The Last of the Beothuk
As a football player at Ferncroft Regional High School, Sid had been capable of impressive feats, such was the strength of his massive thighs and upper body, not any spring in his naturally archless and large feet, splayed to the side always as he walked. He was out on State Street, free for the first time in 19 years. The sun was shining, casting the world in the anonymous, metallic color of cars. They flowed in both directions, as the wind blew in low black clouds from the northwest, the direction of the correctional facility and the mouth of Sid’s past. Sid walked south, shuffling in the prison issue, black pleather boots a couple of sizes too big. His feet throbbed with a dull pain. He had flat feet; the ROTC program had turned him down for it the spring before his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire. Wearing the prison issued boots that denied him access to the rec yard, Sid had consistently gained weight and lost count of the days, of the hours, and of friends and family. It had all flowed unconditionally, a numbed-out, accumulating rush, until he’d dreamed of his release as a void. He’d long ago forgotten exactly what he’d done. In fact he claimed not to ever have had any recollection. His innocence was like the boots, ungainly, impractical, synthetic, and had never come off in all the seasons of the years, despite the stares of the parole board like maddened owls.
Following some interior reckoning system that led him uphill, Sid walked away from the thicker traffic flows. He saw a wrought iron fence ahead in the distance. In the park, there were children playing on some recently constructed playground equipment, sliding into a sandpit that was wet and puddled from the last rain, with a skim of some sort on the water. Sid found a bench with a small round stone someone had left on the end of it. He sat on the bench and watched, playing with the stone in his fingers. It was weathered and smooth to the touch. A dog came up and sniffed at his boots. Sid let it be, not wanting to impact the waves of feeling flowing through him for the first time, as his senses awakened and his head throbbed. The dog was a young pup of indeterminate breed, with intelligent looking eyes as it studied him. Sid let the thoughts form in his head that drew the dog close. He dropped his hand with the stone in it, and the dog sniffed, drawing conclusions. A small boy appeared out of a slide and ran across the grass to the bench.
“Hey, Boy! Come ‘ere,” said the boy, kneeling and waving his hands.
“Is he your dog?” asked Sid. At least that’s what he thought he’d said.
The boy kept his head down. Maybe the sound had emanated from underground. Or perhaps he couldn’t hear. Sid realized he needed to speak louder through the thick growth of his beard.
“IS HE YOUR DOG?”
“I guess so,” said the boy.
“How much you want for him?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll give you twenty bucks for him.”
The boy stared. Sid drew out five twenty dollar bills from the front pocket of his prison issue slacks, stretching his legs. The dog jumped back and looked around on his haunches.
“He ain’t really mine.” The boy was standing there, scratching his head.
“Well, whose is he then?” asked Sid.
“I don’t know. He’s just always around. He’s been here as long as I can remember.”
“Well, that’s not very long. He’s just a pup. Here,” Sid stood and handed over a bill from the roll, his massive frame looming over the boy. The boy took the bill from Sid’s hand and stared as if at an unfamiliar object, not sure of its use or legitimacy.
“It’s real,” said Sid. “It’s my gate money. I guess that makes it official. Everything has to have a price to make it real. What’d you say his name was?”
But the boy had run off, scared by all the words Sid had thrown his way.
The dog didn’t have a name. Sid thought that in time perhaps one would come to him. There were a lot of things out there that had no name, most things in fact, were unnamed. Of all the things in the universe, the larger percentage by far were like the dog, who existed without having a known name. Somebody might have given him a name. Besides having a known price, that’s all it took to bring him into the world.
When Sid dropped his hand, the dog came sniffing for food. The lack of food was a problem that did have a name, and its solution, like everything, would come in due time. Sid was feeling equanimous in his new free state, despite his lack of connections to anybody but a dog.
He stayed on the park bench, waiting. The dog came and went. It knew its way around. Groups of children played in the distance around a pond, throwing bread crumbs at the geese that overwintered there or perhaps were early arrivals. The dog tried to get their attention, sniffing the bread crumbs in the air as they flew from the children’s hands. The wind was like an acquaintance that had changed over the years but could be recognized by the way it moved and pinched his ears. Sid shuffled on the bench and drew his coat tighter around his middle with his massive, numbed hands. The dog appeared, sniffing the wind as if it could sense a contagion. Sid picked it up and stuck it next to him on the bench. He felt that the dog was a creature that had appeared as if out of a dream, an augury of some sort, of the final days. It curled up and went to sleep there on the bench. The sun went down. The night, interminable and silent, gave up none of its secrets. Sid woke in the morning from the pain of his frozen buttocks hanging over the edge of the park bench.
Sid stood and stiffly went off in search of food. The dog was gone. He exited the park and walked down a side street of nice, new houses. The gas station on the corner looked like it might have some food. Two small men speaking in a language Sid did not understand stopped talking as Sid moved around the inside of the mostly empty place, stomping his boots loudly to lose the pain in his feet. The store looked like it had recently been the scene of some change in ownership, with unstocked shelves and darkened walls of bare chipboard next to the smoky plate glass looking out at the two pumps. There was one aisle that was not completely bare. For some reason it contained items: paper plates, bags of cat litter, puppy food and boxes of green foiled Chocolate Chip Pop Tarts and orange boxes of vacuum-wrapped Mega Snack Lunchables. Sid felt blessed to have come across this oasis of exactly what he needed. He felt again liberated and back in the world of America that he’d last inhabited in a haze in 1997. Bill Clinton had been president. The whining voice of the radio man, Rush Limbaugh, had castigated and exhorted. The winter sky in his hometown had slowly tumbled into a spring green with envy.
