The Médoc Peninsula features a gravelly soil, which the winter wind, coming off the Atlantic Ocean, flings into the swells of rolling lowlands. Salt and grit, then, imbue themselves into the vine. The summer sun cooks the salt and grit after long, soaking rains drench the soil and the vines. The vines while away the summer by sucking everything that might be considered a nutrient into itself, the sun, the wind, and the sucking clasping hands together in a common effort to cause pollens of every sort of weed to be infused into the grapes, which are trampled and pressed, dumped into great vats to be left to the ravages of yeast consuming the sugars, then stored in wooden barrels in musty basements.
Dad shuffled out of the house, grabbing his jacket as he went out the door, started the car, and Mom hustled after him. They drove away into a light gray afternoon. Then it was a drive to a urologist. Then it was a drive to Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
Mom couldn’t bear to ride with him, so she sent him away early that morning, and I drove him. I shook his hand after his sage advice to a married man who’d fathered four children, holding his hand, really, holding it in a religious bond. It was good advice.
When I was seventeen, Mom and Dad went to Europe with my sister, leaving me behind to work, to save up for college, and to save up for my own trip to Europe after I graduated from high school. The very day they boarded the airplane, my relationship with Amy soured. We didn’t break up, but she decided to tell me she was seeing Brad. “I thought we were going steady,” I said. I tried to play it cool because Amy was tall and fair, and very hip. She put the chic in chick, man, and all of us who went for the alternative labels in our musical tastes—all of us went for Amy, so she could afford to choose. “I really did,” I said. “I thought we were going steady.”
“Is that what you want?” she said back to me, in an absolutely unforeseen response. I was bracing myself for something more along the lines of “Well, no, we aren’t going steady, you silly boy,” or “I don’t believe in such limitations.” Indeed, the latter was what I expected to hear because for Amy, it was freedom. She only wanted freedom, and I felt like I had won some sort of sweepstakes to be pulled into her orbit.
Months after our first meeting, we had our first kiss. Months.
In the main hall of the History Museum hung an oversized copy of Evelyn De Morgan’s Helen of Troy. Every man entering paused before the painting to remember, then proceeded to the exhibition areas of the museum to begin drinking and singing and forgetting. They did this forgetting for many years until Helen of Troy was no longer meaningful. Without significance, she disintegrated with time, and no artist in their midst thought to preserve her, nor any of her mothers, sisters, or daughters. Nevertheless, every man entering the museum for the annual Forgetting Exhibition became aware of a black melancholy, a constant companion brought forward in this joyous celebration, a companion to be mocked and ridiculed, and dunked and drugged, buried.
He lifted his eyes up from the path, turning his body so that the roar of the rushing waters was to his right, far below him, now louder than the applauding trees. Up he meant to climb, but he was looking for the lightning-struck stump. A generation ago it had been struck, his daddy once told him, and once it was struck by lightning, light could no longer escape, so it stood against the shadowed green of the summer woods as an obelisk, marking the way to the Indian corn grinder. He closed his eyes, remembering how his daddy held his hand and pointed. Was the obelisk up a little? Or was it straight in front of him, resting upon the top of the bluffs as he was? He remembered. He opened his eyes and peered: there it was, up a little. The top of the bluffs served as a path, but not without treachery, for the river in places suddenly snaked toward the bluffs, reaching to pull out foundational stones with a great crack of victory, leaving only the deception of safety.
To the great obelisk, now showing green, spring green in August, moss flourishing on the north side at the end of this wet summer, he climbed. Straight up the hill from the stump was the Indian corn grinder, a cup hewn into the top of a projection of bedrock, waist high on an Indian maiden, chest high on an unnipped boy named Bud. Around the corn grinder had been a village, strung out along a flat spot on this steep hill, protected below by the bluffs of the river, protected from above by sheer inclination, accessible from either side, but only in single file. Bud fingered the marks where his older uncles, who stood in his mind like a towering jury of the unjust, had tried to cut the corn grinder out of the hill in order to sell it, but had been disappointed to find that it was, indeed, a part of the foundations of the earth itself. Bud heard whispering, but he was not afraid: it was the forest, whispering to him beneath the roar of the rushing waters.
Reanna says to Charles, Jr., who is trying to eat his beef stew, “They’ve both been so different since Stephanie moved to Colorado.”
The storm rumbles and grumbles in the basement, and then a sharp crack: the unmistakable sound of the action of a shotgun being opened and closed.
Charles, Jr.’s eyes grow wide with fear. He stops eating and looks across the table at his sister. “You don’t think…”
“Don’t be silly,” Reanna whispers.
They listen to the rumbling, grumbling storm downstairs, punctuated by the action of many shotguns, rifles, and pistols being opened and closed, along with a few muffled exclamations, such as, “Enough is enough,” and “That’s the last time,” and other unintelligible oaths and curses, all uttered in exasperation, frustration, and anger. Finally, clearly, they hear, “Why bother going on like this?”
