I read this book because it was referenced in several serious sociological and psychological treatises I’ve read during the last few years. I don’t think any of those researchers actually read this, however. My paperback copy was 1069 pages of 9 pt font. It took several months to finish, but I read it as carefully as every other book I’ve reviewed.
This is an example of why people become writers. Ayn Rand had a bone to pick with several aspects of American society in the 1950s, and she felt emboldened to rush into the fray without bothering to think about what she was saying. I’m fine with that because this is a work of fiction. Some people have become confused, however, naming her ranting diatribes a “philosophy” which she called Objectivism. I’ll say it now, before discussing the story and technical details, that I agree with many aspects of the views she shares through her protagonist characters. Who can argue with a slogan like, “Work hard and treat everyone with respect,” if it’s applied by all the members of society? This isn’t a political blog, so I’ll let that go, but it’s easy to learn more. As an aside, Atlas Shrugged is apparently some kind of scripture for Libertarians. Who’d have thunk it?
Technical stuff first. I don’t remember finding a single punctuation error, but I found several grammatical errors in the last third of the book. I think everyone, including the proofreader, was suffering from Writer’s Fatigue. Ayn Rand is wordy, to say the least. Her writing style appears to be “Always use twice as many words, especially in descriptive prepositional phrases, as you need. It got ugly towards the end. Here’s an example selected randomly (page 1058):
“They did not speak as they walked down the hill, with the darkness of the trees closing in about them for protection, cutting off the dead glow of the moon and the deader glow in the distance behind them, in the windows of the State Science Institute.”
Wow. The entire book was written in this style, but the author had lost it by this time. She just wanted to end the agony. It was her own fault because the characters don’t do a good job of conveying what was on Rand’s mind. The book is filled with rants and soliloquies given at the drop of a hat, but none of them elegantly summarized the speakers’ thoughts. Some of these digressions are more than 10 pages long, and they still fail to make their point (or maybe I forgot it by then).
I started off loving this book because the protagonists are just like me in many respects. I don’t retract that view after reading it. There were many scenes in the first third of the story, where the characters’ personalities were revealed in excellent style. This applied to several of the antagonists, those lucky enough to be introduced in the first part of the book. It wasn’t only the bad guys who got cheated. The man who epitomized what made this book into a pop-philosophy, John Galt, appeared too late to be seen as a real person. He was reduced to a Greek hero (he is actually compared to one near the end) with zero dimensions, the perfect man. I wanted to laugh, but I was too tired.
Summary. Okay…let’s see.
The author makes a lot of valid points about the importance of being rational, thinking, using our brains a lot more often, but she fails to show how this can be done by regular people. Her protagonists are all straight out of Greek tragedies. Or comic books. She has a gift for evocative metaphors involving all of the senses. Very good. I’m envious. She should have been a poet (maybe she was). The story wasn’t that complicated and was revealed early on, with no plot twists, not even red herrings. Straightforward story telling. There was no real conflict, a basic requirement of almost any story. It is a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of society and the creation of a (communist) dictatorship. She was obviously concerned about the Soviet Union when she wrote this book. Did I forget to mention that the story is set in a fantasy United States that stands alone as the last bastion of capitalism?
Bottom line. I can’t recommend it unless you are like me, which I doubt. However, there was a miniseries made in maybe 2011, which is a pretty good rendition of the story, at least parts 1 and 2. I’ll watch Part 3 when I get a chance, but I don’t think it will follow the book as well because, by this time, Rand’s characters were on the path of verbal warfare with themselves (I’m not kidding…themselves), which doesn’t make a good movie. But she does destroy the world…oops, I forgot that too.
With all of the libertarian BS in this book, there are a lot of great glimpses of mental torment and anguish, not to mention the breakdown of society and a return to feudalism, described very well.
Rand ruined a great book with too much ideology. She lost it, just like her characters.
At the end, I didn’t agree with the protagonists’ decision. The bad guys won…
I’m glad to be writing a review of a novel written by someone like myself. The author recently joined the writing group I’m in, and he had published this story in paperback form. Other members of the group have published but I didn’t find any with hardcopies available. I’m not ready to commit to ebooks yet; I’m trying to give my eyes a rest. I didn’t start posting reviews of novels until recently, so I haven’t shared my views on the range of genres I’ve read. I read anything. This book falls into the category of stories I would never read if I cared. I know, that sounds crazy.
First the technical stuff. There were very few (if any) punctuation and grammatical errors in this book. The author acknowledged a proofreader’s assistance, and she did a good job. I mention this because, as an author and (mediocre) copy editor, I look for anything that doesn’t read smoothly. And I read slowly, so I don’t miss much. I noticed a little of what I call writer’s fatigue, however; the first half of the book is well-written, if a little wordy (I actually don’t mind that, but some people do), whereas the second half started to slip a little in tautness. By the last page, it was looking like an earlier draft than the first half. I’m familiar with this phenomenon from my own writing. The first part always get read more by the author and thus cleaned up. However, this wasn’t a problem in “The Tollkeeper.” I only mention it to be thorough.
The story is told in a very entertaining manner, with two threads, one in present-day Florida, and the second meandering through the central character’s life, describing events that brought him to Florida, where he’s a (you guessed it) tollbooth attendant. There were times when one or the other thread was more interesting, but I never lost interest in the story. The present-day is the main plot of course, and it was told by the central character in first-person using the present tense. I personally find this construction awkward because no one talks like that unless telling a short story (e.g., Janice says to Betty, “So I go over to the hair stylist and she’s like, out of it, and I go ahead and let her do my hair.”). See what I mean?
It almost works but I never got into the groove. I liked the narration other than that. Klaus is a very down-to-earth guy, who’s old enough not to take himself too seriously. A great antihero.
I’m not a fan of mythical fantasy novels, or even mythology in general. I had to use Google to learn about most of the Norse mythology referenced throughout the book. I didn’t mind because I felt like I was being introduced to an interesting (not really) aspect of Scandinavian culture. It was a learning experience that I can relate to (I try to put useful info into my stories as well), so I’m not complaining. Still, the quotes from epic poems and such at the beginning of each chapter could have been replaced by more informative background material.
The ending was unexpected but probably only because of my unfamiliarity with Norse mythology. I felt like it was rushed a little because so much time had been spent on Klaus’ early life that the author must have felt an urge to “wrap it up.” This brings up another problem with the structure. With so much time spent on Klaus’ early life, none of it related directly to the serious threat occurring in the contemporary world. It only supported the central character’s frame of mind, not the real conflict. With the knowledge the author obviously has of Norse mythology, I was disappointed that characters from Klaus’ past didn’t either show up in person or indirectly impact current events. Maybe they did and I missed it because I’m not familiar with Norse mythology.
If so, my bad.
The first movement of Sam’s daily atonal symphony always began with a buzzing alarm clock, momentarily silenced by his palm, which wouldn’t work on the garbage truck grinding down the alley behind his apartment, its diesel engine shaking the walls; the familiar whirring of hydraulic pumps raised steel lifting arms into place, screeching into steel cradles, tearing at his ears like fingernails on a chalkboard, leaving him cowering in bed, hands over his ears to muffle the bang, bang, bang of the dumpster being emptied before the cacophony reached a crescendo, warning Sam to sprint for the bathroom and reach the comparative quiet of the shower before the 140 dB climax, played by a passing train engineer on his air horn, blasted him into quivering submission on the bathroom floor.
