Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
print version

from Opening the World

All In
Late May, the early streams just low enough to fish. Len’s gotten dressed and into the truck without waking her. It’s still dark. He starts to back out of the drive, glances at the house, and she’s at the window wearing the long T-shirt she’d slept in. He’d lit the candle in the window before he left, one of the square yellow candles she burns sometimes for the scent, and put a note beside it. The candlewash is in Celina’s eyes and lips and in the purple lettering of the shirt.

He turns the dome light on and waves, and she waves back as he backs out of the drive. He’s through being afraid. He’s going to let it all be good, let it all speak for itself.

When he gets to the supermarket parking lot, Ross is already waiting for him as planned, leaning against his truck door, grinning. There’s a coffee in Ross’s hand that’s vastly larger than his notion of health allows for. Len parks beside him, and Ross sets the cup on top of the camper shell, loads his gear in the back, and climbs in the passenger side with his coffee.

“Hey my friend. We’re some miserable guys to have to go fishing like this.”

On the drive, they talk weather, politics, synchronicity, alternative healing, Ross’s acupuncture practice, Len’s divorce, his new romance with Celina.

Ross says, “When we’re having massive strain, we will usually be having two experiences. Psychological stress and spiritual energy. The fracturing lets it all through together.”

Len says, “I don’t know about massive strain. I’m mostly just stunned at how alive the world is.”

“Well, it’s beautiful to see you like this. But you, guy, are also under a lot of strain. Try to let the clear intention shine through all the time. You’re needing that.”

When they reach the forest service road, heading toward a fishing spot they call The Canyon, the long conversation moves from Thich Nhat Hanh to hatches, fly patterns, leader sizes, anything but last trips and Ross moving back to Germany.

They park where they always have, next to a corral used for pack trips. Ross says, “Let’s get down there,” and Len puts the parking brake on and says, “Let’s get it done.”

They hike for an hour along the canyon rim and scramble down into the deep canyon, sliding on scrim, grabbing onto piñons and scrub oak. At the bottom, they wade waist-deep into the cold river near a cave the current has worn into a rock wall and take turns casting low and hard to get the fly as far back into the darkness as possible, mending line to get a few seconds of drag-free drift.

Len stands in the water, his legs cool, his neck and shoulders in the sun, reaching down into the current to release a big rainbow, then stepping back a few steps. Ross casts expertly enough into the cave to touch the back wall with the fly, which drops softly to the dark water. The strike is immediate and Ross has a fish on, laughing, his rod bowed, Len laughing with him. When has he ever felt this good?

Later Ross is a quarter mile ahead, standing in the middle of the river up against a logjam, waist deep, his rod raised high to get the line over the branches and over to the far bank. He gets one brown in his net, loses another one in the branch tangle. Len fishes the riffles, pulling a big rainbow from behind a submerged rock. After he releases the fish, he stands still a minute. He’s alive in his legs down in the water, his arms in the sun, he’s all the way out in the bright willows bending and flinching in the slight breeze. If he closes his eyes, he sees the cupped hands that first appeared in his hypnotherapy sessions. When he opens them, willow, stream-glare, raven. He doesn’t strike himself as a man under strain.

All morning they catch browns, rainbows, a few cutthroats, most of them as big as a boot sole or bigger. They eat their lunches on top of a river boulder the size of a small house, fast current all around them. They take a short, shady nap under a pine in the heat of the early afternoon on soft needles, just enough breeze to keep the flies down, and when Len rests his eyes, there’s a red dark shading into pink.

As soon as the first afternoon shadows arrive, they’re back in the river. One married life for twenty years, and now this one. Cool water on his legs, sun on his face, the cupped hands if he rests his eyes, his rod held high, the day pouring magnanimously through the hole in his chest he seems to have had ever since he left Sandra.


When the canyon’s going dark, they start the climb out together. Ross is ahead on the slope, laughing, grabbing onto scrub oaks to keep from sliding. “Right at the end I had a brown break me off that had to be twenty-five inches. I swear to god.”

Len says, “I know. Your rod looked like a croquet wicket.”

They climb for most of an hour, and by the time they’re out of the canyon, seven hundred vertical feet, the river is dark below them. Up on top, it’s still light, just past sundown. They catch their breath there and start the five mile hike back to the truck along the rim.

Len walks behind Ross, putting Black-eyed Susans and larkspur and wild irises in his water bottle. He tries to be discrete, grabbing them without breaking stride, but Ross turns around, laughs, shakes his head. The sky is orange through the piñons to their right, a chalky, translucent half-moon up in the east sky off their left shoulders.

They weave through scrub oak and piñons for more than an hour, and by the time they reach the edge of the mile-long meadow, the stars are spectacularly thick in the black sky. The only sounds are their breathing and their boots swishing in the dark, the wordless exhaustion cleaning the arteries and veins, Len thinks, the best part of the trip.

Now when he blinks for very long, instead of the cupped hands—the clear intention, Ross would call it—there’s something else, something of a different order, a thin image as faint and hard to see as the moon had been when it had first risen in the afternoon. He notices he has a gun to his head in this image.

Their boots are swishing in the high grass, their breathing labored and even. He feels exalted, his life is beyond what he could have imagined, and he has this chalky apparition when he blinks. He decides to go into it, closes his eyes for a few steps.

He has a gun to his head, he can see he’s sobbing, though he doesn’t feel any sadness. He has the phone in one hand and he’s on the line to his father. The gun’s in the other hand, against his head. Pay attention. What is this? He feels so good, he’s going to crawl into bed with Celina in two hours and sleep through the night, and there’s this image he can just see, though he doesn’t feel it, and in a hundred steps it’s gone entirely. Nothing but stars and boot steps and breathing until they can see the truck a mile off in the dark, a small wavering blue smear getting larger. It takes another quarter hour until there’s a minimum of detail, windshield, wheels, yellow license plate.

They load their gear in the back and get in and drive, mostly without speaking, a custom they’ve developed over the years. The fabulous exhaustion, dark pines passing, Ross’s CD of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the silence after it finishes.


They pull into the supermarket parking lot where they’d left Ross’s truck and transfer his gear. They don’t say Celina, they don’t say Germany, they don’t say at least a hundred trips together, though they mean these things. They stand on the asphalt and say “Great day,” “excellent,” “OK,” and hug each other in the brusk manner they’ve established.

It’s midnight by the time Len’s driven across town and parked in the gravel drive. He gets out carrying just the wildflowers, putting off the unloading until morning. The porch light and the living room light are on. He can see her in her blue nightgown through the picture window. He knocks and she looks up and hurries to the door.

He hands her the flowers and receives her long hug, the lemon smell of her dark hair at his face. How did he become, all at once, the rarest, most valuable thing in the world? He heads back to shower, picturing Ross laughing, stars over the meadow, Celina trimming the flowers at the sink.

When he walks into the bedroom in his towel, she’s under the sheet with the lamp on, the vase of wildflowers on the night stand. He slides under the sheet, and she’s not wearing anything.      

“Oh man,” he says.

“Exactly,” she says, and pulls him over.

