Gold and Rustby Douglas W. Milliken
Something probably matters. Events or conversations, details that have shaped Cuthbert into the man he’s become. His childhood, for example—his older sister like a silent guard, their mother working, their father only sometimes around—or maybe his education. Or his job, what it was and how he lost it. Perhaps the women he’s known factor in. Then again, maybe not. Maybe even if everything had gone right for Cuth (times have never been that bad), he’d still feel how he feels, still be exactly what he is: a repeat suicide, a failure at living as well as at death. Maybe this is all he could ever be, the only alternative being an instance where he’s never been born. Maybe this empty stretch of gravel road is the only place he was ever meant to be.
He had to step over so many sleeping bodies to get the rope down from the rafter in his living room. The hitchhiker he picked up months ago and who’s dropped in unannounced now and then ever since decided that Cuth’s house—so big and so empty—would make for a great party spot. And it did. All those strangers having so much fun. Lounging in his empty rooms. Playing games in his empty lawn. Cuth came home from a day spent confronting the ocean’s ceaseless glare and all these kids with their matted hair and pungent smokes welcomed him in, offered to him whatever kindness they could, as if he was a guest and not their host. He saw no point to kicking them out. This moment versus his six years: in his home, they were living more now than he ever had. He quietly watched them celebrate themselves through the night, then took down the rope with which he’d tried to hang himself twice in the past year, slipped out into the autumn dawn and drove into the undeveloped territory north of the city. Pulled off the road and into the tall grass swaying high above the roof of his car. The grass bent down by the tires will soon rise up again. His car will be hidden by blades. Leaving his keys in the ignition, Cuth steps through the grass under a pale grey sky, does not look back.
Her invitations a seduction and a threat: the ocean is nothing to blithely walk into. Cuth spent yesterday convincing her to embrace him. To let her waves dash him against the rocks. Allow her current to drag him under and out to a place where he might never be found. But as hateful as the ocean is, she alone chooses those she destroys. As he perched himself on the tip of a stone plunging steeply into the water, the waves crashed in and roared around him like lions or temples collapsing but never took him, parting always to keep him in safety’s hands. The tide peaked and receded. She didn’t want him. In many ways, Cuth can’t fault her choice.
The clouds thinly keep the sun wound up in a gauze, and there’s a constant whisper, some secret: the sound of all those stalks of grass touching and slipping together as Cuth weaves in among them. He tries to break it down, to hear not ten thousand blades but only one, just one narrow finger of grass, the individual that makes up the whole. But he cannot. He can’t identify the one from the many.
The choice had been a binary, the time he first brought the hitchhiker into his home. He could have just as easily dumped him off somewhere in town. Instead, he offered him some floor for his bedroll. The hitchhiker dumped his stuff in the kitchen and wandered the afternoon dimness of the house, Cuth following behind, as if he was the one who needed a guide. In the room with only a typewriter and stool inside, the kid asked if Cuth writes. In the room with only a folding chair and guitar, he asked if he plays. To both, Cuth said no. “They just needed somewhere to go.” Regarding the noose drooping from the living room’s X of rafters—more laziness than anything symbolic—the kid said nothing, only pointed and tried to meet Cuth’s eyes. But he owes no one an explanation. Cuth shrugged then left for the kitchen, to peel open a can and warm some beans for their supper.
Beyond the tall swishing grass runs a rocky meadow sloping up to a dense wood of maple and poplar and ash. This deep in October, everything is orange or yellow or red. And beyond the trees: a low mountain, tomb blue and severe as a wolf’s tooth. Once in the summer, when the earth and air smelled hot and alive, Cuth stood in this same meadow between the tall grass and trees, having pulled his car off to the side of the road to watch a black mass of storm roll in off the mountain, wash in around him and roar and move on. It felt like some sort of sign, but in another language, full of meaning yet indicating nothing. Now he stands in roughly the same spot, the same grass at his back, the same trees and mountain looming tall before him, but if he’s expecting another sign then soon he’ll be disappointed. Bright leaves fall from the limbs that once bore them. That is all. Only the hopeless would mistake a falling leaf for anything but what it is. Rope coiled over his shoulder, Cuth crosses the meadow to the trees.
