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Back in the World: Stories


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“Stygian,” the man said.

Pete still had it in his mind to brush him off, but he didn’t do that. Instead he unlocked the door for him. He wanted to see what would happen. It was an adventure, but not a dangerous adventure. The man might steal Pete’s ashtrays but he wouldn’t kill him. If Pete got killed on the road it would be by some spiritual person in a sweatsuit, someone with his eyes on the far horizon and a wet Try God T-shirt in his duffel bag.

As soon as they left the parking lot the man lit a cigar. He blew a cloud of smoke over Pete’s shoulder and sighed with pleasure. “Put it out,” Pete told him.

“Of course,” the man said. Pete looked in the rearview mirror and saw the man take another long puff before dropping the cigar out the window. “Forgive me,” he said. “I should have asked. Name’s Webster, by the way.”

Donald turned and looked back at him. “First name or last?”

The man hesitated. “Last,” he said finally.

“I know a Webster,” Donald said. “Mick Webster.”

“There are many of us,” Webster said.

“Big fellow, wooden leg,” Pete said.

Donald gave Pete a look.

Webster shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Still, I wouldn’t deny the connection. Might be one of the cousinry.”

“What’s your daughter got?” Pete asked.

“That isn’t clear,” Webster answered. “It appears to be a female complaint of some nature. Then again it may be tropical.” He was quiet for a moment, and added: “If indeed it is tropical, I will have to assume some of the blame myself. It was my own vaulting ambition that first led us to the tropics and kept us in the tropics all those many years, exposed to every evil. Truly I have much to answer for. I left my wife there.”

Donald said quietly, “You mean she died?”

“I buried her with these hands. The earth will be repaid, gold for gold.”

“Which tropics?” Pete asked.

“The tropics of Peru.”

“What part of Peru are they in?”

“The lowlands,” Webster said.

“What’s it like down there? In the lowlands.”

“Another world,” Webster said. His tone was sepulchral. “A world better imagined than described.”

“Far out,” Pete said.

The three men rode in silence for a time. A line of trucks went past in the other direction, trailers festooned with running lights, engines roaring.

“Yes,” Webster said at last, “I have much to answer for.”

Pete smiled at Donald, but Donald had turned in his seat again and was gazing at Webster. “I’m sorry about your wife,” Donald said.

“What did she die of?” Pete asked.

“A wasting illness,” Webster said. “The doctors have no name for it, but I do.” He leaned forward and said, fiercely, “Greed. My greed, not hers. She wanted no part of it.”

Pete bit his lip. Webster was a find and Pete didn’t want to scare him off by hooting at him. In a voice low and innocent of knowingness, he asked, “What took you there?”

“It’s difficult for me to talk about.”

“Try,” Pete told him.

“A cigar would make it easier.”

Donald turned to Pete and said, “It’s okay with me.”

“All right,” Pete said. “Go ahead. Just keep the window rolled down.”

“Much obliged.” A match flared. There were eager sucking sounds.

“Let’s hear it,” Pete said.

“I am by training an engineer,” Webster began. “My work has exposed me to all but one of the continents, to desert and alp and forest, to every terrain and season of the earth. Some years ago I was hired by the Peruvian government to search for tungsten in the tropics. My wife and daughter accompanied me. We were the only white people for a thousand miles in any direction, and we had no choice but to live as the Indians lived—to share their food and drink and even their culture.”

Pete said, “You knew the lingo, did you?”

“We picked it up.” The ember of the cigar bobbed up and down. “We were used to learning as necessity decreed. At any rate, it became evident after a couple of years that there was no tungsten to be found. My wife had fallen ill and was pleading to be taken home. But I was deaf to her pleas, because by then I was on the trail of another metal—a metal far more valuable than tungsten.”

“Let me guess,” Pete said. “Gold?”

Donald looked at Pete, then back at Webster.

“Gold,” Webster said. “A vein of gold greater than the Mother Lode itself. After I found the first traces of it nothing could tear me away from my search—not the sickness of my wife or anything else. I was determined to uncover the vein, and so I did—but not before I laid my wife to rest. As I say, the earth will be repaid.”

