Sunday, June 21, 2015

NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, from Gettysburg Review Summer 2000, Pushcart Prize 2002, and Visigoth 2006

Narrow Road to the Deep North

     I am walking down a narrow hallway. A phone rings. I come to an open door at the end of a hallway. The phone rings again. I stand at the threshold, convinced, as I often am, that the room I am poised to enter is, for a reason or reasons unknown or unclear to me, a room I should not enter. My mother appears. She glances at me in a distracted, ready to answer the phone way, then answers the phone. The house shifts slightly in the hot August wind.
     My mother’s face changes. She is recovering from surgery, so my first thought is that the wound is hurting, but then she says the name of my aunt, her sister, her only sister, Nada, gone now, too-- a strange name perhaps for hispanophones, but she was christened so by Ted and Clara Nestegard, who spoke only English and Norwegian, and however strange her name might be, it is appropriate to this ominous and attenuated moment. My mother says “Nada” once, twice, three times. My aunt and uncle are due in town, coming up for a visit from Jackson, in southwestern Minnesota, where they farm a great many acres of corn and soybeans. When they return from this visit, the purpose of which is to cheer my mother, preparations for the harvest will begin.
     But here is the news: my uncle will not participate in this harvest. He has been shot. He is dead.

     I have told this story a number of times. The reaction is almost always one of disbelief. Because I appear to be telling the truth, listeners want to believe me, but for reasons I do not fully understand-- perhaps they do not either-- they want not to believe me, too. Murder in Lake Wobegon? There can be no murder in Lake Wobegon; it is not possible. Anything that disturbing must be absorbed by sly humor and transformed into pleasant melancholy, the deeper pools of which are fenced off by simple common sense. One cannot even tell the story of a murder there: the words fly up from the teller’s mouth as if caught in a tornado.
     Which is not the worst way to live, but it is a narrow discipline and tends to make a certain sort of person feel unwelcome: me, for instance, at least in the way I saw myself then, a tiny male figure, neither man nor boy, on his back in a vast and neglected meadow of foxtail barley and timothy, under a boiling, luminous silver- and-green sky, telling a story that can be heard only as a roaring, seen only as a black cloud funneling from his mouth.
     I told the story to a psychiatrist once. I was being bad in ways I do not want to recall, was depressed, had been identified as a candidate for a course in grief management and spiritual renewal-- and, more importantly, had begun to see the blackness of the whirlwind as composed of equal parts self-indulgence (fear of my own sudden death, fear of my own sudden murderousness) and shame over the uses to which I was putting or knew I would soon put the story. I told the story sensationally, for its shock value; I told it so that people might feel as sorry for me as I did for myself, told it so that I might be seen as having heroically withstood horror, told it knowing I would write about it and, while the rest of my family simply grieved, profit from it. As Barry Hannah’s narrator says in the story “Carriba”: “Murder is not interesting, friends. Murder is vomit. You may attach a story to it but you are already dishonest to the faces of the dead. . . . I knew I had no place arranging this misery into entertainment, a little Hamlet for busybodies and ghouls. . . . My whole professional life reared up in my mind. I was a hag and a parasite. I was to be grave and eloquent over their story. . . . They were to get nothing. I was to get fame and good bucks, provided I was interesting. A great sick came on me.”
     Such was the tenor of my conversation with the psychiatrist. His response was remarkable. I realized only after I had fled his office that he had simply chosen not to believe me. I gave him the murder in précis, with a suggestion of the emotional discord I claimed to be experiencing, and he said, “That’s interesting.” I waited a good long while for him to continue. He was a kind of Kilroy behind his desk, getting smaller and smaller by the second. Just when he was about to vanish entirely, he said, “I make a special study of stories like the one you’ve just told me, but I don’t recall reading or hearing about this one. Where did you say it happened? And when? I’d like to check the papers. Your uncle’s name is. . . .?”
     I said that his name had been, when he was alive, Art Storm. It struck us both, I think, as sounding made up, the name of a character in a bad novel (if you punch up art storm on the Lexis Nexis newspaper searching service, you get thirty stories on Robert Mapplethorpe and one on my uncle), so I said, “Arthur William Storm, Jr.” I then described where pretty convincingly but was shaky on when, which bolstered, I guess, my inquisitor’s sense that I was making it up, in a play, I guess, for sympathy. He wrote a prescription for Prozac and sent me on my way.
     That was the last time we chatted. Now that I have gotten my facts straight, I want to share them. But I find I cannot recall the name of this psychiatrist, nor when I saw him, nor, precisely, where. The building was located in a downtown St. Paul backwater; the program was part of that city’s social service safety net; and the decor of the waiting room was dominated by fiery orange shag carpeting and dark imitation-wood paneling. My fellow clients either spoke in harsh whispers to themselves (“Not now, you fool, not here!”), turned in very small circles before the magazine rack-- which had dizzied and deflected me, too-- or stared, stonily or stonedly, into midair. They were both a fright and a comfort to me. Then there was the doctor-- elusive, peeping. I took the Prozac for a month; it, too, was both a fright and a comfort. I imagined I felt clear-minded, but predatory. I felt as if the number of rods in my retinas-- those receptors responsive to faint light-- had multiplied rather demonically. I could see in the dark and had lots of energy for the hunt but missed both the peace of deepening twilight and the nervous dread of a sleepless dawn. I failed to make my next appointment, failed to have the prescription refilled, failed to balance my chemicals.

     A violent act in a violent culture: what of it? Violence can be both fun and rewarding, if you watch the right movies. And I do not mean only those on television or in theaters; I mean the ones we film day after weary day, loops of resentment and frustration and greed and fear and ignorance in which we get the last word, beat senseless those who have annoyed us, and sometimes even kill them, if the annoyance is grievously deep and can be shown to be the cause of a chronic social ill.
     Arnold and Sly and Clint simply make entertainingly explicit the features and character of the man many of us daydream about being: a good man-- i.e., one who knows how to fight but appears to be reluctant to do so, one who is cool under psychological and moral pressure but can explode like a volcano when he needs to, a man not prone to doubt or confusion, a man of deeds not words, a man of action who can gather and manage the collective rage of the savagely annoyed and perfectly righteous people who have defined and approved his goodness, a man who can marshal the virtues and skills his employers say are pertinent and conducive to good public relations. I am talking about a man who can dodge bullets. What better man could we possibly hope for! A man who can see it coming, who can turn aside just in time, engage bad violence with good violence, use the flabby weight of the enemy’s badness judo-like against him and hurl him into the never-never land of soulless, heartless, mindless evildoers, a man who can perform the Alchemy of the Good Man: make the lead of superior violence into the moral gold of justice. Above all, I am dreaming about a man who can remain alive and in control, no matter what, forever.
     My uncle’s a murderer, a Green Beret from what is always termed the “tough” Eighty-second Airborne, honorably discharged after the invasion of Grenada-- in which he saw action of an undisclosed sort-- and sophomore English major at Iowa State in Ames, knew all about this massive fraud. “Thank you,” his suicide letter read, “for keeping me alive so long.” The hero, hoodwinked and helpless. “Thank you for keeping me alive so long.” He was twenty-four.

