The Westchester Bohemians
It was a crazy time. They were crazy crazy people, a lost tribe of Midwesterners from the Chicago Art Institute and south side warehouse workshops and scruffy painting lofts in Old Town. Five years of diaspora to government service in Washington, the war in Europe, ex-pat rat holes in Mexico, then an unaccountable spiral inward again, first to New York City and then to a redoubt in the wilds of Westchester County.
After Al and Lafe got out of the Army they shared a fourth-floor walkup railroad apartment and painting studio in Manhattan, with a close view of the elevated tracks. They lived on paisano wine, canned beans, cigarettes, and the scent of turpentine. They’d been there for six months when they heard that Hunter and Adrienne had moved from D.C. to a place a couple of hours north of the city.
One fall weekend they went up to visit: two ragged-edged out of place guys left blinking in the afternoon sun on a small-town railroad platform as the train coughed steam and pulled away. Lafe wore denim coveralls, a thick sweater with holes in it, his Paris beret. Al had on his khaki army pants and a canvas shirt that was smeared with paint and was too big for him. Their army boots were spotted with pointillist rainbows. Storekeepers came out to look at their two beards on the platform.
There was only one street. The rail tracks occupied one side, backed up by shambling stacks of lumber and a scrap metal yard. A row of wooden buildings lined the other, false fronts and second-story porches overhanging a board sidewalk: general store, grocery, post office, barber, butcher. Beyond, tree-covered hills humped off into the distance. A few dusty cars and a tractor were pulled up at the edge of the board sidewalk. It was quiet except for the muffled whine of saws in the lumber yard and the train screaming in the cut north of town.
"Where the hell is Hunter?" asked Al when they'd waited for a while.
"Maybe we should call," said Lafe.
"Where the hell’s a phone?"
The butcher came out to lean in the doorway, staring at them as he wiped blood off his hands and lit a cigarette, and down in the scrap yard a burly guy in coveralls stopped to look them over. They made Al nervous.
But then there was a noise from down where the street curved out of the railroad overpass. A car horn made a dopplering bugle and a motor roared. The butcher turned to watch two Dalmatians sprinting toward them, followed by a long beetle-green wood-sided station wagon. The Ford had flags fluttering at its fenders, like a diplomat's limousine on an errand of state. It slid to a stop and the horn finally cut.
And there was Hunter, who yelled "Your Excellencies! Welcome to the Grand Duchy of Westchester!" Adrienne was in there too and she kissed them on the lips as they threw in their duffels and piled in after them. Then they took off with the dogs running at the fenders. Hunter saluted the butcher as they passed. Hunter and Adrienne liked to do things with pomp and ceremony, a royal flourish.
Adrienne had named their house Wooden Stone House, it being sided in dark split-shake shingles and their last name being Stone. Al slept on the living room couch and Lafe took the floor. They meant to stay for the weekend, but the land and the days began adhering to them and they stayed on for six months, on into winter. It was nice country and Adrienne fed them well. At first the bank in Brewster wouldn’t let them deposit their discharge pay because they struck the manager as disreputable, Al manic-eyed with his hair sticking up in all directions, Lafe’s knees burst out of his trousers. So Hunter went up wearing a crisp suit and gave the bastard enough hell to, as Adrienne said, settle the guy’s hash for the rest of his life. The bank manager opened accounts for them and after that always treated them with deference. In February Al and Lafe put their money together and bought a ruined brick building and seven acres a couple of miles from Wooden Stone House: two thousand bucks, every penny they had. Lafe didn’t particularly mind being broke, but Al found carpentry job, coming back to the Stones’ place weary and cold every night but saving a few bucks.
The building had been an iron-ore processing plant built where there was no iron ore, a con to bilk investors, and after the boondoggle collapsed the building had stood empty for twenty years. After that a farmer used it as a cow barn for some decades, until the roofsfell in. Open to the sky, the wooden second floors took the weather for another ten or twenty years before they collapsed onto the cracked concrete floor along with the remains of the roof. To Lafe it looked like Berlinafter the war, but Adrienne saw it more as an ancient fallen-to-ruin Scottish castle. No roofs, no glass in the tall window-
openings, but the brick shell was over two feet thick and some of it was still in good shape. It stood like a brick ocean liner wrecked on a steep hillside, alone in the woods, hugely hollow except for an interior wall that divided it into two roughly equal halves.
Al and Lafe flipped a coin to choose sides and moved in even though there was snow on the ground inside and out. Most of the time they stayed at Wooden Stone House, but when the weather was better they camped out in their two gaping courtyard homes. Spring came only slowly, cool and dry. This was in 1946.
Hunter alone in the house, playing the piano. Today it was Beethoven sonatas. Al pounding nails in Mahopac, Lafe supposedly looking for work, Adrienne on some errand, kids at school. The music came out of the piano’s harp and in the air limned great wars and noble deeds, passionate romances, comic pranks, and tragic ironies. From the living room Hunter felt it spread out to the lawn, into the deep shadows between the boughs of the towering bride and groom pines, then pooling briefly in the shallow valley of the stream before unrolling its brocade up the brown grass of the hill past the sheep farm and to the orchards farther on and finally into the wooded hills and the unknown that lay beyond them. Past town on the other side, it flowed up the hill and into the gaping window holes of Al and Lafe’s place, then right through the building and on into the forests of the Westchester wilderness of vines and boulders. And from there, anywhere at all. Hunter rode with it as if it were a magic carpet. It bore him up and outward so that he could see the landscape from above, and himself and Adrienne and Al and Lafe and the farmers and store-keepers going about their lives. It seemed he could see the events of their lives as well. The music made sense of a delightful mad era of discovering Adrienne and Lafe and Al and the others in Chicago, the war and the chaotic tough years in Washington, the jumble of kids being born, the intermittent voyages to Ecuador and Ethiopia and Bali and Hong Kong and Cuba, the leap out of city life, Al and Lafe magically reappearing, and all of them taking root in this place where they could all be strangers together. Already Gersbach, a bastard son of a bitch but a fairly successful sculptor, had come up with his wife and swung into orbit around the mysterious center of gravity of the little tribe of pilgrims. After his first visit, Gersbach bought land down at the base of the art bums’ hill where he and Dorothea lived in a little Airstream trailer as they built a cinderblock studio. With her husband nearly recovered from his war injuries, one of Adrienne’s sisters was talking about moving from Chicago. A little colony of outcasts, growing.
He shut his eyes so he could see it better and decided it was good. It was the beginning of something good.
The piano was an ancient square grand with elephantine legs and baroque decorations carved into the cabinet. Its tone was filled with lustrous darkness like the old varnished ebony, and a thread of that color wove into everything he played. Beautiful but deeply melancholy as well. He consoled himself: That melancholy is inevitable because we could not help but bring it with us and what is inevitable reminds us that we are human and this place and time is about us being human.
