Proof of Maybe
His next ride turned west on I-70 across all of Pennsylvania, and it was okay, the day, but the green land grayed under evening, and the driver stopped his On the Road talk like none of it had been true, or wasn’t anymore, and he dropped the hitchhiker off at an exit in Wheeling, West Virginia and went on home up into its hills, not so happy, these last miles, and the hitchhiker stood on sloped asphalt and orange light was on the black hilltops, and through the Interstate valley long lines of slowed headlights moved like going home, all of them, through smoky air, and he had a hundred and eighty-three dollars and all his life, but too much he spent for a night in a chain motel, not a good night either, what, with telephone and television and traffic noises making every thought a homesickness, but he didn’t turn it on, the television, and he didn’t pick it up, the telephone, and next day’s noon, outside of Columbus, Ohio, he got a ride from a dog-faced lady cop off duty and driving a purple muscle car and wearing a short skirt to show thighs like a fullback’s which she spread to show a fat little pistol strapped to the front of her seat. “Don’t try nothing,” she said, then not so many miles more, before Dayton, offered up a joint and they smoked it and the rider wondered how it was for her, being black like she was black, having a dog face like she had a dog face, a body that turned Twinkies into muscle. Why was she a cop? How did she get her jollies? He wondered that and didn’t think they were good, her jollies, not like they were supposed to be, and he wondered that she knew that, and he told her his story, and she told him hers, but both left everything out, and it was better for that, he thought, and the car left the flatland Interstate, and too soon they were making their way by intuition alone, his, down into the south of Indiana, on state and county roads that became narrow old roads crowned and without shoulders in the miles and miles of corn that rolled over hills to go down into broad valleys with ridges of spired trees. But the valleys became narrower and steeper, and the old growth trees crowded to the edges of the small fields as if to threaten to take back their land, and at twenty miles an hour, one after another, the lady cop and the hitchhiker, silent each, idled through Indiana towns through which ran the long roads down which in front of them rattled cattle, a dozen to the trip, in fat, red trucks, slaughterhouse bound, nine cents to the pound.
And along one of these roads, in the sun beneath an old elm tree—he thought she was dead—was a man and his wife, two roadside gourds selling corn in the evening sun. “This is my pension,” he said, “four ears for a dollar, three ears to a beer. The road took my children, the land took my wife. Help me Lord, let me die tonight. Don’t you know, Dear God, that I’m tired tonight.”
That’s what he thought and thought it for the lady cop too, and and she kinda knew it, and along these roads, on a gravel driveway in gold evening sun, the hitchhiker’s eyes looked on a girl, an Indiana face freckled and blond, waxing the truck of a brown mechanic nineteen and shy for her touch, for what it’d do to him, make him have to believe. She was offering herself to the giddy-up smile of greasy bronzed muscles so that there would then be, in these places between places, nothing but them for years and years and years, so long as he let them be.
He thought that, too, and thought the thought a lie and didn’t know the truth, neither his nor theirs, and the rottenness came back to his insides and he didn’t care, and the car turned off a county road and onto a dirt track cut into an eroding hillside. The lady cop said, “Is this the place?”
“It might be,” he said.
“I think so,” he added, for her benefit, as he grabbed his small suitcase from the back seat, a bag of groceries too, another from the liquor store ten miles back. She’d been a helpful, patient cop. The setting sun lit the treetops. The woods themselves sucked black so as to pull down night. “Thanks,” he said. She was an Indianapolis cop who’d gone to an ex-fiance’s funeral in Columbus, Ohio, driven him an hour out of her way, an hour at least, and when he opened the door to get out, she handed to him two long joints rolled fat and tight, and he took em kinda awkward, and she smiled like she was willing to understand, help even, but he suspected she had hope he wouldn’t take her up, and he closed the door, and through the open window she said, “You sure?”
“Thanks,” he said again and turned and walked the dirt track several miles in the woodland dark where rusting mobile homes with light dim inside were tucked half-hid up overgrown slopes littered, here and there, with flatbeds a generation unused. Further up, near the ridge top, were gray-wooded homes abandoned, three or four of them. In the trailers he thought lived did chicken-necked, banjo-loving Daniel Boones with dirty drawers and worn out socks.
He had the memory of that, of them, kind of.
He had the sense anyway that eyes from up in the woods were watching and that this was a mean place in old America, but he paid neither no mind and followed the dirt track a mile down past inhabitation to a stub of a trail that came up short of a cabin of rough-milled oak blackening with age. Nine feet squared at its base, two stories high, set some up the cockeyed slope of a steep hill, it stood improbably plumb, but of wrong proportions. The upper story overhung the lower. It stood like a spook’s house in the gloom come down from the ridges, come up from the valley, pervaded in from every periphery like ground fog on the forest’s deep carpet of a thousand years of leaves just like memory had described.
