In this one picture I’m recalling, I really didn’t look well.
The photo had resurfaced for years, through one excavation or other of the mass of snaps those of us with decades to contemplate tend to keep in boxes, but when it turned up again a couple of years ago, I was finally fed up with that person, and threw him out.
It was an early selfie, accomplished in the fall of 1971 by setting a film camera on a flat surface, in this case a Formica kitchenette near the front door of a single-wide trailer in Albemarle County, Virginia. To prepare, I had to squat down and squint through the range finder toward the oak-look siding of the living room wall, focus on the vinyl sofa where I would soon sit, set exposure and a ten-second delay, then push the shutter, move quickly to my seat, assume the desired face, and look into the lens.
The result shows none of the prep and curation that went into the production of this image. Instead a pale, bespectacled young man directs a bleared, unhealthy, sanpaku gaze at the viewer. He’s wearing a mustache and a three-day beard. His longish “new left” hair—side combed, but uncut—brushes his work shirt collar. This plus jeans, plus crossed legs showing large work boots, plus ashtray and pack of unfiltered Camels on the coffee table, all announce a graduate student of English gone to the bad, but perhaps one with a certain curiosity, as the song went at the time, as to just what condition his condition is in.
I have friends in Charlottesville, but only a couple. I’m from California, in my first year of a doctoral program, and for some reason I’ve decided to make my digs out here in the country—far out in the country, on the trailing, distant edge of a thousand-acre farm owned by some wealthy people whose rambling house, barn, and outbuildings are a one-hour overland walk. The view from my yard, a loop of gravel drive, sagging fence, unkempt tufted grass, and an old burn barrel near which lies a black scatter of rotting chestnuts, is stunning—miles of rolling green, trees turning to their autumnal splendor, a shining glimpse of reservoir to which I can walk, and floating above all this, the shimmering vision of the Blue Ridge.
I’ve decided to make my digs out here in the country—far out in the country, on the trailing, distant edge of a thousand-acre farm owned by some wealthy people whose rambling house, barn, and outbuildings are a one-hour overland walk.
Still, it’s isolated. In October, shots ring out from a grove of sycamores to the left of my VistaVision view from the three-step porch, and a buck deer bursts hell-bent across the grassy fields toward the picturesque hay barn to the right of the scene while more shots bark from one copse and another and gun smoke rises on the blue. On my walks to the reservoir, I find cartridges in the road as well, and there’s even a bullet hole in the trailer, which has stood empty for some time. This is alarming to me, a suburban Southern Californian, but the long empty hours are maybe more so. There’s some talk on the phone with Mother about my not feeling all that well, but I chalk this up to Mother herself, a worrisome parent whose anxious voice I hear not just in the ear, but moving down my trunk as well, settling in like flu.
One evening in Charlottesville, with my small band of friends, I smoke too much pot and have too much beer and for some reason eat miso soup, and when I’m dropped off downtown where my car is parked, I don’t feel well. Aimlessly crossing the magnificent campus of Jefferson and Poe, I find a large, Ivy League-worthy tree of some sort hidden by a thick wall from the view of passersby on the not-distant sidewalk, and under the tree it is soft and dark and so I recline to sleep, possibly for more than a few moments, and then rise to reenter society a little haltingly, find my car, and begin to drive home.
But passing a chicken restaurant I realize I’m hungry, so park and go in and buy a hot dog and am sitting by myself eating when I hear whispers behind me. Lovely, Southern, teenage voices are giggling and whispering and then one voice says, “Leafy! psst. Hey leafy! Yeah you, leafy! What up man, you got leaves on you,” and it slowly occurs to me they are high school students at the end of a date and it is me they are addressing. I am rather a mess, I have to say. For one thing, after years of flawless production and good grades, generating essays now seems impossible and I cannot begin to work on them. “What’s your specialty?” a poetry teacher asked at my intake interview in the English hall the week before classes. I’m not sure, I say, but I am writing a lot of poetry, or intend to. Could I write poetry? Amused, he turns to a colleague. “Well, I guess he could write an epic!” However, here in the chicken restaurant, in the benign and tipsy spirit of Geoffrey Fermin, the lost hero of the book that has recently been my favorite, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, I urbanely and without rancor ignore these whispers. After making my way back to the car, I brush away the leaves that are indeed hanging from the back of my jacket and drive the forty minutes or so out to the trailer. It’s waiting for me in the darkness, mounted on rotted tires and cinder blocks, in the down holler Virginia style. The kitchen and living room where I study are well enough weighted and steady, but the free-swinging “master bedroom” end is less anchored and bounces as I walk wearily to bed.
