I tug open the stubborn door on my oversized rural mailbox.
Sunlight shimmers off its silvery surface, accentuating the
darkness inside. The envelope that inhabits the back corner
is one more than I'm used to getting since moving to Topanga.
Five years it's been, since the summer of '69. Back then, the
idea was to isolate myself, withdraw from a world that had become
too much to take. Enough was enough. The parched and rugged
mountains north of Los Angeles seemed as good a place to hide
as any. If only I could have gotten farther away from myself.
and I just finished our daily run to the top of the canyon and
back. Slick with sweat, I'm out of breath after sprinting the
final hundred yards. We use the fire road because no one else
does, always ending up on Greenleaf Canyon Road where it connects
with my driveway, a quarter-mile of rutted dirt road carved
unskillfully into the side of a vast sandstone hill. Hazy sunshine
envelops us in warmth and a faint ocean breeze blows in from
the Pacific Ocean. A month ago, the same breeze bore the acrid
odor of char, the aftereffect of a wildfire that blew up the
side of the canyon before stopping at my road. Today it carries
the medicinal cough drop smell of eucalyptus pods ground into
the brownish-black asphalt by unforgiving car tires.
waits in front of the twenty-foot swinging iron gate that guards
the entrance to my driveway. A frothy pink tongue dangles from
the side of her mouth as she pants, dissipating heat. The gate
is open at the moment, a recent change in my stance toward the
world. Her head cocked slightly to one side, Tuna watches me
intently for a signal. She wants to run to the cabin we call
home, at the end of the road and tucked in behind an impressive
stand of oak trees. There she would satisfy her thirst, then
race off to the horse corral to flop in Popcorn's water trough.
But she would never leave me behind. When I meet her eyes she
begins to wag her bushy tail in earnest.
a good grl!"
I say affectionately, still trying to catch my breath. Tuna
lopes over and bumps against my thigh as gently as she knows
how, which is to say she knocks me only slightly off balance.
Her wolf-malamute body is a sinewy mass of muscular power, weighing
in at over one hundred twenty pounds. My knee pushes playfully
against her ribs and I experience an odd pang of guilt for the
times I thought of myself as companionless. She smiles, exposing
long canines and a set of molars capable of crushing bone.
pluck the envelope from the mailbox, close the door and glance
at the typewritten return address: Detective Frank Gerritsen,
Walla Walla Police Department, Walla Walla, Washington. My heart
balloons with fear. The process is rapid and systematic, as
if I've been injected with pharmaceutical-quality speed.
I cry out, and then cringe instinctively, waiting for the echo
to bounce back off the rock walls of Greenleaf Canyon. By the
time it arrives, Tuna stops wagging her tail.
still, I consider tearing the letter to bits and throwing the
pieces into the manzanita. Why the hell is Gerritsen writing?
Did he figure out how we did it? I strain to make sense
of what's happening, find my hand over my mouth in an expression
a sizable rock twenty feet up the road, shaded by a towering
eucalyptus. The rock is flat and smooth on the top and I've
often considered plopping down on it after our run. I walk over
and sit on the rock now, my body all jacked up on adrenaline.
Tuna follows and settles at my feet, a look I interpret as concern
in her brown, almond-shaped eyes.
I half tear open Gerritsen's letter, but abruptly stop. An icy
chill descends my spine. Terror suffocates me. I can't breathe
and I can't call out. Opening the envelope is beyond my will.
My mind replays a shard of memory, tips over the first domino
in a long row of nightmarish images. I feel vaguely outside
my body as the dominoes continue toppling, one after another,
picking up speed as I tumble into the dreaded memory, spinning
around and around, down and away.
there at the entrance to the abandoned cemetery, halfway between
his patrol car and my '53 Chevy, Montrose lies motionless, face
up in the soft dirt. If he's alive, he's got to be in really
bad shape. My heart is pounding hard enough to crack my ribs.