The two men resumed their conversation. Sid took his items, four Lunchables, four Pop Tarts, a small bag of Purina Puppy Chow, and went in search of a cash register. One of the men moved off in the direction of the far wall, and Sid followed, his hands splayed out in front of him filled with the goods and the bag of puppy food clutched under his arm.
The man rang up the items. He finally looked up and studied Sid’s eyes.
“You have a dog,” said the man.
“Yeah,” said Sid. “I’ll have a coffee, too.”
“Yeah. Lots of sugar.”
“Sugar’s bad for you,” said the man, his sing-song, exotic accent making it sound somehow more malign, as if lumped in with lots of the nameless and missing items on the dark shelves.
“Lots of things are bad for you,” said Sid.
He took his puppy chow and the plastic bag full of food in one hand and the coffee in the other and walked back to the park. He drank the coffee and crumpled the styrofoam cup. Now he was feeling better, and he sat back on the bench where he'd spent the night and waited for the dog to appear. Sid fell asleep and dreamed for a while and woke up, feeling disoriented, oddly out of sorts. It would take him getting used to being free, he guessed. He wished he had some drugs to take the edge off reality. It seemed oppressively much larger than he was used to.
A woman pushing a young girl in a stroller approached on the walking path. Sid studied the woman and the child. Her face pushed Sid back into his memories. She looked like Yolanda, his stepmother, the woman who had cared for Sid and his brother after their mother had left. His father, Steve Green-Smith, had been an artist and never concerned much with the details of child-rearing. For a few years Sid and Darrell had run amok, but then Yolanda had managed to calm things down with the town police and the school. Sid played football with violent abandon and was soon being approached and cultivated by the defensive staff at UNH, so that meant special treatment from most of the town elders.
Yolanda had wanted things to be better, with a steadfast belief that one day they would be. She believed in Steve’s talent and tried always to keep him busy producing the turned wooden work and the abstract ceramic pieces, like the pack of wolves he’d sold to the Kearsarge Indian Museum. Without Yolanda, Steve would have sunk. Steve liked to claim that he was the last of the Beothuk, the People of the Dawn.
The woman stopped and checked on the young girl in the stroller.
“Do you want some juice, Leesha?”
“Yes,” said the girl. She must have been five or six, Sid guessed. The woman was probably in her mid-forties.
“Nice day,” he ventured.
“Yes, it is,” said the woman, looking briefly up at him as she unscrewed the plastic top and handed the bottle to the girl.
“Why doesn’t she walk? She could use the exercise,” said Sid.
“That’s true,” said the woman. This time she didn't look back at Sid, but stayed attentively waiting for the little girl to finish drinking from the bottle.
“Good for kids to walk.”
“Good for everyone,” said the woman.
“I could walk forever,” said Sid.
“You better get started. Forever goes quick,” said the woman.
“That’s funny,” said Sid.
“What’s your name?” asked the woman.
“Sid Green. You look like someone. What’s your name?”
“What kind of name is that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You look like my stepmother.”
“Oh,” said Ruth.
“Yeah, she was a good woman,” Sid lied.
Ruth shifted her weight and leaned on the handles of the stroller.
“You have some free time?” she asked.
“Yeah,” said Sid.
“I could use a favor.” She coughed.
“Well, I think I should let you know, I can’t go anywhere without my dog,” said Sid, stroking his beard.
“Where is he?” asked Ruth, looking intently at him. He was a person of interest now that he had a dog. Sid smiled inside, thinking of the irony.
“There he is,” said Sid, glancing the dog out of the corner of his eye. It was like the dog was suddenly interested in Sid also. It was funny how he was leveraging himself back into the complications of daily living. Sid squinted into the distance as the dog approached. He didn’t trust any of it.
“There you go, boy. I got you some food,” said Sid, ripping open the bag of puppy chow on the bench next to him. He scooped inside with his hand and brought out a handful of dried tidbits. Some spilled on the ground, and the dog leaped on the morsels with great speed.
“Wow. For a puppy he’s really hungry,” said Ruth.
“Yeah, he is,” said Sid.
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought of it yet.”
“Okay. I’ll get to the point.” She laughed a scratchy laugh as if she had a throat infection, some nasal drip. “You help me move a treadmill, and I’ll get you some food.”
Ruth explained her situation, attempting to sweeten the deal with personal revelations. Jaydee, an older gentleman, had decided recently to move to Arizona. Jaydee had somehow gotten his hands on a van he’d been converting with the idea that they could all drive out there together, but there had been a problem with the frame. It was incorrigibly rotted at several points, so he’d gone on his own on Southwest without her and Leesha. The van’s location was unknown, but it had probably been scrapped. Jaydee was trying to get fit, trying to get clean. He thought they all could use a new start in Arizona. They probably could. The nub of her request was that Jaydee had left a treadmill in the kitchen of her apartment. Ruth was trying to sell it but needed help moving it down the stairs in the entrance.
“You think he’s meaning to come back?” asked Sid.
“Does that really matter?”
“I know you’re trying to forget him, but it helps to know what he intended. I mean it’s technically still his.”
“Who’s it help?” she asked.
“Who’s it help, that sort of thinking?”
“It’s not who. Just in general it’s better to do things right, don’t you think?”
“Right? What’s that? You think you know what right is? You need food, I need to move the damn treadmill. That’s what’s right. There ain’t no more than that, big guy. Is there?”
“Listen, I don’t want to sit and argue with you. I’d like to help. As soon as we figure out what Jaydee meant to do.”
