My fortieth year was spent taking care of my ex-husband’s dogs. They were mine, too, and the year after I’d left him, he’d left California for Mexico to learn Spanish. Before and after work, I was home, and the two dogs tethered me. The three of us lived in a condo in very suburban Irvine, California – the yard somewhat overgrown—when I came home one summer evening to find them fighting over a tree rat that they’d pulled down from the bougainvillea. As I opened the door, the minor drama unfolded fast enough that I never dropped my purse or keys. I reached for the shovel behind the house. And I hated to kill it. But there it was: a large rat being tugged apart by two hunting dogs.
At the Roswell Gun Club, Coy and I drive down the dirt road in search of an open bay to set up steel targets and shoot pistols. It’s Sunday. Coy slows and points. Over there, they were saying at the last meeting that there might be something living in there. A family of foxes? As he points, a fox climbs out of its hole. When he does, I see, behind, others – a network—that have been dug. The fox stretches, yawns and scratches behind his big triangle ear. And then he wanders our direction and squats to pee. We sit in the truck, idling, and survey him; he sits down and does the same. And when he’s watched us long enough, he turns and slinks back to bed.
In a recent interview with her publishers, Sandro and Sandra Ferri, and their daughter, Eva, in The Paris Review, the novelist Elena Ferrante was asked if she wrote down her dreams. Ferrante claims that, though it’s rare for her to remember dreams, she does and recommends the process: “To subject a dream experience to the logic of the waking state is an extreme test of writing” and “putting into words the truth of a gesture, a feeling, a flow of events without domesticating it, is also an operation that’s not as simple as you’d think.”
I think of the first forty years of my life as having been mostly sedentary. I see myself at a desk or on a couch or lawn chair, tanning in the backyard. Sitting in a coffee shop or a classroom or car for hours’ long commutes on Los Angeles freeways to teach. You’d find me talking and nodding. Refusing to speak in some situations. Unable to stop in others. Wanting to hide and fold my body down and in. Get small. Smaller than that. In the earliest years, I failed first at soccer (they said I ran away from the ball). And then violin (they listened and said I could quit). And then drill team, where I liked the counting, march and file; I was just one in line with the rest. At some point, later, getting words on paper felt like another way to stay low and not move.
One exception to this was becoming obsessed with aerobics in high school. My geometry teacher, feeling sorry for me, dragged me to an exercise class and for long beach rides on strand cruisers. We pedaled and coasted from Redondo to Venice beach – eighteen miles. I don’t know if she had a sense of what she was doing: if she understood that she was taking my mind off proving what I could not. Because I was small, people mistook my body for a gymnast’s. Did I dance? Could I do a cartwheel? By sixteen, I’d taken dance once and couldn’t touch my toes.
Montaigne begins his essay “On the Inconstancy of our Actions” with this: “Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed the aerobics. My sister remembers that, around that time, I would watch TV and work my calves by pointing and flexing my toes or do arm raises. I stopped exercising altogether not long after because I felt worse when I missed a day than if I’d gone to class. At the same time, I’d begun to write, and then wrote at the expense of anything else. I sat at my mother’s bench facing the backyard, larger than our nine hundred square foot house. For hours, unbothered by what weighed me. Floating. Outside, red-headed parakeets made a racket. The sun slipped through the trees and beyond the falling-down wood fence.
Let the gun surprise you. Beyond how to hold and where to point and how to stay safe, the directive terrified me. Guns shouldn’t surprise anyone. Especially me with a pistol in my hand. But we were shooting at a gun range in Roswell, New Mexico, at steel targets with high berms behind and separating the bays where individuals practice or local police train or where competitors participate, like Coy has done for years, in marksmanship matches. Let the trigger surprise you. I stand, focus, and pull back. I see a dust-cloud lift off the berm. I shoot again. Dirt. Again. Dirt.
Eileen Poole was a psychic nutritionist in Los Angeles of some renown that my mother took me to see when I was nineteen. My mother was and still is a practicing Catholic friendly to Buddhism, the stars, and other sensible and peaceful ways of being. Ms. Poole was known among celebrities and in L.A. for her diets – in particular, a broth she routinely recommended –and her intuitive consultation. I didn’t think it strange that my mother took us to Mass on Sunday and also to a nutritionist who used psychometry.
