Reed Futrell still went camping in the Fort Wolf Wildlife Refuge, but he no longer brought along his dog. One spring evening, after his shift ended, he raced home, stuffed his knapsack, loaded his gear onto his bike, and headed for the refuge. He was in one of the enigmatic moods that clobbered him from time to time, and when it struck—the way a migraine hammered some people—his impulse was to hop on his hog and run. Last fall, when one of these moods grabbed him, he rode hundreds of miles, to Larimer County, Colorado, where—in a hot tub at a spa—he came to his senses and felt like turning back home.
“Good boy, Clarence,” he had said to his collie-shepherd combo as he left the fenced yard and fastened the gate. “Lay low now. And be sweet—unless anybody tries to break in. You know what to do, killer.”
During the five-mile ride, he ignored the industrial scenery and the suburban tableaus and the trailer havens. He escaped the desolation of the outskirts quickly, pretending his hog was a Thoroughbred stallion. As he approached the wilderness, Reed tried to imagine that he was seeing the place for the first time, as if he were entering the unfolding present of the opening of a movie. He was watching, curious to see what might happen.
What anyone notices first about this vast, flat landscape is the fantastical shapes of rising white clouds—plumes and balloons and pillows of cloud, like fleecy foam insulation blown from a hose. When Hollywood filmed a frontier drama here, the source of the clouds remained just outside the frame of the Cinerama panoramas. A radiant green extended for miles, and the great mud and might of the river seemed unlimited. Even now, if you saw this landscape from a sufficient distance and you didn’t know better, you might imagine an untouched old-growth forest. The billowy puffs seem innocent. They are so purely white, it’s as though only dainty, clean ladies’ drawers could have been set aflame to produce them.
But now as the camera zooms in closer, you see that the green is crisscrossed by linked electric towers leading to a set of old gray buildings of assorted sizes—including Quonset huts and prefab mobile units. They are unprepossessing except for the largest two, which appear ample enough to house a fleet of C-5 transport aircraft. These two buildings, in chorus, emit a low roar, like the sound of a waterfall.
Now, the close-ups. The row of gleaming scrap heaps. The gate with the danger signs. The small building brightly decorated with yellow signs and festooned with yellow tape. One rusty pile of smashed barrels and girders and coils staggering to the height of a two-story building. From this mountain of metal, a ditch threads into a lagoon, where the still water is green and shiny. Other small lagoons are outlined with yellow ribbon.
A parking lot is filled with large metal canisters painted a pretty aqua color. They resemble gargantuan Prozac capsules. Thousands of them line the pavement. They are parked in geometric rows, like patient pupae waiting to become worms. Beyond the six-pack of cooling towers and the twin smokestacks, two tall construction cranes rise from a clearing on the edge of the wilderness, where a scrim of temporary fencing conceals a new act in an ongoing drama.
Reed’s motorcycle plugs along a gravel road, skirting the security perimeter, passing the tall scrap heap, then leaving the gray, humming village and easing into the solace of the woods, where campers and hunters, with their dogs and deer rifles and picnic coolers, have pursued the natural life for years. Boy Scouts have their roundups and jamborees here. Coon-dog clubs hold their field trials.
The wilderness sprawls toward the river. The road leads into the heart of this sanctuary, away from the string of high-voltage towers and the dancing plumes. Even the crash and gurgle of the invisible waterfall grows distant. But the luminescence of the place remains, brightening with the growing dusk.
Reed Futrell wound through a labyrinth of gravel roads, stirring up a dusting of memories. He had been coming to this place all his life. His uncle Ed taught him to fish here in the large ponds, long before the water began to turn strange colors. He killed his first—and only—buck here. He hunted squirrels with his cousins. He went on church picnics, although he belonged to no church. He probably had camped in this woods three hundred times.