The second movement was performed in the kitchen by his wife who, apparently aware of the completion of the Allegro behind their apartment, began the clamor of Andante as soon as Sam sat down at the dining room table, her unwilling audience; bam, bam, bang, bang, went the pans, expertly wielded by Nona, her voice asking about his flight to Florida, perfectly timed to be understood between the microwave humming, beeping, the electric teapot boiling, adding its bubbling tones to the bedlam; the radio announcer shouting to be heard, despite her having a background role–the arrogance of some musicians.
The Minuet or third movement was usually performed in a vehicle, either Sam’s car, a bus or a taxi, but it would be different today; longer than usual, it would incorporate the efforts of musicians waiting along the route to JFK airport, where a new group of performers would add their discordant notes to Sam’s auditory nightmare.
Sam was accustomed to the formulaic beginning of the face-paced Scherzo; as always, it started as he descended to street level with loud cars accelerating into the morning, joined by a motorcycle engine hitting 9000 rpm; accompanied by blaring horns, the sirens of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars, the apex arrived on cue; trash cans dragged by sleepy residents, scraped against the sidewalk–fingernails on chalkboards–profanities hurled at God and each other indicating the beginning of the Trio, making Sam wonder which dissonant instruments would join the Trio today as he climbed into the taxi, smiling as the first guest performer flew over in a helicopter, its spinning rotors marking the start of the interlude.
The neatly dressed and shaved taxi driver, speaking unintelligible English, was not a guest performer, but the splash of the tires through puddles, windshield wipers scraping on dry and mud-smeared glass, indicated that the second performer of the Trio was the rain and its aftermath; the taxi radio emitted semi-human sounds, barely understandable in the turmoil of the third movement; the final instrument turned out to be a pile driver that drove an auditory spike into Sam’s brain; thud, thud, thud, went the machine until the light turned green and the Minuet could resume.
Sam imagined the travelers rushing through the terminal as dancing to the third movement, now being played by the public address system; voices talking over each other, none of them intelligible, warned of the consequences of unattended baggage and cars, departing flight gate changes, gate agents looking for standby passengers going to Milwaukee or London, FAA rules with respect to carryon baggage; newscasters on TV monitors mumbled news designed to promote a sense of aircraft safety as silent golfcarts rolled by, beep, beep, beep, just like the dumpster and the piledriver; the background supplied not by cellos but by thousands of shoes echoing off the stone floor of the terminal.
The Finale began when Sam was seated in economy class, next to a middle-aged woman who was apparently meant to perform with her annoying, manly voice, asking him personal questions, making him want to get off the plane, cancel his business trip to Clearwater Beach; but he didn’t do that, instead he played the conductor, nodding at her monotonous comments, keeping time with the crew talking indecipherably through the public speakers which his neighbor apparently was unaware of; like the last violin of a sonata, she finally stopped talking, giving way to the slamming overhead bins, the final pleas of mercy from babies, hydraulic motors screeching, ventilation nozzles blowing full blast like a tornado, jet engines howling, screaming, takeoff, bumping, flaps up, more hydraulic whining, wind howling just outside the metal skin, headphones playing unintelligible sounds against background hissing, volume wide open, only hearing half the words, shrieked announcements warning of landing, welcome from flight deck, bang on touchdown, brakes screeching, thrust reversers deafening, more screaming hydraulics, motor high pitch, servos low pitch, start-stop, start-stop, whirring, brakes complaining, wait to get up, silent engines replaced by a quieter humming; his neighbor silent, her performance complete.
Sam suffered through the very long fourth movement in today’s atonal symphony, and finally found himself alone on a stretch of sandy beach.
Laying on a chaise near the palm trees well back from the clamoring of the breaking waves, Sam listened to the fifth movement, Adagio, a very slow movement played by a breeze rustling in the palm trees, birds singing, not too close, a distant car horn, not a train horn to be heard; the musical instruments of civilization could never be silenced, and Sam didn’t want to quiet the atonal musicians for eternity, but he did like to hear the fifth movement sometimes.
Encumbered by his backpack and winter coat, Howard shuffled toward the young man with short brown hair and wearing a black facemask and rubber gloves; the half-completed hotel registration form extended in his free hand was rejected. He was directed towards a low table and told to complete it and make any choices for optional accommodations. For 150 Australian dollars per night, he could get a room with a balcony. Howard had had a cigarette before entering the hotel with two other people who smoked, an attractive young Australian woman and an American guy. They were both paying for the breathing space. Howard couldn’t afford it and, besides, he’d been cutting back. This would be an opportunity to finish the job.
The twenty-six-hour trip from Jacksonville had been remarkably smooth and, boy, the Australians had their act together. The fifty people on his flight had been whisked into buses without delay and taken to the Sheraton Hotel. Soldiers had handled their luggage and were standing by to escort them to their rooms. VIP service.
His immigration form was accepted by a young Australian Border Force officer who began typing clumsily, asking Howard to clarify some of his written answers. Within ten minutes, he was parting company with Erica and Aaron, promising to meet for a cigarette in two weeks. Ha Ha. Howard wouldn’t be smoking anymore by then. He’d join them, however, to maybe get Erica’s phone number.
The room was nice, especially the black-marble-clad bath that included a walk-in shower and jacuzzi tub. But it wasn’t meant for long-term occupancy. The only drawers were in the closet. The main room was furnished with a king-size bed and work desk with office chairs. Not even an armchair. That would be fine with Howard, who was going to be teleworking during quarantine.
Several times during the first afternoon in his room, Howard caught himself picking up the pack of cigarettes and heading out the door to take a break, only to find himself facing a hotel employee sitting in a chair, enforcing self-isolation. He smiled sheepishly and waved at the bored employee, never the same individual. These Australians were clever. He couldn’t get to know his guard and bribe them.
The fourteen-day quarantine didn’t start until midnight, so Howard took the calendar from his backpack and numbered fifteen days; he would be released on 23 November. He resisted the urge to cross out the first day because it didn’t count. He felt cheated.
Howard faced Day One squarely, ready to do whatever was necessary to keep Australia safe. There was one thing he really liked about the quarantine: meals were delivered three times a day and left outside the room, accompanied by three knocks on the door. The food was excellent, the menu varied, but there was nothing extra. It was less than he was accustomed to eating and that worried him, until he read the information sheet from the hotel; he could order outside food for delivery, or even get selected items from the hotel kitchen. On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to lose a couple of pounds, secure in knowing that the Australian government would make sure he had plenty of calories during quarantine. Sweet deal. He’d stop smoking and lose a few pounds, maybe even adopt a healthier diet.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally crossed out Day One, but he was a little hungry when he slipped between the expensive sheets to see what was on TV.
Howard was an early riser. Thus, breakfast at eight a.m. was too late for his liking, so he kept something out of his meals to have a pre-breakfast snack: juice, some raspberries, a banana, a roll with margarine. Of course, saving something for the morning left him less-than-satisfied in the evening. He accepted that he was in quarantine, which was turning out to be a lot like boot camp, except for the lack of exercise. The hotel staff had thought of that, supplying a guidance sheet that included a list of exercises to help him stay healthy. He’d never thought about how active he’d been just moving around the house, the office, the city, and all of that was gone now. He started doing all of the suggested exercises. That made him even hungrier.
“Damn!” he exclaimed aloud, examining his paltry dinner, the roll and fruit he’d set aside for the next morning. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”
It was with relief that he crossed out Tuesday, Day Two, as finished.
