by Lee Upton
When I consulted Audrey about my decision we were in a restaurant that smelled vaguely of parmesan cheese and old carpeting—a partly sweet, almost burning smell. Audrey was concentrating on the bowl of olive oil dipping sauce. A fly floated amidst the rosemary, its little arms crossed.
“I’m not going,” I announced. I had the sensation of sidestepping a calamity—like in an old movie where a piano falls forty floors but a man walks on, unscathed, dust shooting up behind him.
Audrey reached across the table and squeezed my hand. For all her talk of being sensible, she is a woman of supernatural empathy, the bringer of gift baskets to sick friends and the purchaser of sympathy cards on the occasion of the death of cats.
“You know what?” she said. “You’ll go. You’ve already registered. It will be good for you. Besides, they’ll never give you your money back—or not all of it.”
The camp was devoted to men like me, men who suffered from anxiety. Normal everyday anxiety for everyday normal people.
Sunlight poured into the car, flecked with sparkles. I imagined that outside the car it was too hot and that the pines that took over so much of the landscape were boiling in their resin while the papery bark of the birches buckled. I calmed myself by reading billboards: Home of the Croissant, the Waffle Parlor, Dumpling Dan’s. Shadowy blobs in the distance: beef cattle. Another patch of billboards: Advanced Heart Care at Pocono Hospital and then, in devilish irony, The Cheesecake Factory, followed by, fast approaching, a graveyard.
I was feeling guilty on the drive because I hadn’t been entirely honest with Audrey. I wasn’t only going to the camp because of anxiety. I was going because I had learned the camp was run by someone I knew in high school: Julian Pusser. Now that’s a name that can ruin a kid’s life, and maybe that’s why Julian developed certain capacities. Like he believed he could channel voices. Old de Groot, principally.
Julian Pusser used to say that Old de Groot strangled him from the inside, like thick hands clutched ladder rungs inside his throat so that Julian would mouth whatever the spirit of Old de Groot demanded. Julian would channel that voice as some of us guys stared at him. Because it was pretty convincing. Julian said that when Old de Groot was alive he wore a frilled neck collar over a raw neck as reddish-pink as a vulture’s. Old de Groot. Julian could gargle and vomit but couldn’t get him out of his throat once Old de Groot wanted in. Old de Groot, a mean dirty-minded freak who never had a good word to say to anyone when he was living. He wasn’t going to change his habits now that he was dead.
Julian said he didn’t even understand what Old de Groot was saying—except it sounded like Dutch. When he stopped gabbling in that Dutch voice, Julian shook his shoulders and became himself again. I remember one time I asked Julian what it was like to be Old de Groot’s “host.” Julian said it was like a meatball fell on gravel and kept rolling, picking up pebbles, and that meatball flew up into your mouth and started talking.
That was the Julian Pusser I knew. I also knew about some of Julian Pusser’s other tricks. I confess that years ago I fell for one of his tricks—and it’s a miracle I’m not dead.
I arrived at the camp in late afternoon. Standing at a picnic table—registering by all appearances—was a guy who looked like a Viking. Gold hair twisted into a thick braid hung down the guy’s back. Leaning up against his leg was a backpack with a sleeping bag roll and a water canteen. In the heat his t-shirt was stippling like push pins on a military map. The Viking was so broad that the staff member seated at the picnic table was only visible by an elbow. “Is it okay that I brought along a machete?” the Viking asked. I couldn’t hear the staff member’s answer. When it was my turn the man at the table considered me with what looked like relief.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“It’s FOB time—flat on back time. We’ll ask that you gather yourself in preparation for the commitment dinner. You have a half hour.”
“Turn inward. Contemplate your purpose. In silence.”
“Oh shit.” It was the Viking. He had stopped in his tracks several feet away but apparently was listening.
