Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Loss for Words Pts. 27 & 28

(CONTINUED) Twenty-Seven

There was nothing to do except wait out the afternoon until it was time to pick up Mary from the gallery. Right then, time was one thing we didn’t need. We didn’t need time to think about what might be happening to Jimmy. We didn’t need time to think about what would be waiting for us in Arizona. And we didn’t need time to think about whether we’d ever make it back to Santa Fe. But we couldn’t think about anything else. Julie sat tearing at bits of Kleenex and I felt sorrier for her than I had for anyone in my whole life, with the stark exception of my murdered ex-wife; but that was different—that was my fault. I knew Julie was wondering what her life would be like without the most important thing in it—her brother. I thought that there was a good chance she’d never find out. I had to do something to occupy both our minds, so I dug around Mary’s house looking for a U.S. highway map. I managed to find a booklet that had the major roads in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona and I showed it to Julie.

“We’ll take I-25 to I-40 and then head into Arizona,” I said, and thought of the last time I’d driven I-40. It seemed like a long time ago; I wasn’t looking forward to driving it again. “In Flagstaff we’ll drop down to I-17.” I handed Julie the map, but it was ridiculous; we’d be following interstate all the way, first south, then west, and then south again. There was nothing to show or explain. Julie wasn’t listening anyway.

“Where do you think they have him?” she asked.

I shook my head. “There’s no way of knowing.”

“I wonder if they’re hurting him.” She began to cry. I put my arms around her and she leaned her head on my chest and wept. I thought of all the stories I’d read and the one’s that I’d written. I tried to recall every movie or poem or song that had ever meant anything to me. It all fell short of describing what I felt at that moment, a fire of emotions, good and bad, light and dark, all at a fever pitch. I saw that I couldn’t change whatever was to come and for that brief time I felt something unexplainable, inexpressible. But it had all come at a price that no sane person would willingly pay; now I only wished I could somehow cover the debt of the girl in my arms.

While Julie cried I thought about a story I’d written years earlier about a man, Orion, who set sail on a ship. Following an unspecified calamity--for one calamity is a good as another in such tales--he believed that he must leave behind everything he’d ever known in his life. It didn’t seem to him that it could much matter what he did after that. On the street he ran into a sea captain and, after talking for some time, the man mentioned to the captain that he was not sure what the next day would hold for him. “In that case,” said the sea captain, “why don’t you sign on with my crew?”

For many weeks the ship sailed from port to port, loading and unloading cargo, taking on passengers, and sometimes docking for days on the rotten outskirts of exotic cities. Soon Orion felt like he had never known a life previous, as if the salt and the surf, the flapping of the sails, and the calls of the hands as they moved about the deck had always been a part of him. It was not so much that he was happy, but forgetful, and in this forgetting was a peace that he had not known in some time. Each morning he woke with the sun to hear the creaking of timbers and the splashing of waves against the hull. Even far out on the ocean a company of seabirds always seemed to be near and he would watch them wheel around the masts. On some days dolphins would ride alongside, leaping in turn as they kept pace with the ship. He was learning the way of the sailors, assimilating their language and becoming more adept at their work. After a time, the sailors accepted him fully and soon he realized that there were others on the boat that had come aboard after him and that he was no longer the least experienced hand.

He became skilled at reading the weather, even in the dark of night, and the captain would come to ask his opinion of what might lay ahead. On such occasions he would look off to the horizon and consider the wind, as if it bore a message from a far-off and murky world. The clouds spoke to him and even in the most reckless tempests he would feel an otherworldly calm as the salt-sea swept over the bow and the gale lashed at him and his companions. Seeing Orion, the other sailors were becalmed and set about tying the sails and lashing freight to the deck with a certitude they would not otherwise have had. If it seemed odd to him that what had at first appeared to be the end of his life had instead brought him to a place where he felt a rightfulness he could not have imagined, he did not dwell upon it. He simply was and there was no need for anything other.

One morning Orion found himself in his bunk, chilled by the stillness all around. He left his cabin and went on deck. There were none of the usual calls amongst the men, not an order barked or a mistake roundly chastised. He was alone. The ship was rocking fore to aft, but did not seem to be moving. The sails lay unfurled and limp against the masts. The ship creaked and groaned with the rolling of the ocean. The sky was clear and though there was sunlight he could not place the sun above him. There wasn’t a bird above nor a fish beside the stranded vessel. He was seized with a terror so great that when he awoke he could not breathe and, lying there on his cot, he still felt a foreboding that would not leave.

