Fall 1996, Volume 13.3
Walking Out with Syd
Robert Olmstead was born and raised in New Hampshire on a dairy farm not far from the banks of the Connecticut River. It's a landscape which informs much of his fiction—and his characters more often than not seem a part of the landscape or in revolt against it. Prior to attending Syracuse University's graduate program in creative writing, where he studied with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, Olmstead worked as farmer, dish washer, house painter, laborer, rodbuster, butcher, road crew, cotton mill employee, carpenter, roofer, contractor and English teacher. He is an accomplished writer and has published numerous books. Read an interview with Robert Olmstead published in this edition of Weber Studies.
I leash up Syd and we go for a walk.
This is our time to do such a thing, but time now gone dark, because time has been changed. Sunrise, sunset, the waking time, the sleeping time and the walking time are all come an hour later with the turning back of the clocks in the recovery of what was given up in the spring. This is daylight savings time at the seventy-seventh meridian, October 30th.
It goes like this: Spring ahead and fall back. It's a way I learned to remember, like a gallon of water weighs eight pounds the world around, like within the word homes are the initials of the Great Lakes.
Me and Syd. We walk right off Sunset Drive and go up McLand, the slow hill past the Bretz's house. Syd is a bird dog, an English Setter. She is sixteen months old and when she is sniffing, she sounds like a one lung pump, chuffing away at the scents carried in the air. On the end of her leash, she quarters back and forth, back and forth. She's like taking a kite for a walk, or maybe a fish. It's like you have a strong fish on a line and you are following it down the creek through the cress beds, from bank to bank and it is swimming the water like how a kite swims the air and you are wading after it. Sometimes we walk in the forest, but not tonight.
She is this way: A few months ago, from the gun cabinet, I took out two pistols and a rifle, all three .22 caliber and a fourth gun, a black powder .44 Civil War reproduction. She sat back on her haunches and watched me do it. She tilted her head, blinked her sweet hazel eyes, got that inquisitive side to side look about her. She is truly smart's a whip and this is her habit, one I truly admire, the habit of sitting back and wondering on a situation not of her ken.
Then I took out a shotgun, a .12 gauge Winchester pump. Her eyes flashed, and something like liquid passion and the kick of fate went to fire inside her. She hied up on her hind legs and spun in place. Though young, she has pointed enough pheasant to know what a shotgun means. It means we are going pheasant hunting.
She tore about the house, making a circuit of the hallway and living room, ricocheted off the couch, got to the front door and began to shudder with anticipation, tail thumping, barking, feet skittering in place. She loves to hunt. He nose can tell pheasant, quail. Can separate fur from feather. Can tell live bird, dead bird and if not kept in check, she'd hunt until she harmed herself and another thing, she knows between guns better than most people, is discriminate about one if not the other.
We pass by the water tower, the houses of our other neighbors, people whose names I do not know, a young couple who mows their lawn a lot and washes their cars in the driveway, another house where often I have seen a young boy shooting hoops but his driveway slopes down to the street, so to practice dribbling, or to lose hold of the ball, this means a direction of some kind that is predictable and troublesome… Neighbor with new poured concrete driveway thick as a shop floor, neighbor with a mailbox that is a fountain… These are my neighbors whom I do not know and that is okay. If anyone needed help, I would help, but you don't have to know someone to do that.
That night of the guns I explained to Syd as patiently as possible that we weren't going hunting and that I was trading those guns in on a new shotgun. I took her face in my hands and explained this to her, but she didn't understand. She got to running around again and pleading with me to take her.
"No," I said, as I loaded the guns in the truck. "You can't come with me."
I was losing my patience because she was making such a show of her desire.
She knew she didn't like what was shaping up, began barking at the screen door, barking, desperate and indignant. It was clear to me that for all her ability, she only knows what she knows.
At the graveyard, I stop to admire the afterwards of the gone sun. Beyond the faraway tree line is like fire, the paint of flames in the sky. Or a bruise. The sky looks bruised and here and there is the seep of blood. Syd doesn't care. She's sniffing the road, sniffing the grass, sniffing the curb, sniffing the air, sniffing the gravestones. She smells more than I can see. I make her sit and she is so impatient but she stays put anyways, her eyes wet and glowing and then I unleash her. She tenses and waits and goes on my command, fifteen, twenty feet and then she stops and locks up, closes her eyes and silently browses the air like sweetness itself, like I am her and the air is a lady and we are in love. I got to laugh, thinking about wine-tasters, their talent and training and their acts of tasting the wine. It's a good thing that wine isn't a fast sort of being, something that flies or swims, something capable of squirreling itself away in the blink of a space, or even a lady as far as that goes. In their performance, those wine-tasters would be left thirsty and sober and filled with want for the memory of the single taste they spit away.
