So, you were saying?
— Yes. I was saying that eventually I arrived at a crossroads. I looked for a sign but didn’t find one. I decided to wait until someone passed through.
And did someone?
— No. I waited a long time. No one came.
What were you thinking?
— I was at a loss.
Did you consider just turning around?
— Yes, of course. I knew what lay behind me. I had no idea what lay ahead, in any of the three other directions.
But to go back …
— I know.
And then again, not to go back …
— I know. I think it comes down to what kind of person you are.
You mean …
— Here’s someone who can’t imagine turning around. It’s the only option she won’t even consider. Here’s someone else who can’t imagine making any other choice, under those circumstances.
I suppose. But isn’t there a third type?
— Tell me.
The person who can’t or won’t make any choice at all. Who just sits there at the crossroads, not deciding, waiting for something to happen.
— Yes. That sounds right.
In the end, what did you do?
— I’ll tell you in a moment. But first, tell me what you would have done in my place.
Flipped a coin, I guess.
— I continued in the same direction. Do you want to know why?
Yes, of course.
— Well, it certainly wasn’t because I had any idea at all where it would take me. And I had no reason to believe that turning right or left wouldn’t have been a better choice.
— Because in the absence of any external guide, all we have is what’s inside us.
Which is what, for you?
— Belief in the importance of constancy. Of being steadfast. Of persistence.
Why is constancy important?
— Because without it, nothing else is possible.
Over the years, he had blazed a trail, tamed it, improved it. Now it carries him zigzag up the slope without difficulty, even in the darkness. Deftly sidestepping boulders, wending among the ancient trees, it asks nothing of his conscious thought. And so he can let his mind run ahead, upward to the top of the ridge and then beyond it, out into the empty air and across the shadowy valley to the lights at the limit of his vision, flickering evidence of things not seen.
Not seen and not missed, in the early days. From his lookout he used to gaze upon their campfires with revulsion. There it was, what he had fled: casual cruelty, ruthless striving, pathetic self-justification. They carried it with them like a disease. In the newness of his solitude, reveling in his escape, he sat night after night upon the high rock and drew deep into his lungs the purity of the chill air, as the black flames of the Milky Way coiled and writhed above him.
In those early days, he still woke to a fierce, immolating anger. It raged inside him, a holocaust, steadily hollowing him out. All through that time he continued to scramble and stagger up the slope behind his shelter. He was greedy for a sight of their distant lanterns, bobbing up and down as those murderous pilgrims, those missionaries of doom fed themselves and bedded down for the night. That was his sustenance, his nights of enraged watching. If they left him sour and haggard, he thought at the time, so be it. His hatred was the only thing keeping him alive.
That changed, because time passed. His heartbeat slowed to match the rhythm of his days, the desperate work of survival giving way to empty hours, during which the wind stirred the leaves of the aspens, and sunlight warmed the lichen-covered stones of his hut. He lay in wait; he drowsed in birdsong. He collected firewood; he watched snow melt over the fire. He doctored himself; he idly counted the countless shades of green in early spring. Systole, diastole, in ceaseless alternation. And so the seasons arrived and departed. The moon waxed and it waned. He slept and he waked. Only the deep-rooted mountain itself was unchanging.
Some of his minutes felt like months, and many of his years passed like seconds.
Now as he turns and turns up the switchbacks, he must tamp down the expectation that from the summit, he will glimpse a light in the distance. Headlights these days, of course, not the firelight of yore. Someone lost, he always supposed, too frightened to stop for the night, inching along a faintly visible track in this forgotten wilderness. This rugged land over which those long-ago wayfarers journeyed, whose hopes and plans he so despised and occasionally pitied. These days he feels differently, though. These days he wonders whether he had it wrong. Maybe it was never isolation he was seeking. Maybe, during all the many years of his lonesome life on this mountaintop, he was waiting. But for what? He couldn’t say.
