Who knows why, but in the last year I’ve been reading surveys of ancient civilizations. I’ve got Sumer and Ur and Babylon on the brain. The most fun parts are surviving letters of middle-Eastern kings to their children, written on clay tablets in cuneiform, but otherwise like modern parents’ letters a litany of dissatisfaction. They run something like this: “From the Emperor of the Seven Kingdoms and of the Universe Asur-Nastipal to his younger son: Why have you not written to me? Your older brother writes me every week! Are you lounging in the harem as usual? Listen to your father, my son: last week I defeated the Saurians on the battlefield and drowned the valleys with their blood. What have you done for me lately? At the last new moon your brother attacked the Nautians and piled their heads to the rafters of their palace! O my son, when will you live up to your potential? Those idiot kings Sili-Sin and Rim-Sin are better vassals that you, my own son! Last year I sent you sixteen beautiful virgins! Where is your gratitude? Your brother has been endlessly grateful for his virgins!! I entreat, nay command you to get off your backside and your harem and write to me instantly. You know what happened to your younger brother, of whose memory nothing may be spoken!!!”

All this began with Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra, which is a lovely book and a masterful job of doing a lot with little information. (I’d add the same about Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare, which I just finished.)

My fantasy letter above is not that much of an exaggeration, except that they didn’t have exclamation points in cuneiform. It would not have been out of form for the older son to raise an army and come after dad and kill him with his own hands after a little tete a tete: “And you know those virgins, dad? They were second hand, if you get my drift!” In those days not a lot of thrones turned over without blood. If there were brothers, the throne went to the first to kill off the other brothers. And/or dad, or mom.

Cleopatra if I remember took care of a couple of brothers to secure the throne of Egypt. She was officially married to another brother, which happened a lot. (He probably never touched her.) (Hmmm. She may finally have had him killed too. You lose track.) Some royals married their moms, though that was considered a little over the top, even by the ancients. If you took part in stabbing Julius Caesar on the floor of the Senate, you didn’t necessarily lose your chance at the throne. Marc Antony made the mistake of getting goofy over Cleopatra, which gave an opening to his fellow Triumvirate member Octavian, which doomed both Antony and Cleopatra.

By the way, as best we can tell from her portraits on coins and such, Cleopatra wasn’t actually all that cute, but she had a great personality and fabulous clothes. She knew how to make an impression. Most ancient rulers had two means to get their way: wiles and violence. Cleopatra had three: wiles, violence, and sex. Did she love Marc Antony, or was she just using him–as she had Julius Caesar–to get in good with the Romans? If so, it went a little awry.


Essentially, in the beginning, it was this: I was 68 and wanted to do this trek before it was too late–the Royal Arch Route, generally agreed to be the hairiest of the regular trails in Grand Canyon. Examined in ordinary grownup terms, it was no place for an aging musician and writer to get himself into. There’s a lot of clambering over large boulders in a streambed and some episodes of, as it is termed, “breathtaking exposure.” “Exposure” meaning the close proximity of drops that, if you fall off, you tend to die. Its side trail, to an exquisite little canyon called Elves’ Chasm, is the scene, the Park Service description helpfully tells us, of “a number of gruesome accidents.”

The Royal Arch Route is also noted for its beauty, the climax being the eponymous and splendid natural arch in the middle of the circuit. It was only “discovered” in 1959, by legendary Canyon explorer Harvey Butchart (Native Americans have presumably known about it for millennia). After the arch there’s a much-dreaded rappel down a 20-foot cliff. I’d been dreaming about the Royal Arch Route for years. Meanwhile in my annual spring Canyon treks I had completed most of the other, easier, traditional trails. This was to be my twelfth Canyon trek.

Those trips were not without incident. Talk to any old hiker, you hear about misadventure. In eleven Canyon treks as nominal leader I’d seen an old friend take a little misstep, trip, and hurtle down a slope that could have killed him—but didn’t, as it happened. On another trek in a heat wave a member of our group fainted in potentially fatal condition from heat sickness. There were some bad hours, but the end she didn’t die either. We’ve encountered various rattlesnakes, experienced the entertainments of severe dehydration, and so on. I knew the risks pretty well. I was also a hiker of 45 years experience, in decent shape for my age, with pretty good knees, and over the months I’d spent hiking in Grand Canyon I and everyone involved had lived to tell the tale.

So I know what the Canyon entails. It isn’t the walking or the long haul up and out, it’s the desert heat and the water and the distances that can get you. We all have our ways of dealing with it. As I tell people, I’m not about strength, I’m about finesse. (First rule of finesse: You can always walk slower.) I know how to calculate the water. Preparing for the Royal Arch I’d done a decent amount of spring training to get ready, more than usual. As I was to be reminded this time, however: when potential disaster looms, finesse only gets you so far.

From the Park Service I got my hike reservation for Norm Bendroth and me the usual five months ahead. Given the thousands of aspirants, that’s what you do. Norm is an old friend and hiking partner, a Congregationalist minister who wears it lightly. He’s strong as a bull. My nickname for Norm: “Trail Animal.” To prepare, I read every Royal Arch trip report I could find online and studied the risks—not so much the actually easy rappel as before that, the boulders and pouroffs in Royal Arch Creek. And of course, let’s not forget the exposure. In reports I’d read about a spot of severe, aka breathtaking exposure just before the rappel. Unseen, that spot had gnawed at my imagination for years.

I was, in short, a little bit afraid of this trail. Which whetted my appetite for doing it. Before it was too late.

In the Royal Arch creekbed I knew we were going to have to scramble over boulders and ledges, pass packs down on a line, maybe wade in water, etc. There is one spot where there’s an impassable pour-off in the creek and your choices are, to the left, what is familiarly called the Ledge of Death, a stretch where you tiptoe sideways on a four-inch foothold over a sixty-foot drop, with not much handhold (as one veteran put it: you’re grabbing an A-cup when you you’d prefer a D-cup). To the right of the pour-off, however, is a crumbling trail with a squeeze-through bit known as the Rabbit Hole—and that route is relatively safe. Between the alternatives of Ledge of Death and Rabbit Hole, most hikers choose the Rabbit Hole. We sure as hell planned to.

Meanwhile, in friend Norm I had a hiking partner who I knew was unflappable and strong and experienced, who could lend a hand if necessary. Brother, was it necessary. Likewise the kindness of strangers. The strangeness of strangers was another matter.

Our intricate comedy of errors that kept threatening to become something far nastier is a sort of mini-saga, with a varied cast and episodes of comedy both light and dark.

We knew about the hour and a half drive on 35 miles of steadily deteriorating dirt roads that are the route from touristy Grand Canyon Village to the remote Royal Arch trailhead. We rented an SUV with good clearance. When we got there the two-foot-deep ruts in the middle of the road got our attention sure enough. You have to hope the road is dry, not muddy, because then you can get hopelessly stuck. For us it was dry and firm, at least. In the bad spots you inch along, trying to keep the tires on the narrow bits between foot-deep ruts. It was one of the damnedest tracks calling itself a road that either of us had ever seen. Actually, in the end, it was kind of fun.

We made it to the trailhead without incident. So there we were, in a place I’d dreamed of for years. Norm locked his cell phone and wallet in the glove compartment and we geared up. As usual I stashed my wallet and single electronic car key in my pack. In that casual act, the saga began.

The first day’s hike down the South Bass and Royal Arch trails was pleasant and as they say uneventful. The prospects of buttes and canyons was glorious as usual, the weather sunny, the trail cheerfully downhill. For the moment temps were some ten degrees cooler than usual in mid-May, in the 80s rather than 90s. As always in the desert, that made a critical difference. After a steep descent of a mile and a half there’s a confluence of trails. We turned west on the Royal Arch Route for a long traverse gradually descending toward the creek. At the trail junction we cached two half-liter bottles of water in case we needed them when we circled back to that spot on the return. Boy howdy, did we need them. Or rather Norm did, because I would not be present at the time.

On the second morning, after clambering over an ungodly half mile of rough talus, we reached the dry upper section of Royal Arch Creek and began another gentle descent on smooth rock, watching for water as we went. Now we were in a tight canyon hike, the beauties more intimate. We knew it would be dry for a while. I’d read that there was reliable water near the arch three miles down, also water in potholes before you get there—but we didn’t know where, and the miles were going to be slow with all the clambering. We also knew that this had been an unusually dry spring, so the potholes might have dried up, or what water was left might be too skanky to consider unless you’re desperate. At that point we had enough water and weren’t planning to be desperate.

Here I’ll note that I have a peculiarity of mind that can serve me well in my capacity as a composer and writer, but not always so well in the rest of my life: I get an idea lodged in my head and that idea can overshadow everything else, such as what is actually in front of my face. You can ask my ex-wives about this. For some reason I was convinced from my reading of trip reports that the Ledge of Death/ Rabbit Hole bypass was a mile or two later, in the middle or at the end of the boulder scrambles in the creek.

That’s what was in my head concerning the Rabbit Hole. As we innocently made our way down the creek we came to an impassable pour-off. After a whatthehell moment Norm spotted a rudimentary path up the slope to the right around the impasse, marked with rock cairns. We forged up, then made our way along a rubbly but decent trail on a steep but only modestly scary slope. Any minute we expected to find a trail back down to the creek. At one point we came to a small opening through which we had to pass our packs and crawl. “Gosh!” I said brightly, “this is a lot like the Rabbit Hole!” Of course, this wasn’t like the Rabbit Hole, it was the Rabbit Hole. This pour-off was not the last obstacle in the creek, but rather the first. That simple concept never entered our minds.

Often a single mistake sets off a train of them. A touch of uncertainty invaded our awareness. Because we didn’t recognize the Rabbit Hole when we were in it, we didn’t look hard enough for the trail down to the creekbed just after it. Instead, we followed what became a splendid false trail, well supplied with false cairns, high above the creek. After another 45 minutes or so, trail and cairns petered out in the middle of nowhere on a crumbling trailless slope. Realizing we were on a goose chase, I looked down and told Norm I thought I could see a spot below where we could get down to the creekbed. Okay, Norm said. He’s an agreeable guy. We made our way down the bouldery cactusy slope and found, naturally, an impassable cliff above the Royal Arch creekbed, where we needed to be.

At that point it was around noon. We were getting tired and running low on water. We rested and ate lunch, which was at least one good idea. I suggested bushwhacking upstream along the cliff to look for a way down into the creek. No, Norm sensibly said. Unpleasant though it may be, we need to clamber back up to the false trail and retrace our steps, because that will reliably return us to where we went wrong. It took us the better part of an hour of miserable scrambling to get back up to the bad trail. After a half hour or so retracing our steps Norm discovered the trail down to the creekbed that we’d missed. By then it was midafternoon.

Our excursion on the false trail had cost us over two hours, much of our energy, and most of our water. Being low on water in the desert is the definition of what you do not need.

We began forging again down Royal Arch Creek and, one after another, dealt with the rock scrambles we’d been anticipating. At one point to go over a fifteen-foot boulder you pass your pack down on a line, slide several feet down on your stomach, and catch a rock with your left foot at the bottom. I passed my pack to Norm, slid several feet down, caught the rock with my left foot, put out my right foot for balance, found air and toppled. My left foot catching in a seam between rocks saved me a five-foot drop onto my head in the creekbed that might have broken my neck—or maybe cleared my mind.

At a couple more spots we had to tie the nylon webbing to our packs and pass them down, or the scramble would have been riskier. This is easy enough. You slide the pack down the incline, your partner secures it, you toss the line down. Meanwhile as the afternoon wore on we were getting steadily more tired and dehydrated. Finally we were running on fumes, numbly putting one foot after another. From dehydration our voices had become a hoarse croak. There kept being no water in the creek. I remember thinking that this would all be kind of fun if we hadn’t gotten delayed on the bad trail and if we weren’t tired and thirsty and anxious.

Were we scared? Not particularly. We knew there was going to be water in the creek sooner or later, and we knew that you didn’t have to be a trained rock climber to get over the boulders. We figured we could keep going after dark if we had to. (We didn’t know yet that we had only one functional headlamp—Norm, bless his heart, hadn’t checked his batteries before he left and they were nearly dead.) Meanwhile—this was the luck of that day—, temps remained in the mid-80s. So as we forged down the creek we were dry but not dangerously dehydrated, beat but not really bonked. This being a creek bed, there were occasional patches of trees and close walls and shade.

After we’d plodded and scrambled for an hour or so, as we were searching for the route for yet another downclimb, Norm called out that he saw water in a pothole below us. Gallons of water! he cried. It took some dicey scrambling to get down; we passed packs and slid down a rock face on our butts, clutching my nylon webbing for safety. When we got there the pothole proved to be a gloriously skanky affair, the water dark brown, tadpoles in residence, also a couple of frogs and an enormous white scorpion. At this point it all looked wonderful. There was flat rock beside it where we could sleep.

We began filtering the water with our two hand pumps. The tadpoles and the scorpion didn’t seem to mind. (We thought the scorpion was dead, but it wasn’t—it was gone next morning.) Norm’s filter was not made for things like this; the water came out of it brownish, but at least didn’t taste too disgusting. I had a ceramic filter that was slow and had to be cleaned constantly, but it gave us fresh-looking water and would not clog with grit as Norm’s was inevitably going to. As dusk came on we discovered that Norm’s flashlight was nearly dead.

After pumping water for the better part of an hour, we made dinner on my camp stove and got ready for sleep, laying out our sleeping pads and bags on the rock. We slept very well.

Early next morning as we were eating breakfast we heard yelling, somebody asking if there was water. We yelled back, yes, there’s a pothole. In a minute a bearded young guy appeared from around the corner. He was so dehydrated that his voice, like ours the day before, was a frazzled croak. Can I use your filter? he said. Sure.

For the next half hour he pumped water from the skanky hole and talked. Let’s call him Jake. “My girlfriend wants to kill me,” Jake said. He did variations on that for quite a while. She was waiting in their tent a half hour above us. He’d brought her down the creek on the notorious Point Huitzil route, they had ended up clambering over scarily exposed rocks by headlamp and running out of water. She had half a liter of Gatorade left but wouldn’t share it with him. She’d been screaming abuse at Jake pretty much continually since yesterday: idiot, incompetent asshole, and so on. In the course of their relationship over the past months, he told us, they had hiked many miles, she had taught him rock climbing. But this looked like the end. He didn’t know if she would be waiting for him when he went back up. Finally, with several liters of water he’d filtered with our pump, he thanked us and climbed up and away. We figured we’d never see him again.

At least in the ensuing herd of snafus we didn’t get sick from the water. Norm and I packed up and continued clambering down the creek. Of course, in a half hour or so we came to clear flowing water. Just before it there was a bit of scary ledge, inching along sideways with a short but nasty fall underneath. I concluded in the middle of inching that this was the Ledge of Death. I was quite wrong. It was a run-of-the-mill scary ledge. Later I dubbed it the Little Ledge of Near-Death. It was only next day that I put one and one together and realized we had been through the Rabbit Hole early on.

After a rest at a sweet little pool we were forging blithely on when I glanced up and realized, in disbelief, that we were under the Royal Arch. The trail down to it is a spur off the main trail, but we had missed the turnoff out of the creek and blundered onto our destination for the day. But this was great news, after all! We dropped our packs and prepared to relax for the afternoon and night.

To our surprise, in early afternoon Jake and his girlfriend arrived. We’ll call her Elena. They were semi-reconciled, at least speaking. She still intended to kill him, she told me. What are you going to do it with, I asked politely, your hiking poles? No, a rock, she said. But they seemed to be sort of getting along. We chatted pleasantly. She said she had just completed something like a thousand-mile solo hike on the Pacific coast. Her next ambition was to spend some four years on a hike from South America to, as I remember, Alaska. She had asked Jake to join her on this historic trek. He was skeptical, and so forth and so on. All this amounted to clues of coming weirdness, but we didn’t notice. She told me about her hiking website. (On my return home I couldn’t find such a website.)

The rest of the day was uneventful in the best way: calm and lovely. The Royal Arch is a marvelous, many-layered, stately piece of limestone. I teared up at the first sight, having dreamed of this place for so many years. I spend hours lying on the rocks contemplating the arch’s intricate folds, the blocks of stone that had flaked off over the eons. I thought about the ten oceans that had covered this area, advancing and retreating, the remains of the oceans’ shellfish forming the limestone I was looking at. Here were millions of years laid open before our eyes. Jake and Elena clambered up to the top of the arch, but we were too lazy to try it. We all had a good night’s sleep.

So far the hike had involved its unpleasant bits, but was otherwise going well enough, if anything better than I’d expected. So far.

Next morning Jake and Elena set out from the arch ahead of us, which turned out to be fortunate. Norm and I got out about 7 AM and discovered that in climbing back to the main trail we had to clamber up some of the obstacles we’d clambered down the day before and hoped to have seen the last of. But we were eager to get to the rappel and down to the river, which appeared to be the last troublesome part of the hike. The exposure I’d read about above the rappel was never far from my mind.

As we forged upward we heard Jake and Elena shouting. We looked up to find them on the slope above us, on the trail going toward the rappel and the river. They told us where the turn was out of the creek, which we’d all missed on the way down and they’d missed again on the way up, so they’d had to double back. This saved us some gnarly uncertainty, because we might also have kept clambering up past the turnoff.

