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Authors: John Gregory Brown

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BOOK: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
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Henry tried to wake up Amy. He called her name, gently shook her shoulder. She stirred but didn't raise her head. “Listen,” Henry said, and he suddenly recognized what his father was playing. It was a Thelonious Monk tune, “Ask Me Now,” and though Henry tried again and again to get Amy to wake up, she wouldn't, and when the song was done, his father simply nodded, picked up the bass, and walked out of the bedroom.

In the morning Henry told Amy what had happened, how he'd tried and tried to wake her. They were still in bed, and Amy propped her head up on her arm. “You were dreaming, Henry,” she said. “It was just a dream.”

“I know, I know,” Henry said, but the next night he had the same dream, the same visitation, though this time his father played Monk's “Rhythm-a-Ning,” tearing through it at lightning speed, a virtuosic performance of which Henry was sure his father had been incapable when he was alive. He lay in bed and listened, stunned, until his father finished and then, as he had that first time, simply turned and left the room.

The dreams continued night after night, each time exactly the same dream except for the Monk tune his father played; “Think of One” one night and “Hackensack” the next and “Blue Monk” after that and then “Ruby, My Dear” and then “Well, You Needn't.” Finally, the night his father played “ 'Round Midnight,” which was Henry's favorite Monk tune, maybe his favorite song by anyone ever, Henry somehow knew this would be the end. The song had always seemed to him profoundly solemn, unspeakably sad, as if it were not some smoky and romantic ballad but an elegy lamenting a lover's death. As his father played it in the dream, agonizingly slowly, it seemed even sadder, an awful, deathlike dirge, some kind of sigh from the heart's bloody core. And when his father was done, when he picked up the bass and stepped out of the room, Henry understood that this would be the last of these dreams. He wept and wept and woke up still weeping.

“Find someone, Henry,” Amy had told him. “Just see someone,” she said, pleading, but he couldn't imagine whom he would see, what he could possibly say. What doctor would understand that he wasn't looking to have his mind set right, that he longed not for sanity, not for a clear head, not even for relief. What he wanted was resumption. No matter the suffering, no matter the clatter, he wanted the dreams to come back. What else did he have, after all, by which to remember his father? So he wanted the dreams to continue on and on, his father forever playing the bronze-bodied bass, playing this music that was like nothing else except the sad, slow, and necessary—
necessary,
yes—beating of a heart.

WHEN HENRY
woke up, it was almost noon.

So he had slept. That was a good sign. He made coffee now on the bathroom vanity, standing over the small machine as it sputtered and spit, then he took the cup outside and went to retrieve the road atlas from the car. When he'd left New Orleans, he'd sworn he wouldn't aim for anywhere in particular; he'd be like a wandering troubadour, content to make the highway his home. In those first hours he'd thought of the hurricane as a lucky coincidence, the final nudge he'd needed to truly leave his life behind. Many others on the jammed highway seemed to think so as well, hoisting bottles and beer cans through car windows, happy to feel so alive in the face of the storm. But now, seeing what he'd seen on the TV, Henry understood that there was no luck, no good fortune, in what had happened. New Orleans was underwater. People were dying. People were already dead. He couldn't go back even if he wanted to. The grocery store and everything in it—his father's bass, the few other things still there, the junk no one wanted to haul away—had surely been obliterated.

He knew, of course, why he'd wound up in Virginia, even if he told himself that it was an accident, that he was just passing through. And he
could
just pass through. He could keep going, head up to Baltimore to see his sister. Mary hadn't spoken to him practically since their mother had died, since Henry had skipped the funeral and left Mary to handle the lawyers and the papers even though he was the one still living in New Orleans, twenty minutes from their mother's house, the house where he and Mary had grown up, where they'd stayed even after their father disappeared. Mary had sent Henry the various documents that required his signature, then she'd sent him the check—more money than he had imagined his mother could possibly have saved—when the estate was settled. It had been signed by a lawyer, but Mary had mailed the check herself. She'd slipped it inside a greeting card with a corny picture of a tropical sunset, but she'd drawn a line through the card's sentimental message, something about beauty and eternal friendship, and written
Fuck you
instead. And beneath that, just for good measure,
Fuck you, Henry
.

Even so, she would take him in, Henry knew. If he called her, she would take him in. She was the assistant curator at a Baltimore museum, but when she was younger she'd wanted to be an opera singer. And Henry knew if he went to Baltimore, she would first force him to endure a performance worthy of the stage: She would weep and put her arms around him, maybe, but soon enough she'd push him away and hammer her fists against his chest. She'd scream that he was an asshole, a bastard, a complete and total shit—then she'd admit to how desperately relieved she was that he was safe. He imagined her slapping him in the face, but even if she did, he knew that he would, in the end, be forgiven. Maybe she'd laugh through her tears and ask about the Broussards—their own private joke, a neighborhood family Mary had invented—and he'd tell her what she wanted to hear: that the Broussards were of course fine, that they had left just in the nick of time, moments before the levee broke and their house was swept away.

