Google said it would be 23 hours and 16 minutes to Superior, Montana. I had to pull over at a rest stop for 44 minutes to make it come out right. I left home after my wife, Jean, died. She always acted so happy and satisfied. Personally, I would have welcomed a few tears – that would have been a sign of hope. We were sitting in the backyard on the new patio set I purchased for her at Sears on the installment plan. She thanked me again for the little gold bracelet. Her white cat climbed our fence and perched atop a post, staring at me as if he were God waiting for me to make a mistake. The sprinklers went thwap-thwap-thwap, silvering the air like a cloud, and I kept waiting for an angel’s leering face to peer out and warn of more blessings. I asked Jean to get me a gin and tonic. She brought it in a tall glass, all smiles. Do you see what I mean?
I want to explain about The Plan. The first visit is to be Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on the other side of the mountains from Superior. School hadn’t started yet, and I was home with Grammy. I watched game shows, women with pointed breasts clapping their hands and dancing tippy-toe. I kept turning up the TV, but I could still hear Grammy shuffling around in her room, occasionally pounding on the window to scare away squirrels or demons, I don’t know which. The TV flickered like a dying heart. But I felt my blood running thick. I was 17 and still a virgin. Suddenly, Julie Anne was knocking on the patio door. She was a short, fat girl who lived in a crumbling shack in Brush Valley and generally smelled of smoke. Later, after she left and I was back in front of the TV, Grammy shuffled in. She stared at me, squinting with milky eyes. “Are you Jacob? I thought you were dead.”
Jacob, my Grandpa, who, denied any hope of further happiness, blew up his own head. I think this had to do with someone Grammy was fucking back then. One day, rummaging through dad's bureau, I discovered a box of rubbers. I opened each crinkly package and took out the rubbers and lined them up like a row of cemetery markers across the top of the bureau. I wasn't sure who would be home first, mom or dad, but either way.
Anyway, Julie Anne now lives in Coeur d’Alene. The Plan specifies that I go there by driving to Superior and hiking over the mountains. I knock on the door and hand her a box. What’s in the box? I don’t know.
That is the wonder of it all.
* * *
Superior was right off the Interstate on the banks of a black river, a cluster of crumbling homes urging their last inhabitants to flee. A bridge struggled across the river, and from there the gravel road twisted upward into a forest tormented by snow. By the bridge was a small store with a Nehi sign in the window. The old man behind the counter watched me with eyes as hollow as a snake’s as I picked things off the shelves. With a shaking hand, he wrote the prices on a little pad. In the middle of adding them together, he stopped and looked directly at me.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said. “Up in those mountains, that’s a good place for making a big mistake. Then you got to pay the price.”
One of those moments occurred. God allowed me to hear what the old man was really saying, and I wanted to kill him right here, stab him in the heart with the knife I’d bought with my other equipment. Knife: 7.35 pounds, blade 4.5 inches long, drop point, S30V stainless steel.
* * *
An empty white land, as frigid and wasted as that old man’s dying flesh. A hollow wind singing to me. At a cabin, deserted for the season, I leave the car, a silver Toyota, 36,647 miles on the clock, fourteen payments remaining. From here on the road is un-plowed, a hard white river. My boots plunge through the crust of the snow. Sometimes I stop and look back, spending long moments studying the holes I’ve left.
The sky pressing down. The shallow tremor of my heart.
There comes a time when.
All the little dangers of life.
The answer lies deep, some hard icy poison you cannot spit out.
* * *
I knew what had happened with Julie Anne would be all over school. They’d be passing around notes. They’d snicker and point their fingers and make weird noises like having a convulsion. I kept having a belly-ache, but eventually mom made me go back.
Instead, it was just the same as always. Everyone ignored me as if I were made of see-through rubber. Julie Anne went by, smelling of smoke and with a look like what had happened was all in my mind. But how could I have just imagined sticking my hand down her pants? At any rate, she seemed happy for a change, so I tried to call out to warn her, but the only sound I could make was like a dead bird. (Oh, how things might have been different!) This was almost the end of senior year, and our yearbooks had been delivered. That night while mom and dad squirmed together in the next room, I went through the yearbook picture by picture, picking out all the ones who needed to be part of what was going on. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of The List.
* * *
This country of snow. It falls, burning, from a murderous gray sky.
Crows perched in the dark pines, calling out their secret language.
The heavy pack dragging me down into the weight of the snow.
Why didn’t God suggest I bring snowshoes? (He was probably just too busy, off tormenting someone else.)
