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Автор Forrest Gander

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Forrest Gander

The Trace

for Karin Gander

“This isn’t a road. They said we’d find Tonaya on the other side of the ridge. But we’ve gone way past that ridge.”

— Juan Rulfo, “Can’t You Hear the Dogs?”

one

La Esmeralda, Mexico

She knocked on the bathroom door.

“Can I come in to shower?”

“En el trono,” he called out. “Give me a couple minutes.”

He was just reaching for the roll of toilet paper on the floor when something happened. A reverberating collision and a seasick feeling at once. The toilet quivered under his thighs as the walls rattled and the front door — it must be the front door — cracked, splintering as though a tree had crashed through it, but there were no trees in the yard. He began to rise from the toilet into something awful, into a new sound, into the rising decibels of the woman screaming from the living room. Bent over, still reaching for his pants, he knew there would not be enough time to pull them up. He was aware of every facet of the bathroom then, as though he had been studying it for escape routes for months. The canary-yellow plastic curtain drawn halfway across the tub. The rusted showerhead releasing its slow, incurable drip. The colorless bath mat with its frayed, dirty edge folded up. The dingy rattan clothes hamper. The stale towel hanging from a nail in the door. And to his right, above the sink, a red hand towel limp on its clear plastic ring over the soap dish. The sink was set in a water-warped cabinet with a louvred door.

The frenzy in his ears stopped. Her scream was cut off. It had risen into a hysterical shriek and now vacated itself with a soft humph. Like a chainsaw dropped into a swamp. Chairs were falling, or maybe it was the kitchen table that someone smashed into the wall. Another tremor went through the house. No male voices. No commands, no shouting. All he had heard was a tumult and the hysterical clipped scream. The furniture dragging and feet moving.

He wasn’t breathing anymore. He turned to his right, taking a step and holding his pants. He glanced from the faucet and the toothbrushes blossoming, one orange and one blue, from their dirty glass on the sink, to the flecked mirror with the bare ceiling bulb glaring in it and he saw himself. In hyperclarity. Alien, still holding his pants at his knees in one hand. He crouched at the cabinet, let go of his pants, and opened the cabinet door. His hands were trembling so badly they barely functioned. A vague pandemonium in the house was approaching the bathroom door, and the chaos that had been general now focused like a mountainside of storm water channeling into a narrow arroyo. Supporting himself with his hands on the tile floor, he plunged his legs into the cabinet, over a stack of toilet rolls, knocking over a bottle of Cloralex and the box of Detergente Roma. The rest of him followed so quickly, it was as though the cabinet had sucked him inward, his knees jamming themselves up against the sink plumbing, his naked unwiped ass sliding over packets of rat poison, his upper back scraping the cabinet’s side panel, his head wedged beneath the sink. With his fingers at its lower edge, he pulled closed the cabinet door just as the bathroom door banged open.

In slatted half-darkness, he put his left hand down onto the cabinet floor. It was wet. The Cloralex had spilled, and the fumes were burning his eyes. He closed them, aware of several bodies entering the bathroom, saying nothing, creepily silent. He no longer heard the woman. He didn’t feel her breathing in the other room. He didn’t feel her in the world anymore. Cramped in place with Cloralex, detergent stench, and damp rot in his nose, he froze. Outside the cabinet, he knew his shit in the toilet was stinking up the bathroom. There might have been a spot of it on the floor. The men must be staring at the cabinet. Where else was he going to be.

A set of bootsteps, slow but springy, crossed the threshold into the bathroom. They halted a few feet in front of the sink. Nothing. No sound. Outside the house, though, he could hear two trucks, their mufflers cut away, racing down Alameda. Then this last set of boots came forward, stopping inches from the cabinet. He squeezed his eyes and could visualize the man, whoever it was, looking at himself in the toothpaste-flecked mirror. But he was wrong. The man had squatted. The cabinet door opened quickly.

He didn’t breathe, he didn’t move. Although he had been looking at nothing before, now he was aware of the knees and torso of a hunkered man whose jeans rose above the white-rooster stitching of his black boots. He was sure he hadn’t even shifted his head, but his eyes must have opened on their own. He was looking at the strangest thing he would see for the brief remainder of his life.

The man squatting before him had an enraged, flushed expression, and his face, his whole head, was bobbing in the weirdest way, uncontrollably, like an ornament on the hood of a car going over bad road. The head-bobbing man’s mouth opened and he hissed something in English, asking something, but it didn’t make any sense.

“So you a Redskins fan, huh?”

two

The Departure

Perturbed by a bird-punctured cicada

clattering in circles on the driveway,

he came into the house feeling ill. Paused

outside the door to the boy’s room

where propped against the headboard

the woman was falling asleep

improvising a story for the boy

before his nap. Her last smudged words

and then a silence into which the boy asked

What then? What happened then? Standing there

behind the jamb, the intruder

holding his breath. Gone from himself

to let them go on.

Marfa, Texas

Until recently, people had always guessed Hoa was younger than her actual age. But at a Christmas party in Asheville, Dale overheard a friend say, “Looks like she’s lived through something.” That was six months ago, not long after what happened with their son. The stress had continued to work through both of them. Fingers through dough. Every morning, the bathroom mirror showed the lines deepening from the wings of his nose down to a place just wide of his mouth, and the furrow, like a chisel mark, set at an angle above the bridge of his nose. It was only when he overheard that remark about his wife at the Christmas party that he realized the extent to which grief and worry had etched Hoa’s face too. From that awful day last October when their son landed in the hospital, Hoa had let her hair go natural, a shoulder-length horsey black, streaked with gray. Dale noticed, of course, but it occurred to him that he saw her differently than other people did: more as a composite of those faces that, for almost half his life now, he had argued with, kissed, and listened to — as when, for instance, she sat on the couch in the mornings and told him, in what sometimes seemed unbearably real time, her dreams.

She had nicotine-brown eyes, full lips, and a long, straight nose. “A nose like a knife,” wrote Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel, the book Dale had been trying to read at the UNC Asheville library the afternoon he met Hoa some twenty years ago. He was a first-year history professor doing research that led him to Rabelais, whom he’d never read. In that moment, Hoa bent toward him to ask in a stage whisper if he knew how to turn on the lights in the stack next to his carrel — for some reason, the only switch to that stack was on the far side — and the knife analogy floated up from the page, attaching itself in Dale’s mind to this student he didn’t know. To Hoa.

It wasn’t a particularly striking analogy, “a nose like a knife,” but Dale had been mulling the merits of that translation of the French le nez pointu. He’d never studied French. Even now, twenty years after first meeting Hoa in the library, he couldn’t pronounce a single word correctly, or so it seemed on their recent trip to Paris. At the moment she bent toward him with her question, he had been comparing two translations to see which he might want to read in English: one translator translated nez pointu as “snub nose” and another as “nose like a knife.” Hoa, waiting to see whether he knew how to turn on the lights in the stack, definitely had a nose like a knife, thanks, he would learn later, to her American father. She also had, still leaning toward him in a stained white V-neck T-shirt, a shapely body and expressive gleaming eyes. She smelled like mulch. Dale stood up to show her the timing switch, and they started talking. She said she was just about to graduate and asked if he wanted to see her ceramic work in the senior exhibition. He was so focused on her lips — they were vermilion at their edges, the sharp vertical groove in her upper lip completely hypnotized him — that she had to ask him twice. With her relaxed confidence, her straight-shooter way of talking — giving her real opinion without worrying about what anyone might want her to say — with her sultry looks and her animate face ...