He decided to camp near the levee, where he could hear the blasts from the tugboats towing barges of iron ore and coal. Leaving his bike near a clearing, he lit out through a stand of river birches. He followed his glimpses of the immense metal bridge that spanned the river. At the top of the levee, he squatted and let the last of the sunset happen, imagining it was coming out of him, that he had the power to make the sun go down. If the sun, flaming orange, was like the inferno inside him, the burning blaze of fear and desire, then perhaps he could drop it over the horizon as casually as a basketball. He rose to attention as the sun’s top rim sank. A haze of thin clouds spread above the horizon. A cool tinge in the air brushed his skin. A coal barge was gliding along, and he could see the tugboat captain on his perch. Reed had considered that way of life for himself at one time, a means of living without moorings.
At the levee, he was always aware of his maternal grandfather, who had worked with the Army Corps of Engineers building the levees and preparing the way for the marching towers of electricity that fed the gaseous-diffusion plant. Somewhere along the levee, Boyce Reed had been working on an erosion project, laying willow matting along the banks, when he fell ill with pneumonia. Whenever Reed came here, he was gripped by the vision of his grandfather suffering from fever and congestion while lying in his tent by the riverbank. He had been in the tent for three days before anyone realized how sick he was. He died in 1951, before Reed was born. Reed knew little about him, a pale man in a portrait on his mother’s mantel, so coming here was like a ritual connection. Reed did not have a line of men he was close to. His father, Robert Futrell, had died young, in 1964, when Reed was only six, in an accident at the plant. It was up to his uncles to teach him how to be a man. “This is the way your daddy always baited his hook,” they would say. Or, “He was the champion when it came to muzzle loading.” And “The Almighty broke the mold after he made Robert Futrell.” Reed felt he couldn’t live up to his father’s reputation, and it took years for him to realize that his uncles meant nothing personal.
In the growing darkness, he hiked briskly through the woods back to the spot where he had left his bike. He made his camp methodically, laying out one of his tarps on the ground and stringing the other among some tree branches for an overhead shelter. Then he smoothed off a place for his tent. Slamming the pegs with satisfaction, he anchored the base corners, then wormed the aluminum tubes through their little fabric tunnels. His pup tent sprang open like a flower unfolding on high-speed film.
He constructed a small fire and heated some beans, then unwrapped a chicken focaccia sandwich and snapped open a can of beer. He ate, watching the fire swell and turn colors. The warmth was pleasant. The air still held the mellow spring daytime smells of bloom and decay. The light from the plant blotted out much of the night, but he could see a faint smattering of the Milky Way and a few of the brighter stars. He thought he could make out Sirius. He liked to imagine dying stars, their enormous fires imploding or exploding. He tried, as he often did, to grasp the idea that the present moment did not exist in some star a million light-years off. It was not now there. Not even on Mars was it now. If that was true, it could be reversed, he thought. He and his fire and his tent did not exist from the vantage point of the star, or on Mars, at this moment—whenever that might be.
Viewing the stars, he always felt privileged to witness ultimate mystery, to be in it. The universe tantalized and affronted him, ripping him out of his own petty corner. As he ate, hypnotized by the fire, he listed in his mind all the things in his life that were good. His kids had jobs and weren’t in trouble, his ex-wife was satisfied, his mother was nestled in a senior citizens’ home. His dog didn’t have fleas.
But he had not seen Julia in six weeks. She came out here with him a couple of times, most recently on a freakishly fair day on the last of February. They picnicked in a meadow beside the ruins of Fort Wolf, the old munitions factory that had operated during World War II. It was one of his favorite places. The hulks of the ragged concrete walls were like the forlorn remnants of a castle. Two water towers, their brick and mortar crumbling, stood like bookends without books to hold. He cavorted with her, half-naked, shouting, “It can’t get any better than this!” In the sunny afternoon they wallowed around lazily on a flannel blanket. At night they snuggled in the pup tent (his double-pup tent, he told her when she questioned its size) and shook up the wilderness with riotous sex.
