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Joseph Hurka attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has published his fiction in numerous literary quarterlies. His memoir, Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father, was a winner of the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award. He teaches writing at Tufts University, and lives in southern New Hampshire.
From WTP Vol. VIII #6
A wet December morning. Mist in the pine trees, the river beside the winding road a bold black mirror between white shores. Peter Baker drives past glazed summer chairs, and tables where umbrellas stand, folded, frosted, like daggers aimed at the pale sky. Daybreak is revealing yards with the strewn remnants of childhood: buckets with plastic shovels, a baseball pitch-set with a leg missing, bikes collected near a door—a jumble of spokes and chains and welded joints, thrown in abandon, cast off, frozen.
Baker glances at his watch: 6:17. His sedan glides over the newly paved road. Past a hunting lodge now, a motel, a sign saying Sleep Beneath the Pines. All of New Hampshire seems asleep. On the motel office door, weak Christmas lights shine through the morning.
There was nothing in Baker’s pantry at home, and little in the refrigerator, so he is heading to the McDonald’s out on Route 202/9, the next town over, for breakfast. He is unmarried, just days away from turning fifty, childless; he is a consulting engineer who has had his own business for some ten years now. He watches the river curve into the snowy distance and he remembers, last night—faces surrounding him: Baker’s fingers go cold on the steering wheel. He tightens his grip.
There was a Christmas party at the newly-renovated Continental-Manchester, put on by Combined Resin and Dye, a client. Peter Baker attended alone. The hotel was magnificent: a crowded ballroom, golden chandeliers hovering, the ceiling arched high above. Women were dressed in the subdued colors of winter, men in black; fluted glasses rose and joined. Christmas trees sparkled, their lights reflected in the large windows, their festivity very nearly masking the blue-gray press of winter outside.
Baker’d had one Schnapps, then two. He’d felt a little reckless. He’d listened to conversations of colleagues around him, Joe will be in college in a year, can you believe it? Sixty thousand for tuition. Sixty goddamned thousand. We’ve decided we’re too fucking old for this. He’d looked for opportunities to join in the banter: he’d joked about his upcoming milestone of a birthday with Don Hebert, a Combined chemical engineer, and a group of others. Don’s wife Louisa, a professor, drunk, leaned in and asked—in a tone of academic inquiry—why had Baker never married? Was he afraid of commitment? Of women? Why hadn’t he ever wanted a family? I’m still viable, Baker replied, jocular. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have a harem and more children than all of you. The gathering laughed. He’d said it to defy his inquisitor, for everyone knew that when Louisa drank, she eventually arrived at the conclusion that all men were simply misogynists; Baker was trying to pre-empt that conversation. But now Dr. Louisa Moore-Hebert bore down on him like a pit-bull. Our poor Baker, she said. Always observing the lives of others, still dreaming about fucking some NFL cheerleader. No wife, no children to show. It’s mighty late in the game, Mr. Viable.
Shut up, for Christ’s sake, her husband whispered, fiercely. But the damage was done: talking seemed to stop around Baker, female faces drew down in astonishment, men turned their eyes to the floor. Don Hebert spirited his wife away, the two of them quarreling. Baker tried not to show his wounding: he shrugged and grinned and said he’d probably had it coming, bringing up a harem with a professor of women’s studies. Harry Roy, a Combined draftsman (Roy had coordinated with Baker on an important Kevlar-winch project recently, for a firm in Stockholm) brought out another Schnapps and said, Well Happy Birthday anyway, you old bastard, you old son of a bitch. The others smiled and laughed with relief, pity still in their eyes, and raised their glasses. Some clapped Baker on the back.
Soon enough, he’d gone out into the cold night, carrying his drink, to be alone with his humiliation. He’d sat on a new set of cement steps, feeling dizzy. Sipped at his Schnapps, shivered, looking out at Manchester; the cold air cleared his head a little. Bright car lights made a straight line down the main highway, the Continental towered above, and there was new, frantic construction just one block over—work lamps glancing through fences, construction vehicles shifting, grunting, accelerating. The world moved by Baker, expanding relentlessly in all directions.
He hadn’t slept much, lost in the words of the professor. There are things you hide within yourself—things that, spoken aloud, become real and then you must deal with them. It’s mighty late in the game, Dr. Louisa Moore-Hebert had said, with her terrible, drunken certainty. Baker tossed in the sheets and blankets. He seemed to be confronting, in his night, his complete failure as a man. He had always imagined himself as a father and husband: he’d believed that one day he would be a good father. Sometimes it was stunning to him, the point he’d reached in life, how fast the years had gone. He thought of the faces at the party—how pitiful he must have seemed, in that moment, to the others! The ice formations in his crystalized bedroom windows were sharp, chaotic, lit by a streetlight below; shadows—triangles and rectangles—stretched every which way in the room. Occasionally Baker swore at the challenge of his advancing age—at the way women looked through him now, rather than at him. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
What he might have said, what he might have told the drunken Dr. Louisa Moore-Hebert, was that he was taking care of his parents through his late thirties and forties—his father with Alzheimer’s, his mother with diabetes and heart complications. He might have told her he’d had to leave his job and create his own business to deal with the excess medical bills. He’d fought with Medicare, with the insurance company; there were times when every day had seemed like a ferocious, calculating battle. He thought of the professor exposing him in his shame—what the hell did Dr. Louisa Moore Hebert know? She knew nothing about him. She saw Baker at a few gatherings, she knew he worked with her husband on occasional projects, that was it. What did a woman like this understand about loving someone so completely that you couldn’t leave their side?
