Monday, November 6, 2017
Snow was expected later in the day. The morning was raw and windy and the clouds crawled over the barren fields like snails leaving tracks of greasy mist. The traffic was competitive and fierce – cars with places to go. On my way to the hearing, I stopped at a Kwik-Trip for gas and a can of soda pop.
I went into the toilet and stood at the urinal. Someone entered but I didn’t look over my shoulder. I heard the stall door clang and, then, a waterfall ensued, a torrent splashing into the porcelain ear of the toilet bowl. I finished and zipped my trousers and, then, washed my hands and the water drizzling into the sink was a mere rivulet compared with mighty stream still surging in the stall. I paused for a minute, waiting for the jet spraying in the metal cubicle to lessen and, then, cease. But the blast of urine didn’t diminish. To the contrary, the stream seemed to increase until it was a deafening roar, an endless cascade sprayed through an opening that had to be the size of a garden hose, enough I thought to put out every fire on earth.
In the dim mirror, a pallid stranger gazed at me. The ghastly downpour continued and, suddenly, I was stricken with terror – I didn’t want to see the vessel from which this endless jet of urine was emerging. I emptied the mirror of my presence, plunged through the rest room door and, after paying the cashier, rushed to my car and sped away.
After the hearing, it began to snow, tentatively at first, but, then, with more force. Visibility decreased and greyish slush accumulated on the highway.
East of a small town, the road passed farms, most of them melting away in the grey, snowy distance. The rivers bridged by highway showed spines of bone-white rapids through their brown flesh.
A shelter-belt stretched out to the murky horizon. The field beside the column of trees had been cut by the plow and was muddy. Big pale heaps of ricotta cheese, some of them head high, had been dumped in the field. The white pyramids of cheese seemed to repel the snow swirling around them. I had never seen anything like this and it was a curious spectacle – the snowstorm, the wet dark earth tattooed with furrows, the tons of slippery-looking white cheese piled in a serrated range, a miniature sierra of ricotta, left exactly as dumped from the truck.
I supposed that the cheese would be plowed under the soil to enhance the field’s productivity.
A glacial esker ran alongside the highway where the road crossed the featureless plain. The esker looked like a railroad embankment, twenty-five or thirty-feet high, with a flat top. The landform was more sinuous than the road and seemed feminine; it wiggled its hips at the highway sometimes approaching closely and, then, flirtatiously retreating into the white cloud of falling snow.
At intervals, gravel companies had pierced the esker and were unpacking its contents. I saw the bolted gates, the muddy driveways into the gravel pit, the skeletal towers of crushing apparatus and the big earthmovers parked next to dull-looking ponds of water dissolving the fluffy flakes slipping into them.
An esker is a complex thing with many parts and the glacier and its streams that had packed the thing worked efficiently, cramming maximum content into the undulating embankment. On the flat top of the esker, weeds were growing and some small brush. Where the landform was cut open, I could see stratified sand and gravel, pebbles glistening in the snow fall, glacial till, and a wet mortar of pale glacial flour, stone cut to tiny flakes of silica dust. Big, surly erratics crouched in the base of the till and, at some locations, the sediment was cross-bedded.
The gravel pits were inactive. All the dump trucks had been pressed into service hauling cheese to fertilize the fields. Graded heaps of stone, conical as a Phyrgian cap, stood alongside the metal crusher-machines. Sand slumped into its angle of repose.
When the flood came, the esker would be a good place to seek high ground.
I passed another field where pale grey and white mounds of cheese curds were waiting to be folded into the brown clods and dark furrows of the acreage. Shelter belts ranged across the country, fading into the flurries on the horizon. The ground was too wet to support the implements necessary to plow the cheese into the soil.
Perhaps, it wasn’t fertilizer cheese, but seed-cheese. Maybe, the farmers were preparing to grow a crop of cheese. I couldn’t tell how the mounds of cheese were going to be used. I know that cheese can be grown under the earth like potatoes and, perhaps, that was the plan.
At the edge of the field, the filthy yellow flood was advancing. The ditches were full of fluid that seemed warm and that steamed in the snow storm and the flakes hissed as they melted in the liquid.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Although we often have big, red grins painted across our jaws, everyone knows that clowns are sad. Don’t let the grease-paint grin distract you from our eyes. Look closely: our eyes are weary, wet with tears, glaucous, fixed on some remote and inaccessible horizon, irredeemably melancholy.
An important reason for our sadness is that clowns perforce must travel about in clown cars. One who travels in a clown car is inevitably saddened by that experience.
Clown cars come in two varieties. First, there are individual cars, generally very tiny and powered by flatulent lawn-mower motors. Atop these cars, the clown sits on a stool no more than six inches above the ground with his or her knees raised. A clown car of this kind can move with unanticipated and alarming speed and the vehicles are very unstable. Because the clown rides with knees blocking his view, he has difficulty navigating curves and corners and, therefore, is often spilled out of the car. These mishaps result in the clown suffering severe abrasions, lacerations, loss of skin. Miniature clown cars are often equipped with large brass horns with red squeeze bulbs. These horns make deafening racket and, indeed, conceal the cries and moans of the clowns injured when they roll or crash their cars. Head-on collisions are not unknown in which clowns are flung willy-nilly together, butting skulls over the ruin of their tiny vehicles.
More sinister, of course, are the full-size clown cars. These are floppy-looking sedans sagging on their axles from the weight of the clowns that they are carrying. The car staggers into the hippodrome, rounding corners precariously on two half-deflated wheels, and, then, slams to an abrupt stop that slams the load of passenger-clowns hard against the vehicle’s windshield – sometimes, this impact pops out the windshield; other occasions, the glass simply yields, bulging outward with the weight of the clowns thrown forward. Then, the door on the passenger side flaps open and clowns sprawl out onto the sawdust – at first, a couple hobos in white face, then, several augustes, the victims of thrown pies and seltzer bottles, then, a crowd of Joeys, a baker’s dozen of weary Willies, some jugglers with red and white striped ‘phizs, more tramps with trained poodles, an apparently endless succession of clowns disgorged from the clown car as the audience gasps in amazement. At last, the huge crowd of clowns has exited the car, concluding with a platoon of dwarves wearing blue bald wigs with orange hair fringe, six trained geese, and a bear walking upright like a man, nose and maw entrapped in a fire-truck red muzzle. Liberated from the intolerable confinement of the clown-car, the clowns begin their charivari (or shivaree), that is, their wild ruckus while high-wire artistes strike poses overhead and the acrobats somersault through the air on the flying trapeze.
Of course, riding in the clown car is hellish. To convey the proper effect, the clowns must fit themselves together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle – noses must be buried in buttocks, elbows have to fit between thighs, heads are tucked tight against bellies, everyone is crammed together without so much as a finger’s breadth of distance between sweating bodies. Baggie pants and red ruffled collars are stained with grease-paint dissolved in perspiration and flowing in streams from contorted faces. Funnels and hot-water bottles required for gags, gouge the small of your back or crush your testicles. A fifty-gallon foam-rubber cowboy hat has to serve as a hermitage for twin dwarf-clowns resting nose-to-toe like fetuses in the womb. The sheer weight of bodies pressed together makes ketchup-squirters discharge and, in the terrible crush, there are more than a few sexual acts consummated, albeit most inadvertently. The clowns are all jabbering incoherently, crowing out insults at one another, and the painful circumstances are rendered even more purgatorial by our incessant shoving, and ramming, and pushing and pulling. It’s stifling, like the Black Hole of Calcutta, legs and arms and bodies squeezed together tighter than two hands gripped together.
The most terrible thing about this horrible tangle of bulbous red noses and orange fright wigs and floppy shoes and white-painted faces is that the clown car is actually quite spacious, much larger on the inside than it looks from the stands where the spectators are watching. The clowns wrapped together in a compressed, writhing ball are merely those most anxious to emerge from the car, grip the attention of the audience, and begin entertaining the crowd with their antics. On the edge of this mob, there are clowns gathered in a huddle rehearsing gags, a floppy clown turning backflips atop the conclave. Other clowns are ambling about in the backseat on tall stilts or rehearsing somersaults from mini-trampolines. Some clowns are juggling poodles and red beach balls and chainsaws; other clowns are inflating balloons and shredding paper to fill their confetti buckets or de-pantsing one another, a gag that leads to lots of chasing around, and a clown orchestra is playing Clair de Lune while other clowns are carefully placing charges of gunpowder for their exploding trouser routines. And more remote from the backseat, clown-farmers are plowing emerald-colored fields and clown falconers stand atop craggy rocks with their hooded birds and clown pilgrims are walking along the roads to chapels where the relics of clown-saints are enshrined in gold and silver caskets. And, on the tops of mountains, there are fairy-tale castles with pennants and clown kings and queens as well as clown princes and princesses.
You never see clowns of this kind in the circus. They are too dignified to participate in the scrum of interlocked bodies in the front seat of the clown car. Whether this is their loss or gain, I leave to your deliberation.
Saturday, September 30, 2017
I woke to the sound of sirens. Emergency vehicles were hurrying to remote quadrants of the city and dogs were howling with the sirens. In another room, I heard a bird singing, a few notes whistled in the silent room. The bird’s call was a question, an interrogative.
A bird was in the house. I didn’t know how this had happened.
Birds were in ten other houses in the neighborhood.
In one house, an old lady in her bathrobe shrieked as the bird flew past her, it’s wing brushing against her eyes. She didn’t know what to do and, so, called 911 to report the bird and the dispatcher said that birds were in other people’s houses as well, but that she would write down the woman’s name and, once the animal enforcement officer had time to respond he would come to her home. "Please be calm," the dispatcher said.
In the second house, a little girl had risen early and was watching TV and, in the kitchen behind her, a small sparrow-sized bird flew in helpless circles in a sunbeam. The little girl was watching cartoons and paid no attention to the bird.
In the third house, a burly man in pee-stained underwear was chasing the bird in his house with a broom. He pursued the bird onto the enclosed porch and batting at it, smashed the little creature to the ground. The bird lay on the floorboards, its breast rising and falling. The man went to his kitchen and picked up the bird with a Bounty paper-towel. He felt how warm the bird was – it was like a living coal in its paper-towel shroud.
In the fourth house, the family’s dog barked at the bird and lunged at it and the small winged creature crashed headlong into the picture window framing the home’s front lawn and the big oak tree there. The bird’s neck was broken. The dog sniffed at the fallen bird, but, when it twitched, retreated nervously and sat against the baseboard growling.
In the fifth house, an old man sat in his easy chair with a blanket across his lap and watched as the bird perched on his lamp and, then, flew in tight circles around the room. The old man smiled slightly.
In the sixth house, the bird dived toward a nineteen-year old girl who was holding in her trembling hand a tennis racket. The girl dropped the tennis racket and squealed and, as she backed away from the bird’s dive, she tripped over an ottoman and fell hard onto the floor, spraining her wrist.
In the seventh house, a mother sheltered her two little children from the bird spinning in circles through the living room. She held the door open and whispered to the bird: "Come this way, come this way!" As if by accident, the bird found the door open into the backyard, zoomed past her, casting a bit of feathery lint onto the mother’s cheek. The children giggled with delight and the bird swam through the air, taking laps around the tree where a red-tailed squirrel was scolding it.