Adrienne ran with the geese around the lilac tree. She chased them, they chased her, they all just ran together when confusion descended and chaos reigned. Adrienne made disgruntled goose noises back at them. When she saw the Dalmatians watching with overmuch interest, she gave them scorching scowls that made them lie down. The apron she wore over her dress helped blunt the birds’ hammering on her thighs. She and Hunter had just bought the seven feathered curmudgeon malcontents and she decided that they were going to have to accept her into their gaggle if they were all going to live together. This was to be a Peaceable Kingdom.
The lilac with its tiny tight green clusters of flower buds. The bald sun casting watery white light on brown grass and stark trees but promising warmth and color soon, just as the scent from the withered earth promised luscious effusion. Still so cold but every night the peepers piped lusty piccolo love songs in the cattail marsh below the house. She thought Spring is green things springing forth, a spring of cold water bursting from deep underground. We are beginning here just as the land is beginning again and I myself am unfurling like a bud. This new home was what she had always unknowingly yearned for. Hunter had said wonderingly Who would have guessed that a Chicago girl would have such a muse? Though of course he’d always known it and that’s why they were here.
When she’d tired the geese and taken the edge off their contentiousness, she threw down their grain, gathered the dogs, and went inside. It seemed quiet with Lafe and Al no longer camped in the living room. Raphi was still blessedly asleep so she had time to call Hunter at his office. He would be flying to Hong Kong soon and was busy making preparations but she needed to tell him that she loved him to distraction and insisted on having five more children.
Later Raphi awoke and cried. She brought him down and nursed him, sitting on the davenport in the living room. Her breasts had been aching and now they tingled and warmth flushed the front of her body as she let down. Raphi sucked greedily, staring up at her with round blue eyes, curious and somewhat alarmed.
Where did I come from? Raphi’s eyes asked. Where is this? What am I? So Adrienne told him Who you are is who we are and where you came from is where we came from. Today I will tell you where you came from through me and another time your father will tell you where you came from through him.
He watched her closely, mesmerized, drawing hard on her, as she started in the middle of the story.
Her sister Marie had wrangled her a job at City Hall, which was how the machinery of civil governance in Chicago worked: You had to know somebody. Marie was a manager in the Clerk’s office and important enough to swing a job in Public Works for her too-smart so-heartbroken little sister. There she rubbed shoulders with a rougher bunch, where the patronage system was revealed in its gritty glory, water and paving and sanitation contracts doled out to political chums, influence peddled as if City Hall was a Moroccan street bazaar. The men said she was the prettiest little thing and there was always one standing at her desk making seductive small talk with that ward-heeler’s blunt accent and cigar-breath. And that’s where she learned to manage men’s interest.
You will know what this is like Raphi because you will be handsome and girls will do the same with you.
Sadness was the weather of that time. It was in the air of Chicago, on the sooty facades of the downtown buildings and the tired buses and the sparking jolting L. Papa had died. Papa. My Papa. Papa was worldly, a man who spoke six languages, and after the Little Revolution he saw clearly the temper of the times. Latvia was a Russian protectorate and there was a travel ban so he had to smuggle the family out of the country. He had served in the army himself and in his years as port master in Libau he often dealt with naval officers, so he knew the military manner well. He paid to have a uniform made, one with all the gaudy plumage of a Russian general, epaulets and medals and chest patches and golden braid on the sleeves and a towering hat. With the uniform and his commanding presence Papa was able to guile the border guards and take the family by train into Germany. They went on to the United States, but Papa had to return to Libau to tie up his affairs and liquidate his interests. After two months he disguised himself as a Roman Catholic priest and because his English was so good he finessed his way across the borders into England and then to America. Which was an outrageous hilarious masquerade because he was a pagan, if he had any religion it was the Baltic people’s ancient reverence for the trees. Mama had tried to convert him to Orthodox, and once he had grudgingly gone with her to the church. It was the tradition there to genuflect on a kneeler scattered with dried peas so the pain would encourage penitence and humility, and when Papa saw the peas he stood up and boomed out I will not kneel on peas for anyone, God or man!
Five daughters and three sons and Mama and Papa landed in Joliet because there were other Baltic people there. It wasn’t long before Papa became a leader of them. He started a bakery to make the good breads and pastries from their old home and that they yearned for. The bakery thrived and soon he was able to give people jobs and they admired him greatly. When he saw that the newcomers were not welcomed here, he started a Literary Club and a Concert Society so they could remember their own culture as well as learn their new one.
But the Italians ran Chicago and Joliet and like sharks sensing commotion in the water were drawn to his success. The arrangement had always been that the new people paid a percentage of the money they made so that the Italians would not break their thumbs and burn their shops. It was called pizzo and it was the only insurance the Eastern Europeans could buy. The cops were all Irish and on the pad so there was no recourse in the law. One winter day two Italian men in long coats came to visit Papa in his office upstairs at the bakery. He received them cordially and they complemented his business acumen and he thanked them and then they explained their errand. Papa stood up behind his desk, a big man with black hair and a jutting mustache like Stalin’s. When Papa told them to leave one of the men pulled a shotgun out from under his long coat and told Papa It ain’t that easy. Papa snapped his big hand across the desk and yanked the shotgun away and bent it into a U over his knee. He called his three sons up from the bakery. He said Escort these gentlemen out to the street. Look closely at their faces to that you remember them. If you ever see them within ten blocks of here lift a manhole cover and throw them down the hole. From the stairs the Italian men called out that they would come back and kill Papa. For a reply Papa threw the bent shotgun down after them, Yes, shoot me with that! Many of the bakery men came out to watch as the three brothers took them along the corridor and pitched them into the street. The bakers were stringy-muscled men in their undershirts, sweating from working close to the ovens, very loyal to Papa and angry now. No one ever saw the two thugs again and no one killed Papa.
After that Papa started a real insurance company for the Liths and Lats and Estonians and Poles so that the threat of broken thumbs and burnt shops would not be quite so terrifying.
In another few years I came out of my Mama just as you came out of me, Raphi.
Later the Depression hit and the bakery lost business because the foreign people were the first to lose their jobs and could not afford to buy as much bread. They couldn’t afford to pay for insurance either and let their policies lapse. Papa now had ten children, so it became hard for him to feed all the family. Alec left, riding freight trains west to see if there was work in California while Nicky and Harry took an apartment in Chicago, sharing it with five other men to save money as they worked repairing automobiles. Adrienne got a scholarship to Rockford College but during her first year Nicky died. He had been welding a broken gasoline tank and his helper had not washed it out with water first. The burns were terrible, a cruel way to die. For a time she came home to grieve and care for Mama, but soon Papa said she had to go back to college. She did as he told her, but then during her second year Mama called to say that Papa had died. Papa died. A heart attack. My Papa had died. Of them all she had been closest to him and he had been the strongest part of her, her backbone, and now she broke inside. She couldn’t be away from the family. She left college and came back home to live with her sisters and Mama. Later Marie managed to get the job at City Hall and they all moved to Chicago. They lived in a brick house on Auburn Avenue, near the river, too many women in the same house until Alec came back from California. After a time Marie got Adrienne the job in Public Works where her grief eventually began to be numbed and smudged and blurred away by the passage of time.
