The first time it happened I could forgive myself. Cutting across the hall from my office and glimpsing a man—pale, wearing metal-rimmed glasses, a thin man in a light-colored rolled-sleeve shirt and khaki pants, busy with files he was returning or extricating from a chin-high bank of beige metal cabinets lining the wall to my right, just inside the departmental office—nothing unforgivable about being confused a split second by the sight of someone I knew was dead, dead a good long while, dead and buried two thousand miles away in cold, high Wyoming, the dead man Roger Wilson’s office down and across from mine, fourth-floor Bartlett Hall, the dozen years I’d taught at U.W., so countless times I’d catch him hunched over his desk under a window opposite the door he always left slightly ajar, puttering in his share of the ubiquitous metal file cabinets that graced Bartlett and also preside here in this English department located in a building I find myself sometimes calling Bartlett, or rather find myself unable to recall this building’s name once Bartlett pops into my head, even after ten years of coming and going through this building’s glass vestibule and thick double doors, one with a push button and ramp for handicap access; nothing unusual or shameful about seeing dead Roger Wilson and silently calling out his name, surprised, hopeful, though I knew better than to believe I’d actually seen him, the flesh-and-bone body I realized now I was staring at could not belong to dead Roger Wilson who’d canceled his claim to a body long ago with a shotgun blast and become a lost soul, visible in this office only to me unless someone could enter my skull, pick their way through the mess of overflowing drawers, files, stacked newspapers, bags of trash, reach the place in my mind where Roger Wilson had suddenly appeared, sudden but rooted firm, solid as a tree planted two decades ago, you wouldn’t blame me, might forgive me as easily as I forgive myself for mixing up names, places, the living and dead because it could happen to anyone, happens frequently and usually passes without comment, it’s so ordinary and startling at the same time, people figure it’s not worth mentioning, who else would want to hear about such an inconsequential moment of slippage, let alone care whether you are mixed up an instant about the identity of a man you glimpse out of the corner of your eye, a split second of confusion leading nowhere except in a heartbeat back to the commonplace reality of a Tuesday, late in the afternoon, postseminar, post a dawn commute from New York City to the university in Massachusetts where I’ve landed and stuck since leaving the mountain West, when I step catty-corner across the hall and there’s old schoolmarm lean and severe, great white hunter and sorry-ass alcoholic, my buddy Roger wasting his good mind and precious time as usual futzing with files, documenting the shamefully low graduation rate of minority student-athletes or serving as liaison between physical sciences and humanities for an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural project of team teaching or organizing a new, socially relevant concentration perhaps one day a major, a department where now there is none, its absence or presence a ghost agitating the fertile, slightly hungover brain of my former colleague who’s risen from the grave to occupy a place here in Logan Hall, then just as quickly relinquishes it, fades and that’s Charley staring at me, Charley Morin puzzled because he’s caught me staring, an unconventionally long and thus suspect pause, our eyes locked and neither of us offering an explanation, an awkward silence I interrupt finally to clear the air, to sweep away the indecision that must have emptied my gaze of expression and caused Charley perhaps to feel vaguely responsible, perhaps challenged, minding his own business, then sensing the weight of eyes on his scrawny shoulders, he turns, meets an undecipherable look with a quizzical tilt of his head, his eyes invisible behind thick lenses whose steel rims catch fire as he straightens, shoot a silver tracer to the ceiling, the crimson afterimage slowly deforming in the air, and I recall the words pillars of light I heard first coming from the mouth of a physicist and vice president at the University of Wyoming who was attempting to explain to me during intermission of a lunch meeting something beautiful and eerie I reported observing one night camped out in the Snowies, a mountain range with year-round white peaks thirty miles or so east of Laramie, same mountains where Roger Wilson was discovered splattered inside the locked cab of his red pickup after he’d been missing six days, pillars of light a nice phrase for the effect produced by rare, spectacular conspiracies of light, temperature, moisture and wind above high plains plateaus like the one Laramie rests upon, pillars of light a poetic image startling me in the faculty dining room nearly as much as I’d been startled by