(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)
Who (what) are we when light from
our never-sleeping star wakes us?
“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”
A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.
Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.
His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.
He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.
All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.
Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.
“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.
Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.
“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.
Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.
He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”
The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.
And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.
But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.
Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.
“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”
Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.
Are we expressions of dreams?
Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.
“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.
Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.
Are we flesh and bone bagpipes
to be filled with air and played?
There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.
As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.
Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.
“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”
“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”
“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”
Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.
“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”
Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.
“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.
“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”
“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”
“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.
“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”
“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”
Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”
“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”
“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”
“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”
“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”
“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”
Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.
“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”
“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”
“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”
“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”
Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.
He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.
Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.
Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.
“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”
“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”
“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”
“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”
“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”
He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.
Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.
Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.
Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.
Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”
There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.
Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.
Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”
“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”
“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”
“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.
“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.
Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.
“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”
He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.
Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.
After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.
Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.
On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”
“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”
“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”
Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.
Daniel goes inside and closes the door.
Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.
Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”
“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”
“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”
“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”
“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”
“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”
goldfinches diving out of the sky
Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.
Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.
His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.
angels descending with wings extended
Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.
Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.
The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.
Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.
and golden slippers touching down beside the river
Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.
He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.
And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.
Greetings from String Creek
I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.
From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.
we kneel to kiss the lucid flow
Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.
and imbibe the divine infusion
Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.
Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.
clarity after rain
Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.
Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered
Who (what) are we when light from
our never-sleeping star wakes us?
Are we expressions of dreams or
flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled
with air and played or hungry
animals or desperate criminals or
lost children or visionary geniuses
or earthworms or indigenous
hominids or goldfinches diving out
of the sky or angels descending with
wings extended and golden slippers
touching down beside the river
where we kneel to kiss the lucid
flow and imbibe the divine infusion
of clarity after rain?
(Photo by Marcia Sloane)