“But I need help now. I’m not kidding about that. Screw Jaydee. He ain’t coming back. He’d sell his mother if she wasn’t nailed down.”
There was something in her eyes that Sid hadn’t seen in a long time, a sort of fierceness that appealed to Sid’s memories.
“I said I’d help.”
“You did? When?”
“You can wait for your dog.”
“No, let’s go. Now. ” Sid stood, pitching a little to one side. The woman and the child seemed to size him up, both of them a little startled at how far up he’d stood with the sudden change of mind.
“But what about the dog?” insisted Ruth.
“He’ll figure it out,” said Sid, not wanting to think about the dog anymore. The dog was an opportunist, like all creatures, and not worth a second thought. If he thought about the dog anymore he would get stuck. That was how his mind worked. But then he saw the dog playing with the geese by the water. He felt remorse, and was reminded of the difficult choices he would be forced to make every day. It was almost better in the correctional facility, where he had one overriding objective, to numb himself in any way possible. There were all sorts of ways, walking in circles in the cell, listening to the voices in his head. Getting drugs, the most effective and popular sedatives in the correctional facility, usually entailed some simple transactions that never involved emotional entanglements. Here now it was different. Here everything was involved all at once. It was paralyzingly complex for a big man, and somehow shameful. He longed for some of those pills again to take him away, even if just for an instant, even for just an edge on the sense of losing.
They left the park up some steps to a gate and through it to the street. They walked uphill, Sid straggling behind Ruth as she pushed Leesha and chatted distractingly to the child. Sid looked back and saw the dog poking out of the gate. He reached into the bag of puppy chow and dropped a couple of pieces on the sidewalk. In this way, he enticed the dog to follow. A name came to him: Rover. It fit because it entailed adventure, his as well as the dogs, even though Sid had never been one to stray, really. Only in his mind, and even then in a limited fashion, because he got lost easily. The Beothuk, similarly, had reached the eastern shores of the land. They had stayed for thousands of years always with the sun in the morning water. He felt better walking between the dog and the woman and her child, and when Rover went out ahead of him on the sidewalk, Sid looked out over his domain and was pleased.
They stopped at a small, dark house with stained clapboards and a vintage Toyota around the side, its rusting rims on cement blocks. Ruth got Leesha out of the stroller, and the little girl ran heartily around on the wet, moss-covered paving stones to the back porch. Sid was surprised by her burst of energy. He was breathing heavily.
“This is it,” said Ruth, looking back at him.
Sid stared at her as if he were lost.
“Come in,” she said.
Sid walked up to the back door where Ruth waited, holding the screechy screen door open.
“The dog can come in, too,” she said, “Come on, dog,” she called.
“His name is Rover,” said Sid.
“That’s a nice name,” said Ruth proudly.
The screen door slammed.
Sid felt awkward inside the apartment. Ruth told him where to go, how to stand, when to lift the treadmill. They got it down the stairs to the foyer beside the unused front door. Sid pushed the dog out of the way with his boot. He watched pedestrians in the afternoon through the fogged yellow square of glass in the front door. He was inside.
He had scraped his hand on the bannister. It was bleeding on the shag carpeting. Ruth pushed him over to the kitchen sink. She gave him some paper from a toilet roll next to the sink, and he wiped the blood away where it had pooled on the linoleum of the dark kitchen. He sat at the kitchen island for a long time holding the toilet paper around his hand. Ruth vaped some in the living room, and Leesha fell asleep in a makeshift hammock devised with a scarf and some hooks in the doorway of a utility closet under the stairs.
Ruth came over and offered him a hit.
“Thanks,” said Sid, inhaling deeply.
“It’ll help with the pain,” she said.
She stroked his hand.
“You were a big help,” said Ruth. Sid looked her in the eyes. She smiled. They made love, moving to the sofa in the living room. Sid blacked out, and when he realized it, he had his good hand around her neck on the shag carpet. She was writhing beneath him. He lay there on top of her, trembling. Ruth continued to pleasure herself. At last she trembled wildly. Sid rolled over. He was so excited that he could do it again. After nineteen years, getting off with a woman was a big moment and he wanted to repeat it as soon as possible. Ruth did what she could. Sid’s bad hand throbbed in a dull pain.
Afterwards, she showed him pictures of Notre Dame on her phone. It was burning. The spire had collapsed. She thought it would make him feel better.
“That shit’s too bad,” said Sid.
“Bad things happen.”
“Yeah, they do.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, Sid?”
“D’you just kill ‘em?”
“Hey, don’t say that.”
Sid sat up and found his pants.
“Look, I was just kidding,” said Ruth.
He pulled his pants on. Then he rummaged around on the floor until he found his boots under the sofa. He sat on the floor pulling them on with just the one hand.
“Where are you going?” asked Ruth. She was peering at him from the sofa, sitting with a blanket over her, arms crossed judgmentally.
“I don’t know,” answered Sid, sounding pained, suddenly far away.
“You don’t have to go. You can stay here, you know.”
“I can’t stay here,” said Sid, anguish apparent in his voice.
“Why not? What is it?”
“What it is is I just spent nineteen years in jail. Nineteen fucking years for a crime I didn’t do. Okay? I didn’t do it. But I couldn’t prove it.”
Sid sniffed. His boots were hard to get on. He stood up and tried to stand into them, but the weight hurt his feet, and he sat on the end of the sofa.
“That’s okay.” Ruth wanted to comfort him.
But Sid was back on the boat launch behind the church. He had been there many times in his mind in the intervening years. The air coming off the river was cold and wet. The roar of the water blanked out any thoughts, and above the branches of the trees to the west the moon sat in the dawn light, an evil crescent mocking him with its missing piece, as if it was his brain. He was soaking wet and Meg was not there.
