By Alan Rossi
Featured Art: Forêt de Compiègne by Berthe Morisot
I gave Saul a room. Two years prior, he had left me for Utah. He left me for the wild, for backcountry slopes. He wanted to be in glossy magazines and have his ponytail flowing out behind him in pictures, carving some mountain, dropping through powder. He spoke like this, dropping through powder. I tried to tell myself I couldn’t be too mad: he paid more attention to skis and skiing forums than he did to me. In Utah, he grew his hair long and beautiful and got in some of those magazines, though mainly he just put up pictures of himself on the Internet. I know, I looked at them all, wondering if he was thinking of me when he was hiking up the slopes, skis on his back, or whether he might get a distant glimpse of our life together when he was on top of one of those mountains and looked east. He was gone for two years, but to me it seemed a lot longer. I often thought about all the other girls he probably had sex with and how people probably loved him and how he was living this wild, free life, and I was still in East Tennessee with my brother and mother and the probably comparatively lame Blue Ridge. So when I found out he was coming back because he had seriously injured himself and could no longer carve or ride or hike or otherwise put his health in danger in backcountry powder, I was happy and told him he had a room waiting. I wanted him to come back in the same state he had left me in: miserable and alone.
The first day in my house, laid up on the sofa, he said, This is great. There’s a dick-sized mountain out my window. Great.
The television was on a cooking channel, but it was a commercial and he had it muted. On the coffee table, he had a nerf arrow gun, a couple bottles of pills, and a joint. He used each equally, occasionally popping a pill, hitting the joint, or shooting the gun at the mountain out the window. I looked out a window with him. The pulpy rot of leaves covered everything. It made the city stink and made my body feel gross, but mainly what I saw out there was the smallness of the mountain, though I had never seen any of them out west except in photos.
You still look good, Sarah, he said. Which sucks even more.
I sometimes hated my body and sometimes loved it and when Saul loved it, I loved it, though I hated that I was feeling good because of him.
You don’t have a right to say that, I said, mainly because I felt I should say it.
He shot some more arrows at the window. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, he said, shaking his head.
Out the window, the mountain was a hump of brown, dead trees. I wished I could change it for him then was glad I couldn’t. Some sun came slanting in the room. I turned and looked at him, shrugging. Sorry about the view, I said.
Just close the blinds and remove your clothes and I’ll like the view fine, he said, shooting a nerf arrow at me.
I closed the blinds.
He said, Here’s what I have: A slipped disk, three compressed vertebrae, cracked ribs, a broken leg, which you can see, and a sprained wrist. So stop looking at me like that.
You never used to complain, I said, doing the other window.
Don’t close both blinds, he said. I need some sun. If there’s anything I need, it’s that. And I call bullshit. I used to complain all the time.
I opened the one blind again so he could have some light. He took a hit of the joint and blew the sweet-smelling smoke into the room. That smell reminded me of him, which was strange: his memory while he was right there before me. I couldn’t remember him complaining ever. I cracked the blinds in the other window. I thought about how he was right, he probably did complain. I did this thing like most people where I glorified the past. Complaining or not, it was nice having him on my sofa again, as though he had never really left. His body was long and thin and getting older. It wasn’t clear to me why I was being nice to him since I hated him and had thought of many ways to get back at him for leaving me, for believing there was something else in the world for him. I wanted to shout at him: See, see, there’s nothing else out there. And there I was and here I am, but you can’t have me. You can’t have me. Instead, I brought him the beer he wanted as he watched the southwestern cooking show.
Goddamn those tamales look good, he said. Can you make tamales?
I can try, I said.
Try not, he said. Do or do not. There is no try. Let’s watch all six Star Wars tonight, okay?
My brother and I took community college classes together. I took them so that I could quit being a bank teller and be a nurse; my brother took them because he said he wanted knowledge. I told him knowledge wasn’t to be found at community college. He said that was too bad because it’s all he could afford. We were in a math class together called Finite Math and one night Saul wanted to go.
I’m coming with you, he said. I want to see John too.
You never liked my brother, I said. He never liked you. In fact, he hated you, remember. He hated that we were together.
Sarah, he said. Doesn’t ring a fucking bell.
He was cradled in bed with his casted leg up, a laptop balanced upon his chest. When he tried to stand, he dumped the laptop on the floor and the screen blinked off. Fuck, he said. He tried to turn the laptop back on, but the screen wouldn’t light. He began beating it against the floor, halfway on the bed. Bits of plastic snapped off and skittered across the wood. The screen splintered. He had his casted leg up in the bed and his upper body on the floor, destroying the laptop, smashing it against the hardwood floor. He stopped and lay there, his lower body up on the bed, his upper body, propped by one elbow, on the floor. He was breathing hard. He gently tossed the machine aside.