Newly single at thirty-nine, I’d taken my first yoga class at a small studio in Irvine, California. Six months later, I moved over to a larger studio with more classes and then began to find classes in Los Angeles, San Diego and anywhere I would travel. It was a turning point; it delivered a kind of movement and making and I had not remembered or I’d kept down. But what was there now to make? It wasn’t children. I hadn’t gone that path and now it was behind.
This pistol destroys unless it’s pointed at a steel target. I don’t fool myself into thinking otherwise. My whole body is behind the gun and no one who breathes is in front of me. Everything that matters stands back.
It may not seem athletic to get up on a Saturday morning, drive-thru at Starbucks, and go to an outdoor gun range to shoot pistols. But it is. I stand up. My feet hold me steady. I feel my shoulders near my ears at first. I lean forward toward the front of my feet. Well, that’s no good. So, I slide my shoulders back over my hips. I round at the top of my spine like I might during yoga practicing crow pose, and there I find my belly. Now I’m standing up straight. I listen for my steady breath.
A lathe cuts. Whatever gets cut is held and turned against the tool being used to shape or create: the barrel of a pistol, wood, a vinyl record. These cuts can be read inside to outside. Shallow to deep. Flat to edges and corners. What seemed impossibly plain is rendered creviced and particular.
Ms. Poole took my cheap watch and held it. She created a menu: circled and checked items. She glanced up, said you do not need any stimulants, and continued writing. My diet included rye, oat bran and no wheat. Eggs sometimes. Bananas rarely. Butter was okay, but only half a pat. I’d later have amnesia about her admonition: alternating cigarette and coffee breaks in graduate school. Before she finished, she left me with this: you need to keep your creativity in your head. I wasn’t sure what she meant. I didn’t think of my body as creative. And I wasn’t using it to make anything.
Is the shooter ready? In competition, this is the question one is asked before the stage begins. I look down. Holstered pistol. Safety on. Locked. Yes. I bring my hand down. He starts the clock. I hate the clock, but it’s okay; I’m competing against myself. I can’t lose. I draw, switch off the safety, line up the sights.
I shoot a Browning 1935 High Power, sometimes referred to as HP-35. This pistol has undergone several iterations since its initial design by John Browning in the 1920’s. Browning died before the gun was finished, but it would be named after him by Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian gun manufacturer that produced it in the 1930’s. This version is a Mark III, introduced with variations in 1988. And the pistol I use was made and issued in 1991. But other details make this pistol even more unique. Some years ago, Coy sent this Browning HP-35 to Jim Garthwaite, a renowned pistolsmith, to work on. It’s known as a Garthwaite pistol, too.
Montaigne: “We are fashioned out of oddments put together—‘voluptatem contemnunt, in dolore sunt molliores; gloriam negligunt, franguntur infamia’ [they despise pleasure but are rather weak in pain; they are indifferent to glory, but are broken by disgrace]*– and we wish to win honor under false flags. Virtue wants to be pursued for her own sake; if we borrow her mask for some other purpose then she quickly rips it off our faces.”
I paid attention to my breath as I learned to shoot.
There is less space toward the record’s center to fit the same amount of information, and the linear velocity in the grooves toward the middle is much slower, which means frequency response can also be different near the end. You’ve got less space for sound waves, and both higher frequencies and high volume mean there might be challenges. You might account for this by choosing a quieter song. That song can be a transition, too, to the record’s second side. An end or a shift toward quiet.
In Light on Yoga, in a section devoted to pranayama, B.K.S. Iyengar explains that “loma” means hair and that the particle “vi” is used to denote negation. Viloma, a kind of breathing practice, can be translated to mean “against the hair, against the grain, against the natural order of things.” In Viloma pranayama, in fact, the breath is interrupted. If it’s natural to inhale and exhale without pause, the practitioner purposefully holds and interrupts on the inhale (Viloma I) or the exhale (Viloma II). With the emphasis on exhalation, one would inhale fully, exhale a bit, hold, and continue until the exhale is complete.
This was the breathing I began to use when shooting. I found that, if Coy were standing with the clock behind or if more than one person was watching, my breath would become shallow and I would shoot poorly. I’d returned to this breathing to become aware, to obtain a better sense of who was doing what.
What was my body doing now? Whose gun was in my hand?
What I lacked in flexibility, I discovered in strength.
