The Beast God Forgot to Inventby Jim Harrison
“[These novellas] prove again that Harrison is our greatest non-writerly writer.” —Newsweek
The Sunday Times of London has called Jim Harrison “a writer with immortality in him” and The Washington Times has written that “Jim Harrison ought to be considered a national treasure.” In The Beast God Forgot to Invent, this American master gives us three novellas that sparkle with the generous humanity and seasoned wisdom of his vision.
These are stories of humans and beasts, of culture and wildness, of men driven crazy by longing and of men who dream they are becoming bears. In “The Beast God Forgot to Invent,” a man near the end of his life becomes part of an odd band of caretakers for a younger man whose brain has been damaged in a motorcycle accident, the civilization shaken out of him. Watching over this unmanned man, the hero becomes mindful of his own mortality and excess of civility. In “Westward Ho,” Brown Dog, a Michigan Indian, wanders the wilds of Los Angeles, tracking the ersatz Native activist with whom he fled the police in Michigan and who’s now disappeared with his bearskin. Ogling girls, sleeping in the botanic garden, and working as a driver to a drunk screenwriter, he eventually comes face-to-face with his ex-friend and with the difference between the world he’s been visiting and the world to which he’s going home. And in “I Forgot to Go to Spain,” an aging “alpha canine,” author of three dozen Bioprobes—hundred page disposable biographies—takes dinner with a woman to whom he was married for nine days in his overheated youth. Reminding him of his youthful dream of living in Spain as a poet, she forces him to examine who he’s become, whether he owns his life or it him.
Infused with Jim Harrison’s sly humor and quiet wisdom, these are stories with the expansive grace of the American landscape, urban and rural. This book is a resonant journey through the geography of masculinity from a writer in his prime.
“[These novellas] prove again that Harrison is our greatest non-writerly writer.” —Newsweek
“Three novellas, inhabited by the tough guys Harrison’s reader’s have learned to love and dread; but now they are older and more ruminative, aware of their mortality and half supposing that the right woman might save them. . . . What wins you over . . . is the big, wet, sloppy kiss Harrison continues to plant on the face of life itself.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Rich and exuberant . . . extraordinary . . . Reading Jim Harrison is about as close as one can come in contemporary fiction to experiencing the abundant pleasures of living.” —The Boston Globe
“Harrison has quietly established one of the deeper canons in modern American letters. The Beast God Forgot to Invent is a sparkling addition to its ranks.” —Denver Post
“The Beast God Forgot to Invent is a proud addition to the Harrison oeuvre. It is exhilarating to watch a master at work.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“One of our finest living writers.” —Dallas Morning News
“If the American male at the turn of the millennium has a voice, it is that of Jim Harrison. . . . There seems no doubt that his work will endure.” —Austin American-Statesman
“Three novellas . . . find the Michigan poet and novelist in his best form.” —The Detroit Free Press
“Jim Harrison is a writer of expansive appetite . . . ranging hungrily through genres like a vagrant at a wedding feast. . . . Now he’s back with a collection of three novellas, and Harrison has proven himself a master of this quirky literary form, combining a poetic playfulness with language with his audacious storyteller’s wit.” —The Seattle Times
“[Harrison’s] stories trip people—particularly men—to their intoxicating animal essence. . . . The Beast God Forgot to Invent is pure Harrison, a bone-jarring gallop over the landscape of masculinity.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Imbued with all the gravely melancholy of a Tom Waits ballad . . . prickly, coarse, and utterly lovable . . . Harrison has been prowling the literary edges for four decades now, stubbornly eluding the snares of critical reduction—including such dim taggings as ‘macho’ and ‘regional’—while producing a body of work so lushly idiosyncratic as to thwart even the gentlest efforts at classification. . . . With the publication of The Beast God Forgot to Invent, [Harrison’s earlier works] gain dazzling new company.” —Salon
“The magic of writing as good as Harrison’s is that it can bridge the gulf of human separation. This collection is saturated with delightful, energetic voices; rich with the captured turns of lively human thought, careening from trenchant humor, ranchy longings, ironic japes and philosophical questing. The total effect is an invigorating and provoking embrace of human contradictions.” —The Oregonian
