This story originally appeared in Better Culture & Lit. Burrow has collected it for John Henry Fleming’s story collection SONGS FOR THE DEAF.
His father was a disgraced steamboat pilot with a knack for grounding boats and destroying docks, his mother the thin-lipped illegitimate daughter of a beefy prostitute. When the midwife handed him over, she waited six hours in the parlor room to be paid, her queries up the decrepit stairs returned only by the newborn’s trembling squalls. Decades later, old and infirm, she still made the joke she had the rights to him. By then, no one remembered who she was talking about.
The town never gave him a chance. His father’s reputation would prevent him from getting decent work; his mother’s would prevent him from associating with quality families or courting a decent girl. Broke and restless, he left home at sixteen.
He’d taken an interest in banjo and hoped to make a living in St. Louis, picking old tunes for bar crowds. But the saloons there weren’t interested in hick banjo players or sentimental hick songs. They preferred half-naked women who could blow a flute while jiggling their breasts—skills he didn’t have.
He rode a train westward, having heard of fortunes made in San Francisco, but his train got held up outside Ellsworth, Kansas, and he was taken hostage by a band of cutthroats some say was the James Gang. Pleased with their take, the gang’s leader offered him a hundred bucks for his troubles. When he declined, knowing the worth of a thing tainted, the gang leader shot him in the foot for his ingratitude.
The story of his capture made him a hero in Ellsworth. A judge up for re-election offered him a clerk’s position, saying that a young man with his kind of experience was worth a hundred Harvard grads. He took the job, intending to resume his journey to San Francisco as soon as his foot healed. The foot was treated by a doctor with a reputation for cutting corners to get back to his drinking; the procedure left him with a permanent limp.
The judge won his first re-election but lost the next, and then it turned out that a man worth a hundred Harvard grads was not even employable to clean livery stalls. He hopped aboard the same westbound train that had once been held up outside Ellsworth. This time the train was held up outside Reno. One of the robbers had been a member of the gang who’d taken him hostage previously. This man recognized him and took him hostage again, for old times’ sake.
That night, sitting beside a campfire, he made the mistake of telling his captors his life story so far, including the few years he’d spent clerking for the judge in Ellsworth. He’d had some setbacks, he said, but now he was sure he’d find his worth in this world. One of the gang members—a different one—had had a brother sentenced to death by that judge in Ellsworth. The robbers took a vote and decided to kill their hostage. It was clear from his story that they’d get no money anyway if they held him for ransom. They threw a rope over a tree limb, slipped a noose around his neck, and declared themselves agents of divine retribution.
As it turned out, their drinking skills were much better than their engineering skills. When a couple of them tried to yank him up from the ground, he bent one knee, gagged a bit, and before long had them convinced he was dead. When they released the rope, he let himself go limp and crumple to the dirt. As soon as they returned to the campfire, he stood up in the darkness and left. Who knows what the gang thought the next morning? They were all killed in a shoot-out with the feds.
As he walked across the Nevada desert rubbing his rope-burnt neck, San Francisco seemed the answer to all his worldly wants. There’d be fresh drinking water. Food, too. And when he’d had his fill of those, there’d be women, whom he’d very much like to know better.
For several months he wandered generally westward and up into the mountains, occasionally circling back when delirium overcame him. He survived on rodents, hunting at dusk and using his quick feet to step on their tails. His beard grew long, his clothes tattered. His lips swelled and cracked, and dried animal blood spotted his cheeks and nose. This is the condition in which a young widow discovered him one October morning, some six months after the night her husband disappeared and three months after she’d begun calling herself a young widow.
She found this hairy apparition a fine example of the American Yeti, whom she’d taken to studying in her widowhood. She called it “studying” in her head, but since there were no books on the fabled creature—at least none available to a lone woman in a remote sierra cabin—the studying amounted to hours of thinking—about his appearance, his origins, his eating habits, his mating habits. The latter she’d taken an especial interest in, as flashes of exotic, musty couplings warmed her lonesome hours. The fantasy Other, as she came to think of him, grew hairier and dirtier and less verbal in her thoughts, and when his big, rough hands grabbed her naked hips in dreams, their animal grunts filled her starry nights in chorus.
So when the stranger walked out of the trees that cool afternoon, naked, stooped, grunting, she did not reach for her gun. She tore open her dress instead.
At first, she found it merely curious that he could talk; this fact forced her to re-examine her Yeti thought-studies. Then other little things began to bother her, like when she cleaned him up in the cold mountain stream he didn’t look nearly so bestial—only pale and undernourished. When she tried to discourage him from bathing he did it himself anyway, which made his skin almost womanly smooth and his scent almost floral. And when in the glade she displayed her rump for mating in Yeti fashion, he told her, with disturbing intelligibility, that he preferred the bed in the cabin, and wouldn’t she, too, like to get cleaned up a little?
Her zealous embrace of brutehood had yanked him back to his own neglected humanity. He awoke as if from a dream, remembering his visions of San Francisco and the journey that lay ahead. He told her he was sorry, that it was his fault he’d lost his taste for raw meat and open-air sexual commerce.
Then what the hell good are you? she wanted to know.
He didn’t know how to respond. When he left, she set fire to the cabin and roamed the woods naked, preying on small beasts and hunting for a less adulterated specimen of her fantasy Other. One night, she stalked and attacked several pioneer families. Mistaken for a wildcat, she was shot and killed.
His yearning for San Francisco again pulled him westward. High in the sierras, having yet to stumble upon a wagon trail or footpath, he trekked over sharp terrain. He developed a set of climbing skills that would one day be the envy of freestyle mountaineers everywhere and he began, at the top of each mountain, to challenge himself to climb the tallest peak in sight. In this manner, he zigzagged through the mountains, almost certainly becoming the first man to climb all the high peaks in California in his thickly calloused bare feet.
There were sightings. Other travelers would look up from the dusty wagon trail and spy a distant, man-shaped figure high on a snowy peak. Two competing superstitions arose among the pioneers: for some, his appearance meant easy times; for others, hard. The easy-timers saw him and forged ahead even against bad weather. The hard-timers turned back and wintered in Reno, or else gave up their journeys altogether. Prayed to and cursed, unaware of his growing status down below, he climbed onward until at last the mountains gave up and he descended into a rich, golden valley.
Upon closer inspection, the valley looked to be covered in dead grass. What sort of disaster had befallen California? Had this plague, stretching as far as the eye could see in three directions and contained only by the high mountains at his back, propagated outward from his beloved San Francisco? Had one of the huge sailing ships laden with worldly riches also contained a pestilential stowaway with an appetite for American greenery? He stopped at the edge of the field and listened for the hum of locusts. He sniffed for foul air. When a handful of magpies appeared and descended upon an unseen carcass in the grass, he took it as a sign and turned around, intent on warning travelers of the awful calamity.
His joints began to ache. His youth seemed behind him.
He came upon a two-track trail and followed it east until he met up with a pair of wagons. The wagons carried a Mormon family hoping to settle in California. The patriarch, Hosea Loblolly, explained over a cup of warm coffee that they’d been harassed by feds in Utah who’d begun arresting polygamists. There’d been shots exchanged, and one of Hosea’s wives had been mortally wounded. She’d died en route. Would he like to view her?
He followed Hosea around to the back of the second wagon. Hosea swished a mouthful of coffee and spat it out, as if to cleanse his tongue. He pulled open the curtains to reveal a girl of not more than thirteen, her chin turned down and to the side, the saddest expression he’d ever seen stamped indelibly onto her face. Her skin had darkened and she’d begun to decompose in the heat. Though the smell was nearly unbearable, neither said anything. Hosea waved the flies off her.
“I aimed to raise her up with my good deeds,” said Hosea. “She died too soon. Now I feel the responsibility to bear her mortal remains until I’ve redeemed us both with an act of grace. May her soul rest in everlasting peace on the right side of God.” Both turned away.
The face of the girl had nearly erased the sight of the long, dead valley. “I’ve seen something,” he said, remembering. He told Hosea about the shocking plague that had murdered California, including, he assumed, the golden city of San Francisco. He encouraged Hosea to turn back before the plague found its way into the mountains and killed them too.
Hosea stared at him a long moment before turning his eyes westward at the mountains. He chewed repeatedly on his bottom lip like he was trying to roll it into a cigarette. “Well,” he said, “there’d be some grace to it.”
Hosea shook his hand, reloaded his family in one wagon, climbed into the driver’s seat of the other—the one with the dead girl—and resumed his westward journey.
The dead girl’s face would stick with him as fare for the journey he’d never take.