In the eighth house, an old woman had died. She sat at her kitchen table with the newspaper open in front of her and her coffee in its cup still cooling. Her head was down and the bird came to her from time to time to pluck hair from her skull so that it could make a nest in another room in her home.
In the ninth house, twin boys turned from the Tv that they were watching to see the bird perch for a moment on the fishbowl where their guppies and goldfish lived. The bird’s eye was black and glittering. The bird leaped down onto the carpet where some one had carried a smudge of mud and leaf into the home from outdoors. The family’s cat, dived onto the bird, swatting it down with an outstretched paw and, then, proceeding to torture the little creature to death.
In the tenth house, a man dressed for work entirely ignoring the bird that fluttered in spirals around his head. When he left his house, the bird followed him closely and skimmed over his left shoulder as he turned to shut his side-door. The man went to his car and started its engine and he saw the bird wobbling a little as it flew up to perch in an elm tree. Sirens were howling in other parts of the town.
The reason that sirens where sounding was that, in each corner of our city, there were one-hundred birds trapped inside one-hundred houses.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Evil, like good, is not a thing unto itself. Rather, evil is social and involves others: a bad act must be done intentionally so as impress itself upon others as bad. Thus, evil must be premeditated and overt; that is, known to be bad and seen as bad as well Bear with me a little on this subject because I know whereof I speak. Before I became very good, I was very evil and acted in accordance with my nature.
Harm is intrinsic to evil just as benefit defines good. Bad acts injure others. Good acts inure to the benefit of the community. This is not remarkable and, indeed, exactly corollary to the fact that evil must be demonstrated: intended for the injury of others and demonstrated to have that effect. An evil act that unintentionally benefits another is not evil. I don’t want to excessively complicate matters, but must hasten to observe that these ideas don’t agree entirely with my present beliefs. There has been, so to speak, an evolution in my thinking. Indeed, since I became good, a long and winding path from my previous state, I have learned that all bad acts on some level unintentionally serve the good. By this realization, the entire concept of evil vanishes entirely as it should – but the proof of this proposition is much in advance of what I must now tell you.
When I was a bad person, I got up to all sorts of mischief. There are several famous African-American football players, millionaires employed by the local franchise in my city. Do you recall the scandal, years ago, when someone spray-painted the word "Nigger" on the walls of their mansions in the suburbs? That was me. I posted vituperation on the internet and sexually harassed my female co-workers until they were too heart-sick to report to work and, so, several of them lost their jobs. I never pulled over at a rest stop without thieving spare rolls of toilet paper and, even, light bulbs from those places and, once, I wrestled a vending machine full of soda pop to the ground so that it was sufficiently smashed to be looted. I lit a fire in a waste basket in one of the toilets at the Guggenheim Museum, forcing evacuation of that cultural landmark. And I cheated on tests and didn’t pay bills that were due and owing and, when the creditors threatened to take me to court, I sued them first in Conciliation Court on specious grounds and, then, secured a half-dozen continuances before abandoning the case on the eve of trial. Using a screwdriver, I turned back mileage on the odometers of cars that I planned to trade or sell and, when behind the wheel, I always swerved to run over squirrels and stray pets that had ventured too near the roadway. I desecrated graves and used a crowbar to knock over monuments in a Jewish cemetery and, then, I brandished a can of spray paint to decorate some the gravestones with swastikas and, because the spray paint bottle was evidence, and also toxic, I pitched it into a crystal clear lake with a couple of TV sets that I had stolen and a half-dozen car batteries leaking acid. I cheated and lied and used crooked accountants to file crooked tax returns and, through a dozen, undercapitalized shell corporations, I conducted various businesses to the prejudice of everyone who had any contact with them. I operated a fleet of grossly underinsured semi-trucks and tractors on the public highways and hired nothing but junkies and dope fiends as drivers, blindly reckless criminal types that I selected from the most depraved tenants in the subcode, ramshackle apartment buildings that I managed – I was, then, the slum lord of all slum lords: in the residential premises that I rented no covenant of habitability went unbreached: my toilets overflowed and raw sewage spilled out of sinks and faucets and leaking gas pipes turned buildings into bombs and I neither mowed the lawns (nor caused them to mowed) nor shoveled the snow on the sidewalks (and did not direct that this be done) at any of my several tenements. But I did take care to evict widows and orphans and, if possible, on Christmas Eve or the day before Thanksgiving. I never occupied a crowded elevator without farting and, then, blaming the smallest, sweetest girl in those close quarters for the stench.
In my personal life, I was no better: I was married a few times, because I found that marriage made adultery more piquant and exciting and, further, marriage gave me ample opportunity to develop my skills of prevarication and deceit. The children that I spawned I ignored or damaged by exercises of cruelty devised to destroy their self-reliance and confidence. I didn’t pay child support, not a penny, nor did I pay any alimony or spousal maintenance notwithstanding court orders requiring me to do so. I was a drunkard and addict – I snorted cocaine until the septum of my nose dissolved and, then, I administered drugs by dipping tampons in crack and jamming them up my ass. I was always attractive to the ladies and conducted a half-dozen affairs simultaneously, transmitting a wide variety of bacterial infections to my partners. Thin-lipped censorious types will tell that you that people who commit acts of this sort are hollow inside, melancholy and lonely and, even, at risk of suicide. Of course, I didn’t see it that way – as far as I was concerned, I was having a blast.
My plot involving algific talus slopes was intended as my masterpiece, an act of pure, disinterested malevolence. By this act, I intended to test several theses that I had heard bruited about polite society – first, some people said that the world was naturally just and that unjust acts were always punished one way or another. This seemed highly unlikely to me, but I thought that I should test the possibility. And, second, there was the old chestnut about all bad acts somehow conspiring to accomplish the Good – this seemed a morbidly weak, pathologically self-justificatory theory, but, also, one that deserved to be refuted, if at all possible.
At that time, I was romancing a widow, a certain admissions officer at one of the local colleges. The widow was a little overweight but frolicsome and she didn’t need to ask if I intended to do her wrong – she knew from my demeanor that my objectives were dishonorable but this didn’t dishearten her in the slightest. The widow’s deceased husband had been a much-beloved elder scientist in the biology / ecology department at the University of Northern Iowa and, one of his areas of expertise, was algific talus slopes, a peculiar specialty that I will explain in due course. At this juncture, it suffices for me to say that the old boy had been returning from an expedition in the field, apparently driving cross-country from a certain ice-mountain with most interesting flora and fauna in West Virginia when he fell asleep somewhere in Ohio, or the driver of the oncoming pick-up dozed off, with predictably calamitous results. The renowned professor of snails and ferns was scraped off the highway, his fragments cremated and, then, according to the merry widow, buried under a granite slab inscribed with the motto Eadem mutatem resurgo ("I rise but am changed"). The professor was fifteen years older than the attractive widow and, although it was a second marriage for both of them, her husband’s wealth, which was not inconsiderable, had passed to her by way of the dead man’s Last Will and Testament – it seemed the dead man’s children by his first wife were all conniving and undeserving and, so, it was probable, that my lady-friend was in receipt of a significant fortune. At that time, I was working as an used car salesman and discovered the widow’s resources when doing a credit-check in support of a deal that I had negotiated with her – she was buying a Lincoln Town Car and, when I tried to gouge her on the interest rate, the widow paid cash and bought the vehicle outright. One of my specialties was seducing older women and diverting their wealth to my own benefit and this display of fiscal wherewithal impressed me. I arranged for her to have a flat tire shortly after the deal was done, rushed to her rescue when she called to complain (the tires were supposed to be brand new) and, predictably enough, one thing led to another.
I was making good progress until, one night, when we seemed to reach an impasse on that aspect of our relationship most important to me. We had gone to dine at road-house on the edge of town, a place called "The Old Barn". This was a big, roomy joint with a shadowy and capacious dining room lit only by candles and the bright white glare flaring from the cellphones of senior citizens shining their flashlight ap on their menus. Stuffed stag and elk gazed down at the diners, their glass eyes reflecting the warm flicker of orange candles on the tables and, in a pool of florescent radiance, other retirees were rummaging through the buckets of food on offer at the salad bar. Old farmers in feed caps ordered "high balls" and "Manhattans" and these drinks were carried into the restaurant from the bar across the hall, another dark niche paneled in rustic logs and defended by the furry skull of a huge bear mounted on the wall. The barmaids working the bar wore form-fitting blouses and showed their cleavage and they pretended to be scandalized by the filthy language that they heard from the traveling salesmen and implement dealers drinking in the tavern. On that evening, things had not got off to an auspicious start. I recognized among the barmaids a girl that had spent the night at my apartment on the weekend a few days earlier and she recognized me as well. I waited until she went into the ladies’ room and, then, I excused myself from the dinner table where my date (the widow) and I were eating a queen cut and a king cut of prime rib respectively, locking the door behind me while I made my explanations – there was another teenage girl on her period in one of the stalls but I just ignored her. I told the waitress that it wasn’t the way that it looked and this was not a date, no as far from a date as you could imagine, and that, after supper, I would feign indigestion and, then, plan to stop over at her trailer house once her kids had gone to sleep. The barmaid was placated and, even, sent a couple of drinks to our table, courtesy of the house, and, of course, I returned to courting the widow.
After my lady-friend was a little tipsy on the drinks and the red wine we were drinking, I asked her about her late husband’s Will. She was usually guarded on this subject, but the evening was romantic, and I had taken her hand, and, so, she decided to tell me the truth about the Biology / Ecology professor’s Last Will and Testament.
"Actually, Fred," – at that time, I was going by the name of Fielding Friendly, "just call me Fred", an excellent moniker for a car salesman – "Fred" (she said) "I’m living on what is called a ‘life estate’. I don’t suppose you know what that is, but my husband wanted to provide for me and so he was generous enough to grant me a ‘life estate’ in everything that was his..."
I knew very well what a ‘life estate’ was. These things are the bane of the existence for a person such as I was then. I withdrew my hand from hers.
"I suppose that you have your own wealth," I asked her very sweetly. I looked deeply into her eyes.
"Oh no," she said. "It’s inconsequential. My first husband was... improvident. And my family was working class. There wasn’t anything to begin with."
"So the house, the property, the accounts?"
She held her cocktail glass under her nose, sniffed a little, and, then, sipped from her drink.
"It all goes to the Nature Conservancy," the widow said. The alcohol made her eyes fizz. Perhaps, it was the intensity of my gaze mixing with her drink and the memory of my hand riding gently atop her knuckles and her modest second-marriage wedding band.
"What is that?" I asked: "The Nature Conservancy?"
"It’s a non-profit corporation that buys land for conservation purposes. Special places that have something unusual or unique or endangered about them."
"I see," I said.
"In his case, the Nature Conservancy is to devote all his funds, his estate, to acquiring and protecting algific talus slopes. They were his life work and he wanted to perpetuate that work after he was gone," she said.
"Praiseworthy," I said. "It’s wonderful. But that’s an odd kind of Will. Doesn’t it make you bitter?"
