One Day With Him

One Day With Him
Erik Schmahl

This is my least favorite part of the year: there is a last gasp, a last telepathic moment before the invisible wire connecting us goes slack, sometimes for months. He says something about the way a beam of light has illuminated a small section of water. I won’t see it, because I’ve gone. And I won’t see the rest of the confluences of elements that will occur this summer, because I’ve gone. But it seems important to him to tell me about this one phenomenon among many. It’s denial, perhaps, or just an ending fitter than the one we had. Don’t forget to write had been the gist of it, and something inaudible about Neil Young before I rounded the corner of his house and out of sight, for months, possibly a year. He smiled, and I held onto that, it being our last communication of sorts. Then he surprised me by writing a postscript, about the sun, which was the centerpiece of each day, and how it had suddenly shut off like electricity, and the day had gone on, overcast and warm.

In the old days — we all use that term too much around there — the weather was never the focal point. Conversation was, so much that we often wouldn’t notice the sunset until it had long gone, as satellites began to emerge on the horizon, and then stars. We would raise up the binoculars to the brightest lights, and steady them long enough to see the shapes were oblong, bird-like, but man-made.

Now he needs something additional to get to that place where words drown out less important senses like sight and smell. I don’t, but I follow his lead. I want to be on that plane with him. So we take an equal amount of hits of the same joint and walk and walk, so quickly and fluidly that it feels like we’re in a car. The road is black. No streetlights, though the road is traveled enough by farmers that the town finally paved it last year.

The bullfrogs in the adjacent crop field croaked, but it sounded more like boing. I didn’t know what they were. He had to tell me, in the tone he usually reserves for natural concerns: knowing, blasé, the attitude of a man raised on a hundred quiet acres shared with deer, pheasants and bears, and his neighbors’ chickens and peacocks. “Bullfrogs,” he says, as if it had been obvious.

The previous day, bushwhacking through a little-known coastal trail concealed by a burst of vegetative growth following too much summer rain, we encountered an injured bird. I had to point it out to him, since he had been sloshing his 200 pounds determinedly through the trail, looking straight ahead all the time.

“And millions more just like it,” he said. When we realized it was hurt he said he would have to kill it to put it out of its misery. I didn’t want that, didn’t want his hands to have done that, but I walked away so he could, startled again by his command of the earth. This year he had also grown a vegetable garden on those hundred acres: squash, cucumbers, lettuce, beets, peppers. When he disappeared for a few days, it was to tend to the vegetables, dream up ways to ward off the deer and caterpillars from the cucumbers.

But he spared the bird in the end, or harmed it even further, who can say, by resting it on top of a bush. “At least now it will have a view,” he said. We had successfully conflated human wants and animal needs. All our well-meaning actions in nature felt then as inconsequential as our negligent actions were destructive. When he slipped on the way down the steep, rocky path leading to the beach, it seemed proof we weren’t meant to be there. There were ropes there to help us, but they mostly just burned our palms and we tried to clamber down quickly, to prove to each other how agile we were.

The beach was a shadowy pebble-filled cove overlooking a haunting phenomenon: the meeting of two bodies of water. It was just the time of day when the bigger body was surging into the smaller one, as dictated by the moon. We watched a whorl of gray water gather around the piece of land that jutted out into the sea in the shape of a dog’s tail. It was this tail that gave the park its name. I said it would be something to swim in there, to be shoved against one’s will out to sea. It would tear you to shreds, he said.

I sat on the trunk of a fallen pine as he tried to throw rocks into a milk crate that had washed ashore. I was annoyed that he seemed to always have to be moving: driving, digging, weeding, running, throwing. My preferred state was inertia. None of the rocks made it in. Then he selected a flat, discus-shaped rock that hit the side of the crate. Good enough: time to hike back up to the land above. I took a photo of him just before he released the stone, and it froze him in a pose that reminded me of the famous Greek statue, the Diskobolus of Myron. Looking at the photo reluctantly later, I thought of a Michelangelo drawing in a museum I’d seen months before. I’d thought that had looked like him too, that his body had been designed to ancient standards. I looked for him in everything. It was such an old practice that it happened unconsciously.

As the driver that day, he held the power: over how to get from one point to another, over how fast to go, over how quickly or gradually to end the outing. His chosen speed was, not surprisingly for him, too fast: fifth gear. He blasted his music, music that I had thought to be mine, music that I thought he couldn’t possibly be a fan of. But when I wasn’t paying attention he’d pulled his ears out of the past and now knew more about contemporary music than I did. Only if for a night. His hair, sweaty before, had been blown back into its usual neat, wavy shape by the wind coming through the sunroof. His skin glowed. Time seemingly couldn’t touch him. He turned his head every so often towards me. I focused on his fingers tapping the rhythm of the music on the gearshift.

I hated that his car, like these few days we’d had together, was a capsule floating, protected and separate, through the wider world, a world in which we were supposed to be participating responsibly and ardently. But what was “supposed to” in the grand scheme of things? I hadn’t been living the way I wanted to, and I had been particularly conscious of death lately. He was there to take my mind off both things. I knew I was a better person for knowing him and a better person for having had this time with him. I just had to prove it. Unfortunately I only cared about proving it to him.

When we reached a familiar landmark, a landmark that indicated we were almost home, he abruptly veered off the paved road onto the private dirt roads that cut through the farmland. Enough time for two or three more songs, he said. I had to remind myself once again not to take his kindness too personally. I was leaving soon, hoisting my armor down onto my shoulders.

On the dark road that night, our town, three miles away as the crow flies, looked impossibly bright, like an oil refinery viewed from a highway. He reached his arm around me just to hand me one of the dog’s leashes and I thought: he is the same with everyone, constant and dependable, inured to admiration, or at least inured to mine. What did his love look like? I had no idea. Weeks before he’d told me he liked girls with Scottish accents. I’d rolled my eyes. I knew how deep his mind could really go: these languorous weeks and the music that he’d chosen to accompany them had proven it. And I knew how deep I could go, and I wanted him to know.

But the weed seemed to have turned our minds to stone. We walked rhythmically to some decisive point on the road and then turned and walked back to the unavoidable end of the night. Soon it would start raining, and the rain would be a curtain brought down on us.

A year had made a lot of difference. I was too old now to think the end of this was the end of everything, as I used to as a teenager. I would still leave, as I had then, with grease in my hair, my fingernails ragged and long, my clothes smelling like the iron-rich sand, but I no longer felt powerless. Up in the sky that afternoon, the clouds were stacked like stalagmites, gaseous little castles obscuring the land below. It was a tradition of mine to sit on the right side of the plane and watch our body of water and the mitten-shaped piece of land we had traversed countless times this year: by foot, by pickup truck, by bike, as it receded. But today I was almost relieved not to be able to see it.

I thought of the strange man from the town my father grew up in, the one who’d liked to walk briskly at the very edge of the sidewalk, his hands clasped behind his back, and mutter decisive-sounding things to himself. His most famous utterance, quoted often by my grandmother: We mustn’t be filled with vague longings. TC mark

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