instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

A Great Place To Die


I have a confession to make, Garth.

No you don't, Charles. You know you don't make confessions,
you make proposals and offer solutions. You're too much of an
engineer to get bollixed up into a situation you can't solve. It's
the wine, Charles, you're just feeling warm and voluble from
your second glass, in vino verbosity, as they say.

It's interesting that you think confessions are reserved for
things you can't solve, Garth. But, yes, I do have a confession to
make and I don't know whether it involves a solution or not,
and, dammit Garth, I don't care at the moment. And don't pass
this off as warm and rosy bonhomie at the dinner table. I've
been feeling sad and vulnerable long before this second glass of
wine. What happened is, quite simply, Lisa left me.

I'd love to commiserate with you, Charles. I'd love to look as
teary and tender as you look right this moment, but you and Lisa
have been leaving each other ever since you met eight years ago.

I've rented a room upstairs, Garth. In all the years I've been
coming to the Black Dog Inn I've never rented a room. I've al-
ways gone home, drunk or sober, whether we were speaking or
not. It was our home. I'd sleep on the couch ...

So what. Tonight's performance is just a new scene in your
endless soap opera, that's all. This time you'll sleep out. Let her
fume alone for once. She'll get no satisfaction from hearing the
door click open after two in the morning.

She's gone. And what makes it worse is that she left every-
thing behind. All her news and audio equipment, her clothes,
the old furniture she inherited from her grandmother, it's all
there staring at me. Not accusing, it's imploring me. You know
how everything she possessed was a testimonial to her resigna-
tion, how it all seemed to bear the wear and tear of her every
fear. It's all still there and I can't live with it. It's like the radio al-
ways shouting at you to hurry up and do something, buy some-
thing, go somewhere; she left all her urgency behind.

Sounds like her absence is the one comfort you can't bear.
But I still don't believe you and Lisa are kaput. You two were
born to wage war, not live in peace.

No. I can't bear the peace she's found because she's obviously
decided to share it with someone else.

Another man or another woman?

Your cruelty is no bitter comfort, Garth.

I'm not being cruel, Charles. You know your wife has a habit
of defending every eccentric belief or behavior there is, every-
thing being holy and wonderful as long as it's done in the name
of enlightenment or love.

You're being cruel, Garth.

Well, maybe I'm being a coward. What I'm doing, I guess, is
paying lip service to cruelty rather than let you step all over my
sympathy for you when I know that tomorrow you and Lisa will
be all kisses and sweets, my sorrow spent for naught.

No, Garth, she left with the hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker?

The man I picked up outside of Springfield a couple months
ago. He had this illuminated sign mounted on a collapsible mu-
sic stand. And you know I'd have to meet anyone with an illumi-
nated sign.

The sign: what did it say, his destination?

Cambridge, it said. You know Cambridge, Garth, the place
where the intellectuals roam, where they stand in movie lines
and discuss the philosophical properties of film, the film qua
film. That's where he was going. And so I pulled right over and
asked him, "Where did you get that sign?" It wasn't even dark. It
was twilight, one of those faint green skies that make everything
foreign seem strangely familiar. And he was right out of the
microcosm, Garth. Nicely dressed, a little rumpled, curly hair, a
benign and wily smile, intelligent enough to know he looked a
little anachronistic. You know what I mean when I say he was a
member of the microcosm? I mean nothing mystical, only that
we share certain traits, certain ideas ...

Kindred souls. So, what did he answer? I can see you staring
at him with all kinds of admiration for his ingenuity-you so
love to marvel, Charles.

He said, "I made it myself, really. Bunch of old stuff I don't
use anymore. And it all folds up and fits nicely into this clarinet
case," and you're right, Garth, I was admiring him. I was im-
pressed. Even though Lisa told me never to be impressed.

I know you remember everything, Charles, but I remember
she got that from some artist she interviewed. Said he'd rather
impress the goddess of history than the whore of public opin-
ion. Regardless, tell me why you were impressed. Wait, are you
going to have another wine before dinner? Because, if you are,
let's get Connie over here before she takes the round table's

Yes. I'll tell you why I was impressed, Garth. At a time when
hardly anyone hitchhikes anymore, this man convinced me to
stop, to engage him in a conversation, to surrender my money,
lend him my car, and, ultimately, hand over my wife. It was all
there in that first moment. His life was in a shambles. He looked
beat up a bit but he was cheery and delightfully ironic. His clothes
were old but pressed as best as he could manage. He could have
been you or me. Nothing to be ashamed about. He wore his fail-
ure with a wise smile. Give him a little more money and he'd
pass for a rich man who invents things to keep himself occupied.
You know, puzzling things, or scholarly pursuits, someone who
tinkers with time to add a note of lyrical urgency to our routine

Lyrical urgency? Come now, Charles, you surrendered your
wife for a song? For a night, maybe, or a week, even for a brief af-
fair, but for the rest of your life?