"Why?" she said. "Fred, you can’t take it with you. And it’s what he wanted."
She stood up and her stout middle-aged body wobbled just a little with the booze that she had swallowed. "I am going to the ladies’ room," she said.
"Don’t be long," I said.
"Back in a jiff," she replied, swaying slightly as she moved away from the table and through the dimly lit dining room.
Life is unfair. It slams the door in your face and pisses in your eyes. I cut some meat and tore it with my teeth. I thought that I would make her suffer.
She had a key. Keys are sexually exciting. They open all kinds of doors to all kinds of place. This key let us into the campus museum, a shadowy gallery with newly waxed floors that smelled slippery to me.
She took my hand and we danced over the tiles.
The museum was the kind of place that always looks new up to the moment the wrecking ball knocks it down. Big pylons of raw-looking concrete surrounded a dark central cavity and the steps went up and down indiscriminately, next to strange indirect ramps that the law had mandated for crippled people, so many little balconies and platforms and ledges that you couldn’t tell whether your were on one floor or another. Someone was cleaning in another corridor and I could hear a machine running, a soft indistinct buzz.
We came to an alcove in the cement wall and she touched a hidden switch that illumined the display. Under the glass, a hillside was shown in cross-section. The hill was steep at first and, then, sloped down so that its profile was that of a high-topped boot. The diorama was designed so that we could see into the hill and observe that there was a cavity behind the steep cliff and slope. As light gradually increased, I could see that the cavity was bright with a bulb of ice. Vertical slits in the hilltop led down to this tumor of ice concealed inside the slope. More horizontal fissures spread like capillaries away from the ice toward the slope at the toes of the boot. Arrows painted in the capillaries showed that they conveyed cold air from the hidden ice to the face of the hillside.
"You see," she said. "water comes down from the surface, through sinkholes – it’s all karst. You know what karst means –"
I told her that I knew the word.
"The water freezes under the hill and, then, when it is spring, melt a little. Cool air and a trickle of cold water flows down from the pocket ice to the slope of the hill."
She pointed to the toe of the big boot-shaped hillside.
"This is where its always cool," she said, gesturing to the green slope tilting up at an angle of 45 degrees from simulated limestone base of the canyon. "It stays between 30 degrees and 50 degrees no matter how hot the day. This means that animals and plants live on the slope that can’t live anywhere else. It’s like the slope is a little ecosystem from the tundra, the arctic. So you have rare flowers there and strange animals."
"The Iowa Pleistocene Snail. It’s called a relict species. This is the only place in the world, these algific slopes, where this snail lives."
"God’s truth," she said.
Rows of text marched down the side of exhibit. I didn’t read the writing. She was telling me what I needed to know.
Above the text, a man was shown in a photograph. He was horse-faced wearing black horn-rimmed glasses with a long saggy nose. The man’s jacket was tweed. I’m not kidding – the professor was dressed in tweed with patches at his elbows for his official portrait, although I assumed that his real portrait was the diorama made of painted clay, the bas relief of the talus slope behind the glass.
"People have smeared it," she said, licking her lips. "There are fingerprints on the glass. This needs to be cleaned better."
"So that’s your old man?"
"His picture," she replied.
"You need to show me one of these famous algific talus slopes," I said.
"I can’t," she told me. "They’re so fragile that all the locations are secret."
"Yes, their locations are secret because they’re afraid people will mess with them, climb on the slopes and disrupt the cold air vents. They’re millions of years old but someone could destroy a talus slope like this in an hour."
"That’s why I can’t tell you where to find one."
"I’ll have to torture you," I told her.
"You can do that anyway," she said.
"Secrets are sexy," I said.
She murmured something that I couldn’t exactly hear.
"Press the button," she said. "You are getting too hot."
There was a big fat red button under the display. I supposed that it was all foul with people’s germs.
"You push it," I said.
She reached forward and depressed the big red button and, at that moment, a fan engaged somewhere in the wall. A gust of cold air was exhaled through a little pockmarked vent on the wall.
"See you can feel the cold coming from underground," she said.
I put my fingers between her legs and, then, shoved her up against the wall so that her belly was against the vent. Then, I pushed down on the red button, covering my hand with her dress so that I didn’t have to touch that filthy thing. The cold air surged out against her body. She cooed a little.
"I’m just trying to cool you down," I said.
"Don’t," she said.
Someone coughed and I turned to see a fat lady wearing turquoise-colored latex gloves looking at us from a concrete ledge overhead. The woman was holding a mop and had a bucket on wheels in front of her.
"We’re entitled to be here," I said to the woman.
The woman said something in Spanish.
"I have a key," the widow said, displaying it for the custodial worker.
The woman spoke in Spanish again.
The widow said: "This glass over the display, the algific talus slope, is all smudged with fingerprints. You need to spray the glass with windex or something and wipe it down."
The custodian turned on some lights, brightening the grim concrete in this part of the atrium well.
On an opposing wall, I saw another display, a glass case labeled "TORNADO!" I walked along the side of the atrium to the exhibit. Inside, there were more works ranked in columns and another big ugly red button. I took out a handkerchief and pressed the button. Within a blueish cylinder of light, I saw a small vortex of vapor ascend from a perforated metal tray. The vortex twitched, vanishing for an instant, and, then, reappearing more clearly established as a tiny funnel spinning above the perforations in the column’s base. A recording played the sound of rain falling and the boom of thunder and, sometimes, a white light flashed over the spinning vortex simulating lightning.
I was hypnotized by the exhibit and imagined the vortex expanding, twisting and turning until it was the size of a man, in fact, my height so that I could look the cyclone eye-to-eye. Then, the glass broke and the cyclone became a giant and where it touched powerlines, showers of sparks fell and beaded the earth with their bright droplets and, then, bridges were shredded and trees flattened and the houses of men erupted like volcanoes where the tornado struck them.
It’s interesting but the shape of a tornado’s funnel is defined by an equation called the "swirl ratio". This can be calculated. The writing under the glass flashed some mathematical formulae and there was a radar image of a hurricane. As it happens, a hurricane is a tornado on a vast scale and the shape of both vortices is something called a logarithmic spiral, an elegant form that nature uses for the shells of sea creatures and snails.
We went outside onto the quadrangle. It was very still.
"You have to tell me where those slopes are located," I asked.
"I don’t really know," she said. "He took me out there a couple of times. Gravel roads, then, dirt roads, and, then, a foot trail and, at last, a game trail, not even a trail just a parting between the thorns and nettles and, then, you know –"
"I couldn’t find those places if I tried," she said.
"But your fortune is being wasted on them," I said.
"It was his fortune," she said.
She stopped in the darkness by a place where shadowy prisms of glass sloped upward. It was a green house. I could smell banks of flowers against the building, perfume lurking there in the warmth of the night. She bent forward and took a few flowers, grey and black in the darkness, and tucked them into her hair.
"He used to pick flowers for me here," she said.
"He’s dead," I said, knocking the flowers out of her hair.
The thing with the widow didn’t last. It wasn’t supposed to and, in any event, there was no pay-off, no pot of gold at the end of her rainbow. After I had maxed her out, I turned to other endeavors – swindling associations for retarded citizens (these groups always have a treasurer who is a gambling fiend) and blackmailing Lutheran pastors with evidence of sexual liaisons with members of their congregation – you don’t need any actual proof but simply proceed on the assumption that everyone is guilty. And it’s true, no one is innocent. Everyone is guilty of something.
You can turn pretty much anyone into a tool and, therefore, a weapon. And you can turn just about every thing and place into a tool as well. But the algific talus slopes that the widow had explained to me seemed an exception. These places, if they even existed, were of no conceivable value to anyone. What is the use of Monk’s Hood, a plant that flowers only on those slopes and also in the inaccessible Arctic? What is the value of the Iowa Pleistocene snail? It tormented me to think of those slopes concealed in the green shadow of the woods and serving no one at all, something festering in the forests, a kind of ancient, ignoble rot that was good for no one and no thing either. Why should such places escape the general destruction, the petulant fury of men or elements that, in the end, left not a stone standing upon a stone? It troubled me. Not much – but it troubled me.
One afternoon, I called the Nature Conservancy. I said that I had been a student of the professor whose widow had entertained me until I had lost interest in her (this latter point I didn’t make). The woman with whom I was speaking didn’t know the man’s name but said that she would research him and call me back. I said that I was considering a donation in the professor’s honor but wanted to tour a couple of the properties that the Conservancy had already acquired.
The next day, I spoke with a man who said that he was the director of "strategic giving." The man was polite but noncommittal and asked me if I wanted to make a pledge. "I have some proceeds to invest in your enterprise," I said. "But I need to have a sense for your stewardship."
The man said that he could arrange for me to tour a place called "Bluestem Prairie". "It’s an intact tall-grass prairie system, never plowed, an ecosystem of 100 acres exactly the way it was before this land was developed. Very beautiful wild-flowers, by the way."
"Will someone meet me there?" I asked.
"We will even drive you from your home," the man said.
"And can we tour Saxifrage Hollow also and Bluebell Hollow?" I asked. Those were the names of the places where the Professor had studied algific talus fields and financed the acquisition of that land.
"I’m not familiar with those places," the man said. "I understood you were interested in preserving the original eco-systems in this part of the Midwest."
"Algific talus fields," I said.
I told him that I wanted to be shown Saxifrage Hollow and Bluebell Hollow. The man said that he would have to assess this request.
"I feel like I’m getting the runaround," I told him. He apologized profusely.
The director of strategic giving called me an hour later. "I can’t show you those properties," the man said.
"Why is that?"
"One of them is compromised. It’s climate change and the slope has collapsed. I’m told that the habitats don’t exist any more."
"And the other?"
"It’s completely inaccessible. It’s a four-mile trek without any trails and, then, you have to climb down into a gorge, a hundred feet or more. It’s a technical climb – you have to rappel down. We can’t assume the liability."
"That’s not true," I said. "It’s on a trout creek. I’ve been told that you got guys in waders down there all the time, in the stream fly-fishing right next to the cliff-face. Anyone with a trout license can get back up there if they hike the creek."
I wasn’t sure if this was true. But the widow had told me that the professor discovered one of the sites while fishing for trout.
"I think you’re misinformed," the man said.
"I was good friends with the man who discovered these places," I said. "I want to make a sizeable donation in his name."
"That can be arranged, but we can’t have you climbing around on those rocks. We limit access to biologists, doctoral and post-doctoral scientists, do you understand? These places are terrifically fragile," he paused. "Beside, I can show you our level of stewardship at the Bluestem Prairie – that’s a beautiful site, wild flowers, you know, and its open to the public. We even have a picnic table. It’s really something to see. These talus slopes – they’re invisible, by and large, completely invisible."
"I’m not interested in prairie grass," I said.
"Then, perhaps, you should consider a donation to another cause," the man said. I cursed him and, then, hung up.
I spent another two hours researching the subject and made a list of all known algific talus fields identified on the internet. I wrote notes on a yellow pad.
Then, I called my henchman, Douglas "Doogie" Dugway. Doogie was drunk. I asked him if he wanted to take a little road trip with me.