Despite this bleak atmosphere, I actually have a girlfriend, a lovely person I’ve met the year before as a student abroad at St Andrews University in Scotland, where I’ve spent my senior year. She’s finishing her Bachelors at Grinnell College in Iowa, boarding in a pleasant, old-fashioned house with an Iowa-style front porch, which is only 993 miles from my trailer. Once a month or so, I seem unable to stay put any longer and so, fueled with Stuckey’s coffee, Cokes, Camels, M&M Peanuts, Dramamine for the boost, and muscle-relaxing Midol, I drive my Volkswagen Fastback all day and most of the night, seventeen hours without stopping, to spend a couple of evenings with her. Of my missed classes I think little, nor does it occur to me that this arrangement is anything but a delight to the young lady. I manage an October trip, and later arrive for Thanksgiving. To stay awake on the endless I-80 through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, past Chicago and then Peoria and then over the Mississippi, I listen to “The Wheeling Jamboree” on WWVA and then rock ’n’ roll out of WLS in Chicago. When the Interstate mile signs reach twenty and under, I try pronouncing each numeral in three of the languages I’ve studied: Japanese, Russian, and German, ichi, adene, eine. Otherwise, there’s singing, and then, just thoughts, like the radio, a frequency modulation all its own of white noise, laments, and wishes that attaches absolutely to nothing and drifts away.
To stay awake on the endless I-80 through Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, past Chicago and then Peoria and then over the Mississippi, I listen to “The Wheeling Jamboree” on WWVA and then rock ’n’ roll out of WLS in Chicago.
In the first few hours of one trip, not clear even of West Virginia, near Berkeley Springs on 522 North, with 800 more miles to go, a fall rain is soaking the landscape in a gorgeous melancholy of grey and green and rust from early turning trees, for some reason far more affecting than any rain event I can recall on the west coast. But when I touch the brake lightly on a long, curving, elevated on-ramp, the car breaks free of the rainy road surface and in a stately, silent perfection, spins cleanly once around, never touching the ramp walls, to come to rest unharmed and perpendicular to the lanes, rain pattering on the roof, the engine dead and a single car coming toward me a concerning but not crucial 300 yards distant. Gratifyingly, the car restarts, so that despite this alarm, and a little shaken as I steer back into the lane, in general I feel things are going well.
I‘d been far less lonely the year before in Scotland, making friends and going to pubs and endlessly listening to music in chilly rooms and flats with old fashioned mantels on top of which were invitations to parties and communal piles of two-shilling pieces for the electric heater in the fireplaces where coal had once burned. I was a bit homesick, but in the fall most things were pleasant enough. As the holidays approached, an affable, red-bearded fellow American abroad from Michigan, Mike Warren, invited me to spend Christmas holiday with him and his family in Athens, where his father worked for Shell. This trip went so well, and was so memorable, and the Warrens such lovely, adoptive hosts, that in retrospect I think I felt a certain buoyancy, which was partly responsible for an odd presence in Earlysville among my Woody Guthrie- and Dylan-identified work shirts hanging in the master closet at the floating end of the single wide. This would be my unlikely, outré and out-of-character Greek coat, purchased in a burst of good feeling on my last day in Athens.
The Warrens wore their wealth lightly and like Mike were unaffected and dear. People drew to them, and they had friends of all kinds, including a suave, somewhat jet-settish boulevardier in dark glasses who on a sightseeing trip in the Warrens’ car ceremoniously shared cigarettes with me. To show that not all was as it seemed in Greece, he turned out to have suffered terribly during the civil war and now got by making face cream for sale in the bathtub of his tiny apartment. Despite the colonial overtones of Mr. Warren’s work with Shell, many of their friends were liberals, opposed to the right-wing Colonels who ran the country after a military coup. On our exhausted arrival at solstice midnight, Mr. Warren met us in a cozy, firelit den with glasses of slivovitz, and the next morning Mrs. Warren saw us at breakfast, a dark-haired, attractive lady, easily smiling, a quick confider with a disarming self-doubt that unlike my own mother’s crippling emanations lent her a likable vulnerability. Like her wifely counterparts in Westchester County and Connecticut at the time, she wore dresses in the house, hair ribbons, tweed, and knee-high zip-up boots for going out, and struck me as someone like a character in Austen or Dickens set out early in the text to be trustworthy and foursquare.
