“What about Lena?” Tom said as the wind sliced through the cabin walls around us. I didn’t know whether he was talking about her safety or how could he keep her life tethered to his. But that’s not how it started.
My friends Tom and Lena had found me both high and low, standing on the side of a country road, looking into the autumn trees. It was not clear, even to me, whether I was coming out of or going into the ditch. Perhaps I was waiting there for a sign, and when other humans appear in your private moment, as if sent by a god of bad timing, and they treat you like they know you, that could be it.
“Hi there. You O.K.? Need a hand?” Tom said from the car. He’d rolled his window down only a few inches, even though there was a lane between us. “Oh, it’s you! What in the hell? Hey look,” he said to Lena. “It’s Ben. Hop in, Ben.”
I got in the back of the little Toyota.
“This is too much,” said Lena. “What are you doing in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York?”
“Upstate,” I said, stalling, trying to recall how it was that I knew these people. That afternoon was the tail end of a spree, a weeks-long wandering aided by mind changers, meant to eclipse the boringly awful breakup, the intrusive poverty, the ever-unhatched career.
“Strong chemicals,” I said at last, in a famous moment of honesty. “I’m doing strong chemicals. Witness a leaf turn. You know, figure things out.”
“Oh? Good for you,” said Lena, like she meant it, as we drove off.
The ride would have been cozy except I couldn’t get comfortable. There was a pair of prehistorically giant chicken feet, with legs, stuck down the back of my windbreaker, as if I were a pot of soup, the rubbery bones pushing against my spine so that I had to ease off the upholstery and hunch.
“Hmm,” Tom said, his eyes on the road. “Let’s go for something. Coffee? Should we?”
He looked at his wife. He’d said it like it was the most natural thing, like it was a Sunday afternoon in the city.
“Super cashmere, eh?” I said.
“What’s that?” said Lena over her shoulder, about to laugh. She had a loveliness to her then. She didn’t get me, but she gave me the benefit of the doubt, ready to embrace whatever materialized. This must be the simple math of friendship. In these moments the friend cannot help but be physically beautiful, her face total radiance.
“Super casual,” I said. “Like old times. How long has it been, anyway?”
Lena grinned and then, incredibly, reached back and put her hand on my knee, and did laugh.
“I know, right? It is really good to see you.”
“I’ll second that,” said Tom.
“Nice car,” I said, giving up.
I brushed at the back of my neck to make sure the feet weren’t sticking out. I felt the creeping feeling and wanted to open the door and jump from the vehicle.
Lena reported that they were in New York for a library conference of hers, but it was also a marathon vacation—race, that is—a week that culminated, for Tom anyway, in a run the previous day. He finished in three-and-a-half hours, good enough to place him in the top five thousand. Lena meant to run as well, but pulled out last minute with a stomach bug. This was their post-race free day, touring around before flying back home.
“Toronto?” I asked.
Lena said home was still Edmonton. I guessed they were old acquaintances I’d simply forgotten or couldn’t retrieve from a memory blanched by the day’s drug concoction. At a crossroads we joined the main highway and shortly after pulled into a gas station attached to a dilapidated diner.
The interior of the restaurant was marble and crystal throughout, chandeliers and high-backed booths, so different from its frontage that we initially went back outside to see if we’d come in the right door. The host sat us and unfolded linen onto our laps. I produced a slimy ten-dollar bill from my pocket and held it out for him.
“I took about this much in gas,” I said, “from out there, a few days ago.” I cocked my head to the pumps beyond the window. “And I’ll have an American coffee.”
“Excuse me?” said the man.
I repeated the speech about the gas. He simply stared. Tom, reddening, cleared his throat, ready to interject. I can say now that Tom likes the anecdote but not the actual moment. If there’s a scene, he better be the one making it. Many moments passed in a dead stalemate.
“We don’t deal with them,” the host finally said, cringing at the soiled bill. “The petrol people.”
“Tres americanos,” said Lena, Spanish being the universal icebreaker. “Por favor.”
“I’ll send your waiter.”
The host turned and left. Soon he reappeared at the booth diagonal from us, which held a state trooper and a park warden, and set down an ivory rotary phone on a silver platter. I scratched the side and back of my neck.
“Nice prank,” said Lena, sizing me up.
