The Devil’s Circle
The truest of all men was The Man of Sorrows and the truest of all books is Solomon’s and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. In it you will be reminded that during a wise man’s lifetime of seeking he will find one upright man among a thousand, but not one woman. More bitter than death is woman. She is a scavenger of beauty. She stands in the light of others that she may herself appear civilized and wise. She is a misfit, a rover, a split wreck. What after all is woman but a fleshed out rib wrenched from some other vessel? What but a soft and pretty container to be filled with the bodies and toils and fruits of men? How then is it possible that a woman be pure? Her heart is a snare. Only the man who pleases God will escape her.
When I met Ben Gordon it was like being pulled from a tangle of barbed wire and washed in milk. Like being raised from death to life. It’s an old song, really, a familiar story: dark of night, storm winds spiriting a ship away, huge wind howling forth. Great wheels of water churning and foaming, spinning the craft like a toy boat, bowsprit to the east, then north the long way around. Men flung overboard, their necks snapped in the wind. Despair, lament, gnashing of teeth. A broken mast, a ship driven fast upon the rocks. Then suddenly water smooth as oil. The muted cry of a single gull. Another. White skeins lifting in the clear light of day. And there—washed up on the sand, torn clothing dried in the sun and flapping in the breeze like clean feathers—lies our hero. A woman.
It was like that. On fumes of gas I’d rolled down out of the high cracked mountains, out of screaming white snow and onto the even verdant plains of eastern Colorado. I slept on the shoulder of a county road, my head in a bony pile of arms on the steering wheel. Wind drove the shadows of clouds over the fields like dark fish swimming beneath the blue grama. Violent green ribbons of prairie sandreed combed themselves through the short yellow wool of the last year’s grass.
I will not tell the story, here, of where I spent the night—or the week or the year—before I ran out of gasoline in front of his parents’ house, set like a clean white island on a vast swath of green running silk. But I did tell Ben.
Your hair is like a flock of goats, he told me, listening as I explained how it’d been. What I had done. He traced my jawbone with his finger. Your teeth are like perfect rows of sheep newly shorn.
I told him everything. I’d been sealed up in my secret lives, kept in caves, and in the life with Ben there would be no secrets.
It was he who’d found me in his parents’ shed, looking for fuel to get myself back out on the road. He stood in the doorway watching me shake the gas can, watching me gauge it. Flycatchers and swallows darted like silver hooks in the early gray light behind him. He stepped inside, lifted my chin and gazed upon my face. You need a warm meal, he said. He checked his watch. He took me by the elbow. I’ll show you the shower and the guestroom. Inside, his mother brought me lavender-scented water in a beautiful handmade ewer and poured it out into a clean white ceramic basin. Outside the bedroom door was soft country music: Kisses Sweeter than Wine, The Hurtin’s All Over.
Be wise now, I told myself when I when I came down the stairs in his mother’s loose cotton dress and an old pair of Ben’s slippers. I was clean and my head was anointed with oil. Ben and his father stood up on the far side of the supper table when I entered the dining room. They had matching eyes of cornflower blue. A tall glass of yellow buttermilk beaded with moisture sat before each dish. A bowl of spring green peas. A pile of golden chicken. A soft white heap of whipped potatoes. An iced chocolate cake.
Give her some more chicken on that plate, Ben’s father said. She’s skin and bones. Here. Two scoops of that. One more. They’d all waited for me, their faces calm and happy. Ben’s cheeks a little pink. I couldn’t look his father in the eye.
Stay still, I told myself. Ben pulled out a chair. Don’t move from his side. Careful about the moon. Careful about the riptides of spring weather, of warm wet nights. But it was beyond me. What is crooked cannot be straightened. Round and round the wind goes. Night after night the sun hurries back to where it rises and the earth spins so fast beneath me it is like racing water, no steady place to plant my feet.