“Harrison is a master. . . . Rejuvenation is often within grasp if we strive for it wholeheartedly enough, is Harrison’s theme here. He demonstrates it soundly with richly conceived characters whose intellectual perspectives, etched with wit and wisdom, propel their often bold actions.” —Santa Fe New Mexican
“Packed with familiar Harrisonian elements: strange and bold characters, good eats, and carnal desire.” —Outside
“Classic Harrison, rich with human insight, littered with references to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and D.H. Lawrence and focused on familiar themes of aging and regret.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Habitat suitable for living a full and natural life is . . . what we are all looking for. The tales that constitute The Beast God Forgot to Invent successfully couch that search in Jim Harrison’s unique and highly imaginative world.” —The Bloomsbury Review
“Tightly focused gems . . . As [a character] tells us around midnight in Paris, ‘I didn’t expect, after all, to become one of those men who could enter a bar, throw his hat, and hit the hat rack every time. As a matter of fact there are no more hats and hat racks.’ I’m not so sure. Jim Harrison hits the hat rack three for three with The Beast God Forgot to Invent.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Harrison’s fourth volume of novellas takes hold of you through the sweetly intoxicating influence and power of his narrative voices.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Harrison’s intricate symbolism and scathing observations of urban foibles, his sly humor and vibrant language remind readers that he is one of our most talented chroniclers of the masculine psyche, intellectual or not.” —Publishers Weekly
A Book Sense 76 Selection
The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense. The discounted sociologist Jared Schmitz, who was packed off from Harvard to a minor religious college in Missouri before earning tenure when a portion of his doctoral dissertation was proven fraudulent, stated that in a culture in the seventh stage of rabid consumerism the peripheral always subsumes the core, and the core disappears to the point that very few of the citizenry can recall its precise nature. Schmitz had stupidly confided to his lover, a graduate student, that he had in fact invented certain French and German data, and when he abandoned her for a Boston toe dancer this graduate student ratted on him. This is neither specifically here nor there to our story other than to present an amusing anecdote on the true nature of academic life. Also, of course, the poignant message of a culture spending its time as it spends its money; springing well beyond the elements of food, clothes, and shelter into the suffocating welter of the unnecessary that has become necessary.
So what? This is the question that truly haunts us, coming as it does at the nether end of any statement of consequence beyond the moment, as if grave matters must prove their essential worth in a competitive arena and not demanded of the meaningless activities that saturate human lives.
But I must move on because this is actually a statement offered to a coroner’s inquest in Munising, Michigan, the county seat of Alger County in the Upper Peninsula, concerning the death of a young man of my acquaintance, Joseph Lacort. Locally he was known as just plain Joe, and he drowned thirty miles out beyond the harbor mouth near Caribou Shoals in Lake Superior. Everyone thinks he was looking for his fat Labrador retriever, Marcia, who swam pointlessly after ducks and geese and there was a large flock of Canadian geese in the harbor that day. But then what sort of madman would swim all evening and all night looking for a dog? Joe would. Myself, I think Joe committed suicide, though I consider this a detail mostly pertinent to myself as his remaining relatives doubtless feel well shut of this troublesome creature. But then the word “suicide” is a banality that doesn’t fit this extraordinary situation. Perhaps he felt summoned by the mystical creatures he thought he had seen.
Before I forget, yes I do forget who I am, no longer a matter of particular interest to me, my name is Norman Arnz, and I’m sixty-seven years old. I’m semi-retired and from Chicago where I worked in commercial real estate and as a rare-book dealer. Not that it matters but I’m the only one in my larger family, none of whom I have any contact with—we share a mutual disregard—who readapted the family name “Arnz” after it was changed to “Arns” during the First World War when the Boche were a plague. My mother was mixed Scandinavian, so I’m a northern European mongrel.
