MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“Checker on Seven!” and back between the checkstands unloading the wire carts, apples three for eighty-nine, pineapple chunks on special, half gallon of two percent, seventy-five, four, and one is five, thank you, from ten to six six days a week; and he was good at it. The manager, a man made of iron filings and bile, complimented him on his efficiency. The other checkers, older, married, talked baseball, football, mortgages, orthodontists. They called him Rodge, except Donna, who called him Buck. Customers at rush times were hands giving money, taking money. At slow times old men and women liked to talk, it didn’t matter much what you answered, they didn’t listen. Efficiency got him through the job daily but not beyond it. Eight hours a day of chicken noodle two for sixty-nine, dog chow on special, half pint of Derry Wip, ninety-five, one, and five is forty. He walked back to Oak Valley Road and had dinner with his mother and watched some television and went to bed. Sometimes he wondered what he would be doing if Sam’s Thrift-E-Mart had been on the other side of the freeway, for there was no pedestrian crossing for four blocks on one side and six on the other, and he never would have got to the place. But he had driven there to stock up the refrigerator the day after they moved in, and saw the sign CHECKER WANTED, which had been up for one half hour. If he hadn’t fallen into the job he might have gone ahead and bought a car so that he could work downtown, as he had planned. But it wouldn’t have been much of a car, whereas now he was saving enough to amount to something when the time came. He would rather live in town and get along without a car of his own but his mother was afraid of inner cities. He looked at cars as he walked home and considered what kind he might get when the time came. He was not very interested in cars, but since he had given up the idea of school he would have to spend the money on something, finally, and his mind always fell into the same habit, as he walked home; he was tired, and all day he had handled things for sale and the money that bought them, until his mind held nothing else because his hands never held anything else, and yet kept none of it.
In early spring when they first moved here the sky above the roofs had flared cold green and gold as he walked home. Now in summer the treeless streets were still bright and hot at seven. Planes gaining altitude from the airport ten miles south cut the thick, glaring sky, dragging their sound and shadow; broken swings of painted steel play-gyms screeched beside the driveways. The development was named Kensington Heights. To get to Oak Valley Road he crossed Loma Linda Drive, Raleigh Drive, Pine View Place, turned onto Kensington Avenue, crossed Chelsea Oaks Road. There were no heights, no valleys, no Raleighs, no oaks. On Oak Valley Road the houses were two-story six-unit apartment houses painted brown and white. Between the carports were patches of lawn with edgings of crushed white rock planted with juniper. Gum wrappers, soft-drink cans, plastic lids, the indestructible shells and skeletons of the perishables he handled at the counters of the grocery, lay among the white rocks and the dark plants. On Raleigh Drive and Pine View Place the houses were duplexes and on Loma Linda Drive they were separate dwellings, each with its own driveway, carport, lawn, white rocks, juniper. The sidewalks were even, the streets level, the land flat. The old city, downtown, was built on hills above a river, but all its eastern and northern suburbs were flat. The only view he had seen out here had been on the day they drove in from the east with the U-Haul. Just before the city limits sign there was some kind of viaduct the freeway went over, and you looked down over fields. Beyond them the city in a golden haze. Fields, meadows in that soft evening light, and the shadows of trees. Then a paint factory with its many-colored sign facing the freeway, and the housing developments began.
One evening after work, a hot evening, he crossed the wide parking lot of Sam’s Thrift-E-Mart and went up the exit ramp onto the narrow sidewalk rim of the freeway to see if he could walk back, walk out into the country, the fields he had seen, but there was no way. Rubbish of paper and metal and plastic underfoot, the air lashed and staggering with suction winds and the ground shuddering as each truck approached and passed, eardrums battered by noise and nothing to breathe but burnt rubber and diesel fumes. He gave it up after half an hour and tried to get off the freeway, but the suburban streets were divided from the freeway embankment by chainlink fence. He had to go clear back and across the Thrift-E-Mart parking lot to get to Kensington Avenue. The defeat left him shaky and angry, as if he had been assaulted. He walked home squinting in the hot level sunlight. His mother’s car wasn’t in the carport. The telephone was ringing as he let himself in.
“There you are! I’ve been calling and calling. Where were you? I called twice already before this call. I’ll be here until about ten. At Durbina’s. There’s a turkey dinner in the freezer. Don’t use the Oriental Menu dinners, they’re for Wednesday. There’s a Mixon’s Turkey Dinner.” $1.29, his head rang it up, thank you. “I’m going to miss the beginning of that movie on Channel Six, you watch it for me till I get home.”
“Bye bye then.”
“What kept you so late?”
“Walked home a different way.”
“You sound so cross.”
“I don’t know.”
“Take some aspirin. And a cold shower. It’s so hot. That’s what I’d like. But I won’t be late. Take care now. You’re not going out, are you?”
She hesitated, said nothing, but did not hang up the phone. He said, “Bye,” and hung up, and stood beside the telephone stand. He felt heavy, a heavy animal, a thick, wrinkled creature with its lower lip hanging open and feet like truck tires. Why are you fifteen minutes late why are you cross take care don’t eat the frozen Oriental Menu don’t go out. All right. Take care take care. He went and put the Mixon’s Turkey Dinner into the oven although he had not preheated the oven as the directions said to do, and set the timer. He was hungry. He was always hungry. He was never exactly hungry, but always wanting to eat. There was a bag of peanuts in the pantry cupboard; he took the bag into the living room and turned on the television set and sat down in the armchair. The chair shook and creaked under his weight. He got up again suddenly, dropping the bag of peanuts he had just opened. It was too much, the elephant feeding itself peanuts. He could feel his mouth hanging open, because he could not seem to get air into his lungs. His throat was closed off by something in it trying to get out. He stood there beside the armchair, his body trembling in a jerky way, and the thing in his throat came out in words. “I can’t, I can’t,” it said loudly.
