An excerpt from my forthcoming novel.
The book centers around Paul Anders, his young son Henry, his wife Cassidy, and Cassidy's sister Helena.
The nucleus of this novel came from a short story I wrote about the two central characters—Paul and his son Henry—when I was sixteen years old.
The boy stood shivering in his cowboy hat and canvas coat on the side of the I-5, his thumb out. He held his shoulders hunched up against his ears to protect his neck from the ribbons of water trickling off his hat. His right hand, with the thumb extended, he kept low near his thigh as if in apology or embarrassment.
Trying to keep warm, he walked—sometimes backward, sometimes facing the road. Sometimes if he wasn’t careful the passing cars sent sheaves of water over him. When he got to an overpass he stopped in the echoing damp and faced the oncoming traffic, the wavering reflected headlights on the sodden freeway. Across the plodding river, red and yellow lights hung and rippled. He could just see, on the opposite bank, a billboard with an advertisement for cigarettes on it. All he could make out was a woman’s red smiling mouth and red nails holding a red-tipped cigarette. Her eyes were blocked by the freeway bridge. He set his duffel bag on a thick bramble of blackberry and rubbed his hands together and blew on them, trying to get feeling back into his waterlogged fingers. On the cement underside of the underpass many names and dates and phrases were written. LV+JR ’72. Hell is where you are. BJ was here 1967. The boy had never before considered where those names must come from. He wondered if all of those anonymous writers had been as alone as he was. He considered writing his own initials—P.A., Paul Anders, to remind himself that he had a name, to leave some relic of his own passage. But he did not want to remember this day, and he didn’t want the world to remember him in it.
He’d been hitchhiking for four hours and so far no one had stopped. It was almost noon and looked like dusk. He couldn’t remember ever being as wet and cold as he’d been in the week since he left Wallowa County and hitchhiked to Portland. The quality of cold was new to him. It sat inside his skin and didn’t move. He’d never experienced anything like this socked-in, lowdown sky, the heavy unmoving clouds that sat on Portland like a broody hen and would not budge. It wasn’t like this in Wallowa County.
He pictured, because he couldn’t help it, their house on the Imnaha River. There, the rimmed expanse of canyon sky was never the same from one minute to the next. The clouds that scudded close above the gold ridges affected, above all, the light: a shifting brilliance illuminating now this ridgetop, now that, so that looking at the gold heights of the canyon, illuminated brilliantly against a storm-black sky, you couldn’t help but think there was some special significance to it, something you were supposed to see, as though that ridge among all others had been singled out, glowing velvet-gold against the dark sky.
He could not bear to think of that canyon country from which he was now exiled. He shoved it down into the locked compartment inside him where all of Wallowa County, the ranch, his parents were.
A car honked long and loud as it went by, making him jump. He shook with cold or nerves. The sound of the horn smeared out along the road. Paul shouted an impotent curse at its red taillights but it rounded the bend and was gone.
Standing under the overpass wasn’t any warmer so he started walking again, alternating which hand held his duffel bag and which he pulled up inside the sleeve, his numb wet fingers curled up against one another like foreign things, wet and slimy and cold, hard little snails.
He walked for a long time until he came to an overpass, a road called Terwilliger. He stopped beneath it. As cars went by, the sound of their wheels on the wet road echoed in the empty space beneath the bridge with a hollow feeling as though they sucked something up with them in their passage. The more that passed the more he felt they were taking something away with them, leaving him emptier and emptier.
He thought of his good winter coat and his long underwear for the hundredth time with regret. Like an idiot he’d left them in Imnaha. When he’d driven away from home a week before it had been unseasonably warm, the river fat and fast with spring runoff. He hadn’t known what to take. He’d stood holding his empty duffel bag and looking blindly around the room he grew up in: the slanted ceiling and big windows (outside, a massive cottonwood tree; the swift rain-swollen river), the Indian print rug in bright chevrons of red and orange and brown, the rows of books in muted colors—the Boys’ Knowledge series, with their gradient colored spines and illustrated pages of stories and useful information, were his favorites—prints of Chief Joseph and a clipper ship and an old map of Wallowa County, his collections of rocks and feathers, his own drawings as well as several of his mother’s watercolors tacked to the walls, his Mariners pennants (his father had tried out for the Mariners when he was nineteen, and every year of Paul’s life they’d gone to a game in Seattle, where they’d stayed in a hotel and eaten hot dogs and Paul’s father poured beer into Paul’s soda cup and stood and shouted with uncharacteristic ebullience at the players, at the umpire).
As Paul had stood facing all these familiar objects for the last time, they’d seemed mysterious as cargo jettisoned from a shipwreck. He didn’t understand what they had ever meant to him.
An object cut off from its context loses meaning.
