I.

1985, we stole fistfuls of change, slipped fingers into jean pockets and cup holders, mined pennies from the asphalt. In school, the nuns lowered their papery eyelids. Ethiopians are dying, they said, and offered us build-your-own UNICEF boxes, corner to corner, flap into slit. We watched videos of the suffering, the frottage of polyester uniforms on our thighs.

They tell me I’m better on the Internet. Funnier on Facebook, more oomph than “IRL.” I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose my avatar is something of an improvement, a jovially connected version of myself, my greatest hits, quickest comebacks, and most “likeable” observations. Version 2.0 as Zadie Smith says in her controversial essay, “Generation Why?”

 

In thirty-three years, I’ve never had an epiphany or a vision of God. Tongues of flame have yet to lick my scalp.

Instead I am frequently haunted by anti-epiphanies. Memories of when I thought I realized something – the right turn in a story, the best ending – but was wrong. These are my moments of rapture, re-living the conviction. I knew that was the right move; only it wasn’t. During these moments I feel I’ve got my finger on the weak link, my brain against the ropes, only to realize that I’m just touching the tail of something, the beginning of a reckoning. I’m aware that my brain is both failing and achieving, that it is wrong and right at the same time. There’s euphoria in that shifting compass. The infinite ripple of yes and no.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I almost got trampled – or gored, had it been in a goring sort of mood – by a bison. We had gone for a hike with our dog in the Absaroka mountains of Montana, just on the Northern border of Yellowstone National Park. Not more than ten minutes into our journey, we came upon the bison in the middle of the trail, grand as a monument.

Bison, you likely know, weigh about a ton. They’re generally pretty placid, though they can become agitated, which they demonstrate by raising their tails, along with various other signals. Sometimes they’re ornery because they have to fight a rival, or because it’s winter and they’re being stalked by half-starved wolves, or because biting flies and mosquitoes are sucking them dry, any number of possibilities. Life is hard in the Yellowstone.

Tourists who lack respect for the bison’s personal space add to its burdens. Yellowstone literature will tell you that many more people are injured or killed by bison in YNP than by bears or mountain lions.

When my husband and I saw the bison, we had no intention of getting on his nerves. There was space to get past him, but because of the dense forest, felled logs stacked waist high in some places, we would’ve had to get closer than was reasonable, so we turned around and went back to the cabin. We figured if we got out of his way for a while, he’d have plenty of time to finish his business and move on to less crowded trails.

A few hours later, we returned. We were right. There was no sign of the bison except for his heart shaped prints in the mud, and we completed our hike down to Soda Butte creek.

It was September, and it began to snow off and on. We crouched on the banks of the creek until we grew cold.

The hike back was quiet, only the jingle of the dog’s tags and our canteens against our legs. We’d stop now and then to clap our hands, a makeshift human-bear GPS system, even though we’d been hiking these woods for years and had never encountered a bear. It grew warm again and the sun burned our necks. Fifteen minutes or so from the trailhead, we came through a thick cluster of ponderosas, all tight in a bend. The dog’s ears went up.

It would be wrong to say we were surprised. How can one be surprised by something that weighs two thousand pounds and stands six feet tall? It was more of a certainty that settled into us. That by coming back we had screwed up. Screwed up big time.

We tried to get out of the way, but the animal bore down, coming up over a hill, the incline making it seem even larger than it was. I thought then how silly scary movies are, the way they try to jolt you with loud music and a monster jumping out from the shadows. True terror is something walking towards you calmly, without hesitation.

There was plenty of room for the bison to move around us, to avoid getting close, yet it continued lurching forward as if we were just a couple of spindly willows in the way. Trying to move as far off the trail as possible, we ended up straddling huge, crisscrossed logs like human kabobs.

YNP literature states that all visitors should maintain a safe distance of at least 25 yards from a bison. We were six feet away.

The story condenses in my mind from this point, shrinking into a sharp piece of gravel that bounces around my nightmares. The realization that there was nowhere for us to go. That despite seeming calm, despite his relaxed tail, the bison wasn’t stopping. That despite knowing a decent amount of information about bison behavior, my brain had failed me. The bison, you understand, was not stopping.

The great head darkened over us.

Our dog, who for years had made a practice of barking at bison through car windows when we drove through the park, kept miraculously still and silent, her tail stiff. Shh, I whispered to a dog who had never listened to us in the best of circumstances. Stay.

The bison regarded us, the tip of its black tongue rounding the lip and twitching up into wet, empty nostrils.

I didn’t pray. If I believed in anything, I believed in the bison. His choice. I felt something drain out of me, my blood congealing into a heavy clot in my stomach. The certainty of this. Now.

I had been convinced we were doing the right thing, leaving the bison alone the first time. That even now, as long as we got off the trail and gave him room, he would walk by us, unconcerned. Each step closer, he proved me wrong.

After a minute, the bison turned away, squeezed by us and headed down the trail, stopping occasionally to eat. His tail was down, swishing.

Perhaps it was a good day for him.

I trembled the entire way back to the car. My husband was as pale as I’ve ever seen him. Just at the trailhead, we ran into an elderly couple beginning their hike. They smiled at us.

“Be careful,” we told them. “There’s a very big bison blocking the trail up ahead.”