No. Not for a song. I'm talking about that moment. Now, you
and I both know that coincidence is just coincidence, that no
happenstance is fraught with meaning, but there it was all
summed up in that moment: there was an inevitability about it.

Inevitability is a sure sign of despair, Charles.

No it isn't.

Yes it is.

No it isn't. If it's a sure sign of anything it's a sign of duty.
When he asked me whether he should pack up his illuminated
sign I knew I'd been had. What he actually said was, "Shall I
show you how easily it all folds up?"

"Sure," I said.

"This little accordion blind came from one of the glass block
windows in our kitchen. The one at eye level next to the break-
fast table. The sun could be fierce in the fall mornings, it made
me sneeze. Of course, the clear acetate with the lettering-do
you know typefaces? This is Helvetica, very easy to read I'm told.
I carry a sheet of Helvetica press type and just rub down the let-
ters of my destination on a strip of the acetate. My wife used to
be a graphic designer before she rewrote the bill of rights. These
snap-on lights are the innards to those reading lamps you've
probably seen advertised in the Sunday Times Book Review, damn
nifty things, and the batteries clip onto the back of the fan to this
old music stand. Never played myself. Carol, that's my wife's
name, she actually graduated from the Peabody Institute, a vio-
linist, played in the Boston String Ensemble for a while there, a
great achiever, a real Renaissance man, yeah, she wore the pants.
Until they wore out. And it collapses down to the size of a baton,
ta ta. Fits into this clarinet case. Don't remember where this
came from. One of those things that just appear in the attic,
strangest thing. Compact, ready to travel, by the way, my name is
William Cutshall," and I extended my hand and we shook.

Just like that?

Just like that.

Did he really talk like that: zipping in and out of traffic, zig-
ging and zagging from one thing to another?

Listen: "I've been abandoned many times. On the highway
I'm talking about, people are such pleasant liars. They ply you
with sympathy. They insist they won't do what they are about to
do. They plead with you to believe them and then they can't wait
to break your heart. Of course, I've been on the road for three
years, mostly hitchhiking, all the people I've met were travelers,
a nation always on the move. So, if you decide to ditch me,
please remember to toss my bag and clarinet case out onto the
road. Now this is where they usually say, 'Oh, no, I wouldn't
think of doing such a terrible thing. It would be murder to put
anyone out into this horrible rain. Or this wretched heat, this
awful cold.' That's what respectable people say. But you don't
look respectable, I mean, you don't seem to belong to the high
church of respectability where they worship before the font of
eternal innocence. You know, I could never figure it out: they all
say they believe in God but how many of them do you see down
on their knees in fear and awe? Maybe they figure God's a nice
guy? By the way, I can't offer you any money for gas but I'm an
excellent driver, know all the roads, you can sleep if you want.
And I'm not a homosexual, not some lonely obsessed man dri-
ven to conquer, to rule, to make everything fit or obey, even the
loins. I sound a little schizophrenic, I know, but that's what run-
ning all over the place does to you. You lose your sense of place.
Time stretches out like some vast eternal beach. Even the bright
lights wear a grey lining. Maybe this will be the last trip. And
then it will be over."