His drawing teacher had said that, two years before, when Paul had taken a summer drawing class at the university in La Grande at his mother’s behest. His teacher had been a bearded young man that, Paul suspected, might be a bohemian—the type of whom his father and Mr. Creswell would’ve said He’s a little light on his feet. Paul had loved him because he was different from anyone Paul had ever known. He had lit something in Paul, as though he’d shined a headlamp inside the cavern of Paul’s self and there, to his amazement, Paul found the walls covered with beauty. There was a place inside him he’d never seen before, a cavern of images that he could access any time. When he drew, the world streamed through his fingers, ordered and transfigured.
In his class they’d studied the cave at Lascaux—the ancient snakelike halls covered in writhing twisting running panting forms of animals, deer and bison and extinct aurochs and lions, their legs a blur of motion. The teacher had rocked forward on his toes enthusiastically, his hair trembling as though to emphasize the point—Just imagine, he’d exhorted them, 30,000 years ago and the painter saw this when he looked at the world! Notice how he painted this bison with eight legs to convey motion. That anticipates moving pictures! Open yourself up to what’s inside you, into your own individual perception! How do you see the world when there’s nothing between yourself and it? Cut yourself off from the familiar. This—(he’d held a ruler up before them)—this is a miracle! A miracle of industrialization. Do you know what it took to make a ruler straight? Thousands of years of the combined mathematical efforts of the Chinese and the Greeks. And we don’t even see it! We’re blind to what’s in front of us.
So Paul had looked at things in his house: the beaded Nez Perce vest mounted on one wall, two eagles facing one another across it, its edges worked in tiny colored glass seed beads to form a border of flowers, which had been sewed by the fingers of some long-dead ancestor on his mother’s side; the wrought silver and wood handle of his father’s antique pistol; the carved wooden lion that his father had brought back from his time in the navy.
He’d finally chosen to draw a photograph of his parents. It sat, framed, on a shelf beside the wood stove. It had sat there all his life, and had always given him a shiver both pleasant and ominous, and a good, sad, forlorn feeling of time passing. He’d tried, in drawing it, to dissect exactly what in the picture’s disparate parts added up to its compelling composition.
In it his parents stood, very young, in front of the river house when they’d first inherited it, when it was just a ramshackle three-room farmhouse slantroofed behind them. His mother’s hip bent in an intimate curve towards his father, her hand lifted in slight blurred motion as though about to tuck back her dark hair. His father gazed straight on, unrelenting, at the camera. Autumn leaves hung suspended all about them, caught forever in their performance of falling. There was the dazzling power of his father’s gaze struck forever into photographic permanence—the tension in the rectilinear jaw; the eyes stern and clear, daring the world or the photographer with something like animosity except that it was in fact just a hungry tireless searching energy that was never still, a doggedness, an inner drive to fire and shape and mold the imperfect chaos of the world, to work beyond all human capacity as though he already knew his time would be truncated: a man who brooked no complaint and held a rough loving untender power over his sensitive wife, his sensitive son.
He’d given the drawing to his parents as a present. His mother had cried when she opened it.
The teacher, for his part, had been disappointed in Paul’s choice.
You’ve got real talent, he’d said, but you’re afraid. You fear what people will think. You’ll always have to struggle against your own desire for mundanity.
When he left home, Paul had finally packed the photograph along with two pairs of underwear and socks, a change of pants, and two t-shirts. He wore his favorite long-sleeved Pendleton shirt of rich brown and green plaid, a Christmas present from his parents, as well as the green silk cowboy scarf his mother had sewed for him. He’d rolled his father’s hunting rifle up in his t-shirts and placed it in the bottom of the duffel with a box of bullets that spilled immediately so the bullets rolled around in everything.
He worried now that the picture was getting wet inside of the dripping duffel bag, and he considered unzipping the bag while under the dubious cover of the overpass to check on it. But the thought of looking at it and of seeing his parents was enough to start his heart to pounding and make something like panic to rise up in him. Anyway he didn’t need to look at it. He knew it by heart.
He started walking. The rain went on and on. His chest hurt. He’d been viciously sick with the flu before he left Wallowa County and he was cold and shaky and feverish again. All he wanted was to get away from this rainchoked city where you couldn’t get a breath. He’d stayed downtown for six nights at a seedy hotel that only cost fifteen dollars a week but frightened him so that he’d held onto his father’s rifle under his pillow while he tried vainly to sleep as the sounds of drug-induced scandal and lust and loneliness went on in the rooms above and below him, the hotel ostensibly for men only although he’d heard distinctly a woman’s voice caterwauling in the night in incomprehensible cries of joy or pain.
There was no lightbulb in the bedside lamp, just a naked bulb on the ceiling. In the halls men leered at him with unfathomable expressions that made the hair stand up on his arms. They were dirty-looking and reeked of old cigarettes. Boys his own age came and went, slim and shadowy and sad-eyed, staring at him with indifference or hostility or a strange, wild insolence, wearing the glazed expression (he’d realized with astonishment) of drug addicts—he’d known vaguely that such things existed but never imagined it would be worn openly, like a badge of honor, as it was in that underworld. He had spent his days trying to avoid the hotel. He’d walked aimlessly around the dark wet downtown or sat in a diner drinking coffee for hours. He wanted to apply for jobs and he’d looked at the classifieds but the words seemed to crawl and mass in front of his eyes. He had no idea how to do anything except ranch work. Five or six times a day he’d decided to call the Creswells, to ask them to pick him up or wire him money for a bus ticket home but he never did.
