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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."

Harry receives two more dollars, then refigures the constellation of James' change on glass, his left hand sheltering the coins he's entitled to. James loathes that hand, balanced feyly on its fingertips like some big crab, its digits cumbered by turquoise, its back turbulently veined. He loathes that hand as if Harry lives in that hand, as if the peaceably mean bulk straining at the cowboy shirt, the wattled, corded throat are an afterthought and the hand alone true Harry. Wow , James thinks, Tina's word, Tina's tone of startled homage to what it's possible to feel, and then Harry confounds hate. Harry says kindly, "I remember when they were pennies, those mints: Used to steal the pennies, I'm afraid, from my mama's purse."

James tells Harry, "She probably knew."

Harry shakes his head, unself-forgiving and back to mean, blinking, wondering what's keeping James.

James resists opening the pack, feeding himself candy instead. The taste of peppermint pales from his tongue as he drives north for 30 minutes, passing Tina's road but hardly wondering how she is, instead wondering how Gwen is, breaking, so early in the day breaking, his rule that this day can be no different, because he's going to act on that wondering, the oncoming headlights a dazzlement undimmed by rain, he's going to go see, the junipers holding fast with bonsai cleverness to the small eroding hillsides, the arroyos rushing knee-deep and resonant. Even before the rain's over, a high altitude rainbow fades in, in the northeast, a trembly smear of gold and blue-violet, nothing steady about it, not one of the far-flung, surreally stable rainbows that can stop traffic along this highway after storms. On the dashboard are the small stones his daughter collects, one from each place they go together.

The red dust, with its matte, unnatural dryness, like sodden baby powder, takes boot prints graphic as the finest evidence, and James fights the heavy gate closed on its rusted hinges, securing the lock behind him while his truck idles its own ragged fog of exhaust. He remembers--not consciously, but up from below, in reflexes--the shifts and dodges of this skiddy three-quarters of a mile, the road from last night's dream, though he wishes he didn't suddenly understand that or have to wonder what it means. He can't remember sleeping, only needing to sleep, only pitching his paperback thriller at the wall, 3 a.m., and, 4 a.m., having to get up to get it. A low-level glitter hangs in the ricegrass, in the chamisa and black greasewood--drops the size of orange seeds, maybe, but caught by the light, though clouds insure that the sun's no brighter than a moon, a big moon rolling in and out of visibility. No Volvo, no smoke from either chimney, nobody home, and if his rule for today is broken, it's not smashed into irretrievable pieces as it would have been if she were home, a risk he ran without arguing it through with himself, without any little counter-self urging \o7 James, wait. \f7 The fact that no such counter-self roused itself to contest his impulse is weirdly lonely: He doesn't want to believe he's alone with the gun.

James wanders around the house, giving the front door a rattle in passing, turning corners for the clicks of recognition that build toward the five senses' very favorite consolation, maybe, in the world--being back, being home again, because this is \o7 it\f7 for James, the one and only place. Whether he likes it or not, he's rejoicing. Small birds flash up before him, and then with nowhere to go, wing around overhead, hoping he's not staying long, recognizing the unusual, the break in the house's routine of daylong abandonment, dewed foxtails swatting James' knees and slipping apart in a trail, tamped-down grass behind him, the post-rain fragrances manifold and earthy, muddy, grassy, airy. This small house lives alone on its pale sandstone ridge in such a fastness of pale, abandoned ridges that the scale of the inhuman is lunar here--even litter is touching, like litter on the moon, companionable. James kicks at a tin can rusted to oxblood. This is Spanish land-grant land, and the title to this place is worth \o7 nada\f7 , or they'd have tried buying it. The laundry gusting on the line behind the house is Levi's in five ages of blue, and at her long-leggedness his heart beats faster. The back door he rehung to stop snow fanning in across the threshold is locked, and the key's no longer hidden under the cat's water dish. James fishes a drowned wasp from the dust-skinned water, a favor to a cat he doesn't like.

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