With their help we found the turn out of the creek, trekked up the steep climb (my uphill pace stately as always), then commenced a mostly gentle trek flat and downhill toward the rappel, though some of it inches from a cliff. The Park Service trail description had a “long hour” to the rappel. It was closer to two hours. Just before the rappel lay the bit of exposure I’d been dreading for years. I had gotten the impression that it was a combination of rubbly loose rock—called scree–and a cliff, which is my least favorite situation. In my hiking career I’ve had a couple of potentially final encounters with scree on a slope near a cliff. Once, in the Alps, I was flat on my stomach trying to hold on to a little rock and inching toward an abyss when two men appeared to save me. I never forget that moment.

And now, dear reader, comes the little irony of our story. When we got to that bit of exposure I’d been dreading for years, I immediately realized it was not that bad. It was a ten-foot downclimb that was, yes, a few steep feet from a cliff at the bottom, but the handholds were excellent—spiky volcanic rock that might bloody your fingers, but was the opposite of slippery. Norm went right down with his pack on. I elected to tie webbing to my pack, as we’d done several times before, kick it over the edge for Norm to secure, then make the easy clamber down.

Communication, communication, communication. That was the crux of the issue here. I tied the nylon webbing to my pack, as I’d done before. I kicked it over the edge, as I’d done before. I lowered it down toward Norm as usual. Finally I couldn’t see my pack, but below me I saw Norm lean over to secure it. He said something vague that I interpreted to mean I’ve got it. I neglected to say four easy words: Have you got it? Instead, as I’d done several times before on the trip, I casually tossed the webbing down. I remember thinking that we were getting to be old hands at this pack-passing stuff.

Looking over the ledge I saw my pack tumbling downward end over end, trailing the webbing. I screamed Grab it! Norm couldn’t grab it. It had never been firmly in his hands. In silence we watched the pack bounce down six feet and take wing over the edge of the cliff. It sounded like this: crunch, crunch, a second of silence, then from below whump, another second, whump again. Silence.

We stood for a moment in shock. My pack was gone. My whole entire mammyjamming pack. If Norm had hurled himself to grab it, he would have gone over the cliff after it. The aforementioned, bitter irony: the exposure above the rappel that I’d been dreading for years turned out to be no problem for my person, but a fatal problem for my gear. In forty-five years of backpacking I’d never lost anything. Now I’d lost everything.

One at a time, the implications began to crowd in. Too many implications to take in at once, but starting with the simple part: four days into a desert wilderness with at least two more days to get out, we had lost half our food, half our canteens, our only camp stove, all my sleeping gear and most of my clothes, our only functional headlamp and only reliable water filter, and assorted other stuff. Including, come to think of it, my wallet. Oh, and sweet Jesus, the electronic car key. That meant that when we finally managed to struggle up to the rim at the end of the hike, the road to civilization was 35 miles of baking, waterless, rutted, sparsely traveled dirt.

The fun was done. Now the game was survival. We didn’t speak what we both knew: it was a hell of a fix, the fix we were in. Not enough food, not enough canteens, no stove so no way to rehydrate most of the food we did have, nothing for me to sleep on or under, no flashlight, no water filter, no first-aid kit, and so on and so forth. There were distinct possibilities for danger and still better possibilities for wretchedness, as in shivering all night, staggering along for miles without water sort of wretchedness. As in falling off a ledge in the dark, drinking unfiltered river water, and so forth and so on.

But, OK! All right! We’re resourceful! We’re tough old buzzards!! We ourselves didn’t go over the cliff!!! Examining the slope below us, I saw that maybe we could make our way to the bottom of the cliff and find my pack. It would likely be exploded from the fall, but also might not. In any case, we could salvage important stuff: canteens, food, stove, sleeping gear, flashlight, day pack, wallet and car key. It hadn’t sounded like the pack fell that far, maybe less than a hundred feet. I climbed down to join Norm and we took another look at the slope beneath us. The first thing we saw was my foam sleeping pad sitting on a ledge. That provided a bubble of hope.

First we had to get down the rappel, often dubbed “infamous.” We weren’t sweating it. There were ropes left in place there and we had a climbing harness that was, thank the hiking deities, in Norm’s pack. Both of us had rappelled before, though to be sure not in decades. When we got to the rappel it took us ten minutes of fumbling to figure out how to rig the harness, more time to get the rope fixed right in the carabineer. But soon enough we were both down. Something else that could otherwise have been fun. From above the rappel I’d tossed our hiking sticks down as usual, and that had been another bad idea: Norm’s ended up bouncing off the trail to the edge of a cliff, one of mine was stuck in a tree on a slope beside the cliff. We got all the sticks back, but one of mine had lost its lower segment and was ten inches short. I poled with a limp from then on. This was the first intimation that the gods of snafu were not done with us.

Once down the rappel we set out offtrail to find the cliff and my pack, bushwhacking down another rough bouldery slope. After ten minutes of scrambling I yelled to Norm: I see it! A bit of blue in the grass under a tree! My pack being blue. We clattered down to the spot and found it was the blue top of a canteen. We assumed it was one of mine since it was the same brand, and we also assumed that it lay in the debris field of my pack. But it wasn’t my canteen or my debris field. What we’d found was a graveyard of canteens that over years had fallen from the same cliff my pack had gone over.

In an hour of searching all over, we didn’t find my pack. Just more canteens. Finally, having as far as we could tell covered the whole slope—a sliding, stumbling misery, with cactus as seasoning—we gave up. We gathered three canteens to take with us because we knew we were going to need them. In the desert, water is life and canteens hold the water. We should have picked up more canteens. We were going to be on the Colorado River that night, but the following night was potentially a dry camp, and 24 hours of safe hiking in desert heat requires about seven liters a person. Norm had only his own canteens, totaling seven liters. We’d added three more from under the cliff, but that wasn’t enough. We still had his water filter, but I knew it would clog up before long, and it did. We’d be drinking straight from the Colorado.

The trek down to the river was depressing but uneventful. We walked in stunned silence. As we reached the sandy shore we saw Jake and Elena standing looking up toward us. When we got to them they were laughing with relief. They’d gotten worried when we didn’t appear and were about to climb back up the steep slope to look for us. Um, it’s not really good news, we said.

When they heard about my pack Jake and Elena were instantly sympathetic. They went into rescue mode. They were both experienced hikers and, they told us, trained EMTs. They began giving us what turned out to be critical help and advice. Elena lent us her water filter, which meant that for the time being we didn’t have to drink straight from the river. Flag some rafters down, they said, they’ll probably give you stuff. On cue a flock of rafts appeared. We flagged them down. The leader was exceedingly helpful. From them we got two canteens full of ice water, a rudimentary day pack, some power bars and the like, including a bag of goldfish crackers, and a fleece blanket. In the next days each of those items made our lives, mostly my life, significantly less miserable. We were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

Jake had a GPS and allied gadget with which he could send short emails. He emailed his father, who got to work looking for help. He emailed the park rangers asking for a ride for us from the trailhead two days hence. He emailed Norm’s wife telling her to call the rangers. (Norm’s wife had no idea what rangers were meant, hadn’t read the trip details Norm left, and freaked. You don’t want to get a message from unidentified “rangers” mentioning an undefined “problem.” She began planning Norm’s funeral.) The emails were a hassle because communication with the satellite was sketchy. For an hour Jake walked back and forth along the beach holding his gadget in the air, looking for a connection.

Jake and Elena insisted on heading up and looking for my pack. Don’t do it, we said. It’s not your problem, you won’t find it anyway. Stick to your own plans, go out to beautiful Elves Chasm, spend the afternoon dipping in the spring there, we’ll be fine. They insisted. They set out, and after an hour returned with of course no pack. It’s not too late for Elves Chasm! we said, but they didn’t feel like it. We drifted toward dusk chatting awkwardly, Jake trudging around trying to get a satellite connection, me dreading the prospect of trying to sleep in dirt with only a fleece blanket over me when the temps by dawn would be in the 50s at best. At least here on the beach I’d be bedding on sand.

As the hours went on we noticed an evolution in Jake and Elena’s attitude, from concern about us back to their own concerns: Do we try to finish our hike as intended (they were already behind their permit itinerary when they met us) or bag it, stay with Norm and Jan, help them out, give them a ride back to civilization at the rim?

But after all, their not going overboard with us was only proper, Norm and I thought. We’re not in serious danger at the moment, and with the help we’d already received—above all the rafters’ daypack, canteens, and blanket— it looked like we had a decent chance of getting to the rim in two days without too much danger, though it was likely to be a hot, thirsty, unpleasant business. And of course, getting to the rim wasn’t to get home but only to a locked car and a long dry road. But we didn’t want to be a burden to Jake and Elena, and they’d given us important help already. The hope was that a ranger would meet us at the rim, after we informed them via Jake’s email when we’d be out. But that was no sure thing.

From that guardedly hopeful point the situation drifted steadily downhill.

For the moment, at least, at the river we had all the water we wanted, and their pump to filter it. Our next night’s campsite in Copper Canyon nine miles away, though, was uncertain as to water and a subject of concern under the circumstances—for them as well as for us, because they were planning to camp there too. Copper Canyon may or may not have water, and you have to descend off the trail to find it. The sure thing was to keep going past Copper Canyon and down to the river—but that was a strenuous four miles further, making a 13-mile day. And the temps for tomorrow we knew were going to be back up to normal, meaning in the 90s and getting hotter as you descend. In those temps we all knew the drill: you start walking at dawn, hole up in the shade around 10AM and wait out the heat until 4PM. High temperatures suck water and energy out of you and mess with your judgment, with potentially fatal consequences.

At dusk I addressed the problem of how to bed down under the stars in beach sand with as little misery as possible. I didn’t expect the results to be comfortable enough to actually get any sleep. Even on my usual plush sleeping gear—two pads, an inflatable and a foam, plus a down bag—I usually sleep fitfully. As dusk faded I decided I needed to dig a butt-sized trench in the sand, test it out and refine it, then scrape out a slope for my back. It turned out to work pretty well, actually verged on comfy. And I had the marvelous fleece blanket from the rafters to put over me, though I knew that by the middle of the night it wouldn’t be enough. In the Canyon you go to sleep in high temps, then by morning it can be forty degrees cooler. I also knew from experience that an overnight shivering on the ground is a uniquely disagreeable experience. I went to sleep with nothing over me, woke up in a couple of hours and pulled the fleece blanket over me, woke up two hours after that shivering.

I waked Norm and begged clothes. (He had his sleeping bag and inflatable pad, though the latter was flat, having sprung a leak. As usual he was sleeping fine.) From him I got a fleece sweater and a heavy t-shirt and his ground cloth, all of which I put on sequentially over the rest of the night. By dawn it was his skimpy ground cloth over everything that, barely, kept me from the shakes.

Our breakfasts having gone over the cliff, next morning we had half a freeze-dried dinner, hot water to rehydrate provided by Jake’s stove. It turned out to be our last more or less full meal in two days. By this point Jake and Elena had decided not to hike to the rim with us, which we all knew was going to cause us problems if no ranger turned up. But that, again, was not their problem. Meanwhile they were beginning to get a bit prickly in general, as much with each other as with us.

But they were expecting to meet us at the next campsite in Copper Canyon, the one with the dicey water down from the trail, at the old Bass Camp. Previously I’d been given email directions by an experienced Canyon hiker about how to get down to that one-time miner’s camp in Copper Canyon, where usually there was water to be found. But there might not be any water now, because of the dry weather. Moreover, my advisor’s detailed directions on how to spot the camp, including a photo, had gone over the cliff, etc., etc.

In my field of classical music, there’s a device called counterpoint, in which the whole of the music is made up of intertwined melodies. This kind of music is called contrapuntal. From this point, our problems became a contrapuntal web of strangeness and incipient calamity.

We got onto the trail along the river before Elena and Jake. Given that Norm was manifestly stronger, we agreed that as we climbed away from the river I’d wear the daypack the rafters gave us, holding all our canteens, then on the flat I’d take over Norm’s hefty pack. We clambered up flesh-ripping volcanic boulders for an hour or so before we reached the flat and changed packs. It was early morning and we were mostly in shade, so I stuffed my hat in my pocket. At Garnet Canyon midway it’s reported to be hard to find the trail out, and indeed it took us a half hour of poking around to locate it. There were a couple of spots where you had to haul yourself up to a ledge with teetering rocks for a foothold.

After another couple of hours we came to a bit of shade to rest and have some gorp and a cautious amount of water. It was there that I discovered my hat had fallen out of my pocket. Being in Grand Canyon in the heat without a hat is not a good thing, not good at all. I leaned back on a rock and added it to the bad-news list. Norm had a bandana I could use, better than nothing but barely. About a half hour later who should arrive but Elena and Jake, who with a flourish produced my hat. He said they’d found it hanging on a bush beside the trail. The bush had probably jerked it out of my pocket. But after all this was good luck! Maybe our fortunes had changed!! (They hadn’t.)

We hung for a while. Elena and Jake seemed lovey-dovey. I saw her writing in his journal: “I [heart sign] you Jake.” Awwww, I thought. They left before us, heading for Copper Canyon. I gave them the best directions down to water there I could remember. We set out a bit later, then after a while found them in the shade again, looking bushed. It struck me that Norm and I seemed to be having less trouble with the heat than they were. We kept going and before long they passed us again.

By about 5PM, after nine miles of hot and heavy hiking, we arrived at Copper Canyon. We picked our way along the west side of the canyon, looking down anxiously for Bass Camp and water. No sign of it. Where the trail crossed the dry creekbed we found Elena and Jake sitting slumped and unhappy. They hadn’t found the way to Bass Camp either. But Jake had clambered down some ledges below and found skanky water in potholes. We needed that water, badly. And Jake had one piece of fabulous news: the rangers had emailed him and said they’d meet us at the rim at 7 PM tomorrow. We had a ride to civilization! Where we could attack the problem of retrieving the car. But 7 PM seemed plenty of time to hike out tomorrow. Plenty of time!! Plenty of time… But in the morning we had to confirm the rendezvous by email with Jake’s GPS gadget, or the rangers might not show up.

Norm was tired but he was still the stronger of the two of us, so he agreed to go down with Jake and fill up the canteens. Norm’s water filter was clogged and useless, but Jake had Elena’s filter and some nifty water treatment drops that would not remove the skank but at least purify it. With a packful of canteens they headed down.

Elena and I sat on the rock, dusk approaching. As we waited we chatted awkwardly. She said her flashlight was going dead and she didn’t have any spare batteries. (She’s an experienced hiker. Experienced hikers pack spare batteries.) That meant that the only surviving flashlight among the four of us was Jake’s, which he’d taken with him. As dusk arrived Elena’s chat got darker. I’ve had it with Jake, she said. But this afternoon you’d written I heart you! I reminded her. No I didn’t, she said. Anyway, it’s over. As dark came on the mood descended to deep gloom.

Finally it was some two hours since Norm and Jake had headed down. I was peering into the darkness with increasing concern. Finally I said to Elena, They could be in trouble. You’ve got a little flashlight power left, you need to go down and… I’m not going, Elena said. But they could be… I’m not going, she said.

A while more and I saw a pinpoint of light below. Jake and Norm didn’t arrive back for another half hour. They had been hauling water up tricky ledges and they were both exhausted. But they’d filled the canteens. Most of the water was raw and disgusting. Jake said Elena’s filter had clogged after a couple of liters (she had told us it never clogged), and the rest of the twelve liters or so was unfiltered skank.

At this point Elena was more or less hissing and spitting at Jake. He stayed glumly quiet, taking an occasional toot from a bottle of whiskey. He’d shared it before, but not now. Norm and I took stock. We had enough water to get up to the rim, barely—about nine liters though only one filtered, and we’d cached another liter partway up. We could use Jake’s purification drops on the unfiltered gunk. All the food we had left was a freezedried dinner for one, which had to be rehydrated with hot water from Jake’s stove. The four of us were down to one flashlight, Jake’s. Feeling our way in the dark, Norm and I unloaded our stuff across a boulder from them.

From that point things among us became, oh, let’s call it excruciating. Elena was calling Jake every name in the book. He was quietly hostile. In whispers, Norm told me that as they gathered water Jake had told him Elena has a bipolar condition that gives her wild swings of mood and affection. Every day is up and down, adore him and hate him. He loved her and wanted it to work, but she was a rollercoaster. As the evening went on Elena was hating on Jake noisily. As she cursed at him we had to ask, “Um, can we use your stove? And your flashlight for a few minutes?” Without getting actually insulting, Jake was putting out vibes that he had his own problems at this point and ours were no longer relevant. We didn’t press it. We already owed both of them a lot in terms of advice and help.

Then Jake told us he had dropped his GPS somewhere. He was fairly sure it was next to the water pockets down below, but anyway he didn’t have it. We weren’t as certain as he was. And without his GPS there was no email, so no way to confirm our arrival date to the rangers, thus we might have no ride for the 35 miles of desert road.

Then it transpired that Jake had also lost the single other thing we needed: his water purification kit. It was surely lying on the ground somewhere in camp, but again, that was no dependable thing, and we couldn’t waste our one functional flashlight looking for it . Norm and I had the one liter of good water Jake had pumped for us before the filter clogged. The rest of what we had was yellow water with brown crud in it that looked like some distilled essence of disease. Jake noted that drinking bad water usually takes a couple of days to make you sick, so maybe we’d have time to get to the rim before we started wanting to die. We were not reassured.