The next summer when the days were at their longest it was hot and breathless in the middle of the churning city. She started bringing her bathing suit when she went to work so that afterward she could go the lake. She took the bus to Oak Street Beach, where Michigan Avenue met North Shore Drive, with the lake endless on one side, the Drive and sidewalk just back of the sand. She’d change into her suit and swim for a time and lie on a blanket near the water or if it was too windy she’d sit on the steps back at the street wall. She’d eat nuts bought from a street vendor down in the Loop and read in relative peace before she flung herself back into the fray of sisters at home.
One day she was sitting on the steps smoking and reading the second volume of Remembrance of Things Past when she sensed someone stop on the sidewalk just above her. When she glanced up she saw a young man with round glasses and a suit and a briefcase. He stayed there and looked at her with a startled expression. She put her eyes back to the book to ward off an unwelcome approach, but he came down the steps and boldly sat across from her on the wet sandy concrete in his perfect suit.
He said You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
She kept reading and told him I’ve heard that before in many variations and am hardly impressed by your originality.
You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen reading Proust in her bathing suit on a hot summer evening.
So then she looked directly at him for the first time and felt a blow to her whole body as her future hit her like a wave. It stunned her but she hid it and said I have two brothers and six sisters and they have highly effective ways of discouraging suitors they deem inappropriate.
Take me to meet them and we can see how inappropriate I am. I’ve always wondered.
She said An experiment then? In discouragement? Why would I bring a masochist home to meet my family?
He laughed sincerely, delightedly. Then he got somber and just gazed at her. At that she was shocked breathless again, this time not from the events of her whole future life bearing full and all at once upon her but from her heart seeing what its future would be. Its future would be this man’s heart.
They took the bus up and then west on Irving Park. They got off at Western and walked four blocks to Auburn Avenue without saying a word. He charmed Mama because he treated her cordially and spoke German as the family did in the house. He stood erect but easily, a man possessing what Papa would have called good bearing. And he met Kindt and Elizabeth and Paula and Alec and called them by name or nickname as he asked them about themselves. He told them he was a reporter for the Tribune and that his father was German and his mother Swedish. Mama had Kindt serve tea. After they’d talked for an hour he shocked them all by saying, Mrs. Veschkalnis, I would like to marry Adrienne. And Mama was so startled that even though she was a staid daughter of the Victorian age, a devout Russian Orthodox and fierce when it came to defending her daughters’ virtue, she didn’t get angry, didn’t draw herself up and say How dare you be forward and impertinent in this house? No. The wave of the inevitable had hit so hard it had surged behind their bus along Irving Park and now buffeted even Mama, even this far from the lake. Instead she gasped and asked Adrienne Do you want to marry him? And Adrienne was stunned and said Yes I think I do. The sisters were scandalized but they loved this, they knew Adrienne enjoyed being a black sheep and upsetting Mama with her smoking and wearing pants and no girdle or makeup and reading improper books and making arguments for socialism. Alec laughed and shook Hunter’s hand and joked Good, one less damn sister in this house. They all adored him from the start, except that Mama fretted that he looked a little Jewish with his curly hair and that nose.
After work the next day she met Hunter at a diner in the Loop. They got married six months later. She was twenty-one.
And a few years later your brother Peter was born and your sister Kate was born and now you are born from Hunter and me. That’s where you came from Raphi. The world spun and the cycle of time went around so that your parents converged and they knew each other and they recognized the inevitable turn of that great wheel. And when it was time you came around in that same big circle. And you are now part of a Just and Peaceable Kingdom we are making because that too has come around in its appointed time.
Raphi had finished sucking and now had the preoccupied expression he got when his bowels were going to move. Adrienne carried him to the phone where she called Hunter again and said she’d told Raphi everything about his mother and father and that Raphi also said he loved Hunter madly and also wanted them to go forth and multiply and make a great nation. Hunter laughed and promised they could start going forth the moment he got back from Hong Kong.
Going to Hong Kong
The day before he left Hunter felt the familiar deep jitter of excitement about his impending journey. Along with it came the anticipatory longing he always felt when he was away from Adrienne and the kids for any length of time. At every opportunity he found himself spontaneously grabbing Adrienne and holding her, and each time their bodies moved together in affirmation of intimacy. She meticulously ironed his shirts and trousers and folded them into his suitcases, and she’d written out a list of things he had to remember to bring, crossing each item off when it had been safely packed.
Hunter spent an hour putting his papers together, memorizing the names of the people he would meet, then put in another hour practicing some basic Cantonese. Later he drove up to see Lafe. It was a bright day but the big courtyard was frigid so they huddled near the fire as they smoked and sipped Lafe’s rank coffee. The abundance of empty wine and whiskey bottles at Lafe’s place sometimes worried Hunter, so he recited for Lafe one of Li Po’s poems in praise of drunkenness. From there he moved on to ask Lafe to please not follow in Li Po’s footsteps, to not try to embrace the moon by reaching for its reflection in the water and falling out of his boat and drowning, the world losing a great poet. Lafe promised he’d just try plucking it out of the sky instead.
They talked about the work that needed doing at Wooden Stone house, and then discussed Lafe’s staying nights there. Lafe explained his schedule, working with Al in the late afternoons and the late-night dog effort, and thought it would work to sleep there as long as Adrienne didn’t mind his coming in late. Also as long as he wasn’t asked to take care of the kids. Hunter found the idea Lafe’s spending hours trying to make friends with a dog in the middle of the night so he could poach lumber to fix up his house enormously amusing, something of a circuitous route to his objective. Well good luck with the dog, he said. I’ll leave some extra cash with Adrienne for your bail.
Back at the house he packed some books on Chinese history and found himself leaning more and more forward into the trip, a visit to a part of the Middle Kingdom, which was a lifelong fascination for him and Adrienne as well. The jitters grew and his hands shook as he lit his pipe. Adrienne said You lucky monstrous undeserving bastard, going to Hong Kong. I will insist on accompanying you next time and will brook no argument. And he knew she was starting to miss him.
