All the little live thin.., p.1
All the Little Live Things, p.1Wallace Stegner
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ALL THE LITTLE LIVE THINGS
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was the author of, among other novels, Remembering Laughter, 1937; The Big Rock Candy Mountain, 1943; Joe Hill, 1950; All the Little Live Things, 1967 (Commonwealth Club Gold Medal); A Shooting Star, 1961; Angle of Repose, 1971 (Pulitzer Prize); The Spectator Bird, 1976 (National Book Award, 1977); Recapitulation, 1979; and Crossing to Safety, 1987. His nonfiction includes Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 1954; Wolf Willow, 1963; The Sound of Mountain Water (essays), 1969; The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto, 1974; and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, 1992. Three of his short stories have won O. Henry prizes, and in 1980 he received the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for his lifetime literary achievements. His Collected Stories was published in 1990.
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First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press, Inc., 1967 Published in Penguin Books 1991
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Copyright © Wallace Stegner, 1967
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., for permission to quote, on page 209, from “To Earthward” from Complete Poems of Robert Frost.
Copyright 1923 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
Copyright 1951 by Robert Frost.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Stegner, Wallace Earle, 1909-All the little live things/Wallace Stegner. p. cm. “First published ... by the Viking Press, Inc., 1967”—T.p. verso.
eISBN : 978-1-101-07579-1
I. Title. II. Series. PS3537.T316A’.52—dc20 91-18312
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For Trudy, Franny, Judy, Peg
Oh, Sir! the good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket.
How Do I Know What I Think Till I See What I Say?
A HALF HOUR AFTER I came down here, the rains began. They came without fuss, the thin edge of a circular Pacific storm that is probably dumping buckets on Oregon. One minute I was looking out my study window into the greeny-gold twilight under the live oak, watching a towhee kick up the leaves, and the next I saw that the air beyond the tree was scratched with fine rain. Now the flagstones are shining, the tops of the horizontal oak limbs are dark-wet, there is a growing drip from the dome of the tree above, the towhee’s olive back has melted into umber dusk and gone. I sit here watching evening and the winter rains come on together, and I feel as slack and dull as the day or the season. Or not slack so much as bruised. I am like a man so stiff from a beating that every move reminds him and fills him with outrage.
In the face of what has happened, Ruth is more resilient than I, she has taken up little life-saving jobs. It would not surprise me to see a FOR SALE sign on the cottage that for me still trembles a little, like settling dust in evening sunlight, with the ghost of Marian’s presence. But Ruth, making the cookies and casseroles and whole-wheat bread that she used to take there as offerings, puts the future under the pressure of sympathetic magic. She wills continuity, she chooses .to believe that before too long we will hear the slam of the old station wagon’s door down below, or have brought to us on the wind the voices of father and daughter talking to the piebald horse.
I? I came down here vaguely mumbling about finally starting on the memoirs. But the last thing I want to think about is what a retired literary agent used to do before he retired, and the people he used to do it among. I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of being flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness and the consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.
Coming home this noon, Ruth and I said hardly ten words to each other. Our minds were back there on the lawn among the blunt stones. But when we eased over the stained and sagging bridge and saw the brush broken and trampled at its side, and a minute later when we rolled past the cottage with its weed-grown yard that I suppose expresses Marian without in the least resembling her, and a minute after that when the turning lane brought into view the gable of Peck’s treehouse, something jumped the gap between us each time, a succession of those moments that you come to depend on during a long life together. But neither of us dared look fully at the reminding things we drove by. Ruth sat studying her hands, rubbing one white-gloved thumb over the other. In silence we drove through the open gates, between the big eucalyptus trees, and on up the steep shelf of road under the oaks.
October is the worst month for us. Nothing I saw pleased me. The oaks were dusty, with many brown terminal twigs killed by borers. The buckeyes were bare. Only a few dull-red leaves dangled from the poison-oak bushes. Brittle weeds grew into the edges of the road, and as we swung around the buttonhook and onto the hilltop I saw in the adobe ground cracks wide enough to break an ankle in.
And there on the right as we coasted toward the carport was the cherry tree, its leaves drooping and its foolish touching untimely blossoms wilted. Ruth drew an audible breath. Cherry blossoms in October were exactly the sort of thing from which Marian would have derived one of her passionate lessons about life.
Ruth got out of the car. “I’m going to lie down for a while. Shouldn’t you?”
“Maybe I’ll work around the yard.”
The white hand was laid like a policeman’s on my arm. “Joe,” she said, “don’t take it out in highballs, now.