For a time the stars seemed to cease turning up there. For a time it seemed I’d landed someplace, was home somewhere, could learn to make latticed pies, cheeses of raw milk, mixed garlic and kelp for the free-range hogs. I could be the woman who made whole meals from scant goods: skillet bread and boiled dandelion greens, cornmeal cobbler with prunes. The woman who put every spoon in its slot and who hung her husband’s shirts neatly in place and no mismatched socks and no spiders in the closet and pickled greens and honey-sweetened jams lined up in pristine cabinets and clean combs on the bureau and fresh sheets on the bed. I could be the woman who never lost her keys. Never tore at her nails. Never slept in the backseat of her car. Never met anybody at a truck stop. Never wrote a bad check for an alcoholic beverage, never stole her lunch from a gas station.
Ben and I spent the summer like children on his parents’ farm. We walked the acres of green oats as they slowly rose and overtook the distant tree line. We tucked ourselves beneath the willow outside his bedroom window and with binoculars followed the harriers and meadowlarks and copied their whistles. At twilight the red and swift foxes darted through curtains of grass carrying field mice, beetles, rabbits and voles. We wrapped onion sandwiches in wax paper and brought them to the fresh stream behind the older barn and ate slowly and deliberately and folded the paper into little boats that we dressed in beeplants and pearly everlasting. We milked the grass-fed cows. We gathered hens’ eggs, blew out their insides and painted the hollow shells with watercolors. We made a layered lemon cake when Mr. Gordon’s mother visited from Las Animas. We sifted the flour. We leveled our measurements with the back of a butter knife. My gaunt face rounded. My elbows and shoulders softened. My lungs were scrubbed out with cool wind. I flossed my teeth and trimmed my nails. I bought plastic packages of clean cotton underwear from the dimestore, wore Mrs. Gordon’s old flannel shirts and hand-knit cardigans, a pair of blue jeans that were Ben’s when he was a boy. All the clothes smelled vaguely dusty; clothes for a ghost; clothes for someone who might disappear at any moment, whereupon they would be refolded and stored away for some other wandering wretch.
We married in October. Roasted a lamb and a hog and half the town came to the neatly clipped green square of buffalo grass behind the house. There was hot apple cider and champagne, silver platters of ripe figs and raw nuts. We moved into the tiny blue and white bungalow where Mrs. Gordon had lived as a girl. The beams of the house were cedars, the rafters were firs. It was newly painted and three blocks from the high school where Ben taught English. All the young women saw me and called me blessed. At daybreak the vast flat world to the east opened before us like the smooth and easy page of a prayer book. Behind us the Rockies were invisible in the distance, though still there, I knew. Still dark and still rising. Geologically complex. Crystalline cores guarded by uplifted walls of sedimentary rock slowly wearing themselves out.
Every Saturday afternoon Ben’s folks brought us a whole roasted chicken and potato rolls and custard pie. We had a schedule, the four of us, a neat little routine: By the time his parents left their house, making the half mile walk or driving if there was snow or wind, we had lain together in our clean and narrow bed. Ben would lift me up, take me to our little white bathroom where he’d bathe me, comb my hair like a doll’s. By the time his parents crossed the lawn of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, he was pulling on my socks, and we presented them with fresh smiling faces, love newly made all about us. I believed that in two years there’d be children. I believed the moon would be fat and silver and still, the wind still. Mornings Ben brought me glasses of apple juice and vitamins. I learned to braid bread for him and studded it with yellow raisins and smooth green pumpkin seeds. We woke at dawn. We ate all our meals at a little table of clean blonde wood. I went down to the school during the week and we’d picnic in the courtyard, or on the smooth black lab tables in his classroom if there was weather. His students called me Mrs. Gordon.
But alas, I am a warning piece again, to all those rash and ignorant. A woman such as myself recognizes a man like Jack Ryder. Pay attention to what I am about to tell you. This is the oldest part of this old song. And a woman such as myself ought to have recognized it, though a woman such as myself never does. It was the way he threw his head back, his shoulders back, it was the cocked smile, it was the hair that shot off his head like daylight. And a man like Jack Ryder would recognize a woman like me, however many salutary disguises of health and wholeness I might layer one upon the other. I even told Ben: Please keep me clear of that man. He’s worse than the Nebraska one.
Worse than Nebraska?
Worse than Nebraska and New Mexico combined. Worse than Idaho.
How can you tell?
I can tell just how he would move.
How he would move?
Keep me away from him.