Flat on back time. I had a roommate in my cabin: George, a market analyst. I’ll let you make up your own mind about George. That night I left the commitment dinner early, before anybody spoke or made a commitment. I waited back in the cabin and counted on hearing what all happened at the dinner from George. I knew Julian Pusser would show up at the end of the dinner and give one of his talks about ways to defeat anxiety. I was just too nervous to attend. When George returned he wasn’t alone. He brought back the young guy who looked like a Viking and another guy, a gnarly guy with the widest cheeks I’d ever seen on a man: Kevin. George was a social animal and liked to have at least one other person around him the way some people like to have companion animals.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation until Kevin began describing Julian Pusser. “He doesn’t move. He hardly blinks when he talks.”
George asked, “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about our leader,” Kevin said. “Julian Pusser. He has enormous self-control. Not to blink.”
George sat down next to me on my cot, punching the mattress with both fists, and said, “This isn’t as thin as my mattress.” He turned his attention back to Kevin. “How does he get anyone to listen to him? That’s the mystery. With a name like Julian Pusser.” Hearing George, I momentarily felt transported back to high school.
“That’s nothing,” Kevin said. “I know a guy named Barton Peuker.”
“You got the first session, right?” George asked. “Out of everybody you got the first private session. What did Pusser tell you?”
“He told me to stop hiding.”
“You seem to be in plain sight to me.”
“Julian, my man Julian Pusser, advised me: Get visible. Be seen.” Kevin smiled, lifting his face up and flinging his arms out. “Plus he told me to make a gnome hut. With sticks. A little homemade stick hut for sheltering your fears. It’s a spiritual task, he said. He’s a man of the spirit and for the spirit.” Kevin called over to the young guy who looked like a Viking: “What about you? Do you have a private appointment too?”
The Viking, sitting by the door and staring at the ceiling, told Kevin that his appointment wasn’t until four o’clock on Tuesday.
Already by then, out of anyone in that cabin and anyone in the camp, except for Julian Pusser, the Viking interested me most. I couldn’t figure out why such a vigorous-looking guy was at the retreat. Wasn’t he too young to feel anxious? Up close, he looked especially young. A peach scum of new beard filmed his chin.
The Viking. Maybe I got so interested in him because every time I looked at him I thought of the movie The Vikings. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. In the movie Kirk Douglas rides a tiny pony, so tiny that Douglas’s feet just about touch the ground. Ragnar—Ernest Borgnine—voluntarily jumps to his death into a wolf hound pit, dying with his sword in his hand. I ask you: why didn’t Ragnar just stab all the wolf hounds? Janet Leigh—she was Tony Curtis’s wife and in the movie you felt the sexual tension between them anyhow. And there’s a scene where the Vikings are going to assail the castle and one of the extras is smiling in this goofy cheerful way. Brilliant. And then there’s the witch’s weird warbling call to Odin when Tony Curtis is chained in the crab pool and the tide goes out. And when Kirk Douglas as Einar busts through a chapel window feet first he cries out to a praying monk, “Take your magic elsewhere, holy man!” Julian and I used to watch that movie together a lot. For a class project we even wrote a collaborative series of haikus about the movie and got in trouble for the words horny and bastard. I still remember those haikus—although maybe not exactly:
Heads prickle with prongs.
Eric’s horny heart thunders.
Take time to pillage!
Let every vat boil with foam!
Dance on oars, Einar!
Big knees drag on ground:
Einar rides tiny pony.
Janet can’t stand him.
Einar and Eric:
Brothers! Sorry about that
stab. Bastard, you’re home!
“I guess there are people who could find value-added because of Pusser,” George was saying. “I’m not all that impressed yet, but I guess what he’s selling sells.”
I couldn’t resist. “Obfuscation?” I said. My voice came out in a bleat.
“That sells,” George said, patting the mattress between us. “Sounds like a men’s cologne. People feel important, hearing a word like that. Obfuscation. I bet you felt important using that word. Yeah, that word sounds like one of those unisex colognes—they’re not coming back again ever, by the way. Women don’t want to smell like their dad. It’s that simple. I will say Pusser’s got intense eyes. They’re like eyes that see by the light that falls on a playground and you’re walking past and thinking I bet those kids get splinters in their hands, and that old tire swing has probably been the source of more than one concussion. Those are his eyes.”