Still gazing at the fire, his sandwich now gone, he wandered into a reverie about Julia, trying to create a Top Ten list of sex-dates with her. But none of them could be relived in his mind. He couldn’t remember what she was wearing the last time he saw her. She said, “I can’t loiter. I’ve got an immunogenetics seminar to go to.” And after that, she did not answer the telephone messages he left.
Julia, who worked at a cytopathology lab, planned to save the world from sinister infectious diseases like Ebola and anthrax. Early in their relationship, not realizing how ambitious she was, he had suggested she go to nursing school. She good-humoredly dismissed his idea.
“I can stick people,” she said. “But I’d rather be in charge of a mental hospital than have to do a Foley or a rectal.”
“You’d rather hear about their cracked minds than look at their cracks,” he said.
She thought for a moment. “A cracked mind—I like that.”
Julia was from Chicago. He loved to hear her talk. Her sweet Scandinavian-Irish-Polish twang. Her sharp, precise sounds, her back-slanted A’s and rounded O’s. He missed her vowels. He missed her lip gloss. She used flavored lip gloss habitually and sometimes smeared it straight across, instead of following the natural lines, so that her mouth was a wide, glistening swath.
He would get his blood tested if she could be the one to stick him. He hadn’t had a complete physical in five years. He was a notorious procrastinator—with tinnitus and a thrumming lust that ran like a refrigerator, kicking on and off automatically.
The tree frogs were peeping a cacophony, in which he heard raucous machines and anxious melodies. He draped a blanket around him and fed the fire little twigs. He picked a tick from his scalp and dropped it into the flame. The sky was gathering clouds, and the stars were fading. The clouds moved swiftly. He couldn’t even see the Dippers. He had been to the Smoky Mountains one August during the Perseid meteor shower; it was dazzling, like fireworks, like the Big Bang. He tried to remember it now, but it was like trying to remember sex; you had to be there then. If there was no now there now, then there would be no then there now either.
Inside his tent, he sidled in and out of sleep, dreaming that Julia was with him. He dreamed that she telephoned a pizza parlor, and a machine voice told her, “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line.”
A sound penetrated his sleep. In his semiwakefulness he thought he heard himself fart—a muffled, explosive blat that projected over toward the levee, as if his bowels were practicing ventriloquism. But he hadn’t heard himself fart that loudly in years. As a gentle rain began to fall, he sank back into sleep, with the soothing and hypnotic shush of the raindrops on the leaves.
In his dream, a car pulls up nearby and the engine shuts off. The headlights go off, but an interior light stays lit. The car seems to huddle between the shadows of the ancient water towers. The moon climbs high, but the driver of the car does not emerge. With spring peepers screaming out their courtship messages, the night seems welcoming. Hours pass. Then, near midnight, the car door opens once briefly, and a woman—indistinct in the dim light—slips out of the seat, shuts the door, and squats on the ground for a few minutes. Then she reenters the car, starts the engine and lets it run. Radio music blares. The car does not move from its spot in the shadows. The engine keeps running, with the dome light shining and the music playing until the car runs low on gas and begins to sputter. The engine dies. The light goes out. And the blast of the gun splinters the night calm. In a while, rain begins to fall softly.
Reed tries to awaken, but he feels paralyzed. He struggles fitfully, and then eases deeper into dream as his muscles release and he floats toward the car. He glimpses the ice-blue metal, burning like candles, between the water towers. He approaches cautiously, noticing that it is a luxury sedan, a nice city car, not the kind of vehicle a camper or hiker would be driving. Slopping his way through puddles, he reaches the car.
He stares through the broken window at the shattered face. She has fallen toward the wheel, but he can see half her face is ripped away, leaving a reddish-brown spaghetti sauce. She must have hit her temple at a slant. He does not need to open the door. He can see the revolver on the floorboard, a .38 special, its handle decorated with floral decals.
On the dashboard, fastened with tape, are pictures of children. Two boys and two girls. All of them little, smiling, in Halloween costumes, the least one in a bunny outfit, with long, erect ears.