132. Davis, California

Back on the greenbelt, this time with Fenton the dog and Liam, big brother showing little brother the ropes. If you have spent every day of your life, as Liam has, on a ranch in Colorado, the tiniest things can impress you. Streetlights, water sprinklers, fire trucks, bicycles, roller blades. Everywhere he looks, so many people, each one of them the keeper of a potential pet.

In my undergrad nonfiction class a kid named Zachary reads an essay about his mother whipping him with a belt, cursing at him, leaving marks, and when he’s finished I say, “How many of you actually got beaten as a kid?” When at least twelve of the eighteen students raise their hands, I say, “Huh. That’s not the impression we have of your generation at all. We think you have parents who spent their whole days driving you to clay class and judo and start-your-own-business camp and wrote your term papers for you and never even once raised their voice.”

When I went around the room on the first day of class and asked everyone what song they would take to the desert island, a kid named Daniel Liu, who went to a high school so rough all the kids called him Yao Ming even though he is only five foot one, said “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” so right at the end of class Monday I said, “I’ve got two tickets to Interpol tonight in San Francisco, and if Daniel wants them he can have them but if not they are up for grabs.”

Daniel started furiously texting the one guy he knew with a car on campus and when his friend didn’t respond I said, “Just take the tickets anyway, if you can’t reach your friend come back this afternoon and I’ll give you money for the train,” and he smiled really big and said, “Professor, are you telling me to have an adventure?”

I love when the whole world does an end around itself, like the way all the boys in my class are writing about their broken hearts, and all the girls’ stories have sentences in them like, I fucked him with my eyes.

When I am walking with the wolfhounds on the greenbelt, everybody wants to remind me of their super-short lifespan, as if I wouldn’t already know about it, as if I was enjoying their company in too carefree a manner, as if the value of a life ought to be measured in months and years instead of moments: Liam bounding after a wild turkey, Fenton running between two rows of durum wheat, his coat the same rich blond as the quivering sheaves, his head just tall enough to be seen above them, a giant smile on his thin black lips.

In the room with the periodic tables on the wall, Barry Lopez said we are pattern makers, and if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace they will be able to bring a person for whom the world has become broken and disorganized up off his knees and back to life. He also said discipline is the highest form of self-respect.

Back at Indian Springs with Cinder, someone has set two hundred yellow rubber ducks aswim in the giant blue pool, and you might not think rubber ducks could make you gasp at their beauty but in the late afternoon sun I assure you they can. Last night Cinder read The New Yorker while I fell asleep next to her in the comfy spa bed. Of all the things I love to do with Cinder, this is the thing I love most: going to sleep being watched over by her because I know she can kick the shit out of anybody. What Cinder loves most of all is being able to read long into the night without keeping somebody awake. This is why we say we might get married to each other, after the men are dead.

Anybody trained in close reading knows there’s no real difference between bravado and bravery. If we were playing Would You Rather . . . ? and you said, “Would you rather continue to circle the globe prophylactically collecting suicide prevention nuggets,” I wouldn’t even hear the second half of the question. Would it therefore be wrong to admit that part of me wants to be Rick’s special girl?

For a long time I thought the object of the game was identifying the question, love versus freedom, Mandela versus Buthelezi, leave or stay forever ghosted under a thick curtain of oil. Nora said, Maybe a choice isn’t the right way to think of it, by which she might have meant, A question loses its power when there is only one answer, as in, yes to Bhutan and Barstow. Yes to chanterelles and portobellos. A temple. Yes. A mosque. Yes. The changeable heart of a child.

Turns out after all that Truth is a woman. She’s an Apple technician working at the Mac store, Corte Madera, her hair doesn’t shimmer and she’s not very nice.

On Thursday night, in front of the Baskin-Robbins, the president of the Fire University filled his mouth with kerosene, set his breath on fire, and roared like a dragon.

How did I ever think I’d get to freedom, without my arms swung open wide?

Janine said, “Swimming is a great idea, but you’re also probably going to have to drown a little.”

It staggers the imagination to contemplate what Harvested Rainwater, Please Do Not Drink might really mean.

***

Adapted from Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston. Copyright © 2011 by Pam Houston. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.

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PAM HOUSTON is the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Her new book, Contents May Have Shifted, will be published by W.W. Norton on February 6th, 2012.

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