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You could travel west out of Reed City, a small county seat in an unfertile valley with a small yellow brick courthouse and a plugged cannon on its lawn next to a marble slab with the names of the World War One and Two dead inscribed in gold and the not dead plainly inscribed with the suspicious neatness of cemetery script, those who served, farther west through fifty miles of pine barrens dotted with small farm settlements often of less than thirty people, or merely a grocery store and gas station adjoined by a shabby aluminum trailer or a basement house with the first and perhaps second stories awaiting more prosperous times, the stores themselves with little and aged stock — lunch meat, bologna pickled in a jar, Polish sausage, tinned foods covered with dust, plaquettes of fish lures, mosquito repellent in aerosol cans, live bait and a pop cooler outside the door — but not many of these — a narrow road through mixed conifers, cedar and jack pine, some stunted scrub oak, birch, and the short-lived poplar, a pulp tree usually living less than twenty years and clotting the woods floor with its rotting trunks and branches, and west through the low pelvic mysteries of swamps divided invisibly from the air by interlocking creeks and small rivers, made unbearable in spring and summer by mosquitoes and black flies, swamps dank with brackish water and pools of green slime, small knolls of fern, bog marshes of sphagnum, spongelike and tortuous to the human foot and bordered by impenetrable tamarack thickets: in short a land with no appreciable history and a continuously vile climate, lumbered off for a hundred years with few traces of the grand white pine which once covered it, an occasional charred almost petrified stump four feet in diameter, evidence of trees which rose nearly two hundred feet and covered the northern half of the state and the Upper Peninsula, razed with truly insolent completeness by the lumber barons after the Civil War with all the money going to the cities of the south — Saginaw, Lansing, Detroit — and east to Boston and New York; and the houses, even the large farmhouses on reasonably good land, sloppily built, ramshackle and craftless compared to Massachusetts or Vermont; west to Lake Michigan then to turn north along its coast to the Straits of Mackinac, cross the mammoth bridge, travel west another three hundred miles through the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula and then north again into the comparatively vast, the peopleless Huron Mountains.
I crawled out of the sleeping bag and dipped a cup of water from a small tin pail but the water had warmed and a breeze during the night had blown some ashes into it and they mixed there in the surface film with dead mosquitoes. I drew on my pants and boots and walked to the creek. Dew had soaked the grass and ferns, made the leaves limp under my feet; earth was pale green a half hour before the sun would come up and over and through the ridge of trees to the east. I knelt and drank from the creek, the water so cold the teeth ached. I closed the tent flaps, gathered my binoculars (which I would quickly lose) and a worthless .30-30 rifle with bad sights my father had owned, and took a compass reading which I knew would be inaccurate and pointless as the ground in the area was full of varying amounts of iron ore. But I fixed on a knoll a mile or so away and then on the supposed direction of the car several miles directly south by southwest and set out for a hike. Two hours later I was unfathomably lost.
There is a brief time when first lost that you are sure you will be lost forever. Your heart flutters and you become winded with little walking and everything you know or think you know about the woods is forgotten, or you aren't sure you ever knew enough in the beginning. The compass reads an impossible direction. The view from the treetop you reach with effort reveals only the tops of other trees, or if you follow a stream you know you are walking at least three times further than necessary as the stream winds and twists, makes heavy-growthed flats with hairpin bends and builds swampy areas that make walking very wet and the footing unsure, the mosquitoes clouding around your head as you move. It is first of all embarrassment mixed with a little terror; when the frantic pumping ceases and you regain your breath it is easy enough to turn around and retrace the path you've thrashed through the brush. The rare deaths that do occur are simply a matter of the lost waiting too long to turn around.
I lay along a tree trunk fallen half across the stream, its roots weakened by the undercut bank. I dozed for a while in the sun, then upon waking sighted the rifle from this prone position at a leaf, then at a large cropping of rocks downstream from the tree.
I had wanted to move farther upstream and set up camp on higher ground to get some breeze and to be less vulnerable to the bugs but I only found the tent in the middle of the evening. It was ten o'clock and still not quite dark when I ate my supper of boiled pinto beans and onions. I doused the entire plateful with red pepper sauce and lay back against a tree thinking how much I wanted a drink, a large water glass filled with warm whiskey, or a succession of doubles with beer used as a chaser. I thought back to the Kettle of Fish bar on Macdougal Street where I first began drinking in earnest. Everyone there seemed twice my age (I was eighteen) and I could get dizzy on four glasses of ale. Eighty cents. But habits are of interest only to the habitual-fat men talk about their diets for hours without boredom, shedding imaginary pounds. I took a long drink of water to wash the fire from my throat and looked at my watch in the firelight. Stopped again; I slipped the watch off noticing the strip of white skin beneath it on the wrist somehow not related to the rest of my body. A friend had a pachuco cross carved beneath his watchband. I flipped this seven-dollar special into the fire thinking idly that in the heat the hands might whirl backwards or in reverse of those old movie montages where a calendar's pages are flipped and trains crisscross the nation from corner of screen to corner of screen, from triumph to triumph with a star's name growing ever larger on the billboards and marquees. I rubbed mosquito dope onto my hands and face and neck and crawled into the sleeping bag.