I was housed in Mike’s younger brother’s room, which had a sweet childhood feel, a reading light of soft colors beside the bed, and Tintin books. After a day of sightseeing, in the shadow of the eternally staring caryatids and the Mediterranean light on the old stones, in the center of this happy family I tucked comfortably into this little boy’s bed to lose myself in the adventures of Snowy, Captain Haddock, and the absurd Thomson and Thompson, not to mention Herge’s magnificent splash pages of primary colors and meticulous line. Back in St Andrew’s I was billeted in an attic room of a Victorian hotel converted to a residence hall. Because I was fourth-year and had the right to a single room, though there were none, the sherry party-giving bursar with a wincing smile put me up in a largely unheated space once reserved for servants, beyond the pale of the carpets, brass stair runners, corridor mats, and flowered wallpaper of the lower floors. Past my door were two uncarpeted and unfinished chambers where I sat at a bare table beside a three-wire space heater, a Southern Californian Raskolnikov reading Middlemarch in a heavy coat. For a time, this bleak space actually suited my romanticism but finally got too cold so I found better digs in the spring. In the meantime, a Ho Chi Minh poster stared virtuously from the wall, a full ashtray sat on the table, and friends came by to commiserate and marvel at the space’s notable funkiness before whisking me off to a pub. In the tiny room adjoining lay a single metal-frame bed on which I could wrestle with my dateless, ungratified desires and grudging fevers of homesickness. In the unanticipated future of course lay the trailer, its wobbling hallway and underlit back room identically paneled on wall and closet. So for the moment, in this cozy household in Athens, to sit in bed with my knees up in the sweet light of the reading lamp, poring over Red Rackham’s Treasure, was better even than slivovitz.
After Christmas, Mike and I set off on a short tour of the Peloponnese in his father’s faded red VW. Mike drove and I co-piloted, keeping a steady supply of local bread and Toblerones in the Beetle’s tiny glovebox. It poured rain, and the entire ancient peninsula seemed a green, sodden lane through rocky villages whose walls were dull red with bougainvillea and beyond these the grey-green sage of olive groves wetly lilting. Except for an ancient farm truck grinding past with a load of oranges, the roads were mostly deserted. The truck and its cargo of pure color careened past us in a cloud of diesel that sent citrus flying in thrilling arcs of orange to splat on the road. Mike dodged the sailing orbs as best he could until, roaring and shaking, the truck and its glowing load finally pulled out of sight. I don’t recall being the slightest bit alarmed. I had little on my mind but a poised delight and the question of whether to unwrap another of the chocolates before me in the glove box.
Greece was filled with rough, beautiful things and the signs of ancient darkness. On the ragged, unkempt heights of the Acrocorinth, toothed with battlements and broken foundations from any number of centuries, the rain let up enough for us to look out at the city below, now a scurf of low buildings but in the ancient world, according to the Baedeker lent us by Mike’s father, a great pleasure center, so that it was proverbial to say regarding the chanciness of exceptional good fortune that “not everyone could go to Corinth.” Martyrs had also been flung from the battlements, or were thought to have been—but nothing there argued against this possibility, including the village dogs chasing us with implacable intent to bite along the graveled streets. At the cliff top I also read to Mike that Pegasus was said to have touched ground here, at which point under a spell of charming and shabby magic, a clanking bell sounded and we turned to see an ancient mare the color of dirty milk picking her way toward us over bunches of scrub set with broken marble against a window of Aegean light.
Then, on a ferry crossing, the Mediterranean pitched while rain poured on the outside benches. In passenger seating, two men in white waiter jackets and bow ties did a brisk business in Metaxas and Turkish coffee at a zinc and blond-wood bar resembling a jukebox as seated passengers looked on, men in the front rows at their worry beads and black-clad women at the rear tending infants. Among a scatter of off-season travelers, Mike and I sat in between. The boat pitched and shook, the sea ran slate gray outside the clouded ferry windows, and the babies cried. When they cried the men in the front rows, heads tilted in boredom, still working their beads, black or blood-red komboloi, called out loudly to the air in front of them, not bothering to look around. What are they saying, I wanted to know. “They’re saying ‘Shut up,’” said Mike. “They’re saying, ‘Keep that baby quiet.’”
