A REPORT FROM THE FRONT by Tyler Sage
FAR AWAY IN THESE MOUNTAINS there are times when we know that we live in darkness, and there are times when we know that what feels like darkness is simply the lack of light that rims the forward edge of our planet as it hurtles towards dawn; and on a night in approximately the moment when both of our lives have begun to disintegrate we sit in the balcony of the only bar in the town that tries to deny its surroundings. Out in the darkness there are cowboys and hippies and fly fishermen and the clean broad street that will host the farmers’ market in the morning. There is our small college, run to ground against a hillside covered with sage. Here in the bar the lighting is chic and pastel. There is angular furniture, dance music. We look over the crowd of our students. Timothy's wife is at a conference on the literary representation of the vampire; my wife is suffering the terror of depression again. Below us our students mill, full of excitement. Timothy talks about which ones he would take to bed and how he would do it.
“That one there,” he says, “with the curly hair and the dark eyes. You can't see those eyes from here but they're almost purple. I spent the semester in Feminist Critiques trying to worm myself into them. She's one of these rock climbers. She wears a tank top to class and those muscles that run from her shoulders down towards her tits, you know exactly the ones I'm speaking of, those muscles are like steel cables. And her hands. You can see the strength in them, the hours spent clinging on to some little piece of sandstone. But you can also see the innocence. She is a series of contradictions. There is nothing soft in her, nothing elegant, yet she moves with such physical possession. When you put it all together, that body and that possession and those eyes, those purple eyes, you realize that she doesn't know quite what she's capable of. And once you see this, the question immediately becomes, of course, how do you draw from that untapped potential, siphon it, without causing the dry rot of knowledge to set in? In short, how do you get her to go to bed with you?"
“It's as much a philosophical question as a procedural one,” he says. “She doesn't want to fuck a professor. None of them believe that they do. But you must realize that no matter how possessed they are, that possession all comes from playing in the boys' pool: going on rock climbs, sleeping in a bag under some tree, always trying to keep up. Cartwheeling around the wilderness with some longhaired kid who keeps his dope in a waterproof tin ration box from the Second World War. This is the environment these girls move in. They have that form of confidence, but they see strength only in doing the things their boys do. They've no knowledge of sexual strength, of the deeper twistings of existence. So it's the thing that I must give to her if I'm going to bed her.”
For a moment I think he's done speaking. He holds his glass in loose fingers. It drifts up towards his mouth and then veers away again.
“Say I'm down there right now,” he says. “I just walk through the crowd straight to her. Don't pretend I'm going to the bar, don't pretend to be in here for another reason. I ignore her friends. You let her believe you cannot bullshit her. This isn't the classroom anymore, my little hummingbird, you let her believe you are saying; you smile like this has been a long time coming and you know what she's thinking. You let her see what she wants to see. That this is about being straightforward. That this is about power. About human power. About knowledge. Let's compare. Let’s learn.”
“Haha!” Timothy cries. “Imagine it! You’ve pulled her in with your refusal to dissemble, and now you play to her need for strength. You smile and let that smile show the potential for submission, you show her her own power. Look, I show her, look at how the boys in the bar begin to see you in a way they never have before. Look at these new heights and depths you’ve gained.”
He goes on like this for quite some time, pointing out one then another of the kids below us. There is a different rumination for each. He’ll never summon the courage to betray his wife, but the possibility and the game of it, the yearning, the desperation, is sustaining. He was a destitute kid from Long Island who came up through the SUNY system, fighting every step of the way, learning every bitter trick, and he sees this place as some colonial outpost in the jungle in which he is an emissary of the Empire. The cowboys, as well as the indians, are howling around the palisades. He orders us more gin and considers the students again.
That fall, his wife left him. He engaged in an affair with a student and against his will had fallen in love with her and she had graduated in December and announced she was leaving him. He had begged her to stay. Rumors of the scene percolated through the campus. The mighty man on his knees, tears in his beard, relieved of his dignity. My own wife was gone by then as well and through a strange and radical fog of displacement I saw that Timothy was in some sense my future. Ahead of me on the tracks, so that each of my movements would mimic his. And how many had passed down on these tracks before, and how many would pass after? Legion. We knew we were no originals. We had given up on going to the bar with the balcony and instead had begun to frequent a dive inhabited only by slumming undergraduates and the town's alcoholics. And yet there was a girl who drank with us. She had taken classes from the both of us and was young and pretty, and we did not believe that her pluckiness was an artifice. Perhaps we saw her as an angel. On the night I am thinking of Timothy had a manuscript with him, his unfinished book on accountings of the soul in literature. He was carrying it around under his arm and when we took a booth he set it on the table and used it as a massive coaster for his glass. His huge shoulders slumped forward and he eyed the manuscript evilly.
“Slight change of plans,” he said. “For the spring semester."
“Due to the fact that this has become such a, a misfortunate aberration,” he said, indicating the manuscript, “it seems senseless for me to spend another semester on its,” he his glass to help him find the word, "mastication."
He pronounced each syllable clearly and slowly. He took a long drink and then regarded the stack of paper again. Slowly, he peeled off the top page and used it to wipe the alcohol from his lips and beard. He crumpled it and threw it at the feet of an old woman at the pool table. It clung to the heel of her ragged cowboy boot and he grinned madly.
"I'll be going to the Carolinas," he said, turning back to us.
Our angel was looking at the old woman too. She was smiling. Timothy touched the rim of her glass with his own to get her attention.
"Why is it that you spend time here?" he asked her. "With two embittered and rapidly aging professors?"
