Saturday
Mar292014

The Dead Forest

Nathan Oates


 

Most books fell away as soon as she finished them, leaving little or no trace, but The Dead Forest was different. Published over fifty years ago, the novel was about a failed marriage in a dying Midwestern city, a city much like the place she'd grown up in and the family portrayed in those pages, with minor tweaking, could've been her own. Throughout the four days it took her to read it she'd felt an almost overwhelming mingling of lightness and terror, as though someone was reaching into the joint of her spine and brain, pulling free her true self and flinging it into the empty immensity of space.

After reading the last page she felt a pressure in her chest, something like a sob caught in her throat only larger, so much larger than her throat could ever contain, and she had to leave her apartment, though it was late and she lived in the rough part of town—rough, at any rate, by the tame standards of that east coast college town. She walked up to campus through a slight drizzle. The hoods and roofs of cars glistened beneath the streetlights. At the edge of campus she turned around and took an unfamiliar route home, down streets crowded with identical squat brick buildings. Despite the cold, crowds were slumped on each stoop, drinking from paper bags. A young man on one stoop stood and called out something unintelligible, garbled by laughter. A woman down the street swayed to her feet and shouted back, "Fuck off, you dumb motherfucker." Deeper into the poor area of town she found an abandoned factory, the side of which was almost entirely safety glass, every pane shattered. She studied the broken windows, as though waiting to see something moving inside. Stars and bits of sky were visible through missing slats on the roof.

For the rest of the semester, she'd kept The Dead Forest beside her bed and, when she went to class, in her book bag, but never reread it. How could she feel again that world so intensely? Or what if the book wasn't as good as she remembered? This had happened before: with movies, with stories, with friends. Instead, she gave copies as presents; first to her two best friends from college for graduation. She'd written on the accompanying card: Here's what we have to look forward to. Only one friend read the novel. On a long distance phone call from a refuge for large animals in Arkansas where the friend was living for a year, the friend had said, "I just don't think life is like that."

"Like what?" she'd said, her voice shaking.

"So bleak. It's just not like that."

"If you say so," she'd said. Her friend had changed the subject to the wrestling matches she had with a lemur who lived in the house.

The other friend, her roommate throughout their four years of college, never mentioned the book at all and when she asked if the friend had had a chance to read it, the friend said, "I'm not really into fiction, you know? I only want to read about real stuff. Stuff that happened."

How were these my friends?, she'd thought, but by then a couple years had passed since she'd read the book and maybe her feelings about it were heavily tinted by memory.

Seven years after her last class as an undergrad, when she returned to graduate school at a small university in the Deep South, a part of the country she'd always dreaded, she put The Dead Forest on the shelf above her writing desk. Her inspiration, she thought in maudlin moments. Or, the standard she'd never match, not with her vague, sloppy, lifeless stories.

In November of her first semester an email announcement regarding the spring semester's visiting writer came. She read it, not believing, and then read it again. Attached to the email was a biography of the writer – calling him "James Williams, the celebrated author of The Dead Forest"– and there was a photograph, the same photo she'd stared at so many times on the backs of his paperback editions. According to the note, the author was coming to spend the semester as a visiting-writer and would be teaching the graduate workshop. She looked at the books on her shelf, all his books – even his two out-of-print story collections – none of which came close to that first novel, that one that, she'd always felt, made her want to be a writer (she'd never admit this, except in the interviews she gave in her head).

All through her morning composition classes she was distracted, excited and, eventually, disconcerted: why would so esteemed a writer come to spend four months in this strip-mall town, an hour from the nearest dinky airport? Her anxiety was heightened by her peers' indifference in workshop. Most were unashamed to admit they'd never even heard of James Williams. One said, "Isn't he really old?" Another said, "I heard he's in a wheelchair, or something." The professor stared blankly into this abyss of stupidity, and at the end of class asked her to stay behind. He knew, from her application and from her papers that she was a fan of James Williams, so he had a favor to ask: would she mind helping take care of him this coming semester?

She wasn't sure what the professor meant, though she of course knew Williams was in a wheelchair. But, she'd read in a review of his last (not very good) novel, the nurse in the book was essentially an undisguised version of his real nurse. And he was married.