Last winter, on New Year’s morning, he’d tried to drown himself by smashing a hole through a river’s ice and climbing under the crystalline sheet. It didn’t really work out. His body plunged into the freezing water and seized tightly into a stone. He couldn’t do much more than sink as the cold became a sort of warmth, a white strobe within him as everything grey and blue faded softly away. But anyway, someone found him—a game warden, no less—and dragged him out, saved him, then took him to a diner for lunch. Cuth suspects he should have acted more grateful, but disappointment’s a hard shroud to shrug off. Later that spring he went back to the river, thinking he could just dive in and be washed away. But really, it was a wimpy river. More honestly called a creek. Shallow and slow. He splashed in the muck and felt like a fool. He’s never gotten used to feeling like a fool.
A gentle breeze moves everywhere around him as he walks up the slope to the trees, a cool mouth or hand nuzzling fallen leaves. The soft sounds make him think he’s surrounded by animals, and when he looks around, he’s surprised to see that yes, there are actual animals. Watching him. Aware. Some ten yards ahead, a rabbit swiftly nibbles at the meadow grass, and beyond that, in the dimness of the forest understory: a fox, still and watching the rabbit watch Cuth. Because it’s what all people do—suicides or otherwise—Cuth pauses to watch the animals, to watch himself be watched, and in a subtle but sudden moment he becomes aware that he is surrounded. Countless rabbits move about the meadow, chewing, hopping, while in the woods a legion of foxes look on. Rusty coats and golden eyes. Observed and observing. A fairytale or dream. Rabbits safely exposed in the light. Foxes like memories, darting in the dark. Cuth waits for the movements to dissolve, fading back into the landscape from which they emerged until he is alone again in the meadow. No rabbits. No fox. Only himself and the wind. Cuth steps in among the trees.
Once Cuth drew a bath for himself and some razorblades. It was an attempt at tradition, a classical sort of end, but he couldn’t understand how the components fit together. Hot water and open veins, tiny planes of steel. Was it symbolic for making oneself clean? Or was it just a measure of comfort, a soothing bath while dying? He was stymied by his lack of understanding: the only person disallowed confusion over a suicide is the suicide himself. And anyway, the razors kept slipping through his wet fingers. He washed and went to bed instead, and later that night dreamed that he was taking a shower and while lathering his torso, noticed a tiny pink bubble on his belly. Like a small piece of strawberry gum, just to the left of his navel. In the dream, he tried to pick off the tiny pinkness, but it only grew longer, extending as a tube. The more he tried to remove it from his body, the more there was to remove. Like into sleep, slowly, he sees that what he’s pulling on is coming tenderly from inside him. Yet still: he pulls. It is in this way, amid the steam and hot water, that Cuth tugs out his insides. This dream comes and goes every few months—like the hitchhiker, like his failed deaths. He’s never considered it a nightmare.
The second or third time the hitchhiker showed up, he brought with him a friend. Small and dark and somehow folded inward, as if carrying a wound close to his lungs or spleen. The friend barely spoke. The two showed up with their backpacks full of food, and whether it was stolen or foraged from trashcans, Cuth couldn’t care. For three days, the two cooked and ate and cleaned and cooked in a perpetual, unsated cycle and in the evenings they’d sit—the three of them—amid the crickets and mosquitoes and the sound of the hitchhiker playing Cuth’s guitar, gently strumming old Neil Young songs or Hank Williams or Townes Van Zandt. His voice wasn’t much but his picking was fine. It was the sort of thing Cuth noticed only once they were gone. But after that, the hitchhiker never arrived alone.
He even bought a gun. A .357 and a box of hollow points: perfectly assured destruction. But that option overall was too messy. It didn’t seem fair that someone else would have to clean up all that blood and skull and brain. The point would be totally missed.