Spurts of adrenaline hit me, big shooting spurts, and I'm close
to throwing my guts up. Oh God, I don't want to be here! This
can't be happening. I want to run and never stop, but handcuffs
secure me to my car door. My legs are giving out. I want to
run like never in my life, but I can barely stand up.
open my eyes from the gauzy interior of the memory. Gerritsen's
letter is clenched like a baton in my right hand. Tuna has her
huge paws on top of the rock and pushes against my cheek with
her wet, bulky muzzle. I squint against the day, its sunlight
an unfriendly reflection off the bright canyon walls. The world
has gone all white and fuzzy, like electronic snow on a television
screen. A headache stabs my temples, fueled by the anxiety that
drives my body. The Montrose flashback had me less than a minute,
but time inside of it felt stretched, elongated by helplessness.
The initial hit of anger on seeing Gerritsen's letter seems
far away, a distant sun from the world of fear I now inhabit.
If only I could recapture that anger and hide behind the relative
safety of its protective energy.
I shout a second time, but no amount of trumped-up rage will
ward off the panic that holds me securely in its grip, and I
know it even as the expletive flies from my mouth. I take as
deep a breath as I can manage, exhale through pursed lips and
swear one more time, but quieter. Tuna tilts her broad head
in rapt attention, devoid of judgment or aversion. I envy her
simplicity, her innocence.
stay put on the rock, too fragmented to move. You could be
headed to prison.
car approaches from below, its engine straining against the
steep incline. Were it not for the effort required, I'd scurry
into the manzanita and hide like a frightened rabbit. The car,
a station wagon, makes the turn a hundred feet down the hill
where Tuna recently found a dead coyote in the blackened underbrush,
a victim of the fire and its two thousand-degree dance of destruction.
the car belongs to Dr. Lawrence Grove, a neighbor and friend.
Then again, maybe it'd be better if it were a complete stranger.
He pulls to an abrupt stop alongside my rock, sticks his head
out the half-rolled-down window and says, "Jesus Christ,
Bryan! You okay?"
it that obvious?"
exactly," I answer in a rare moment of self-disclosure.
Grove (out of respect for his medical degree, I always call
him by his surname) wrestles his station wagon to the side of
the road and sets the emergency brake. His full head of shoulder-length
pepper-gray hair is pulled into a ponytail. He gets out and
walks over to the rock. His arthritic hip must be acting up
because his limp is worse than usual. Tuna walks halfway onto
the road to greet him and he sticks out his hand for her to
lick. "What's wrong?" he asks me.
I wave the letter at him, but don't otherwise respond.
news?" he asks.
haven't opened it yet."
you look like someone who swallowed some bad peyote. I'm serious!"
Dr. Grove shouldn't throw stones. In his sixties, he has the
washed out look of someone who's done too many drugs and lost
too much sleep. Nevertheless, he still has a strength of appearance
that draws attention and commands respect. He reminds me of
Shirley Temple's grandfather in Heidi. Or Timothy Leary.
a lot." I sidestep his gaze and look up the road like weren't
you going somewhere?
He steps into my line of sight. "Tell me what's happening?"
know him. He won't leave until I answer. "I guess I sort
of spaced out."
squats down in front of me, wincing because of his hip.
your hip acting up?"
ignores the question, removes a pair of cheap sunglasses and
examines my eyes. He says,
don't look like you're all here. Get in my car and come up to
my place. I'll fix you a drink. We can talk."
don't want to talk."
yourself. I'll fix you the drink and we won't talk."
don't know . . ."
Bryan. I'm not going to leave you looking like this. Tuna can
come, too." Without waiting for my consent, he limps back
to his car, opens the back door and watches as Tuna jumps inside.
He slaps her on the flank and says, "You look like you
could use a drink, too, Big Girl."
flies as Tuna's tail thumps the upholstery, the color of mud.
Riding in a car is her second favorite thing to do, right behind
eating canned tuna packed in oil (hence her namesake). Dr. Grove
clunks the door shut behind Tuna.
get off the rock and arch my back, letter in hand. "I appreciate
what you're trying to do, but-"
God's sake, get in the car and don't argue." He ushers
me around to the passenger side of the vehicle and holds opens
the door. I scoot in, try to find a comfortable position for
my long legs. He slams the door shut and tests the hold with
a hard yank.
