Let It Go
a novel excerpt from Rag in a Loud Wind
He eases the tailgate shut, no more than a click under the open bedroom window, Sandra sleeping on the other side of it. He pays attention to how he’s laid his fly-fishing gear in the truck bed so he doesn’t worry he’s forgotten something later. A half hour before sunrise, there’s enough bluish light to see without a flashlight. The pines to the east are still darkened, but there’s a gloss in the truck’s windows.
Walking around to climb in, keeping his footscuffs quiet, he catches his look in the driver’s side window. He’s been all will since he was nineteen, and now his own face defies him.
He drives the dirt road to where it joins the pavement, passing the ten miles through Cedar Crest, then onto the interstate and into the city. He rubs his jaw, stretches his neck, rubs his forehead with his fingertips.
By the time he pulls into his friend’s driveway, the tops of the elms are bright with sun. Ross is standing in front of his garage, tall and balding, grinning like a boy. Slaps on the back, a minute to load Ross’s gear, and they’re backing out of the drive. Ross sorts the coffees and rolls he’s brought in a white bag and says, “Hey guy, let’s get out there.”
“Let’s get it done,” Len says, and tips his cup.
They drive north out of Albuquerque, sixty miles to get through Santa Fe, another thirty to get through Espanola, still heading north until they turn west on a shoulderless two-lane. They wind through hills and flats, past exhausted adobe houses and trailer houses, metal roofs weighted down with car tires.
They’ve been doing this ten years, maybe a hundred trips together. They have the road more or less memorized—apple orchards and cornfields, horses grazing with their heads down in irrigated meadowgrass, flicking their tails, the Chama River lined with cottonwoods beyond them. You might pass through and think lyric if the torque you carry with you would relent.
Len’s tempted to close his eyes a few seconds on the straight stretches, let the musculature in his sockets relax.
Ross leans over to the cup holder and lifts Len’s coffee cup to see if it’s empty.
“Now that your brain is alive, maybe I risk actually talking to you?”
Len manages a laugh. Ross has just finished reading Quantum Healing.
“I’m not buying the whole thing,” he says, “but it’s amazing, thinking about possibility that way.”
Len nods and listens. No traffic ahead, and behind them, one flatbed truck they’re gradually pulling away from. A bony black dog raises its head from the bar-ditch weeds. When he checks it in the rearview, Len can see his right eyelid sagging to the lash from the insomnia.
Ross says, “Because what if you have to let go of your preconceptions to be part of the field?”
Hadn’t Len dreamed the dog? Then it had arrived a few days ago, abandoned beside his woodpile, starved, deaf. Now here. He sees it when he blinks, feels the black weight in his ribs.
Ross says, his accent thickest on the r’s, “It’s fear, don’t you think? Being afraid to be in relationship to all this?”
Len nods, doesn’t say anything. Why does Ross tolerate this? You ought to come alone if you couldn’t do better than this. But how to sleep with so many intrusions? A famishment fleshing itself out in dogs. The phone at any hour, Sandra sleeping with her back to him. Somebody pruning his lilacs and fruit trees all the way to the trunks.
He hasn’t told Ross he’s doing hypnotherapy. He’d had to do something.
Maybe he just needs to wade thigh deep into the cold water. Nothing but a headful of river sheen in mind.
He turns off through the pines on the dirt Forest Service road, sun flashing through the branches, the big strip of blue sky overhead. They’re almost to their spot. He knows he can do better.
He says, “Hey, I’m thinking the water’s low and clear.”
Ross looks over.
“We better be ready to get our rods bent.”
He’s got the driver’s window open now and his forearm resting there. He’d know Ross was smiling without looking.
“We’ll see, but it’s maybe too much work for me,” Ross says. “I’m thinking I just pack some relaxing paperwork down there and work on my taxes.”
They laugh, talk about elk coming down to the water, the way swallows will sometimes be missing from a cliffside and then the eagle passes over. They’ll fish together in a kind of symbiosis, a method that’s evolved without discussion over the years. Len passes up slow water to fish deep riffles, Ross working the cutbanks and back eddies, mending his line and keeping his rod up. It’s hard to imagine Ross impatient.
The dirt road tops out, flat for the first time in miles, a flowering high meadow on Ross’s side of the truck.
“Beautiful, how it knows to do that on its own.” Ross speaks out his open window. “It’s insanity, the corporations and agribusinesses planting it all genetically modified. Money and arrogance and control, but we can’t predict the consequences,” he says, the unmistakable upward pitch of his voice toward the end.
Corporate dominance, one of their standbys. Len can’t think of anything to say except about fishing. He turns off onto a set of ruts across the meadow, drives the last hundred yards to the end of the ruts. At the edge of a flat where the trail heads down through pines to the stream, he pulls the brake on.