The last night when he’d gone back to the hotel one of the men from the lobby cornered him on the second floor near his room. The man was unshaved and had a big belly overhanging his pants and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and a fist-flattened nose and flat dead eyes. He materialized out of the shadows and stepped between Paul and his room, backing him into an alcove beneath the stairs. He said in a low voice You look good to me, kid. I bet you taste good too.
When Paul tried to shove past him, the man shifted his bulk to bar the way. There was only silence in the hallway outside the sounds of their shuffling struggle. The man pressed him deeper back into the alcove and Paul fought him as hard as he could but the man was larger and stronger. His expression never changed, not once.
Finally Paul got ahold of the man’s forearm and braced his back against the man’s torso and bent his arm almost to breaking over his thigh and said Let me go or I’ll break your fucking arm.
The man cursed and let him pass. Paul ran into his room and locked his door and stood trembling on the other side. He took his father’s rifle and loaded it and held it across his lap and sat for a long time on the bed, thinking, If he tries to come in here I’ll kill him.
In the morning he got up at the weak grey lightening that passed for sunrise and slid his room key through the slot in the hotel lobby where an indifferent, grey-haired clerk sat behind a wall of glass watching a small TV. Paul walked through downtown and along Front Street and up the I-5 onramp and stuck out his thumb.
Now it must have been past well past noon and he was very hungry. He hadn’t thought to get any breakfast before he’d walked out to the freeway. He decided that if twenty more cars went by without stopping then he would walk up the next exit ramp and find some food. But after eight more cars a truck pulled over on the shoulder ahead of him.
Paul hesitated. It was a big, new-model Ford, blue and white, certain, shiny, the kind of truck his father had wanted. When Mr. Creswell had gotten one the year before the two of them went for joyrides in it like a couple kids.
Paul ran to it. As he reached for the door, he thought, If he seems strange I will not get in. I will say No thank you and walk away. I will run. I will shoot him.
He opened the passenger door and a tan, middle-aged man grinned brightly at him from a weather-scarred face.
He wore a plaid button-up rolled up over his work-hard arms. He had the easy, bare look of a rancher. When he smiled his face cracked open in a hundred directions, sending wrinkles outward from his small, clear, grey-blue eyes, like faceted jewels breaking through mud. Paul stood uncertainly, the rain running off his hat.
Well, you want a ride or you want to stand there all day letting the heat out? the man asked in a teasing tone. Hop on in, son. You look like a half-drowned barn cat.
Paul put his duffel bag on the floor and got in and sat with his feet on his bag and shut the door.
The man leaned across the seat and held out a thick-wristed hand. His fingers were cracked and dirt-stained, the nails splayed. Wayne Miller, he said.
Paul reached his cold hand out to be engulfed by the other man’s grip.
Boy, you’re lucky I came along when I did, Wayne Miller said as he checked his mirrors and accelerated and pulled back onto the freeway. Your shirt was just about full of water, if I hadn’t of come along you would’ve drowned in your own coat. He chuckled heartily at this.
Paul watched with relief as the shoulder and the overpass and Portland fell away behind them.
It’s downright biblical out there, Mr. Miller said. Heckuva day you picked to go for a stroll.
I wasn’t going for a walk, Paul said.
Going for a swim, then? Nothing better to do with yourself on a Monday?
Where you headed, son?
Anywhere particular? South’s a big place.
Paul shook his head.
You want to get out of Portland that bad, huh? I don’t blame you. I can’t stand more than a day in Portland myself. How come you’re so eager to get out of there?
Paul thought for a moment, holding his hands up to the heater, watching the working of the windshield wipers. Finally he smiled and said, Too many people and not enough horses.
Mr. Miller guffawed gratifyingly at this. He had a grinning boisterous quality that made Paul feel easy. He was like the men Paul had known in Wallowa County.
Paul felt the stricken cold in his chest ease, warm, stir with such intensity that it caught his breath and he had a momentary fear that he might cry in front of this stranger. He had not realized how violent his loneliness had been.
Oh heck, Mr. Miller said, I know it, boy. I went to college in Boston for a year, can you believe it? I was a fish out of water. I couldn’t see the last of that place fast enough.
Suddenly the world had narrowed again to reasonable size: the blue velour fabric of the seats, the heater that Mr. Miller turned up solicitously, nodding in approval as Paul held his frozen hands out to the vent, the heat pricking and burning sensation back into his fingers; Mr. Miller himself with his easy manner and stained baseball cap and tan arms and tucked-in plaid shirt and jeans and boots, talking easily about fine things: college, his cow dogs, horses. All the lone rain-sogged cold was reduced to a view through the windshield of watery grey trees flying by as they headed south, away from Portland, away.
Paul had been picked up; he was going somewhere. That was enough for now.