Peter and Kate seemed oblivious to his impending absence except to make him promise to bring back exotic presents. In turn he made them promise to take good care of Adrienne and to do their chores and homework without a fuss. Feed the dogs, change the cat box. Get the eggs from the chicken coop and don’t forget to look in the flower pots in the garage. Don’t torture poor Lafe.
Bring me a samurai sword! No, that’s Japan, Hong Kong is Chinese. Firecrackers! Not on the plane. A thousand-year egg! Maybe, but it might go bad before I get home, it’s a three-day flight. If it didn’t rot in a thousand years, how could it rot in just three days?
It seemed that whenever Hunter was away there were travails. Adrienne had selected the word. After the children had left to school and Lafe had been fed lunch and had gone on his way, Adrienne felt the weight of her travails and cried. She went up to the bedroom and smothered her face in Hunter’s pillow because she couldn’t stand the prospect of not seeing him and it would be so long. The phones were impossible. He had telegrammed when he arrived in Hong Kong but the terse all uppercase message with so few pronouns had been stripped of heart weight on its way through the wires: LOVE YOU STOP DON’T WORRY STOP WILL COME HOME SOON AND MAKE GREAT NATION STOP HAVE ALREADY GOT GOOD RECIPES STOP.
She loathed the repeated use of the word STOP, which was antithetical to her beliefs.
Outside the geese started making an urgent ruckus and she had to get up and wipe the blear out of her eyes to see what was amiss and on the way through the kitchen she heard a terrible noise. She ran outside to see the dogs killing a fox. They had it between them, Pica ripping at its haunches as Ellie shook it by its throat and still it wouldn’t stop flailing and making a throttled scream. It isn’t easy to kill a thing. When she came to the dogs she didn’t know if she should pull them away but then decided she shouldn’t because the fox was so torn. Now Pica had torn away a flap of its hide, skinning it alive, and still it kept convulsing. After a moment of paralysis she went to the garage and got the shovel and beat away the dogs and then beat the head of the fox until she beat the life out of it.
All the fowls were shrieking and cackling and flustering hysterically. One of the geese dragged a red-soaked wing as it tottered in circles. This is country life and you need to be a rugged woman who can face the living and dying of creatures and deal pragmatically with it. Adrienne went to the goose and did her best to inspect its injury and decided it was too hurt and she swung the shovel so that the edge of it broke its snake neck. An ugly thing on the ground, neck rendered angular and so wrong, but mercifully no convulsing. To eat it was the only honorable thing. She would make up a story for the kids.
She wrapped the fox in a towel and put it into the car and held Raphi in her lap as she drove to the causeway that zigged and zagged across one of the reservoirs. The Rick Rack Road, she and Hunter called it. At a spot where the lake looked receptive to dead foxes she pulled over and swung the sad ragged little object into the water. She returned to the house and nursed Raphi and put him on the rug while she washed the blood off the dogs. Then she found a cookbook that explained goose preparation from murder to table. She ferociously hacked off its neck and chopped off its leathery scaly feet and dipped it in boiling water and plucked it bare and gutted it hollow. When she was done she stuffed it with orange peels and onions and canned lychee nuts and bread crusts and put it into the oven. She had been planning to go back to cry on Hunter’s pillow but instead drove to town and dictated a telegram to the Western Union clerk who occupied a small desk at Rubusto's General Store. She got as far as AM NO LONGER CHILD BRIDE STOP AM HARDY COUNTRY WOMAN STOP KILLED FOX AND GOOSE WITH SHOVEL STOP and before she had to time think she dictated HURTING WITH YOU GONE CRY IN YOUR PILLOW STOP. But that would cause him concern so she told the Western Union man to delete that part. Anyway when you were a hardy country woman you didn’t cry when your husband was away.
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Lafe was walking in the hills absently looking for the abandoned old village supposed to be somewhere up in the hills. The woods were deep here, the terrain corrugated with ravines, trees hung with vines: he could easily imagine that some old New England hamlet had been lost in this jungle. He paused to scout the land from the top of a fall of overgrown granite, a cliff where between heavy oak leaves he could glimpse the roll of green sunlit woodlands. A road made a line on a hillside a couple of miles away and he caught a flash of sunlight off a windshield. The leaves sighed in winds rising from the valley. The lowing of cows came up with the wind along with the faint chattering of a tractor. Around him, Jack-in-the-pulpits, little bald infidel preachers, gave their pornographic sermons.
A few minutes later he was walking around the hollow bole of an enormous dead oak, amazed at the preposterous mass of the tree, and stumbled over something. He looked down to see a symmetrical shape pushing up a hump of moss, its outline curved in the unmistakable rounded top of a gravestone. Part of one, anyway, the upper half of a slab that had cracked on a diagonal. Lafe brushed away the dry leaves and peeled off the moss, got his fingers under the stone and pried it free of the soil. Its weathered granite face was layered with forest detritus long turned to earth. Obviously, wherever it had come from it had lain in this spot for many years. It came up with a humid smell and left a perfectly flat impression in the soil, laced with a skein of fine white roots.
He peeled back the fibrous stuff. He saw the outlines of a carved inscription and ran his forefinger through the valleys of the letters, turning out the dirt, until he could read it.
Owain Dyfnallt Williams
1798 - 1834
As a youth, he wonder’d how to live;
As a man he wonder’d why;
Now he’s dead and has his answer,
Such as it is.
Lafe liked the sardonic tone of it. Whoever had written Owain’s epitaph had sent him off with a chiding farewell as well as a little slap at anyone who might look down upon his grave with condescension: Don’t get your hopes up, you arrogant living bastards, by Jesus. The idea of having the stone in his house appealed to him, so he hoisted it to his shoulder, set it on the bone there, and headed toward home.
Adrienne was there when he got back. He’d forgotten that they’d arranged to meet. She was going to help him write a letter to Charlotte, who had left decisively for the Midwest two weeks earlier, leaving Lafe alternately enjoying having his time to himself again and noticing that the house felt empty. At times the hollowness drove him outside where the effulgence of summer might fill it up. He’d gone up into the woods today ostensibly to look for the lost village but in reality so that he could functionally pace in an outward line rather than back and forth. One evening a week ago Adrienne had driven up when he was in the lonely mood, trying to think of things he should write to Charlotte in a letter. When she asked about the crease in his forehead, he explained Charlotte’s departure and the difficulty he had writing to her. They hatched the idea of Adrienne’s helping. Being a woman, she said, she’d be able to find the right tone.
The problem was trying to distill exactly what he meant to say. His thoughts and feelings converged in a knot, stuck just inside him like a crowd trying to pack through a narrow doorway. It was a contentious and unruly crowd, he explained, trying to describe the problem by gripping a wad of air and mangling it with his hands.
Lafe didn’t object when Adrienne offered to be his Cyrano. She was wise and a lot of fun and had been kind to Charlotte during her tenure on the hill. And like the summer woods, Adrienne did a good job of filling the vacuum.
