The Spy of Loog Root
(from The Oxford American, issue 1, spring 1992)
For remembrances and essays on the late, great Hannah, click here.
THE OUTCAST NEPHEW was farhearinged. That is a difficult word and concept, but as with farsighted, his ear could not participate with sounds up close, only those far away, up to a quarter mile, a distance of course at which the rest of us townsmen can hear little at all except explosions and aircraft. It seemed to work that if voices were soft enough, faint enough, they could penetrate his tympana. One thought of the sound waves, but how, in his case? I don't know, but imagine the tenderness of his ears, bent by the incredible bawling of noise he must have sensed up close, so that he ran away, holding both ears in agony, dispossessed of normal human intercourse.
He was one of those exceptional children, ghostly with long blond hair, to whom none of his family out at Loog Root Pass felt kin, except the mother. We never got, because of his affliction, a definite reckoning on his intelligence before he ran off, alone, into the hills.
He had bought with his duck money a marvelous Zeiss, I think, telescope, which he wore on a plaited necklace made of leather shoelaces. The family lived out there where nobody went, and we did not know when they decided he was not one of their kin or whether the parting was, mutual, loud, passionate, untoward, with he the initiator. We did not know, simply. He was too elusive now for any truant officer, or then, at his age of roughly twenty-three, too innocent for a country deputy to have any interest in. Nobody paced the floor thinking about him, anyway, except again his mother. And myself, knowing he was not so innocent, either.
A local college fraternity saved all its beer cans for him—a vast heap of aluminum weekly—in piles thrown out near a defunct railroad track. Notable, since fraternities never care for the individual loser, only the wide "charity" that reduces their guilt. Likely one of the members may have been kin to the nephew and agreed on this punishment suitable to their pledges. He lives on the proceeds, bringing the cans to the recycling depot on Saturday afternoons, and that was the only look we got of him. Nobody, I should point out again, paced the floor worrying over him. Why should anyone? He seemed healthy and perfectly harmless. That he lived like a shadow and inhabited the class of, say, a hobo, was only a curiosity. When you run a tramp down and lay scrutiny, the truth of his existence is usually not very interesting anyway.
I have done this. I love to surprise them in their lairs and persecute them, using good old fashioned kerosene on their hut and bed garments. I can not bear lice and I can not bear, truly, those who are seriously different. The ecstasy of flame we sometimes forget and reduce to anachronism, but most assuredly not in my instance. Like the shadows and tramps, I am everywhere at hazy times. The thieves in the projects must be attacked directly and stolen from. It's the only way of flushing them without pathetic law and busy red ink, a trunk's worth of formal papers. For the homeless, too, one must act to keep them so, lest our happy clean village wind up molested and newsworthy. If the citizens knew my work, I've no doubt most would approve, in that calm inner voice that has nothing to do with speech, always corrupted immediately by our "law-abiding" audience.
The boy is nosey, I know that. He's been a hard one to catch, and I've had to employ my own telescope, one just like his, if he had that Zeiss from the sporting goods that I did. You saw him in the round eye, poised on a hill with his own round eye and farhearingness, searching into the lives of others, hearing the talk from his safe distance, while you can only see their images. I've traveled, just quarter miles behind him, field and hill, careful in my camouflage suit to avoid discovery. I've even worn waders, over the streams with him. He does have something there, with his "life," granted: the lives of others are more interesting than our own, much more. And why watch the strutting dead on television while we have the real thing, occasionally jumping, heaving, tumescent window-operas in rural homes. Rural people don't use curtains much, and neither do those in the subdivisions farther out, as the two of us have found out. But I can't suffer it that he can also hear them, while I peep discontent on my silent movies, afraid to move lest his freakish ears pick up my steps and thrashing and rout the spoor.
If I were a murderer, sure, I could have had him any number of times. The telescope, crosshairs fastened on, a thirty-ought-six speaks and smack, out goes his throat or heart or wretched driven brain. But, juicier and saner, a confrontation was all I wanted. He is always redhanded, showing his prurient interest in civilization, then flying off, long hair streaming behind, to wherever he sleeps. And has his things. Everybody has his place and things, but I couldn't find his. He got sly when he neared it. The boy was educated, I mean he can write, you could see he'd been to some forlorn county school at one time. He wrote down what people said in and around those homes. I had to get the book I saw through the scope, his hand restless, working in his lap. He knew he was uncanny, I imagined, and was keeping his own record—this eavesdropping tramp, forever on the move.
One of these days he will move in and steal something. Eventually, always, a tramp will see something he can't resist, wait for the occupants to vacate and move in on it. He gets tired of his rags and meditations, you can't gainsay me. Even our Saviour did not linger in the desert forever. No, he came in and took someone else's corn on the Sabbath, then was attacked not for stealing but for working on the Sabbath, as I recall. Rural people—read the local paper, please—often miss goods, meat from their freezers, fowl, whole calves, in the hills around here. Where does the boy get those new clothes, for example? He has a different change every two weeks or so. Certain he is to have raided some clothesline.