I’ve spent summers in my cabin my entire life since my father bought the property while a mining engineer for Cleveland Cliffs in Marquette, Michigan, early in the Great Depression which has now filtered down into millions of little ones in our inhabitants. Excuse this modest joke, but then any product involved with depression has done very well on the market for those dedicated to this otiose poker game. When some clod begins a sentence with “my broker . . .” I immediately turn my back.
I told the coroner I couldn’t come to Munising because of failing health when, in fact, I avoid the village because of a melancholy love affair with a barmaid a decade ago in the last deliquescent flowering of my hormones. It was a love affair to me but a well-paying job to Gretel, not her real name of course, but then our miserable affair was public knowledge in Munising.
I took the precaution of phoning Chicago the other day to determine if whether Joe’s death was suicide or accidental had any bearing on the insurance money due his mother. It doesn’t. She’s an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, deeply involved in her third abysmal marriage, this time to a logger over in Iron Mountain. I knew her first slightly in the sixties—she grew up here—when she ran off with a nitwit Coast Guardsman who became Joe’s father for a brief time.
Before I get started I must say that the end of Joe’s life was his business. Swimming north in those cold, choppy waters I can imagine his croaking laughter, the only laughter he was capable of after his accident some two years before. The aftereffect of the motorcycle accident was called a traumatic brain injury, or a closed-head injury as there was no penetration by the beech tree he ran into while quite drunk. It was lucky indeed for the tavern owner that Joe’s last six-pack was consumed on the beach before he roared off on his Ducati. I could go on here about the pointlessly litigious nature of our culture but then would anyone listen? Of course not. Even my wife said soon after we divorced some twenty years ago that she looked forward to being married to someone who didn’t make long speeches or lectures during dinner. In fact my local friend Dick Rathbone, with whom I’ve been close since we were children, actually turns off his hearing aid when I begin one of my speeches. Luckily certain old retired men on short rations will listen to me at the tavern as long as I continue buying drinks.
Until his accident in his mid-thirties Joe owned an interest in three successful sporting goods stores in central Michigan which enabled him to spend his summers up here. I’ve heard different figures but I’d guess his entire net worth, some seven hundred fifty thousand dollars, was spent on his unsuccessful rehabilitation until last May when Dick Rathbone and his sister Edna kept an eye on him for the welfare department. Dick had worked as a lowly employee of the Department of Natural Resources for thirty or so years and it was his idea, quite brilliant I think, to attach telemetric devices to both Joe and Marcia to keep track of their whereabouts. Certain newcomers to the community thought it inhumane (whatever that could mean in view of the past century) but then newcomers are generally ignored on important matters because of the essential xenophobia of the human condition. Due to his impact with the beech tree, the flubbery rattle of the brain within its shell referred to technically as “coup contracoup,” Joe lost most of his ability at visual memory, even for faces such as his mother’s and my own, a deficiency called “prosopagnosia.” Joe’s very least problem was boredom because everything he saw he saw for the first time, over and over. Each of his dawns began as a brave new world, to borrow a phrase from Aldous Huxley whose first editions have remained curiously stagnant in price.
Sometimes Joe followed Marcia but most often she followed him. His nexus was the rather ornate birdbath in Dick Rathbone’s backyard. Joe carried a good Marine-surplus compass and another was pinned to his belt. My cabin was a hundred seventy-three degrees northeast of Rathbone’s birdbath, a matter of some five miles though this wasn’t relevant to Joe. I have it on good witness that in June near the summer solstice he walked all the way to Seney and back to get a particular kind of ice-cream bar that Dick’s sister had forgotten while grocery shopping, a round-trip of fifty miles which took about fourteen hours, a double marathon though Joe viewed his pace as leisurely. A park ranger at the nearby National Lakeshore had maintained Joe walked up and down the immense sand dunes at the same speed. When I asked him about this he clumsily explained that it was apparently due to his injury, and that he was helpless to change his gait which was a little problematical during his night walking due to the brush.