"My son, I'm looking for my son. He's only three. They keep
shuffling him around. Here I am almost thirty, well, to be accu-
rate, he's almost three and a half, saw him, held him, for six
months it was rosy dozy family life. He's got my auburn hair and
Carol's hazel eyes. What a racket, though. Used to bellow half
the night, guess they miss the warmth of the womb. We tried
sleeping three together in the same bed but we were always
afraid we'd roll over and smother him. We had a cat named Ms
who smothered one of her kittens like that. Had to drown the
rest. Hated myself, carried around that wound for a while. Now
it's just another scar along the old backbone. I'll tell you, one
scar after the other, I'll be happy man when all this is over, grab
my son and forget about these past three years. I might have to
kidnap him. Yeah, steal him away from all the mean kindness
they pass out in those bureaucracies we created to house him
when all else fails. That's what the child welfare organizations
dish out, mean kindness. It's in our blood, I think. I've boiled it
down to a theory of sorts, very speculative, but I think it started
with our first divorce, the divorce from our original homeland.
So, here we are in this new world divorced from our old home
(the ones over here we don't live in for very long, never have).
We're divorced from our language, too (even if we speak Eng-
lish we long to hear it spoken by the Brits or the Irish); and di-
vorced from our landscape (we're in love with mobility, the pass-
ing scene); divorced from our history (we talk about the future,
a kind of private fantasy), we're all a bunch of lost souls crying
in the wilderness, a wilderness, at one time, full of danger and
abundance, thank you, and which we tamed and reaped a for-
tune, thank you very much. The abundance allowed us to feel
blessed, mere innocents picking up the ambrosia, but the di-
vorce lingered. And as the abundance slips away the divorce
turns bitter and we get meaner, which we can't admit to because
we want to be innocent, we have to be. The answer, what we've
done, and this is our real genius, is that we've erased the possi-
bility of being mean by eliminating all experience. Experience
can't count anymore because it indicts us all. Instead, every-
thing's been figured out rationally and written down in happy
codes of conduct, everything from baby books to how to baby
your lover, dos and don'ts galore. What experience is allowed is
now relegated to outlaws and the poor. Don't be poor, don't
ever be poor. It's not the lack of money, it's the excess of experi-
ence. You get ground down by all the noise. This is the urban
poor. I don't know, out there on the farm they have their soil to
scratch, at least they can get down on it and cry out to their piti-
less god. Still, I like the cities. There's always the fresh air of
some new idea blowing around the next corner. The suburbs,
did you know they were modeled after cemeteries? No wonder
they're such placid abstractions, not at all like the slums, vacant
and dense at the same time, full of the hysterical desperation of
being left behind under the weight of some mindless screaming
mass rushing to get out and never getting beyond the corner
store, we got out of there, had to, I'm raving, promised I wouldn't
do that anymore.

"I'm from California. What do you think of that? The East
Coast thinks we have amorphous minds on the West Coast. They
say it's the climate: Oh, the sun and the sea and the air make for
a life free of care. Coastal life, no matter where, it turns us all
into heads. Nothing but heads waiting for the brain's endor-
phins to go off, searching for peace of mind, spare us the curse
of consciousness. Purpose helps. My purpose is to find my son.
Carol gave him up for adoption when he was six months old. We
were on vacation in Florida. One morning she got up and drove
off with him. Ended up in one of those adoption agencies in At-
lanta and told them she just couldn't deal with him anymore. I
didn't know at the time, but she had been in contact with them
even before she had Peter. She kept her maiden name. She con-
vinced them she was a single parent in search of a good family.
Then, zap, she disappeared. Couldn't find her. She sent me cas-
sette tapes, though, monologues. But Peter, I'll find him, good
stock, yeah, Californians are a sturdy, healthy, and intelligent lot.
There's even a little Jew in him, an eighth. Carol, now she's part
conquistador, willful and dark. Always spoke like a bright day
though, what a laugh. You couldn't help falling in love with her.
Swell, everyone felt swell when they were around her. It's just
that she couldn't handle evil, she'd up and leave. Evil's when
you step on other people, rub their worst suit in their face, and
in that respect she's an innocent. The innocence of flight, the
malice of always being right.

"She didn't get the money, the five thousand some couple
paid the adoption agency, a nice chunk of cash for the little
scrapper. Boy, he'd grab onto my forefinger and I'd lift him out
of his crib. You should have seen the delight on his face, up, up,
and away, wheeeeee. He cost everyone involved a lot of money, a
lot. Making them pay for it, the little devil. At first I tried to sue
them into relinquishing his whereabouts, sued the adoption
agency, the finder's attorneys, the State Foster Home Bureau of
Georgia, all they really do is stall for time and you never end up
in court. They tell you everything ten minutes before you're sup-
posed to walk in before the judge and there's no sense in pursu-
gins. It's curious. I get the impression she made two recordings,
before and after she abandoned Peter, something like that,
here, you decide."