Howard realized in horror that he had been brainwashed. He waited for breakfast to arrive, checking the clock constantly, opening the door to see if perhaps the delivery person had forgotten to knock three times. He picked up the phone receiver several times, ready to call, but waited; he would give them an hour before complaining. He hated people who demanded attention by complaining all the time. Maybe they delivery schedule was different; after all, everyone couldn’t get their meals at exactly the same time. Breakfast arrived at 8:55 a.m., five minutes to spare. Famished, drooling, he rushed to the desk and tore open the paper bag.
His anticipation collapsed like a deflated balloon when he removed the warm plastic dish. It was oatmeal, with some blueberry jam or something on top, with a couple of shaved almonds.
“What the hell?!”
Neither the bag nor the plastic container was marked as “DF,” which meant dairy free. God only knows what he was eating. This was a game changer. Now, he not only didn’t know when to expect his next meal, he didn’t even know if it would make him sick.
He plotted his revenge as he ate his gruel. Day Three crossed off the calendar.
Howard’s suspicions were confirmed the next day, when he spoke to his friend, Ted. Ted knew a guy who’d flown to Australia during the supposed Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. The guy had tested positive, according to the Australian experts, but had no symptoms. It was all a hoax, designed to get money from quarantined visitors and push the deep state agenda for global totalitarian government. Just one little piece of the big pie.
“Who’s this friend, the guy who supposedly witnessed this? Maybe he’s lying.”
Ted scoffed. “Man, he’s in hiding since he blew the cover off the story. I met him on the dark web. What he knows…”
Howard had heard enough sales pitches to be suspicious. “How does this guy know about the deep state…all that shit? I never heard about it.”
“Would I shit you? You don’t hear the truth on the news, Howie, that’s just b.s. for the masses. Use your head, man.”
“So, why do you think this guy got a positive test result but didn’t get sick? Isn’t’ that called asymptomatic?”
“That’s a word they made up to cover the truth, Howie. Asymptomatic is another way of saying, ‘There ain’t no fucking Covid.’ Get my drift?”
Howard didn’t but he let it go. Until the nurse came by to collect some samples from his throat and nose. He would know in within two days. They wouldn’t call if his test was negative. Time would tell. The rest of the day was uneventful, except that the meals came at random times, always within the hour he’d allowed for human error and laziness. They just made the time limit a couple of times. And some of his meals were labeled “DF.”
Something was going on as he crossed off Day Four.
The Covid test came back positive. Ted had been right. It was all a coverup for an international conspiracy. Howard examined several web sites Ted had suggested, and his worst fears were proven correct. How could he have been so blind?
The meal delivery became more inconsistent; sometimes his bags were labeled “DF” and sometimes not; sometimes they didn’t arrive for more than an hour late. He’d called and been told that his meal was on its way.
With his positive test, someone came around and probed Howard like an alien investigator, claiming to be checking for symptoms. There would be no symptoms. That was all bullshit. He didn’t think they were implanting a device in his head either; they were collecting DNA and other cellular samples that were being used to classify him. They wanted to turn him into a slave. He’d read about it. But there was nothing he could do until he could escape from captivity. Without external assistance he was trapped. Ted suggested he should remain calm and not let them know that he was onto them. Otherwise, he would disappear like so many others. Ted knew a web page that listed their names.
The food had been poisoned. Howard got diarrhea on the sixth day of quarantine and the people who answered when he dialed for information claimed not to know what had happened. He knew. His food had been mislabeled for days, to confuse him so that the experiment wouldn’t be disrupted. They were studying him, to see how far he could be pushed. It was about mind control. He’d read about it on a web page.
He decided to see if escape was possible, so quietly entered the hallway, blocking his door open with a shoe. He didn’t get three steps before a policeman, who’d replaced the hotel employee who’d been stationed in the hallway the first day, appeared and asked Howard if he needed assistance.
“No. I was just looking around.”
“Well, sir, that defeats the purpose of the quarantine, doesn’t it?”
Diabolical. “I guess so.”
Howard returned to his room and washed his dirty clothes in the bathtub with some detergent that had mysteriously appeared outside his door.
Day Seven proved the truth of Ted’s ominous prediction. Howard had been intentionally infected with an experimental bioweapon called Covid-19. It was all described on the QAnon web page. But Howard wasn’t going to be one of their patsies. When the nurse called to check on his status, he didn’t tell her about his fever, sore throat, shortness of breath, aching, no way. They would have to get their data from someone else because Howard wasn’t going to play along.
He was on his own. They weren’t going to break him, not in two weeks. The next few days would be critical.
The toxin they’d given him was strong. He spent Day Eight in the bed, or slouched across the day bed, shivering. But he was able to maintain his cover of not being ill, so no one came up to collect more data and probably reinfect him. He flushed most of the food down the toilet, to avoid more poisons and disguise his activity. That was one of the most important precautions he’d read about: don’t let them know what you’re doing, especially your efforts to circumvent their observational program.
He watched a lot of TV and got his work done. It turned out that he could complete a day’s worth of meetings in a few hours because of the time saved not driving all over. No one knew about his medical condition and thus his captors were unaware of the success of their operation.
He was already feeling better when he crawled into bed.
Knowing that his communications were being monitored by them, the unidentified cabal referred to by QAnon, Howard didn’t tell Kathy that he’d been poisoned when he spoke to her via WhatsApp on Day Nine. But he let his guard down and she was quick to attack.
“What do you mean, you’re the victim of a conspiracy, Howie? You never mentioned that before. What’s going on?”
He laughed and tried to sound nonchalant as he responded. “I was just kidding. This quarantine is some serious shit. I can’t leave the hotel room, not even for a cigarette. Nothing.”
There was an awkward silence. She was thinking. That worried him because Kathy thought of herself as rational, not easily fooled, and thus she was susceptible to the disinformation campaign being waged by “them.” Sure enough, she showed her gullibility with her next words.
“Have you been talking to Ted? You know, he spreads that crap for fun, to see how stupid people are. He’s some kind of anarchist. You didn’t fall for it did you?”
Howard had to lie to guarantee his safety. “No. Haven’t heard from him yet. I didn’t know he was into conspiracy theories. Who’d of guessed.”
He could hear her head shaking as she considered a response. Finally, she said, “At least you can’t act without thinking…you do remember your surprise birthday party, don’t you? When you called the police?”
He’d forgotten about that embarrassing incident. “You didn’t have to bring that up, Kathy, don’t worry. I’ll get out alive…”
“What the hell?”
On Day Ten, a nurse came to collect a sample for Howard’s second Covid test. His temperature had decreased so they didn’t have an excuse to take him to a secure facility for further testing. He got lucky there. It wasn’t in his hands anyway. If they wanted to keep him for further observation, all they had to do was falsify another positive test. He was at their mercy.
The police state called all the shots.
Lunch arrived late and Howard was pacing near the door, waiting for the clatter of a cart outside, three knocks on the door. Maybe he’d been distracted. He opened the door and was shocked at what he discovered.
The door across from him opened at the same time and Erica, the attractive Australian woman he’d sat near on the flight from San Francisco, faced him across the hallway. She quickly motioned for him to join her, so he slid a shoe into the door and covered the six feet separating their rooms in two steps.
Once inside, they shared their experiences. Erica led him to her private terrace where they smoked a cigarette. She had gotten a positive Covid test too, which made them wonder what the Australian Border Force was up to. His suspicions were confirmed by Erica, who had learned about the deep state from QAnon as well. Two people on one flight victims of the conspiracy. Far more than coincidence. They agreed to meet every day, but he’d bring his own cigarettes next time.
