Chapter by chapter, I’ll be presenting my novella here at House of Water. The book is called The Indifference of Stars and it’s available as an eBook through Lulu for iPad, Nook, and as an eDoc.
This is part 4 0f 5.
The Indifference of Stars
by Eric M. Martin
Cathy left town like she said she would, all smiles and thank you’s, saying, “I feel like I’ve learned a lot here this summer. I’ll write to you Hannah, so you can let me know how you’re doing.”
But that wouldn’t be what she wrote for. Cathy would write to tell Hannah about her last year of college and her plans. She would write to share more of that secret news, which was always inside her, which rang the bells that hurried her through life, looking for the absurd so that she could laugh and smile with the world. And she would write to Hannah about those things.
Considering the difference in their positions, Hannah felt more remote from her family than she usually did at this time of year.
The memories came back. She drifted upon the current of lost time and was, in turn, lost in that time. During this spell, a new thought occurred to Hannah: I’m not coming back.
She began to associate her reminiscences with her dreams and the seed of wanderlust was growing in her like a piece of art. She felt like Henry Miller when he said that he was pregnant with his book. She too was pregnant with an idea.
With a fervor Hannah went through all the photos in the house, as if she needed to find an anchor there, to get her bearings in this storm of memory. The photos and the memories were not trips backwards. They were not the vehicle of escape into the past. This time they served to help open up the future.
A box full of pictures sat on the top shelf in the library. Hannah walked in and saw the place where the shit stain had been on the wall and ran her hand across it, caressing the memory. An urge to cry and say her goodbyes to this house exerted itself and stuck in her throat.
Hannah took down the box without bothering to wipe off the dust. It sagged with the weight of the photos. Her parents were on their morning walk now, walking in the autumn rain that played against the windows. The light was dim, even in the second living room, but it was better and brighter than the light in the library.
Inside the box, photos were stacked neatly in columns and rows, rubber-banded together in bundles. There must have been a thousand pictures.
She sat looking into the box, the lid sitting next to it, the house empty, the rain slowing down outside to a patter. Her heart was doing something strange. She was nervous.
A picture of Hannah and her mother at a park was at the top of one bundle of pictures. It was from San Diego. They were at a swing set, both wearing red windbreakers, and Hannah’s mother had a hold on the chains of the swing, in the act of pulling Hannah back and up before the push.
The park was unfamiliar, but their smiles in the picture were very real. Somehow, they were unfamiliar too. It was so long ago.
Hannah was probably only five years old in the picture. That was twenty years ago, she realized.
There were times that Hannah felt she had been alive forever, for a hundred or a thousand years, but right now she couldn’t believe that she had been alive long enough to look back at a picture of herself and count off twenty years between then and now.
An incredulous, hollow sadness bloomed in her and then was blown out by an amorphous urgency.
Life kept moving on and if she didn’t do something, she would be sitting here twenty years from now with the same hollowness, in her parents’ house in Big Sur, getting rained on.
Hannah looked up to see her parents shaking themselves at the back door trying to get a little dryer before they came in. Her father opened the door for her mother who stepped in, took one quick glance at her daughter and announced, “It’s that time of year again, Jack. Let’s start ordering the extra tea now before we run out.”
Then, as usual, they disappeared into their bedroom.
A few hours later sunlight began to weakly trickle through the clouds, but it was already evening. Sitting next to the box with rubber-banded bundles of photos spread around her on all sides, Hannah was going through the pictures one at a time. So far she had looked at three dozen bundles of pictures. Most of them were from the first five or six years of her life; some of them were taken of her parents before she was born.
The box was still more than half full. Hannah intended to take a close look at every single photo.
The deeper she went into the box, the further back in time she went too, though she didn’t wonder how far back the pictures went. There must be a limit.
“Hey, Hannah. Are you still looking at those pictures?”
Hannah looked up. It was her mother, coming in from the first living room, holding a glass of wine.
The pictures were in her hands, answering the question for her, so Hannah just nodded.
“No one has looked at these in ages,” said her mother. “And I don’t think I’ve taken a picture since we moved up here, believe it or not.”
“Yeah. I know. Do we even own a camera?”
Her mother shook her head “no”, her rich brown hair loose about her shoulders. Then she said what Hannah was thinking.
“You are beautiful, Hannah.”
“You are beautiful, Mom.”
Her mother smiled and tilted her head to the side and gave Hannah a long soft look in the eyes, like she was melting somewhere behind the eyes, becoming liquid.
Feeling slightly embarrassed, Hannah shuffled the pictures in her hands, more quickly than she had been moving through them before. Then she found one of her mother when she had been in her twenties.
She looked much like she did right now. Her face had no lines or wrinkles. Her hair was loose and free. She was smiling up into the camera.
“Who took this picture?”
“Your dad did,” she said and smiled her slow melting smile again, this time not looking at anything, lifting her face up to the memory, as if posing for the picture again.
Then she stopped. She looked at Hannah with all the tenderness gone and was remembering something entirely different than the happiness in the last photo.
“I had a miscarriage, Hannah. When I was 27. Not long after that picture was taken.”
“And?” Hannah said breathily, shocked.
Hannah’s mother sipped her wine and shook her head as if at a joke and looked outside at the ocean, way out at the edge of the world, smiling.
“Mom. You can’t just…You don’t just tell someone you had a miscarriage and leave it at that.”
“Oh,” she looked at Hannah again having come back from far away.
“I know. Ok.” She sipped from her wine glass again, slowly; then told the story in a few sentences, which was apparently all there was to tell. “Your father and I got married when I was pregnant with you. We were happy.
“When you were five, I was pregnant again. I, we, lost the baby. We stayed there, in San Diego, for a while because your dad was doing so well with the business. We thought we could put it behind us, get pregnant again, but it wasn’t that easy. So we moved up here. We almost lost each other there, for a while.”
Incredibly, Hannah’s mother smiled again, with her gaze fixed on a cloud. She smiled at the memory as at a past victory, which, Hannah supposed, it was. A victory over memories and time – but look where it brought them – to the edge of the sea, to the woods, to one of the smallest towns in America, into hiding.
But they were happy. Hannah didn’t have to ask if they were or not. They were.
The smile answered that question as well as a few others probably, but not the big question that lodged in her mind: What happened? Why had she lost the baby?