Very frightened, in panic, he made for the front door, wrenched it open, got out of the house before the thing could go on talking. The hot, late sunlight glared on white rocks, carports, cars, walls, swings, television aerials. He stood there trembling, his jaw working: the thing was trying to force his jaw open and speak again. He broke and ran.
Right down Oak Valley Road, left onto Pine View Place, right again, he did not know, he could not read the signs. He did not run often or easily. His feet hit the ground hard, in heavy shocks. Cars, carports, houses blurred to a bright pounding blindness which, as he ran on, reddened and darkened. Words behind his eyes said You are running out of daylight. Air came acid into his throat and lungs, burning, his breath made the noise of tearing paper. The darkness thickened like blood. The jolt of his gait grew harder yet, he was running down, downhill. He tried to hold back, to slow down, feeling the world slide and crumble under his feet, a multiple lithe touch brush across his face. He saw or smelled leaves, dark leaves, branches, dirt, earth, leafmold, and through the hammer of his heart and breath heard a loud continual music. He took a few shaky, shuffling steps, went forward onto hands and knees, and then down, belly down full length on earth and rock at the edge of running water.
* * *
When at last he sat up he did not feel that he had been asleep but still it was like waking, like waking from deep sleep in quietness, when the self belongs wholly to the self and nothing can move it, until one wakens further. At the root of the quietness was the music of the water. Under his hand sand slid over rock. As he sat up he felt the air come easily into his lungs, a cool air smelling of earth and rotten leaves and growing leaves, all the different kinds of weeds and grass and bushes and trees, the cold scent of water, the dark scent of dirt, a sweet tang that was familiar though he could not name it, all the odors mixed and yet distinct like the threads in a piece of cloth, proving the olfactory part of the brain to be alive and immense, with room though no name for every scent, aroma, perfume, and stink that made up this vast, dark, profoundly strange and familiar smell of a stream bank in late evening in summer in the country.
For he was in the country. He had no idea how far he had run, having no clear idea of how long a mile was, but he knew he had run clear out of streets, out of houses, off the edge of the paved world, onto dirt. Dark, slightly damp, uneven, complex again, complex beyond belief—moving one finger he touched grains of sand and soil, decayed leaves, pebbles, a larger rock half buried, roots. He had lain with his face against that dirt, on it, in it. His head swam a little. He drew a long breath, and pressed his open hands against the earth.
It was not dark yet. His eyes had grown accustomed, and he could see clearly, though the darker colors and all shadowed places were near the verge of night. The sky between the black, distinct branches overhead was colorless and without variation of brightness to show where the sun had set. There were no stars yet. The stream, twenty or thirty feet wide and full of boulders, was like a livelier piece of the sky, flashing and glimmering around its rocks. The open, sandy banks on both sides were light; only downstream where the trees grew thicker did the dusk gather heavy, blurring details.
He rubbed sand and dead leaf and spiderweb off his face and hair, feeling the light sting of a branch-cut under his eye. He leaned forward on his elbow, intent, and touched the water of the stream with the fingers of his left hand: very lightly at first, his hand flat, as if touching the skin of an animal; then he put his hand into the water and felt the musculature of the currents press against his palm. Presently he leaned forward farther, bent his head down, and with both hands in the shallows at the sand’s edge, drank.
The water was cold and tasted of the sky.
Hugh crouched there on the muddy sand, his head still bowed, with the taste that is no taste on his lips and in his mouth. He straightened his back slowly then until he was kneeling with head erect, his hands on his knees, motionless. What his mind had no words for his body understood entirely and with ease, and praised.
When that intensity which he understood as prayer lessened, ebbed, and resolved again into alert and manifold pleasure, he sat back on his heels, looking about him more keenly and methodically than at first.
Where north was, no telling, beneath the even, colorless sky; but he was certain that the suburbs, the freeway, the city all were directly behind him. The path he had been on came out there, between a big pine with reddish bark and a mass of high, large-leaved shrubs. Behind them the path went up steep and was lost to sight in the thick dusk under the trees.
The stream ran directly across the axis of that path, from right to left. He could see for a long way upstream along the farther bank as it wound among trees and boulders and finally began to shelve higher above the water. Downstream the woods dropped away in increasing darkness broken by the slipping glimmer of the stream. Above the shore on both sides of the water, close by, the banks rose and then leveled into a clearing free of trees, a glade, almost a little meadow, grassy and much interrupted by bushes and shrubs.
The familiar smell he could not put a name to had grown stronger, his hand smelled of it—mint, that was it. The patch of weeds at the water’s edge where he had put his hands down must be wild mint. He picked off a leaf and smelled it, then bit it, expecting it to be sweet like mint candy. It was pungent, slightly hairy, earthy, cold.
This is a good place, Hugh thought. And I got here. I finally got somewhere. I made it.
Behind his back the dinner in the oven, timer set, television gabbling to an empty room. The front door unlocked. Maybe not even shut. How long?
Mother coming home at ten.
