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James Was Here

July 18, 1993|ELIZABETH TALLENT | Elizabeth Tallent wrote "James Was Here," she says, because she was "really interested in that sense of American maleness connected to the West and with the prerogatives of maleness that are no longer right. It matters that 'James' takes place in Santa Fe; it's not New York City." Tallent, who teaches English and writing at UC Davis, moved to Northern California four years ago and now lives in Little River near Mendocino. Her third collection of stories, "Honey," which includes "James," will be out in November from Knopf. "It's very much New Mexico, about the nature of intrusion," she says. "I was thinking a lot about boundaries and metaphors for that. It's about relationships, about people who were immigrants and about really adult compromises."

IT GETS JAMES OUT OF BED IN THE BARELY-THERE LIGHT: He's going to carry a gun. He can remember, in a dream, careening down a red dirt road with the grass on both sides on fire-- dream ? Nightmar e , James (in Gwen's voice, which he still uses for talking to himself; no use wondering when that will change). Nightmare , he agrees, and detailed down to the oily wobble in the air over the flaring, vanishing grass, the ash wafting into the pickup cab, sst ing tiny holes in his sleeve. Still, it's hard to blame a dream for craziness persisting now that he's more or less awake, more or less himself, gazing at himself, the bathroom radiator cold as stone, radiating distilled nightlong cold like a stone. He runs an estimating hand over his face. He hugs himself, breathing his tensed arms up and down and feeling his heart beat. His reflection gazes back--not for the first time disenchanted, but in danger now of giving way to a darker response, to despair that could flash backward and forward through his life and find no hope, none, for James.

In the bedroom he asks aloud, "This is what you want?" trying to cook a little warmth into the gun with his two hands--it's that small, his hands fold around it, clamshell, pearl--but its iciness is radiant against the small of his back, the barrel nosed down into the waistband of his Levi's, and he keeps imagining his vertebrae as complex vapor in an X-ray, the bullet a malign black smudge. Smudge because, in flesh, it would wear the aura of its own fragments. James the X-ray tech, one of his briefer-lived jobs, strapped a fighting, wincing kid to a papoose board, the kid howling for mom, and the kid's pictures came back with numerous greenstick fractures in various stages of healing plus that night's broken collarbone. Unbuckling the kid, leaning in to be heard over his crying, James said, "I can talk to her." Mom was waiting in the hallway, having a smoke. James took the cigarette from her fingers, ground it out and told her startled gaze, "You can't touch him again like that ever. Hear me?" Yes, she nodded. James caught her jaw between his palms. His thumbs pushed her lower lip slightly upward; she gave it a helpless lick that inadvertently wet his thumbs, and she was listening, she was listening but she told anyway. "I've been wanting to do this," his supervisor said, and fired James. The small of the back doesn't gooseflesh at the gun's cold though the nape of the neck is all rubbed-wrong, prickling suspense. The body makes unexpected connections and is honest. It's afraid for him.

He tries the gun in his old leather jacket: a fit--he can slip his hand in, close it around the grip, and the leather blunts the shape enough that it could be his fist, jammed down hard, James in a mood. With his left fist in his left pocket for symmetry, and by keeping his shoulders conscientiously even, he can make this work, though the composition overall's a little aggrieved or aggressive, maybe--impatient, but people have compelling reasons for not looking hard at the impatient, unshaven and mysteriously pissed-off, the kind of passerby his father used to call going nowhere fast before ruffling James' hair to mean, Not you, never you. They'd conducted a steady, furtive trade in reassurance, that long-ago father and son, but James failed his part, leaving his father unconsoled, troubled by troubles over James' head, while James himself intuited from the nature and vehemence of his father's reassurance where his father's fears for him lay, exactly. James gets closer to the closet-door mirror, wondering if this can be true, that someone (that he) can carry a gun and not have it scream gun ! The jacket's hang is handsome with innocence. The cast of his cheekbone is grave when James tries a three-quarters profile; his eyes are lit. He thinks wildly, I look good.

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