Midmorning, midweek in Middle America. Single-story brick house, midway down the street. Black mailbox, dented and empty. Nondescript front door, and behind it a living room. Weary white walls, tan carpet, upholstered sofa centered below a framed picture: painting of a snug cabin beside a river, deer grazing, hillside smeared with red and orange. Seated in the middle of this sofa, directly below the picture, is a man. Average height, neither fat nor thin, eyes like muddy water. Like the bottom of a grocery bag. Like the featureless landscape on the edge of this anyplace, stretching away from four lanes of truck exhaust and greasy fried chicken.
In front of the man, on his pine coffee table, is a single piece of paper. On this paper is a numbered list. Through each entry on that list, save one, a black line.
At the moment, the silence in the house, along the street, and in the neighborhood is complete: no dogs protesting their chainlink captivity, dust motes drifting and swirling without sound. But what about the hum of the refrigerator? It’s hushed, too. Sometime during the night this quiet rose from deep within the earth, passed through the floorboards, filled all the rooms of the house, and eventually spilled out in rolling clouds, stunning the songbirds all over town, which in their dismay fluffed their feathers and twisted their tiny heads back and forth, back and forth.
The man sits pen in hand, and the world waits. It can’t do otherwise, can it? Every moment is both an end and a beginning. A newborn squalls, a star explodes. A woman walks out and doesn’t look back. The last in a species dies. Someone thinks, “Ah yes, that’s it.” So, wait. Give him time. The pen is there in his hand, and the paper is on the table.
At the top of the page, a single word: AMENDS.
He’s thinking about something that happened when he was still in school. He was asked to write an essay on courage. When the teacher returned it, he saw that she’d commented, “This is an essay on cowardice, not courage.” Then she kept him after class and asked whether he understood. He didn’t understand, but he told her he did.
And that’s been his life, he realizes: not understanding, but trying to pretend he does.
Meanwhile, far above him, above his weedy backyard, above the empty streets of his neighborhood, above the cracked parking lots and crack houses and crackpots of his town, a passenger jet surfs a strong tailwind on its way from LAX to JFK. It’ll arrive early. The New Yorkers on the flight will make their way home by car or train. “I’m home,” she’ll call out as she shuts and locks the front door. He’ll stop at the kennel to pick up his dog. The others, the Los Angelenos and the rest of the passengers, will wait to board their connecting flights, or they’ll climb out of taxis at Manhattan hotels, eager to get checked in so that they can be sure to get dinner before curtain time.
At the moment, though, all of those people are 35,000 feet above, directly above, the man on the sofa, the one holding the pen, looking at a list on a piece of paper, and thinking about courage.
The truth is that he understands more than he thinks he does. About courage, that is. Minutes earlier, after all, he dialed a number and let it ring. When a woman answered, he said into his phone, “Hello, Mom.” And then he said the rest, all that he’d called to say, the entirety of it, his voice quavery at first but stronger as he continued, a rare gleam visiting those lusterless eyes, and they all listened: the deer in the painting, that is, the stained chair in the corner, the dancing dust motes. They listened to him with real respect and even admiration — if only he knew.
Leaning forward, the man draws a line through the last name on his list. Somewhere nearby, a dog barks.
At night, only ever at night, they arrived in twos and threes. The tinkly bell at the main gate announced them. I waited to hear Jesse’s door open and close. The murmur of his questions, their answers. If he refused them, they went away. Otherwise the hinges sang out, and they shuffled in. With them came their silent lamentation. Memories of chill mornings on empty stomachs, river crossings, shallow graves. Smells, too. Campfire smoke, unwashed bodies.
Jesse would get them settled. Jesse would make a record of their arrival. Jesse was competence itself.
Naturally, the Authority always knew, and each morning after a new arrival, it would dispatch a team. We heard them coming long before they reached us. Just past Dry Creek they’d abandon their rovers and begin climbing the mesa on foot. Soon there’d be at least one standing outside each gate. There they’d stay, a silent menace, until sometime after nightfall, when they crept back down. The sudden roar of their rovers in the darkness was terrifying to the children. The Authority knew it would be.
Once I asked Jesse what it’d been like, being selected to work for the Authority.
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember?”
“Do you remember anything from your earlier life?”
“Not even your mother’s face?”
