Valentineby Lucius Shepard
In South Florida, a journalist is stranded in the coastal town of Piersall. This secluded landscape hosts an unlikely encounter with a past love and the beginning of a chain of events that will link the estranged lovers. Shepard investigates the nature of their love and the elusive, alienating force that separated them in the past, despite their seemingly boundless… See more details below
In South Florida, a journalist is stranded in the coastal town of Piersall. This secluded landscape hosts an unlikely encounter with a past love and the beginning of a chain of events that will link the estranged lovers. Shepard investigates the nature of their love and the elusive, alienating force that separated them in the past, despite their seemingly boundless passion. Here is an erotic valentine of insatiable longing and hope. "[Lucius Shepard] Brings to mind Graham Greene, Robert Stone, and Ward Just." -- Wall Street Journal
- Avalon Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Trade Paper Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.01(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.56(d)
Read an Excerpt
There are countries that exist only for a matter of days, sometimes only for hours, not lasting long enough to be named or even recognized for what they are by their temporary citizenry. Often they are created by fog banks, hurricanes, blizzards, by any force of nature with the power to isolate; on other occasions they are brought into being by incidences of cosmic weather, shifts in dimensionality and the like, events to which many of us in our stubborn rationality refuse to subscribe. Whatever the character of their borders, for the duration of their existence these countries are governed by their own peculiar laws, which we are persuaded to accept as logical and right, no matter how illogical and wrong they might strike us were we back in the country of our birth; and because we accept them, because we yield ourselves up to their remarkable processes, the unremarkable stuff of our lives may be transformed forever.
I am writing this during the week immediately preceding Valentine's Day, nearly three months after you and I met in just such a country, an encounter that you may not remember. Though I did not consciously choose the moment to write, I can't deny that the day is appropriate to the taska day when the confusions of love are cast aside and the essence of that emotion is expressed simply by means of heartfelt gifts and heart-shaped cards. What I have to say does not in itself constitute a simple expression, being a detailed record of our time together and referencing other times when we have shared the same latitude and longitude. But perhaps the simplicity of the form, a letter, will convey thesimplicity of the feelings that inspire it and so find its way to your heart.
Toward the end of last November, I was on assignment for Natural History, driving down the west coast of Florida, some eighty miles north of Fort Myers, when a hurricane alert was announced on the radio. It was extremely late in the year for a hurricane, and I saw no sign of impending bad weather; but to be on the safe side I stopped at the next town I came to and checked into the Shangri La Hotel: a rambling structure with wooden shutters, a screened verandah, and weathered once-white boards that had likely experienced its heyday as a secret mystical kingdom back in the 1930s, and had managed to survive into the new century by catering to the elderly and the infirm. I stowed my bag in a room on the second floor, a humid claustrophobic space with cheap production line furniture and ocher walls decorated by two tropical landscapes notable for the artist's poor control of perspective. A dead palmetto bug floated in the toilet. The room would have been a terrific place in which to pitch a self-pitying drunk. Since I hadn't reached that stage of depression, I had no wish to stay there any longer than necessary. After I washed up, I went for a walk along the beach.
The town to which the hotel belonged was Piersall, named for Jeremy Gaylord Piersall, an early settler memorialized by a plaque in front of a police station the size of a Burger King. Bungalow-style houses tucked in among the palms. A boardwalk lined with arcades, souvenir shops, and rides, most of them shut down. Three blocks of business districtone-story buildings of concrete block containing a predictable assortment of drugstores, realtor's offices, beachwear shops, and lawyer's nests. A gentle surf rolled in from the Gulf, and the sky had lowered, sealing the town off from the rest of the world; yet there was no accompanying rain and no wind. It was as if an enormous hand had set a pewter cup down over the place, the way a child might imprison an insect that has attracted his attention. The air was clear where I walked, but beyond the break lay a barrier of mist, and when I turned inland I discovered that the highway had in effect been sheared away by a fog bank some twenty feet past the city limits. I'd never encountered a fog with such distinct boundaries. Two steps in, and I couldn't see my feet.
Back at the hotel I broke out my laptop, hoping to get some work done, but I began to feel out of sorts and wondered if I might not be coming down with a cold. I was giving thought to hunting up a drugstore when I heard footsteps in the corridor. I cracked the door to discover who else had been rash enough to check into the Shangri La. Just passing my room was a tall brunette woman with long legs and a serene gait. My angle was poorI only glimpsed a partial profile. But I knew it was you. As I shut my door I heard the door to the adjoining room open. A surge of adrenaline made my fingers tremble. What were the odds against a coincidence of this order? That eleven years after you left me and returned to your marriage, six years after our final meeting, we would wind up in the same hick town, in adjoining rooms at the same hotel?
