lost his thoughts at the one mile mark and before he knew what he was saying he had told a woman in a green Cadillac that they were mortally sick of all the heartache that had come for them, and they wanted to make it go away. The Cadillac woman drove on, and within the hour she had caused a reporter or two to head for the area.

Frederick and Lenore didn’t talk as they went. He occasionally asked her if she was comfortable, and she would mostly reply by asking if his arms and his back felt okay. He found that by setting her down once in a while he was fine, though tomorrow he would probably have to stay in bed and take some pain pills. The only problem with taking too many breaks as they went down Old Blanchard Road was that each one afforded the growing number of onlookers and reporters the opportunity to ask too many questions. Frederick and Lenore refused politely to answer any of them. He lifted her at the end of each break, and they continued their walk to her mother’s house in Holcastle.

The constant talking of the reporters got a little loud and obnoxious as Old Blanchard gave way to Valmouth Road, which was an unfortunately hilly thing but quite unavoidable. The people along the route who themselves had begun to sympathetically walk alongside Frederick (always at a respectful distance) were quieter. They did not ask constantly where this journey was headed or how his feet were holding up. By about the eight-mile mark, there were thirty or so of them.

By dusk, toward the end of the trek, there were probably more like a hundred. No one carried anybody else, but they were fascinated all the same and kept pace admirably. The reporters and camera people filled in the missing bits of the story themselves, having found out who Lenore was very quickly, and perhaps not quite so easily able to find much of tragic interest in Frederick’s story. Someone went to talk to the woman who had left him one week before, and though she was reportedly close-lipped about him, that pretty much made the picture complete.

Lenore twice whispered in Frederick’s ear that she could not let him go on, that he was obviously in a great deal of pain and she wanted to be let go, wanted to take a cab the rest of the way. He refused. To ease her mind that he was doing fine, he skipped a break or two and tried to walk faster. His right foot became a real problem due to substandard soles and he was not able to hide it. He was thankfully free of cramps, but increasingly the discomfort in his shoulders and his spine was working its way into his chest, and he felt his breaths becoming shorter between the breaks he did take.

It was chilly and quite autumnal but he was sweating a great deal. Lenore did not want to get back into his arms just one mile from her mother’s house. He said nothing, just held them out before him and nodded. The effort it took to raise them that much caused his entire body to shake. She climbed back up onto him, and saw that his eyes were wet with effort and strain.

Her sickly mother was deeply asleep inside the house and it seemed to be waiting for her empty. When Frederick took her up the porch steps and set her down, his mind in a fog of pain, a cheer erupted from the crowd and the reporters ventured closer than they ever had. Frederick turned away from them after Lenore released him from her long embrace, and he said he was sorry but he still didn’t feel much like talking, that maybe he would say something later. He got to the end of the driveway and collapsed.

The paramedics were called and everyone swarmed around. Lenore broke through them and held Frederick as tight as she could, speaking his name again and again. He was worked on as he lay there for ten minutes, but there didn’t seem to be anything they could do. Lenore cradled his head in her arms and buried her face in his chest. She had no actual tears, probably because they had all been used up long before.

It was strange how the people in the crowd came no closer, considering most of them had seen her on TV and knew she had experienced such loss. It was as if they were afraid to catch what she had. Or maybe it was the puzzled expression on Frederick’s face that kept them back. Death had left him with an open mouth and eyelids that were not quite shut. At any rate, no one came forward to comfort Lenore, and no one spoke a word. Something deep inside her told her to kiss him, once, before they made her come away from there, and this certainly seemed like the traditional poetic thing to do, so she did, once on the lips, as she had been too distraught to do for her first fiancée, and hadn’t been present to do for her second.

Frederick came briefly alive again then, his shattered heart waking him at the feel of his burden’s lips, and the crowd was stunned and touched at how fitting that ending should be, how dramatic. But the four words he whispered in Lenore’s ear before he passed away for good, radiant words which managed to wholly renew her life, were heard by no one but the two of them. She went the rest of her days without revealing to anyone what they were, despite the hundreds of calls from people desperate to know, and despite the gentle, unspoken pleadings of the writer who created her.

I sit with her some nights beside an imagined fire in a cabin that doesn’t exist, patiently coaxing her thoughts. If she would only confess those words, I could awaken someone of my own, or maybe even the entire world, a chorus of silhouettes I see outside in the freezing dark. I hold Lenore’s hand and I say Please, show me the place in my mind where I hold words like that, I’ve searched for so long, let me find them inside me, let it be my tired hand which writes them, but she is unwilling to forgive the deaths of her lovers to free a single snowbound broken heart.