Of course I knew that we would eventually run out of space. Most days, though, I managed not to think too far ahead. Which was helpful, as the work was endless. The more recent arrivals needed food and medical care. The children who had been with us for a while, if we were lax about their deprogramming, tended to regress. Those who had completely returned to themselves, I trained to work with the others. All that, not to mention the hundred mundane tasks associated with supplying and defending our Masada.
Tillie was a great help with those. She’d been one of the first to arrive, years before, leading her younger sister out of the Containment. In those early days, I had no clear idea what was happening there, and so I was baffled by the children’s behavior. Tillie would sit and mumble to herself, softly, monotonously. She’d chant real and nonsense words, with a fondness for the ‘z’ sound: “laser hazer razor taser, laser hazer razor taser …” Or it might be that she’d echo something I’d just said to her: “brush your hair, brush your hair …” She also made odd movements of her arms and hands, as if she were miming over and over the same fragment of some action. In contrast to this flow of sound and motion from her older sister, Anna never spoke a word during her brief time with us. Nor did she move of her own volition, and if one of us moved her, she remained in that exact position afterward, no matter how contorted.
Later, I asked Tillie what she remembered from that nightmarish time.
“I remember everything. It was strange. Some part of my mind was unaffected. It was up on some high place, looking down on the rest of me.”
“And what were you thinking?”
“I saw that you and the others were trying to help us. I didn’t want you to stop, especially for Anna’s sake. I couldn’t tell you that, though. I couldn’t even thank you. Because I knew, somehow I knew, that if I stopped saying those words, I’d never find my way back. I’m sure I seemed crazy. I don’t know if this will explain it, but do you know how, when you glance up at some clouds, you suddenly see a face? Or the shape of an animal? Well, from the inside, so to speak, everything I said made sense to me. Every cloud had a familiar shape.”
“What about the way you moved your hands? It was like part of a dance.”
“No, it wasn’t dancing. I guess you could say I was working. It was like I had built a wall to protect us from the Authority. Anna and me. My wall kept collapsing, and so I had to keep rebuilding it. Over and over and over.”
“But you were already safe inside these walls. Real walls.”
“The wall I was building when I first arrived was real. And it was going to be higher, so much higher and stronger than yours. It had to be.”
When I recounted this conversation to Jesse, not long after he himself joined me on the mesa, this is what he told me:
“The Authority calls it the Gift.”
“I don’t understand. How can …”
“They’re programmed for it. The children.”
“But why? Why on earth …”
“The system requires randomness. Without it, the Authority will, as it were, devour itself. I suppose you could say that the children, the children in this condition, are the Authority’s final problem to solve. As long as it is working on the solution, as long as it’s searching for a pattern in the randomness, the world as we know it continues. When the Authority’s calculations come to an end, so does the system.”
“What about Anna? Was she given the Gift, too?”
“No. Anna was a mistake. A glitch.”
In the years that followed, when we weren’t struggling to invent new ways to shelter still more children, I had ample time to perform my own calculations, calculations on the problem of evil. The numbers, though, never added up. No equation ever produced an answer. In the end, I stopped trying to understand what, it seemed, could not be understood, and instead I lay in the dark, listening for the faint ringing of the bell, the hesitant knocking at the gate.
The counterfeit minister’s remarks, from inside the casket, sounded a bit like the protests from his own outraged stomach.
“Heavenly Father” — he’d give it one more try — “creator of heaven and earth, lord of all, please assist me in nudging that snack cake down near my knee within reach of my hand.”
Nothing doing. Coffins weren’t roomy, it turned out.
Oh, well. Things could be worse.
Well, not much worse. But he hadn’t needed to piss yet. So chalk that up in the plus column.