"Jesus!" I said, and sank into a chair. I was dizzy; I could feel a rapid pulse in my neck. A couple of spins later I said again, more reverentially, "Jesus," and got to my feet. If I had seen a tiger or a burning man, I couldn't have been more dumbfounded.
Maybe, I thought, it wasn't you.
Then I could have sworn I felt you moving about on the other side of the wall. I dropped back into the chair. Nobody else but you activated my dog senses.
For a considerable time I was unable to think, overwhelmed by what had happened. I imagined the two of us glowing like two fireflies in caves set side-by-side, each believing themselves alone, but confused by an electric sense of one another. I decided to find a different hotel, motivated more by a fear of disharmony than by any notion of moral correctness. But instead I sat there replaying scenes from our serial affair. Our first night in Madison. Living together in New York. The break-up. Epistolary interludes and telephone calls. Passionate reunions. Once I figured out I wasn't going to leave, I went into the hall. I grew light-headed again, and I braced my palm against your door to steady myself. No more than half an hour had elapsed since you walked past, and I was already a wreck. I pulled myself together, knocked and stood listening to your footsteps. When you saw me, your expression of pleasant inquiry flattened out. I couldn't tell whether you were angry or alarmed, but I could tell joy wasn't part of the mix.
"What are you doing here?" you asked.
"Six billion people," I said. "We were bound to run into one another."
I realized you must be in shock. Whereas I'd had time to get accustomed to the idea of seeing you again, you were in the initial stages. "I'm hiding out from the hurricane," I told you.
"Me, too," you said.
The moment stretched. Grew bloated. Swelled to bursting. I was on the verge of throwing in the towel when you drew me into a sisterly hug and invited me in. The paintings on your walls were seascapes by, apparently, the same myopic artist whose work infested my room.
"I almost didn't recognize you," you said, closing the door.
"Right ... the beard." I sat in a chair by the window. "It hides the gunshot wound."
You offered a frosty laugh and perched on the foot of the bed. A silence shouldered between us. I asked how you had been. "Oh ... okay," you said, and gave a demonstration smile, as if attesting to the Jim-dandy level of okay-ness you were experiencing. You asked how I had been. This was going well.
"Y'know ... working," I said. "I'm working."
I couldn't stop staring at you. Time had lightly notched the skin at the corners of your eyes, but you remained an extraordinarily beautiful woman. You had on a plaid blouse and a wraparound skirt. Traveling clothes. On your right calf, two inches below the knee, was a faded dime-sized bruise. I wanted to touch it.
"I'm doing a piece on smuggling in South Florida," I said.
You told me you had been attending a conference in Miami and had been taking a drive up the coast before returning to California. Then the hurricane alert.
"I'm tenured now. A full professor." You pronounced this last with a lilt, as if to ridicule its freight of pomposity. "I'm only teaching one class this semester, so I've had time to do some writing ... a little traveling."
You fitted your eyes to the corner of the bed. Everything was beginning to feel sad and heavy. I kept expecting the climate of bad timing and tragic mistakes that governed our relationship to settle over us and, being unable to generate a reasonable catastrophe on short notice, perform a magical operation that would cause one of us to vanish. You glanced at me. Your smile flickered on, off, on. Off.
"Isn't the hotel awful?" You patted the bed. "These sheets ... I don't think they were washed. And I found dead bugs in the bathroom."
"They got tree frogs in the Fontainebleau," I said. "Every hotel in Florida has a signature pest."
You sighed, and I recalled your extensive vocabulary of sighs. This one I interpreted to signify your feeling that I did not sufficiently credit the importance of hotel cleanliness. The conversation required a restart. Would I oblige?
"Want to go for a walk?" I asked.
You didn't quite jump to your feet, but you moved pretty damn fast.
I'VE SAID THAT YOU MAY NOT REMEMBER our time together in Piersall, or more precisely, in the strangely elusive country that Piersall became for several days. Yet perhaps you do remember. Perhaps the memories are troublesome for you. That is why I have been reluctant to writeI doubt the story of those days will have any good effect. It may even cause you harm. Whatever the case, I need your help in determining what has happened to us, and what is happening. If I am to persuade you to help, if you do not remember, then I need to tell you everything, even the most intimate details. It is essential that you accept the fact of our intimacy, because the quality and particulars of that intimacy comprise a large portion of what I want to understand; and the only hope I have of convincing you is to make you aware of what we did and how we were and what we said to one another.
It grew dark as we strolled along the beach. There were no stars, no moon, but a stretch of mucky sand in front of the boardwalk was redly lit by the neon facade of the Joyland Arcade, which was sandwiched between a smallish Ferris wheel and a shop that sold spray-painted hats and T-shirts during the summer. Steps led up to the boardwalk, and we sat on the bottom one and talked. Soon you began to laugh, to lean toward me. Once you touched me on the arm when I made a joke. After that you became less talkative and less affectionate, and I concluded that you were afraid of encouraging me. I felt the same as I had when I first met you. Unnaturally alert and focused. Wavelets slopped onto shore, digital bleeps issued from the arcade, and a warm breeze carried smells of fried food and brine. But I am aware of these things by process of deduction aloneI was completely concentrated on you, attentive to every gesture, every nuance of expression.