"What are we going to do?" he asked.
"Burn shit up," I said.
"Like the time, we lit the rest stop on fire?" Doogie asked.
"You got it," I told him.
I said that I would pick him up the next morning, a half hour before dawn.
On the road to Omaha, there’s a lonely stretch of interstate that runs like a roller-coaster up and down over parallel valleys almost all of them empty except for a few farmhouses. The only towns near the road are a half dozen miles remote from the freeway and most of those places have no services – that is, no toilets, no restaurant, no motel and no gas station. In the middle of this vacant stretch of geography, where the map is mostly blank, there was once a nice rest-stop. The place was located on a low, but welcoming knoll overlooking the freeway and served both east and west bound traffic. The rest stop’s two parking lots, one for passenger cars and the other for trucks, were always full of vehicles and the place employed a couple of grizzled old men as year-round attendants. The toilets were large, with enough roomy stalls to accommodate twenty or more trucker anxious to evacuate their bowels or get themselves sucked-off by their Citizens Band buddies and there were vending machines full of soda pop and candy and, even, potato chips. You could walk your dog in a pet exercise field where the custodian had installed a little red fire hydrant for use by the pooches. The waste water was diverted into a pond frequented by migrating birds, fowl that are the equivalent of the truck drivers I suppose, and you could always see mallards and wood ducks and wild geese floating on the lagoon. Some solar panels were embedded in the top of the knoll and they provided some of the power for the place and, a quarter mile distant, there was a wind turbine on a high ridge that also spoon-fed electrical energy to the place. The old men responsible for maintaining the rest stop had an office between the rest rooms and you could hear them in that place, listening to the baseball games in the evening on AM radio while eating a sandwich that the wife had packed, two or three old men all identical, as if they were brothers, taciturn but helpful, guards manning the rest stop and providing instructions to the passing motorists and unplugging the toilets and, when it snowed, plowing the lots with a front-end loader and, during summer time, mowing through the wild-flowers in the ditches around the sidewalks and the parking lots and the sewage lagoon adorned by aquatic birds. If there’s a such a place as paradise, a well-run rest stop is like that place.
This rest stop was very nice until some wretched villain burnt it to the ground, a conflagration that closed that exit permanently because no one was willing to rebuild on the site where a nice old man had perished in the flames together with a truck driver who had attempted to rescue him. So now the parking lots are overgrown with stinging wild parsnip and the sidewalks have cracked and tilted so that they are no longer handicap-accessible and the lagoon is choked in duckweed to the extent that migrating birds don’t dare land and local kids snort gasoline in the ruins of the toilets. Passing motorists have no place to relieve themselves and, so, I will tell you this – it is disgusting but true that every exit in that 100 mile stretch of barren road climbs up from the freeway and ends on an anonymous gravel lane or a county black top and that it is foul-smelling at the top of that ramp and there are coils of human shit and discarded, rain-melted tangles of toilet paper and the bushes and weeds in the ditches smell strongly of urine.
The grey against the horizon was like something that didn’t want to be seen, pale and wet as the belly of a dead fish, but it excited the birds and they made a ruckus.
Doogie lurched through the screen door of the trailer house where he lived with his mother. His battered bike was propped against the metal siding locked in three different ways with chains through each wheel and around the pedals. Doogie stepped through my headlights’ beam, hair spiked out in all directions, dragging his clubfoot through the dew. A light came on in the house and I saw a bald face appear at the window, eyes and a nose but no mouth.
Doogie waved at the bald face.
"It’s okay, ma," he said. "I’ll get my lunch later."
He opened the back door and asked me if it was okay if he could sleep for awhile.
"After we get the gas," I said.
We drove past the homes where everyone was sleeping. The silver torpedo of a dairy truck moaned as it rolled to a stop where the county highway entered town. At the Casey’s, I handed Doogie cash and had him pay for the gas, the three gallons in a tin gas can and the same amount in red and yellow jerry can as well as the tankful that I pumped. Doogie was clumsy, all thumbs, and he spilled gas all on his hands and both wrists. The gallon cans were over-filled and when he lifted them up to screw back into place their lids, the pour-spouts on the lids displaced gas from inside the cans and Doogie was drenched again, patting it all over his tee-shirt, a tattered black garment emblazoned Grand Canyon, Arizona.
"Jesus, Doogie," I said. He was wet with gas.
Doogie’s left eye was all wrong, glaring off at an angle as if he were trying to see into his left ear. The tip of his nose was razored off, not necessarily a bad thing because alcohol had turned the whole appendage into a red, wart-encrusted carbuncle.
"You are one ugly son-of-a-bitch," I said. "And now you smell bad too."
"I know," Doogie said, grinning at me. He was almost cute when he grinned, showing his teeth between his floppy purple lips.
People would remember Doogie. They wouldn’t remember me. He came out of the Casey’s with his pant’s zipper unzipped, carrying a couple energy drinks and a styrofoam cup with coffee for me.
We drove in the direction of where the sun was trying to rise. Doogie got in the back seat so that the gas stink wouldn’t overcome me. The three cans of gas were in the trunk and I could hear them sometimes shifting around when I accelerated or came to a stop. Doogie cupped his gas-foul hands over his nose and mouth and inhaled the fumes. He fell asleep with the energy drinks in their round cans under his head.
The sun had been up for an hour when I finally found the road to the State Park. A little town with two steeples occupied a ridge above a dark stream flowing in a stony green channel. Sinkholes cratered the hillside and the garbage in them – mostly old farm implements and appliances – glinted in the slanting rays of sunlight streaming out of the east. Farms with slippery-looking blue silos were scattered across the land, each place at the end of a long, serpentine driveway. The hills were all folded into one another and so steep that they had to be contour farmed.
The land wasn’t good enough to support a living from farming and deep ravines cut across the fields and reduced the number of tillable acres. Someone in each household had to work outside the farm and so dust was rising from the gravel lanes as people motored to work, everyone delirious, it seemed, with the early hour, blowing through stop signs and speeding on the asphalt two-lane highways, passing you on curves, if you let them – if the job was a half-hour away, these morons left home with only 20 minutes to spare and so they had to get right up your tail-pipe and, then, around you, notwithstanding the fact that there were yellow patches of ground fog in some places, and limited visibility everywhere because the roads were all coiled and twisty because of the hills and valleys. Bold-looking boys gave you the finger as they scooted around you, but I was in no hurry until they got into the oncoming lane and, then, it was amusing enough to speed up and trap them there, the sun shining right into their eyes as the big semi-trucks full of squealing hogs and ethanol malt for feed roared forward, aimed at them head-on.
The State Park was not marked by anything other than yellow "Dead End" signs – it was as if the local yokels were trying to hide the place, which was, I guess, the theme of the trip in any event: something concealed from prying eyes, something so precious you weren’t allowed access. One "dead end" led me past a mill on flooded stream. The mill looked sad and rigid, upright as an old tombstone, standing on a misty island in a green lagoon. A hundred yards beyond the mill, the road turned into someone’s driveway and ferocious dogs charged the car. Another "dead end" led me into a hollow in the hills where a lapsed Amish man was leaning over his pickup truck – the Amish renegade looked like a crack-head or a meth-dealer: his arms and wrists were all mutilated and his scraggly neck-beard was yellow as a daisy and, when he looked up to curse me, his mouth was full of brown and green nubs where his teeth should have been. A woman holding a baby also cursed me and there was a three-legged cat ambling through the ferns in front of the porch looking for mouse or baby-bird to torment.
I found Otter Creek State Park by accident. I was turned-around, my sense of direction in disarray, and decided to go back toward the town on the ridge to ask about the way and, then, suddenly, the gravel road plunged into a narrow gorge and there was log cabin visitor center on the side of the lane, everything still self-serve this early in the morning with a sign warning that a permit was required to enter the park. I stopped and picked up a campground guide as well as a map showing the trails in the park. There were no park rangers around. Some fat squirrels were feeding at the bird feeders next to the ranger station and a cliff behind the building was leaking water through a tapestry of green, velvety moss and, at the trail-head parking lot, a disoriented bat was flying in distraught circles.
A nature loop had been cut into the thickets under the steep hillside. According to the brochure, points of interest were marked by benches inscribed with numbers. At bench #3, the note in the brochure said that "an algific talus slope is around here. You may feel the cold coming from the bluff." Then, there was a description, explaining this unique "ecosystem" in language that I recognized as cribbed from the professor’s display at the museum.
Doogie asked if he should carry a can of gas with us. "No," I said, "let’s not attract attention." We crossed footbridge and followed the path through the trees. It was a little hard to walk because fresh wood chips had recently been deposited on the trail and our feet sunk into them.
The park occupied a shitty little valley with a shitty little stream wiggling from one side to the other of the narrow hollow between the bluffs. The hillsides were sheer, but hidden behind trees that somehow had managed a toehold in the limestone cliffs. A marsh surrounding a stagnant pool occupied a wider place in the valley. At this hour, no one was walking the trail and the sun was still low so that most of the hollow was a tangle of green shadow where pale outcroppings of limestone shone like ghosts in the gloom.
We found the first bench at a curve in the river and, then, #2, on a terrace on a rocky hillside. But the next bench was 13 and this was followed by three more benches, only one of them numbered with a five, the other two half-ruined as if a flood had deposited them haphazardly along the trail. The mosquitos were biting and there was black mud on the trail where a thunderstorm had urged a tributary creek to cut through the fresh wood chips and, after a half hour, we gave up our search for Bench 3.
"Now what?" Doogie asked. He was sweating and his face was all sticky like a glazed donut and his sweat smelled of booze and potato chips.
"We can’t find it," I said. "And there’s too many people here anyway."
"What does it look like?" He asked.
"I’m not quite sure."
We went back to the car and drove along a narrow one-way road through the campground. Most of the camper trailers and tents were still tightly zipped shut, although I saw an old lady at one site cooking some bacon on a little camp-stove. The woman waved at us happily and smiled and there was a small American flag dangling from a pole stuck into a crack in her picnic table.
At the turn-around, a small parking lot marked the place where the shitty little creek emerged from the base of a brown and white cliff. I parked the car and we got out to survey the spring, an oval stone tub with a sand bottom where two or three jets of water bubbled out of the rock, small, agitated fists of bright water like the fists of a baby punching at the air. The oval pool undercut the grassy bank where we stood and some deep-green seaweed was fluttering there in the gentle caress of waters rising in columns from cracks in the stone basin.
It was picturesque. A frog the color of a gemstone perched on a blade of grass. Within the pool, I saw an old shaggy-looking trout, motionlessly bathing in the crystal water.
Doogie said that he was going to piss in the spring. He reached down and discovered found that his zipper was conveniently unzipped. A big rust-colored retriever barked at us and came trotting across the parking lot. At a nearby campsite, a man sat at his picnic table rubbing his whiskers contemplatively. His feet were bare and his hiking boots, dew-stained, sat on the table. The dog circled us warily, tail wagging.
"I think my dad took me fishing here once," Doogie said. He zipped up his pants and we went to the car.