When he came in with Owain Dyfnallt Williams’ stone, she was sitting in the barber’s chair he’d found at the dump and set up near his cooking fire. She wore a flowered summer dress and sat composedly with her legs crossed, writing in shorthand on a yellow legal pad.
“You weren’t here, so I started without you,” she said. “I’ve got some great stuff, too -- you’ll love this. She’ll perish with longing. What’s that?”
He showed her the stone.
“Dyfnallt!” Adrienne exclaimed. “A Welshman?”
“I thought it would go well with the rest of my collection,” Lafe said.
Adrienne turned with him as he scanned to find the right place for the stone. The courtyard cavern was still open to the late afternoon sky through the tall rectangles of window holes along two walls, but it had a roof now and when Charlotte had showed signs of an inclination to stick around he’d gone through a spell of trying to make it more domestic. He’d whitewashed one of the interior walls and had laid flagstones over part of the floor. He’d strung a clothesline, built some shelves, scavenged some furniture, and hung the rainbow hammock that Hunter had brought back from Guatemala.
The poplar saplings still fluttered their leaves above the floor because Lafe admired their attitude, muscling up through the cracked concrete, too much to cut them. Here and there were objects that had caught his eye: a set of rusted bedsprings tacked up inside a frame he’d had painted on the wall; a row of cow skulls hung on nails; a massive, waist-high rusted gear left over from the old ore processing plant; an ox yoke found in the downhill rubble that Hunter insisted had been carved with stone axes by Neanderthals. In the city he’d found a box of cast away dolls with chipped porcelain heads and plump pink cloth bodies, and he’d ranged them along a shelf where they sat like drunks at a Salvation Army sermon.
They decided to place Owain’s headstone on Lafe’s pyramid of tomato cans. He had spotted the two-gallon industrial-size cans behind a restaurant in the Bowery, admired them for their brilliant color, brought them home in a couple of gunny-sacks, and stacked them against the wall nearest the fire. Lafe balanced the stone on its broken end, canted on the topmost can and leaning against the bricks. The effect was very satisfactory.
Adrienne stood back to admire the odd altar and said “I love the epitaph. What would you write for your epitaph, Lafe?”
The question caught Lafe by surprise and gave him an unpleasant feeling. “I’d have to think about it.”
Adrienne held her hands in front of her to frame the phrase against the stone. “‘Here lies Lafe Gallagher. I’d Have to Think About It.’” She thought about it for a moment. “Well, at first glance it might seem rather equivocal, or maybe prevaricating, but it does make a certain existential comment that bears inspection.” When she saw that Lafe wasn’t laughing, her face changed. She took his arm and led him back to the barber’s chair. “Maybe we should just focus on the letter.”
Lafe said humorlessly “I’d probably write ‘Fuck ‘em if They Can’t Take a Joke.’”
They worked on the letter for an hour without making any progress. The lines Adrienne had written were strong on love and contrition, but they didn’t sound to Lafe like Lafe and there was a half-twist lateral movement and shadow to his feelings that he couldn’t name. Adrienne’s attempts to coax it out of him only made it worse. They tried free association, which Adrienne said was the latest thing in psycho-analysis, with no better luck. Part of the problem was Adrienne herself: vivid, sympathetic, enjoying the project and diminishing the hollow inside him along with his urgency about Charlotte.
After a time she shut her steno pad and sighed. “Lafe. What did she say to you before she left? You must know what the issues are.”
Lafe explained how Charlotte had gone back to the Midwest in a wounded dudgeon. She wasn’t going to waste her life waiting for Lafe to stop being a self-absorbed Peter Pan and get a regular job and put a roof on his courtyard so that it could be a real house. She wasn’t going to wait because Lafe would never have the maturity to do the right thing by her or anyone because he couldn’t stand taking responsibility, not any, none. Anyway, he was emotionally inaccessible, he kept his heart forever out of reach and trying to touch it was like trying to pick up mercury in your fingers.
Adrienne laughed out loud at that. She punched him lightly on his ribs. “She just doesn’t recognize your heart when she sees it. Also her metaphors are badly mixed.” Adrienne really thought Charlotte’s attitude was a scream. “Can I call her a bitch yet?”
Her words made him feel better. He went on to explain that Charlotte’s parents had expected better for her and she agreed with them because after all they were from Winnetka and had standards.
“I can’t argue with any of it,” Lafe finished vaguely. “Although I might phrase it differently.”
Adrienne was still laughing. “That’s a good Lafe epitaph: ‘I can’t argue with any of it!’” She had a surrendering laugh, letting it go in her and devil take the hindmost and ordinarily it was highly contagious.
But Lafe had begun to feel downcast again and after a while the long rectangles of window light climbed the far wall and began to fade and Adrienne seemed to catch it from him. Lafe thought about having some whiskey, but he felt too torpid to search for the bottle. There was a damaged feeling in his chest, akin to homesickness. Adrienne’s being there only made it worse, but of course he couldn’t tell her. The silence stretched until it became uncomfortable. Adrienne stared at her hands as they fingered the pages of her steno pad.
Eventually she stood and briskly swept her skirt into order. “Well. We didn’t make much progress. We can try again if you want. Right now I’ve got to go home and feed my kids and smooch my husband.”
She lightly kissed Lafe on the lips. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her face was unbearably sweet and sad. “Good luck, our dear Lafe.” She went out to the car and bashed away down the driveway.
When it got dark Lafe lit candles and placed them around and set a row of them in front of the tomato can altar now topped by Owain Dyfnallt Williams’ stone. For some reason the cans had been opened at the bottom, so that their tops were solid and could serve as little round shelves for other things he liked and could be stacked with their labels still upright. They made nice diagonals of lush erotic tomatoes. The moon came up and draped light into the windows, and between moonlight and candles he was able to locate some objects he’d discovered at one point or another. The birds had been living in the walls for so many generations that they’d left skeletons here and there along with eggshells fallen from their nests. Lafe chose four clean bird skulls and four nice sets of shells, and arranged them on the tomato cans on both sides of the gravestone: skull, eggshell, skull, eggshell. It went well with the stone. A memento mori and a reminder of life ever birthing, whatever the Latin might be for that.
He poured whiskey into a jar and tasted it as he stared at the fluttering light on the tomato pyramid, glad to have the gravestone to ponder yet inexplicably ill at ease. After a while he went to his mattress and lay down. He tied back the front of the poncho so that his bed was open to the moonlight and he could stare at the dappled blue-silver glow beneath his saplings. It was a perfectly windless night. The tent smelled of oiled canvas and mildew, reminding him of the Army and being far away in France at the end of the war. That reminded him of the homesick feeling of a couple of hours ago and that reminded him of Adrienne and then what Adrienne had said about Charlotte not recognizing his heart when she saw it. Thinking of it filled him with sorrow. Then he had more whiskey and the burn in his belly made him feel better.