Sex has been on his mind off and on all day, but now he’s uneasy as it’s happening. She’s said there’s a safe window, but what if there’s not? He puts his face against hers to avoid her eyes.

Then what if there’s not is all that’s in his mind, and he withdraws, rolls over.

“Scared” he says. “I just want to be careful.”

“It has to be more than that,” she says, raising up on her elbows, looking wounded.

“I know you’re right about the window, but what if you’re not? Just what if? That’s all I’m saying.”

“You haven’t ever been like this,” she says. “You were made of trust. I don’t know what this means.”

He says, “Just what if, that’s all it means.”

She shakes her head no. “It has to be more than that.” She turns away on her side.

He tries to think it through. Flicker of red darkness if he blinks, wafer thin moon, gun. No. She knows he couldn’t take parenthood, especially not now. She loves him. How much more do you need?


They check into their cabin at Coffee Creek Ranch, unload the rental car, and join everybody at the long picnic table. Her sisters, Jane and Sydney, stand up, hugging Celina, shaking Len’s hand. They smile without restraint like she does. Jane’s six and eight year old boys and Sydney’s five year old girl are sitting together at the far end of the table. They say, “Hi,” in jagged unison, go back to Paper, Scissors, Rock. The husbands seem to have stayed home, for reasons no one has mentioned.

Celina’s father says, “Welcome to the fun farm, Len,” and shakes his hand across the table without getting up.

“Jordan for god’s sake,” Mary says. She stands, reaching across the chips and drinks to take Len’s hand. “It’s a pleasure, Len. We’ve heard a lot of good things.”

Celina’s parents could pass as siblings—matching flannel shirts, curly gray hair cut short, their faces confident and lined. She hugs them and sits at the table beside Len. They talk about the flight, the drive in the rental car Len calls “the gratuitous upgrade” because it has a sunroof.

After five or ten minutes Jordan looks at Mary and says, “Well, are you about ready?”

She shrugs, nods.

He looks down the length of the table and says in his public voice, “Let’s hit it, compadres,” and Coffee Creek begins in earnest.

There’s a barn with rabbits, calves, lambs, and pigs, a pond full of stocked fish, a corral for pony rides. There’s an arts and crafts center, a ping-pong table, a snack bar in a log hut, a pool. All afternoon the adults stand together and supervise the animal petting, lean against the corral and applaud the pony rides, walk back together to the picnic table, admire drawings of lakes and trees and horses, help tape together hats made out of construction paper. Len has scissors in his hands, a carrot, a race car, a bag of duck food. He thinks of the books in the luggage back in the cabin, the manuscript pages he’s brought.

They walk with the kids to the big pond, bait hooks and untangle fishing lines. There are a half-dozen other kids fishing, at least a dozen other parents and grandparents supervising. When Weldon, the oldest boy, reels in a trout, Sydney’s taking it off the line, Jordan’s moving in from one direction with a still camera, and Jane from the other with video. Filming, in fact, all up and down the pond’s edge.

Len and Celina are standing near the big green trash can, pretending not to see where Donna, who’s five and too young to fish, is hiding. They try to act surprised, over and over, when Donna steps out into view. She laughs, throwing her head back, and hides again. Celina’s beaming. Len’s hanging on for dinner.

Dinner, as it turns out, is about group questions for the kids. Did they think they’d ever catch such a big fish? How do they like the hot dogs? What did they think about the deer that came down to the water? Len’s all but left his body, but as long as he smiles or “ahs” with the table, everything rolls along. How did they convince themselves they wanted a life like this, these parents?

After dinner, Sydney and Jane disappear to get the kids down. Jordan opens a bottle of wine, empties it into four coffee mugs. Len says “Thanks,” taking two of them by the handles. He gives one to Celina, who looks at him as if she’d been waiting for him to notice her again. He puts his arm around her. It’s quiet, dark. Everything’s sane. There’s a crackling spray of sparks when somebody pokes at the fire, and then only the vast, faint rush of a breeze, miles high.

“This place has a nice spirit about it,” Celina says to her father.

“Yes, I guess it does.” He picks up his mug. “If by ‘spirit’ you mean it’s grand and peaceful for all of us to be out here together like this. Fabulous daughter.”

Jordan in his assured tone, smiling, the way he must have sounded when he explained that religion makes people prone to superstition and black lists and book burnings, that reason keeps people civil and sane.

Celina looks over at Len. See what I mean? She gets up and pokes at the fire.

Len says to Jordan, “I’ve been wondering how you got into lawyering for Legal Aid.”

Jordan laughs, runs a hand through his hair. Mary pours the last few drops from the wine bottle into Len’s cup, puts it and the empty mineral water bottles in a grocery sack.

“Well, at first, after law school, I just wanted to help people who hadn’t had a fair shake.”

Mary goes around to get the empty soda bottles from the kids’ end of the table. Jordan’s laughing silently, looking at Len. “But eventually I learned to love getting it in the neck from high and low.”

For awhile, Jordan’s on the impossibility of supervisory boards and uneducated clients. Mary gets the table cleared and sits back down, looking into her wine mug.

“You wouldn’t believe the shit they hand you,” he says, shaking his head.

Mary cuts a glance over at Celina, looks back at Jordon, blows out an exhale. She reaches down and gets the playing cards out of the big cardboard box beside her at the end of the table.

“It’s time to play hearts, Jordan. We’re on vacation.” There’s a sing-song quality to her voice.

He shrugs. “But don’t you think Len needs to be educated about my work history?”

She takes the cards out of the pack.

He holds his hands up. “OK, I give. Let’s play.”

And they do, many games of hearts, laughing and opening another bottle of wine. It’s midnight by the time they say goodnight and head back to their cabins.


Loud breakfasts at the long table, loud mornings, and then the whole of the days. Len’s standing watch with the others in the shade of the swimming pool’s dressing room, he’s at the edge of the pond tying a small shoe or reeling in a rod or strapping a life jacket back in place, and then he’s at his limit. By the third day, he’s bringing a book with him to everything but the arts and crafts time.

When the final lunch is over, he’s slipped back to the cabin to read. There’s still an afternoon left, the finale, the children’s nature hike. He can hear the parents and grandparents out by the big table with the kids, waiting for him and Celina.

She’s got her A’s cap on and her water bottle filled and is heading out the door. He’s still sitting at the table with his shoes off. The screen door clicks shut behind her and she looks back through.

He says, “I think I’ll stay here and write.”

She says, “OK, but everyone will miss you. Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Sorry. I’m maxed.”

She says “OK,” the sad smile on her face, the one that accepts what ought to be otherwise, and walks away toward the big table.

He can hear them all head off together, a chaos of children’s and women’s voices and Jordan’s low, breathy laugh, and in less than five minutes there’s nothing.

He sits at the Formica table with some draft pages in front of him. He puts his head on the table and tries not to think. He’d hoped the silence would help.

Celina’s period was due yesterday.

In a few minutes he gets up and goes over to the bed and lies down. She’d said when they’d gotten up not to worry, that she could feel it coming.

He can’t stand being in bed, even with the drapes pulled open. He gets back up, puts his shoes on, walks out of the cabin in the direction of the pool.