That book of his he writes in—through the telescope I see him scratching avidly, an act from this distance very disagreeable like self-abuse, his hair falling down forward to his groin, a practical blond tent around his face, hidden but excited, you can see. This act is so antisocial it throws me into a fever of imagined prosecution, but I must, in my agitation, keep still as I move within range, never to spook him. He was quicker than a field mouse. All you saw was folds in a field of green corn, tall heads of it shaking as he scampers off, hoarding his visions and dialogues.
I waited across the parking lot for his arrival on Saturday mornings, low in my old giant station wagon the color of a hard rain, ghosted; with the ropes and handcuffs in the back just an encouraging dream, really. Nobody paid much attention to him anymore, but they didn't know what I did. By this time he was causing me outright sorrow. There would come a time when an act would be necessary. I rode my indoor bicycle and lifted my fifty-pound bar repeatedly in preparation for the designated day when I would stalk and strike.
The family showed no interest in him after he left, and except for pejorative interest, had had none anyway. He was near beautiful, in that feminine way of the moon child, and what he represented must have worn out his mother's welcome, though she remained. It was hard to tell which was her husband out there. Out at their place, a settlement of several decaying buildings—its own hamlet, really, Loog Root—I spied the woman, haggard and reed-thin, going back and forth between each squalid estate to service the men, four generations, each to its separate hovel. The ancient great-grandfather still lived, in a smaller hutch of iron-gray boards fit with an entire rubber-tiled roof they had torn from a motel unit, hauling it over on one of those filthy blond-clayed flatbeds, the operating one. A grandmother lived in the bed of another, not so fortunate in her roofing: tarpaulin several wars old. Sometimes the mother of the boy looked in on this ghost, but not often. She'd take a bucket up the step (a stump), look in, and howling was indicated. These people were so numb unto themselves, I could get close enough with my telescope to hear voices, yet not so close as to be included in the boy's telescopic eye myself. You saw all the history you needed to convict down there: men, women, and even a baby they kept in a discarded freezer. What they had not pilfered, they surely stole. Especially so obvious was the headgear worn by several of the men, those sort of bicycle helmets reminiscent of magnified sperm in full motility that were certainly plundered at one place at one time. It was the illusion of space aliens they gave, waddling here and there on their tasks, grunting at each other.
What was the woman doing besides feeding and watering them? She was not such a hunched primate as the others, and very nearly too poised for their league, stepping lightly and dreamily about (remember the whole-faced capacity of a 50 power telescope at two hundred yards) and a look of long regret on her. She went through a group of them who were toiling at the carcass of a golf cart, tallish and nervous, holding her skirt up for the ubiquitous oil and rain pools—a skirt harking back to hill folk more modest than these, those of the quilts, harmonicas and dulcimers. These were the junk-hillers, congenital junk themselves, making junk on a hillside. What they did was scour the county for cast-off machines, correct them till they grinned, and sell them. Their bit of farming and goats—with some other low animals—was running untidily down the hill above and to the east of them, and could not have produced more than dreary snacks for this clan.
The woman was a creature of airs to them, if my instrument caught their shy faces accurately, as she brought them constant "baits" a billy's term for lunch—and was cooking perpetually. They never quit eating. Three of them were tremendous, wrapped in smeared quilts from their kinder ancestors, vast rubber boots on, scowling under voluptuous orange beach umbrellas (stolen from a road crew, I'd suppose). The woman was almost a smoked meat herself, smoke boiling not only out of two chimneys from the main cabin but from the kitchen windows and fogging the filthy area under the floor, where three urchins tormented a duck. Crows and buzzards blackened the sky above them, and what was cooked did smell deadly. But the woman went to a well house—actually the best constructed building on campus, with a high-peaked roof and latticework lathing like a gazebo; the hand of an artisan in all this muck and fuss. She would sneak away to it, a hundred yards or so out of their sight, behind a hackberry screen, and get in the well, head lowering, then gone. She stayed an hour as I watched around at the boy's people. The great-grandfather would poke out of his hutch, wanting something. They had him hooked-up and run to an amplifier, and his voice carried through this idle factory grounds in perpetual complaint. It was loud and punctuated by screeches of its doomed equipment. I don't believe it was English he was violating, it was simply some horrid idiom of pain, the very tongue of morbid distress.
It bothered me from these hundreds of yards, but none of the clan was disturbed, neither the goats nor ducks, habituated to it as to oxygen. The old man played a guitar, also amplified—another speaker box in the fork of a dogwood—and it was loud, too, but, incredibly, accomplished: something between banjo and the regular guitar, I'd say. He was very ill. You could hear him screaming for drugs, especially codeine. This must have been a part of the woman's duty also. The men paid no attention at all, even as he listed in great volume all his diseases, a litanic history past comprehension in a surviving organism. He was culture, history and disease all at once, an antique font of it, to which they paid not the slightest heed, stoned on the miracle of metal and wires broken into parts.