Years ago you told me that you were painfully shy as a child, afraid of talking, and so had learned to communicate with your eyesthis the reason for their expressiveness. Large and dark, framed by long lashes, they have always had the capacity to calm me, and this potency had been refined when, seven years before, I was jailed in China on a bogus charge of espionage and beaten by the police so badly that I suffered a spinal injury. During my incarceration, to distract my attention from the pain in my back, I would bite my arm until I drew blood. On one occasion I knocked myself out, banging my head so hard against the concrete floor that I was concussed and couldn't see straight for a couple of days. Seeking a less destructive form of pain management, I set about to reconstruct your image from memory. I had intended to recreate your entire body, but once I succeeded in conjuring up your eyes, I abandoned the rest of the project. Thereafter, whenever the guards came into my cell, I would switch on your eyes and watch fragments of light swimming up toward their surfaces, like the bubbles of a diver rising from the depths. Sitting on the boardwalk steps that night, I could scarcely look away from them, and I believed you were using them to warn me off, to tell me that nothing could happen here, nothing had changed, neither your decision to stay with your husband nor the fact that you loved me.
For the better part of an hour you talked about your studentsyour favorites, others that posed a challengeand told me news about parents, sisters, pets. Safe topics. But then we touched on the old days. Just dipping our toes in those waters ... or so I presumed.
"I ran into Carol a few months ago," you said. "She works in San Francisco now. For a publishing trade paper."
"Carol ... huh."
I had lost track of the friends we kept when we were lovers, and I did a lousy impression of someone interested in Carol. The feelings about you that I'd tried to bury had kicked off their shroud and were doing the freak in my head. To hell with Carol. The only person I was interested in was inches away and utterly beyond reach. If we had been characters in a cartoon, a little devil child would have been hopping up and down on my left shoulder, jabbing my head with a pitchfork and screaming, "Grab her!" while on the other shoulder a precious angel baby would have been sprinkling stardust down onto my crotch, reminding me to think pure thoughts and pay no attention to my metabolism, which was throwing a testosterone party. This shit, I told myself, was the very essence of pathetic fucked-uppedness. All I could think to say was something about how I had not seen Carol for years. I couldn't bring myself to sound so banal, so I said something truly stupid instead.
"I still love you, y'know," I said.
You ducked your head. "I know."
Just the response I'd been hoping for.
"Sorry," I said. "I'm ... sorry."
"Russell ..." You laid a consoling hand on my shoulder, and I stiffened with resentmentconsolation was not required.
"It's okay ... I'm fine. Really." With studied nonchalance, I said, "So what did you and Carol get up to?"
"We don't have to talk about Carol," you said.
Somebody inside Joyland switched on the outside speakers, and Bob Marley took to exhorting folks to stand up for their rights.
"I'm probably too worked up to talk about anything else," I said. "I wasn't expecting to see you. I'm not prepared."
You stared off to sea. A played-out wave spread into a film that raced halfway up the slope of the beach, leaving a line of foam to mark its reach. The pause grew uncomfortably long.
"Why don't we get something to eat?" I said. "I hear Piersall's got great restaurants. Denny's ... I heard the Denny's here is truly outstanding."
You gave me a look that I recognizedthe sort of distressed look I associated with moments when you had been trying to find a way not to say something hurtful. I'd had occasion in the past, when I was angry, to think that if you spent less time trying not to hurt people, you would do far less damage; but I knew things were more complicated than that.
"I'm not unhappy to see you," you said.
The comment embodied a baffling neutralityI failed in my attempt to analyze it.
"Me neither," I said. "I'm extremely not unhappy."
That got me a smile.
"Spectacularly not unhappy." I said.
We had maneuvered past the moment, but could not put it completely aside. Our talk grew slower, more considered, and our eyes met frequently, as if we were monitoring levels of intimacy.
"What'll you do once you're finished down here?" you asked.
"Go back to New York. Get another assignment." I flicked a fragment of coquina shell off the stepbits of shell were embedded decoratively in the cement. "There's this guy, this jazz musician ... Elliott Crain?"
You weren't familiar with Elliott.
"He's a great guitarist ... has his own studio. We've been talking about recording a CD of spoken word stuff. I might take some time and do that. And I've got a book coming out in December. I'm going on kind of a mini-tour."
You leaned toward me and, I think, were tempted to break the moratorium on touching. You questioned me about the book and the tour, about various writers and film people of my acquaintance whose names came up in the course of conversation.
"You're so busy," you said enviously, as if being busy were an unrealized goal.