With a face lit up with the knowledge of success, even one that came at such a cost, Hannah’s mother looked pure.
She sat there, the picture in her lap, her mother smiling a few feet away, and she tried to connect these two identical people. The twenty-something beautiful woman and the forty-something version who looked almost exactly the same – Hannah struggled to put the two together in her mind. It should have been easy. It should have been automatic. But it would take years to actually see the thread of history.
They sat silently for a few moments until her mother got up and walked into the other living room and kept walking until Hannah heard the door of the bedroom open and close with a click. The picture of her mother was in her lap, smiling up at her as if now it was Hannah’s turn to take the picture.
There was never an end to the streets. They were beyond the physical plane.
Yes, of course, there was New Jersey, out there, in the physical distance, like some Sheol lying over the edge of the world. But, the streets, the quality of the streets would continue past that. There is no end to the world they represent. There is no end to the world they belong to.
In the spring it rains, water sluices back and forth across the city, carrying messages from gutter to gutter. Old newspapers cry out that they have found their homes in the alleys and they do not wish to be moved or read but just to have peace for the next millennium until eternity should fall from the sky with the rain.
Newly sharp sunlight hits the tops of people’s heads convincing them to take their hats off and get wet. They are anointed by the season and the city rejoices.
It is a baptism again and the new order has been sanctified.
The stones of the buildings cheer quietly and rhapsodize in wonder. The night will come again and in it the sound of trumpets. Jazz will anoint the night and the moon, the patron of the city’s rebirth, will call down too and tell the old newspapers not to wait on eternity.
Instead, a sustenance is expected to carry the People and Things of this city well along this next thousand years and then another, as long as the music plays and the streets go on and go on and go on.
In the new order there are no endings.
At the end of September Hannah had a long weekend, no work from Friday to Tuesday. In the morning on Friday, she filled up her gas tank and headed south for a day hike on the beach.
In Big Sur her car only got reception on a few radio stations, but going out of town south the radio picked up NPR. Hannah turned up the volume and listened to a re-run. Ira Glass was introducing the show when she tuned in. The first act was “the life of myth” and the second act was “the death of myth”.
A young man narrated the show. He had all of Mr. Glass’s idiosyncrasies of inflection, his guttural way of saying L’s, but it wasn’t Mr. Glass.
The story focused on a professor whose interview was the center and bulk of the story. He was a college professor from the Arkansas. His accent was British though and it turned out he was from the south of England. Mainly he focused on the resonance of the story of Odysseus in the contemporary world at large, and the contrary rejection of this myth in the American south. The professor decided to come up with a new project for himself.
He set up interviews with people from all over the county where the university was seated to ask them one question. What is the best and truest story you know?
The purpose was to distill, hopefully, a southern myth out of all the stories.
At one point the young man interviewing him asked, “So, because the culture of the south rejected the myth of Odysseus you thought they must have some other, alternative myth that was closer to their hearts?”
“Well, that is more or less the premise,” said the professor in his accent. “Cultures from all of recorded history have had a mythology, a developing mythology at that, a lexicon of stories, but there has always been a central myth as well. One that gives explanation to the life of that culture and which matches the actual lives of the people. It’s this last part that makes religion a difficult fit for the central or functional myth. You see?”
“You mean that it’s easier to believe in the story of a man who built a giant wooden horse and watched his ship’s crew get turned into animals, ate some of them, then watched them get turned back into men is an easier story to swallow than the one of a man being nailed to a cross?” the young man asked, in comic humility.
“On the face of it, both stories are difficult to believe for the fantastic elements they incorporate. But the issue is not the believability of the stories. The issue is how well the story matches that of the lives of a people.”
“Then, Professor Hutchinson, what is it that makes the story of the Odyssey so resonant with the cultures of the world at large?”
“Essentially it is a desire to return to a state where things are unchanging, where values are stable and the world does not heave up out of itself in fits and bouts of change at every turn. But that is what happens to Ulysses. And it is what happens to many of us in this contemporary world. It is the schism of modernism – the world we are born into is reshaped by change at every turn. We watch as technology advances, as national borders are re-drawn, as super-powers rise and fall, and we are tossed on the waves in this storm of change just like our hero, Odysseus, and we want, just as he did, to find a final shore – in life, mind you, not in an afterlife – where the changes will stop and we can breathe the calm air of our absolute home, our Ithaca.”
“And in the American south?”
“There is a complicated situation in the American south. The story that I heard, again and again, was one from childhood. Not everyone told this story; not everyone who told it told it the same way. Essentially the story consists of three parts. First, the story teller is a child who has wandered away from home, but is still inside his or her community, alone. This point is always the same. The child is alone in his or her home town. Second, the child witnesses an act or a sees an image out of the Old South, something that does not fit with the world that he or she is supposed to live in. It could be an act of violence, often it is, or it could be a picture of rural life that was assumed to be long gone. A man riding a wooden, rickety old wagon being pulled behind a mule, or something equally quaint. Finally, the child goes off to consider this – vision – and comes to the conclusion that Faulkner came to – the past is not gone, it is not even past. And the boundary between the Then and the Now is forever blurred.”
“How many people told this kind of story?”
“Dozens and dozens, Jeremy. Dozens and dozens.”
“And what does it mean?”
“Well, we see a kind of opposite dynamic from the Odysseus story. Instead of seeking out a world that does not change, the southerner finds himself, literally, discovers himself to be in a world that does not change. There is no seeking the unchanging absolute. It arrives, as it were, at the doorstep.”
The road was becoming straighter as Hannah continued south, the sea sometimes very close off to her right and at other times almost far enough to be out of sight. The hills to her left were empty and steep, covered with a golden grass and shaking in a bowing motion in the wind.
The radio program went on with a story narrated by a young female. She used Mr. Glass’s trademark inflections too, and managed to make the quiet gravity of her voice sound natural.
There were interviews here too with a woman grown early into old age. But her story was centered upon these few facts:
A young woman is girlfriend to a college star athlete. They met, classically, in a freshman biology class. She is Io. He is Zeus. She becomes pregnant after they have dated for just over a year and he is ready to “go pro”. The athlete’s agent gets wind of the girl and forces young Zeus to a decision. He is not ready to marry.