I sleep in a burrow dug into a snow bank, coiled and dreamless in my sleeping bag. Animals all around me in the wilderness, whimpering like a child moaning in the shadows of his bed while the grownups act out their stupid little desires on the other side of the wall.
Shut up that crying, Paul, or I'm coming in there.
* * *
I would crouch in the darkness, watching Jean sleep. The red numbers of the clock face blinked their message. The sheets and comforter were a set I purchased for her at Macy’s. But, of course, she wasn’t really asleep. She knew how to play the game and never stirred. That’s why I loved her.
* * *
I worked on The List. First the girls. Julie Anne. Becky Semple, who hung up on me when I called her for a date. Over the buzzing, empty wire after she hung up, I heard her laughing with her friends. I have an address in Huntsville, Alabama. Marsha Hawbaker, who was in my ninth-grade class and one day she throws a book at me. She lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania. There was a girl with dark hair in the corridor by the auditorium after school. I wanted to fuck her so bad. I can’t remember how that went, but I can guess. I wanted to put her on The List, but I couldn’t remember her name or find her picture. Probably she had adopted a disguise. Of course, I couldn’t ignore the boys. It was my job to save them or punish them or something: I hoped it would become clear later. Bill Cronkite. He poured a glass of water on my shoes in the cafeteria. He now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Robert Nuss. He was first-string tackle on the football team, but that was all I could remember about him at the moment.
It all started in 1992 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Jean was in college. We went to a party, and at the party she introduced me to one of her professors. I recognized him immediately as someone I’d known for years, a man my father had bowled with. But, of course, he wouldn't admit it.
Soon the professor started running pictures in my head. I don’t know where he got them, but after awhile I realized the pictures were actually a storyline I could see unrolling. I would see an event that had happened to me – my father taking me to the bowling alley and introducing me to the professor, for example – and then the storyline would roll on and I would see another event – me meeting the professor at the party in Grand Rapids and him laughing at me. And then the really strange thing is the storyline would keep going on into the future. And there I would meet the professor again, but in totally different circumstances, and learn what resides in God’s heart and why He does these odd things.
Currently, there are 63 people on The List. There are those people from the yearbook, Julie Ann and Becky Semple and Bill Cronkite and so on. Then there are other people from various times in the past. The List is people who I have a story about them for whatever reason. I have to visit them and do something. Sometimes I know what it is I’m supposed to do. Marsha Hawbaker from ninth grade, for example. She’s the one who threw a book at me. So the storyline is I go to her and slap her cheek, and I’m wearing jeans. She lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as I mentioned.
But sometimes I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do when I visit a person. I have a sense, though, that in many cases it involves a price to be paid.
Once I had The List, I had to put together The Plan. I did it on the computer and printed it out. Because the first person on The List was Julie Anne, The Plan specified driving 23 hours and 16 minutes to Superior, then hiking through the pass to visit her in Coeur d’Alene and give her a box. After that, I would disappear until next March. I would have a new identity and travel to Huntsville, Alabama. Then I would just keep going down The List.
* * *
Jean and I lived in a neighborhood of arsenic lawns and trees like scarecrows, with kids screaming on their bikes and mothers hiding behind drawn curtains. “You know that yellow house at the corner,” Jean said. “The couple that lives there seems very nice. We ought to have them over.”
I made one excuse after another, of course. Their faces smiling, their teeth clicking against ice cubes, their heads bobbing, they would have breathed out their sweet, frothy breath trying to woo me. But what I knew I wasn’t about to share.
* * *
Jean had always wanted a dog, so I got her two, black Labs. They would lie beside the bed at night, ebony ghosts with yellow eyes like distant warning lanterns. When I looked at them, I knew they understood Jean’s condition as well as I did and shared my despair. Sometimes, sleeping, Jean’s hand would fall to them, stroking their fur. They would moan softly with their terrible knowledge, then grow still again, lying silent, motionless, waiting.
* * *
Machinery in the air, the tang of exhaust, a descending thwap-thwap-thwap that swirls cones of snow. By a dark stream running through a grove of naked birch trees that are like a cemetery, I am about to have lunch. Special buffalo-meat jerky fortified with vitamins. I bought it at the same store where, over a period of six months, I purchased the necessary equipment: boots, down jacket, pack, cook set, small gas stove, sleeping bag. There was a large display case filled with knives of all sizes. I finally decided on one that looked like an old-fashioned Bowie knife. The clerk looked at me across the dusty counter. His eyes told me he knew the truth of things. I was no longer alone.