As he climbed up to the deck the sun was just breaking over the horizon. The captain and some of the deck hands were standing along the bow, the sky lit in deep shades of red, a magenta strip of cloud just along the horizon. The very air seemed suffused in a rose light that was part mist and part fire. All the sailors turned as Orion approached but none said anything. He looked out across the sea, where thousands of miles away that crimson planet was rising quickly, as if to warn the men of their fate. Minutes past while Orion looked about, the men’s heads upturned as the heavens overhead seemed to lower onto them. The wind fell away and the blood red sky turned to black and yellow and green. Finally, the captain said, “It will be bad.” Orion nodded, but there was not much that could be done. Within minutes everything that could be battened down was secure, the sails taken in, and any loose items brought to the hold. Most of the men then stayed below deck, but the captain and Orion went back up to watch the slowly roiling sea and the churning clouds. Orion felt the hair go up on his arms. “I’ve never seen it so,” he said. The captain shook his head, “Nor I.” Soon the ship began to toss and the first waves crested the bow. Orion and the captain went below deck.

Normally the crew kept to their individual quarters when not above, but on this morning all hands were gathered together in the mess hall. The tables had been cleared of all cups and utensils but the ship began to pitch so badly that the men found it easier to sit on the floor. Some of the sailors were clearly frightened; others just as clearly were not. Under different circumstances, Orion would have found it interesting to consider why this might be, but instead he wondered how the great peace he had come to know so certainly had been so quickly imperiled. He’d grown to love the ocean and believed it would always be good to him. Even in the worst storms the thunder and lightning felt more like a benevolent promise than the threat of that which could not ever be fully reckoned. But now the creaking of the timbers grew deafening and from above the groaning of the masts could be heard. Each wave that crashed over the bow reverberated below deck with a sickening thud. Water could be heard coming down the steps from the deck. No one spoke.

The ship rose higher and higher and then dropped with the towering waves into a deep trough. A horrible cracking, like a tree being felled, boomed through the hold and the sound of wood snapping and splintering was followed by the rush of rain coming through the shattered deck into the aft hold. The captain staggered to his feet and steadied himself against a post. He struggled to remain upright and, in an effort to be heard above the tempest, roared, as if drunk:

“Said the mate of this vessel unique,
To the cap’n, ‘What port shall we seek?’
Said the cap’n, ‘We'll dock 'er,
In Davy Jones’ locker;
The bloomin’ old tub’s sprung a leak!’"

The men looked at their captain, and the captain looked at his men. He smiled. The first mate turned his head to see the other men and then, with some effort, stood. He boomed:

“There was an old sailor of Crete,
Whose peg legs propelled him quite neat.
‘Strong liquor," he said,
Never goes to my head,
And I know it can't go to my feet.’"

A few of the men began to laugh. A young sailor sitting cross-legged on the floor yelled:

“There was an old sailor of Compton,
Whose vessel a rock it once bump’d on;
The shock was so great,
That it damaged the pate,
Of that singular sailor of Compton.”

The crew laughed while the boat rocked and shuddered. Outside the wind howled and thunder cracked. The laughter of the men was swallowed up by the torrent pounding overhead. One of the oldest hands on the ship began to stand up but fell again after a wave pitched the boat sidewise. The men quieted in an instant, but the old-timer, now lying on the floor, began to laugh even before speaking. Several times he tried to get his breath and the men began to laugh just to see him. Finally, he caught his wind and sang at the top of his voice, in a reedy wail:

“A cabin boy on an old clipper,
Grew steadily flipper and flipper.
He plugged up his ass,
With fragments of glass,
And thus circumcised his old skipper.”

The men roared. Again the sound of wood snapping echoed from above. The sailors strewn over the floor clapped each other on the shoulder, tears in their eyes. The ship seemed as if it would burst apart. A voice trembling with fear and mirth and joy yelled over the din:

“There was a young sailor from Brighton
Who said to his girl, ‘You’re a tight one.’
She replied, ‘Pon my soul,
You're in the wrong hole;
There’s plenty of room in the right one.’"

Men clutched their stomachs and gasped. The captain fell back down to the floor, his face red and grotesque as he slapped at his knee. Suddenly the boat seemed to spin about in a complete circle and the men’s eyes grew wide and there was silence. Then all at once they exploded with laughter again, some pounding their fists against the very planks of the shuddering vessel. Orion joined them, thinking that if this was to be his death it was grander than he could’ve ever imagined.

It seemed to go on for hours; the storm’s fury matched by the sailor’s songs thrown again and again into its face, robbing it of its power. Finally the storm lessened and the men quieted and fell asleep where they lay on the wet planks of the mess floor. In the morning, Orion awoke early and went to the deck to survey the damage. The sky was blue and the sun, having just risen, shown softly down. A light breeze blew gently from the west. A gull cried overhead. There were large holes in the deck and the mizzenmast was gone. The mainmast was listing to one side and the rigging was twisted and torn. The captain was at the bow and Orion walked toward him. “I thought we were going to die,” Orion said. The captain nodded. “The funny thing was,” he continued. “After awhile I didn’t care.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I wonder what you call it when you reach that point.” The captain kicked at a piece of wood on the deck and then looked to the east. He turned back to Orion. “Freedom,” he replied, and then laughed. “Congratulations, you’re a sailor.”

