Excerpt

“Traveler Home”

Jonathan Lethem

February 24, 2016 
The following is from Jonathan Lethem's story collection, Lucky Alan, out now in paperback. Lethem is the bestselling author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, Chronic City and Motherless Brooklyn, and of the essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence. A MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and The New York Times, among other publications.

1.

Traveler waking. Journey begins. No dreams this night. Bags packed before sunset, sink emptied, alarm rings, Traveler hits snooze, thinks snooze-lose, lies awake instead, lingering for second alarm. Quandary of toothbrush solved, laid on briefcase for ease of notforgetting. Haunted angle in morning light, toothbrush a sundial suggesting. New direction in morning light. No path more ideal than any other given. Night’s snow fallen, obliterated traces. Shovel itself buried. Car in plowed mound, couldn’t specify where. Drive to resume in spring’s melting. Needs speak with Plowman, demand Plowman present a bull. Snowball’s chance. Confrontation delayed, striding up path hopeless. Arrive baked items in hand if possible. Hardly so. Plowman’s house itself irretrievable. Cars tumbled in clotted curb’s-cake, ridged ice walls visible from space, satellite’s eye. Path glimpsed no more lately. Plowman growing hydroponic greenhouse food, relying solely on Plowman’s powers, plow’s battery and headlamps undying. Plowman homeschooling Plowman’s beautiful daughters. Seven dark-haired, order of height. Out of sight, in mind. Traveler alone. Traveler pining. Traveler waking, turns out dreaming. Lost tickets. Automatic coffee. Toothbrush unfound. Angle of daylight. Snows grows. Snows lose. Missing shoes. Mossy rooted path. Bridge fallen. Asteroid shower. Traveler waking. Double dreaming. Dream shakes off, a second skin, dog’s wet fur. Alarm furious, astounded interval between first waking and five-minute snoozed. Traveler showering. Toothbrush foamed. Thermos brimful. Journey underway.

 

2.

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Traveler sits watching television alone. Not alone, with Terrier. Huddled on sofa with Terrier in dark house, furnace beneath floorboards rumbling, outside snow falling again. Remote on couch handy. Traveler’s flat-screen plasma television, hulking presence, only glow in warm-dark house in white-dark night. Terrier watching too, head cocked at motion, throaty growl at anything remotely ratlike, shadows skulking to edges of screen. Terrier who has never caught any actual rat. Satellite dish provides Traveler with five hundred channels, at least in name, though dozens are fallow, wastes of pay-per-view, cooking, sports, cartoons. Still, forty or fifty channels of films, only a handful of those with commercials. Traveler tonight watches Insomnia, tale of weary detective, unsleeping, trudging through barren noon-lit landscapes in killer’s pursuit. Traveler feels déjà vu, has perhaps seen this film or another like it, remake or sequel. Nonetheless trudges as detective trudges through story, camaraderie of sleepless. Night long-fallen everywhere, windows less-frequently lit by passing headlamps, now only yellow siren-flashing flow of Plowman passing. In this, his small-town country life, Traveler has learned his few scattered neighbors keep a newborn’s hours, asleep at first dark, six, seven o’clock, rising at five, even four. Traveler long accustomed now to keeping his city’s hours, habit impossible of breaking, possibly the sole waking presence in a hundred-mile radius. Traveler and Plowman, on a night like this. Plowman scraping road, high in steaming plow’s cab, watching funnels of volcanic white swirl in headlamps through widescreen of windshield. Traveler shudders.

As if snow outside invading, Traveler’s screen begins defecting, digital freezing, slurry of staticky white pixels corrupting shots of insomniac detective. Traveler ignores until he can’t, as picture worsens, glitching story line irretrievably. Traveler sighs. Time’s come as he suspected. Satellite dish outside caked, icicles shredding signal, white stuff needs bumping off. Not the first time. Terrier needs decanting anyhow. This duty preeminent, regularly dragging Traveler outside cave of warmth, into snowfall, needs of Terrier for an earth patch to perfume. Traveler dons coat, knee boots, gloves. Terrier at door trepidatious understanding. Traveler gathers kitchen broom for knocking off accumulation from dish, freeing of signal, resumption of movie. No reason Traveler and Terrier can’t be back on couch in minutes. So, outside, into the howl. Traveler tucking Terrier under arm, a protected football. Practically impossible in this height of snowfall for Terrier to find a place to squat. Find an evergreen with snow-sheltered interior, bed of cones barely dusted, best hope. Preferable to carry dog seeking ideal spot. Otherwise Terrier’s low belly beads with icicles, Terrier runs discouraged frozen yelping for porch. Trial and error, Traveler now carries Terrier.

Satellite dish first. Traveler trudges hip-deep in drifts at the side of the house. Raises broom into swirl, rattles ice on heaped dish, scoops snow from concavity. Icicles clatter to shards deep in snowbank. Dish freed, adequate. Through own window like yeti peeper, Traveler spots lit screen, image rescued. Distant stratospheric signal unblocked from local occlusion of particles. Unfathomable mysteries of science best ignored. Sleepless detective restored oblivious to malfunctional interlude. Empty rooms equally oblivious, carrying on without. Now only remains the Terrier’s peeing, then inside, cleave to warmth, boots-puddle melting by vent. Traveler carries dog and broom across open margin of yard, high-fall of snow, into the trees, where canopy offers Terrier possibilities.

Traveler had in warmer months begun carving path back into woods, labor of unfamiliar intimacy with saplings, wood saws, mammoth treetop clippers. Pushing through woods, foot by foot, toward rendezvous with path already established, deep in trees, running behind all their houses invisible. Known locally as “Drunkard’s Path,” ribald suggestion of shitfaced farmers sneaking home concealed from judgmental porch-views. No sense how much farther to reach this older path, Traveler had simply gone on clipping, chopping, making his own mark. Provides place for Terrier to defecate anyhow. Tonight path’s a white tunnel, trees large and small draped silent, cone of moonlit intensity. Traveler sets Terrier down in relative shallow, waits. Terrier alerts, snarls. Traveler looks. Ahead on path now, arrayed in woods, seven wolves. Teeth bared, snarling too, ready. The always feared. Traveler’s seen animals here, sure, mostly prey, deer, bunnies. Nobody from this place would call them bunnies but he can’t think of another word. Once a fox, harmlessly decorative. Eagles overhead sometimes turning, as if with Terrier in sights. Locals joke he’d best keep Terrier inside. Keep close, city dog. Now here they’ve come, the deeper locals. Patrolling for drunkards maybe, but they’ll take what they get. Traveler thinking always danger to Terrier, never to himself. Is broom enough to fend them? Then sees basket.

Wolf now emerging from back of group, padding in white path, basket in jaws. Others part to allow this passing. Terrier still growling low in throat, wolves unimpressed. Traveler cranes to look in basket. A baby there, human animal faintly squalling.

 

 

From LUCKY ALAN. Used with permission of Vintage. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Lethem.




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