Okay, he said. I’m done now. Let’s go.
I think it’s a bad idea if you come, I said.
Why? he said.
He struggled to get up. I got going and left the house before he was even out of his bedroom and was yelling, Really, you’re going to leave me here?
A lot of people knew Saul in our town. They knew he was the guy who went to Montana or Utah or wherever after college and became a semi-famous skier; they asked about him; they didn’t so much want to know what he was doing now as they were judging him. A couple old friends showed up at the bank, stood in my teller line even though they didn’t have accounts, and they seemed to want to rejoice in his failure with me. One guy, a mechanic named Gary said, So, Sauly’s back. I knew he’d be back. I just knew. He said it as if expressing some profound truth. He stood there a minute and I had to say, with the other tellers watching, Uh, are you going to deposit anything? No, Gary said, tapping the counter. I don’t even have an account here. Just wanted to say hey. Hey.
A woman we knew from high school, who I knew always loved Saul some, came in and, after getting some information out of me, said, And look at him now. Crawling to your doorstep. Well I hope you’re not entertaining the idea. I’d be glad to come over and kick him out with you. She had a husband and a decent house and three kids and wore serious eyeliner. I asked if she wanted to open an account and she said she already had one, but just used another branch.
The other tellers, Sandra and Leslie, claimed that I had clearly changed for the worse since inviting this man into my home. They said I appeared preoccupied and worried now. I wondered how they could tell this since I rarely talked to them before. I asked them, how could they tell.
Oh sweetie, Leslie said. We can tell. Before you were just kind of there, you know. Now there’s all these emotions. And we’ve heard terrible things about him.
Everybody wants to know how you are, I’d tell Saul when I came home from work. When you’re going to show your face to the world.
I already showed my face to the world, he said. And the world sucker-punched me.
Saul was getting good at deciding which concoction of pills and Red Bull and vodka and bourbon and grass he preferred in the morning, afternoon, and night. More to the point, he had gotten better at explaining to me why he liked certain concoctions at certain times.
Red Bull and vodka and one Vicodin in the morning, he said. Obviously. Grass and bourbon for lunch, one Percocet. Then, in the evening, bong hits bong hits bong hits.
Sometimes I put my ear to his door to hear what he was doing. He was often watching porn, which no longer grossed me out because it seemed like every guy I’d ever dated watched porn. Sometimes I could hear him playing video games. Sometimes he didn’t seem to be doing anything. Those times I would touch the door gently like I was touching him again for the first time.
At night, I waited for him to come into my bedroom, strong and his old self again, and lay himself on top of me so that I could say, Saul, get off me. No, we’re not doing this. And then begin screaming rape and call 911 on him and have his name show up in the paper, an even bigger disgrace than he already was, and yet, at the same time I was thinking this, I really did want him to come in my room. But he didn’t. He seemed a man who no longer knew what he wanted or simply didn’t care to want anything at all. All I wanted was for him to want me again so that I could either want him back or openly show him I didn’t want him. I didn’t know which.
Everybody seemed to want to let me know they weren’t happy. The people from high school who stopped by the bank let me know; the other tellers sensed something was wrong, though they didn’t know anything about Saul except what they heard, and they let me know. My mother called and let me know: I don’t like this. I don’t like this whole Saul thing at all. He doesn’t deserve your kindness. One afternoon, my brother made me walk the railroad pass because he’d heard that Saul was back in town, and he wanted to let me know he wasn’t happy, either. My brother let me know by inviting me to do something and then not talking. He walked in front of me, like he always did, the older brother. I was jumping from tie to tie. This railroad cut right into the side of the mountain. Beautiful. The trees of the forest were brown and leafless and dripping with rain. My brother continued to not talk and look only ahead of him, as if I weren’t there at all. Small diamond bulbs of water hung from branches. Our feet squelched in the leafy mush. I have to drive him everywhere, I finally said. His leg’s pretty bad. I feel bad for him.
He’s going to destroy you, he said. It’s what he does. Don’t let him drive. He destroyed my car in high school, you remember.
He wants to see you, I said. I think he needs a friend.
If he comes to see me, I’ll shoot him, he said. We were at the train tunnel and were listening. I mean, I won’t shoot him, but I’ll threaten him or something.
I think he’s like desperate with grief, I told my brother. His whole lifestyle was taken away from him.
That’s how he always was, he said. Even with you. Especially with you.
We listened at that dark maw cutting into the mountain. We heard nothing except a damp and cool empty sound echoing. We walked in a blind dark. A hollow humming sound followed. If you cut along the tracks and through the tunnel then you could hit Carver’s Gap quicker. We thought of it as our tunnel and our mountain. We came out on the other side amongst more leafless and cold trees.
We forgot bear bells, I said. Hey bears, I shouted. We’re not bears and we’re here.
