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Authors: John Gregory Brown

A Thousand Miles from Nowhere

BOOK: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
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For Carrie

and for Olivia, Molly, and Walker

Tombstone for my pillow,

Fairground for my bed.

—Robert Pete Williams

I

Let us agree that one of man's most beautiful postures is that of Saint Sebastian.

—Federico García Lorca

IN VIRGINIA,
three days later, Henry Garrett finally saw it all on TV. He stopped at a motel on Route 29 somewhere north of Lynchburg, the dim outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising behind the motel's dusty gray-brick walls, and the short round Indian woman behind the counter, her painted fingernails adorned with glitter, took a look at the address Henry had printed on the registration card, pushed back toward him the three crumpled twenty-dollar bills he'd placed on the counter, and said, “You will stay here with our compliments, Mr. Garrett. You will stay as long as you would like to stay. You have lost everything, yes?”

“Just tonight,” Henry said. “Tomorrow—” But the woman reached across the counter and touched his arm. Her fingernails, a pale blue beneath the glitter, gently grazed his skin as she took her hand away.

“With our compliments, Mr. Garrett,” she said. “Tonight, tomorrow. As long as you would like to be our guest. We cannot do so much, but this we can do. You have lost everything, yes?”

Everything?
Henry thought; he considered the word. Had he lost
everything?

Again, though, the woman didn't wait for Henry. She swept around the counter, confidently hoisted his canvas bag, and led him out the office door, her red and orange sari glowing like a torch in the dim light of the parking lot. The motel appeared to be empty—
Unoccupied,
Henry thought, as if it were a foreign land—but she led him down the line of rooms to the last one. “Two windows, front and side,” she said. “Much nicer for you than the others.”

Inside the room, the woman switched on the light, pointed out the coffeepot on the bathroom's vanity, and turned on the television. “Some company,” she said, “but it is like the old ones, I do not know why. It requires a few minutes to warm.”

She stood there scowling at the television as though it were a disobedient child, so Henry took his bag from her, set it on the bed, and looked around the room. On the wall above the headboard was a painting of what seemed to be a bearded child sailing through the night sky. One of the child's outstretched hands held a feather, apparently plucked from the red swan flying beside him. The other hand clutched a wooden stick, or maybe a flute. Below the painting, on a wicker nightstand, stood a small black lamp with a paper shade depicting a potbellied Ganesh. Henry switched on the lamp, and the figure lit up. He studied the bejeweled crown, the great floppy ears and elephant's trunk. Ganesh was a king of sorts, some kind of Hindu god, Henry knew—but that was all he knew, really. He leaned closer and saw that Ganesh was squatting on a rat, one with an absurdly long tail wrapped twice around Ganesh's corpulent waist. The exact same lamp, Henry now realized, had been on the motel's office counter. Beneath it had been a bowl of green-striped mints and a stack of brochures for someplace named the Lucky Caverns.

Henry stepped back toward the woman, but she hadn't moved. The television still had not come on—the screen was black except for a small circle of gray light at the center—so Henry told her not to worry, that he would be fine without it. “Really,” he said, “I'll be fine,” which made him want to laugh. He would not be fine.

“Well, I am Latangi,” she said, and she began to spell out the name, though she did so in a sort of nonsense singsong verse: “
L
as in
library,
a
as in
love,
t
as in
telegraph lines flowering above.

“I'm sorry?” Henry said. “
A
as in
love
? There's no—”

“Yes, yes.” The woman raised her hand, smiling. “Latangi,” she said again. “Its meaning is ‘slim girl.'” She laughed. “My father was hopeful, yes, but not wise.” Her shoulders swung side to side as if she were about to dance.

Henry tried to smile. The woman reached out and handed him the room key, but he suddenly felt a bit dizzy—dehydrated, perhaps—and he dropped the key. When he bent down to retrieve it, he saw that the worn and faded carpet covering the room was printed with an almost invisible purple-and-black-paisley design and that on her feet, beneath her sari, the woman was wearing gold sandals, her toenails painted the same pale glittery blue as her fingernails.

“Thank you so much,” Henry said, standing, a bit off balance. The woman reached toward him, gently touched his arm, but then Henry felt her grip tighten.
“Oh,”
the woman gasped.
“Oh, oh.”
Henry followed her eyes to the television.