Frankly I didn’t care at all for him before his injury. Despite his financial success downstate he would become immediately loutish up here, aping his local friends. It’s hard enough to have your foot in one world, let alone two, and catering to egregious pricks out of childhood nostalgia is a poor way to conduct your life. He used to drink rather vast amounts of beer, which caused pointless quarrels with whatever girlfriend was visiting. The impulse behind this kind of beer drinking is mysterious. Dick Rathbone has supposed they actually like to piss which they will do a dozen times in an evening. I called an old friend in Chicago on this matter out of idle curiosity. This friend is a true rarity, a gay psychiatrist of Italian parentage named Roberto. I exclude his last name because the world is his closet, as it were. Oddly enough Roberto agreed with our humble Dick Rathbone, but I can’t really imagine the nature of this impulse. We all have our limits, don’t we? The will to pee, indeed.
Fairly early one morning in July Sonia, a registered nurse from Lansing and one of Joe’s girlfriends, showed up at my cabin saying she had agreed to meet him there. It was already warm and she wore an unnerving shorts and halter. When I brought her coffee I could see her nipples and when she drew her leg up on her chair I caught a glimpse of pubic hair. Unlike women in my younger days she was utterly nonchalant about exposing herself and I felt the mildest of buzzing sensations plus a certain giddiness I hadn’t known in years. Naturally I tried to determine immediately if this was a good or bad experience and came up with something between the two. We are mere victims, mere supplicants, in the face of what a Mexican friend calls the “divina enchilada.”
Her knees were more than a bit abraded and I retrieved some Bactine and cotton which she allowed me to administer with a smile. She said Joe had said he was walking up the small river, in the river at that, to visit the grave of an infant bear he had buried in late May. I asked her if she had fallen and she laughed heartily saying that Joe had “fucked” her relentlessly “dog style” on the beach which had been hard on her knees. Now I had met Sonia several times before but one would think this kind of information would be shared with only the closest of friends. I nodded and allowed myself a chuckle. Nurses do tend to be matter-of-fact because of their contiguity to death. After about fifteen minutes she asked if she could rest on the couch and assumed an even more daring position before she began the slightest of snores. Here I was, a prisoner in my own house, trying to read a previously fascinating botanical text but unable to pass through a couple of sentences without another look at Sonia. I admit at one point I knelt rather closely with a devil-may-care attitude toward getting caught. After all, it was my house.
And thus the morning passed until near noon when I fell asleep with my face pressed against the botanical text rather than something more interesting. I awoke to the sound of the shower and Marcia, Joe’s Labrador, barking loudly. I was slow to react, dreaming of all things of my favorite Chicago steakhouse, and damping a botanical plate with drool, when Sonia rushed past me in a towel. She stooped outside and petted Marcia who was obviously trying to get someone to follow her. My concern was leavened over the missing Joe somewhat by noting what a poor job the towel was doing covering Sonia. She was all for following Marcia which I advised to be a bad idea. Instead I called Dick Rathbone on my car cellular—there was no phone line to my cabin—and told him the problem. While we waited Sonia sat on a chair in her towel and began weeping. I stood beside her patting and rubbing her shoulders to comfort her. When a woman weeps I am desperately uncomfortable partly because neither my mother nor wife wept except on the rarest occasions. Sonia blubbered on about Joe’s absolutely hopeless condition which she certainly knew as a nurse. I began, of all things, to get an erection which would be obvious in my summer-weight chinos. I tried to move away but Sonia grabbed my arm weeping piteously then, noting my erection, gave it the brisk finger snap that nurses do, laughed, and called me an “old goat.” she dressed right smack in front of me with a boldly amused look, my heart aching with her insult.
Dick Rathbone arrived with his telemetric receiver and we set off down the tangled riverbank with Sonia and Marcia both choosing to wade and swim along beside us. We had gone perhaps a mile before we found Joe fast asleep on a sand spit near an eddy. Dick pointed out the cairn of stones upon the bank where Joe had buried the baby bear which its mother had destroyed, so said Dick, because one of its front legs was deformed. Joe had found this detail to be unendurable.