Sometimes on a Saturday evening we’d walk to the Plains Bar and each have a glass of cold beer. Jack was often there. Shirtsleeves rolled up. His cheekbones and jaw planed and angular. His head thrown back. His arms thrown back behind his thrown back head. Legs crossed. Wherever he was from, I thought, it wasn’t here. The men and women circled around him. Adored him. Made him welcome wheresoever he chose to sit or to stand. He almost always came into the bar with a woman—one of these sunny types who has loved with her body and with pleasure and pleased with herself but who has never loved with misery. There’s no misery in her body. None. She moves light as fine rain from one side of the bar to the other, making funny faces, smiling wide. She wears a ball cap. But it’s not his, that I can tell. And I never saw them touch each other. Never even bump elbows. They weren’t in love, I thought. They couldn’t be. That’s not what he was doing with her. He was doing something else.
But I was left to speculate about Jack Ryder’s life, his plans, his girl. Left to keep lookout when I was about town, left to live on the heat of passing glances. When one evening Ben noticed me watching Jack walk from the bar to the rear door—a tall passage of lit blue pulsing in the dark back room, he stood up.
Let’s go my little goose, he said. And leaned over the table and kissed my forehead.
I gathered my purse and ran my fingers through my hair and stood up. Ben took my hand and walked me out. The plan was he would buy a six-pack from the store on the way back. We could drink it slowly over the next couple Saturday nights. But when he came out of the corner store, he had a box of root beer. A carton of ice cream he would cut into small vanilla bricks.
A better deal, he said, and winked at me.
You love me, don’t you?
A hundred tons. And he moved in to kiss me, and I turned and gave him my cheek.
So it was that we spent our Saturdays that late winter and early spring: at home we sat on the porch as the sun melted behind the old granary and in the distance the grass was coming up like pale green water, white vapor rising from the center pivots beyond. Ben tucked me into an afghan on the porch swing and we sipped our cold root beer in the chilly wind as he read me stories of heroes. Character-building books. Thousands of pages of men pursued by shadows. Of men fleeing devils. Of men converting savages on strange and distant shores. Of men who won the battle once and for all claimed their own souls and settled down with girls bright and bendy as young olive trees, empty as big-eyed birds. Of a young man who lived years alone on a distant island with no company but his own God, and who slowly built a little empire among its palms, upon its sand. Of a man who finally returned home after ten or twenty or thirty years away, his wife and his cattle and all his flocks and his fruit trees and his concubines restored to him. Of a man who at the end of the tale floats calmly away from the shipwreck, everyone else eaten by the sea, his sleeping face pressed up against a splintered coffin, sun warming the back of his golden head like recognition of the only creature on the planet worth sparing.
By the first night in May the branches of the wild plum tree beside the porch were cobwebbed with white blossoms. Music sifted through the newborn leaves, some band of high school kids playing on Main Street. Or maybe it was live music at the Plains Bar. Maybe in the center square. Jack would be there, dancing with his girl. He’d put one hand on the small of her back. Drive the other one up into her hair, from behind. He’d wheel her into the shadows beneath the starlight, reach into the waistband of her jeans, open her mouth with his own. I pulled Mrs. Gordon’s shawl tighter around me and listened to my darling read: All the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault. Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.
Sometimes, after Ben stopped going with me to the Plains Bar, and while he was at school, I’d go alone. In the daytime. Jack Ryder was, I supposed, a man of some profundities. The kind of fellow who might come in for a cold beer in the early afternoon. He worked at the small shop doing metal work and car and tractor repair. There were probably days without any work at all. Jack was the kind of guy who’d put in four or five good hours and wash his face and find himself thirsty. I knew it. It was a matter of time and chance. So on these days when I ventured out alone, I’d have a small chaste beer and a grilled cheese, and eat very slowly. Maybe once a week. Maybe Mondays, sometimes Wednesdays, occasionally a Friday because a Friday afternoon would be a likely time to leave work for a beer. I’d sit at a table facing halfway toward the windows, my heart in a fat warm knot, watching. Eating slowly, my head and chest and hands emptied out by the time I’d filled my belly. I couldn’t possibly eat any slower. I’d be home to greet Ben at the door. We’d fix a small glass dish with white rectangles of farmer’s cheese and yellow tomatoes sliced into circles and he’d grade any papers he might have to grade and I’d do something—laundry or reading or rolling socks—and then I’d fix dinner. One of his mother’s recipes for meatloaf, or city chicken, or potato dumplings sliced and fried with turnip greens in bacon grease. And we’d drink our buttermilk and sit on the porch and he’d read to me from his books.