Those were his eyes. I hadn’t realized those were his eyes when Julian and I were kids. As George kept talking, what felt like a barbed hook ripped through my chest. When the squeezing subsided into a crackling dart I reflected on the fact that the signs of a heart attack are vague. One website I consulted months earlier listed as a primary symptom “feelings of impending doom.” That couldn’t be abnormal. If I hadn’t endured these symptoms for years—acute anxiety masquerading as heart trouble—I would be headed for the ER.
It was the Viking who said to Kevin, “What’s with your face?”
Kevin’s hand flew to his nose. He pulled his hand away and gawked at his own fingers.
“Do you need to lie down?” I said.
The Viking was crouching over Kevin like an umpire and saying, “Lean forward. Pinch your nose.”
“No big deal,” Kevin said, smearing his chin. “No big deal.”
“You look like you’ve got a head wound,” George said. “Isn’t this supposed to happen to—you know, to non-adults?” Blood sprayed onto Kevin’s sandals.
The Viking grabbed some paper towels George kept on his side of the cabin, handed one bunch to Kevin, and spread the other towels to catch blood. The Viking kept mopping things up, patting Kevin’s back, then using his own shirt to blot up blood from Kevin’s chin then repeating the cycle.
“It’s not a big deal,” Kevin repeated. By then his teeth were red. “It must be the altitude. My body is more sensitive than I am. I’ve seen a lot of my own blood. It never fails to surprise me.” He spread out his hands. Inside each palm: more blood. “I just never stopped getting these nose problems. When I’m anxious, you know? It’s not easy being here.”
George was laughing. “You’ll need to duck your head in a bucket, guy.” He pointed his sandal toward the Viking. “Come on, buddy, it’s not like you’re bailing out a rowboat. Calm down. Take your time.”
“I’m cool,” Kevin said. “It’s like a faucet. It’s turning off. I can feel it drying up in there. Thanks, guys. I mean, really, thanks.” A bubble of blood peeped out of his nose.
Abruptly the Viking sat on the floor, his face covered by his gold mop of hair.
In the middle of the night the cabin door banged open and cool air was sucked into the room. I switched on the light. The Viking was standing inside the doorway. By then George was backed up against the wall at the rear of the cabin. I hadn’t even seen him run out of bed in terror.
The Viking breathed heavily and informed us, “I got a discount by saying I’d sleep in the woods. Then I got lost in the woods. I came here to gain a sense of direction and I got lost.”
“You’re lucky. You could have stayed lost,” George said.
The Viking sat with his back against the door. After he started to snore, an unexpectedly light snore—like someone sucking an ice cube with a coffee straw—George said, “He’s cheap. He bargained for the cheapest rate. Now he’s afraid of the woods. Meanwhile we pay full rate.”
“He’s just a kid.”
George snorted. “I would hate to think the program isn’t getting the financial support it needs.”
A tall man in an elevator handed me a sack. The sack was heavy—so heavy that I woke up and translated: He left me holding the bag. In the dream it was Julian Pusser who gave me that bag.
The next morning, stepping over the Viking where he was curled by the door, I walked out onto the grounds. The dawn light was coming through the pines in shafts. Rain drops clung to bushes. I hadn’t listened to so many birds in a long time or seen so many pine needles shining or so much thick brush shuddering with living things. The sizzling sound in the air made me think of Tarzan movies and how sounds were recycled movie to movie—a shriek and a swishing of leaves, the camera panning to high branches. In the next scene Tarzan was standing in front of a movie of a charging rhino. In the end Tarzan sequestered Jane. It was a perfect world for a misanthrope. Rope bridges, towers. Tall plants. Like Pier I Imports. Maybe I’d ask Audrey to marry me—ask again. We could have an actual family before it was too late. Even mass murderers were known to have wives. And here I was—a non-violent man, regrettably not an entirely well-toned specimen, granted “a fly swatter could put you to death,” Audrey once told me before she apologized. So what was Audrey waiting for? Other than someone else? Wasn’t I supposed to be the one to resist commitment? I resisted nothing. I always felt better around Audrey. In fact, without her to talk to, my insomnia was back. I glanced up the slope at the staff cabins and instinctively ducked my head.