When Sonia shook him awake aided by Marcia’s face lapping, Joe announced that he had seen something quite extraordinary, a brand-new mammalian species, a beast that he didn’t know existed. Dick whispered to me about adjusting Joe’s medication, then asked kindly about the whereabouts of the tracks. Joe said the animal didn’t leave tracks but he knew the general area it favored, mentioning a location well to the south which I won’t identify now to preserve it from curiosity seekers. For her good intentions, Dick gave Marcia a number of biscuits, which he kept for that purpose. Marcia’s sole real fidelity was to Joe and anyone else was fair game. Once I met her near a woodlot on a back street of the village. She acted alarmed and enervated so I followed her and she led me persistently to the grocery store so that I might buy her a snack.
I wasn’t inclined to sit there near the sandbar and watch Joe go back to sleep so I left the chore to Sonia, Dick, and the faithful Marcia. I was amused to note that every time Dick glanced at Sonia his big, floppy ears reddened. It was with relief that I silently handed over the burden of lust to my old friend and headed upstream toward my cabin for lunch and a hard-earned nap. Sonia reminded me of a miserable poem by Robert Frost called “The Road Not Taken.”
Horrors! It’s only July and we’ve had three days of dense cold rain with the wind northwest out of Canada. The life has drained out of me onto the maple floor. A business partner from Nebraska once told me that I kept my “lid screwed on too tight.” Maybe so, but not that I’ve noticed except at times like now when the weather and my own contentious moods throw me for more than a loop. Dear Coroner, I loathe everything I’ve said but out of laziness I’m not changing a word. These are the first I’ve written in several days and I’ll try to get more directly at the heart of the matter which, of course, is no longer beating. Right now I feel that my human tank is drained and I am the sediment, the scum on the bottom, the excrescence of my own years. It occurs to me that the memory of Sonia sitting in the chair a few feet from where I am now may have precipitated this funk. Nothing so much torments a geezer as the thought of the unlived life. For some reason she summons up an image of a steelworker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.
And I want to be fair-minded with Joe. This, after all, isn’t about me but my departed young friend. There is ever so slight an aura around him now in my mind that must resemble the origin of some primitive religion. I just recalled one late June dawn when he arrived quite literally covered with mosquito and blackfly bites, muddy clothes, quite eager to show me the one-hundred thirty-seven water sounds he had logged in his notebook. What was I to make of this? Frankly it was interesting. Here was a man who quite literally saw everything for the first time every single day but had a quite extraordinary (a euphemism!) perception of the aural, if not the visual, though this is open to contention. The list of water sounds included the names of the creeks, rivers, lakes, also the morphology and weather conditions that had a part in their creation. I suppose all water may be perceived to be going downhill except in tidal situations where the receding tide is functionally going uphill to gather itself. There were a number of rubrics, squiggles, beside each item in Joe’s list to remind him of the actual sound which he insisted over breakfast he could actually re-hear. Joe bolted his food like Marcia who was scratching the door. I made her a plate of several fried eggs in bacon grease, her favorite. Did I say that Marcia also disappeared the night of Joe’s drowning? His body was eventually found, of course, dear Coroner. You have it, whatever it really is, in your possession. Marcia was never seen again and it’s unthinkable that a Labrador retriever could drown. Perhaps she joined his imaginary creatures, if indeed they could be termed “imaginary.” More than likely this happy lady was carried off in a tourist’s car.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The water-sound morning came just before Joe’s announcement about the discovery of a new beast. I had asked my psychiatrist friend, Roberto, in Chicago about the aural phenomena and he said closed-head injuries could indeed be boggling because the brain itself (one is tempted to say “herself” for a number of reasons) is so massively intricate. Roberto Fed Exed me a brain text which I found largely unreadable in its complexity. I simply couldn’t quite believe “that” thing was in my head.