When I finally did see Jack in the Plains Bar, it was almost June. And a Friday. Summertime rising in my blood. Weedy yellow prairie rockets and pointed red sky rockets rising and heating and pricking my blood like an unstoppable and fragrant and perilous tide. He stepped out of the day and into the cool dark and sat down, leaned way back in his chair, legs splayed, boots filthy. Without a moment’s hesitation I ordered him a beer from my table. My pulse quickened, my face flushed with fever. It was not the sort of thing Ben Gordon’s wife did. But it was the sort of thing I’d always done. It was what the woman with no face always did. I straightened my posture, and when the glass was set down before Jack, beside the one he’d already ordered, he stood up with them both, cool as morning, and brought them over to me and sat down. I extended my hand like a man would. Of course it was too early for a beer, he said, and grinned, and ordered me a second.
You live beside the granary, he said, yes?
I told him we did.
Have you been up in there, yet?
I told him no. Maybe I asked him to show me. Maybe I led him there myself.
There are missing stairs, he said. Watch out.
I took his hand. He paused, then continued up.
I’ve been watching you, I said.
I think I know that.
Here I said. Stand here. Like that.
We adjusted our feet.
At first slowly, by degrees—and then suddenly and stealing my breath—he took over.
In a rectangle of spring light on our clean white bed that morning Ben Gordon had called me his Rose of Sharon. Kissed my forehead. Kissed my chin. In the shadows in the empty grain elevator beside the derelict tracks, loose teeth of sheet metal swinging in the wind, Jack Ryder’s fingers dripped with myrrh. Your name, I whispered, Christ. Your name is like perfume poured out upon me. He drove the heel of his hand into my mouth. Outside thunderheads were roiling up to the west. I ran my fingers along his teeth. He swung his head in the dark like a horse. He bit my neck. He pressed his grin against my mouth and reached into Mrs. Gordon’s shirt and pinched me twice, so hard my breasts would bloom into green and purple hyacinth blossoms. I cried out. These were the marks by which my beloved would discover me. Outside the leaves and shrubs were neon green against a racing black sky. Heaven and Jove and all the other gods would punish me.
This can’t be happening, I said.
But it is, he said, and he smiled in the dark.
I made it back to the house I shared with Ben in time to greet him at the door, take his satchel. The shoulders of his jacket were wet with rain. He followed me into our kitchen. He refreshed me with apples. Outside the window behind his head the trees blew sideways in dusty green light. Jack put his hands in his pockets and disappeared down the narrow cracking sidewalk. The hail came. We huddled in the center hallway, our heads in our arms. I trembled and sobbed and Ben stroked my hair. It’s only rain, baby, he said. It’s only thunder and wind. In running itself out of town, the storm stripped all the new life from the trees.
All night long from my bed I looked for him, out the window for him. I told myself I would get up and go about the town. Through its streets and squares. So in my heart I went out into the last cool film of rain. In my heart I circled the town till morning. In my heart I walked as far out as the Grain & Feed and repeated the same circumference over and over and over again, searching. The night was transparent and black. Across Gessing’s fallow field a spotted horse was tearing across the dark. Overhead the stars burned and spun. Nightcrawlers all about my bare feet as though the earth itself had turned inside out. The universe repeated back to itself in puddles lining the center of main street like a strung out necklace. I am dark, I told the night, but I am lovely. Tell him, tell him. I looked for him beneath the lamp posts. In the doorways. Expected him on the back of that magnificent and terrifying horse flashing past. But the streets were empty. The fields were empty. The trees shook aromatic rain from their boughs. Show me your voice, I breathed, let me hear your voice. But I couldn’t find him. Tell him, I whispered into the wind, through the open bedroom window, my throat bare to the watery night, tell him I am faint.
It was two days following when next I saw him, in front of the post office between the Stage Stop Motel and the Depot Museum. A boy screeched past on the sidewalk on his rusty tricycle over a glittering green spill of broken glass. The wind blew my hair across my face.
