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Ryan Allen


            Today, the breeze billows from ocean to bay, building to a slow crescendo as it crosses Empire and glides toward Tarheel Lane until it reaches our little yellow house, until it blows into our opened windows, circles the room from right to left, so swift you can see it in shifting towels hanging on the racks, in the wrinkling plastic bags crinkling on the floor and counter.  I can see it travel to me, to my face, carrying smells of salt and sand, shell-fished crabs and clams; can feel it moving through me, fast and cold, a chill from last year or the coming winter old; can feel it carry past me, out the screened window down the gravel road back to the Bay, back to the ocean and on to Hawaii, to Japan, across the Russian Steppes, the Mariana Trench, to Boston, to Chicago, to the Midwestern Plains, to Nebraska hills, to Iowa corn and soy, to South Dakota sunflowers, to Spirit Mound, to Vermillion, to thoughts of where I last called home.
            Somehow I’m stuck between these places: between the Camp Tall Trees and Otter Creek Park of my childhood and the Louisville, Kentucky of my birth; between a Hull, Massachusetts fall and a Colebrook, Connecticut winter; between a Freedom, New Hampshire friend who became a Freedom, New Hampshire lover; between the Badlands and the Black Hills; between the Tetons and Jackson Hole, between mountain passes, between trout in the Wind River and trout in the Salmon River, between a rainbow in Lake Ethel and a cutthroat in Grizzly Bear, between Victor and Ketchum, between an Ernest Hemingway alive and an Ernest Hemingway shot dead and the grave marking the spot; between blades of granny smith green grass and morning dew and Idaho’s Mountains of the Moon, and the eye of a Sunkist yellow-orange sunset light sagging on the horizon, slowly blinking, slowly, navel orange, quietly, a pink lady, delicately, a red delicious, erasing the day.
           Standing now in a different place, in an altogether different landscape, where the colors of ocean and sky fix my view, where the smell of salt has supplanted the cattle farm on the I-29S Vermillion, South Dakota-Sioux City, Iowa corridor, where the specter of corn and soybean as far as the eye can see transfix my imagination, I know now what is lost—that which was once a home isn’t a home any longer; so that when I next return I will be just a guest, a stranger passing through, a traveler in transit, on a layover, there just for a sleepover, trying to work off a hangover, a brief sojourn, stopping over to say goodbye before I can remember to say hello. 
           Like when I try to return to Louisville, to Otter Creek Park, to Camp—only the branches remain.  The roots, the rest, are scattered across the fifty states, from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Puget Sound, from the Florida panhandle to the Florida Keys, from the Gulf of Mexico to Redondo Beach in LA, from Harney Peak and Mount Washington to the Grand Canyon to Sun Valley, spread, like peanut butter on bread, not even, but still spread across this great expanse of mountains, plains, roads lined with automobiles, planes filled with people wishing they’d taken trains, four-wheelers dreaming of two-wheelers fearing eighteen wheelers barely able see me, my branches, spread across the center striped-white lines, vast, but lacking a center. 
           In our silver-gold 2001 4-Wheel Drive Toyota Highlander Limited Edition, I carry them all, all my branches, at least the ones that’ll fit, tucked away in suitcases, bundled up in plastic grocery bags, stuffed into coolers with wheels, hiding underneath seats.  I carry my first Louisville Slugger wooden baseball bat, my leather Rawlings baseball glove and ball.  I carry Siddhartha, Petersen’s Guide to Western Birds, and a subscription to Playboy.  I carry burnt cd’s, mix cd’s, and a Bill Monroe Bean Blossom cassette.  I carry bills, an ever-increasing student loan debt, a sense of entitlement, snow-pants, a sweater, and camping gear.  I carry two pictures: one of my wife on our wedding day and the other a group shot from a backpacking trip with my friends.  The digital camera carries others: a Greg Brown and Boondocks show in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; a three-toed woodpecker in the palm of my hand in the Black Hills; the shadow of my back-cast fly-fishing on the Gravant; it carries too a shot of Hemingway’s grave in Ketchum, the bottles of scotch scattered across it, strewn amongst the nickels and dimes and quarters and pennies and the two things I placed there: a batting cage token and a brown caddis fly. 