Magpies and wind troubling the trees and kid chatter, a hundred yards of it. His ribs full of bees, some kind of implosion inside his head.

He stands at the pool’s chain link-fence. Hard glint from the chromes of parked cars beside him, from the pool’s railings dead ahead, the relentless high voices and cannonball splashes, the occasional cry.

Why has he come to the pool?

He walks back the way he came, his hands in his pockets, his hands at his sides, his arms crossed in front of him, his hands around in his back pockets. High yells and magpies. He’d put his hands over his ears, but he doesn’t want to draw attention.

When he’s back in the cabin, it seems dank now. He stands for awhile with his eyes closed, understanding what it would be like to put a gun to his head. He can see the barrel. He knows that if she’s pregnant, he will need to kill himself.

He sits down at the table and does nothing but let the sun sink behind the tops of the pines, the shade thickening in the cabin.


Celina walks in the screen door from the hike, smiling, then alarmed. “Len, what’s the matter?”

He needs to stall this for a day or two, see if it works out after all. He’d thought he’d kept his face neutral. He’d made himself sit up straight at the table and look at her, but he’s not going to be able to stall.

“Celina, I’m barely making it.”

She’s got the sad smile again.

“I can’t survive if you’re pregnant.” He stands up.

She’s turned away, facing the screen door, her arms crossed. “My period’s coming. I’m sure of it.” Angry, but she sounds if she’s pleading.

He can’t take even the smallest dose of the anger, goes back to the bed and lies down on his back, closes his eyes. The blackness pours all through him, a weight like thick, dark water.

She comes over, leaning down and putting her hand on his shoulder. Is he her patient now?

He says, “I can’t make it if it’s true. I’ll have to kill myself.”

“My period’s coming, sweetheart.” She sounds bright and capable. “Charting my cycles has worked for me for fifteen years.”

She rubs his shoulders until he turns onto his side so she can’t see his face. He tries to make his chest expand so he can breathe.

She says, “OK, I’m going to give you some time.” She stands there for a second, her hand on his shoulder. “Come join us when you can.”

When she’s out the door, he can hear Jordan in the distance saying, “How’s that daughter of mine?”


In an hour he makes himself get up and walk to the picnic table for dinner. It’s easy enough to let the others ask the kids questions, to just nod when the group does and look back to his plate.

At the last campfire, after the kids are down, he manages a joke about a lawyer with a lisp and an IQ of 180 that gets some laughs. Then he excuses himself, worn out, he says, waving to them all once more on the walk back without turning around.

He leaves the cabin black, gets in bed without undressing. That’s all he wants, blackness in his head, blackness all through him, wiping everything out. He can’t sleep, but he can let the dark weight have him.

When Celina climbs into bed hours later, he stays still for a long time, careful not to move until her breathing levels out.


Bright goodbyes and hugs from the children in the morning light, long, earnest hugs from the adults, and they’re in the rental car, waving, driving onto the winding highway toward their flight.

The heart-to-heart is unavoidable. She says he’s afraid of something that’s not happening, and he thinks it’s impossible to know for certain whether something is or isn’t happening. He knows how he must sound. She’s calm and earnest.

And she gets more upbeat, more assured, when she realizes something. “You’re afraid of life.” She’s smiling. She sees how he’d flourish if he could get this.

“It wouldn’t be a life to me,” he says. He’s imploding, his head sucking the light out of the car. His words rise just above the road hum. “I’d need to kill myself.”

She looks out her window and speaks toward the glass. “Len, my period’s coming.” Her voice is clean and controlled, as if they’ve already changed the subject.

Eventually, after bridges, cloud shadows and pine shade, and then guard rails and horse meadows and clustered houses, they have.


Their plane has leveled off at altitude, and Celina’s through leafing through the airline magazine. She’s been talking about her mother’s irony, the way of handling Jordan she’s always had. “She’s so good at getting him in line without making a battle out of it,” she says, shrugging.

He nods. It’s taken him all his life to find what he’s found. The gun’s at his head. It’s probably true that you’d be dead before you could feel anything. “Look, I’m in pretty bad shape,” he says.

She says, “OK, Sorry.”

In a while, she leans over to him, “Bathroom,” she says, and gets up.

He closes his eyes, stretches his legs out, letting the black have him. Black pouring through him to replace him and suffer nothing, a weight that wants to fill him. I will give myself to you.

The engine drone and the black. A few muffled voices scattered throughout the plane, the vibration, until she’s back, her hand on his shoulder, gentle and assured, like a nurse’s touch.

When she’s in her seat, she leans to his ear. “I thought you’d want to know I’ve started my period.”

The black weight rises out of him, lifts and lifts. A few seconds and it’s gone. He’s light as paper among the bright windows. Everything relaxes. The air over all the heads is light, as if after a lot of laughing.

He leans over and kisses her full out on the lips. Her hands go up for a second.

Across the aisle, a balding young man in a hockey jersey opens his eyes, adjusts his headphones, stares. Let the guy with the headphones look. Len wants to buy a round of drinks for the plane. His fears are old, repressed, and his life is new. They’re rich again. They own the place.


He’s going through what’s in his post office box, throwing most of it away, junk mail from a car dealership, credit card offers, mailings from environmental groups. He hands Celina a fundraising brochure from the Baptist college he graduated from.

“Check this out,” he says, and she’s reading with her eyebrows raised.

At the bottom of the stack, there’s a letter from the attorney. He opens it and reads. He has no idea what his face looks like, no idea what he feels.

She says, “What is it?”

He just wants to shut everything out for a minute. “My divorce is final.”

She puts the fundraising brochure in the trash and lays a hand on his back.

“I think we should take a breather,” he says.

They walk the few blocks to the closest grocery store and she goes in. “I’ll bring us something,” she says. He stands holding the mail in the building’s shade, down the breezeway from a young man tuning a guitar in front of an open case with a dollar in it. She comes out with two ice cream bars, hands one to Len, and they unwrap them without saying anything.

They sit on a planter box, eating their ice cream, listening to the musician, who’s strumming angrily and singing originals, protest songs, traveling songs.

When they’re finished eating, Len puts a dollar in the open guitar case, and they walk the rest of the way to his apartment.

“Let it be easier now,” he says.

She says, “I second that.”

At his place, they lay the mass of mail on the table and play the one phone message. It’s Len’s father. “Hi son. Keep hanging in there and don’t be a stranger. No news, just wanted to call.”


By dinner time, they’ve decided “easier” means having Chinese food delivered. Len raises his water glass over the table of white cartons and plastic sauce cups. “I don’t know when the Chinese New Year is in China, but in Albuquerque, it’s now.”

Celina says, “Hear, hear.”

When they’ve eaten and put the half-full cartons in the refrigerator, the water glasses in the sink, Len says, raising his eyebrows, “What do you do on Chinese New Year in Albuquerque?”

She says, “I have a pretty good idea.”