Last night I dreamt where I lived in a white house that was not my own and I came home to that house with a bag of groceries and passed by the other people who lived there and went up the stairs to my room and sat in the dark, my groceries on the table. I sat there in the dark wearing my coat, staring out the window and felt as alone as I ever have in a dream. It was a good one to wake up from, but not one that I could forget.
I think about another Sunday and my blood goes cold at the bone, a Sunday, a morning, dawning bright and cloudless, one with more light and warmth than this Sunday. That warmth and light come an hour quicker on a July morning in 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho. Ernest Hemingway came out of what passed for sleep to hold a double-barreled Boss shotgun against his forehead just above his eyebrows and tripped both triggers. See him now: He's standing in the front foyer, wearing a red robe. Early morning sunlight pools on the living-room floor. His entire cranial vault is blown away. Blaine County Coroner Ray McGoldrick will file a certificate stating that Ernest Hemingway died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the head. Most everyone knows this story. It is a fact, sometimes we kill ourselves and we've been this way for a long time.
Sometimes though, it's accidental, like the boy I rode the bus with when I was a kid. He accidentally shot his little sister.
Way off is the quarry. They are taking away a mountain under bare white lights, way off like a moon town. The lights are unmistakable. They are work lights and underneath them the way off trucks lumber to and fro, passing from one pool of light to another, crossing the double baths of light where they overlap like water, leaving no edge, no line, no mark. Passing through light is no big deal, it's the passing from darkness to light, light to darkness where we are left changed. Like animals living at the edge of cover, crossing to forage, crossing back for safety. To make this crossing from day to night, night to day is to survive the small fears of lifetime.
I duck behind a tall stone, get down on the ground and whistle up Syd. She hears me but can't find me and this scares her. It's training. It's to teach her not to get out of sight of me. She works her way back, finds me and jumps on my head for playing a trick on her. She nips at my hair and gives it a tug, takes off again when I give her the go.
When Cindy and I lived in upstate New York, there was a lot of dying: two fathers, two grandmothers, a grandfather, a best friend, the daughter of a best friend… the young boy who lived down the road from our farm.
It was a winter night and I was up late at the kitchen table, reading a book and having a drink when the police pulled in. My first thought was that I had done something wrong, thought they were coming for me, but it wasn't about me at all. The boy down the road was missing and would I look in my barn?
Yes, I'll look, I said and at first was not sure if I wanted to find him or not. I'd just come from the barn and hadn't seen him, so it'd mean he wasn't to be found in any easy sort of way. I turned on the lights and walked through, checked between the animals, climbed the mow, feeling my courage, thinking, I'd find him if I could. I wanted to find him if I could, because about that time I had just become a father and knew what it meant to have a child, but he wasn't there in my barn, just six heifers and a pair of steers. I shook out some hay and told the police he wasn't in my barn and that I would take a walk around my property to look for him and they left and so that night I tramped through the woods with a lantern, helping to look for the missing boy.
The next morning he was found dead in a different barn where he had hung himself. They said the kids at school had been picking on him. He had blonde hair almost white and was kind of an odd kid, but well within normal. One time he asked me for work, but I told him, no, I didn't need any help, which was true, but also he was a smoker, not something you want around your barns.
At that house we bought in upstate New York was a place on the front lawn, a bare patch of ground, a small rectangle where the grass never grew. We were told by our egg man it was where a child had been buried a hundred years ago and the grass never grew back.
Never would, he said, like he wasn't just a man who raised chickens and collected up their eggs and drove around selling them out of a truck, but like he was someone who knew things small and dependable.
Then Cindy's father killed himself and my grandfather died of the cancer and then her grandmother died of age and then my father froze to death and then my best friend died in the mountains in Utah and then the daughter of a best friend was found beaten and killed in an alley in Houston and by then my own daughter was three-years-old and it all made me so angry I wanted to go down to Houston and kill enough people until the odds were I'd killed the ones who did it. Then for none of those reasons we moved here to this place where I have come to know people the way I am able to know them and down here in Pennsylvania is where our second daughter was born.
