Autumn

Air through which we cleave. The spell of distant carillons. We survive.

The scent of fallen apples. The cold touch. We remember breathing. There is even joy.

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Heat

How hot is it?

Bloody hot. Awfully hot. Terrifically  hot. Hot enough to melt butter. Too hot by eight in the morning for dogs on asphalt. The fake leather on the car seat burns your thighs. Don’t touch the table-top outside the café. Train rails buckle and warp. Children cry all night.

What can you do in such heat?

Flee to Finland. Fly to Tierra del Fuego. Crawl into a dark place. Talk to the heat people.

The who?

The heat people. The Wavering Ones. Right there in front of you. Keep you company on a day like today.

What do they say?

They don’t talk, compañero.

What do they do?

They remind you what it’s like to live in this kind of heat.

You’re here—why do you need to be reminded?

You’re funny. You’re not here. We’re not here. In this heat, none of us is here. We hallucinate ourselves. We recall ourselves. We are a step away from ourselves. We try to re-member ourselves because we are not able to member ourselves. But we don’t try very hard. We try between shallow breaths without lifting a finger. We are incorporeal. We live in a languid Hell. No flames, only shimmers. No nightmares but a plethora of dreams. There is no such thing as sin here, and if there were we would be too slow to commit it.

Could you commit a sin of omission?

We are the sin of omission. We are dissolving even before we die. That’s a sin, probably. But we disinvent sin. It rolls away like a bead of sweat. No one thinks they’re getting away with anything. We fluctuate. Heat and light.

Do questions matter in this season?

Everything has already been asked. Everything has been answered. The Wavering Ones keep us company. They don’t judge, or ask, or answer. You ask if questions matter. Everything matters, nothing matters. I watch the Wavering Ones. They’re good company. They don’t ask questions.

Can I quench your thirst? Make you a drink?

The fresh squeezed juice of sugar cane. It smells like freshly cut grass.

Will it save you?

There’s nothing from which I need to be saved, and nothing to save myself for.

Do you think this conversation might be more lively in autumn?

You know the answer to that, my friend. In spring we thought summer would be sin. In autumn we will decide if it was. For now I can tell you only what I’ve told you. It is hot enough for rain to evaporate before it hits the ground. Hot enough to forget who you are.

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The Winter Birthday

Nick’s birthday. Rachael, Jeffrey, and their families are en route. We’d all vowed to celebrate the sibling birthdays together even after a celebrant is gone.

I stand at the glass kitchen door and look down to the cove. It’s winter. It’s no wonder I’m thinking about the ice.

I live alone in the old family house. I am free to wander.

To the west is the cove and to the east, across the road, is the forest.

One day Nick and I decided to jump from block to block as high tide broke the cove ice. The blocks were large and thick. We weren’t balancing on dinner plates. But not all the blocks could bear the sudden weight. Pieces broke away and we had to jump to others. The water was seven feet deep and cold. We did this for the afternoon. Nick was four years younger than me.

In spring, tides helped by flush streams broke over the seawall and left debris to investigate. Monkfish beached themselves on the low-tide mud flats in summer. Every fall we cleared the yard of apples by throwing them in the water, where they bobbed by the hundreds. In winter, there was the ice.

The forest ran for miles. We discovered the rock ponds and the granite beards and the cedar thickets that etch you like brambles do if you try to wade through. Sometimes I would lose myself for the joy of finding my way out. There was the time I went too far and darkness came. But I stumbled ahead, saw a light blink through the branches, and came to a road. It was a long walk home.

One winter day Tony and I came home late from high school. He was a friend. We liked to go downtown after school, get a sandwich, then take the cape bus out here. Tony wasn’t his real name. Nick named him that. To annoy him. Nick was always making things up and getting under your skin. We picked him up, one of us on each arm, and carried him down to the cove.

Tony and I were still in our coats. Nick wasn’t. He didn’t have shoes on, just socks. It was a bright day, but cold. We lowered him onto a block of ice. He didn’t want to look scared or defeated or chastised so he taunted us with Tony’s made-up name. He knew we wouldn’t leave him there. We waited for him to stop. He didn’t stop. Tony and I looked at each other. Tony shrugged. We looked at Nick. He didn’t stop. We left.