The insides of his blood vessels feel dry. The river will swirl around his legs, mayflies falling through sunlight. Maybe he can come alive in his limbs. They open their doors and get out.
Ross says to him over the top of the truck, “They’re turning it all into control and ownership, but it ends up more out of control. You know they’re putting substances in the jet exhausts to change the weather?”
There it is, Len thinks. They’ve crossed over into Ross-only territory. It happens once or twice a trip. They could do physics and holism together, could worry corporate control, wade jointly into Krishnamurti and Jung, but Ross is on his own with a conspiracy of weather-altering jets.
Len rolls his window up and shuts the door. He takes a step into the meadowgrass and bends over with his hands on his knees to stretch his back.
“You see the unmarked planes, no problem, if you’re looking,” Ross says.
He just needs to let the dogs and prunings and voices and the acid feel of his blood dissolve into the current and the altitude. The silence from the windless air is almost total, just the faintest high rush. Resin smells from the pines. Not another car or person.
He goes around back, gets his boots out of the truck bed, sits on the tailgate. How could your brain feel parched? Ross is still leaning against his door, looking up and suppressing a grin, apparently for Len’s benefit.
He slips his boots on, checks the sky. Two white jumbo jets, no discernible markings on them, leave thick, parallel contrails. He looks over at Ross, shakes his head, laughing, goes back to working on the boot laces.
When they’ve got their gear on, they hike through the sparse forest with their rods in their hands, mesh nets swinging from their vests. Ross glances up every couple of hundred yards. The contrails last for most of the mile down to the stream.
Bird calls diminishing in the heat, steep sunlight now, mayflies increasing in the shade, Len lets his fly drift close to him to see if it’s floating right, his legs bent and smeared where he’s standing in the streamflow, the laces of his wading boots wavering. Lifts it and casts into the shade, the fly riding the swells back toward him, the tuft flashing through the sun breaks.
Wound tight in his head like a spring, the voice doesn’t cease. He needs to get it out of his head and fish.
Don’t talk to me about my brother. Just do whatever you want.
He lifts the line with his rod tip, hauls it back over his head, lays it down upstream alongside a log.
Her voice gone so bitter. Why does it bother him so much? Maybe it reminds him of something else. He should let it go and fish.
A quick flash beside the log. He sets the hook, pulls the line in, the rod bending, and reaches down into the water. The trout he releases is the burnished gold of wedding bands.
In here, you’re going to do science. Once you’re out of my sight, you can believe whatever you want. So bitter she’d sounded ready to spit and stare you down. High-voiced, all bile, glaring out at Sophomore Biology. Twenty-five years gone.
So far from nothing. Even with your hair full of sun, a cool bed of rocks, soft with moss, to stand on underwater. The faint smell, the lit green.
The sweet reeking of formaldehyde and frog came up from your pan—you didn’t want to cut, half for the frog’s sake, half because of the smell, but she was slicing into the belly of her own and tilting the pan, scowling out to you to make sure you were doing yours right. Winona, everyone called her in the halls, but in here, nothing but Miss Bly.
She looked furious—sixty, skinny, wide-eyed. “One squeal, one gross, and you get an F.” Her face was raisined, but her hands as she cut were soft as a girl’s, and that half-naked feeling of the white robe floating out around your bare legs was still with you a little.
You’d been up to your waist in the water, Brother William smiling beside you, his hand on the small of your back, up in the baptismal font where everyone in the church could see. In his hold, you’d gone underwater and come back up, his soaked white handkerchief pressed over your mouth and nose. You were shaking to be standing in the water with your hair wet and the robe clinging to you, everybody watching as he spoke down to the first few rows, his robe floating out from him also. He had frog-green fishing waders on underneath, down underwater where nobody but you could see.
You couldn’t sleep in the dark with the 8-track and the headphones on after that, not rock but something softer, trying to feel saved. You wondered how you would ever tell people, because you witnessed to people if you were really saved. Before long you knew you wouldn’t tell anybody. Even with the softest music you were still damned. There would be a rod stabbing all the way through your chest, and you’d be drowning up to your eyes in acid, or having your skin stripped off in a tank of salt water. Forever. No hope for a pardon. Especially at night.
“I hate fat things,” Winona said, her mouth clenched like she had the taste of the formaldehyde. A band of yellow fat sprang out of her frog’s belly and she pulled the scalpel back. You watched huge Bobby Rivers sweat and stare down at his own until she glanced your way.
You used to shoot them, little ones, a mile behind the house, out at the cow tank when you were younger. You’d see just their eyes, and plink, they wouldn’t be there. After a while, you leaned the gun up against a mesquite, and before long the sparrows came back into it. No sound but a south wind in the broomweed, no salvation, no hell, no evolution, nobody laughing, nobody staring, nobody grabbing your wrist and whipping blue stripes into your legs. You’d never have a kid, for sure.
