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Authors: Richard Ford

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BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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BOOM!

The entire mountain—plus my living room and the vaulted sky above it—quaked, then went deaf at the awful sound.

BOOM!
Again the terrible report. The sun went dark,
avalanches broke free, tiny sylvan creatures beside faraway alpine rills looked guardedly toward the heavens.

The elk—grazing, calm, thinking who-knows-what elk thoughts—suddenly went all weird and knee-wiggly, as if its parts had simultaneously resigned their roles. After which, in exactly one second, its head rose slightly as though it had heard something (it had), then it went right over like a candlepin into the dust-burst the bullet had kicked up, having passed straight through the creature as if it was butter.

“Wooo-hooo-hooo-hooo! Woooooo!” a man's voice somewhere out of the picture began woo-hooing. “Ooooh
man
, oh man, oh man!”

“I
am
a deadly motherfucker,” the wheelchair marksman said (I could read his lips), his rifle across his unfeeling knees. He turned toward whoever was woo-hooing, a great crazed smile on his fat camo face. “It doesn't get any better than this, does it, Arlo?
Does
it? Oh sweet Jesus . . .”

I quick ditched the Naipaul onto the couch, got my hands on the clicker, and doused the picture. I'd earlier been watching the NFL injury rundown, hoping to see if the Giants had a snowball's chance against the Falcons on Sunday. They didn't.

My house's interior, absent the ear-warping TV clamor, became, then, intergalactically silent. And still. Like a room a security camera was guarding—a secret view for a stranger's
secret purposes. I often imagine myself as “a figure” in an elevator, being viewed through the grainy lens of just such a secreted camera. Mute. Unmindful. Generic—waiting for my floor, then the door opening, and (in my imagining) a hooded man stepping in before I can step out, and beginning to berate me or pummel me or shoot me at close range. (I watch too much television.) The head shrinkers at Mayo—where I get my prostate re-checks—would have a field day with my data set. There's a side to this little drama that doesn't make me look good, I realize—not someone you'd trust to run a day care or even a dog rescue.

Though shouldn't our complex mental picture of ourselves at least partly include such a neutralized view? Not just the image that smiles wryly back from the shaving mirror; but the solitary trudger glimpsed in the shop window, shoulders slumped, hairline backing away, neck flesh lapping, bent as if by winds—shuffling down the street to buy the
USA Today
? Is that person not worth keeping in mind and paid a modicum? If not a round of huzzahs, at least a tip of the hat? A high five (or at least a low one)? I don't share every view with Sally, who'd shout the rafters down with laughter if she knew
all
my innermost thoughts.

“My goodness,” Ms. Pines said from behind me, inside the tiny foyer now—my silent house's primordial self suddenly all around her in a way anyone would find startling. It's too
bad we don't let ourselves in for more unexpected moments. Life would be less flimsy, feel more worth preserving. The suburbs are supposedly where nothing happens, like Auden said about what poetry doesn't do; an over-inhabited faux terrain dozing in inertia, occasionally disrupted by “a Columbine” or “an Oklahoma City” or a hurricane to remind us what's really real. Though plenty happens in the suburbs—in the way that putting a drop of water under an electron microscope reveals civilizations with histories, destinies, and an overpowering experience of the present. “Well. Yes. My goodness, my goodness,” Ms. Pines kept saying in the front entry, the storm door sucking closed behind her, letting outside snow light in around her. “I don't quite know what to say.” She was shaking her kewpie-doll head that either so much had changed or so little had. We've kept the “older-home” fussiness of small rooms, one-way-to-get-anywhere, an inset plaster phone nook, upstairs transoms, and all original fixtures except the kitchen. Sally hates the spiritless open-concept bleakness of the re-purposed.
Do I really need a fucking greenhouse?
is the way she put it.

“I don't want to track in snow,” Ms. Pines said.

“The maid'll clean it up,” I said. A joke.

“Okay,” she said, in wonderment still. “I . . .”

“How long since you were here?” I said, still in the TV-silent living room. Ms. P., in the foyer, inched toward the foot
of the stairs. The narrow hallway past the basement door and on to the kitchen lay ahead—the same house is on thousands of streets, Muncie to Minot.