Where were you, Hugh? Out for a walk But you weren’t home when I got home you know how I Yes it got later than I thought I’m sorry But you weren’t home—
He was on his feet already. But the mint leaf was in his mouth, his hands were wet, his shirt and jeans were a mess of leaves and muddy sand, and his heart was not troubled. I found the place, so I can come back to it, he said to himself.
He stood a minute longer listening to the water on the stones and watching the stillness of the branches against the evening sky; then set off back the way he had come, up the path between the high bushes and the pine. The way was steep and dark at first, then leveled out among sparse woods. It was easy to follow, though the thorny arms of blackberry creepers tripped him up a couple of times in the fast-increasing dusk. An old ditch, grass-overgrown, not much more than a dip or wrinkle in the ground, was the boundary of the wood; across it he faced open fields. Clear across them in the distance was the queer shifting passing flicker of carlights on the freeway. There were stationary lights to the right. He headed towards them, across the fields of dry grass and hard-ridged dirt, coming at last to a rise or bank at the top of which ran a gravel road. There was a big building, floodlit, off to the left near the freeway; down the road the other direction was what looked like a couple of farmhouses. One of them also had a light rigged in the front yard, and he headed for that, feeling certain that was how he should go: down this road between the farmhouses. Past their auto graveyards and barking dogs there was a dark stretch of trees in rows, and then the first streetlight, the end of Chelsea Gardens Place, leading to Chelsea Gardens Avenue, and on into the heart of a housing development. He followed a memory unavailable to consciousness of how he had come when he was running, and street by street unerringly brought himself back to Kensington Heights, onto Pine View Place, onto Oak Valley Road, and to the front door of 14067½-C Oak Valley Road: which was shut.
The television set was vibrating with canned laughter. He turned it off, then heard the kitchen timer buzzing and hurried to turn it off. The kitchen clock said five to nine. The turkey dinner was withered in its little aluminum coffin. He tried to eat it but it was stone. He drank a quart of milk and ate four slices of bread and butter, a pint of blueberry yogurt, and two apples; he got the bag of peanuts from the living room floor and shelled and ate them, sitting at the dinette table in the kitchen, thinking. It had been a long walk home. He had not looked at his watch, but it must have taken pretty near an hour. And surely he had spent an hour or more by the stream; and it had taken him a while to get there, even if he had been running, he wasn’t any four-minute miler. He would have sworn it was ten o’clock or even eleven, if the clock and his watch did not unanimously contradict him.
Never much of a one for argument, he gave it up. He finished the peanuts, moved into the living room, turned off the light, turned on the television, instantly turned it off again, and sat down in the armchair. The chair shook and creaked, but this time he was more aware of its inadequacy as an armchair than of his own clumsy weight. He felt good, after his run. He felt sorry for the poor sleazy, shoddy chair, instead of disgusted with himself. Why had he run? Well, no need to go over that. He had never done anything else all his life. Run-and-hide Rogers. But to have run and got somewhere, that was new. He had never got anywhere before, no place to hide, no place to be. And then to fall over his own feet onto his face into a place like that, a wild, secret place. As if all the suburbs, the duplex development motorhome supermarket parking lot used cars carport swingset white rocks juniper imitation bacon bits special gum wrappers where in five different states he had lived the last seven years, as if all that was unimportant after all, not permanent, not the way life had to be, since just outside it, just past the edge of it, there was silence, loneliness, water running in twilight, the taste of mint.
You shouldn’t have drunk the water. Sewage. Typhoid. Cholera … No! That was the first clean water I ever drank. I’ll go back there and drink it any damned time I want.
The creek. Stream, they would call it in the states where he had been in high school, but the word “creek” came to him from farther back in the darkness of remembrance, a twilight word to suit the twilight water, the racing shift and glimmer that filled his mind. The walls of the room he sat in resonated faintly to the noises of a television program in the apartment overhead, and were streaked with light from the streetlamp through lace curtains and sometimes the dim wheeling of the headlights of a passing car. Within, beneath that restless, unsilent half-light was the quiet place, the creek. From thinking of it his mind drifted on to old currents of thought: If I went where I want to go, if I went out to the college here and talked to people, there might be student loans for library school, or if I save enough and got started maybe a scholarship—and from this further, like a boat drifting past the islands within sight of shore, moving into a remoter future dreamed of earlier, a building with wide and much-frequented steps, stairways within and grand rooms and high windows, people quiet, at work quietly, as much at home among the endless shelves of books as the thoughts in a mind are at home, the City Library on a fifth-grade school trip to celebrate National Book Week and the home and harbor of his longing.
“What are you doing sitting in the dark? Without the TV on? And the front door not locked! Why aren’t the lights on? I thought nobody was here.” And when that had been talked about she found the turkey dinner, which he had not jammed far enough down into the garbage pail under the sink. “What did you eat? What on earth was wrong with it? Can’t you read the directions? You must be taking the flu, you’d better take some aspirin. Really, Hugh, you just can’t seem to look after yourself at all, you cannot manage the simplest thing. How can I be comfortable about going out after work to have a little time with my friends when you’re so irresponsible? Where’s the bag of peanuts I bought to take to Durbina’s tomorrow?” And though at first he saw her, like the armchair, as simply inadequate, trying hard to do a job she wasn’t up to, he could not keep seeing her from the quiet place but was drawn back, roped in, till all he could do was not listen, and say, “All right,” and, after she had turned on the last commercial of the movie she had wanted to watch, “Good night, mother.” And run and hide in bed.