You didn’t matter one way or the other to the jackrabbit and the red ants. It was very fine not mattering with the winter sun on you, down out of the wind by the tank dam.
Ross blows out a long sigh. He has his hands under the back of his head, his cap on top of his face.
Stream rush. The tick of something falling, a needle, a twig. A squirrel chittering in the next tree.
Good to rest, even if you can’t sleep, stretched out in the shade, pine needles thick under your back, your daypack under your head, Ross a yard or two away. Your face is starting to relax.
Lunch and now this. Being nothing. The stream in your head even if your brain is dry. Doesn’t matter if you sleep or not. Nothing you have to do.
The bent spruce just moving, and the shade, an indifference saying
nothing, a fine, cool wind on your arms, through your hair
Ross scratches his ribs, crosses one leg over the other, puts his hands on his stomach. Usually Ross can sleep anywhere.
Now from his chest it looks like he might be chuckling.
“You going to let me in on that?” Len doesn’t want to exert a lot of effort to move his lips. He’s let his words slur.
“Just good,” Ross says from under the cap. “Lucky.”
He seems pleased even with his face covered. Might be because of his hands. Pleased hands.
“Do you mean fishing, or are you thinking about Celina under there?”
Ross puts his hands back under his head, doesn’t say anything.
Has to be Celina. Len reaches over without getting up and takes the cap off Ross’s face. He seems to be suppressing a smile.
“Celina’s definitely a factor. We’ll see how it goes, that’s all,” Ross says, the smile exceeding his efforts to rein it in.
“We’ll see? Why We’ll see?”
“It’s early. I’m only seeing her a month so far.”
Ross closes his eyes again. He has the smile under control. “She came to my house for dinner last Saturday. Wonderful. Talking for hours, and she stayed. All night it was very nice afterward, I tell you. Sunday morning, we went just in time to The Awakening. Really fantastic. But I don’t want us to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Len’s heard about The Awakening. How could anyone actually want to drive across Albuquerque to say meditations, light candles, and hold hands in a circle? Maybe the sex had been spectacular.
“Is this all I get?”
Ross shrugs cheerfully with his eyes closed. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Len knows he won’t get anything else.
Ross says, “How is it with you and Sandra these days?”
Len reaches over for the water bottle. “Sandra likes to talk about her day,” he says, exaggerating the sag in his tone. “I don’t know how to get interested in that anymore.”
He’s not going into the trouble they’ve had with Sandra’s brother, not going into how hollowed out and sexless things have gotten. Fishing is supposed to be an exit from this.
“For that matter, I guess I’m not all that interested in my own damn day either,” Len says with his eyebrows raised for effect.
Ross laughs, his face inflating, though you can’t hear anything. Sharp gray eyes, but kind. Unlikely. Lying on your back under a fir tree in northern New Mexico, and your fly-fishing partner’s a big, muscular German intellectual with an acupuncture practice.
And before long Ross is, in fact, telling his own Quantum Healing stories. A patient of his has cleared her system of ms. A friend with lymphoma has gone into remission during a yearlong meditation practice, “no symptoms, no cancer in the blood tests, no relapse, zilch.”
All Len has to do is nod. It’s too hot to fish, and they’ll do nothing at all under this tree until some afternoon shade is on the river.
After a while Ross puts the hat back over his face and sleeps. His big arms look incapable of violence, no strain in the forearms, his hands so relaxed on his chest now, but they’re like Len’s father’s, something about the down of dark hairs, the crook of his elbows.
What would it have been like, growing up, to have had a man’s arms around you?
Len’s seen Ross with his five-year-old son, Martin, hugging him, holding the boy’s face against his, grinning, both of them soaking it up, back in the days before Ross’s ex moved back to Germany and took Martin with her. Ross still won’t talk about that for long.
Len and his father had hunted together, just the two of them, in the days before Len’s brother Steve was old enough. They followed Jim, a mixed-blood bird dog that lived on a farm of maize fields and pasture land they had permission to hunt. When he found birds, Jim curled his body in a C and raised one forepaw. Even after the covey had been flushed and a quail had been shot, Jim stayed frozen, waiting for Len’s father to say, “Get the bird, Jim, get it,” and he’d charge off and find it and bring it back in his mouth.
“Aren’t very many people with that much discipline,” he said, smiling, his lips tight. Sometimes in the hot afternoon, they stretched out for a break under a mesquite, and he would relax, one hand on his chest, the other laid gently on Jim’s back.
What would that have been like, to have had his hand gentle on you like that? Later he was all business when he cleaned the birds.
“If we spend money on shells, we bring back something to eat.”
He kept his face neutral, careful not to grimace.