Her gaze for a moment carried up the stairs, her lips a tiny bit left apart. “I'm sorry?” she said. She'd heard me but didn't understand.

“Have you visited before? Since you lived here?”

“Oh. No,” Ms. Pines said, registering. “Never. I walked out of this house—this door . . .” She turned toward the glass storm door behind her. “. . . in nineteen sixty-nine, when I was almost seventeen. I was a junior. At Haddam High. I walked to school.”

“My kids went there,” I said.

“I'm sure.” She looked at me strangely then, as if my presence was a surprise. From the warmth of her red coat, enforced by the warmth of my house, Ms. Pines had begun exuding a sweet floral aroma.
Old Rose
. A fragrance someone older might've worn. Possibly her mother had sniftered it on upstairs in front of the medicine-cabinet mirror, before an evening out with her husband. Where, I wondered, did Negroes go for fun in Haddam, pre-1969? Trenton?

“You're absolutely welcome to look around,” I said, extra-obligingly.

“Oh, that's very kind, Mr. Bascombe. I'm feeling a little light-headed.” She re-righted her shoulders and took a firmer
grip on her big patent-leather purse. Snow had puddled on the area rug inside the doorway. She was transfixed.

“Let me get you a glass of orange juice,” I said, stepping off past her and down the hall toward the kitchen, where it smelled of Sally's morning bacon and the Krups cooking breakfast coffee to licorice. I hauled out the Minute Maid carton, found a plastic glass, gushed it full, and came back as fast as I could. Why OJ seemed the proper antidote to being transfixed is anybody's guess.

“That's very nice. Thank you so much,” Ms. Pines said. She hadn't budged. I put the glass into her un-gloved hand. She took a dainty sip, swallowed, cleared her throat softly, and smiled, touching her glove to her lips, then handed me back the glass, which had decals of leaping green porpoises, from our years on The Shore—gone now except for the glasses. The old-rose fragrance was dense around Ms. Pines, mingling with a faint tang of intimate perspiration.

“Let me take your coat.”

“Oh, no,” Ms. Pines said. “I'm not going to impose anymore.”

From the basement, the heat pump came smoothly to life. A distant murmur.

“You should just look around,” I said. “I don't have to go with you. I'll sit in the kitchen and read the paper or refill the bird feeder for the squirrels. I'm retired. I'm just waiting
to die, or for my wife to come back from Mantoloking—whichever's first.”

“Well,” Ms. Pines said, smiling frailly, letting her eyes follow up the stairs. “That's very generous. If you really don't mind, I'll just look upstairs at my old room. Or
your
room.” She blinked at the prospect, then looked at me.

“Great!” I said for the fourth time. “Take your good sweet time. You know where the kitchen is. You won't find things much changed.”

“Well,” Ms. Pines said. “We'll have to see.”

“That's why you're here,” I said and went off down the hall to leave her to it.

F
OR A TIME
, I
HEARD
M
S
. P
INES
—
MOUNTING THE
stairs, the risers squeezing, the floor joists muttering as she stepped room to room. She emitted no personal sounds I could hear via the registers or the stairwell. I'd already read the
Times
. So, I sat contentedly at the breakfast table, meager snowfall cluttering the back-yard air, caking on the rhododendrons and the Green Egg smoker. On a legal pad, I'd begun jotting down some entries for the monthly feature I write for the
We Salute You
magazine, which we hand out free of charge in airports to our troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, or wherever our country's waging secret
wars and committing global wrongs in freedom's name—Syria, New Zealand, France.
We Salute You
contains helpful stateside info and easy how-to's—in case a vet's memory's been erased—along with phone numbers and addresses and contact data that the troopers, swabbies, airmen, and marines might need during their first critical hours back in the world.

