James, he cries out in his sleep, for the third time this week. Who was James?
I watch pain and distress flow down the well-studied lines of his face, melting back into a waxen semblance of tranquility, the slow measured cadence of breath in deeper abysses of sleep. Time and near darkness play havoc with comprehension, I see motes of not-quite-anything, incoherent in the stuffy sleep-heavy stillness. Who was James?
Having admired Richard Lehman’s writing for so many years, it still feels unreal that we are seeing each other, sleeping together. But the tears that come unbidden, unheeded, the calling out — none of which he recalls in the light of day, nor does he explain, turning distant and laconic the one time I asked — give the nights an air of surrealism. Well, that and the dreams that always wait to ambush me, the moment my head touches his pillows. Repositories of lost ideas, leaked away in the night?
Three boys skateboarding on the sidewalk, loose and languid, carelessly taking hits on smuggled cigarettes, acting like they didn't hate the taste or the sickly sweet tickle in the lungs. Sticking together, camaraderie bolstering adolescent bravado, when a shopkeeper comes out to yell, shoo them away. But they leave anyway, the leaf-dappled autumn air clearing the noise and the acrid stink of their presence, erasing the memory of their ghosts. The ghosts of memory? Whose memory?
I recognize the place, of course, once daylight blinks order out of the chaos of dreams. Recognize the shop, and the shopkeeper, the faded kites fluttering like hapless birds above the weather-worn wooden lintel, the crooked shadows of the ancient apple trees, crabbed and stingy with their mealy fruit. But I do not recognize the boys, transplanted into an otherwise ordinary scene in the small town I am currently calling home... as if sleeping with the community’s most famous resident earns me the right to consider myself a local. At least I’m not a tourist, squabbling like summer gulls to the ice cream shop, buying cheap Chinese gewgaws and leaving gum on the sidewalk, gabble in their wake.
That afternoon I buy yarn from the funky little knit shop, a dark and wood-stained relic held over from the beatnik days of yesteryear, filled with bright soft colors that make my fingers twitch, remembering the smooth steel weight of the crochet hook. I can almost see summer rustling past, limned in the clear ghostlight of fall. The world turns, and I turn with it. I can feel cold weather nesting on the horizon.
Just after sunset, Rick takes me to supper in his favorite down-at-heels haunt, aging not so much gracefully as familiarly. It's cozy, I'd said, looking around in surprise at the spot he'd picked for our first date. He'd laughed, but I had been sincere; it had the comfortable worn-out face of everyone’s grandma, spoiling her grandkids from her midcentury kitchen. Nothing changes here, he'd told me then. Old thoughts don't get lost. I'd asked him if that made the stories easier to hear, and he had turned a look of astonishment on me, finally understanding that I understood. I think that moment is when he stopped humoring a much younger reader, awestruck at his mighty humility, and began cultivating a fellow writer. As well as courting a woman he now considered seriously. He'd taken me home that night, and I'd never left.
We walk back to the house in the gloaming, eyes watchful, spinning in our own skirling thoughts. After wine and talk that winds down into gentle lovemaking and satisfied sleep, I am wakeful, the sweat drying on my skin, muscles pinging. I can feel the dreams hovering, waiting in the wings, the way unspoken things glint in the corners of eyes in this shuttered little town. I have always been aware of some terrible tragedy haunting this place, and have always resented that I could share in the sorrow, but not the secret. I open the window, hoping the night air will bring clarity, but autumn, consumed by wanderlust, has other ideas.
I cannot stay another autumn, she said, her once free-spirited bohemian beauty brittle as straw, trappings now tawdry, trite. Our starving artist days of bread-and-roses are over. You've changed.
You haven't; that's the problem, I thought but did not say. Success had brought me a margin for error, a modicum of comfort; now I knew what it was taking away. Autumn was chill that year. Dry leaves crackled past.
I will send for James when I am settled, she said, and I knew she wanted wings unclipped, as they were in the halcyon days when we first met. But time does not unwrite itself; stability never came, and she never returned, lost in the desiderata of a story I never read. All that colorless winter waiting, the rushing waters of life held tight in the stored silence of deep snow.
Where had I seen that woman before? I was late in bed, the rumpled sheets abandoned by an obviously restless sleep, September sunlight wan and stingingly bright. I could hear Rick in the shower, but he wasn't singing as he usually did, his silence telling me more than words could have conveyed. She was someone from his life, from the past, and I knew without thinking that I'd seen through his eyes in the dream. James. That name again. Who was he to them? Who was she?
I share none of this with Rick, who has regained some measure of studied equanimity by the time I call breakfast, lazy scrambled eggs and toast, with too much fresh-roasted coffee. He is off to a reading mid morning; I am at loose ends, ostensibly working on my novel... but the dreams have deeply intruded on my consciousness, leaving train tracks across my half-gestated story. I give in and wander the cracked sidewalks aimlessly, exchanging insincere greetings and gossip with the locals, picking through the end-of-summer sales.
It is the rattle of leaves that draws my attention through the open shop door. Three boys, shouting incomprehensibly to each other, run past the end of the cobblestoned alleyway. They are summer-browned, skinny, shirtless, uncut hair flying... I start, recognizing them from the dream. Abandoning my collected items, I hasten after them, but dry leaves skitter in empty concrete lots when I turn the corner. Clouds scud across the bright sun, leaving me in sudden chill and doubt. Turning back, I see the shopkeeper beneath his tattered kites, watching me. He turns away, goes back inside.
