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About The Author

Lamar HerrinLamar Herrin

LAMAR HERRIN's short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Epoch, and The Paris Review, which awarded him its Aga Kahn fiction prize. He is professor emeritus of creative writing and contemporary literature at Cornell University and has taught many bestselling... More

photo: © Rafael Herrin-Ferri

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EXCERPT

1
 
 
On an April day in 1970, when most of his fellow architecture students were taking their spring break, Frank Joyner drew a Gillette razor blade across his left wrist with one express purpose in mind: he wanted to see if, when the blood appeared, he was willing to let it flow, or if, in fact, he wanted to live. On hand he had a stack of gauze pads, an Ace bandage, and a leather belt he’d tested on his forearm and then punched a new hole in that could serve as a tourniquet. In an anatomy book he’d checked out of the library, he’d read that the veins running down his wrist would yield, if cut, a dark blood, which would only ooze out, and that gauze pressed down beneath an Ace bandage would be sufficient to stop it. Flanking the veins and deeper set were the radial and ulnar arteries, and these would yield a bright red blood in a pulsating flow, which would take a tourniquet, in addition to the gauze and bandage, to stop. The arteries brought blood from the heart, oxygenated to that brighter red as it passed through the lungs; after its long, wearying trip through the body, the veins brought the blood back.
He’d intended to cut to the deeper and thicker-walled arteries, so that he would know, know for sure, but had in fact cut only to the depth of the veins, which had yielded a slow, blanketing flow more plum-colored than red, and which he’d contemplated for a while—impossible to say how long—before sighing deeply and applying the gauze and Ace bandage. He was twenty years old. Of course, he accused himself of cowardice in not cutting deeply enough to reach the arteries, but he also commended himself for not wasting time. He didn’t need the brighter, more youthful blood to tell him what the darker, more traveled blood had already made clear. He wanted to live.
Within an hour, maybe sooner than that, he’d gone back to work on a model for an airport terminal, which, of all the models he’d made or drawn (the use of a computer eluded him throughout his career), he had never forgotten. In the diagonals of its ramps and roof-pitches it had achieved the effect of a plane rising, in a long, graceful ascent, off the face of the earth.
Suicides had run in his mother’s side of the family. His grandfather, while still a young man, had jumped into one of the many gorges left by the retreating glaciers in their small Northern town. This was in 1930, when such acts were not uncommon. Fortunes had been lost, lives ended. But two weeks later, Frank’s great-grandfather, a small-time dairy farmer who had never had a fortune to lose, hanged himself from a rafter in his cow barn, and that was the suicide that his great-grandson brooded over. Shame or sympathy for what his own son had done? Or the powerful pull of his example? A seed long dormant that with the son’s leap into that gorge had suddenly burst into life, and, hence, death? Or perhaps his great-grandfather had longed to kill himself for years but had refrained for fear of inflicting shame or a sympathizing pull toward extinction on his son.
Meanwhile, the women in the family had resisted and survived. The grandmother continued living in the country house that her dead husband had built when he’d been a wealthy man. She raised her family there, one member of which, Frank’s mother, chose for her husband a man who had been witness to the bitter, Christmastime butchery of the Battle of the Bulge and who had vowed if he survived to live the most uneventful life he could. Surely, he’d known the history of self-destruction in his wife’s family, but he’d married her anyway, and together they’d lived long enough to die of natural causes, a triumph that perhaps only Frank, their son, fully understood. With the blood oozing darkly over his wrist from a cut as thin as a hair, he’d understood the meaning of life was to prolong life for its own sweet sake. There was beauty in the blood, and faced with the world’s ugliness, the temptation to generate more and more beauty out of oneself was strong, but that was a form of narcissism that left nothing behind. It amounted to an erasure.
The scar was his, his alone, which he rarely saw himself, covered as it was by his watchband and a sprinkling of black hairs. He doubted anyone else had seen it, either. Frank Joyner was now sixty years old. No recluse, he lived in his grandfather’s country home, on land that had once included his great-grandfather’s dairy farm, a hundred acres of long, natural shelves left by the retreating glaciers, and full of their till. He walked his property almost daily, both its pastures, which a farmer hayed for him, and its forests. As an architect, he was all but retired. His real occupation now was taking care of his grandson, Danny, a sixth grader, eleven years old. In half an hour a school bus would leave Danny up the hill at an intersection of roads, and today Frank would walk up the hill, not to meet his grandson and walk him home, but to observe him as he got off the bus with other classmates and to see if what his grandson had told him was true: that he was being harassed because of some comments his grandfather had made to a local newspaper reporter when asked about the natural gas drilling that was about to take place in their county and that every farmer Frank knew had leased his land for.