What in general Norm and I felt at this point was intensely apprehensive. But under the circumstances we stopped begging Jake and Elena for flashlight, stove, water, anything, and left them to their devices. Elena’s affections for Jake had gone over an emotional cliff. We climbed a boulder in the dark and tried to find our sleeping stuff and the bottle of good water among a welter of gear lying on the ground. Finally in desperation I started lighting matches, one at a time, holding each one down to our equipment until it burned my fingers, then lighting another. We couldn’t find the water bottle, couldn’t find Norm’s sleeping pad. That went on until the match striker was worn out. This is it. I thought. This is the pits. But it wasn’t the pits yet, not at all.

We found what stuff we could find. I scraped out a hole in the dirt for my backside, made a mound of dirt for a pillow, and we settled down for the night. Jake had told us they were going to sleep late next morning, but Norm and I needed to leave early. Generously, Jake said to wake him up and maybe in the daylight he could find his water purification kit. We tried to sleep. That was hard, because at that point the two things we most essentially needed, clean water and a ride from the rim, were both in doubt. Meanwhile for much of the night in their tent just above us Elena was weeping and wailing, and I don’t mean metaphorically.

Dawn. We pulled ourselves upright and packed our gear, such as it was. It was about seven miles to the rim, the last couple steeply uphill, but the trail was said to be good. Norm would take his pack, I’d haul the daypack with all the water, but my load was still far lighter than Norm’s. He didn’t complain about that or anything else.

We needed to wake up Jake and hope he could find his water treatment. Norm took care of that delicate business. Meanwhile I headed out to take a leak, and got lost. For the first time on a hike in my life, sweating, floundering-around lost.

My best guess is that because I’d never seen the area clearly in daylight, I didn’t have any points of orientation. Anyway, somehow I wandered away, couldn’t find the campsite or even the creek bed, and in classic fashion my increasingly anxious efforts to get back to camp only got me more lost. It’s crazy for someone who hasn’t been in that situation, but as I well knew, in the desert you can easily die this way, going out to have a piddle and becoming coyote fodder. Sometimes they don’t find the bones for years. Finally I had to do what I didn’t want to, scream for help. Besides the embarrassment, I did not want to wake up Elena and set off another round of tsuris. After a bit I heard Jake yelling back, remarkably far below me. Sheepishly I stumbled back to camp.

Jake had found his water treatment drops. He looked drained and distracted. He couldn’t believe I’d wandered off. I couldn’t either. I heaved a few sighs and sat down with the drops to treat our nine liters of water. On the first day on the way down, near where we cached water, we’d passed plastic jugs with some two gallons of water lying beside the trail on the Esplanade. We’d see that water again on the way up, but I considered it to be cached by somebody and therefore forbidden unless we were in life-threatening trouble. Anyway, in terms of water we’d be OK more or less. It was imperative to get up to the rim by 7PM because that was what we told Jake to tell the rangers—if, of course, he managed to find his lost GPS and email them to confirm we’d be there. With after all no choice, we presumed he’d succeed. And by the way, since we had no flashlight it was also imperative to get to the rim before dark, because there were ledges and other iffy bits on the trail. We’d gotten offtrack a couple of times on the way down, in full daylight. Even in summer it gets dark in the Canyon early, by about 7:30.

I started treating the skanky water in our canteens with Jake’s treatment as I’d remembered him doing with their water. I put in the two sets of seven drops from two little bottles, then waited fifteen minutes. After a half hour I thought to read the instructions, which told me I’d been doing it wrong: you mix drops from each little bottle in a cap provided, wait fifteen minutes, then pour it in the canteen. I started over again. To treat our water took some hour and a half, during which the temperature climbed steadily. We got going some two hours later than we’d planned.

The hike over to the meeting point of the Royal Arch and South Bass trails took some three hours. When we got to the South Bass, our way up to the rim, it was after 10 AM and over ninety degrees. We did what you’re supposed to do, hunkered down in the shade until 4 PM, when the temps usually start dropping and the sun is less fierce. It’s a blank existence, waiting out the sun. Usually it’s too hot to read or to think much. If you’re lucky you enjoy the landscape, watch the clouds. You try to doze, though you’re steadily having to move as your shade is invaded by the sun. As 4PM approached we filtered our water through Norm’s bandanna to remove the worst of the gunk.

Now it was 4 PM and we had some three hours to climb about 3 miles and some 2500 feet up to the rim to meet the ranger—if Jake had been able to email the rangers and one was there, which was anything but certain. We preferred not to think about that. We headed up the South Bass and fell into our usual uphill pattern: Norm being significantly fitter, lighter, and younger, he’d get ahead then stop and wait for me. So it went for an hour. About 5PM we met for another rest stop, then he headed up. He was still carrying his heavy pack. I was schlepping our steadily decreasing water supply in the daypack the rafters gave me.

Before long, hauling myself upward, I took stock and came to a depressing conclusion. My legs were doing all right, but my wind was lousy. I hadn’t really done enough aerobic training for the trip, and unlike other hikes my wind had not gotten better as I went. Through the previous winter I’d had a nagging bronchitis that kept me from exercising and generally afflicted my lungs. I suspect that had something to do with my wind in the Canyon. In any case, as I slogged upward it came to me that there was no way I was going to make it to the rim by 7 PM. After that, meanwhile, it was going to be dark and we had no flashlight, and the upper South Bass was too rough a trail to flounder around on in the dark.

I started shouting for Norm, who had forged ahead. He heard me, barely, and waited. Another few minutes and he would have been out of earshot. I caught up with him in what proved a rare patch of tree shade on the trail. I’m not going to make it in time, I said. You’re much faster than I am. You have to go up alone and meet the ranger. I’ll stay here and wait for a ranger to come and get me in the morning. (The possibility that there might be no ranger to meet him at the rim tonight had vanished from our calculations.)

At this point most hiking partners would have flipped. They would have called me a jerk, a quitter, an all-around so-and-so who’s putting it all on them and by the way had been responsible for losing my fucking pack. In fact at that point I felt like a jerk, a quitter, a wimp, an asshole. I knew I could make it to the rim, but there was no way I would make it before dark or anywhere close to the rendezvous time, and I’d run out of water hours before I got there. Meaning in any case I’d have to bed down on the trail somewhere, and I’d have a thirsty and wretched night of it. In the end, given what we knew at the time, whatever my sense of failure, at that point I was right about what needed to be done.

Norm vented none of those accusations. All right, he said, and that was that. We divided our stuff. He left me a liter and a half of water—enough, barely, if I stayed in the shade and didn’t hike—, a whistle, all his spare clothes, a bag of Goldfish and some granola Jake had given us (we’d had practically nothing to eat since splitting a half dinner the night before). I had my fleece blanket and a pile of dirt for a pillow. We shook hands. “God be with you,” I said. “And with you,” said Rev. Norm. And he headed up out of sight.

I was alone, eventually probably miles from anybody. Was I scared now? No, though a little apprehension was in order. I felt irrationally confident that a ranger would come to extract me in the morning. Was I bored in the next five hours before I could go to sleep? Not particularly. I was in a lovely glade, one of the few shady spots like that on the South Bass Trail. I sat on a rock for a while and looked down the creek canyon to the buttes in the distance. The word grandeur doesn’t begin to encompass it. I thought about life and love and music and books and eternity. Grand Canyon has taught me the joys of doing nothing for hours but looking and thinking, also not thinking but simply being.

What I needed not to think about was water. I paced myself to a couple of small sips from the canteen every hour. I tried to eat some goldfish and granola, but I was so dehydrated that I didn’t have enough saliva to get it down. The food ended up an obnoxious grainy crust in my mouth that lingered for hours. As dusk came on I took my time digging a perfect bed hole and shaping a pillow in the middle of the trail. This grubby expedient was starting to feel almost reassuring. Before I turned in I took a modest leak—reassuring since it meant I wasn’t completely dehydrated–, took an also modest sip of water—I was down to under a liter—and drifted off.

In the morning I got up to take another small reassuring leak and a sip of my remaining water. I luxuriated in my dirt bed for a while, trying not to count the minutes waiting for the ranger, trying not to think about water. Finally I was upright, sitting on my rock looking down the valley, enjoying the shade of the grove. I could have and as it turned out should have started hiking up in the cool of the morning. But I figured I’d run out of water and…anyway, I didn’t.

About 9:30AM, with a surge of excitement, I heard voices. I stood up, trying to look game and presentable. Around the corner came a couple. They stopped, smiling a bit uneasily for some reason, and said, “You must be the guy. We’ve got something for you.” They weren’t rangers, then, but they had something for me! They produced a half liter of Gatorade and a granola bar. The Gatorade was even a little cool! I forbade myself from guzzling it. They said rangers had asked them to give me the stuff, and they’d probably be down soon to get me. As we chatted I noticed they were still looking at me a bit sideways. I didn’t know why until that night.

They headed downtrail toward their camp at the river. I settled in confidently to wait, finished the last of the Gatorade before it lost its cool. I waited, trying not to look at my watch every other minute, trying without entire success to keep to my once-an-hour sipping regime. By 11AM there was less than a half liter left in my canteen. I waited. Waited waited waited waited.

By 1:30 PM I had a quarter liter of water left and had completely run out of thoughts. With nothing better to do, I started blowing distress signals with the whistle: tweet tweet tweet, wait ten minutes, do it again. I had been at this endeavor for about forty minutes when far up the valley I heard something that might have been somebody shouting my name. That, or a bird. I jumped up and screamed back. Another ambiguous sound, but it definitely seemed to be in answer to me. I chose to believe it was the ranger.

I had been imagining my ranger based on the ones I’d met over the years. It was going to be a bearded, burly guy in his forties. In his pack he’d be carrying a gallon or so of cool water and plenty of food for me. I entertained myself with these fantasies while I stood shuffling around in the middle of the trail. Ten minutes, twenty. A rustle from above. My ranger appeared around the corner.

It was a willowy, attractive young woman wearing a ranger uniform and hauling an enormous pack. She smiled helpfully, saying, “Hi! You’re Jan, right? I’m Kelly. How are you doing? You’re a lot further down than I thought.” As she asked the relevant questions I could see her professionally sizing me up. She was a little amused, I didn’t know why until that night. She called in on the radio and told them she’d found me.

Before long I realized that Kelly was not too impressed with me. I knew why. A good deal of the people she dealt with in rescues could not, like me, walk and talk. And if I could do those things, why was I needing her? Sure, I had very little water left, but it’s not like I was dying of dehydration. I’d have a couple of days before it came to that. And Kelly told me something I hadn’t realized: the gallons of water sitting on the Esplanade trail crossing were up for grabs, in fact may have been left for hikers by a ranger. Meaning: water left visibly on the trail is not assumed to be cached, so you take what you need.

Kelly also told me something that shrank my innards a bit, though actually I’d known it but neglected to think about it: Grand Canyon rescue resources are limited and each case is rated as to seriousness. Broken legs, heart attacks, falls off cliffs, severe dehydration, and various other calamities have priority over the likes of me. And those things happen all the time. So there had been no guarantee a ranger would have come for me today, tomorrow, anytime. Kelly came today because she was free and volunteered, not because she was assigned. She noted that she was getting overtime for the gig. I felt happy about that, at least. I did not dwell on the possibility that somebody might have needed her services worse than I did.

If I’d known all this, mainly about the water available on the trail, I would have been motivated to keep going to the Esplanade the day before. With that water I could have gotten to the rim well before today noon, around the time Kelly arrived at the trailhead.

Ah, well. Kelly was not impressed with me. I wasn’t either. But she was entirely professional, in a reassuringly chatty way. She handed me a half liter bottle of water and said to try not to drink too much, she didn’t have a lot on her. So much for my fantasy of a ranger lugging gallons. And there was a granola bar. As she stuffed my maimed hiking sticks in her pack and gave me two extras she had brought (!!), she told me that she was 22 and had been doing rescue work since she was 14. I was supposed to be reassured. I was.

We headed up, Kelly following me so I’d set the pace. We were headed for a bit of shade under a rock shelf she’d noticed, to wait out the heat. As we walked she noted breezily that if I broke down she would leave me by the trail to die. I understood this to be a joke. But I understood that I was expected not to crap out. Actually I felt reasonably strong, all things considered, and there were a lot of things to consider, having to do with less than ideal strength, lack of food, lousy wind, not enough water, age, and so forth and so on. But I was walking all right—better than she expected, Kelly told me. I clutched her praise.

We reached the shade under a ceiling of rock and sat down for two hours, filling the time with talk. Norm had gotten out the night before, she said , and was installed in a motel room waiting for me. I told her I am a musician. She told me about her boyfriend, about her trip to Ireland, about being first-chair French horn in her high school band. She hoped soon to get a job doing rescue with the Arizona Highway Patrol. All entirely cozy. Finally she announced that we could be quiet for a while, and that was fine too.

About 4PM we got going and I trudged up the trail in fairly decent form, considering. The trail was ledgy in places and that confirmed that I would not have wanted to be doing it in the dark without a light. When we arrived at the Esplanade trail crossing I made sure that Norm had taken our cached water, which he had. There was still a gallon of water sitting by the trail. I sat down and over 45 minutes downed a liter of it. With Kelly politely prodding I got up for the last, steep climb out.

On the way Kelly told me about one of her colleagues, an MD from Germany named Greta who turns up at the Canyon every spring for two months to do rescue work gratis, because she loves it. “If you look at her,” Kelly said, “you can’t tell whether she’s a guy or a girl.” But Greta is enormously clever and resourceful. “Basically she can figure out and fix anything,” Kelly said. It was an interesting story, to pass the time. Like so many things on this trip, it would turn out to be more significant than that.

We got to the parking lot after dark. I was thrilled to find that Kelly had lots of Gatorade in her truck. She turned onto the road, hit the first rut, and my head slammed into the roof. I asked her if maybe we could etc. and she slowed down. We got to the motel about 9:30. Kelly vanished, talking on her radio, before I could say goodbye and thanks again. The lady behind the desk gave me Norm’s room number. She was one more person looking at me quizzically. I was about to find out why.

Wrapping my fleece blanket around me, I trudged in the chilly night air to the room and knocked on the door. Norm opened it with great smile and gave me a hug, exclaiming that they’d told him I wouldn’t be back before midnight. He was babbling stuff about water, getting to the rim after dark, a German transvestite.

I wasn’t processing all this. “Wait,” I said, and went to take a shower. When I looked into the bathroom mirror I understood the sidelong looks I’d been getting. Normally in the later stages of a hike I look something like this:

What I saw in the mirror was this:

Actually that picture doesn’t do justice to how grubby I really was. The word “filthy” does not encompass my state. Dirt was caked on my face, dripping from my hair, embedded in a week of whiskers. I looked dangerous, like somebody you’d run away from.

I took a sublime shower, put on clean clothes. (We had stashed our good clothes and travel stuff at the hotel.) As always at the end of a hike, my trail outfit had become instantly repulsive and was quarantined into a plastic bag until I could double-wash it at home. I sat down to a sandwich Norm had gotten for me.

As I ate Norm filled me in on the end of his trip. Though had he pushed it to the point of exhaustion he hadn’t made it to the rim by 7PM, the nominal rendezvous time with the theoretical ranger–if in fact Jake had found his GPS and contacted them, and if they had somebody available to come. Among other things, on the hike out it had taken Norm 45 minutes to find the water I’d cached on the Esplanade. At 8PM he was still below the rim and hiking in the dark without a light. When he saw the rim he decided to turn uphill and clamber up the slope because the top looked so close. It wasn’t. The clamber was a disaster, during which he lost both his poles. Norm ended up back on the trail for another ten minutes of climbing until he emerged at the parking lot.

To put it mildly his heart sank when he saw the dark shapes of a couple of vehicles but otherwise no sign of life. Then suddenly the headlights of a truck lit up and out leaped the aforementioned German transvestite, crying, “You must be de hiker I meet!”

It was the intrepid Greta. When Norm told her his wallet and cell phone were locked in the SUV, she confirmed her reputation by hauling out tools and spending the next 45 minutes jimmying the door. These vehicles are not supposed to be jimmyable, but in Greta they met their match. As soon as Norm had his cell in hand he called his wife Peggy. She answered and burst into tears. For two days she had been planning the funeral. Meanwhile as instructed she’d been trying to deal with the rental car company–Hertz, for the record–to try and get another electronic key sent. They had been utterly unsympathetic and unhelpful. The car has to be towed, they said. It’s too far out a bad road to be towed, Peggy said, and there’s been a dangerous situation that required rescue. Not our problem, Hertz said.

Norm could not imagine any tow truck getting the SUV out of there on that wretched road. He left with Greta, who took him back to a motel and a nice dinner at the hotel. Norm told me he that while he enjoyed his dinner and wine he thought with sympathetic concern of me below, sleeping in my dirt.

So I was back. In the motel we turned in. I slept quite well indeed. Next morning we got up and turned to the boggling questions of how to get the SUV out of the wilderness and how to get me on a plane without an ID. Norm had already changed our flight to a day later with USAir, for which they charged us $400 each (a fee which in the end they declined to refund because of the emergency, though there is supposed to be a provision for that).

We made another stab at getting a key sent from Hertz, citing the emergency again, and again getting no drop of help or even fake sympathy. With a sigh, we called a tow place in Flagstaff, 100 miles away. We described the situation, the guy agreed to try it. The price for the tow was going to be $700 whether or not it succeeded. By now between the tow, Norm’s lost poles, the extra night at the motel, and the new flight, he was out some $1000. So was I, plus the over $1000 of my gear that went over the cliff.

