The Longing of Men (fiction)

In the water, the rocks were a dozen colors, ochre to a bruised orange, purple to brick, dusky green to leaden blue, moss-tinged yellows—and all these eclipsed with flashes of sky ricocheting off the surface. These boulders and stones were mostly oval, curved like parts of the body: hands clasped, or hips, some long like the tops of thighs, and all of them smooth as the shoulders of young women. The water was clear and cold, and it blended the edges where the stones met, softened and kneaded their joining, magnified a continuously altering translucence, the same restless light that agates capture and imprison. 

She broke off her mind’s immersion in the water and went on along the path, this trail she walked every day. Her grandfather had chosen this ground on Picket Pin Creek. He was a homestead locater, one who took a fee to find the right place for the people who came west to settle. He had to have thought the place he kept for himself was the best in the valley, a quarter section with rolling hills, potholes, and a spring-water slough that never froze in winter. Years later, he had to sell half to survive the Thirties, and then her brother, who ended up with sixty acres to farm and ranch, sold his ground in 1992 and moved to Oregon. That left her with the old house they grew up in, the barn, chicken coop, and pump house, and the last twenty acres. The state had already bought the rest of the surrounding bottomland, so the creek and stream-lining woods were safe from development. 

What her grandfather saw in this place when he picked it managed to withstand the swift forces of immigration’s clutter as they advanced across the rest of the valley: power lines, roads and railroads, fences and cultivated fields, junker trucks and fist-shaped motors hanging from tripods, and the speckle of yard lights at night. She considered this supposed progress toward a better world a misguided exchange. 

At this stage of her life, she was getting pretty good at putting her finger on what mattered. At the moment, dying well was a priority. The approach of her vanishing wouldn’t change any one clear-eyed perspective of what a mortal life has to be, given that everybody was in the business of it. Certain practicalities figured, however, the closer one got. Financial decisions, that perennial headache, didn’t count for much anymore. Political brouhahas lost their urgency and seemed more like the endless bickering of birds. New snow tires in the fall? Not really a concern. She needn’t dole out drops of that expensive balsamic vinegar forever—splash on a little more.

These ruminations took on a new fascination with all the unsplendid distractions having weeded themselves out. Each night, when she got into bed, she was overtaken with the impulse to imagine herself absorbed into the cosmos, either at rest or not at anything, her atoms dissipated into those of the bed, the walls, the garden and the trees, the stream and the woods. At first, she wanted to imagine a resonance there, a kind of quivering participation, but then she thought it best to dispense with that too, forsake all human hope, and try to get as close as possible to identifying with the absolute stillness of a stone. This seemed like the right exercise before going to sleep, before the world of moments raced back in, trailing its enumeration of concerns, the stuff she still had to throw away: the stuff of her husband, Bill—gone now but still there for wondering over; of Robert, her son, and his pending disappointment with what he would inherit; of this place and the conservation easement that nobody but her believed had precedence, so far as obligations went. All was perspective, of course, the different doors and windows everybody looked out. With sleep approaching, it was her habit to follow these broodings down a worn path toward the chores awaiting her the next day, and from there—if she hadn’t slipped away yet—off onto the trail circling the barn and down to the slough where the colors in the water had their way of driving her into a welcome senselessness.

______

If waking was a more sober event these days, with all this fresh certainty, then it was time to see through the big abstractions. Love, for instance: it was more interesting than death as a conundrum, doubly so in death’s shadow. One revelation for her on this matter was that there was no more one kind of love than there was one kind of personality. Moreover, the quality of devotion had nothing to do with its being requited, despite that cliché about how the love you give is the love you get. Because love varies like and often according to personality, what you get back is never the same as what you sent or offered, either in amount or kind. “Don’t even think about reciprocal,” she could warn the young. What a trap, believing that your bushel of love would ever fetch a like bushel of love from the one you’ve chosen. Doesn’t happen—but what does is that the bushel of love you give comes from your own garden; that’s what you grew, and what you give away is also what you get to have. 