Restless, abandoning his bed well after midnight, Baker went down to his living room and watched the very late shows, where glamorous television stars, movie stars, were interviewed—their eyes bright with flirtation, their long, naked legs crossed. Their colorful light flickered over him. He pulled a blanket over himself, dozed in and out. He imagined waking on a small sailboat with one of these stars in the Caribbean; he imagined stepping with one of them into the next trade party—that moment when Dr. Louisa Moore-Hebert would spy Baker and his date, when she and everyone would have to acknowledge that he lived a secret, vital life of passion. He got up, rummaged through his kitchen shelves, ate popcorn, candy bars; toward morning, wanting something more substantial, he could find nothing—so he is driving now for breakfast burritos and orange juice: he is driving to ease his soul, to get away from the truth of himself.
There is the old iron bridge ahead, the road turning right, the black river flowing fast beneath. The road curls by a set of neat, contained bungalows, and the muddy trucks of hunters—Ford F-150s and Dodge Rams—are parked before them. The trucks seem to overwhelm the wooden structures. Snowy paths, leading away from the row of huts, lay in wait for fresh boot prints. Baker has grown up in New Hampshire; he fired guns at targets as a boy with his father, but he’s never understood hunters. No matter how much they rationalize hunting as a service to thin a herd, no matter how they worship it as a kind of religion, hunters, to Baker’s mind, kill just for the sport of killing. What anxieties, Baker wonders now—what insecurities and cruelties—must a man have within himself to be soothed by picking up a high-powered gun and blowing an animal away? Where in hell is the sport in that?
His thoughts tumble; the white and black unfolds before him. No wife, no children to show. It’s mighty late in the game, Mr. Viable—Baker wonders how Don Hebert lives with the woman, with her sarcasm and unappeasable anger. The dark gray sky sweeps above, lightening now just a little; a milky edge of sun tries to break through the forest-horizon to the east. The sedan hisses over salted tar. Baker thinks of another woman—one he admired greatly; in his memory they are having lunch in a seaport in Massachusetts—across the table she is wearing a white blouse, golden hoops for earrings. Her eyes are olive-green, wet, staring at him. She leans forward, holds his hands, tells him she can’t live with his complications, she knows this makes her a failure as a partner. Baker finally says, I understand, of course—giving her the graceful exit. But he should have fought for her—for the sanity this lover brought into his life: he should have demonstrated to her, somehow, that he was capable of both taking care of his parents and romantic connection.
He imagines the nursing home, a hallway filled with the aged in wheelchairs, his father gazing at him vaguely. In a bright hospital room eleven months ago, his mother’s lined face is exhausted, her eyes looking at him above a plastic mask.
There is a long run of gnarled oak trees to either side of the road and then a rise and dip; Baker drives beneath low-hanging branches. Down, down he goes; he feels the descent in his chest, the tar leveling into a small, snowy field. And here, coming up on the left, is a hunter—compound bow in full draw, aiming at something directly across the road. In a moment Baker will pass under the point of the man’s arrow, but the hunter does not lower his bow. The insolence—the stupidity and menace—of the raised weapon has Baker slowing, running down his window, shaking his fist, shouting out—“You don’t fire across a ROAD, goddamnit—put the bow DOWN.” But the man stays rigid in his pose, stark in his fading camouflage, his dark-red vest.
Baker is up to the hunter now, seeing the stubborn jaw and the arrow and one murderous eye and an eyebrow arched. Baker shouts, “PUT THE BOW DOWN, YOU CRAZY PRICK—” and there is a quick movement of the hunter’s hand and the arrow-point is growing and the window directly behind Baker explodes—the son of a bitch fired.
Baker ducks, puts his foot on the accelerator—if the man was insane enough to release a first arrow, he might well be loading another. Cold air blasts through the car. Baker bellows in that wind-whistling space, pounding at his dashboard—Goddamned maniac. His sedan swerves over the road. He drives a few hundred yards around two turns, regains himself, slows, pulls the car over. His heart wows in his ears. Tall pines, their lower branches trimmed, rise all around him, a stone-cold morning quiet, a great darkness to them; far ahead Baker sees the overpass of 202/9, early morning traffic hushing. He turns to inspect his car: his back-left window is gone, the right pane spidered. On the rear seat, looking like the message of some malevolent alien, the arrow lies among shards of glass—black and white carbon, brass tip.
Baker’s legs, his hands, are shaking. He senses the strange, still-roaming terror of the Other: he imagines the hunter back there crossing the field quickly, making for the trees. If Baker had a rifle, he would go back and kneel in the snow. He would aim carefully and fire until the man fell. He would keep firing, watching the body jolt with each impact; he would keep taking aim at the body in the snow.
His heart pounds in his temples. That brief disk of sun emerges and stays, bringing white diffuse light that offers a new precision to everything—seats, stick shift, files of schematics and reports and Baker’s i-phone on the passenger seat. There is an uncontrollable tremor through his hand as he reaches for the phone. He concentrates, taps, holds the phone to his ear, fixes within himself a decision: he will wait here for the police, drive them to where the shooting happened. He will give them the evidence. There will be fingerprints, a serial number: even if the arrow doesn’t have the required name and address on it, Baker will find out who this hunter is—anyone this viciously impulsive, anyone this deranged, needs to be arrested and prosecuted. Baker will destroy the man.
The forest rises all around, a wild, brightening place. He sees the oaks and pines, their bark and branches and needles, in stunning, acute detail. The new light sharpens the contrast of shadows with the pale forest floor. Peter Baker hears the ringing tone stop and the distant connection, then, with civilization; a professional, female voice saying, 911—what is your emergency?