Time writes the story of the year. I watch for the summer boys, surreptitiously, working only cursorily on my novel, begrudging the division of my attention. Warm weather skirts yield to sweaters and scarves, colorful as the falling leaves; I spend a rainy Saturday when Rick is out of town perusing moss-covered headstones in the ancient and crumbling lichyard. Inside the chapel, wet and steaming as I close my umbrella, the air tastes of mold, guilt and puritanical bitterness. Finding no answers, I go home and drink tea, staring at nothing.
That night, I see the boys swinging in the branches above the overgrown river. It is too cold for them to be swimming, but not for dares; the trees creak in titillating promised betrayal. I open my mouth to call out, but no sound comes forth; waking in a cold sweat, I know there is something wrong with the water, something urgent. Its importance lost with the fleeting dream, I tangle my fingers in my hair in frustration. Outside the window, the sun rises on woods transformed by the winter's first snowfall. I know it will not stay, this early in the season.
Rick is beginning to suspect stagnation in my writing. Jokingly, he offers to take me on a book-signing tour, telling me envy of the glamor will kick my ass into gear. I give the obligatory laugh, but my mind is elsewhere; he has shouted for James every night that week. Bundling up against the snow, already drifted in the hollows and dells, I tell him I am going trekking after inspiration.
Following the long fingerling shadows, the bare trees writing forgotten histories on the sanded parchment of fresh powder, my feet return me to the chapel. It is full, having just hosted another tired, cranky congregation in the stubborn repeat of a service they derive no meaning from any longer. Several parishioners, on endless loop, speak with the local pastor. I start, seeing him; where have I met him before? Not in town, I could swear... he is a frumpy, white-haired old man with an air of artificial gentleness that I somehow find sinister. Watching him from the shadows of the chapel foyer, I see the still-swollen river slide past through the window behind the man’s head, slick and black as deception. I shiver, then realize the pastor is looking at me, a keenness in his contemplation at odds with his projected persona; feeling menaced, I duck the disapproving stares of the townsfolk and leave. The image of the river quickens my steps, and follows me all the way back to the stomped snow on the front porch, where Rick has dropped one of his numberless collected pens. I pick it up; it says something about Waterford on it. It bleeds ink into the dirty snow as I drop it again.
I am dreaming. I know this, but my feet carry me ceaselessly along the snowy track, another of the helpless searchers. James! I am calling. Echoes of other calls, other footsteps crunching through the woods, obscuring any answers... but I am drawn to the water’s edge, feeling the slick dark current tugging me like a marionette. It is repugnant, radiating chill; cold bites my feet, stings my skin. Against the dirty, half-melted ice along the back, a figure is outlined and I rear back in shock, knowing who I will see when he turns, knowing he will turn, knowing I am unprepared for the malice and self-loathing on his face, knowing it will be there. No... James... I whisper.
Rick wakes me. He is visibly shaking, his careful facade shattered, untethered agony in his eyes. He is wearing a coat and a hat... I am wet. Freezing. Kneeling on the broken riverbank, inches from the water. I open my mouth to cry, but no sound comes, no breath, no tears. And so I point, into the dark spill of water, the deadly slick that carries all away from this closed place, keeping its secrets...
James, he mouths, and I only nod.
The next day, the bodies are pulled from the river... what is left of them, after so many years. There are three, as I knew there would be. They are held down in coffers from the chapel, heavy stones placed carefully in the sturdy iron boxes, like tokens of remorse, coins dropped down the well of memory, wishing for a different outcome. And with the violation of the river’s silence, the town’s secrets are blown far and wide, torn apart in ugly gossip-mongering against which no shutters can hold. I pity them for their lost dignity, but do not stand with them in solidarity. I am not of them. I broke the silence asunder, damning myself a pariah... but bearing it for the salvation I carried home to Rick.
The confession is neatly printed, secured upon the pastor’s body, rejected by the river that once served him, given up to strangling tangled roots. By the time the furor is over, the funeral is quietly dispensed with, Rick leaving a token of love to weigh down the long-delayed grave of his son. He never asks me how I knew. I cannot tell him; the river took my voice.
In January, I dream of the summer boys again, but this time I know I am myself, Rick standing easily at my side. The car is open, all the doors wide to the warm weather; the boys are using it as a fort, and we laugh together. But James stops, and solemnly hands me a note, which begs me to let him simply be dead, no preamble, no reasons given. I nod, thinking I understand. When I wake with the note crumpled in my hand, I am the one crying.
I no longer pretend New England is home, having returned to the inclusive non-belonging of the big city, over the exclusive non-belonging I pretended didn't affect me. Rick and I are working on our second year, the new, tacit understanding between us still bleeding along the edges. But we have margin notes, now, to share, even if our work-in-progress doesn’t yet have a title. Most of my best stories start slow, he told me last time I left, ruffling my hair affectionately. He knew I hated it, but loved that there was space between us for such gestures, air let in through an open window after the book of James was finally closed.
I am looking forward to spring.