"I might take a few weeks after Christmas and go somewhere."
"A vacation?" You laughed. "Where would you go? You must have been almost everywhere by now."
"Some places are worth a second visit." I wanted to kick myself. Why is it, when you are trying to show a woman that you're an ordinary guy and not an obsessed idiot, every sentence that pops out of your mouth sounds like smooth talk from a bad movie? Maybe, I thought, it was just the obsessed idiot in me.
"They may have changed," you said. "You might not enjoy them as much as you did the first time."
Then again, I thought, maybe you had a similar problem.
I might have extended the metaphor, said something on the order of, "Some places change for the better," and you might have said, "Yes, but such places are often cheapened by tourism," and then we would have gone winging off into an insane approximation of a Monty Python skit. But we were spared this by the appearance of three teenage boys, bagging and sagging in oversized clothes, who leaned on the railing above us and began passing a joint. Their voices were thick and loutish. Their laughter had an impaired quality. Once they finished smoking, they cracked open a couple of forty-ouncers. They peered at us and spoke in an unfamiliar language. It sounded East Asian. Words that dovetailed into sighs and frequently rose in pitch at the end of a phrase. But since the three boys were Caucasian, I decided the language was more likely Eastern European, though that didn't ring true, either.
It became obvious they found our act more entertaining than yet another game of Quake. They were using us for tinder in their search for self-esteem, addressing us in that singsong parlance, then sneering when we failed to respond. Giving up on the idea of a quiet talk, we started back toward Shangri La.
I assumed this would be the extent of our reuniona chance meeting, a superficial conversation, an exchange of vibrations, all followed by a sleepless night spent separated from you by six inches of plaster and dead bugs. But as we drew near the hotel, its lights illuminating a section of beach, you slipped your hand into mine. You didn't look at me, just kept walking with your head down. Like a fool, I let this state of affairs continue for half a minute or so, supposing that it must be a balance thingcould be you were having difficulty with your footing and had latched on to me for support. The second I smartened up I stepped in front of you and took you by the waist. "Where are we going here?" I asked.
Your right hand fell to my forearm, strayed to my elbow; then you disengaged and walked off toward the water. A breeze fiddled with your hair.
When I was a gun-loving little kid, my uncle used to take me hunting, and I recall standing stock-still and silent so as not to spook the deer grazing on the far side of a creek. I had that feeling now. One twig crack or cough, and you'd bound away into the forest. But I was afraid that stress had frozen your mechanisms, jammed your gearsI had to do something. "Hey." I said, easing up beside you. "Tell me what's going on."
"I'm ... I don't know what I'm doing," you said.
I shoveled up a toeload of wet sand with my left shoe and flipped it away.
"What are you thinking about?" you asked.
"This second? I was thinking about the last time I saw you. You came to visit me in Oakland over Christmas, remember? We drove down to Carol's place."
"I remember," you said. "You were so desperate."
"I had reason. You wouldn't even kiss me. Just these little pecks on the lips."
"You had so much power over me. I was afraid to kiss you."
Implying, I thought, that I no longer had such power.
"I wish ..." You left the words hanging, but I knew more-or-less what you had intended to sayyou wished we had made love that night at Carol's, or that you had run away with me to Bali or Bahia or Oregon, or else it was one of a hundred other wishes that could easily have come true.
"If wishes were horses ..." I said to fill in the gap.
"Then I'd own the ranch!" You made a comically sad face, and a little "oh well" noise with your lips.
We were stalled, it seemed. Going nowhere slow.
"Have you ever been back to Bahia?" you asked.
"Since I wrote you about it? No."
"I loved your letters."
"I wish I hadn't had to write them."
"The letters I liked best were stories," you said wistfully. "You made up stories about us ... as if we were living together in Brazil. Remember? They were so beautiful."
A film of dark water edged with foam seethed up the incline of the beach; some tiny thing that had been tumbled out of the depths now went skittering back into the sea. I fumbled for your hand. You gave my fingers a squeeze and moved away.
"Want to go for a swim?" I asked.
You gave a startled laugh and said, "Excuse me?"
"Want me to go away?"
"No!" Then, less emphatically, "No ... I don't."
"So if you have a choice between going for a swim tonight or me going away, you're down for the swim, right?"
"Is that my choice?" you said distantly. "I'm afraid I didn't bring a suit."
I gestured at the hotel. "They're all watching `Jeopardy' in there. Nobody'll see us."
A warm rush of wind came from the southeast, and the palms along the beach gave it a hissing, clattering voice, like a convention of witches rustling their broomsticks in applause.
"I don't think so," you said.
I was out of tricks, out of idle conversation. We were here alone together, about to take a step, or else your husband had joined us on the beach in spirit, in
Excerpted from VALENTINE by Lucius Shepard. Copyright © 2002 by Lucius Shepard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >