Seventeen days since I’ve found myself here, in this old west, looking for whatever it is I’m always looking for. Today I find myself sitting against a low crumbling concrete wall that’s blotchy from moss and spans the road overlooking a feeble lick of creek. I’m watching the water work its way around a plastic grocery bag, a McDonald’s wrapper, a latex glove for some reason, when the sound comes from behind me—the wind stirs the blighted apples on the tree across the street, and a bruised green apple hits the road with the sound of a champagne bottle uncorking; it rolls over to me. The wind picks up, and another apple falls. That’s it, I think. That’s poetry, that’s grace. And tonight I’ll sleep well, even without alcohol. But tomorrow my grace will be warm mush splayed over blacktop, something between roadkill and applesauce.
The town is a mile end to end, and I walk everywhere. This is viewed with suspicion. I walk on sidewalks, in those few places there are sidewalks. I walk along gullies. I walk the graveled edge of Highway 60, hugging close to the guardrail. Tonight I walk to Wal-Mart and buy a cheap stereo. I keep my eyes down, dodge the obese women in their mechanized carts. Teenagers push strollers and talk on their phones in some strange patois that linguists might identify as English. I tell myself not to judge, but it proves too tempting. I judge them all guilty. My punishment for this lack of compassion? Exile, exile. Alone on a Friday night at Wal-Mart in Morehead, Kentucky. I repent to no one in particular. I browse the DVDs. I paw over cheap sunglasses.
I wonder if I’m spending too much time in my own head.
The woman at the register looks fifty, but probably is closer to thirty-five. She doesn’t look at me or speak, and I’m glad of it. I transact my purchase without a word. The old man at the door, like a horse sleeping on its feet, lifts his head to mumble goodnight and droops down again.
I haven’t spoken in two days.
The city I left has loud silences. Here is a buried quiet, a seething calm—the slow clench of a fist inside my head. Above me, the bluegrass moon. The humidity is alive. It sounds—I swear—like a silent drum. The gnats and mosquitoes feed off it. My shirt sticks to my back.
I walk along the edge of highway with the box containing my new cheap portable stereo tucked under one arm. A pick-up truck barrels past—sweaty shirtless young men huddled close together three across the cab, and as they pass, out the window, one of them yells faggot. One more thing I can’t find here: irony.
I sit through a presentation about the challenges of teaching in eastern Kentucky. The president of the university tells us progress is being made—the high school graduation rate has ticked up in the last decade. Six in ten students now graduate high school.
To make sure I’m actually here, and alive, I raise my hand and ask why in the world he’s boasting about graduation rates that would barely shame Detroit. I try to phrase it politely. An awkward silence falls over the room—everyone seems embarrassed for me, as though I’ve said something rude, as though I have a stain on my trousers. The president dodges and talks about coal. I want to scream out my demons, rage against their old-time religion; I want to burn bushes in effigy. Instead I affect a vaguely embarrassed face and daydream about how nice some of the girls in the room must have looked before they turned seventeen and got knocked up and married. I don’t speak again.
There are two liquor stores on each block, but no bars. It’s more respectable to drink at home with wife and baby. All I want is a place to unwind, to cue up bad southern rock on the jukebox, to shoot a game of pool by myself. The guy at the liquor store tells me there’s an honest-to-God bar down in Clearfield. Someone got shot there last month, he says.
When in Rome, I think, and drink at home.
Ten, eleven hours of sleep at night. I can’t sleep enough. I wake up grasping after dreams and their magnificent incongruities—rain from Eugene falling in Midland over a girl I met in St. Paul who’s never been south of Chicago. Taking long hikes in the desert north of Vegas with my three-legged dog Champ who’s been dead ten years. A Carolina moon that pitches back and forth across the sky on drunken legs. The Rockies have run off to Georgia in search of pecans.
So this is what it feels like to be unmoored.
Somewhere east of here is saltwater, and Chesapeake Bay, where a million years ago I was with friends, and a girl, and the water in late September at midnight was warm. Is the Atlantic still there? I’m not sure I can get to it anymore. And I don’t know where I am, but I’m here, in eastern Kentucky. Everybody here knows that Kentucky is an Indian word that means “the dark and bloody ground.” It’s not true, but everybody knows it anyway.