The canoe was on its side in the river, pinned against rocks in a sandy spit below.
“That’s where she should be,” he thought. The thought, the sureness of its recurrence, was the only proof, the article of faith that cemented his blameless soul. She must have fallen out when they overturned, hit her head on a rock in the rapids and washed downstream where the police search and rescue team found her later in the day in the late afternoon sun, on the muddy bank, under a highway bridge. They raced down there in a squad car with the full alarm going. He’d crashed through the undergrowth ahead of two cops. It was the last time he’d moved so fast, but it was too late. Her bloated body, her swollen face, the flies -- he had never gotten over the burn of it on him. He had tried to explain that to the petrified faces of the parole board.
In nineteen years, what Sid could safely say was that his interior life continued to bear its forked stamp and continued to prove crooked. Despite the strain, the contradiction between what he knew and what they knew, life went on. For nineteen years, it went on like the river, flowing from its mysterious sources and on into the wild, unknowable galactic ocean, the universal mouth of everything, from where it would one day return and begin again in some mysterious process that was like the moon, like his brain. And now it was no different besides the fact that he, the Sid Green that had taken up space uselessly and at public expense for so long that he had mistaken it for eternity, had now popped free at last like a water-logged stick, like a swamped canoe from the ice-blocked current and swept downstream to a new country, around a bend where the Beothuk could once again breathe in secret, hidden from the genocidal strain that had spread over the skin of the Earth.
Sid went back to the park, but two days later was there in the afternoon to help when the man arrived to pick up the treadmill. He said it was for his wife who was training for a five kilometer race. She had hurt her knee. The orthopedic specialist had recommended starting the rehab with slow runs on a treadmill. The man was driving a Subaru wagon with the back seats down. Sid carried the treadmill over to the car, dragging it swiftly across the paving stones and the bumps in the curb. He hefted one end into the trunk and pushed the rest of it in with his hands. He didn’t know what to say to the man when he handed him the check.
“Is everything good?” asked the man, noticing that Sid was studying the check.
“It’s fine,” said Sid.
“It’s crazy that we’re still using checks. You know, in Europe they just don’t exist. Gone completely over to, like Venmo and what have you,” said the man. Sid stared at him.
“It’s fine,” he repeated. “She’ll be happy it’s gone.”
Ruth was sitting in the kitchen feeding Leesha. Rover looked up and barked when Sid came in the back door. He handed Ruth the check.
“Oh, good. I’m so happy it’s out of here at last,” said Ruth.
“Well, I’ll be on my way,” said Sid.
“No you don’t,” said Ruth. “You’ll stay for dinner. I’m making your favorite.”
“What is that?”
“Mac and cheese.”
“How’d you know?”
“And turkey breast. It was on sale at Market Basket.”
“How’d you know?”
“You told me, Sid. You don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember shit. My mind is fouled up, Ruth.”
“Sit down and have some tea.”
“I don’t drink tea.”
“Play with Leesha.”
“I don’t play with little girls.”
“Jesus Christ. Stop being a douchebag.”
“I’ll play with Rover. He remember me?”
“He does. He goes back to the park to find you every morning.”
Sid stayed that night, and that next morning tried to explain to Ruth what he felt. It came down to the fact that he was drawn to the past more than the future. He tried to explain that the arrow of time was drawing in the opposite direction in his own mind, and the repercussions would make it difficult for anyone who tried to bring him into a life of any ordinary sort.
“Why is that?” Ruth asked, sipping patiently at a mug of tea. She didn’t have to be at work until ten that morning. She worked at the Pacha Mama, the boutique on Main Street that sold green home products and also did custom framing.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just looking for answers. Somebody else calling out with the answers like some crazy-assed Bingo game.”
“Could you meet me downtown with Leesha?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can get you some answers.”
Sid wondered why Ruth didn’t have a television hooked up. She spent a lot of money on Internet service. It seemed like she wasn’t doing the best she could to live the dream. She was constantly afraid of the rent going up, of losing hours at Pacha Mama. Afraid that Leesha was sick. Sid wondered what he could do to make her less afraid, but there were a lot of things he didn’t know. He didn’t trust his own brain.
He found a stack of magazines in the utility closet and was going through them with some interest. They probably belonged to some earlier tenant, even perhaps to the landlord. Ruth described him as a retired optometrist who lived in Franklin and flipped houses on the side with the help of his wife. He read about the Kardashian sisters. He read about the friendship between Obama and Biden. It was like in jail when he’d eavesdropped on conversations between some of the inmates about the Red Sox or about protein supplements. It was all helpful coloration that he could use, maybe later in life, in some new incarnation. You had to swim in the current.
Leesha only slept for half an hour. After that Sid took her for a walk to the park and back. Sid pushed her in the stroller and left Rover off the leash. He only got into trouble once when Rover chased a jogger for a few hundred feet before getting distracted by some piles of leaves. Leesha was content as long as she had a bottle of apple juice or some snackable on the tray in front of her. Sid wondered how long he could hold out in this routine. He tried to relax, sitting on the bench where he’d apparently stopped spending nights, breathing deeply, not thinking about the pile of wasted opportunities rotting in his wake. He knew that with enough time and space, his mind would reverse course and begin casting back, flitting from branch to branch of some tree that connected to the root, the source of his unhappy disease. Everything else was a distraction and would eventually be jettisoned. He was just too strong and too wild. He sat like a rock, immobilized by his self-aware imagination. The world stilled around him, as if he were imperceptibly bending force fields.
