Mar '03 [Home]
by Mark Nickels
When you read this part, my dove, I will hear one of your low, foggy guffaws.
If the year were Nineteen Ought Seven and high summer, you might notice two men making their way along this road. One is taller than the other, by half a foot. Let us assume we don't know where they are at the moment, because neither do they! Their exact coordinates are often the source of lengthy and tedious argument. They may be nearest Clarion or Advance, between Tower or Rondo or Stittsville or Wildwood, most one-horse towns and without post offices. One carries a satchel made of carpet material, and the shorter of the two a mere canvas sack, lumpy, with a drawstring he has fastened somewhere to himself. He has closely cropped light hair and a handlebar mustache of the same wheat color, and is notably handsome, bearing a high, arched nose that comes to a point. When excited, his nostrils dilate as though to let in the quick world. Stocky, he sports an ivory derby he's very tender with, and a white shirt without collar, buttoned at the top. Bowlegged, manifestly ready, his gray eyes jerk over the landscape as though expecting to spot someone or something fantastically crucial at any moment. From time to time, he will break his quick bobbing step and neatly revolve around on one leg, a military about-face, and look far down the way behind him, his hand level at his brow. There, a pool of gray haze jitters in its dip in the road.
The taller of the two is well-knit, his dark hair hat-matted. He has fine large arms, legs and hands, but his face, by his own assessment, does not come up to the rest of me. It is drear, forgettable, with a shy chin, an ordinary large nose and rather small, dark eyes. His clothes aren't noteworthy either: a work shirt with the sleeves rolled, made fast with a knotted, limp bow tie, dungarees with streaks of wood-ash on the thighs and high-laced boots. You might guess from his bleared appearance that it was drink that has mashed together the contours of his face into an exhausted sourness, and you would not be wrong. Both have half-moons of perspiration under their arms and full moons in the middle of their backs, but the smaller one is without question the cooler and neater and more capable looking of the pair. (This is not always as it seems, because he runs on a narrower track. Remove him from that and set him down on another and he can't be got to start.) His name is DeKirk, and the big one is named Tilden, and they're sawyers, which is to say that after the tree is felled they lop off the branches. Still, each of them has done nearly every job in the camps, at one time or another.
Though the conversation often flags near the end of a long meander, they've one commonality when all others have played out; when the cards have become dull and the bottle of rye drained, the skillet sanded and bagged.
Each of them, for not more than seven years between them, was married to the same woman.
That would be you.
With bats looping and curious in the thinning twilight they talk about her, her sharpness, the fathomless blackness of her eyes, her feet with their rind of callus at the heel. They go on about her dissimilarity to her photographs, the latest theme, how in her photos and snaps she was nothing, but in person, etc. In this way, they keep the pain of their loss moist, a red wound without scab.
They have been beating on each other for some months now, though neither can tell the cause, exactly. Once or twice there was a dispute about the ownership of some trinket. I was told it was the county fair postcard of a damsel who much resembled you costumed as an ear of corn. Again, it was a ceramic whippet dog doll from the same fair given by one to the other in an unsober moment, then retracted the next afternoon after the post-luncheon nap in a field of short, chiming poplar. But they scrabble and make up regularly, leaving some few even to suggest, leeringly, that the pair are sweethearts. One Judge Mayne of Charlevoix, of unusual perspicacity and in closed quarters, divined the nature of the case. He suggested that the two would likely get over the woman faster if they were away from each other, and put a legal ban on their association. Both, with hangovers, gouged and cleaved by the other in the god-fearing street the night before, nodded obediently. They sadly agreed the Judge was right, but met up again within two spring days, pretending their reunion was but chance. Each followed an invisible, corded root back to the only person who would discuss Gertrude DeKirk Tilden McKee at length and in detail. Even the most sympathetic—and there were few enough of them in the first place—had long since grown tired of hearing about it.
So every time DeKirk and Tilden signed on with a new outfit they stalked the wanagans or the row of shanties silent and stomach-knotted, nearsightedly casing the bobbing heads, at least the ones afloat on skirts, for the one they most feared and longed to see. But always the heads were not dark enough, or the tresses copious enough, nor the eyes as black and large, or the cheekbones high enough over the generous curve of the jawline like the curve of a starling's belly. They'd both exhale when they realized this, with something like relief. Now, there's some disappointment in the ointment, Tilden would say. DeKirk would at once begin to shake hands, as correct and stiffly affable as an alderman, or attempt to roughhouse someone he knew from another camp. Tilden would follow suit, sulking, but the lumbermen so singled out were always wary and guarded, ready with an excuse to slink away.
DeKirk was not a sensitive man, except perhaps about subjects bearing on personal cleanliness. He drew no conclusions from this treatment. For this equanimity he got more respect than Tilden, if not warmth. Tilden was wounded by every rebuff or off-putting. He would rehash the incident for days, with never more than a shrug from his compañero, who looked at him impassively, through transparent lashes. He was mistaken on the causes anyway, assuming that everyone thought him guilty of ill treatment of his former wife, a scenario that, closely imagined, would have doubled over with helpless mirth anyone who knew the story. He guessed his shortcomings the subject of broadcast all over the Lower Peninsula and even into the Upper, when the Straits were frozen over, his story borne over the ice by wolves or the odd moose. Staggering on apple jack as a stripling he had somehow passed over the tutelary events where one figures out that everyone is more or less concerned with the wart on their own nose and doesn't bother much about yours.
Gertie, in your absence the radio set given me by your kin Walter has taught me to like hillbilly music. At present, I am listening to I'm Going To Take a Trip In That Old Gospel Ship.
If too much fault you find, you will sure be left behind
While I'm saaaaailing in the air.
(Mark Nickels's poetry collection is Cicada from Rattapallax Press. He won this year's Ann Stanford Prize and was a finalist in the 2002 Lyric Recovery Festival competition at Carnegie's Weill Hall. Sumac is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn.)