Sticking doors are not the station wagon's only flaw. I notice
a metal coat hanger in place of his antenna. "What happened
to your antenna?" I ask, trying to divert attention from
my embarrassing circumstances. Years of practice have made me
good at acting okay when I'm not.
asshole broke it off out in front of The Food Chakra. The hanger
works better, anyway." Smiling, he adds, "Fixed it
Grove jams the car in gear and proceeds up the hill toward the
commune where he lives.
go a short distance and he asks, "How close did the fire
get to your cabin?" He asked me this three weeks ago, but
wants to make casual conversation, probably in hope of settling
play along and give the same answer as before. "Not too
close. It never jumped my road."
nods, reassuringly. "Good."
station wagon's interior bakes like a sauna. My bare back sticks
to the vinyl upholstery. I recall telling Dr. Grove to gut this
rolling total, plant it in full sun, roll up the windows and
use it to grow tomatoes and peppers. Make it a real hothouse.
My head is swimming. The expression " . . . hotter than
a two-bit pistol" comes to mind. I struggle to remember
where I heard it, decide it was listening to Leo Lassen call
Seattle Rainier baseball games when I was a kid ("That's
the fourth hit of the game for Carlos Bernier, 'The Panamanian
Flier.' He's hotter than a two-bit pistol!"). My limbs
feel like burning rubber, as if I'd overslept in a stuffy room
and awakened with a three-digit fever, and I couldn't spit with
a gun to my head. My mind is fizzing over like an effervescent
beverage and it's all over the place. I stick my head out the
Grove asks, "You gonna throw up?"
I answer. I would, but my head might explode.
continue up the hill, crunching eucalyptus pods and swaying
badly on worn shock absorbers. Tuna leans forward and gives
my ear a sloppy lick. She thrusts her head out one window, then
the other, as if she might miss something if she commits to
one particular side.
her bulk, she navigates the back seat like a ballerina. Then
again, she has extraordinary coordination from the wolf side
of her parentage.
Grove asks, "Do you want me to stop the car?"
I'm okay." I cover my eyes with my hand, the one that isn't
holding Gerritsen's letter. "You really don't have to do
this," I add half-heartedly.
thought you didn't want to talk."
manage a trace of a smile, the best I can do. Closing my eyes,
it occurs to me I've calmed down since Dr. Grove arrived on
the scene. This is ironic; the first time we met-a year ago-I
gave him a ride in a time of need (he'd gotten caught
in a rainstorm of biblical proportion).
here, Bryan." The volume of his voice jolts me.
open my eyes and shake my head to orient myself. Big mistake.
My head is pounding like a bass drum and the flashback at the
mailbox has left me in a daze. Mopping my brow with the back
of my forearm I wonder what day it is. "The letter,"
I blurt out. "What'd I do with Gerritsen's letter?"
just set it on the dashboard. Right in front of you."
I say, too shook up to feel embarrassed.
you need help getting to the house?"
I'm not that bad." I exit the station wagon, struggle to
get my bearings. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I let Tuna
out the back door. Her long, [WOLFE1]furrowed tongue hangs pitifully
from her mouth, a reminder to Dr. Grove that he'd promised her
water. He drags his bum leg inside and emerges a minute [WOLFE2]later,
placing a large metal mixing bowl on the ground. Tuna laps up
the water, spilling a third of its contents on Dr. Grove's sad
but grateful petunias. The ground is bone dry.
commune dogs arrive en masse, but keep a safe distance while
Tuna satisfies her thirst. Most are a black-and-tan mix of German
Shepherd and something or other. None match her size and maybe
they sense she's different, a little wilder and a whole lot
stronger. She empties the bowl and joins her mongrel friends.
After some obligatory sniffing, the pack runs off toward the
hills, Tuna in the lead. "Stay close, girl," I holler
in a pained voice.
I navigate the three wooden steps that lead up to Dr. Grove's
cabin, a modest dwelling painted robin's-egg blue and accented
with white louvered window shutters. I'm trembling despite the
afternoon heat. Dr. Grove walks behind me, ready if I fall backwards.
Once inside, he rummages through an oak dresser and hands me
a T-shirt to put on. The soft cotton is cool and soothing against
my overheated skin. It advertises Acme-Pak in Monrovia, California.
Wile E. Coyote pops into my head, rockets strapped to his back
as he crashes headlong into a sixteen-wheel tractor-trailer
while in hot pursuit of his elusive nemesis, the Roadrunner.
The way my head is throbbing I would trade places with Wile
E. Coyote and be glad for it. I thank Dr. Grove for the T-shirt
and sit down clumsily at his kitchen table, resting my head
on top of my forearms.
you want some iced tea, or something stronger?" Dr. Grove
tea." He goes to the refrigerator and pours me a glass
from a full pitcher. I chug it down too fast. The pounding in
my head cranks up several notches, like an ice cream headache
only longer-lasting. "Thanks," I say.
what's in the mysterious letter?"
told you. I haven't opened it yet."
know that," he says, exasperated. "What do you imagine
is in the letter that would precipitate . . . this state you're
fold my arms and shake my head. I'm not ready to tell Dr. Grove
about Gerritsen, or the incident he was responsible for investigating.
would guess this has something to do with your nightmares."
good guess, probably an obvious one for a psychiatrist with
his years of experience. This is the third time this month Dr.
Grove has asked me about my nightmares. I just stare at him
with a blank look because I don't know what to say. My first
impulse is to remind him he's not my fucking therapist, because
he's not, but I know he means well and don't want to hurt his
feelings. I'm in his home and wearing his T-shirt because he
cares about me. "I can't imagine who told you about my
nightmares," I finally say, packing enough sarcasm into
my voice to span a year of conversation.
also said you've been making noises in your sleep. That you
sound like, and I'm quoting here . . . 'an animal caught in
face is hot. I have that awful, shrinking sensation that tells
me I want to go away, disappear without a trace. I close my
eyes to shut out Dr. Grove. Maybe I can make him go away
since my own disappearing act isn't happening. My mind creates
an image of a living insect pinned to a specimen board. I watch
it squirm, three pairs of legs flailing against a cold steel
restraint. When I open my eyes Dr. Grove is looking at me intently
with his faded blue eyes. "Lots of people have nightmares,"
I say, knowing all the while he won't buy such a blatant rationalization.
he says. His words drift out in ever-so-soft pillows of comfort.
"I'm trying to help you here. In case you didn't already
know it, I'm very concerned about these nightmares. And I'm
not the only one."
close my eyes again, fluff up one of his word pillows and lay
my head on its cool white surface. "The nightmares?"
I ask, still far away.
he says, barely audible. His usually gruff voice has never been
more soothing. "If a dream is a letter from the unconscious,
a nightmare's a telegram. And you're going to keep having them
till you deal with whatever it is that's bothering you."
survey the tabletop between us. My glass of iced tea has been
refilled though I'm not aware of when Dr. Grove did it. Which
bothers me. A lot. It's like he's performed a magic trick and
I missed the sleight-of-hand. My survival has always depended
on my not missing anything. The throbbing has settled into the
area above my temples. I cough and a stabbing sensation shoots
out from each side to meet in the middle, a bright explosion
of pain directly behind my forehead. "I don't want to talk
about the nightmares."
telling me why?"
it isn't going to do any good, anyway." I massage my temples.
enough. Do you want some aspirin?"
nod without enthusiasm. "That might be good."
Grove ducks into the little hallway that leads to his bathroom.
I'm touched by the fact he's taking care of me. I hear a medicine
cabinet open and quickly shut. A bottle rattles and he returns
with three small white tablets, which he places on the table
in front of me. I pop all three at once and wash them down with
iced tea from the magic glass. "Thank you," I say.