When I circled back to my cabin, the Viking was awake and rubbing his eyes. I was happy to see him. He struck me as being like a giant golden rabbit’s foot—a token of luck for anyone but the rabbit or maybe the Viking himself. George was awake too, pulling a shirt over his head and then staring at the Viking with disdain.
The wall of the cabin shook. I recognized Kevin’s voice.
“Can’t you knock like other people?” George said, opening the door.
“I’m not like other people.”
The Viking stood up. He seemed taller than yesterday. Like a good night’s sleep stretched him. “What did you hit the wall with?” he asked Kevin.
“A squirrel.” Kevin added quickly, “It was not what you might call a live squirrel.”
“After you bury that squirrel,” the Viking said to Kevin, his voice stern, “why don’t you come down to the meeting hall and drink some coffee.” I was surprised by the Viking’s tone. Last night he was tending to Kevin the way you’d tend to a five-year-old boy and this morning he was defending a dead squirrel. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of difference in behavior. The Viking was acting like Kevin’s father even though he had to be two decades younger.
“I think it’s actually elk droppings,” Kevin said. “It’s not exactly coffee.”
“So why don’t you come down and drink some elk droppings. First, take care of that squirrel.” The Viking’s voice sounded not only stern but strained, like it was an effort for him to engage in a conversation of this length.
“I don’t know why you’re so sensitive about that dead squirrel,” George said, as if he was Kevin’s proper defender. “It’s not like all of Kevin’s kinfolk ate squirrels.”
The gnome hut was easy to help Kevin make and wasn’t heavy, just awkward to carry. Gradually, the other men were out far ahead on the trail back to camp, the Viking towering over George, with a new guy called Dylan gesticulating every few feet at something.
Kevin, who tended to be slow anyway, waited for me as I grappled with his gnome hut. When we were side by side on the path he spoke in a low voice. “I want to tell you something.”
The gnome hut dug into my wrists. “Okay,” I said. “Tell me something.”
“It’s about Mark.”
Kevin outlined a refrigerator in the air.
“Oh, the Viking,” I said. “Mark.” I would never get used to calling the Viking by the name Mark.
“I know why he’s here,” Kevin said. “His in-laws.”
I considered the matter: To think that the Viking—Mark—was forced to come here at the command of his in-laws. Too sad.
Kevin explained that Mark’s father-in-law saw the ad for the retreat, even set up the appointment for an individual counseling session for the Viking. Because, Kevin said, of what happened to the Viking’s wife and his little boy. “I’ll give you the basic version. Mark and his wife had a fight. After too many beers Mark was sleeping away from his wife in a room off the kitchen. He woke only once maybe. Or was more likely half-awake when he heard a ripping sound above him, like carpet being torn up. Nothing. Squirrels in the ceiling. Nothing. He fell back to sleep. The fire had already spread into the walls. They passed away—the wife and the little boy. The kid was four years old.”
I set the gnome hut down.
“How do you know all this?”
“I asked Mark why he was here. He treated it like a punishment—telling me. Part of his punishment was telling me.”
“And now you’re telling me.”
“I’m not telling anyone else. Not George. Don’t worry about that.” Kevin picked up the gnome hut. “Mark should be watched. He brought a machete. That’s weird in itself. He wants to be a chef, though, so that’s a good thing—a machete could cut up a lot of fruits. That shows advance planning for a possible future. But, still, he should be watched.”
“How does being a chef—?”
“That’s what she was—his wife.”
I had been lucky—not once had I run into Julian Pusser. I went to a session on “Dream Shifting” because I was pretty sure Julian wouldn’t be there. We were supposed to crawl down into a hole in our minds and meet our spirit guides. We were warned that some people could never crawl down into their hole because they kept getting spewed out to the upper world. I was doing pretty well at mentally crawling down into a hole until the dream shifting leader put on a recording of drums and I was startled back into my own life.
