Wells Tower: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
An excerpt from “Retreat” from the debut collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.
Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, age six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk. The water came up only to my knees, so I did some hog-on-ice staggering before completing the
belly flop. My friends laughed until they wept.
Our mother put Stephen across her lap and beat his calves red with the hard side of her hairbrush, which, in the eyes of my guests, only confirmed Stephen as a heroic little comedian willing to suffer
for his art.
Or the time in eleventh grade, when I landed a role opposite a girl named Dodi Clark in our high school’s production of Grease. We played a nearly invisible couple among the prancing et alia in the dance melees, and had maybe four lines between us. Dodi was a mousy girl with a weak chin and a set of extra, overlapping canine teeth. She interested me not at all, yet the sight of Dodi and me together drove Stephen into a fever of jealousy. He courted her with a siege of posters, special pens, stickers, and crystal whim-whams to throw rainbows on her windowsill. The onslaught did its job, but when Dodi finally parted her troubled mouth for Stephen’s kiss, he told me years later, he balked. “Those teeth! It was like trying to kiss a sand shark. No idea why I was after her to begin with.” But I know why, and he does, too: in Stephen’s understanding, nothing pleasant should ever flow to me on which he
hasn’t exercised first dibs.
Or the spring day when I was sixteen and Stephen thirteen, and he found me in his bedroom, listening to his records. That my ears should hear the music that he adored constituted an irreparable defilement, so he gathered all the albums I’d played and, one by one, smashed them against the edge of his bureau, telling me
to point out any other albums I liked so
he could smash those, too.
Or the winter morning when our mother was away and I locked Stephen outside in his pajamas for a solid hour, jeering at him through the window glass while on the frozen front steps he hammered at the door, sobbing delightfully with rage. I can’t explain why I did these things, except to say that I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother’s wrath. Stephen’s furies are marvels of ecstatic hatred, somehow pornographic, the equally transfixing inverse of watching people in the love act. I was still laughing when, after a chilly hour, I welcomed Stephen back indoors with a conciliatory mug of thick hot chocolate. He seized the mug with pink fingers, drained it, and then grabbed a can opener from the counter and threw it at me, gouging a two-inch gash beneath my lower lip. It left a white parenthesis in the stubble of my chin, the abiding sideways smile of the imp.
But six deep ones, and our knotty history unkinks itself into a sad and simple thing. I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we’ve spent lost to each other. Anyhow, I started feeling
that way one night in October, halfway through a fifth of Meyer’s Rum. I was standing
on a mountain I’d recently bought in Aroostook County, Maine. In the thick of dusk, I hiked up to the peak, the air heavy with the watery sweetness of lupine, moss, and fern. Overhead, bats strafed midges in the darkening sky. I’d been here four months, but the
glory of the place impressed
itself on me every day.
Stephen and I hadn’t spoken since the spring, but tonight, with sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range, I felt I had more splendor than I knew what to do with. Winter would be here soon, and I wanted to hear Stephen’s voice. I could just bring in a signal on the mountaintop, so I dialed him up. He answered.
“Stephen Lattimore speaking,” he said. The voice itself was quiet and guarded, and poised to take offense. Three words from him were enough to put a chink in
“Matthew,” he repeated, in the way you might say “cancer” after the doctor’s diagnosis. “I’m with a client.” Stephen makes his living as a music therapist.
“Yeah,” I said. “Question for you. What’s your thinking on mountains?”
There was a careful pause. From Stephen’s end came the sound of someone doing violence to a tambourine.
“I have no objection to them,” he finally said. “Why?”
“Well, I bought one,” I said. “I’m calling you on the cell phone from the top of it.”
“Congratulations,” Stephen said. “Is it Popocatepetl? Or are you putting 7-Elevens on the Matterhorn?”
Over the years, I’ve made good money in real estate, and for reasons I can’t quite figure out, this hurts Stephen’s feelings. He’s not a churchman, but he’s extremely big on piety and sacrifice and letting you know what fine values he’s got. As far as I can tell, these values consist of little more than eating ramen noodles by the case, getting laid once every fifteen years or so, and arching his back at the sight of people like me—that is, people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores.