When the knock came at her door indicating that lunch had been delivered, Howard waited for the sound of the cart leaving before slipping out and picking up his own lunch, before entering his room, removing the shoe after him.
A salad and a bag of sea-salt potato chips.
Day Eleven made Howard wish he’d never left Jacksonville. It wasn’t the bioweapon he’d been subjected to, nor the contaminated food he’d been given, nor the psychological warfare that had been directed at breaking his willpower; he was finally broken by the microwave waves bombarding him day and night. Just like the embassy in Havana. He had stumbled into a field test of a new psychological weapons program using multiple assaults. The entire quarantine program was a cover up for a top-secret CIA black operation coordinated with the Australian Border Force.
His suspicion was confirmed by Erica when they met for a cigarette before lunch. They had come to the same conclusion: they would probably be released unharmed when the experiment was completed, but there was a small chance they would be selected for further tests. They didn’t want to risk disappearing, to be subjected to torture and mind control experiments for the rest of their lives.
There was only one way out. They went to the balcony rail together and looked down at the street 18 floors below.
Howard was ashamed of his weakness when confronted by the precipice of Erica’s balcony. There had been nothing to say. It was out of the question. A quick glance, exchanged in a moment, had sufficed to share the futility of escape. Trapped, they accepted their fate, getting little solace from knowing they were not alone.
“What are we going to do?” Erica asked hopelessly. She certainly didn’t expect Howard to have an answer.
“I don’t think we’ll be chosen for the advanced studies. After all, the odds are in our favor.” Howard scoffed and added, “We have as much of a chance of becoming long-term research subjects as we do of dying of Covid-19, if it were real.”
Erica nodded quickly. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
“How they can take us any time they want…we’re at their mercy. They can infect us with a bioweapon or use us as guinea pigs in secret research. And nobody will know or care…”
“There’s always tomorrow. We’ll know the truth, as long as we don’t let them know that we figured it out.”
Time was running out. They were scheduled for out-processing the next day, Saturday, Day 13. They would know then whether they were going to spend the rest of their lives as test subjects. Those unlucky enough to be chosen got the bad news the day before their release. It had all been discussed on the internet.
They had another cigarette in silence.
Howard faced an army officer and a policewoman the next day. They informed him that he would be released from quarantine in the morning, free to continue to his destination. He’d been unable to contain his frustration to the people who thought they were giving him good news.
“So that’s it? The experiment continues…if you even know what you’re a part of.”
“What?” asked the older man, wearing a camouflaged uniform.
The young woman interjected, “Oh, it’s okay, Sergeant, he’s referring to a conspiracy theory in which people in quarantine are being subjected to Covid-19 and other viruses as part of a secret government program.”
“Oh, is that all? Very well, sir, take care after your release. And enjoy your stay in Australia.”
They were smooth. Erica verified Howard’s experience, although she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions. They welcomed everyone, even those who would disappear after quarantine. She suggested they should stick together, maybe there was safety in numbers.
That was the plan at the end of Day 13.
Howard was in the early release group, between 4 a.m. and noon. He checked his room before rolling his suitcase into the hall, watching nervously as the door closed permanently. No re-entry. Erica appeared from her door and they headed to the elevators together. There was no one else in line to check out with the local police and New South Wales authorities.
Erica went first and was finished in a few minutes, before being escorted through the back door of the hotel, the same door they’d entered through two weeks earlier. Howard’s palms were suddenly sweaty as he faced the expectant face of the middle-aged policeman. None of the officials was smiling.
Bob looked up, shielding his eyes from the midday sun, and spotted the source of the droning, a helicopter approaching from the west. Helicopters didn’t fly over his quiet suburban neighborhood very often. Not much to see in Shady Heights. It was the police from the markings. His eyes followed the aircraft as it drew near at a surprisingly low altitude, maybe two-hundred feet. He instinctively looked down the tree-lined street, wondering what the police were looking for.
His curiosity piqued, Bob stepped out to the curb for a better look, his gaze anxiously sweeping the peaceful landscape. The noise of the blades cutting the hot air brought several of his neighbors outside. Manny waved from his front lawn across Hastings Street and joined Bob.
“What do you think is going on?” Manny asked.
Bob moved to the side for a better view of the helicopter hovering over Manny’s brick bungalow. “I don’t know, but they seem interested in your house.”
They were joined by Margaret and her husband, Franklin. Franklin sipped his beer and said, “I’ll bet they’re lost. They don’t have Google Maps for helicopters. I once had a neighbor the cops threatened from a helicopter, using a bull horn. They told him to get on the ground. A SWAT team dropped down on ropes.”
“What—” Bob started to interject.
“Yep. They were looking for a serial killer. Thought they had him cornered in his backyard, having a beer. Turned out he lived behind my friend. Good thing Ricardo hadn’t been a victim but still…”
The small group moved over for a better look. Bob didn’t hear anyone talking on a bullhorn, but the aircraft continued hovering over Manny’s house. Then, he realized what was happening.
“I’ll bet it’s a practice drill, like what Franklin said. They’re probably working on finding the correct address.”
“That’s it,” Manny added.
“You’d think they would have figured it out by now,” Margaret said. “Or a police car would have arrived to verify the address. I mean…they can’t see the house number from up there.” She pointed at the helicopter still hovering over Manny’s house. Everyone’s eyes followed her pointing finger.
Another helicopter was approaching from the north at a higher altitude. It wasn’t the police. Bob was the first to identify it.
“That’s a KBHF News chopper. Maybe this isn’t a practice. What the hell’s going on?”
“Those eyes-in-the-sky boys monitor the police channels, looking for a breaking story. They’re probably just here because the police are,” Franklin offered.
Margaret began, “Do you think they’re talking on the radio…” She didn’t finish her sentence when the police helicopter spun around and climbed rapidly, towards the KBHF aircraft several hundred feet above it, on a collision course. Everyone waved their arms frantically.
Bob grimaced and ducked instinctively when the two helicopters collided. The horrific scene unfolded in slow motion. The spinning blades of the police chopper disintegrated, shredding the KBHF helicopter. The two aircraft, locked in a deadly embrace, engulfed in a ball of flame, plummeted towards Manny’s three-bedroom house. The fireball missed his home but crashed into Tom and Brenda Martin’s house next door. They were out of town. Bob watched the scene unfold in a daze, frozen where he stood, until it was too late to duck or run.
The small group was knocked to the ground by the blast. Debris covered Bob’s yard, the front windows of his house shattered, but miraculously the four of them were uninjured. Bob’s ears were ringing as he stumbled through his front door, intent on collecting his cellphone and calling 911. He was followed by the others as if leading them to safety. The phone hadn’t been damaged.
Bob was speaking to the dispatcher while the others turned their attention to the television, intact between the shattered windows, tuned to a baseball game. The game was interrupted by a newscaster Bob recognized. The old guy who did the weekend afternoon newscast.
“We’re interrupting the game to report breaking news. The police have tracked a man who recently escaped from the state prison to Shady Heights. We’ll hear from the KBHF eyes-in-the-sky team for an update.”
“What the hell…” began Manny.
Margaret added, “This should be interesting.”
“They don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground,” was Franklin’s comment.
Bob finished his call to 911, looked out the front window at Manny’s house, now on fire from the explosion. He shook his head in disbelief at the stupidity of the newscaster.