* * *
At the small supermarket in the last city, where Hugh had first moved up from carrier to checker, things had been easygoing, with plenty of time for conversations or loafing around back in the stockrooms, but Sam’s did heavy business, and each job was specialized and without relief. It might look like your line was going to finish with the next customer, but there was always another one coming. Hugh had learned how to think in bits and pieces, not a good method, but the only one available to him. During a working day he could get a certain amount of thinking done if he kept coming back to it; a thought would wait for him, like a patient dog, until he returned. His dog was waiting for him today when he woke up, and went to work with him, wagging its tail: He wanted to go back to the creek, to the place by the creek, and with time enough to stay a while. By ten-thirty, after checking through the old lady with an orthopedic shoe who always had to explain that canned salmon used to cost ten cents a can but now it was so outrageously overpriced because it was all being sent abroad on lend-lease to socialist countries, while she paid for her margarine and bread with food stamps, he had figured out that the best time to go to the creek place would be in the morning, not in the evening.
His mother and her new friend Durbina were studying some kind of occultism together, and lately she had been going to Durbina’s at least once a week after work. That gave him a free evening; but only once a week, and he never knew which evening, and would have to worry about not getting home ahead of his mother.
She did not mind getting home before he did in daylight, but if she expected him to be there and he wasn’t, or if she came home to an empty house in the dark, then it was no good. And lately it hadn’t been good when she stayed alone in the house while it was getting dark. So there was no use trying to count on going out in the evening; it was like night school, no use thinking about it.
But in the morning, she left for work at eight. He could go to the creek place then. It was two hours, anyhow. In daylight there might be people around, he thought (in the afternoon, while Bill took over Seven to give him his break), there might be other people, or signs saying private property, no trespassing; but he would take the chance. It did not look like a place where many people came.
He was home at his usual time, quarter to seven, tonight, but his mother did not come and there was no telephone call. He sat around reading the newspaper and wishing he had something to eat, like peanuts, the peanuts he had eaten last night that his mother had wanted to take to Durbina’s tomorrow, that was tonight. Oh, hell, he thought, I could have gone to the creek place after all. He got up to go, but could not go now, not knowing when she would come back. He went to make himself dinner, but could find nothing he wanted; he ate bits and scraps, and made up and drank a can of frozen orange juice. He had a headache. He wanted a book to read, and thought, Why don’t I get a car so I can drive downtown to the Library, why don’t I go anywhere, why don’t I have a car, but what was the use of a car if he worked from ten to six and had to stay home evenings? He watched a news-in-review show on television to shut out the dog of his mind that had turned on him and snarled, showing its teeth. The phone rang. His mother’s voice was sharp. “I wanted to be sure before I started home this time,” she said, and hung up.
In bed that night he tried to summon up images of solace, but they turned to torment; he fell back finally on a fantasy from years ago, a waitress he had used to see when he was fifteen. He imagined himself sucking her breasts, and so brought his masturbation to climax, and then lay desolate.
In the morning he got up at seven instead of eight. He had not told his mother that he was going to get up early. She did not like changes of routine. She sat with coffee cup and cigarette in the living room, the morning television news going, a frown between her penciled black eyebrows. She never had anything for breakfast but coffee. Hugh liked breakfast, he liked eggs, bacon, ham, toast, rolls, potatoes, sausage, grapefruit, orange juice, pancakes, yogurt, cereal, whatever; he put milk and sugar in his coffee. His mother found the sight, sounds, smells of his preparations sickening. There was no door between the kitchen area and the living-room area in this open-plan apartment. Hugh tried to move quietly, and did not fry anything, but it was no good. She came in past him where he sat at the dinette table trying to eat cornflakes noiselessly. She dropped her cup and saucer in the steel sink and said, “I’m going to work.” He heard in her voice the terrible thin sound, a scraping sharpness, which he thought of (not in words) as the knife’s edge. “All right,” he said not turning, trying to make his voice soft, neutral, neuter; for he knew that it was his deep voice, his size, his big feet and thick fingers, his heavy, sexual body that she couldn’t stand, that drove her to the edge.
She went straight out, though it was only twenty-five to eight. He heard the engine start, saw the blue Japanese car go past the picture window, going fast.
When he came to wash up at the sink he found her saucer chipped and the handle broken off the coffee cup. The small violence made his stomach turn over. He stood with his hands on the rim of the sink, his mouth open, swaying a little from foot to foot, a habit he had when distressed. He reached slowly forward, turned the cold water tap on, and let the water run. He watched it, the rush and stream and clarity of it, filling and overflowing the broken cup.
He washed the dishes, locked up, and set off. Right on Oak Valley, left on Pine View, and on. It was pleasant walking, the air sweet, the lid of the hot day not closed down yet. He got into a good swinging pace and after ten or twelve blocks had walked free of the grip of his mother’s mood. But as he went on, checking his watch, he began to doubt that he could get to the creek place before he had to turn around and start back towards Sam’s in order to get to work at ten. How had he got to the creek, stayed there, and come back, night before last, all in two hours? Maybe he was off course now, not going there by the shortest way, or headed wrong altogether. The part of his mind that did not use words to think with ignored these doubts and worries, guiding him from street to street through about five miles of Kensington Heights and Sylvan Dell and Chelsea Gardens to the gravel road above the fields.
