Bray of the Tao

written by Jed Wyman

Familiar Walks, Familiar Urges

Lane loves his walk to work, even in the piercing cold and slashing wind. Campus is only four blocks away, and he can make it to the classrooms where he teaches, or the writing lab where he tutors, in less than ten minutes. The walk home is even better, when he is faced with a full view of Mt. Ashtas, canyons riffing down its slopes beneath stabbing crags. Having made the walk almost daily for three months now, Lane is gladdened by its familiar features. There is Chester, the black lab who belongs to the lifted-truck driving, duck-hunting neighbors, who lunges at the fence barking with unrestrained gusto every time Lane walks by. The cottonwood branch he must swerve around.  The driveway with the Plum Crazy ’72 Dodge Demon on blocks.

He thinks of his life’s most familiar walks. There was Missoula where, when he lived in the historic Wilma building, he would walk the length of North Higgins Avenue every day to either Al and Vic’s Bar (Alcoholics and Victims in local parlance), The Bird’s Nest used bookstore, or The Dinosaur Café in the back of Charlie’s Bar where he worked as a cook. That walk he’d made in all kinds conditions and in all kinds of disarray, often several times a day, over the course of ten years. The sidewalks of Higgins, he liked to think, were stained with his soul.

In his seven years in Oregon, in the flat-grid city of Mortalus, there had been the walk from his two apartments to the university library, a walk he made as religiously as he had the one to the bars in Missoula. This walk, however, did not possess the zeniths and nadirs that had so often accompanied his walk down Higgins Avenue in Missoula. His regular Mortalus walk, altered only three blocks by his switching apartments when he finished graduate school, did not possess the same edgy hope that had dictated his gait in Missoula. His Mortalus walk, to and from the university campus, was a steady push through a melancholy mist that at times felt like crushing pressure at the bottom of the ocean. Still, the familiarity of the walk had been something he’d come to depend on.

Recalling fondly the Lane-Lana connection, Lane calls Lana in Mortalus on Saturday morning while he is still lying in his bed, two double mattresses stacked atop one another on the floor beneath a maroon comforter. To him this bed is luxurious. His first year of graduate school in Mortalus he’d slept in a sleeping bag on the carpet, not to mention the twelve summers he’d slept in a sleeping bag while working on a trail crew in the Sierra. For his second year of graduate school he acquired the flimsiest of futons, but kept the sleeping bag. It wasn’t until he began teaching at Flynn-Renton Community College in Hardawl, just outside Mortalus, that he obtained some blankets. One could make the argument that this was a major reason for the dearth of romance in his life while a grad student. It had, however, been his intention to focus solely on writing and classes and forego the complications that come with sex and affection, and such a monastic, minimalistic existence, as exemplified by a sleeping bag on the floor, was part of this design.

When Lana picks up the phone she says, “Hey, how’s California?”

 He tells her, “Your hotness. I am needing you here beside me in the warmth and safety of my big bed so that I might press my body close to yours. Perhaps we could arrange blankets so that your beautiful feet would be visible.”

 “Are we having horny-time?” Lana asks, nonplussed.

“Wicked, wild, undeniable horny-time in spades,” he tells her. “Perhaps we should have another Ashland rendezvous?’

“I told you, I think you need to find someone new down there.”

“There is no one suitable for me here in Seed. I have sought and I have found naught.”

“Well, that’s too bad. I told you I might be trying something with someone up here. And if I do that, I am going to be fully committed to them.”

“I pronounce that news bogus malarkey baloney sad-time.”

“You with your sad-time. You with your time in general. Everything has time attached to it. Happy-time, sad-time, adventure-time.”

“Ooh, adventure-time, that is my favorite. And, may I point out, this phrase is apparently contagious as you began this conversation by asking me if I was having horny-time.”

“Indeed, but you’ve stolen a word from me as well. One that you now use all the time.”

“And what word might that be?”

“Twizzle.”

“Ah, yes, I admit I use that word often. It is a good word. I’ve even got several of my students using it.”

“What do you tell them it means?”

“Unnecessary worry.”

“Very good. How might you use it in a sentence with them?”

“I might tell them Donald Trump wants us all to twizzle about money and Muslims. “

She laughs. “And how do they respond to that?” 