My best friend, Winston, almost drowned when we were twelve years old. We had taken my dad’s skiff out on Big Lake in good sailing weather, a stiff northerly breeze whipping up foaming waves. We would have to tack to get away from the dock, so I took the tiller, Winston on the boom. I was the better sailor because I had been sailing all my life whereas Winston had just moved into the house next to ours. A landlubber. He had never been on a boat before that summer but was a fast learner. By fall, he was getting the hang of it.
We tacked into the middle of Big Lake, the sail close hauled, and turned with the wind on our starboard beam. The skiff heeled over, waves pounding the hull. Winston sat on the leeward rail holding onto the shroud, grinning.
The wind was becoming unsteady, making me wish we had put on life vests. I shouted to Winston to get down in the boat. He scoffed and waved his free hand, dismissing my concern. Suddenly, the wind changed direction 180 degrees, the boom swung around, hitting him in the chest. He plummeted backwards into the waves. Not thinking, I leapt from the stern and released the halyard, tossed the anchor over the side.
I was in the water before the buffeting sail had collapsed onto the boom.
Now, at sixty-five, recently retired, Winston is drowning again.
“You just need to focus on whatever you like to do, and do it, but now you can do it right. You have plenty of time. There’s no hurry anymore.”
His sunken eyes, shadowed by bushy eyebrows, rolled slightly in denial. “Those weren’t real interests. Just passing fancies. I don’t really have any hobbies like you, with your travel and reading history books. We can’t all be intellectuals.”
He always said that when we talked about what he was going to do besides cut the grass and visit his children with his wife. The family wasn’t his hobby. He didn’t talk about them all the time, show me pictures, tell stories about the things they did together. I’d had to prompt him to show me a photo of his grandson.
I’m trying to come up with a new idea. I’ve already tried the impulsive approach, but this isn’t like jumping out of a sailboat in Big Lake. This is harder. In the six months since he’d retired, I’d gone down the list of every hobby or interest he’d ever even mentioned but hadn’t gotten a response.
“That’s bullshit and you know it. Most hobbies are about doing things, like woodcarving, sewing, rebuilding an old car, shit like that.”
A brief, pained look flashed across his face. I’d been getting more aggressive in our conversations because I was beginning to not enjoy visiting him. Before his retirement from an electrical engineering company, he’d always talked about electrical circuits, computers, generators, how things worked. It was interesting. He never talked about that anymore. Didn’t want to, except to recall stories of particularly difficult projects, but I’d heard those too many times already. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair. That doesn’t come until you have difficulty walking. I don’t like the idea of visiting my best friend, and just sitting on the porch, rocking back and forth. It was like visiting my grandmother in the nursing home when I was young. He’s waiting for the grim reaper.
“What does Sally like to do?” I ask.
“We have completely different interests. The only things we have in common are the children and this house. And we eat our meals together.”
“What about getting involved with cooking?” I ask desperately.
“I hate cooking. She can do it for all I care because I’m sure as hell not going to. I’d be happy to eat TV dinners and canned food.” He shakes his head and adds, “I worked all my life and now I just want to sit take it easy. I like watching TV. Just drop it.”
I can’t do that. What Winston doesn’t realize is that his actions affect others, like me. We’ve been friends since junior high. We went to college together, were each other’s best man at our weddings, lived less than a half-hour apart for forty years. All that binds us. It’s a two-way street. The idea of drifting apart in our retirement, all because he can’t find something to fill the forty-hour vacuum in the life he’d become accustomed to after so many years, is as traumatic as learning that he has cancer.
I can’t save him this time, but I’ll keep trying.
It was a quiet neighborhood; townhouses filled with college students, young working couples, a few multigenerational families, and Ralph Granby. It wasn’t by design, his being the oldest person in Silverton Plaza. It was a coincidence, or maybe inevitable. His grandson and granddaughter had occupied the two-bedroom townhouse for six years, courtesy of Ralph’s son, John, and his wife, Karen. Ralph moved in when the grandkids graduated, as caretaker. He appreciated having a nice place to live and it was interesting being around college students. At 78, he felt old being around so many kids, but not as old as he’d felt in the retirement community where he’d lived for eight years.
Ralph didn’t smoke in the house, so he spent a lot of time on the patio. He liked being outside and not bothered by other people. He’d never been left alone in Country Life Retirement Center. Some lonely old guy or, worse, a nosy old broad, always wanted to talk about their pains or family. Memories. Ralph didn’t think about the past. He was trying to live in the present.
Ralph had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Silverton Plaza. He’d already met most of the dog walkers. But the three-bedroom townhouse across the retention pond from his patio puzzled him.
Two new SUVs that appeared at the same time caught his attention. He hadn’t seen a moving van or trailer. A woman in her early thirties, another ten years older, appeared with four children, all under ten, and walked their small dog around the pond. They responded curtly when Ralph greeted them. He always said hello. Didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon. They came and went every day as if taking the children to school, maybe going to work, a Saturday outing with all of them packed into one SUV. They stayed a week. Nothing unusual about their behavior. But Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if they were sleeping on the floor. Maybe the house was a furnished lease.
One morning the two women packed some bundles in the SUVs. No suitcases that Ralph saw, but then he wasn’t watching continuously. This wasn’t a stakeout. He went in to make a cup of coffee. When he returned to the patio, they were gone. They didn’t come back, which seemed strange to Ralph.
Convinced that the transients’ lives were as mundane as anyone else’s, Ralph let his imagination transform the townhouse into a safehouse run by the Federal Marshall Service. In this fantasy, the two women were actually the wife and niece of an accountant testifying against the leader of an international crime syndicate.
A couple days later, a fat guy arrived in a beat-up sedan and unloaded a lot of cleaning supplies, including a vacuum cleaner. He was there all day. Took bags of trash to the dumpster, repacked his car, left. A Federal agent in disguise, doing some cleaning while checking for listening devices, collecting physical evidence.
Ralph invited John and Karen over for lunch on Sundays every few weeks, to demonstrate that he was getting around fine; and he liked talking to them, hearing how things were going now that their children had moved to other cities to begin careers. He knew what an empty nest felt like. He had moved to Tallahassee to be with the only family he had left; returning to the nest as it were. John and Karen always accepted his invitations.
John got another grilled pork chop and some green beans as he said, “What’s up at Silverton Plaza? These college kids driving you crazy yet?” They always joked about Ralph being surrounded by young people, knowing he actually enjoyed it.
“There are more families moving in, young people, some with babies. I think this place is turning into a regular community.”
“No troublemakers, I hope,” Karen interjected. “This place is close enough to the low-income housing that I worry about drug dealers. You haven’t heard any gun shots, have you? Police cars in the middle of the night?”
Ralph shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just that damned train all day long. You’d think it wouldn’t be so loud a mile away.”
“Does it keep you up?” John asked.
“No. It’s just so loud that I can’t hear myself think. I don’t know how these kids can study with that all the time…but, you know, I noticed something curious last week.” They listened with interest as he told about the two women and children.
“Well, they don’t sound too threatening,” Karen said.
John added, “They must know the owner and were passing through, or maybe waiting for a deal to close. Like you and Mom did when I was in high school. We stayed in a friend’s house for two weeks.”
They agreed that was probably the case. John and Karen cleaned up the table while Ralph went to the patio for a smoke. A red SUV was parked in front of the townhouse. Three black men got out, without luggage, and unlocked the front door. They were all sizes and ages. Ralph assumed they’d gone out for lunch. Must have arrived while he was eating.
John joined him on the patio with a beer, an extra for Ralph.
“Another car just pulled in,” Ralph said, opening the can. He summarized what he’d seen while John studied the brick façade of the townhouse. “You don’t suppose it’s a government safe house, do you?”