He put at the door his suitcase and groceries and liquor and walked some down toward a natural meadow stream-side at the valley bottom where was what once had been a go at a corn field and a vegetable patch and a little orchard where weeds grew up through the skeletons of shrubby peach trees. He looked and kinda saw something like a kid running through living trees but the kid was a ghost and the trees were dead and the kid, he knew, was laid down, curled up and never to awake inside whomever he had become, as inside him, like nesting dolls, curled up were his successively younger selves, the boy he had been, and child who had been that boy, and the baby who had been that child, and the infant who had been that baby, each asleep, each one one a failure to the one who’d come before.
It was okay.
He thought he hadn’t really seen the kid’s ghost and thought too that thoughts proved nothing and in the last of light he walked into the woods and gathered up deadfall and outside the cabin’s stoop built a sizable fire and after a while buried potatoes in the embers and jerry-rigged a spit on which he roasted a duck and then pulled its sizzling flesh apart with greasy fingers he had to keep licking like they was burning. Later he drank whiskey and smoked some of a joint and listened to owls and other noises he knew nothing about and thought his father might as well had not disappeared, just receded a bit, stepped into the background to give him room, eighteen now, but like a man as he had no likely future, not anymore, and it didn’t matter since when, not since the moment it gone and left him alive in a man’s unlikelies.
He lay back and felt as if his father might come out from behind the trees and he could kinda almost sense him or see him but couldn’t think of anything the cocksucker might say, nothing at all, and that mighta been kinda profound, but then those were just thoughts, and thoughts floated on the same sea as dreams, big ships silent from a fog, and he drank a little more and where thoughts ended and dreams began he couldn’t anymore tell and that felt profound too, though it wasn’t, and in the morning he had bread, cheese and juice and couldn’t recall the details of the ships, but their feeling he remembered like the weather, and he worked a rusted wheel barrow into serviceability and for two days in intermittent rain, some of it hard, he pushed it back and forth the quarter mile from the cabin down to the wide brown stream where he pulled up from its clay bottom what flat rocks he could claw out, and from the cabin door down the hill to the dirt track at the end of the trail he made a stone path in the mud beneath the leaves. He pulled the leaves back and drove the stones down into the mud and then layered more stone, sometimes five deep, to make a broad, stepping walk from the road to the cabin’s stoop whose supports were rotting and that’s what he looked at and didn’t know if he’d fix it, though said to himself he would, but was now tired and dirty and drunk that way too, and up the dirt road further into the forest he set off and walked over one ridge then another. Tall trees black and green went up steep hillsides and down and at the bottom at last was the dark and silent water he’d thought would be there. Weeds ringed the shore and gave way to lily pads that extended out as far as the permanent black shade of the tall trees going up the steep hill. In the middle sparkled green water in the only sunlight two acres big.
It was a Forest Service pond high on a hill inside the eastern boundary of the Hoosier National Forest and surrounded by trees, miles and miles of trees and looked down over more trees where generations ago men and women took a young country into the wilderness now grown back jack pines and silver maple weed trees in the clearings where once grew corn beneath the stares of men who lived in the rusting trailers some downhill from the ruins of their fathers’ homes.
He stood and remembered and wasn’t sure. He stood and remembered and did not want to swim again through the wide ring of weeds out to the black cool in the middle as he hadn’t wanted to when he had had to beneath his father’s stare.
He was tired and did not want to be there, if he was there. He was drunk, and the day was over. His slacks were wet and muddy and heavy. All day for two days from a river bed he had drug stones in the rain that came and went and came back sometimes torrential and he had made a walk of stone for a life gone away, the whole thing, all that might have led to a place from which he might look on his work, hands on hips and say, “Ha!” to himself and his father—if there was here. The stone walk was a piece of shit, and he knew it because what might have made it anything else was gone away from him and he did not want.
But, “Go in,” was said. Someone had said for him to hear, “Go in.” He did not think it was anything or that he had heard it.
He was tired and drunk and his slacks were muddy and his shirt was heavy with sweat and grime. He stepped down to the steep, slick bank and could no more shed his shoes and socks than could an animal shed its skin, which he was and wanted to go up the hill to a dark burrow into sleep and did not want.
He did not want to splash into the water though he could see like a ghost the him he was supposed to have become, the one for whom all his selves had lain themselves down to sleep inside and never to awake, the one stripped and ripped and splashed into the water and in the middle, in the sunlight, with a bar of soap. And that would have been right, and the lady cop would have been right, and ….