I saw the boy up on his perch above the farm plot. I had hurled back to him often while trying to survey the family. He was in a camouflage suit, much like mine, which I highly resented, bearing on him with my telescope the same as his, unseen by him. He was looking at the well, I thought, for his mother or sister, whoever the woman was (I didn't know which then), waiting for her to emerge. He looked anxious and sad, beautiful wretch, sweating in his chopped bangs and moody amongst his locks, his lean body cocked over as in an attack of heavy grief. How could he ever know how I planned for him?
The two of us had seen, he as an unwitting forward scout, into a number of homes in the upper county. To track him on days other than Saturday it was necessary only to appear on any chosen weekday and he'd most likely be there at his perch, telescoping the family. Or if he wasn't, I simply went home and became ill. I looked around that perch, at first thinking it might be his regular lair, but there was nothing about, only his impressions on the grass after rocking and sprawling this way and that for his vantages. What cursing and whimpers I heard from myself, another version of myself beside me. That was the day—after I went home and became ill—I became more resolute. I began reading books about famous and expert trackers and scouts, how exactly they did their work—Carson, Horn, Crockett, Sacajawea, Ronald Limestone—and was paid high in romance but low in practical skills. I was just killing time at my tobacco and magazine shop, biding hours until Saturday and his appearance at the recycling dump. If he did not appear I faced madness. The few who came in the shop to buy (smoking and reading falling more into disfavor in Montana, I never expected a "living"; good grief, I have money from an old land sale in Oregon) would have seen me jittery and gruff, a bit short in the dialogues about old values we regularly had. They could not know I was their calm inner voice and soul, naming the truths and prepared to act, defending the health and decorum of a town too often molested by new chaos. Remember the "Rainbow People"—those vile grubs. They almost never left! I've almost forgot my drift here, recalling how I languished and repeating it emotionally. To return: the boy had led me to houses in the country where we saw things domestic we should not have seen, suffice it to say. And to a tent, one in which a mauling took place right in the eye of our instruments. This camper, I believe, killed his partner, but I had to go away. The boy walked in when the mauler packed and left, but I didn't. I didn't want to know this sordid thing, and I didn't know what he found out about the mauled one. It had been done with a trenching tool and entailed a long, loud scrape, fuss and run. I let the more veteran interloper have it, but you can believe I went home frantic and ill, having seen the boy's hair shine as he drooped down toward something in the weeds.
The sun on that hair made me really angry and ill, the way it fell and draped sparkling, hardly of this world. I still had the goading image of it on my ceiling when at last sleep took me. This was not just a country man, coonskin cap and black socks still on, taming his woman; this was illicit, shot with dread and pleasure, especially from the way it caught his hair, he concerned, dropping his book.... Fonder Remus, that was his name—the county ghost, villain, peeping Tom free to fly anywhere at his vision's call. I said his name over and over. Do we really want people like that loose and free in the county?
No official could touch him. How could I call him down without accusing myself? I was in, in, in it! I read the papers, listened, hearkened for news, dumbed-up by circumstance. You see, you see, don't you? I stuck my tongue out at the ceiling, before Morpheus reigned, and slept a lengthy one until half the next morning, when I awoke with blisters on my palm and red welts on my face.
That day, next to come out of the well house—which surely was no real well—after that hour, was not the woman but a man, a lean strange man with hair like the boy's, but thinning and dirtier blond, simply older and used, as if he'd been turned upside-down and used as an eraser on a page: such is the face of many in their sad forties here on the range wind, smoke, snowburns, carbon monoxide, or their own narrow melancholia pinched into creases. The woman finally emerged, obviously from a stepladder down there, looking fresher but uncheerful, red in the face and yanking the lap of her long skirt down. They were already bawling at her for grub and a bucket of "root!"—some kind of home beer they cooked in the kitchen. The racket over the loudspeakers never let up. The ancient invalid musician either crowed for relief or twanged his instrument, continuously, or sometimes hove forth on electrified fiddle, a devastating spiteful attack on folk music. As to the arrival of a long schoolbus, no seats and its back end hacked out for commerce—otherwise a billy's version of a "vacation" wheeled home, I suppose: new relatives would arrive in it every month or so, I discovered.
A man trying to seem cowboy drove the monstrosity, dirty blue; he of the class (millions) who buy loud and cheap in imitation of some sparkling goon on television, never coming near a horse except perhaps in lust. Heaving mattresses out of the way, they bore and threw in their "repaired" junk for him to sell somewhere. These people come from a backward state down South, probably Arkansas, and were expelled even from there, you hear. It is true that Montana was settled in part by runaway Confederates after the War, but the news got to these rebels late, and here they are still trickling in, bane of a fresh Montana hillside, more than a century late, and one suspects their heritage has always been tending and arranging the junk of others. I've read about their class. They did not fight for either side, but trailed armies like jackals, raiding battlefields and corpses for saleable equipment. They are the kind who, if you asked them direction to a place over five miles away, would reply, if at all: "Eh? Never heard of it."