     I turned eighteen in 1974 and thus was spared the Vietnam that had troubled me so. Neither sincerely “born again” in Jesus Christ (I did walk down the aisle in answer to that call but really only to get the autograph of a Minnesota Twins pitcher-- either Jim Kaat or Al Worthington, cannot remember which now) nor apostate, I sometimes felt a Lutheran call to be obedient to the prince, to serve my country, and sometimes felt a Christian pacifism welling up in me. But I was also a fan of Heroic Violence. I even had a specialty: I was something, I fancied, of an after-dinner speaker, a guy who could mouth off while trading blows with pinheads.
     For instance, the episode that precipitated me into the lair of the shrinking Kilroy: I fought a man on a highway. He had rammed my car from behind, enraged by the way I had gotten in line ahead of him, or “merged,” if you will. My first thought was to get his license plate number, and I tried to read it in the rearview mirror-- difficult even if he had not been hanging on my bumper. Then I decided I would get behind him. He took the next exit, but I was in a rather taut-handling little German thing and whipped in after him. Still, my only conscious desire was to get his number. Which I got, and began to calm down. But then we came to a red light. I pulled up behind him and then thought, I cannot pretend this has not happened. I will seek an explanation. So we tumbled out of our jars of formaldehyde, this sales rep and I, and before I knew what hit me, he hit me. “Is that the best you can do, Chumley?” I demanded to know, but before he could answer, I saw the famous red haze. I began to choke him with one hand, forcing him back to his car and wedging him between the open door and the frame. His arms snugly pinned, his face darkening, I drew back my free fist, in hopes of pounding his insolent face all bloody and askew. But I came to my senses and saw only the natural colors of a cloudy spring day in Minnesota. I released the man’s throat and stepped back. I was about to lecture him, but he came flying out at me and landed a good one right in my mouth. The light had changed, and traffic was approaching. I grabbed hold of him and threw him directly in the path of a big orange utilities maintenance truck.
     The driver of the truck managed to avoid running over and killing my fallen foe, but the feeling that he had almost not, that the sales rep was dead and that I was responsible-- that has stayed with me. It is a perplexing feeling, not so much because it is not true, or because I am filled with shame, but because it is a good feeling.
     It was one of the first times I had acted on an angry feeling, rather than stewing in my own bitter juices. While getting out of the car, approaching the other-- right up to that moment when I started smashing my fists against his window-- I was calm. I felt I was “in the right” and was merely going to “redress the wrong” that had been done to me; I was going to be forthright and reasonable. I had already noted the license plate number and was planning on only an assertion of righteousness, acceptance of which on the part of the sales rep would have short-circuited my decision to tell on him, as talking to the cops has always been the last thing I want to do. But the next thing I knew, he was sprawled on the road, and a huge truck was describing a screeching salient around him.
     I acknowledged, privately, the shamefulness of my actions, noted the “mistakes in judgment,” and worked out the causes and effects, but I could not help but interpret it positively. I had appealed to no authority, handed off no responsibility, called out to no one for help or confirmation of what I believed was right and what I believed was wrong. This all seemed perfectly proper to me, even heroic. I had had a bone to pick with an asshole and had nearly killed him. I had understood, in a flash of violently heroic insight, that he was a bad guy, and I was a good guy, and neither of us was going to brook recourse to armed bureaucrats. And I nearly killed him.
     What if he had had a gun?
     What if I had had a gun?
     I had wanted one for a long time. I knew some fellows who owned guns, and I liked them. I went to sporting goods stores and priced them, listened to salesmen describe them, picked them up and hefted them. I began saving money toward the purchase of one.
     Television, computer, automobile, handgun: they were all the same to me, tools of American cultural welfare. When they were managed properly, nobody died. My adversaries would be only persuaded-- just as they would be by the rigors of any other religion-- and corrected.

     My uncle’s killer did have a gun, a Ruger Security Six (a .357 Magnum revolver, serial number 156-52069) loaded with Peters .38 Special copper-jacketed hollow-points. It was his father’s gun, but having been a commando, he was no stranger to sidearms. I do not know if he killed anybody in Grenada, but I do know that he was said to have “come back changed” and that he had tried to kill himself once before. “The last time he attempted suicide he went to Missouri,” his father was quoted as saying in an Iowa newspaper. “There is no doubt in my mind he went to Minnesota to commit suicide.” The implication is that he could not, for some reason, bring himself to do the deed in Iowa, his home state-- an inability I found curious. Were I planning to do myself in, I would most certainly get the hell out of California, which I have designated as the last place I want to die, and go home. But home, of course, is precisely where they keep you alive so long.
     The next question is, why Minnesota? “It’s strange,” said Eric Hagen’s mother, “but if you follow Highway 169 from here” (“here” being the towns of Ogden and Perry in central Iowa), “Jackson is almost straight north.” Put a ruler on the map, and fill the tank with gas. When you run out, you kill yourself.