Next day around noon at the motel–I was now eating on Norm’s credit card–the tow guy arrived from Flagstaff. His rig was a big flatbed that looked even more hopeless to handle a rutty dirt road than a regular tow truck. Norm headed out with him while I busied myself getting a letter from the Rangers on formal letterhead explaining that I’d had an emergency, lost my pack, had to be rescued. I saw it as the equivalent of a letter from home for the teacher. I hoped it would get me past airport security, because I was such a pathetic case. I hoped they’d understand that if I were a crook or a terrorist I would not have made up such a ridiculous story.

In high anxiety I waited hours for the return of the tow truck. This was the first and most critical of the two major problems we had left. I had visions of the SUV being unextractable, our having to actually buy the vehicle, etc. Then about 2:30 there was the tow truck outside the window. And incredibly, the SUV gleaming on the flatbed.

We piled in to the truck and Norm and the driver recounted this episode of the saga. The driver had done some fancy maneuvering. He’d never seen anything like it, he said, in years of work at the company his father founded. A couple of times he’d had to extract himself from a rut by smashing down his car-lifting crane onto the road and rocking the truck until it popped free. He became our latest savior. Meanwhile on the way out they’d run into of all people Jake and Elena, heading home in their car, looking happy and once again lovey-dovey. They invited us to join them for dinner that night. We’ll let you know, said Norm.

In fact there was no chance for a reunion with Jake and Elena. We needed to get to Flagstaff that night in time to get a new electronic key made and drive to our hotel, then leave early next morning for our flight home. We arrived just as the dealership was closing. It’ll have to be done in the morning, the guy said, but I appreciate your problem and I’ll give you a deal on the key–only $325. (It is really, really not good to lose an electronic key.)

The tow guy dropped us at the hotel in Flagstaff. Things got uneventful for the moment. The Hotel Monte Vista names its rooms for actors who once stayed there on movie shoots back in the day. Somehow they always seem to put Norm and me in the Walter Brennan room. Walter being a grizzled-old-coot sidekick in Westerns. It was OK, though, because Norm can do an impressive Walter Brennan imitation in expressing, for example, our resentment over experiencing ageism and cootism.

Next morning we got a cab to the car dealer’s, shelled out for the key, headed for Phoenix, dropped the SUV off at Hertz with some unfavorable customer comments, then headed to Sky Harbor Departures with the last pack of anxieties about getting me on the plane. At the USAir desk I presented to the lady my nice official letter from the rangers. She sighed. “Go through security,” she said. “They’ll deal with it.”

We went through the lines and stood waiting for the security guy. He arrived, I showed him my ranger letter. He examined it grimly. “This doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Wait here.” How long, we said. It could take an hour or more, he said. But we’ll miss… “Not my problem,” he said, and disappeared.

In the event he reappeared in fifteen minutes. He sat down at a computer, typed something, and began asking me the most remarkable questions. Where was I born? What make and model and year of car did I drive? What was the make and model of my previous car? And so forth. With each correct answer he became happier. Finally he stood up with a smile and declared I was free to go. It was our last kindness of a stranger. He patted me on the back and said, “Don’t drop any more packs off cliffs.” You bet, I said.

Norm’s wife Peggy picked us up in Boston, delighted to find us both and especially Norm alive and kicking. This isn’t the first time I’ve planned Norm’s funeral, she told me. They dropped me off and I hit the sack, two days away from my mattress being constituted of soil.

Next day I went to the camping store and starting replacing my gear. A few days later I called Norm and said I thought we should do the Royal Arch again next spring and for chrissake get it right this time. Okay, Norm said.

It’s March now. We leave for the Royal Arch Trail in a month. I’m in training, determined to be in better shape than last time. Just bought a new pack. All right, I’m a little bit nuts. Norm, bless his heart, doesn’t bring that up.




[Note: This story began as a dream from which I woke shaken. I immediately wrote it down, to see if I could get not just the events but the feeling of the dream into prose. Maybe I did, maybe not. In any case one of the characteristics of dream is that things do not explain themselves, they simply happen. Later I fleshed it out into a story. About half is from what I remembered of the dream, the rest invented. For example, the end is exactly from the dream; the clown came later. Yes, the title echoes Hemingway, but it needs to be that title. The story, by the way, is R-rated at best.]


I wake to a silent house, the reek of stale coffee rising from downstairs. Apparently my hosts have gone out. If they were here I would be hearing their raucous conversation. But I hardly know them. I’ve only had the forced camaraderie of an assigned guest.

The morning looks dismal outside half-closed blinds. From the bed I watch dust motes turning in the light from the window. With nothing better to do I drag myself up to dress and make my way down two flights from the attic bedroom to the kitchen. There is no note from my hosts, only on the table an arrow drawn on a sheet of paper, pointing to the oven where I find dried-out sausage and eggs.

I eat, reflecting on the goddamned pathetic past 24 hours. I came to this country, a long overnight flight, to hear an orchestra play a work of mine—which one, I was not informed. The flight had been arranged by somebody, but no idea who sent me the tickets. When I arrived yesterday I was driven to this tall plain house in a row of tall plain houses. The driver said he would pick me up for the concert in two hours. I asked if he knew which of my pieces they were playing. “I drive only,” he stammered.

Last night the couple who were my hosts made dinner, prattling on with shrill gaiety and now and then speaking to me, but they knew only a few words of my language. As soon as we were done eating, my driver appeared to take me to the concert. My hosts would not be attending.

I entered to find an old hall of ornate and crumbling plaster, filled with an unenthusiastic unto sullen audience. There was no program book. Instead, after the orchestra had entered and tuned, a gaunt old man in a crumpled suit sat down in a chair at the side of the stage and began to talk. It appeared he was to describe the pieces. In his rambling introductions, accompanied by weary gestures of his hands, the only words I could understand were the names of composers: Mozart, Handel, Glinka.

The Glinka came after the intermission, which I spent wandering among crowds of people talking in low tones in their language. There seemed to be nobody present who knew who I was. I began to wonder if this was some absurd mistake, that my music wasn’t on the program at all. But obviously somebody had arranged my flight and accommodations, such as they were.

Finally the old man at the side of the stage began to describe the last piece on the program. I could just recognize my name in his pronunciation. He spoke for a long time, obviously explaining that the next work was a modern one by a foreign composer who was present. There was a rising murmur in the audience, which I identified as annoyance. As he went on, his hands tracing weary circles in the air, a number of people rose, pulled on their coats, and stalked up the aisles. When he finally stopped talking, the rest of the audience settled into their seats, jaws clenched.

The conductor strode out to a smattering of applause, nodded curtly, turned and gave the downbeat. My music began. At least it was supposed to be my music. I didn’t recognize it at all. After a moment of panic, wondering if I was hallucinating or losing my mind entirely, I realized it was an old piece of mine, twenty or more years old, which had been performed once and then gratefully forgotten by everybody including me. It had lain unnoticed on my publisher’s list, from where this conductor had picked it out. The outlandish thought came to me that since the piece is called Absolution, he may simply have chosen the first title on the list.

My music went on and on, the players looking and sounding sour and bored. I’d long stopped writing pseudo-earnest pieces with stupid titles like Absolution, and long stopped hoping for absolution for anything from anybody. If I hardly remembered the piece, I did remember that my so-called friends and I had agreed it was long and thin, brimming with unearned self-importance. As it lurched and dithered on, a steady trickle of listeners got up and left.

By the time it was over I was trembling and drenched in sweat. Much of the audience had vanished. The scattered applause hardly lasted the time it took me to sprint up the aisle and shake the conductor’s hand. From the edge of the stage he bowed to me, clicked his heels, extended his arm without speaking. When I got back to my seat the applause had guttered out and people were already on their feet, shuffling toward the exits. No one looked my way except my driver, who materialized with an anxious frown to thread me through the crowd and drive me back to the house, where my hosts had gone to bed.

Now, eating my stale breakfast the morning after, I can only sigh, put it down as one more amusing story to tell at parties. Another of my famous fiascos. I am startled to notice it’s almost noon. My flight does not leave until midnight. I am contemplating going out to attempt some sightseeing when the doorbell rings.

I consider not answering, since it can only be for my hosts. But the jangling of the hand-pulled bell goes on and on, until with a curse I rise and make my way to the front door. I open it to find someone who may or may not be a postman standing on the stoop. He is wearing a faded green uniform, military or perhaps civil, with a gray cap sporting a tarnished silver insignia. Parked on the sidewalk behind him is an aged bicycle.

Like apparently goddamned everybody here, he does not know my language. With a brisk nod of his stubbly face he clicks his heels and shoves in front of me a brown envelope, pointing to the addressee. I am startled to see my name, at this address. There is no return address and no stamp, only an embossed official-looking seal in the upper left corner.

“W-what is this?” I stammer. He shakes his head, opens his palms in a gesture of incomprehension. I gape at the envelope, wondering if it might be a note or even an honorarium from the orchestra—pay had not been discussed—, when he places on top of the envelope a form and a pen.

On the form I see my name handwritten in large capitals, with an empty line hand-drawn beside it. It is a receipt I am supposed to sign. Shaking my head, I sign the form with a certain ruffled extravagance. The man carefully folds the document and stows it in his side pocket, patting the pocket smartly. He steps back, awkwardly salutes, does a military about-face and returns to his bicycle. I watch him manhandle it out to the street and pedal off without looking back.

I’m thoroughly sick of this fucking business. There is nothing I wish more profoundly than to be on the plane and be finally in my house, for all the sad histories of that place. The time before my plane leaves seems an endless desert of hours. But after all, maybe the letter is a check, or a least a note of appreciation. Though of course if it is the latter, I’ll never be able to read it.

To prolong the suspense, given that this is likely to be the day’s only excitement, I carry the letter unopened to the kitchen and finish my cold breakfast staring at the envelope propped on a saltcellar. It strikes me that in both my so-called career and my so-called life my music has had too many stumbling and uncommitted performances to tepid applause, and I’ve had too goddamned many nights in cities and hotel rooms and bedrooms where I’m a stranger.

At length, with a sigh, I rise to put my dishes in the sink. Taking a carving knife, I return to the table and pick up the letter, slash open one end and shake the contents onto the table.

It’s a single sheet of paper, folded into some complicated pattern that baffles my fingers in trying to open it. Finally it unfolds. There are so many creases that I find it hard to make out. I flatten it on the table and smooth it as best I can with my palm.

The first thing I see is an official seal in the upper left corner of the page, a grander and more ornate version of the one on the envelope. Then I realize, with an exclamation of something near pleasure, that the text is actually in my language, neatly lettered onto the page by hand, the same hand that addressed the envelope. As I read the curt sentences one by one my flesh clenches as if I’ve gotten a chill.

“Greetings,” it begins, affixing my name. “Because of your actions in another country, the Court has reached a judgment in your case.” Judgement? Case? The letter goes on to say that the decision of the Court is final, as in all such cases. I am ordered to perform certain actions that are indicated on the other enclosed sheet. Puzzled, I run my fingers over the envelope I thought I’d emptied. Sure enough there is a lump in the middle, another folded sheet that failed to fall out. I return to the document on the table.

It concludes with a stern exhortation that this is an order from the highest authority, that I must perform the required action to the end omitting no particulars however they make strike my foreign sensibility, and that attempts to escape my responsibility will have the most serious consequences. At the bottom sprawls an incomprehensible signature, followed by an equally incomprehensible notation of his title.

“Christ,” I groan aloud. “If I miss my flight because of some legal horseshit, that’s beyond the bounds of a story for parties.”

Impatiently I shake the envelope, but the other document fails to dislodge. Looking inside, I see it’s stuck to the side with glue from the flap. I tear the envelope apart and, after some angry scrabbling, unfold the new sheet, in the process tearing it across the center.

Now I’m swearing as I try to align the document on the table. It is a half page rather than a full one, again with the embossed seal in the corner, but this time the text is typewritten, on some ragged old machine. At least it’s in my language again, more or less. With difficulty, struggling to keep the torn halves together, I read the outlandish sentences with mounting consternation:

In afternoon you be met by female person. You have not to find her, as it is she who must have found you. She knows fully of you case and she has been informed of her duty, which she has fully affirmed. You may freely chat with this female if you desire and if desire share a meal and beverages with her, at expense of Court. But this for three hours only. By that moment at latest, you must return accompanying her to you lodging, to you private chamber, and there you are required to have congress with this person. She understand this requirement and has fully affirmed. Immediately as you have complete this act of congress, it is the wish and order of this Court that you fullfil this decree by terminate the life of this female. This end of course she not cognizant of. Which means you do so are at you descretion, but it must be accomplish by you own hands, i.e. not with firearm or other machinery. It is suggested that strangulation is profferred method. When you have completed this decree in full you will be declare entirely free and at-large, having fullfiled the order of this Court.

It must be stress that this order is authorized fully at highest level, and it is final decree. Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law, as a supreme action of contemp to this Court and this Government.

I finish reading it with my mind in a wail of white noise. With trembling fingers holding the torn halves together I read it a second and a third time. I am overcome by a maze of thoughts, the first being: “I can still make the plane.” The second, of course, being, “What the fuck do you mean, make the plane? This is a joke. Some kind of weird cruel joke, but it has to…” But who could play a joke like this, and why would they want to? Was it somehow arranged by friends back home, some elaborate prank involving cohorts in this buttfuck country? How would they know anybody here? Besides I don’t remember telling anybody I was coming. And why would the few actual friends I possess want to do this to me?

With a chill in my groin it enters my mind that this is no joke at all. It’s some incomprehensible decree of some ghastly star chamber of some ghastly fucking political order I know nothing about. Visions of foreign jails dance in my head, people imprisoned for life, eating cockroaches to survive, flogged and stoned for smoking a joint.

I do understand, very clearly, one relevant thing.: There is no limit, no limit whatsoever to what governments can do to people, if they simply want to.

But this, for godssake, I think. This surely is not real, surely at least this is too fucking much. I’ll go to the… I remember reading that there is no embassy in this country, the implication being: If you want to travel there, you poor fool, you’re on your own. Then white noise again, in my mind.

I don’t know how long I sit there at the kitchen table. After some amount of time, my guts shaking, I get up and ransack the kitchen for a drink. All I can find is the end of a bottle of wine, sitting uncorked in the refrigerator. I upend the bottle and drink the bitter icy liquid in one slug. It’s no help.

A few more minutes standing in the middle of the kitchen and something on the order of a plan has emerged. I can hope and still do hope that this isn’t real, it’s a nightmare from which I will awake, or a joke or the wrong order or the wrong person on the envelope. But you can’t afford to count on it not being real, I tell myself. Can’t afford. If it is real I see one chance. She has to find me, the order says. That’s my chance.

I run up the stairs and open my bag. From it I take my plane ticket and passport and all the local currency I have, small ragged bills with smudged pictures of generals and politicians and more incomprehensible words and numbers. I can’t remember how much of my own currency I paid for it. All I can hope is it’s enough for a cab to the airport and something to eat.

I rattle down the stairs with plane ticket, passport, and cash in my pockets. If I have to get on the plane without my luggage, so be it. I have to presume they’re watching me and I must not look as if I’m trying to escape. But there was no order that I have to stay in the house. If I do some complicated sightseeing and lose them I can still deny I was escaping. If they accost me at the airport and the girl has failed to find me, it’s their problem, according to their own words.

Jesus, I think as I reach the front door. You really don’t know if it’s real. Why don’t you call it a game, a game you’re playing with somebody who’s playing a game with you? It’s hide-and-seek, escaping but not escaping. It’s up to them to find you. Only don’t assume, don’t take chances. After all at the worst, at the very worst, it’s not you that’s supposed to get fucked and die.

Out on the street I walk aimlessly, wondering if I’m being followed but seeing nobody who appears to be interested in me. After a few blocks I find myself on a broad street lined with shops selling formless clothes, bread and cakes, poultry feed. A few shoppers struggle in and out of stores, most of them heavy old women in headscarves, lugging paper bags of clothes and other items. I realize the clothes I see wadded up in the bags are used, so presumably the women are bringing them to barter in the stores. This goddam country, I murmur. This buttfuck country.

I walk briskly, taking a turn here and there, trying to throw off anybody who might be tailing me. If anybody is, I can’t detect them. I find little traffic, but there are dark-green buses smoking and coughing down every street. At length, feeling naked in the open, I go into a bakery. In its sticky-sweet atmosphere I imitate a customer, perusing cases full of black bread, baroquely-decorated pastries and cakes, greasy pirogis.

What I’m looking for is a rear exit. By the end of the cases I see the edge of a door around a corner in back. I stroll toward it, expecting to be stopped, but nobody calls out. I open the door onto a long alley. After quietly closing the door behind me, I dash down the alley and across a side street, then two more alleys and streets. Periodically I look back to see if somebody is chasing me. No one.

I’m hardly an athlete. After another minute of running I collapse groaning and gasping in the back doorway of a shop. It takes a long time to get my breath. Then I compose myself, open the door and walk in, trying to look the interested customer. For chrissake, it’s a women’s foundation garment shop. Rows of corsets on chipped plaster torsos. A saleswoman coming toward me, shaking her finger, presumably asking what the hell I’m doing. I brush past her, waving aside her complaints.