“Maybe. But I’d put my money on an Airbnb rental. They’re not only for vacations. The renters must be getting a better deal than a motel.” He shook his head and added, “I don’t see how the owner’s making any money, though. Leasing would bring in a steady stream of income. Maybe they’ll be back from an extended trip and can’t tie it up for six months or more.”
John and Karen took the leftovers with them when they left; that was the deal: Ralph only ate heavy meals in restaurants or with the family. They had expressed concern about how thin he’d become, until he assured them that his physician approved of his weight loss and saw nothing in his blood results indicating any problems. In fact, Ralph was healthier than John, who had high cholesterol.
The three African American men stayed a couple of days, leaving together in the morning, returning in the afternoon. Ralph was convinced that John was right. It was an Airbnb rental. Still, it was possible that they were undercover agents laying low, waiting for their next assignment.
The red SUV left with the three men and was immediately replaced by a white sedan. The next morning, returning to the patio with a cup of coffee, Ralph had a front-row seat of what seemed like a reality TV show. The front door of the three-bedroom unit was open and a young black woman was standing behind the car. She was yelling something, her words drowned by the fountain’s cascade. The car backed up, threatening to run over her. She stepped out of the way, her fist pounding the windows. The distraught woman pulled out her smart phone and took a photo or maybe a video of the departing vehicle.
Her task complete, she reentered the open door, just before the sedan backed up at full speed. Ralph didn’t see what happened next because he went inside to make breakfast. He made a point of not spying on his neighbors.
The white sedan was gone all day. That afternoon, three children appeared on the front balcony, enjoying the view. The oldest kicked the balusters, dislodging one, which fell to the ground. The boy no more than nine or ten, slipped through the gap and climbed around on the outside of the balcony, hanging on the railing. Ralph was concerned because it was more than ten feet to the ground, probably not dangerous enough to intervene. The sedan returned at dusk and a tall, black man got out but didn’t go inside the townhouse. He wandered around by the pond, drinking from an aluminum can, maybe beer, maybe soda, until four children appeared, the youngest barely walking.
Ralph imagined the scenario: the young guy, tired of so many children and not wanting to take responsibility for their care, joined some friends for a few beers, maybe at a bar. His wife hadn’t been happy about that. This guy had to be a small-time drug dealer turned state’s evidence against a drug cartel.
They were gone the next day. The cleaning man who’d taken hours to clean the place before never showed up. Ralph wouldn’t want to rent a house that had been occupied by four children, the youngest in diapers, without being sanitized. Only an undercover operation would be so sloppy. They’d probably lose their permit if it really was an Airbnb rental.
Ralph watched with interest as another white sedan appeared, newer than the previous one. He couldn’t wait to see who it had brought. A young, Asian couple appeared the next evening with a toddler, her hair in two pigtails pointing up. The car remained two days, but the young family didn’t reappear. Ralph didn’t see them leave. This guy wasn’t a criminal. Probably a Chinese dissident from Hong Kong with a price on his head.
The same cleaning guy finally made an appearance, in a different vehicle. The battered, faded, reddish sedan had been replaced by a small SUV. He took a break at lunch time, maybe having a cigarette, and sat in the truck, door open. Ralph couldn’t see inside the vehicle. Pretty sloppy work, forgetting to use the same car. The Feds were asking for trouble.
The next day, a new SUV appeared in front of what Ralph was convinced was an Airbnb rental. The silver Nissan never moved, and no one came out. It sat for three days. They must have a cache of food in the house, he thought. By the third day, his curiosity was getting the best of him. All he’d learned was that the occupants were from Texas. Or at least their vehicle was. His patience was rewarded when his temporary neighbors appeared. A young, black couple in their mid-thirties, accompanied by identical twins, eleven-year-old girls, dressed the same, same hairstyle, same height. And a teenage boy. The children loaded suitcases in the back, the man piled two large bags of trash on the hood. They were a well-oiled machine. They stopped by the dumpster on their way out. This family was too cute to be real. Straight out of a Disney movie. He was either a geek in debt to mobsters, probably gambling losses, or the entire outfit was an undercover family. Maybe used in sting operations.
The cleaning guy didn’t come by…again…before the next visitor arrived.
Ralph was on the patio when a weather-beaten, green minivan pulled into a space in front of the rental. A young, white man got out first and went around the vehicle to open the passenger door. Ralph couldn’t see that side. After a couple of minutes, a young, black woman emerged with a baby and a toddler.
Jesus Christ, Ralph thought. There sure are a lot of children around these days.
The bearded guy followed, burdened by several suitcases. The man and woman seemed nervous. They looked around continuously as she got a key into the lock. His head popped out before the door closed, one last look. Ralph wished he’d seen the arrival of the previous guests.
The newcomers remained inside all day. Jim was on the patio having his last beer of the day when a visitor arrived. It was about time someone had a guest. Just sitting in a rented townhouse for days had to be boring, even with cable television and internet. Two black guys wearing jackets got out of the late-model black SUV, lit by the nearby streetlight, looking around the same way the current occupants had.
Ralph’s phone dinged, informing him of a WhatsApp text. It was a photo of a friend’s new seat covers, for his RV. They were bright red.
Ralph looked up when angry shouts erupted, threatening, indecipherable. One of the visitors threw his weight into the steel-sheathed door, splintering the wood jamb. Alarmed, feeling that this situation was worse than a child climbing on the balcony, Ralph unlocked his phone…
More angry shouts. Fear. Several shots shattered the stillness of the night.
Ralph had dialed 911 before the last echoes died against the brick, stucco, and vinyl of the townhouses.
“Where did she go?” I ask myself, straining to see over the creek bank.
I had fallen behind Cassie in the creek bed, carefully guiding my chestnut mare between boulders in the foot-deep water. Cassie had rushed onward, risking a broken fetlock. She always had to be first.
Finally reaching the steep embankment, I let my steed pick her own path through the scattered rocks and logs covering the slope, green branches and leaves evidence of recent high water. We clear the top, but Cassie isn’t in sight. The trail disappears behind a sharp outcrop of dark stone I had seen from the creek. A waypoint on the map I’d studied.
I give Pioneer a free rein and she takes off like a rocket, slowing only to negotiate the sharp turn, hooves slipping on gravel. No sign of Cassie riding Chester, her surefooted but slow Palomino stallion.
Pine trees hug the trail, their whiplike branches slapping my face painfully; saplings on the stony trace hindering our advance. I duck, bob, weave, but Pioneer remains on course, the small woman on her back forgotten. An outcrop looms ahead, daring us to jump it. Pioneer accepts the earth’s challenge and we take flight, sailing over the obstacle.
A gentle turn marked by more black stone. Pioneer clears the crag at full speed. Cassie mounted on Chester not far ahead. Pioneer wants to catch them more than I do. I lean forward, eyes watching for danger on a trail we’ve never ridden before.
I risk a look into the rocky chasm only a few feet from Pioneer’s hooves. From my vantage point atop Pioneer, I see the trickle of a stream at the bottom. My gaze returns to Cassie, fifty yards ahead, glancing over her shoulder. Another rocky promontory. Cassie and Chester disappear behind it.
Pioneer puts on the brakes, pressing my boots into the stirrups. I’m confused as she warily rounds the jutting rock, as if expecting trouble. Chester is waiting expectantly. He neighs nervously, standing in front of a jumble of irregular black rock and soil, reins hanging from his bit.