When Ferrante is asked in the interview what she means by “domesticating the truth,” she answers: “taking overused expressive paths.” The interviewer presses Ferrante to elaborate; “betraying the story out of laziness, out of acquiescence, out of convenience, out of fear. It’s always easy to reduce a story to clichés for mass consumption.”
There are dreams that stay with us all day. Or the kinds that make us feel we’ve done what we’ve, in dreams, done or said. Or the ones we don’t want to admit to mostly because we know that dreams are dreams, and it feels ridiculous to talk about them when their narratives don’t add up. I was on another planet; I don’t know its name, and then we were in the kitchen, but it wasn’t ours. I was yelling at you, but it wasn’t you. Suddenly she turned into another person, my sister, but it didn’t look like my sister. And then we were on an island with turtles. And then the dog was locked in the car, and someone set that car on fire. I couldn’t find the key.
What’s so odd always about dreams is their transitions or the lack of them even in those that are seemingly narrative. What Ferrante also gets at when she says it’s good to put dreams to writing is that one is forced to do one’s best to work a transition that makes sense. And transitions, well, they can help get closer to a truth. Wouldn’t it be easy instead to say that we were one day leaving on a ship out of Port of Los Angeles and then suddenly we were married forty years?
To lift and see my hands. To see my elbows in a headstand. There went the earth, pressed down. There I went, up from what was dragging me.
What would Iyengar have thought to hear someone talk about pranayama and pistols? Whatever similarities I imagine between the two might make me an irresponsible yoga practitioner who has unwrapped what little she’s gleaned and perverted it for her own use.
But competitive marksmen are not strangers to breath control. In series of questions I asked Julia Watson, a national champion service rifle marksman, we discussed breathing techniques. Recognized as a distinguished competitor for the Marine Corps, Watson became, in 2014, one of four women who are recognized as double distinguished in both pistol and rifle competitions.
Though Watson has not practiced yoga – beyond trying a video her mother had many years ago—she discussed the use of a respiratory pause, “in order to have increased stability,” and said that, in rapid fire stages, she uses a fast breath: “quick partial inhale and corresponding exhale” just after a shot is fired. The breath creates, according to Watson, “a good cadence.” For slow fire, she takes one to two breaths slowly and then stops with about three fourths released on exhale. This, she claims, is “where I am looking for the exact amount of air in my lungs for each shot so as not to change my sight placement as far as elevation.”
Though I don’t shoot competitively, Watson’s description of her practice makes sense. I imagine shooting as a prime opportunity for awareness, for presence and breath. I’ve got ear protection; I hear even better my throat’s small hiss. That other times – often – people point guns at animals or other people is something about which I have to be acutely aware.
And yet the story of my life that I tell can be like a dream in which I’m not obligated to provide the transitions and spaces between telling the kinds of events people like to share. Telling without domesticating the truth would be providing the connections that make me look worse or disclosing those rocky efforts of mine to be someone other than myself or to do something other than what I do.
I was married for ten years and then I was single again for six won’t cover it.
I don’t know who it would help (besides me) though to say that, in hindsight, I spent about four of those six years involved in relationships with persons only tangentially and more focused on seduction.
Like the fox in La Fontaine’s fable “The Crow and the Fox,” which shows up second in the sequence of fables. The crow is in a tree and a fox, below, sees the crow has something in his beak, cheese, that the fox wants. The fox – for something so small that he absolutely knows will not satiate him – goes to great lengths to get the cheese. He tells the crow he’s beautiful and coaxes him to prove his voice is as lovely as his shiny black feathers. The crow, of course, can’t resist and opens his beak. The fox has, well, very little, but it was something that the crow would not have given unless asked.
In cutting, you might also get mistracking – on the inside grooves – when the record fails to read or follow the track itself. From the Oxford English Dictionary, the 1975 example of usage for “mistracking” – which, by the way, entered into the dictionary in 1973, during vinyl records’ heyday – comes from Gordon John King’s The Audio Handbook and reads: “[m]istracking is said to occur when the stylus tip fails to communicate accurately with the modulation recorded on the walls of the groove. The effect is a sharp rise in harmonic and intermodulation distortion.” A mastering engineer is able to account for these shortfalls, limitations, and possibilities in vinyl and to reproduce sound by cutting directly into acetate.
Keep your creativity in your head. I’d done that.