Also, ever since his phone battery died — it’d probably been a bad idea to watch those episodes of The Great British Baking Show — he’d been getting a lot of thinking done. He’d decided, for example, that it was a mistake to quit that job shining shoes at the airport. There was a lot to be said for working with people. He’d met some interesting ones. To wit, the dominatrix who’d handed him an electric razor and barked at him to shave her legs, while she talked dirty to some guy in Wichita or wherever. In the end, though, it came down to what it always came down to. He got bored and quit. He went from shining shoes to semi-professional dumpster diving (scrambling to meet quotas set by an enterprising dope pusher named Mister Mistuh), from dumpster diving to bagging groceries at Sprouts, from bagging groceries to …
And then there was his mother. She was sitting just a few feet away, of course, in the front pew maybe, next to his stepfather. In black? He was dead sure she didn’t own a single black garment. Had she borrowed something from Aunt Sheila? No, lying there in the complete darkness, swaddled in the taffeta lining of the casket, he knew exactly what she’d done: she’d dyed one of her old suits or dresses black, like her beloved Jackie did for JFK’s funeral. Anyway, the point was that he’d had time to ponder the true nature of his mother’s feelings for him: it was either pure hatred or callous indifference with a chaser of contempt. So far, he’d come up with seven reasons to support hatred, seven for indifference.
He needed a tiebreaker. He recalled the time he’d phoned her from the Mobile County Jail, where they were holding him for impersonating a peace officer (mostly innocent!) and fishing without a license (guilty as charged!).
“Hello, Mom, it’s me.”
But see, he thought, that one there could go either way.
In any case, he was going to have to lift the lid on this caper fairly soon. Even if his bladder held out, he wasn’t certain how long the air in here would last.
On the other hand — the one straining to reach that elusive Ding Dong — if he actually died, he wouldn’t have to argue for a refund on this coffin. It was bound to be a hassle.
He sighed. What did he have to live for? Maybe that was the way to approach it.
Unemployed. Unattached. Unmoored. Rooming with a plus-sized cammer whose customers paid her extra to caress an AR-15 rifle and quote scripture while wearing a hat that said “PATRIOT.”
And oh yeah, he was still fighting this long-running war of attrition with his mother, which some might say had gone plenty far enough. Had done years ago. For example, when she “forgot” to let him know that his father died, which he happened to hear about much later from someone who’d been at the funeral. Or when he crashed her wedding reception, accompanied by several of the regulars from Sam’s Stumble Inn, all of them wearing Jimmy Carter masks and not much besides.
So? What did he have to live for?
He liked that first bitter, scalding sip of coffee in the morning. He liked calling to mind something he’d seen from his car late one afternoon, as he drove past a playground: two little girls in adjacent swings and identical pigtails, leaning toward each other so that they could hold hands as they swayed up and back, up and back. He liked any solitary tree in a field, the way it refused to apologize for itself. He liked to wander the aisles at the big farmer’s market and let the music of all those strange languages wash over him.
In short, he liked standing at the edge of the fallen world and marveling at it. At the ludicrous, astonishing seriousness of human beings. At their striving, their hunger to believe, their crazy hopes.
Maybe that was enough? Yeah, maybe that was enough.
“It’s empty,” Arliss says, striking a kitchen match on his butt, which is a trick I seen too many times now.
“You sure?” says I. Because Arliss lies just about all the time. Once he told me why. We was driving through Pensacola. Arliss was sitting in the back seat with Howard, that dog we stole from somebody’s yard in Raleigh. Arliss called it a rescue operation. But that wasn’t true neither. He just liked the way this little furball was barking to beat all and jumping like it had springs in its legs. He done it like Arliss does everything. Smooth, just dropping his hand over the fence and catching that little yapper mid-jump. It took him two states to decide on “Howard,” though. Until then he just called it “Pooch.”
Anyway, like I said, we was in Pensacola, and I was reading road signs aloud for Arliss. He says it’s good exercise for his mental faculties. Arliss don’t ever listen to the radio. His mama was always listening to the radio, and Arliss still hates his mama even after all these years. But I’ll tell you something. I knew his mama and she was the sweetest lady you ever met. Arliss can be that way, though. He can hate the woman who give him birth and love a dog that pees whenever it gets excited, which is pretty much always.
So I read this one sign in front of a church in Pensacola that said, “Is Touching Yourself Worth An Eternity In Hell?” Arliss made me stop the car. He sat there thinking like he does, and then he told me to get out and rearrange the letters to say, “Ill Horny Tweeter Shun A Ninth Felicitous Orgy.”
“I got to break the glass to get at it,” I yelled back at him. “There’s a lock on this damn thing.”