“Fortunately, they are all, with the exception of maybe two, totally flabbergasted by his idiocy and don’t take his decision to run seriously.”

“Good to hear.” Well let’s not have any twizzle-time, okay.”

“Okay,” he tells her. “I’ll stick with my horny-time.”

“How about happy-time?”

“Okay,” he sighs. “Happy time it is.”

What the Burro Tells Us

Lane leaves his apartment for the walk to campus. The air outside is a solid bite of cold beneath a clear bolt of blue. The mountain’s slopes are jagged edged panels of reflective white. It’s pinnacles sport shadowy beards. Lane has gotten into the habit of reading from the Tao-te Ching every morning and trying to have a meditative moment before heading to campus. On this morning Lao Tzu asks him to accept death, saying it is not a true end. This, for Lane, is a tough one, but an important one. A major component of his doubt and disappointment, of his entire fear-thrashed life, is the inevitability and permanence of death. Lao Tzu suggests an impermanence to death. Is hope to be found in these words? Lane wants to consider these words and their meaning carefully, to continue in this contemplative vein—Lao Tzu’s writings relate to many of his class discussions—but, on this morning with a gust of wind picking up brown leaves beneath a crystal blue sky, these meaningful considerations are in direct competition with the opening chords of Rush’s “Fly by Night,” which makes an alacritous surge into Lane’s head. A triumphant song for a triumphant morning. “Start a new chapter to find what I’m after,”—which is exactly what Lane is doing here in frigid Seed. He still remembers the first time he heard the song, in the freshman dorm at Archer Academy. How hearing Geddy Lee bellow, “Feel it grow!” had been a transformative moment, offering guidance as clear as the distinct contours of the Canadian singer’s Rickenbacher bass.

Lane asks his class to write responses to the assigned readings and to try and identify both examples of in-scene writing and exposition. He is surprised when more than half of the class’s responses include references to expedition writing.

No, he has to tell them, it is not expedition, but exposition.

He is startled by the fact that he has to explain this to a college class, but is ready to move on when, Annie Arnsamarger from Klamath Falls asks in a voice steaming with contrived innocence, “Could you write in expositionthis word she stretches out in languid syllables—“about an expedition? That sounds exciting.

These words reach Lane as a warm shimmer and for a moment he is unable to say anything. He stands stunned and wavering before the class, not quite sure where he is.

“Yes,” he says finally. “I supposed you could.”

In the adjunct office following class, Lane takes a moment to admire the two pieces of artwork he has affixed to the wall above his desk, a black and white picture of Graham Greene and a picture of a gleeful family preparing to eat a large sandwich consisting of a pink baby and some green lettuce between two slices of French bread, a reference to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” He recalls how, at FRCC, the community college in Hardawl, he had covered the hallway outside his office with old album covers and magazine cutouts. The expansive display had included cool art work, images from the civil rights movement, photos of bands and musicians including the Beatles and Slayer. He wonders now if these decorations, despite the fact that the students seemed to appreciate them, might have contributed to the administration’s decision not to renew his contract. On occasion he finds himself considering possible reasons for the college’s decision, although he prefers not to dredge up the twizzle that comes with such rumination.  Still, he can’t help it. He figures the wild collage he put up in the hallway with its taste leaning toward revolutionary and rock and roll could have been a factor. Or it could have been the New Yorker article he shared with his class about noted British editor and World War I veteran, J.R. Ackerly, which suggested this member of the literati may have had sexual relations with his dog. Could introducing the notion of such a liaison have been too much for a college class? Could some influential third party, having gotten wind of this unusual class discussion, deemed it unacceptable?

That is ridiculous, Lane tells himself. Leaning on the desk, his head bowed, he breathes a justified sigh before realizing the greater mystery concerning the school’s decision still remains. That was over a year ago, he tells himself. It is water under the bridge.

Leaving the adjunct office, he begins the walk home. The mountain looms before him, its midriff laced by the power lines at the end of his street. He stops and casts a strong eye on the mountain, making sure that it is for real, that he is really here. He is here, standing on a sloping street in the cold sunlight in Seed, California, having just come from his new job at College of the Riskytoos. He thinks it odd, how much it pains him, his departure from FRCC, the maddening ambiguity of it, but had it not occurred, he wouldn’t be here. What initially seemed a demoralizing nadir now feels like an unplanned triumph and he realizes whatever has happened, or will happen, he must love it, otherwise it will make no sense at all.

