"Rulfo had an uncle who told him stories and when Rulfo was asked why he didn't write anymore, his answer what that his uncle had died."
Helen Conley loves a man who she caught recently with his jaw slack and a book open in front of him. He snapped both jaw and book shut when he saw Helen coming up the path, but she knew for a fact that the book reads America is the most exciting thing to have happened to anyone in four hundred years. Nevertheless, Helen Conley asked what the book was about, and he said, Nothing, on September 11th of all days. How insensitive. Talk about a case of the chickens coming home to roost. So he said, Overpopulation. So Helen and her man had an enormous fight, what's called knock-down drag-out. First it was overpopulation, which he said is a big problem, which she said is a fake big problem. So he said, Everyone agrees it is a big problem, and she what's called flew off the handle.
Just imagine someone you love being the ambassador of everyone, and delivering such an important message to you, the message that everyone agrees. Helen stopped thinking about overpopulation. She was overcome with jealousy. Who are all of these people, these everyones? These everyones that he's been agreeing with? Without me? Where was I when everyone was agreeing? He accused her of hysteria. She accused him of misogyny. So that's how the fight went. Overpopulation, then jealousy, and then they moved on to mowing. He hadn't done it in so long that they couldn't even walk because the undergrowth was so thick, the young vine maple, and the coltsfoot and the sword fern. You couldn't get back into the land. Your face would press right away against a wet plant, and the blackberry brambles would catch your cap off, and the huckleberries would dye you.
"We have to get back there!" Helen Conley yelled.
"Why?" he yelled back.
"Because it's our land!" she yelled. "We have to survey it!"
"It's not our land. That's a colonizer's perspective!" he yelled.
"Okay, but we are stewards of it and we have to traverse it!" she yelled. "And also the outhouse is back there. We have to get to the outhouse!"
He was pissed. He wanted to read his America is exciting book, which described how if people traveled through time on a ship from the 1600s, they would land in America and be astounded at the glory of it, while all the rest of the world would seem to them to just be ho-hum. These time travelers were Dutch, that's what the author was saying, and the rest of the world to them would basically be the same as they had left it in the 1600s: suspicious Japan, bossy China, beleaguered Europe, meaninglessly expanding Russia. But the United States - so populated, so engaging, wow! The author was a professor at Princeton University, but Helen Conley didn't care.
She told her man he had to mow. She took a breath and said, "You can't just sit on the couch all day reading an objectionable book while the forest starts creeping in and pressing against our faces unpleasantly." Then, because he refused to respond, she yelled, "I know for a fact that you don't like it when a wet plant presses against your face because you told me that yourself!" So her man threw the exciting book into the woods.
"What good does that do?" asked Helen.
"It expresses my true nature," he said, and then the phone rang. It was her uncle, Maxwell Conley in Seattle, who had raised her. "It turns out I'm sick," he said.
"Wait, wait," she said. Her man stalked up the path. She heard him turn up the top forty hits.
"I knew I was sick," her uncle Maxwell said.
"Wait, wait, hold on," said Helen. She sat down on a cinder block.
"I knew and I didn't know," said Maxwell Conley. "Your aunt says she knew. I just wasn't ready to find out until this week. Then I got ready. Now there's nothing they can tell me except that it's bad."
"Hold on," said Helen. "How bad do they say?"
"They don't know anything. It's not that they don't try, but it turns out that they just don't know," said Maxwell Conley.
"Wait, wait," said Helen, and didn't say, You are indispensable to me. Not just the fact that you observed me ad nauseam as a baby, and drew monstrous caricatures of my wide-mouthed bawling. Not only that all my life you painted pictures for me on backgrounds of stubborn indigo. Catholic icons or a woodpecker in the same stroke, the Virgin springing from a teacup, a shock of daffodils. Not only for these reasons but for a reason even more selfish: Your entire unfathomable brain. I've used you as a library. I've used you as an excuse to be lazy. There is so much I haven't learned because I knew I could ask you. "Just hold on," said Helen, trying to think it all through. "I've got some questions. Before anything more happens, I'd like to take notes on this, so could you just wait until I get a pen." But of course she could not find a pen.
"I'll come home right away," she said. She had moved some way out of the city to try farming, the only pursuit that is sure.
"That's what I thought you would say," said Maxwell Conley, resigned.