But finding yoga made me remember that I could move. At the acrobat’s studio, I showed up for my first lesson. It would be my only lesson. In the high-ceilinged room tucked down beyond her house in Redlands, California, she wanted first to know why. It’s not like I was bound for the circus. I want to balance, I told her; help my body be good at something. I wasn’t thinking that I could not hang onto the silks. I wasn’t thinking that I could not be suspended without falling.
Could what I make my body do be a way to learn what I’d like my heart and head to do? At the acrobat’s house, I told myself tiger stand. On my arms, hands splayed, I held myself up and could bring myself down.
That summer I tried rock climbing to see if I liked it. I rode a horse. Two years later, I got on a bicycle after almost thirty years of refusing to ride. I pedaled and pedaled until I could not anymore.
And then I learned to shoot.
One of our first outings together was a trip to the gun range in Roswell. A Saturday. It was spring and we were out early in order to miss winds that rise up in afternoons that time of year. Looping the belt through the waist of my jeans. Wrapping the holster over the belt. Learning from Coy where to place my thumbs, how to wrap my fingers. How to remove the pistol from its holster. How to replace it. I wasn’t any good at shooting that first day, but I loved it.
Moving and doing takes language away from me. And the crow couldn’t sing while balancing in the tree and holding his morsel of cheese.
Pushed to force whatever relationships I could. I believed, even, that they were happening naturally. And then I realized I would be alone no matter what and stopped chasing. Soon after that, I was married again.
Or, in another narrative that ran alongside, this: I wrote poems and then gave up and started writing sentences. What felt condensed within and around me needed to be more like Christmas lights, with their spacing, and strung out into a truth. No shortcuts. Plugged in. Lit up.
During the year with the dogs, my sister called and asked if she could come and stay a few days. Any time you want, I’d said. A week later she called to say she was coming that evening; she and her husband had split up, and she was moving in. So there we were, two youngish women, newly single, with two unruly hunting dogs we tried to walk on leashes in Newport’s Back Bay where they pointed and wanted to flush Great Blue Herons.
Weeks later our grandfather, Jimmy, would die in Las Vegas at 92 years old. We hopped in my sister’s car like we were going to gamble for the weekend. We raced to make the service and never thought to check the weather – a crazy, winter wind – but passed more than one big rig, jackknifed on the highway. In Vegas, we pulled into the mortuary where my mother had assembled smashed cupcakes she’d bought at the supermarket. At the service, women crowded the pews, crying tears for my grandfather who’d ice-skated until eighty-eight and then broken his leg (no doubt also the hearts of women who liked to dance with him). There’d been less ballroom dancing in those final years.
We let the record play until its scratchy lead-out grooves.
In my early thirties, family-friends, who lived nearby in San Pedro, cornered me at a party we’d hosted. They’d read one of my essays and wanted to know if I was okay. Of course, I said. I wasn’t, but I didn’t yet know it. I would. And before that, both of them would be dead. One by suicide and the other to cancer not long after. I remembered, when I mourned them, their worry.
From his truck, Coy took photographs of the fox. I cropped and lightened them to see better the animal who’d been watching us, but they were blurry; we’d been too far. Still, I had the shape, and I went looking to find out what kind of fox we’d seen. I compared our grainy photo to images online. Shape was wrong for a Gray Fox. Color was wrong for a Red Fox. I emailed our photos to the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game and hoped somebody would reply. Within a few hours, the mammalogist and others answered. Could be a Swift Fox. Could be a Kit Fox. Tell us more, they said. I shared the story of the sighting at the gun club.
In November, I talk with Jim Garthwaite where he operates his one-man shop – Jim Garthwaite, Pistolsmith, Inc – in Pennsylvania. Garthwaite specializes in modifications to Browning High Power pistols, and he’s been in business alone since 1977. Modifications one might make: the grip, barrel, trigger, safety, frame, sights and finishing. And within those areas, there are various amendments. Much of the work required is skilled machine and lathe work, with changes both slow and small.
Jim Garthwaite can tell I don’t know much about pistols except that I have learned to shoot on one of his. About the way he got started, he tells me that he always liked hunting and was always mechanically inclined. How he came to be a premier pistolsmith for individuals, police and military is downplayed. What comes out, as he talks about the people with whom he works, is responsibility. His sense of wanting to know, as he insists, how an individual wears a pistol (he reminds me that one does not carry it) helps him to understand how modifications might be best made. And because someone has to wear and use a pistol in her line of work (we’re now not talking about someone like me shooting steel targets). Garthwaite’s appropriately heavy sense of responsibility to see the functionality of the pistol is foremost.