“What do you think I am?” I said, but her clairvoyance had put a barrier between me and a place I had half-consciously planned to visit. When I get sad or upset I can be a pantry drinker, and sh
She pecked me with a kiss. “Poor lamb”—and then as our eyes met, “Poor Marian. Poor all of us.”
I followed her inside and changed the dark suit for old garden clothes and poked morosely out into the yard again. I found that I had maligned the day. Until the rain moved in just now it was one of those Indian-summer days, warm and windless, brown-colored, even the air faintly and purely brown like the water of some Vermont streams. It smelled leathery and cured—the oak leaves, maybe. On the bank the pyracantha was ripening heavy clusters, and the toyon along the hill was top-heavy with berries. I stood by the carport looking down across the gone-by vegetable garden and the baby orchard, and of course what stood up in my view as if it were a hundred feet high was that cherry tree.
My hands began to shake and my eyes got moist—outrage, outrage. To take all that trouble of digging, fertilizing, planting, spraying, pruning, coddling, only to have a blind vermin come burrowing brainlessly underground to destroy everything! My head was full of some poet’s bitter question: Was it for this the clay grew tall?
I walked down to look. The basin was disturbed by no more humps, of loose dirt, but something drastic had happened underground. The leaves that a few days before had been green now drooped like heat-withered cellophane. Along the branches, here and there, were the browning wisps of blossoms that the tree had frantically put out when the gopher began working on its roots. Before I even saw that it had begun, it was finished. Trying to produce flower and fruit and complete its cycle within a few days and way out of season, the tree was dead without knowing it. The sore sense of guilt that I felt told me I should have done something. But what?
I took hold of the sapling trunk and wiggled it, and with a slight threadlike tearing the whole tree came up in my hand. Except for the tiny root I had just broken away, there was nothing. The thing was as bare as a fishpole, gnawed off and practically polished about six inches below the surface.
Off in the brownish air a great flock of Brewer’s black-birds flashed into sudden dense visibility, roughened the sky a moment the way a school of fish can roughen the sea, and flashed off again, disappearing, as they all sheared edgewise at once. It was like something seen through a polarizer. The big red-tailed hawk that lives in Shields’s pasture was perched, I saw, high in a eucalyptus. Probably he was watching me with his X-ray eyes and wondering what I was doing, standing in my October orchard and brandishing the gnawed stub of what was once a promising Lambert cherry tree.
It was a fair question, and I could have answered it. I was pondering the vanity of human wishes and the desperation of human hope, the tooth of time, the vulnerability of good and the unseen omnipresence of evil, and the frailty and passion of life. That is all I was pondering, and I was overwhelmingly aware as I poked around that it was Marian who had exposed me to feeling as I had hoped not to be exposed again. I almost blamed her. Until she appeared, I had succeeded in being a retired putterer remarkable for nothing much except a capacity to fiddle while Rome burned and crack jokes while Troy fell. Now I feel the cold. I felt it up there in the orchard and I feel it now, I feel it as icily as I felt it after Curtis died. But where the death of my son drove me to find a hole and crawl in it, the death of this girl I knew for barely half a year keeps driving me into the open, and I hate it.
I threw the cherry tree onto the pile of cuttings that I would burn as soon as the fire hazard was over. The withered blossoms of that sapling, with their suggestion of unfulfilled April, put an ache and an anger in me where resignation might have been. Marian’s philosophy of acceptance was never mine-I remain a Manichee in spite of her. The forces of blind life that work across this hilltop are as irresistible as she said they were, they work by a principle more potent than fission. But I can’t look upon them as just life, impartial and eternal and in flux, an unceasing interchange of protein. And I can’t find proofs of the crawl toward perfection that she believed in. Maybe what we call evil is only, as she told me the first day we met, what conflicts with our interests; but maybe there are such realities as ignorance, selfishness, jealousy, malice, criminal carelessness, and maybe these things are evil no matter whose interests they serve or conflict with. Maybe there is good life and bad life, good choice and bad choice, and unending war between them as in the Sunday-school hymns I sang as a boy. And maybe the triumph of the good is less sure than my Sunday-school teachers believed.
Nevertheless, Marian has invaded me, and though my mind may not have changed I will not be the same. There is a sense in which we are all each other’s consequences, but I am more her consequence than she knew. She turned over my rock.
Looking at my ruined cherry tree, I could do nothing to repair what had happened. I could only act out a pantomime of impotence. Like a dwarf in a tantrum, some Grumpy out of a witch-haunted comedy, I dug in the basin of the tree until I found the run by which evil had entered and by which it had gone away. I set a trap facing each direction, knowing that even if I caught this gopher I would gain nothing but an empty revenge. If I ringed the hill with traps, others would still get through. If I put poisoned carrots in every burrow in Shields’s pasture, some fertile pair would still survive.
