May 15, 2009

Leaving no mark

1. He disappeared down the canyon, into the desert one last time. He had taken the name of a sea captain, which was odd for someone who liked to get lost in places where there wasn't water, but he called himself NEMO and it is thought that he drowned in one of the floods that flushed the gorges that spring.

He left the name NEMO carved into the sandstone. He left it near the hieroglyphic panels of stories we can't read any more, near the old stone stairs which were cut a hundred years ago but are never used now. He left it even though he was searching for anonymity, was rejecting civilization and history and was trying to get lost. Even though he was looking for the unmarked face of the desert, that austere and beautiful place where the emptiness unfolds as peace, he put knife to stone and left his new name. He succumbed to the impulse of foxes pissing on fence posts, the obsession of Kilroy claiming his past presence, the desperation of past presidents writing memoirs. He tired to assert something against the absence that is always about to engulf us, and he left the name of a sea captain carved into a rock wall in the wilderness.

Within a few years it had washed away.

2. She would say she was married 12 times. She would say she had had 22 children by those men and by her several lovers. She didn't even try to make the stories believable. She said she lived on a boat, in a tree house, in a teepee, with a gun collector, a bomb maker, and an owl and a goose and a judge. Her story was different every time.

She taught in the prison where the men were sent for violent crimes. She taught reading, and writing stories, and the men would ask her for her stories and so she made up fake ones. She said she was a lumber jack, before she was a prison teacher, and a whaler, a welder, and a sewage treatment technician. She made herself into a mother or a man, but never into anything which might be even slightly sexual. She didn't want to give them anything that they could use against her, or anything they could use to threaten her. She didn't want them to find her, or know how to find her, or even be able to look her up in a phonebook when they got out. These were violent men and she wanted to teach them, but didn't want to be known. So she gave them stories which were inconsistent and contradictory, cover stories which were obviously lies, but which which worked anyway.

Sometimes, when the men got out, they would think about her, and realize they couldn't even remember her name.

3. We learned to skip rocks at the Russian River. I think we were there for a long weekend, but the circumstances seem vague to me now. We were throwing the rocks into the water under the bridge, my younger brother and sister and me, and we were competing for the farthest throw and biggest splash. We lobbed them in, like pop flies, and threw them overhand as far as we could into the current.

It was idle. And aggressive. And every time I threw a rock it would hit, and splash, but then the splash was over and I needed to do it again.

Down the bank, where it was sandy, teenagers in bathing suits were swimming and flirting. There was a line at the concessions stand, and ice coolers and castles were spread out across the sand, little kids screaming and running and adults sitting and tanning on towels in the sun. There was an evangelistic skit where a woman in jean cutoffs got down on her knees to pray to Jesus, but no one watched except the little kids and all of them stayed back a little so they could run away if things got weird. We moved away from the people, though, into the shade of the bridge. We were antisocial siblings, silently bonded and bombing the river with rocks.

Our mom asked what we were doing and then she showed us how to skip stones. You throw it sideways, she said, you find a flat rock and you spin it so it skips. It doesn't splash. And somehow that more satisfying. I did this the rest of the day, even after my brother and sister went away down the beach, practicing this skill. I found flat rocks and I threw them this way, letting the stones slip, spinning, skipping without making a mark, each one almost silent, one, two, three and four, even five skips out into the water. They barely touched the surface and then they disappeared.