I wondered if I should tell the story to Julie; she was still leaning against my shoulder but her face was turned away from me. She had stopped crying but said nothing. I craned my neck around to see her better and realized she was asleep. I leaned gently back against the couch and closed my eyes. Mary wouldn’t be done at the gallery for a couple more hours.


I let Julie sleep and I may have even dozed myself. When it was time for me to go to the gallery I tried to slide from under her but she woke and turned to look at me. I gave her a pat on the leg and told her I was going to get Mary. She didn’t say anything.

On the way to the gallery it occurred to me that it had been a couple of hours since I’d thought of the fact that my ex-wife had recently been shot right in front of me and that I’d beaten her killer unrecognizable with a fireplace poker. It was the longest I’d gone without playing through the scene in my mind since it had happened. As soon as I thought of it I wished I hadn’t; I wanted to save as much pain and guilt and anger as I could for Tucson, where it might get me through whatever was waiting.

I pulled the Jag in front of the gallery and looked around, wondering if there was someone out there watching. I hadn’t passed a single car on the way down and there’d been nobody behind me. Mary came out holding a cloth bag. She carefully locked up the gallery, got into the car, and put the bag on her lap. The bag was lumpy, stuffed full of bills. I turned the car around and headed back to the house.

“How is she?” Mary asked.

“Okay.” I said. “She slept for a couple hours this afternoon. She woke up just as I was leaving.”

Mary nodded and looked at me. “You’re really okay with this, aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean you’re ready to go down there with her.”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.” Mary started to say something but stopped. “I have no reason on earth not to help,” I continued. “I have nothing left to lose.”

Mary frowned. “I think if things go wrong you’re going to find that might not be true.” She turned and looked at me and almost smiled. “And if things don’t go wrong you’re going to know it’s not true.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant, but I had a guess. I knew she was glad I was there.

We pulled up to the house and Mary told me to wait while she opened the garage door. There was an empty space next to her vehicle and she waved me in and then closed the door again.

“Do you think anyone is watching?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I was wondering that myself.”

She went to a bench along the wall and returned with two screwdrivers. She handed one to me, then started removing the plates from her car. It was a smart move; I was a wanted man and the police were probably actively looking for my car. Exchanging my California plates for New Mexico ones at least provided some cover for interstate travel. I just had to make sure I didn’t get pulled over for something stupid; having Mary’s plates on my car wouldn’t play too well with the police either.

After we’d swapped the plates we went inside. Julie was sitting on the couch where I’d left her. Mary began to tell her about our plan to make it look like we were getting the money together the next morning but stopped when she saw the .38 in its holster on the table. “I guess you two have already talked about the plan.” Julie didn’t say anything so Mary got the two shotguns and handed them to me. “Put these in your trunk and don’t forget the boxes of ammunition. I’m going to start dinner.” On my way out to the garage I grabbed the Fed Ex envelope and put it in the car as well; there seemed to be no reason to leave it with Mary.

That night Mary cooked a feast. She made cornbread, stuffed peppers, chicken fajitas, and sopapillas. I set the table and poured wine. Mary called me over to the stove and quietly asked if Julie had needed the sedatives. I told her that she had not and that I was glad because we needed her to be alert and un-medicated in the morning. Mary nodded and went back to her pans.

I doubt that any of us felt like eating that night but we finished everything on the table. There wasn’t much left to say and the food kept the silence from feeling awkward. We lingered over the table all evening, asking for another tortilla or a little more wine. There was no pep talk that could be made that wouldn’t make our situation seem even direr, no plan to be got down by memory, no getaway that could be conceived of yet. But there was a strange comfort, an affection that came from fear and danger and longing and maybe something else besides. We were bound by bonds stronger than family, bonds formed and strengthened by the knowledge that one of us was not there and he was in trouble. Julie and I would either get Jimmy back or possibly lose our lives in the trying. Mary faced the danger of survival and what that would mean to her if we failed; it was a risk every bit as big as ours. But seated around that worn wooden table it seemed to make an almost mystical sort of sense.

We all helped to wash and dry the dishes, though Mary had a dishwasher, and then we each said goodnight and drifted off to our rooms. I took two sleeping tablets but awoke in the middle of the night, the desert moon high and bright, shining through my window. I looked at the clock: 3:04 AM. There was nothing I could do but lay awash in dread and doubt. I was a writer—or had been—and while I had at times considered myself tough, even imagined myself involved in the acts of savage violence I depicted, I was not a criminal or a gunfighter or a murderer. But I had become these things and, lying there in that bed in New Mexico, I no longer knew who I was or what else I might become. Could I become the kind of person that I would need to be to get Julie’s brother back and keep her safe? A year ago, a month ago, even two weeks ago, I could not have been that person. But now it seemed as if it might be possible. This thought was the only comfort to be found in that still and harrowing night. (CONTINUED)

The top photo in this post was taken in the Petrified Forest, AZ. The second and third shots are from Courthouse Butte, Sedona, AZ. I'll wrap this up in three more posts. I promise.

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