"Bryan. Listen to me," he says. "Nightmares are
a symptom of trauma. Something bad went down. Whatever it is
has you by the shorthairs."
shakes his head. "That's just it. You're not handling it
and that letter's proof. If you were handling it, it'd just
be a letter, not something ominous. Do you understand?"
let me help you. Tell me what happened. I know it's a cliché,
but if you let the feelings out you'll release the trauma."
shake my head.
he says, "you've tried not talking about it and
it hasn't worked. That's what gets you flashbacks and nightmares."
point for the good doctor."
not your adversary, Bryan. It's safe here."
all due respect, Dr. Grove, it doesn't feel safe. Not because
what're you afraid of?"
look away. "I don't know. Give me a break. My head is fucking
Grove's never heard me swear, certainly not at him, but he ignores
my outburst. "Most people are afraid of losing control.
You know how it goes. They're afraid they'll start crying and
never stop. Or they're afraid of being judged."
are good. Take your pick."
But I'm not going to judge you."
meet his eyes. "How can you say that? You don't know what
a trained psychiatrist, Bryan. Sixty-six years old this month.
I've heard it all and I've fought with my own demons and somewhere
along the line I stopped passing judgment."
aspirin is kicking in fast. The shakes have stopped and my headache
is letting up. I say, "Excuse me," and trudge off
to the bathroom to pee. A moment alone to contemplate Dr. Grove's
offer. I close the door and half-smile on seeing the new shower
curtain. It's mustard-colored, like the old Chevy I drove during
my aborted college days. Bigdog, one of my fraternity brothers,
dubbed the color "turkey turd tan" and his description
stuck like glue. A pang of nostalgia seizes me, a longing for
the days before Stubblefield. Dr. Grove's dark blue floor is
warped and peeling away from the bathtub. A small coffee-colored
fungus is growing in the space between the linoleum and the
tub. My guess is he knows the fungus is there but doesn't want
to kill it because it's a living thing (Dr. Grove dabbles in
Buddhism). Perhaps he is a safe person. My urine is bright yellow
from the vitamin B complex I took before running. Maybe telling
your story is like peeing. Nature's way of relieving the body
of waste products. I wash up, splashing big handfuls of
cold water on my face and the back of my neck. I feel better.
Looking in the mirror, I'm struck by the greenness of my eyes
and how much I look like my deceased mother. What it is that
keeps me from opening up to Dr. Grove becomes instantly clear.
Returning to his living room I say, "Do you really want
to know what I'm afraid of?"
nods his head and waits patiently for my answer.
I'm afraid you won't like me anymore."
Grove smiles. His inquisitive eyes soften. "Bryan, Bryan,
Bryan," he whispers. "Are you not aware of how fond
I am of you? I don't expect you to believe this, but there's
nothing you could tell me that would change my good opinion
can you say that?"
I know myself. Do you see anything in me that would harm you?"
I ever harmed you in the slightest way?"
month during your chess lesson. That pizza you cooked on preheat
Grove chuckles. "I'll never live that one down. Seriously,
this is an opportunity you may have never had. Tell me what
this letter is all about."
the hell, I think. My apprehension dissolves like the sugar
in my third glass of iced tea. I could tell him about the nightmare.
That isn't going to give anything away. It's why I'm having
nightmares that would incriminate me. "Okay," I say
in a noncommittal voice. I glance at the front door to make
sure it's closed. It is. The kitchen window is open, but I'm
not so paranoid as to think someone is camped out beneath it,
spying on us. I'm not that far gone. "I'll tell you the
nightmare I had last night. It started with this violent storm-"
Grove puts his hand to his mouth and interrupts me. "I'm
sorry," he apologizes. "Tell me the dream in first
person, present tense. As if it were happening to you right
it more alive. You'll get more out of it that way." He
nods to emphasize the point.