“Ha,” said Tom, looking away.
The state trooper lifted the receiver and waved it near his head, looking straight at me, and spoke into it theatrically, eyebrows raised. Then he held it toward me, as if to say, Go ahead, pick up. I tried not to glance at him.
“Are you all right?” Lena asked.
“Fine,” I said. “That officer over there is staring.”
They turned to look but he already had dropped the receiver and was sipping out of a mug, listening intently to the park ranger.
“So,” Tom said, “where the hell you living these days, anyway?”
“Mostly Buffalo,” I replied. “My stuff’s there.”
I didn’t expand on this because my jacket was too tight. And the trooper was at it again with the phone.
“Excuse me,” I said, sliding out of the booth and walking carefully past all of the empty tables to the washrooms in the back.
I eased myself into a marble stall and repeatedly slammed my back into its walls and door, trying to flatten the chicken feet and legs. Eventually I got stuck, hung up on the coat hook. I closed my eyes and breathed for a bit. I raised my arms and began a wriggling dance and slid out of the jacket down to the floor. Free, I stood and bundled the coat as much as possible, left the stall and threw the balled-up windbreaker to the ground where I engaged in a private stampede over it, left then right foot, then both with a jump. I stuffed the mess into the garbage and splashed my face in the sink. Squaring my ringed eyes in the mirror, I told myself to get it together, that these people were in some way my friends, that I was just bottoming out. Then there was a limb extending into my periphery. I swallowed a yelp. It was a towel on the end of the outstretched arm of an old attendant I hadn’t noticed standing against the wall. He stared at me, though not unkindly. I dried off and gave him the ten from my pocket.
I returned to find the state trooper and park ranger leaning over our table. The trooper ushered me into the booth.
“Just telling these guys of the big old nor’easter due in tomorrow,” said the ranger.
“Hey,” said the trooper. “Didn’t you have a coat before?”
I gazed at the steaming coffees that had arrived.
“I must have forgotten it,” I mumbled.
“No trouble,” he said. “I’m paid to notice things. It’s what I do.”
He gave me a long look.
“You all take care,” said the ranger.
“Try the lamb tartare,” added the trooper.
We tested the coffees and looked out the window at them talking in the parking lot.
“I didn’t really understand them,” said Lena.
“Not sure it was English the whole time,” Tom said. “What was that accent?”
We watched the ranger attempt to bear hug the trooper, unable to lift him off of the ground. Then they got into their cars and headed in opposite directions on the highway.
A while and much small talk later, congregated next to the bumper of Tom and Lena’s rental car, I wondered if we three also should hug as I said goodbye.
“That’s nonsense,” said Tom. “You’ll hike with us.”
“A nature walk,” Lena added. “No real incline. See some birds.”
“We’ll give you a ride after. More time to catch up.”
“It’s settled then.”
“But I’ve already imposed too much,” I protested as they got into the car. “I feel like a third wheel, or a hanger-on,” I said as we drove off.
Lena tsked. “Don’t be silly.”
“A what now?” Tom said.
“You know, like an extra appendage.” I recited a poem from childhood:
I am the meat on your bones
Oats stuck to your stomach
The yoke on the finest cattle
The burr, the wetsuit saddle
I am the hanger-on, but don’t worry
No-o-o-o don’t worry
Soon I’ll be gone gone gone
I am the hanger-on
But soon I will be gone
“And the atmosphere has officially been sucked out through the air vents,” said Lena. “I adore that.”
“My grandma would sing it.”
“I get it,” Tom said, slapping the steering wheel. “You’re a hanger-on by birth.”
I said something about there being a few of us in every generation. I was getting drawn further into their day when I wanted out, but I couldn’t conjure a plausible escape route.
Lena rolled down her window.
“You can’t not love it here,” she sighed. “I told Tom it’s criminal to make us go home.”
We arrived at the rest-stop lot where the trail head was and consulted the glass-encased route map. It conflicted with the tourist brochure Tom and Lena had brought with them from New York, which Tom decided was outdated.