In the kitchen, something smelled good. I forget what it was, but I remember Tony saying how good it smelled. Some soup or stew had been simmering all day. We figured we weren’t allowed to eat any yet, but it made us hungry, so we made our second sandwiches of the afternoon.

I can’t see where we left Nick from here. The backyard goes down to a little neck at the end of the cove, where a stream runs into it. There’s an asparagus bed on each side of the stream. The shoots start coming up in March. I don’t have to do anything to maintain them. They’re good to eat when they’re fresh and small, but I like best to watch the feathery summer plants in a breeze. Nick liked them in summer too.

To see where we launched him you have to walk around a corner to the long side yard and to the steps that lead to the water where you can tie a boat in summer and where we would step down to the ice. I don’t know how we survived being young.

Nick died last year. The first to go. Made me mad. Wish I could haul him down to the cove and set him adrift. Instead I have to watch him wave from the ice in the evenings before I turn on the lights.

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Far Flung, at the Moment

À plus tard.

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Randall

I’m experimenting with vignettes. Narrative homage to Spoon River Anthology tentatively titled Boy in the Trees (homage, in turn, to Calvino). The first handful feels good in the hand.

“Chooo!

“A championship-worthy sneeze.

“I overheard a woman saying a few days ago, ‘Thank goodness that allergy season is finally over.’ But it’s never over. I am living proof. There’s always something to be allergic to and someone who’s allergic to it. Just ask me! Although, honestly, I have no idea if that was an allergic sneeze or just a sneeze because something got up my nose, like pollen. Which brings me to a very scientific question, Bob. Oh, Bob’s stepped out of my imagination for a moment. But the question remains! If some pollen gets up my nose and I sneeze, is it because I have an allergy or simply because if something gets up your nose and starts tickling you, you’ll sneeze?! Is that all an allergy is? Tickling?

“Ah well, we’ll set that fascinating question aside for the moment in this blow-by-blow account of life, the world, my day, and the nature of reality.

“I’m fully aware that other people don’t do this. Well are you now? Why yes I am. I am one of the few, I think, who conduct a running commentary in my head about whatever’s running in my head.

“Crazy? No. Daft maybe.

“Daft. Who uses words like daft? Somebody in a droll BBC domestic sitcom. Somebody who would also use the word droll. I suppose I am a bit daft and a bit like a character in a droll BBC sitcom. The neighbors probably think I’m daft. So I bought a pair of earbuds. Everybody has them, and some people look quite hep and tuned in and well put together as they stroll about listening to someone else’s words or music inside their heads. Listening to podcasts. Hello, Pod here, and I’m about to cast. Ooh, ooh, got a bite, set the hook, reel it in, it’s a big one, look, why, it’s a Freshwater Speckled Listener! Catch and release, but take a picture.

“Do other people think like this? And if they don’t, who’s better off, me or them? Are they entertaining themselves as much as I entertain myself?

“Now, I’m perfectly aware that I’m eccentric. Which as the daft star of a droll BBC sitcom, I must be. It’s in my contract. Even though I’m an American and living in a pleasant suburb that would be perfectly ordinary except that we have a boy who lives in the trees in the neighboring woods.

“What?! Stop the presses! What did you say?

“Yes, it’s true. And perhaps the oddest thing about it is that we’re all quite used to it. It’s not a big deal. It’s about as important as having a historical marker beside the street. ‘Here in some distant past General Beauregard Shenanigans had his famous breakfast.’ And ‘Here lived a boy in the trees.’ And ‘For a while a daft man lived nearby and walked about talking to himself, but only in his head. He wasn’t crazy, just eccentric.’

“And if I was sneezing my way through a barely funny BBC sitcom, who would be my wife? I’d have to have one. And she would think I was daft, but in a good way. She would roll her eyes at me often, but in a fond sort of way. I would be a ‘look-what-the-cat-dragged-in’ sort of husband, the kind about whom she would say, ‘Now what am I going to do with him?’”

