Into the Wild
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.
Brendan closes his eyes, hugs his worn copy of Into the Wild, the book he loves better than any other. He opens it again, stares at the haunting self-portrait of Christopher McCandless, the handsome and enigmatic young man who had renamed himself Alexander Supertramp before he abandoned society and wandered alone into the Alaskan wilderness. How Brendan fell in love with him during the first breathless read, convinced that if only he had known Alex Supertramp, he could have saved him, and together they’d live in their north woods cabin, surrounded by books.
There are works like Into the Wild that Brendan revisits regularly, and while, like sex, the first time is usually the most memorable, the second and third and fourth times bring pleasures all their own. When he reads a story, it’s like osmosis; he absorbs it at the cellular level. It lets him spend time in places he’s never been, and with characters whose company he prefers to the crazy man who takes the seat next to him on the bus, loudly muttering obscenities.
Books open up new worlds. That’s why when he visits his brother Ian he always brings him at least one book as a gift. It’s the only little piece of freedom Brendan can offer him; Ian’s been in jail for several years now. In fact, for most of the time Brendan has known him, Ian’s been an inmate at Rush City, a men’s correctional facility north of the Twin Cities.
Brendan thinks that his own life is a lot like the books he reads; he has two or three different stories in progress at any given time. Ian’s wife wonders how Brendan manages to switch from one book to the next and then to the next one after that, only to return to the first. She has a hard enough time keeping the characters straight in the romance novels that she reads like recipe cards.
Brendan’s particularly excited by the book he’ll present Ian today. Unlike the weathered copy of Into the Wild, which sits on his lap, the book he will give Ian is brand-new and safely stowed in the backpack. The backpack itself sits snugly next to Brendan as the bus to Rush City begins its journey.
The bus is a service of a nonprofit organization in the Twin Cities that provides families of inmates with free transportation to Rush City each week. Wives and girlfriends and sons and daughters catch the bus downtown, and it takes them all the way out to the prison for visiting hours and then brings them back to Minneapolis. It’s much nicer than the regular city buses: there’s a bathroom on board and the seats are upholstered. It’s mostly full of women and children, and there’s even a storybook for kids to read during the trip called Visiting the Big House. In honor of the season, the bus driver has given each child a candy cane. Some slurp theirs noisily while others hoard, stealing and bartering more.
There’s a woman on the bus with three children. She’s Asian, perhaps Hmong or Laotian, and what catches Brendan’s attention is the fact that she’s embarrassed by her children’s behavior. Compared to the other boys and girls on the bus, hers are relatively compliant, but that’s not good enough for her. Brendan feels sorry for her, surrounded by white and black and Mexican and Indian and other Asian women and children who’ve taken this trip a hundred times or more. He can tell this is her maiden voyage. As he studies her—her stiff posture on constant alert, like a sentry at his post—he understands that she wishes she were somewhere else, anywhere but here, on this bus.
One of her boys runs over to Brendan’s seat. This he’s used to. Brendan’s often the only adult male on the bus, and the boys, no matter what color they are, all wind up next to him, wanting to roughhouse or talk or pretend that he’s their father. The stray smiles at him and says, “Who you gonna see?”
The boy’s mother whispers violently at him in her native language, but the boy doesn’t seem to be bothered. Brendan tells him, “I’m going to visit my brother.”
The boy climbs up on the seat next to Brendan, a minor feat for one so small, and says, “My daddy killed a communist.”
Brendan looks at him, skeptically. “Really?”
The boy, whose little legs don’t even reach the edge of the bench, pulls his socks up over his rubber boots. “Yes. He knew him from seminar camp. He tried to make my daddy pasason.”
“What does pasason mean?”
The boy laughs, like Brendan had asked what color the sky is. The boy says, “People.”
Before he can say anything else, the boy’s mother arrives, and with one eye still trained on her other two, who sit obediently in their seats, she sweeps him up in her arms. As she carries him back to their little post near the front of the bus, the boy knows that she’s furious with him, but he smiles at Brendan anyway, thrilled to have talked to a grown-up man.