I shut my eyes because it's easier to see what happens, easier
to catch the dream in words. "It's night and a violent
storm is gathering. I'm standing in a clearing surrounded by
scraggy, dead-looking trees. The clouds look black and dangerous
and the atmosphere is charged with electricity. Lightning strikes
and for several seconds everything is lit up with this ungodly,
purplish-white light. It's eerie, like a place I've been, but
can't name. The wind howls and rain starts coming down in buckets.
I'm getting pelted, but I just stand there because my legs don't
want to move. Every few seconds a deafening rumble comes down
from the heavens and then the ground starts to shake beneath
my feet. A second bolt of lightning hits a tree in front of
me. The tree explodes and five-foot piece of wood impales the
ground a few feet from where I'm standing. It's shaped like
a gigantic ancient spear. When I look down I see that it split
something in half, a rock or something. When the next flash
of lightning comes I realize it's a marker."
open my eyes and peek at Dr. Grove. He's leaning forward, riveted,
but with a puzzled expression. I say, "A marker . . . like
nods again and closes his eyes suggestively.
close my eyes and continue. "At this point the dream becomes
surreal. The trees that surround the clearing seem to morph
into gigantic insects. The wind picks up and their branches
start moving like powerful, grasping claws in search of prey.
I'm so scared I can't move. Then it comes to me. I'm out at
Stubblefield." Opening my eyes I say, "That's it.
That's where I woke up."
Grove arches his bushy eyebrows. "Wow! That is an amazing
rub my forehead. My headache is back.
says, "The trees turning into giant insects reminded me
of that short story by Kafka."
"The Metamorphosis." I feel exposed and vulnerable.
If it were my dream, I'd be most interested in the violence
of the storm, and what it symbolizes. But first, tell me . .
. what's Stubblefield?"
first question. A trap door opens in the pit of my belly. What
have I gotten myself into? Dr. Grove's blue eyes have lost
their softness. They bore into me like a sturdy icebreaker trying
to break a passage through frozen waters. "I'm sorry,"
I say, "this is something I shouldn't be talking about.
My brain's so scrambled after getting the letter I didn't think
about where this'd be going."
need to apologize." Dr. Grove replies. "It's your
dream and the dreamer decides who to share it with, or whether
to share it at all."
my words carefully I say, "Talking about Stubblefield isn't
something I'd feel comfortable discussing."
Grove smiles knowingly. "Then again, life isn't about being
right and I know it. I can't sleep without nightmares and every
time I have one of these flashbacks I end up drained for days.
Dr. Grove is a psychiatrist and a trustworthy friend. If he
were just one and not the other I might be right in refusing
him, but he's the perfect choice for telling my story. "I
want to say what happened. I've been carrying around a secret
and it's messing me up."
nods supportively. "Secrets lose their power when you tell
have to take your word for that." I pause a long moment
to think. "Can what I say be considered confidential, like
I was your patient? Because it involves something illegal."
Grove nods, thoughtfully. "We'll consider you a pro bono
patient of mine. That way, whatever you say to me is protected
by the rule of confidentiality. Not one word will ever get outside
helps," I tell him, aware of a tremor in my voice. "Because
this could get me in jail for the rest of my life. And I wouldn't
be the only one."
"It's that bad?"
nod gravely. "That bad and worse. Something happened when
I was in college. At an abandoned cemetery called Stubblefield."
Tell me about it," he says, caressing the corners of his
mouth with his thumb and index finger. "Start at the very
start. That should make it easier. By the time you get to the
really hard parts you'll have some momentum. And take your time,
Bryan. There's no place I'd rather be right now than here listening
means it. This is my big chance, maybe my only chance to speak
the unspeakable. I decide to tell him the whole story with nothing
left out. A story of attachment and loss, of love and murder,
of before and after. As in before I met Lydia Redstone, and
after I lost her. Before and after the two of us drove out to
Stubblefield Cemetery on a hot summer night, drank a couple
beers and made love in the back seat of my Chevy. Before and
after we killed Officer Jack Montrose and conspired to cover
solemnly promise myself to tell Dr. Lawrence Grove the truth.
I'll tell him exactly what happened and let him be the judge.