For over a decade, Io moves around the country, child in arms, poverty a gadfly in her side, moving to a new town every time Zeus moves to a new team, attending games sometimes.
Twenty years go by. The boy grows up to be a stellar athlete. Io threatens to bring Zeus to court, but, as he is retired at this point– and will be remembered as being one of the best ever in his sport if not the best – Curt Cunningham – he acquiesces to the aged Io and gives the child his name.
The boy, now equipped with both godly skills and the name of the sports god Cunningham, is sure to go pro and his mother sure to be honored for the rest of her days and the mother of one of the next greats, living, finally, in the luxury long over-due to her.
At the end of the story, Zeus, who had aged too, received the last word. “If I did things differently then, in the beginning, none of us would have made it here, to the end.”
Ira Glass came on, “That sums it all up. It really does,” he said before he segued into the show’s next act.
This image – a young woman, proverbial babe in arms, driving in America, as Hannah was now, from place to place to follow the man who had saddled her with a life and a lifestyle that she hadn’t chosen – inspired a curious envy. Of course Hannah felt pity for the woman, as well as a mild distaste for the decisions she made. But there was something else.
The woman had a purpose, akin to revenge, that drove her. There was a metaphysical meaning to her life. From city to city she followed the impulse of justice. She knew what the “right thing” was which she deserved, knew the exact outlines, nuances; knew the face of it, knew the name – Cunningham, Zeus.
Cathy’s need to go to Africa was similar. There was the impulse. There was the drive beyond reason, to go…somewhere.
Inside the impulse was freedom, like knowing your own fate and working toward it. You were free to act.
The car kept moving. The radio show continued, but Hannah wasn’t listening. The driveway she was looking for came and went. Minutes later she realized that she’d passed the park. She kept driving with the image of Io like a shadow on her eyes, taking on a meaning that was not part of the story that spawned it, becoming her own story, blocking any view of the days to come yet defining those days, as the last dream before waking defines the whole night of sleep and dreams; a dream synecdoche.
The cigarette slanted against a dark chin, smoke coiling its slow coil upward past dark eyes, a horn held low against the hip, held there like a pistol that would only be used when necessary, but without hesitation when the time comes. Dangling in completely possible potential. The inert aspect of reality. The bubble in the glass of beer, rising to the top in inevitable crescendo, unhurried, the dreaminess of reality, the substance of dreams.
A music went on behind the figure, but not beyond it. The figure, though silent, was part of the music. The whole place was part of the music, or vice versa.
Daylight was less than an hour away. The night could not be longer and would never be longer, but would also never end. That hour of sunlight would not come because an order of perfection was nearer at hand, upon which hour all motion would cease, the horn would raise itself to the lips that had blown out the cigarette and the note of absolution would blast through the horn, clearing the world like rain clears the dusty street, clearing the mind of its dust, blasting before day the note that would shatter the reality of the glass of beer and bring the bubble to the surface which is the dream, no longer encumbered by reality, the dream free in the air, coiling its way upward to join greater dreams.
Deciding not to decide where she was going, Hannah drove off an entire tank of gas and arrived in Paso Robles in the late afternoon. Half the town was like any other town, fast-food restaurants, brew-pubs, store fronts advertising electricians, insurance agencies, buildings set back from the main roads with large, wide signs above them proclaiming HORSEBACK RIDING LESSONS. Paso Robles was set on the 101 freeway, but gave the impression of being a portal, a compromise between what a driver would see on the 101 on her way to this city and what she would see after.
It was a country town, but it was still a town. The open spaces that spread out in between Big Sur and Paso Robles had nothing to do with the open spaces of Paso Robles, which were filled with vineyards. That was the other half of the city, the wine industry.
For miles the vineyards dominated the landscape, running from horizon to horizon. Hannah had known about the vineyards here. Her parents had talked about visiting. They sometimes ordered wine from these vineyards. Since she was here, she should pick up a few bottles for home. Her parents wouldn’t believe that she’d done it – gone all the way to Paso Robles and back, eight hours, for a few bottles of wine.
The idea of her parents surprise made her smile.
In Italy and France there a regions where wine is a big industry too. There are vineyards that have been owned by one family for generations. Wine producers that have been in business for centuries. But in this part of California, wine had hardly even existed two hundred years ago. Two hundred years ago, this had been Mexico.
Hannah followed the first marquee she recognized. A brand that her mother had been drinking earlier in the week, Stage Horses. The grounds were immaculate; grapes were full on the vine, farm hands scattered across the fields inspecting the fruit.
A regal, but rather short driveway brought her up to the main building, which reminded Hannah of the thrown-together houses of the new subdivisions on the edges of Monterey. A finish that looked plastic. An obvious attempt at capturing the grandeur of old Roman architecture that failed to achieve anything but this obvious impression of a failed attempt. The scene was almost comical.
Maybe all the wineries were like this though. Having never been to Italy or France, Hannah nonetheless felt that she possessed some secret knowledge. The façade of nobility here was so plain to her that she was excited. It was like waking up in a dream and realizing your own power there.
She took her time walking in, approaching thoughtfully, taking in the details of the building, noticing the fecund odor of the fields, and finally she saw herself in reflection from the double glass doors of the winery. For a brief moment, she looked just like her mother with her dark, loose hair, slim waist, and even her clothes. Simple grey, durable thin cotton shirt. Black shorts showing the tan of her legs.
Again, Hannah experienced the sensation of waking into a dream. She was a different person today. Somehow, she had become something in this dream, a healthier, wiser, older version of herself.
It will fade, as soon as I get inside, the feeling will go, Hannah told herself. But she didn’t regret it. Without trying to hold on the feeling or qualify it or memorize it, Hannah kept her slow pace and put a hand out to the door.
With a rush of cool air and red faced laughter, a jumble of four people piled out the door. Hannah stepped backward instinctively. One of the group, a grey haired man, flushed with wine, noticed her and touched his forehead as if to tip the cap which he was not wearing and bowed slightly from the shoulders.
The group was made of two men and two women, all nearing or around sixty. Hannah watched them with a smile as they linked arms, the men on the left and the women on the right, each connected at the elbow, and they let out a unified HURRAH FOR JOHNNY, like a victory cry, after which they didn’t laugh but turned their faces to the sky. Hannah imagined they were all smiling the same smile.