The colors in the slough, none of that—nor the rocks nor the stream—cared about her. Bill had cared for her, yes, he did, but not in the same way she cared for him. That was a dandy example of where this reciprocal thing went all wrong. Besides, Bill was dead now, and she was next. 

Everything goes back to the infinite. All the glories of the moment, the crafting all our capacities have funded—all of that vanishes with us. When we finally see that everything we’ve kept, hoarded, and nurtured is gone or no longer matters, then we’re gone, too, and quickly forgotten. The takeaway from all this unremitting goneness is knowing that the love we got was the love we packed around with us, the love we ourselves summoned for all that beauty, for the elaborate creation falling down all around us. 

______

When she spotted the flycatcher carrying nest material, she sat on a cottonwood to watch where the bird went. The nest wasn’t very high, in a chokecherry bush. Threads of shredded bark hung from the crotch. The flycatcher flew to an outpost limb just above and perched there in stillness, the perfect posture for ambush, and displayed that magnificent intention of his. A moth or wasp zipped around crazily in the room-size volume of space between the woman and the bird. The flycatcher’s head shot about like a sped-up movie, as if his beak and the pivot of his skull were tied to the insect. It all looked so involuntary, a kind of convulsive shuddering, as if the bird had had a blast of electricity shot through him, except that it twinned the path of the insect. Then the bird was still again, suddenly half asleep. Or seeming so. We are set upon by what we see, she thought. Set upon by shapes outside of us made to match the shapes inside.

Consider Bill, for instance, with whom she had been just as helpless as the flycatcher. They had their rows, their disappointments with each other, but that never changed how easily his hair would catch her eye. That hair got even more interesting when it was disheveled, black curls with blue highlights tossing their clusters together in haphazard perfection. Images like these braided themselves through the recollections that took precedence now. In one, he’ d returned from a run and flopped down on the lawn in front of her bench near her legs, but not quite enough to touch them. His neck and the cove under one shoulder blade glistened with sweat. He leaned on one braced arm, the muscles below his elbow looking like the backs of fishes. He was still breathing hard, and the sound of that excited her as an expression of certain fitness, of a life involved, plugged into the earth. She touched his shoulder, struck by the certainty that she could not love him more. She could never love anyone more than that. 

Love notwithstanding, she managed her ideal by making allowances for Bill’s shortcomings. This wasn’t an exercise of fantasy; it was more about forgiving. Sometimes she just had to look away, when for instance he was willing to take credit that wasn’t his. Bill had a weakness for needing approval. The first time she took note of it, enough to brood about, happened when he stood in as an advisor for the debate team, one rehearsal only. When that team won state, his side of the family assumed it was by merit of Bill’s influence. When he did nothing to set them straight, she had to swallow her accusation. True, he needed a little more recognition than most, but where was the sustenance in that? She would not be the one to press him on it, even if such passivity might have implicated her in something akin. 

She could throw all that off because there were higher orders of comparison, higher rankings of the heart. Big pieces of their psyches were compatible, latched tightly without any adjusting or fudging needed. When they drove somewhere together, for instance, to a town where they’ d never been, they were taken with the same excitement for exploring, their first goal always a fine meal with a bottle of cabernet while looking out a window they’ d never looked out before. In this, the quality of their companionship was like no other, which of itself proved that whatever flaws marked him subsumed her as well, in the pockets and corners of their souls at least. 

What she did not understand until he was dead was that there were things he’ d done she really hadn’t forgiven, though she assumed she had. Permanent as those stains were, however, they did not diminish her commitment to him and to her memory of what a good couple they had been. Take the last nasty argument they had, a month before he died, when he retrieved their old love letters from the wooden cigar box on the top shelf in the pantry, took them outside, and burned them in the barbecue pit.

“You didn’t ask me before you did that,” she said.