We set off into the woods, down the path toward promised lakes, sloughs, and a royal court of microhabitats culminating in a bird sanctuary. They called it a national Wildlife Management Area. Enveloped in leaves, mostly yellow, giving everything a golden hue (though the sun hid behind the layered pudding of rolling clouds), we walked single file in silence for a very long ten minutes. That creeping feeling had returned and was impossible to keep at bay in these conditions. I was overwhelmed. The feeling was akin to bumping into objects in the dark while hearing a parallel off-kilter version of a song you know well, recorded live, the piano pedalled, and the drums draped in a veil. It sneaks into your bloodstream, plucks at your recesses, producing goosebumps. I later thought of it as a bleak and aimless longing.
The feeling was interrupted by Lena’s voice breaking the silence.
“Did I ever tell you about Shell, my old friend? From before Edmonton? Now, there was a clinger of a person.”
Tom, in front, sighed and grabbed the first of many errant branches and snapped pieces off, flinging them into the bush. I was next and Lena brought up the rear. Her voice became entrenched in the twitching of the forest, providing a lulling effect, at times only snippets of her speech arriving clear.
“Shell,” said Lena, “would appear at a house uninvited and stay for weeks. When she was a kid, her parents were afraid of this wildness in her, and she became a part-time orphan, adopting herself to a friend’s family here and there—she only ever kept one friend at a time—and in adulthood the trend continued. She made four different attempts to finish a university degree, and in these periods her hosts included a man with an identical bus schedule as her but never any destination, student instructors, a newly landed Iranian custodial manager, and most of her professors, men and women. All of whom—well, except for a linguistics assistant who procured a restraining order—she had affairs with. Some of them we’re talking full-blown affairs, but all of them were short-lived. When it was time for students to evaluate their teachers, she wrote instead cryptic paragraphs on what she called ‘sexual honesty.’
“She once read a self-help book entirely through the reflection of two mirrors. It took her a month and she had to see a physiotherapist after. Everyone thought something about the technique worked because it was the only book regarding human psychology she didn’t burn in the firepit at the park. She also never forgot a birthday. Sent endless postcards to the vaguest acquaintances. She absolutely hungered for contact at times. God, it was desperate.
“She wouldn’t let people go home at the end of a night out. A separation anxiety always crept in. She would be first and last drunk. One time everyone was at the bar—no occasion, just a Thursday night, and someone brought Shell along—and this one guy, James, left after the first round because he had to work early. Shell bought him another drink—some exotic beer—before he actually left the big table, to entice him to stay, and you could tell this was a risky, invested gesture on her part. But still he left without touching it. She blushed and squirmed for half an hour. When the bar closed she pleaded for everyone, anyone, to come over, but it was common knowledge she was staying on someone’s couch. It’s too late, everyone said. Her beseeching got painfully awkward before she eventually relented and all went their separate ways. Her way was biking across town, straight to James’s house, where she dragged garbage from the bin all over the lawn, screaming ‘Coward!’ repeatedly until many sets of lights came on. She was a stranger to most of the crowd. How she knew his address was anyone’s guess. She made it a tradition to terrorize that lawn on the same date every year, regardless of who lived there—”
Tom slowed and cut in over his shoulder.
“Ha. That’s a lot of Shell stuff, huh? Your dear old friend Shell? Does Ben really need to know the ins and outs?”
“What?” I said, treading through a stupor, jarred by the interruption. “No, it’s fine.”
Lena resumed: “There was a two-year spell where Shell got involved in a church. That all ended with her baptism. After being dunked she refused to get out of the baptismal tank, though three acne-ridden boys were waiting their turn behind her. When the pastor tried to gently coax her out, she threatened to drop the live microphone in the water and fry them both. No one in the congregation was sure if this would in fact electrocute them. Shell merely wanted to stay in the tank until she truly felt something, because being submerged and breaking back through the water into the air had been anti-climactic. No catharsis, no metamorphosis. She knew this was supposed to be a symbolic event, but still. The only thrill had been the pastor’s strong bony hands gripping her back and chest. She never returned to the church after that day, though she did manage a good five minutes more in the water before two deacons hoisted her sopping wet form from the tank.
“Shell’s idea of being a citizen was paying her way into a Reform party convention, buying a membership, and arriving with a leaf blower backpack, which may or may not have been reversible, and going straight for Preston Manning’s eyeballs with the wand. Remember him? Well, she got mobbed. You wouldn’t believe the thugs they have working security at those things. She was detained and eventually fingerprinted. They put her in a jail cell, but she stayed stoic, like a good citizen, all cuts and bruises, until charges were dropped. An officer took her aside before she left the police station, and he actually asked if her intent was to suck or blow away the politician. Presto changeo, she said, and then walked out feeling all triumphant, but crummy too, wishing she’d had an accomplice.