     Jackson is about fifteen miles north of the Iowa border and seventy east of South Dakota: coteau des prairies, the first step up of the great high plains from the Mississippi valley toward the Rockies-- the “true prairie” as it was sometimes called, the tallgrass prairie, grass as high as a horse’s back and occasionally even higher, up to twelve feet. It is often described as oceanic, a vast swelling sea into which despairing pioneer women cast themselves and drowned. But of that ocean nothing remains, as if ten million years have elapsed from the time my great-grandparents appeared on its shore-- geologic time, time enough for an ocean to vanish, exposing a bed infamously flat, across which, in pesticide dispersal grids, immense machines move.
     For several years after his father’s death, my cousin, who farmed in partnership with him (and who found him on the porch), would sit high atop one of those machines in a little air-conditioned cube and listen to self-help tapes while he plowed or sowed or cultivated or harvested. Once in a while he would suffer what they call a “false heart attack” (which seems as “true” as the other kind to me). He would become suddenly overwhelmed by panic, feeling that his loss, his terror, was not in the past but was steady and continual and happening right now, and he would be rushed off to the hospital, where, after a while, the present would expand enough to give his heart, again, the space to beat.
     The Des Moines River runs roughly north and south through the country, originating about forty miles to the northwest and emptying into the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa. The land for no more than a mile on either bank of the river is folded into hills, giving some parts of town a little elevation and a view, and altering the character of some of the farms along the river: basically, more livestock, less corn.
     It was on one of these river farms that my aunt and my mother grew up and that I was born. When I think of farms, this one, and the one on which my father was born and raised (in northeastern Iowa), are the ones I think of: hill farms, polyculture, cattle, hogs, chickens, corn and wheat and alfalfa and sorghum, norghum and flax and beans, wagons and tractors tipping over on steep hillsides-- “Just roll with it,” my grandfather instructed my mother. There was no running water on the farm, no indoor plumbing. There were bedpans and buckets and pitchers and basins, an outhouse and a well. My mother carried water from this well every day of her life until she left for college. My life on the farm lasted only a month, but what a month! From there it was on to the unspeakable luxuries of Minneapolis: running water, central heating (the farmhouse had a single big woodstove, with a grate in the ceiling to heat the upstairs bedrooms), refrigerators, toasters-- luxury upon luxury, to the point where I now do not think twice about jetting to Europe or filling a large plastic bag every week with trash.
     Rural America was pretty well electrified by the time my mother was born, which meant, for her, two or three lightbulbs and a radio. There was also a telephone. My mother speaks of her childhood as a kind of idyll of clean and happy poverty-- and the orange and the pencil that she got as Christmas gifts, the wood she chopped and the water she carried, do indeed seem integral to paradise. I grew up in the suburbs but can hardly bear to drive through them now. I do not even like reading novels set in the suburbs. My father, who left farm life eagerly at eighteen, saw, with his BBA and CPA diplomas, his income rise sharply the first eighteen years of my life, allowing him to present me with a profoundly different world upon graduation from high school than the one he and my mother had known. My brother and I had already been to California, to Florida (and if I now know a more desperate and corrupt Miami, I will never forget the way the palm trees rattled that first night in the hot, muggy wind), to Jamaica and the Bahamas! I had fished for, and caught, a barracuda. I had already known the impatience Liz Taylor was said to have known in the Joan Rivers joke about slow microwave ovens. I had already experienced the wave of hatred a motorist whose skills I judged to be subpar could excite. There was more money. Our standard of living was very high. You may have heard about this; sociologists and investment fund managers alike have been advertising the phenomenon for years: rising expectations.

     I think rising expectations are what killed my uncle, actually. How, I cannot say, but I began to think of the .38 Special hollow-points emerging in the bright smoke of the muzzle flash as merely the exploding fragments of the grotesquely ignorant and self-righteous sense of expectation and entitlement that-- I began to think-- characterized American culture.
     I knew nothing of the killer. I knew he felt strongly enough about what he had done to kill himself (“Justice will be done by me,” wrote the hero), but what I wanted desperately to understand, was how, step by step, he had come to my uncle’s farmhouse porch and shot him in the head. This is perhaps the way in which the story became a black whirlwind: uneven breathing in which inquiry became panic slowly rotating clockwise around a void, the void slowly sinking from brain to heart. The killer disappeared. I looked to his country and lo, it was murderous. Each inhalation took in more and more of the cultural atmosphere, each exhalation grew blacker and blacker. Everything about the United States seemed designed to encourage or induce murder: capitalism, technology, the law itself-- all nothing more than oppressive religions. I repudiated them, just as I had Christianity and the Lutheran Church that has aided-- not frightened-- and comforted many of the people closest to me, my mother and my father particularly, whose devotion is genuine and whose freethinking returns them again and again to the bosom of the Savior. And as I went about perfecting the terrible beauty of the black tale-- the writer of fiction assuming the pompous posture of truth-teller and coming more completely undone by the duplicity of it than he would have, had he simply told lies-- the little farmhouse on the prairie came to seem a psychic refuge. By the time I began to think seriously about the place, it had been abandoned for decades. I dreamed of inhabiting it like a character in a Beckett story, or like a Timon of the Great Plains, spitting and howling malediction.
     It was not just that my uncle had been murdered, but that my uncle had been murdered and I could not make a living. My gifts were being rejected or ignored. My wife had left me once already and was drifting toward a second departure, and I felt sorry for myself: nasty country, run by knaves for fools, or vice versa, I do not know which. I closed my ears to the drip and hiss of agrochemicals, to the to the firm, quiet phrasings of agribusiness executives, and told myself that if I were not the lazy man of letters that-- at best-- I am, I would be working in a field somewhere , walking neat rows of beans like my grandfathers did. I walked around the farmhouse in my mind, saw the fireflies in the twilight, heard the grossly articulate speech of cattle and hogs-- the grunt, the bellow, the squeal, the moan-- and the black tale became a murmur and a plume of cigar smoke. Then, in that fairyland of peace and sociologically verifiable contentment, the phone would ring. The farmhouse disappears as suddenly and violently as if a nuclear wind had blasted it. I can see it up there in the tornado swirling down upon me, just like Dorothy’s house in Kansas.

     The violent act in a violent culture: every one of us is familiar with the ethos of murder. As Freud pointed out, where there is a grave taboo there must also be a powerful desire. The most popular question in the story of my uncle’s killing quickly centered on the randomness of it: why would a Green Beret turned English major quit his job as a hired hand on a farm, drive one hundred and sixty-eight miles north, choose a farm out of the blue (the green, rather, a million acres of it), and shoot to death the first man he saw there?
     It sounds like a joke: to get to the other side?
     “We felt, I guess, all along that this looked like a random deal,” Jackson County Sheriff Pete Eggiman said at the time. The random deal of the rising expectation: the quintessence of our time and place. Randomness is all the rage, because cause and effect degenerate so quickly into name-calling and scapegoating. But insofar as randomness is a special effect or a magazine cover or a business fad, it is a useless idea, a fraudulent one, a dead end—because, after all the cool graphics and inspirational speeches, it is about precisely what it says it is not: control and manipulation. I used to write videoscripts for business seminars and was amazed to see so many people, day after day, equate excellence and chaos and huge profits. Mid- and upper-level managers taking a day or three off at a convention have a very different understanding of chaos than the guy who appears one fine morning on the loading dock, armed to the teeth and “disgruntled”: I want my job back, I want to feel needed, I know I”m weird, I know I lack people skills, but I am a human being anyway, after all, oh it’s too late, it’s too fucking late, I’ve killed someone. Chaos cannot be measured along a spectrum: there are six billion varieties of chaos alone, and the only taxonomy of importance concerns the ways in which these forms disguise and display their essence, the celestial matter at the bottom of the deep well (this is a line from Neruda to which I came via an epigraph in a book by Gina Berriault) into which artists are forever falling.
     I am a novelist (proud to say so, and equally proud to admit that only one-tenth of one novel has seen the light of a bookstore) and operate under the belief that novels and people are ideally suited to each other. Reading a novel is all about the immersion of oneself in the comfortingly familiar incomprehensibility of life and living, in observant incomprehension, in the disorder and beauty of the houses and languages and minds build, in the disordered architecture of language itself. And of all the thoughts I have had of the murdering soldier and his short life, the most compelling is that he was a frustrated writer, that if he had so much as been able to begin to think about a novel of the invasion of Grenada, about a Green Beret who had “never wanted to be strong” (I am quoting his suicide letter again), all would have been well. He would have returned to Ames and Iowa State, continued to read, study literature, write. My uncle would still be farming. His friends would never have had to say things to reporters like, “He was gentle and affable, the nicest guy you could hope to meet.” My aunt too, I believe, would still be alive (only in my mind did she die of causes related to my uncle’s death; everyone else chalks it up to the tumor on her colon that was to be removed—prognosis for recovery, excellent—and the sudden heart attack—“sudden” in that she was not in any of the risk categories and was only sixty-four), and my mother would not feel quite so lonely, would not wake up every morning to memories of her sister, would not feel the need to wear my aunt’s sweater, trying to reconstruct the warmth of her hug. I would be hard at work on an unpublishable novel, not cashing in on private grief and the public taste for mayhem, Or maybe reviewing Eric Charles Hagen’s novel, listening to him on a panel with Tim O’Brien and David Rabe, though he was not that good a writer; although, on the other hand, the only work of his I have read was written at a time of profound emotional distress, and he had really only just begun.

