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At the Jim Bridger
By Ron Carlson
Picador Copyright © 2002 Ron Carlson
All rights reserved.
SUDDENLY IT WAS JUNE AND there were strange towels in the house. There were stacks on the table in the entry, two or three towels that Edison knew were not their towels. In the hall, he'd step over large striped piles of strange wet towels waiting to be washed. The kids, Rebecca and Toby, pedaled home in bathing suits, alien towels hung on their necks. Twice Edison tripped as he sidled through the laundry room carrying his files, his feet tangled in a great heap of these damp things. The commotion brought Leslie from the kitchen and she looked down at him, the absentminded professor, his papers around his head. "You're kind of too young for this kind of thing," she said. He didn't look uncomfortable. She knew if she left him there and went back to her potato salad, there was a good chance he'd simply go to sleep. He was up past one almost every night working on his largest mathematical project. This was his final experimental journey for the firm; if it worked, he was going to be able to go on and on toward the edge. If not, he would join all the other middle-level engineers.
"Whose towels are these?"
The answer was, depending on the day, the Hanovers', the Plums', the Reeds'; close-radius towels, the Hanovers and their pool just down the street, the Plums and their pool around the corner, and the Reeds and their pool not three blocks across from the elementary school all the children (nine total) of these people attended.
"These, dear, are the Plums' and we'll be returning them this evening when we go over there for a cookout, so get your work done." She picked up his files and laid them on his chest. "Okay? Swimming? Drinks on their patio? Remember? Don't worry, when the time comes, I'll drive us all over."
Edison crawled to his feet. "All right." Leslie watched him go into his study, and then she stuffed the towels in the washer. He was working on the most advanced and important calculations of his life. The firm only kept one or two theoretical mathematicians, and this project would determine if Edison would make the cut.
The summer developed into these dinners and all the shifting towels. That night, they loaded the car and drove five hundred yards to the Plums' and drifted with the Hanovers and the Reeds toward the gate, carrying their coolers and casseroles and Tupperware containers and the bundle of towels. They seemed like zombies in a fog to Edison, because he was in a fog most of the time himself, so many hours working at his computer screen, and inside the greetings continued even though they'd all seen one another at the Reeds' three nights ago. Edison and Allen Reed opened bottles of Corona and sat out on the picnic table in the steady heat of the season. These outings always disoriented Edison, who saw them as some kind of puzzle. Part of him was still at his green screen mulling equations while he watched the children spill into the green pool and the women set out the food.
"How's the project going, Ed?" Allen asked him. Allen Reed, large and tan, was an applications engineer for the firm. Ed looked at the man's skin, so dark from the sun he seemed part of the strangeness. What kind of engineer has such a tan? Allen was about five years older than Edison and had an affectionate condescension for theoretical math.
"I'm working every day," Edison said. He was looking at the bench where all the towels had gathered in stacks: fourteen towels. There was no way those towels were going home with the right families. Folded there in multicolored order, they seemed part of some problem Edison had solved this week or dreamed of or was working on now.
"Yes, well, you let me know when they find a market for chaos and its theory, and I'll come over with my slide rule and give you a hand." Allen was going to pat Edison on the shoulder, which he did with people he was kidding, but he saw that Edison was about two seconds from getting the joke. They were all used to these odd moments with Edison.
The thing that was said about Edison at least once every party, after he'd been asked a question and then waited five or ten seconds to answer, or after one of his rare remarks, was "I'm glad I'm not a genius," which was meant as a kind of compliment and many times simply as a space filler after some awkwardness.
And even early in the summer on the way home from a cookout, Toby, who was six years old, started crying and when questioned about his grief, stuttered out in a whisper, "Daddy's a genius!" He cried as Leslie carried him to the house in one of the large pale blue towels that Edison knew was not their towel, and he cried himself to sleep.
Undressing for bed, Leslie said, "Ed, can you lighten up a little, fit in? These are my friends."
"Sure," he said as she got in bed beside him. "I think I can do that." A long moment later, he turned to Leslie and said, "But I'm not a genius. I'm just, in a tough section of this deal now. Can you tell Toby? I'm just busy. I need to finish this project."
"1 know you do," she whispered. "What should I tell him it's like?" When they were dating, he'd begun to try to explain his work to her in metaphors, and she'd continued the game through his career, asking him for comparisons that then she'd inhabit, embellish. Right after they were married and Edison was in graduate school, he'd work late into the night in their apartment and crawl into bed with the calculations still percolating in his head. "What's it like?" Leslie would ask. "Where are you now?" She could tell he was remote, lit. They talked in territories.
"I've crossed all the open ground and the wind has stopped now. My hope is to find a way through this next place."