We drove down a gravel road bordered on both sides with Lombardy poplars which had begun to die with leaves gone on the topmost branches. My father fiddled with the radio then said no ballgame today it's Monday. We turned into a driveway and moved jouncing over ruts to a farmhouse which from the road had been concealed in a grove of elm and maple trees. When we stopped two dogs rushed out from under the porch as if to devour the car to get at us. My father got out and said come along but I stayed in the car, in part not to get my new shoes dirty which since we left town I had been rubbing busily against the back of my pantleg for a shine. He left and the dogs didn't bother him. They looked like they were from the same litter — half collie and half shepherd — I had had a similar dog a few years before, Penny, but she had bitten the mailman and we had to give her to a farmer who I learned later shot her for killing chickens. I heard laughter and turned in the car to see in the far corner of the shaded yard three girls playing with a swing. There was an elm tree and from a lower branch a rope was suspended with a tire attached to it; they were taking turns swinging, and the oldest had to lift the smallest who was about five up into the tire which she straddled, a leg on either side. The little one had lost three fingers on one hand and had some lilacs between the thumb and forefinger, holding the swing with the other hand. The lilacs were growing along a ditch on the far side of the house. It was May and they were blooming white and purple in great clumps and their heavy scent mixed with the smell of wild mint from the ditch. The house was covered with brown imitation brick siding, nearly a trademark for the poor, with a cement porch darkened with tall honeysuckle bushes. The oldest girl who looked about twelve got into the swing and pulled herself higher and higher, the little one holding her ears as if something were going to explode. She straddled the swing and her dress fluttered higher with each pass. I looked down at my shoes again then played with the radio dial. I looked back at her and I could see her legs and hips all the way up to her panties and waist. I felt cloudy and giggly and had an urge to go over and talk to them. But then my father returned from the barn and shook hands with a man and we left.
I awoke no later than midnight and the fire was out what with only pine to burn, a nearly heatless wood compared to beech or maple. I thought I heard something and I reached for the rifle which lay along the sleeping bag. I got up and started a fire and decided to make coffee and stay up all night rather than be attacked by nameless beasts all of which were in my head and were due, I'm sure, to my brain drying out. "There stands the glass that will ease all my pain," sang Webb Pierce. It would begin to get light before four A.M. I'v always been immoderately clock-oriented. But that was part of what seemed wrong with my infrequent periods of actual labor: the deadly predictability of jobs everyone sighs about, a glut of clocks and my thin neck twisting to their perfect circles, around and around and around. I remembered working in an office in Boston and during the second week there I looked up at the clock on the wall and it was two-thirty instead of the expected four-thirty. I began weeping real salt tears (partly the five doubles for lunch no doubt). A clock-torn child of twenty-seven with tears rolling down his plump cheeks onto his shirt collar, the shirt unbuttoned because it was too small, taken from a dead father's dresser drawer.
The creek roared and tumbled past boulders where I dipped the coffeepot, the noise concealing the movements of the gryphon on the verge of leaping and tearing out my throat. The pink-elephant bit for d.t.'s is bullshit. I was thinking of sauterne and California. It took almost a month to hitch home and I had gone there for no reason anyway, or as Tom Joad had said, "There's something going on out there in the West." Certainly is. In San Francisco in a deserted building called the Hanging Gardens by those who slept there we had split a hundred peyote buttons four ways, small cacti which after peeling remind one of gelatinous rotten green peppers. I chewed up an overdose of twenty buttons raw, one after another as if they were some sort of miraculous food then vomited out a window repeatedly for hours. When my mind finally refocused my bedroll was gone. And I walked for what seemed like a year down to Hosmer to catch the labor bus for the bean fields outside of San Jose. A strange form of poison. Not to be recommended, at least not in such large doses. The experience isn't verbally transferable — I've never read a record that came close. Years afterward a small part of my brain still felt the effects.