“Go ahead. God don’t mind. He got plenty of other things to worry about.”
Well, I fixed it like he said, though it took me a few tries, with Arliss shouting to move this letter here and that one there, and then I got back in the driver’s seat, all set to go find a Shoney’s, which is where we like to eat whenever we get to a new place.
“I was at a orgy in a church once,” Arliss said. “Quiet down, Howard.”
“Which one?” I was thinking it was probably that one back home on Turkey Creek Road, because that’s where Dolores went.
“To tell you the truth, it was your daddy’s.”
Well, I known already Arliss was mostly crazy, but this was something special. A orgy at my daddy’s church? I tried to imagine old Mrs. Baker from the choir hootin’ and hollerin’ with her legs up in the air.
“Tell me this, Arliss. Why the hell do you lie so much?”
“I thought you done figured that out a long time ago, Zeke. It’s like this, see. A man comes into this world. He looks around hisself, and what he sees is nothing but bullshit. Just loads and loads of crap. It’s doo-doo coming and going. Caca here, caca there. Your preachers, your teachers, your goddamn street sweepers, all shoveling shit as fast as they can. ‘Repent and be saved!’ Bullshit. ‘If you will simply apply yourself, Arliss Glover, the sky’s the limit.’ Bull crap. ‘You can earn $500 a week working from home.’ Bull dookey. So here’s the way I see it, Zeke. We got a choice between getting buried in other people’s poo, or burying them in our own. Which ain’t much of a choice, when you really think about it.”
“I can see that. Which don’t explain why we’re burning down all these churches, though.”
“Don’t it? Well, maybe you’re right. I guess I just like them pretty flames against a big old night sky.”
So that’s what Arliss said that time in Pensacola about lying. I never asked him what I really wanted to know. Which is, why he had to keep on lying to me, even if he lied to everybody else. Maybe it just gets to be a habit, eventually.
“Yeah, Zeke, I’m sure it’s empty, like I been sure ever other time up to now. So let’s stick this match between Jesus’s toes and go see if we can find us a Shoney’s. I’m a have a slice of strawberry pie today.”
And it’s only when we pull into this parking lot at the Shoney’s that Arliss looks down at his feet, sits up and looks into the front passenger seat, reaches out with both hands and feels all around, and then asks me, “Where the hell is Howard?”
When the waters came, we sat in the twilight and listened to the voices. “Love” and “dear” and “forever” rode the evening air like birds in sure flight over a pathless sea.
When the waters came, we drew close and touched hands. Blood rose to meet blood, pulsing, quickening.
When the waters came, they came like the welling of bittersweet sorrow, like some faint memory emerging from a fathomless depth, silent, inexorable, and in starlight they had the luster of pearl, of waking power gently overlapping the broken but enduring land, making all form formless, rising and rising and finally converging with the sky there on the vanishing horizon, so that we grieved for the old tree that sheltered us at the edge of that rainswept pasture, and we grieved for that special stone our child clutched in his tiny hand, and we grieved for the nameless stream we crossed that day, you wild with laughter as I handed the boy across, your eyes dancing, raindrops like tears of joy on your face, “It’s all right, darling, I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” all this back when the world was young, continent newly riven from continent, with volcanoes flaring like beacon fires in the distance, with forests primeval and fenceless grasslands and myriads of herds and numberless flocks taking wing and blotting out the sun, everything radiant with promise, nothing to be forgotten, not ever, in the days before the waters came.
Yet the waters came. They came without surcease, without pity, and when the drear gray of dawn arrived, its frail light left our hearts cold, neither fearful nor hopeful but for the moment merely resigned, resigned to the way of things, how they come and go, arriving in Sunday dresses and Christmas stockings and parade floats and birth announcements, then departing with a sigh and a shrug, unsure what to think or feel, what it meant, and thus resigned we gathered a few belongings, old photographs and locks of hair, leaving all the rest to lie as they lay, and we set out, resolute, together, the ground rising ahead of us, the top of the hill closer with each step, until at length we stood on its crest, staring first in amazement at what had just moments earlier been purest mystery, then looking shyly, steadily, boldly into each other’s eyes.