vertical shafts of oscillating brightness striating the night horizon, but as I crunched on my chicken salad sandwich, recalling torrents of unsatisfactory words running through my head that night in the mountains, the phrase pillars of light continued to echo, then the figure of speech collapsed and I watched the words pillars of light disintegrate, each letter like a person unshackled from an old life, like Molly described letters and numbers detaching from license plates, hanging in the air, funny, she said if you didn’t know what the letters could do next, snap into place abrupt as a door slamming to spell out a command she must follow she said no matter how stupid or dangerous or humiliating she must do what the letters ordered and, Gawd, you can’t imagine the trouble I’d get into afterwards trying to explain crazy stuff to myself or explain it to my mom or Sarah or the shrink or any stranger who’d listen, the worst when my job sent me to Africa to sell barbed wire and steel fence posts, and I loved Africa, really enjoying myself and learning so much, then I wake up in some dark, little, hot, smelly room, a cruddy hotel, no idea how I got there, where I was, who I was, how long, just lying there bare-ass naked remembering one sweaty black guy after another pounding away inside me, no faces, no names, just hands pulling and poking and pinching, it could have been going on for days, I stunk like a skunk, man, drugged probably, hurt so badly I’d stopped feeling pain, fear, anything, blacked out I guess, didn’t even know my name till I heard Mom’s voice Molly Molly shaking my shoulder, that hotel room the worst, she said smiling, the two of us in Boston at an outdoor cafО table, craziness a planet she visited occasionally, once upon a time, okay, many times, she smiled again, blond, hard-bodied Molly, bright-eyed, tan that last day I’d see her before she, too, killed herself, her hands betrayed only the vaguest tremor, safe because she’d been taking her medicine daily, not skipping doses, though the poison zombied her some days, See, she says, holding up a purple, elephant-sized pill extricated from a small, deerskin purse, Look how big, and I’m naked again in the ruins, a huge black Wyoming sky over my head, a sky filled with streamers of bright blood, the wakes of slow-motion falling stars, funnels of pale fire wavering above a bombed-out city burning just beyond the next mountain’s dark crest, no words, no made-up names would do, each time I looked up I was stunned by distance, by silence, no words for the raw power destabilizing me. Why does strangeness threaten, hello, dead Roger Wilson, good-bye, hi, Charley, excuse me for staring, man, but when I bopped through the door I had a flashback, you know, a weird kind of time wobble and it wasn’t you in the corner of my eye over there but some other guy in another place another time, and damn, for a second it had me going, very real, real and very odd, you know what I mean, it shook me up and Charley’s face crinkles, no more needs to be said by either of us, just a minute’s worth of wanna-be super witty and hip banter, spread like thick, gooey icing over a hopeless cake, like exchanges with Roger if he responded to the silence of my footsteps stopping or the stealth of my glance trespassing the space he’d left open for just that purpose or when we’d bump into each other in the hall, bump a foolish word like jump, as in jump in the shower, both words untrue, their embedded metaphors describing events that don’t occur, acts unperformed, fictions, as in I was touched by his gentleness, or ran into an old friend, or touched by the pain of his wife and kids, moved by her struggle, touched by a sudden, senseless suicide.
I hadn’t thought much about Roger or Molly for years. For some reason never paired them though they knew each other well and were linked by the obvious fact of suicide. I’d been long gone from Wyoming before I heard they’d taken their lives, Roger first, then Molly, each death a kind of postscript to a portion of my life I thought I’d laid to rest until these painful footnotes forced me to raise my eyes to a text that hadn’t disappeared just because I’d stopped reading it.
Let’s just say a hunting party in the Snowies fits here in a blank space I need to fill, a preseason, scouting at the end of July, the Alibi bar crew with families tagging along, a big camp pitched on the bank of a stream, yes, cleansed and starting over is how it felt on that summer weekend, my wife and kids, borrowed tent and sleeping bags, finding bones on a hike with my two boys, whole lots of bleached bones scattered on a flat boulder at the mouth of a cave we decided had to be a cougar’s den, sunlight polishing stones that bedded the talking stream, at night absolute blackness inside our tent, old canvas funky as a gym, everybody blind, whispering as we settled down to sleep, the tent could be empty or full, you needed touch to see, your own hand invisible until it gropes out someone.