But the woman, the boy—these were the only true mysteries left. When you "understand" these people, after all, you've not gone very far and feel sorry for the effort. The boy could not leave them alone with his eyes. He was up there pining and spying, pariah, notetaker, scamperer, mountain hind, eavesdropping hawk. He was the only peripatetic representative of their awful kind, free and threatening the town. I intended to oppose him. What was this? I saw him suddenly in the lens, hangdog and shaking with grief, I supposed, but he was gone next time I looked. What was the sudden regret in him? He was always up there, calluses on his behind, surveying them. Why now the sobs? I could not let him get out of sight. I got in my wagon and drove around to the other side of the hill, watching him descend in a field of lodge pine and buttercups, gorgeous towhead in the dying western sunlight. Was he still blue, my blond hillbilly? Fonder Remus.
I recalled that a Japanese man, found with a telescope near the home of a logger and his woman hereabouts, was severely beaten and kicked. No, some folks do not take kindly, though the man pled innocence, interested only in Montana astronomy. His attacker was never charged with anything: privacy of the frontier. The boy was leading me on a dangerous path, out of my citizen hood altogether.
That night I spoke to the wooden Indian in my shop, as I do when forced by special loneliness and the hardship of being the only actionist enrolled, the voice of others' secret demands. The thing should talk back. It cost me 3500, old woodcutter inflating with the times. It might dance and serve me dinner. My long bachelorhood sometimes has occasion to want a friend, though not, please, that woman I tried, married her, ages ago; a demanding witch, near vulgar, wanting coitus four to seven times a year. What did they have in the well? And how was the woman a part of it? There are still live silver mines still struck. You read about them in the papers. Indians hereabouts are known to keep hidden a few. The lone prospectors still roam, though mainly broken eccentrics you'd not want near your town, along with that curse of ponytailed backpackers, creased with highway filth, tipping nobody in diners and expecting hand—as their birthright. The hills scream for revenge on these smug, happy traffickers, defiling the gaze of big sky country. Your towns have spat them out. Your decent restaurants don't want them. I once drove one—blasted loneliness!—the whole state across, and he never offered to buy gas or a meal. He told me vitamins were a "scam" like most everything else. Oh he had it figured. Tobacco was a horror inflicted on us by the Indians, like our drink and smallpox on them, etc. He didn't even believe newspapers, any of them. Feeble-minded when not cynical, he stood to be choked, which a less contemplative man would have done.
Outcast nephew! Which was the uncle? Where was the father? Nephew of the hills, rain and snow and wind will beat his beauty, it can not last, I thought. One day he would have to do more than look, and smear himself on something, just smear himself. There and there! Touch it, touch it! I twisted and fretted.
Those men in their sperm-helmets noodling over the gutted arcade games, the motors of three-wheelers, half a miniature golf course, an enormous clock off a skyscraper (how?), a money-machine from a bank—they wandered here and there, calling for food and "root!", the woman sweeping past busy as a row of ducks in a shooting gallery. Playing my round great eye on each to each, you can imagine my distaste, and I lingered on it, looking for the secret. And why didn't I just go over and ask? Because I didn't want to be seen by the boy. The pieces of his history I had fastened together were hard won from town denizens, the can man, the railroad man who saw him, a forest ranger, who thought he lived in the park, but so? That was some half million acres. Besides, I could not be too interested or too to the point. There was some stealth required for the thing to go correctly.
The thief. Now he was stealing all my time, all, nearly, my life. Orphan gazer, interloper, weird eyeness of my life. I was there that last Saturday. Fall had come in with cold drizzling rain and, let's say, I was amongst it, invisible. Rain the color of my car, color of those old haunted movies dear to me, never seen again in our town: Is there anything like good rain in an old movie? It was I then, the stare, peering across the tracks at him as he eased in with his sacks for the recycling depot. He went in to get counted. For the first time I was going to see what he did with his money, what were his necessaries. He walked out and up a steep hill (curious not to see him rushing at last) hair down long and arrogant, drenched. You marked the crease of his buttocks, where he'd sat in loam. He wore cheap serge pants, snagged and run. Power in his step, loins floating, back straight like a shaft, then sloping over, ready to scamper. Hypocritically he did not have his telescope in view, while I had mine full on him and then eased the car up the hill, patient but charging inwardly. He could be mine, yet not here in town itself. He walked past the police station and I thought he was going in, stopping there—the perhaps dead camper flashed and nauseated again—but finally deciding nothing, his feet in moccasins scuffing on despite his conscience, whatever he had left, this compulsive voyeur.
I walked my feet with him on the floorboard. On, calm rain-colored auto in the rain, which he paid no attention to. Careless fundament, whither? He went to the last cafe in town but would he sit down in it? Yes. His coat flared and I saw the round instrument in the waist of his trousers. An old man's coat was on him, flat and brown, that hardly did for a rain jacket. He was one wet puppy, slicked down and vagabonded by the rain. Allow me my phrases: there is a strange and deep thing coming, like a mouth, at the end of this. You can't know how I was drunk, sucking my detective's flask in the car, getting the will to go inside with him and study him as never before.