Don’t do that, my brother said. It’s stupid.
He walked fast, as though the crying wind were really a crying woman giving birth and we had to hurry to help somewhere at the top. I realized I had stopped thinking about Saul for a moment and thought: huh. Through the gray trees clouds like puffs of smoke dipped into the forest. We got nearer to the peak, higher and higher. The valley was there before us, the town like a toy town, cars like toy cars, lives like toy lives. What we did at the top was we stood and looked as if looking could contain all that world laid out before us.
A month passed and Saul’s health improved. He began rehabbing his leg, strengthening his core; he met with a therapist twice a week. He looked healthier, more handsome, and as soon as his body got to be a body again, he seemed less concerned with himself. It was a big change. I think I stayed the same. I began to think that I didn’t know what I did in between the time that Saul left and the time that Saul returned. It seemed like there were years unaccounted for. The blank years, the non-Saul years. I know I did things, I know I lived: I went to work at the bank, I hiked mountains, I had some cats, I signed up for community college classes, I thought about Saul, I thought about Saul, I thought about Saul.
One night I heard Saul walking around the house. He seemed to be talking to someone and I was afraid he had brought a girl home, one of those granola girls, one of those extreme sports chicks. I heard him bumping around out in the kitchen, the faucet running, turning off, the refrigerator door opening. I heard a great crash and sat paralyzed with the need to go out and see him and see her, whoever he finally brought home. I was prepared for a great speech, a great kicking out. I both wanted to go out there and didn’t. I made myself go. In the kitchen, Saul was shirtless and laughing and said, Sorry, I dropped a pan. He was cooking eggs and bacon. Saw this great band tonight, he said. Man, you would’ve loved them.
He made me a plate and we ate eggs together. He hadn’t been so happy in so long. I’m really glad to be here, he said, shoveling the eggs. I really feel like things are turning around, you know. Really.
He was drunk, moderately so, and I nodded, glad for him. C’mere, he said.
He took me to his room and put a hand on the small of my back. Even with just the slightest touch, I felt his warmth and could feel the limp in his body as he walked. In his room, he showed me a framed photo that looked like something by Ansel Adams. A black and white deal, a moon rising over mountains. The kind of picture everyone had seen before. Below the image, there was a caption, which read, There Is No Try, Only Do. Saul tossed the picture onto the bed. His crushed computer lay splayed open in the corner of the room, the screen cracked.
Sorry I woke you up, he said.
I was up, I said.
That picture is nothing, he said, looking at the framed photo on the bed. And the caption is like a joke. It’s like mocking those triumphant nature pictures that say things like achievement at the bottom. He paused for a moment. It’s nothing like what the backcountry really is like. I can’t convey what it is really like. I’m not a great one. I was once, not with pictures, but I’m not anymore. He sat on the bed and patted a spot next to him and I sat next to him. My left thigh was touching his right. I wanted him to touch me. He began messing with his ponytail. He pulled his ponytail in front of a shoulder. Reach in the top drawer, he said.
I felt around in the top drawer. I watched him holding his hair.
Hand me the knife, he said.
I pulled a hunting knife from the drawer and handed it to him. With his good hand he held his ponytail. With the sprained wrist he held the knife. He tried to slice off the ponytail. His wrist wobbled and was unsure. The knife got dangerously close to his neck. His hands were lazy. He closed his eyes to steady himself.
I took the knife. Placed a hand on his bony shoulder. His skin seemed too warm to be so pale. With his good hand, he pulled his hair taut. With my steady hand, I sliced through with an easy glide. The hair fell like fine silk upon my leg. I moved my legs to let the hair fall, scattered on the floor. Some of the hair didn’t fall and Saul brushed it away with his fingers, his fingers touching my thighs, sending a lovely electricity through me. He stood up and hopped on the bad leg.
Pretty good, he said, smiling. Then he picked up some of the hair off the floor. This is symbolic, he said. I never should’ve gone to Utah. I mean, I should’ve gone, but I should’ve brought you with me.
I think this might be a bad idea, I said.
I knew a guy who fell a thousand feet down the sheer face of a mountain, Saul said. That was a bad idea. He began unbuttoning my shirt, kissing my chest near each button he undid.
Saul wanted a job.
The only job I can get you is driving a truck and delivering packages, I said.
Maybe. I know somebody who works for FedEx.
We were in the kitchen. Saul liked to take high-gravity bong hits out of the sink. He used a cut-off gallon milk jug. He bent over the jug like he was bowing. He pulled the jug slowly from the water. The bud glowed red. The plastic container filled with smoke. He bent lower, like a bee hovering before a flower. He sucked and plunged the jug down and I could feel the smoke push up inside him. When he came up, his face was flushed red.