He’s single, first time in twenty years, fourth of July. Shouldn’t this be a celebration, a life opening in front of them? They stroll to his bedroom, get their clothes off, slide into bed. There’s a wafer moon in the window, they have a window, there’s gunfire. There’s a gun to his head, chalky. He doesn’t know what to feel. No, not gunfire but fireworks. I will give myself to you. Shouldn’t the day be festive, a holiday? He’s divorced, she’s sliding on top of him. She loves him, what can you trust if not that? It’s the fourth of July, he’s single, isn’t he all in? How should he feel? It should be freeing, he should just let it be good, her soft weight on him now as she dips and rises and breathes. A celebration, lit fuses smoldering in the dark all over town, a spray of sparks. The upward rush of ignited contrails. Fireworks splashing the night sky.

Days and days, the burn of them until the dark, where he can sometimes rest. He just has to hang on until the property he owns with Sandra sells, and then he can do it. He can’t stand the light from under the door. Celina’s reading in the living room. She’ll be in checking on him soon.

He gets up and concentrates on making his face neutral, walks out into the living room, “I’m going to the store to get paper towels,” he says, “we’re out.”

She looks up, almost speaks, watches him walk out the door.

On into the relief of the dark truck. He’s backing out the driveway, then driving the street, making the slow right turn onto the main artery. Now he can stand on the accelerator if he wants to.

“Even if you have to disappear,” his brother had said.

He’s crying. He stands on it. He has the window open, the median with the steel lightpoles whipping by at fifty. He can hear the rush of each pole individually. He could reach out and touch them.

He sees that his left hand has unbuckled the seatbelt. The seconds are expanding. His arm is steering the truck toward the poles, the wheels grinding against the curb, sparks, the burned rubber smell, light poles at his shoulder, he’s jumping the curb with two wheels. He’s wrenching it back, skidding and jolting back onto the road at an angle. His side of the truck digs in, the passenger side going weightless. The seat tilts up sharply toward him, envelopes, loose change, a CD case sliding onto him. He’s still on the brakes, and the weight bounces back down onto the passenger side of the truck all at once.

He gets it straightened and slowed, pulls all the way across to the right lane, no traffic at this hour.

He turns onto a side street, parks at the curb. How to do it right. What if I’d survived, paralyzed? He tries hard to think it through, but it’s trying to happen on its own.

The dark is its own way.


He says to Kathryn, “If there were some way to give it to someone who wants it, some way to do something honorable with it.” He isn’t ashamed of crying here. “I would give it to you. You’d know what to do with it.”

Kathryn leans toward him. Her skin’s blued and silvered as with electricity. “Len, I’ve thought about this every day since you told me.”

He says, “If there were a way to donate a life honorably, the way you can donate your eyes or lungs.”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Now it’s Kathryn spending a long time in the silence. She opens her eyes, saying nothing. She looks very silver. He doesn’t care about that anymore.

“Maybe it goes deeper than reason can go,” she finally says. “Have you asked for help?”

The powers in the ease of the dark. They were it, they would allow it, he would be it. He says, “I already have. I asked if I could die. I can. It’s OK”

In the long pause, Kathryn seems to be working toward some kind of decision. What power does she have over him now? He says, “I need to be able to talk to you without lying.”

She has her own face, but her skin is still lit. She focuses intently on a spot behind his head without blinking.

He says, “Can I trust you not to commit me?”

Her face, soft and weary. “I will go a long way with you on this, but you know I have ethical obligations. I can’t make an unconditional promise.”

Her face’s light is burning in his chest, silver. Why should he trust it? He says, “I have a right to live or die. You shouldn’t be able to take that. Can you have me put away somewhere against my will?”

She lays her pen on the clipboard. “If I believed you were in imminent danger of harming yourself or others, I could have you committed for a time, just for your protection. Len, I would be very, very slow to do that. Can you assure me that before you would ever take any action to harm yourself, you would call me?”

She would go a long way, but he can’t trust her anymore. She’s his trustee.

“I would call,” he says.

She’s studying him. He will need to be two from now on, even here. He says, “Listen, for the record, this has just been catharsis. Write catharsis in your notes, please.”

She doesn’t move the pen, doesn’t look at the clipboard, her eyes on him.

“I’m telling you for the record. Please acknowledge this, Kathryn. It’s just been talk.”

X. End of that story as well.


Long drive alone to the river, long hike, and he’s at the base of the waterfalls, standing in the water behind a boulder. He has a fish on. It’s diving and jumping, usually a thrill, that flash of color breaking the surface, a rainbow, digging in to dive again. He waits for the next jump, throws slack in the line and that does it. It’s off.

The property’s about to sell and then he can. Today he decides how. He pulls the fly all the way in and starts climbing. He’s tired of stalling. Time to decide which. Waterfall. Valium. Car exhaust. Pistol.

He climbs for a half hour, up over boulders, on the steep path, up an avalanche chute of crumbled granite where earth has filled in enough to grow thick grass. At the highest point, he looks down over the sheer canyon edge to the white water and boulders. He could throw the rod and jump. It would spare the family, give them the chance to believe it was an accident, keep the insurance policies intact.

But so brutal. Even if he’s dead, still, the crushed skull, the bleed, the mangled ribs and limbs. He doesn’t want to make himself do it this way.

On the climb back down, the crying starts. No one within miles. He cries down the granite, the grass slopes, the boulders.

He hikes the riverside to the pool, the little meadow along it. Fifty yards to the west, the mossed firs shift in light wind. The crows and magpies in the tall conifers, the thin grass and the river he’s loved for fifteen years.

Forgive me, in the snowmelt, singing, forgive me—

This is where he’s had his lunch, slept through the noon heat a dozen times a summer since he was in his twenties. A holy spot, if ever there were such a thing.

firs in wavering layers, moss
in the tea-green heights of these steeps,
forgive me, gold smeared in the stream flow
full of ease, incapable of failure,
releasing down riffles and backswells—

The insurance, everyone’s suffering. Fifty Valium, that clean look of things, so bright, and then gone. It would mean a lot to him, for it to be easy.

it isn’t for lack of gratitude if I lie back
finally, so the grass stems at my face
go free of my seeing, the blond pods and the clouds go blind—

Is it possible to stand in the sun, the water he loves running by, wanting to give his whole body to the grass and the thick tree roots, and decide how? Falling, overdose, exhaust, a pistol at his head.

It isn’t that I hadn’t been graced, I was lucky, I was loved, there was money,
but if to move is to be dismembered, if to stay still
is to be killed where you breathe—

Falling, overdose, exhaust, a pistol at his head. At dusk he turns back, makes it to the truck at dark.

He puts the gear in the back, gets in, and turns the headlights on. He doesn’t know.

He drives the canyon’s dark switchbacks, the singing turned up loud enough to vanish into, his lights sweeping over the bank down to the Rio Grande at his right. Something has been unleashed on its own. Something major in the dark cab, the sweep of light over the canyon. The night and the music pouring freely through, torn loose from whatever usually holds them back.

His hand has gotten the seat belt unbuckled and off of him on its own. Massive volume. I don’t make promises I can’t break. The flash of the yellow Sharp Curve sign going by. His arm isn’t turning the wheel.

Gravel under the passenger side tires, the ride going soft, boatlike. Roar and popping. He’s all the way on the gravel now, the tires tearing up the shoulder, through the shoulder now and on the dirt, the river canyon out the passenger window. He’s on the brakes.