"Right. Okay, mountains, blank, very few markings." He spoke carefully and with a quiet zeal. "They're steep, hard to see."
"Is it cold?"
"No, but it is strange. It's quiet." Then he'd turn to her in bed, his eyes bright, alive. "I'm way past the path. I don't think anyone has climbed this route before. There are no trails, handholds."
Leslie would smile and kiss him in that close proximity. "Keep going," she'd say. "Halfway up that mountain, there's a woman with a cappuccino cart and a chicken salad sandwich: me."
Then a smile would break across his face, too, and he would see her, kiss her back, and say it: "Right. You."
Now in bed, Edison said, "Tell him it's like ..." He paused and ran the options. "Playing hide-and-seek."
"At night. In the forest?"
"Yes." He was whispering. "It's a forest and parts of this thing are all over the place. It's going to take a while."
The Hanovers' party was like all the parties, a ritual that Edison knew well. The kids swam while the adults drank, then the kids ate and went off into the various corners of the house primarily for television, and then the adults ate their grilled steaks or salmon or shish kebabs and drank a new wine while it got dark and they flirted. It was easy and harmless and whoever was up was sent to the kitchen or the cooler for more potato salad or beer and returned and gave whatever man or woman whatever he or she had asked for and said as a husband or wife might, "There you are, honey. Can I get you anything else, dear?" And maybe there'd be some nudging, a woman punctuating the sentence with her hip at a man's shoulder or a man taking a woman's shoulders in both hands possessively.
At some point there'd be Janny Hanover and Scott Plum coming out of the house holding hands and Janny announcing, "Scott and I have decided to elope," and he'd add, "I've got to have a woman who uses mayonnaise on everything." In their swimsuits in the dark, arms around each waist, now parting and rejoining the group, they did look as if it were a possibility. The eight adults were interchangeable like that, as swimsuit silhouettes, Edison thought, except me, I'm too skinny and too tall, I'd look like a woman's father walking out of the patio doors like that. I'd scare everybody Around the pool, the towels glowed in random splashes where they'd been thrown. Edison listened to the men and women talk, and when they laughed, he tried to laugh, too.
Days, while Leslie took Toby and Becky to the shoe store, the orthodontist, tennis lessons, Edison worked on his project. He was deep in the fields, each problem more like a long, long hike. He had to go way into each to see the next corner and then there to see forward. He had to keep his mind against it the entire time; one slip and he'd have to backtrack. Edison described his work to Leslie now the same way he began to think of it, as following little people through the forest: some would weave through the trees, while others would hide behind trees and change clothes, emerging at a different speed. He had to keep track of all of them, shepherd them through the trees and over a hill that was not quite yet in sight and line them up for a silver bus. The silver bus was Leslie's contribution. He'd work on butcher paper with pencils, and then after two or three o'clock, he would enter his equations into the computer and walk out into his house, his face vague, dizzy, not quite there yet.
Summer began in earnest and women began stopping by with towels. Edison would hear Janny Hanover or Paula Plum call from the front hall, the strange female voices coming to him at first from the field of numbers progressing across the wide paper. "Don't get up! It's just me! See you tonight at the Reeds'!" and then the door would shut again and Edison would fight with his rising mind to stay close to the shifting numerals as they squirmed and wandered. He felt, at such moments, as if he were trying to gather a parachute in a tricky and persistent wind.
Some days there'd be a tan face suddenly at his study door, Paula Plum or Melissa Reed, saying, "So this is where the genius does it," and placing two or three folded towels on the chair. The incursion was always more than Edison could process. He looked up at the woman, a hot-pink tank top, sunglasses in her hair, and felt as if he'd been struck. The calculation bled, toppled. Edison felt involved in some accident, his hands collapsed, his heartbeat in his face. Then she was gone, whoever she had been, singing something about tonight or tomorrow night at the Plums' or the Reeds', and Edison found himself dislocated, wrecked. His children knew not to barge in that way, because it meant his day's work vanished, and he'd spend hours looking out the front window or walking the neighborhood in the summer heat. The chasm between his pencil figurings and the figures of the real world was that, a chasm, and there was no bridge.
At the Reeds' and the Plums' while the kids splashed in the pool and Scott flirted with Melissa and Allen with Paula, silhouettes passing in and out of the house as summer darkness finally fell while everyone was fed grilled meat of all kinds and Paula Plum's tart potato salad, word got out that Edison was brusque, at least not hospitable, and Janny Hanover lifted her wine to him, saying, Why, darling, you looked absolutely like I was going to steal your trigonometry!" Edison smiled at her, feeling Leslie's gaze; he promised he'd try to do better. Holding this smile was pure effort.
"And you looked at me like you didn't even know who I was," Paula added.