It was the third night of camp and I’d attended two sessions on meditation and gone on a “wildflower walk” and managed to avoid all the night sessions where Julian Pusser gave his talks. Sitting by the campfire seemed pretty safe. According to George, Julian Pusser disappeared after he gave his talks.
The firelight shook and flared comfortingly, and after a while I was the only one by the fire until the Viking showed up. We were silent for a long time, companionably looking into the campfire, until he said, “I went to the private session.”
“Was it okay?”
“I know Kevin told you about me. I told that guy, that Pusser guy about what happened. I made myself tell him. He looked at me and wouldn’t talk at first. All I felt about myself—it was there. Right there in him.”
Across the way a figure limped off toward the lower cabins. A pickup door slammed shut.
“He said I shouldn’t let myself get away with it. He said I wanted them to die. He said I knew what I was doing when I fell back to sleep. He said I was slow, that he’d noticed how slow I was right away. You like to be slow, he said. He called it resistance.”
“When he was telling you these things—how did he look, you know, what was his expression like?”
The Viking paused. A chunk of log fell into the fire and the flames snapped. “He looked—happy.”
The night was growing cooler and damp, like my face was being passed over with a wet brush. Dread locked my knees. Julian was visible in a window of the largest cabin on the rise. The cabin—it was a trick of the dark—was breathing like something made of cells from a lung. My heart was doing strange things. I thought I couldn’t take another step. And then Julian was crouching to fit his upper body into the window frame. “Hey, Sean,” he called out. “I wondered when you were going to admit you knew me.”
I managed to stumble up the steps. Once I was inside the cabin I was struck by the smell of wet ash. A smell as intense as if the cabin was recently set on fire. Mold speckled the floorboards. A vague piney rot had to be distilled in the walls.
A box of cereal lay on its side on the coffee table. Some non-generic cheap cereal. Was it a sign that Julian might be the ascetic he convinced others he was, a spiritual man who lived on wilted corn flakes and actually liked to breathe the fetid air inside this cottage?
The smell in the room got worse : wet towels left to harden and crust. I sat down on a rickety kitchen chair. Julian lowered himself into an armchair and smiled in a way I remembered. “Where have you been hiding all these years?” he asked. He lifted his hands and the chair’s armrests gave off a greasy shine.
“I haven’t been hiding.”
It was harder than I expected to keep my eyes on him.
“Listen,” he said. “You have problems. I tried to help you. But you know what, I can employ you.”
I managed to say, “I thought I had problems.”
“A long time ago I saw you for what you could be. Except for one thing. Where it counts you never pushed the envelope. But I saw—I did see what you could be.”
I thought of what he must have meant. The newspaper reported the incident. The woman who swerved filed a report. But no one ever found out about me. I couldn’t be sure Julian had even heard that I followed through. The thing was: I didn’t feel braver afterwards.
I remembered the reason for my walk up the path to Julian’s cabin and asked, “What’d you do to Mark?”
“The big kid. The unhappy one. You had an appointment.”
“If he’s not satisfied I’ll meet with him again.”
“That’s not what he needs.”
“All right. You know what he needs. That’s reassuring. I’m reassured. I’m not refunding anything. I don’t think the retreat’s been all that bad, do you?” An easy smile, a shrug. “All my life I’ve wanted to help people. Some people are easier to help than others. You shouldn’t drink, Sean. That’s friendly advice. You and drinking—not good. Remember that.”
“It doesn’t work,” I said. “What you’re trying to accomplish with me.” I made myself look into Julian’s eyes.
“It never did. You were always good at self-hatred. You should see your face right now.”
I was such a naïve kid. Julian had been practicing on me. Practicing his “techniques.” He was always smarter, always the leader. For a long time I pretty much worshipped him. Lying down on the highway was the test. Lying down on the highway on the night a mother of three was driving home from night shift at the hospital. She swerved. I could have ruined her life. I was supposed to lie there—a challenge, a test, to see what I was made of—and I was supposed to jump up at the last opportunity. I didn’t jump up. Once I was lying on my back on that pavement it was like I was paralyzed.
I don’t remember walking out of Julian’s cabin. I do remember heading down the path, my head whirling before I felt my body falling into space without landing.