Joe’s log of water sounds also made me wonder if nature, adequately perceived, is all that tame? I am perhaps not competent to conjecture in this area but who is to stop me? Professors only police each other and largely ignore the common man among which I number myself. Yesterday when the rain and blustery wind let up for a few minutes I replenished my bird feeder and found a dead evening grosbeak in the grass. For some reason I smelled its wet feathers and determined that it had only recently died. I shuddered at its lack of weight, though, of course, how else could it fly? I admired its sturdy beak and the amazing yellowish and beige feathers, the streak of white. I recalled the first time as a young man when I had been fortunate to cup a girl’s pussy in my right hand. A mystery indeed. I’m sure every man remembers this encounter with a sense of true “otherness.”
Let’s re-adjust again. I’ve added a log to the fireplace I could barely lift. It was beech but not from the tree Joe struck so carelessly. I’m quite tired of being a querulous old fuck and I am beginning to wonder if this persona isn’t simply another cultural imposition. Americans seem to love sporting metaphors and I have certainly rounded third base and am headed for home plate, which is a hole in the ground. Naturally I’d prefer to be “buried” in a tree on a platform or in a little oblong wood hut like members of Native tribes. I’m only ninety-nine percent sure that this doesn’t matter but the remaining one percent is troubling.
I can try to determine the nature of Joe by my observations and what he told me; also from the three notebooks he left me. Or so I think. But then it would be needlessly exhausting to defend the nature of my mind that creates the perceptions about Joe. These last three rainy days I have begun to perceive certain limitations I hadn’t sensed before and am unwilling to defend as virtuous. I am possibly less nifty than I thought. This won’t precipitate a depression as the rain has already managed that quite well, though I admit it has been a lucid, reductive pratfall, a threshold rain.
In July, for instance, Joe was visited by a young woman I found quite unpleasant for the first few days. This girl blew her nose more often than any other mortal due, she said, to an allergy of some sort. She was of normal height but quite slender, wearing the kind of floppy clothes that conceal the actual shape. She was a graduate student in comparative literature at Michigan State University, down in East Lansing, a school I know little about except that their teams are referred to as the Spartans and are in the Big Ten. I went to Northwestern myself and though it has an excellent scholastic reputation this fact did not reduce the torpor I felt as a student. There I go again. Who gives a flat fuck? I am scarcely interesting even to myself. I am the personification of Modern Man, the toy buyer who tries to thrive at the crossroads of his boredom.
Anyway, this girl, to whom I’ll give the name Ann, had none of the physical vibrancy of Sonia. She was, however, bitterly intelligent and quite helpful to Joe in collecting botanical specimens for me, a meaningless hobby I’ve had since a child. Due to Joe’s visual confusion he kept returning with the same specimens as the day or days before. I paid Joe five bucks apiece for anything new and one day with Ann’s help he made two hundred dollars. Despite Ann’s obvious intelligence, not necessarily a pleasant item, she was irrationally in love with him no matter his hopeless injury. What in God’s name does this mean? How can you continue to “love” someone with this sort of injury, who doesn’t physically recognize you when you get up in the morning, though memory resonances are there in conversation, touch, and probably odor.
My careless presumptions about her began to dissolve when I was standing in Dick Rathbone’s kitchen and he was describing how Joe and Ann had walked the Lake Superior shore over the Muskallonge Lake (twenty miles) and she had called him when the afternoon had become unpleasantly warm. We were looking out the back window into the garden, which surrounds the birdbath which is Joe’s navigational focus, when Ann and Joe came up from the beach. She picked up the hose, turned on the faucet, and sprayed the sand off Joe who did the same for her though the water had obviously turned colder. Ann shrieked, stumbled, then jumped over a stack of two sawhorses that Dick had left in the backyard near the small cabin that served as Joe’s quarters. Simple enough, but then I checked them out later and the sawhorses were three feet high. The mousy little girl was quite the jumper. What’s more she had the lithe power of a dancer which she turned out to have been several years before. While Dick was busy at the grill with his hallmark barbecued chicken I spoke to Ann about this, having admitted that she had startled me. She said I was the type that spent my life making false assumptions and presumptions about people, though she said so with a smile. True, I thought, though I didn’t say so. Instead I told her that when I was a very young man my mother hadn’t allowed any books of a sexual nature in the house, not even high-minded photographic books with nudes, but since she followed dance there were any number of books containing photos of ballerinas in the house and as the young used to say, these books “turned me on.” Ann was amused by this but then became unpleasant. Had I followed up my early obsession with ballerinas? No, of course not. Was I still attracted to them? Well, somewhat in the limited way an elderly gent is attracted to anyone. Oh bullshit, she said, I should have followed my desires, ballerinas are relatively easy as most of them could always use “sugar daddies.” Her own father had bored the whole family senseless by his “puttering.” She would have preferred he acted badly like Picasso (he taught painting at a university). To Ann her father’s maturity was a hoax and the fact that he gave up painting and drinking for home repairs was an impossible disappointment for her.