Soon the bus stops next to the visitors’ entrance, which is outfitted with a large evergreen wreath. Passengers gather up their layers: sweaters, coats, overcoats, scarves, hats, and gloves. It’s ten degrees outside and Brendan’s reminded of a book he read as a boy, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His seventh-grade class saw the movie version after they read the novel, which chronicled twenty-four hours in the life of a Russian prisoner interned at a Siberian work camp. They were having a particularly brutal winter themselves that year, so a few of Brendan’s classmates failed to understand what all the fuss was about.
After the metal detection and the pat-down he’s granted admission to the visiting room where Ian sits, waiting for him. Ian is Brendan’s older brother by five years, which places him squarely at forty, an age that doesn’t suit him particularly well. Still, he’s attractive for his age.
Brendan puts his backpack—his x-rayed and thoroughly searched backpack—on the table and unzips a flap. “I’ve got a couple of presents for you. A pack of Camels to begin with, and a book.”
Ian reaches for the cigarettes and sighs. “You always bring me a book. You know I can’t read anymore, it gives me a headache. Are you trying to kill me?”
“You should give this one a try.” Brendan has gotten him what’s called a graphic novel, in other words, a really long comic book.
Ian squints at the cover. “What’s that?”
Brendan passes it to him. “It’s a collected set of comic-book stories bound in a single volume.”
Ian laughs. “Batman?”
Another sigh. “Let’s have a look, then.”
Ian flips through the pages, his eyebrows arching at the violence or at Catwoman’s breasts, each one as large as her head.
Brendan smiles. “You like it?”
Ian’s eyes never leave the book. “You finally picked a winner . . .” He calls Brendan by the name given him by their parents. Brendan gently corrects him, reminds him yet again of the name that he has chosen for himself: Brendan Wolf. The renaming was inspired by Christopher McCandless, the hero of Into the Wild, who changed his own. Brendan Wolf is not Brendan’s legal name, but his name in every other way. He thinks his name’s intriguing. The Wolf adds a bit of The Call of the Wild (Jack London having been one of Alexander Supertramp’s favorite writers). And Brendan is an old name making a comeback. To him it means charting one’s own course into the new, the unexplored, just as the Irishman called Saint Brendan the Navigator did when he took his small crew across the unknown horizon to North America. Choosing that first name was also his much-delayed act of childhood rebellion; his father had emigrated from England and couldn’t abide the Irish.
Brendan says, “I’m glad you like the book.”
Ian stares at a page and asks, “Do you think Catwoman would be a tight fuck or what?”
Most people would be offended by Ian’s question, and in some ways Brendan is most people, but of course in other, more fundamental ways, he’s not. “I’d prefer Batman.”
“You can still imagine sex with a woman, though, can’t you?”
Brendan gives him the look their mother used to, the amused warning.
Ian laughs softly, says, “How’s work?”
“Fine,” Brendan says.
“Still at Wal-Mart?”
Brendan looks at the floor. “I got a new job at—”
“Jesus Christ, Brendan! Another new job?”
“It’s a better one, I think . . .”
Ian shakes his head sadly as he asks, “Still living in da hood, then?”
“It’s not so bad.”
“It’s dangerous. Half the guys in here grew up there.” Ian slips him a torn piece of paper with a name and a phone number on it. Ian says, “There’s this new kid, Frankie Thompson, just in. Remember that name: Frankie Thompson. Before he ended up here, he had a very tidy arrangement with some rich old man. I’m doing him and he tells me that his old man’s lonely. So it occurred to me that if you introduced yourself to the old man as a friend of Frankie’s, perhaps you could come to some sort of agreement. You know, move in with the guy.”
Brendan’s learned not to judge Ian’s life behind bars too harshly. He knows that to Ian’s way of thinking, jailhouse infidelities don’t count as cheating on his wife, as no woman is involved. Brendan tells him, “Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I want to work as a concubine for an old man.”
Ian seems genuinely surprised. “Just move in. Do some chores around the house. If he puts the moves on you, tell him you’ll call the cops. Come on, Brendan, I don’t want to spend all my time worrying about you getting shot. You have to get out of that neighborhood.”
To please his older brother, Brendan puts the slip of paper in his pocket.