Helen Conley found her man hacksawing the leg off a bed frame. "Turn down the music," she told him. She told him she couldn't find a pen. She told him the rest of what she knew. Considering it, they made up. She would go into the city. He would stay home and mow.
Helen's man began to load the truck for her and she stood in the gravel trying not to hate him. Yet her mind turned on the stultifying thought that she would only be able to love someone who knew her uncle as well as she did. The foregone defeat of this made her grind her teeth. No way to problem-solve it. Nothing useful. Maxwell had been trouble, Helen Conley knew. Alcohol kept him up instead of putting him to sleep. Fueled on it, he battled her aunt Kay Svenson until he punctured her thigh with a ballpoint pen. This happened years ago. Before her own father left. Before Helen Conley was even three. Sober decades ensued, in which Maxwell expected the women in his life to dote on him and leave him alone in equal measure, and of course to read his mind. "Tell me I'm difficult. I know I'm difficult," he challenged them. But still, thought Helen Conley, he is how I understand myself.
"Why do you need a pen so bad?" asked her man.
"To write it all down," said Helen Conley. "To keep track of what I know."
Helen Conley knew this story: When Maxwell Conley was sixteen and in high school, with a bad attitude like many of us have, two young members of the Black Panther Party saved his life. It happened because a recent veteran of the war in Vietnam woke up one morning believing he was still in the jungle. Adrenaline began pumping through his body at impressive levels. He didn't have a gun, but he found an oak baseball bat in the alley behind his mother's apartment building. He laced up his combat boots. He stormed down the street until he came to the high school. He kicked open the doors of the school, and came through the hallway breathing hard, fists clenched around the bat. It was seventh period. The hallway was quiet. Around the corner came Maxwell Conley, cutting class as was his custom. He was not sober. He was wondering why Kay Svenson wouldn't pay attention to him in art class. He was admiring his long curly hair in the reflection of the fire extinguisher case mounted on the wall. His Converse sneakers flapped open and his unwashed sock came through. The Vietnam veteran, only a few years older than Maxwell Conley, met him in the hallway, and wasted no time. He drew back his boot and kicked Maxwell Conley to the ground, sweating. Each muscle in his neck stood out. He was scared and Maxwell Conley was scared. The veteran was black and Maxwell Conley was white. They never knew it, but they were both Catholic. Maxwell Conley would not be drafted as this young man had been drafted. Neither would Maxwell go to college. He would stay up all night and paint pictures of skeletons engaged in a dance of death. He would marry Kay Svenson. He would puncture her thigh. He would finally get sober after spending many nights in the bathtub. He would raise his brother's daughter, Helen. He would learn another language. Forty years later, he would get sick and learn what the doctors knew: not much. The veteran stood over him and brandished the baseball bat.
Maxwell Conley believed he would die. Red and yellow crept into the soldier's eyes. The soldier breathed fast through his nose, in Vietnam. Then the rapid sound of Beatle boots tapping down the hallway, and Murray and Phil Rose arrived. They were boys near Maxwell's age, brothers wearing powder blue shirts and black berets. Murray put his arms around the veteran, and Phil put his hands gently on the oak bat. Murray began to breathe with the young man and when their breathing matched, he slowed it down, and the man relaxed his hands, and Phil took the bat from him. Murray murmured to the veteran. "It's alright man," he said. "You're alright."
"You're alright," repeated Phil, until the soldier put his head down and began to shake. His knees gave way, and Murray hoisted him up, and then, supporting the man on either side, Murray and Phil Rose walked him down the hall and out of the building. The heavy door admitted daylight, then swung shut against it. Maxwell Conley was left alone, disregarded, lying on his back looking up at the ceiling tiles.
Later, sober, he saw Murray and Phil Rose smoking cigarettes out on the baseball diamond. They looked sharp. They were busy. They had a ten-point plan. Those young men wanted everything that had been promised to them. Every acre, terrifyingly. Terrifyingly, they fed free breakfast to children and made a newspaper together and handed it out in the high school cafeteria. Maxwell Conley had no plan. He cut class and grew his hair long and smoked grass and wanted Kay Svenson to talk to him. He had been bussed in to the high school when the city finally had to do something about integration. He walked across the baseball diamond, kicking up red dust, to where Murray and Phil Rose sat on the bleachers, their stack of newspapers beside them. Murray raised his eyebrows, glanced at his brother.