The spider at the bottom of the stairs outside my apartment is a night owl. Her presence is a comfort. I sit on the steps below her and smoke my cigarettes. She carries herself with poise, a kind of hard-earned confidence—it’s no exaggeration to say she might be an artist of the capital A variety. If an artist is she who imagines something that is not there and labors to make it so, that thing we see behind closed eyes, well, her installation deserves its own showing, or maybe a write-up in the Times. At first I decide to call her Charlotte, but that’s too easy, a little schoolmarmy.
She tells me her name is Annabel, which seems just right—it has a pleasant banality to it, the kind of name that becomes more endearing each time you hear it. She acts my bartender; I tell her my troubles. And every night becomes that much less awful, because I can go home and crack a beer and say: hello, Annabel, good evening, Annabel. And how was your day today?
She doesn’t always answer. Her art consumes her.
My favorite student is a mousy girl named Erica—she’s small, quiet and meek. She wants to do good. She tells me about her boyfriend, who seems to hate everyone. He’s obsessed with the lost cause, but the rest of the South remembers it differently, distinctly recalls that Kentucky was the Switzerland of that war. “He don’t like black people,” she tells me.
“Most days he don’t really like anyone. Except me. He loves me, of course.”
I want to cash out my savings and send her to New Zealand for safekeeping.
In the evenings I go out walking through neighborhoods and trailer parks, find the patches of field carved out from the trees. I read through the novels of W.G. Sebald, one after another until there are none left, and there are none left to come, because he’s dead now, killed in the same car accident that took Camus and Nate West—all my favorite writers bent to death around steering wheels, broken up against dashboards. In the patches of field carved out of trees, I lie on bluegrass and watch the little black birds I don’t know the name of gliding overhead, listing lazy and gliding back, toying with gravity. I read and reread that passage from Sebald when he writes: in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air.
I send dispatches to friends back home. I’ve seen Colorado in fifty years, I write. I’ve seen Idaho in another fifty. We’ll flay the earth. First it’s the land that gets used up and then the people on it, until all you’ve got is some underfed dream your father got from his father, and your hands have gone to rust and your wife sits unmoving in front of Entertainment Tonight in her double-extra-large sweat suit and your sixteen-year-old daughter is ten weeks pregnant to one of six possible townies.
Maybe I should go back to Wal-Mart and buy a TV.
Every place has its own kind of stupid. Out here it’s a baffled ignorance—the truest confusion I’ve ever seen. Where is it that we find ourselves? My students’ faces tell the story best: looks of furious blankness, null-sets of rage. Who am I to try to teach them anything? What does grammar have to do with this place, or this world? A well-crafted thesis statement never stopped the hard steady hands of a boy from getting what they wanted. I’m a stranger here, from some foreign land that my students don’t even believe exists. If they blow hard enough, and all together, I might just dissolve into vapor. Some days I hope they’ll try it.
Erica disappears for a week. When she returns, she sits through class with her head down, her face drawn. She waits until the room empties before approaching. She tells me her little brother is dead, that he got drunk and flipped his car. As though in lieu of a doctor’s note, she opens her phone and shows me a photo. The car must have blown up, burned. A pile of junk off the shoulder of the highway; you couldn’t say what it was. The diminished returns.
Not quite crying, she leaves me there. I erase the blackboard. I throw my Styrofoam coffee cup in the trash. I gather up my collated and paper-clipped papers. I do everything exactly as I always do.
I have no one to talk to about it. I talk to Annabel. I sit on the steps and drain my fifth beer and spill my guts to her. She’s a good listener, patient, and she never judges me. And just like that, I fall in love. How do we trace the routes our affections take? These things are so ineffable, after all.
Tonight is the last night of September. At midnight, October sneaks in; the fog will cover the mornings, the frost will cover the fields, an angrier wind will shake the rotting apples loose from the trees and send them crashing to earth like a thousand champagne bottles uncorking all at once, and one morning, just before dawn, the spiders will die on their webs.
But not tonight. Tonight I light a cigarette and crack my last beer. I stretch out on the steps with Annabel hanging above, and it’s the perfect spot to pull the camera back, the perfect time for a lively song to fill the silent spaces as the camera pulls back, and back, and the piano opens up just right, and the singer’s voice kicks in to let the audience know—with rhythm and tight couplets of easy rhyme—that everything’s going to be all right. And to my sweetheart, spinning above me, I sing a lullaby:
The warmth of your love’s
Like the warmth from the sun
And this will be our year
Took a long time to come…
Jonathan Rovner learned to write at Walnut Hills Elementary School in Centennial, Colorado. He teaches at Morehead State University.