“No.” He spoke as if he had the franchise on truth in his pocket.

“Some of those letters were mine. I wanted to read them again. I mean, they were all mine, as much as yours. Either I wrote them or you wrote them to me.”

“They were embarrassing.”

“I get to make that judgment for myself.”

“Trust me, they would’ve embarrassed you.”

“So you read them.”

“I just glanced at a couple.” He shuddered.

“You have no compassion for our younger selves in a younger kind of love?”

“No, I don’t. It would make anyone blush.”

“Not me. I have empathy for the young people we were once.”

“Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. I think you would’ve gagged.”

“What a cruel thing to say about us.”

“Ripeness is all.”

“That’s glib.”

“I don’t care. I’m still glad they’re gone.”

The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. She had gone to the porch window and watched him where he sat outside. He was at the picnic table, the arrangement of his parts so perfectly true to the template of who he was: the sound of his voice, the length of his fingers (which she never tired of admiring), the way he held his mouth before he spoke—all these signature patterns that owned her no matter how petulant he could be, even when he was wrong, as he so clearly was when he destroyed those letters. If she’ d been willing to force a battle, she had a quiver full of arrows, the first being that it wasn’t any good trying to defend shame. Embarrassment was nothing more than paying too much attention to other opinions. Was there no obligation to compassion, for himself as well as her, for what God or God’s stand-in had messed up with the sin of too much self-awareness? How sad that disdain for the innocence of youth, the early patterns of love that must be traveled and explored to get to whatever place he thought superior. 

______

Before that, there was the quarrel about the land. “The woman from the Land Trust called today,” Bill said, his lips moving slowly, precisely, the way they did when they were grave with accusation.

“Thanks. I’ll call her back.”

“This is about the conservation easement, isn’t it? So you’re still going ahead with it?”

“Yes.” She accepted his gaze and hardened hers with all the defiance she could summon.

“So that’s it. You’ve decided not to leave it to him.” “Him” meaning their son, Robert.

“Don’t word it that way. It’s there for him to keep, but he wouldn’t.”

“It’s not there for him to keep. There’s no way he can keep all twenty acres, pay the taxes, do his child support, the whole bit.”

“No, he’ll sell it to money, for money, and do the things that matter most to him. And the way he’ d do that would be to split it and sell half for enough to retire on the other half. I won’t allow that. It will stay intact. I’ d rather Robert than anybody else be here, but not at the price of subdividing it. You know, in the end, it doesn’t matter enough to Robert.” It was that part of Robert most like Bill.

“You can’t say that. I hope he doesn’t know you believe that.”

“You know there’s a core in all of us, a connecting one, where we all know what we all believe. In those depths, down there under the deepest trench of the ocean, a spirit links us. Most of the time we’ d just rather not know about it.”

“My, aren’t you the clear-seeing sanctimonious one today?”

“Maybe, or maybe I’m just clear on a few things now that we find ourselves here.”

“Now that we find me here, not you.” He scowled.

“Just because we don’t know when for me doesn’t mean I’ll be around that long.” 

His eyes softened. “You’re a hard-headed woman,” he said admiringly.

“And you’re a soft-hearted man.”

“How did we do as well as we did?” he asked, then amended, “if we did do well.”

“We did well enough,” she allowed.

______

There was the night they watched the foreign film about the East German police agent assigned to spy on the theater director and his actress partner. The agent listens in on the couple’s private life to uncover the network of their subversion. Gradually, however, finding himself drawn to them and their cause, the agent destroys evidence as he accumulates it. A suspicious superior officer intrudes by directly threatening the actress and forcing her to implicate her lover, which secondarily reveals the agent’s betrayal as well. In the fallout, the actress kills herself and the agent is punished and demoted. Years later, when the regime falls, the bereft director uses the archives to write a book about these events and about how he was able to piece together the way this mystery agent—one he knows only by a code name—had tried to help him. Meanwhile, the agent, who works as a postman by then, sees the posters for the book on a store window and goes in to buy a copy. When he opens the book, he finds it dedicated to him by way of his old code name. “With gratitude,” the author wrote. The book store clerk asks if the postman wants the book wrapped. “No,” he replies, “it’s for me.”