Emerging onto the sidewalk I find one of the smoke-belching buses pulling up to a stop. I decide to get on it, vacate the area entirely. The bus has its destination on the front but of course I can’t read it. It’s away from here, anyway. Maybe I can spend the day riding buses, crouching out of sight, then at the end find a bus to the airport. Idly I wonder how I’ll ask directions when nobody understands anything I say. Who knows. Flap my arms.

I get on to discover that the bus is empty. Even though I feel sure I’ve lost anybody following me, I can’t help wondering if they could have dispatched it especially for me. Who knows that either. I’ve got to do something and this is the only thing I can think of.

I pick a bill out of my wallet at random and hand it to the driver, a little stubbly guy in a dirty uniform and hat. I hope to God there’s some change. He regards the bill with the particular annoyance of a bus driver receiving a large denomination, snarls something at me. I can only shrug, gesture at my mouth like a dumb person. Since he can see I’m a foreigner I expect him to look at my wallet and pick a smaller denomination. Instead, muttering curses he pulls out a roll of money and begins laboriously peeling them off. Finally he hands me a stack of threadbare bills.

As the bus pulls out I make my way to the back where there are no windows, wondering if I’m going to be delivered straight to the police. But in the next stops a few other passengers turn up, most of them riding only a few blocks before getting off. I note that since nobody stays on, nobody seems to be shadowing me unless they’re doing it in relays. Besides, most of the passengers are old women, the same ones going in and out of the stores lugging items for barter. I notice their shopping bags remain full of old clothes. They must be going from store to store, trying to find somebody to accept their castoffs.

How long do I have to put up with this misery before I escape to the airport? How long before the plane leaves? Seven hours? Eight? I look at my watch. God almighty, it’s nearly ten hours before my plane takes off, and I want to be there at the last minute.

After an hour I see a block I recognize and realize that this bus route must be a circuit of the downtown area. Not good. I’d hoped I was being hauled out to the suburbs. I’m wondering if I should get off and take another bus when I see that we’ve pulled into a stop with a queue lined up. Behind them, looming over the sidewalk, is a large building of soot-blackened marble with enormous classical columns. I can’t read the sign in front of the building but the total effect unquestionably says art museum. Maybe a good place to get lost in. Browse the paintings for a few hours, melt into the crowd, have some lunch if there’s a café. Compared to the stifling boredom and anxiety of the bus, almost a pleasant prospect.

The driver is about to pull out when I spring to the front crying, “Excuse me! Excuse me!” He screeches the bus to a halt and slams open the door, cursing at me as I descend the steps. At the bottom I stumble, which draws a laugh from the passengers on the bus. As it pulls away in a cloud of exhaust I collect myself and head for the door of the museum as fast as I can without looking suspicious.

In the gigantic, echoing stone lobby there is no art and no human presence at all except a desiccated man, in another of the invariably ill-fitting suits, sitting behind a wooden desk and coughing wetly into a handkerchief. I go to him and do my pantomime indicating I can’t speak the language, I don’t know the currency, I am an idiot foreigner. I show him the wad of bills from the bus and with great deliberation he extracts some. After a curt wave at the stairs behind him, he renders me invisible.

I trudge up the stairs and turn into the first gallery I come to. There are exactly three people in the large room, an old man and a student couple arguing in front of a painting of trees. If I’d hoped to get lost in a museum crowd, I can forget about it. I can’t think of anything to do but keep moving, watch for anybody watching me, maybe try to find an out of the way gallery somewhere, or a back table in a café.

Look at the paintings and don’t think, I tell myself. Be alert but don’t think. You’ll only get scared. You’ve probably lost them. Assume you’ve lost them, or nobody was following you in the first place. I make a circuit of the gallery, pretending to examine the canvases. I don’t recognize a single artist. It occurs to me that all the works in the room are by painters of this country and nearly all of them are of trees, with a few of cows.

In the next room the prevailing motif is of handsome, determined workers of both sexes grasping farm implements and striding boldly into the future. Also a few paintings of large-eyed children that are supposed to be cute, some of them also striding boldly into the future. Also more cows. After viewing six rooms off the long dingy hall I conclude that the artists of this country paint only trees, children, heroic workers, and cows, all in a kind of runny Impressionist style. Meanwhile I have concluded that some of the paintings are more “modern,” in that the cows are rendered as piebald blobs floating in a puddle of dirty green I take to indicate grass.

In desperation I shuttle from empty room to nearly empty room, standing in each doorway sweeping my eyes around the walls to find anything recognizable or even endurable. In the last room off the hall I am in the doorway about to turn on my heel when I notice a flash of color on the far wall. Somebody is standing in front of the painting, obscuring most of it, but in the corners I see a smoky pink unlike anything else I’ve seen in this excruciating museum.

I make my way to the painting. The young woman in front of it moves politely to the side, and I am confronted by what appears to be a child’s drawing of a clown. There it is, archetypal in its stumbling lines, its ovoid body decked with big orange buttons. One of the stick-figure hands holds a wobbly line that ascends to a misshapen balloon, the purple coloring of it zigzagging out of the lines. The clown floats above a puke-yellow floor, behind him lying that pink I saw from across the room, which clashes nastily with the yellow of the floor.

After a moment of staring in disbelief I realize that whoever perpetrated this monstrosity is actually a painter. The picture gives the impression of a child’s crayon but is in fact done in oils. And the picture is not just any child’s drawing of a clown but somehow the distillation and summation of all children’s stupid, maladroit pictures of clowns. Except no child would draw that soul-scouring face. The eyes are bugging in maniac joy, the pupils nearly dropped out of sight, and the mouth… My god, the mouth. It’s gaping in an impossible psycho-killer smile, the teeth huge, misshapen and carnivorous. This clown looks like he is about to leap off the canvas and sink those monstrous fangs into your throat. I see that in the corner of his mouth the artist has made a little drip of crimson, mixed in a way to make it glisten wetly.

“Excuse me?” the person next to me says.

I am so transfixed by the painting that for a moment I don’t respond. “Oh, it’s…” I finally get out. “What did I…”

“Excuse me, you said ‘My God,’ I think.”

I look up in confusion, then down. It’s a girl with short black hair, looking up at me, the top of her head hardly reaching my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I thought I thought those words, not said them aloud. I’m… Wait. You speak my language. You’re the first person I’ve met here who does!”

“Yes,” she says. “I speak it a little.”

I feel enormous relief having somebody to talk to. “No, really” I tell her reassuringly, “You speak very well, hardly any accent.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I have studied.”

There is an awkward silence. Despite myself my eyes drift from her and return to the grisly image in front of us.

“Do you like this painting now?” she asks politely. I look at her again. She appears early 20s, slightly built, somewhere between waif and gamine, a little pretty but only just. She wears an old plaid flannel shirt and ballooning pseudo-jeans, a knitted purse over her shoulder. On her face is a certain ironic half-smile.

“Good God,” I can only reply, waving my hand toward the thing. “Jesus Christ. I mean, I guess it’s extraordinary in a way, but it’s the goddamndest thing I’ve… Oh shit, I mean, I’m sorry, excuse my language.”

“It is no problem,” she says.

“I mean, this is…it’s utterly different from anything else in the museum. Who is this, this, how did it get here?”

“Oh, he is one of our modern artists. Most of them show in the modern art museum outside of the city, but in this place they always hang one painting from that museum, so the people can see what it is like.” ”

“Oh shit. I mean… Sorry.”

“No, it is no problem.”

“What are the other paintings like in the modern museum?”

She shrugs, turns her mouth down. “Well you know, most of them they are sort of like this one.” She gives a little shudder of her shoulders. “They are clowns, or big dogs. Scary things, yes?”

“I think I would agree,” I breathe, shaking my head. “Scary things. But are you actually saying that the modern artists paint only clowns and dogs?”

“Well, you see, this is the museum of traditional art, and the other is the museum of modern art. The artists in that other museum are called anti-revolutionary painters. So they make what they do, and the artists of this museum make what they do.” She says this with a certain tincture of irritation, at having to explain the obvious.

“Anti-revolutionary. Is that illegal, to be anti-revolutionary? And who decides who is what?”

“Oh no, is not illegal, no. This is free country for artists, for everybody. Only if you are a painter the police gives you a, a, what do you call it, an official piece of paper…”

“A certificate.”

“Yes, a certificate saying what kind of painter you are.”

Now I am looking at her rather than the painting in disbelief. “Wait. Let me get this straight. If you are a certified anti-revolutionary painter you can paint anything you like, as long as it’s hideous pictures of clowns and dogs. If you’re a traditional painter you do trees, kids, workers, and cows, and that’s it.”

She shrugs again. “Well, it is something like that I suppose, if you wish to put it so.”

“Look, I’m not trying to insult you, your, I’m only trying, you know, to understand how… But Jesus Christ, I mean, dogs and clowns? And the anti-revolutionary paintings, they’re required to be awful, I gather, so people will hate them?”

She turns down her mouth with no reply. I’m getting on her nerves. “Does anybody ever go to the other museum?” I ask.

“Oh, yes. The people go there sometimes because they are curious. The anti-revolutionary museum is not very often open, but the people go. You are allowed to go one time without registering, but after that you must register.”

“What, are people arrested for going back?”

“Oh no, of course not. Only you must register.”

I stretch my arms upward, bring my hands down clasped on my head and puff out my cheeks. My famous gesture of bemusement. Her eyes are wandering to the other paintings. Clearly she’s ready to be free of me. I’ll set her free. “I’m sorry for all these questions,” I say after another awkward silence. “After all I’m only here for a couple of days and I can’t imagine, I, I mean I don’t understand how things work here.”

“Oh, you are leaving soon?” she asks without interest, her eyes drifting over the room.

“Yes, flying out tonight.” She nods politely, still looking away. “Listen,” I say. “Can I ask you if there’s a café in the museum. You know, coffee, something to eat.”

“Yes, there is a place. It is easy for one to find, right above us on the next estage. They have coffee but not so much food, I am afraid.”

“I’ll eat whatever they’ve got. So, I… Thanks so much for your, ah, ah, your very interesting information about the art of your country. I know my artist friends back home will be very interested in the, um, uuh, the way you do things here.”

“It is no problem. I hope that your journey home will be a good one and that you will have good memories of our country.”

“I’m sure I shall,” I say with a little bow that I hope is appropriate.

Apparently shaking hands is not appropriate. She turns away and heads toward a painting of a cow. I sweep my eyes over the walls, their trees, kids, bold striders into the future, and cows. I give a final shudder to the clown, and head for the next floor.

The café is a dim brown cube with a few tiny tables and two small windows glowering from the back. Somebody’s pathetic idea of Moderne. Behind the counter the attendant stands in front of an enormous eagle-winged espresso machine in tarnished copper and nickel. On the counter is no doubt the only available food, a plate with three pale buns. I order an espresso and all the buns and take them to the farthest table in the room, sit down with my back to the door.

The buns have raw dough in the middle and the coffee tastes like despair. I look at my watch. Sweet Jesus, eight hours to go. Endless, endless, endlessness. I wonder how long I can sit here, sipping this vile stuff and eating the cooked bits of the buns and staring at the wall and trying not to think, before I go utterly mad. I take a few deep breaths to see if I can in some measure calm down. Finally out of desperation I decide to try and use the time to do some composing in my head, look for ideas. I’m supposed to be writing a piece for harpsichord and viola da gamba, which I stupidly offered to compose, for no fee, for a couple who are nominally friends of mine. It’s the last thing in the world I need to be doing with my time. Not to mention doing it for people who think they’re better friends of mine than they actually are. But right now I’ve got as they say time on my hands, time to kill, nothing but time.

To my surprise I find myself getting into it. I play a game of thinking up things for the gamba as if it were harpsichord music, things for the harpsichord as if for gamba. Do this all the time, leap out of the rut by imagining something impossible. I’m sort of famous for that. After I don’t know how much time trying over ideas in my head I half-hear the espresso machine huffing and chuffing across the room. Then the scrape of a chair at the next table and the rattle of a cup and saucer. Annoyed at the interruption, I look over to find, even more annoyingly, the girl from downstairs.

She gives me a shy smile. “You remember me?” she says. “Your friend from the clown painting?”

“Certainly, of course.”

“I did not know if you will still be here, but I felt a little bad about our conversation.”

“Bad? How so?”

“Oh, you know. You appeared a little confuse or even upset. I think perhaps I did not provide you enough with explanation so that you would understand properly about our artists.” She sits back in her chair, gives me a friendly smile, asks what country I’m from. I tell her. “I thought so,” she says.

“Really. How can you tell?”

“The shoes. All the people from your country have the shoes like this.”

I lift my right foot and examine it curiously. “No, really. Do many people from my country visit this place?”

“Not so many, but some do. The people here say that they can tell one of you far away because of the shoes.”

At that I actually laugh out loud. So does she. Her face improves notably with laughter. In another time and another place, sweetheart, I think.

“You know,” she is saying, ”I have always wished to visit your country. It is not so easy to get permission to do so, but it can be done if you know right people. I hear your cities are very big and very clean and rich.”

“Big yes, sometimes clean, rich not always.”

“I think I would like to work in a bank in your country. You can learn about business and make a lot of money, no?”

My turn to shrug. I’ll let her talk. I’m enjoying the sound of her voice, its offbeat rhythms and exotic vowels.

“I am not greedy, you understand,” she goes on. “That is not good thing to be in our country. But if I obtained some money I could come back home and better myself, you know? Are there okay places to live in your country, if you have not any money yet?”

“Well, you should come with a month’s rent anyway,” I advise. “The best thing is to have friends you can stay with at first.”

“Oh no, I know of no one in your country. I would be completely, what do you say, naive? No, that is not right word. But I would love to go there.” Her face darkens. “Only I must ask one thing.”

“Ask away, my dear.” Watch it, I think. You’re getting carried away. You have one goal and one only, to get the holy fuck out of here.

“I want to ask if they torture people in your country.”

“What? I… No! Not at all! Jesus, where did you get such an idea? Does your government say we do?”

She traces her finger across a spill of coffee on the table, her face gloomy. “No, not exactly do they say that. You know I, I think about torture a lot. In some countries, the things they do to a girl, it is terrible.”

“It is indeed. Does that mean they torture people here?”

“Oh no, naturally not. This is good country, free country. Only the last government, before this one, they did do torture, yes. Many people suffered, I am sorry to tell you.”

“Did he present regime take over by force?”

“Yes, I am sorry to tell you also. Five years ago. But not so many people got killed as last time there was revolution. That was very bad revolution.” Suddenly she brightens. “Oh, I remember now, you say you fly tonight. Do you have transportation to the airport?”

“No. I suppose I’ll have to take a bus.”

“Do you know which buses to take?” I shake my head. She pulls a stub of pencil from her purse and picks up a napkin. “I show you then. Is maybe a little complicated, the airport is a way from here. But there is bus from almost front of your house.” Sitting down close next to me, she leans over and begins to draw a network of lines, with notation of several transfers I am to make, carefully writing out the bus numbers so I can recognize them, ending with a square containing a little airplane and an exclamation point. It is a painfully charming drawing. I can smell her breath, sweet with a bitter undertone of cigarette. To my astonishment I feel my groin stirring.

When she has finished she picks up the napkin with a smile and extends it to me. “Here it is, Warren. From your front door to the airport, you have plenty of time. May I call you Warren?”

“Sure,” I say.

Then I realize I haven’t told her my name or where I’m staying or anything about my flight.

A chill begins at the base of my spine and leaps up to my brain. It is followed by a wave of heat that brings sweat springing to my forehead.

She chatters on. “If I could make some money in your country I could improve myself here. I could buy a nice violin. I am musician, you know, I play the violin.”

I am having trouble finding breath to speak. “Tell me,” I rasp, “what’s your name?”

She gives me her sweet waif smile, picking up her espresso cup. “That is not important,” she says over the cup. I am looking intently into her eyes as she sips. “What is it you?” she asks. “Do you like my face?”

“Were you in the orchestra that played my piece last night? Was that you in the second violins?”

“Oh, maybe, maybe not,” she says playfully, tilting her head to the side. “That is not so important either. Do you mind I ask you something?”

I’m in a fog. Like we’re normal people, like we’re a boy and a girl, like we’re hitting it off. Only my mouth is dry and I can hardly find breath to speak. “Yeah. Sure. Ask me.”

“I like you. I think you are so handsome. Do you like me?”

“Sure. Yes, I like you.”

“I do not want you get the wrong idea. I am not prostitute if that is maybe what you are thinking. I am not that kind of a girl. This does not concern money. I only, you know, like you and would like to hear if you like me also.”

Words are tolling in my head like the beating of a gong. Have congress with this person. Terminate the life of this person. I can’t talk around it anymore.

“It’s you. You’re the one the Court sent.”

She gives a shy laugh and looks down at the table. “Maybe, but also not so important.”

“This is impossible. I was… How did you find me?”

She laughs again. “Find you? We never lost you!”

It’s hard to catch a breath. I shake my head in the latest disbelief, this time the big final disbelief. “You say everything’s not important. Not fucking important. I’d say it’s pretty goddamned important. I’d say it’s important and ridiculous, important and tragically stupid, surreally important and… and…”

She looks at me earnestly with her big gray eyes. “Oh, do not be angry please, Warren. When they told me what I must do, I was unsure as I had been before, but they told me you are good looking, and they were correct.” A big smile. “You are so handsome as a man at your age. I am so happy to have meet you and to help you.”