I was in, blind and paralyzed by my casual air, could not have seen a walrus when I sat down and ordered coffee. Looked over, that was what he was having, only he was relishing his cup, while mine was like copper in my mouth. By now I had a gun, only a little .22 revolver I kept to discourage loiterers around my shop, of which there had been none since 1975, but one heard of the national homeless breeding, more and more the subject took over the papers. So let them try loitering around my work. I wished he would loiter around my work. In the old clean days, the law, I heard, would drive them to the town limits if they had less than 14 cents in their pockets. Vagrancy used to be an actual charge, before Marlon Brando and others made it into a national pastime. He was there head-forward into pleasure, righteously, rightfully, with his can money, though then out came the book and he began marking in it with a missile-shaped pen, seemed stolen from one of those holders at the post office or bank, with a chain on it. Under the booth, his moccasins were staining the floor with streaks of mud. I could see he was in to stay until he was dry, granted that by the coffee. It is awful what a mere cup of coffee entitles the filth of the nation to do. The sky was lowering, nearly a night outside. No way to humanly expel him until he was good and dry. Can't you see the worthless, the derelict, of this sad once sturdily pioneering country, having their smug booths and coffee for endless hours all over, everywhere? It is the godgiven right—they have it—of any bankrupt fiend to squat and claim, having purchased an existence for a few cents until his rump tires, while the seats are made, of course, for working townsmen and your good village philosopher, such as I.
I watched his hair dry, goldening, loosening off his scalp. He sipped and scratched. I was forced to swill more of the coffee and buy a paper. My casual air was making my back hurt. My face was pained by nonchalance, eye on the storm outside, then him, detailing his crimes in the notebook. It was labor, looking on his beauty. He was not handsome but pretty. Somehow this made me even angrier. There is a kind of pretty boy, accident among the red plain faces around here, their western bovinity, that calls up my wrath. It doesn't go with the country, something loathsome there, like a logger with a diamond necklace; or one of those odd collisions of genes that makes, well, a group of sparrows and a bluebird among them, claiming kin. Eyebrows too long, skin too fair, eyes too glassy blue, something almost rouged like an old matinee idol. The feigning and peeping was hard and long, but I knew what I would do, quite all at once. In the book now he was not writing but drawing. He left for the restroom and I spied at the page. It was full of small human torsos, male and female, executed nude and shamelessly, as done by a glib child prodigy. The smallness of them—they covered a page—interested me. You could not tell whether he was just saving paper or indeed meant something by the tiny mass of them. I went out to my car and waited while the rain quit.
He shuffled by the grocery and came out with a sack of goods after ten minutes, then back down to the tracks, where he soon hit raw nature and got himself up one of our beige rolling bare hills, aiming for the forest and the park, parallel—it would be in five miles—to that dreary settlement that used to be his homeplace. I drove straight on the highway and into the park road, where I arranged for an old cabin I knew of at the edge of a stream that formed a boundary of the government lands. It was deep back and there on the western side, not many campers wanted it, and it had been neglected, shuttered and dusty, but it was prosperous to my aim. One trip back to town and I procured my liveables, then bartered for a window mannequin I'd had my eye on anyway, lying that my niece (nonexistent) was a dressmaker and could use it on weekends she visited from Missoula. The owner, whose store was going under quickly anyway, did not mind parting with it at all. At another store I bought the clothes, recalling what that curious obsessive woman I'd been married to would want, in the camping and sleeping vein. The mink surely did run through "sleepwear" she thought would fetch me. On to college and criminology, with that quick snapping thing under her navel. The clothes made me a little warm and bilious, or maybe it was the awful amount of coffee I'd drunk watching him. Nobody but an ironmolded slut would sleep in what I bought. Maybe I bought too much. I was surprised, suspicious. You prepare too much and usually nothing happens, my general rule.
So I was out there warming the place sincerely that very night, though I'd not start anything telegenic until the next afternoon in clear light. Right on my wishes, the last of the storm blew out and by midnight the stars were out over the narrow field beyond the stream. The place lit up off a generator. Yes, we were remotely all made for the true "rustic," off from the other cabiners, with their conveniences, even microwaves. Hardy us. As with the Indian, I was already in conversation with the plaster bitch, and had purchased a large range hat that made me into quite the vivid rangeman. It does not hurt to change the wardrobe of our soul now and then. I, without a mirror, was having a good time rehearsing myself around the merry fireplace, pounding the boards back to the kitchen and bunks. Reader, not often do we discover the grand old monologues in us, in our noisy crowded age, where conversation, especially out here, comes down nearly to "yup" and "nope." What would you say if given the advantage to talk importantly out loud for hours? Isn't there a grasping actor in all of us, another vocal and dramatic self that accompanies our social, necessary one, less real, that drives through the day saying little, as if that were the law? Our age is too comfortable and too mute. Look at the violence, cholera of our times. 30,000 dead of firearms every year. I fingered my weapon, but called forth private beauties from my long-still tongue, such as I can't share in this closekept humiliated age. With the hours I got better and better, closer to the bone and heart; unlike the divorced one, who talked endlessly, the wench, about "love" and "closeness" when all she meant was rude blank crotch. Criminalized by the boy as I was, I also developed a character strange and iniquitous in light of the plastic woman, who lay there forked-up on the bunk.