At this, the movie’s end, she bolted from the living room where they’ d been watching it. “What?” Bill called after. She fled through the kitchen and out the back porch into the snow. She rushed through the yard and across the frozen clods of garden, still fighting to hold back the noise boiling in her. In the brush, gathered into the snow’s hush and the walls of night, she bawled openly. Face up, she let it roll out, sobbing for what seemed a long time. 

She realized later that it wasn’t just the postman and the actress loosing these paroxysms. She was crying for herself, too. 

And for Bill. For the two of them and how they didn’t want to believe in the immense sadness of living, of trying and promising, of betraying themselves nevertheless, then trying and promising again. It had only been a week or two before the movie when Bill had burned those letters. She might’ve denied it then, out there in that winter thicket of chokecherry, that anything in her life or their life together was capable of surprising her so. But some lies shake out like boulders too big to hide.

It’s for me, the postman said. “Yes,” she agreed with him, “and for me. As much as I am capable of accepting.”

The way we love is as varied as the food we eat or the weather we step out into. Those who want to see their own way of loving reflected, mirrored by the one they call beloved, have caged their powers. Those who love most know that their own way of doing it can never be adjusted, focused, or in any way enhanced because it rises full blown and inexhaustible and blind to the mirroring of anything other than its own limitless appetite. If Bill could never disappoint her, it wasn’t because he wasn’t ever negligent. No, it was because she had already made amends for him. This was her love, you see, not theirs. Reciprocal always sounds nice, but it only stirs up doomed expectations. Rating the love you want returned according to the complexity and purity of your own condemns both parties to an adulterated dilution, as in the difference between a single malt and a blended whiskey. (Note to the gods: Thank you for never having blended us. You could do more, though. In your empathy for us, you might intercede when we attempt it upon ourselves.)

______

We adjust our love continually according to the discoveries we become skilled at overlooking. Bill dying was not the same person as Bill living. He told her the two words that he still had to deal with were palliative and hospice. He knew at some point those two representations, adjective and noun, would change from representations of dread to whispers of solace, but the agent of that transformation was going to be pain of some sort. He asked his oncologist if it was going to hurt. It. Going through that door from existence to non-existence . . . was there suffering involved? How would the doctor know, she wondered. There had always been those two elements to Bill’s mind, a kind of explosive and surprising insight wedded to a child’s cluelessness. It. Who on earth would know what It would be like? 

If the pain Bill feared ever came, she couldn’t tell. What did emerge, however, was a crass and ignoble senselessness. His mouth gaped and rattled air in and out. For two days, he did not open his eyes, nor speak nor drink nor do anything but trade noisy volumes of air through his mouth, a great hole of darkness. No one would fault Bill for the ridicule his body and behavior was made to endure. She faulted God. She hoped others would grant her the same allowance, that no one would confuse her own ideas of grace or poise with the raw candor of that last breakdown.

The hospice worker told Bill that nature had no need of pain for that last passage, that pain would serve no biological purpose at this stage. Bill seemed to accept this, probably because by then he’ d already jettisoned his native skepticism; he’ d scaled back his emotional age to that old role of being a good scout. Of course, the question of unnecessary pain floated on naked overhead; if nature had no stake in pain or anguish, other than say yanking a burnt finger away from the flame, why had pain and anguish remained the reliable and ongoing constants of every life on this earth?

______

So much of what she knew about herself old and waning came in comparison to her younger self, to the younger couple they had been. When Bill died, she went through his things sorting what to give away from that to be thrown out. Robert wouldn’t take any of his father’s clothes, so they all went to the Salvation Army. But when she got to Bill’s books and his papers, she couldn’t bring herself to dump them. How do you throw a file folder labeled Important Personal Papers into a black plastic garbage bag, haul it out to the bone pit, and toss it in? 