No, not that July. Let it go. I’m trekking through serious snow, high-stepping into someone else’s deep tracks. I don’t want to discover a bottomless drift or the thin ice of a black-hole lake, ever-present possibilities up here, especially in spring when the season seems to change after you slog thigh-deep in snow for a mile then topping a rise see a meadow below scoured clean. I’m not alone. Had heard tales of foolish people, their bones picked clean by the time a hiker stumbles over them in May. Not alone, but not able to say whom I’m with. Could be my best buddy John, rifle cradled in his arms, out there on point, or I could be with Alex and Sarah, Molly’s older sister, or with brown Chris and Harry or white Max, Walt, Fred, Herb, and John again, the Alibi bar crew, each group distinct, every person a small-town character of sorts with his or her story you wouldn’t hear in the Snowies since hunting parties organized so nobody would have to tell their tale, nobody have to listen. A particular chemistry and energy defined each combination of personalities, yet as I look back, one group blurs into the other. Only fragments return, random bits and pieces effortlessly more real than this fading present. Details I can hear, see, touch, smell, taste, my senses so sure of themselves they expect more, desire more but there is no center. I’m here, not in Wyoming and each promising detail bodiless, the network of memories it spins out cannot hold, evaporates, brings back everything, nothing.
Hunts begin in the hour of the wolf. In the taint—taint night, taint day, taint neither one, town left behind. Hunters shamble along, grumpy, surly, not speaking if grunt or gesture will do. Play at being animals. Beg for the animal’s complicity. Hope the animals love them as much as they love the animals.
In a small, isolated town like Laramie you can go a little insane trying to find something new about yourself. You yearn for the unknown. You try on a different life to convince yourself one might exist just beyond the horizon of familiar routines. You take up a hobby, steal a chocolate bar from Albertson’s, screw your best buddy’s wife or you drive up into the Snowies, lock yourself into your pickup and blow out your brains with a shotgun or run away and fatten up in another Wyoming feedlot town, snuff out your life one day like Molly snuffed hers I can’t even say how.
But you can’t inch closer to what’s unreachable even when it’s pissing in your face. No pilgrim has returned and reported how it feels to die. That’s the dirty joke hunters go to the mountains to laugh at. Werewolf with other werewolves, furry clothes, furry faces, stomachs bloated with jelly doughnuts and beer.
Certain scenes are attached to one group or another— high-butt Chris’s long-legged, country-boy strides in no hurry as they consume miles of rugged terrain, Harry’s head bobbing and weaving, his ghetto swagger stylized so that he keeps pace with Chris, Sarah shivering, a blue Michelin lady, her eyes pleading, demanding an answer and when I have none staring at Alex silhouetted on the next ridge, his fine brain at half-mast since the day it bounced helmetless along a dirt road beyond his overturned Suzuki, blue-eyed Alex emptying his rifle—pow-pow-pow-pow— into a pocket meadow where a dozen or so pronghorns had been browsing, spooked and long gone before he got off his first shot— these scenes blend into one seamless hunt, a work-in-progress, everybody out there still wandering the Snowies.
Imagine seeing a familiar face forming in a bank of clouds or an incredible mix of color, light and motion blazing on the horizon.
Imagine needing someone who will recognize the face or amen the sunset but you’re sure that if you turn away to find someone, when you turn back, with or without your witness, the sky will have changed. Last week a flock of honking Canada geese suddenly passed over my head, so low I felt their wind, the chill of their fluttering shadow, their wake strong enough to decapitate me if I didn’t duck fast.
A day or so after, on my next commute to UMass, I overhear a blond woman on the train yammering to her cell phone about foxes in the woods behind her house, “a whole cute little fox family,” and I see Molly’s orphaned baby fox, crazier each day as she tries to keep it for a pet, nipping blood from her finger with its tiny, needle teeth.
I don’t believe past explains present, nor present explains past and certainly coincidence doesn’t explain anything, but peculiar, disruptive spaces I’m calling coincidences for want of a better word, open almost daily. Past and present chat, maybe, or maybe refuse to speak to each other, who knows, but their convergence seems to uncover crucial information just beyond my grasp. At these moments my life feels crowded and empty. I’m stalled at a crossroads with lots of traffic in many directions and I can’t regain my bearings, don’t know how to step back into the flow.