Well, Jim (as the professor called him) was going through a divorce and his nurse had quit, so he'd be coming to campus alone and, though she shouldn't say anything to anyone about this (not that it was a big secret), his drinking was a problem. She'd be expected to go over to his apartment in the mornings, take him on a walk, or read him his mail, or help organize his papers, and then come back again in the evening to have dinner with him. Did this sound like too much? The professor knew she'd been a nurse for a couple years. Hadn't she written a story about that? They could, of course, give her a course release for all this work.

Yes, it was true, she'd been a nurse, she said and then said that of course she would be happy to help if she could. Great, great, well, the secretary would be in touch, the professor said and then shuffled his papers awkwardly into his bag, glancing up several times to smile at her.

It was well known that this professor, the younger, less well published brother of the department's superstar, slept with his students. Not serially, or methodically, but now and then he had brief affairs with grad students. When she looked over, his mustache arced up to reveal a hard line of teeth. He had a hand on the door, as though deciding whether to leave or perhaps shut the door, turn, and unbutton his coat. Her jeans squeezed her thighs and the arms of her shirt shrank away from her wrists. "See you next week?" the professor said, tapping the table with two fingers.

Out the windows of the seminar room she could see a small plane gliding low over the campus, red lights on its wing blinking erratically.

 

 

The apartment arranged for the visiting writer was behind a strip mall on the far edge of the sprawl that had killed the old and potentially picturesque downtown. She had trouble finding the complex. Eventually she pulled into empty stretch of parking lot behind a fast food restaurant and through the thin copse of pines she spotted the wooden sign: Oak Haven. The buildings were mobile homes on concrete foundations, arranged around bare, grassless stretches of yellow dirt. In front of one building was a flimsy swing set. A little girl in blue shorts and a filthy white T-shirt squatted beside a hole. The girl looked up at the sound of the car and stabbed the crumbling hole, then flung a trowel of dirt over her shoulder so it sprinkled into her hair.

At the door of apartment 8-A she stared at the bell's yellow button. This was too awful, too dreary, totally embarrassing. She rang the bell. After a few seconds she rang it again and no one answered, though she heard the bell buzzing inside. She knocked on the door and eventually called, "Hello?" She thought about going to the window to look, but instead hurried back past the little girl to her car where she turned on the air conditioning and drove home, filled with withering relief.

When she returned that evening there was again no answer to her buzzing or knocks. Workshop was the next day. James Williams would be there. She'd have to explain why she hadn't come by and there'd be no way to prove that in fact she had. Not that anyone was going to interrogate her about it, but still, she'd have let the department down, and herself. Especially herself. She felt that somehow this connection with the writer, her hero, was her best chance to make it as a writer. Everyone always said—all her professors, all the already-published writers who gave interviews—that all it took was doing one's best work and hoping for a bit of luck, but she didn't buy that. If grad school had taught her anything, it was that the literary world was a tangled nest of insecure, glad-handing assholes, and she wanted to be one of them. Better those assholes than the assholes elsewhere: business, the law, medicine (as she knew from experience) and all those other unthinkable ways people spent their lives. Her trip to a writing conference in New Orleans the year before had, in a way, broken her heart, but had also steeled her: sure, fine, this is the way it is, and I'm going to get in. And what better way to make an entrance than arm in arm (as it were) with a true writer, someone who wrote a book fifty years ago that was still being read, that would be read fifty years from now?

Instead of leaving when no one answered her knocks she decided to wait in her car and watch 8-A from the parking lot. Maybe the writer was out and would come back soon. People came and went from the apartments, mostly women, all of them obese, waddling in ill-fitting clothes over the dead ground to their cars into which they fell like wet sacks of grain, their groans and sighs audible with her windows down. What a place to put an artist. But then in this town everything was either a mansion in a planned community guarded by shining black iron gates, where the professors all lived, or else some dreary shithole like these apartments, where all the graduate students lived. Her one bedroom apartment was only half-a-mile away, though you could never walk there, as there were no sidewalks.