On the screen, a mangy dog stood on a dresser floating in the middle of a flooded street, the houses submerged to the rooflines, the water's surface oily, dappled pink and green. The shot zoomed in so close that Henry could see the dog shaking, struggling to keep its balance on the dresser. Then the images flashed by in a rapid-fire montage of ruin and desperation: a man's body floating facedown in the water, his shirt billowing out around him; two children hoisted in a yellow bucket from a rooftop to a helicopter; a shirtless old man with a scarred chest and long gray beard squatting on the concrete steps of a house that lay in a heap behind him; a man wading through waist-deep water with a bone-thin old woman cradled in his arms, the woman's hands and feet dangling in the water. The volume on the television was turned down, but Henry felt as though he could hear the dramatic music that must be accompanying these images—the martial drumbeats, the groaning strings, the staccato burst of horns. When the red CNN logo swirled onto the screen, Henry turned to look at the woman, and he saw that she was weeping.

“I am terribly, terribly sorry, Mr. Garrett. Your home, yes? You are raised there?” The woman continued crying. “Everything,” she said. “Everything.”

Henry wanted to tell her that he was fine. He wanted somehow to comfort her.

“Latangi?” he said, trying to pronounce the name just as the woman had pronounced it.

“Latangi, yes,” she said.

“Latangi, I—” But he couldn't think of a way to say it, to explain that he had already managed, before the hurricane, to lose everything. “Yes, it's my home. I've lived there my whole life. But—”

Now he reached out to touch her arm. As if his hand had somehow set her in motion, though, she began to drift toward the door. Henry thought of the child in the painting with the plucked swan's feather. “You will sleep tonight, yes, Mr. Garrett,” Latangi said, her head turned away as if she were afraid that Henry had already begun undressing. “If there is anything at all—” she said, but she gently closed the door before she completed the sentence.

Henry sat down on the bed and stared at the television. He leaned forward and tried to turn up the volume, but there was still no sound. On-screen, a white-haired reporter—Henry knew his name but couldn't remember it right then—stood atop a highway overpass rising out of the water like an amusement-park ride. He pointed behind him and shook his head, flames and black smoke pouring from the roof of a building in the distance, all but its top two floors submerged in water. Henry knew that this was New Orleans, that this was what he had left behind, what had happened these past three days, but he had not imagined, could not have imagined when he left, that it would be so bad. Yes, people had been talking about the hurricane, how it might be more powerful than Betsy or Camille, but he had decided to leave only when he saw, by late afternoon, that Magazine Street was completely empty, as if it were the morning after Mardi Gras and everyone in the city was hung over and sleeping in. Then the police cars had started passing, flashing their blue lights and announcing over a loudspeaker that the city was closed, that everyone had to be gone by dark.
Can you close a city?
Henry had wondered.
How do you close a city?
He'd left without any real sense of panic, feeling a bit like a daydreaming first-grader during a fire drill, dutifully falling into the long line of children shuffling out through the elementary school's heavy double doors.

He'd inched forward for five hours in the traffic until he was finally able to get off the interstate. He found a gas station in Mississippi that was still open, and he waited in line there for another hour to fill up his tank. After that he drove aimlessly along back roads that cut through farmland and pine woods, returning every now and then to the interstate but getting off again when the traffic slowed to a crawl. From time to time he checked the road atlas to make sure he was headed more or less north. He ate fast food, washed his hands and face in the restaurants' grimy bathrooms. He spent the first night at a rest stop because all the motels he'd passed were full, the parking lots jammed with boats and trailers and overstuffed station wagons. All he'd brought was a canvas bag into which he'd thrown some underwear and shirts and a couple pairs of jeans. He no longer owned much else.

Throughout the drive he kept hearing in his head the absurd lyrics of a song some concave-chested, acne-scarred teenager with a tongue stud had played for him a few days ago at the store.
A few days ago
—before everything was like this, before what he was watching on the TV. The song was by a band called the Mountain Goats, though it wasn't really a band, the kid had carefully explained, each flash of metal in his mouth leaving Henry a bit woozy, as if it were his own tongue that had been impaled. The band was really just one guy, the teenager said, a guy who'd been a psychiatric nurse hopped up on amphetamines, though he was now completely clean, a vegan even, maybe a Buddhist or something too, and Henry had listened to the singer's nasally voice and his badly tuned guitar, the song apparently recorded onto a cassette tape in a boom box in this Mountain Goat Man's Portland or Seattle bathroom:
I hope when you think of me years down the line, you can't find one good thing to say, and I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out, you'd stay the hell out of my way.