One day before Christmas, Mrs. Warren took us shopping. There was an extravagant purchase she was thinking of making, and she wanted us to advise her, or at least witness her decision. A taxi ride took us to a run-down section of antique stores and vacant lots spread with rubble. The block was crammed with shops and the shops were crammed with brass beds and ladder-back chairs and huge, painted Victrola horns on their tiny plinths of now useless record players. To get to the item Mrs. Warren was considering, the dealer walked us down the block and around a corner, where, leaning against a wall under grey clouds stood an entire set of bookcases from another century: ornate, golden with linseed oil and years, with pediments and carved devices and grape bunches and cornucopias and glass case doors, an astonishment of seven panels that once installed in an appropriately sized room would literally line it from floor to ceiling in its beauty. In the open air, surrounded by rubble, unprotected and unexplained, with rain about to start, they were time’s honey-colored jetsam. After some conversation, Mrs. Warren straightened, nodded, and produced a thick roll of drachmas. The next day while Mr. Warren was at work, we waited for delivery. The set was to be put into the house, not installed but placed in its room as a Christmas surprise.
But when the furniture arrived, uncovered and uncushioned on the bed of an old truck along with movers who had neither come-alongs nor belts nor pads nor dollies nor lifts, it was destroyed. The crew swarmed over the furniture, shouting encouragement at one another as the huge panels slipped from their grasp and struck the driveway, as delicately turned finials, urns, and ogees shook loose and bounced on the paving while they dragged the pieces toward the kitchen door. Old glass, itself sinking infinitesimally toward the earth’s center to make its gorgeous, unreproducible blur, crazed into shards as cabinet doors swung open in the crew’s jerking movements. Mrs. Warren stood crying and calling out while Mike and I watched in horror.
But suddenly, for me, another mood began to arrive. I began to step back, back behind the sheets hanging on the housekeeper’s clothesline. As ashamed as it made me, an anarchic love of ruin and slapstick began to rise up, an outrageous delight in disorder, and as the furniture was broken and smashed, I had to hide behind the housekeeper’s clothesline, take a handful of sheet, push it into my mouth, and bite down hard to keep from laughing out loud at the unstoppable wreckage. I felt so badly for Mrs. Warren, her hopes crushed, her gift turned to folly—now, at the end of 1969, her husband would have to right this wrong, sort it all out, negotiate—so I bit even harder. I wouldn’t have hurt her feelings for anything.
On January 5, it was time for the Warrens to leave for their ski trip. Left in the care of their housekeeper-cook for one day, I had two things to accomplish. The first was to write an essay to apply to graduate school at the University of Virginia for the next year. A professor in California had recommended it, and as this was also the state of my birth, and my father’s home state, and still a place of family, it seemed a worthwhile suggestion. I sat at the marble-topped table in the kitchen with a bowl of bean soup next to me, and wrote my essay.
The second errand was to shop for a souvenir, something for parents and friends. The Warrens’ au pair would come with me, which is how I came to purchase the Greek coat.
On the subway three of what could only be called urchins planted themselves in front of us and in rough unison yammered out a loud, tuneless hymn to the Virgin, or so the au pair said; she spoke some Greek. None older than six, they looked to be brothers with dirty faces, legs, and feet, in ragged sweaters, and hair that had been close-cropped in a kitchen somewhere. They didn’t make eye contact but stared resolutely into the distance as they chanted out their hymn, while the eldest hammered on a guitar that was tightly strung but untempered, so that it made a primitive, discordant beat in honor of the Star of the Sea. “You can give them a drachma,” said the au pair, and I did.
The souvenir shop specialized in quality folk items and crafts. The au pair knew the owner, who was debonair and friendly, and I picked out a scarf and some gloves and kept poking around, and then saw the coat.