Just as his eyelids began to shutter, a silent form slid across the room and out of view toward the back. Lafe’s physical heart, not his metaphorical one, gave a lurch and began thumping. No one had ever come sneaking into his house before. Friends might come in, sloshed and wanting a midnight visit, but they’d come in loud. They’d halloo the house and stumble over things and swear or sing to themselves as they lay on the floor. He sat up cautiously, unwilling to make a noise.
A man-shape stepped out of a shaft of moonlight and into the shadow of the wall and then into another swath of light. It was more visible in the dark than in the light. In the moonbeam it faded to a faint volume of pearling air but as it slipped into shadow it brought light with it. Its outlines were perfectly distinct, like an actor isolated by a spotlight on a black stage.
It turned toward him, regarded him briefly, and then dissolved mostly away into another bright patch. It had definitely been a naked man with a tall bony frame, sallow skin, narrow chest, knobby hands, stringy legs. The look on its long face had been melancholy, its gaze reproachful. Lafe knew instantly that it was the ghost of Owain Dyfnallt Williams. He lay awake, wide-eyed and unmoving, staring at the room, but the ghost seemed to have made its point and didn’t show again. Eventually Lafe’s eyes shut of their own accord.
The next day was Monday, and he had to start doing construction work at a new gas station that was going to open in Brewster. His job was to build concrete forms and set the rebar for the foundation and the apron around the building. It would be hot and dusty and he wasn’t hurrying to get there. He made coffee over the fire, thinking. He had never seen a ghost before and had never wanted to. Working as an Army photographer during the war, he’d been sent to the sites of innumerable airplane crashes to take photos of gruesome things, documenting the violent demise of machines and men. Some of the corpses had stayed in memory longer than he’d have wished, but he’d never gotten any sense of haunting. This was different. It filled him with a mixture of dread and curiosity.
That night he came home, bathed in the stream at the bottom of the hill, and put on his less-dirty clothes. He thought about Charlotte and the candles she’d have already lit, the little noises she’d have been making: the whispering of her clothes as she moved, the crackling of the fire she’d have started, the noises of cooking. In the evening especially, when a silent tide of cold air slid down the hill and through the house, it was good to have someone there. They’d talk as she cooked and they’d bump hips and she’d approach the subject of her discontents with him only gradually, with the sweetest tact. The image of her was an itch he couldn’t scratch and it was knotted up with other stuff and he tried to banish it.
He was tired but he didn’t want to go into the tent right away. Instead he sat on his steamer trunk and drank whiskey and, thinking of the ghost, willed himself to calm and fearlessness. It wasn’t all that hard. From what he’d seen of it, the ghost didn’t seem to have any evil intentions. In fact after a little while he began to feel sociable and thought it might be nice to have company, even of the supernatural kind.
Moths did kamikaze dives into the fire, noiseless bats dipped down into the room, velvet. An hour passed and his head bobbed. At last a shimmering fizzed in the moonlight and moved into the shadows so that the ghost stood in plain view.
You’re profaning my grave, it intoned. You’ve stolen my stone and are using it on some pagan altar. And me a devout Christian.
What denomination? Lafe asked.
The question caught the ghost off guard. Why, Methodist, it said.
No kidding! You have my condolences -- I’m the son of a Methodist minister myself. Whiskey? Lafe poured two canning jars half full.
I am insubstantial and thus cannot imbibe, the ghost chided him. In any case in life I was a teetotaler and so I remain.
I’m sorry! That must be tough! Lafe downed the ghost’s glass and his own.
I’ll want you to return my stone to where you found it.
Some Christian. Running around buck naked. I thought Methodists believed in modesty. Especially back in your day.
Clothing has no soul and so does not transubstantiate, the ghost said haughtily. Anyway I believe the point is that we are to come naked before our Creator. Then Owain lost confidence and looked sadly at his long sallow torso. Still, it does seem a doctrinal contradiction, does it not.
Lafe nodded, commiserating.
The ghost looked downcast and said nothing.
After a while, to cheer it up, Lafe said I like your epitaph. Who wrote it?
I did myself in anticipation of my eventual demise and my brother was kind enough to honor my wish. That said, I did not expect the demise to be so imminent.
So have you come face to face with Saint Peter and the Savior and Our Heavenly Father and all those guys?
They are no doubt fine gentlemen but I have not had occasion to meet them.
Lafe frowned at his glass. There was so much to ask but he would be a poor host if he subjected his guest to relentless interrogation. On the other hand life’s mysteries were many and urgent and surely there were answers beyond the veil.
So, what . . . you’re a lost soul, wandering the earth seeking whatever it is lost souls seek? What do lost souls seek?
The ghost gave him a disapproving gaze. It has been my impression, it said, that the World Beyond is to provide its answers only in a subtler way. To subtler inquiries.
Right. You’re probably right. Sorry.
After a moment Owain said In any case that is not a question of relevance only to the incorporeal. It gave Lafe a pointed glance.
The comment produced a sudden discomfort in Lafe and with it an yearning for another taste of whiskey. Out of courtesy he poured two more jars and sipped from the second on the ghost’s behalf. He liked the ghost enormously and wished Owain could join him in the loose-jointed comradely intimacy that booze induced, or at least a toast to health and long life. But a toast like that would be inappropriate, both being out of the question for Owain.
Touche, Lafe admitted. You’re an ironic kind of guy, aren’t you? I like that in a person. That and a sense of humor.
I wouldn’t know, not being any longer a person in the strictest sense. And as for what this lost soul is seeking, I am seeking the return of my gravestone, which you have stolen and which has sentimental value for me.
Okay, take it then.
I am insubstantial, it reminded him. Lacking the material wherewithal, I cannot lift it.
Lafe noticed that he was lying on his side on the steamer trunk but he couldn’t remember getting there. He realized he was absolutely skunked and wasn’t holding up his end of the conversation.
I think I’m getting a little insubstantial myself, he apologized.
The ghost said drily Certainly that too is a consideration that bears further reflection on your part.
Lafe awoke with his head full of cymbals and snare-drum rim-shots. He made a pot of murky coffee and drank it and ate the grounds with a spoon. He broke two eggs into a jar and gulped them raw, then went down to the stream and stripped and lay in the water. The current snaked over his body and he put his face into its swirl and thought about Owain Dyfnallt Williams. After a while he felt revived enough to go to work building forms for the concrete at the gas station. The job boss bawled him out for being late again and gave him a hard time all day.