I would wear my hat and stand smoldering, shouting original phrases of cursing at her, would make a whore giggle. One can really loosen and oil the mind, let go like that. One splits off in two, eventually, no deep psychological fuss to it, as the woman talks back in falsetto and develops her own antagonism. Truth and high rhetoric boomed and shrilled out into the lodge pines on through the wee hours. I thought it might go better tight, and so at midnight I gripped the flask and, done with it, used it as a prop. I was good, good. Overwhelming. All shot, I fell asleep around four in the morning.
Did not wake until one the next day, when I ate some beans and canned meat, rugged. The woman lay there hands-up on the other bunk and I did not at first know what she was. I suspected I had done evil on a female and here she was all rigid.
For three days I rose and dramatized, large gestures and voice, taking it to the porch and crowing to the magpies, the dummy beside me, then back, hurled away as the tempting fiend. I did not remember the plays very well. That is, of Shakespeare. It had been a long time and no doubt I confused character and situation, bellowing Lear and Hamlet and Caesar together, barely scrapped together against vague queens and daughters. It was the last noon, when I came back in the house, sneaking to the crack in the door with my telescope, that I saw him there, as he could not see me. At last, at last. You would not believe my heart. By this time I couldn't make myself eat and I was hoarse and bearded, weak at the shoulders and knees from roaring and plunging. But he was there a long city block away in some undergrowth, and I spoke up, knowing he could hear my words. What would get him in?
The window was wide open on the bunk. I stood the woman up in her flattering wrapper, then tore it off her to her brassiere and briefs, red. Then lay on her, yelling I know not what at Mother Nature to announce my astounded pleasure as I hunched and waved my ranger hat around in the air. Then I cried out for her voice in falsetto, rooting me on, as I recalled domestic services from old times. When I went up to the crack I saw, deliciously, he had come up closer and was beaming on the cabin with naked eye, solemnly awaiting the next act.
Well, I dragged the woman to the edge of the door, so her legs raised out and her true reality could not be perceived. Though requested perennially by that wife, I had never submitted to this disgrace, and so now I wailed to her as I bent and sopped. Deplorable and odious, but necessary. Back to my crack in the door, and I saw he was transfixed, so I slipped out the front, leaving her feet outside the door, and circled with rope, cuffs and gun. I walked straight through a short herd of tame elk, nursing their ferns; elegant beasts, querulous as to my purpose, which was firm even in my extreme weariness. You could not know how fat and cracking my footsteps seemed to me, flushing my plans and future—"sweating him under the light"—for which I had hoarsely researched and driven.
This was an old Tom Mix trick and might be the final grand stratagem of my existence, for I wanted a multitude of penitences and explanations from him: something that might seize a day in glory. Set me up in heroism. Then they would see their secret voices actualized and perfected. I would then be thrown solid as a gesture of conscience, a true ranger of the country. In my shop, humble and straight, behind the counter, that rugged Montanan who does things simply and righteously. Soon catalogued and convicted, the boy had seen and not reported a murder. He had seen much else. Splendid that I trap him by his own prurience. Finally, snared at his doings and towed to some foreign quietness, as he was destined.
These thoughts lightened my excruciating steps and when I met the remains of a path on his side of the stream, I was the light fantastic personified. Those ears, those ears, I never forgot, thinking of a cur who hears his master's tread a furlong away.
The cur, exactly, beautiful thing though, was busy drawing and I must have been stealthy beyond myself, because he never noticed anything until the gun was in his ear. Up, my squalid Da Vinci. I spoke loudly and he grabbed his ears in pain. The smell of wet Montana was all over him, as of a truck of onions some feet away. On his lap the prodigal nudes, tiny, thrown this way and that; and his dangling telescope, scratched by his furtive usages against decency.
"Up and at 'em, Peeper Man!"
He staggered up and lowered the icy blue eyes at the weapon and cuffs, rope over my shoulder, ranger hat secured by leather chin strap. For a moment I must have looked extremely official.
"Rat, oo, zar?" he voiced. The hearing, the voice. I might have known.
"I am privy to your route and your doings. We've been after you some time. Now get these on."
He cuffed himself with no protest, and the cuffs were tied to the rope, I holding it there, having forgot what must be those powerful hill-gaining legs as a danger, yet the firearm seemed to settle him.
In the cabin I told him to shower and change into those vestments I had bought—a loose utility suit much like a convict should wear, all international orange for easy spotting. He was speaking a bit more clearly now, though it cost him a pitiable effort. I had to whisper for him to bear the volume at all.
Then he sat on the bunk, tied closely to the refrigerator's handle, so that if he sprang, he would have to bring this square little onus with him—unadvised, I with my pepperbox; I waved it now away from him and, really, I had not steadily looked at his face. Perhaps I was afraid I would find him junk-ugly, after all, and shoot him. Much of that is done in the wilds of Montana, let me caution the reader. Nota Bene: the previous murder our eyes had beheld, but which he knew more criminally, while I but half-knew the finality of it.