For some reason, to the amusement of the au pair and the shop owner, I was fascinated with this thing. It was an enormous shepherd’s coat made of thick wool felt. But there was something enveloping about this outlandish garment. It would take an innocence to carry it off, an untroubled lack of self-consciousness and perhaps even a bit of the fool, that “fool on the hill” we all knew well at the time, a sort of auspicious Tarot character, or an avatar of the wandering Li Po casting his poems onto the stream. For some reason anyway, I felt I could happily walk around in this tent in a breezy indifference to what others thought.
In retrospect, just how I was to bring this garment off with anything like panache is very hard to see. It was brown, unlined, hooded and enormous, part tent, part cape, a rustic shepherd’s garment made of wool felt so heavy that it curled up along the hem like a bell. Two toggle buttons at the breast kept it closed. With its hood up I looked like a mendicant or member of an obscure religious order. In profile, coat clasped shut across my chest to ward off the elements, the apron-like quality of the garment suggested pregnancy, while the bell motif begun at the hem was strengthened by the moving clappers of my desert-booted feet as I strode evenly along. In rain, it smelled pretty strongly of lanolin and sheep. In storms, I was assured, shepherds crouched among their flocks in these, propped up a corner of the hem with a stick to make a little protected porch, laid out cheese and figs, and waited out the storm. Perhaps it was this stark utility and self-reliance that also spoke to some part of me, needing an all-purpose shelter. In any case, I had to have it—at the moment, its novelty was enough.
The owner was of course delighted. Where would I be wearing it? he wanted to know. London, I said. Ah, London! They will love it there! The au pair just smiled.
The coat was able to keep its magic for a time. I strolled happily along the streets of Rome in this muffled bell of felt, and in London felt the same, a comfortable air of eccentric anonymity. I ran out of money and had to spend the night at Euston Station waiting in those pre-ATM days for a bank to open in the morning. The police were intimidating, and at 11 we were made to display our tickets and stand in a line of houseless pilgrims outside the waiting room while men in turbans mopped the stone floor and the police eyed us with ill favor. When they turned aside for a moment, an old street dweller with no teeth and dirty kit spit some sort of terrible wad of something on the floor and, when he saw my eyes following it, made a sarcastic but still rather lovely face at me, raising his eyebrows and pointing as if to say, did you want that?
The next day I took the train north to St Andrews and persisted in the coat until, one evening, going to see my new girlfriend to whom the next year I would be driving on mad cross-country sagas, I walked toward her flat along the very quiet suburban Hepburn Gardens, glowing under streetlight. It was early evening, and for some now forgotten reason I was carrying a candle in my pocket. In the wintry gloom, swathed in my coat, a bolt of divine fool must have struck because it occurred to me it would be attractive and interesting to light the candle and walk along with this flickering glow before me, which I did. Ignoring passersby, who steadfastly looked the other way, and cupping the small flame to keep the motion of travel from putting it out, I strolled the nearly empty street, and in this way arrived at the apartment still shining forth. Here I was clad in this cloak, a mystic pilgrim with candle reflecting handsomely in the door leading to the rear entrance, one flight up. I was warmly greeted, and the adventure seemed rather a success. The dripping wax had made wondrous curls and coils around the central stalk as I moved along, and we all admired these as we put it into its holder on the mantel. There it sat for an hour or so until one of the flatmates, a nervous, “straight” sort of English girl, not given to coolness and magic, stood beside it chatting about her risotto and idly broke off all the wax. I wore the coat a few more times after that, but with less enthusiasm, and then Mike’s new girlfriend fitted him out in a rather smart winter coat of her father’s, so I inherited the busman’s coat, conventional navy blue with lined pockets and leather cuffs, and wore it the rest of the year. The Greek coat now made me self-conscious, and in the spring I shipped it home to California.
The Virginia trailer was heated by kerosene, whose large rusty tank sat leaning on its spindly legs outside the picture window, which looked uphill across a good acre of berry vines to the dirt, three-number road. It was warm enough inside, but in truly cold weather freezing pipes were likely, something I knew little about. Having neglected to leave water running on a recent Iowa trip during a cold snap, I’d come home to find leaking pipes. So when another freeze threatened, I was determined to be ready. As demonstrated to me by the friendly local plumber, I meticulously wrapped heated electrical tape around the input pipe as it rose from the ground outside and plugged it in at the outdoor receptacle just next to the kerosene. But more central to the winterizing effort was the electrical pump that sat 40 yards or so from the trailer in a wooden housing where a spring emerged from the hillside at a secret spot in a berry-choked swale. Heated by a 75-watt bulb during the winter months, this shabby box of two-by-fours built into the hillside was tufted sporadically inside with patches of wall insulation of a dingy meringue color stapled to the housing.