Roaring and turning and sliding sidelong a long time.

He’s stopped, the tailgate right at the dropoff, the windshield toward the highway.

Watching the momentum carry the white dust out in front of him in the quiet headlights.

The indifference of the clear black space filling back in where the dust had been, of the life he still has and can’t imagine wanting. Who had been a wholehearted drifter in the big wind.

A woman’s singing. A tone falling off. Do it right or don’t do it.


The dark is its own way. Meet with the midwives, turning the poisoned gray of your face toward them. Sit on your couch with papers in your lap, the mail all over the dining room table, the bedroom with something else alien in it daily: stuffed animal, baby bed, changing table, pastel blankets, bowls with suction bottoms.

“Over time I promise,” your father said.

By default, the new plan: maybe you could nibble at it each day and survive. Little stack of folded clothes, washcloths, bibs. Maybe killing off the parts of yourself that objected, but slowly, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible.

Large check to the midwives, check for family health insurance you force yourself to hand to fascinated Lynnette at Personnel, who only a few months ago removed Sandra from your policy. Larger check for the rent, checks lined up as far into the future as your future goes. The provider, the full-time teacher, the writer-when-you-can, the occasional musician.

Robin if female, Blake if male.

Celina’s body growing and growing, alien, that had been narrow at the waist, the outswerve of her hips. Now thick and slowing in huge, loose cotton shifts and belled-out blouses, heavy waisted, breasts enormous, this life you live that is not yours, with whoever is taking Celina’s place.

Walk across the new porch, down the steps, through the new barrio, head-high adobe fences, graffiti storied and slanted and curled there like Chinese, the arched bridge graffitied over the arroyo, the little market such a relief with its single bushels of vegetables, its home freezer in the corner. Then back through the relief of the graffiti with two bags of vegetables, ground turkey, chips, taking your time, and on into the alien home terrain.

One nibble at a time, until eventually, over a period of months or years instead of all at once.

Inside Out
You’ve started getting up with Blake in the night now, in the hope he might give up the night nursing and start sleeping at least until dawn. But the heater kicking on, a distant dog, the eaves creaking this frigid winter, anything seems to wake him, and now he has a cold. You are more exhausted than you knew was possible.

You’d had hopes for the cough medicine, but at three, he’s crying, and you’re up, lifting him out of the crib. You put his face at your ear, no fever to speak of. Sick in your skin, you make gentle sounds come out of you, all the way through “Jingle Bells,” then “Twinkle Twinkle,” all of the verses, and he’s still crying. If you could just lie down on the carpet. By the time you’re through with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” you can’t stand to sing anymore so you whistle your way back through all the songs in a loop.

Finally he goes slack. You walk over, lay him carefully in the crib, then creep toward the door. You’re almost into the hall, and your ankle cracks in the dry air like a gunshot. Immediately the cry.

You start over, pick him up, gently, making the sounds come out of your mouth, first the singing, and when you can no longer force yourself to sing, the whistling, counterfeiting the cheerfulness with the fewest possible muscles.

You get him down again. You’ve almost crept your way out the doorway, and the ankle shoots off again. He’s wailing. You do it all over.

You get him down, almost 4 a.m. now. You lock your ankles, walking as if in ski boots toward the door. Before you make it out, both knees crack, one after the other. The cry. Hilarious, you’re sure, so hysterical it would just kill you, you’re certain, if you were somebody else.

You do it all again, holding him and singing and then whistling, and get him back down in the crib. You take creeping, forward-leaning, mincing steps and make it to the bedroom, crawl into bed beside Celina, who lies awake beside you. “Goddamn it,” you say, both of you rigid on your backs.

The powders of the moonlight, the abrasions of the sheets on the nerve ends for how long?

And you’re not lying down but sitting in a chair, inside an upright glass tube. There’s a vent at your feet where the cyanide gas will come in. Celina smiles, handing the mask in to you through a glass door and steps away. The door closes. You’re terrified the mask will fail, or your clothes and skin, soaked with gas, will kill you later. You look into her confident smile on the other side. A fog wells up around your legs, your torso, and then it’s at your face.


The morning after trying Ambien, your head is full of a suicidal black gravity, and you throw the bottle away. The Zoloft numbs your brain. You have trouble finishing sentences. Poems are stray phrases, cool and toneless and centerless. What do your own words mean after you say them into the classroom air? A week or two, and that’s the end of the Zoloft.

You say good morning to Celina, though there hasn’t been a good morning in a very long time, say words about the day, reasonable words about writing, about the calendar, about what needs to be done, the ghost of the gun always at your right temple. You are the opposite of a person, a self-destroying contradiction, an X. But maybe the symptoms can be at least diminished.

The kava kava soothes you by day and lights you with an inner whiteness at night impossible to sleep through. The first two nights of Calms Forté, you sleep between Blake’s wakings, but on the third night, you can’t go back to sleep after the first cry, not that night nor any of the Calms Forte nights to come. Wouldn’t you give your hair or your fingernails to be able to sleep in a quiet, black room for an unbroken month?

But you get up with Blake, as agreed. Back in bed, you blink, and the assassin is calmly tracking you down to shoot you in a blind alley, an underground garage, a doorless warehouse.

And then inevitably, inescapably, it’s always morning.


A high, strained Ah from the crib, silence, then another. It’s daylight. Celina isn’t moving.

They have a deal about the mornings. He’d gotten up with Blake twice, and he can’t afford the adrenaline building up in him. The Ah’s are loud now. She can’t be sleeping. But she’ll be getting on a plane later in the morning to go to her aunt’s funeral, someone almost as important to her as an older sister. He doesn’t know how to imply she should get up and keep the agreement.

 Now the full-out cry. Maybe she’ll feel him watching her. The cry, a quick suck of inhaling and then the cry again. She doesn’t move, her eyes closed, her breathing too shallow for real sleep.

Blake’s building toward a melt-down. Too costly. Swallowing back the fury, Len gets up, shuffles down the hall to Blake’s room. He reaches down into the crib, picks him up, gently, walks him around the house, whispering and humming, the cry easing, then welling back up, then easing. He’s focused on sending out all the gentleness he can muster.

Celina pads into the living room, near-whispers, “You can go back to bed while I nurse him.”

He hands Blake to her, making sure she’s got him before he turns loose, shuffles back to the brightening bedroom and gets in bed. The dry exhaustion’s in his tissues.

He tries pulling the sheet up to his chin for a while. He rolls it down to his waist, then throws it off altogether. He’s not going to be able to sleep.

He gets up, puts his pants on, goes out to the kitchen. She’s sitting at the table nursing Blake, dark rings around her eyes. He gets the coffee grinder out of the cabinet, the sugar, the creamer, the cup, the coffee beans. She has the focused, expectant look that means she wants something. Probably tea or, no, a pillow to prop her arm with. She isn’t asking. He’s supposed to know.

He grinds the coffee, puts it and the water into the coffee maker, turns it on, hoping to slip off to the bathroom without having to negotiate his movements through the house. She watches him, a fierceness spreading across her face when it’s clear he’s heading toward the hall. In a few quick steps he’s made it around the corner and into the bathroom.