Bewildered, Langdon looked at the image. The close-up photo revealed the glowing message on the parquet floor. The final line hit Langdon like a kick in the gut.
“Brendan, read on your own time, please.”
He puts The Da Vinci Code back on its display case, along with the other bestsellers the store stocks, mostly popular diet and self-help books. Like Ian, Brendan has his own term to serve: the morning shift at Target. He’s late for a team meeting and as he walks down the aisle to join the other team members, he recalls one of his elementary school teachers, Miss Carlson, who had punished him for reading when he should have been coloring in a map of Minnesota. Then there was Miss Olsen, who shook her head wearily when she caught him with his face stuck in a book during show and tell. And, of course, there were the long bus rides home to the small mansion by the lake, when he would solve mysteries with the Hardy Boys, those devoted brothers, while the other children were laughing or fighting. Now he sees his mother as she sets the table for tea, saying, Put that book down, little prince, it’s time to eat.
The team meeting is held in a main aisle that separates watches and jewelry from women’s clothing. There are no tables for team members to sit around, no chairs to sit in. This is a brief, efficient meeting, one of many that are called in the early-morning hours just before or just after the store opens for the day. Brendan’s Team Leader is young, short, and white, and the dark roots of her blond hair preside over a manner that is productively cheerful.
“How’s everyone today?” she asks with a broad smile, and most team members mutter their innocuous responses. Depending upon their age and whether English is their first language or not, they are good or fine or okay or well or cool. From a distance—say looking down the aisle from the vantage point of men’s clothing—they truly resemble a team in their red Target shirts, their white-and-red name tags like numbers on a jersey. But from where Brendan stands the differences are readily apparent: two Somali women conceal their hair beneath scarves, one large white woman has a teardrop tattoo just beneath an eye, an older Hmong man who matches their Team Leader smile for smile is missing all but three of his teeth.
They are the Tuesday-morning shift, their store located on a busy thoroughfare in a part of St. Paul that has never been particularly desirable, even less so in recent decades. Their Target is popularly known as “Targhetto” though they are forbidden to refer to it as such, and women like Brendan’s Team Leader are anxious to transfer to more profitable locations.
The Team Leader says, “Christmas is almost here, so I think we better review the team lift. Let’s head on over to home furnishings.”
Team members squeeze in a small aisle. On either side of them are shelves displaying models of bedside tables, bookcases, and coffee tables. On shelves below the models are stacked boxes of the unassembled units.
“Can I get a couple of volunteers?” the Team Leader asks.
The Hmong man and a scrawny white man, who wears a hearing aid, join her. She directs them, has them stand next to a shelf, facing each other. In perfect coordination, they firmly grab either end of a boxed, unassembled unit, and using their legs, not their backs, place it in a shopping cart.
The Team Leader says, “Good work!”
The Hmong man nods but the scrawny white man with the hearing aid looks at his feet as he rejoins the small crowd of team members.
The Team Leader looks at Brendan and says, “Yesterday, I saw a team member walk right by a guest who was trying to get a heavy box in her cart.” Brendan feels the heat on his face. “If that happens, you tell the guest that you’ll do it for them and you get a team member to help you. It’s good guest service, and it’s good for you, too. You can really hurt your back working with the heavier merchandise.”
She nods at Brendan and says, “Let’s give it a try.”
Brendan joins her next to a shelving unit that contains boxes of unassembled bookcases. She positions him at one end of a box and, facing him, places herself at the other. “It’s important,” she tells her team, “to communicate with your partner. The best way to lift is to look directly at each other and say ‘Lift on the count of three.’ Brendan, let’s lift on the count of three. One, two, three.”
They lift, but there is no empty cart to put the box in. “Okay,” she huffs, “lets put ’er back on the shelf.” She catches her breath and says to no one but Brendan, “Never let guests try to do that by themselves.”
He nods slightly, wondering what the other team members are thinking.
“Okay, everybody, thanks.” She places a hand on Brendan’s arm, says, “Can I see you for a minute?”
Team members disperse, leaving them alone in the aisle. She looks up at him, a sympathetic expression on her face. “Did I embarrass you, just then?”
