A Mound by Nathan Leslie
Ethan’s black Crown Vic is streaked with mud. The pattern of the mud resembles the Milky Way or the fumes from a jet plane. He feels pathetic, thinks of that line from Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He has always liked the one about stereotyped despair lurking beneath entertainment even better. He can’t recall exactly how it one goes; he thinks paraphrasing is a sign of sloppiness.
He sips sour gas-station coffee from a stained Styrofoam cup, sits on his hood. He’s waiting for the clouds to part, for the sun to reappear. He crosses his arms, pulls on another taupe L.L. Bean sweater, scratches his four-day-old stubble. For a minute he feels he’s roughing it. It’s colder than Ethan would like for mid-Spring, also prettier. His stomach tightens.
Aside from the greasy Southern food, he doesn’t mind staying in small towns like Franklin. He can drive these mountains all day. Wayah Bald, Tanasee Bald, Richard Balsam—bring it on.
The beginning of enjoying himself rests in not exactly knowing why he’s here. He is happily married, or considers himself to be so. He calls Nancy each evening. Their daughter, Madison, coos into the phone. Ethan just wanted some alone time to drive the land, take pictures, breathe the outer Smokies—the mountains away from the tourist traps of Gatlinburg and Cherokee and Bryson City and Fontana Village. The drives afford him views he didn’t think he’d find—off-beat antique shops and junkyards and construction cones and roadside dives and trailer parks. He is a tourist, an outsider. There is actually something relaxing about this, he thinks. It allows him to take the pressure off himself. He is a bureaucrat for the FDA. His job is not gratifying, but who said work has to be?
Unfolding the North Carolina map, Ethan peers at the route from Franklin to Tamassee. Yesterday he drove from Turtletown to Suit to Murphy to Marble, Andrews, Aquone and then, finally, over to Wayah Bald. These names just roll off his tongue: He almost feels like a Southerner by the simple act of uttering them. Today he wants to head down through Cullasaja, Gneiss, and stop at Bridal Veil Falls and Whiteside Mountain. Then, just for kicks, he thinks he will head down across the Georgia line into Dillard and Mountain City and Clayton and back up through Hiawassee. Chatuge Lake looks like it might be a decent respite. He will lounge on a pier by the lake and watch the birds and the budding trees and then find a place to stay in Hayesville, just North of the line, and he will find some greasy diner food before he calls Nancy from the butt of his motel bed. He has never been one to mind a plan. He could plot out each and every day and would be happy to follow along, reveling in a sense of completion.
Bridal Veil Falls is lovely, and once he drives down the road Ethan feels fortunate to almost immediately find a hiking trail for Whiteside Mountain. As he drives up an incline on a narrow back road he spots a young man sitting on the asphalt, a briefcase clenched in one hand. Afraid to swerve around him, he stops the car twenty yards away and lets the car idle. The man’s other hand is entrenched firmly in his pocket. He is worried the man has a gun or a knife, though the man is dressed in a black business coat and Ethan can clearly see a red tie poking out from the monochrome. He doesn’t know if he should beep his horn or get out of the car and speak to the guy. He doesn’t want a confrontation, but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to make his way around the guy: He is worried the man’s suicidal urges will force him to throw himself in the way of the car. A mere attempt at escape could spring the worst case scenario.
Ethan pulls to the far right side of the road and cuts the engine. He realizes that this is the more intelligent decision: if there is a tussle he wouldn’t want the young man to steal his car. He doesn’t feel comfortable. He flips his cell phone, places it in the pocket of his fleece jacket for safe measure. He wishes he had a baseball bat with which he could defend himself.
Instead, he approaches the man with palms outstretched, in a mollifying manner.
“You okay there?” Ethan says, walking slowly toward the man.
The young man wears gold-rimmed glasses that catch the sun. The horseshoe pattern of leaves around the man’s head is a brilliant green, and pink and white flowers speckle the background. Beautiful. He thinks the man can’t be any older than twenty three. He is baby-faced and his hair is parted neatly and his Adam’s apple bobs on his neck.
“Oh yeah,” he says, popping up with an ironic smirk. “I was just meditating really. Resting. It’s quiet.”
“Right in the middle of the road?” Ethan drops his hands.
“Sure, it’s not often someone comes up here anyway.”
Ethan looks up the road. He can see other houses. He can hear a dog barking in the distance. He’s not inclined to believe the guy’s account, at least that’s what his gut tells him.
“Are you heading out to work?” he says. “Do you need a lift?”
“I’m not getting in the car with a stranger,” the man says. “If that’s what you mean. It’s just one of those things to me.” He doesn’t seem to have an accent. Ethan snorts in laughter, and then laughs. He laughs too hard. His laugh feels fake to him.
“What? What is it?” the young man says.
Ethan finds the guy’s principled stance on strangers humorous since he is a stranger.
“Never mind,” he says. He pivots to return to his car. He’s ready to drive up the road to Whiteside Mountain.