I ask if his work is craft, or art, or skill; he concedes it might be all. To have Garthwaite modify your pistol, you’d need to send it off to him and be prepared not to see it for a while. Coy recalls that he waited a year for his pistol to be finished. Garthwaite tells me he rarely does a single modification anymore – for instance, if someone wants the trigger worked on – and that he now really only does complete customization. Customization for one pistol takes between twenty and thirty hours of labor “and they aren’t done until they’re done.”
For the third time in a week, Coy leads me to the kitchen and draws on the whiteboard. He tries to convey, in terms of amplitude and frequency, what it means for a record to be cut. His drawings remind me of how I ran from math classes. He draws waves, talks about compression, certain instruments, pitch and volume. Let’s just go listen to some records, I say.
I won’t dismiss how records are made. But I feel about records as I do about pistols; I don’t know how the pieces are made or assembled, what labor and waiting and machines and numbers constituted the steps that would eventually make it function, make it what it is and does. What I know is that a pistolsmith has made the gun that I shoot something sure to do what it does. Not unlike the way a master engineer cuts the record so that it will play without pops and cracks and without the hint of warp, or sluggishness or speed.
The Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis) and the Swift Fox (Vulpes velox) inhabit the east part of Chaves County and the Roswell area. James Stuart, mammalogist for the state of New Mexico, tells me that Roswell is in a “hybrid zone” where these two foxes aren’t considered separate breeds; the two interbreed in this region where grasslands mix with shrublands. Looking at my photograph, he says that the location (the desolate berm on the range) might be more typical of a Kit Fox, but that the fox might also have Swift Fox in him. In fact, because of the West Texas and Eastern New Mexico hybrid zone, those foxes in this area are referred to as Vulpes velox macrotis and Vulpes velox velox.
The last song on a record lets you know you’re near the end. Or in the middle. Is it possible to tell the difference between the end and midway?
What happens in the break between the two sides?
It never matters on digital recordings, but you can still hear it: a lull or pause. If it were a poem, caesura. If it were a sentence, a period for the second side, but maybe a colon for the first. Finality. Some last tracks can be memorable. “I Shot the Sheriff” on 461 Ocean Boulevard; Eric Clapton in his understated version of Bob Marley’s powerful piece. Joni Mitchell’s “Twisted” on Court and Spark: they used to laugh at me when I refused to ride on all those double decker buses, all because there was no driver on the top (there weren’t no driver on the top). Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” on Hounds of Love. “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness” on Ruth Brown’s Blues on Broadway. Whatever these songs are, they’re meant for the finish.
I’m worried about the fox in his burrowed den. Will he be shot? Coy says that can’t happen, that it’s illegal to shoot animals on the range. I ask about the regulations, and he looks them up. He’s surprised to find that there is nothing that clearly says an animal (or bird) can’t be killed on the range. But we find, second among the “general range rules,” this: SHOOT ONLY AT AUTHORIZED TARGETS. It’s there, but not as I’d hoped. I was looking for something more like don’t shoot the wildlife! We decide this counts as something that will ensure the foxes’ safety.
Let the gun go off in your hands. It sounds awful and I resist the direction. I realize that I used to think of pistols like this. They go off. Coy is trying to get me to calm down enough to do what’s right in handling the gun and shoot as well as I’m able. Coy will drop the tailgate on his 1991 Ford F-250 so we can work at the edge, and I load the magazine with six bullets. Sometimes, while I’m talking, though, Coy will load the magazines and hand them back to me. You’re ready to go, he says. I will start to shoot. Dirt. Ping. Ping. Ping. Dust Cloud. Zilch. Let the gun surprise you, he says. Are you flinching? He’ll ask again. I pull the trigger one last time with the knowledge I’ve got six bullets. Coy’s loaded five. I hear the soft click – see the length of my arm running down toward the gun that drops slightly and rises back up – and I know I’ve flinched; it’s obvious. Coy’s standing back: What happened? He knows and will test me every time out. He’ll tell me that I’ve gotten to know the gun instead of looking at the sights.
Moving without thinking. And who wants to do that?