“Oh yeah, we see them all the time,” the old man said. “Just don’t get in their way, is all.” He chuckled and they disappeared into the woods.

When I tell the story, I always say how wrong I was, how foolish I was to assume an animal would behave a certain way, according to some television show I’d watched. How everything I thought I knew was wrong. My husband insists the opposite. “We’re alive,” he says, “because we must have done the right things.” I tell him we’re alive because the bison was having a good day.

One year later in the same spot, two people were attacked – and one killed – by a grizzly.

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe we were wrong and right.

New Year’s Eve, a man and a woman went for a walk near the road named for luck.

They ambled through corn cockle and duck-lettuce, the thick woods a blindspot to the west. The man spoke of their plans, a quick drink before attending the woman’s friend’s party, where they’d be up late dancing, how they’d sleep in the next morning, bowed across the mattress. The woman listened to the hum of the man, his words shuffling past dented soda cans, his thoughts disseminating along the dirt road. The man and the woman followed a line, not looking, woolgathering. The woman was aware of man’s boots, galumphing like dogs on the winter ground.

A man and a woman went for a walk this New Year’s Eve, near the road named for luck, and found the skull of a boy. They would miss the woman’s friend’s party to tell the story of their discovery to the police, blood warming their faces as they stood in a patch of witchweed. They wouldn’t be able to sleep late the next morning, or at all.

Skull of Local Man Found in Woods.

In death, the man was held in abeyance. When the newspapers weren’t calling him “local man,” they called him “Mr. W.” In fourth grade, he was “Danny.”

Danny had long since vanished from my memory, a child at the edge of a photograph, his hair like the bangs of a horse. A skinny brown belt holding up his uniform pants.

Danny disappeared in 2000, a man at twenty-two, no note, no wallet, no cell phone. Ten years missing, ten years his mother looking for him, marking his birthdays. Yet Danny had never really gone. He had been there all along, his skull blooming in the ditch like a mushroom.

Investigators with both the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office will try to determine the cause of Mr. W’s death.

Dental records, cadaver dog teams, forensic anthropologists. He was depressed, his mother said. He had not gone in to work. Tests will tell us if Mr. W was intentionally killed, struck by a car, or died of natural causes. Ovals you fill in with lead, A, B, C or none of the above.

Danny had never seemed depressed. He could count his innumerable ambitions on his fingertips. He ran every recess; he was short but quick. He was average and unremarkable, elfin and sturdy. He lived under a halo of dust and blood. A collection of minor injuries, sick days on the office couch, skinned knees and threadbare socks. He was a little boy, so he was all of those things. He was a promise.

1988, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School, we climbed on plastic chairs for the class photograph. Danny was instructed to stand directly in front of me, slightly to the left. Fourth grade, Mrs. Dunn’s class. The next year, Sr. Fintan arranged us for our class picture. We stood on the same chairs, in nearly the same position. 1989. Danny would change schools soon. We are eleven in this picture, and in a few months, I will never see him again. Not as Mr. W., at twenty-two. Not at thirty-three, the age I am now, the age we might both have been.

I think about his mother, waiting. Ten years for the wound to change shape. 2011, she was going to begin a new year, the mystery beginning to scab over. Another year of believing he was still alive. Was it better to have had the mystery?

“We knew this boy,” my friend said to me. We read the newspaper. A skull near lucky Shamrock Road.

I didn’t tell her I couldn’t remember anything about him. That when I thought of him, I thought about the boy from the photograph, my memories culled from a single image. A morning in 1988 spent standing on a plastic chair, the back of his head in front of me. I didn’t admit to her that I had forgotten his name.

“This was Danny,” she said. “He was there with us.”

To be fair, it was dark, and he might not have been a zombie.

He lurched and lunged like a zombie, albeit a post-Romero zombie.  Herky-jerky twitching between lulls of ominous looming.  Never more than an inch from my face, he demonstrated a blatant disregard for the persnickety personal space issues of the living.

 Last weekend at a dinner party, I watched a guy bury his dreams.  I stood awkwardly, hands in my pockets, while he threw clods of dirt around, willy-nilly.

Last month, the Huffington Post published a list of some of the best independent bookstores in the country, offering bookish folks the kind of rapturous home-store pride that makes them want to give literary wedgies to other cities’ bookstores.  The article addressed the possibility of indie booksellers’ survival in a time of chain stores and a bad economy, and while I’m not exactly sure how one independent bookstore can be voted the best, I figure there is no greater sign of an independent institution’s health than internecine strife and a bunch of Strand people unafraid to tell City Lights to suck it. 

It started rather innocently with the man in calf-skin gloves.Swathed in a long, black coat, he had wedged himself in a corner over by the bestsellers like a large fruit bat.

I think it was Michiko Kakutani, though I can’t be sure.

Like the review itself, lost in the frustrating nebulousness of a dream, the name was nothing more than an ominous smudge. The critic a cipher, a shadow stubbornly lurking in the boiler room of my fears. I stared hard, brought the review of my book within inches of my face, tried to make sense of the barely but sufficiently out-of-focus print.Opening my eyes in the darkness, I rolled over with queasy certainty: I dreamt a review in the New York Times, and it wasn’t good.