Maybe, she thought, thrumming her fingers on the wheel, sidewalks were the mark of culture. There were none here, only a few in the small Midwestern city where she'd grown up with her unhappy family, and then there were cities like New York and Paris, where every street, every bridge, every park was lined with smooth strips of pavement. Walking was her favorite pastime and she had to drive out into the country to the old rails-to-trails system to do it. On the rare occasions she actually drove out there, she'd go five or six miles before turning around. Once, she'd strayed too far too late in the year and the sun slipped below the trees. She was out on the trail alone, penned in by dark trees through which now and then she could hear noises: a barking dog, the crack of a gun, the rumble of an ATV. Hurrying along the gravel trail, she'd been sure she was going to be grabbed, beaten and dragged by her arms into the pine forest, beaten some more, then raped. The pale colorless sky would stare remorselessly down as the hands closed about her throat and squeezed. By the time she reached the parking lot where a young couple with a kid bickered as they loaded bikes atop their SUV, she was crying.

A fat woman with straw-colored hair stumbled out of one of the apartments, sucking on a cigarette. After a furious exhale, she thrust her head back into the apartment and screamed, then slumped against the side of the building. The woman wore a sagging yellow shirt with the top three buttons undone and jean shorts pinching out her cellulite. Between drags she reached down and stuck a finger under the seam of her shorts and tugged at the fabric.

Distracted by the woman, she hadn't noticed the light go on in 8-A. Her heart began to pound. She should go knock on the door. Or ring the bell. She wanted to drive away. The evening was cooler than usual, but still warm for January and she was sweating. The smoking woman stared at her as she walked past, blue tendrils trailing from the woman's nostrils like string.

Only one window of the apartment was lit, a yellow square with filthy blinds half-open. She could see a beige wall and a black halogen lamp. Resisting the urge to peer in through the window, she went to the door and pushed the buzzer before she could change her mind. She crammed her hands into her pockets and pulled them out. Holding her breath, she heard someone moving inside, or maybe a television had been on and was muted now.

"Hello?" she said, pushing her face close to the door. "Hello?"

Again she thought she heard the low hum of a voice, a whisper. Then came a crash, like a pan falling against a stone floor, and the light snapped out. She pushed the buzzer again and waited, then walked over to the now-dark window. "Hello?" she called, pushing the tips of her fingers against the glass. Something moved inside, close to the window, a head, pulling back to hide. Though her blood thrummed in her ears, she thought she could hear raspy breathing, then a small, stifled cough.

"Hello?" She held her breath until her throat tickled, then let the air out between her teeth. "Is it you?" she whispered. There it was again, something moving beyond the glass, a dark shape, retreating across the room. In a doorway, the shape paused and glanced back at her so she thought she saw the glint of eyes, or teeth.

Little yellow clouds puffed up around her black leather shoes as she hurried back to her car.

"No one home," the smoking woman shouted at her, and she couldn't tell if it was a question or an accusation. She kept her head down and got into her car and drove home.

The next morning she didn't check her email before going to campus, but when she saw the crowd gathered in the lounge she somehow knew it was James Williams. Hadn't she heard? There was an email about it. Well, the visiting writer was dead. Seriously. Yeah, a couple of days ago. A car accident. His nurse was driving him and they got smashed by a van running a red light. In Brooklyn. Yeah, that's where he lived, apparently. It was even in the New York Times. The students were more excited by this than anything, though they were disappointed there was no mention of the university. For a few minutes she stood around with the others, not saying anything. Someone asked if she was hungover.

"No, just tired," she said. She was supposed to teach in ten minutes. She went back down the empty stairwell to the parking lot to her car and got in and thought about driving to Oak Haven, thought about knocking on the door of 8-A. A tall, gaunt woman with brittle gray hair would answer (his nurse) and say the writer was sleeping, but she could come back later. Or it'd be the landlord. Or a cleaning person. She'd say she'd come by yesterday and the landlord/cleaning person would explain that they were hard of hearing and they'd point at the lumpy gray mass of a device in their ear, or they'd say, the buzzer must be broken.

Instead she drove home and looked at the spines of the dead writer's books on the shelf above her desk. She opened her computer and started to write.