The big building near the freeway was the paint factory; from here you saw the back of its big many-colored sign. He went as far as the chainlink fence around its parking lot and looked down from the higher land there, trying to see the golden sunset fields he had seen from the car. In the morning light they had no glamour. Weedy, farmed once but no longer plowed or grazed, derelict. Waiting for the developers. A NO DUMPING sign stuck up out of a ditch full of thistles near the rusted chassis of a car. Far off across the fields clumps of trees cast their shadows westward; beyond them were the woods, rising blue in the smoggy, sunlit air. It was past eight-thirty, and getting hot.
Hugh took off his jeans jacket and wiped the sweat off his forehead and cheeks. He stood a minute looking towards the woodlands. If he went, even if he did no more than drink from the creek and leave at once, he would probably be late to work. He swore out loud, bitterly, and turned, and went back down the gravel road by the down-at-heel farmhouses and the tree nursery or Christmas tree lot or whatever it was, cut through to Chelsea Gardens Place, and walking steadily along the curved treeless streets between lawns, carports, houses, lawns, carports, houses, reached Sam’s Thrift-E-Mart at ten minutes to ten. He was red-faced and sweaty, and Donna, in the stockroom, said, “You overslept, Buck.”
Donna was about forty-five. She had a lot of dark red hair, which she had recently got made into a fashionable mane of curls and tendrils that made her look twenty from behind and sixty face on. She had a good figure, bad teeth, one bad son who drank, and one good son who drove in stock-car races. She liked Hugh and talked to him whenever she got a chance, telling him—sometimes from checkstand to checkstand across the carts and customers—about the teeth, the sons, her husband’s mother’s cancer, her dog’s pregnancy and its complications; she offered him puppies; they told each other the plots of movies and television shows. She had named him Buck his first day at work. “Buck Rogers in the twenty-first century, I bet you’re too young to remember the real one,” and she laughed at the paradox. This morning she said, “You overslept, Buck. Shame on you.”
“I got up at seven,” he countered.
“Then what you been running for? There’s steam coming off you!”
He stood not knowing what to say, then gasped at the word. “Running,” he said. “You know. Supposed to be good for you.”
“Yeah, there was some besseller about that, wasn’t there? Like jogging only a lot harder. What do you do, just run around the block ten times? Or go to a gym or something?”
“I just sort of run,” Hugh said, discomforted by meeting her sympathetic interest with a lie; yet it never entered his head to try to tell her about the place he had found by the creek. “I’m sort of overweight. I thought I’d try it.”
“I guess you might be heavy for your age. You look fine to me,” Donna said, looking him up and down. Hugh was profoundly pleased.
“I’m fat,” he said, slapping his belly.
“A little podge, maybe. But look at all the bone you got to carry it on. Where do you get it? Your mom is such a little tiny thing, she’s so thin I can’t believe it, when she comes shopping here. Your dad must of been big, huh, you got your size from him.”
“Yeah,” Hugh said, turning aside to put on his apron.
“Is he dead, Hugh?” Donna asked, and there was a maternal authority to the question which he could not ignore or evade but was unable to answer adequately. He shook his head.
“Divorced,” Donna said, speaking the word as an ordinary one and an option certainly preferable to death; Hugh, to whose mother the word was an obscenity, unspeakable, would have agreed with relief but had to shake his head again. “Went off,” he said. “I got to help Bill with the crates.” And he went off. Went off, ran away, hid. Among the crates, among the imitation bacon bits and the green shifting and wink of the cash registers, anywhere, you could hide anywhere, and no place was any better than any other place.
But from time to time during the day’s work he thought of the water of the creek in his mouth and on his lips. He craved to drink that water again.
He took the idea Donna had given him home with him.
“Thought I’d get up early in the morning and jog,” he said at dinner. They ate on TV trays in front of the TV. “That’s why I got up early this morning. To try it. Only earlier would work better, I think. Five or six, maybe. When there’s no cars on the streets. And it’s cool. And that way I won’t bother you getting ready for work.” She was beginning to glance at him warily. “If you don’t mind me leaving before you do. I feel sort of out of shape. Standing around at the checkstand isn’t very good exercise, I guess.”
“More than you’d get sitting behind some desk all day,” she said, which surprised him as a flank attack; he had not mentioned library school or anything about library work for months, since before they left the last town. Maybe she just meant office work like her own. The knife’s edge was not in her voice, though it was sharp enough.
“Would it bother you if I got up and went out for a couple of hours real early? I can be back when you leave, and get my breakfast after you’ve gone to work.”
“Why should it bother me?” she said, glancing down at her thin shoulders to arrange the straps of her summer dress. She lighted a cigarette and looked at the television screen, where a reporter was describing an airplane crash. “You’re perfectly free to come and go, you’re twenty, nearly twenty-one years old, after all. You don’t have to consult me about every little thing you want to do. I can’t decide everything for you. The only thing I do insist on is not leaving the house empty at night, I did have a terrible shock night before last when I drove in and there were no lights on. It’s just purely a matter of common sense and consideration for others. It has just got to the point where a person can’t be safe in their own home even.” She had begun to speak tightly and to flip the filter end of her cigarette repeatedly with her thumbnail. Hugh was tense, dreading the next step towards the edge; but she said no more, watching the television intently. He did not dare pursue the subject. When he went to bed nothing further had been said. Ordinarily he would have heeded the threat of hysteria and not done whatever it was he wanted to do; but in this matter he was driven. It was thirst, he must drink. He woke at five, and was standing by his bed pulling his shirt on before he was fully awake.