*

Randall was spot on in his self-analysis. He was indeed thought of by most as harmlessly daft. Few wanted to or made the effort to get to know him, few being a euphemism for no one. On those rare occasions when someone would engage him, he often offered astute observations about local or world affairs, being well read and quite articulate. He would even listen quietly to another’s observations. But who needs a daft friend? Life’s complicated enough. So the neighbors got on with their divorces or drinking or affairs or depressions or failures—and good things, too—and thought of him as a character, and having thus characterized him they felt free to give him very little thought, of which they had little to spare. There were some that found him somewhat alarming. Someone to avoid on the sidewalk, someone not to let the children too near. He, on the other hand, observed them as one observes birds and houses and clouds and brightly painted cars and people involved in their personal dramas, which is to say, not intrusively.

*

“Would I have a family in my program? Well, that’s a question. I’d be an odd dad. Not a bad one. I’d try not to interfere with junior’s or missy’s life. I’d be away at work doing something boring, like endlessly checking inventory, which, in fact, is what I do, and I don’t find it boring at all! But the rest of the world does, and that’s quite all right. So I would work at a somewhat dull but stable job and I’d bring home a decent salary and I’d watch the news on television when I got home. The family would eat in front of the television every evening. We would be the kind of family lamented by the intelligentsia, but we’d actually be quite content and stable, and my wife would do the actual raising of the children while I did chores around the house, putting in new light switches, painting rooms, that sort of thing. And always managing to make a mess of things; it is a dramedy after all! They’d all roll their eyes at me. If I wasn’t me, I would too.

“But now that I think about it, in the show the children would be young adults who’d moved out of the house. We’d be empty nesters. My wife would do lots of volunteer work. I’d do things like, well, fix the toaster while she was out. And we’d have odd neighbors.

“Well, it’s a good life, isn’t it? Take that, boy in the trees. You’re not the only successful oddity hereabouts!”

*

One day, on his rounds, as he liked to call them, he spied two young mothers with their four children ahead on the sidewalk. He noticed how they gestured with their hands and communicated with smiles, occasional conspiratorial facial expressions, eyebrows raised and heads nodded in mutual agreement over the true reasons behind errant deeds. So involved were they in their engagement that they didn’t see him approach, and he, knowing what was what, stepped off the sidewalk so that he wouldn’t scare them with his surprise proximity, and it was a good thing he did, for a perfectly ordinary thing happened. A three-year-old girl who had been turning in bored half circles beside and just behind her mother wandered into the street as the two women engaged in enthusiastic engagement. He heard, “Can you believe it!” in the tone that conveyed that they had seen right through whoever had done whatever had transpired. And a young person in a car was tapping on a cell phone and paying no attention to the street, so important was the communication that would soon take place through the phone.

It was a partially sunny day, or a partially cloudy day. He’d always been amused by the distinction. In fact, he’d become increasingly amused by the weather industry. In his childhood, only hurricanes had received names. Now any storm of consequence, and many of no consequence, were christened. The practice would make for excellent dialog in a droll BBC television program.

“I’m going out dear.”

“Be sure to take an umbrella. Slight Drizzle Camille is supposed to arrive today.”

“Oh dear.”

When the car driver did not see the child and the child did not see the car, Randall ran forward, picked up the child, and was able to throw her clear as he was hit. She skinned her hands and knees on the pavement and let out a piercing wail. The mothers turned. The young driver crushed the brake with a foot, stared ahead, stunned, open mouthed, and then had the presence of mind to turn off the phone and stow it in a compartment.

If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one to hear it, does it make a sound? The police came, of course, and an ambulance, although there was no hope. The driver professed to be too shaken to remember much beyond “he came out of nowhere.”

The mothers were inclined to think that he had attempted to abduct the girl. It was difficult to fathom how this could be the case, in the middle of a partly cloudy or partly sunny day on a well-traveled street. But how else could the events be explained? He had always been odd, they all agreed, as did others later. No one knew him well. No one knew what he’d done. And it might not have dissatisfied him to have his life end this way. So much is unknown.