Help me, I’m thinking. God almighty, help me. She doesn’t know. She’s done this before. Done it because somebody ordered her to. She knows about the congress, not about the terminate. Of course she doesn’t know about the terminate. Oh shit, old buddy. Oh Christ, oh hell, oh fuck, boyo, what are you going to do now?

“What?” I say. She has been talking.

“I am sorry, I ask how long is it before you have the plane? Is it seven hours from now?”

I look at my watch. It is exactly seven hours until the plane takes off.

She’s shy and apologetic in everything she does, but she is relentless. “Okay, look, you have lots of time, no? I tell you, Warren, I would really like to see where it is you are staying. Why we not go back to your place, your nice little room in the attic, and we can see what may happen?”

My head is down, I’m looking at the scratches that cover the greasy café table, the initials cut into the surface, the obscene doodles scrawled all over it. “Do I have any choice?” I say.

I feel her taking my elbow, pulling me to my feet.

“Come, Warren, let us go to your attic.”

“I don’t have any choice, do I?” I say.

“Come,” she says. “You will be glad.”

As she leads me out I ask, “Don’t we have to pay?”

“It is taken care of.”

As we emerge from the museum a black car pulls up to the curb. At the wheel is the man who drove me to the concert last night. During the drive back to the house she looks at me now and then, beaming. I avoid her eyes and say nothing. Now and then the driver gives me a sideward glance in the rearview mirror. My head and stomach are churning. Sooner than I would have thought we arrive at the house. She playfully pulls me out of the car. I reel on the sidewalk, then sink to my knees and vomit on the concrete.

“Oh, Warren, poor boy,” she says, patting me on the back. “I am so sorry. Poor boy. There now, you feel better, no? My poor boy.” When I stand up and wipe my mouth on the back of my sleeve, she puts her arm through mine and steers me to the door. “Come, we will go and get some water. I will give you a tablet that I have that will make you okay.” I look back to the black car sitting at the curb, engine running, the driver staring straight ahead.

In the kitchen she fishes a packet of medicine out of her purse, extracts a tablet, fills a glass at the sink and hands them to me with an air of concern. As I swallow the pill and sip the water she runs her hand through my hair. “You have such nice hair,” she says. “This is not usual with men of your age.” A burst of music and thumping erupts from upstairs.

“Oh no,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “This is not right. There are not supposed to be people up there. Let us go up and see what is going on. Do your stomach feel better?”

Actually it does. I nod.

She leads me up the two flights of stairs to the attic, the music mounting as we climb. She opens the door of my room to find a party in progress, as many as ten babbling students crammed into the small space, an ancient phonograph on the table, a couple dancing in the middle, rubbing against each other.

“Excuse me,” she says, pushing me back into the hall. “Excuse me, I must talk with these people.”

She closes the door. Standing stupidly alone in the hall I hear shouts in the room, the words of which of course I don’t understand, though it’s clear the kids aren’t wanting to budge. The idea of making a run for it crosses my mind, the first actual thought I’ve had since we left the museum. Then another phrase tolls in my head: Failure to act or any attempt to excape will be treated with full severity of law. Then another fleeting attempt at hope, Maybe if the kids won’t leave it won’t happen, there will be no… no congress. But that’s ridiculous. If it’s gone this far they won’t be deterred by students having a party. I feel like I’m about to puke again.

She comes out the door looking angry, pulling the door shut behind her. “They do not wish to leave. But they tell me there is another bedroom here, over at that door. And look!” She waves an open and nearly full bottle of wine. “They give us this! We have our own party, no?”

I follow her across the hall and into the other bedroom. Here there is a dusty overstuffed armchair chair next to a small chipped table, a bed draped in a sheet. She closes the door and pushes me back into the chair. Putting her purse and the bottle of wine on the table, she takes off her sneakers, revealing white socks, and sits on my lap. “It is okay?” she says.

“Yeah, sure, it’s okay,” I say.

“I am not too heavy for you?”

“Of course not.” She toys with my hair. Her flannel shirt smells delicately perfumed. Under the ugly jeans her backside feels taut and trim. She picks up the wine and drinks from the bottle. “Now you must drink, you see,” she says, handing it to me. “It is custom.” I take a long pull, surprised that it sits well on my stomach, and hand the bottle back to her. She tilts it up, hands it back. “Each time I drink, you must reply. It is custom.” She giggles. “You must not stop till I stop.”

With the first draft of wine my mind begins to race. She’s a shy young second violinist. What was her crime, that she has to die for? Worse, is there no crime, only an arbitrary decree of some sadistic regime to demonstrate their power of life and death. Or simply to amuse themselves.

As I take another pull of wine I begin to imagine her as a frail sad violin solo, obliterated by brass and percussion. I imagine, when I’m back home, writing an elegy for this sweet tragic child, an elegy for her and for all victims of all decrees of all regimes. But if I write her elegy and confess the reason for it, will I expose my guilt? Can I be held accountable for her death? Or do I have to add her to my list of sins unconfessed and unabsolved? That long, sorry list. What’s going to happen to her maybe not the worst item on it. My next pull of wine finishes the bottle.

We both jump. There are heavy footsteps running up the stairs. Outside in the hall we hear a burst of music as the door of the other bedroom is flung open. A male voice barks loud, authoritative commands, threats. Immediately the music stops, we hear a bustle of frightened youthful voices, the sound of the partiers racing down the stairs. There is a sharp knock on our door, and the voice snaps three words.

She sighs, rises from my lap and extends her hands to pull me from the chair. “Okay, our room is ready now. Our bower, I think you call it.”

When we emerge in the hall there is nobody around. I have to do it, I’m thinking as we go in and she closes the door. I have to do it. God help me, I think I have to do it. But there’s one thing you can’t control, you sons of bitches of the Court. There is no way in heaven or earth I can get it up for this. There will be no congress, you bastards. Just the termination.

She has lain down on the bed, looking up at me with liquid eyes and a small sad smile. She reaches her arms toward me. “It is time,” she says. “We have waited so long. I want for you. Come here, my poor boy.”

I lie down on top of her. She feels terribly frail and small. As I kiss her she begins to pant, to squirm liquidly under me, to give little moans. In a moment, pushing me aside, she stands up and hastily removes her clothes, the old plaid shirt and too-big jeans. She is not wearing a bra. Only with her panties does she hesitate, look at me with sudden uncertainty. Then she leans over and pulls them down her legs.

“Do you like me?” she says shyly as she stands up and kicks away the panties.

“Very much, of course.” It’s the only thing I can think to say. I am surprised to see that her body is not frail but sinewy, athletic, with thin hips and low girlish breasts.

“I am happy,” she says, smiling awkwardly. “Now you.”

She leans over and begins unbuttoning my shirt. I shake my head and brush her hand away, unbutton the shirt myself, slip off my shoes, rise to pull my pants and underwear down together.

We contemplate my disappointing flaccidness. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s so strange, all this, and I have trouble sometimes.”

“I understand,” she murmurs. “It is no problem.” Gently she places her hands on my shoulders, pushes me back down to the bed. “But let me try, my poor boy, let me see what I can do to help you.”

As I lie back she kneels between my thighs in an attitude of prayer, her clasped hands over my groin, then begins patiently to stroke and massage me. When to my amazement I begin to stir, I hear her breathing quicken again as she expertly kisses and licks. When I am fully ready she presses me to turn lengthwise on the bed and leaps on top, reaching between her legs to pull me inside her. I am devoured in warm wetness.

Then she is bucking on me, moaning, finally giving sharp cries. When her time is near she leans over, squeezing me hard inside, and gasps into my ear, “You first! You first!” I am first, she a second after, with a scream that turns into a dying wail. She collapses onto me, her gasping slowly receding. I feel warm tears on my chest.

In the tumult of my thoughts at that moment I remember she does not understand what is to come next, what I am ordered to do. Strangulation profferred. What kind of betrayal will it be in her last thoughts, when I do it to her?

My heart is galloping. I can’t tell if she hears it. After some moments, when I have shrunk and slipped out of her, she sighs and slides off me, settling onto her back and looking at me silently with glistening eyes. Both arms rest above her head, her neck is pale and naked. I turn on my side and stare back into her eyes, searching for an answer, anything. Finding nothing I reach up and stroke her hair. For a moment she does not speak or move, only sighs and looks into my eyes as I stroke her hair, stroke her shoulders, slip my fingers down her chest to her hips and thighs, into the moist void between.

“Now,” she whispers. “Now what must we do?”

I can’t suppress a sob. She looks at me silently, concerned, not moving. Trembling, I rise to my knees above her. I rest one hand lightly on her chest, the other curled in a fist beside her neck. I can smell her on my hands. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“I know,” she whispers. “I know what you feel. I am glad.”

I put my hands around her neck and squeeze. Her body and her face contort with the pain, but she does not resist. She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” I’m saying as I straddle her trembling body and tighten my hands around her windpipe. “I’m so terribly sorry.”

I feel a piercing pain in my back. I cry out, release her and fall heavily onto the bed. In her left hand I see a silver dagger, covered with my blood.

I am fighting for breath. I feel strength draining from me faster than I ever could have imagined.

She watches me, her liquid eyes full of pity. She lays the dagger on the table next to the bed and gets up on her knees beside me.

“Go to sleep now,” she says quietly. “It is nearly over.”

“Who are you?” I gasp.

“That is not important,” she murmurs. She strokes my brow.


“Did you truly not guess why you were brought here?” she asks earnestly.

“No. For god’s sake you…”

“Good. I am glad you did not. That is the way they hope it will be. It is the way it should be.”

“Why?” Her face is blurred in my vision now. I shift my body and gasp in a flash of pain. I feel the sheets wet and sticky beneath me.

“Do not move,” she says, putting her hand lightly on my chest. “It is better if you do not move, the pain is worse. Only relax. It is nearly over.”

“B-b-but wh- wh–?” I can only gasp out words now.

“It was felt to be more humane,” she says, sitting back on her heels and looking down at me from what seems an immense distance. “They had tried other ways, then they came to this way, and I also think it is best. It gives you a chance, a last chance.”

“Who, who…” Soon I will not be able to talk anymore. Only gasp, and that not for long.

“It is not important,” she says. She leans over me and begins to stroke my brow again, with great tenderness. “I want to tell you that you did well. So many men, they break down and run and have to be hunted. Others, the worst, they enjoy it. They strut and laugh, it turns them on when we are in bed. But you felt sadness for me. That was good. That is the way they intended it. That is the way it is supposed to be.”

“You…W-why did…”

“Do not try to talk now. You see, at first they used very beautiful girls, but then they realized, for the men, it became too much a matter of sex. And too many tried to flee with the women, though they were told it would not succeed and it never did.” She smiled her shy smile. “So they began using girls like me, not so pretty, so the men had the chance to feel sadness and pity, if it was in them to feel those things.”

She looks into my eyes, her eyes soft but her face firm. She runs her fingers over my cheek, presses them briefly into my neck to feel my pulse. “You cannot talk anymore, can you? That is good. Let it go. You have done well. I congratulate you. Whatever things you have done up to this day, up to this moment, whatever it was that brought you to me, I want to tell you that I give you absolution and I admire you.”

Everything is like a light receding into a tunnel, slipping away into darkness and cold. With the last of the light I feel her lips pressing into mine. The sweetest kiss



(This is a piece written years ago that I made extensive and unsuccessful efforts to sell.)

I was introduced to the splendor of accidental poetry years ago, when I scrounged a box for packing from the back of a stationery store. At home I discovered, written on a flap in magic marker, a lyric that began

Across the miles

Secret pal

I call your name

It went on in that aphoristic way, getting more nebulous as it went. I felt a need to call a halt to my packing and think for a moment. Who would scrawl a poem of such tenderness on a discarded box? More to the point, I thought of secret pals I’ve known, how many times in anguish and yearning I’ve called their names, across the miles.

I didn’t encounter such lyrics again until my brother the Southern California surrealist poet gave me a set of refrigerator poetry magnets. They come in flat rubber blocks of words, which adhere to the metal of your fridge as invitations to serendipitous inspiration. You separate out the words or fragments of them (s, ing), which are inscribed in stark black on white, lower case except for the imperious I. The juxtapositions arriving on the blocks already give you ideas:

goddess blue who say

whispers one preformed line. More arresting are the accidental artifacts, blocks stripped of most of their words to leave the hint of a story, breathlessly told, reminiscent of e e cummings:


I if

I he

Another artifact is a teenager’s conversation:

like like like

Another ascends from speculation to being:





And what could beat the heroic randiness of

apparatus raw but bed

In a block next to the freezer handle we find ourselves in the middle of a word and of an evocative, somehow disturbing scene that’s left the speaker stuttering in dismay:

ing a a chain

Magnetic poetry is something to pursue late at night or in odd moments when there’s nothing else to do but have a bowl of cereal and contemplate eternity and the refrigerator. It’s swell for parties, too. Have contests! Entertain your friends! (And writing about refrigerator poetry can help provide an answer to a question that applies to a lot of one’s private enthusiasms: Everybody thinks their own stuff is fabulous, but does anybody else think so? Or are they more apt to find other people’s, for example, dreams, aspirations, refrigerator poetry just stupid? A writer friend of mine insists sternly that nobody else is interested in your dreams or your refrigerator poetry.)

On my fridge the mine of raw words spreads across the top of the freezer door. From there poetry drips down in clots, strings, random profusions. There’s a simple but sternly enforced set of rules: Anybody can make a poem, but woe to any who, in selfish pursuit of their own mot juste, strips a word from somebody else’s poem, or is so barbaric as to edit others’ work without permission. The job is to take words from what’s left and let inspiration bubble up from happenstance–the conjunction of imagination and serendipity being, after all, one definition of the creative process.

Below the mine of words on my freezer door, the trail of poems begin tentatively, prosaically:

boil meat

From there the expressive ambitions mount:

frantic repulsive eternity

   shot from bare feet

I don’t understand that one. But the next one hits home, like a rhythmic summary of my emotional life:

I heave my enormous essential lust void

From there on across the white quasi-porcelain material of the refrigerator door, verse runs amok. There’s a curse directed to a beloved:

may you sit in shadow


Every time I look at that I want to flip it to an ironic but sunnier version,

may you sit in honey


But that would be against the rules.

I rarely remember who pasted what, but I know this guy, the one who has to be naughty:

tiny finger up moaning woman

In wielding the sex motif, our kitchen poets get fresher and grittier:

sordid tongue worship

Also more concretely steamy:


with finger


The meatier stuff turns to the cosmic, here to the sullying of nature herself by our little angsts:

languid scream power will urge spring away

Nature turns up a lot, partly because the mine of words supplied by the poetry-magnet company is lush in natural imagery.

from behind the rain

purple summer

Renewal springs eternal on the fridge as in life, metaphors turning to ripe and fruitful–

delirious chocolate

dream       luscious

peach goddess

There’s something Borgesian about this genre of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges was into the offbeat profound, the cosmic fortuity. In one of his stories a philosopher of an imaginary country declares that the entire visible universe is a handwriting devised by a subordinate angel to communicate with a demon. Like my refrigerator, Borges plays the border between the outlandish and the wise, the random and the revelatory.

So our kitchen poets veer into philosophy, at first with high irony in the form of lines to be chanted by phalanxes of existential fashionistas, their challenge to the absurdity of life:

iron the blow

     live like show

But at the end of existentialism a horror of reality:

stop the true

Just below, a frail plea for higher Meaning:

need place like eternity

Maybe in answer to both, a childlike evocation of the grace of small pleasures. The lines themselves are tilted jauntily up, blowing in the breeze.

wind play

         some shot

Come to think of it, that might evoke an atrocity on a summer afternoon. This interpretation sits badly with the flanking poem, where emotion reflected in tranquility becomes lapping music–

lazy beat felt still

Below, the aesthetics get more urgent:

bare moon whispers frantic raw beauty

Beside that one we find a cynical but spot-on evocation of modern politics–

repulsively we manipulate gorgeous

smear apparatus

In this profusion of mini-lyrics, every time I look at the refrigerator my attention is drawn to the shivery, X-Files implications of these lines:

our egg but

their woman

Strange as it sounds, for my part I’m sorry to report that refrigerator poetry isn’t my medium. Most of the good stuff is by friends and partygoers. By way of example, here’s my latest–

rock love ache road

     rip sky petal

Oy. It’s purple, pretentious, and as Borges would not fail to observe, the second line lapses into facile surrealist drivel. I suppose it has some of my trademark musicality, but the sentiment is vague, dithering, probably sadistic, even actionable. Forget I said it. But as for the refrigerator: Once it’s there, it stays there. That’s another rule.

I’ll take solace in the works of my betters, who give us more wisdom for this our brief sojourn: the rueful

sleep bitter blood

and the meditative

most take from moment though it must incubate

I jotted these reflections at a late hour, standing groggy before the icebox munching a bowl of my favorite British cereal, Weetabix. I’ve enjoyed it for years. What I like about Weetabix, in contrast to American cereals, is that it doesn’t even attempt to stay crunchy. The biscuits come out of the box crisp enough, but as soon as milk touches Weetabix, it turns into gelatinous goo. It’s the most existential breakfast cereal I know. Virginia Woolf wrote: “To see life as it is and love it.” This was in her suicide note (in the movie version, anyway), when her life had become unbearable. But Woolf still, in the movie, loved life as it is. Loving Weetabix as it is amounts to my answer to the superficial darkness-rebuking of iron the blow/ live like show.