The apartment looked unfamiliar seen in this new light, the twilight of dawn. He did not put on his shoes till he was out on the front steps. The sun’s rays ran level down the side streets from behind the apartment houses. Oak Valley Road lay in fresh blue shadow. He had no jacket, and shivered. In his haste he knotted his shoelace wrong and had to fight with the knot, like a little kid late to school; then he was off. At a jogtrot. He did not like to lie. He had said he was going jogging, so he jogged.
It took him a little less than an hour, jogging, and walking when he got out of breath, and forcing himself with increasing difficulty to jog again, to reach the woods on the far side of the waste fields. Pausing there under the eaves of the wood he checked his wristwatch. It was ten minutes to six.
Though the trees did not grow very close together the wood was a place entirely different from the open, as different as indoors from outdoors. Within a few yards the hot, bright, early sunlight was shut out except for scattered drifts and flecks of light on leaves and ground. Since leaving the suburban streets he had not seen anyone. There were no fences maintained as boundaries, though at the edge of the woods there was a straggle of rotten posts and tangled wire. More than one vague path branched off among the trees and underbrush, but he followed his way without hesitation. He noticed a fleck of tinfoil under the clawed sprays of blackberry near the path, but no beer tabs, no soft-drink cans, condoms, Kleenex, candy wrappers. Nobody came here much. The way turned left. He looked for the tall pine with the reddish, scaly trunk, and saw its upper branches dark against the sky. The path narrowed and led downward, darkening, the ground softening underfoot. He came between the pine and the high bushes, the gateway to the creek place, and there it was, the glades on the near and the far side of the water, the motion and singing of the water, and the cool air, the cool, sweet, clear twilight of late evening.
He stood on the threshold, the dark trees over him. If I look back, he thought, I’ll see the sunlight through the trees. He did not look back. He went forward, walking slowly.
At the water’s edge he paused to unstrap his watch. The sweep hand was not moving, the watch was stuck at two minutes to six. He shook it, then shoved it into his jeans pocket, rolled his shirt sleeves above the elbow, and knelt down on both knees. Deliberately and slowly he stooped forward, bowing down his head, setting his hands deep in the muddy sand of the verge, and drank of the running water.
A couple of yards upstream a flat boulder shelved out over the creek. He went and sat on it, leaning forward presently to put his hands in the water. Several times he ran his wet hands over his face and hair. His skin was fair, the water cold; he noticed with pleasure that his wrists and hands in the water got as red as canned salmon. The water itself was dark but clear, like smoky crystal. In sandy shallows in the lee of the boulder lay shoals of pebbles, their colors and markings intensified by the water. He watched them and the transparent curling run of the current over them, then sat up again on the shelving rock and gazed up at the colorless sky. There nothing moved. Near the black, sharp tip of a pine on the ridge across the creek he kept thinking he saw a star, from the corner of his eye, but when he looked directly for it it was not visible. For a long time he sat still, his arms clasped round his knees, over the rush and music of the water.
The chill of the breeze that crept above the creek penetrated as he sat still. He got up at last, hugging his ribs, and sauntered downstream, keeping to the bank just above the sandy edge of the stream. He looked at everything with idle, easy alertness, just tinged with caution, studying the ground, rocks, bushes and trees, the darker woods across the water. The ground was less moist and mulchy in the downstream part of the glade, where thick, coarse grass grew amongst bushes three or four feet high. The bushes were spaced apart so that the grassy areas between them were like small gardens, or roofless rooms. You could camp in one of them, Hugh thought. If you got a tent—but do you need a tent in summer? A sleeping bag would be enough. And something to cook in. And some matches. The fireplace could be down in the sand here, on the beach under the rocky dropoff of the bank. Would it be all right to light a fire here? You wouldn’t actually need one unless you wanted to cook, but it would give a kind of center, a warmth … and then you could sleep, spend the whole night out under the sky beside the sound of the water.… He wandered on, making a long circuit of the clearing, stopping often to look at things and to ponder. The movements of his body here were large, slow, and free, always with that slight and rather enjoyable element of caution, because it was strange ground, the wild. Coming back at last to the shelving rock he knelt once more to drink, then stood up, went resolute to the gateway between the high bushes and the pine, glanced back once, and left the place.
The path was steep, dim, hard to follow. Branches lashed his face; he must turn his head aside, shut his eyes. He turned wrong somewhere at the top and went through a patch of woods he had not seen, a sunken, weedy region where the thin trees grew in clumps. He came out at the fields’ edge by a deeper part of the ditch filled up with rubbish and dead stalks, facing the dazzle of the eastern sun, the bright spears of daylight. He rubbed his forehead, which stung where a blackberry trailer had caught it, and dug into his pocket for his watch. It was running again, and said the time was 6:08. It was later than that, of course, because it had not been running all the time he was by the creek, but still he could probably get home by eight. He set off, not jogging, for he was in no mood for pumping and gasping, but at a swift, steady walk. His mind was still in the quietness of the creek place, empty of anxieties and explanations. Alert and content, he strode along across the waste fields, up the rise, between the dreary farmhouses on the gravel road, past the tree farm to the corner of Chelsea Gardens Place and from street to street to 14067½-C Oak Valley Road. He let himself in, and there was his mother in her chintz wrapper, staring; she had just got up. The kitchen clock said it was five minutes to seven. His watch said it was four minutes to seven.