"Thank you," Maxwell Conley said, "for showing up the other day. If it hadn't been for the two of you."
Phil looked at the sky. Murray looked at the ground. Phil said, "It was nothing, man."
"No, I mean it," said Maxwell, "I don't know where you guys came from. Out of nowhere."
Murray stubbed his cigarette out with one pointed boot. Phil scooped the stack of papers under one arm. They got to their feet.
"I mean thanks," said Maxwell.
"We don't take cream with our coffee," said Murray. Phil looked at Maxwell and shrugged. They left him standing there by the bleachers, one toe sticking out of his Converse, coated to his calves in red dust.
"That happened forty years ago," said Helen Conley's man, finished packing the truck. He had made sure she took a jar of tea, dented apples, a tow rope, her own bedding.
"What does that matter to me?" Helen Conley said. "It still isn't enough time. When you want to know someone, you'll just go on knowing them as long as you can, and when that knowing gets cut off, it will always be too soon."
"Have you ever been bored?" Helen's man asked her. "People worry about tedium. About teaming up."
"How can I be bored when there is so much to fight over and discuss?" she said, and she started up the truck.
When Helen Conley reached Seattle, her aunt Kay Svenson led her upstairs. "He won't get out of bed," she said. "This is new."
"What about you? How are you holding up?" asked Helen Conley.
"He's stopped painting," said Kay Svenson, pausing outside the bedroom door.
"I can fucking hear you," said Maxwell Conley from within.
"He's started carving," said Kay Svenson.
Maxwell Conley sat in bed carving the words WILL YOU MISS ME into linoleum, embedding them in repeating geometric patterns. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight. He was not even glad that Helen was there. Kay Svenson went to the kitchen and brought back mincemeat pie and cranberry sauce, though it wasn't a holiday.
"What a question," said Helen, picking up one of the prints.
"It's the old true song," said Maxwell Conley. "I knew you'd come but I didn't know you meant today."
"He wants to carve with no one watching," Kay Svenson told Helen.
"Leave me alone," said Maxwell Conley.
"Impossible," said Kay Svenson.
"I've been looking at you since we were sixteen," he said.
"Do I look the same to you as I did then?" she asked.
"Your lumps are lumpier," he said. "You still do the things that make me want to escape and stay. I'm hungry. Fuck this holiday food." So Kay Svenson took away the pie and went to go make him some tapioca.
"You really don't want us around?" asked Helen, when her aunt had gone.
"Why does she interrupt me?" asked Maxwell Conley.
"She loves you," said Helen. "She wants to help."
"She wants to be rid of me," said Maxwell Conley.
"What do you want?" asked Helen Conley.
"I want to be at the top of Mount Rainier where no one can bother me," said her uncle. He had a bag attached to him. "They're poisoning me to cure me and they can't even cure me. It's hell."
We rely on unanswerable and horrifying questions. Questions about hell and our souls and our own culpability and what if we were just a brain in a jar and how can we be so self-centered as to think that our existence is the axis on which all other existences turn, yet we cannot imagine our loved ones without us except that we are a fly on the wall. Maxwell Conley was more Catholic with each passing year, drawing comfort and terror from it, sticking out his tongue on Sundays so the wafer could be laid there. When Helen was a little girl, he had told her, It's lucky you're not Catholic though it is the one true religion. And small Helen Conley had asked, Why, and he had said, Here I am concerned with my soul, with one constant refrain from the time I was sixteen. But you don't have to worry about that and neither do I have to worry about you.
Helen had never taken notes on this. By Maxwell Conley's bed, she said, "When I was small, the thought of hell kept me up at night."
"Best laid plans," asked Maxwell Conley. "And now?"
"Now the thought of hell does not keep me up at night or concern me in the slightest," she said and fingered the linoleum block, WILL YOU MISS ME. She did not say, It is the simple fact of missing someone that will keep me up at night and I have been furnished with no strategy against it. She asked, "Are you really too sick to get out of bed?"
"White boy ain't got no soul," said Maxwell Conley.
"What?" asked Helen Conley.
"It's got me again. It won't leave me alone."
"What's that?" asked Helen Conley.
"You remember how the Black Panthers saved my life?" asked Maxwell.
"I just told my man that story," said Helen Conley.
"What did he have to say?" asked Maxwell.
"He said it happened forty years ago. To him that seems like a long time. What if I can't make him understand about time passing and not passing? About what makes some people feel like a dislocated joint?"