“One time she fell in with a married couple, renting out the back bedroom of their apartment. They needed money and she was kind of floating. She was working in shipping at a contact lens warehouse, and also worked as a night guard for a storage garage. If things were quiet when she started her night-watch shift, she would turn around and go home for hours, occasionally calling her desk or logging into the cameras from her computer to make sure she wasn’t caught. During these times she was often alone with the husband, and they soon found each other ‘essential.’ Or that was his word for it.
“The wife came home once to find Shell practicing Spanish verb conjugations on his ass cheeks with a Sharpie marker. When it came to Shell in these situations, things were exactly as they appeared—that is, she’d asked if she could write on his body and he’d said yes. But sooner than later they got up to more. The wife seemed to turn a blind eye or didn’t mind. Either way, she too was attached to how Shell filled a room. Tiny little Shell had a big presence, moved at all times with an orbit of books, lotions, sticky notes, and layers of clothes peeled and peeling off. She’d drink boozy Turkish coffees at midnight. It turned out Shell was plaster on the chinked wall of their marriage.
“But it couldn’t last. This was the first time in history Shell had been embraced back—the couple clung to her—and this sent her into a slow-burning panic. Finally her bluff had been called. She had to quit her warehouse day job. She had to fuck the husband all the time. The wife also, a few times. Never at the same time. Both liked to pull her hair in bed, causing her scalp to ache for days. She’d wonder if they yanked each other’s hair, and if they didn’t, then they might start and find they had no use for her. Then she’d cry so much she thought it was a mini-breakdown. They bought her gifts. She threw up. It all left her nervy. Shell had no backup plan with love given back. Too new, too fast. She was completely rattled. Then around five one morning a fire started in the building and Shell saved their lives. Saved their lives! She woke them and led their groggy, frightened bodies downstairs to safety on the street. Looking up at their apartment, they could already see flames behind the windows’ crazed glass. The fire may or may not have started in their own kitchen, but they would never know. In a hotel room the next evening, their place in ashes and possessions decimated but bodies intact, the three of them toasted. “A new lease on life,” the husband slurred. Shell heard “leash.” The next day the wife left—”
Lena’s voice trailed off.
“Sss, oh,” she said behind me.
She had pulled up a few paces back, all of her weight on one leg as she bent to touch the opposite ankle.
“Didn’t see that big root,” she said.
I’d balanced my arch on that same root while going over it. We doubled back.
“You should sit,” Tom said, irritably.
She had twisted the ankle badly, and he softened to comfort her. She hopped off of the path to the trunk of a large tree.
“I’m feeling crummy,” she said. “Think I’ll just rest here.”
“We’ll take a break and then get back to the car,” said Tom. “Are you going to be sick?”
“No, you go ahead, we’re almost there,” she said. “You can hear the birds getting closer. Collect me on the way back.”
“That’s ridiculous. We’re not leaving you here—”
“Go,” she demanded, and Tom relented easily.
“I’ll stay with you,” I said. “I’m not a bird guy anyway.”
“No, it’s fine,” Lena said, not looking at me. “He’s terrible with time. If he goes alone he’ll lose all track.”
“She’ll get extremely angry soon,” Tom whispered near my ear.
“Say hi to the winged fellows for me,” she said.
I looked back as we set off. Tom later told me that Lena had a death wish, and was pregnant.
The thick sky had lowered, snuck down on us, clouds supplanting clouds, the newest dark grey, only the treetops holding them up. It being just the two of us now, we apparently had nothing to say to each other. We kept on our route through the dense forest, past a decrepit blank information post, sticking with the skinny path even as it doglegged back on itself then veered straight north. We found ourselves far from birds then, or they’d gone quiet.
“Must be circling around to them,” Tom declared, our first words since leaving Lena, still walking single file.
Within five minutes we rejoined the main hiking trail and soon found a clearing where Tom thought the bird sanctuary ought to be. There wasn’t a chirp. The clouds billowed then and the sky turned a nauseous green. It was around three but cooling off quickly, a wind gusting. We circled the fringe of the clearing and on the far end found the same small animal path we’d been on with Lena, which we thought must loop back to her.