There is the moon, like a sip of milk left in a cup. It's smooth and crescent shaped. There is the moon high and to my left and the quarry way off small and lit bare and the wash of angry bruised light the sun has painted onto the sky behind the tree line way off and below me and to my right in the west. I whistle and Syd burns up the ground to come pant at my feet, her tongue pink and lolling in the darkness, the world gone silent and then a spirit of wind and a flag pole makes a cold nicking sound.
"Go git 'em," I say and she sparks again, ignites and burns the ground. She runs out twenty feet and I follow. She quarters between and amongst the headstones. I think she will run her head into one, but she hasn't yet.
"Hup!" I say as I change direction and she heels over like something sleek and stainless and waterbourne and is quartering in front of me again. Sometimes she is not so good. Sometimes she goes off on a lark, all reckless and curious, a beeline as if she were shot forth from a bow. I will whistle her in and I can see her tuck her head to the whistle as if to say, I am wrong to do this and I know it, but I cannot help myself.
The guns I traded that day were a Ruger .22 caliber pistol, a .22 caliber Iver Johnson pistol, a .12 gauge Winchester shotgun, a Marlin .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle, a .44 caliber black powder reproduction pistol and five boxes of buckshot. I used the rifle to shoot rats at the dump. There aren't anymore dumps, but still a lot of rats. Also I shot woodchucks and put down hogs for slaughter and shot my malamute when she was about dead from disease and old age. The Ruger was for plinking tin cans. One day I stood up a sheet of plywood and from a distance, shot the eye out of aerosol paint cans and watched them spray its surface. The Iver Johnson is a boot gun and I carried it for a few years after I received some strange mail and after almost getting run off the road one night. The .44 black powder was given to me by someone who now lives in Hawaii. I never shot it. The Winchester, the story of that gun I'd rather not tell. Just to say it too was never fired and didn't have to do with me so much as someone else. I traded those guns in on a Ruger Red Label .20 gauge, the nicest shot gun I have ever owned.
There come points of soft light from the mountain, South Mountain. Like fire flies, spotlights make small brightnesses and sweeps, the men and boys, maybe together, or alone, or with a six pack and their sweetest sweetheart, are spotting deer, like hunting and fishing with light. They'll find heads and glance them with whiteness, touch their heads and count the points. They'll say they are finding the deer they want to shoot come a month, but I think it is to be out at night and stab at the darkness, to open it up like a spreading of the hands and letting it pour back in again at the flip of a switch. The light is to lay down the memory of the day.
I find the grave I have been looking for, a boy who was loved and who died last year in a car wreck. This boy's grave is like the Wall in D.C. People come to leave flowers, and gourds, prayers and cigarettes, photos, letters, cards and poetry, an empty cassette, some sealed in plastic bags. I wonder if the sealing up like that was an after thought, to bag up the letters and poems. Why and for whom? To leave your small messages of love and loyalty and anguish and pain on the cold black stone sealed in a plastic bag. I bend down and see what has been left since last I was there. Syd is jaunting about, circling closer to see what occupies me. I take out my note pad and add to the list: an unsmoked Marlboro Red, a key chain, an empty locket, a card from a girl… like I am a grave robber, but I want them written down so to remember.
The train is coming off my left hand. I can hear it in the west. Every time I hear that train I remember my last dog because that train was what cut her in half. That dog didn't know shit about trains, thought she could catch one. Her name was Rayme and when my daughter suggested it as a name I should have know better, but I let it ride because I was told it was the name of a character in a Beverly Cleary novel, but I know of another Rayme from a Jayne Anne Phillips's short story, a character whose life was not good. Children, or children-like people should not be allowed to name. It is no fault of theirs. They don't know all about names and how they mean. I named Sydney for a woman I admire, gave it to her because it would have been the name of my next daughter if I'd had one. My first daughter is named Molly and my second daughter is named Emily, both are names that hold small good things and both names end in-y. I like a name that ends in -y or -ie. Rayme was an odd name because it was the sound of -y, or -ie, but not either. It was a name of almost promise and the name of a character I knew whose life I would not want to have. I do not know about the other Rayme. She might have had a good life, but it's like Judas. You wouldn't name your kid Judas, or even Jesus as far as that goes.
So here I light a cigarette and sit with my back against a stone. There is a constant refrain from those who talk on the lives of writers and artists who are suicides. It is about romance and sympathy, pluckiness: the work kept them alive and it was through writing they survived. But sometimes I think it's the work that kills you. Maybe writing is dangerous work. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse. Maybe she should not have been writing.