The next thing I knew the Viking—Mark—was holding me up and somehow my head was hanging out the window of the cabin and I was suddenly recalling something I’d forgotten for decades: in middle school I did two book reports on the life of the great baseball player Dizzy Dean. How did I get away with that?
The camp wasn’t over for three days. What were those men going to tell their wives or partners when they got home? Did they believe the camp had revealed anything to them, changed them, made them less anxious, less startled, less prone to insomnia and night horrors?
I was leaving early. As a parting gift, Kevin gave me his gnome shelter. It leaned against the cabin railing like a depressed rodent’s nightmare. Before he headed out for a meditation session George said that by leaving I was wasting an opportunity of a lifetime. Mark, the Viking, was curled on the floor in the corner while I packed. He had gone back to sleep after breakfast and missed the testimonials.
When the Viking lifted his head he looked like he forgot where he was. He looked that confused and panicked. And that’s when I asked him to do a big favor for me.
I pounded on the gas pedal, telling myself I could reverse the sensations I had been getting nearly every day by then, the pliers of anxiety squeezing between my ribs. There was a soft snap—something falling off the gnome hut in the back seat of the car. It was like driving a tumbleweed. The steering wheel was hot under my fingers.
Mark, the Viking, had agreed to ride with me. I’d told him I was worried about driving back home alone. My anxiety, etc. The truth was: I wanted to get him away from Julian Pusser before Julian did more damage. I knew that the Viking, so anxious to be useful, to save anybody from anything, couldn’t refuse to help me out.
The Viking was leaning forward in the passenger seat and bracing his hand against the dashboard every time we took a curve. I asked him, “Why’d you bring the machete?”
“I thought it might come in handy. Like now. Like if you plunge off a bridge I can break a window while we’re underwater.”
On the billboard up ahead, two people were stuck inside a mammoth champagne glass. A honeymoon resort. I tried to imagine myself and Audrey stuffed in one of those champagne glasses—like shrimp cocktail—and couldn’t. I pointed out the billboard to the Viking, who was looking over at me anxiously from the passenger’s seat. What was I doing? That billboard really wasn’t the thing to point out to a guy who lost his wife.
I concentrated on the scenery to quiet my heart. I tried to imagine telling Audrey about what I was seeing, how ponds were set into the hollows of hills, and the cliffs were dark with slate, gray and black slate with ferns growing in fissures and the ferns waving in the wind running down from the hills.
The road ahead was clear—no traffic even. Just the same, I kept fearing something in my path—a habit of mine, even though I’d never run over anything, always missed, except once when a rabbit hurled itself at my wheels, skittered right into my path before I could stop.
In another mile the Viking proved essential. He took over the wheel and got us to the emergency room at Stroudsburg. What saved me: a stent for my heart.
I didn’t expect to see the Viking soon after that and I didn’t. But the following summer he stopped by my place out of the blue. Audrey had at last moved in with me. It only took a heart attack.
“Hello, stranger!” the Viking called out. I was on my lawn picking up sticks from a storm. “Making a new gnome hut?”
I could hardly stop laughing—I was that glad to see him. I had told Audrey about the Viking—Mark—so many times that she’d finally asked me to stop talking about him, and now here the kid was, looking jolly, unscathed. Right away, with pride in his voice, the Viking announced he actually had a job.
“Great,” I said. “Absolutely great.”
He said he was going to work for the summer up at the strength retreat in the Poconos.
“Are you crazy? You’re kidding me, right? You’re not going to work for that psychopath. Don’t tell me that.”
“He helped me out.”
“What do you mean he helped you out?”
“I saw him again—before we left. It was just a test, what he was saying to me. Like he was extracting the voices from my head—the worst voices—so that I could examine them. He has a method.”
“He has a method that could kill people. That’s his method.”
The Viking clearly didn’t want to pursue this idea and said, “I’ve got somebody I want you to meet—in my truck.”
Somebody turned out to be a malamute. A huge animal with black mask-like markings on its white and grey face and a long dripping tongue. The animal’s mouth didn’t close, like it was perpetually smiling. Its tail curled up and over and onto its back like a big happy plume happy to say hello to its ass. A really idiotic looking dog.