Charmed by the scene, Hannah turned, opened the door and entered the winery with a smile lingering on her face. Several clerks turned to look at her as Hannah came in and, seeing her, they smiled very naturally. Hannah moved toward the center of the large interior room.
The ceiling was easily thirty feet high. There was a wine bar along the length of one long wall. People were bellied up to the bar as they would at any other kind of tavern, leaning on their elbows, some with small glasses of wine in front of them, a wide range of ages and modes of dress all with their bellies against the bar.
In the center of the room and scattered at random were racks of wine and wine-related paraphernalia. A purchasing counter stood near the door where Hannah had come in. Other sets of double doors opened up onto a garden style patio where a handful of people sat pouring out bottles of red wine. The doors were standing wide open so that laughter and a smell of fresh cut grass filtered into the interior. None of it seemed real.
The plants inside the room all looked fake, but Hannah touched one near her and found that it was real. This matched her impression of the winery in general. It was real, despite the illusion of unreality.
A young couple left their space at the bar with a bottle wrapped up in a paper bag. Hannah went to the vacant space and just as she pressed her own belly to the wooden bar a group of three people arrived at the same open space at the bar. They were two men and a woman.
Before they had a chance to get themselves into position at the bar Hannah extended her hand and introduced herself.
“Hello. My name is Hannah. How are you all?”
The woman smiled at Hannah, seeming a little surprised and pleased. When she smiled a deep, quirky dimple appeared on one of her cheeks.
“I’m Michelle. This is Ryan,” she said, indicating the taller, clean-shaven man immediately behind her, then adding, “my boyfriend.”
Michelle turned to look at the other man, as if to remind herself who else was with her. “And that’s Billy, Ryan’s friend.”
Billy was all legs. He had a square, honest face reminiscent of a child’s.
“It’s nice to meet all of you,” Hannah said, smiling politely.
Michelle moved closer to Hannah and asked if she had just gotten to the winery and if she had been there before. Hannah answered and found out that Michelle and her friends were there for the first time too. They decided to do a tasting together.
The free wine tasting didn’t last long, but since it was free and there were four of them, they decided to buy a bottle of their collective favorite and take it outside to the patio. One bottle turned to two as they talked under the bulging vines on the patio, overlooking the endless rows and fields of grapes.
“Why don’t you hang out with us tonight?” Ryan asked, as the glasses from the second bottle were bottoming out.
“Well, what are you guys doing tonight?” Hannah asked.
“We’ve got a big room at a bed and breakfast not too far from here. We could just hang out and drink some wine, listen to some music, I don’t know…”
Michelle said, “It would be fun to have you.”
“Ok. I can come along. But, I’ve got a drive tonight so I can’t stay long,” Hannah said.
“You can spend the night,” Billy said.
Everyone looked at Billy. Michelle and Ryan fixed him with a look that suggested Billy had said something highly inappropriate. Hannah looked at him with open wonder.
“We have two beds and a cot,” Billy said, emphasizing the word “cot” and shaking his head.
“Oh,” Hannah said.
Ryan and Michelle looked at each other and shook their heads laughing.
“So,” Michelle asked, “Would you like to come along? I know it’s spontaneous, short notice, but…are you the short notice, spontaneous type?”
“Today I think I am,” Hannah said.
Billy said, “Well it’s settled then. You’ll stay over.”
The same looks were turned on him again.
Billy shrugged his shoulders and said, laughing, “You guys really have a high estimate of my character. Thanks.”
They all kept looking at him.
Ryan laughed out loud and reached out to slap Billy on the back. The gesture communicated a long history of friendship. Hannah was glad that she decided to go along with them. She didn’t have to be at work until Tuesday anyway and it was still Friday.
Ryan gave her directions to the bed and breakfast while Billy and Michelle picked out a few bottles of wine inside. On the way to her car, Hannah left a message on the answering machine for her parents. They wouldn’t believe it if she told them exactly where she was, so she just let them know that she was out for the night and would be back the next afternoon.
It was a large room, mostly empty. Like they had said, there were two beds and the cot was set neatly into a cranny in the wall. The bedspreads were smooth on the beds and clean. A back door opened onto a small patch of grass with a round table and four chairs situated in the middle.
When Hannah arrived the front door to the room was wide open. She’d been directed to the room by one of the owners, and she walked into the midst of unpacking that was going on in the room.
Billy had a shirt over his shoulder but wasn’t wearing one. His chest looked so thin as to be hollow, nearly caved in, and he walked about back and forth as if waiting for some idea to strike.
Michelle was diving into a suitcase on the bed, her head invisible beneath the clothes and small bags that piled up out of the suitcase. Ryan was watching Michelle as he set out the things they had bought earlier in the day. Wine. Crackers. Dry Cheese.
Hannah was about to announce herself when each of the people she had been watching looked up at her simultaneously. She had made no audible noise.
“Hannah, come on in,” Michelle smiled at her.
“We’re just, ah, getting set up,” Ryan said, moving through the back door toward the table on the grass. Billy went back to pacing.
“I stopped and picked up some hummus and pita bread, for a little snack,” Hannah said, “but I see you guys have got all that under control.”
“Oh. No. I love hummus,” Michelle said with another polite smile.
Anticipating an invitation to sit, Hannah plopped herself on one of the beds and laid back. Billy stopped his pacing to look at her, then raised his head as if the idea he was waiting for had come to him.
“What? What is it?” Hannah sat up and asked.
“You looked at me like there was something,” Hannah said evenly.
“Well. I was just thinking.”
“Oh. So you’re the evasive type. Alright, Billy.”
“I am not evasive. I just…” he trailed off.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, laying back against the pillows.
She closed her eyes and breathed through her mouth. Her hair looked black against the light blue pillows.
Michelle finally picked out some clothes from her bag and went humming into the bathroom. Ryan was still outside and the room was thick with Billy’s silence and Hannah’s breathing.
“It’s mercy and it’s grace,” Billy blurted out.
Hannah opened her eyes but didn’t move otherwise. She looked at the ceiling.
“I’ve been working on this piece for my master’s program – a piece of orchestral music – and, for me, I need to work with a concept, like an intellectual concept before I can really create anything worthwhile.”