           What is left of Ernest Hemingway I remember thinking, whatever it is, some of it is beneath me.  Standing first, then sitting at his feet, staring beneath three evergreen trees at his name, “Ernest Hemingway,” his years alive on this earth, July 21, 1899 to July 2, 1961, underneath this ground, how long do you have to be dead, I wondered, before rebirth
           Maybe I was just being optimistic.
Sitting there, though, drinking bourbon at the foot of Hemingway’s grave, beneath the triangle-three evergreen trees, staring at this name, those years, the stripped-down bareness of prose on that stone, I allowed myself to imagine that it was my name,  my years, my stone, my body immortalized with golden baseball tokens for free batting practice in heaven, for safe passage from Charon across the Styx, for Mark Twain down the Mississippi, for the Palace Brothers across the muddy Ohio; my grave the wishing well for lost souls yearning, searching, hoping to have my help, what happened to all those wishes, I thought; with bottles of Jim Beam so I’m never thirsty, with my loved ones buried close by, my friends and my family, like Papa’s Mary, his Jack, his Dr. Gregory: all the things I’ll need in the afterlife. 
           I try to find his eyes but nearly fifty years and a six foot piece of granite sits between us—I see only the shadows reflected from the three evergreens.  Can a wish here to Papa make all your dreams come true? I think I remember thinking this: that it could be the fountain of youth, or a kind of Faust with a Mephistopheles, or a blues-player at the crossroads, or a questing knight holding the chalice of Christ.  I think I wondered why his flat gravestone didn’t read, “Survived but was Killed by Multiple Wars, Multiple Marriages, Multiple Stories and Novels, the War Within.”  It doesn’t really matter.  It is what it is.  It says what it says.  There’s no slow motion.  No instant replay.  No rewind button.  Perhaps it’s unfair to try to redo history, to remake movies, to rewrite books. 
            Or maybe I just don’t have the talent to make headlines.
           Standing there, in the shadow of the three evergreens, I would’ve thought I’d have asked for some of his powers: in fishing first, in writing second.  Standing there, though, I couldn’t do it.  It all seemed so hokey, so phony, so fake.  Like I was doing just what every other poor bastard wannabe writer was doing who came to this site.  Like it could rub off or something.  Like there was smoke from his cigarette seeping through soil, sifting through wood or metal and dirt and rock, filtering up through that concrete slab up into my nose into my brain and by some miracle of divine inspiration back down to my fingers, down do the computer keys, so that I can somehow understand that war is hell, love’s a bitch, fishing’s fun, and good friends are hard to come by. 
            I don’t need Ernest Hemingway for that.
It’s hard to know.  Hard to say what I need.  To understand where I am.  At the Ketchum cemetery, looking out from this vantage point I can see that Highway 75 is rolling by with streaming SUV’s whizzing by the multitude of graves; I can recognize that there’s a golf course and huge multi-million dollar vacation homes fitty yards from the Hemingway Memorial, but he is gone.  His books remain but they are not him.  Ink and paper and plastic last longer than we do.  We have the power to build machines to outlive us.  Why then, can’t I fix myself?  Why can’t I regain the inertia that keeps me grounded in this place?  Why can’t I recapture the energy that compelled me here? 
           Looking about, I see that mountains remain.  Streams and rivers too.  Books, in time, will lose their ink.  Pictures turn brown and yellow with time.  Memories, once crystalline, once clear, blur and congeal until they disperse and spread like pollen in wind across the grass.  Pictures: motions in still-life—how long will the images last—the memory of images?  How long before only the memory of those memories are gone?  Are all those who travel lost?
            So much, I know,  is gone forever from my mind: scenes from my childhood, only glimpses remain—my dad rescuing me from drowning in the Eastern Kentucky University swimming pool; escaping a kidnapper when I was five and ran away from home; my mom holding onto me when I almost flew out of The Racer rollercoaster at Kings Island in Cincinnati; my oldest brother throwing me inside the house to avoid getting stung by a giant bumblebee that then nailed him between the eyes; my friends and I tipping our canoe in the middle of the Ohio River when we were in the fifth grade.  So much of the rest, though, is lost.  For some moments no picture remains, no picture can tell, which helps to explain my internal drive to capture as much of Vermillion, of South Dakota, of Sioux City as possible before I left.  To somehow hold onto the Plains, knowing, all good and too well, I was about to lose them—about to watch foreground transform into background, from close-up to wide-angle view to out of view altogether.  Somehow knew that the statuary off the Burbank/Elk Point exit, the concrete gorillas, the turquoise Statue of Liberty, the old 1950s beater for sale in the middle of a cornfield, would escape my mind.  That that subtle mixture of greens and golds and yellows coalescing around Exit 15 on I29, that the redwing blackbird always waiting, perched only for me on the Burbank Road/319 intersection in between Vermillion and Sioux City would be gone or that he would now be waiting there for someone else.  Somehow knew that when we emptied our house on Elm Street it would be the end of something.  That when the last box left, when the bathtub and sink and toilet were scrubbed it would be over.  That four years spent making friends, establishing relationships, personal and professional, could be washed away with water, scoured with bristles, scrubbed away with old rags, sanitized with bleach.
