Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Lookout

by Lori Brack

I tell myself stories. Like the one about my son and how he needs me as a fortification against the rest of everything. When I was 30, I needed this story. It may even have been true – one part of me hung onto his baby self and the other part of me plugged into being alive. That’s the difference he made. Before him, I hung onto the possibility of death when things were hard in the ways things used to be hard, when youth and all that accompanied it made me suffer for love or justice. My personal out button: that’s how I thought of it. After my son was born, I grieved its going.

Now I’m older and I spend less time cradling the idea of death, less time blocking my son’s view of the rest of his life with mine. I tell myself another story: that I moved across the country because he wouldn’t leave home. It is true that I left him in our house with the date when new owners would arrive, left him with his two cats and his father’s presence across town, and drove two thousand miles to these three rooms next to the ocean. Maybe closer to the truth is that I moved across the country because I loved him too much, loved myself too little.

Maybe I did it because I wanted to practice separation from him, from everything I had made of my life for the twenty years of his. Some old, familiar stories would explain it differently. In those tales, the mother dies and so sets the child out on his quest for life and himself. I tell myself half that story.

The new town by the sea unfolded around me on a map from behind the wheel of my car. The big green blob in the middle was a nature area, up a hill and through trees that don’t grow where I’m from. These trees were tall and old, history trees surrounded by ferns and shade. I had seen some of these kinds of trees, but the green blob on the map promised more.

I passed the road twice because it was unmarked until I was almost upon it, no help to tourists or others who wanted to take in the forest. Three walkers veered off into the trees on a narrow path at the bottom of the hill as I passed, my flatland car making loose tapping noises under the hood as the road became steep. Ahead, a fairy tale arch of trees ushered me in and I drove under it slowly, watching the light go green. A minute or two on and the sighing of pines surrounded me, whispered its way through my half-open windows.

After a sharp left turn, I drove into a parking lot where three other vehicles were parked. I pulled in and found the wooden sign burned with the symbols. A hiker with a stick pointed one way, and a series of horizontal lines crossing two verticals capped by an inverted V pointed the other. I took the path toward the tower.
The cool under the trees was new. Where I came from, August was on fire with sun and drought. People here carried jackets with them, able to adapt to changing sun and shade, wet and dry. I had not yet formed the habit, so I followed the yellow arrow into the trees bare armed. No human sounds followed. Whoever belonged to the cars must have gone the hiker’s way. Long fern fronds dipped into my path, and a small dark bird fluttered to the ground ahead of me, then hopped up onto the hillside. I heard its small rustle as I passed. Fairy tales are my first stories, maybe even still the most important ones, and I set out into the dim woods alone, a Hansel-less Gretel wearing Nikes with a cell phone in my pocket.

My eyes were used to looking at the horizon of the plains, my body accustomed to enervating heat in summer and bone-cracking cold in winter and springs and falls so short you could miss them if you were having a bad week when all you wanted to do was stay in bed and read British mysteries. When my friend suggested her old town, her mid-life leap back to graduate school, I decided her idea was better than any I’d had lately, and so I leapt. No more horizons.

I could have moved to a place more like the one I came from where I would recognize the birds, but I had not. I chose a place on the edge of the continent after living for so long in Kansas, the land-embraced vast center of things. If this was the crust, then I had left the soft, doughy middle of the loaf in favor of something chewier, more friable, harder to come by. And I could have chosen an apartment farther inland where the birds would have sounded more like the ones I missed – cardinals and sparrows, finches and bluejays. Instead I spent the days in my new place, windows open on the cool, listening to crows’ raucous cries and the insistent overlapping voices of gulls.

Open windows where I was born invited mosquitoes and flies, biting gnats and even wasps. Here, an occasional small moth or spider wandered in through screenless windows, and disappeared back out. I chose this particular place with its saltwater smells, islands and ships, the horizon (when not covered by low, smoke-gray clouds) ringed with irregular ridges of mountains blocking my view. I still expected definite edges of things – flat blue sky meeting flat yellow land, a long, unbroken horizontal out there that the rest of this was hiding.

In the forest I had no horizon but only the trail under my feet and tree silence. The forest whispered a private conversation that had been going on much longer than I could imagine. The trees seemed to murmur that if I kept moving, they would let me pass. Then, to my left, through a scrim of pine branches, the tower came into sight. It glowered over the path, an unnatural thing ascending from the undergrowth. A turn in the trail took me to a flat place, gray gravelled, where the lookout tower’s timber legs were anchored. A flicking, mechanical sound stopped my approach.