This was unexpected from Billy, Hannah thought. He was pacing again and talking in a kind of rhapsody to himself, looking at the ground as he had been a few minutes earlier. One part of Hannah was glad for the outpouring; for the honesty implied in this rush of words. Another part of her wished that someone else was in the room to receive it.
“So far, I’ve been thinking about all sorts of things. Redemption. Future. Past. Even martyrdom. Because, ultimately, music is a language of nature, of mysticism. So it is always ready to communicate ideas that are, well, I’d say, related to faith. Not religion but faith. I’ve been thinking – what is the border between religion and faith? A border… And that’s what I was asking myself. Then you sat down there -”
He stopped speaking abruptly and saw that she was watching him with her face half turned away.
Abashedly he finished by quietly saying, “The thought came that a person can have mercy and grace. That’s what religion sets out to give us, but we can get in on our own.”
His tone as he finished was apologetic.
“I’m sorry,” Hannah offered.
“What do you mean, you’re sorry?” Billy chortled a confused laugh.
“Just, I mean, I didn’t mean to get you -”
He cut her off, “No. I’m sorry for going off like that. I didn’t want to be rude.”
Not knowing if he meant that he didn’t want to be rude by evading her earlier question or by making his speech, Hannah decided to change the subject.
Michelle walked into the room as Hannah asked Billy, “So, you study music?”
“I study at UCLA. So does Michelle.”
“I just finished my program, actually,” Michelle said.
She shook her head at Billy with mock derision.
Then to Hannah, “I just finished a media studies program there. I kind of met Ryan through Billy. They’ve been friends for a long time and we all met at a bar on campus last year.
“Yep,” Ryan chimed loudly from the table outside.
Hannah, Michelle and Billy all looked in his direction, surprised that he had been listening.
The whole meeting began to feel staged. A comedy of some sort. Hannah heaved a deep breath and prepared herself for a long night.
The evening turned out to be a good time though. They all casually took turns telling stories, sometimes about each other, but the conversation ended up focusing mainly on childhood stories.
Ryan’s voice was always subdued. His grin constant with reminiscence. Michelle laughed through all of her stories, the dimple dancing on her cheek merrily. And Billy seemed to think his way through his stories, as if they were mazes, as if he were telling them for the first time and trying also to make it the last telling by squeezing all the meaning from them, like found, fallen fruit.
Hannah told her stories with a confident irony, divided the present from the past so completely as to make all possible stories comical in their impossible distance from the reality that the four of them shared at the table on the little patch of grass, each of them, tonight, sitting upon this great distance from home.
Behind Hannah’s speech was also the idea of a miscarriage and the accompanying what if thought of a brother or sister, of a life that would unfold differently from the one she lived now and from the one in her stories that was completely gone and now become unreal in its distance from the table on its little patch of grass.
When there was one bottle of wine left and each of their faces glowed with wine and the thrill of commanding the stage, they passed the bottle and each made a toast.
Ryan went first, holding the bottle out in his extended arm at shoulder height, “To the future.”
Michelle received the bottle next and also toasted to the future. Then it was Hannah’s turn and she toasted to the future too. Billy did the same thing. When Ryan got the bottle again, he hoisted it again and repeated the toast. This time they all laughed, but when they stopped they raised their empty glasses to meet the bottle in Ryan’s hand and gave a single symbolic toast, “To the future.”
The ocean fingers its way into the boroughs, creating islands of the land, defining small pieces of land that would grow like seeds into entire worlds. If the rain came for long enough in this season, maybe the islands would float musically away, like notes on the wind, like birdsong.
The air was full of readiness for anything. Any magnitude of change was possible. Because the old order had been thrown over, and the new one was to be forever new, the potential for change was infinite. A jazz of possibility. A music of randomness. Everyday a snowflake, a pursuit of the possible structures of being. A gift from the sky.
With a sun hat, full of loose holes in the straw weave, a woman stands outside above the sunken bar looking in, swaying to the trumpet and drum rhythms emanating from inside. It’s as if the sound is coming from her. She is the African bell that drives the music, drowned in the larger sound, but inside it, the heart of it, the beginning and the end, the note clanged against the rod of creation, starting and restarting the song to vibrating. She sways and the rain drips through her hat and off its edges in streaming rivulets. The hat refuses to crumple around her ears.
She makes no move to get out of the rain, to go inside to be closer to the music. She cannot be any closer than she is to the music. She stands and sways and the vibration is in her. The trumpet calls out the birdsong and the city begins to float upward on the tide.
Everyone took turns using the bathroom in preparation for sleep. As the honorary guest of sorts, Hannah had the privilege of going first. She had bought a tooth brush at a store on her way to the bed and breakfast, so she brushed and washed her face, and put an extra pair of shorts that Ryan had brought along.
The back door was still open so Hannah went to the table to wait for the others to make their preparations. The sky was filled with stars, absolutely filled. She watched for a shooting star and wondered if she had a wish to make.
Billy came out to join her and looked up with her at the sky.
“Wow. That is amazing, isn’t it?” Billy said.
“Yeah. It really is,” Hannah dropped her eyes down Billy, who stood a few feet away with his neck arched back and his hands on the small of his back, looking like a cock about to crow.
Hannah went back to looking the stars.
“Where are you going tomorrow?” Billy asked.
She gazed at him for a moment with her manner of weighing the outer world against an inner scale, saying nothing.
“I mean, ah. Are you driving back up north?”
Instead of answering she said, “Here. Have a seat, Billy.”
He hesitated and gazed at her as if he hadn’t heard. Hannah returned to the stars once again, her throat glowing with the light coming from inside the room appearing very smooth, porcelain.
Billy shook his head and sat down in the chair nearest Hannah with his back to the open door.
“Do you…are you dating anyone, Billy?” she asked, with her eyes watching again for a falling star.
“Who me?” he asked sarcastically.
“No. The other handsome Billy.”
“He is, the handsome Billy, but this Billy is free as a bird.”
“And is he flying home tomorrow?”
“Yes. He is,” Billy said, eagerness seeping into his tone.
Hannah saw the star. One point of light had shaken from its place in the heavens and fell, burning, a streak across the night.
“So am I,” she said, looking now into his face which was silhouetted against the light from the room inside. Something glimmered in his face where the eyes should have been, a moist twin light.