     Why? For what? Everyone has tried to help. I love mom and dad and Sandy and Mike and Jer and Julie and Tami—all those that tried their best. But I saw this coming in a walking dream, seems like years ago. I have to be so much alone, though I love the animals. I realize now I won’t leave this town. I’m not going anywhere.
     Thank you for keeping me alive so long. There were beautiful times. I only wish I could come back.
     I’m no criminal, just scared and falling.
     Directed inward or outward—pain is still pain.
     Sandy—I wish I could meet you again. Stay strong, your strength held me together for so long, I love you forever.
     Not only couldn’t I change the world, I couldn’t even keep it still. There is such a surcharge of violence in me that is not safely directed at anything in this spectacular mystery of a world, though the violence may die, I will not survive as a piece of dust, a fallen leaf, tranquil, unawake, forever a part of this world, forever more at peace. No one should blame themselves for what I have done save me, and justice will be done by me.
     I never wanted to be strong.
     It is strange that the future can be foreseen, but not averted.
     I am allergic to love, a fatal allergy, and in the end I have discovered courage, it is a calm (my first) and it is facing the world face to face, and only seeing the mirror.

               end of game
               no more
               will I quench this thirst
               the drink is too ugly
               the love lost
               is too great
               these are terrible times
               we danced
               we laughed
               those memories
               I bring to the wind
               the lightning storms
               were beautiful
               on the front porch
               and the purrs and
               wagging tail
               knowing that then
               I was home
               I miss you
               I miss the simple sanity

     But those friends cannot die.
     I’m not sure what I have done but I have a horrible feeling, win the battle to lose the war.
     I wish I could explain
     I wish there were words to express the love I never showed
     I’m hearing voices, like, the whispers of last fall but stronger, all too clear
     I am barely here.

     The letter was written sometime in the late afternoon or evening of Friday, August 21, 1987, after the death of my uncle, in a room at the Danish Inn Motel in Tyler, Minnesota, a town a little less than a hundred miles northwest of Jackson. The motel was not open for business, but the owner sometimes rented rooms anyway. Hagen paid for his room with a fifty-dollar bill, which turned out to be quite important in knowing who killed my uncle. Once he had rented the room, he went for a walk. Passing Mrs. Bruce Meyer, he noted her pregnant condition and greeted her. “You’re pregnant,” he said, smiling and friendly. “You could probably use some money.” He tried to give her two fifty-dollar bills, which she declined to accept. Hagen carefully placed the bills on the sidewalk, weighting them with a chip of concrete. This was about 9:30 P.M., right around the time I had gone to my friend’s house with the idea of borrowing one of his hunting rifles, thinking, sooner or later I’ll be close enough to “this guy” (Hagen), and I’ll kill him. By eleven o’clock my “murderous rage” had passed, and Hagen had written his letter, crawled into bed, drawn up the covers, and killed himself.
     “We knew Jackson was missing four fifty-dollar bills,” the Lincoln County sheriff said, illuminating the foundation of what we mean when we talk about closure. There was also “bloodstained clothing in the room not related to the suicide.” The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension ran ballistics and blood tests, checked Hagen’s fingertips, and found they matched prints on a red disposable lighter found between the porch (the porch!) of my uncle’s house and the driveway—it was spotted first by my cousin, who, according to deputy Leonard Rowe, shouted “Watch out for that lighter!” as if it were an exploded bomb.
     And that was that. Special Agent Dennis Sigafoos put it this way in Item Seven of his “Report of Investigation”: “The homicide of Arthur William Storm, Jr., has been cleared. The perpetrator of the crime Eric Charles Hagen committed suicide ending this investigation."

     Once upon a time, a young man who had been working on a farm in Iowa took his father’s car—a white Volkswagen with a black tail fin—and his father’s gun and drove north for three hours. A few miles west of the town of Jackson, Minnesota, he saw a remote and prosperous looking farm. He went to the door of the farmhouse. The farmer who lived there was in the kitchen making lunch. He heard a noise on his front porch and went to see who or what it could be. No one knows if words passed between the two men when they met. Some people believe that a struggle ensued, for life or death, for life and death, but a man who professed to know said that the few minor bruises he found on the two bodies did not indicate any such thing. Silently or not, struggling or not, the younger man shot the farmer four times, twice in the head and twice in the upper torso. There was a large and bloody hole in the farmer’s back, and smaller bloody holes in the back of his head, the hair of which was well known for its tendency to rooster-tail. When the sheriff’s deputy arrived, he noted that “it was real obvious the party had expired.” An investigation revealed the absence of four fifty-dollar bills from the farmer’s billfold, money he had just taken that morning at a coffee shop in town as a down payment for a truck he was selling. A cry went up that a vagrant, a drifter, a madman had appeared, had robbed and murdered, had fled, and was at large. But the truth was that by the time most people heard the story, the killer was dead.
     Fifteen hundred people filed past the open casket at the wake. The farmer’s nephew, at the end of the line, was seen to thump his uncle’s hollow chest and cry out. At the funeral the next day, the church was filled with the sound of people sobbing loudly, people who made a point of being cheerful and strong in the face of disaster or misery or sorrow—or at least strong, or at least stone-faced and dry-eyed.
     After the service, in the basement of the church where mourners ate plate after plate of cold cuts and hot dishes, roll after buttered roll, slice of ham after slice of ham, news that a young man who had killed himself in a town to the north had been “positively linked” to the murder of the farmer made its way through the crowd. Each person looked into the eyes of the person nearest, then quickly at another and another, saw tears filling those eyes and spilling from them in stern, exhausted relief, felt the force of a hundred spines burning like fuses, shook hands all around to keep those hands from trembling, and smiled, then looked away.