He brushes his teeth, puts the brush and toothpaste away, and sits on the toilet lid. He hears her walk past into the nursery and put Blake down and close the nursery door. After the morning nursing there’s a chance he’ll sleep for at least a half hour.

She walks back by again, into the kitchen. She bangs around, a bowl thudding onto the table, a spoon tossed clanging beside it. There’s definitely going to be a problem. A loud scrape on the counter.

She says, a would-be yell modulated against the closed door of the nursery, “You don’t ask for things, you just take them. You just amble off when you want and leave it to me.”

More loud scraping, a slammed cabinet door.

He looks at the small fixed window. Even if he broke it, there wouldn’t be room to climb out. He sits for another minute, flexing and fisting his hands, stands up and swings the door open into the hall. He takes a couple of lungfuls of poisoned air, heading into the kitchen.

She says, “I am so sick of your vanishing act. Do you think I’m—”

“Just do the job you were so dead-set to get,” he says. “I don’t want to hear it.”

In the furious pause she’s using to come up with a response, her mouth drawn tight in a smile, he adds, “I never agreed to this.”

“Oh no, we’re not going there again,” she says, teeth showing in her smile. “Maybe there’s something more original you could come up with.”

He walks out, shaking his head no. Back in the bedroom, only a few steps, he shuts the door and starts jerking on the rest of his clothes.

“Hey writer, artist,” she near-yells. She throws the dishrag audibly into the metal sink. “Aren’t you supposed to have an imagination?”

He buttons his shirt making a humming sound so he can’t hear the rest. He says, though she can’t hear him, “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to look at you.”

Her voice is quavering now at the high pitches. “You think I have all this power over you. You lord your power over me unbelievably. You’re obsessed with power. Oh, you participate, but you do as you please. You do as much as you want to do, and I shoulder everything else.”

He throws the door open and walks back to the kitchen doorway, standing so she can see his face. He keeps his volume down, his voice simmering.

“What I want to do? I go to work, I come home and work until bed, then I get up with Blake between nightmares, then I get up and go back to work. What I want to do?” He can feel blood rushing into his mouth. “Everything I want is gone.”

She takes a step back toward the sink. “Specifically around the tasks of parenting,” she says.

He wants to upturn furniture, kick out windows. If he does, who’ll pay for the repairs? Who’ll pick Blake up when he starts crying back in the nursery? If it’s her, what payment for that will be extracted from him later?

He says, “Do your job. Do the fucking job you took my life for.” He wants to kill the furniture, the plastered walls. He wants to kill the sunlight.

She says, “You need to take responsibility for your—”

“Shut the fuck up,” he says. He heads through the hall to the living room.

“You,” she says.

“Shut the fuck up,” he says, a modulated yell. “Shut the fuck up,” he says again, opening the front door and walking through it.

“Fuck yourself,” she yells from the hall, and he shuts the door behind him and is out on the bright, quiet porch.

Instantaneously she has it open, yelling after him. “Don’t think you can—” and then nothing.

He’s already down the three stairs, heading into the apartment parking lot. With her foot she’s shoving the box of garden tools he still hasn’t unpacked.

“Do you think this porch is a storage unit?” she shouts, her voice breaking.

She kicks it the rest of the way to the railing. He trains his eyes on his truck, which is almost close enough to touch.

“Leave,” she says, “go,” her voice an unrestrained yell.

He doesn’t look back. He gestures with both hands out toward the windows of the neighbors who must be hearing this.

“Don’t come back and destroy things,” she yells, her voice breaking again. “Don’t come back.”

He gets in and drives down his row of parked cars. He can see in the rearview that she’s staying out on the porch, her arms crossed, her face red, to make sure he’s actually gone.


He’d parked on campus in the visitors’ lot, walked around campus long enough for her to have left with Blake for the airport, and driven home.

When he opens the front door, dreading what he’ll find, the note on the couch says only, “We have to do better than this” and the phone number of her parents’ house in Redding.

He sits on the couch, the note beside him. He has to leave them. But if he leaves them nothing will be solved. And he will be more of a failure than he already is.

He calls the Redding number and gets the machine. He says, “Jordan, would you tell Celina I got her note and I’m working on it?”


It’s dark, he’s on the couch, slashing at his guitar, and the pick jumps out of his hand. He can’t see it on the floor, gets on his hands and knees, feels for it, looks under the furniture. Nowhere. Something about this gives him the creeps. He goes to the kitchen for a glass of water to get out of the room for a while.

When he sets the glass in the sink and comes back, his guitar is leaning against the couch where he left it, the pick in the middle of the floor, in plain sight. He needs to calm down.

He puts the guitar in the case, goes to the bedroom and lies down with his clothes on and tries to read. Rilke, but he can’t concentrate for more than two pages of that. He picks up Jung, putting it down, exhausted, after one paragraph. He turns off the light.

No chance of being waked, though the shadows feel chilled.

The refrigerator hums a cool loop of electricity. The relentless dog down the street unburdens itself of its vowel. Beauty’s just the beginning of terror, Rilke says.

The wood door frames and floorboards seem more saturated with grain somehow. The grain is taking over, the room’s detail gone. He himself is gone. No one but a sleeping woman exactly his size in the bed, seen from the side, a camera view.

A black gloved man with a shadow of a face stands behind her where the headboard should be. Quietly, confidently, in a professional calm, he says, Just two quick motions. Quick chiropractic snaps, and her neck is broken, her body limp.

Len lurches upright. He turns on the lamp, gets up and goes to the living room bookshelf, looking at the spines. Poetry, philosophy, science, psychology. He gets Joan Halifax’s book of interviews with shamans, the only thing he owns that seems remotely relevant. He takes it back to bed with him, reads for an hour about apprenticeships that had nearly killed the apprentices, near drownings and suffocations, physical maladies that hadn’t relented until the initiation was complete. Weird silence.

“Let me live again or kill me,” he says to nothing.

He puts the book down and says the phrase repeatedly, for many minutes. Eventually the words lose their meanings. “Kill me or let me live again,” but the sounds of those words only, as empty as Om, and then they’re gone as well.


There’s a shattering from the kitchen. He sits up, the hairs on his arms and the top of his head standing out. An alien thickness in the air. He gets up and heads through the moonlit hall, taking a broom from the closet for a club.

He flips on the kitchen light. A glass is broken in the middle of the floor, having somehow landed out there from where he’d placed it in the drain board at dark. He doesn’t really want to touch it.

He thinks of a phone number Celina had written out for him on the front of the phone book one morning after a nightmare, Dorson’s number. Some sort of healer. It’s three in the morning.

He gets the phone book out of the cabinet and calls the number anyway, wakes Dorson up.

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry to call you in the middle of the night. But I’m in a bind.”

Dorson says, “Who is this?”

Len tells him who he is and tires to explain the guitar pick, the dream and the glass. “I think I should do something.”

Dorson says, “Has there been anybody in the house lately you don’t know very well, anybody who might have bad intent toward you?”

Len says, “No. Nobody new ever comes over.”

“OK, Calm down. Do it this way. You might need a pen.”

Len tears a page from the phone book and starts writing down what Dorson tells him.