It takes a lot of time alone and maybe it is the solitude, the isolation. Maybe it just gets so unrelenting. It wears you down and you can't face the effort of the journey to the bone, the journey between the real world and the created world. We can comprehend the dread there is in the darkness of the soul but how long to endure it? We harm others, but we do more harm to ourselves. We are a violent people and disposed most violently toward ourselves. Maybe writing is dangerous work. I prefer to smoke in the cold. It reminds me of when I was a kid and there would be deep snow and the world gone blue in the early morning and I'd drive the tractor and spreader off the meadow. Syd comes by to see what I am doing. I prefer to hunt birds with Chris, Jay, Bill, Ashley and Cindy.
I have thoughts like: What if I had a terminal illness? And I could get around. I'm smart enough to know how to dress to get into places You hear: better to be judged by twelve than carried by six. You hear: shoot 'em all and tell your own story. The other day I heard about a poet who shot himself in the head three times.
Another writer: Breece D'J Pancake. He only wrote a few stories and on a night in 1979 he killed himself at age twenty-six. He'd been drinking that night and for some reason gone into the home of a family near his house and sat in the dark until they returned. When he made a noise they became frightened and thought he was a burglar. He ran back to his own place, took out one of his shotguns and blew his head off.
I take it that he wanted to be found, wanted someone to come and get him. We've all had that feeling before. It's like hide and seek: find me, find me and then when he was found, came the shock and surprise of being found, of being discovered. How will I be taken care of this time? Will I be saved and be safe?
Always: There is the sense of imminence and dread. To see what is as being distant and as way off as the quarry, a small stone cold place where sand and lime and rock travel back and forth and I do not know if this is mine own place like everyone has their own place, or if I am strange and a danger.
Breece was a writer who haunted me for some years. My own work had been compared to his and so I avoided reading him until finally last year I received a copy of his book from my editor in England, a strange, roundabout way to have the book come into my life. My editor didn't know I'd been wondering about this writer for ten years and I told him so in a long letter about change and coincidence. I read the stories and could only think how high the price they extracted. Later that year, I received news that my editor killed himself.
Some nights there are hounds on the mountain. They do not run silent. And the sound of gunshots, loud and echoing cross the valley. Not small caliber snaps, but shots to make you wonder what a man or woman would be firing on in the darkness.
I have a license to carry a concealed weapon. The bottom half of the application form asks several questions: Is your character and reputation such that you would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety? Have you ever been committed to a mental institution? Are you a habitual drunkard? Are you an alien illegally in the United States? Are you a fugitive from justice? Are you of sound mind? Each question must be answered with a yes or a no. I wonder if this is what it's really about? Are you of sound mind and do you trust that I am too? Yes, or no?
I see a red wagon with a kid in it. A man is pulling the wagon and a woman follows behind. They are on the road at the edge of the graveyard. The kid in the wagon has a penlight, but it's the kind of light that only draws attention to itself. Syd sees them too and runs their way. I follow close behind, calling out her name, but she won't come back until she has sniffed them.
"Dog bite?" the man says.
"No," I say and they pass by in front of me while I wait on Syd for the walk home. I wait a minute or two and move out of the graveyard a back way onto a cul de sac. The people with the wagon are there too, walking off at another angle. I still can't see who they are and I trust they can't see me.
"Nice dog," the man says.
"Yes, she is," I say.
And then this happens: I smell something new, like chlorine coming from the water tower or a pool, and I remember a job I had one time where I had to chlorinate lake water so to purify it and from somewhere else, I hear a siren and in the way off I can see the red lights in the blue night like candy and the moon is as thin as gold leaf. I light a cigarette and taste the smoke, drink it into my lungs and feel off in the direction of tranquility, more at ease than I can remember, more at ease than after pain or joy, more than when I was a boy and lit the candles and knelt for communion. I feel a hand on my heart, all the hands that have ever touched it and I feel how clean my bones must be and I think, it's not the absence of pain, but peace.
I think about a place where someday we'll all live behind a high steel fence, glinting in the sun, green with summer vine, going blue with the moonlight, blue in the nightly snowfields.
I whistle in my dog and I leash her up. I pet her down, listen to her breathe and tell her she is a pretty girl and the two of us begin to walk, joined together by the leash. She is a kite again, a fish, a bird on a string and as she quarters on the leash, I think how my hand moves back and forth like I am painting the sky and if I were to think on her mind, I'd think she knows nothing of time, nothing of day or night. She only knows to hunt and sleep and eat and love and together and one more time, we walk out of that graveyard in the full dark of the night.