Coy and I get along well when we are listening to records or shooting pistols. Here I load the bullets into the magazine and count. Here he lowers the stylus slowly onto the LP. I pick up the empty brass from the chalky ground when we’re done; he carries the targets and lifts them back into the truck. I pull records from the shelves and line them up against the living room wall in the order I want to hear them. The shape of shooting and of listening to records feels kyphotic and connected to yearning. There’s something next; we lean toward it.
The foxes had denned in the shooting bay. Folks drove in, parked and practiced pistol-shooting at paper or steel targets and caused tremendous noise. The gun club is only open dawn to dusk and foxes – luckily — are nocturnal. Still, it was hard to imagine their slumber lasting through the blasts.
A family of foxes living at the gun range. Noisy when they sleep. Empty at night when they wake and slink between chicken silhouettes and grassland, between leftover brass and empty shotgun shells. The oddness of being in the line of fire and comfortably housed in the berm. Curled up.
Oscar Peterson and Stephane Grapelli conclude their collaboration and recording with Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves.” If the violin had a human voice, we’d know this was the side’s end because of the language: Falling. All. Leaves. My darling. Fall. When. In this case, the notes do plenty.
Ferrante’s exercise to write down the dream – that thing that resists, sometimes, narrative – and tell the story to work against the easy “domestication” of the truth holds up just as well in telling what happens in waking hours and over years. The story I tell about how I was quiet and waiting and then took up yoga and learned to shoot, for instance. Like a fairy tale, it’s transformation without the real dirt of transitions, the grinding through – that makes us turn away from or toward anything. How easy to say some shifts are like dream; we give up any notion of how we ended up here. On the day I met him in February, Coy asked if I liked Mozart and then we were married by August. But that’s again the lazy way, the cliché-path, the route that lets you feel good. The harder story is something other.
The quiet, inside-work that one does to tell that story, to unravel the path matters. Do I need to make that version public? Is it enough to get myself to pry it out and hear it? Like the very brief friendship I had with a woman. It happened that one day she kept talking long after I’d said I had to hang up; maybe she didn’t hear me, but I knew then we would never be friends. Still I took her to dinner in the city one Saturday and, when she asked if she should kiss me, I said sure.
Like the inside grooves on a record, the quiet song is packed full.
What could be easier than this kind of bind? The acrobat takes the aerial ribbon, splits it into two violet strips; she shows me how she wraps it over her foot, a delicate sky-shoe. I watch her glide sideways and upside down. Hanging, she widens her face into a circus-smile.
If your identity is hidden, you go about your night and life unnoticed. Would it be easier to cheat on the truth of a story – fiction or nonfiction — if no one can attach your name to it? You would sleep in the easy-dream without its transitions and you would still wake into a life where transitions stretch out, hurt a bit, and asked to be explained.
In a letter to her editors and which accompanied Elena Ferrante’s first book in 1991, Ferrante laid out the conditions and guidelines for her eventual publication. In it, she talked famously of books’ need for no authors. And without going into the peculiar and longstanding questions of what anonymity might grant or deny a writer, Ferrante makes a good case for the fact that the books she loves have “no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child… True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.”
How foxy of them. Safest place to make a life at night. To hide their long tails, their big ears, and their appetite a ways off from the rest of us. To thrive out of our view.
I like the notion that a masterpiece or treasure of a story might be a “sort of nighttime miracle,” because it implies that it also happens out of sight, in secret, and without the perceived labor that may have brought it forth. No one is whining about that novel that needs to be revised or the story-pages being unfinished. Or the good idea to make that coffee-table picture-book. Someone is just – without anyone’s knowledge – crafting, getting a backache from staying put in the chair to write and revise, and then cleaning off the desk when guests arrive. Asking them if they would like a glass of wine or tea. Offering nothing but conversation about a good film or the weather.
It’s legal to trap and hunt foxes – furbearers – in New Mexico between November and March of each year. One needs a license and, according to state guidelines, foxes can be “taken with firearms, bows and arrows, crossbows, traps and snares.” I don’t have to read much about traps and snares to know that it would be more humane to shoot a fox. They’re taken for their fur or because those with animals feel that they are protecting the creatures they care for. But Swift and Kit foxes are omnivores and they are likely first to eat rabbits and rodents and grasshoppers and beetles than whatever a landowner thinks he’s protecting.