The bone pit, which looked like a dry well shaft, remained from the days of her grandfather and had, at one time, been used for dumping livestock that had died. After the oncologist told her the tumor had spread to her bones, she went to the bone pit with her own files. Disposing of them was easier than deciding about Bill’s nor were they anything like love letters. The person she’ d been, the one who had saved all that linear detail, had no idea of true time, zero sense for the swift river that ultimately leaves everything behind unsaved and unremembered. If the words and paragraphs she scanned here and there were not ones she’ d completely forgotten, they deserved to be. She gave up sorting and threw away the whole drawer and then the books, autographed or not, that no one else would read. She made eleven trips to the pit with the wheelbarrow. 

Then she returned for Bill’s boxes—the ones she’ d repacked before—and trundled them out. If during most of her life she’ d matured slowly, gradually accreting clarity and perspicacity, this exercise went from trudging to bounding. She was exhilarated to be free of all those self-imposed illusions about having a history, about preserving anything, about ever mattering. When she hoisted the wheelbarrow handles to let boxes fall and bounce into the bone pit, they made sounds like animals getting the wind knocked out of them.

______

The last time she made flan, she and Bill had it with iced coffee. They were at the picnic table under the linden. It was July or August, midmorning, not yet hot, and Bill, holding his spoon aloft, made that sublime expression of his, lips closed but jaw partly open, eyes closed, head tilted back. It was good flan, with his pleasure compounding her own, one of those moments she found herself revisiting. She marveled that these snapshots, so outwardly insignificant, had begun to edge out the big reflections: the landmark events in their lives, the ones embellished to memorialize; or the others, involuntarily saved, that made them wince. Black and white, good and evil—all that meaning, whether intended or dreaded, paled next to flan.

Other memories that resurfaced those days of the endgame often revealed the secrets of other lives in the bottomland. In one, it was fall, and she was walking along the stream when she heard a racket of moving limbs and leaves. Stalking the sound, she came upon a black bear pirating apples from a feral tree. The bear, immersed as he was, did not see her. He was standing on his hind legs and bracing his front paws high on the trunk, then rocking his shoulders, back, and butt to make the tree sway. A half-dozen apples fell. He dropped to his fours, then went from apple to apple, eating them rather delicately. Maybe in the welling stillness he heard her breathe, because abruptly he looked up at her, woofed, and fled.

And there was the day in front of the woodshed when she spied a wasp dragging a large spider. The wasp stashed the spider atop a clump of clover, then darted to the bare dry earth under the roof of the shed, where she cleared away wood chips and began digging. The wasp seemed unperturbed by the large human shape kneeling overhead. Atop the clover, the spider stirred drunkenly. It was not dead, but it had no faculties for escape. By and by, the wasp disappeared into the hole. Pulses of dust and tiny clods shot out, piling neatly. After a quarter hour or so of this, the wasp emerged and darted back to the spider, which she grasped with her mandibles and dragged to the hole. She hauled the spider into the hole, lunging whenever it hung up. Not long after they vanished, the wasp emerged once more and in herky-jerky movements pushed the pile of dirt and dust back in. When the hole was filled, she replaced the wood chips and bits of leaf, until the site looked as it had before. At this, the wasp flew away. She never stopped and surveyed her work. Apparently, she needed no moment of satisfaction for this work so diligent and thorough.

And the spider, poor spider? Was it the spider that needed reflecting upon? Does everything that moves get assigned a role selected simply by chance? Made to be a hero or victim? It was clear the spider huntress had no questions about her role. She was all business. Of course, the very shape of her body might have told you that. Droplets strung together concealing a missile, a lance of poison: this was the shape of a creature incapable of regret, of hesitation, of second thoughts.