In answer to the reporter’s question Frank had posed one of his own: Did the young reporter know that their town had once lain under a mile of glacial ice, and that since the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago, the land had been rising at the rate of two centimeters a year? Rising to meet us, he’d added, and until it had risen to its full height, didn’t she think it was best to leave it alone? He had said this without thinking and not really intending to be taken seriously. More than anything else, he had probably been flirting because the young reporter was pretty. But it was true. The geological process was called isostatic adjustment, and the land had eighty meters to go before it had risen back to where it had started from and an isostatic balance was restored. Days when he was out walking, he could talk himself into believing he felt that two-centimeter lift under his boots.
He looked at his watch. Only today did he slide the band back and search out the scar, its pallor almost undistinguishable from the underside of his wrist. He remembered the sting of the razor opening the veins as if it had just happened. He remembered the extraordinary quiet and the sweetness of the blood’s flow. The scar was another way to tell time, he understood. Forty years and counting. Parents dead and gone. A wife who’d become an ex. Three children. And their children. One of whom, his daughter’s, was practically his. A community. His most notable architectural accomplishment had been to save his boyhood school from demolition and to convert its classrooms, offices, and gymnasium into a building of apartments, restaurants, and shops. His admirers. His grateful and his disgruntled tenants. He and his family had lived on the top floor of the restored school building, in a penthouse-size apartment that had once housed classrooms for the eleventh and twelfth grades. A lifetime. Considered geologically, barely a blink.
*   *   *
A November snow had fallen, covering the paths through the trees and the wiry undergrowth. But he knew where the paths were, and when he was unsure, he knew to follow the tracks of the deer. There were other fresh tracks, too, rabbits and squirrels and the light, scampering prints of the chipmunks and the always precise paw prints of the foxes, not to be confused with the larger and more trampled prints of the coyotes, who moved in packs. The wild turkeys left behind the sharp-angled, carefully etched prints of a cuneiform text, something you might expect to see carved on a Babylonian temple, and on occasion he’d seen bear tracks, flat and five-toed, remarkably humanlike except for the narrowness of the heel. He’d not yet seen a bear; they had only recently returned to the county. But the split-hoofed deer tracks were everywhere, along with their berry-size droppings, and he’d learned to trust the deer and the slender and sometimes sinuous paths they took through the undergrowth.
Sooner or later on his walks, he’d sight the deer and the flaring white of their tails as they broke and bounded before him. It was a game of tag, of catch-as-catch-can. The hunters no longer nailed planks up the trunk of a tree and across adjacent limbs for their perches. Now they had assembled units, made of iron, the ladder topped by the seat with its footrest and safety rail, the kind you find in roller-coaster cars or baby car seats, which were also useful for steadying your aim. He had not been a hunter. He understood that the deer herd had grown out of all proportion and had to be thinned, but when deer-hunting season had been extended a week, and then two, those were weeks when he couldn’t be wandering through the woods or fields.
He didn’t wander, not really. He was deliberate in his pacing and extraordinarily aware. He heard the crunching give of the moss frozen under his feet. He paused and heard the wind in the ticking treetops and a swishing, murmuring sound that was as close to human speech as the natural world was going to get. He overlooked the trash that neighbors whose property adjoined these woods had dragged out there and allowed to molder, directing his attention instead to the snow hanging in the feathery white pine limbs and to the short-needled tracery of the hemlocks. Following the deer tracks and the paths he knew as well as they, he had no sense of himself as a crusader, none whatsoever. What holy city did he hope to take back? If he was perfectly honest with himself, during these walks in the woods the last thing he wanted to see was a holy city, a city of any sort, anything man-made rising out of the ground to block his path. A disillusioned architect, keeping his eyes off the trash and deer hunters’ perches and the logging roads that snowmobilers used, too, so that he could see what? A world freshly covered in snow that up till now only the animals had visited? He had family and he had friends and he had a woman friend, who also happened to have been a tenant of his, but it was only when he was out in the fields and woods that he fully understood what a lonely man he was, and only there was his loneliness something like his ticket of admission.
He was standing in a field of young spruce and dogwood thickets when the school bus pulled up at the intersection and the children began to get off. Two girls got off first and hurried up the street with their candy-colored backpacks already on their backs. Three boys got off after them, swinging their backpacks, and one of them clearly made a provocative remark, for the closer of the two girls turned and spat something back at the boys, who in response swung their backpacks more wildly and called after the girls in chorus. Then Frank saw his grandson Danny get off with his jacket open and his shirt untucked and his backpack slung over one shoulder. His head was bare, his straw-colored hair flat and long, his face leaner and longer than his grandfather knew any other face in his family to be, and if his mother knew who the boy’s father was, she wasn’t telling. Jen (who had a softly modeled face, hazel eyes shading to green, and hair the off-luster brown of the dogwood branches) had left with a man, a bluegrass fiddler, and come back a year and a half later with a baby and let it be known that the fiddler was not the father. There’d been a banjo player and a bass player in that band, too, and she had more or less discounted them. Of course, there’d been other bands, but all she would say she never actually said, just left implied: that the only thing worth saving from that time on the road had been this boy. Six months ago she’d asked her father if Danny could live with him for a while, while she checked something out. Good for Danny, good for him, and an absolute necessity for her. She hadn’t been gone long, but when she came back, Danny remained with his grandfather. Did he mind?