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Post-“Body” Round 3, Now What?

The third round of international serialization of Body in the Pond is complete. Several countries were added (finally got to South America). A reader very kindly broke the no-feedback rule over porchetta at Convivio a few days ago. I would really like to send the book to Italy.

Working on:

The familial history at Pawleys Island dating to the 1920s. (The banner picture, if this is still the top post, is of a former rice field on the Waccamaw, across the peninsula from the island, on a favorite walk, but watch for cotton mouths. Did I ever tell you . . .)

A history for small people of the moon and its cheese.

Continued futile efforts to learn to play like Eliades Ochoa.

Continued work on St. Max volume three, In the Ground.

Lazy compilation of a list for round four of the serialization of Body (next year).

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“Body” Approaches the Codas

This is the end?

It is neither an apocalyptic nor dystopian book.

What’s the difference?

Ask me something I can answer.

So, then, the story is ending?

Nothing ends in an infinite universe.

But something is reaching completion, is it not?

The third serialization, the third trip around the world, the current trail of stopovers in exotic places—yes, that has had its denouement. Only the codas remain.

Plural?

Yes, of course.

How did the denouement end?

Smitty said to Martha, “Dear, tell him to pack plenty of insect spray, and that we expect great things of him.”

The first coda?

Benschloss noted, “I gestured toward his bobber on the water. ‘You’ve got a fish.’”

And the second?

Chitwood writes, “I know that sounds dangerous, but we already know the world’s dangerous.” Well, that comes near the end, but I like it, so there you go.

Poetry. Are there more?

I have moved on.

To where?

More dangerous territory.

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Under the Ground

Chapters four and five (who says you must start at the beginning?) of volume three (in progress) of the history of St. Max.

IV

She woke at five in the morning, as she always did, in every season, with no need of an alarm. And, as always, she stepped directly from sleep to consciousness, with no need to linger.

Smitty made light breathing sounds from the other bed. Even as a young woman Martha thought, “How can I invite him into mine if I don’t have my own?” Now, of course, they each luxuriated in the space of their unfettered sleep, and when they shared a bed it was a vacation.

Martha pulled the door behind her but didn’t latch it. She knew he liked to hear her moving around the cottage, even in his sleep, as long as the sounds were soothing and regular. She’d become a coffee snob late in life, and she wrapped the grinder in a towel to dampen the noise, then set the maker to steam the resulting Sumatran powder before brewing. It pleased her to develop a new indulgent habit at this age.

After preparing her mug she walked out the back door and stood for a while on the top of the three steps that led to a small patio and backyard. Deciduous trees embraced the cottage and clearing all around: oaks, maples, and a few birches. In another month she would see their naked fingers against cold skies, but not yet. When the sun rose it would find them ridiculous with color. She cupped the mug in her hands. She liked the balancing act of cold mornings and warm coffee. She would stand like this even in deep winter, with snow and ice on the ground. But only for a minute. She shook herself. Things to do.

She dressed quickly, made a breakfast of granola and yogurt, and opened her folder of notes in the corner of the dining room, where she’d made an office at the cherry secretary. It seemed she’d just settled when the mantle clock chimed seven. Martha raised her arms in mock alarm. Where does the time go? Car keys, jacket, canvas brief case, a travel mug of coffee, and finally she opened the door to the bedroom: “I’m going.”

“Be right there,” mumbled the lump of blankets.

Then she was off in her car as the sky began to lighten.

*

It had the same color when she returned, although now the light had begun its retreat rather than its advance. She hadn’t intended to stay this long. She never did.

Rather than driving to the cottage she drove to the school. Smitty kept a mailbox there, and he often forgot to check it. Martha also had a book she wanted to return to Adelaide Simpson, from whom she’d borrowed it: the teachers had bins as well as mailboxes in the mailroom, and she thought she would leave it there. All of this was unimportant. She’d thought of it only because she wanted to speak with Benschloss, and she had decided she wanted to do this in person. Loose associations waved in a breeze. The spring before, Benschloss’s life—more accurately, his imagination—had intersected with Adelaide’s life when her father had died, and Benschloss had learned something that Martha needed now.