           The thought humbles me.
            So much of me, I know, did not want to go.  Didn’t want to leave all the colors you can see on the Plains—the way the sun reflects at different times of the day.  Didn’t want to leave a boundless horizon—a place where you can watch a thunderstorm unravel and travel to you from an hour away.   Didn’t want to leave Jazz Nights on Tuesday’s at Open Mike’s.  Didn’t want to leave hikes and tobacco offerings to Spirit Mound.  Didn’t want to leave spinner fishing in the Vermillion River or carp hunting on the Burbank.  Didn’t want to stop dancing at the Poison Stream shows at the Eagles club.  Didn’t want to walk away from the band. 
           So I memorized every sign, the distance between towns, between Elk Point/Burbank and Vermillion, between Dakota Dunes and Sgt. Floyd, between the cattle farm stench to the KMEG television station, between the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City to Famous Dave’s and the Ronald McDonald House by my mother-in-law’s.  The racecar track, the farmhouses, the barns, the sheds, Hamilton Boulevard, Wesley Parkway, Bomgaars, Whimps, Burbank Feeders, cylinders, towers, curves in the road, carp fishing, the path of the Vermillion River—it’s all too much for me to handle, too much to consider what is lost.  It overwhelms my senses, my sense of direction, my sense of time, my place in the universe, my role in the game, my plot in the story, my place on the map. 
           Even now, I’m stuck in between worlds, somewhere in a triangle with four points, between Coos Bay and North Bend and Empire and Charleston.  I know I’m in Oregon.  Between Bonk & Bonk Private Investigators and the Kilkich Reservation.  Off my deck, through some evergreens, some shrubs and some bushes, a river, maybe a slough or a reservoir I have not yet explored.  I know the ocean is near because I smell it at all times.
           This world, so far removed from the other.  So far, it seems, it’s difficult to move with it.

            Here, on the coast, the world is governed by tides.  Time now is measured by how long it takes to catch my legal limit of clams.  To get at the big ones, the Gapers and Empires, you’ve got to be willing to get wet.  You have to be willing to dig, to stick your entire arm down a hole in the sand underneath the water to feel for and grab at an outstretched slimy neck.  It’s possible, though, that when you find one here, you will find many, sometimes dozens, as wide as small dish plates, some as big as Frisbees, wider than dinner plates, bunched beside each other in beds. 
On a low tide, you can walk out barefoot on the sand left exposed by the retreated water, and with the soles of your feet feel for Cochyl clams hunkered-in a couple of inches deep in the sand.  Granted, these aren’t as big as the others, but the joy is in the process, in the means that make the end.  It’s when you take your rubber boots off, when you put your shovel down, when you leave your keys and your cell phone and your wallet in the glove compartment of your car parked down the road that you are ready—ready to feel the subtle curves and sharp edges with your heel, ready to dodge broken shells, to grip sand, to slip stone with your toes, ready to stand beneath the shadow of a drawbridge, next to gigantic discarded oyster shells, across from the grove of trees where homeless people sleep, ready to feel your feet sink with each step, like in quicksand minus the quick—each step, the sound of a suction cup, a vacuum sucking up debris, each step, the sensory search for something round, something whole, something firm, something that feels like the top of a ribbed racquetball.  What you find with the feel of your feet you reach in the foot or two of water and dig out with your hand.  Some Cochyls are whiter, some more brown, some more black, others more red, most often some measured mixture of the four. 
           The meat you hunt with your hands and feet—the sweetest meat of all.  