If they’d hunted all day on a Sunday, sometimes Len would be in bed before his mother got home from her Pentecostal service, and she’d come into his room, her floral dress swishing. He’d be glad to be awake, though he kept seeming to sleep.
She’d say, “I’m back,” a whisper that he always thought of as a song, “I’m here.”
There were times he’d wanted to get inside that sound and live. Some nights she put her hand on his chest, pressing her face down against his for a minute.
Ross was that gentle with his son.
After Len’s mother died, he’d stand in the kitchen or the hall and Sandra would put her arms around him and pull him to her, soft all along him. He’d think, why does a woman understand everything that matters?
In his high school years, what he’d understood was that he could last it out, a four-year sentence, his mother failing, his father more and more unbending, the whippings and curfews, the summers chipping and painting their clapboard house after Len’s summer day job and on weekends, laying carpet, mending the screen doors quietly so they didn’t bother their resting mother.
“A lot of kids grow up in a trailer house. I don’t want to hear it,” he’d said to the glowering sons.
But Len had always known he could last it out. His lot seemed temporary and his father’s permanent. Was it even a life?—a dying wife, a job he couldn’t leave, sixty hours a week at the hardware store, a riot of sons to discipline and raise, money strain that never eased, his jaw set, never a day that wasn’t constructed out of the mandatory and the banal. And it wouldn’t be over until he was old.
From the age of six or seven, Len had known he was going to live any way but that.
He’s standing in sun now, thigh deep in the middle of the stream, the white cliff beside him teeming with swallows, the cliff’s shadow on the water.
This would be the other way to live. If you could even just get your own face to relax.
Ross is a hundred yards upstream, standing in the middle, fishing the deep swirl between a big tangle of branches and the bank. He’s got his rod held high, slack thrown into the line so the fly drifts without dragging.
If you could inhabit your own arms and legs and chest. The fly working up next to the cliff, floating in close, then repelled by clear swirls.
If you could keep the work light enough and be free.
The fly in its long, meandering return. No strikes in a while.
You do whatever it takes to get breathing room. The cabin and the writer’s studio in the mountains, the marriage, summers off from the university job, trips to Mexico and South America, an underlife playing guitar. If you have enough will and you’re lucky. Maybe unlucky too. Starving dogs, a headful of noise. Maybe one day your face is fierce and shocked and you don’t quite live in your body. What is there to do but the therapy, the hypnotherapy?
The next cast settles down farther out from the cliff, on the seam where the shade ends. The shadows of swallows flickering over. The backs of your hands warm and the cool coming up from the water along your wrists.
Saying nothing, very fine not
mattering with the river running
and the full sun on you
Out of the underwater shade the trout swirls up gleaming. Nose almost to the surface. Doesn’t take the fly, settles back down into the shade. Well, that was enlivening.
Two more casts and not a ripple. Isn’t this already the other way? Your hair starting to get hot in the sun.
Lifting the line up off the water over you, letting it unroll behind, pulling it forward, laying it down in front of you light as a spiderweb. Writing it out, letting it fall one rung down the page, breaking it at a phrase. A hovering resistance there against the next release.
Until the drop all the way through the stanza break and the recovery there.
Muscle up against the flow, sideslip, fall back with it as you wish. Not a ripple or a lip. The tuft of the fly white in the shade, the shadow water. The fall line of the line breaks, the riverbanks, the twelve-bar form.
The solo where you find the accidentals, outside the dismembering daily crush.
So in the smoke you lean forward with your guitar, lay down a phrase, another phrase that elaborates the first, then one in double time or triplets or just a long held note, it starts to coalesce, it’s building. It’s a story you’re telling so you can rip into it with bends, scrapes, a held thirteenth maybe, something even you didn’t know you’d play, something outside enough to split it open, and everybody in the house wakes up.
Then ease back into the flow. Ross is gone. No sound but the water.
You don’t wake up in the story but in the breaks, the lyric space. Or should. Standing there in a river with the dried out feeling in your brain. Your hair hot and your hands.
The trout flashes over from the shade and takes the fly all the way out in the middle of the stream. Slack in the line. Wake up.
You take a full second to set the hook, keep the rod as high as you can raise it. The fish is on. Lucky.
You wade away from the shade toward the shallower water of the far bank, keeping the line tight. Better to be lucky than good.
It takes a good few minutes coming in, running up in a diagonal for the cliff, falling back, cutting upstream shallow in the riffles on your side, digging down deep, then tiring. Shallower, backdrifting with the current.
A pressure swirling at your knees, finned and stippled gold, so like the amber-colored rocks of the bottom.
You blink and it’s gone. It’s there again, but barely. Which is what you would be.
grappling it underwater with a hand, saying
toothed, red-gilled, red-flecked, cold as snow melt
in the passing water, and you let it go.