Walking among the trees—the white peeling bark and rough plated bark, the fluttering mosaic of reds and golds—Cuth briefly forgets why he’s here. The smell of earth and leaves. The cloud-diffused sun cutting through the canopy above. The quick skittering of animals dashing unseen. It’s really quite a beautiful day.
Orchestrating a car accident guarantees nothing, and again: messy. The tedium of an overdose isn’t even really like dying. Are you truly choosing death if you’re sleeping through the best part? Or are you simply trying to escape?
Over a rocky bluff shaped like a president’s forehead, amid a crown of swaybacked saplings and nodding green ferns, Cuth finds it. Tall and ancient. A maple that cannot fail him. High above is where birds likely nest. Among its roots, moles and snakes burrow. Securing the coil around his shoulder, Cuth fits his hands and feet into the bark, feels an immediate intimacy with its touch and scent as he grapples at its branches, moves up its armored body.
During last night’s party, Cuth discovered the hitchhiker upstairs in the typewriter’s room, actively blowing minds. He was holding court at the room’s center, a dozen or more kids sitting or standing around him, listening as he explained the basics of infinite regressions.
“This is an easy one, guys. You’re crossing the street, right? A simple enough affair. Mathematically, this would be described as moving from Point A to Point B. Your path would be a line, but whatever, you’re crossing a street. Of course, before you can reach Point B on the far side of the street, you have to get halfway. Right? And before you get halfway, you have to get halfway to that point, and before you get halfway to the halfway, you have the get halfway there and….” He trails off as a general giggly murmur rises and falls. “This isn’t groundbreaking science, you know? If you have to reach the halfway mark between each point on the line, and there are obviously an infinite number of halves of halves of halves, then clearly it’s impossible to ever move anywhere. You’re always only ever trying to get halfway. And the same is true in life. In actual living. At one point we do not exist and then, somehow, we do. So there’s got to be an infinite number of steps between nonexistence and personhood, too, right? We didn’t just spring fully formed from the universal consciousness. There are steps to existing, and half-steps, and halves of halves. So you can’t possibly cross that gap between nothingness and somethingness, just as you can’t possibly cross the street. Yet we do. Everyday. We cross streets. We exist.”
The hitchhiker’s last remarks are aimed directly at Cuth, over the heads and past the bodies. Cuth sees what he’s up to and sees that it’s bullshit. These sorts of paradoxes only work if you do not acknowledge the difference between the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The universe is infinite in its vastness, is transfinite, impossible to cross or ever comprehend, and thus has meaning. Humans are infinitesimal, have no weight or impact, mean nothing. We are the halves, he thinks but does not say as he steps out into the hall. The universe is the line. We’re each a non-event.
This silent argument is the closest Cuth has ever come to justifying himself: if we are so close to being nothing already, why not cease the dithering and simply become nothing? He feels this logic is sound. Even still, this too is bullshit and he knows it. Mathematics can explain everything but this. For more than anything else, Cuth wants to disappear. To dissolve back into the womb of the world, leaving no trace of himself behind. Because this doesn’t feel like existence. Some mistake has obviously been made, and where there should be nothing—a blankness, a breeze—he instead resides. It’s unclear how long he’s felt this way. Maybe forever, only more strongly now, more clearly. He hasn’t had a legitimate friend in years, at least none still living. What little family he has sees no use in him: he does not disabuse them of this fact. He didn’t intentionally lose his job, but he certainly did nothing to save it. For years, he’s been passing through the still pool of the world with barely a ripple, accentuating his nothingness, doing his best to reclaim his lack of existence. The only thing left to confirm his insubstantiality is to finally and irrevocably disappear. And one cannot disappear if someone finds the body.