Brendan shakes his head.
“Is there something bothering you, Brendan? Something I should know about?”
He examines the floor beneath their feet. It’s linoleum, not parquet, and while there’s a crack between two tiles, just like in The Da Vinci Code, it contains no messages. He says, “I’m fine.”
“I’m just a little concerned because, to be honest, you don’t look fine.”
He says nothing for a while, but then the silence grows too uncomfortable. “I guess I’m not happy here.”
She sighs knowingly. “I thought that might be the problem. Sometimes the job and the person in the job just aren’t a good match; it’s nobody’s fault. I really want you to find a job where you can be happy. Life’s too short, after all. What do you say?”
He nods out of habit, unsure of what’s just happened.
He stops in the men’s room before he leaves for—what is now clear—the last time. He’s in luck: the stalls have been freshly cleaned; there’s the strong sting of bleach in the air. At this time of day he has the men’s room to himself, he can be alone. He chooses a stall, sits on its toilet, but his pants remain buckled around his waist. He reads The Da Vinci Code with one hand as he quietly unrolls toilet paper with the other. Occasionally he sets the book on his lap and tightly winds the toilet paper around an index finger before he stuffs it in a pocket. Some he shoves under his shirt, other bits go in his socks, lumps that are concealed by pant cuffs.
He’s out of toilet paper and can’t afford the packaged rolls on display without showing up empty-handed at Rush City.
Brendan has no Christmas tree, no stocking hung by the chimney with care, no chimney. It’s just as well, since he has only until mid-January to vacate; he’s being evicted. Again. He had hoped that the job at Target would pay enough to get him up to date on his rent, but . . .
He guesses he won’t really miss this apartment complex too much. His efficiency is surrounded on four sides by the sounds of crying babies, feuding couples, and pounding bass lines that make his crates of books tremble. He could complain, but that would be taking his life in his hands. The sirens that come so often to his building leave him little doubt that the other tenants wouldn’t hesitate to attack him—or do worse—if he knocked on their doors, pleading with them to keep the noise down.
Tonight is one of those rare nights; the building’s quiet. The sounds of the street still pass by, soft, then louder, until they fade into silence again. He hears the voices of drunks, of rap music being broadcast to the world from the stereos of SUVs, but these noises come and go swiftly; they don’t spend the night in the apartment next door. It’s then, when silence returns, when he hears his own breath as he inhales and exhales, that he feels a little more at peace.
When he was a boy, his parents would take him and his brothers up north every summer, to the cabin. The sun would blaze in the early afternoons and he and his brothers would escape its punishing rays in the spring-fed lake, so chilly that you’d be a fool to try to wade in slowly. It was always easier to simply jump off the dock and splash furiously until the body acclimated itself. The outdoors was dense with green trees, tall pines that whispered in the winds, the voices of ghosts, of pioneers and Natives, at least according to his brother Ian. Ian would say, Dare you to spend tonight outside in the woods.
He’d say, Okay.
But as the sounds of living things, restless in the night, seemed to surround his tent, he would tiptoe, the beam of his flashlight in front of him, back to the cabin, forging a bed out of pillows and couch cushions, hoping to awaken first so he might make it back to the tent before the others got up, impressing his brothers and parents with his small-boy courage.
He misses it. Even in the worst summer heat those were mild times, the annual visits to a world of lily pads and water, cold, alive with fish and frogs and turtles. He misses the sun, the way it shone up there, its bright rays traveling a zigzag path through the branches of the pines to softly land on the brush. It was a time of bare feet, armored with calluses from the long days outside.
There were moments—mostly in the early evenings when his mother was in the cabin, mixing cocktails for his father and herself—when the lake seemed as smooth as carved marble. It was those times, when he would test the surface of the water with feet dangling off the dock, that he thought he might, like Jesus, step onto the lake and walk across it to the far shore.
It’s not quite dusk as he sits on the light-rail train from the Mall of America, where more than ten thousand people work each day. Beneath his coat Brendan wears khakis, hiking boots, and a dress denim shirt, his best outfit, the one he wears when he’s looking for a job. The shirt’s a bit wrinkled; he needs an ironing board, an iron, and the skill to use them well.