But I don’t know, some people don’t like Weetabix. I’ve had heated discussions on the subject, and the affectionate resolution of such discussions is also adumbrated on my refrigerator:

was you mad

         fluff juice

I suppose the moral here is the wisdom of accepting life as it is, Weetabix as it sogs, poetry where you find it. By the way, only some time later did I realize what was going on with the poem I found scrawled on the box: “Across the miles/ Secret pal/ I call your name.” It had been a boxed selection of greeting cards, noted on the lid by the first line of each card. It was an accidental poem.

Of course poetry’s best when it comes at you from unexpected angles. Best when it’s succinct too, usually. And the best magic is the unanticipated kind. That’s when something stops you in your tracks, cereal in hand, and adheres once and for all to your mind. Adheres like like like, O secret pal, like magnetic poetry on icebox door.



We biographers tend to write about people who are famous, who are powerful, who may be little-known but are still extraordinary. Here I propose to tour an imaginary biography of somebody who in the usual understanding of the word was entirely ordinary. But I have opinions about that.

Some background. On the whole, biographers are professional coattail-riders. We write about famous or important or unusual people because they’re the ones readers are most likely to be interested in. Having written biographies of Brahms and Beethoven, I’m familiar with this syndrome. My own opinion, though, is that if it’s done well, a biography of anybody at all would be just as interesting as one about somebody famous or important. It’s in that context that I want to talk about the biography I won’t be writing. Its subject would be my mother’s brother, my uncle Larry.

First a couple of convictions concerning my craft. I suppose most people look at biography as a literary interpretation of somebody’s life. That’s not how I see it. Given that we can never really understand anybody else, and for that matter don’t necessarily understand ourselves all that well, it seems to me unrealistic and morally dubious to interpret somebody else’s life at a distance, for our own benefit, when they’re not around to defend themselves. I think biographers need to respect the ultimate mystery of every human being. To me a biography is a narrative of a life, not an interpretation of it. The bits of interpretation I indulge in are things that in the course of a project become to me more or less obvious. If I want to interpret somebody I’ll write an essay, not a biography–to limit the damage to my subject.

In the same way, I don’t consider biography to be a literary form. I don’t think a person’s life has a literary structure, so I don’t try to cut and shape the details of my subjects’ life into a piece of literature. Life is not like a book. It’s more like a stumble in the dark, looking for the light switch. Life is a matter of rambling themes and variations rather than of logical structure. I want my biographies to be like that, which is to say, more like life and less like a book.

I also believe that each book should in its form, its style, its tone, be in harmony with the person it’s talking about. My first biography, of American composer Charles Ives, I hope encompasses some of his wildness and eccentricity, not just in its information but in its essence. Ives was involved in music and business and politics and philosophy and baseball, all in an inimitable way. So my bio of him had three different kinds of chapters; its voluminous endnotes include an illustrative and hilarious story about my high school band and a troubling anecdote I ran across—in an old Danbury newspaper–concerning Cotton Mather.

When I came to Johannes Brahms, I found a quite different kind of person, private and guarded, a relentless craftsman who spent most of his life simply writing and performing music, frequenting brothels, and fighting with his friends. An exemplary musician’s life, really. Brahms only experienced major drama during his early 20s, when as an unknown music student he was proclaimed the coming savior of German music by Robert Schumann, after which Schumann went round the bend and was institutionalized, Brahms fell in love with his pregnant wife Clara, and so forth and so on. In other words, a mess. After that it was apparent to me that Brahms wanted no more drama in his life, and he largely managed to avoid it. That biography was straightforward. When I got to Beethoven I was extensively concerned with the craftsmanship in his music, because that craftsmanship was profound and profoundly influential on the music that followed him. There the narrative inevitably involved the daily discipline of his art in contrast to the misery and incompetence of the rest of his life.

In these terms I’ll lay out here some of my never-to-be biography of Uncle Larry, concerning its points of interest and its (non-literary) structure. For starters, then, in this one I would naturally be more intimate and interpretive than usual for me, for the reason that I knew this man as part of my family, he lived in my neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (If I had watched Brahms or Beethoven walk down the street and talked to them for five minutes, I would have written different books about them.) But again: if Larry was what is called an ordinary person, I believe that when you truly know someone, nobody is ordinary. The style would be engaged but in the middle distance, the way I experienced Larry all my life: even though he lived a mile away, we didn’t spend all that much time with him. After mother threw my alcoholic father out Larry made some efforts to mentor to my brother and me, but nothing much came of it.

Larry and my mother Lucille Swafford were born to a lower-middle-class family in the town of Riceville, Tennessee, population around 300. This was red-dirt, mostly redneck South, featuring decades-long feuds, casual racism, snake-handling churches out in the woods, and buggys and dusty hoarse motorcars and hand-crank phones of 1920s vintage and my grandmother’s daily eavesdropping on the party line.

Mother and Larry’s parents were more or less middle class, with a bit of let’s call it cultural ambition. In her teens in the 1920s my mother played Mozart and Debussy on the piano along with ragtime and boogie-woogie. My maternal grandfather Lawrence, whom we called Grampie, was in his youth a whiz at math and had been offered a college scholarship. But his betrothed, my grandmother Beulah, wept nonstop for two months until he capitulated: he would not go to college, he would marry her, he would work for the post office.

Grampie held the job of rural mail deliverer for some fifty years, making his rounds first in a horse and buggy, then in a Ford Model T, then in 1947 and 1954 Fords. He gave candy to the kids on his route and was admired around town as a good and decent man. I remember that Model T, sitting in a barn for years until some hunters bought it after making sure it would hold the dogs. Grampie was a deacon in the First Baptist Church for I don’t know how long. I remember his tremulous tenor in the choir. He had an unabridged Oxford Dictionary on a special stand in the living room, and when the preacher mispronounced a word in the sermon, Grampie let him know about it. Some preachers appreciated that, some didn’t. At least one sermon was preached against his meddling. Grampie survived to see the moon landing on TV.

The family dynamic with the children was this: My mother reigned as my grandfather’s favorite. Larry was the cutup, the one who got in trouble, who started smoking at 10. None of it amounted to anything wildly rebellious. Their mother, my grandmother Beulah, the daughter of an MD who became the town drunk, was the ultimate mom, cooking half the day, raising flowers, making costumes for her children’s theatrical productions on the columned front porch, and so on. (The Swafford house looked like a miniature Tara.)

Beulah was what you’d call a piece of work. In her youth she had wanted to be an opera singer. In her 50s she quit the church choir in a huff when they told her she was singing too loud, and she rarely went to church again. To maintain her complexion, for fifty years she kept her face covered in Vaseline. When you visited, she’d come running shrieking endearments like a madwoman and cover you with greasy kisses. Mother told me that in her coffin, she had beautiful skin. When Grampie was in his 70s and succumbing to Alzheimer’s, Beulah accused him of running around with hussies and locked him in the house. The day she reached for a cereal box on the shelf and dropped dead at 84, a widow living alone, she had been making Easter eggs that nobody but her would see. Except for Larry all the Swaffords have died at 84, as I expect to.

That is what Larry came from. One story he told me says a lot about him and Grampie. When Larry was young he and Grampie used to take baths together, because in those days you had to heat a lot of water on the woodstove. One day, I figure as a joke, Grampie decreed that they would begin their bath with a bucket of cold well water poured over their bodies. In the tub, Larry stuck it out when Grampie poured the water over him. When it was his turn, Larry poured and after the first splash Grampie vaulted out of the tub and took off running naked through the house, Larry sprinting after him lugging the water. When Grampie reached the front door, his hand on the knob, Larry caught up and gave him the whole bucket. They laughed about it for the rest of their lives.

Another story Larry told me: As a teenager he took to driving to nearby Athens, another small town but big enough to have a pool hall. When Grampie found out Larry was shooting pool he said, “I’m not going to forbid you from doing it. But I want you to take a drive with me.” Grampie drove Larry to the pool hall and they stood in the back, watching the rowdy, obscene proceedings from a distance. Finally Grampie said, “Do you want to be that kind of person?” Larry didn’t. He never went back.

Above all what marked Larry’s youth was that he was marvelously and kind of strangely handsome. He looked unlike anybody else in the family. As a biographer I know that how you look can have a considerable influence on your life. In his youth Brahms was strikingly good-looking, blonde and blue-eyed, and that had something to do with the way people responded to him. Beethoven was homely and solipsistic and chronically ill, and that played its part in his life and his inability to find a wife. In later years one woman Beethoven had courted recalled simply: “He was ugly and half crazy.”

In his teens Larry played halfback on the Charleston High football team and reigned as the school heartthrob. My mother told me he averaged six calls a night from girls. (In her teens my mother Lucille was pudgy, Daddy’s girl, played violin, did not get in trouble, did not get calls from boys. Her one piece of rebellion was her marriage, and that didn’t work out so well.) But Larry’s looks were odd. He had curly black hair, big lips, an olive complexion. In my book, his singular attractiveness would begin an arc of story that has to do with the South in midcentury, and with race. This arc is not a literary construction. It played out that way.

The other thing about Larry was that he was a born tinkerer with an instinctive understanding of gadgets under his hands. Like a certain number of curious kids he would take apart the family radio. Unlike most kids, he put it back together and it still worked, and he knew why. That gift created his career as an engineer, with jobs verging on big time if never quite. My grandmother taught piano; I remember Larry pulling out her keyboard and taking it home to fix it. Piano repair was nothing he had studied. He just looked over the mechanism and figured it out.

Grampie was determined that his children would go to college. In his years at a small Methodist school Larry was not much of a student, but inevitably he was popular and became head cheerleader. When he first caught sight of Doris the homecoming queen he said to a friend, “I could fall in love with that girl like that,” and he snapped his fingers. He did fall in love with her, and she with him.

In old photos from the tennis court they are a gorgeous couple, like movie stars. After college and the Army, Larry married Doris. He had spent the war working on planes in the Pacific. One day, he told me, the Enola Gay landed at his field. They knew it was doing something big, but they didn’t know what it was until they heard about Hiroshima.

After the war Larry and Doris came back to Chattanooga and he got the first of a string of good engineering jobs. They fell into what appeared to be the 1950s American dream of respectability and prosperity. I remember their living room full of matching blonde furniture and a distinctive smell of warmth and contentment. Everybody we knew in the 50s wanted to get married and have kids, to make a nice living and live in a nice house, to look good in church: to be normal.

Larry and Doris had two girls, Jeanne and Terry, who got pretty dresses and dancing and music lessons and lots of stuff. Since my home was that of a divorced schoolteacher struggling to get by, every Christmas I was painfully aware of how many more presents my cousins had under the tree than my brother and I did. Also how much nicer Larry and Doris’s house was, how much longer their driveway, how they had a big garage and a grand lawn. Every birthday I heard from my mother: “You’ll get your birthday present at Christmas.” After the opening of the Christmas presents, Larry taking photos with his fancy camera, the generations always had a big dinner in our house, presided over by Grampie. I remember Larry year after year, playing with his kids’ Christmas toys with intricate delight.

In my memory Larry in his prime is always brash, busy with his hands, building a putting green in his yard and tinkering in his garage workshop, shirtless in summer, proud of his physique. In middle age he was as handsome as in his youth, with the same grand smile. He laughed a lot, played golf (in youth he was good enough to think about going pro), told racy jokes at holiday dinners, grilled steaks every summer on the patio he built. In his later career he had a good job in a factory that made boilers for nuclear submarines. One day he showed me a part he had machined and compared it to the same part made by somebody else, explaining to me how his showed more skill, more attention to detail, more pride. That was the most enduring thing he ever said to me. He made no secret of his prejudices. When I told him I’d gotten new roommates in college his first words were, “Are they white?” One of them isn’t, I said. “I’m disappointed in you,” he said. “Don’t tell your Uncle John.” His point was that John, who in childhood was called Sweet Jan and after whom I’m named, was a bigger racist than he was.

My family was mostly racist, in the casual and unthinking way of that time in the South. But in the way of middle-class Southerners they were perfectly polite to black people. One day that politeness got Larry in trouble, as he saw it. He had told some black co-workers about his home putting green; they wanted to see it and piled in his car. I remember him knocking on the door and my Mother opening it to Larry crying, “Lucille, I’ve got six niggers in my car! What am I going to do?” I don’t remember what the solution was to this crisis of humiliation before the neighbors. A lot of how you behaved in those days concerned what the neighbors might think.

I have to skip forward now. My book would at last reach the point when it became manifest to all of us that everything to do with Larry was a crumbling wall of deception. In those days in Wasp families in the South, such things were not spoken of until they had to be. The answer to distress was generally to sweep it under the rug. Larry’s wife would have realized it first, then the kids, then my mother, then his coworkers.

I think that deception says something about the delusions of normality and respectability that marked the 50s, how superficial and hypocritical they so often were. To mention one thing, in the South of the 50s they were still lynching black people with impunity. In the seventh grade in 1958 I watched the president of the ninth grade class pulling chains out of his locker to go downtown and beat up black kids during the race riots. Meanwhile the industrial pollution in Chattanooga was so bad that on sunny days downtown in summer women’s’ stockings were known to dissolve. A friend and I used to sit on a bridge over Chickamauga Creek and watch raw sewage float downstream.

There are secrets and there are secrets. Some are harmless, some harmful only to their owner, some harmful to the people you love the most. In short, through all Larry’s respectable, laughing, family-sitting-together-in-church-on-Sunday life, there was a secret that I suspect was not spoken of until it became unavoidable: Larry was a secret and serious drinker. My cousins Jeanne and Terry told me later that neither of them could remember anything in their lives before high school. They had blanked it out because of Daddy.

In our family alcohol was anathema, not to be countenanced or anyway admitted. Larry was sly about it. He drank vodka out of the bottle, so it wouldn’t show so much on his breath. He stashed bottles all over the house and in his workshop. I remember he always smelled somehow medicinal; at night his face was red and he moved and spoke slowly. He still had the smile, for a time. His employers liked and respected Larry and kept him on as long as they could. Eventually they had to let him go.

Finally it all hit the fan. Larry crashed the car in his driveway and fractured his skull. Doris refused to deal with it, so it fell to my mother to take him to the hospital. There she watched her brother go through DTs. She thought back to their childhood, Larry the brash talented teen heartthrob. All the hope, all the fun. She told me it was the worst night of her life. And she had divorced my father mainly because he was alcoholic. I remember how Larry looked in the next years, gaunt and withdrawn, not meeting your eyes. My brother said to me once: “For all our family’s teeth-gritting attempts at respectability, we turned out quite a pack of loonies.” There was an underlying strain of fundamental decency, which mainly flowed from Grampie. Yet the family floated on a tide of lies and half-truths.

To make the long sad story short, Larry got on the wagon, fell off, in the end managed to stay sober. He never admitted he’d been alcoholic. But in his last years the big smile, the joie de vivre, the brashness and confidence were gone. He sat in his workshop making little stained glass pieces and rebuilding an old Model T. His wife and my cousins became fanatically religious. Mother said: “I feel so sorry for Larry stuck in that house full of women praying all the time.”

Then he died. Lung cancer, from the smoking. But that’s not the end of the biography. In my book the climax would come after he died.

One day not long after Larry was buried my brother and I were visiting our cousins when out of the blue Terry said to me, “Did you know that when both Jeanne and I were born, Daddy was terrified that we’d come out black?” My brother and I were thunderstruck. His widow had just walked in and I blurted, “Aunt Doris, is that true?” “Yes,” she said. “Isn’t that funny?” And she walked out.

I’ll leave it there, with the unanswered questions that moment raises. Did Larry know something about Grandmother Beulah the rest of us don’t? In childhood had he been teased about his dark complexion and big lips and curly black hair? What does all this add up to, in the relentlessly respectable, conformist, indelibly racist world of the South in the 1950s?

Which brings me to my final point. A person is made in part by his or her surroundings, so a biography is not only a portrait of a person but of a time, a place, an era, an ethos, all of them working for well and for ill on everybody. So my portrait of Larry would also be a portrait of white Anglo-Saxon America from the 1930s to the 1970s, from country to city, from lynching to marching, from horse and buggy to moon landing.

I think Larry’s story could make a nice book, a biography of a fascinating ordinary man who was felled by ordinary tragedies and by the webs his time and place snared him in. But nobody in it is famous or important, nobody would read it, and I don’t intend to write it.



As best I recall it was a Friday near noon in midsummer, a work day (important point), when the wooden hand-cranked telephone jangled in my grandparents’ hall. Grandmother handed me the earpiece with a sour look and stalked back to the kitchen. It was Bobby calling to say, You gotta come down here. He wouldn’t tell me what the deal was, but it had to be something. I could hear it in his voice. You won’t believe it, he said, and momma and daddy aren’t home.

He had phoned three or four of us. We set out on bikes down the street, rounding up strays on the way. Nearly everybody we knew lived on a half mile of ramshackle houses along the railroad that constituted the right side of the tracks in Riceville, Tennessee, Pop. 401. Across the railroad ditch were low dark houses presided over by a kid who ran up and down the tracks all day shaking his hands and foaming at the mouth. I was a city boy, in Riceville on visits to my grandparents.