I never read Walden. I probably never will because, from what I’ve heard, Thoreau didn’t write about real life, the struggle to survive against other creatures; hungry, cruel, desperate beings. Like us. Still, there is something to be learned from words, even when they reflect the author’s imagination rather than reality.
My wife wanted a townhouse, something on the university bus route near campus; a place where the kids could live while attending Louisiana State University. An investment. We looked at some run-down units and weren’t impressed. College housing was scarce in Baton Rouge back then, just five years ago, so we settled on a three-bedroom unit in a gated community. It needed some repairs. I was elected to move in six-months before the fall semester. There went my spring plans for traveling the country in my motorhome.
Our new townhouse’s patio faced the retention pond, the size of an Olympic pool, surrounded by a steep bank covered by weedy grass. A culvert connected the shallow reservoir to a labyrinth of ditches, canals, sloughs, creeks, bayous, lakes, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. A fountain accented the pond, running twenty-four hours a day. The fountain burbled when I went to bed, its steady cascade lulling me to sleep. It became the central point of my existence, the fountain of life, youth, dreams, disappointments, a microcosm of life. My world was centered on the unceasing flow of recirculated water. I shared this fascination, this dependence on its life-renewing sustenance, with other living beings, and that’s what this story is about.
Of course, I watched from my patio, safely behind the fake wrought iron fence separating me from the pond. Prison bars to me. Zoo bars to the young neighbors walking their dogs past me as if on parade. The old guy.
The turtles living in my Walden Pond were the first to catch my eye. Their heads protruded from the water like the periscopes of submerged submarines, ready to strike. They clawed their way out of the primordial waters to sunbathe for hours. In the warm spring sun, they copulated, and reproduced. Despite the indifferent mothers’ negligence, haphazardly dropping their gestating young among the pine mulch beneath the sparse, small trees, baby turtles appeared. No bigger than my palm, their offspring struggled against gravity to join their parents in the sun.
One morning, sunrise only a distant hope, I noticed something glistening on the grass, dimly lit by a streetlight. At first, I thought it was trash discarded by my adolescent neighbors. I investigated more closely, abandoning the safety of my patio to venture into the wilderness, following the path I’d memorized between the piles of dog feces left by young, unsocialized neighbors.
All kinds of fish—trout, catfish, bass, crappie, croaker—come to visit the pond, perhaps even copulate in the murky water, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves, and to die. A large one, perhaps nine inches long, had lunged for an insect near the bank, a feeding behavior they exhibited in the morning and evening, often landing several feet from the water’s edge, flopping around until gravity pulled them back to the dark water. Again and again. Having accomplished this feat, the unfortunate gymnast and been caught in the jaws of a waiting snake. I watched in fascination from fifty feet away, standing in the parking lot where I could see clearly, as the snake struggled to keep from sliding into the water on the steep embankment. The fish was suffocating but desperately fighting, its silvery body writhing spasmodically, far too large for the jaw whose fangs had snagged it. The two of them fought for several minutes, the assassin undulating, seeking a firm hold on the damp grass. No ground was gained or lost when the snake, realizing the futility of its effort, released its victim and withdrew into the shadows. Its prey lay dead two feet from the water’s edge.
Back in my refuge on the patio, I watched in horror as one of the denizens of the deep climbed slowly out of the dark water and pulled the assassin’s victim into the stillness of the pond. The largest of the turtles, watching the battle from the water’s safety, had come to claim the reward for its patience.
I finally escaped, taking my motorhome for a cross-country trip. Alas, my freedom was not to be long-lived. Dental implant surgery tied me to the fountain and the pond as surely as a chain. There was more for me to witness, to endure, to wish I had never seen.
When it rains in southern Louisiana, it rains, a lot. The pond fills up and is replenished with life. Immigrants arrive, eager for a bounty of food in the paradise they have stumbled across, lost. When the bayous, canals, and culverts dry up, the fish can’t return to their home waters. They are left confused and hungry, finding the pond to have no sustenance, they are easy prey for adolescent humans. Fishing is a popular form of torture, not that different from the snake’s method. Barbed hooks of steel sink into the soft flesh of hungry fish, snaring them like the fangs of a garden snake. Catch and release is the anthem of these would-be anglers because torture is more enjoyable when inflicted slowly. Keep the victim alive.
One hot summer, I watched the same hungry fish caught repeatedly by several fishermen; I couldn’t hold my tongue, when a young boy caught the fish who had been tortured at least a dozen times before, by college students with expensive fishing gear. I told the boy that the fish were like pets. He looked at me skeptically, retreated with his pole and hook, and returned fifteen minutes later. He ignored me, and I ignored him.
He had been told the truth by his parents: “It’s a stupid fish and you can do anything you want to it.” At least that’s what I think he was told…maybe his loving father added, “Fuck that old man It ain’t his fuck’n pond.”
Every pond in southern Louisiana is visited by migrating birds, perhaps drawn by ubiquitous fountains shimmering in the sun. They stopped by for a quick snack, sometimes a filling meal, feeding on the smaller fish relaxing naively in the shallows. First came a young egret, delighted to have a private fishing preserve. The young bird feasted, only being harassed occasionally by an older competitor, but the youngling was persistent. Every day, morning and evening, it would drop by to enjoy the fountain with me; until a blue heron, with long legs, a sharp beak, and a bad attitude challenged it for use of the pond.
The newcomer wasn’t going to share its bounty with anyone, so it threatened the smaller egret until it left. My new companion was an experienced angler and soon depleted the pond of small fish, moving on to a new feeding ground. Another world to conquer.
High overhead, flights of geese and ducks flew in formation, not stopping at the pond, heading for the open wetlands a few miles from our house. The pond wasn’t worth the effort of landing and retaking flight. No energy to waste on exploration. In the spring and summer, squadrons of young hawks circled, learning how to kill from the air. The mockingbirds stopped singing and playing during these displays of aerial prowess.
Migrant bluebirds, cardinals, and other colorful species visited me now and then. They never stayed, not being interested in the pond. Too flighty to be drawn by the allure of something so permanent, so eternal as the fountain.
Clumps of water grass appeared in the same spots every summer, as if following a design dictated by nature. Four floating islands, barely anchored to the soft bottom, spread until the landscape maintenance crew removed them at the end of summer. The fish loved the grass for the insects it attracted. They leapt through it in a feeding frenzy. I imagine the mosquitos loved it too, for shielding their larvae from the incessant pounding of the fountain. One of the patches would drift around like a barge broken loose from its mooring, gently joining the others, circumnavigating the pond as the wind changed direction, always pressed to the edge by the fountain’s force.
No story of life on a pond would be complete without mentioning the year-round inhabitants hiding in the grass and trees. There are no real trees; only large shrubs trimmed to look like trees. Too open for nesting, the mockingbirds and sparrows chose the thick foliage of the bushes scattered around the neighborhood. But they came to play, flirt, dance, and copulate in front of my patio, perhaps because of the small trees that dumped flowers, berries, leaves, and pollen on my patio and in my face. Maybe they were showing off.
Where there are flowers, there are hummingbirds and bees. One warm spring day, I was having lunch when something hit my arm hard enough to spill food from my utensil. A strangely shaped, very-large bug was lying on the patio next to met, out of focus. It buzzed, shook itself, and flew to my prison bars, shaking rhythmically. Curious, I donned my reading glasses and took a closer look. The apparition was actually two large bees copulating. I didn’t know bees did it like that. They did it for a while, so I lost interest, my curiosity satisfied.