“I give up, you win,” he said. “Forget the birds.”
Two things quickly became clear as we wound up and down the rises: this path was not the same, would not lead back to where we’d been, and also, something wild was in the air. Puffs of our breath were visible. And then, in that way when a thing feels preordained once it occurs, the wind picked up further and began to sting, carrying a wetness that stuck. It was snow.
“Ha,” said Tom bitterly, as if he should have known.
We stopped, dumbstruck. It had been a mild October. Winter wasn’t expected for some time. This was something else, a freak. Heavy snow was soon blasting sideways, even in the middle of the bush. We’d been catapulted into a dreamland. It might’ve been beautiful if it hadn’t been such a struggle to stand up straight against the lashing.
“This takes the cake,” Tom said.
He set into a haltering speed walk and I followed. He had tightened up, braced. We tried to run but he winced and stopped, his post-marathon legs shot. He punched his thighs. This brought mild panic. I was shaking in my soaked grey T-shirt. Tom wore a hooded sweater, and we’d left Lena in a tank top with a flannel shirt tied around her waist. We’d been apart from her about forty-five minutes, maybe an hour.
“My phone’s out of range,” I shouted at Tom’s back over the wind. “Yours?”
They weren’t phone people; they shared one cellphone and it was in the car. And Tom had the keys. We walked on. The snow began to coalesce on the forest floor. After a few more minutes of silent trudging we arrived at a high wire fence, tall enough to keep something the size of a bison out, or in.
“This shouldn’t be here,” said Tom.
“Fence is good,” I said. “Fence means road. Highway.”
“It’s all wrong. This means we’re at the back of the park.”
He turned around and set off, but stopped when he realized I wasn’t following.
“Were you sent here by my mother?” I hollered. “To find me?”
She had loaned me a moderate sum a couple of years earlier and wasn’t one to let such things go.
“We’re lost,” he said, walking back, gauging me. “This is crazy. We have to find Lena. Let’s go.”
“It just occurred to me that you could be a loan shark. I’m trying to piece things together here.”
If he’d heard me right he wasn’t taking me seriously. He stepped toward me with pure annoyance in his face, like he was ready to shake or strangle me, but stopped short.
“You’re kind of a mess, aren’t you,” he said. “You ought to come back with us. All of your friends are there.”
He wiped his wet face with both hands, turned, and resumed walking. This time I followed him as he pushed through sparser bush where possible. He let me take the lead after a little while. There was the crack of a tree limb breaking overhead every couple of minutes. I’d become so cold and wet it felt like my fingernails were shrinking. No familiar marker appeared, the snow making finding one increasingly improbable. At one point Tom stopped and stretched his calves, swearing. I told him that the park couldn’t be so big we’d stay lost for long, but my tone was too unsure. We continued.
“Tell me,” I said, trying to distract from our current circumstance. “What became of Shell?”
“Ah,” he sighed. “You know.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Ben, come on. She became a librarian . . . got married . . .”
“Librarian,” I said. “Just like Lena.”
“Lena Michelle. Same person. You know this. You’ve seen her do the thing where she talks in the third person.”
“Oh. Yeah, right. What?”
He strode ahead of me and I wanted to see his face then as he shook his head.
“You were half of the married couple? She saved you from the fire?”
“Or maybe,” he said, “maybe I was the guy who wouldn’t drink with her. It doesn’t matter who I was anymore.”
We seemed to be miles from any path and in the whiteout it had grown difficult to see very far ahead. I realized I’d known nothing about who they were to each other. Nor what else had happened with that old Lena, with “Shell.” Why the change, that is if she had actually undergone one? What was she hanging onto now? I knew nothing. But the sound of Tom’s voice letting its guard down was finally something I could understand. I’d hear it again, years later, picking up the receiver and getting swallowed by that same voice: “She’s gone,” it would strain, as if over another pummeling wind. “Let me know if you hear anything.”