I drank several cups of coffee looking off into the moonless cloudy dark beyond the fire. As long as you have to die anyway it may as well be between a grizzly's jaws but they're a thousand miles farther west. In the peyote trance the naked chorus girls foolishly summoned up were peeled and beet-red with snatches an inky and oily black, hard as basalt. The old joke of a woman strangling a rat between her legs. In bars all over the country they are beaver pie poontang pussy quiff cunt shag clam and so on. That thirty-eight-year-old woman in Detroit with violently teased hair and a beer-fed roll of fat around her middle, red mouth like a war wound winks at you in the mirror above the bottles and you wink back with your blind eye and buy her a drink, schnapps on the rocks, and you light her cigarette and look at her fingers which have claws that remind you of a leopard. She has an ankle bracelet announcing BOB in silver. She pouts and babytalks about the movies and whatever happened to Randolph Scott and she says she is a cosmotologist. She knows the cosmos. A home permanent. A Toni. Dressing hair & girl talk. You go into the toilet and look at yourself in the mirror and think that if you were a real American, maybe a marine or a paratrooper or a truckdriver, you would screw her. But you're not so you hover over the urinal and by now your cock has almost shrunk back in your body in reverse lust and you think of excuses. She probably has syph! Or she hasn't showered in a week, she's an old lizard skin, or if she had as many pricks sticking out of her as she's had stuck in her she would look like a porcupine, or she's simply too fat. But it doesn't work so you come out of the toilet and she's following your movement in the mirror as you bolt through the door and into the street, feeling somehow not very virile but safe, thinking it would have been like fucking a vacuum cleaner, thinking of cool monasteries in the country with birds singing sweetly outside the windows and the Mother Superior kneeling before you after vespers. No nuns in monasteries. Or at least a cheerleader after a high school football game sincere about love with a cedar hope chest begun, some homemade bleached muslin pillow cases folded in the bottom with his and hers needleworked in mauve. And as she makes love with no interest she talks of the funny experiment in chemistry class that was so stinky. Naked from waist to bobbysocks.
I checked my trotlines, a simple device to catch fish without fishing. You bait the small hook and tie the line to a tree or low-hanging branch. The first line held nothing but a bare hook but the second had a small brook trout, the stupidest of trout, about nine inches long. I cleaned it and let the guts wash away in the creek not wanting to attract raccoons who seem able to smell fish guts from miles away. I put the trout in foil and let it steam with a slice of onion then ate it with bread and salt. For dessert I stuck my finger in a small jar of honey and licked it off. The sky was barely beginning to lighten and invisible birds sang, rather as we are told now, to warn other birds away.
I slept a few hours after the sun came up; strange about night fears and how my courage strengthens by noon. I had hummed my soaked brain to sleep with "The Old Rugged Cross," the equivalent for me of a trench confession. A woman sang it at the funeral in a clear tremulous whine, a wet wind coming through barn slats. But the grandmother had insisted on this anachronism and it was her oldest son. I sang many hymns during a summer in New York City in a room on Grove Street that looked out onto a six-by-six air vent the bottom of which was covered with newspapers, bottles and old mopheads. Rats crawled there in daylight. I couldn't handle the city; it seemed consistently malefic and I wanted to be elsewhere but I couldn't go home, having announced I had left forever. Old songs learned as a fifteen-year-old Baptist convert: "There's a Fountain Filled with Blood" (drawn from Emmanuel's veins), or "Safe Am I" (in the hollow of His hand), or the best one, "Wonderful the Matchless Grace of Jesus." I simply had no business there in Sodom but refused at nineteen to accept the fact. Sally salved me, Grace greased me home. No control over my cheap sense of such words as destiny and time. I wrote lists of things I wanted or missed for want of the ability to complete a sentence; always half drunk in airless heat as if the words were squeezed out through the knuckles:
sun bug dirt soil lilac leaf leaves hair spirea maple thigh teeth eyes grass tree fish pine bluegill bass wood dock shoresand lilypads sea reeds perch water weeds clouds horses goldenrod road sparrows rock deer chicken-hawk stump ravine blackberry bush cabin pump hill night sleep juice whiskey cards slate rock bird dusk dawn hay boat loon door girl bam straw wheat canary bridge falcon asphalt fern cow bees dragonfly violets beard farm stall window wind rain waves spider snake ant river beer sweat oak birch creek swamp bud rabbit turtle worms beef stars milk sunfish rock-bass ears tent cock mud buckwheat pepper gravel ass crickets grasshopper elm barbed-wire tomatoes bible cucumber melon spinach bacon ham potatoes flesh death fence oriole corn robin apple manure thresher pickles basement brush dog-wood bread cheese wine cove moss porch gulley trout fish-pole spaniel mow rope reins nose leek onion feet(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wolf"
Copyright © 1971 Jim Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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