I never saw myself as odd until I moved away to graduate school and attempted dating for the first time. Having few friends in my life, these brief couplings were my first real opportunity to see myself through the eyes of others. If one is seeking blunt honesty, one could do worse than to solicit the criticism of college women.
They viewed me as a man of contradictions: I read so little, yet conversed like a polymath. Mispronunciations and malapropisms peppered my erudite conversation. Spelling errors and the passive voice plagued my otherwise thoughtful writing. One young woman noticed a similar dichotomy in my work at art school. I painted realistic details with virtuosity, yet faltered in composition.
This curious myopia extended into my relationships: Prospective girlfriends saw me as incapable of formulating a “big picture” in any practical or beneficial sense. I could not balance my checkbook; my mother and sister bought my clothes; I lived off Lucky Charms and Maalox.
I believe all my peculiar strengths and deficiencies stem from the way I learned as a child and adapted as an adult. When I undertake to learn a discipline, I bypass indigestible theory to crawl headfirst into details of the thing. From there, I reverse-engineer—part-to-part—to create my whole, albeit a whole fundamentally different from my original sources. This is can be compared to the program of a virus, or the resourcefulness of the Japanese electronics industry, or the inspired thievery of Picasso.
It is not that the spider cannot see her web’s design from the outset, but that she does not need to see it. Intuition is often the gift of the blinded, for the strengths that best define any artist are those that lie untapped and unknown until a weakness uncovers them.
Several miles down the highway, the travelers turned onto a side road. A solitary horse, grazing in a stable yard, came into view at the straightaway. “Now that’s what I’m scared of,” confessed Aloysius.
The photographer spoke matter-of-factly, lifting her camera to snap a picture of him against the rural backdrop. “I think you’re biggest fear is women.”
Aloysius picked up the prostitute’s phone number off the dashboard and waved it, refuting her assertion. Emma grinned, yet was struck by how humor gave him rare license to be at ease with her. She gestured him down a gravel road.
Harder wind sliced through high grass on both sides of the narrower byway, stripping off chaff and tossing it up like buckshot. They drove a mile before coming on the familiar cutaway that led to the sloping hill. The photographer stayed behind to load a roll of film while Aloysius, trudging ahead, fought a gust hampering his ascent up the mound.
Mackerel clouds skated off to the east; heavier, rain-swollen clouds loomed in the west. One cloud was uncommitted to either scheme. Mantled in radiant silver, its transcendence would not long survive the powerful trough of air.
When the scout reached the summit, wild grasses lapped at its steep sides. A crosswind overlapped along the north approach and cut half-moons into contested territory. This turbulence of cross-purposes worked with intelligence, and with a mind to scare up a ghost or two.
The spent remains of the bonfire were as the visitor remembered, although the burnt effigy was missing. He scanned the horizon for it, and with the late thought that the ashes at his feet were strangely out-of-time. The bonfire could have been yesterday, or last year, or even a hundred years ago. It was something an astronaut once said about being exposed to the vacuum of deep space for the first time in an airlock, and how it smelled like an old fireplace. For all the wonders of the Universe, this was its one detail that touched Aloysius most deeply. It was a sense memory of a personal event: an event that cut to the heart of the matter: The world was personal, and in no other way could it be quantified, qualified, or truly understood.
He rose to his feet and wiped his hands; Emma was shooting photographs lower on the southern slope. Her bright dress made her resemble a piece of manganese sky broken off and fallen to earth. Aloysius hoped, regardless whatever dimension she truly inhabited (be it Heaven or Earth), she would emerge like a phoenix from the ashes—his ashes—to save him.
The wind picked up again to throw his head around. Something whitish tumbled end-over-end across the meadow. Its queer movement had the character of striding legs counting off paces. The word “Homecoming” briefly unfurled. Aloysius marked the paper bannerís progress until it snagged on something sticking out of the ground. He galloped down the hill and leapt into the knee-high grass.
Emma hesitated, thinking he was playing a joke, but presently joined him where he faced her from a perch. “What did you find?” she asked.
“Fallen trees.” The topographer pointed. “They align in that direction.”
He jumped off the trunk to feel rutty earth under his shoes. With probing steps, he walked first south, and then east. Emma leaned into a fierce gust, blowing back her hair for a better view of his odd behavior. He eventually stopped, turned to where she stood, and spoke over the roar. “Are you up for a hike?”
“To those standing trees.”
The wooded area was a good quarter-mile away; her expression soured.
The explorer made his case. “I think something big knocked over these trees and pushed in that direction.”
“Knocked over? Knocked over by what?”
He was not disposed to ponder it.
She relented and held out her hand.
Aloysius came back to take the offered fingers. The marrying of limbs and digits always made for awkward grips and a self-conscious stride. Such synchronicity was the gateway to any conceivable intimacy, though he found little rhythm in it.
It was no leisurely stroll. The terrain was a tangle, and the wind’s ceaseless drubbing added resistance. Approaching the thicket, their treading got easier just when the ground got harder and the grass, shorter. More felled trees lay ahead, and a sudden embankment. A low growl bounded up the incline; Emma beckoned her companion down the crumbling declivity in pursuit of more substantive adventure.
A powerful jet of water issued from a large cement flow pipe half-hidden in undergrowth. Aloysius ignored its bluster and concentrated on picturesque chicory blooms above them on the dryer ridge. Only sun-daubed bluegill splashed in quieter water thereabout. His tightening grip on her hand nevertheless betrayed his apprehension of the scene.
“You afraid of water, too?” she inquired.
He leaned into a retreat, and Emma, taking the hint, rejoined the path above.
The couple came to a clearing; slack-jawed, Aloysius recognized it. “I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “We’re at the back of the Willis Quadrangle. Behind that fence is my house. These ruts must be the remains of the old train track that the school pulled up.”
The front of Emma’s taffeta dress was covered with grass seed. Feeling foolish for putting her through so much bother, the cicerone knelt to brush off the stiff pleats of her gown with uncharacteristic forwardness; fingers were even licked to pick clean seeds stuck to the syrup stain.
The young woman was entertained by his attempt to smooth her feathers, and glowed when he peered up from his servile attitude. “I guess this means you can introduce me to the crazy aunt!” she announced.
Chapter Sixteen, Section Two/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.