* * *
The helicopter lands in the snow a hundred yards away.
I wait, sitting on my pack. Two men – a fat young one and an older man with a bristly beard – approach. The fat young one carries a rifle pointed at me. His expression is mournful. They stop ten feet away.
“You was at that store,” the older one says. “Down there in Superior.”
Chewing, I review it in my mind: Going into the store with the Nehi sign, gathering up some canned goods, the old man behind the counter talking to me as if I were a castaway too insignificant to save, but worse than that. It’s like a waking dream, invigorating and portentous and vivid. But suddenly, just as I’m looking at the old man and my hand is reaching for the knife at my waist, the dream goes blank. What happened next? I can only guess.
* * *
I continued to work on The Plan. The days grew shorter. The trees shed their disguises. Women and men hurried by in sweaters and coats, sullen as refugees. Children cried out their nightmares of ice. But despite my anticipation, the cold winds from the north brought no message.
I took Jean to the lake for a picnic. In the cold we had the place to ourselves. The water lay flat as gunmetal, the feathers of the pines dark on the far shore. I made a fire in the grill. Jean hummed happily as she laid out the food.
I slipped away into the trees. I watched her, studying her silently as she called out for me. Did I detect fear, soft as cancer, on her breath?
There was electricity blue in my veins, and my longing was dark and liquid. You could hear the wind moaning through the dying leaves. When I returned, Jean asked several questions, but never the right one.
* * *
Grammy lay on the bed in the dark room. I hadn’t seen her around for several months so I decided to take her a cup of cocoa. In the urine-yellow sunlight trickling in after I opened the blinds, I saw that her flesh had fallen away, dry as a dead fish. Only grinning teeth and bone remained to love me and chase away demons. I wept, thinking of Grandpa killing himself because she took up with another man. And now she was dead too. Why did Grandpa kill himself? At first I had guessed it was to destroy the temptation of forgiveness before it could further infect his heart. But as I continued to study the matter, I decided that love had simply become unbearable.
* * *
They put handcuffs on my wrists as I finished chewing. Jerky: Buffalo meat, dried cranberries, sugar, sea salt, celery juice, black pepper, red pepper, garlic, onion powder.
“Alright, podner,” the older man, the one with the beard, said. “You just come along with us now.” His tone was more or less kindly.
The young fat one, the one with the rifle, just stared at me with a quizzical expression, as if he too was hearing pathetic voices in his head but couldn’t understand what they were were trying to tell him.
* * *
I would lie beside Jean at night, listening to her breathing, how sometimes it would seem to pause in her throat like she was about to suffocate. The dogs glared at me as if I was supposed to do something. Sometimes I would fall asleep and sometimes I would even dream of how it was when we were first in love, reveling in the lies we happily told each other. But the inexorable loneliness of the bedside clock’s ticking would always return me to this world, and once more my heart would pound with its pitiful desire to be allowed to begin The Plan. But I knew something was missing. I knew my soul remained too cluttered with still-born prayers, despite the hard, pure desire that lived at its core.
I became so immersed in my research and preparations that I lost my job at the printing company. Jean was still healthy and happy at that point. So I continued to leave the house at 8 a.m. I would drive to distant towns I’d never visited before and walk around, looking for people who should be on The List, then return home at 5 p.m. with made-up complaints about people at work. I withdrew a suitable amount from the savings account and told Jean it was my paycheck.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t tell her the truth. But you should know the answer to that by now.
* * *
Days in the air, flying above the snow-covered earth like an angel, the younger fat one sitting across from me. His eyes keep sliding away from mine, from which I take it his wife has left him for someone he thought was his friend.
When we land in the valley, the Sheriff meets us in a patrol car and drives us to the courthouse. He’s a gaunt, tanned man wearing cowboy boots and a hat I assume is a Stetson.
“Are we back in Superior?” I ask him.
“Yeah, boy, you’re a long way from home.”
My home town. The usual: a park with a statue, fire station, police station, post office, red-brick funeral parlor, small shops, doctor’s office for pushing needles deep into you, motel with dead bodies behind blinded windows, high school where little girls go screaming down the hallways… Of course, I could go on, but you get the picture.
* * *
My cell is on the second floor, up a flight of wooden steps. A large spider crouches in the corner like a messenger. But when, hopeful, I carefully approach, I see it is merely a billow of dust. There are voices downstairs, like parents in another room. Mom and dad enacting their ceremony. Through the keyhole, the wet gleam of light on mom's naked ass, a small constellation of red pimples, a single breathless mole at her waist, dad rooting like an animal, panting and rearing, his whiskers, his clouded breath, his red penis.