Lane learns from a phone conversation with his brother that a childhood friend, Darin Kilman, is living in Riskytoos County and running a large horse rescue-operation with his wife. After a lengthy session of phone tag, Lane makes contact with Darin who he hasn’t seen or spoken to since they were in eighth grade, twenty-six years ago. They agree to meet at Haven for Horses, located on the high desert plateau north of Seed. On the drive out—it is a spectacular morning with the brown hills and white-capped peaks clearly delineated beneath the bluest of skies—while zooming up the two lane highway, flanked by vast stretches of diminutive junipers, it dawns on Lane that it is the one-year anniversary of his father’s death.

He parks his car in a gravel parking lot and bends his way through a stout gate. Darin meets him outside a prefab office, wearing work boots, a checkered shirt, and a Giants ball cap. Amid a vast pattern of metal corrals gleaming in the morning sun they laughingly embrace. Although not the closest of friends in the late eighties when they spent every weekday morning waiting for the bus to take them to San Antonio Elementary and then Matilija Junior High in Ojai, California, it is a powerful and unnerving reunion on account of the time that has passed.  There was a time when Lane would have wanted to know just how much of his story Darin was aware of, if Darin knew where Lane had been since they’d seen each other. There was a time where he would have wanted Darin to know all about the hard parts of his life. These trials were once a source of great pride for Lane, but none of that matters anymore. A brief sparkle of self-confidence touches Lane when Darin tells him he looks the same as he did twenty years ago, even as he knows that twelve summers spent beneath the Sierra sun has made this entirely untrue.

“This is a pretty amazing operation you’ve got going on here.” Lane says, eying the corrals. He estimates there are close to a hundred, all of them full.

“Yeah, well it was all my wife’s doing. She is highly motivated.”

“It must take oodles of feed.”

“We have a full semi unload bales every three days.”

“Wow.” Lane is glad that they are able to easily slip into comfortable conversation about horses and feed. Seeing several large pickups and enormous coils of hose he considers the logistics involved in running such an operation. It is a world removed from the teaching scene he has immersed himself in. Here is money and business savvy and technical know-how that he could not begin to comprehend. He might do all right with the horse end of things. “How is your sister?” he asks. 

“Francine? She’s great. She lives in Carmel with her husband. They have four kids.”

“Wow.” This word, Lane realizes, is a common denominator during such reunions. He remembers a nighttime poolside kiss with Francine in seventh grade, how they’d tried to emulate the final kiss in Sixteen Candles—minus a cake to reach across.

“You like it here in Riskytoos County?” Lane asks Darin.

“We love it. We’ve got the mountain,” Darin raises his hand toward the slopes of Ashtas. “Normally, when there is enough snow, there is great skiing. There are lots of cool lakes and great hiking. Traffic’s not a big issue. And you, you’re teaching at the college? English?”

“Yes. So far I love it. The school is small and struggling financially. Online classes are starting to overtake face-to-face classes, but it is a beautiful campus and I’ve met some great people. I’ve done a little exploring, but I want to do more. I love this high-desert country.”

It is then that Lane sees in a corner corral, close to the road, a lone burro, its black shaggy winter coat a lighter brown around the ears and belly.  This he, thinks, is something the old man should see. 

Every summer Lane’s father would step out of his role, first as college dean, and later, as boarding school headmaster, to lead pack trips in the Sierra. These trips consisted of close friends, and the fact that his father packed burros made the trips unique in an activity dominated by horses and mules. His dad’s pack trips had taken place every summer between 1958 and 1998 and made his father well known among the commercial packers and Park Service rangers in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Often trail conversation between passing parties might include the query, “Have you seen Bob and his burros?”

As Lane is looking, the burro shakes its head, its furry ears slapping the air in an audible, un-syncopated series of flops.  Then, the shaggy, gentle-eyed creature lifts its head, spreads its white, whiskered lips, bears its discolored teeth, and lets loose an extended bray.