I won’t be seeing you again, he said.
You can have the Plains Bar.
I don’t want the Plains Bar.
I won’t be there.
Don’t look for me.
We probably shouldn’t be in the same places.
Don’t speak to me.
Don’t look at me as if you know me. And don’t call.
He had already turned his back and walked ten feet away when I heard him say: Good to see you. A pleasantry I will never again hear without flinching.
Such bottomless, appalling beauty in these men—dressed in the flesh of Gessing’s shining shadow black cattle, rich with dark blood and marbled with fat. Dressed in alfalfa, in clover, in triticale, oat grass, and forbs. In the water shot in circles from the great center pivots to the north. Each toils and eats in the daylight. Each has in his way found favor in the eyes of the Lord. But this woman—God will put me back out to sea. Send me over the rim of false indigo rising like a blue shadow out of the ditch water. Send me back to the broken hems of the Front Range. A very great work it is, going over hills and mountains in an endless track, where the rocks are impassable, and the precipices such as no enemy could possibly enter, or indeed climb up, or where, if they did, no wall could hinder them. Trouble will find me in Denver. Trouble will find me in Salt Lake. Trouble will find me Phoenix. It always does. It gathers about my heart in a quick rush like the soft pleats of a dark skirt lifted up over my ribbing.
I’ve been driven out of town before. Not by men on horseback, not at gunpoint. But by women who pull their shades down when I come up the walk. By the fathers of young men who cross their arms, shut their doors. I set my bedroll in the dust behind the grain elevator, the clean line of center pivots spraying a fine white mist over the green surf. Ben wasn’t two hundred yards away, inside what used to be our house, in some inner room. His parents were in there keeping the doors locked against me. Answering the telephone. He don’t want to hear your voice, his mother said. You just go back to where you came from.
But there’s no single place. I leaned against the rusted metal of the empty elevator. My mouth was bitter. The center pivots always wheel back around to where they started—slowly and over the course of several weeks, as if steered remotely by some unseen hand. Or say, rather, it is a beginningless spin, an inescapable watery ring, the perverted and unnatural condition upon which life out here paradoxically depends.
An hour passed. Two hours. Ben finally opened the window of what had been our little white bathroom and looked out at me, huddled against the grain elevator. The sun was going down.
You can come back in, he said. His voice cracked. If you come back and promise you’ll never—go out again.
I looked up at him. I said nothing. The wind moved through my hair, cold fingers across my throat. He closed the window.
It was dark enough by the time I walked into town that the windows of the Prairie Street Cafe hung like perfect, pale golden rectangles across the street. And there he was. Not waiting for me in the shadow, not beckoning from a distant estuary of earth and sky, but sitting in red vinyl booth right in front, clear as if he were standing before me. He was sharing the booth with a woman, but it wasn’t his girl. It could only have been his mother. She was leaning forward, hands folded before her. Two ceramic brown mugs between them. She was small, and lovely. Her hair soft and thin and lightly gray. Jack Ryder had perhaps lived here all his life. This was his hometown. These were his people. I was an alien and a stranger among them.
She spoke slowly, looking at her son directly. He was holding his head in his hands, shaking his head in his hands. I knew the story he was telling. He would not lift his head. I could guess what he’d lost. Just look up once, I thought, imagining I could will him to do it. Just look up once. Look at me. I’ll take you with me. I stood there on the sidewalk across the street in the shadows waiting, until I got it. Until I saw the curve of the back of his neck, felt what the weight of his head must have been.
So continues my disordered flight, the devil in his long strides racing alongside. I fly like the wind over the land in my old and glittering Chevrolet. The sky reflected somehow in waving blue asphalt before me, as if I were upon some haunted freshet coursing west. I passed the broken spine of a long connected line of center pivots twisted and flattened by the storm. A three or four hundred thousand dollar loss, a wreck of metal strewn across the rye, and I felt a sickening echo in the center of my chest, an empty hollow five thousand fathoms deep. A familiar need to outrun my own body, to rush continually across the moving plains, which permit no record. I was seized by pale fear. My heart was as it were dead within me. But this feeling goes away, I told myself. It goes away, it goes away, it goes away. The life comes back to it. I have been here before. I have told myself these same words before.