Maxwell Conley said, "Look at it this way. Your man comes from a culture of no pointing. If his people must make such a gesture, they do it with their thumbs or with their chins. When you accidentally point at him you can tell what has happened. The world doesn't exactly come to an end, but still, everyone feels bad."
"And so?" asked Helen Conley.
"So. Soon after Murray and Phil Rose left me on the baseball field, Martin Luther King Junior was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. I went to school the next day. From a long way off, I could see a single figure standing at the school door, and as I got closer, I recognized Murray Rose. Murray stood guarding the door, motionless except for his cigarette. He moved it mechanically from his mouth back to his side. Other students drifted around the schoolyard in small, tense groups. Murray stood at the door, his face closed up, cold metal, and I was drawn there. I drew near to Murray, nearer, I came to the bottom step. Murray looked down, raised one powder-blue arm, and pointed at me. It was as if he'd been waiting for me. He pointed at me and he said, 'White boy ain't got no soul'."
"What did you do?" asked Helen Conley. She had never heard this.
"I dropped out of high school so that I would have more time to think about it," said Maxwell Conley. "I've been thinking about it ever since."
Maxwell told Helen how he had thought about white boy ain't got no soul throughout his life, when he was alone, when it was quiet, or when Helen Conley made a racket, or when Kay Svenson told him to get out of the bathtub, or when his brother didn't come home, or when he walked uphill, or when there was a strange animal, a bad time, a trip to the emergency room. Then he got sick. But that was nearly forty years later. Maxwell Conley would not be comforted.
Helen Conley stayed in the tiny guest room, only large enough to crawl into and go to sleep. She was kept awake at night by Kay Svenson and Maxwell Conley arguing, round and round, and she could not make out the words. She knew this: Maxwell Conley would not get out of bed. Soon he would not even take bland food, not even tapioca, but carved in bed all day darkly. He made himself unpleasant.
In the kitchen, Kay Svenson stood by the stove, a thoughtful hand to her chin. Helen Conley asked, "What should we do?"
"This is a tender time," said Kay Svenson, stirring. "It's maddening, but it's sweet."
"What do the two of you fight about?" asked Helen Conley.
"That would be hard to describe," said Kay Svenson. "He wants to know exactly where I am all the time and to get rid of me too," she said. "That's how it's always been. Don't you remember from when you were small?"
"He punctured your thigh."
"Do you remember that?" asked Kay Svenson.
"I wasn't yet three," said Helen. "But it's something you've both told me."
"I interrupted him too much, that was the trouble," said Kay Svenson.
Helen frowned. "If my man treated me that way, you'd tell me to leave him," she said.
"If I had ever stopped wanting to interrupt him, I guess I could have left," said Kay Svenson. "But I never stopped wanting to interrupt. There was a time when I ignored Maxwell Conley. I can hardly remember it, I'm so changed. I was fifteen. We had art class together. He tried to impress me with wild blue paintings, smoking dope in the back of the class, playing fiddle tunes. In those days, I could balance on all the highest walls, so that I hardly ever walked on the sidewalk like other people. I skated down railings, hopped up on fences. I wore a long ponytail and high red socks. Maxwell Conley was beneath my notice."
"What happened?" asked Helen.
"I noticed him. After that, I never stopped noticing him."
"Did he tell you why he won't get out of bed?" asked Helen.
Kay Svenson nodded. She said, "A few years ago now, I saw Murray Rose at the supermarket. He moved back to town, worked different jobs, he said, construction, taxi driver, then he went back to school. Works at our old high school now. Teaches history, I think. He married, had kids too, they must be around your age. So many of our generation stayed here. When I think I live less than a mile from where I was born. They say the modern world's not like that, but then here we are." She put a spoonful of tapioca into her mouth. "I don't like this much myself," she said and spit it into the sink. She put her arm around Helen Conley's waist. "How's that man of yours?" she asked.
"Same fight," said Helen Conley. "Not yours, that's not what I mean."
"No, of course not," said Kay Svenson. "Your own fight."
"Yes," said Helen Conley. "Over and over again."