She parked in the little lot near the main building. Benschloss’s shed stood alone across the lane. He liked to call it a cottage, but it had been, after all, a farm shed. She thought a shed suited him better. Only old people live in cottages, and although Benschloss pretended to be old, he wasn’t. He in fact always seemed on the verge of falling backward into adolescence, but the way he kept his footing was endearing.

As Martha entered the building a student was simultaneously exiting, and they both stumbled a bit as the door opened more quickly than either had expected.

“Chitwood.”

“Ma’am. Sorry.”

“No harm done. How was summer?”

She knew it had been eventful. His life had changed. Martha hadn’t yet spoken to him since his return. Having a life separate from the school, she had irregular contact with the students and lived a step away from them. It was often a help.

“It was good.”

“Tell me one good thing.”

If she’d been a faculty member, this would have felt like an intrusion. But she wasn’t, and being old she could be direct.

He thought for a moment. “Cinder,” he said. “Our dog.”

“Ah.” She knew what he meant. “Good answer. We had dogs.”

Chitwood looked up. His eyes held the question.

“You get to that ‘last dog’ stage of life,” she replied. “It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

She knew he knew what she meant. He smiled and looked down.

“Off you go. Good to see you, Chitwood.”

Off he went. Martha descended to the mailroom and retrieved a bundle of envelopes and catalogs from Smitty’s box. She shuffled through them in dim light that came from the corridor. All of the catalogs featured warm, lovely, expensive things for women: clothing, linens, bedding, quirky objets d’art to strew around a cottage. Either Smitty had a girlfriend or was planning on buying her something. She smiled. He was a thoughtful man, but most likely he had found himself on a mailing list after buying her a gift a decade ago and had received catalogs ever since. She pulled one from the pile: sale items from the previous winter.

Outside, she saw that lights had started to appear at the entrances to buildings. It was the perfect time of day, the cusp of light. She smelled autumn in the air, the sharp watery scent with a hint of apple, a time to get things done. She knocked on Benschloss’s door.

“Martha.”

“Benschloss.”

They paused to gather their wits.

“I’m here about the other bones,” she said. “I need your help.”

V

When Martha knocked I was in the midst of grading essays on the Peace of Westphalia, which no one remembers but which is responsible for everything in the West. It’s not unusual for someone to appear at my door in the evening, but I didn’t expect it to be Martha. She’d said she was going to call, but there she stood, wanting to talk about bones.

Martha enjoyed the freedom to be abrupt that age gave her. “It’s a bit late,” she said, both an apology and its dismissal. I liked Martha.

“Coffee?”

“I didn’t know you kept any.” She observed our habits and rituals at St. Max from a step removed, and remembered everything.

“Just for you.”

It’s almost always safe, if sometimes too cute, to be flirtatious with a woman in her seventies. She was good enough to smile rather than shake her head and mutter.

“In that case,” she said, took off her jacket, and folded it over the back of a chair.

I went to the tiny kitchen area in the backroom—it was the size of the small snack corner for a small office—and began brewing with my seldom used machine while she examined my bookshelves.

“I didn’t see Smitty today,” I called. Smitty, being unique, existed outside our usual naming rituals.

“I haven’t either. He had a meeting in Cambridge. I worked today and left the house early. He was asleep last time I saw him.”

“What was his meeting?”

“The usual. Making the world a better place.”

When I’d set things to brewing I found her examining the two shelves of vinyl records I keep. I collect them for their covers. Like the rest of the human hoard I can find anything I want to hear in nonphysical form, floating in the digital ether. It frightens me, but fear doesn’t stop me from scouring the invisible world for revelations like old tracks from Manu Dibango with the Cuarteto Patria Cubafrica. In the end we all embrace our particle beings and become less solid.