Once, I would have set forth the exact coordinates for the algific talus slopes that figure in my story. I could provide GPS data locating these places so that my readers could engage with this tale in the most effective possible way – that is, by retracing my steps and visiting the places where these events occurred. However, since the revelation that has changed my life and radically altered my inclinations toward people and places, I have amended my praxis, as it were, and will cast a discrete pall of the vague and indefinite over the geography narrated here. After all, it would be a shame if readers, inspired by my account, were to take to the road and visit in their hundreds and thousands (since I expect this book to become a bestseller) the fragile terrain that plays so important a part in this story. In fact, diligent readers might question whether there is even such a thing as an "algific talus field" – certainly that sort of landscape seems highly improbable. In fact, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I have altered this tale in its telling to conceal the fact that the ecosystem to which I devoted my very best destructive efforts was, in fact, something quite different from a system of underground fissures seeping cool air into wooded ravines – perhaps, the real story involved rare blue-stem wildflower prairies where the sod is deep and unbroken by the plow, or, maybe, certain types of peat bogs in remote tamarack forests or, even, those strange places where plumes of black smoke ooze upward from underground fires where lightning strikes have ignited subterranean veins of lignite. Perhaps, the outlandish phrase "algific talus slope" is just a screen for some other kind of rare phenomenon, for instance, that volcano that Lewis & Clark recorded on the slopes overlooking the Missouri River at what is now Ponca, Nebraska, an inexplicable account of something seen that has never been witnessed since that day long ago... For this reason, Dear Reader, please consider that I am not as I seem and that names and places have been changed, as it were, to protect the innocent...
So, in a State that I will call Ohio, a couple counties south of its border with Minnesota, Doogie Dugway and I visited the village of Edgewood, a depressing burg on a county road to nowhere. The convenience store in the town sold gear and bait for trout fishing and there was a museum in an old feed mill with a sign dangling on the door to show that the place was never open, the strongbox of a red-brick bank with business hours identical to those of the museum, some trailer-houses on the outskirts arranged in a vaguely military formation, and, then, on the road to the State Park (or State Preserve – it was variously designated), a miniature castle, carpenter’s Gothic, with small round towers made from dolomite chopped out of the nearby ridges and canyons.
A mile north of the village, a sign warned that the road was "Minimum Maintenance" and, then, like a snake going to ground, the gravel lane slid sideways into a green ravine. The road narrowed to one lane and lurched down a steep grade, descending parallel to a creek bed that was wild and forlorn with fallen boulders with tree-trunks leaning against them and aggressive crows squatting on overhead branches and jeering as we passed. On the left side of the road, limestone cliffs fractured into the semblance of a cyclopean wall oozed moss from fissures. I stopped midway down the hill.
"Get out there," I said to Doogie. "Check to see if cold air is coming off those rocks."
He stepped from the vehicle and stretched out his hand to touch the rock cliffs.
"It’s cold, boss," Doogie said.
"Stone cold and all wet and slimy," he told me. He returned to the car and I continued downhill.
The little gorge opened up a bit and there was a transverse water course, a swale paved in concrete across which a couple inches of stream were flowing and over which we drove. A big, unstable-looking tower of field stone had once supported a sign – the bolts remained rusting in yellowish blocks of rock but the sign was long gone. Perhaps, it had fallen victim to the inability of those in command of this place to determine whether we were entering a State Park or a State Preserve or something else entirely.
Beyond the stack of rock piled up as a rustic sign post, I saw a small gravel parking lot next to an oval meadow about 60 yards long. The grass in the meadow was maintained – it had been mowed recently – and there was a black, sticky-looking navel of a fire-pit in the middle of the lawn. Steep hillsides rose all around the meadow and, between the trees crowning the ridges, I could see shadowy outcroppings of limestone and big boulders standing like grazing bison among the burr-oak and douglas fir. Curiously enough, there was a boy or girl, probably about 15, splashing in the creek on the south side of the dell – I suppose that the kid had ridden a bicycle down here from the sad little town on the prairie above.
A CCC-era shelter, heavily built from field stone and great, creosote-tarred timbers, stood at the edge of the woods across the meadow from where the kid was playing in the shallow creek. A trough of chipped stone, like a kind of drainage channel, but equipped with a hundred or more small steps, led up the hill above the picnic shelter to the ruins of another Depression-era hut – this structure without roof and reduced to three massive walls dug into the steep bluff.
The Bixby State Preserve is the place where algific talus fields are most readily accessible and, indeed, the park enjoys a certain notoriety for those features, reported to be adjacent to dark cliffs that open into an ice-cave. Pictures on the internet show a rude timber gable supported by pillars of field stone sheltering a padlocked gate – this is the entry to the ice-cave half-hidden among trees crowding around the path climbing a dozen steps to the structure. I scanned the empty meadow and the steep confining cliffs and looked along the creek bed where the water flowed in two parallel streams, one of them babbling and melodious as it leaped down its stony channels and the other languid and stagnant, a course of deep brown puddles withing with tadpoles, the lagoons undercutting the sod bank. The child was playing on some driftwood humped up between the two channels of the creek, under a steep slope where big mossy rocks frowned overhead. The kid must have been barefoot splashing in the water. I saw a dark brown shoulder, a spray of water caught in a sunbeam slanting through the green shadow, the child’s long hair braided into a tight spiral on the back of the kid’s skull.
Doogie and I walked a muddy trail to where the sod and dirt bank collapsed down to a place where the water rushed over some stepping stones. The stones were an inch or so under the surface of the stream and they looked wet and unstable.
"We have to get across here," I said. I told Doogie to bring some flat stones from the creek bed upstream. "We’ll shore up this crossing."
Doogie brought five or six wet stones, each roughly the size of a plate, to the place where I was squatting on the dirt bank and looking down into the stream. We set the slabs of rock atop the stepping stones. The creek’s current wedged between the stones and, when I tapped at the closest one with the toe of my tennis shoe, it wobbled unsteadily. The stone set in the center of the creek bed was heavily bearded with green moss.
"Go ahead across," I said to Doogie. I could see that on the other side of the creek, the trail rose up a sandy slope and, then, corkscrewed into the woods.
Doogie stepped forward, put his foot on the first stepping stone, and, then, leaned forward cautiously bearing weight on the wet, slippery rock.
"Go ahead," I said.
He took another step, putting his tennis shoe on the place where we had stacked the rocks that he had pried out of the creek bed.
"I don’t know about this,’ Doogie said. The stone seesawed under his foot and he almost lost his balance.
"You’re almost across," I told him.
"Okay," Doogie said. He cautiously put his foot on the stone that was bearded with moss. But it was too slippery and he fell, twisting sideways and, then, sitting down with a splash in the stream.
"It’ll wash the gas off you," I said.
"The motherfucker," Doogie replied. The creek was running between his thighs but the gas had spilled mostly on his arms and shirt so I didn’t think the water was doing much to cleanse the fuel from him.
He stood up and climbed out of the creek bed.
"I’m not going down there again," he said.
"Go ask the kid where the ice-cave is located," I said.
We turned around and saw that the child had vanished. It was silent at the little lawn and, even, the creek’s water rippling over the stones seemed muffled. A shadow crossed the sun, a cold cloud that darkened the dell for a moment.
"I don’t like this place," Doogie said. He shook the water off him.
"You look like you peed your pants, Doogie," I said.
"I don’t see any fucking ice-cave around here," Doogie said.
We went to the car. On the single lane uphill, we met a vehicle descending, a red Honda CRT. The driver of the Honda stopped at a place where a curve in the road seemed to make space for two cars to pass abreast. I waited. The man in Honda CRT had glasses and a worried frown on his face. He waited also.
"Someone has to move," I said. I started up the hill at about the same moment the man in the CRT put his car in gear and began to descend. We both stopped again and glared at one another.
After a minute of stand-off, I pulled forward a car-length, turning as sharply as I could in the direction of wet, vine-entangled cliffs to my right. The car slid on slippery gravel. The Honda advanced, skimmed past me, and continued down into the claustrophobic little clearing in the valley.
When I put my car in gear, I found that one of my wheels had slipped off the lane and was spinning in a narrow channel between the car and the cliffside.
"You’ll have to push," I told Doogie. He cursed and got out of the car. I rocked the vehicle a few times and it sprang free, kicking up loose gravel that abraded Doogie’s knees.
"I’m not gonna do that again," I said.
"We should have burned something down there," Doogie said.
"I didnt’ see anything to burn."
"We could have burned the kid," Doogie said.
"Are you fucking crazy?"
"You know I am," Doogie said. "You know I am."
The river between the states is very wide, with separate channels and complex braided sand bars. The towns are built where tributaries join the Mississippi and, so, of course, there are bridges, raw-looking ladders and scaffolds of girders spanning the water and these structures rise incongruously above the shabby main streets, the dismal railroad yards, and the steepled churches and steel columns of wharf-side grain elevators. The factories on the river banks have been closed for more than fifty years and the old piers from which products were once shipped are now cracked and oozing mud and sliding slowly into the channel. The day is half over and we have accomplished nothing. Warm, clotted failure hangs like humidity over the green valleys sagging with impenetrable thickets.
A note in the newsletter of Great Effigy Mounds National Monument claims that a ranger discovered an untouched algific talus slope in a river valley north of the park’s main unit. The tops of the bluffs are blistered with Indian mounds and this landscape is so steep and tangled that the burial grounds weren’t despoiled – many of the mounds, shaped like birds or bears, are simply too hard to reach. The terrain is full of mysteries.
A casino, shaped like a vague parody of steamwheeler riverboat, occupies a flat behind a levee. The National Monument is on the terrace a little uphill. I park at the monument visitor center. Some old people, still flushed with excitement from the casino, are getting out of their Suburban to tour the museum in the visitor center. The old men and women have white legs sticking out of their khaki shorts and their knees and calves are pimpled with insect bites.
Doogie tells me that he doesn’t want to waste his time at this place, that the Indian burial ground doesn’t interest him except as a place to loot and, of course, looting is out of the question today. "But we can come back to loot later," I say to encourage him. "It’s hot," Doogie says, "and too far to drive and do we really want their shit."
A couple of low, unprepossessing mounds are visible on the slope behind the visitor center. The big gallery of mounds shaped like birds and bears are overhead, high atop the bluffs. The Indian graveyard behind the visitor center isn’t much to see – the prehistoric Indians must have been very slight, with bird-like bone structure, because the mounds are only knee-high. It’s not exactly the mausoleum of Halicarnassus or the pyramids of Egypt – the dead chief was squashed knee to nose like a fetus, set in a hole a foot deep, and, then, covered up with a dirt ridge not more than three feet high. Some mussel shells were left alongside the corpse with a piece of pipestone from the western prairies and maybe some humble grey pottery decorated by having a twisted rope pressed into the clay when it was wet – not King Tut’s treasure here and, indeed, barely worth disturbing the skeletons to wrench this kind of loot out of the mucky soil. Doogie is right about this place. The dead Indians must come out of their graves all the time since they’re buried so shallowly that a coyote or badger or, even, raccoon could harry them out of their resting places. I can feel eyes on my and it’s not a pleasant sensation.