Helen Conley found Murray Rose in front of the high school. School was just letting out. She heard a teenager call Murray's name, and she followed the answer. Murray leaned on the chain link fence, easy, raising his hand as the busses pulled away. His hair had grey streaks and was held back with a rubber band. He waved at the high school kids with their bad attitudes, their yelling and catcalls, he gave them guff right back and knew all of their names. Helen Conley waited. He smiled at her, taking her for a younger parent maybe, someone with business in the school. She could see his gold eyeteeth. She introduced herself. She said, "I'm Maxwell Conley and Kay Svenson's niece."
"Sure, sure," he said. "I went to school with your aunt. This was our neighborhood," he added, "but they bussed your family in. I saw Kay a few years back. How's she doing?"
"My uncle Maxwell's sick," said Helen. Murray Rose kept a question on his face. "Maxwell Conley," said Helen.
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Murray Rose. "Must be hard on Kay."
"It is," said Helen, but this was not what was meant to happen here. She had to change it. These were her uncle's talismanic stories, these were how the generations would understand each other, even though each had to go forward alone. "My uncle Maxwell says you saved his life," she said.
Murray Rose raised his eyebrows, stayed polite. "Maxwell – what did you say his last name was?" he asked.
"Maxwell Conley. Conley. Same as my last name. He was always getting into trouble and the teachers wanted to throw him out. He wouldn't cut his hair. He played fiddle tunes in the halls. He did acid in math class when they talked about fractals," Helen Conley said, fighting her rising breath.
"Wild kid, huh?" said Murray. "Still a bunch of wild kids at this school. Some things don't change." He folded his arms, looked up the street.
"He says if you hadn't stood up for him, he would have been killed. You and your brother, Phil."
"Is that what he said? Well, maybe that's true. We can't know. Phil and me, when we saw something happening around here, we'd do something about it."
Helen Conley struggled to stay calm. She struggled to ask Murray about we don't take cream with our coffee and she found she could not do it. Yet if she was too shy to ask about that how would she ask about the other thing? How could she ask about white boy ain't got no soul? My generation has not been given the proper vocabulary, she thought. There was no ease. A time traveler arrived from the era when the sixteen-year-olds had been frank about race, had said what was on their minds even when it hurt people's feelings and made them uncomfortable, even when they made mistakes. It was high stakes. They were teenagers, and they demanded enormous changes, so someone had to say something. Or that is what Helen Conley wished would happen, but no time traveler arrived.
"There was a veteran," she told Murray, her face hot. "He had a flashback."
Murray looked back at her. "Oh yes," he said. "I remember that. That young veteran. Wallace Sever was his name. His mother still lives down the street from here. Phil and I, we didn't want him to do something he'd regret. He was eligible for VA benefits and didn't even know it. He went to the hospital after that. Back then, they didn't have a name for what was happening to the young men coming home. But you could see it in people in the neighborhood. Now you see it again."
"That was Maxwell Conley," said Helen. "The kid that Wallace Sever came after with a bat. That was my uncle Maxwell."
"Wish I had a better memory," said Murray Rose by way of apology. He straightened, put his hand out. "Good to meet you," he said. "I'm glad you young people want to learn about those times."
"Wait," said Helen Conley. "My uncle Maxwell would like to see you again."
"Me?" asked Murray Rose.
"He won't get out of bed," said Helen.
"He's that sick?" asked Murray.
"He just won't, that's all," said Helen. "He's been asking after you." Murray Rose folded his arms again. "Haven't seen the man since high school," he said. "Can't honestly say I'd know him if I saw him."
"It would mean a lot to my aunt Kay," said Helen Conley.
Murray Rose nodded. "Sure, I'll come over. I'll be happy to do that."
He brought a casserole, and Kay Svenson put it in the freezer and Maxwell Conley got out of bed. He came downstairs and sat on the sofa. Murray Rose sat near him. Neither of them were big men, but Maxwell Conley had begun to look like a cat mummy with the most beautiful eyes. The two men wore button-down corduroy shirts, tucked in. Murray's was red. Maxwell's was turquoise. Murray, though fit, had a belly that stuck out proudly over his belt. He wore soft leather shoes that some people might accuse of being slippers but were not slippers. Maxwell Conley wore slippers.
"Look at us, we both look like hippies all these years later," said Murray. "We lived through some wild times." If he still did not remember Maxwell Conley, he didn't say so.
"I got sober thirty years ago," said Maxwell.
"Is that right?"
"But now I smoke a little pot sometimes. It's because I'm sick."
"Helen told me and I'm sorry to hear it," said Murray.