Edison didn't know what to say, held the smile, tried to chuckle, might have, and then it became painfully clear that he should say something. He couldn't say what he thought: I don't know who you are. The faces glowed in a circle around him, the healthy skin, all those white teeth. "Well, my heavens," and there was a pause which they all knew they would fall into, and people knew they would have to do something — cough, get up for more beer, make a joke. He'd done this to this group a dozen times already this summer, what an oddball. Then he spoke: "Do you ladies go through the neighborhood surprising every geek who's double-checking his lottery numbers?"
And the pause sparked and Dan Hanover laughed, roared, and the laughter carried all of them across, and it was filled with gratitude and something else that Edison saw in Leslie's eyes, something about him: he'd scored a point. There was a new conviviality through the night, more laughter, the men brought Edison another beer, Leslie suddenly at ease. Children drifted in and out of the pool, docking between their parents' legs for a moment, then floated away, dropping towels here and there. Edison, the new center of the group, felt strange: warm and doomed.
The following days were different than any he'd known. People treated him, how? Cordially, warmly, more than that. This new fellowship confused him. He'd obviously broken the code and was inside now. His research crashed and vanished. At the butcher paper with his pencils he was like a man in the silent woods at night, reaching awkwardly for things he could not see. "I'm going in circles."
"Is any of it familiar? Is there a moon?" Leslie asked. "Shall I honk the horn of the silver bus? Start a bonfire?"
"There's no light, no wind. I'm stalled."
"Go uphill. You'll see the horizon."
But he didn't. The work he'd done, all the linkages had been delicate, and after two days the numbers paled and dried and the adhesive dissipated, and while he stared at the sheet, the ragged edge of the last figures, it all ran away. He was going to have to turn around, follow the abstruse calculations back until he could gather it all again. Edison left the room. He walked the long blocks of his neighborhood in the heat, lost and stewing.
Days, he began to ferry the kids around and was surprised to start learning the names of their friends, the young Plums, the Hanover girl, the Reed twins. He was surprised by everything, the pieces of a day, the way they fit and then fled. He'd wait in the van at the right hour, and the children would wander out of the movie theater and climb in. It was a wonder. He started cooking, which he'd always enjoyed, but now he started cooking all the time. Permutations on grilled cheese sandwiches, variations on spaghetti.
He delivered towels, returning stacks of cartoon characters to the Hanovers, Denver Bronco logo towels to the Plums, who had moved here from Colorado, and huge striped things to the Reeds, always trading for his family's mongrel assemblage. He became familiar with the women, dropping in on them at all daytime hours, calling in the front doors, "Man in the house," and hearing after a beat, Janny or Melissa or Paula call, "Thank heaven for that, come on in." If the kids were in the car, he'd drop the towels and greetings and hurry out; if not, sometimes it was coffee. Melissa Reed put a dollop of Jägermeister in hers; Janny Hanover drank directly out of a liter Evian bottle, offering him any of her husband's ales (Dan was a member of Ale of the Month); Paula made him help her make lemonade from scratch. All of the women were grateful for the company. These visits and the weekend parties made Edison in his new life feel as if he were part of a new, larger family, with women and children everywhere; he was with people more than he'd ever been in his life.
In bed he didn't want to talk; his hands ran over Leslie in his approach. She held him firmly, adjusted, asked, "What is it like now, the project?" Edison put his head against her neck, stopped still for a beat, and then began again working along her throat. "Ed, should I worry about you? Where are you with the research?" He lifted away from her in the dark, and then his hand descended and she caught it. She turned toward him now and he pulled to free his hand, but she held it. It was an odd moment for them. "Edison," she said. "What is going on?" They were lying still, not moving. "Are you okay? Have you stumbled on a log and hit your head on a sharp outcropping? Has a mighty bear chased you up a nasty tree? Did he bite you? Should I call that helicopter they use in the mountains?" He could hear the smile in her voice. "What do you need me to do? Where are the little people?" It was clear he was not going to answer. "They're waiting for you. Go get them. And I'm waiting, too, remember? By the silver bus. You'll make it, Ed." But when she let go of his hand and kissed him, he held still one second and then simply turned away.
The project needed to be done this season; it couldn't smolder for another year. They'd take him off it, and have him counting beans in the group cubicles. They put you out on the frontier like this once, and when you came back beaten, you joined one of the teams, your career in close orbit, the adventure gone.
Meanwhile, he fled the house. He'd stand close to Paula at the counter while they squeezed the lemons, their arms touching; he began having a drop of Jäger with Melissa, and when Janny Hanover would see him to the door, they'd hug for five seconds, which is one second over the line. He could feel her water bottle against his back.
Excerpted from At the Jim Bridger by Ron Carlson. Copyright © 2002 Ron Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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