Miles from any road and twenty feet up a tree, Cuth finds the branch he wants. Thick and strong with a clear path underneath. He measures out a few arm’s-lengths of rope and ties it to the limb. Enough for an effective drop, one that might crush his windpipe but not so much as to break his neck: he wants to feel the slow fade of everything without breath. Easily, comfortably, he winds the familiar swoops of a new noose, fits the loop over his neck, cinches it in. This has always been his favorite, the hanging, though it too never works. The first time, on a chair under the rafters, his phone began to ring. Who wants to die to a chorus of fake bells? He answered the call, spoke with a woman and then later, had sex. Months after that, the mail carrier came knocking to deliver a package to the wrong address. That time, Cuth had already tipped himself off the chair, was swinging peacefully but then struggling to get free, to tell this stranger to fuck off. It was nauseating, his shift from calm to panic, acceptance to anger. Like hustling along the highway and suddenly dropping into reverse. He’s still not sure how he made it down.
Overhead, a flock of southbound geese passes, honking and calling ceaselessly to one another, a perpetual song of I’m here, I’m right here that will not end until they’ve gotten to where they’re going. On his limb, ready to fall, Cuth listens to them come and go, and as their calls diminish, he becomes aware of a new sound. Coughing and insistent and not too far away. If not human then a byproduct thereof. Some kind of engine. Two-stroke. A machine. Holding the noose like some bleak rosary, Cuth mutters the first words he’s said all day:
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
Dry and croaking, by disuse or constriction. He unties the rope and slides back down the tree.
It never occurs to Cuth that the hitchhiker might have a reason for wanting him not to die. To Cuth, it’s merely an obstacle. A knock at the door. A hand fishing him from the water. There’s always a body blocking his path.
At first he thinks he’s getting further away, to some more isolated stretch of woods—closer to the mountain maybe—but the sound doesn’t seem to be retreating at all, seems to actually be getting closer. Gradually, he realizes that he’s seeking it out. He wants to know what’s keeping him alive this time.
Lindsay was the woman who called when he first tried to hang himself, the first time he tried to die. It unnerves him how the question will rise up out of his sleep in those early dark hours: what would have happened if the two of them had worked out? The fact that this question resides in him—in his unconscious, no less—fills him with doubt about everything he’s done. So he does not acknowledge the question. There are some rabbit-holes that even he will not gaze down.
He knows the clearing isn’t natural because all the trees are lying in the same direction. All but one. The one that’s fallen wrong is huge and mighty looking, and the man underneath it was maybe mighty once too but now looks pale and surprised. But how surprised can a dead person be? The dead are never surprised. Beside the man and the tree that killed him lies the chainsaw that killed them both, idling and nestled in the blanketing gold leaves like a purring, satiated cat. The whole scene is almost peaceful.
Cuth stands stilly amid this for a while. Then he kneels.
The man was probably in his fifties. Blonde going to silver. Flannel pants and green plaid shirt. A few feet away, his orange helmet lies where it fell and rolled from his head. A thin gloss of blood on his lips. He probably knew exactly what he was doing out here, right up until the moment when he didn’t. It’s funny, Cuth thinks, how some mistakes can’t possibly be learned from. On the man’s left hand—the hand not hidden beneath the fallen tree—Cuth finds a wedding band, dulled by years yet gleaming still. He wonders if there’s a wife somewhere waiting for this man. He wonders if she’s maybe long gone, this ring and his memories being all she left him with. Or maybe he left her and his fingers swelled and the ring would never come off: cursed by the jilted. Or maybe theirs is a marriage of strength and silence. Or maybe his wife, too, has died. So many shades of grey in between. Like the dead man’s skin. Like the sky. How can there be no peace in something so peaceful, so passive, so still? Cuth closes the man’s eyes, but the mouth will not close. Locked in a shocked and open O. Which strikes him as the most horrible part of all.
Sometimes, Cuth goes to the junkyard to watch the crusher crush the lost and abandoned cars. Broken windows and rusted fenders. Waste made small but nevertheless waste. Among the leaves of the forest, the wind nestles and moves. Somewhere, a fox watches a shadow. Somewhere, a shadow watches itself. Reaching over, Cuth clicks off the saw. Is locked in the silence until the silence is unlocked. Then he turns on his cell phone and calls for someone to help.