A tremor in her voice made Billy move to touch her. He put a hand on Hannah’s thigh and let it rest there. So did she.
He stared at her feverishly and she, evenly, calmly, looked at his shadowed face. Putting her own hand over his gently, she turned her gaze back to the stars blazing their broken chain of stories deeper and deeper into the fabric of the sky.
Sunlight crept into the room, filling the corners first with syrupy red light that became yellow as it spread. Hannah was the first to wake up.
She opened her eyes and looked for a while at the ceiling, as if she was still watching for the falling star, trying to see where it landed maybe. But the ceiling was not starred, it was painted a smooth creamy white.
With a reassuring relief, she ran her hand along the length of her body, as far as she could reach without moving around. Her shirt was on, but the bra was gone. She had taken it off herself, she remembered. The borrowed shorts were still tied on tight.
Billy slept facing away from her, his body turned to the wall. Hannah looked objectively at the back of his head for a moment and asked herself the questions that she had not allowed herself to ask last night.
In this situation, so unreal since the previous morning, Hannah felt unanchored. If she chose, she could drift off and just go…not with Billy, but just with herself.
She thought of the picture of her mother, mid twenties. Hannah looked exactly like her mother did then. But they were so different. Now and then.
What if someone took a picture of her, in this bed with a man she met less than twenty-four hours ago, with a sigh building up in her chest that, when released, would blow the whole world of her past away? What if a picture was taken of her hair plastered to her forehead after sleep, her face still pasty and bloodless before sitting up; of her little adventure to Paso Robles?
Would it be a picture of following your heart, Hannah asked herself, of taking the road that was in front of you and not looking back? But this wasn’t the departure she and Cathy had talked about. It wasn’t the one final trip from Big Sur. She would go back, today, she would go back, with a few bottles of wine and a story that she probably would never tell.
Well, she didn’t have to go straight back. Not right this minute, or even today. There was time to find another story, maybe a better one.
As quietly as she could, Hannah pulled herself out of the bed, picked up her pants that were set folded on top of a dresser, and went to the bathroom. She didn’t close the door all the way because she wanted to get dressed and leave before everyone got up. She would leave a note.
She would write them a note telling them that she was glad to meet them and leave them her phone number. She would tell them to come up to Big Sur some time and visit. Then she’d go.
She brushed her teeth cursorily and stepped into the big room. A pad of stationary was on top of the dresser, next to where her pants had been. There was a pen there too. She wrote the note and left it on the pad of paper. Then she found her shoes.
There was nothing more to do so with her shoes in hand Hannah walked quietly to the door. She turned around and looked at Billy asleep on the couch. There was no sentiment in her glance, but her face was concentrated with the effort of memorization as she looked at him. For all of his length, he still resembled a boy sleeping a very complete sleep.
A movement from the other bed caught her eye. Hannah looked up. Michelle was watching her. Hannah waved in surprise and farewell. Michelle smiled, closed her eyes, and turned over on the bed.
The sun was warm as Hannah get into her car. Immediately she rolled down the driver’s side window, but then sat there without starting up the car.
She didn’t know where she was going, but she knew she didn’t want to go straight back to Big Sur.
Lake Tahoe came to mind as a possible destination. Tammy was living there now.
They hadn’t seen each other since Tammy left Big Sur, but they had written. Hannah had Tammy’s address and Lake Tahoe wasn’t too far away. Tammy might like it if Hannah showed up and surprised her. She would definitely be surprised.
Hannah used an atlas that she kept in her car to map out the directions to Lake Tahoe, which looked very small on the map. And she figured that the address wouldn’t be too hard to find. She could go online in an internet café or something if all else failed.
With a mixture of excitement and nervousness, Hannah started her car and drove away from the bed and breakfast.
Over the course of the drive, Hannah thought about the possible responses that Tammy would have to seeing her on the doorstep. It was possible also that Tammy would not be home, that she was traveling, or even that she had moved out of Lake Tahoe.
The reassuring thought was that the worst case scenario was not very bad. The worst that could happen is that Tammy was not in Lake Tahoe and she would have to get a hotel room. It could be expensive, but money was made to be spent.
The drive was pleasant. Hannah thought only of the day and sometimes went over the same thoughts of what might happen in Lake Tahoe. The weather was beautiful. The temperature had leveled off somewhere around eighty degrees and the autumn was maturing into fullness.
The hills were still green and Hannah realized that she truly loved California, like a little sister. She was fond of it and protective and, right now, took joy in seeing it going through its natural stages. She laughed out loud, alone in the car, with a childish glee in the thought that she could love something like that.
Earlier in the summer a set of fires had destroyed hundreds or thousands of acres of forested land. The damage was visible from the road as it wound through the hills surrounding Lake Tahoe. For miles, the signs of fire whispered blackly up from stumps; trees charred and leafless, standing like ghosts, as if waiting for a return to life. But the green of life was gone from them and would not be returning.
It was like walking through an Italian cemetery with pictures of the dead inset into the tombstones, smiling out at the visitor with ageless smiles, awaiting their own return to life or perhaps the death of those eyes looking at them know, laying down happy bittersweet tears on the flowers held hesitantly in the outstretched hands. Bitter for the death of a loved one. Sweet for the life that allowed them to come here and mourn, and walk out of the cemetery more alive upon departure.
No amount of rain would be powerful enough to wash away the black of the fire and its deific promises. The wind passed through the bracken invisibly – nothing there to be ruffle or sway. The branches petrified in smoke, the stumps cut away from the fecundity that may have offered a bed to fresh seeds.
The road slowly moved past the zone and into cleaner hills. The air was suffused with the smell of pine trees. Hannah noticed only then that she hadn’t smelled anything at all while passing the fire zone.
She crested the hill with the windows rolled all the way down and the new air becoming more and more fresh as she descended toward the town.
The lake was huge and perfectly blue, taking up much of the valley, reflecting the sunlight on each tiny crest of the windblown waves, as from an immense blue crystal, half buried, half unearthed.
Tammy’s address was on the Nevada side of town, not far from a casino. Native American stores vied for the attention of the tourists next to fine art stores and ski shops. Most of the buildings were made to look rustic, some in log cabin style.