           And what the ocean exposes at low tide, it hides at high.  And underneath this water, I’m growing convinced, is a crazier and far stranger world than we ever could conceive up here.  What goes on inside the ocean, I wonder, when it rains up hereCan fish feel the thunder, can they sense the lightningDo the pressures of life above translate to barometric pressure below?  Rumi once said, “Fish don’t hold the sacred liquid in cups.  They swim the huge fluid freedom.”  What do we have up here to compare with that?  What purpose is an individual in a school of yellow-fin?  What kinds of currents are there for us to ride in on?  Where are the waves to bring us to shore?
           Certainly one thing comes to shore with the tide: the crabs.  At least it brings them closer to the docks you can stand on; closer to the spot where you can launch circular rings into the water, two of them, bound together in mesh with rubber bait bags filled with clams or mussels or fresh tuna heads and bodies otherwise discarded by fish cutters at the end of the docks on the piers who love to talk about their disdain for sea lions, fishing commercial, fishing private, boats, tourism, places to eat, places to fish, and where to get the best mussels to use as bait for crabs. 
           The crabs, mostly Dungeness in this area, it seems, are in limitless supply.  They said the same thing though about sardines in Monterey in Steinbeck’s time.  At least enough to feed my family—my family of two perpetually growing—growing every time we go somewhere else.  Family growing to mean so much more than mere blood—expanding to mean the people we meet along the way, the landscapes we encounter on the road, off the road, down the dirt road, up ahead, around the bend, just over the hill, coming off, down the mountain.  The fish are here, for sure.  But they are in the Atlantic.  They are in the Pacific, in the Columbia, the Snake, the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio River of my youth. 
           What’s happening outside, I’m growing to see, is what’s happening within.  The circle turns, the wheel spins, moons wane and wax, tides rise and fall, and fish and people and mosquitoes and bacteria and viruses and strings and quarks and neutrons and grape soda and the Dixie Chicks all exist simultaneously on only this planet.  Who can tell what is going on everywhere else—all those places we can’t see, the visions we haven’t yet had, the dreams not yet dreamed? 
           I can’t tell, but I’m looking.  What else do we have to fall back on?  There’s a line in a Ryan Adams song which says, “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”  We can’t change the past even if that’s where we’re always looking.  The good ole days are over.  They can’t be returned.  The receipt’s been lost, the expiration date has expired, the warranty’s run out, the milk has spoiled, there’s mold on the strawberries, the old medicine doesn’t work anymore.  Not now, at least. Not here.

           Mere miles away, though, despite a long history of logging, there are a sea of evergreens, in sharp-fine contrast, as many colors of green as there are blues in the ocean.  The trees are still here.  A lima bean, a recently plucked green string bean, a granny smith apple, a sour apple BlowPop, an old dirty dollar bill, an army fatigue, an olive green, a drab, an unripe yellow squash green, a zucchini green, a black-eye green, a gangrene—they are all here, in patterned concert, in some vast design, growing straight, lining narrow, growing on sides of hills, kitchen tables for dining birds, chirping sparrows, crows, and turkey vultures and bald eagles flying overhead—all one could need to survive in the world is around me: colors, smells, visions, a Wal-Mart, 7 Eleven’s with old-school slushy machines.  We’ll make it here.  We’ll survive.  In time, I’m realistic enough to know, we might even thrive. 
           But there’s something to be said about the places we’ve been, the places we’ve lived, the place we just left.  Vermtown.  Vermillion: the sound is soothing when it rolls off my tongue.  Friends, family, teachers, wind, and Plains.  It’s like the Mastercard commercial—Priceless.  Everything else can be bought and sold with an extended line of credit 0% down 25% prime after six months.  In a swipe and go world I’ve come find there’s very little hard currency left. 

            It’s been said that home is the place you are welcome when no one else in the world will take you.  In an inhospitable world, in an uncultivated civilization, where greed and the thirst for advantage rule the day, it is comforting to know it is what it is; it is hopeful to recognize that what will be will be, and that in the middle we can make some choices; we can find some balance.  We can know and be confident that Face Rock on Bandon Beach is older than us.  We can be sure that there is more to the tides and the moon than we ever before conceived.  We can say for certain that those are blackberry bushes growing wild on the side of your house, that this river does flow just beyond the green of your backyard.
            I felt these things.  Parts of me, still.  The other parts are moving, though; shifting gears on hills; changing clothes with seasons, traveling with weather, swimming with tides.  For now, I’ll put a light jacket on.  Outside, I can hear the wind blowing.