It is raining. It must be a metal roof, because the pinging of the rain is deafening. Also, the constant background buzz of a busy bar, bottles clinking, hysterical mid-range laughing, basso profundo shouting of a scrum ranged along the counter. You are seated somewhere in the depths, not too far from the bar. You are aware that it is busy. The crowd mostly taking refuge from the rain. It is early nighttime, hot and humid. The water is gurgling off the roof and pretty rapidly sinking through the asphalt and concrete to subterranean sinkholes and passing to bedrock. The voices echo the rain, words gurgling through ear holes and worming their way through the inner ear and timpani to the grey sponge of minds. Your companion leans in conspiratorially. The night is full of secrets, as if the rain laid bare a network of tendrils.
She had stones. That’s how she kept us from getting thirsty. We went day and night. Started out when the sun was starting to go down. She gave us a stone. Put it in our hands and closed our fingers around them. Her hand was always wet after driving because she was nervous. We went through the checkpoints, and she was always nervous. She had a permit because she was a botanist. She had a degree from the University of Freiburg in botanical science. But they didn’t allow her to test her theories. Why? Because she was a woman. Grandfather had been shot by the Russians trying to escape from one of the labor camps after the war. They were always suspicious of her allegiance. She had no cause. You were her justification.
She said that plants could communicate with each other. That was her thing, the one thing that she knew was true and nobody else would believe it. We’d go for hours at night with the stone in our mouth, silent, trying to breathe easy. The trees were thin, young pines on the sides of hills. Stars poking in between the tops. We’d get to the top, a ridge at tree line where you could see the field of stars opening up at eye level, growing. Like that feeling when you’re about to faint, but the opposite.Consciousness growing in you like a tree as the field of stars expands. And she would suddenly stop and say ‘Hor zu, kinder.’ Just the two of us, You and me. You could hear things. It was true. I don’t know if we all heard the same things. Though it is possible.
In the morning when you returned, the old man was asleep. You were always wet with nerves and exhaustion. The nerves from her. You felt everything she did. Not sure we all heard the same things at the mountain tops, but we felt the same things, the nervous exhaustion because what she was planning was impossible, what she believed was impossible and she couldn’t share it with anybody, not even us. She would only allow you to take the stone out when you were back inside the apartment and you could hear the snores of your father.
The soldiers stationed in Krumlov got used to seeing us every night. They started calling us the night scientists when they stopped us in the old station wagon, the Volga M-22 that she had because she was a professor, not full tenure but on the faculty at the University of West Bohemia, pretty respected for her lab work. She kept her theories about plant communication to herself. They would look inside and shine their flashlights on you asleep in the back seat.
‘The night scientist is sleeping well tonight. Research going okay?’
‘About right,’ she would say, her hands clenching the steering wheel as if the car might get away from her, which was quite possible given the vagaries of the car’s manual transmission.
Then they would wave her through, and it was another night at home in the apartment, cleaning up after father, hiding the bottles in the closet under the spare sheets, hiding the bruises under makeup, hiding her secret behind your stone, your expressionless face in school when the teacher prodded you with his finger in the side as he walked down the rows.
‘Wake up Pietrowicz. This is not the country club. The Jews aren’t coming to clean up after you and manicure the greens,’ he would say. He was a real bastard, that teacher. Some said he was a survivor of Stalingrad. He taught rhetoric and Latin to the middle school boys. You remember ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.’
One night she had you put the cat in a plastic carrying case and packed one light bag with a change of clothes for you and a few dresses. On top of everything she packed a paper shopping bag with some apples, a roll of bread and some hard cheese.
‘Hast du die katz?’
And you produced the carrying case with Charlemagne mewing inside half contentedly because he liked you.
We drove and drove what seemed hours on those one lane roads twisting through field and forest and villages at sunset to Pohorska Vez. We parked in a dirt lot next to an old house, a once formidable estate. She said it had been the summer home of a famous violinist. I can’t remember his name. It was a ruin, gate half off its hinges, swallows flitting in and out of the windows. There was a sign next to the road designating the forest a public good, a resource for recreation.
You asked: ‘Are we going into the house, Mutti?’
‘No, Henry. We are going to Austria. You will never see your father again,’ she said. Checking both ways on the road before hauling out the bag and the carrying case with Charlemagne inside. You took the carrying case. I took the bag because I was older and had refrained from asking her the silly question about the house even though I had been the first to think it.
‘Hold one moment,’ she said. ‘I almost forgot.’
She took the stones from her purse and handed one to you, curling your fingers around it silently, looking you in the eye carefully for understanding. Now it was time for quiet. The sun had almost disappeared in a final late summer blaze of fire behind some dead trees. You looked at me.
In that instant, I lowered the bag off my shoulder to the ground. I understood that was the way it was going to be. Just you and her going on without me once again. I began to run. Back down the road, to Pohorska Vez. Slowly at first and then gaining speed, like water coming to a boil, Henry. But no, not you. You went on. Like a fool, Henry. On and on, you still go.
Sid shook his head. He pushed the stroller with Leesha asleep in it along the sidewalk and managed to drag Rover behind, constantly stopping to smell and explore. He looked at the people downtown whom he passed on the sidewalk. Old age crept up on them every day, like a rising tide. Even here, in the midst of an afternoon in the full blow of summer, the Earth was sucking its spiral tentacles from the inside of every cell, carrying out the old task, taking here and giving there in the name of the nameless. Splitting and sifting. Sid pushed through the crowd. The homeless people sitting in a doorway looked up at him. They were trying, everyone was trying to resist.