All in one piece,
he could tell her.
Their house, believe it or not, actually floated.
And he knew he could manage an appropriately detailed description, lace curtains fluttering inside the green-shuttered windows, the house bobbing through the worst of the storm until the wind quieted and then drifting peacefully across the flooded banks of Bayou St. John and out into Lake Pontchartrain, a children's-book miracle, a fairy-tale finale.

And that would do it. Mary would be delighted by Henry's invention—not nearly as imaginative as what Mary used to tell their mother—but of course it would also remind them both that their mother's house, their childhood home, was underwater, had been utterly destroyed. That house could not float; no real house could.

Mary still had friends in New Orleans, he was sure—girls in the neighborhood she'd grown up with, ones who'd married guys who, like Henry, had gone to Jesuit High School and then Tulane and then never left the city, women who couldn't imagine a better place to live. Where were these women and their husbands and their children now? Huddled in hotel lobbies, Henry figured, or sleeping in their relatives' guest rooms or on their friends' basement floors. How many had slept on church pews or park benches or, like Henry that first night, in their cars? How many, Henry wondered, were, like him, unaccounted for, alone?

He needed to see Mary. He needed to get to Baltimore, show up at Mary's door, let her know that he was okay.

Or he could stay here in Virginia. He could stay here and look for Amy. That was his other option. He could find out exactly where she was living, Lexington or Lowesville or Laurel, some place that began with an
L.
She'd told him when she left. She'd given him the address—an old farmhouse or bungalow that belonged to her editor's parents or cousins or someone else who knew someone who knew her editor, he couldn't remember. But she would be staying there, she said, until she finished the Central America book, then she'd decide.

“Decide what?” he'd asked her.

“What to do, Henry,” she'd said. “You know. What? Where? Who?”

Who?
Oh God.

“You'll come back?” he'd said, meaning to sound hopeful, meaning to let her know that was what he wanted her to do.

“I don't know, Henry,” she'd said, her voice flat, uninflected. “I don't know.”

One night he'd found the town on an old U.S. road atlas someone had left at the store, a giant book with front and back covers that were somehow cushioned, as if they'd been filled with air. But now he couldn't remember what the town was. Maybe she'd gone to the Lucky Caverns, a candlelit cathedral beneath the mountains, walls of limestone shimmering with specks of mica. He imagined the endless echo of her laughter, her delight at having found such a perfect place to hide from her lunatic, dream-damaged excuse for a husband.

No, that was another of his idiotic delusions. Amy wasn't hiding. She had told him exactly where she was going; it was just that he couldn't remember what she'd said. But he could find out where it was, couldn't he? Or he could somehow make himself remember. And once he did, he knew he could just show up there. Like Mary, Amy must be worried about how he'd fared in the hurricane. No matter what he had done to her, how much he had hurt her, she would want to know that he was okay. She'd want to hear his story, learn what he knew about their friends, about who had decided to leave and who hadn't. He'd have to tell her that he knew nothing, that he had spoken to no one. And then she'd look at him and try to discern how much more unhinged this new circumstance had left him.

Well, I'm not living in a grocery store anymore,
he could say, hoping she'd laugh, but the truth, of course, was much worse: he wasn't living anywhere; he had nowhere to go. And she wouldn't laugh, wouldn't find anything he had to say amusing or endearing. He had hurt her—that's what she said, and he had tried to understand what she meant. He
did
understand it. But he couldn't seem to process this understanding, couldn't unscramble it from all the chaos and clatter in his head.

She loved him. She'd said that again and again. She loved his generosity, his gentleness, his hangdog wit.
You've won my heart,
she'd told him, as if he'd accomplished an improbable feat in a rigged carnival game that you were expected to lose.

Hunting the Palm's Heart.
That was the name of her next book, but now it felt like some sort of coded message.
Whose
palm?
Whose
heart?
Whose
hunting? The palm, the heart. Love itself. He loved her. He did love her.

He left the road atlas on the bed and took a shower, then he rifled through his bag for a clean shirt, a clean pair of jeans. He needed more clothes. He needed underwear and a razor. He needed to find a phone he could use to call Mary, tell her that he was safe. First, though, he needed to eat something. He grabbed the atlas and stepped outside. Latangi was on her way into one of the other rooms, holding a stack of towels. Henry waved, and she stopped. “Mr. Garrett,” she said, smiling. “You slept well?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good,” Latangi said. “You will stay again tonight?”

“I'm not sure,” he said, shrugging, holding up the road atlas to suggest that he had somewhere to get to.