"So there's much you'll want to tell us now, isn't there?"
"Ah done nawthin."
"But yes, yes, you'll want food soon. Best get along with your confessions."
Still, I was gazing away at the log wall, waving my pepperbox for commas and periods.
"Ah not ar criminuh."
"At least you don't stink like one now. But first, Who is the woman? The one in the long skirt who goes into the well for long spells. Rather lingers there, ho, with a man. Have I guessed? (I had been doing some of that) Are they your parents?" Happy.
He was horrified, almost barked from his eyes. The shower was evaporating from his hair. It was out glossy like a drape of old hay in morning light. He was pigeon-toed in his anguish.
"You can't know her way!" he said almost that clearly.
"Her way? Come ahead? Tell me. I know plenty, anyway."
"She has to be with them. She has to make her keep. She couldn't keep me."
I asked him what he meant, even prodded him with the childish peacemaker. Then I told him, by kinder hints, there might be a scholarship to art school, fame and money for him, if he "spilled the beans on the whole set-up."
I forgot to whisper and he was in an agony, unable to reach one ear with his cuffed hands. Asking his apology, I went back to the role of the kinder dick.
"I'd imagine the clatter they keep up at Loog Root really pains you—the loudspeakers, the old fellow on guitar always beseeching."
"Mister, I can't help just being around."
"One wonders where...you settle. Your hole, your digs, your lair. What do you call home?"
"A good piece of the time, one of these."
"You mean a cabin?"
"Where nobody's there."
"What does your mother do in the well?"
"A man that acts like you with that dummy shouldn't ought to know."
"Ah, that was all for you. And you're certainly here, aren't you?" I got sterner. "Come ahead. Spill it. They have silver there?" I brought up the gun, a sad afterthought.
"No. Babies. She has babies and sells them."
"Not from a well?"
"They heard about 'underground operation.' So they made a place down there for them so they could have an 'underground operation.'"
"She and the man make babies down in there?"
"Yes. But I wasn't made there. I was above ground, usual. But I, me, blond hair, brought it up. They wanted to sell me. A man came along, Kansas, where I was borned, and wanted to buy me. But she wouldn't sell me. So they make her have some more, three, and they sold them out. They brought that blond man back, my real pa, and made them have babies. And sell them."
It cost him to continue. Speech was a trial for him, anyway. What did I feel besides overwhelming disgust? You might think pity, but no. Not the barest. Drying out, and clucking this brute tale, he had moved into a cadescence. He glowed. Having mentioned school for him, I could truly see him as a handsome savant on campus, his past treasured by an aesthetical crone of the art department, the weak bohemians enthralled. But he was mine, this Fonder Remus.
"So repairing junk is just a cover?"
"They make hardly no money selling junk."
"What would they get for a baby?"
"Ten thousand. She ain't getting pregnant quick enough again now, though. They mad at her. They send her down that well too many times. But she ain't took seed."
"The 'babies' look like you?"
"Yes, Mister. But I'm the onliest one is farhearinged."
"You love her, I guess."
"Yes, sir. She's my ma. She wouldn't let me go till I was big."
My interest was getting flat. When someone tells his story, and you have it there in your ears and mind, is there much left of him? Hasn't he decided, for you, that something serious should be done with the shell that remains? Why, there was hardly much to him anymore but his freakish beauty, a mutation from those people, and, really, it was rather an annoyance up close. My imagination had given him stature, supplied him, enlarged him. Now he seemed much like a cracked old record from an era of bad taste and excess, hurled out to the garbage. I wanted to be passionate again. He, tied and cuffed there, the absurd popper in my hand, it all seemed as gloomy as the weeded patch behind a mechanic's garage, which beckons suicide. I believe I was just tired, daunted by the nullity of adventure, humiliation of the spirit: worn. worn. I fell asleep right in front of him.
I awoke with a start, then was ravenous for the last of the beans and canned meat. He watched me but would not admit to being hungry. I told him, for lack of more direction, to take another shower. I untied him from the refrigerator and indicated, with the popper, the scissors I had put out. I wanted to see him without all that hair. He didn't seem to care particularly. I heard him whacking it off (without a mirror, and I truly liked him armed, something of a threat). My spirits had come up. I heard him lay the scissors down. When he appeared, chopped like an old friar in front and less shaggy in back, I liked what I saw: here was our star freshman; "Pomp and Circumstance" might have poured from the bathroom behind him.
"What is it you want most?" I asked, whispering of course. "Mama?"
"I'm too old. I come to know too much. I can't be her baby boy no more. That's why they thrown me out."
"Because you would tell about the babies?"
"No. About the world and how it's made."
"What, pray God, would you know about that?"
"It's in the book. I couldn't help but know it. It came to me."
I picked up the book and tossed through it. Here and there were scrawled words: "man," "woman on earth," "woman in sky," "man on hill," "man in tree," "people in schoolbus," "dead man with frown," "woman with root beer," "baby with duck," "mother with goat."