He sat down at the dinette table with a large bowl of cornflakes and two nectarines and ate, because he was hungry; the last twenty blocks he had thought mainly about breakfast. As he ate, however, his thoughts were not on breakfast. How had he spent an hour going to the creek place and an hour there and an hour coming back, between five o’clock and seven o’clock? And it was—
His mind balked. He hunched his shoulders, drew his head down, felt his chest tighten in resistance, but drove himself ahead at the words: It was evening, there, by the creek. Late evening, twilight. The stars coming out. He had got there at six in the morning in sunlight and come out at six in the morning in sunlight, and while he had been there it had been late evening. The evening of what day?
“You want a cup of coffee?” his mother asked. Her voice was creaky with sleep, but not sharp.
“Sure,” Hugh said, still pondering.
He refilled his bowl with cornflakes, not wanting to cook while his mother was there, not wanting to bother with cooking anyhow. He sat, spoon in hand, brooding.
His mother set a willow-ware mug of coffee down in front of him with a little flourish. “There, your majesty!”
“Hunks,” he said, breakfast-tablese for Thanks, and went on eating and staring.
“When did you go out?” She sat down across the Formica table from him with her cup of coffee.
“You jogged all that time, two hours?”
“I don’t know. Sat around some.”
“You shouldn’t overdo any kind of exercise in the beginning. Start slow and build it up. Two hours, that’s too much to begin with. You could do things to your heart. Like when people shovel snow in the winter the first time it snows and hundreds of them drop dead in the driveway every year. You have to start slow.”
“All in the same driveway?” Hugh murmured, with a vague look of awakening.
“Where did you run, anyhow? Just around and around? It must look funny.”
“Oh, sort of around. Lot of empty streets.” He stood up. “I’m going to make my bed and stuff,” he said. He yawned hugely. “Not used to getting up so early.” He looked down at his mother. She was so small and thin, so tense and fierce, he wished he could pat her shoulder or kiss her hair, but she hated to be touched, and he always did it wrong anyhow.
“You haven’t touched your coffee.”
He looked down at the full mug; obediently drank it off in a couple of long gulps; and mooched off towards his room. “Have a good day,” he said.
* * *
He would not have gone back but for the taste of the water. That water he must drink; no other quenched his thirst. Otherwise, he told himself, he would have stayed away, because there was something crazy going on. His watch would not run there. Either he was crazy or there was something unexplainable going on, some kind of monkeying with time, the kind of thing his mother and her occultist friend were interested in and he was not interested in and had no use for. Ordinary things were weird enough without getting messed up any further, and life didn’t need any more complications than it had already. But the fact was, the one place where his life did not seem complicated was the place by the creek, and he had to go back there to be quiet and think and be alone; to drink the water, to swim in the water.
On his third visit there he decided to wade. He took off his shoes. The creek looked pretty shallow. He stepped into a deep bit and got wet to mid-thigh; splashed ashore, took off jeans, shirt, shorts, returned naked to the cold, noisy water. At its deepest it came no higher than his ribs, but there was one place where he could swim a few strokes. He went under, the strong currents pushing him, his hair floating loose around his face in the strange dark clarity of the underwater. He swam, scraped his knees on hidden rocks, set his hands and feet down on soft unseen surfaces, fought the shouting white water between boulders where the current raced. He came out of the water like a buffalo charging, shaking and stamping with cold and energy, and rubbed himself dry with his shirt. After that he always swam when he went there.
Since he came to the creek place only early in the morning, he kept thinking that he could not spend the night there, as he had imagined doing. And indeed he could not spend the night there, because it was never night there. It was never any different. It did not change. It was late evening. Sometimes he thought it was a little darker, or a little lighter, than last time; but he was never sure. He had never seen the star near the top of the high tree straight on, but was certain it was there in the same place each time. But his watch did not run, there. Time did not go. It was like an island, time running to either side of it like the water of a river, like the tides past a rock in the sand. You could go there and stay and you would come out to the moment you left. Or almost. When he felt he had been there an hour or longer, his watch seemed to show a few minutes had passed, when he returned to the sunlight. Maybe it did not stop, maybe it ran very slowly there, time was different there, entering the glade you entered a different time, a slower time. That was nonsense, not worth thinking about.
The fourth or fifth time he spent a long while at the creek place, swimming, making and sitting by a fire; by early afternoon, working at Sam’s, he was groggy, half asleep. If he did stay and sleep at the creek place, he wouldn’t have to stay awake twenty hours on end. He would live two lives. In fact he would live two lives in the space of one, twice as long in the same amount of time. He was arranging celery in the showcase when this occurred to him. He laughed, and found his hands shaking. A customer looking over the vegetables, a bony old man, glared at the mushrooms at $2.24 and said, “Crazy people taking psychologic drugs, ought to be taught a lesson.” Hugh did not know whether the old man was talking about him or the mushrooms or something else altogether.