Sid had to remind himself that he’d just come out of jail after nineteen years. It already seemed that long ago. Leesha and Rover were as alive to him as anything or anybody ever had been. That is to say he wasn’t sure they weren’t a mirage, a projection thrown up by the void where everything was always falling apart even when it seemed the most beautiful and alive. The streets were of course a falsification and meant nothing. Worse than a dream. Snatches of conversation were carried by the wind.
“It was always a joke. They could have asked.”
“Nuts on her. She is so unhappy. When do the people get a say?”
“China has got the edge on us. They have years and years to do whatever.”
Leesha stirred. She raised her head off the bar where she had rested. Rover took advantage of a momentary halt to run around to the back of a woman and jump up on her calves. She leaned forward, taking the shock.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” grumbled Sid, tugging at the leash imperiously. The woman shook her head and half-grinned. She was wearing a business skirt and coat despite the heat. An office worker, perhaps, in one of the law firms that dotted the downtown. To the east, behind the streets, the Merrimack flowed widely green and sinuous, carving out a path patiently, like a mother for itself. Sid wondered how to blow the moment up, how to make it apparent that everybody was drugged out on the dream. Everyone’s pain was the same. Everyone knew.
There was no blowing it up. You had no choice but to be afraid.
Ruth was there. Outside the shop. Sid saw her first, before she spotted them. He leaned over and looked at Leesha as he pushed. He wondered if she could see that far up the sidewalk. Ruth was with another woman, younger, more subdued in her appearance. Where Ruth was small, wiry, with an intensity, a nervous energy that seemed, even at a distance, to be barely contained, this other woman was large-boned and mild-mannered. Ruth spoke with her hands fluttering animatedly in the air. They had a life of their own. Sid smiled to himself. When he was close enough to come alongside the two, he stopped and straightened, putting his hands in his pockets. With his boot he pressed the lever locking the wheel on the stroller. Without skipping a beat, Ruth bent down and picked Leesha out of the stroller, hoisting her up in her arms.
“Hi there, bootsie. How’s Leesha? Yes, you are so right to be angry. How many times have those guys been wrong?”
“Many. But this time…” said the other woman.
“No different. Hi Sid.”
Sid smiled. He leaned down and rubbed Rover behind the ears. Rover lay down and rolled over so Sid could scratch his belly.
“Good boy,” said Sid.
“Was it okay today?” asked Ruth, bopping Leesha up and down in her arms and swinging her around. “Wooh,” she went, and Leesha half-smiled.
“I think so. I gave her the lunch like you said and she had a nap after we went to the park.”
“That’s good. Did you have a nap?”
“Nah, I can’t sleep in the day. I had a look at the stove. I think I know what’s wrong. The front ring needs to be replaced.”
“You figured that out?” asked Ruth.
“Hope that’s right. The stove sucks at our house, Lesli,” she said.
“Tell the landlord,” said Lesli.
“Sid is very good with stuff like that.”
Lesli smiled. Ruth stopped swinging Leesha.
“Hi there. You just moved in?” said Lesli.
“Yeah,” said Sid. He stood straight again and put his hands back in his pockets.
“He’s still getting used to stuff,” said Ruth.
“That’s good,” said Lesli, smiling at Sid. “What’s number one on the list, Sid?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Sid. She sounded like a counselor, a social service worker.
“Getting sleep. Regular sleep pattern,” answered Ruth for him.
“Well, that’s hard ‘cause Leesha always wakes up and wants to come to bed. So…” said Sid.
“Hey,” said Ruth.
“Peter doesn’t sleep at night. Never has,” said Lesli.
“Where is he now?” asked Ruth.
“He’s still around. Heading down to Charlotte anyday. You know,” said Lesli.
“You want to do a reading, Sid? She can do a reading for you,” said Ruth.
“What’s that?” asked Sid.
“Looking at something you have. If the conditions are good,” said Lesli.
“What is it you’re looking at?” asked Sid.
“Colors,” said Lesli.
“Colors,” repeated Sid.
“We all got them, Sid. Energy patterns,” said Ruth.
“Sure,” said Sid.
Ruth and Lesli looked at each other.
Lesli’s car was parked on one of the streets behind the YMCA. Sid got in the back seat with Rover and Leesha, holding Rover in his lap to make room for all the junk on the floor of the car. Lesli had the radio on some pop station that went on when the car started. A voice was selling cars. Lesli turned the radio off. The car synced to her phone, and she called her house. Someone answered, a young man’s voice.
“Hello, Lesli? Are you on your way? Is it too late to ask?”
“Yes, Boyd. It’s too late. I have people in the car.”
“Oh. Well,” said the voice.
“I’ll see you soon,” responded Lesli.
The house was on a long stretch of broken down asphalt going into dense woods, a forest of old hemlock with twisted, scattered branches cluttering the undergrowth and bittersweet vines climbing the mossy trunks. A low ranch of barn-board siding, with a cinder block chimney at one corner that looked like it might topple. Wind chimes clinked on a small, rotting porch. Lesli tried a key, and then the door opened.
“I put the water on and the noodles in,” said the boy who had opened the door. He was wide shouldered and short.
“How long ago?” asked Lesli, pushing past him.
“About ten minutes,” shouted the boy into the black of the house where she had gone.
“These are my friends, Boyd, let them in,” she shouted back.
“Oh,” said Boyd, laughing at himself. He stepped out onto the porch and made way as Ruth pushed Leesha by the shoulders.