He did not want and and did not want to step into the cold water and did and muck and algae slid into his socks and shoes and up beneath his slacks. He sunk in the muck and struggled into the black water two steps and had to lunge into the thirty feet of lily pads choking each other for what there was of light, wan and green. He felt the tangle of lily pad stems that rose in tangles from the rot.
This was the world and how cold was the water a foot beneath its still surface.
It was a mean place in old America, and he swam lazy circles in the cold middle and looked up to the tall surrounding trees dizzy with whiskey and dope and ready for sleep.
He swam lazy circles and did not think
He swam lazy circles and through wan light that made him very far away he did not want to fight back through those watery weeds. He did not want to leave the cold water. He did not want to slide off his slacks and shoes and socks. He did not want.
Then Death announced her presence. She whispered low, comforting. “I am here.”
“Not here, not now,” he said, and shrugged and did not want.
She let him slowly swim another circle, then said, “I am here.”
He did not want to kick his legs, did not want to plunge back through the tangle of watery weeds. He swam lazy circles with heavy arms and legs, and he liked his face in the cold water that was of sleep a minute before she took you away into her, and Death again whispered to him, “I am here.”
She had a soothing voice, and in the pond’s two-acre middle he was not moving and realized he wasn’t and didn’t know if he could and he looked to the shore and the woods and he was not moving, not him disappeared now beneath the dark green water. He raised his arms and tried to kick and he didn’t. He looked through a foot of green water up for one second to the woods, to see that there might be in them eyes for real, for he had it not in him to fight anymore and was sorry for it all, for it was very tiring, drowning was, but not so bad, not once you were there.
It was not so bad, not now that he had no future, none, not with Death’s voice there whispering to him.
The water was cold and clear, and he had no future, and it was not bad, and “I am here,” she said, Death, and he slowly sank and felt the light and warmth go away.
And it was not bad.
Socrates could have learned from him. And Ernest Hemingway and Yukio Mishima. Virginia Woolf, too. You needed not a philosophic frenzy. You needed not walk with a pocket full of rocks into the River Ouse. You needed not tie cement to your neck, nor drink hemlock at a party, nor put a gun to your head, nor take a knife to your guts. You needed only work and drink and go for a swim in a pair of muddy slacks in a still pond high in the forest in a mean place in old America and swim lazily round and round until the cold put you to sleep.
And it was not bad.
And Death was not there in that last clear moment in the cold, green water. She was not there, not her. No girlfriends were there, the few he’d had and all he hadn’t. His life wasn’t there, the parts lived and the parts unlived. His wife wasn’t there, whoever she was to be. No one was there, not his mother, nor his father, not his sisters, no brothers, no sons, no daughters, not her, not for a second, not a flicker of them in his brain anywhere. They were gone away into a world not for him. But up on the hill, someone was there. In the trees, someone was there. Up on the hill, stepping from behind trees, a woman in white, a woman of light, someone was there. He knew not who, knew not how, and put little stock in such things. They did not give him the jitters. He was but one of God’s critters, barking poor dreams, now that He had lost count. And it was not so bad, dying. “You are here,” he said to Death, but she wasn’t, and the black cold water slid down his slackening throat. He closed his eyes. And he did not want.
He lay there and closed his eyes and did not want and dreamed of his life and its journeys and saw all the glories he was to have brung back.
He lay there and dreamed all the dreams men had and saw they were lies.
He lay there and lay there forever and ever, never to awake.
He lay there and lay there and another opened my eyes and I turned my face from the slime and opened my eyes and through the green water saw up on the hill the light that was a woman stepping to me and “Not yet,” she said to me and I would be there still, I would be there silent, put to sleep, me and each of whom I had been, each of whom I would be. I would be there still but that she was stopped and said, “Not yet,” and turned away, turned away to leave, and I made some few flails with my arms after what I’d thought was her and surfaced at the edge of the watery weeds with no way to breathe but seeing thirty feet away, his ankles in water, a chicken-throated, banjo-loving Daniel Boone. He stepped forward to his knees in water, and his feet sunk in ooze, and he staggered back looking still at me for the second before I went down into water with no breath in lungs that hurt but sank into the weeds and climbed them up my head above sucking on foam in my mouth so our eyes met again, and mine were panicked now, said to his, “Now what, fucker?”
Then I disappeared and came up and disappeared and came up a few feet closer each time, arms flailing for a grab of something, and Daniel Boone slid off his jeans and knotted a leg of them to an arm of his shirt, then splashed into the muck, whipped his new rope about, that I might grab hold. Which I did and yanked on it hard enough that it pulled him under, pulled it from his grip, and I thought I’m dead now like an idiot as Daniel Boone ran through the woods looking for a stick long enough to reach me from shore. The underbrush scratched him up. In twenty-seven thousand square feet of the Hoosier National Forest there wasn’t one stick laying about big enough to reach me.