Danny came off the school bus walking down the road and away from the boys, who, yes, heckled him after having gotten no satisfaction from the girls. Frank couldn’t make out the words, just the jeering tone to their voices and something spent behind the tone, as if they’d said all this before and could only repeat themselves now. That seemed to anger one of the three, who shouted words that Frank could make out: “More money for the rest of us! D’you ever think of that?” Then a bellowing “Duh!”
Moving on a parallel course through the fields and woods, Frank made no attempt to keep up with his grandson, who would be up in his room when his grandfather got home, perhaps playing a video game or reading one of his sorcery books, but just as likely lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling and thinking powerful thoughts. When the thoughts got too powerful to bear, Danny would go down to the basement and attack a skateboard ramp he and his grandfather had set up. Frank’s grandfather Jonathan Coldwell had built his house well, but no one in the midtwenties had anticipated the reverberating volleys a skateboard could produce when unleashed against a loosely built ramp.
Frank emerged from the woods and crossed a last field, one of his own. The field fell off, the snow coming in drifts to his boot tops, and he had before him the valley the glaciers had gouged out, which, seven miles farther north, would become a long and precipitously deep lake. Behind the ridgeline across the way he could see another ridgeline, and the suggestion of yet a third. As you flew over the land, the undulations from one valley to the next could have a lulling effect, but down in them, where the streams bit deep into the sedimentary rock, the gorges were carved at times lethally clean. You went down far enough and there was, of course, that Devonian shale.
The farmer who hayed the field for him was late in getting in a last row of baled loaves. They were huge, cylindrical, as dark and shaggy as some wintering beast. Frank was leaning against a bale of snow-topped hay as his grandson disappeared inside the mud-porch. For just a moment the choice was between this valley, overflown by the crows and the white-breasted goshawks and even, on occasion, by bald eagles, and the house he’d retreated to, which had brought with it this land and all that might be drilled out of it.
And the boy.
Did he mind?
Gerald, Frank’s older son, lived in California. Once a year, he and his Ohio-born wife brought the girls back to visit both sets of parents. Mickey, Frank’s youngest, had lived in a number of states, but always, it seemed, within driving distance of his hometown. It was Mickey who’d asked his father if he knew what “compulsory integration” meant. He’d admitted he didn’t, only that it sounded like one of those bloodless euphemisms the Pentagon was so fond of during the Vietnam War. No, Mickey maintained, it meant exactly what it said. His father and his land would be compulsorily integrated into the gas-drilling scheme, whether he liked it or not. Down went the drill, as far as two miles, he’d been told, and then out went the drill, and although the vertical drilling might take place on Farmer X’s property, the horizontal drilling could easily pass under yours. Hence, you were integrated. Legally. Compulsorily. The only difference was that Farmer X got paid. Just so his father knew what he was doing. Mickey could care less, he was just passing on information, although Mickey continued to hover nearby.
Jen was presently at home. The child of his he’d spoiled because she was the child he’d had the most abiding trust in was for the moment close at hand.
Did he mind?
His grandson was neither up in his room nor down in the basement. He was sitting at the kitchen counter, having finished a glass of milk and a granola bar his mother had brought out a supply of. But he was waiting for his grandfather.
“C’mon, Granddad, gimme a break.”
“I was taking a walk.”
“Yeah, right. See anything interesting?”
“I saw you.”
Danny finished his milk. Deliberately, he cleared away his crumbs, creating a space on the countertop. He gave to the crumbs the same cleaving sort of attention as when he looked his grandfather directly in the eye. “So what are you going to do?”
“What do you think I should do?”
“Fuck ’em.”
“Remember, we had a deal, Danny. No cursing unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Screw ’em.”
“More of the same.”
“Then don’t do anything.”
“This is not a game, Danny. You understand that? It doesn’t make any difference what we do. That boy was absolutely right. They’ll get rich and we won’t. That’s the only difference.”
Danny flinched then, as if he’d been stung, or betrayed, and Frank went on to impart some grandfatherly wisdom. “Remember, there’s such a thing as a dry well. There’s such a thing as a bust. Sometimes fortunes are lost before they’re made. They might start drilling and—”
His grandson stopped him then, without cursing, just ending Frank’s easy-come nonsense. “Mr. Valenti says there’s enough gas down there to supply the whole country for ten years!”
Mr. Valenti was his grandson’s sixth-grade teacher.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Lamar Herrin

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