"What about you? How's your health?" asked Maxwell.
"Gets more painful," said Murray.
"How's your brother?" Maxwell asked. "How's Phil?"
"Phil went to Canada. Hasn't come back yet. Our mother went up there too, a couple years ago, to be with the grandkids." Murray said. "Still see them on Christmas though. He was drafted, you know, right out of high school."
"I never heard that," said Maxwell Conley. "I never heard about that."
"Well, a lot of you white boys dropped out of school," said Murray. "Most of you were never around. But we were always around. We were trying to get things done."
"Do you feel that you got things done?" asked Maxwell.
"There's always more to do," said Murray.
"I don't know that I ever got anything done," said Maxwell. "I just wanted this woman to marry me." He held onto Kay's leg to steady himself. She stood by the sofa.
"Murray, I'm glad you came," Kay Svenson said. "This is the first time he's got out of bed in the last week."
Helen Conley could see that her uncle would not say what he wanted to say. When faced with it, he had the good sense to not ask an innocent man, a man he had not seen in forty years, a man who maybe didn't remember him, whether or not he had a soul. Yet he worked it around in his mind. It preyed on him. Courage, maybe foolishness, was called for.
Helen Conley asked, "Do you remember where you were when Martin Luther King Junior was shot?"
"I saw it on the evening news," said Kay Svenson. "Walter Cronkite did a special report."
"Sure," said Murray, "And isn't it strange to think that we all went to school the next day? No one thought we should stay home. But of course at that age, you want to be out in the world."
"My uncle always talks about that day," Helen said.
Maxwell Conley was silent.
"That was a hard day," said Murray. "A cold day. That was a long time ago."
They sat side by side on the sofa.
Murray gestured to the rosary beads on the mantle. "You still practicing?" he asked.
"Yes," said Maxwell. "You?"
"Lapsed," said Murray.
"The worst part about being sick is that I want to be alone but no one will let me," said Maxwell Conley. "Parts of my life come back to me: skateboarding down the hairpin turns, climbing a peak when a lightning storm rolled in so that all my hair stood up like a halo, being very small and waking up before my parents so that I could play with lead soldiers in the dark, waking in the bathtub at noon when the house was empty. The last time I did each of those things I didn't know it was the last time. Or that I would observe myself doing them from this place, with such bewildered longing. You said something to me those many years ago."
"I did?" asked Murray.
"Yes, and I wanted to ask you about it," said Maxwell.
"Better not to," said Murray.
"But sometimes I suspect you were right," said Maxwell. "I have thought about it many times."
"Better just to leave it be," said Murray Rose.
Kay Svenson brought some coffee.
When Helen Conley followed Murray out to his car, he said, "That's been keeping your uncle in bed, huh? One cold thing I said to him when we were teenagers?"
"You remember that then? Pointing at him?" asked Helen. "You remember what you told him?"
"I communicated so much back then," said Murray Rose. "I said what was on my mind. With age, I have become more diplomatic." He stepped off the curb, and walked around to the driver's side, opened the door, then stopped. He looked at the ground, and pursed his lips. He reached in to his car, took a pack of cigarettes from the dashboard, shook one out, lit it. "Do I need to say this?" he asked, looking at the sky. "When Dr. King was killed, I felt like what's the fucking point. Sure, we had already railed against pacifism. We had our own ideas about change coming. But then, that day, that bad day, I had no sympathy left for anyone, not for anyone white or black, and no way for someone like your uncle. I felt so low, I felt so mean. They almost shut down the school after that. We wanted to burn it down." He exhaled smoke through his nose. "It is a problem for white people," Murray Rose said. "And it will continue to be a problem. Benefitting from such soullessness over the years, I mean. But it's not my business to make sense of that. I couldn't do it even if I tried. And remember, I was a teenager, just like Maxwell. I was sixteen. And now I'm old and tired too, and I don't have the answers he wants. I didn't care if I hurt anyone's feelings then, and I don't want to hurt your uncle's feelings now, not when he's sick and worried, but if he wants to sit there turning us into symbols, it just won't work, man, and it'll only make things worse. You think I know more about souls than you people do? Do you think that's because I'm black? I don't think you get it. If you ask me, I'll tell you soul is a style of music. I'm no priest." He swung down into his car.
When she came back into the house, there was no satisfaction. Kay Svenson took up the coffee cups, put down pieces of pound cake. Maxwell Conley lay back on the sofa blinking upwards.