There was a charming sense to the town that no matter how many storefronts might pop up on the strip the essence of this place could not be stained. The lake’s presence was too strong. The mountains and trees were too prescient and alive. The air too rich with coniferous breath to be diminished.
It was the kind of air that made you stick your head out the car window to taste the air, which Hannah did. She closed her eyes for a second and almost ran off the road as it took a surprising curve. Another car was coming fast from the other direction and Hannah had to slam on the brakes and pull the car firmly back into her lane, but carefully because the road was narrower than it was wide.
In a stroke of unexpected luck, Hannah drove right past the street Tammy lived on. She had to drive a quarter-mile before she could turn around, but she did then drove up the street looking for the house number.
The street was sparsely built up. Houses were spaced out at intervals of several hundred yards.
Tammy’s house stood back from the road behind a fence of pine trees that rose tall above the house. The gravel driveway split into two with each ending at an opposite end of the house, which must have been a duplex. There were two garages with the front door above each.
Hannah pulled her car back out to the road and parked in the shade of a huge pine tree. She wasn’t sure which half of the house was Tammy’s so she went to the mailbox, but there was only one box and it had both the names of Tammy and her neighbor on it.
There was nothing to do but go up and knock and ask. Hannah crunched her way up the gravel driveway to the left side of the house and climbed the stairs.
On the tiny patio at the door there was a plastic green chair leaning back against the railing, but nothing else to show who lived here. Hannah knocked at the door and when no one came she looked down at the empty driveway. The other driveway space was empty too. But Hannah walked up to the door anyway, knocked and got the same empty response.
Wishing she had brought something to read then remembering that she had packed a book to read at the ocean after her hike, Hannah went to her car and then returned with her book to the first little patio where she had found the chair.
The sun fell quickly from the sky and a chill of altitude stung the air. Not long after the blue of the sky had lustered to indigo, a small blue Suzuki SUV pulled into the driveway on the side of the duplex where Hannah was sitting.
Hannah got up from the chair and stepped to the edge of the railing. A man stepped out of the car, about Hannah’s age, maybe a little older, with blonde hair cropped very short. It was hard to make out his features well in the twilight.
Hannah started to come down the stairs but the man made a motion for her to stay.
“Hello,” she shouted down.
“Hello,” the man said without shouting.
Hannah waited for him to climb the stairs then introduced herself as a friend of Tammy’s come to visit.
“Tammy’s at work still, but she’ll be back in an hour or so. Come on in.”
He didn’t sound happy to have a visitor.
“Does she live here?” Hannah asked, trying to make out the man’s features without staring.
“Yeah, she lives here,” the man said amiably, as if he were glad at the news that Tammy really did live here.
Opening the door, the man took one step inside and flicked on the light then stepped back and motioned for Hannah to precede him into the house.
A wave of panic swept over Hannah and she hesitated. Again she looked at the man’s face, trying to read something about his character there.
He smiled at her and walked in ahead of her leaving the door open.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “we don’t have many bugs this time of year. We can keep the door open.”
Hannah stood on the door step, watching the man move around just inside the door in the kitchen. He went to the center of room where a huge arrangement of flowers held down a low round wooden table. The flowers were as tall as the table.
The man shook the flowers with both hands then turned to Hannah and said apologetically, “Tonight is a kind of anniversary.”
“Oh. Yeah?” Hannah said, moving into the doorway, but no further. “What kind of anniversary?”
“We’ve been together for eleven months.”
“You and Tammy?” Hanna asked, not looking at him, watching his feet move in circles around the table.
“Yep,” he said happily.
Hannah’s figure was framed by the doorway, from outside her hair looked wild against the light coming from the kitchen.
“Come on in,” the man said again. “Oh, wait. I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Rick.”
The name connected to the person from Tammy’s letters. Rick wore a thin goatee on his chin and had dark blonde features. Hannah took a few steps inside.
“It’s your eleven month anniversary, you said? And you’re celebrating tonight? I’m sorry to come crashing in like this.”
Rick stood at the sink and looked out over the driveway. He ran a hand over his short hair in a gesture of attempted patience.
“No. Don’t worry about it.”
His voice had a gruff edge to it and a vague hint of an New England accent.
“Why don’t you have a seat. I’ll put on some music or something.”
Taking a chair at the wooden table, the flowers towered above her. She wanted to say something about them, about how nice they were, but they weren’t very nice. They had almost no scent. The arrangement was monochrome she noticed, all between blue and purple. There should have been some yellow or orange to make a contrast.
She couldn’t think of an honest way to compliment them.
Rick’s voice came from the next room, “Would you like anything to drink or anything? We’ve got juice and beer and water…”
“No thanks. I’m ok,” she answered before realizing that she was thirsty.
The stereo started playing some acoustic guitar and a female vocalist was singing softly over it.
Rick came back into the kitchen, “Alright.”
He looked around the room with his lips moving, taking a mental inventory. When his lips stopped moving he turned to Hannah and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders.
“She should be back in a little bit from work…” he said with an appeal undercutting the gruffness of his voice.
“Oh. Go ahead and don’t mind me. I’ll just wait here and…” her voice trailed off.
“I should really change clothes. Are you sure you don’t want anything to drink or eat? You look like you’ve been driving all day.”
Her hand sprung up to her hair and she realized how wild it was and how insane she must look to him, just showing up out of nowhere like this looking crazy.
Coughing to cover up her sudden embarrassment, she managed to ask for some water. He filled her a glass from the tap and explained that the same water used in the tap here was used to make bottled water. She tasted it and nodded that it was good and smiled at him to apologize for what now seemed like a poor idea of coming here.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “I’m just going to change clothes real quick.”
“Are you guys going out tonight?” she asked quickly.
He was already out of the room though and didn’t answer.
Not even five minutes later, another car pulled into the driveway. Hannah went to the window over the sink and leaned over to see who it was. All she could see was a pair of headlights switching off then darkness under the trees, so she went back to her seat.
A car door shut. A rush of footsteps came running up the stairs. The door that had been shut, swung open and a shouted Happy Anniversary preceded Tammy into the kitchen. As soon as the words were out of her mouth and she was fully inside the house, she turned unbelieving eyes to the guest watching her from the table.
“Hannah, oh my god!”
“Hi, Tammy,” Hannah said, swept up into an immediate and pure excitement.