     The subject of the death penalty sometimes arises when I tell this story. I am opposed to it, and I present myself as a “crime victim.” I say, murderous rage flashing whitely, blackly, in my mind, that if the murderer were alive today, I would want to forgive him. To which the obvious reply is that the murderer is not alive. My feeling, however, continues to be that once you get to know someone, it is hard to want to see them dead.
     Plus, what is two plus two? It does not add up to a novelist weakening under a load of ominous dread, every day more and more frightened by—simply and frankly—other people. Clearly, the only way out is to find the well of other souls and drink from it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday night at 8 on Bibliocracy: GARY AMDAHL. I am an admirer of both the writing of Gary Amdahl and the topics he chooses, of the politics and the dreamful associations, and of that alchemy which seems to occur when he begins a story and, as with few other writers, I am absolutely with him at each and ever step of the story, as if always at the beginning throughout, sometimes so much so tha...t when his beginnings meet up in character kismet and symmetry and poetry and an obviously and creatively calculated or inspired dénouement or pause or plot development I am made giddy and breathless. Two things you should know about his work: Amdahl cannot finish a thought, and for that we readers are so much better – as thinkers and co-conspiring imaginists. And, yet, he simultaneously just does not know when to stop, which is our good luck too, because his peeling of the onion, layering of the story, reassembling of onion and brain and heart and even history is about as much serious, sincere fun you can have, as they say, with your pants on. Amdahl’s newest is the first novel published by the playwright, poet and short story writer boostered by Sven Birkerts and then Milkweed and now a small house which has established, of all things, the Gary Amdahl Library. Across My Big Brass Bed is a novel posing as an intellectual and emotional memoir, an elegant and seamless and endlessly self-reinvigorating big story meets autobiography meets political wish fulfillment meets love and sex and empathy-story, with motorcycle racing, music, sex and love, anarchism, the Viet Nam War but always those amazing, long, textured, funny, startling Gary Amdahl sentences, here more than 400 pages of them. A sane Holden Caulfield, perhaps, a Proustian rememberer and a fabulist, too, Amdahl’s adolescent to recollecting grown, lonely man narrator writes the whole book in a single day, unbelievably or, no, not unbelievable, totally believable for an Amdahl narrator. It’s a real joy to host Gary Amdahl, and to hear him read from and talk about the new book. Thanks for listening, on the radio or online, or later as a free download anywhere, any times you like.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


It is due back from the printer any second now, magically (it still is and always will be magic) transformed from manuscript to book:

Thursday, December 26, 2013





“There he stripped himself naked
and engaged in a wrestling match with no one,
proclaiming himself victor over no one,
bowing to an audience of no one.”
—Euripides, Herakles




“I would make these nymphs endure.”
—Stéphane Mallarmé, L’aprés-midi d’un faune

“My want of success with women has always been caused
by my excessive love of them.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions


  Barceloneta, November 28th, 3 :00 AM, fine rain, high as a kite

I drove, aimlessly but alertly, fighting traffic, around the basement.  I pressed the big red plastic button in the middle of the knurled steering-wheel with the heel of my palm, but the horn didn’t work.  I recall it clearly:  the silent horn in my mind.  If it was powered by batteries, and those batteries were dead, that was a problem I could solve.  Already a problem solver, because my parents and I had been in the business together—never seeking a profit, only union—from the beginning.  I recall the silent confidence in my mind as clearly as its silent envelope or cloud of unknowing.  Were there lights too?  In mind or car?  Two little flashlight beams for our perpetual twilight?  There was a radio to be sure, my red and white transistor, with its two little serrated wheels for tuning and volume, propped on the seat next to me, hissing and crackling.  I kept it for years, like a teddy bear.  And when I lost him I truly lost him:  I do not know how it happened.  He was simply gone.  Maybe the horn was an air-horn, like clowns used, its rubber bulb collapsed with long use.  Maybe it had been an entirely false horn from the first moments of its design, a play-horn, a big button connected solely to my imagination.  The cause was beside the point; what mattered was that I didn’t let it get the best of me.  Don’t let it get the best of you! was my motto.  Mom and Dad agreed.  If the horn didn’t work, couldn’t work, had never worked, that was of so little consequence I almost had to laugh. I made do as I came around the furnace with my own vocalizations, the beep and variations on the beep:  the honk, the air-raid siren, the fog-horn.  My voice is my soul.  I prefer to think in tones rather than words.  Every now and then I would feign astonishment (perhaps the only trick of that sort in my bag just then) at the incapacity of my fellow drivers and shout something like, “Look out!” or “Hey, watch where you’re going!”  Then suddenly it was over and I was nosing my vehicle into a far dark corner, sighing with relief at the end of another long and mysteriously bootless day.  I made careful, silent egress from the faintly rustling and creaking plastic car, and tip-toed my way up the stairs, which also creaked, to the top, where I silently opened the door to Carla’s mother’s kitchen.  I stepped around it and silently—save a single soft click of the hard, fat tongue of the latch on the strike plate as it lodged in the shallow dish of the frame—CLICK—closed it.  In the depths of the gloomy basement, had Carla heard that subtle but singular sound?  Did she now feel alone?  Perhaps abandoned, deserted?  Did she feel in her inarticulate way a loss of mutually sympathetic unity?  I took a moment to collect myself.  The floorboard creaked.  I took a deep even breath, exhaled it in a perfectly meditative demonstration of balanced respiration, and took another.  I was the Master of Breathing.  It was very quiet in the kitchen, in the house, in the neighborhood, because President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just been—new word— assassinated.  This is of course old news now, most people have, I think, heard about it and if they think about it, it is very like a thought about, say, Abraham Lincoln, who got his brains blown out too, enjoying a stage show, in the District of Columbia, our nation’s capital, but not a state in its own right, in 1865, after having emancipated—older word but still deep and glossy with mysterious meaning—an immense population of Negro slaves in the revolting South , while Kennedy was waving and smiling in celebration of a New Golden Age of universal civil rights and civic responsibilities in the backseat of a long black convertible in the midst of a motorcade—new word—in the midst of a parade, in Dallas, a big city, much bigger than Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where Carla and I lived, a mythic cowboy city in Texas, but only possibly that out-and-out bona fide state’s capital (I was ashamed to realize I didn’t know, when it seemed only yesterday that I had all forty-eight down, AND the two new ones)—that is to say, both of these gigantic, heroic men had been laughing and enjoying themselves in important places and important times at the instant their brains ceased to cohere, the gelatin melted, the electricity failed, the chemicals decomposed—but, as I began to say earlier, the news then (I had seven years of acute and penetrating observation, and gently guided study with Mom and Dad already behind me) was brand new, without precedent, and it was being televised, which was also a brand new means of intense study and mind-blowing imagery, though most households had owned a set for, on the average, dare I say, a decade:  devoted, however, for the most part, to the limitless variations of comedy,  every house on my street, Washington Boulevard, left on 105th Street, and left again on Terrace Avenue where Carla lived, had looked closed up, as if every family in the neighborhood had gone on vacation, drapes pulled across livingroom windows, mothers and wives watching in sorrowing disbelieving silence—in silence again, both in mind and mouth, the silent black-and-white TV images of the riderless horse and the flag-draped coffin in the—new word—rotunda—and the wholly incomprehensible scenes from the parade, the motorcade, the sudden speed and inexplicable moments, blurred and ominous and deeply strange.  Some houses between Carla’s house and mine even looked abandoned, as if their occupants had been unable to bear the assassination and the scene in the rotunda, the simultaneously sped up and slowed down scene in the back seat of the convertible, unable to hear those somber words and unprecedented images without breaking down, without some kind of flight.  Whatever it meant to be human, President Kennedy could no longer manage it.  I listened to the silence in Carla’s house for a moment, holding my breath, then flung the door open and pounded down the stairs, banging the flimsy boards as loudly as I could.  When I reached the bottom, when I was standing as it were in a pool of light, the first of many, honestly if not brilliantly illuminated, my face clear and shining, complete, good, proud, but feeling the light make and unmake tiny shadows as the dangling bulb continued to shiver in the eerie vacuum of my thunderous descent, I shouted, “Honey, I’m home!”  And I was.  I felt it in my blood, in my bones, in my humming brain.  Carla rushed in upon me from the damp gloomy darkness of our little apartment, and we embraced passionately.  Her hair was dark, wavy, lustrous, and it bobbed around my face as we hugged and kissed and awkwardly danced our interpretation of family life, offered, to ourselves, a representation of the great and good love that grows so strongly and beautifully between husband and wife and their children.  We had no stratagems for power, for one’s domination of the other.  Our fantasies of each other were wholly defined by adoration and desire tempered by the knowledge that the greatest desire was a mystical, sympathetic, constantly turning yin and yang union.  There was no room for resentment or secret calculations of how love might be destroyed, if it had to be.  Carla was a lovely little girl.  She looked like a six-year-old Italian movie-star.  As far, in those days, as I understood physical feminine beauty and “sex appeal,” she was irresistible.  When I played soldier—those days when I could not go to Carla’s house and ravish and protect her in the damp dark basement, with its mildew-stained concrete-block walls and cobwebbed window wells and those two bare light bulbs, the one shivering at the foot of the stairs, the other over the washing machine, those days when I was out in the fresh air with my friends killing, being killed, arguing the finer points of death (how much movement constituted life, did you have to hold your breath, and most importantly, how long did you have to stay dead, yesterday we’d agreed that death was no more than a ten-count, but today…?)—those days when I was alive and stretched out on my bunk in Africa, Carla was like a pin-up girl to me.  Her picture was painted on my fuselage.  I was deeply affected by her beauty:  the glossy hair, the dark eyes and thick lashes, the soft chubby cheeks…but what sharpened it—whatever “it” was, my evolving desire? my apprentice appreciation? my innocent willingness to proceed?—what sharpened it past my understanding, were her teeth, her front teeth, which were bucked.  I loved those teeth so much I wanted bucked teeth of my own, and went around, publicly, privately, at school, at home, with my bottom lip tucked behind the less magnificent, tetracycline-stained central incisors I would have to live with.  I loved Carla’s teeth.  I wanted them in my mouth and I wanted to admire them in her rosy mouth.  I wanted to touch them with my lips and tongue, with my own inferior teeth.  I marvel at such intensity.  We were playing house.  We knew we were playing house.  We set out explicitly to do just that, to pretend we were husband and wife in the mode of our parents but innocently unaware of the torment, the hatred, the despair, the mania, the depression that actually constituted married life, family life:  Carla poured me a rich steaming cup of imaginary coffee in the morning and made sure a hot and nutritious imaginary meal from all four food groups was waiting for me when I came home after work, and she asked me how my day had gone.  