If the trailer was lonely, then this box in its cold, dirt-scented gloom, a short alienating walk from the trailer’s domestic interior, its unruly surround of frozen grass, thistles and riffling berry vines, the incomprehensible yet utterly necessary pump with its orange and beige pipes sunk into the ground lurching on and off, the metallic smell of spring water and the rising wind blowing around me as I lifted away the lid of two-by-fours, was the densest, coldest center of my aloneness.
I looked into this shaggy space for whose warmth and viability I was somehow responsible, a subterranean square footage under my uncertain care. The coming storm promised to be severe. Out in California, Mother had written me a fond warning: “I’m afraid you are in for some weather,” this last word in her animated handwriting comically enlarged into scary waving capitals radiating cartoonish lines of alarm. I sat in the trailer watching the grey sky slowly deepen. My comforting view of the barn across the fields drew into itself, the capacious double door blackening over the warm bales stacked inside and its rusting metal roof sinking to greyscale. This, I felt, was going to be a siege.
The next day, driving back from campus in the storm’s gusting, blue-black onset, I had an idea and stopped at a hardware store to buy a 100-watt bulb. If 75 was adequate to heat the pump housing in untaxing times, I reasoned, 100 would be just the security needed against this harsh environment in which generations of my Virginia ancestors had struggled and survived.
At the trailer, ready to change the bulb, I thought suddenly of one last hedge against disaster. The floor bounced under my hiking boots as I strode back to the bedroom where I grabbed the long-unworn Greek coat from the closet. Then I went out the door and made my way in a rising wind down the swale, holding the coat bundled under one arm with a vindictive energy. Finally, this souvenir would serve a purpose. Behind the wavering spot of my flashlight in the dusk, the gale agitated the masses of berry vines like fur and whipped from the trees what few leaves were left into trailing whorls of black shards against the darkening clouds. At the spring, light leaked thinly from the housing cap, the only bright spot on the seething dark. I opened the housing, knelt in the frigid dirt, switched out the 75 for the 100, and began to inter the coat.
The previous summer, home from Europe, in the beachy, teen-aged ambience of my Southern California home, this fuzzy document from abroad had seemed to lose its legibility and I lost interest in it. But once Father laid eyes on it, its charisma was recharged. To my horror he loved it, so that when people dropped by, he would urge me to model it for them, waddle from my room down the narrow hall of our house and then into the living room to turn this way and that, brushing knick-knacks off the coffee table with its huge flaring skirt. He would emcee this display in a guileless, astonished way while I, of course, wished to disappear. Sometimes this would take place in the backyard, on the brick patio, a fan-shaped surface perhaps 10 by 12, bordered by oleander, brick planter boxes, and the house’s stucco back wall with its fuse box and TV antenna coax rising between the den windows to the eaves. On the patio, I would twirl solemnly in the coat before admiring neighbors seated at the redwood patio table while Father said, “Have you ever seen anything like that?” When I complained to him that I didn’t want to show it off anymore, he was surprised—one of his strongest qualities was the ability to reveal a deep innocence, to be really shocked that he had done something to which someone might object. He was taken aback. “Why, I just think it’s wonderful!” he said, slightly wounded. “That’s all!”
In the meantime, to my own shock, the essay I had written at the Warrens’ kitchen table had done its mysterious work, and I was headed to Charlottesville to earn a doctorate in English. We drove there together in September, a very kind thing of Father to do, so perhaps he was the reason the coat lay among my meager belongings in the back of the VW. At any rate, it sat in my digs in Earlysville unthought of in the storages of the single-wide until the storm warning came.
Now, carrying it from the trailer, it suddenly felt wonderful to bury it. The wind rose, and I was seized with a vivid sense of riddance as I tucked this embarrassment into the dirt crevices; ridges of dried burrs and brown thistles instantly gripped the felt and stayed as if the flocks and fields from which the coat had come had returned to claim it. Tamping it down around the pump itself I thought Let’s really wrap you up! and pushed the coat down further, pleased finally to have arrived at a suitable use for this baggage. It felt like a lifetime since I’d purchased it, an incomprehensibly distant era. I pushed down a few last corners, replaced the cap of two-by-fours and tarpaper on the whole arrangement, and walked back uphill in the wind to where the trailer’s lights gleamed steadily through the picture windows against the dark.