A little museum occupies a corridor beyond the toilets and the souvenir shop in the air-conditioned visitor center. A film is playing on a loop on a TV in a sort of conference room with a table and some plush chairs – it’s a co-production of the National Park Service and the Ho-Chunk tribe, casino-Indians and one of eleven tribes that claims patrimony to the mounds and there’s plaintive Indian flutes played on the soundtrack and majestic shots of the river and bullshit about the ancient Indians living in harmony with nature. In the museum, some shards of pottery are sealed up in a glass case. I see a grey fragment of a pot inscribed with a tight logarithmic spiral, a shape like a snail’s shell. The spiral looks out at me indifferently, an eye in the glass case that seems to be part open and wearily accusatory. Above the shard adorned with the spiral, there’s a tablet of dark red catlinite, polished pipestone. The smooth tablet has been neatly incised with an image of a thunder-being, a creature with a raptor’s head and zigzag flame inscribed across his broad shield-like chest, wings of flame as well, and lightning, shown as a crooked line, zapping out of the god’s crotch.
Two men in national park service grey and dark green uniforms are drowsing at the front desk, eyes half-closed and heads half-down.
"How," I say to them in greeting.
"How what?" the younger man replies.
"Are there algific talus fields around here?" I ask.
"Talus," the older man says. He’s brownish with a flat nose and an aggrieved air. "There’s tons of talus out there. It falls down from above."
"I’d like to see algific talus."
"There’s talus all around, under every cliff. You can see piles of it on the trail up to the mounds."
"What’s that?" the older man asks.
"Cold producing," the younger park ranger says. "It’s a special ecosystem."
"I never heard of that," the older man tells me.
"There’s supposed to be one of those algific fields up at Yellow River in the State forest," I say. "Just recently discovered."
"Yeah," the younger park ranger says. "But I don’t know where it is."
"You want to see one of those places," the older park ranger tells me. "Go to Bixby State Preserve. At Edgewood. It’s an ice cave right."
"I’ve been there," I say.
"Then, you’ve seen the algific talus slope," the older park ranger says. "That’s where you go to see one."
"But I couldn’t find it."
"Really," the younger park ranger says, "it’s just across the creek. You cross the creek and go a hundred, two hundred feet, and there it is – the ice cave and the algific talus field."
"Okay," I reply, "when I was there the creek was flooded. I couldn’t get across the creek."
"That’s a shame," the older man says and, then, some more old folks come into the visitor center. They are chattering about the casino and the lunch buffet there.
Outside, Doogie is asleep in the car. I walk to the trail leading up the bluff. The way is very steep and slippery and the switchbacks are ankle-deep with fresh wood chips strewn on the trail so you walk as if snow. I am panting when I reach the place where a two male park rangers are chatting up a girl ranger. The girl ranger has a black pony tail and wears a turquoise necklace over her khaki shirt. She’s seated behind the wheel of a golf cart hitched to a wagon filled with freshly cut and sweet-smelling wood chips. The two men are supposed to be shoveling the wood chips into a washed-out part of the trail but they aren’t working at all so far as I can see.
"How far to the top?" I ask them.
"Maybe three-hundred yards," one of the men points up to the switchback above me.
It’s very humid in the trees, as if the great river were exhaling its muddy, wet breath into my face.
"Too far," I say.
"You can see some small mounds right next to the visitor center," the girl says. "They give you an idea of what’s on top. But it’s bigger up there."
"Definitely worth seeing," the other young man says.
"I’m going down," I say.
"Be careful," the girl tells me.
I start to descend the hill. The girl turns to one of the boys and says: "Tomorrow it’s gonna be 88 degrees."
"Yahoo," the boy says. "Yahoo," the other boy says as well.
"Morons," I mutter under my breath, hoping they will hear me. But they don’t.
Of course, I’m a "conceal and carry" kind of guy, duly licensed in my State. When you are blessed with my kind of robust and festive, shall we say, personality, you tend to acquire enemies, some of them quite fierce and determined. Therefore, I like to keep a small but lethal hand-gun in my coat pocket, if I am wearing a coat, or in the glove compartment of my car – something at hand in case of emergencies.
It was getting to be a long day. We had been up well before the crack of dawn and, now, it was mid-afternoon and the drowsy heat smothered everything, waves of humidity rising above the half-fledged cornfields, and the melting, yellow light and the haze over the highway suggested to me that it was time for a nap. Doogie was whining in the back seat and he kept demanding that I stop at the side of the road so that he could urinate and, then, there was a bad smell coming from the backseat of my car, a foul odor so that I asked: "Doogie, did you take a shit in my back seat?"
"Not exactly," Doogie said.
In the next town, I pulled up to a Kwik-Trip and told Doogie to go inside and empty his bowels. I bought an energy drink and stood next to the ice-bin on the side of the store watching people come and go. It took Doogie a surprisingly long time – apparently, there was a wait for the single-stall toilet. He came out of the place grinning, with a plastic sack full of potato chips, Mentos, and beef jerky.
The shadows lengthened as we drove across the rolling prairie, steep hillsides dipping down to green ravines that twisted and branched as they cut through the karst to the great bluish river valley below.
Doogie began to whine again: "When are we gonna get to burn something?"
"You’ll get a chance," I said.
"I want to burn something," Doogie said.
"We try that right now, we’ll get arrested," I replied.
"But I want to burn something."
He continued in this vein for fifteen miles. "I’m bored and I’m frustrated," Doogie said.
I turned off the asphalt and we bounced over a gravel road to a tee intersection. Greasy-looking soybeans stretched downhill away from the intersection, the field perforated with thickets rising like fog out of scattered sinkholes.
I took the gun out of the glove compartment and pointed it at Doogie’s heart.
"You want me to shoot you now, put you out of your misery," I asked him.
"Nah," he said. "I’m just bored."
"No one in the world would care if I shot you dead and left you in the ditch," I said.
"My mama would care," Doogie replied.
I pointed over his shoulder to the yellow caution sign marking the tee-intersection – it was about 250 feet behind us.
"Go knock that sign over," I said. "Next person who comes speeding down this dirt road will miss the tee – they’ll crash right down there –"
Doogie reluctantly got out of the car and walked along the side of the road to the sign. He kicked it and howled with pain, then, kicked at the sign again. He put his shoulder against the sign post and pushed and pushed until he was red in the face, but the sign didn’t yield. Then, he stepped back and ran at the sign, lunging forward as if to tackle it. He bounced off the sign post and rolled howling into the ditch. I got out of the car and walked up to the sign carrying my pistol. Doogie was moaning underfoot. I put the gun muzzle near the yellow warning and fired. The sound echoed loudly across the empty country. A half-mile away the side of a pole barn caught the report and kicked it back to me.
"There," I said, "I shot the motherfucker in the head."
A bright round hole went right through the metal: you could put your eye to it like a spy glass and see a distant cloud shaped like a lion and the hot sun-soaked horizon.
We got back into the car and drove another dozen miles, mostly downhill, to a village at the bottom of a deep valley. The valley was walled with jungle reaching up to yellow and grey capstone on the bluffs and the town was too small to possess a school or a post-office or, even, a church. Some clapboard buildings, probably from the last century, were scattered along a concrete trough that ran parallel to the one paved street – the trough was supposed to carry away flood waters that might otherwise have destroyed the town, but on this afternoon it was clogged with sediment, dead cats and rats and crows. Small metal walkways crossed the vee-shaped concrete channel, leading over to where there should have been sidewalks directed up at the shanties, but the sidewalks were all eroded and plumes of weed grew through them. The houses higher on the hill and, therefore, more remote from the clear and present danger of flooding, seemed to be dug into the bluffs. It was a dismal place, sweltering in the late afternoon sun, and seemingly abandoned.
At the lower end of the town, a big mound walled the town off from the base of the valley. Train tracks ran on the right-of-way raised up like a levee at the base of the slope. When I drove up over the tracks, I was startled to see that the big embankment was, indeed, a levee – a turbulent, muddy-looking channel of the river was downslope on the opposite side, only a hundred feet away, at the bottom of the boat launch. The river was high and a couple of shacks were half-drowned in it.
"This is a real shit-hole," I said. The algific talus slope was supposed 1.2 miles to the north of the village on a gravel road, but, at first, I couldn’t find the way. In fact, the narrow lane ran north on a terrace forty feet above train-tracks that paralleled the road, a little slot in the jungle that led away from the village – another minimum maintenance road.
I looked at my odometer and started down the road. It was passable but dangerous because there was no guardrail on the side of the lane that dropped in a sheer plummet down to the old sleepers and train-track rails bronze in the late afternoon light. About three-quarters of a mile from the village, the lane slipped under a rock overhang and ran there for about 200 feet, the limestone hollow cool and shadowy and the wall covered with bright graffiti – I supposed that the Indians had also left marks on the soft stone, possibly spirals or thunder-creatures, but they were all covered in layers and layers of acrylic paint deposited each year, on the year, when the graduating class from some place nearby invaded the overhang and put their names and year on the rock.
At the 1.2 mile marker as charted by my odometer, there was nothing – just a steep slope rising to the river bluffs invisible in the thickets above. Another quarter mile brought us to a small clearing cut into the wet woods where a creek dropped down through a notch in the bluffs. Someone had recently mowed the clearing and the grass was short and well-groomed so that I could drive twenty feet or more into the meadow. Gnats and mosquitos rose in clouds from the lawn. Trees rose up the hillsides on three sides of the amphitheater –the fourth or river-side dropped to the railroad right-of-way forty feet below next to a dark, polluted-looking swamp.
At the head of the meadow, there was an iron gate posted across what had once been a two-rut track leading uphill. The track was overgrown with thistles and wild parsnip. The gate wasn’t attached to a fence and seemed to exist only to support a fearsome NO TRESPASSING SIGN: No trespassing for any purposes, no hunting, no hiking, no collecting, no entry at all – violators will be prosecuted. Next to this red-lettered sign, there was an overturned bucket pierced on its bottom and supporting a piece of lathe to which another sign, this one hand-lettered, was stapled. That sign said: All Hunters Welcome. I stepped around the gate and walked a few steps along the overgrown track, but when I felt a wood tick crawling on my cheek and found another on the cuff of my pants, I retreated. Doogie was dancing around the meadow, fighting off mosquitos.
"We don’t have a clue for what we’re looking for," Doogie said.
We started back on the one-lane gravel road toward the village. Near the rock shelter painted with class years, we met an oncoming motorist. It was a red Honda CRT, possibly the same vehicle that we had seen earlier in the day.
"Is this guy following us?" I asked.
The road curved in the area, running along the base of the steep bluffs, and there was no convenient place to turn around. I backed up cautiously. It would be dangerous to crowd the edge of the road over the railroad track – the tall weeds growing on the roadside made it hard to see where the drop-off was located. After I had backed around the curve, I stopped and honked my horn. The other drive, invisible around the curve, honked his horn in response.
"I’m not gonna back all the way to that meadow," I said. "It’s too difficult."
The other driver beyond the curve hit his horn again. I didn’t like the sound of that horn – it was aggressive and threatening.
"This is a road rage problem," I said.
I hit my horn a couple times making my car bark at him.