My column's called “WHAT MAKES
THAT
NEWS?” It contains oddball items I glean out of “the media” that don't really approximate fresh thought—that in fact often violate the concept of thought by being plug-obvious, asinine, or both—but that still come across our breakfast tables every morning or flashed through our smartphones (I don't own one)
disguised
as news. Veterans often come back after a year of dodging bullets, seeing their pals' limbs blown off, enduring unendurable heat, eating sand, and learning to trust no one—even the people they want to trust—with a fairly well-established sense that no one back home, the people they're fighting, dying, and wasting their lives
for
, knows dick about anything that really matters, and might just as well go back to the third grade or be shot to death drive-by style (which is why so many of our troops are eager to re-up). My column tries to take a bit of the edge off by letting soldiers know we're not
all
as dumbass as newts back home, and in fact some of the idiotic stuff in the news can be actually hilarious, so that suicide can be postponed to a later date.

One item I'm including for January is a study up at Harvard that found a direct correlation between chronic pain and loss of sleep. If you hurt twenty-four hours a day, sleep's hard to come by—the Harvard scientists detected. WHAT MAKES
THAT
NEWS? These things aren't difficult to find.

In November, I included one from a top-notch sports medicine think tank in Fort Collins, where kinesiologists noticed that running slowly and not very far was much better for you, over a ten-year period, than running forty minutes or farther than eight miles—which, it turns out,
increases
the likelihood you'll die sooner rather than later. WHAT MAKES
THAT
NEWS?

And one I'd seen just the day before, and was noting at the breakfast table, was out of the
Lancet
in the UK and represented a conclusion drawn at the Duchess of Kent Clinic in Shropshire (the same person who hands over the Wimbledon trophy, though she always seems like someone who couldn't care less about tennis or even understand it). The doctors in Shropshire noticed that in cases of repetitive thought patterning leading to psychic decline, lengthy institutionalization, and eventually suicide, the most common cause-agent seemed to be not trying hard enough to think about something pleasant. WHAT MAKES
THAT
NEWS?

My pen name—it seemed appropriate—is “HLM.”
The magazine often forwards me letters from vets who say that these squibs—which I include without comment—have brightened their first hours back and taken their minds off what most anybody's mind would likely run to, if twenty-four hours before you'd been pinned down by enemy fire in Waziristan, but now find yourself in the Department of Motor Vehicles, trying to get your driver's license renewed, and are being told by a non–English speaker that you don't have the six pieces of ID necessary, plus a major credit card with your name spelled exactly like your passport.

Mayhem. That's what you'd be thinking hard about. And no one would blame you. Statistics, however, show that great cravings of almost any nature, including a wish to assassinate, can be overcome just by brief interludes of postponement—the very thing no one ever believes will work, but does. That
IS
news.

Ms. Pines had been up above for almost five minutes. I heard her begin stepping heavily, carefully down the stairs—as if she were descending sideways. “Umm-hmmm, umm-hmmm.” I heard her make this noise, one “umm-hmmm” per step, as if she was digesting something she'd just taken in. I swiveled around in my chair so I could see to the front door, wanting her to feel at home and recognized when she came back into view. Maybe she'd want to sit down in the living room and watch
The Price Is Right
while I finished up some chores. Later, I'd heat up last night's lasagna, and we'd get to know each other in new and consequential ways.

Ms. Pines—small, red-coated figure, boatish purse, green tam, shiny boots—appeared at the bottom of the stairs. She did start to walk into the living room, then realized the hall was beside her and that “a presence” (me) was twenty feet away—watching her. “Oh,” she said and flashed her big, relieved, but also embarrassed smile. She set her shoulders as she'd done before. “I guess I entered a dream state for a while up there,” she said. “It's silly. I'm sorry.”

“It's
not
silly,” I said, arm bent over the chair back
Our Town
style—our conversation being carried down the short hallway as if we were communicating out of separate life realms, which possibly we were. “It's too bad more people don't do what you're doing,” I said. “The world might be a better place.” Almost all conversations between myself and African Americans devolve into this phony, race-neutral natter about making the world a better place, which we assume we're doing just by being alive. But it's idiotic to think the world would be a better place if more people barged uninvited into strangers' homes. I needed, though, to say
something
, and wanted it to be optimistic and wholesome and seem to carry substance—even if it didn't.

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
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