Not well, I told her, hugging and laughing, one soul but two stories:  I’d just had a piano lesson from a woman who frightened me so much I had begun to hallucinate, the piano tipping up on one end and then the other, so that I was playing vertically most of the time, as if on a storm-tossed ship at sea. I closed my eyes and continued to play, seeing flashes of bright light on which a kind of text or score was barely visible, and vivid luminous primary colors in a kind of swirling river of a landscape passed before me. I confessed some of this to my mother, who played the piano beautifully, and she  confirmed an apparent ability on my part, a seemingly genuine magic, to make myself sick, genuinely ill, with a fever, to avoid those terrifying lessons—and I thought, wait, I am making myself sick?  No, no, no, it’s the witch at the piano!—but conversations like that, and the attendant gestures, the non-strategic narratives of how the world was stacked against us and getting worse by the day, mattered hardly at all.  Carla, my love, and I, went through those motions because we wanted to hug and kiss.  The fact that we were pretending, that the food was in our minds only, that our love, because we were children and knew it, was childish—that should have made even our passion a performance, a representation that pleased us on the level of theater, not as expressions of real and therefore uncontrollable, remorseless emotion.  Real desire, real need.  Were her teeth merely a fetish?  What I felt was raw, wild lust.  I knew that as surely as I knew we were pretending, playing, acting, imagining.  How then did I reconcile such radically opposed perceptions of reality?  Was I simply a poet-in-training?  An actor?  It would seem to be so.  It seems to have been so.  I have been wholly given over to intensely felt demonstrations of what I believed was selfless love, a kind of demented Don Juan so lost in his “action,” so lost in his “character,” offering displays so histrionic and void of actual meaning they are, in a way I can never understand until it’s too late, false, exactly as false as I was sure they were true—consequently violent.  It must have been false from the beginning, with Carla, because by Halloween I was through with her.  She taken to apparently uncontrollable sobbing that smacked of bad acting, of histrionic play-acting…but which I realized I often heard muted, coming from Carla’s mother in some nether region of the little house.  When I decided our selfless union had become corrupt or at least contaminated and strange, I went to the class Halloween party dressed as Superman.  I wore my everyday blue-jeans and a blue sweater upon the breast of which my mother had sewn a golden S.  My red cape was an old frayed towel, used and threadbare, dyed scarlet.  One of the other boys had come as a tiger in an elaborate costume that was the talk of the party.  He would have been the most popular boy in school had he not mistaken his judgment at a crucial moment and frightened Tina, my new hope for selfless love, frightened her genuinely when he had only been playing.  “I’ll save you, Tina!” I said, and lunged at the tiger, knocking him off his feet and dazing him.  I stood quickly, and when I saw that he was still on the floor, grabbed him by his sturdily stitched tail and dragged him toward some kind of tiny building that had been erected for the holiday, either a jail—that’s how I remember it, law and order as some kind of theme even as we celebrated lawlessness—or a castle.  When he finally got to his feet, I pushed him hard into the building, so hard that he began to cry.  As authority figures swooped in, I fought my way back through the cheering crowd to Tina, who was still in a state of shock, still so frightened that she did not understand I had saved her, that it was I, I who had saved her, who was hugging and kissing her.  She wept and I kissed the tears from her cheeks, remembering guiltily how unmoved Carla’s tears had left me.  When she hit me, I stepped back in pure bafflement.  Again and again she hit me, and I let her, because I was selfless, because I didn’t know if she was playing or not.  I went from a completely heroic mastery of the scene to fearful disorientation—in which I wanted unmistakably to cry, too, but did not—ending in a completely anomic breakdown:  I felt entirely alone and despised the people around me.  Knuckleheads.  Weaklings.  No chance of unified sharing of souls.  A year passed, during which I guess I was working on my material, because I emerged as a comedian.  Cheryl Schmolke was the Queen of the Second Grade at Jefferson Elementary School, a pretty girl with big eyes, brunette hair in a pony-tail, and an air of being much older than eight—as was I.  We had just finished an hour of instruction in the basics of geology, and Cheryl and I found ourselves alone at the sink in the science corner of the classroom.  She was washing the dust and grit of samples from her hands, and I said to her, “Cheryl, I didn’t know what your head was made of, so I took it for granite.”  I turned away, toward the classroom with its rows of desks and backs of heads shooting out in lines of crazily skewed perspective that must have been the product of incipient vertigo, but nobody was actively listening to us, listening to us as I hoped they might be, like “kids” do in a play, twenty-five-year-old Broadway stars pretending to be five-year-old Broadway stars—when the “main character” says something outrageous, that big, wonderful, sinuous rubber-necking double-take.  Nevertheless:  Cheryl giggled.  Word spread quickly of my staggeringly felicitous sense of humor, and the class appreciated my nascent sexual superiority in the way that only children can, with dead-pan blinking and delightfully grave suspicions.  Had there been no hub-bub, as I thought there had been, when I spoke?  Had everybody heard me?  Had Mrs. Erickson?  Was I truly amusing or would I be punished?  It was possible, and I accepted the possibility then as candidly as I do now, that I had been both amusing and deserving of punishment.  I saw, first and foremost, however, how important it was to make women laugh, that nothing of consequence could be achieved if you did not take very seriously their senses of humor and their need for lively, energetic men.  I said, some time later, the next year, I think, third grade, fourth grade, while I stood as if smoking a cigarette, with that kind of tough nonchalance, next to the anchoring pole of the swing-set on which Cathy Gibbs was swinging, nonchalant but like I was still working a routine, the same routine:   that what sexy smart Cathy ought to do was to bite my cork.  I had no idea what a cork was, and, if I ran through all the possibilities in my mind, no cork that I might conceivably call my own was a thing that wanted biting.  Still, that was what I said to her, and the only discernible effect was a slight increase of swings per minute.  Cathy had given me the impression she was earthy, from a different side of the tracks, working class and Catholic as opposed to managerial class and Protestant, perhaps, I have no idea, had no idea, only a sense of exotic permission.  But it was permission for selfless union with a girl I thought I might love.  It turned out that she admired me as a partner in science projects and had no interest in selfless unions of souls.  In consequence I suppose, I had studied for a long time the cover of a National Geographic (my  grandfather, who disliked farming and wished only to learn, had given me subscription for my birthday) that appeared that spring:  it showed an American soldier walking through the jungle in Vietnam.  I knew something had changed.  It threatened selfless union with attractive girls.  We were no longer at Jefferson Elementary, they were busing us to wherever they could find the space, and I must simply have felt, being cast about, without a steady center to study, licentious.  License, the inherent anarchy of being among “others,” among people, id est, unlike those among whom we have matured, and whose conversation seems therefore odd and therefore mad, the inherent criminality of comedy—all this must have made the allure of uniforms, of a harmless, childish fascism, more than hard to resist.  It is possible, certainly, that I had no inkling of political and cultural forces as vast and nasty as all that—just the sense that something had changed in a place called Vietnam, the only evidence for which was the attractive photograph on the cover of the National Geographic—and that I was simply excited, thrilled, to be united (this is two years later) at a brand-new school with a brand-new girl named Joni.  It was a real marriage—if common interests and enthusiasms, and proper sanction and ceremony are what make marriages real—or at least a relationship acknowledged as valid and binding by society:  we were taking flute lessons together, and had been nominated and elected to the twin posts of Crossing Guard at Madison Elementary School.  