The train stops, he exits with a group of loud and foul-mouthed teenagers who carry huge bags outfitted in holiday colors. Brendan has searched for a new job without filling out a single application: there were either no openings or positions that wouldn’t cover the cost of the commute and an apartment, or the store was so packed with Christmas shoppers that he couldn’t bring himself to search for the personnel office.
All told, he’s quit—and more recently been fired from—quite a few jobs, starting with the one at McDonald’s. His current record for shortest tenure is at Wal-Mart, where he gave up during his orientation. As a lover of words, he has a hard time working in the retail world—about the only sector that will still hire him—where Spending is Saving, Debt is Credit, a Sale is an Event. Sometimes he thinks we are all slowly going insane, only we don’t realize it, because in our brave new world, insane is now sane.
He enters his apartment building with its plain, utilitarian, blank face on a block of blank faces, remarkable only for the number of boarded-up windows. In the hallways he hears English, Spanish, Somali; he smells cigarette smoke and dirty diapers. Of course his little efficiency is not conducive to reading. Yes, the place is tiny, the building noisy, but neither of these things are really the problem. He can read while couples fight, he doesn’t need one room to sleep in, a second to live in, a third to eat in, a fourth to piss in. What he would like, though, is a soft chair, large, over-stuffed, wear-worn, perhaps the sort of thing that college students rescue from the curb in order to furnish first apartments. He’s seen likely candidates facing the street on garbage day, but retrieving them, carrying them up to his apartment, this would require an extra set of hands, a brother or partner who would look him in the eye as he said, Let’s lift on the count of three.
His books are organized in crates, the crates themselves found in alleys or purchased with staff discounts from Home Depot or K-Mart or Menard’s. Lying next to them on the scratched wooden floor are three couch cushions, their pattern an odd mixture of plaid and polka dots. This is it then, the cushions and the crates and the books, of course the books, some bought by the pound when the library sheds parts of its collection that are no longer in demand. Many of the titles have small black dots at the top or bottom of their pages, a remainder mark. These books have been heavily discounted; a copy that originally retailed for nearly twenty-five dollars can be bought for less than five once the spot has been applied. It’s a small flaw, a little imperfection, hardly noticeable.
In spite of the missing reading chair, he does love the Spartan décor, inspired as it was by the last known college residence of Alex Supertramp.
He pours water in the sink; washes the day off his face. He stares at himself in the mirror, half expecting to discover a black dot on his skin, that little indicator that something is not as valuable as it once was, or that it hasn’t lived up to expectations, or perhaps has never received its proper due. The mark isn’t there, though, and his overall reflection pleases him: the soft crow’s feet are new, acquired just this year when he turned thirty-five, along with a few strands of gray that hide among the maple brown.
He lies on the hard wood floor. Before he permits himself even one page of a book, on odd days (the first, the third, the fifth . . . ) he must do four hundred sit-ups, one hundred push-ups, a hundred squats. When he ventures out in the world, he wants to look as large as he can: on the bus or the streets, in the store or a bar. He wants to look like someone you would leave alone if you passed him on a corner, someone you would pursue if you saw him standing by the dance floor. His father believed strongly in the mind-body connection and it was from him that Brendan learned this routine. Before his father would have dinner with a client he would exercise to the point of exhaustion, reviving himself in a steamy shower and a clean suit. It engendered a confidence that was contagious; he would say that he could gain the trust of men and women simply by the way he glowed after pushing himself to the point of exhaustion.
When Brendan’s finished, he pours himself a bowl of bran cereal, arranges the cushions as comfortably as he can, and opens The Perfect Storm. (He finished Into the Wild yet again during the ride back from the Mall of America.) Words fill a page like colors on a canvas and tonight he rejoins the crew of the Andrea Gail as they battle waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles per hour. He tastes the freezing salt water in his mouth and shivers in cold terror as the ocean rises and falls. He dreams of those on shore, the men and women and children who hold vigil in the churches and the bars, the ones he will never see again.
Copyright © 2007 by Brian Malloy. All rights reserved.