The coffee aroma seeped into the room from the kitchen. I love the smell of coffee, just don’t like the accompanying scour of acid when I drink it. Martha pulled an album of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s work from the shelf and looked at me with her brow raised. She pulled the record from the sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and turned the system on.

“I like the pops and scratches,” she said. “And this version of Greensleeves. They bring me back.”

The coffee maker made a sound like a small electronic mouse, and I poured her coffee. She sipped from the cup gratefully, thanked me, set it on the side table I’d found in the school’s collection of lost furniture, and said, sitting, “So.”

I waited. She shifted in her seat, sat back, draped a leg—gathered herself. She now looked as if this room was hers; she’d taken possession.

“Last spring,” she said, “as you were looking into the death of Adelaide Simpson’s father, you conducted a little field research. Into encampments of homeless people in the area, if I understand correctly.”

I nodded and sat on the arm of my small sofa.

“Joan told me about the excursions.”

I nodded again. “Actually, it was a more narrow, um, study. I visited drinkers’ camps.”

She looked at me steadily. After a few moments it became unnerving. She was assessing me. Finally she said, “Would you take me to one?”

I felt I should take my time answering, just as she’d taken her time asking. I let my consideration hang in the space between us. She didn’t mind.

“Any one?” I asked. “Or one in particular?”

She sipped her coffee. I wondered if it would keep her awake, or if she was one of those people who it relaxed.

“One in particular,” she said, and I saw that she was gathering the thought behind her request.

I waited again. It wasn’t a game. I offered patience as a gesture of respect. I would listen. The evening had both slowed and lengthened. The music had meandered outside the channel of its folk routes. It has always been a wistful song, and in Williams’s fantasia it’s more so. Martha was anchoring me in my own rooms as it flowed around us. The table lamps simmered with that light that’s seen through windows on autumn evenings.

“Tell me,” I said.

She nurtured her hands with the warm cup, looked off into the music, and settled into her knowledge that, after all, telling me is what she’d come to do. I was humbled. Martha has a reputation at St. Max as a curious creature who has embraced her place as the diminutive wife of our chaplain as a base from which to conduct excursions and undertake missions in the wider world. She muted evidence of the depth of her life in order to live it less noticed.

“The body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave near one of these encampments.”

I remembered seeing the article in the Townsman, and remembered avoiding it. She looked at me, again, assessing me, again, trying to determine if I was, in fact, the person with whom to partner on whatever quest she was about to embark on. There was sorrow in her face. I bowed my head.

“I know her,” she released at last. Then, after several slow moments, “knew her.”

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Cats #17rev

Kitties in the backyard

Kitties in the front

Kitty on the porch

does an acrobatic stunt.

Writer at the window

watches kitties play

and never makes a penny

for what he writes today.

So

Kitties in the backyard

writer on the ground;

he witties with the kitties

till the sun goes down.

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A Snippet from Murder at St. Max

Before Body in the Pond there was Murder at St. Max.

“Christ,” he suddenly exclaimed. “Do you feel it?”

“Feel what?” I asked.

“The cold wind, Benschloss. My God.”

I felt no wind. “Quit being creepy, Smitty.”

He made a gargling kind of sigh and leaned suddenly far back, so far back that my grip slipped.

“Smitty, hold on,” I told him, but he slipped away.

He splashed heavily. I couldn’t see a thing except the line where the charcoal float met the black water, but I heard Smitty making the sounds of a wool blanket struggling to swim.

“Oh for God’s sake, Smitty, give me your hand.”

He then made breathy noises that sounded exactly like the sounds of an old country vicar drowning in an English pond.

“Grab the side of the float, will you? It’s right beside you,” I insisted.

I lay prone on the old wood and sought him again with my arms. He wasn’t really thrashing about, merely waving his limbs ineffectively in slow motion. Maybe there wasn’t enough strength left in his old body for thrashing.

“Smitty?”

He didn’t reply.

“Smitty?”

I was going to have to jump in. I had just started to rise when I heard him say softly and resignedly, “She’s got me, John.”

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