"You have nothing but these tiny naked men and women, and, I guess, babies, for everything. Just nudes, turned this way and that."
"That was given to me. It is the selfs that is the world."
"Part on it, I learned at school in Kansas. The bology and the skyunts."
"What the hell, skyunts?"
"Skyunts of everything that moves or don't."
It was at last clear that he meant science. What must have been the infirm den of night where he went to school? Of course, he couldn't have brought much to it.
I gave him the last of the chili and beans, then sat beside him. He smelled of Lifebuoy and was younger in the face, wondering with those glassy eyes out of his schoolboy bangs. Kansas. Pained angel, back row in the one-room school on the prairie, hands over his ears; brute hornrimmed primitivist whacking him over the shoulders with the pointer: "Listen up, hands down!" He plunges out into the tumbleweeds; first inklings of his mobile home of roving feet, forever. Home to bawling amplified great-grandfather, men screaming "root!" and banging on metal. Mother pressed to sell him. Then ordered to mate and bring more like him to market.
"These figures, what do they signify?"
"It tis the inner order of everything, selfs. How they're fixed to be the bigger thing and make it be."
"Are you meaning cells?" I whispered.
"Yes, selfs, is it."
"All these naked things moving against each other this way and that is their biology?"
"Gene told them to do it."
"Ah yeas, Gene."
"Every second they could change up and act different. Gene changes the signals. Of the whole world, move and don't."
We inside are a horde of tiny naked men and women in combat, as his drawings showed clearly now, always changing positions and sometimes ascendant, sometimes routed by the others. I looked more closely. The babies, sexless, were among them too, somehow swaying the balance. All was in constant flux and push.
Why not? I thought. Seems I had once seen a medieval thing not far off the substance of this. It could do as well as any, as we creep along without baggage, dunces in fury, down the long ditch and into the passionate night.
There was a man I saw frequently at the post office and sometimes along the roads. Inevitably he wore sunglasses, a pith helmet, a pack on his back, and held two plastic bags, one on either side. He trudged everywhere.
Never saw him near an auto. Never spoke a word. Yet he seemed to be mailing reports. I assumed he was a naturalist or scientific collector of some sort. Then Peck, the grocer, told me he was stark mad. He was brilliantly on schedule, with the same apparatus every day, zealous on the byways and through paths of the realm known only to him. I thought of him just now, too deeply.
I was all at once enormously despondent. My foot was out in front, veteran trafficker of sixty years, all hoofed and leathered to walk another route. But to where and why? My foot seemed exorbitantly lonesome and melancholy in its boot and rubber heel—the better to bounce hither and yon? Quo Vadis, quo vadis? Then to be covered by something else entirely in its casket: the miles, the globetrotting I had done behind the counter of my shop, attempting my dialogues with the wooden Indian and the rare customers; none of them, it seemed to me now, amounting to a significant paragraph. Unwatched, unheeded, unlistened-to: years, eras, eons.
Then, after all, there seemed not much to know. The boy had said a few things about his people, and they were flat there, the dusty record in the garbage. My interest was exhausted entirely. Many people sold babies now, one way or the other. There was no great hopping revelation here.
My foot seemed so lonely, so doomed, I insist.
So I shot it.
The pop, just a pop, drove the boy wild. He wagged his head and tugged the little refrigerator off the counter, trying to run our the door. His cuffed hands pressed one ear and then the other, and I was sorry and took great pity on him. The pain in my foot was at first agreeable, but straightaway, as I sat there, it was not. Blood began to soak up into the uppers and on the floor. I suppose I had shot it through. Poor lad, his lunging around the room, pounded into the midbrain by the shock. When he looked at the floor he was amazed, fearful, one would guess, that the next blast was for him. You readers who have been seriously punctured may allow me not to acquit myself of those minutes at all.
My eyes stayed on Fonder Remus throughout. Gad, how he wanted back to his wilderness and aluminum cans. That life, rather complicated really, must have seemed simple to him now. Bur he must have known it would bring him to something different. I began smiling at him, because I pretty much had it all in my head then.
"I'll need help here, my boy. All kinds of help."
I was a good week in healing back at home, and we began getting on finely, he and I. The matter of the unreported murder I held over him, easing him out of the cuffs and showing such food as I'm sure he never saw before, even the famous Montana elk steak, got off Peck at too high a price.
But the principle it, the persuaded good servitude and penance—at first—how he would begin his new trade, duty, our posting was the watching, the constant watching that he did for me in the next months. Yes, I had not felt observed, had not felt beheld as a man of the town such as I should have been. I was exceedingly lonely and unknown as the rose that blushes unseen on the ocean floor.
"You have your freedom, relative, for a while. I would just like you to watch me, you unseen, as I go through the day in my shop. You can set yourself where you wish—nook, corner, rooftop. But I need the sense—you have it, boy?—that I am watched."
So it was that I went about my days, speaking dialogues that he could hear, with my thespian limp. Acting old and new thoughts out, while the microscopic men, women, and babies fought it out inside me for my soul.
Fonder Remus watched, from far away.