The pistol goes off and down at the south end five or six women begin to make the turn around the first bend—100-meter dash, he thought, but who can tell on the small, indoor track? Four kids stand in his way as he makes his way to the weight room. They’re talking about quads, making faces, women and men almost indistinguishable in sweats and the equality that sports has created. He tries to get around them and it doesn’t work, so he touches a guy’s shoulder and begs pardon for simply trying to get past. Any other time it might bother him to touch someone, but all these people, all these athletes create such a physical world.
He angles over towards the track where Tom Sturdevant is lining up runners for 400-meter run. Tom says there’s a place for him and points to an empty lane. It’s a joke.
“Not even when I was a kid could I have run 400 meters,” he says.
“How about I give you a break?” Tom says. “I’m an official, Ray. Things can be arranged.”
A half dozen sprinters, still in their lanes, come charging up from around the last curve, and he spots a student of his, maybe the best in his whole class last semester, and he’s amazed that he never guessed she was a runner, an athlete. Small and muscular, she’s eating up the field. She crosses into the inside lane once she and the others come out of the turn, and it’s clear she’s far out in front; and even though he’s a whole track away, he sees that student, the very good one, throw her shoulders back as sprinters do to break a string that wasn’t even there.
Shedding tears had stopped long ago, but when he stands there, surrounded by all that life, he’s angry with himself, and with her, with Carolyn, so angry he can feel it in his face, something he has to hide even though no one is looking at him because it’s as if he isn’t there. And he wonders, just for a moment, whether what she’d done hadn’t robbed him of life, jailing him the way she has. He didn’t realize the girl—the great student—ran track and even did it well, and the fact is he can’t even remember her name. He’s a ghost, a wanderer just like Carolyn, like the babies they’d lost.
“That I’m fighting not to come back,” she wrote him some time later, maybe the third message, same g-mail address, “has to mean that the old life is still part of something in me.” Another morning, months later: “What you are will always be an unfinished story.”
Little else. Everything cryptic, and never—not once—even singularly referring to anything he’d sent her. “I don’t read your notes. It is too painful.”
No calendar, no system to the few e-mails he’d pick up suddenly on his computer. Once, they came twice in the same month—July. That startling frequency gave him hope, and then nothing again until what?--October. Days and nights he’d spend just trying not to think of her, not to remember. “Coping mechanism,” somebody might call it. Call it what you will, he thought, sometimes he wished she’d never be found. In unguarded moments all alone, he’d begun to wonder whether he hated her.
He’s encircled by a crowd he doesn’t know, hundreds of kids whose seemingly reckless sexuality he finds very uncomfortable. He is no one, neither single nor married—no longer a husband, no longer a pastor. He’s adjunct faculty who doesn’t even know his best students.
She’s crippled him in every way, he tells himself.
He ought to be judging track meets. He ought to be shooting the starter’s gun. Like Tom Sturtevant, he ought to helping out, doing something. He ought to be alive.
Roosevelt, out by himself, was hunting in the Badlands no more than a week after arriving from New York, escaping the stranglehold of two horrific deaths. He’d started a campfire, an antelope steak already eaten, then looked down toward a creek bed, where in the half light of full moon, he swore he’d seen his mother and his wife’s spirits as vividly as if they’d actually been there, arms outstretched, as if in water—not as if talking to him either, but to each other. At first, he thought it was his own madness had projected them there.
Yet, their presence, side-by-side, seemed, as verifiable as Manitou, his horse, just a few yards away. Their mouths were moving, but he couldn’t hear the words. It was as if he’d been invited into the next world, where the two of them seemed alive but not anguished. He’d been alone in the Badlands, a place someone once called “hell, with its fires gone out.” But he had no doubt that he’d been given a vision of a moment of the afterlife there on the Little Missouri.
More than once, it happened, and he was sure they were trying to speak to him. He was sure they had something to say.
Sometimes he looked for Carolyn in the darkness of an apartment she’d never seen. Sometimes, after a night class, he wanted her to appear beneath the streetlights, along telephone wires, as he walked home from the campus. Sometimes on Sundays he thought to find her in the cottonwoods. At least Teddy had seen Alice.
Carolyn left behind a handwritten note stuck beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. She’d contact him once she got somewhere. “Somewhere,” the note said, “somewhere I haven’t determined yet.” A magnet held down the note, John 3:16 printed in a rounded style that made it look like a child’s handwriting.
“Faith is all I have,” she told him once in a e-mail. “But it’s not like it once was—faith I mean. It’s not like it was at all, but it’s all I have to believe in.”
That was the only note he’d ever shown anyone—a friend of theirs who did family therapy. “Is this depression?” he asked her.
She’d shrugged her shoulders, smilingly. “It’s hard to know from a single note, Ray,” she told him. “I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess based simply on something like that.” They’d been at a café. She put down the note, then took her sandwich in her hands, then put it down again. “Maybe you simply need to believe her,” she told him.
“Believe what?” he said.
“That she’s looking for something,” Ann told him.
“And what about me?” is what he should have asked the family therapist.
On Wednesday, a kid named Shawn came to see him, on appointment, wanting to do a story. He had a thick, shadowy beard that made him look older than he was, an odd contradiction really because his round cheeks and ceaseless smile made him seem like a child.