And I sunk bottomward again thinking less of eternity and Death and her voice and the Woman of Light than that this Mr. Boone would have to call the sheriff’s department, hang around while they dragged the place with grappling hooks, answer all their questions, find out who I was, make a call to my mother, tell her that her son was at the bottom of a small pond in a dark woods a long way from anywhere he ought to have been, stand around a foot-shuffling dope as my mother, maybe a few others, asked, “Why?”
Instead, Daniel Boone used a month’s production of adrenaline to rip up a small sapling and run back down to the shore, and I, once more gasping foam, grabbed hold and was pulled to shore and coughed up a bit of pond water and took some minutes to catch my breath, which ached, and I saw that Daniel Boone was as exhausted as I. His legs were scratched and bleeding.
“Thanks,” I said.
He said kinda mournfully that his jeans and shirt were at the bottom of the pond, and I said, “Sorry,” and after a few minutes, we realized there wasn’t much else to say, and I offered him my shirt, and he put it on, and we walked up the hill and passed the spot where the woman of light had appeared. I kinda looked around for her, or a sign that she might have left for me, but there was none, and I mumbled, “Fuck you,” to which Daniel Boone said, “What?” So I explained.
I owed that and said that I’d heard Death whispering to me but came to the surface for a woman of light but she was nowhere to be found. I said she was an angel, a vision, something, and had called me back to life and then went away.
Daniel Boone said, “Yeah, they’re like that.”
I said, “Yeah.”
He said, “Yeah, they’re cockteases.”
And we walked up the hill towards the ridge coming down which were two hunters, and they said they’d come for the noises of panic, and we said everything was alright, but they didn’t believe two mopes soaking wet, one pair of pants between them, but they turned back anyway. We went back to my cabin, and I made a fire and gave Mr. Boone some clothes, some parochial-school polyesters—which fit—said, “Keep ‘em,” and he said, “They’re nice.” And we ate, drank whiskey across from each other, tossed the bottle back and forth over the small fire. Surrounding us were the hillbilly woods, and they had eyes, the woods did, and not human eyes either, which made you scared, but in a lonely, childish way, which you simply ignored.
Daniel Boone said he remembered a man and his son who used to come to the cabin, but that had been years before and the man didn’t belong and the boy was small.
There was some silence. Then we exchanged our stories, brief and cryptic enough, and after that didn’t talk much, but we had thoughts, and maybe we knew what each other was thinking, or maybe not, but liked to think so anyway, and in order to keep thinking so, you couldn’t talk so much.
After some time, Daniel Boone said, “You coulda died, fucker.”
He said it again, “You coulda died, fucker,” and I nodded, and after a while he said it again, then again, and it seemed to mean a lot more to him than to me, and we didn’t have the same thoughts, and I lay back and wondered about being dead, and it seemed like it would have been okay. People’d got over it, and I wondered about the visions and about Death and the woman of light and the lady cop and all that I hadn’t been and my father too, how it was for him, if he was dead, and when Daniel Boone cried again, “You coulda died, motherfucker,” I said, “Shut the fuck up,” and he did, and after a while I kindly handed the whiskey bottle to him with but one swallow left, and he took it and then winged it over his left shoulder forty-eight feet in a low, tumbling arc right through the lone, small window of the cabin, a perfect shot that could not be duplicated except in a moment of transcendent truth.
Which you can’t ever say and have it stay so.
And we didn’t.
And chicken-necked Daniel Boone said he was going for home so to bring back more whiskey and some plastic and tape for the window, but I knew he wouldn’t and lay there long with my unlikely future and woke rotten, cold and damp in the twigs and leaves and went down to the creek and drank and washed up best I could and took one more look around the inside of the cabin for clues but there were none and walked the eight or nine miles to the nearest town, Storyville, and ordered breakfast in a diner filled with locals who all knew each other but never shared the deep, dark and true reason, not here, not with each other, that they were put on God’s green earth. And I ate and lingered. I paid and lingered, and the breakfast crowd cleared out, and I sat for another cup of coffee, but they were done conversing with me, didn’t want to extend none of themselves, and I stared a minute or two at a pay phone on the wall but didn’t see how a call would do anything but suck me back in—and then what? The pain was okay. Given and received in equal measure, unmussed up by explanation, it had incubus in it, and I thought that and thought the thought was bullshit and lingered and when the dawdlers seemed about to object to me, I asked if there were any jobs around here for a feller traveling through. There weren’t, not according to them, which there wouldn’t be, not with their lifestyle depending on the perceived absence of work, but the waitress, like an unlikely and idiot oracle, she said, “But listen ….”