"Do you think you made a mistake?" asked Helen.
"I've got time to make mistakes," said Maxwell Conley. "It's one of the only things I have time for. I'll get what I deserve."
"It's good to see someone from so long ago," said Kay, sitting down next to him, putting her hand on the back of his neck just inside his shirt collar. "Only so many of those."
"Are you comforted?" asked Helen.
"There's no comfort," said Maxwell. "My soul is at the top of a mountain," he said. "No, it's down in the shadow of the mountain. Tucked down in the trees."
Helen Conley said, "I can't understand it. I can't understand what I am supposed to do about it."
"About what?" asked Maxwell Conley
"About missing you," said Helen Conley.
"I can't figure it out either," said Kay Svenson.
"It's your own fault," said Maxwell Conley. "I told you, Kay. Don't to hitch up with someone you can't live without because chances are that you'll have to live without them someday, either by divorce or by death. So choose someone you are very fond of but not chemically dependent on."
"Cold comfort," said Kay Svenson.
"But what about me?" asked Helen Conley. They looked at her. "I never chose you," she said. "I did not hitch up with you. I was born to our relationship. I was not even aware of our bond forming. I was busy squalling and making mucus. It's not fair to scold me now for getting too attached to you and for missing you so that it stifles my breath." She had to stop talking.
Kay Svenson and Maxwell Conley did not answer her, but turned to each other. Helen Conley could see that they wanted to have their fight, their same fight, the private one. So she got in her truck and drove home.
This last time, when Helen Conley and her man fought, she began to cry, as ends most of the fights between those two, and Helen's man put his arms around her and breathed with her, and when their breathing matched, he brought her to the ground. And because they were already on their hands and knees, they began crawling through the woods. It was the only way they could get through, as he still had not mowed. Helen Conley followed her man through horsetail and hemlock saplings, through skunk cabbage and twinflower and stinging nettle. They crawled past the America is exciting book. Puffball mushrooms grew from it. They were down very low.
"See," he said. "You can still get through. You can still go walking in the woods."
"We're not walking," Helen said. "We're crawling."
"You're right," he said, which cheered her. "We can crawl through it. Do you see how things look from down here?" And he showed Helen plants she did not know, that grew down there, devils cub and bleeding heart, piggyback plant and false solomon's seal. He pulled wild ginger and they bit into it. Helen blew her nose and said, "If I have forty years to get to know you better, it would still not be enough time. I want to get to know you as long as they'll let me. Because my uncle discouraged Catholicism in me, I do not know who I mean by they, but I know that I'll take more time if they'll give me more time. So what if it's for our whole lives? Do you have something else you need to be doing?" Then she remembered that you can't command people to love you, so she said, "It's alright if you're too busy."
"I'm not busy," he said. He cried some too, but she thought he was just breathing in a funny way. They kept crawling through the woods until they met a buck that was knee-walking through the undergrowth. They watched it. It knew they were there but pretended not to know. It stayed low. Then Helen said to the buck, "This knee-walking plan you have is not a good one." Her man said to the buck, "You should get up and run. We are going to crawl out of here and get the gun, and if you're still here when we come back, we're going to shoot you and eat you for dinner." The buck looked at them with its blank deep eyes. It stretched its neck long and flicked one ear. It did not get up and run.
Helen Conley and her man crawled out of the woods. They got the gun and some rope and their sharp knives and some wax paper. They crawled back through the green tunnel they had made in the undergrowth, and the buck was still there. So Helen shot the buck, and they hung it from a vine maple, and they skinned it and gutted it, and they butchered it, and they wrapped the meat in packages, and they saved the stomach for blood sausage, and they kept the legs whole for salting and hanging, and they left the carcass beneath the maple for the coyotes. It took them the whole day.
Helen Conley's uncle, Maxwell Conley is still sick and what he wants most is to be unmanaged. He wants to be twelve years old and alone with his dog, coming down Mount Rainier in the night, down past the timberline, where the Douglas firs begin. He wants to come through the firs among the shafts of silver that make each thing darker, the path before him a running shadow, a gleaming stone, a vernal pool. He wants to be alone with his dog trying to make it back to camp by morning. He wants to be alone. But he is surrounded, and his great fear is that he won't ever be able to be alone again, and he knows that death itself doesn't count.