"Get out, Doogie, and go around the corner," I said.
"Okay, boss," Doogie said.
"Remonstrate with him," I told Doogie.
He rummaged around in the back of the car, found a baseball bat, and, then, got out of the car, chopping at the air with the bat.
I put the car in park and waited. A couple minutes later, Doogie returned, grinning sheepishly at me.
"I demonstrated him," he said. "I demonstrated him good."
"It’s clear," Doogie told me. "You can drive ahead."
I inched forward, slowly rounding the curve, and, indeed, the single lane was empty, no car anywhere to be seen.
"That’s good," I said.
As we passed the place where the Honda CRT had blocked our way, Doogie gestured toward the river. I glanced down and saw that the Honda CRT had fallen onto the railroad tracks forty feet below. The driver had been thrown from the vehicle and, from his waist down, was crushed under the Honda. He was motionless, a spray of shattered grass making a halo around his head.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I demonstrated with him," Doogie said.
"I knocked in his brains with the bat and, then, put him back in the car and rolled it over the edge," Doogie said. "Now he’s not blocking the way."
"Jesus Christ, Doogie."
It was obvious that we couldn’t return to the village now. Some ancient widow or bedridden man would hear my car, and pry open his filthy curtains and look through his fly-specked window to see us careening through town, wide-eyed and obviously fugitives from something, and, no doubt, he (or she) would take up a pencil and in a wobbly hand write down our license number on the back of the envelope in which her (or his) social security check had come and, then...then, we would be royally screwed, in big trouble, no doubt about that at all.
"I’m gonna have to back to wide place in the road and, then, we’ll have to take this lane up to where it hits the blacktop north of here," I said.
The CRT was resting on its side on the tracks and I thought I could hear its motor still humming fitfully and a thin, bluish plume of smoke was rising from the wreck although, perhaps, that was merely the soul of the driver trying to rise upward through the humid river-bottom haze.
"It’ll be just our luck that the thing will burst into flames," I said.
I told Doogie to get out of the car and direct me from behind and I backed and backed, a quarter mile or more, until I came to a slightly wider part of the roadway. Then, I turned the car north and we proceeded along the dirt lane next to the railroad tracks another couple miles to where there was a two-lane black top and signs pointing the way to a State Park on the hillside.
We drove to Decorah where an algific talus slope is supposed to be marked for all to see. The day was over and evening had begun, the interminable mellow afterglow when you sit reading on your porch and listen for the hoot of the owls and the sounds of the sirens racing from one domestic to another and, then, the fireflies come out in the bushes to flash messages to the slippery-looking moon. Decorah is a college town and there were pretty young girls at every corner and local boys in pickup trucks with rap music booming from their speakers and, in the fading light, the green bluffs rising from the river valleys to cut the town into quadrants looked mysterious, like craggy tropical islands rising in the mist.
Sprinklers were shedding their spray on the lawns of the college and, at the famous ice cave, the largest glaciere east of the Rockies,we saw three beautiful girls, the three graces in bikini tops and bottoms, approach the pale cliff and, then, disappear into the crooked fissure so that we could hear their voices coming from underground. Bright springs toppled from the sides of cliffs and the creeks were vibrant with trout.
The park where the algific talus slope was said to be located was in the center of the town with commericial buildings and old residential neighborhoods encroaching on it from all sides. At the top of the bluff, there were ancient brick retaining walls and picnic shelters where Mexican families were roasting meat and people were playing volleyball in sand boxes cut into the hillside. A couple of look-out towers made from field stone and damp and cold inside were posted on the edge of the steep drop-off down to the river – some golden fields were below, beyond the glittering stream, and, in the distance, a cyclopean wind turbine stood high against the orange sky.
A trail followed the steep edge of the bluff, well-maintained with old WPA-era benches made from concrete and embedded field rock and, then, some crooked, rustic steps leading down to a wild gorge slashed into the side of the bluff, a place where the sun never penetrates because of the steep moss-clad cliffs and the dense woods clinging to the precipices and the deep fern-filled crevasse below the little stone bridge spanning the miniature canyon.
The trail followed the cliff-edge with precipitous drops in many place. A garter snake was coiled along the path, poised to cross it. "Watch for timber rattlers," I told Doogie. He chortled with joy at the thought of deadly snakes in the brush.
In the fading light, I could see a clearing along the bottom of the cliff, about 130 feet below – it looked like a trail ran there, next to the river that was undercutting the bluff.
The cliff-top trail lurched upward to a knoll and the trees thinned and the path petered-out. A few yards away, I saw a redwood fence. We were in someone’s back yard. A fawn charged out of the gloom and pranced down into the thickets. Doogie looked through a crack in the redwood fence. He put a finger to his lips and signaled that I should look as well – three girls were lying face-down next to a cool, turquoise-colored swimming pool. They looked like the girls that we had seen vanishing into the ice cave. Their flipflops were neatly arranged beside their tanned legs and the girls had loosened the string on their bikini tops so that the sun could brown their entire backs. The girls seemed to all be asleep, their eyes closed and their lips only slightly parted, and it was a very peaceful thing to see, so peaceful that I felt the sleep gathering in me so that I was very drowsy.
We hiked back to the parking lot next to the picnic grounds.
"One last thing," I said. "We have to check out that trail down there. At the base of the cliff..."
"I’m tired," Doogie said. "I’m real tired."
"We haven’t accomplished anything," I said.
We stopped at sports bar for something to eat. The light was grey outside. The bar was noisy with young men and women. It was busy and sweat was beaded on the waitress’ brow.
I bought Doogie a beer and a burger. I wasn’t hungry, so I ate a salad. On a Tv screen near us, I saw a picture of a derailed train, fifty identical cars all toppled from the tracks and lying crookedly, making a zigzag procession of fallen tankers extending along the side of a great river. A drone-shot cruised the length of derailed train – some of the tankers were half-submerged in a green and brown lagoons, others rested on a sort of levee along side a muddy-looking, turbulent channel in the river.
"Look at that," I said, more to myself than to Doogie. His back was to the screen.
The tank cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia and some of them has split open so that they were hissing poisons into the air.
"It is an environmental calamity of worst kind," a worried-looking newscaster said. She reported that the town near the derailment, the place where the levee served also as an asphalt-tarred boat ramp, had been evacuated. The helicopter shot showed a ramshackle village with a haze of pollutant rising over it.
"This is the middle of a conservation area," the newscaster said. Behind her, a railroad car mounted with a crane was trying to twist a tanker up into an upright position.
"It is the flyway for many species of migratory birds," the woman said. "This is a very dark day indeed."
Doogie got up to use the toilet. The drone shot tracking along the fallen and jumbled train came to the head of the derailment where a red Honda, mostly crushed by the locomotive, was resting on the edge of a black marsh. Doogie’s back was to the picture and this pleased me because I thought it was best that he be unaware of this story. Doogie Dugway is a very vain fellow, talkative as well, and, no doubt, if he knew that his violence had triggered an environmental disaster, he would be the first to boast about that matter, the first to seek fame and glory for his bad act, a bucolic Herostratus who would use the calamity as a line to pick-up (or try to pick-up) the tattooed skanks in their tank-tops seated at the bar, giggling among themselves and ignoring the story of the ecological catastrophe in their very backyard.
Doogie came back to the table.
"One more stop," I said.
Of all the secret slopes, minimum maintenance roads, hidden meadows and woodland trails, the path under the cliffs was the easiest to find. You pecked the street address into your phone, turned out of the parking lot, took a right, a left, another right, and, then, there you were: fresh new pavement passing over a stream sliding down a long concrete chute into the river and a parking lot suitable for a half-dozen vehicles and, then, the asphalt path curving away between trees, an invitation to stroll along the whispering course of the river under the shaggy bluff. Although some traces of light shone still in the west, it was dark enough for the street lamp to be lit and spilling honey-yellow light across the empty parking lot. The air was humid and still; from another quarter of the sky, heat-lightning flashed soundlessly. Flash flies signaled to one another in the tall grass on the stream-side of the path.
Doogie and I walked along the trail. A wooden cubby-hole set atop a redwood obelisk embedded next to the path offered brochures for a nature hike. I took a couple and shoved them in my pocket. Doogie said that his feet ached.
The path bent along the course of the river. The stream was about 15 feet below the terrace at the foot of the bluff, ripples shimmering in the moonlight. The bluff seemed very high in the darkness, almost an overhang, and some pinnacles of limestone also gleamed with ghostly light above the trail. Millions of night-dwelling insects hissed on the hillside and the trees cast down vines and tendrils that reached almost to the trail, a dark, sheer wall tapestried in vegetation rising steeply up into the sky. The river bubbled with frogs and, like the fireflies, they broadcast coded messages in the gloom.
About an eighth of a mile down the trail, we encountered a big sign on side of the path under the hillside. The cliff was fractured in this area and dark chimney was cut into the wall, rising steeply up to the pale glow of the pinnacles overhead. The sign said that this area was an algific talus slope. I took out my cell-phone and flashed light on the sign panel – a diagram showed sinkholes and a steep cliff through which innumerable fissures conveyed cold air to the less sheer part of the slope. In my cell-phone light, the sign panel marked with words was ice-white. Some blurry black and white photographs showed "glacial relicts" – that is, a tiny snail with a spiral shell and some nondescript plants with minute blue and yellow flowers.
"This is it," I said.
"We gotta burn it down," Doogie told me.
It was dark on this portion of the trail, far from the faint light cast by the streetlamp. I looked down the path in the distance opposite to the parking lot – the trail crept along the base of the wooded cliff-side, vanishing in the shadows.
I told Doogie to go to the car, make sure no one was looking, and, then, bring me the two cans of gasoline. He whistled with joy and trotted off.
Supposedly, an algific talus slope is much cooler than the surrounding area. I stepped off the trail behind the sign, and, using my phone as a flashlight, climbed up the little canyon a dozen feet or so. The ravine cutting through the cliff seemed the same temperature as the adjacent night. A few trees studded the dolomite rising overhead – the stone was grey until I shone my phone and, then, it glowed the color of pale caramel. The fissure twisted upward cut back into the bluff-face with curtains of fern hanging down overhead. I stooped and put my hand close to the exposed rocks but couldn’t feel any draft of cold air.
Doogie had come from the car.
"Are you on it?" he asked.
"I might be," I said uncertainly.
He clambered up the rock and handed me the red plastic jerry can. He kept the tin gas can at his side. I set the plastic can on a rock and flashed my cell-phone up the chimney-like slit in the rock. Loose stones shifted under foot and some small, bedraggled bushes clung to the side of the cliff. I opened the can, inhaled the stink of the gas for a moment, and, then, spilled half the fuel on the shrubs and the nettles growing in the cracks of the rock. I stepped back and, used my lighter, to ignite the gas. An orange flame twisted upward and the shrubs stood in the fire as if x-rayed – I saw their twig-structure and the stalk embedded in the rubble. The flame flickered for a half-minute in the fumes rising off the cliff and, then, went out.
"You burned it," Doogie said. "You burned it good."
"I don’t know," I said. "I think the fire just singed the hill."