This made me uncomfortable enough to sidle over to Dick’s homemade barbecue machine and affect deep interest in the chickens. Ann, who was now wearing what I think is called a sarong, was helping Dick’s sister Edna set up the picnic for dinner. Joe was asleep on the grass using Marcia as a pillow as he often did. Ann sat down next to him and brushed his hair. It occurred to me then that she might be drawn to Joe because her father had apparently lost his wildness and that’s all that comprised Joe’s life. After a year and a half in and out of hospitals he had no intention of getting close to a hospital or a doctor again. But then it is presumptuous of me to say that he had any intentions at all other than what he simply “did.”
Dinner wasn’t pleasant for me except for the chicken and potato salad. Joe, as was his habit, ate an entire chicken in five minutes and went back to sleep. Edna covered him with netting to protect him from the early-evening mosquitoes. He twitched a lot and she wondered aloud if she should increase his medication. His pills made up quite a list, not that they had any positive effect other than to prevent something worse. Edna was amused when Ann began to pick on me over our dessert of fresh blueberry ice cream made with true unpasteurized Jersey cream Dick got from a friend over in Newberry.
Ann’s first caustic remark came over the matter of my being a rare-book dealer, mostly retired but with a hand still slightly into the business. She thought of us as necromancers and how could I poke fun at the stock market when I was essentially in the same business. Her somewhat daffy mother had sold a first edition of Frost’s North of Boston for fifty bucks to a dealer in order to buy her puttering geezer of a husband a special birthday present, a fraction of its worth. When Ann had found out she had gone to the dealer’s shop, waited until there were several other customers, and then read the dealer out in the vulgarest terms imaginable. She managed to extract another fifty bucks which she tore into confetti and threw in the dealer’s face.
This almost, but not quite, ruined my chicken. Guilty sweat trickled down my tummy over the memory of swindling a doddering academic wife out of her late husband’s Faulkner collection to add to my own large holdings of this peculiar author who reminds me of botany in that there are so many shapes and permutations in his work. I took a fine vacation in Paris by selling a duplicate of Soldier’s Pay for eight thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, I diverted Ann by guessing that she was a very late child so that by the time she reached adulthood she was very protective of her parents, in fact had probably become a parent to both of them. This wild, defensive guess electrified her to the point that the phrase “pissed off” was the mildest of euphemisms. She looked at me with the coldest contempt, woke up Joe, and led him into their cabin.
So now you’ve met Sonia and Ann and we’ve not seen the end of either. And there’s one more coming in August. To make things up with Ann I had my part-time secretary in Chicago send her my own copy of North of Boston, a generous gift in monetary terms though I have no fondness for the poet. Ann replied by sending me five hundred pages or so of material she collected off the Internet on closed-head injuries. This was an unwieldy and ghastly manuscript which, along with hard, scientific information from doctors specializing in the field, included hundreds of testaments from the injured themselves. Some of the latter simply made the heart flutter and ache, woeful tales of years of therapy with small chance of total recovery, but then any little advances were cause for family celebrations. The sheer numbers of the injured, of course, reflected the frequency of auto and motorcycle accidents, the Newtonian principle that an object in motion (your head) tends to remain in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced or unequal force (in Joe’s case, a massive gray beech tree).