I love Stephen because he’s all I’ve got left in the way of family. A heart attack took our father when I was ten and Stephen seven. Liquor killed our mother before I was out of college, and it was around then that we began to really drift apart.
Stephen became convinced that he was going to reach great fame as a pianist, and when he wasn’t practicing, he was moaning about how he should have been. He was not a great talent, but the piano offered my little brother an exit from a world he found bitter and complicated and which felt the same way about him.
I, on the other hand, have always understood that life is an as-is, no-warranty arrangement, and if you want it to add up to anything, you’d better go at it with fire in your gut. I married young, and I have married often. I bought my first piece of property at eighteen. Now, at forty-two, I’ve been through two amicable divorces. I’ve lived and profited in nine American cities. Late at night, when rest won’t come and my breathing shortens with the worry that my ambition might have robbed me of some of life’s traditional rewards (long closenesses, offspring, mature plantings), I take an astral tour of the hundreds of properties that have passed through my hands over the years.
Contemplating the small but grateful multitude living in or banking returns off of holdings whose hidden value I was first to spy, the terror eases. Anxiety quits its bagpiper’s clasp on my lungs, and I droop, contented, into sleep.
Stephen spent his inheritance on music school, where he studied composition. What I heard of his music was gloomy, the sound track you might crave in an idling car with a hose running from the tailpipe, but nothing you could hum. When no orchestras called him with commissions, he had an artistic crackup, exiled himself to Eugene, Oregon, to buff his oeuvre and eke out a living teaching the mentally substandard to achieve sanity by blowing on harmonicas. When I drove down to see him two years ago after a conference in Seattle, I found him living above a candle store in a dingy apartment that he shared with a dying collie. The animal had lost the ability to urinate, so Stephen was always having to lug her downstairs to the grassy verge beside the sidewalk. There, he’d stand astride the poor animal and manually void its bladder via a Heimlich technique horrible to witness. You hated to see your last blood relation engaged in something like that. I told Stephen that from a business standpoint, the smart thing would be to put the dog put down. This caused an ugly argument, but really, it seemed to me that someone regularly seen by the roadside hand-juicing a half-dead dog was not the man you’d flock to for lessons on how to be less out-of-your-mind.
“The mountain doesn’t have a name yet,” I told him. “Hell, I’ll name it after you. I’ll call it B.A.S.S. Hill.” (A family acronym: “Bald and Something Stinks.” Stephen started losing his hair in his early twenties, and he has an upturned, disapproving nose, as though he’s perpetually sniffing something foul.)
Stephen chuckled dryly. “Do that. Hanging up now.”
“I send you any pictures of my cabin? Gets its power off a windmill. It’s the absolute goddamn shit. You need to come out here and see me.”
“What about Charleston? Where’s Amanda?”
I spat a lime rind into my hand and tossed it up at the bats to see if they’d take a nibble at it. They didn’t.
“You’re kidding. What went wrong?” His voice took on a practiced, clinical solemnity, though the tambourine slaughter ongoing in the background diminished
There’s no shame in admitting that I was in a transitional period at the moment. Like a lot of wise and respectable people, I’d been caught off guard by sudden reverses in the Charleston real estate market. I’d had to borrow some cash from my ex-fiancée, a rich woman who didn’t care about money just so long as she didn’t have to loan out any of hers. Strains developed and the engagement withered. I used the last of my liquidity to buy the proud hill on whose peak I was standing now. Four hundred acres, plus a cabin, nearly complete, thanks to my excellent neighbor George Tabbard, who’d also sold me the land. The only hitch was I’d have to spend a year in residence up here, but next fall I could subdivide, sell the plots, dodge the extortionary tax assessment the state charges nonresident speculators, and cruise into life’s next phase with the winds of increase plumping my sails and a vacation home in the bargain.
“Nothing went wrong,” I said. “She was hard of hearing and her pussy smelled. Anyway I got a beautiful piece of unspoiled America for peanuts. Come see me.”
“Now’s not a great time for me,” he said. “Plus I can’t afford the airfare. Anyway, I’m with a client, Matthew. Let’s talk about this later.”