Adrienne drove up not long after he got home. The sun was still above the far hills and it promised to be a pleasant evening. She brought a sandwich that she’d made from some corned beef Hunter had bought at his favorite deli in the city. The meat was two inches thick and slathered with mustard with whole seeds still in it, and the kosher pickles that came with were as crisp as apples. She watched as Lafe ravaged the meal.
“I can’t stay to work on your letter tonight. Hunter and I are going for dinner at the Spinden’s. But I wanted to make sure you had something to eat. Actually, you’re looking a bit hollow-eyed. Are you okay?”
“I’ve seen a ghost.”
When she inspected his face her eyes widened.
He led her over to look at the gravestone. They stood there as he told her about Owain Dyfnallt Williams.
“You’d better return it!” Adrienne said very seriously.
“The thing is, I like him. He’s pretty good company, when you get him warmed up.”
“Figuratively speaking,” she said, which Lafe interpreted as meaning that without a body temperature ghosts can’t warm up. Then her lips brushed his cheek and she was off in the big green Ford. Lafe listened to its oil pan scraping down the driveway until the sound merged with the other evening noises.
The ghost returned later that night while Lafe was still pondering the dilemma of Charlotte and his inability to frame his feelings in words or deeds. Mainly he’d like to tell her about the ghost and his days at the gas station job but he knew he should at least mention the state of their relationship and whatnot and he still wasn’t clear on that part. It evaded his ability to directly think about it.
When he saw the glow coalesce he quickly decided to head it off before it could bring up the subject of its stone.
Tell me about women, Lafe said. About love. I mean, given you’re in a position to look back at it with objectivity.
In love, there are certainly many positions but none of them would I call objective, Owain told him.
Then it sighed heavily, more so than Lafe would have thought possible from some opalescent luminous air. It took a seat on the steamer trunk next to him and put its elbows on its knees and its chin in its hands.
In retrospect, it added, love like everything else can be seen to have a certain pathos.
Lafe nodded. After a while he asked Were you married?
I had a wife and a mistress, both of whom bore me fine plump sons. When the women discovered the fact of each others’ existence they expressed strenuous disappointment with my character. It struck them that among my other failings I was a dissembler. In fact had I fulfilled my heart’s desire I would have married a different woman altogether, the true apple of mine eye and light of my day, but it could not be, she being already blissfully wedded and blessed with issue and not a deceiving wretch like myself.
Two women! Lafe exclaimed, shocked and intrigued. I thought you were a good upright staid Methodist.
Well, there it is, the ghost said morosely.
Did the women, Lafe began, did that have anything to do with . . . He gestured at the ghost’s lanky form, meaning Your ghostness. Your deadness.
I was fleeing in some haste from an irate father and had the misfortune to fall into the race above the flour mill. I was barefooted and as I crossed the millpond dam I stepped on a shard of glass, this being just after sunset and the light being poor. Carrying my shoes and trousers in my arms, I was unable to catch myself. Down I pitched into the flume where the waterwheel made short and unpleasant work of me. And me a man just in his prime.
The ghost’s face took on a disconsolate expression. Still, it was doubtless preferable to what her Da intended with his skinning knife, he said. He was after all a tanner and a skilled leathersmith by all accounts.
Lafe tried to visualize the scene. Aside from this gloomy and staid-seeming guy turning out to be such a Don Giovanni, there was something else incongruous about the whole situation. He puzzled at it for a time and after a moment realized what it was.
Broken glass on the millpond dam?
The lady and I had just enjoyed an amorous picnic on the grassy bank, during which in our ebullience we had been throwing our empty ale bottles at the stones for the delight afforded us by the sound of their shattering.
Lafe could hardly believe his ears. I thought you said you didn’t drink!
And there you have it, you see. I lied. I am incorrigible.
Was this lady the wife or the mistress?
In fact she was neither, but a lovely girl nonetheless.
Lafe laughed, shocked and delighted. No wonder you didn’t meet St. Peter! So you must have gone to hell and met the other guy, right?
I am sure the Prince of Darkness is a splendid fellow but I have never had occasion to meet him either.
Lafe wondered what all this implied about the cosmos. He stood up and began searching the room for the whiskey bottle which when he found it turned out to be empty. He returned to the steamer trunk and sat next to Owain again.
The ghost had lapsed thoughtful and distant. After a time it said gloomily, If you still want my advice about the fairer sex it is that you would do well to keep your shoes on at all times.
On the way home the next evening, Lafe considered stopping by Wooden Stone House and asking Adrienne for one last attempt with the letter. But then he figured he’d bothered her enough and he should try to unsnarl that knot himself.
That night the ghost appeared and without any preamble asked curtly, What about my tombstone then?
You’re right, I should bring it back. I’ll bring it back. Though I’ve had a good time talking with you. Is there any chance you’d come by once in a while anyway?
Owain shook his head. You seem a charming fellow but it is my considered opinion that you’d be better off enjoying warm-blooded companionship, not squandering your evening hours with immaterial sorts, especially wretched ones of poor character. Life being all too short as it stands.
Lafe nodded. Owain was probably right.
The sky was somewhat overcast, dimming the moon. The shadows in the woods would be deep and Lafe had only the vaguest recollection of where he’d found the stone anyway. He said, I’d bring it back tonight, but I don’t think I can find the place in the dark.
I’ll guide you. My luminosity, faint as it is, has its uses. As for myself, if I had eyes as such I could find the spot with them closed.
Reluctantly Lafe hoisted the stone. At the door he turned back to look at the tomato can pyramid and found he missed the stone’s presence already.
He followed Owain out into the muted blue dark. Nice night, he said.
The ghost made a dismissive gesture and said sourly Barely average, if that. Lafe puzzled about the Owain’s tone as he labored. Carrying the stone uphill was much harder than bringing it down. He rearranged it again and again on his shoulders. His muscles ached already from a day of shoveling and sledge-hammering. When they entered the darkness under the trees the going got worse because he had to step carefully. It was hard to keep up with Owain.
You don’t sound so good tonight, Lafe probed. Bitter or something.
Your queries about the fairer sex have awakened my naturally sentimental and nostalgic inclinations. Indulging in fond recollections is not wise when one is in one’s afterlife.
Before he could respond Lafe tripped over a son of a bitching root and fell so that the stone hit him on the side of the head and scraped his cheek and shoulder. He swore and rolled onto his back, stunned, holding his head and rocking side to side with the pain. When he put his fingers to his cheek, he felt blood there. His ankle felt sprained or broken, too.
I have to stop for a minute, he told the ghost. My materiality hurts at the moment.
The ghost ignored him. Had I been born with any moral starch at all I would not have settled for passing and paltry fancies. I would have set my heart on what I most yearned for and not settled for half measures, gratifying though they were. I would have shown more courage and persistence and would have courted my true love more assiduously. Also I would have applied myself to some honorable trade.