The man in the tie shouts, “Hey.”
After the initial exchange, this startles him. Ethan looks over his shoulder. The young man’s expression has changed, stiffened, pursed. He looks sullen, and his face is drained.
“Let me show you something,” the man says. He begins walking off to the right through a patch of saplings and through the woods. The man doesn’t turn around to see if Ethan is following. He watches the young man walk, carrying his briefcase with one stiff arm. He can’t help himself: he follows.
“My name is Chuck,” the man says, still walking. He doesn’t turn around. He’s walking straight ahead, shoulders slightly hunched. At his collar, Chuck’s hair tapers down to a point. Something about it reminds Ethan of a duck’s feathers. Underfoot twigs snap, leaves shuffle. Through the gaps in the trees he watches the clouds scud by. The air has warmed, grown humid. One thing he loves about the spring is the utter lack of insects. He has factored this into his thinking.
They walk through the woods in this way, up an incline, and after a few minutes the path leads into an opening. Over Chuck’s shoulder Ethan can see a rusty chain-link fence, a green shed, a column of azaleas. They walk toward it. Chuck leads him around to the left and opens the gate and they walk into the muddy yard. Ethan wonders if a dog is to blame for the erosion, perhaps a goat.
Sitting in the exact middle of the yard is a small mound of snow, maybe three feet in diameter. The mound of snow is gray and brown around the edges and the mound’s crest is creased with streaks of mud. It looks like a miniature mountain. Ethan wonders if it was a snowman.
“Look at that, would you?” Chuck says. “It’s May and it still hasn’t melted. Isn’t that something?”
Ethan nods and shrugs. “That’s the way it goes sometimes, isn’t it?” He feels tentative, hackneyed. Strangers.
“Not sure what that means,” Chuck says. He stands behind the snow mound, one hand in his coat pocket, the other hand still holding the brief case.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?”
“I mean it must be one cold mound isn’t it? Yeah, did you see any other snow around?”
“No,” Ethan says. Now that he thinks of it he hasn’t.
“That’s right. It’s some kind of special snow.”
He isn’t sure what to say. He doesn’t want to disappoint the guy, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to lie to him. Ethan guesses the snow mound hasn’t melted as a result of the insulating mud. At least, if he had to wager, this is what he’d wager on. He decides to err on the side of politeness and refrain from saying anything. Looking at a mound of dirty snow isn’t his idea of entertainment. He’s ready to get back to his car, hike up to the mountain.
“You live here,” Ethan says.
“Yeah,” Chuck says, stiff as a rod. “But there’s this thing…” Chuck’s voice trails off. He looks at the mound of snow, as if it is about to speak to him. His eyes widen. “I’m quitting medical school. Well, I did already. Today.”
“Oh,” Ethan says. He isn’t sure what to say.
“Yeah, I’m volunteering. Iraq. I mean, I just figure there’s more need. Army.”
“Oh,” he says. This isn’t what he expected, but by the odd way the guy has been acting he thinks this makes an odd kind of sense. He just doesn’t know what to do, what to say. Through the trees Ethan can see a white, ramshackle Victorian-era house. From what he can see it looks unoccupied. A cluster of crows land on the cupola, squawks.
“Yeah, it’s nothing my father wants me to do. My mother’s gone, and I’m here. He needs me and all. But I figure…” Chuck’s voice trails off again. He cocks his head, twists his neck, withdraws his free hand and massages the back of his neck. Chuck stares back into the mound of snow, this time as if in it he might find an answer to his problems. “I don’t know,” he says. “I didn’t get more than an hour of sleep last night. My head is fuzzy.”
Ethan watches Chuck watching the snow and he kicks at a muddy stick in the muddy yard. He listens to the chortling crows. They stand like that for a while. He thinks of things he might say, but he doesn’t say them. Platitudes. He realizes he wouldn’t say them even if Chuck were his brother or father or best friend. There is nothing he can say that will do an ounce of good, Ethan knows. Words are not even empty shells. They are much less than that.
“Well, good luck,” he says. “I’m sure you’re doing the right thing.” As soon as he says this, he regrets it: it is the exact opposite of what he actually believes. He walks over to Chuck, shakes the man’s hand, thumps his shoulder, and tells him he’d like to get back to his car now.
“That’s fine,” Chuck says. Chuck stands there, stiff, holding onto the briefcase. His fingers are clenched around the handle, head bent.
“That snow will melt eventually,” he says, turning. “It will.”
“Yeah,” Chuck says. “I know it.”
Ethan walks out of the yard and back down the path. He realizes he doesn’t know if that even was Chuck’s house. Ethan can’t be sure that was Chuck’s yard. The clouds seem to swell. Suddenly chilled, he pulls his arms around his chest and blows into his hands as he walks past the trunks and branches. He knows the road isn’t far off. He bites his lip and walks on.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas