Sage Trembling Feathery

I just finished Richard Ford’s new collection of short stories, Sorry for Your Trouble. Set in New Orleans, New York City, Paris, and Maine, the stories feature, for the most part, men of means thinking back on their lives. In “Nothing to Declare,” for instance, a New Orleans lawyer runs into a woman with whom he had a brief relationship in college. They walk and talk for several hours and Ford, a master of self-deprecatory psychology, invites me to join his character in reflection: “He wondered—was he acting toward her now in a way he’d acted twenty-five years before? What would that way be? Awkward? Distant? Disapproving? Too infatuated? It hadn’t been so satisfactory, then. Possibly there would be another way to act.”

            Ford always makes me want to write my own stories. I open my notebook and begin a personal version of “Nothing to Declare”:

            “Are you happy?” her email asks.

            “Happiness is the morality of a pigsty,” I answer. When my mother asked me that her premise was that people who strayed from the gospel of Jesus Christ were inevitably unhappy.

            How did she find me? I wonder. It has been forty years since I told her I was too young to marry; she told me to get out of her bed.

            “Are you happy?” I ask in return.

            She mentions a daughter. She describes invitations to the White House to consult about foreign economic strategies. She outlines discoveries she has made regarding esoteric truths in the Freemasonic inspired Mormon temple ceremony.

            “Freemasonic ritual is an eighteenth-century construct,” I respond. “I wrote a book about Freemasonry. The Mormons appropriated a ritual promising mysteries that are based on a contingent semiotic system . . . blah, blah, blah.”

            “What are you working on now?” she asks.

            “A book about the meanings of barbed wire,” I answer.

            She doesn’t respond. We turn to our marriages and divorces. My mind wanders back to those months together, to the heady youthful confluence of sex, religion, and ideas. 

            My story misses fire here. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t have Ford’s patience. Psychological insight is not my forte.

            I open Mary Sojourner’s collection of stories, The Talker, and quickly find myself in bed with a dishwasher whose “mouth tasted of Beaujolais and dope” and his co-worker at the Coyote restaurant, the story’s narrator, who “rose up like a wave. I coiled up and over more times than I can bear to remember now.” 

            Like the unforgettable characters in Sojourner’s novel 29, these men and women are not persons with means. They live in Cortez, Colorado and Flagstaff, Arizona. They have histories, histories that bleed into a tenuous present that a reader can taste and smell and touch, lives that leave me gasping and make me long to be more authentic.

            Authentic is not a word that would appear in these stories. Abstractions pale in the company of the gay cabinetmaker who followed a cowboy to Cortez only to find out he wasn’t a cowboy, next to the drunken marine’s wife who seeks salvation in slot machines, with the sweet sixteen-year-old nursing-home aid who befriends an ailing former member of a biker gang and sneaks dope into his room. 

            A woman dying of cancer and her dearest friend, the gay cabinetmaker, make a last drive into a landscape I know like no other: “The road topped out on the mesa and ran along the edge, lush sage trembling feathery, dry rabbitbrush shimmering gold in a September breeze. . . . The raw green scent of juniper and sage poured in through the open window. . . . We climbed out; she took my elbow and snuggled into me. She smelled faintly of the cancer.”

            I can’t write like this, this takes a special kind of genius; but I do know these smells, these plants, this light. 

I put down the book, inspired by a final sentence fraught with tenuous hope after inevitably bad decisions: “Jeez, woman, what do you think? Come on, let’s go eat breakfast.” 

Jeez, Mary Sojourner, I’m going for a walk. 

I step out of the house into a profusion of yellow flowers, the third yellow wave to flood our hillside meadow this spring. First the arrowleaf balsamroot, then the mules’ ears, and now the oneflower helianthella.

Thunder rumbles over Santaquin Peak, on whose foothill we live. Patchy sunlight over Utah Valley below. I figure I can make it around my usual circuit before the rain returns. 

Descending between fields our neighbor tends, I see the hay he baled three days ago still in the field. Soggy now, it will heat up if he stores it wet. He doesn’t need me to tell him that. In contrast, the recently planted adjacent crop is celebrating the weekend’s rain. New shoots (whatever they are) are thrusting up between the sunflowers that were taking over the dry field. 

A risky business, ranching.

            Skirting the fields, I turn west. Three western tanagers streak past, brilliant yellow, bright red, black and white. A meadowlark calls. I turn south and begin to climb back up the mountainside. Gusts of wind from the south. Fat raindrops. I’m not going to make it, I think. I’ll cut across. I step on the bottom of four wires hung on a steel fencepost and swing my way over the top wire. Still using the original “Glidden coil,” I note. Sometimes the first patents are the best. Glidden’s adversary, Jacob Haisch, said Glidden’s patent wasn’t worth a tin tit.

I’m still thinking about my college girlfriend. The story could have ended with a paragraph about her arrest at age seventy for having hired a hit-man to kill her ex-husband so she could claim the life insurance she was still entitled to. Maybe I’ll visit her in prison. 

            I climb up a steep ridge overlooking the rancher’s fields. Below, a triangular field of silvery-green grain surges in the wind. The trail I’m following is littered with signs I can read: glistening black mule deer droppings, death camas gone to seed, tracks pressed deep into the wet ground by heavy elk, closely cropped grasses courtesy of the rancher’s cattle (my dad called them “slow elk” during hunting season), big round splatters of cow pies, the double track of the rancher’s ATV. 

            There are three ridges between the fence I climbed and the fence below our cul-de-sac. Sage populates the ridge tops, Artemisia tridentata, three-toothed leaves swollen with the rain. I crush several between thumb and finger, bring them to my nose—the sharp, dusky scent evokes seven decades of memories. Scrub oak and big-toothed maples tangle in the ravines between the ridges. I duck and weave along deer trails while the rain falls and the thunder booms, slipping on wet grass, losing my hat to low-hanging branches, smiling with a wild joy that has grown more rare with each of my advancing years, joy that takes me back to the rain-soaked trail in Provo Canyon Sam and I skidded down on our bikes, “Amazing Grace” bursting from his lungs, lips, and heart. 

A deer trail finally intersects the fence near a lone juniper tree. I start to climb but find the wires loose against the post. I don’t want be caught straddling the barbed wire fence like the man in David Lee’s poem when a lightning strike “made him a eunuch.” Taking a cue from a swatch of deer hide hanging on a barb, I bend and slide between the bottom two wires.

            There’s a final steepness along the fence before I can turn up to our house. I’m placing my feet carefully between clumps of wet grass when I hear a pattering that makes me look up. Her butt toward me, a cow elk, a GREAT BIG COW ELK only twenty or thirty feet distant—close would be a better word than distant here—is pooping. She sees me about the same time I see her. My foot slips and I look down. When I look up she has disappeared, slipped away without a sound.

            I hang my dripping clothes in the garage and whisper a prayer of thanks to Mary Sojourner. The raw green scent of juniper and sage.

Steve Peck’s The Scholar of Moab, if you’re wondering, is currently on loan in Brooklyn

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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