"Let me burn it," Doogie said. "Let me light a fire."
I told him: "You burn down the sign. Burning down the sign is just as good as burning the slope itself."
"What do you mean?’
"Well, the sign represents the slope," I said. "So lets burn up the sign and that’ll burn the slope too."
Doogie shook his head.
"That ain’t logical," he said. But, nonetheless, he stooped to pour gas around the base of the big white sign, then, stood on his tip toes to drizzle gas down over the panel.
"I want to burn up the slope," he said. "I want to send those fuckin’ snails to hell."
"Okay, but do the sign first."
Doogie lit the sign and the flames surged upward, bright and sudden and very conspicuous I thought. The flames marked my retina and I felt them dancing and twisting in my eyes in the darkness. The sign stood outlined in fire and, then, the blaze contracted on itself and it was dark again, a very faint odor of charred wood and melted plastic in the air.
"It won’t stay burning," Doogie said. "I’m gonna pour the rest on the slope."
Doogie advanced on the cliff-side and began to scramble uphill in the loose rubble. He drained the tin can underfoot, shaking out the last droplets. The air was wild and dangerous with gasoline fumes and I thought that the haze of fuel in the air might light from the edges of the sign where embers were still glowing.
I suppose Doogie had a lit Bic in his hand, although I didn’t see it. The loose rocks on the slope slid under him and Doogie fell forward and, then, the slanted hillside burst into bright orange flame. He wrestled with the flame for a moment as if the fire were trying to drag him downward. Then, he rolled onto his back and skidded to the bottom of the slope and the edge of the path. I saw brick-sized scraps of loose rock toppling through the bright flames and heard the stones scraping against one another. The gas spilled on Doogie’s shirt and upper arms ignited. He stood, pulling a bright ribbon of fire upward with him.
Doogie opened his mouth and inhaled flame. He spread his arms, fire burning on his shoulders and upper arms like wings.
"Roll," I said.
A column of flame ran up the center of Doogie’s chest to his chin. A globe of fire exploded from his crotch. He charged at me with open arms as if he wanted to hold me in his embrace. I side-stepped him and he fell from the trail down the river bank, crashing onto some boulders fallen there. The impact seemed to have stunned him momentarily and, for a half minute, he rested on the slab of rock entirely engulfed in flame. Then, grunting, Doogie raised himself up onto his hands and knees and crawled very slowly toward the water. For a long time, it seemed that the burning man inched forward, sometimes, dropping face first onto the sizzling stone, then, rising up again and wriggling a little forward, falling at last from the rock into the edge of the river where a little fog of steam rose from his body.
There was nothing I could do. I kicked the metal can that Doogie had dropped on the edge of the path into the river. The other jerry can was still half-full. I swung it underhand so that the can splashed in the center of black river, bobbing there a moment before the current swept it away.
So I had accomplished what I had set out to do – at least, more or less. And Doogie Dugway’s immolation showed me something that I had never previously seen – there was a counter-force, perhaps, an aspect of reality tending toward justice and this manifested itself on that trail in the humid darkness.
I stood still for awhile, catching my breath. The air tasted bitter with burnt hair. At the end of the trail in the parking lot, headlights flashed and, for a moment, I thought I saw the swirl of lights on a police car. I decided to walk away from the sign and the shreds of smoking rag on the sidewalk. A pale blue plume of smoke rose from where Doogie was lying face-down and half-submerged in the river. I don’t know if it was just smoke or his soul trying to rise upward through interstices in the star-shine and moonbeams.
The trail became very dark, a black tunnel between the overhanging bluff and tall trees lining the river.
I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was following me. The way was so shadowy that I couldn’t see clearly.
Suddenly, the air over the path turned cold. It was startling and I stopped in my tracks. The hillside next to me smelled wet and musty like an old basement or a root cellar. I turned to face the slope and chill washed over me.
I took out my phone and flashed light up on the bluff. Above the level of the treetops, a parapet of cliffs guarded the top of the hill. The ramp of broken stone and rubble rising up to the base of the cliffs was covered by a tightly entangled mat of green, ferns and broad-leafed plants all twisted together. My hand was trembling as I held up the cell-phone and this tremor made the tilted emerald slope seem to seethe.
The sign two-hundred yards behind me was a misdirection: I could feel the icy cold oozing out of the steep hillside.
"Mister..." A voice: "Mister?’
A little heap of conical trash rested in the middle of the path. The trash wiggled a little and I saw an eye looking at me.
"Mister?" the eye said.
I started and an icy chill ran down my spine. My fingers felt nerveless and I almost dropped the phone.
The trash shifted and, in my phone-light, changed shape. I saw a slight figure crouched on the path. A pale, wet-looking face glistened in the white ray from the cell-phone.
"You scared me," I said.
"Didn’t mean to."
The slender figure seemed crippled, suffering from spinal scoliosis, a radical curvature of the back. I saw faint white hands trembling in the air.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Just can’t walk."
"How did you get here?" I asked.
"Runaway. I runaway."
It was a faint voice, weak and remote-sounding. I couldn’t tell if I were talking to a girl or a boy.
"I’m a runaway too," I said. "So I gotta be going."
"But can you take me?"
A little pale hand fluttered in the direction of deeper darkness, down the path toward the bend in the river.
"Not far. You could pick me up. I don’t weigh anything at all."
I stood over the little figure. It seemed very small and I towered over the little boneless hands and the white face with its eye like a stagnant dewdrop. I saw a bun of hair at the soft back of the figure’s head, a tightly wrapped braid that made a spiral flickering in the light from my phone. – A girl, I thought, it’s a girl.
"Please help me," she said.
My cell-phone light caught the inside of her open mouth and I saw that her tongue was white, encrusted with little gleaming teeth. The array of teeth made her lisp slightly.
"Okay," I said.
I put my cell-phone in my breast-pocket and lifted her up in my arms. She had told the truth: as light as a feather. Where her skin gripped mine, she was limp and clammy.
A thought occurred to me. I could step to the side of the path and pitch her head over heels into the river and she could sink or swim there with the broiled chunks of Doogie Dugway that the turtles and the carp were now carving out of him. But a good deed, perhaps, cancels a bad one – there’s a calculus in the world and, when events turn against you, it’s best to set yourself on the straight and narrow path. I was unburnt and not yet in custody for any crimes and, so, perhaps, it was best to do a good deed. So I held her over the river for a moment, repented, and, then, lifted her up onto my shoulders so that I could carry her to wherever it was that she wanted to go.
I stumbled forward in the dark.
"Why did you run away?" I asked.
"It’s takes forever," she said.
After a couple hundred feet, I could feel her weight on me, cold and insistent.
"There’s this little, teensy-weensy, spark of consciousness," she said. " – it’s nothing more than turning to the light or finding your way to a droplet of water. Just a tiny spark of consciousness, but you start adding those sparks together, all of those sparks -- you start heaping them up over thousands and millions of years –"
She was now heavy, guiding me by twisting my ears as if I were a beast of burden. We had left the path and were walking in deep grass and I could smell the rotting methane stink of a swamp nearby, gas bubbling up between floating clumps of sod.
"You add all this together," she said. "And you get something sentient. Something that can think and talk."
With each step, she became more and more heavy. I felt her weight crushing down on me so that my feet sunk into the mud and twisted there. I leaned forward and put my hands out, searching for something to steady me. Then, I dropped to my knees and was creeping forward and she was riding my back so that I had all of the aggregate weight of an ice age on my shoulders, an immense imponderable load that bore me down and down. I was squirming on my belly in the mud and, then, my mouth opened and I tasted bog water and darkness swallowed me.
I awoke with the sun burning in my eyes. My skin itched and prickled and, when I stirred, a thousand mosquitos rose in a cloud over me, sluggish, with their bellies ballooned out with my blood. Red ants were crawling up and down my legs and my pants were covered with foul-smelling mud. I tried to stand up but my balance was inexact and I toppled sideways, landing in a black mud puddle. A big wet field stretched out around me and, in the distance, I saw a bright loop of river shining in the sun and a humid-looking bluff with cliffs visible between matted undergrowth.
I walked in ankle-deep water through a place that was flooded. A bald eagle swooped out of the sky and seized something from the pond through which I was staggering. Then, I came to an asphalt path leading along the stream. It was shady on the path because the sun had not yet risen above the bluff overhead.
I passed a place where the air was very cool and moist. The plants on the cliff side of the trail looked very different from the grass and flowers growing on the river-bank on the opposite side. Every part of my body ached and horse-fly bites had swollen one of my eyes shut. Near a sign posted next to the trail, I saw some burnt rags and there was a smell like rotting barbecue in the air.
In the parking lot, I found my car and, to my amazement, my car keys were still in my sodden pants. On the drive home, I picked six wood ticks off my scalp and torso. A couple days later, I found another four ticks, two of them embedded under my armpits and the others sucking blood under a thatch of pubic hair.
My mouth burned and the sun slanting through the windshield seemed to pass through a lens that amplified its warmth until the skin on my arms and neck and face blazed. Apparently, I had dragged myself through wild parsnip and the plant’s oil was now searing my flesh. I stopped at a Kwik-Trip and, in the toilet, sloshed water all over my brow and the back of my neck until my shirt was sopping wet. When I tried to urinate, nothing flowed, not so much as a droplet, even though I felt a raw, and persistent pressure in my bladder. Water pooled on the restroom floor made me slip and fall and, for a long time, I rested on my face next to the gas station toilet, inhaling the stink from the dark, greenish grout between the tiles. I grabbed hold of the stool and pulled myself up, but it felt as if a bone in my forearm had been broken.
I bought four large bottles of Gatorade and drank feverishly, but my thirst was unremitting. A dozen miles beyond the gas station restroom, I lost control on a sharp corner. As if I were perched on a ledge high overhead and remote from the road, I watched the vehicle slip off the side of the road, spraying gravel into the air, as it tilted into the ditch. My door wouldn’t open and so I tried to clamber out through a broken window, but found myself hung up, hanging head downward among spears of dried, brittle cornstalk.
I woke in the hospital with IV’s infusing ice-cold syrup into my arms. My arm was in a cast and there was sticky, sweet-smelling salve snail-trailed all over the lesions on my face and upper chest and arms. I was delirious – I felt that my crooked, burnt flesh was porous and that a cold breeze, smelling of mint, was piercing through my skin, an emanation of the glacier between my lungs.
After the hospital, I had West Nile and Lyme disease. One afternoon, after eating a hamburger, my hands became paralyzed and swollen until they were like blue-green boxing gloves and my throat closed so that I was unable to breathe. After an ambulance ride, the doctors infused me with corticosteroids and I gained so much water-weight that I couldn’t recognize myself in a mirror – my face was bloated, a tallow-colored moon. Apparently, one of the tick’s carried a variant form of Lyme’s disease that prevented me from digesting red meat.
I eat salads now and whole grains. My muscles ache and I can’t climb a flight of steps without becoming winded. I have learned to suffer. With this story, I renounce all of my previous life and hope that my example will serve as a caution to others. True goodness now beckons to me and I spend my evenings in prayer.
Eadem mutato resurgo – "I rise but am changed."