“I hope you will stay,” Latangi said, and she nodded significantly. She didn't believe he had someplace to go, Henry could tell. Maybe she possessed some mystical Eastern clairvoyance, or perhaps she was simply astute enough to know that anyone fleeing New Orleans with somewhere to go wouldn't have wound up, three days later, on this highway, at this dingy motel, five or six states away.

“Is there somewhere to get lunch?” Henry asked.

“You go into town,” Latangi said, adjusting the stack of towels. She looked for a moment at Henry. “You turn left on the highway. There is a restaurant. What a Blessing.”

She saw that Henry was confused, and she walked toward him. “This is the restaurant's name, Mr. Garrett. What a Blessing.” Latangi smiled, then laughed. “They are Christians. Christian Baptists, I believe. Black Americans. You will see. Many
jagannath,
many little statues everywhere, and biblical passages along the wall.
The Lord is my shepherd so I lie down in the green fields
.” She laughed again. “But they are a good and kind family. Very kind.”

“The town?” Henry said. “What town is it?”

“Marimore,” Latangi said, and she spelled it out for Henry just as she had spelled out her name, her voice like musical notes, like a plucked mbira. “Just a few miles down the road. You will be back, Mr. Garrett.”

Henry wasn't sure if this was a question. He thought about what he'd said to Amy:
You'll come back?
A question. He nodded.

“Good, Mr. Garrett,” she said. “I would like the opportunity to speak with you later, if I may.” She was wearing a different sari today, Henry noticed, this one a pale blue, the same color as her nails, and Henry wondered how she had come to be living so far from her own home, what sort of misfortune had propelled her here. Perhaps that was why she wanted to speak to him—to recount, like Tomas Otxoa at Endly's, her own sad tale of desperation and loss. People always wanted to tell him such stories, to unburden themselves. Why they would do so to such a man as him, Henry did not understand. Did they sense that they were in the presence of a kind of human sponge?

“Thank you,” Henry said. “I don't know—”

But Latangi smiled, walked away, and disappeared into the room. As Henry headed across the parking lot, he could hear her singing inside, her voice faint but sharp, almost metallic. The mist had evaporated and the mountains had appeared again over the motel, a gray-blue silhouette against the sky. It was hot outside, and even hotter in the car. Henry put the windows down, then he pulled out onto Route 29 and headed north. Lining the highway were the same kinds of ramshackle buildings he had seen throughout his drive—used-car dealerships and body shops and beauty salons alongside tiny brick churches and clapboard houses and narrow trailers ringed by overturned plastic furniture and children's toys. Everywhere there were portable signs facing the road, black plastic letters arranged in rows announcing sales and specials, births and deaths, ice cream flavors and fire-station pancake breakfasts. Even the churches had these signs, offering witty teasers for Sunday sermons or snippets of scripture.
Except the Lord build the
house…
one of these signs declared, and Henry wondered, as clearly one was intended to, what the rest of the verse might be. And another church sign left him puzzled.
Eternity,
it read,
is to long to wait for redemption.
How exactly, he wondered, did one “long to wait for redemption”? Then he realized that the sign was, of course, supposed to say
too long,
that eternity is
too
long to wait for redemption. It was the sort of spelling error that, a year ago, he would have told his students about, one that would have made them laugh.

He drove now past a John Deere dealership with spectacular green-and-yellow farm equipment lined up in a row like gigantic children's toys. Just beyond the dealership, parked on the highway's shoulder, was a light blue bus, and beyond that stood a ragged line of men in orange reflector vests carrying garbage bags. These were prisoners, Henry quickly realized, because farther ahead, walking backward and smoking a cigarette, was a guard with a rifle resting on his shoulder. The guard nodded sternly as Henry drove past as if to point out that he hadn't missed a thing, that he had taken note of the Louisiana license plates on Henry's car and all the mud and dust the car had gathered from the back roads in Georgia and South Carolina. Henry thought again about Lacey Gaudet, about the skunk and his old car, about peeling her underwear down across her hips, the frightening thrill of it, and the fallen magnolia blossom she reached for and brought to her nose to fight the stench of skunk or maybe, he realized later, to hide the fact that she was crying. It was her first time, and it must have hurt. He heard Amy's voice:
You hurt me, Henry.

He had not ever wanted to be cruel, to hurt. Was that not enough?

He turned on the car radio, still tuned to a religious station, a man with a thick Appalachian twang asking listeners to pray for Mrs. Audrey Henderson, a shut-in living over in Monroe. Music started, a bluegrass song about a great mansion in the sky, and Henry followed the sign for Marimore.

The restaurant was in a small aluminum-and-glass strip shopping center with a fitness and tanning salon, a florist, a state-run liquor store, and a doctor's office. The restaurant's sign was a wooden block, cut and painted in the shape of a red-tasseled Bible, the words
What a Blessing
scrolling across it in gold letters.

BOOK: A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
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