"Sweet William, it is quiet here in the mountains. Listen, lis-
ten, can you hear how still it is? This sound: it is the sound of
serenity. It sits at the core of my being. If I were to go against it I
would betray everything I know and love. It was this I gave you
every time I was in your arms. It was the same elusive something
you wanted to capture, to make love to, the very breath of my
soul you wanted to pound into the earth. Well, yes, I know you
said ground, not pound. But this ground, this pound, it is the
force of will, of domination. It seeks to bind, to define, it is a vi-
olation against what is most serene. Not like the violence that
rose up to make these mountains, William, no, this violence was
the rage of birth in song. How brave and merciless it must have
been. Now grown monumental, its face worn smooth by all the
centuries of healing. Here I can be good, William. Here I will be
like the monks of old. I will sacrifice everything I know to con-
template the eternity of the mountains. I will walk about and
give myself to whatever speaks of the integrity of the earth. I will
become as barren as its stone. A stone, William, yes I will become
a stone and serve under the harsh master of the sun whose force
will transform me into the dust of time. Yes, William, I am saying
good-bye to you, and to our son, Peter. I shall not grieve. You
must not grieve, William. You know we could never love Peter in
the haphazard way we rush and shout through life. Either we
would teach him to love what is not of this world, to love what is
only pure, or to love this earth and all its chaos so that he would
grow up to hate us for all the impurity surrounding him or wan-
der the earth wreaking havoc against all those who could not
soothe the ache he carried in his heart.

"I can no longer accept the world, William. Here I will be as a
stone. Touch a stone, William. It is real and, yet, every stone is its
own ideal. No sharp edges, every stone is round, made by the
ages, as smooth as time immemorial. I have begun to build up
little heaps of stones all around me, tiny Stonehenges. And this
is just a beginning. The large stones are just a short way down
from here in a valley along a creek. William, they are the creek!
Stones as large as automobiles. I can hire horses. I'll drag them
up here and build a monument. Rub your hand along a stone,
William. Feel how sensual it is. How it takes to the warmth of the
palm. Think of its texture as the texture of age, of bone, of the
walls of our cells in our bodies. Stones are as porous as we are.
They sweat. They are but themselves and yet each one is a mul-
tiplicity of shape and color, made out of fire and mass, they are
eternity in the palm of my hand. Even the largest boulder curves
right into my palm. This is the roundness of time, the eternity
the ancients spoke of when they compared eternity to the time
it would take to wear away a mountain by rubbing a feather
against it every century. It sits upon this mountain where my
home shall be. It runs across the brow of the horizon. It rolls
along the bumpy circumference of my stones. There are no ap-
pointments, no perpendiculars of time here: as a stone waits so
will I. As a stone gathers where the push of continents and
mountains has ordained it, so will I gather stone upon stone to
leave here a monument, a monument to the power and grace of
the earth.

"Sweet William, I am here for the remainder of my days. I will
build my monument and die. I am finished with leaving people
and places. I have cast myself out from the great collection of
humanity to build a collection of stones; here, where earth and
sky are one, here, where grass and evergreen end, here, where it
is serene and cerebral, away from all the orgasmic tropical chaos
still giving birth to us all, yes, here, where contemplation has its
place, here I am building my monument. This place of contem-
plation is sacred, William. Sacred because here we can say we
rose up out of the earth and named it, named ourselves, named
the source of life which allows only us among all other creatures
to understand the origin and purpose of the earth. With these
stones I will make sense of it. I will make a shape that will make
men kneel in awe. I will let loose what we do not know, yet will
recognize the moment we see it. This is what compels me. There
is nothing arbitrary here. What is magnificent is good. The peo-
ple who come by and watch me, who shake their heads at me for
a day and pass on, who sell me their services, who think I am
mad and wish only to touch madness to know themselves a little
better, well, they too know this place is good. And so they let me
be. But those who stay a little while longer I show them how to
transform love and violence into stone. They see the beginnings
of power. They see the magnificence of a pile of stones. Then
they tremble and retch. And then they move on, cursing me,
praising me, passing my name about in terrible whispers.

"Sweet William, soon I shall be but a stone. I've disowned my
name. I've tossed my identity in some sewer in some city, call me
what you will, I am nothing but a stone piling up others around
me. I yearn for nothing. I ache for nothing. I am the servant of
the earth, of this particular spot upon it, I the priestess of its
magnificence. Alas, magnificence takes time, centuries, and I
have but a scrap of time ... "