A man stood at the base of the tower, lighting a cigarette. I caught the sharp burning scent of tobacco before he saw me, turned his red face toward me, startled but blank.

A loose mist-gray pack hung on his back, weighted only at the bottom. He was tall and slender, and he had combed several long strands of hair over his forehead. His eyes were large and flat, a color I couldn’t detect. I was too far away to tell. He dragged on his cigarette and then moved off the concrete pad where the ascent to the tower began. Back home, we would have been expected to say hello, exchange a word or two about the weather, the view, the hike up to this point.

And everything in me knew that speaking to him was the wrong thing to do. I’ve read Flannery O’Conner, Joyce Carol Oates, the Brothers Grimm. In place of a smile, I bared my teeth at him, fear stretching my mouth, the one so used to politeness. It was my intention to go up the tower. The whole morning had been about finding the road in, following it up, walking through the forest and finally climbing the broad wooden steps to see the view from the top, a height that somehow promised it would show me the place I sought – a receding plane of land meeting a bigger sky.

The landscape we grow up with shapes our expectations. In Kansas, the tallest things are wind turbines and airport control towers. Neither needs to be very tall because it is unnecessary to rise above or clear anything in order to see or catch the wind. In the countryside where few trees grow, you can watch someone coming for miles and miles, the shimmering dot getting larger and larger until you see separate legs, the color of a shirt. After a snow once, in a town paralyzed by cold and ice, a friend and I decided to set out for each other’s houses to meet in the middle and share a thermos of hot chocolate. We waved at each other for blocks and blocks and blocks. I could see her coming toward me for at least fifteen minutes, both of us crunching into the silence of the snowy street.

This new landscape has its own rules, and I did not yet know them. In a sort of slow motion dance, I moved toward the tower as the man moved away, a bubble of distance between our bodies maintained by my wary approach and his languorous withdrawal. I began the climb, asking myself what I was doing at each level, stupidity or a lifetime of safety or something else pushing me forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him disappear down the trail the way I had come. The interior monologue I had been having, a narration of each moment as it happened, shifted and now sounded like my mother’s voice telling me don’t be so silly, so fearful, so dramatic. I paused at treetop level, looked out at the canopy a little closer to the sunlight screened by the dense trunks and branches. I rested my arms on the broad wooden timber and breathed.

A silent movement below and he reappeared, heading toward the tower. Slowly as he had left, he entered again the broad gravel and concrete place that surrounded the structure. He did not look up. He was still smoking that cigarette. From above, his forehead and eyes – eyes that I imagined had seen things I had never pictured for myself, flat eyes with flat lids – were all I could see of him.

That, and the top of his head with the strands of hair parted and placed over it, his florid skin between each piece. Out from the center of my chest and without my consent, I felt my life fly over the tips of the trees and straight on toward the sea. It did not feel like my breath going, but that went, too, I realized as I tried to inhale.

He disappeared beneath the tower where I couldn’t see him, and I waited, still.

Men who are supposed to save us arrive differently. In tales, they dash in, assess the danger. They act decisively, swiftly. Sometimes they ask us to put our dainty feet into impractical shoes, or to let down our hair. I kept mine in its knot, did not lean out to look down, tried to make myself silent as trees.

A minute – or an hour – later, he passed out from under the tower toward a small trail leading into the woods on the left. Half of me watched him turn into the shade of the path. My body turned toward the stairs and continued to climb. Three more flights and I landed under the roof, looking out to the ocean, almost the same view I had from my apartment window, this one partly obscured by taller trees to the left: trees below, a disc of ocean, masts of sailboats tiny as eyelashes moored at the distant marina. On the log ledge where I rested my arms was chalked one long line in capital letters: LONG WAY DOWN.

And long way out. The horizontal I had traveled away from my son might have been continents. I was by myself up there, within a cell phone’s call of no one near, no one who could do anything to save me. And it was my son I pined for then, the way his birth had rooted me, uncentered me, sent me to this moment far away from him and yearning toward a view of the old horizon so I could tell myself he was still close.

In the story I was telling myself, I imagined the man was waiting on the trail. I pictured the weight in his pack as a gun, and the silence of taking its smooth metal heaviness from the soft fabric bag. The stairs were narrow and my feet found each one on the way down and along each step of the trail – the same one I had used to come up to the tower, the one he had abandoned – each step carrying its load of flesh, its burden of blood and breath.

In the shower that night, my shoulders and arms soapy, my hair wet against my neck, I wanted my life back. I called to it through the open window, but the empty place in my chest felt like nightmare, like violence, every single thing I thought was mine abducted, flown. How easily I gave it, that thing I had forgotten I carried.

Read Lori Brack’s bio »