"I don't own a cell phone," she said. "Before I came here I never knew anyone who read poetry. You're more interesting than anyone I know."
"I don't believe you," he said. "That's just something that people on the edge of maturity say because it’s the story they've constructed about themselves."
"You're one to talk," she said.
"Will you ever sleep with us, alone or as a collective?" he asked.
"Nope," she said.
"Please?" he asked.
Which brings me, as I write this, to a strange place. Because I have always seemed to believe that she did sleep with me once that spring, on a night of great coldness and a terrible storm just before the warm weather came. I seem to remember that she arrived at my door in awful shape from something that had happened, a boy or bad drug experience or the loss of a parent, myself in that long nadir of which I remember little; in my memory she appeared in the little wood-floored front room of my house one night and we drank and made love until she disappeared into the flat gray blizzard of early morning. But I am not certain of that memory.
In the booth at the dive bar Timothy said Please and I smiled and he laughed. She did too, without apparent self-consciousness. And then, whether intentionally or not, she spilled her drink. The moment was ended and Timothy used his manuscript to mop up the alcohol, taking page after page and soaking them and wadding them and throwing them to various spots on the floor.
"In the Carolinas," he said as he worked, "I will be searching for treasure. Spanish galleons, Gold Rush bounty, pirate ships, that sort of thing. With an uncle of mine who is a madman."
He took a piece of paper from the manuscript and used it to dry his hands.
"He's my favorite uncle. He came into some money a few years back and spent it on a boat, which he uses to hunt for shipwrecks. He's never found anything. He's offered me a share in all discoveries, of whatever nature. And perhaps," Timothy smiled at the angel, "perhaps I will find something beyond lucre."
That was indeed a terrible winter and spring. I followed Timothy down the path of his spiral. There was a postcard from him in May. It showed a slightly overweight man got up as a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder, standing knee-deep in a lagoon with a heave of beach and then the open ocean behind him. On the back was scrawled This surly chap sang me a shanty and agreed to have a daguerreotype of himself worked up. The sailor's life indeed. If I ever do return to shore it will not be the same whence I departed.
There was no other word from Timothy until the end of the summer, two days before classes began. It was a Saturday, the day of the farmers’ market. He looked fit and tanned, if slightly aged, and I felt the decrepitude of the last months of my life wrapping itself around me. As if I were carrying a beard and long hair and hollow eyes, a castaway; as if I were the one who’d been away on a ship at sea.
We made our greetings and strolled through the market. His uncle and he had managed to put the boat aground somewhere south of Cape Hatteras and his uncle had decided to leave it there until he could raise the necessary funds to make for Central America. The Panama Canal, his uncle had told him, is a graveyard on both sides. Gold, silver, the bodies of Aztecs. But Timothy was tired. The ocean was simply the ocean, the chests of gold were as illusory as they’d been in their own centuries.
"You know how I am," he said, "I take a notion to do something and when it deserts me it does so completely." He smiled and walked steadily through the morning sunlight. There was an impenetrable equanimity in his expression. He asked, quite seriously, how I had been.
"When I was younger," I told him, "I lived overseas. In Africa. I wanted to write then. I wanted it terribly badly. And for a while I lived at a bar that was a kind of refuge for expatriates. Bush pilots drank there, safari operators. One night, late, a man who had seen me sitting at a table with my typewriter told me this story: His brother and he had grown up in a white family in Rhodesia, before the war, and his brother was now a game officer. The national park in which he worked was large but poorly run, inadequately staffed, and they had a terrible poaching problem. This was decimating the wildlife population, and it had started to drive the man's brother to distraction. All of the life set down on this planet, and this little bit had been given him to shepherd and he could not protect it. He was helpless.
"The brother lived in a house on the shore of a small lake, just across from the park. He took his meals on the veranda, looking out over the water at the forest and plains. And one very dark, moonless night, he was eating dinner and he saw lights on the far side of the lake. He heard shots. He realized that there were poachers on bank over there, carrying high-power flashlights, spotlighting animals and killing them where they stood. For a moment his brother was transfixed, this man told me, by the strange beauty of it. Dancing lights, a quarter mile away, shadows thrown out across the blackness of the lake. The soft echo of the shots. Or maybe it was not poachers. Maybe it was spirits or ghosts or demons. Some breach between worlds. He called his manservant and had him clear the table and bring out another bottle of wine and his rifle. He had the manservant turn out all the lights in the house. He had him put Mahler on the stereo. And then, with the music unraveling around him, he opened the bottle of wine and poured himself a glass and rested his elbow on his dining table and began to fire his rifle across the lake at those lights.
"When I was young," I told Timothy, "that story meant so much to me. It was so full. And I miss it so goddamn much. I used to know that you had to be your own god if you wanted one. I used to know that."
"I don’t believe... " he said, and I saw that he did not understand.
"No," I said. "You’ve come back. You’ve failed, out there."
He opened his mouth again to speak.
"You have failed," I said, "and you must have come crawling back kissing the ground if the college took you on again."
I watched the hurt pass through his eyes. It felt very good, I cannot deny that.
"But you are my best friend," I told him.
What a strange life this is. What strange powers we have. He put his hands on my shoulders to embrace me and his smile was innocent and pure and full of thanks. We still teach here, on this frontier at the forward edge of the planet, and it would be inaccurate to say that we are not still interested in throwing ourselves against the size of the things of the world.
TYLER SAGE has recent or forthcoming work in Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Common, The L.A. Review of Books, Story Quarterly, The Greensboro Review, Bright Lights Film Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in California.