Lane feels an upwelling in his heart. “Oh, I love that,” he says as the discordant exclamation continues through several vigorous heaves.

“That’s right,” Darin says, “your dad used to pack burros in the Sierra didn’t he? My dad went on a trip with him, I think,”

Lane nods still watching the burro, which concludes its bray and gives one last vigorous shake of its white-muzzled head before sinking back into resolute torpor. Lane does not mention to Darin that this is the one-year anniversary of his father’s passing, but let’s the bray echo in his mind, grateful for how this distinct call has fit a small piece of his unsettled world back into place. 

That night he watches his father’s favorite movie, the 1949 John Ford film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He recalls how his father loved reciting his favorite line from the film, Victor McLaglen’s cheerful boast to a child faced with a dangerous river crossing in a covered wagon, “I once swum across the English Channel…with an anvil on me chest.”

Poise in the Night Time World

Lane makes the five-hour drive south to visit his mother who has recently returned to her assisted living community after receiving a heart-valve replacement at the Stanford Hospital. He is surprised to find her fully dressed, sitting upright in her favorite chair, modified walker by her side.

He kisses her gently on the top of her head and sits down on the green corduroy couch that his parents purchased as graduate students through Stanford in 1965. “I bet you’re glad to be home,” he says

“You have no idea.” She gives a wan smile. Even though she is seated upright, her head rests against a pillow and it appears that only with great effort would she be able to lift it. 

“How was the drive?” she asks.

“It was fine.”

“No snow?”

“No snow.”

“Have you finished Dickens?” She asks. When Lane had last visited her, at the Stanford Hospital, he’d read to her from David Copperfield

“I have.”

“And what are you reading now?”

“I recently read a great biography on Keith Moon, the drummer for the Who.” He sees her roll her eyes. “I also read Ron Hansen’s collection Nebraska. I am thinking of rereading Gilgamesh, which they will be discussing in a humanities class at COR that I’d like to sit in on. I am fascinated by the Gilgamesh myth.”

“I had no idea. I do like Ron Hansen, though. That first story about the blizzard is brutal,” she says, lifting her eyebrows for emphasis. “Classes are going well?”

“They are. I did have a student write an interesting response to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. She wrote, in a tone of utter seriousness, ‘I can’t believe this kind of stuff used to go on in olden times. I would never, ever let my family be involved in such an activity.’”

Here his mother is beset by a bout of uncontrollable laughter that Lane fears, might kill her. “Oh, my god,” she gasps. “In olden times! And this woman makes it sound like this is a real possibility she must be concerned about! It reminds me of the line in ‘Anything Goes,’” And here his mother chirps, “’In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking’…although, I suppose being stoned to death would be a little more shocking than seeing some leg.” Leaning her head back against the pillow she gives a sigh of giddy contentment. 

Lane considers telling her about his students’ confusion regarding exposition versus expedition, but decides, out of respect for his beleaguered students, not to. He’s noticed how such anecdotes can inspire his mother to make comparisons between his students and those she taught at Stanford in the sixties. That is not a discussion he feels like having.  He sees on the shelf behind her the copy of Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, which he had taken with him to Seed when she first went into the hospital, when the chance of her returning to her books seemed miniscule. He is amazed by how, when she returned to her apartment and her books, despite being largely confined to bed, it had taken her all of twelve hours to discover that the slender novel was missing. She’d called him asking if he knew of its whereabouts and when he said, yes, that he’d taken the book with him when he returned to Seed, she’d demanded that he send it to her as soon as possible. “That is part of a trilogy,” she’d told him. “Those books need to stay together.”

“I see you and I both have a large book on our shelves that neither of us have read,” he tells her.

“If you are talking about Mason Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, I will get to it soon. It is on my list.”

“I am talking about Mason Dixon, and how did you know that?” 

“Because you are looking at the books directly behind my head, and that is where the P’s are. I will get to it, though. I promise.”