They hugged and Hannah’s joy subsided as she realized again the imposition she was making.
“Sorry I picked such a rotten day to drop in on you here.”
Smiling her big clean smile, Tammy ignored the remark.
“Look at you. You’re like a thousand miles from the ocean,” Tammy said laughing.
She looked healthy. The freckles she got from the sun were all over her face, making her young and her eyes were clear. She gazed steadily at Hannah, who looked as if she would cry.
“Hey, let’s have some wine, like old times. What do you say?”
“Aren’t you guys going out?”
Now remembering the eleven month anniversary, surprised at having forgotten so quickly and completely, Tammy gave laugh.
“Oh yeah. I guess we are.”
She looked at the flowers on the table and smiled again.
“Did you see these flowers? Aren’t they incredible? They aren’t very pretty, I know, but I needed to remind Rick that today was special, so I got the biggest cheapest arrangement they had at the shop and set them out for him to see when he woke up. It worked.”
Hannah laughed along.
“But, we’re not going out for a while. Let’s have a glass of wine.”
“Ok.” Hannah was relieved at the idea of having some purpose here, even if just for a few minutes.
“Did you come here to visit me?” Tammy asked and actually clapped in her excitement like a child.
“Yeah, but I can’t stay,” Hannah said, feeling a surge of real ease and happiness in the face of Tammy’s.
“But you’re here. All the way here.”
“But it’s your anniversary.”
“It’s only the eleven month anniversary. I had just wanted to celebrate it so that we didn’t have the pressure of the one-year thing to deal with. But, we can wait a month.”
She was at the cupboard pulling down a bottle of wine and turned to smile at Hannah then added, “It’s no problem.”
“No. I insist that you let me go after a glass of wine.”
“No. I insist that you spend the night. How far did you drive today?”
“No. I insist more.”
“Fine. Have it your way.” A suggestion of relief ringed the edge of Tammy’s voice.
Rick came into the room and grabbed Tammy by the waist and gave her a hard kiss on the mouth. Tammy bubbled over momentarily, again like a girl.
Very formally she said to Rick, “Would you like to join us for a glass of our finest wine?”
“What you mean the five dollar bottle that you sprung for after winning three dollars on a two dollar lottery scratcher?”
“Yes. That is the very one, sir. Well done.”
She kissed him and left him to come to the table. He got out three glass tumblers and set them on the table. Tammy uncorked the bottle in silence and poured out three tall glasses of wine.
“You’re driving tonight, right?” Rick asked with a shade of double meaning. He was also asking if they were still going out to dinner.
“You’re driving, I’m afraid.”
He broke into a broad grin, which was less handsome than it was rugged, and Hannah thought she knew in that ruggedness why he would choose to come to this place from the east.
Turning to Hannah, he asked, “So, where did you come from?”
Hannah wished she didn’t have to admit how far she’d driven today.
“Not so far really,” she offered, “I just wanted to drop in, you know.”
She presented a large smile that both Tammy and Rick understood.
“It’s really good to see you,” Tammy said.
“Yeah. I’m glad I came,” Hannah said and wondered if it were true. “I followed a cloud and it led me right to your door. Did you arrange for that?”
“That’s something Tammy would say. Did she get it from you or did you get it from her?”
Simultaneously, Hannah and Tammy said, “I got it from her.”
They allowed themselves an innocent titter of laughter.
Hannah added quietly, “Really I got it from her.”
And it was true.
Suddenly, Hannah felt tired of laughing and smiling. She was glad to see Tammy. Glad to see that she hadn’t changed too much and that she was still out there, out here, in the world, getting on. But she found herself thinking of Billy.
“How’s the family?” Tammy broke in.
“Oh. You know my parents. They’re still living in the bedroom, taking their walk in the morning and their wine in the evening.
“And the job?”
“Still working five days a week, at The Bakery now. You know, it’s the same old pattern. How about you? How is your art coming along?”
“Actually, I’ve been doing pretty well since I moved to Tahoe. I’ve got pieces in a few galleries and they sell here. They sell enough for me to almost do art full time, as a job. I’m considering quitting my waitressing job and I’ve started doing series work on some new ideas.”
“That’s great. That’s really great.”
“Thanks. I’m excited and I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do, though it is much easier here than it has been anywhere else,” Tammy said finishing with a sigh.
After a short silence where the three of them exchanged glances, having achieved the comfort of real conversation where silence is accepted as a part of it, Tammy asked Hannah about Big Sur.
“Big Sur doesn’t seem to change,” she said. “But I think I’ve changed.”
The remark sat between them, gaudy as the flowers.
Tammy was watching Hannah, sipped her wine and nodded uncomprehendingly. Rick looked idly out the window.
Feeling she needed to explain herself, Hannah continued, “I don’t know exactly how to say it. I’m just ready…for something. You know, you live so long in one place and meet people and eventually it seems like you stop meeting them, even if new people keep coming. After a while, it’s like you only meet yourself coming and going, like they say.”
“I know what you mean, I think,” Tammy said. “Really, Hannah, I want to know – is this as far as you’ve ever been from the ocean?”
“I think so. Yeah. It is.”
“That’s an accomplishment, Hannah,” Tammy said in a worldly tone.
And Hannah had to agree. Tammy looked at her sympathetically and Hannah sipped from her wine to mask the expression she knew was sitting on her face like a sad epithet.
“Are you thinking about getting out?” Tammy asked.
“Are you thinking of getting out of Big Sur?”
This was the opposite question from the one Billy had asked her the previous night, she realized, at the dark table under the stars. And so she drove all the way here to Lake Tahoe.
She found herself strangely entertained by the question. The question was full of a possibility that made her think of the ocean, its subtle, sweet romance with the moon, like true, ideal love. She felt herself being carried away on the emotion of the thought.
From the sphere of the question and the response that lived in her, Hannah gave a sly, half-smile, she said, “We’ll see.”
They talked for a while longer, finished their glasses and there were hugs all around. Hannah and Tammy embraced several times and Hannah felt a calm that she sometimes felt in the spring in her star-room at home, when it was just her and the world.
With a vague thought of driving through the night and finding something in it, Hannah left Rick and Tammy and walked over the crunching gravel down the driveway to the road and got into her car.