______

She didn’t know what to do with Bill’s computer, whether to have the hard disk erased without looking at it or whether to open that door, slip in, and snoop through his private rooms of digital light. For several weeks she left the computer sitting there like a historical landmark. Then one night after dinner, when she had absorbed the unnatural silence with more wine than usual, she turned it, squared herself before the monitor, and waited with a detached fascination for it to boot up. She opened the word processor and went to the directory of his files. Insurance, Medical papers, Finances, Property Taxes, Social Security. Best not erase all of this yet, she thought, her apprehension quickly buffered into boredom, this disappointing burden of the mundane. Then her eye landed on an entry for Notes. She clicked on it. 

Each paragraph, preceded by a date, resembled a journal entry. The first two, the most recent, dealt with the results of his medical scans, his response to them, both of which he’ d already gone over with her. She skipped down to the next entry: 

I have learned long ago to listen and agree with her in an outward way even when I’m not really listening or agreeing. I know now what differences we’ll just never resolve. 

Flushing a little at this, she stopped. Had he intended that she read this? Or had it escaped him, what he meant to erase before his capacities deteriorated? Here be dangers. But she read on: 

It’s probably that way with every couple, where you come to a place and let the differences sleep or nap, whatever they are going to do when you give up both the battle and the hope. The way I see it, we are different bridge pylons, one of us anchored in stone, the other in sand or mud or maybe one of the pylons on shore at the water’s edge. The bridge we hold up crosses the same river, which is always changing with the day and season. The road we connect, going and coming, remains the same. We’re taking on the same muddy high water in spring, the same ice in winter, but we are rooted in different substrates. So how and why what we think has a different sense of both the road and the river, what’s going on at present, what’s before and behind. So when a marriage gets extolled as a good one, a good partnership, that judgment stems mostly from an extrapolation of shared time and experience in the mistaken belief there’s a single identity getting forged, one we can all revere and aspire to. 

Nope, not so, that’s mostly fantasy. Cinderella slippers. In the end, what that sort of extrapolation and sentimental longing gets you are disappointment and, finally, a passive ken for knowing when to keep your mouth shut. In other words, we dress it up nicely and make do.

It ended with that. The next entry was about ambition and how equivocal he was about that. She returned to the entry about them and read it again. He’s right about the pylon-substrate thing, she had to agree, but that’s what made him wrong about the rest of it. He’ d like to believe that learning how to deal with disappointment was a universal, the best formula for handling an imperfect world—an acceptance, this passive ken business. But it seemed to her at that moment a man thing, for most of the important men in her life succumbed to this notion she would call surrendering. Her grandfather sold eighty acres of this place to make it through the Depression; her brother sold another sixty to go somewhere else. Her son would split it again in a second if that made his life easier in any way, and his father would have given the move his blessing. 

She turned off Bill’s computer without exiting and stared at the black monitor. She shook her head. It wasn’t a matter of different truths. Of different ways to skin a cat. Of different strokes for different folks. Some people, mostly men, waste themselves longing. The men in her life anyway. No, you’ve got to go to the well, to the source. What you love is what you keep your eye on. And that’s the trick because what you are isn’t much more than what you think about.

______

In the bottomland, a fir across the water held out one limb like a hand, a blot of darkness, in front of which a crossfire of light quivered with a swarm of gnats. The tiny insects jittered like a spray suspended, contained in an oval lens that widened, then elongated, then widened again, its perimeter trembling but intact. Beneath, the creek’s surface was black and unreflective, but beyond there a swatch of water shone and made her squint. Within the glancing brightness, a log held up its elbowed limbs and waved for help.

 

Jerry McGahan (1943–2016), beekeeper and much else, was the author of the story collection The Deer Walking Upside Down (Schaffner Press, 2015) and the novel A Condor Brings the Sun (1996). His stories and essays were published by the Iowa Review, the Antioch Review, the Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and other literary journals. McGahan passed away with his wife, Janet, by his side in Arlee, Montana, on the land he had loved for almost fifty years.