Molly Ritello, a colleague at UMass, phoned me at home. John ... Hello, John. It’s Molly... The voice not belonging here, wobbly, as if forming words a precarious business, a girl’s voice trying on adult effects, pumping itself up with bluster, it’s my first Molly high up in a tree I’m standing at the foot of, while she climbs agile as a monkey, me the adult on duty in the backyard to catch her if need be, sent by her anxious mom, martini in hand at the kitchen’s French doors, watching me watch her girl, my eyes with no choice except to fix themselves on Molly’s round little bottom, the white cotton drawers, twist of glen plaid skirt, her bare legs as they scissor and stretch up the gnarled tree’s rungs, Molly’s tight, neat buns years later when I get up to pee at 3:00 A.M. and catch her naked walking back down the hallway, proud I’m sure of her athlete’s body, unselfconscious about my eyes as she’d been scampering up the tree and though neither of us utters a word she knows I’m behind her, probably guesses I’m hung over from all the margaritas and wine knocked back with her mom, and I guess she might be half-asleep, she knows I’m there in the hall and knows her young woman’s body glows in the darkness, and it’s okay, fine, she likes the accident, the coincidence, isn’t that what she’s telling me with her slow strides, the casual slap, slap of naked feet on the tile, saying, Yes, I’m a woman now, I’ve caught up with your being a man, cool, huh, let’s get some sleep, Molly gone before I’m positive who I’d seen, though her pale shape hovers after her door clicks shut, Molly gone but not before I understand, stopped there in the darkness, that the moment stirred me and shouldn’t have, why does that moment come back, Molly’s young, naked body like Roger’s pained face, as if nothing else about them mattered, my dead testing me, reminding me there won’t be another chance to do better, never more than one chance, an unforgiving once, Hi, John, Molly here ... speaking from the grave and I didn’t dare answer. It’s me, Molly, she says again and I’m on the other end of the line listening, unable to speak, green socks all I can think of, green socks and wanting to ask Molly what she’d done with them, green socks to match green blazer and green glen plaid skirt, kneesocks rolled down to her ankles when she climbed the tree or did you race off the school minivan directly into the room you shared with Sarah, chuck the monogrammed blazer across your bed, snatch the green tie from around your neck, plop down and whip off socks and shoes, or were you wearing shoes, am I making up curly, white monkey toes gripping rough bark like fingers, Sure, I’ll phone Jim—soon as we hang up—Thursday at 10:00, right, in your office—Thanks for setting everything up, and thanks for calling— see you Thursday.
I don’t remember exactly if that’s how the conversation with Molly Ritello ended, but I do remember saying to my Molly’s mother, Done deal. You keep an eye out for mine, I’ll keep an eye out for yours, meaning whichever one survived the other would be an unofficial guardian of the dead friend’s kids. I have wondered about those words since. Christina’s girls around nine and eleven, my boys four and six when we exchanged our little vow. A lighthearted, hugging, feel-good reassurance at the time, the kids young and we felt young too, maybe younger with the pledge between us that seemed to guarantee a certain immortality.
When we promised to be a kind, responsible uncle or aunt was there an unspoken statute of limitations? Weren’t we released from our obligations once the others’ kids were out in the world on their own? By the point Molly’s life began to fall apart, both couples had split and Molly, more parent than child, was orchestrating an intervention to rescue her mom from drinking herself to death, then nursing her through the last terrible stages of cancer. A few letters, phone calls—Oh, I’m okay. Just a teensy bit nuts sometimes is all. The lies get to me and crazy is a better place to be. I’m kinda glad I don’t see you anymore, man, ’cause I bet you’d lie too.
Except for a meeting when both of us happened to be in Boston, no contacts or news for years at a time—spared the awful metamorphosis, Christina shrinking down to nothing, Molly ballooning. How the fuck did it happen? I asked, when John told me Molly weighed over two hundred fifty pounds.
A night ago a train erupted just inches from the one I was riding from Massachusetts to New York City. All the faces, including my own, I’d been studying in the darkness outside the window, smashed and speeding away in the bright cage of the other train.