On the outskirts of town, he parks on the shoulder and gets out of the truck. He climbs through the barbed wire fence, carrying a bag with the shattered glass in it, as he’d been instructed. It’s windy in the dark, chamisa dipping and swishing around him. No stars, some moonsmear in the clouds. He can smell the trash somebody’s been burning across the highway.

He stops about fifty yards back from the road, puts the grocery sack full of glass fragments on the dirt, and lights the bag with a match, huddling over it to keep the wind off. He lets it burn until almost all of the paper is gone.

He waits until the glass and ashes are cool enough to handle, scoops them with both hands and puts them in another sack he’s brought in his jacket pocket, and buries it all in the sand. He puts rocks around the spot in the cardinal directions, walks around the four rocks clockwise, as he’d been instructed, and walks away, not looking back. Why is he doing this?

“Aren’t you a poet?” Dorson had said on the phone. “Read what the situation tells you.”

Get out, the situation had said, if situations said things. Anyway, he’s done what he was told. Maybe it will at least help him sleep.

When he gets home, he lights a utility candle and sets it on the bedroom side table and lies in bed for an hour. At dawn, he blows it out and sleeps, hard, until ten, in the full, late morning light.

He gets up and heads out again, driving west through downtown among the motorcycle traffic and muscle cars, onto the highway and over the river bridge, turning north, nowhere in mind. Near Corrales, he sees a two-row flea market that’s been set up in a vacant lot. He parks there, and gets out.

He walks under the flapping yellow canopy, down the first row of old clothes, latillas, handmade purses. Nothing of interest.

He heads back toward the truck along the other row. There’s a stall with a lot of carved masks hanging on nails, and he asks to handle one that’s the size of a human hand. The vendor, an African with yellowed eyes who half-sings when he speaks, says, “This is your passport, man, in Africa, this says you are Bamana, you show it when you travel and they know who you are.”

He gets back in the truck, the mask feeling like some kind of warm transponder in his shirt pocket. He drives north through Corrales, then Bernalillo. Where would he go if he could be free, if he could be back inside the world? Denver, maybe, Cheyenne, Billings. Get out. A passport in his pocket.

No, he wouldn’t be able to believe that for even a few hours. In the bank parking lot in Bernalillo, he turns the truck around and heads back toward the apartment.

Maybe there could be a separate place in his mind with Celina where it’s good, where nothing bad’s ever happened. Maybe he can wear a suit of decency like a self. . . .


If Celina takes Blake out for a while, you lie on the bedroom floor with the lights out, the blinds pulled. Nothing to hold on for. Sometimes you can hear, far off, the bells from the Santuario. Chiming that ends the bright mid-afternoons, the tones struck, X, and falling off. Sandra’s gone, the property in the woods, the promises, what you’d had with Celina, freedom, Ross permanently in Germany, your sleep, yourself, now with leukemia, Kathryn, all gone. What had the cupped hands meant, the echoed and chiming world you’d lived in?

No longer a matter of meanings, but of trying to learn how to stand it so you can keep going.

You’ve taken to lighting a candle, gold spilling onto you, when you’re alone. What is it that feels like a knife wound, as if you have a ghost body, an open gash in your sternum, wind blowing in on nerve?

Or maybe it’s all a matter of meanings now, lying there on the hardwoods. Maybe you’ve been made ready for exactly this suffering, so you could be destroyed.

Once in a deafening storm, you got down in the floorwell, your father yelling “Stay down!” at you from the steering wheel. The hail was tremendous, and at the time, you were more afraid of the windshield shattering than of the tornado that picked the car up and spun it, letting it down, still upright, passing a few minutes later over your house, blowing windows out, moving on.

In the bright morning afterward, the yard full of glass, you went out to a big oak still standing by the fence, stripped of leaves, huge branches missing, stripped in places of its bark. You put your hand on the wet trunk with your eyes closed, trying to help it live.

These days you’ve taken to burning a floating candle in a bowl, trying to breathe the light in when you write phrases in the notebooks, or when you pick up a book.

There’s just one poem, really, that matters to you anymore, “High Windows.” In it, the poet, suffering something he doesn’t name, thinks of a house he’d seen in The Netherlands, one that had belonged to a woman who took someone else’s place in the death camps during the Nazi occupation. She’d had Leukemia and, as she framed it, was going to die anyway. The poet’s own misery eases when he can see the massive size of hers.

Smart bombs have been exploding in Iraqi neighborhoods. Seeing the size of your suffering helps a small amount. How small you’ve become. But you need more to hold onto than this dismantling.

You turn to reading, not for pleasure but to try to make sense of what’s happening. You keep looking to Eliade, Joan Halifax, Martin Prechtel, Piers Vitebsky, all inquiries into animism in one way or another, of initiates who’d heard some kind of calling and entered apprenticeships that dismembered them, before they could be reassembled in a different form.

What would it even mean to say there was a calling? What would it be that called? You pick up Yeats’s A Vision, Rilke’s account of voices he heard at Duino Castle. You read Jung’s letters, his claim that matter and psyche share a common source. Otherwise, how could it be, he asks, “that even inanimate objects are capable of behaving as if they were acquainted with my thoughts?”

Weekends, you work on remodeling the backyard toolshed into a studio, maybe a place you could hole up with your new superstition of candles and your notebooks, maybe a place you could sleep.

Season of Blake’s teething, months of crying in the night, Celina turning on the cribside lamp and applying ice, you getting up to help if he’s really upset, sometimes spelling her and walking him around in the dark.

In the early mornings, if you’re in Blake’s room, you always ask him if he’s had a dream. He says the same thing every time, a winking understanding between the two of you, and you sometimes think you can hold on for this.

“A frog,” he says, “and it was bothering me,” and you both laugh.

Sometimes you slip back to bed for a few minutes before it’s light. If you blink, it’s waiting, as if your death had been shining out from the blacks of your eyes all the time, needing only the screen of your eyelids to be seen. The gunman corners you and shoots, the landslide comes, the water rises and you can’t swim. All that’s left to do is to wake up trying to stand it and go on, but you can’t, in fact, stand it. So it’s a matter of trying to go on without standing it....


When you have the tent set up, you sit on the boulder and listen to the stream and let the sun go down. You’d said maybe if you went camping alone for a couple of days, and then they could join you on Labor Day, you’d find a way to be better. She’d said she could support that.

You sit until there are at least some breaks in your thoughts, and the stars are coming out.

You make a fire by flashlight and heat a can of stew and eat the steaming spoonfuls. The thoughts are fewer and the stream sound is clearer.

When you’re in your sleeping bag, you let your breathing rise and fall, let the tent swish in the wind. Blink, there he is with Dobermans, tracking you. He kneels, as the dogs rush you, and shoots.

You wake. You listen to the stream and the tent swishing and your breathing for another good while. When you sleep again, you’re in a meadow, dissolving like smoke into a light wind, riffling through the trees.


You get up and make coffee in the slant light and pine shadows. You eat breakfast and get your gear together and hike to the river.

You fish all day, catching brown trout in the meadow, cutthroats in a shady box canyon when it gets hot, and by day’s end the thoughts have ceased almost entirely. Hiking back to camp, you look at the red horizon through the pines. You let yourself go all the way out to the end of the world.