I must mention my closest companions on Walden pond. Small lizards, adults less than six inches long, are always with me during the warm months. I learned a lot about them, like that the males are bright green and expand white air sacks under their throats as sexual and threatening displays. The females are dark green but the same size. I know which is which because they like to have sex right in front of me, on my prison bars, but they don’t copulate in the rapid manner of the bees. They don’t seem to copulate at all but remain frozen in a close embrace for a long time. I don’t know how long because I get bored. The young lizards join me at the table, climbing, hunting for spiders, sometimes getting on me by mistake. They’re cute.
One spring day, after a heavy rain, the water level in the web of waterways honeycombing southern Louisiana rose higher than usual, allowing a monster to enter the pond, the water’s rippled surface disturbed by its progress. A stubby nose at its prow, two beady eyes following, the mass of its body submerged, the otter fed on the newly arrived fish. It cavorted, diving and whirling, its submerged movement marked by air bubbles breaking the water surface. Within five minutes, occasionally coming up for air, it left as silently as it had arrived. Sated no doubt on any fish it had found in the murky depths.
I’ll never forget the year of extreme weather, which I won’t blame on global warming because that winter was cold as hell. The summer was marked by a biblical deluge, not a tropical storm or hurricane, that flooded Baton Rouge but left my patio high and dry. The pond swelled to the top of the embankment, five feet above normal water level, but the fountain never stopped cascading. Indomitable. Eternal.
Winter brought snow, a rarity in southern Louisiana. The first snowfall was two inches, the world bright white, reminding me of why I didn’t live in northern latitudes. The beauty didn’t last because my young neighbors appeared to construct snowmen. All they accomplished was destroying the luster, creating an urban landscape of tracks and mounds of snow. Bare, dormant, grass and dirt. The second snowfall was less, not worth the effort of ruining. After the shock of snow, another surprise arrived; a cold front brought arctic air to the Gulf Coast, and the surface of the pond froze. The fountain never stopped flowing, however, the only open water near its base. I worried about the turtles.
When I returned for the last time, the world had changed ominously. The fountain no longer ran all day and all night; someone had installed a timer, so it shut down at ten p.m. and turned on at seven a.m., destroying the eternal harmony of the pond, upsetting the balance of nature.
The silence in the morning was golden, except for the wail of a train horn in the distance and the noisy air conditioners turning on constantly. Having discovered quiet, I began to hate the fountain that had centered my life. I fled upstairs to escape its roar. There was no respite, so I started getting up earlier and earlier; a couple of hours of silence.
The turtles must have felt the same. Like me, they had grown accustomed to a few hours of silence and the return of the cascading water in the morning was no longer acceptable. They were also unhappy with other changes that had occurred because of the eternal fountain. The unceasing ripples had worked on the soft bank too long and the land capitulated, accepting defeat, and eroded. Now, instead of a gentle slope surrounding the water, they faced a scarp more than six inches in height before they could reach the warmth of the sun. Their world in turmoil, the denizens of the deep began migrating, not through the culvert that led indirectly to the ocean, but instead over land, across the cement parking lot. Their destination was the drainage ditch at the edge of the subdivision. I think the emigres made it because I didn’t see any squashed turtle shells. A few remained to wait for another dead fish to scavenge.
There is a peculiar kind of duck that is common along the Gulf coast: individuals who don’t want to fly north for the summer make their permanent home in ditches that are seldom dry. Dogs and cats don’t bother them, they reproduce and multiply, get fat on the bounty supplied by a warm climate and lots of rain.
Late this last summer, one of these ditch ducks was sitting on the grass next to the pond when I went to the patio to begin my morning ritual of drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and wondering when I would escape the fountain. To see a ditch duck in the pond was a rather surprising thing because they grow very fat and don’t fly, choosing to waddle everywhere. I don’t think it walked past the front gate or got through the fence enclosing the neighborhood. It remained three days, shuffling around, occasionally fleeing to the safety of the pond to escape a curious dog, flapping its wings futilely, fishing. It seemed to be on vacation.
The third morning after its arrival, the visitor shuffled to the parking lot, began flapping its wings furiously, stumbling forward, leaping in small bounds, and finally got off the ground. I watched in wonder as the strong wings fought to lift the corpulent body into the air. I grimaced in sympathy, directing my willpower to assist. It had less than six feet of altitude when it disappeared behind the building. It must have made it because I haven’t seen it since.
The egret and the blue heron had worked out an arrangement to share the meager provender of the pond. The egret dropped by during the day whereas the larger, bad-tempered waterfowl took the morning and evening shifts.
With the fountain silenced in the morning, the heron began perching on it, maybe to sleep. I don’t know because the gushing water didn’t cease until after I went to bed. Perhaps the bird waited in the shadows for the fountain to rest. At any rate, the silent predator was always present when I went outside at five a.m. A ghost.
In the dark, it searched the murky water, dove in sometimes, fishing from its pedestal. I wondered if it could tell time because it always disappeared before seven a.m., when the fountain roared into life.
This morning, there it was as usual, getting its breakfast, watching for danger. After dumping a stream of green goo on the grass, it retook its perch on the fountain. I checked the time on my phone: six-fifty-one. Six-fifty-two…
I waited. The fountain waited. The bird didn’t budge.
The fountain waited silently, preparing to spring its trap on the unsuspecting interloper, who had no business standing on it, taking advantage of its vulnerability.
I laughed along with the fountain when it burst into life, tossing the startled bird in the air.
The kids graduated college and, like the migrating birds, set off to begin new lives. I’ll be leaving soon as well, joining my wife on the other side of the world, my departure delayed by more home repairs.
I won’t miss the fountain, but I’ll always remember the time we spent together. It seemed like an eternity. I guess that every moment is a small piece of eternity, however, so let’s just say I spent an eternity with that fountain on my Walden pond.
I’ll let Henry David Thoreau finish the story:
“I learned this, at least…that if one…endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will…pass an invisible boundary…live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost…Now put the foundations under them.” (Walden, 323- 324)
I found a web page that recommended several Spanish-language books for intermediate readers, so I ordered a couple. This is the first book from the list. If this is for intermediate readers, I can’t imagine what is suggested for advanced readers. It is written in some kind of avant garde style that no student should be exposed to.
The first chapter is one paragraph that goes on for five pages. Sentences run up to half-a-page. It is a stream-of-consciousness journey with the first-person narrator, who questions every single thing that happens to him. He gives some family history in his rambling thoughts. Flashbacks appear without warning in the middle of sentences. His life slowly unfolds in this piecemeal and unstructured manner.
I can summarize the plot easily, because nothing happens. He gets married, goes on a honeymoon, moves into a new apartment, visits a friend in New York (he lives in Spain, but I don’t remember which city), returns home and learns a terrible secret about his father. All the action is in his mind, his doubts and worries consuming his every waking moment.
The devil is in the details, and so is the interesting parts of this book. The author does a good job taking the reader into every mundane corner of the protagonist’s mind, unearthing questions we ask ourselves every day without thinking. All of it is captured for examination in remarkably well constructed flights of imagination. The self-deprecating humor is perfectly done, especially the way the narrator’s occupation as a translator is analyzed. I laughed several times at the depictions of the world of international diplomacy. Very good. The same sharp wit is turned on politics and everyday activities.
This would be difficult to translate to English, so much would be lost, but if it’s available, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a simple but complex story about a man stumbling through life as a successful professional.
I also recommend it to someone who reads Spanish, but not to a “intermediate” reader like me.