Charles reappears, holding one hand behind his back and standing stiffly erect, his eyes screwed up into dark holes. “Where’s your mother?” he demands of his children. Reanna and Charles, Jr. both freeze, staring at him.
Odd ducks sometimes find safe waters when all the swans get their tails shot off. Francois landed in Information Technology just as it was becoming a demand, while manufacturing and labor opportunities were becoming scarce. With the extra money he had, even as a young man, he bought a nice house outside North Tonawanda, in quiet Pendleton, where he and Jenny started having babies, and he started a stamp collection. To Jenny he was adamant: he was not a stamp collector; he was a philatelist. He studied stamps as a hobby, over against collecting them for trade. She hitched the baby on her hip and rolled her eyes: he had a whole room in the house dedicated to stamps. He subscribed to two stamp magazines: Philatelism Today and Modern Stamper. Rare and valuable stamps were specially mounted and displayed. He bought special lights and specially-coated glass to preserve the stamps from harmful ultra-violet rays. Yes, he was an odd duck.
The odd duck became obsessed with his hobby, speaking endlessly of new finds and old curiosities. “Did you know the oldest stamp was first issued by Great Britain in 1840? It’s called the ‘penny black’ because it was black, and it only cost a penny. But it is not so valuable as the rare Swedish Three Skilling Banco, which sold for over $2 million. Did you know that?” Day in and day out, Francois obsessed, coming to dinner late, wolfing his food to rush back to his stamp room. Jenny didn’t think Francois was doing anything wrong, per se, but she was concerned about the obsession. She noticed that to have any conversation with Francois was to gaze into his blank stare while his mind rallied around something to do with stamps, stamp collecting, and the study of stamps. She sighed, hoping the obsession was a passing fancy.
“Let’s move out,” said Reynolds. “If we walk straight east, we’re bound to hit the Tigris, and from there we can get our bearings.”
“If we can find some shoal water, we can cross over to some higher ground and get out of this infernal swamp,” said Jenkins.
“Shoal water?” asked Reynolds. “What in the hell is shoal water?”
“Ain’t you ever heard of Muscle Shoals, Alabama?” demanded Jenkins. “Shoal water is shallow water where you can cross over to the good fishing hole.”
Reynolds stared at Jenkins. “And you know how to find shoal water.”
“Sure I do,” said Jenkins. “I grew up on the bluffs.”
“Bluffs? Do you see any bluffs around here? And what do bluffs have to do with shoal water?”
Jenkins spat. “Down in Alabama, growing up on the bluffs meant you growed up on a river that had lots of holes in it for fishing, but you had to find the shoal water to get to it. Don’t you know any of this stuff? But you can’t just cross at any shallow spot; the current might be too strong. It’s got to be shoal water, where the river is whoa’d up a little, you understand.”
In this way they walked eastward in the swamps of southern Iraq, talking about Alabama shoal water, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Confederacy, completely lost somewhere between Basra and Baghdad and somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. At last they found themselves on the banks of a river, and presuming it was the mighty Tigris River, they turned left. Reynolds kept an eye open for what he thought might be shoal water, to prove to the hick that he could spot shoal water without the experience of being raised apart from civilization.
Carla sniffed the spray as the breeze brought it from gentle breakers, tickling her nose with a curl of her own hair, which, on occasion, she caught in her teeth, playing with her hair even as the toddler played with the sea. The sand beneath the towel was firm, but it gave when she ground in her heels. Seagulls were competing somewhere in the distance, becoming as thin pencil sketchings against a brilliant blue sky. One seagull dove nearer, and its call mingled with the squealing of the toddler. Carla smiled again as she saw him bounding away from the tickling fingers of the sea, chasing her son as a father might do, thundering with great primal power, but relenting for the sake of mirth. He expended so much motion in his legs and arms, she thought, in a perfect caricature of a running toddler, yet moving only so slowly.
It wasn’t a gun shot, but her mind had to go to that possibility first because of all the news. Nevertheless, a startling cracking sound had come to her senses, perhaps through her feet and not through her ears. Was it an earthquake? Yet the earth did not move. She was sure something critical had sounded out, perhaps beneath the waves, a tremendous unleashing in an eyeblink of time. She pondered.
A shriek awakened her from her meanderings, that shriek which every mother perceives before she hears it, the change from play-acted fear to genuine terror. She was on her feet, running to him, his eyes filled with pain, his mouth in a howl for Mommy. She was to him in one, two, three leaps.
“What’s wrong?” she cried out to him. “Tell Mommy what hurts.” Between sobs, he babbled sensibly enough that she learned he had a boo-boo on his foot. She looked. His foot was indeed bleeding from the sole. What did he step on? She searched quickly, watching a wave recede. Yes, there it was: “You stepped on a sea urchin,” she said, kissing his foot, picking him up to carry him to her spot, where she thought she might have a paper towel to stop the bleeding, “a nasty little sea urchin.”