Bobby was thirteen and a friend of my older brother’s since Bobby beaned my brother on the head with a sledge hammer. It was a famous incident. Mostly Bobby hung out with younger kids, so he could lord it a little. He was stringy with a big adam’s apple and a crew cut. We all had crew cuts, except for the boys with the flat fuzz called a burr, and in summer we wore t-shirts and rolled-up bluejeans. Bobby’s father was my grandfather’s best friend. My Grandmother considered Bobby’s family ignorant and uppity and had ranted about them for as long as I could remember.

We dropped our bikes in Bobby’s front yard and ran around back of the house. Sure enough, you could hardly believe the sight. It was a pile of new lumber, gleaming gold and smelling sweet in the sun. Next to the lumber sat a bucket of nails. Bobby was posing in the yard with a proud grin, brandishing a hammer.

The wood was intended for repairs to the barn, I guess. We never found out. It had been delivered by a truck that morning, to Bobby’s amazement and jubilation. To us it was a summons to glory. What are we going to do all with this stuff? Bobby asked. We gazed at the lumber, cloudy endeavors forming in our minds.

Oh man, let’s build us a tank, Jimmy said. The conception dazzled us. A tank! It was a natural. A damn tank as big as, as—as a tank!

Hot-O-Molly, said JR, that’s what we’re gonna do. This was way better than shooting snakes down to the creek, possibly even more fun than blowing up dead cats with cherry bombs in the railroad ditch. And here was the brilliant part: We’d paint our tank to look like iron or whatever they make tanks out of, and we’d mount it on bicycles! On six bicycles! With awe, each in our secret hearts, we imagined the great weapon floating down the street, transcending the crumbling houses, all of us invisible inside, some of us pedaling, others aiming the turret with the big gun. It would be the wonder of Riceville.

Bobby disappeared into the screened back porch and after some crashing around started pitching tools into the yard. We swarmed onto the stack of lumber, grabbing whatever we conceived to be part of the plan–ten-foot pine planks, slats, two-by-fours, fat sheets of plywood–and threw everything down onto the grass.

A fury of hammering and sawing broke out in the noonday sun. From the barn door a cow watched us, eyes big with bovine alarm. Frantically we nailed boards to boards, slats to plywood, expecting everything would coalesce into the great design. Now and then a scream would arise, somebody’d go jumping and cussing around the yard clutching his thumb. Whaling at a plank next to me, his tongue protruding in concentration, was a big kid–stumbly, thick eyeglasses, drooled some, always last to be picked for a team. We called him Useless. He didn’t mind, as long as he was in the game. Just now Useless appeared baffled by the problem of finding a nail with a hammer, but he gave it everything he had.

In the middle of pounding stuff into a frame for the bicycles, or something, I looked up to see Bobby toting an eight-foot four-by-four across the yard. This’ll be the gun, he said. He kneeled and began sawing at it viciously. For a moment I wondered about the verisimilitude of a square gunbarrel.

After a while Bobby stood up and declared, We’ve got to get organized. Nobody paid him any attention. We kept hammering and sawing. The wood pile was getting smaller, flowing across the lawn in wildcat configurations. Bobby said again, We’ve got to get organized. Stopping to wipe the sweat from our brows we agreed, in principle, but we were too busy to think about it. After that Bobby kept quiet, and we minded our work.

Maybe an hour passed industriously. Another quarter hour, less so. It was a boiling midsummer day in the South and weapons building is hot work. The cow had disappeared into the barn for a while but now she was back at the door, watching. Finally the bam-bam-plink of missed nails and the hoarse rasping of saws petered out and we stood up, sweaty and speckled with sawdust. Around the yard half the lumber had been manhandled into crazy angles, hammer-pocked wood banged together with bent nails.

We were tired, and dimly into our heads had entered the conception that maybe it wouldn’t be so good to be around when Bobby’s daddy got home. We decided to call it a day. We agreed that we’d made a fine start on our tank, and would convene again soon to finish it up. All right, Bobby said. It’s gonna be a really great tank, said Useless. Bobby didn’t say anything else. He was looking kind of sick all of a sudden.

We edged around to the front of the house and picked up our bikes and departed, hastily. From the distance the cow gave a long lonely moo. We waited all next week for Bobby to call us to come down and finish the tank. He didn’t call, and nobody saw him for a while. We never found out what his parents did when they got home. Somebody said they thought they heard Bobby in the back yard, pulling nails out of boards and crying.

Then, 45 years. We went our ways. Names and faces have drifted apart, but I seem to recall Bobby is a lawyer, the next town over. Useless runs a feed store and for a while was mayor of Riceville. Jimmy and JR went to Vietnam. Jimmy came back. And I sit all day at pianos and computers, my mind full of forests and mountains, peregrine falcons, Vienna, the Rhine. I think about that day a long time ago, and the nature of creative ambition. I might ask of a given endeavor, Is this a wooden tank on bicycles?

My generation grew up with a mythology that ran, You wish hard enough for anything to happen, and, Lo, it will happen. In the course of years you learn that, for most of us, most of the time, Lo, it will not. So you have to work to remember what children understand by nature, as a matter of divine inspiration: no matter what, to sustain our bit of briefly mobile earth, dreams are worth dreaming.


I was delighted recently to hear from a distant Swafford relative about some of her forebears, to whom I’m even more distantly related: “Stingy Jim” Swafford of Sequatchie Valley, Tennessee, and his wife Mary Polly Nail. The latter is a splendid moniker. In her childhood I can hear her mother crying, “Mary Polly Nail, you come down outen that tree this instant or you’re lookin for a whoopin! You hear me, Mary Polly?” According to my relative, one day as Stingy Jim lay on his deathbed Mary Polly was in the kitchen making coffee. He hollered to her, “Go there easy on the coffee!” Those were Stingy Jim’s last words.

Except how he would have said that would have been roughly: “Go thar aisy awn the cawfee.” That brings up some thoughts about the accent I grew up with in various Tennessee towns of my childhood, mainly Chattanooga and Riceville, the latter where my mother was born and my grandparents lived, a red-dirt village of some 400 souls and maybe 200 cattle and swine. I’m thinking about how to spell the way we actually talked. For example, the mammalian head. “Head” in Southern is usually represented on the page as “haid,” but that’s misleading—it reads as “hayd.” What that spelling is trying and failing to convey is how it’s actually pronounced, which is “hayid,” a classic Southern diphthong. So misleading is the usual spelling that when we did the musical Oklahoma in my Chattanooga high school we pronounced the word haid in the script as “hayd,” even though a lot of us in real life said “hayid.”

That brings up the pronunciation of a familiar Southern phrase. In Standard English it would be, “I am going to knock your head off.” Where I grew up, that was properly pronounced, “Ahm’o knock yore hayid awf.” Which I submit is a more vivid and efficient way of threatening somebody with decapitation. “Ahm’o” is my favorite of all contractions: “I am going to” squashed into two syllables. That’s Southern genius, such as it is. “Ahm’o go downtown. Yawngo?” My best friend in Riceville was named Morrow, which was pronounced Marr.

One whole summer in Riceville my friends and I were at any opportunity exclaiming “Hot-O-Molly!”, which was our version of Hot Tamale. On blazing hot days—which was most days in the summer– we frequented a swimming hole in the creek that my grandfather had dug out for the kids in the 1920s. At the hole you could do two fun things: splash around in the shallow water, or shoot cottonmouths with a .22. If you wanted to swim it was a good idea to chase the snakes away first. We’d throw rocks, or a couple of us would do a cannonball into the creek. (Boys in Riceville got a .bb gun at eight, a .22 at ten, a shotgun at fourteen. I was a visiting city kid so didn’t get guns, but I used to go out with my friends hunting. I still remember the gamy smell of rabbit blood.)

Also comes to mind my Chattanooga schooldays friend Kevin, who was tall. He grew up in Manhattan, so had a Yankee accent and thought Southerners talked funny. His little-kid neighbor used to play a game in which he would climb up Kevin’s body. He called his game, “Peter Spider climbing up a tree.” Kevin reported that in the kid’s pronunciation it came out, “Peter Spahder climbin hup a tray.” The kid’s father was Superintendent of Schools for Chattanooga.

When my mother used to call me in college and my roommates answered they’d crack up at her accent. I’d remind them that she had a Master’s in Speech from the University of Chattanooga. Every year in my Jr. High school the principal would announce over the intercom the annual Kiwanis Club Oratorical Contest. With him it came out, “The Ky-wanis Club Artarcal Contest.” Could he have won an Artarcal Contest in Chattanooga?

The next linguistic item is a little racy, so be warned. I learned many of my best cusswords at that swimming hole in Riceville. One of the terms I learned was “cock,” meaning the female genitalia. You heard right. Every kid I knew used that term for lady parts. For me this persisted until eighth grade, when I happened to use the locution in front of Kevin, the New York import noted above. “A cock isn’t a pussy, you idiot!” he sputtered. “A cock is a dick!” I stood corrected. Kevin later attended Columbia in English and he was already concerned with the proper use of language. Many years later I mentioned all this, for some reason, to my writer cousin John Bowers, who grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee. I told him I assumed it was some incomprehensible mixup by local kids where I grew up. Not at all, John said. Cock is a common term for women’s junk in the lower South; that’s the way he used it in childhood. As to why it was common usage, I’d like to know. It may be one of many indications of characteristic Southern intelligence and connection to reality. I could cite more.

When I was a senior in high school I took lessons with the principal trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony. That involved getting up at 5AM and driving there from Chattanooga (on two-lane roads, pre-interstate) for a 9:30 lesson on Saturday morning. (That year I was first-chair trombone in the Tennessee All-State Band, one of the leading distinctions of my life.) As I drove I would keep myself awake reciting vowels, trying to lose the diphthongs: learning to say aee eee eye oh you instead of aiee eee ah owh yiu. I wanted to get rid of my Southern accent because I was intending to become not only a famous composer and conductor like Leonard Bernstein, but a famous actor too. And famous actors didn’t have hick accents like mine. (In high school I was named Best Actor in the yearbook Senior Superlatives for my hearty performance as Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth.) In practice my Southern accent withered away at college in the East. I miss it. It had some character as compared to how I speak now, which doesn’t sound like anyplace in particular.

I was born in Chattanooga, but for about three years before I was four we lived in my father’s natal house in Etowah, Tennessee, a smallish town straddling the railroad. A while back I was contacted by my father’s niece, Peggy, who grew up in Etowah. Talking to her on the phone, I suddenly realized that she didn’t have a Southern accent. I asked her why. “Etowahans mostly didn’t have the accent,” she said. “That’s because it started as a railroad town, and a lot of the population were imported there by the company from out of the region.” From that I realized that there were other abiding effects of the town’s founding: the streets were wide and well laid out, many of the houses relatively elegant, and there was a certain sophistication in the town temperament that to say the least doesn’t usually mark smallish Southern towns. My mother taught highschool English in Etowah and had stories about her students from the sticks. One of them was obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. Once he arrived in class full of enthusiasm and declared to her: “You know, Miz Johnson, they ain’t no flies on that Napoleon.”

(I just looked up “natal” to see if I used it correctly above and was startled to learn that, according to my computer thesaurus, the adjective can mean either “of birth” or “of buttocks.” You’ve got to be careful with that one.)

Two final accounts of Southern volubility. Some years back my brother and I were visiting Chattanooga and having lunch at a BBQ place. A family sat down behind us. After a heavy silence, the grandmother spoke: “You know, if thar’s one thang ah don’t lahk, it’s apple pie.” Thoughtful silence. “Ah just don’t lahk it.” More contemplation. “Seems lahk everbody lahks it, but ah don’t. Mah husband likes it. Mah brother Frank likes it. But ah don’t lahk it.” The family were clearing their throats. “Some people put a piece ‘o cheese on it. Covers up the whooole top! But Ah. Don’t. Lahk it.” This went on, but you get the idea.

I told this story to my soprano friend Wanda, who used to work in Louisiana, and she responded with a story from a master class she gave at, I think, LSU. A girl got up to sing and Wanda asked her what the song was about. Crooned the girl: “Ah’m fixin to sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.” Wanda made the suggestion that perhaps she could phrase her introduction more elegantly. The aspiring soprano looked puzzled. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna sing a song about a swan that’s fixin to die.”

Back to Etowah. My paternal grandfather left his prosperous lumber business on the railroad to my father rather than to his brother. It turned out a poor decision. As my mother learned only some time later, good old dad lost the lumber business playing poker. This I think influenced her decision to throw him the hell out. On the other hand, as my brother once observed, if dad had not perpetrated that, my brother and I might have ended our days sitting in the office beside the railroad in Etowah growling to each other on the order of, “There’s another load ‘o two-by-fours comin’ in and don’t overpay it this time, you son of a bitch.”

I digress. About 25 years ago I went with my brother and mother and cousin John Bowers and his wife to the Edgemon Family Reunion in Tullahoma, Tennessee. It was held in the old and extensive family graveyard, which as I remember was landscaped mostly in red dirt. This was my grandfather’s family on his mother’s side—she was Kizzy Edgemon, if I remember right. (There’s an Edgemon Ave. in Tullahoma.)

At the cemetery we found a tent under which sat a large woman before a large book. They were the Edgemon family archive and archivist. I introduced myself. “So you’re Jan, Lucille’s son and Lawrence’s grandson and Kizzy’s great-grandson. Let’s see.” She licked her thumb and turned to my page. “All righty,” she said, “last thing it says here is you went to Harvard. What have you been doing since then?” The school information would have come from Lawrence. She noted down my later history. Cousin John’s wife, who was of Russian-Jewish extraction, told us this was all exotic to her. She had no idea of her genealogy beyond two generations back, in the old country.

My ancestors, in other words, were pretty much rednecks. The only distinguished person I know of in my family to date was my maternal grandmother Beulah’s father, Gray by name, who was a medical doctor and a dentist. At the height of his career he invested every penny he had building a new office in Riceville. Beulah said he supplied it with twelve sheets of gold to use for fillings. The office burned to the ground the day before it opened. In the next years great-grandfather Gray gave up medicine for a position as town drunk. It’s easier and the hours are good.

Accents. One of the things I appreciate about William Faulkner is that he conveys a range of Mississippi dialects, from poor whites and blacks to tradesmen and the middle class, and he does it more with rhythm and phrasing than with the convoluted spellings that some (like me and Mark Twain) resort to. He can also add resonances with a representation of a phrase. In one novel a woman keeps saying about her hapless and penniless husband: “He aint got no more despair.” (Hmmm. I recall Faulkner saying in an interview that in his early years the best employment offer he ever had was to be manager of a whorehouse. He said it’s a pretty soft job. You just have to keep track of what the ladies are up to, get the trash out, and pay off the police now and then. It leaves your mornings free, which is the best time for writing, and in the evenings you don’t have to go out to enjoy a social life. He may have been exaggerating. On another occasion Faulkner told an interviewer he was the offspring of a negro slave and an alligator, both of them named Gladys Rock. I’m not making this up.)

I digress again. Besides redneck, my family are also mongrels—English, Scottish, and I don’t know what-all. But the Edgemon part is Dutch, a corruption of Egmont. This is, of course, a legendary family in Holland. As I tell people, I’m related to a play by Goethe and an overture and incidental music by Beethoven.

An erratic mixture of redneck and educated I think marks my family and me too, in my way. My mother Lucille and her brother Larry both went to college, small denominational ones in Tennessee, she majoring as I remember in English and Psychology, Larry majoring mainly in girls. Mother became a highschool English teacher noted for her vigorous promotion of literature, her histrionic poetry readings, her teaching of grammar by having students write poems and short stories. As she said, she was teaching not just grammar but creativity. I was probably foreordained–maybe doomed is the better word–to some sort of creative endeavor. Mother was not happy about my going into music because she had some idea of what a lousy job it is, but she supported me in it all the way. Trying to be helpful, she advised me to compose disco on the side. When I started writing prose she urged me to produce a naughty novel, under a pseudonym of course.

For all her devotion to literature on the job, at home we never knew Mother to read a book. Meanwhile she could stand in the middle of a museum gallery and name most of the famous painters at a distance. At home she had in the living room two prints, one Las Meninas by Velasquez, sometimes called the greatest of all paintings, and the other a tacky tourist rendering of a barn in a field. She didn’t really know the difference between the two. Mother was a Southern Baptist Republican who in my childhood would kneel down every night by the bed and pray. With her highschool literary magazine staff she would dress up in fancy pajamas, burn incense, and read them Beat poetry. Her heroes were Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, though she regretted their use of dirty words. Many of her students thought she herself was a Beatnik, but she was generally appreciated and a bit marveled at. She was a star of the faculty. I like to think that I’ve reached a more sophisticated stage in the arts and letters and career and so on. But I think I’ve still got traces of the family mix of sophistication here and cluelessness there. Ask my ex-bosses, my ex-spouses, etc.

As soon as I can get to it I’m going to post a memoir about my mother’s brother, my Uncle Larry, one of those orphan stretches of prose I don’t have much to do with but put in the blog. Also a memoir about my Southern boyhood, which in Chattanooga was largely boring and barely middle class, in Riceville more peculiar and interesting.

P.S. Actually I’ve had some ideas about the naughty novel Mother wanted me to write. It would be structured in a sort of algebraic logic. The four characters I call A B C and D. The outer ones are male, the inner ones female. The couplings, as well as the tensions in the plot and denouement, would proceed logically: A + B; B + C; C + D; A + B + C; B + C + D; and for a grand final whizbang, A through D inclusively. Haven’t gotten around to it, but you never know.