Inside I made a pot of Red Bag coffee and sat in my rocker while outside, the storm glowered picturesquely over the darkened landscape. I would have been drinking coffee black, smoking Camels or Philip Morris kings, and reading Absalom, Absalom, or perhaps Jean Toomer’s Cane, or any of the many titles for which I was responsible that semester.
However, what happened was that within an hour the lights began to flicker, which sent me flying out into the dark with the flashlight toward the spring. To my horror, from yards away down the hill I could see flames rising up from the pump housing, whipping and flattening in the gusts. Sparks flew, spiraling into the darkness of the berry patch. Freezing pipes were not in my repertoire, but as a Southern Californian, about wildfires I knew. I was terrified. At the pump, flames were shooting out from under the lid and lashing in the wind toward the swale and the fields and woods beyond. Frantically I tore away the top and began to beat at the flames and the Greek coat, the big felt garment, which, of course, had caught fire from being too close to the high-watt bulb. Appalled, I hauled out its great grey smoking body in one piece, arms and hood flopping open, a smoldering revenant, and threw it aside, slapped at the flames in the wind, and stamped on the charred lichens of black on the coat’s arms and back. Down in the smoking box of bright light the pump house had become, proffered forth on stems of red and white wire snaking from a skinned-back black cord rising from the dirt, the 100-watt bulb sat glowing like a hot white flower.
With the flames beaten out at last, I made my way back uphill to the trailer and sat in the rocker for a moment, badly shaken. The chair was an old black leather one from an antique store that I fancied had been like something into which my elder Virginia relatives had settled when they sat reading law and drinking bourbon and branch. Unlike those imperturbable forebears, however, I was not settled, was not doing well. I lacked equilibrium, and this newest folly was only the latest of several problems I seemed to have been having as this year had come to an end, the one that had begun in Greece on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the three wise guys at the manger.
In recent phone conversations home, I could tell Mother was worried about me as well—the early twenties, she theorized aloud in her familiar anxious way, were when young people often had mental problems. I’d even written Mike, now finishing his degree in Ann Arbor, but my tone must have been off—his letter back was short, with the sentence, “Friendships bewilder me.”
One night alone in the trailer, I’d been playing Neil Young on my record player and began to hear a snare drum detach itself from the track. Its percussive noise seemed so like a car door slamming up on the road—and there were no other houses on this road. Was someone up there in the dark, where cartridges lay in the ruts? Or was it the record? I crouched down by the speaker and listened so hard to Neil, to that whining, soulful drone, to that funky snare sound only Ralph Molina could get, then took off the needle and listened hard into the night and stars out on the tiny porch, and then went back to play the record, and kept this up for some time. So there had been indicators. Now I would have to call my endlessly patient, wealthy, and slightly amused landlords and tell them about my latest ineptitude.
This moment in the rocker: that young man was scared, and I am scared for him still, so much so that even a half-century later I could no longer look at his picture. Fragments of memory from the trip to Greece one year before seemed fled, tarnished and spent. Antiquities and old stone, gods and their stories, the swaybacked horse in Corinth stepping her aching hooves among the old marbles—all were lost in an anger that came from the coat like smoke.
Miraculously, the pump was still working. I took a bucket of water back down the hill. Careful this time of the wires, I poured libation onto the embers and the coat. I was sweating and alarmed, deeply frightened, scraping and rubbing dirt into the last charred bits I could find, on the two-by-fours and the scorched paper backing of the insulation.
Wind scudded around me down the swale. The mass of felt smoked fitfully, and then steamed under more water. I thought with scorn of the person who had bought this thing, thought of him without pity, a fool who knew so little about ruin and its congeries of ebony, obsidian, and jet, Homer’s “no darker garment” now mine for a time. But what I recall at last of the coat, glancing in the flashlight beams, are the burrs gathered in the felt folds, impossible finally to remove, how as I beat at the flames, they had already worked themselves so deeply into the wool, and the felt itself so deeply into the ground, into that frozen history of rutted winter grass and soil, that cold place to which even a hymn to the Mother of Mercy might never reach, no matter how many urchins sing.