“Ah, a love song,” Henry had joked, and the boy had nodded, his head frenetically bobbing up and down.

“You got it,” the boy said. “You most definitely have got it.”

Henry listened. Everything about the song should have been perfectly awful, but it wasn't—or, rather, it was. It was both perfect
and
awful. It was, indeed, a love song, a swirling mixture of bitterness and bile and desperate longing:
I am drowning,
the singer screamed at the end, which must have been why the song had wound up in Henry's head, that image of water and drowning, the bitterness and desperation, as he drove away from the storm.
I am drowning. There is no sign of land. You are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand. And I hope you die. I hope we both die.

Of course.
I hope you die. I hope we both die.
Oh boy.

Henry couldn't explain, even to himself, why he liked such music. He just did. He liked the off-key, the unbalanced, the anguished, the forlorn: the guttural rumblings of Tom Waits, Dylan's scratch and claw, Skip James's cracking falsetto, Lou Reed's drone, Johnny Cash's hoarse whisper, Billie Holiday near the end, when her voice was gone and every word she sang seemed tormented, shot through with pain, doomed. Actually, it wasn't that he
liked
these voices, exactly, or that he thought the lyrics in these songs—in any songs, really—were communicating anything profound. But there was something there, something imperfect, something sharp and bent and rusty, that tore into him somehow, that made him believe the human condition was one great and mournful but still achingly beautiful cry.

Maybe the explanation was as simple as what Amy had said again and again, with ever-diminishing affection: that he was, deep down, still just a dopey adolescent kid, as absurd as that tongue-studded teenager, forever filled with longing, forever admiring all the bruises and black eyes and jagged scars he'd accumulated through the years. But Amy, his wife—
Once his wife? Still his wife? No longer his wife?
—Amy was not a kid. She was anything but a kid. Had that been the problem—that even at forty-one, he was still a child, and she was not?

By Henry's second day of driving, the drowning song had evaporated, drummed out of his head by the sheer monotony of the road, by the trees and utility poles and mile markers and billboards he shot past. He had no idea where he was going. He wound up somewhere in southern Georgia. He bought some fruit at a roadside stand, and as the old man there put the plums and peaches into a plastic bag, he said something about the storm and about rice fields growing best under a foot or more of water, but the old man's speech was so garbled, his accent so thick, that Henry couldn't really understand him.

“Thank you,” Henry said, nodding, when the man handed him the plastic bag.

“Ya bedder schubederee blaterik maneshkin, ike tallin ya,”
the man called out when Henry reached his car.

“Yes, yes, good-bye,” Henry said, nodding again and waving as if he understood perfectly what the man had said.

More and more, Henry had realized as he drove away, that was happening to him. People spoke in ways that he didn't understand; their accents, their words, the language that they used—all of it seemed to reach him as if it were being transmitted through tin cans and string.

That night he'd simply turned onto a gravel road and parked next to an overgrown baseball field, the red lights of the scoreboard mysteriously switched on.
Go Spartans!
the scoreboard said, though the home team had been down 3–0 in the sixth.

By the third day—Was it really the third day? Henry wondered—he had no idea where he was. He'd heard a few things on the car radio—reports of a breached levee, of the Superdome crowded with those who'd stayed behind, of Mayor Nagin angrily pleading for help—but he hadn't wanted to hear it, hadn't wanted to know. He no longer wanted information, the endless stream of disjointed facts that his mind took in but somehow couldn't process, as if his brain were a sponge left soaking too long in dirty water. As a kid he'd been proud of his mental acuity, his ability to memorize minute details: baseball players' batting averages and long geometry equations, song titles and the dialogue from TV shows and nearly all the capital cities in the world, from Addis Ababa to Yerevan. He'd come to understand, though, with a kind of sullen relief—no longer would he have to bear the prodigy's awful burden—that he was exactly the opposite of brilliant, the opposite of someone who could, with just a few pertinent facts, solve the most complex of problems. He could memorize an encyclopedia's worth of information and still be able to figure out nothing.

BOOK: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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