He took his lunch hour to go to the cut-rate sporting-goods store in the shopping center across the freeway. Most of his week’s wages went for a bedroll, a stock of camping victuals, a good two-bladed jack-knife, and an irresistibly compact steel cooking kit. He turned back on the way to the cash register and added a cheap Army-surplus backpack. As he stuffed the food packets into the backpack he realized that he could not take it home. His mother was not going out tonight. She would be there when he came in. What’s all that, Hugh, what have you got a backpack for, a sleeping bag, but if you get one worth getting at all they cost a lot of money, just when do you think you’re going to use all this expensive stuff. He had been a fool to buy it all, to buy any of it. What did he think he was doing? He lugged it all through the heat back to Sam’s Thrift-E-Mart, left it locked in the freezer in the back storeroom, and went to the manager to ask permission to leave work an hour early.
“What for?” the sour man said, crouching in his office that was littered with empty cardboard cans of loganberry yogurt, and smelled of old yogurt and cigars.
“My mother’s sick,” Hugh said.
As he said the words he turned white and sweat started out on his face.
The manager stared at him, perhaps intimidated, perhaps indifferent. After a long staring pause he said, “O.K.,” and turned his back.
Hugh left the manager’s office feeling the floor and walls skip and sway. The world went white and small like the white of an egg, the white of an eye. He was sick. She was sick, yes, she was sick, and needed help.
I do help her. My God, what can I do that I’m not doing? I don’t go anywhere, I don’t know anybody, I’m not going to school, I work close to home where she knows where I am, I’m home every night, I’m with her on weekends, everything she asks—what can I do that I don’t do?
His self-accusation was, he knew, unjust, and it did not matter if it was just or unjust: it was judgment; he could not escape it. His bowels felt loose and he was still a little dizzy. He got through his work clumsily, making stupid errors over and over at the register. It was Friday, a heavy afternoon. He could not close his checkline till ten after five, and then only by getting Donna to take his place. “You sick, honey?” she asked him, as he gave her the register key. He did not dare repeat the lie lest it eat the truth again. “I don’t know,” he said.
“You take care now, Buck.”
He made for the back of the store, clumsy and blundering among the crowded aisles. He got his bedroll and backpack from the coldroom and set off through the streets, eastward not westward, towards the paint factory, the waste fields, the gateway. He had to get there. It would be all right when he got there. It was his place. He was all right there.
The fields were furnace hot. Soaked with sweat and his mouth dry as plaster, Hugh struggled on into the woods, left heat and bright day behind him as the path went downwards and he crossed the threshold of the dusk. He set down his load and went as always straight to the stream bank, knelt, and drank. He stripped off his sweaty clothes and walked out into the water. His breath caught in a ha! of painful ecstasy at the cold of it, the push and force and curl of the current, the grainy skin of rocks under his soles and against his palms. He slipped into the deep pool, dived under, let the water take him, the water in him, he in the water, one dark joy. All else forgotten.
He came up blinded by his hair, floated for a while under the circle of the colorless, cloudless sky, then at last, the cold of the water striking to the bone, touched ground and splashed ashore. Always he went in silently, with reverence, and came out noisily, charged with life. He rubbed down, pulled on his jeans, and sat down beside his backpack to open it ceremonially. He would make his camp; he would cook dinner. He would lay out his bed there in the shelter of the shrubs in the high grass, and lie down, and sleep beside the running water.
He wakened under the dark trees, the odor of mint and grass in his head. The faint wind touched his face and hair like a dark, transparent hand.
It was a strange, slow wakening. He had not dreamed, yet felt that he was dreaming. Entire trust and confidence possessed him. Having lain down and slept on this ground he belonged to it. No harm would come to him. This was his country.
He got up and washed himself at the creek; kneeling on the shelving rock above the water he looked across to the pale grass of the glade on the other side, the dark masses of bushes and foliage, the clarity of sky over the trees. He stood up then, and set out across the creek, barefoot, not in the water this time but going from rock to rock till a final broad step took him onto the sand of the farther shore. Mint grew on the weedy bank above the sand on this side, too. He picked a leaf, ritually, and chewed it. Farside mint was the same as nearside mint. There was no boundary. It was all his country. But this time, this was far enough: he would go no farther now. Part of the pleasure of being here was that he could listen for and obey such impulses and commands coming from within him, undistorted by external pressures and compulsions. In that obedience, for the first time since early childhood, he sensed the headiness of freedom, the calmness of power. He chose now to go no farther. When he chose to go farther he would do so. Chewing the mint leaf he strode with wide, steady steps back across the stream.
He dressed, packed up his bedroll neatly and tucked it away well concealed in the hollow under a bush, put the knapsack with the food in it up in the fork of a tree—he had read about doing that, to keep it safe from something, bears, ants? anteaters? anyhow it seemed better than leaving it lying around—then knelt to drink from the creek once more, and left.
He got to Oak Valley Road at seven in the evening of the day he had left work at five-fifteen. His mother had not made any dinner; it was too hot to cook, she said; they went to a chain restaurant for a hamburger, and to a movie afterwards.
He thought he would be awake all night, having slept at the creek place, but he slept sound in bed, only waking earlier and easier than ever, at four-thirty, before sunrise, in the other twilight, the first, the twilight of morning. By the time he got to the woods the sun had risen in bright, tremendous splendor of summer. He turned from that, going down into the evening land, tranquil and eager, ready to cross the water and explore, to learn this realm beyond reason and beyond question, his own place, his own country. He knelt by the clear, dark water to drink. He lifted his head from the water to see where he would go, and saw facing him across the gleaming, sinuous, continual movement of the stream, on the far shore, a square sign nailed on a board stuck into the bank, black words on white, KEEP OUT—NO TRESPASSING.
Copyright © 1980 by Ursula K. Le Guin