We were different, desperate creatures by the time the dark mass of the cabin rose into view. From the hips down my joints ached, locking up, penetrated with wet cold. It seemed my flesh could slough off and my bones would just go clambering on without me until they shattered. I’d come around to sharing Tom’s fear that we were in danger, not of hypothermia yet, but of becoming increasingly lost and decreasingly relevant in the grand scheme of the elements. Not to mention the fact we’d left Lena sitting hobbled against a tree. There was a half-hearted disagreement over starting a fire, and the snow continued to carry on a wind I now equated with meanness. But out of nowhere came this hidden cabin, a tiny charred-looking log box propped up on blocks and well caged by trees. We approached, slowing down, as if it might be alive. In many places the law says if you squat on government land for X number of years without detection then you can’t be forced off.
“Might as well be an old haunt of my dad’s,” said Tom, who would eventually write a book, a modest success, on being no match for the old-time manly feats of his father, builder of many houses.
After palming the door I began picking the lock, then Tom threw his body into the wood and it cracked open.
Inside, it was clear no one had been there for some time, and that there’d be nothing of use to us—no heat, but at least a momentary buffer from the storm. It was still, dark, and empty. An industrial sink and small cupboard on one side and a bunk bed on the other. The damp mustiness in the air was a briefly comforting smell. For some reason, Tom began urinating in the rusted-out sink. The piss clattered, steam rising.
“Can you do that?” I said.
“She’s behind all of this,” said Tom. “She willed this.”
I found the chain and pulled on a light bulb that hung in the centre of the room. Held my shaking hands to it for warmth. Tom rifled through the cupboard and I took a turn at the sink, producing a trickle. My penis looked snake bit. A small framed chalkboard on the wall read, in a faint white, beautiful cursive, “In case of emergency, use helicopter. ha ha.” Above the sink there was a square-foot window and in its dim reflection I saw a shape behind me, a big shelf adjacent to the top bunk, two feet below the roof. I climbed the ladder to the top bunk and looked at the large board jammed into the wall. It was a storage ledge, and on the near end sat two puffy ski jackets. I asked Tom to fetch the oar that was mounted on the wall and pass it up so I could stab across at them. The jackets dropped to the floor and Tom fell on top of them.
“This is what we need,” he said, energized.
We were on the floor like children opening gifts. The coats gave off a combination of smoke, cooking, and sour sweat smells. Were the owners dirty when they got into them or did they get dirty while wearing them, I wondered.
“These smell, bad,” I said.
“You were pretty ripe yourself when we found you,” said Tom, and his face beamed, actually seeming to grow or swell, before settling into a painful grin. He chuckled, as if we were a couple of joke-telling drunks in the night. “You see,” he said while holding up the jacket, “in small ways, in between all that goes awry, we’re taken care of.”
He was laughing with tears now, saying, “But what about Lena?” And then he was up, jacket on, and out the door. I stood in the empty cabin and looked around in vain for something else to pilfer, somehow not ready to leave, not wanting to forget anymore. Then I put on my coat—well, it would be Lena’s. I would wear it until we found her, and give it to her warm.
Tom’s jacket seemed to provide him with adrenalin. He was able to run now, in fact sprint, and we were crashing through the trees at a decent clip. He had become certain we were travelling due south. It was only a kilometre before we heard voices and then reached the unworldly sight of human figures inching through the gloaming in the distance ahead of us, making their escape.
We yelled until we were hoarse but they didn’t slow. They couldn’t hear.
“You bastards,” said Tom, and we gained on them, and soon found ourselves on the main path, meaning the parking lot was nearby.
They were leading us out, where eventually we’d find Lena, tight-lipped, eyes raw and somewhere else, sandwiched between two sleeping toddlers in the back of a vacationing family’s S.U.V. But we didn’t know that yet. In the woods, as the snow tapered off slightly, the creeping feeling returned, but this time I didn’t mind it, in the midst of this marathon of stranded idiots, this eternal exercise of our early ancestors. With the coat on I wasn’t myself, or at least I’d inhabited the not-myself which had been missing, and I was grateful. I knew this not-myself had something to do with Tom and Lena, but with him already beside me it was her I was anxious to see. I remember grinning while we bounded through the whiteness, both away from and toward lives that were probably damned. And then, as I tried to keep up with Tom’s bolting form, all feeling gave way to a ball of warmth and happiness, actual happiness, quivering behind my sternum, gaining speed and mass as it moved in me, leaving my chest, rolling from one shoulder to the other, opening them.