Will I glance up one day and see the huge Wyoming sky, find myself surrounded by the raw gorgeousness of daunting moonscape desolation, not for one forgivable instant, no dОjИ vu or daydream or miscalculation but find myself there again, not a ghost like the ghosts haunting me here, but there in Wyoming, stuck again as I’m stuck here, shopping for groceries at Albertson’s, walking Harney or Grand, beer, bluegrass and pool with John and Roger in the Cowboy Bar and Roger blows his quarter, scratching an easy eight ball in the side pocket and that familiar wince of disappointment pinches his features and wanting to tell him it’s okay, you’re a good man, Roger, a very smart, talented person I respect, everybody respects, though you’d be the last to hear it from them, don’t always be so goddamned disappointed with the world, man, disappointed with yourself for failing to change it, my friend, or at least try being less visibly disappointed and maybe people won’t assume you’re blaming them for a world so evilly out of control, but I say instead what everybody around him says. Nice shot.
I anticipate a horrible stench. Steel myself not to gag, not give the others an excuse to laugh in my face, snicker behind my back.
The others my companions for a hunting party, John, Roger, Max, Herb, Walt, all of us up before dawn, rendezvousing outside the Alibi, dark empty roads like tunnels, then trudging miles through fresh snow they happily agree makes tracking easier and the going tougher, my companions who know I’m over thirty and have never stalked, shot, or gutted game, and they can’t wait for me, the tagalong city kid to lose my cool, fuck up, the black boy from Pittsburgh and Philly and New York where snow falls as white as Wyoming snow but does not stay white long, cities with gray skies from which these others, once upon a time, had tumbled, boys like me except they fled West to stay white as snow, all of them armed with a.30-06, high-powered rifle, a handgun, a large knife, a Swiss army pocket wad of blades for every purpose. Two guys smoking cigarettes, one chewing tobacco, one sipping a Coors from an endless six-pack cached in the bulk of his camouflage hunting vest.
Roger steps away to pee. Smoke unwinds over his shoulder. Still zipping, he cuts a loud belch as he turns.
Forget it, Roger. No matter how crudely you act or talk up here, no matter how many notches on your gun, or spots on your slovenly khakis or grime under your fingernails, you’ll never fit in—too much Eastern prep school, too much English lit professor whose existence insults the others, too much stern, thin-lipped, narrow-hipped spinster, New England rectitude and ruling class and old money, money proved and denied by your church-mouse lifestyle, your disdain for stuff other folks work their tails off to own. Then I show up in Laramie—a suspicion in the others that you’re responsible—a brown professor in Bartlett Hall who reminds them of their crimes, flight, waywardness, failure to measure up.
They say animals were trapped with you in your truck. Smell sucked them in—they couldn’t get out. Looked like the goddamn O.K. Corral in there.
What’s so bad about poaching, Wilson. You ought to run for sheriff, my man.
Problem’s not poaching, anyway. Folks round here don’t kill for killing’s sake. For some, a big buck in August the difference between meat or no meat on the table come fall.
Save the animals. Shit’s sake, no shortage of animals. The year of the big blizzard snow piled up thirty foot deep in the mountains.
Game couldn’t forage so they start sneaking into town. Shock at first. A wild critter where you don’t expect to see one. Then before you know it, a goddamned invasion. Antelope deer elk moose jackalope. Like some damned Noah’s Ark. Like goddamn welfare.
Bunches of ’em trooping down from the mountains around dusk looking for a handout. Hung round the golf course at first, then start parading the streets like they owned them. Breaking and entering people’s barns. Stealing what folks had stored up for livestock.
Turning over garbage cans, drinking out of the town fountain.
Shit’s sake. Clomp right in your front door if it wasn’t locked.
Plague of cussed animals. If nature didn’t crop ’em, they’d eat each other. So why not pop one when you feel the need. A kindness, really.
John dropped down beside a gut-shot antelope whose bad dying he’s terminated with a bullet to the brain. I remember the ground under his knee. Ground antelope color, or antelope the color of ground it had staggered across, barely able to hold up its pronghorned head, slow, faltering steps, neck bowing lower and lower, the antelope weary, maybe ashamed of surrender, of helplessness, aiming for the rifle held by a baggy-looking creature who through the antelope’s glazed eyes might have seemed antelope color. Snow everywhere around us but John’s knee presses into rocky earth speckled here and there by subtle pinwheel explosions of lichen that cling to mountain turf you’d think would be lifeless buried years under snow and ice.