We were the most serious and talented children in the band, had genuine responsibility, genuine authority outside the band, outside, even, the physical plant of the school itself.  We went, almost hand in hand, through hours and hours of intensive instruction, during which it was made plain and repeated over and over that lives were going to be in our hands, the lives of our friends and neighbors in our hands.  We were going to be up against automobiles, and we were shown lurid film-strips of what automobiles could do, did do frequently and regularly, to human bodies.  When we passed that course, when we proved with our attitudes that we had increased our knowledge and made it practical, rather than breaking down and becoming undone by the horror of it, we were presented with certificates of worth and accomplishment, and garments of webbed straps, bandolier-like, with little plastic cups sewn just below the broadest band, the belt, in which we were to insert our flag poles.  The flags were orange with red stop signs, trimmed in white, and we were given white gloves to further distinguish ourselves in the dangerous if ordinary milling and shouting of the intersection.  But what made the uniforms truly authoritative as well as snazzy were the caps.  They were in the style of military officers, pure white visors and crowns with orange bands circling the base of the crown.  Black chin-straps.  Joni was nearly a foot taller than me but no one seemed to care or notice, or if notice, to not think it odd, or if think it odd, to interpret in any way detrimental to me.  It was in the nature of things:  we were in the sixth grade, which is the bottom of the heap, now, of middle school, but which was then the top of the heap of the elementary grades, and Joni, like many young women, had shot past most of us boys.  She had the beginnings of breasts and hips and I had been secretly courting her for at least a year—it seemed like forever, like no girl had meant a thing to me before Joni.  If it threw my notions of sympathetic selfless union into disarray, I had high hopes that it was truer, a kind of more mature love, and nurtured the relationship carefully.  I forbade myself irony and wasn’t even funny most of the time.  I was gentle and—most important—knowing.  That is to say, knowledgeable beyond my age, and, for my age, wise.  I’d given up everything for scholarship—everything but practical understanding of everyday tools and machines.  Like bicycles, for instance.  I was a straight-A student but could flip a wrench back and forth in the palm of my hand, box-end to open-end, open-end to box-end, like a switchblade.  As often I could without seeming obvious, never two days in a row and usually only once a week, I would rocket toward Joni’s house on 105th.  Just as I figured I was coming into the view of her bedroom window, I would make a face, theatrically big, to make sure it would carry across her yard, of concern, and shoot a glance back at my rear wheel.  I would squeeze the calipers around the polished rims of the wheels, come quickly but adroitly to a stop, and dismount—not with the least hint of annoyance or alarm, but forthrightly and calmly with curiosity, readiness, and capacity.  Those states of being or attributes of character or whatever they are I now lack entirely; they are as absent from my self as if they had never been part of it, and I am forced to ask were they ever genuinely there?  I thought so at the time.  I was very clear about the difference between the show I was putting on for Joni—monkeying around with chain, thinking almost aloud too much slack as I demonstrated that slackness, adjusting the cables with one twist clockwise and one twist counterclockwise, tapping the spokes as if listening for some slight tonal evidence of looseness—very clear about the difference between that and the show I’d put on for Carla (much less the absurd posing for Cheryl and Cathy, and the confusing, troubling affair with Tina):  with Carla I had been aping a love I knew I had no understanding of, not even any real interest in, but which would allow me to hug and kiss the beautiful bucktoothed girl, believing the frankness of the play (a frankness I assumed Carla shared) mitigated the pretense and might even bear real psychological fruit, somehow, later on, when I became capable of real love; but with my bike and the mysterious new Joni, I was demonstrating real skill.  If it’s true that the call for the demonstration was not quite honest, was in fact rigged, that nothing was wrong and I was only showing what I was capable of if something truly went wrong, it is also true that I thought it was something that Joni would like to know, perhaps even needed to know.  When we were made crossing guards, I was convinced that a force greater than my own will, greater than my transparent wish to show-off, was confirming and encouraging me.  The show may have been gratuitous, the uniforms silly, but the skill, the sympathy that made the shows possible, the childish street theater and the community service—those gifts were real.  But of course there is a great difference between a sense of rightness and even confirmation, and action in the world.  My instinctive belief was that once you commenced to act, unease fell away; there were simply too many other things to deal with, and in my limited experience with action, that was so.  But as I stood on my side of the street that sunny mild September day in 1967, and felt my plastic crossing flag flutter stiffly in the breeze, and saw Joni’s flag flutter in the same gust a fraction of  second later, I began to suspect that unease might be more a shadow than a cloak:  no matter how one occupied oneself, you could not throw it off, it would still be there.  I began to act but felt, if anything, more uneasy with each passing second.  Joni seemed troubled.  The width of the street was sufficient to make my perception of her as “troubled” pretty clearly an exaggeration born of my own anxiety, but she was not so far away that I couldn’t make out a kind of uncertainty in her posture, a tentativeness that could have been the first stages or signs of haste, of precipitate action.  Nothing much was at stake, and if I give the impression I sensed disaster looming, I must say I did not.  There was very little traffic, and none of our fellow students had arrived yet at the intersection.  Some men were laying sod on the oval island that was the new school’s front yard, in the center of which stood a flag-pole also so new it had no flag to raise.  I could see some parents coming up my side of the street, and some very small children with them.  Joni was schoolside and couldn’t stop darting apprehensive looks at them, at me, back at them, back at me.  She was very tall, as I’ve said, and though not in the usual way horsey-looking, horse-faced, she did strike me as a filly about to dash off for the far side of the corral.  I wanted to wave to her, but was afraid it would be interpreted as some kind of official gesture, coercive, one bound to confuse whoever saw it, since it had no relation to public reality, merely a private concern.  And yet I waved.  I couldn’t help myself.  It was a small, subtle wave that I hoped would reassure Joni, even calm her if indeed it was panic that I thought I saw approaching in the deep background of the picture, if the restlessness and uncertainty I thought she was exhibiting were the simmering precursors of a mistake in judgment or a breakdown of nerve.  But I failed.  I think I failed.  How can I say?  It was so long ago, the stakes so low, the arc of the action so submerged in ordinary murk…but what I thought I saw was that my wave was being misunderstood.  What I remember seeing is Joni coming rigidly alert, then after a tense few seconds of scrutiny, straining her head forward, opening her dark mysterious horse-like eyes as wide as they could be, demanding, silently but with clear impatience, what I meant with the wave.  Suddenly there was a crowd around me of mothers and tiny children and cars were approaching the intersection from all four directions at once.  Joni, still giving me a look, stepped off her curb.  I made an even more subtle sign:  halt, hand palm-up, facing out, but held very closely to my side, and waving just a bit.  Then I said to my pedestrians, “Follow me, please,” and stepped off my curb.  Automobiles were not the military vehicles they are now:  if you called a car a tank, it was an insult, a deprecation, a suggestion of awkward ugliness.  Our cars were long and wide, to be sure, but very low.  Grills looked like teeth—but not sharp teeth, friendly teeth, rather, smiling, and rear fenders almost always had some kind of tail-fin swoop to them.  They were sleek.  We had a Buick Electra 225, a long low blue Greek tragedy of a car with a black vinyl top.  It had fins and a somber, ambiguous, classical smile, pistons the size of one-gallon paint cans, eight of them banging up and down in their storm-drain cylinders, the jets in the four-barreled carburetors spraying gas like they were fire-hoses in a roar so perfectly muffled it purred rather than rumbled.  It generated horsepower of a nearly incalculable order.  But at that moment, crossing the street for the first time as a professional, with eight or ten of those wide, wide flashing grills suddenly upon me, I felt I could have stopped anything, a ten-ton truck, everything.