“Fuck the airfare,” I told him. “I’ll pay for the flight. I want you to come see me.” Actually, this wasn’t an offer I’d planned to make. I’m sure Stephen had more money in the bank than I did, but his poor-mouthing worked an exasperating magic on me. I couldn’t take a second of it without wanting to smack him on the head and neck with a sack of doubloons. Then he said he couldn’t leave Beatrice (the collie was still alive!). Fine, I told him, if he could find the right sort of iron lung to stable her in, I’d be glad to foot the bill for that, too. He said he’d think it over. A marimba flourish swelled in the line, and Stephen hung up.
The conversation left me irritable, and I walked back to my cabin in a low mood. But I bucked up right away when I found George Tabbard on my porch, half of which was still bare joists. He was standing on a ladder, nailing a new piece of trim across the front gable. “Evening, sweetheart,” he said. “Got bored and whipped up another objet for you here.”
Of course he wasn’t intruding. We worked together on my house nearly every day, and ate dinner together nearly every night. George was in his late sixties, but we were two peas in a pod. His family had been in the area since the 1850s, but he’d gone through some wives, scattered some kids, moved around a good deal, before coming home to roost, a decade or so ago. He’d pretty much built my cabin himself, and he didn’t seem to mind that I could pay him only about half what he’d have earned in town. But even more than his labor, I cherished his company, which was like a gentle narcotic.
He could laugh and drink and murder whole evenings rambling about chain saws, women, and maintaining equipment, and do so in such a way that you never felt there was anything more in the world to think about than these things.
A couple of groans with his screw gun, and he’d secured the item, a four-foot battery of little wooden pom-poms, like something you’d see dangling from the ceiling of a Mexican drug dealer’s sedan. I’d praised the first one he’d made, but now George had tacked his lacework fancies to every eave and soffit in sight, so that the house pretty well foamed with them. He came by with a new piece of frippery about every third day. My house was starting to resemble something you’d buy your mistress to wear for a weekend in a cheap motel. But there was no one around for my cabin to appall, so I didn’t see the harm. Though it had occurred to me that I was probably stuck with this hell of curlicued whimsies until George moved or passed away.
“There we are,” he said, backing away to get the effect. “Pretty sharp little booger, don’t you think?”
“Knocks me out, George. Thanks.”
“Now how about some backgammon?”
I went inside and fetched the set, the rum, and a quart of olives I’d bought that day. George was a brutal opponent, and the games were a pointless rout, yet we sat for many hours in the cool of the evening, drinking rum, moving the lacquered discs around the board, and spitting olive pits over the railing, where they landed quietly in the dark.
To my surprise, Stephen called me back. He said he’d like to come, so we fixed a date, two weeks later. It was an hour and twenty minutes to the village of Aiden, where the airfield was, but when George and I pulled up, Stephen’s plane hadn’t come in. I went into the Quonset hut they use for a terminal. A little woman with a brown bomber jacket and a bulb of gray hair sat by the radio, reading the local newspaper. I’d been in and out of this airport a dozen times, but she didn’t let on that she recognized me, which seemed to be a general practice among the locals. The discourtesy was probably deliberate and, in its way, practical. Shake too many hands, and before long you’d have so many friends you couldn’t pick your
nose without the whole county hearing about it. Still, it depressed me to have settled in a place where the salt of the earth would have out-brusqued a Newark stevedore.
“My brother’s flight was due in from Bangor at eleven,” I told the woman.
“Plane’s not here,” she said.
“I see. Do you know where it is?”
“And when’s it going to arrive?”
“If I knew that, I’d be somewhere picking horses, wouldn’t I?”
Then she turned back to her newspaper and brought our chat to an end. The front-page story of the Aroostook Gazette showed a photograph of a dead chow dog, under the headline “Mystery Animal Found Dead in Pinemont.”
“Quite a mystery,” I said. “‘The Case of What Is Obviously a Dog.’”
“‘Undetermined origin,’ says here.”
“It’s a dog, a chow,” I said.
“Undetermined,” the woman said.