I can see Marian smiling.
Riddled with ambiguous evil, that is how I think of it. All of us tainted and responsible—Weld, Peck, the LoPrestis and their sullen daughter, myself, John, even Marian. And yet until a few months ago this place was Prospero’s island. It never occurred to us to doubt its goodness; we wouldn’t have dreamed of trading it for our old groove in Manhattan’s overburdened bedrock, or for one of those Sunshine Cities where tranquilized senior citizens (people our age) move to Muzak up and down an eternal shuffleboard court. Coming here, we kept at least the illusion of making our own choices, and we found that this sanctuary kept us physically alive, more alive than I at least have felt since those springs a millennium ago in Maquoketa, Iowa, when I used to go skinny-dipping in the creek with other boys and crawl out into an icy wind, shaking and blue, to pull on the bliss of a cotton union suit over my goose pimples.
For more than two years, physical well-being has been enough to make a life of. The expanding economy has had no boost from us. We have gone on no credit-card vacations to Oahu or Palm Springs, we never set off for the mountains towing a trailer or a boat, we belong to no country club, seldom dine out, possess no blue blue pool with lily-pad cocktail tables and expensive guests afloat in it. It will hardly do to confess aloud, in this century, how little it took to content us. We walked, gardened, read; Ruth cooked, I built things. We simplified feeling, as we had already anesthetized memory. The days dripped away like honey off a spoon. Once in a while we went for drinks or dinner to the house of someone like the LoPrestis, with whom our relationship was easy and friendly because it was shallow. Once in a while we were tempted out to San Francisco for a concert or show. That was all. Enough.
Yet if I had really been so fierce for withdrawal, wouldn’t I have fenced Tom Weld away when I had the chance? Wouldn’t we have kept Fran LoPresti at wary arm’s length? Wouldn’t I have sprayed for Jim Peck and his crowd before they got like weevils into everything?
I am as responsible as anyone. When we first met Peck in the bottoms I should have come away cackling and clutching my brows, crying, “A fool! A fool! I met a fool i’ the forest, a motley fool!” Instead I came away implicated, entangled, and oppressed, and I knew exactly why. He was like a visitation—beard, motorcycle, and all, and his head rattled with all the familiar loose marbles. He angered me in a remembered way, he made me doubt myself all afresh. And there was a threat in him, a demand that he and his bughouse faiths be somehow dealt with or they would undermine peace forever.
But the Welds and the LoPrestis, who merely involved us in neighborhood complications, and even Jim Peck, who challenged every faith I hold, threatened our serenity far less than did Marian Catlin, who only offered us love.
These ironies are circular, without resolution. I drift from grief to anger, a
The other night, standing in the patio watching the stars and the lights lost among the hills, I had a flash as if my veins had been shot full of menthol, a cold convulsion of panicked awareness that I was I, that for sixty-four years I have inhabited this skull which from the inside seems comfortably habitual, but which I might not even recognize if I could stand six feet away and see its hairless shine in the starlight. That old bald-pate I? Good God. Is that what Ruth sees? What Marian regarded with affection and amusement? What Curtis rejected and was rejected by? And if I am so strange from the outside, am I so sure I know myself any better from within?
How do I know what I think till I see what I say, somebody asks, kidding the Philistines. But I can’t think the question so stupid. How do I know what I think unless I have seen what I say? For two years I cultivated the condition that Marian called twilight sleep. Now my eyelids flutter open, and I am still on the table, the gown is pulled away to reveal the incision, the clamps, the sponges, and the blood, the masks are still bent over me with an attention at once impersonal and profound.
Escape was a dream I dreamed, and waking I am confused and a little sick. Sitting here sorting out the feelings and beliefs of Joseph Allston, while the rain sweeps in on gusts of soft Pacific air, I am sure of hardly anything, least of all of the code I thought I lived by. Some of it, yes; maybe more of it than I now think, for certainly I don’t believe in conversions and character changes any more than I believe you can transform a radio into a radar by rewiring one or two of its circuits. But I do believe you can replace a blown tube or solder a broken wire. I have always said that the way to deal with the pain of others is by sympathy, which in first-year Greek they taught me meant “suffering with,” and that the way to deal with one’s own pain is to put one foot after the other. Yet I was never willing to suffer with others, and when my own pain hit me I crawled into a hole.
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