Rover started to bark and pull on the leash. Sid let him off the leash and followed back down the porch steps as the dog ran off to inspect the areas beyond the edge of the dirt driveway. There were muttering voices as the door closed. Sid looked at the sky between the trees. The Beothuk had been worshipers of the dawn’s light. The other tribes of the forest disappeared, but the Beothuk had held out. North was through the trees. Inward, through his heart, was a path littered with debris and dead wood. Rover sniffed at his feet and seemed content to sit on his haunches.
They gathered in the living room, with Sid and Lesli facing each other on the floor surrounded by an assortment of candles set upright and burning in various glasses and bottle caps. On one of the walls hung some guitars and on another was draped a lacy sort of fabric. Lesli began by running her hands around Sid without touching. She closed her eyes. Boyd hit the dimmer switch and sat again on a rumpled mattress with Ruth and Leesha. Ruth held Rover and tried to calm him by breathing smoke into his face.
After a long time of running her hands and studying Sid, Lesli sat back on her heels and faced him. Sid was getting sleepy, fighting to retain his concentration.
“There’s a light around you, Sid,” she said.
“Yeah. What’s that mean?”
“Ghosts. Some call them shadows, banshees.”
“Yeah. I guess I need an exorcist. You’ve done what you could,” said Sid, smiling.
“Well. The old souls have something to tell you and you need to figure out what it is.”
“Can’t we just ignore them?”
“What is it they want from you?” asked Lesli.
“They want me to behave myself,” said Sid, after a moment’s consideration. “I already know that. I can tell you what they want. They want me to give up fornicating and fighting.”
“Yeah. Okay. Do you want me to do a reading? Try to get a sense of who’s here with you right now?”
“Sure,” said Sid.
“Lie down,” commanded Lesli.
The candles flickered as Sid put himself on his back. He closed his eyes. Lying there for awhile, he felt silence invading his body like a balm, driving out the disorderly confusion of his jumbled thoughts. He opened his eyes. The light of the candles was like water lapping at him in a shallow.
“No. I can’t locate anything right now,” said Lesli. Sid sat up. Disappointment registered in her eyes. Sid felt sorry for her.
“That’s too bad,” he said.
“Look, Sid. I want to help you. I’ll do anything I can.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“I mean it. I want you to know I’m here to help if you need me.”
“Well, thanks. Maybe it’s not so bad.” Sid made to stand up. It was over.
“No, it’s bad,” said Lesli. She restrained him, urging him to sit back down on the floor.
“You need to do what you can, otherwise it will destroy you. Write down your dreams. Wake up early every day. Write them down no matter how silly or vague they seem.”
After they ate, Boyd and Lesli played music on guitars, sitting on tree stumps they brought in from the hall next to the front door. They set the bowls of ramen and the remaining loaf of homemade bread aside and brought out some beer Boyd had made. Boyd sang some John Prine and Miranda Lambert songs. Lesli could do the intro to Over the Hills and Far Away.
“Ta-da-da-da, da-dee-da-da-da... Hey lady,” sang Sid. Lesli and Ruth smiled.
“No, that’s good, Sid,” said Boyd.
Sid tried Lesli’s idea of waking up early to write down his dreams. The problem he found was that his dreams were slippery. They morphed in the second between Ruth’s alarm and when he raised his head with the conscious thought that it was him dreaming and not the dream that contained him in it. Had those been seals or was it a flock of birds? Ruth gave him a spiral bound notebook, and he began to jot down notes in it despite the uncertainty that the words matched in any way what had mostly slipped away. The words were like the dregs at the bottom of a wine bottle that had set too long. They metastasized on their own, fermented, and threw out radiating rings of fungal growth reaching for a light that did not exist in this realm. To Sid, the words he wrote down had an incantatory power that matched that of his strange dreams. He realized that logic was a weak weapon as compared to the synergistic toxins of the mind leaching out through his fingers as he wrote. The more he wrote, the stronger the dreams became. But he could never remember them. They slipped away when he raised his head from the pillow. But then, in the middle of the day, he could see them, sometimes very clearly. He explained this to Ruth. By then it was August, and they were in the middle of a heat wave. And Ruth was tired, so very tired. She was losing patience with Sid. He had such a strong back and such a weak mind. The world was arranged in such a way that his options were limited. She tried to explain that to him, but Sid was having a hard time adjusting to the contingencies of daily living, never mind the unregimented proximity to other people.
“Look I really feel it. I’m getting close to a breakthrough. I…”
“Sid, you can work at Market Basket and still write down your dreams.”
“But sometimes they come to me late in the day.”
“What are you trying to do? Look it was my idea to get you help. But really, do you think this is the way, Sid?”
“If just one person helps themselves, Ruth. It could save the world.”
“You’re such a big, strong guy now. What are you gonna do when you’re old?”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Hey. I’ve got a 401K with Pacha Mama.”
“But how about Leesha.”
“She’s on Medicaid.”
“That’s bullshit. She’s not on Medicaid and you know it. You’re not looking out for anyone. At least I take Leesha to the park once in a while,” said Sid, defensively.
“Leesha likes you.”
“Bullshit.” said Sid.
“She told me. I know she likes you. Not like Jaydee. You didn’t know him.”
“Yeah, thank God. The one with the treadmill. He didn’t treat you very nice. Look how he took off for Arizona without you.”
“You don’t treat me very nice either, Sid.”
“What do you mean? I do things for you here. And Rover’s a good watch dog.”
“Rover is useless.”
“Sometimes I feel like beating the shit out of you,” said Sid.
“If you even lay a finger on me it’ll be the last thing you do,” she growled.
When Sid and Ruth made love, the sofa tended to slide into the middle of the floor. This time one of the legs broke off, and the whole thing began to rock precariously. Sid muffled Ruth’s mouth with his hand, and she bit him hard.