“So what happened?” the kid asked, spinning his pencil in his hand. “Somewhere along the line you just determined that all you’d ever shoot was landscapes?”
He was from the school paper, he’d said when he’d called Monday morning. They wanted to do a story on the adjunct religion prof. Everybody knew he was two-year terminal and most kids—those who wanted to—knew he was alone. It took little effort to garner loads of sympathy when your wife deserted you. Or pity.
“People don’t think of this region of the country as being particularly beautiful,” the kid said. “I mean, if I could have got into Pepperdine, you know?—maybe I would have. This ain’t Malibu.” He was unfolding his tablet, flipping pages to something empty. “Good at corn and beans maybe, but you go somewhere else for postcards, you know? How come you started doing pictures?”
“Maybe I’m just good at ‘em—and you do what you do best, Shawn.” He’d written the name down on the pad beneath his computer, for reference. “Why mess around in another world when you’re invested where you are?”
“That’s understandable,” the kid said, then looked up quickly, this wry smile spreading across his face. “You got something against human beings maybe?” That smile took the edge off what might have seemed an accusation.
“Hey, ‘some of my best friends,’ and all of that, right?” he told him. “It’s just that human beings don’t like to be photographed.”
“I read some place—some journalist—who said that no matter where he went in the world, if he had camera with him—you know, a TV camera?—people opened their doors.” He hunched his shoulders as if the idea were preposterous. “Hovels or caves or cardboard shacks—whatever,” he said, “people just want to be on TV, I guess.”
“That’s not my experience,” he said.
“I know what you mean,” Shawn told him. “I can do an interview for half the day and everything’s fine—the minute I pull out the camera,” he kicked his bag lightly as if to warn him, “people wrinkle up their noses, you know?”
Salesman, Ray thought. The kid is going into marketing.
“I saw this book once—don’t remember the title anymore either, but it had all these pictures of people lying in coffins, you know? Like at funerals in the wild west? Can you imagine that?” he said, “—people taking pictures of dead loved ones? Ever shoot dead people?” the kid asked him.
The kid was immensely likeable, but far off the subject. “Listen,” he told Shawn, jokingly, “I’ve never once shot a dead man.”
“Fair enough,” he said, conceding. “How about a woman?—answer me that.”
“I need a lawyer,” he told him, both hands raised.
“I just wondered, you know—I mean, I saw the show. I walked in last night when Professor Foster was hanging it.” He shook his head as if befuddled. “The whole thing is landscapes. I loved ‘em—I really did. People will think they’re gorgeous, I’m sure.” He stuck that pen in his pocket and folded up the tablet he’d used for notes. “I guess I just sort of wondered.”
And then silence.
“Earth and sky and trees?” Ray told him, “—there’s not much out here, you know, on the Plains. Not so easy to get all that beauty in a lens. I mean, you can’t lie with a photograph, can’t fake anything. What you see is what you get.”
“And a little Photoshop,” the kid said.
“Sure, a little Photoshop,” he said. “You interested in photography?”
Kid hunched his shoulders. “I got this journalism scholarship. Something I got to do, you know: interview people. Just to keep the scholarship. I need the bucks.” He held that pen up like a license.
“And your major is?” he asked the kid.
“I’m thinking youth ministry,” the kid said, that smile turned down a notch for a minute. “I had this biology prof who said that after the fall, you know—after the snake and the apple—nature really wasn’t all that much affected—that we were, I mean human beings, but not the eco-system.”
It seemed like the kind of idea a class could discuss for a session or two.
“So when I’m checking out your show last night, I’m thinking that landscape photography—I mean, I like your work, really, it’s so beautiful, like a little bit of heaven. Maybe that’s what you’re after?” He waved his hand as if that was a question he was after, and Ray shrugged his shoulders. “But then I got to wondering about people, I guess.” He laughed in a way that attempted to cover some guilt. “I don’t know—just idiot speculation maybe.” He’d picked up the jacket from the shoulders of the chair behind him and pulled it on. “I wondered if maybe you thought human beings weren’t as, well, beautiful as creation?—you know, affected by sin and all of that.” For a moment—for the first time—the smile flattened. “No offense, but in my lit class we’ve been talking about deconstruction, and it gets into you, you know?” And then he stopped.
“Why should I be offended?” Ray asked him.
“I mean, last night when I was in the gallery and Foster was putting up those pictures,” he grabbed that pad by a corner and pointed it at him like an old teacher, “—I’m thinking maybe the story is in what’s not there.”
“I’m getting played,” he told the kid. “What are you trying to weasel out of me anyway?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Problem with college is that if you don’t look out all that thinking goes to your head.”
“What do I know?” the kid said, getting to his feet. He hunched his shoulders. “Thanks anyway,” he said.
“Get your story?” he asked the kid as he got to his feet.
Once more he hunched his shoulders. “It’s just a job, you know?” He pointed back behind him. “But that stuff—what you do with a camera—that’s not just a job, is it?”
“You’re the one who said it—‘it’s something of heaven,’ don’t you think?”
“Like the ‘elysian fields,’” he said. “You ever think of that?—I mean, this world out here where we live—it’s something like the Elysian Fields. Just smells worse.”