John snaps his pistol in its holster, slides the holster into a backpack, digs out of his pack a bowie knife. When it’s in his fist, I study it. One edge sharp as a razor, the other beveled, saw-toothed.
This is how I’ll manage. Concentrate on the field dressing of an antelope. Focus my curiosity on each step without asking why.
That morning in the mountains I remember thinking how love could turn sleep into a long journey, a long separation, and how each night I’d say to her I’ll miss you before turning to my side of the bed. Remember declining John’s pistol. Remember the whole bloodthirsty bunch of Alibi regulars and just one skimpy antelope.
I remember a wounded animal stumbling and lurching like a drunk, remember being riveted by the unlikelihood of what I was witnessing, a wild creature approaching closer and closer, its body begging, speaking, if the word speak means anything, speaking the sentence, please finish killing me.
John’s got the antelope’s spindly hind legs lifted and splayed, gets rid of prick and balls then wiggles the knife tip under the hide and slices slowly, carefully from crotch to chest. Sounds like cutting carpet. No, fellas, I don’t gasp when John opens the antelope’s distended water balloon belly and yanks out steaming viscera. I’m digging erotic pinks and vivid lavenders, delicate mauves of stretched, moist skin, the smell discharged with a palpable hiss, engulfing me, not in fetid nastiness of bile or vomit but sage perfume, so familiar, pungent, and intimate I’ve never forgotten it, and that nearly falling in love swoon as close as I’ll come that day to losing my composure.
I encountered in a novel by Murakami another skinning scene, the torture of a Japanese soldier captured during the Manchurian border war between Russia and Japan in 1939. Whether I liked it or not, coincidence was becoming my subject, an inevitable subject once you start searching for connections between one word and the next, one step and the next, one breath, one heartbeat. Sooner or later coincidence intervenes, a spinning universe intersects another spinning universe and one doesn’t exactly demolish the other, but each seems to go on about its business as if the other doesn’t exist, bumping into each other, leaving consequences a survivor might call change, loss, birth, or death.
I look up coincidence in the OED and find these neighbors on the same page: cohabit—to dwell together; coinquinate—to pollute.
For the hunters I knew the fun consisted less in killing than getting ready to kill. Imagining themselves killing. Gathering their hunting gear. Anticipating themselves dressed to kill. Lies afterwards about kills that never happened. All of it—beginning with purchase of a license in September at the little Fish and Game shed behind Albertson’s in West Laramie—frees them. Hunters can’t wait for the season to start, but they must, and waiting’s a welcome clock counting down their ordinary lives, rendering everyday duties slightly less demeaning.
This morning, I picked up a book of poems, Tracing, which has been sitting around for months. The first words of the first poem are: The unexpected meeting in the singular suddenly becomes numerous.
When John phoned to say he’d be in the city the following week and maybe we could hang out I almost laughed out loud.
Only reason I didn’t because too much to explain and the joke wasn’t really funny in the first place, more like crazy Molly and her talking license plates. About three years since we’d hooked up, but with all the Wyoming stuff in the air why not, why wouldn’t my best friend from that time and place arrive on my doorstep? Why not one further fun-house mirror twist? John intended to catch up with other mutual friends from Wyoming. Did I want to join the crew for dinner? He didn’t say for old time’s sake or just like in the good ole days but what else would he be thinking, the coincidence of everybody in the same city, the possibility of getting together again, the bunch of us performing the neat trick of going back to a place that no longer exists. Never existed. My, my. I wanted to laugh out loud and confess everything to my old pal. Explain why meeting would do no good. I couldn’t wait to see him. Yeah. Sure.
I’ll kick back with the others. None of the dead need apply. After all, unbeknownst to myself, I’d been preparing, hadn’t I? How long will my old buddy wait in the hotel lobby. I think he catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye. Swear I see the flicker of his glance light me up a mini-second and his long mouth begin a smile of recognition. Must be mistaken because when his head turns and he gazes directly at the space I occupy, his glance, then his fixed stare pass straight through me as if I’m not a few yards away, as if he’s daydreaming or remembering a meeting elsewhere with someone else on some other occasion, or as if he’s been tricked by some coincidental movement and turns to find no one there.