“Ow, “ said Sid. Ruth began to laugh. It brought their lovemaking to a halt momentarily. When they were finished, lying in each other’s arms in the doorway to the kitchen, they noticed that there was a strong smell of dogshit coming from the other side of the island.
“Goddamned Rover,” yelled Ruth. “I’m not cleaning it.” She stood up.
“Sid, you need to get a job,” she said. “Or get on disability.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Sid.
Ruth nagged for several days, and finally Sid showered and walked up Loudon Road and past the airport to the Department of Health and Human Services offices mid-morning on a Thursday to try to get enrolled in some kind of program. He took a number and waited to see the woman through the window. She gave him a form to fill out. Sid didn’t have a pen. He asked someone in line for a pen to fill out the form and sat at a long, fold-out table in the back. The metal seat screeched loudly, but nobody turned to look at him.
Some of the questions were troubling. He didn’t know what to write for former employment and thought Ruth could advise him as well as the woman in the window. So he folded the papers, stuck them in the back pocket of the green slacks of the correctional facility, and walked slowly past the airport and back down the hill, nursing his left foot with a slight limp. In the correctional facility there had been no hills to walk up or down. He tried to put the pain out of his mind, but it was like a dog, constantly jumping up on him with its demands for attention.
The waters of the Merrimack flowed under the bridge with a relentless power that soothed him, even as it reminded him of everything that was insurmountable in his life. If he looked back, if he cast himself back, there had been a child and seasons and adults that had struggled with forces that to the younger Sid had seemed distant but now were very visible. His father had not been a great parent. His mother had disappeared, but not before leaving an impression of regret and hunger running in her blood for generations. Along the banks, in the city land behind the ice arena, Sid could see the tents of the homeless. This encampment he could see through the trees and the plastic tarps dragging in the branches were the detritus of the storms that had pushed the people out on a journey with purpose, when the Earth had still been young and beckoned with greater hope.
Regarding the paperwork from the DHHS, Ruth had an initial reaction of disappointment that reminded Sid of Yolanda, the way she would be overcome with dark moods when news came of his peccadilloes in high school, his attempts to win friends and earn the respect of the criminal element by defying the norms and talking back to people. He took out the papers from his pocket as Ruth screeched at the way they came out messy and dinged up. They were just papers. They were meant to be mistreated.
“Look, Ruth,” said Sid. “I don’t think they’re gonna help me much anyway.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s not what I need.”
“What do you need, Sid?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, while you figure it out, what about what I need? Some money for groceries would go a long way.”
Ruth went about just filling the boxes with information, even if it seemed impossible. For former employment, Ruth had him put down the laundry room of the correctional facility where Sid had for an indeterminate while folded sheets and stacked shelves with soap. She went online and found a name for the warden and had him write that down as a contact. She spelled out the name for him. She kept reading as Sid paused and watched her.
“Sid. There were dress codes for visitors. You couldn’t wear see-through clothing of any kind. Did you get visitors, Sid?”
“Just once my brother came. That was a few years after I went in.”
“I would have visited you. And I would have worn see-through clothing. Under my coat.”
“You would have?”
“Why not? They have a problem with the female body?”
“I would have loved that.”
“You didn’t have much contact with women, did you?”
“No, not much.”
“What was it like?”
“Yeah. I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Did you have friends, Sid?”
“Not really, no.”
“Why didn’t your parents come to visit?”
“I don’t know. I guess maybe they were ashamed of me.”
“Aw, Sid. I’m sorry. They shouldn’t have been. You were innocent.”
Sid didn’t like talking about his past. Ruth tried to get as much out of him as she could, whenever he was unaware of providing information. She found out about Steve being an artist when they were going past the art supply store on Main Street.
And Sid said, “that’s The Flying Lovers.”
“How do you know?” asked Ruth.
“Steve told me.”
Sid had learned about famous artists from his father. Steve had really admired the abstract expressionists like Chagall and Kandinsky, who worked from subconscious forces in their lives by a process that ironically involved remembering dreams, just like Sid was doing.
Similarly, she learned that they’d used to raise chickens when Sid said something about the eggs she cracked into a bowl to make pancakes from scratch one Sunday morning.
“Those eggs look pale as shit. Not like the eggs we used to get,” said Sid.
“Sid, where did you live? Before jail.”
“Don’t know, somewhere the fuck up north,” said Sid. “Loonberg.”
Ruth got on her phone after the pancake breakfast and started reading out the road names. “Perley Hill Road. Sanborn Road. Needle Shop Road?”
“Nope, nope, nope. Just give up. It’s useless. I don’t remember squat,” said Sid. He was lying on the floor playing with Rover, who had one of his boots in his mouth and was attempting to chew on it.
“Sid, we need to go up there and find it.”
“Look, it’s never going to be the same,” Sid groaned.
“It’s what it is. You go back, you find your house, your parents. It’s a block in your brain, your memories, everything.”
“You never tell me about you. What about your parents?”
“I told you. They live in Bedford. They’re divorced. My father works at Sam’s Club. My mother’s a para at the high school.”
“That’s so fuckin’ normal.”
“What about your old boyfriends? You never tell me, for example. Who’s Leesha’s father?”
“Leesha’s not even mine.”
“Yeah. Her circumstances were very bad, Sid.”
“I’ll tell you someday.”
Sid looked at Leesha. She seemed to grimace, one eye dimming with sadness at some distant memory. Then she jumped off the sofa.
“Okay,” said Sid. “Let’s do it.”
“Do what, Sid?”
“Go home. To Loonberg."