Just call me the delivery man, he said spitting smoke.
Your leg is still weak, I said.
This is fucking discrimination, he yelled. He was laughing more and more often. He still had terrible pain and had to take medication and, he said, bong hits. If he pushed too hard in rehab, he had to rest on the sofa for a day or two.
I’ll get you a job when the leg is better, I said.
I can’t take sitting in here anymore and just working out a couple times a week, he said. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s do something. I really need to do something. I’m kind of losing my mind. He pulled a nerf gun from his back pocket and said, Run, and began chasing me around the house, shooting nerf arrows at me. Got you, he yelled. Got you, got you, got you.
You don’t have shit, I said, sprinting to his bedroom.
Saul said he was ready to try a hike so we went out with my brother. We walked through town, by crumbling brick warehouses with shattered windows and boarded doors. Sparks of electricity hit the sky from a cable car. A homeless shelter rose in perfect dilapidation. Here were the drunks and fighters and whores and ghosts. Some homeless people were walking around and there was a distinct smell of rotten bananas and oil and one of them said something incomprehensible to us. Saul was limping, even as we walked through town. Maybe we should’ve just drove to the mountain, I said.
It’s only like two miles, he said. No.
We passed over a train track that ran into grass and another that ran along the base of the mountain.
My dad had once been a logger in Oregon, Saul said. Before he came back here and died.
Our dad raced motorcycles, my brother said. I’m not trying to one up you.
Soon the city went away and we walked by two small farms. Horses grazed in a field and we stopped to look at them, but really to give Saul a break. He was working hard. I could hear him breathing and I felt like I myself hadn’t taken one breath yet. It was like I was holding mine in so he could have more. Farms rolled up onto hills. Goats and cows were motionless black and white dots against brown-gray grass. The Blue Ridge mountains, sick with their own blue grief, were hazy and shadowing us in their valley. Saul began walking again and he tripped down a ditch on the side of the road; his knee seemed to lock up and he just went straight down, tumbling. We got him up and my brother said, Okay, maybe that’s enough for today. I think you need to do some rehab first.
I have been rehabbing, Saul said. Shit, don’t you talk to your own brother? he asked me. What do you think I do all day?
He walked ahead of us and my brother shook his head knowingly. We followed his limping. All things spring were to come up soon. Some trees had started their struggle. In the same way, we began the struggle up. We moved through the switchbacks slowly. Other hikers passed us and Saul, who began strong, looked haggard and thin, his shirt soaked in sweat and his leg moving more like a stump than a leg and yet each time we said, that’s good, that’s a good hike, he said he wasn’t done yet. Not yet, he said. I can do a little more.
You have to walk back, my brother whined.
Saul waved him off. Finally, we took a long stop before a steeper climb. The switchbacks stopped and the trail became wider, but also steeper, rockier. Water ran down over the rocks and the first step Saul took he slipped on moss and went down on his butt. After standing against a tree for five minutes, the calm gurgle of water around us, the cool and dirt smell of the forest, I said I was going back.
I don’t care if you two come with me, but I’m done, I said. Saul, you should be done.
I expected him to wave me off, to do something like he did with the computer, to have a childish attack exclaiming that he could do anything he put his mind to. He shook his head, swallowing deeply several times through panting breaths.
Help me down, he said.
I got under one of his shoulders and my brother got under the other one. Oh shit, he said. I’m so done. I’m sorry. I thought I could do more.
At the bottom of the trailhead, Saul was exhausted and he sank down on his butt, then went down on his back right there, right on the trail. His shirt was soaked and his body was muddy from falling and now lying on the trail. Through his soaked shirt, his chest was going up and down in quick contractions. My brother went to get the car, jogging off, happily going. Saul, breathing deeply on the ground said, I’d be jealous if I wasn’t so tired. He had a big, lips-together smile, that if it wasn’t full of satisfaction, I don’t know what it was full of. I lay down next to him and felt his breathing body moving, rising and falling, rising and falling.
What are you thinking? I said. Why are you smiling?
He shook his head. I don’t know, he said. I can’t think of anything. Probably because I can’t think of anything.
He reached over to touch me. His hand touched my head, running right along my hairline, his dirty hands smoothing my hair. Then his hand moved to the back of my neck and rested there. I rested on his hand, as if my whole body was resting on his hand, which was resting on the ground. Then his fingers began gently moving, running along my neck. There was dirt on his fingers, a grittiness in his touch.
Tell me if you don’t want me to do this, he said.
Alan Rossi’s stories have appeared in Granta, New England Review, The Missouri Review, Conjunctions, Fiction, The Florida Review, Ninth Letter, and many other journals. His fiction has received a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Prize. His debut novel, Mountain Road, Late at Night, was recently published in UK and US.
Originally appeared in NOR 14.