Back in Reno, he wanted more than anything to rest in a woman’s arms, and the women at the Dalton Ranch were happy to oblige—until they discovered he had no money. Johnny Dalton, whose privates had long ago been crushed by a cuckolded brickmaker, kept the ranch running primarily for the opportunities afforded him by occasions like this. He and a pair of assistants pummeled the penniless john to the threshold of death. Then they let him recover in the back room until he was ready for another pummeling. When they finally left him face down in the street, a cart rolled over his already broken legs.
Having set aside a little money after skimming Johnny’s profits, Nessie Torino, one of the older women at the Dalton, took the opportunity to retire and nurse the beaten john back to health, seeing in him a glimmer of hope beyond the rigid transactional constraints of her professional life. She rented a couple of clean rooms above the post office and attended his needs for several months. He didn’t walk well after his beating, and his face was permanently scarred and asymmetrical due to the broken cheek. He whistled when he breathed. The upside was that his old gunshot limp didn’t matter so much anymore.
She supported them both for a time, having landed a position sorting mail at the post office below, whose postmaster had been a regular client for years. When Johnny Dalton got wind of it, he accused her of disloyalty and threatened the postmaster and anyone else who hired her. The postmaster reasoned that the town was not generous enough to suffer two men who whistled with each breath. He had a connection in San Francisco where, he told Nessie, they were more open-minded about professional women.
Up in their rooms, she resorted to all her professional tricks to try to convince him to come along. He considered her offer. He considered it some more.
But every time he re-imagined the journey (tougher now, with his broken body), he stopped short at the dead valley. No, he didn’t think he could walk across that, even though both Nessie and the postmaster assured him the valley had greened up again, as it did each spring, and San Francisco was never better. But he couldn’t imagine it. Even if they reached San Francisco, the city would be different now. In his thoughts, at least, its golden days were past.
She cried when she left, and he did too, once she was out of sight.
He took her job at the post office, which for some reason insulted Johnny Dalton much less. After a few months, he’d saved enough for a ticket back to Ellsworth, where he’d once felt comfortable and well-liked.
When he arrived, no one remembered him, and he was too modest to recount his escape many years ago from the cutthroat gang of train robbers, which had faded from popular memory in any case. He had no desirable physical skills now that his body was broken, and what he’d learned in his years with the judge was now either forgotten or obsolete.
He hopped a freight car bound for St. Louis.
There he found a nostalgic wave had swept the saloons, owing to a recent cholera outbreak. All the old tunes he used to play on the banjo as a young man could be heard up and down the riverfront each night.
His broken appearance and especially his whistling breath earned him enough sympathy to panhandle change for a beat-up banjo. By the time he approached bar owners for an audition, the nostalgia wave had passed in all but the seediest establishments. One of those establishments offered him a three-night-a-week gig in exchange for two bits and two free beers.
He hadn’t considered that his hands had aged along with the rest of him. They tired quickly, and he had to take a rest every twenty minutes. This irked the bar owner, who threatened him with firing and then with bodily harm. Knowing he wouldn’t last long, he began selling his beers half-price to the other customers, and he was able, before he was finally discovered and shoved into the street with a broken banjo, to save up a small reserve which he thought of, with a newfound sense of irony, as his nestegg. The ironic thought led to an earnest plan, and he decided after all these years to return to his hometown.
He didn’t want to spend his money on a boat ticket, and there were no trains running between St. Louis and his hometown, so he walked. For the first three days, he wasn’t sure he’d make it. His legs were so tired, and movement so painful, he rested more often than not. His labored, whistling breaths raised flocks of geese a hundred yards through the trees. Tired and numb, he worked himself into a slow, stumbling rhythm and arrived in town a walking corpse.
He’d assumed his parents were dead, and he was right. He’d also assumed, and was right, that his siblings, like himself, had scattered away to escape the family reputation. So why had he returned? There was a woman he wanted to check on. He stood before her tiny house at the far end of town, away from the river. He wasn’t sure if she’d still remember him, or if she still lived in this same house, or if she was even alive, but if he waited much longer he’d never make it up to her door.
He knocked, and it took her five minutes to shuffle over and pull the door open. They stood looking at each other. She was much smaller than he remembered. Her long black curtain of hair had thinned and blanched, her cheeks sagged like dough, and she smelled like household dust. Her pale lips had stretched to a small but permanent grin. And he could see in her clear dark eyes that she remembered him.
He took the last of his money out of his pocket and handed it to her, payment for her services long ago. He felt the little squall of relief that comes with having nothing.
The midwife counted the money twice and nodded, then lifted the corners of her lips just barely and in a high, thin whisper spoke the words he’d been waiting for. “I always said you’d amount to something.”