“He’s something. That he is,” Mark said. “Yeah, well. They don’t allow dogs up at the retreat. Liability issues and all that. So many anxious people have trouble with dogs. So I was wondering–.”
“No. Audrey—she wouldn’t like that. We don’t do dogs.” I regretting saying “do dogs”—it sounded vaguely sexual. We don’t do dogs. No, rethink that.
“What I mean is we don’t have a lot of room and we’re not dog people. We’re not even cat people.”
“You mean that? That’s something I don’t understand. Listen, he eats a lot. He’s expensive, but he’s a good boy.” The Viking turned to the dog for corroboration. “Tell him. You’re a good boy.” He swung back in my direction. “Actually he’s a malamute. He can’t tell you much of anything.”
“About Julian Pusser—how could he help you? I don’t believe he helped you.”
“He told me to get a dog—Rumpus here. ”
“Rumpus? This is Rumpus? And he tells you to get a dog, but then won’t let you bring the dog with you when you work for him? That doesn’t bother you?”
“I need the work. He helped me. He has a method, really.” And then the Viking was bending over, hands on his knees, like he was sick. When he unbent he was laughing. “Oh man oh man oh man oh man. The look on your face! I can’t keep it up! Man. I gotta stop. I’m gonna have to take you back to the ER if I keep on. Oh man. I’m just kidding with you. Are you crazy? I’d never work for that asshole. I got a job in Saskatch, New Mexico. Working for a hotel there. Dining services. You believed me about Julian Pusser? Wow. You believed me.”
“You were so convincing. Like you had seen him again.”
“I did see him. Before you and I left. He was helpful. Actually. He did tell me stuff that was helpful. And to get a dog. He had a message for you too.”
“You’re kidding again.”
“No, man. It was a weird message. I thought you kind of didn’t need to hear it then anyway.”
“Well, tell me. What did he say?”
“It didn’t make sense. Except for one part. He said you really need a dog even more than I do. But the rest didn’t make sense.”
“I don’t expect it to make sense.”
“Okay. He told me to tell you that the last time he talked to you—at the camp—he said that was Old Goobers talking. Not him.”
“You mean Old de Groot.”
Mark had to hit the road, and all too soon he drove off. The hours seemed longer than usual afterwards. I was alone because Audrey had left directly from work for dinner and a movie with girlfriends.
It was instinct and a sense of uneasiness that led me, later, to look out the kitchen window. That’s when I saw the malamute—Rumpus. Tied to the branch of the walnut tree. I might not have noticed the dog except for the glint of its collar. Otherwise the animal faded into the background, like it was made of camouflage. I hurried outside and untangled the leash from the tree and led the dog into the house. The animal followed dutifully, tail wagging.
“You must be hungry and thirsty. You were abandoned, weren’t you? Left to your own devices.”
Later when I talked to Audrey about what happened I was surprised that I didn’t sound angry—and so was she.
“You made it absolutely clear that we weren’t taking the dog?” she said, suspicion in her voice. “You’re sure you made it clear?”
After I once more recounted the whole incident, Audrey said, “How does your friend know that we won’t just let the dog wander off or deliver him to the pound? He’s not our dog, after all. We don’t owe the dog anything. It’s a nice looking dog though.” She was petting the dog behind the ears then shaking its paw, which it kept lifting to her like an overeager salesman. “Aren’t you nice looking?” she said to the dog. “Aren’t you indeed. Indeedy do. A handsome fellow.”
“Yes, I guess I am,” I said, hoping she’d laugh. “Have you ever seen a movie—an old movie called The Vikings?”
She thought maybe she had but couldn’t remember the plot. I took my time telling her about it. She didn’t seem to mind. Soon the dog was resting its head on her feet and sleeping. I told her about the two brothers, how one was a bastard. The brothers didn’t know they were brothers. They were trying to kill each other. Audrey said she would watch the movie with me if I picked up a copy or found it on Netflix, but only for the fjords.