On his drive back to Seed, when he is ten miles north of Lake Shasta, it begins snowing, and Lane worries he may have to spend the night in some lonely snow-bound, meth-addled hamlet. He pushes on through the flurries and is able to make it home. He puts off checking his email until the following morning and when he does check it, he is thrilled to see that his background check has passed. Lana was right, all his twizzle was for naught. The college had been unable to explain the background check’s two-month delay and had let Lane begin teaching with the the understanding that should there be an issue, his job would be terminated. He is barely able to breathe a sigh of relief, however, before he learns in the following messages that Pam Vydal is getting married and that later in the week, the department chair will be observing his class. The latter two messages detract from his fully appreciating the good news about his background check. Pam was the woman he stumbled hardest for during his time in graduate school. Before she’d had enough of his drinking and narcissism, she’d shown him great tenderness even while preferring that their connection remain unknown to others. During his time with Pam he’d had to downplay his feelings. In his eyes, she was stellar—tall, loved to laugh, intuitive. And as has been the case with other women with whom he’d been close getting married, the hard truth here is that the possibility of such closeness between them occurring again is now effectively quashed. Although, in the case of Pam, Lane’s own actions had dashed any chance of that. Lane finds a picture of the new couple on Pam’s Facebook page. The groom-to-be looks triumphantly square, naturally well-adjusted, entirely adequate.

The good thing about Lane’s class being observed is that it means he won’t have time to dwell on Pam’s getting married. The bad news is that he knows he won’t be able to sleep for the next few nights, because of the accompanying twizzle. He immediately begins pacing back and forth in his small apartment practicing how he might deliver important ideas to his class while under the watchful gaze of the department chair. All of his class observations at Flynn-Renton went exceptionally well, which only adds to the sting of the school’s never-explained decision to not renew his contract.

Outside the wind vacillates between a deep moan and piercing whistle. Lane stands still, listening, hands extended before him in mid-idea delivery. He must be forceful, like the wind, in his instruction, he reminds himself, but also funny. It would be best, Lane thinks, if the department chair could leave Lane’s classroom in a light-hearted mood.

Then there comes a particularly strong gust that Lane fears might unmoor the whole building, and for a moment straining timbers and bending branches occupy his mind.

The department chair’s observation of Lane goes smoothly, even as Kiss’s “King of the Night Time World” threatens to dominate Lane’s thoughts during the class. There are only a few instances of stammering and extended page turning while he seeks a particular passage in the text. Afterwards, exhausted, he leaves the classroom and heads to the adjunct office where he sits alone remembering his first kiss with Pam on his couch in Mortalus, a green van seat, while on the turntable Spooky Tooth’s Last Puff had provided a dreamy chorus. A surge of longing sweeps through him as he remembers how they toppled from the van seat to the floor. He hears the unclasping of buckles, relives the intense wordlessness.

The chance of finding that kind of connection with a woman in Riskytoo County, certainly in Seed, Lane fears, is slim.

He gets up and puts on his jacket before remembering he needs to fill out a survey detailing his response to the experience of having his class observed. He sits back down, pulls a pen from a ceramic mug that says Sequoia National Park that sits beneath the picture of the family about to partake in their baby sandwich, and wonders what the department chair’s evaluation will read. Did Lane’s love of teaching come through, or was he too nervous? You’re a good teacher he tells himself, don’t sweat it. You’re a good teacher, but you could be better. Ditch the twizzle for starts, be more patient, take a little more time to prepare. And be happy. For god’s sake be happy, otherwise a class can go off the rails quick-style. Be happy, even if you have to fake it. There is a spark in there that is self-perpetuating. Find that spark where ever you can, in a Spooky Tooth bass line, in a memory of make-out time on the green van seat, in the cold Seed air you breathe, in a student’s new-found understanding, in nuances original and enticing.

This is what he tells himself as he looks out the window at the fading afternoon light landing on the olive-green needles of a ponderosa. This is what he tells himself before reluctantly returning his focus to the survey he must complete.

I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University and currently teach writing at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. Stories of mine have appeared in The Bangalore Review34thParallelThe Radvocate, JMWW, VerdadShark Reef, Summerset Review and have been shortlisted for Writecorner Press’s E.M. Koeppel Award. Prior to this I spent two summers teaching in Kenya, twelve summers building trails and packing mules in Sequoia National Park, and played guitar in a number of craptastic rock bands including Grim Reefer (Bard College, New York) and Non Drowsy (Missoula, Montana).

Jed Wyman

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