The Sheriff drops the cover on the toilet and sits down. “I thought maybe you could use a cigarette,” he says, shaking a pack at me. A large gold ring with a blue stone gleams suspiciously on his tanned finger.
“Thank you, sir, but I quit three years ago.”
“I want to do everything proper, Paul. So let me ask you, when they arrested you up there on the mountain, you was advised of your rights. Is that correct?”
I try to remember. I don’t think the men from the helicopter did any advising, but I want to be agreeable, so I say yes.
“Your right to have a lawyer. Your right you don't have to say nothing to us without a lawyer. But I was sitting down there in my office and I was thinking. Maybe you’d like to talk about what happened.”
“It would make a good story if I can get the details in the right order. Sometimes they move around.”
“Well, up to you.” He stood up to leave.
* * *
Jean remained cheerful, never complaining, but I was beginning to understand that there is nothing in this world that can ever truly be healed.
I took long walks at night. Up and down the dark streets beneath ghostly, swaying trees, the lights in the little ticky-tacky windows illuminating the crimes being committed within.
Sirens screamed and red lights flashed. But they always saved someone else.
I walked until my legs were like concrete. When I got home, Jean was working on her lesson plan. “Oh, there you are,” she said. “Doris from school called and invited us to a cookout Sunday.”
Later, in my den, it came to me: Doris must be part of the storyline. Was this the final message?
* * *
“No, wait, please. I'd like to talk about it.”
“This of your own free will?”
“All right, then.”
“I remember going into the store for supplies. That old man, I told him I was going up into the mountains and he said, ‘Then you got to pay the price.’ So whatever happened to him was his own fault. But I just don’t remember.”
“You’re talking about Spangler’s store? I want to make sure we have everything correct.”
“There by the bridge. A Nehi sign in the window.”
“And the old man you mention, white hair slicked back? That’s old man Spangler.”
“Spangler. That’s who I mean. It was his fault what happened.”
The Sheriff studied me as his face dissolved and ran off his bones. “Ain’t nothing wrong with old man Spangler,” he said. “Was him told us where to find you.”
From somewhere came laughter. It wasn’t the Sheriff; he just kept looking at me mournfully, as if I was his dog and he had to put me down. But the laughter continued. It grew more and more ribald, and that’s when I knew it was God offering another of his jokes no one would ever understand.
* * *
On fall afternoons they went to the stadium and cheered the Nittany Lions. Jean and Paul hugged on a hard wood bench as they held steaming cups of hot chocolate and the ball moved down the field. Jean and Paul, with all their young, raw, hopeful hearts. Could they see what was coming? Did they understand the peril that happiness brings forth?
* * *
I was 12 years old. My only friend was a crippled boy named Ralph, born with arms and legs that would occasionally jerk out of control into orbits of their own as if he was under the control of a deranged puppeteer. “Spaz!” they would all shout as he jerked and wobbled down the school hallway.
My dreams? At that time in my life they were consumed by figures undergoing cruel diseases. But the spaz? The spaz dreamed of peddling off on a red Schwinn. Of course, this was impossible, what with hands and feet capable of only irregular contact with the handlebars and peddles and with a body that might bounce off the seat at any moment. But I was his friend. One day I mounted him on my bike. I tied him to the seat with a rope around his waist and told him I’d walk beside him and guide the bike. He squealed with joy! I don’t think I need to tell you how this ended. The details remain elusive to me, but I believe that in his short lifetime he had never been happier than at that final moment on the bicycle atop the embankment.
* * *
But you know as well as I do what had been missing from The Plan.
* * *
I had already taken the dogs out to the garage. I placed a copy of The Plan on the pillow beside her. Pillow: Kingsize, 34 by 18 inches, 300 thread count, 100% cotton cover, 100% polyester fill, corded.
* * *
The moon moans through the barred window. Down below, snow falls on the little town sleeping beside the black river as the bodies float by. The Sheriff is gone now. I answered all his questions, told him all my secrets. “And then?” was the last question he asked.
“The end result is there. I spent the rest of the time in the garage playing with the dogs.”
* * *
None of you who haven’t been here really knows what love requires.
After careers as a reporter, editor, private investigator and crisis PR practitioner, R.H. EMMERS is returning to the sadly abandoned avocation of younger days, fiction. In addition to stories, he is working on a novel titled A Brief History of Patriotism.