But why would I be so overwhelmed by these stories, a sophisticated student of language, of the best of world literature not to speak of legal documents, histories, the best newspapers and magazines? The answer I suppose lay in the charm of folkloric stories, primitive or “naive” art, the origins of third-world music, the recorded oral tales of our own Natives. A trucker swerves to miss a school bus (of course!). There are massive head injuries and his head becomes a partially cooked rutabaga. His wife and five children bathe and feed him for years in their humble shack in southern Indiana. Gradual progress is made and after a decade of heroic effort by the family and doctors the trucker is able to give his daughter in marriage at a country church though his head lolls uncontrollably and he can only walk by shifting sideways. His grammar is poor indeed but he’s able to send his valiant story to the closed-head injury Web site because the trucking company gave him a laptop! He is able by himself to catch catfish from a stream near their home. His family loves fried catfish, his only possible contribution to their welfare. Jesus Christ, this tale floored me!
That sort of thing. Reading these stories by the dozens reminded me how nearly all of our printed discourse is faux Socratic and contentious, a discourse without nouns of color and taste, a worldwide septic tank of verbiage that is not causally related to the lives we hope to lead. It is the language of the enemy and politicians lead the pack, with this verbal shit spewing out of their mouths on every possible occasion. Analogic, ironic, what we call common usage leaking its viruses from between book covers.
Perhaps I’m being excessive but I doubt it. Anyway, after carefully reading the five hundred pages I sent the packet back to Ann saying I couldn’t bear to have it in my cabin, but not before Joe saw it on my kitchen counter. His verbal memory is sullied but not to the extent of his visual. To a certain minimal extent he can recall nouns referring to trees, birds, water, that sort of thing, but he can’t directly relate, say on a walk, the nouns to the actual people.
For instance he insisted in June on showing me a coyote den. At first I refused because, unless it’s quite windy, June walking involves blackflies which will turn you into a mass of itching welts. Of course I’ve noticed over the years that there have gradually been more reasons not to walk: too cold, too hot, mosquitoes, horseflies, deerflies, it’s raining, it’s too wet after a rain, or I’m too tired from reading, thinking, eating, twiddling my big thumbs (genetic).
Joe said that we could drive within a half mile of the place which was a fib. It was a full mile if not farther. The various bugs were savage in the damp, still air. Joe pointed to a white pine stump on a distant hillock that was partly surrounded by a nasty thicket of thornapple, a bush covered with two-inch thorns so sharp that a hunting friend had his penis speared to the hilt. I was using my expensive binoculars and saw nothing noteworthy. Joe who was without binoculars said he could see two noses poking from the dark hole at the base of the stump, and then a third smallish figure scooted into the hole. I missed this, too. The mother was watching us from beneath a chokecherry tree in lavish bloom. Joe stood behind me and I finally focused on the dim figure of the mother. Joe was upset because the pups evidently wouldn’t emerge because of my presence. He directed me to walk back to another hillock about three hundred yards toward my car. I sniffed the unpleasant air and he drew out a plastic sack of rank stew meat from his pocket with a smile.
When I reached my assigned position I glassed Joe walking purposefully but zigzagging, jumping, and laughing. When he reached the den he lay down and dumped the meat on his chest. After a minute or so the three pups emerged and fed off his chest, standing on his body and quarreling over the food. The mother was now sitting about thirty yards away watching the scene. After the meal Joe crawled around playing tag with the pups, and at one point a pup rode on his back while chewing on his shirt collar.
I must say that though these animals were neither tame nor trained I didn’t for some reason see the event as all that extraordinary. Coyotes owe their survival to their exceptional wariness. A naturalist acquaintance once told me that he suspected that for every coyote you see at least a dozen have seen you. So at the time it was amusing rather than impressive but then what did I really know about such matters? I had the slightest notion that the coyotes might trust Joe because he had become part of their world from which the rest of us are excluded for good reasons. And this particular species according to Native lore has quite the sense of humor. I might add that a Department of Interior game biologist I met told me that he had glassed Joe in early June walking alongside a smallish bear. This incident seemed troubling to him because the other two men who had accomplished this were professionals, like himself, in mammalian studies.