I imagine the last of the pick-up trucks leaves the gun range and the sun is down; the fox appears from his den into the stillness where there’s an occasional click of his claws on the brass that’s been there so long that it’s molded into ground.
Montaigne: “We are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and so shapelessly that each one of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people. ‘Magnam rem puta unum hominem agere’ [Let me convince you that it is a hard task to be always the same man.]”**
When did I decide that I no longer would talk to the friend of twenty years? It didn’t have to do with him asking me to do something he should never have asked. It had more to do with the fact that I sought a way to accommodate his request. Not his problem, really. But I could not undo that fawning help I provided, which outweighed his mistake in asking. I couldn’t, after that, turn back to a brighter, earlier impression of him. Would telling this story in greater detail – with the physical landscape of both our errors – be easier for me if you didn’t know my name?
One day my sister and I came home to find the two hunting dogs down on their front legs and sniffing in front of a small hall closet that held a vacuum and a broom. And then we smelled it, too. We’d grown up in a house built in 1926 where the crawlspace beneath the wood floor was enough for a possum family or skunk. But here we were in a condo with concrete floors and I didn’t want to think – flashback to the dogfight over the rat – about what had crawled into the walls and died there. I told my sister it was probably a mouse. Smallish.
But, before sleep, I imagined the sun going down on the house’s backside, the rat moving from the bougainvillea and then to the palm tree. And then to the house . And then to the thin opening I dreamed up somewhere near the garage. He’d gotten in there. Had wandered over and down and into the smallest wall-space. Too small to go back. I called someone to come and remove whatever had died, but I was told the wall would have to be demolished. They suggested I wait. And I did, and things changed again.
This was how the decade that’s ending started. From sedentary to seeing the trapeze not so far out of reach. From words to a mudra to a pistol. From a long car-commute to dancing in my living room. From sitting in a corner trying to swallow to reaching for a shovel and heaving it overhead. From thinking about something that had not yet happened to noticing the length of my arms and legs. From being the crow’s fox to being the kind of fox that would live on a gun range because, there, he might be able to do what he does. From a way of seeing to finding the breath to say how it was.
I learned not to hang on tight because rats would turn up and need to be finished and then seen, because funerals and grief – its hanging-in-the-air stench – for what was gone would take more space than romantic heartbreak and deliberation. Raced to the funeral. Made sure the cupcakes were sad. Pushed a towel against the base of the door. Waited it out. Or got the shovel. Stopped the game. Finished the rat. Threw it in the trash. Felt sorry. Gave the dogs a bath and hoped they wouldn’t die from the poison some motherfucker set out in his own yard and which had slowed the rat down enough for the dogs to reach it from a low tree-branch or enough to crawl down into the comfort of a warm wall and not want to find a way out.
I remember, now, how who I was that day was the rat and the poisoner and the retriever and the sleeper. How what has happened in between could make me always all of them.
The Elena Ferrante interview discussed here appeared in The Paris Review: “Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228,” Interviewed by Sandro and Sandra Ferri (Spring 2015, No. 212).
The passage related to Elena Ferrante’s publishing guidelines and desires appeared in an article by James Wood, “Women on the Verge: The Fiction of Elena Ferrante,” in the Books Section of The New Yorker, January 21, 2013 issue.
The Montaigne essay, “On The Inconstancy of Our Actions” quoted extensively here comes from Michele de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, translated by M.A. Screech and published by Penguin Books (London 2003). And within these passages, Montaigne quotes others, referenced here:
*Cicero, De officiis, I, xxi, 71.
**Seneca, Epist. Moral., CXX, 22. And this footnote contains an explanation by Screech on the translation: “In the following sentence, ‘ambition’, as often, means inordinate ambition; so too covetousness (‘avarice’ in the French original) means an inordinate desire to obtain, and retain, not only wealth but honour: its sense is close to that of inordinate ambition. Montaigne holds that bad motives can produce admirable qualities.” (p380)
The fable of “The Fox and the Crow” appears in both Aesop and La Fontaine, and, though both essentially are the same, they contain nuances; the latter variation is being referenced here.
The discussion about Viloma Pranayama comes from B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (pages 455 and 456), Schocken Books (New York 1979).
The interview with Jim Garthwaite was conducted by phone in November 2015
The interview with MSgt. Julia Watson was conducted online in May 2014.