Regrets, Lafe said. I wouldn’t think they’d be too good for an afterlife either. He probed his ankle and the pain throbbed.
A word to the wise, Owain intoned drily. Corporeal life is all too fleeting and is best not wasted on trivialities.
Lafe lay on the ground still rocking with pain. The ghost’s words had awakened a recognition in him but it was a thought he could not let himself think. It scared him and his mind shied from it and he knew why he couldn’t write the letter.
The ghost strode back and forth, fretting. While pleasant enough companions, the women I consorted with were not of the type to encourage the finer side of my nature. They were the sort my father would have disapproved of had he lived to witness my years of maturity. I should have set my sights higher but I lacked courage. True, circumstance provided obstacles as well. Still.
My father’s the same way. Doesn’t approve of any damn thing I do, women-wise or otherwise.
Fathers speak from their own foolishness, as we all do. Poor saps every one.
Lafe experimented with standing up. The ankle hurt and faltered but then held his weight and his head began to clear from the clubbing it had received. The unbearable thought began to lose its clarity, drifting into a clouded uncertainty. After a moment he grunted the stone to his shoulder and continued trudging uphill.
So what happened to your father? he asked, to make conversation.
Lost at sea, having embarked on missionary service in the South Pacific largely to escape my mother who might best be described as a strict manager of the household. She was a large woman who held my Da and my brother and myself to unrealistically high standards and was not reluctant to express her displeasure with our inability to measure up to them.
Lafe almost asked about the fate of Owain’s brother, then thought better of it. The tale of Owain’s brother would lead to another tale which in turn would stem from another and that’s how it was with Lafe and with everyone, life branching from life in so many directions, a billion billion specifities. He didn’t usually see things this way and it was intimidating because it put him right now precisely at the balance point of past and future and having to decide which was the next branch, which was the next fork he should choose.
They went on. Sometimes Owain strode by his side, at times drifted ahead to cast his pale glow on the way ahead. They didn’t say anything. Eventually the ghost stopped and hovered in the shadow of the massive oak trunk where the stone had lain. Lafe set down the stone and leaned it against his own shins as he caught his breath.
Owain looked steadily at Lafe with a deeply mournful expression and said It may well be that all love requires deception. Of oneself and of others. All love requires unkindness.
That doesn’t make sense. Seems paradoxical.
Lafe said I guess I don’t understand what you mean.
The ghost didn’t explain but continued its line of thought. And all love is doomed to be unrequited.
Lafe didn’t understand this comment either. In his brief experience with the ghost, it had been ironic and dour but never so seriously philosophical in such a darkly modernistic way. Maybe it was now answering in the subtle way it had said immaterial beings tended to do. Which meant it was time for Lafe to ask things with comparable subtlety. But all he could think of was So, having been in the afterlife for a while, would you put a different epitaph on your tombstone?
That caught the ghost by surprise but it didn’t hesitate to answer: Yes. I would have asked my brother to inscribe Don’t Lie to Yourself.
The existential weight of that struck Lafe breathless and seemed to strike the ghost as well, and it paused thoughtfully for a long moment. Then it said I have a last request. Though one might think I should be well beyond such indulgences.
Carry my stone for another few minutes. It will be to our mutual benefit. Owain’s tone had become a strangely oracular, full of mystery and portent, truly sepulchral.
I shall lead you.
Owain wafted up the hill as Lafe hoisted the stone once more and labored along behind. His muscles were beginning to cramp, but he said nothing. He was curious as to the ghost’s errand.
He followed the glowing mist steeply up through the woods for a time and then turned with it and staggered a hundred yards along a stone wall so ancient that great trees thrust out of its mounded line. Clearly the forest here had never been timbered. Lafe stumbled on stones and roots and just as he was about to say he couldn’t go any farther the ghost stopped.
Here, it said.
When Lafe bent to set down the stone he saw in the ghost’s glow another symmetrical outline swelling the leaf detritus and when he clawed away the surface he found the lower piece of Owain’s stone.
He dug away the soil around it until there was enough room and then laid his stone next to it along the diagonal break.
It must fit perfectly, the ghost said implacably, or there is no point.
Lafe adjusted it until the ragged edges gritted tight. Is that better?
But Owain’s luminous mist had vanished without even a word of parting.
Lafe worked at the gas station job for another week until the paper bag he kept tacked to the doorframe was almost full of bills, maybe fifty, sixty bucks. The next day after he got paid he told the foreman he quit. On the way home he bought a gallon of paisano and a bottle of brandy to celebrate. He spent a few evenings tossing twigs into the fire, warming his hands, watching shadows stretch and flutter, wondering if Owain Dyfnallt Williams might show up after all. He found that he missed the ghost more than he did Charlotte.
He decided that the ghost had indeed provided the subtle message beings from the afterlife were supposed to deliver but he couldn’t be sure it had meant what he was thinking it had. He conceived the idea that he’d kidnap the stone again, hold it hostage unless Owain provided less nuanced revelations. So he went out into the woods to steal the stone once more. But though he eventually found the original spot, the flat imprint of the top part of the stone, he could not find the place where he’d laid the two parts together. He started several times from the big oak bole, but each time lost his bearings. It had been dark that final night, he’d been exhausted, and the old forest was craggy and full of vines and boulders and quite unfamiliar.
After a couple of days, he gave up searching. He figured he had gotten the gist of it. The ache for Charlotte was gone, anyway, which made him feel better overall. But it had been replaced by something else that he was pretty sure was worse and had no remedy.
On Friday night Hunter and Adrienne came up, having left the kids with Mrs. Coviello. They’d stopped at Al’s side first and he came over too with half a bottle of scotch and they went outside and sat in a circle around a little fire pit Lafe had set up in the flat area where the driveway ended. They shared the brandy first and then Al’s bottle. The weather had mostly cleared, and after a time of passing the bottles between them their joints liquified and they fell back and looked up at the stars and the scudding clouds. None of them knew the constellations, not even Hunter, so they named the moon-luminous clouds instead, giving them great names of myth and legend appropriate to celestial things: Seabiscuit. The Big Blowhard. The Brontes. The Little Pecadillo. The Flying Wallendas. The Lesser of Two Evils. The Great Depression. Three male laughs and Adrienne’s higher note in random quartet bounced back from the walls of the building and the rocky uphill slope.
Lafe felt like a strand in a basket made by the four of them and it was so good and right it was almost tragic. The firelit beloved faces of Hunter and Al, Adrienne so beautiful it did not bear thinking about.
Morris Minor, Al said, and he rolled his head to grin at Lafe. Satchmo’s Trumpet, Hunter suggested. Adrienne said huskily The Golden Era. At that they all lapsed silent and just watched the clouds sailing blithely toward their mysterious destinations.
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