It’s almost dark when you get to camp, and you eat cheese and a hunk of spelt bread from the cooler out under the stars and the black sky you’ve stopped holding yourself apart from.

In the tent, you take out the dropper of distilled herbs and rub a small amount on you from foot to head and out your limbs, facing each of the directions—east for beginning, south for childhood, west for fruition, north for death, up for sky, down for earth—as Dorson instructed, as you’ve been doing off and on for some weeks now, thinking newest superstition sometimes. Other times, you think maybe you lost Kathryn so you’d be forced to find your own way.

When you slip into your bag and close your eyes, there’s an image of a sun shining out of the dark of your chest. You know there will be nightmares. This will help.


In the morning, after you make coffee, this time you leave your fishing gear in the truck and just walk. Your thoughts are far apart now, the look and feel of the landscape bright and immediate.

A mile out, you’re not apart from what you’re seeing, arcs of meadow grass, wild roses, scrub oak under pine branches. Stalks brush your legs, the dry smell of stems and leaves. There’s a big feather standing straight up in a clump of meadow grass, and you pick it up, let yourself go out into it swinging in your hand.

You’re not distinct from the sheen on the pines, the cool flickering shadows. You can feel the intent of sparrows in the low willows by the stream, their quick looks and flutters, their groupings that include you for an instant and break up, include you again and are gone. You walk in the yielding weeds.

You climb up a streamside trail along a series of small waterfalls, wade across the shallow current at the top. A flicker of thoughts starts up. Escaping from a life isn’t a life. I’m split in half. You decide maybe even “split in half” is a thought you can let the streamrush and the swish of leaves dissolve.

On the other side, you take your time walking down the steep trail beside the waterfalls. You go back out into the thoughtless boughs, the trunks, the rusted strands of barbed wire across the trail ahead of you. You climb over and keep walking down in the flat.

There’s movement in the scrub, a small animal moving toward you, orange-furred. You stop without thinking and watch it enter a clearing. It keeps coming toward you, a marmot, no more than twenty feet off now. You’re as much out in the rustling grass and the marmot as in your skin. There’s some bright red quality to its head. It’s ten feet from you, coming steadily.

You can see that its scalp has been ripped, starting between the eyes, torn back over the crown to the base of the skull. The blood has dried in a kind of dark red wig. The animal’s five feet from you now. A startled flicker of language runs through you, Did it rip itself on a fence? Did it split itself in half?

The marmot veers away, up toward the waterfalls, then it’s gone in the underbrush. If you hadn’t thought anything, you would have been able to reach out and touch its head.

Walking back to camp, you try to remember it without words.


You load the truck, the owl’s feather in the glove box the last thing, and drive the short way to a campground where you’ve agreed to meet Celina and Blake in a few hours. You park at a site with no campers on either side, get out, and sit on the picnic bench, dissolving out into the trees a while.

Then you get the tent set up, the firewood gathered, the sun slipping behind the pines, sit back down and dissolve.


You hear them on the dirt road a minute before they pull up in Celina’s car.

She parks beside your truck and gets out, smiling, near-panicked. Blake’s saying from the rear car seat, “Mom, momma, mom, out, let me OUT,” and she exhales, opens his car door and reaches for his car seat buckle.

“I am so frustrated after two hours of this on the road,” she says to you or Blake, lifts him out of the car and hands him to you.

You put him down to get the heavy ice chest out of the car, and he’s carrying off a flashlight in the direction of the river. You go get him and carry him, his legs still running, toward where you’ve stacked the wood, put him down. He wants to put the shimmering pieces of bottle glass he finds by the fire ring in his pockets. You pick him back up and set him on the bench.

He finds an ant on his hand and says, “When I was an ant, I would crawl on my hands.”

You get the ice chest to the table, press the burgers out, then start making the fire, trying to keep yourself a little open in private to the sidelit grass and the hill of pines in the periphery. He jumps off the picnic bench and laughs and says, “Jump.”

After a few jumps, he climbs all the way up on the table. Wind keeps blowing your match out before you can get the fire lit.

Celina says, “I need help, Len. You’ve had two days. I’m at the end of my rope.” She gestures with both hands.

Blake’s looking down from the table top, measuring the distance.

You go get him and he says, “No, no, put me down, put me DOWN, NO,” and you do, hand him a pinwheel from the toy sack on the table and blow on it, get him blowing on it so you can work on the fire. When you’re finally getting a lit match to the newspaper, he drops the pinwheel and heads toward the river. You catch up with him and pick him back up and he’s crying.

Celina has her face in her hands at the picnic table.

“Down, down, down,” he says, kicking, and you head toward the open trunk of the car, carrying him to get his LEGO set. You get it out with one arm and make it over to some shade and spread the pieces out for him. The grass and the slope of pines reject you now, a sealed off and separate thing.

After burgers for you and Celina, a hot dog for Blake, after teeth brushing, you hang the lantern in the tent while Celina gets him dressed for bed. Then you read him a book about a red train and his train friends, and he goes out before you’re done. Out at the picnic table, you and Celina talk in the lowest tones you can. In an hour, Celina’s in the bag with him, asleep, and in time, you fall asleep in yours.

You wake in the dark and hear her changing Blake out on the picnic table. Then the tent zipper and the nylon sound of them sliding back into the bag. When they’re breathing quietly and then sleeping again, you know it’s still a long time before dawn.

You ask for help, whatever that means. The tent rustling, the streamflow. Maybe you won’t sleep, but you can make your body porous. Maybe the air will have you back, or even just the sound of the air. Maybe the dark, or even just the darks of your eyelids.

Dark for a while. Then an expanding light, then a lion. In a while you can feel it, gold, shining in your sternum. Maybe the grass will have you back when it’s light, maybe the pines. In your dream, there’s a lion of light in your ribcage, expanding and expanding, heat all through your chest and skull, gold beaming out of you.

You wake, and it’s still overfilling your chest out into the dark air of the tent. And you’re not gray in your arms and legs, but gold.


There’s sunlight and branch shadow in the top of the tent. You hear Celina brushing her teeth at the picnic table. Blake’s awake in the sleeping bag, looking around to see where he is.

You say, “Hi Blake. We’re camping. Your mom’s brushing her teeth.”

He crawls out of the bag where he’d slept and into yours. Swish of Blake. Crow rasp, wind lull. His small, drowsy form, his body warmth.

You say, trying to wake all the way up, “Did you have any dreams?”

Swish of the tent in a light wind. You still feel lit with gold.

“Yes,” he says, looking serious, rubbing his eyes, “a lion, and I wanted it to go away.”

You’re utterly alert. “Not a frog?”

“No, a lion, and I wanted it to go away.”

You pull him close. “It’s good that the lion came. It was in my dream too. It would never hurt us. It comes to help.”

“It wasn’t hurting me, but I wanted it to go away.”

The sleeping bag up to his chin, your arms around him. You kiss him on the top of his head, the soft, short waves of hair smooth at the crown. “OK,” you say. “OK”

Maybe it’s all a matter of meanings now. What do they mean?    

return to top