Webster was quiet. Then he said, “But life must go on. In the years since my wife’s death I have been making the arrangements necessary to open the mine. I could have done it immediately, of course, enriching myself beyond measure, but I knew what that would mean—the exploitation of our beloved Indians, the brutal destruction of their environment. I felt I had too much to atone for already.” Webster paused, and when he spoke again his voice was dull and rushed, as if he had used up all the interest he had in his own words. “Instead I drew up a program for returning the bulk of the wealth to the Indians themselves. A kind of trust fund. The interest alone will allow them to secure their ancient lands and rights in perpetuity. At the same time, our investors will be rewarded a thousandfold. Two-thousandfold. Everyone will prosper together.”

“That’s great,” said Donald. “That’s the way it ought to be.”

Pete said, “I’m willing to bet that you just happen to have a few shares left. Am I right?”

Webster made no reply.

“Well?” Pete knew that Webster was on to him now, but he didn’t care. The story had bored him. He’d expected something different, something original, and Webster had let him down. He hadn’t even tried. Pete felt sour and stale. His eyes burned from cigar smoke and the high beams of road-hogging truckers. “Douse the stogie,” he said to Webster. “I told you to keep the window down.”

“Got a little nippy back here.”

Donald said “Hey, Pete. Lighten up.”

“Douse it!”

Webster sighed. He got rid of the cigar.

“I’m a wreck,” Pete said to Donald. “You want to drive for a while?”

Donald nodded.

Pete pulled over and they changed places.

Webster kept his counsel in the back seat. Donald hummed while he drove, until Pete told him to stop. Then everything was quiet.

Donald was humming again when Pete woke up. Pete stared sullenly at the road, at the white lines sliding past the car. After a few moments of this he turned and said, “How long have I been out?”

Donald glanced at him. “Twenty, twenty-five minutes.”

Pete looked behind him and saw that Webster was gone. “Where’s our friend?”

“You just missed him. He got out in Soledad. He told me to say thanks and good-bye.”

“Soledad? What about his sick daughter? How did he explain her away?”

“He has a brother living there. He’s going to borrow a car from him and drive the rest of the way in the morning.”

“I’ll bet his brother’s living there,” Pete said. “Doing fifty concurrent life sentences. His brother and his sister and his mom and his dad.”

“I kind of liked him,” Donald said.

“I’m sure you did,” Pete said wearily.

“He was interesting. He’s been places.”

“His cigars had been places, I’ll give you that.”

“Come on, Pete.”

“Come on yourself. What a phony.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Sure I do.”

“How? How do you know?”

Pete stretched. “Brother, there are

some things you’re just born knowing. What’s the gas situation?”

“We’re a little low.”

“Then why didn’t you get some more?”

“I wish you wouldn’t snap at me like that,” Donald said.

“Then why don’t you use your head? What if we run out?”

“We’ll make it,” Donald said. “I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough to make it. You didn’t have to be so rude to him,” Donald added.

Pete took a deep breath. “I don’t feel like running out of gas tonight, okay?”

Donald pulled in at the next station they came to and filled the tank while Pete went to the men’s room. When Pete came back, Donald was sitting in the passenger’s seat. The attendant came up to the driver’s window as Pete got in behind the wheel. He bent down and said, “Twelve fifty-five.”

“You heard the man,” Pete said to Donald.

Donald looked straight ahead. He didn’t move.

“Cough up,” Pete said. “This trip’s on you.”

“I can’t.”

“Sure you can. Break out that wad.”

Donald glanced up at the attendant, then at Pete. “Please,” he said. “Pete, I don’t have it anymore.”

Pete took this in. He nodded, and paid the attendant.

Donald began to speak when they left the station but Pete cut him off. He said, “I don’t want to hear from you right now. You just keep quiet or I swear to God I won’t be responsible.”

They left the fields and entered a tunnel of tall trees. The trees went on and on. “Let me get this straight,” Pete said at last. “You don’t have the money I gave you.”

“You treated him like a bug or something,” Donald said.

“You don’t have the money,” Pete said again.

Donald shook his head.

“Since I bought dinner, and since we didn’t stop anywhere in between, I assume you gave it to Webster. Is that right? Is that what you did with it?”

“Yes.”

Pete looked at Donald. His face was dark under the hood but he still managed to convey a sense of remove, as if none of this had anything to do with him.

“Why?” Pete asked. “Why did you give it to him?” When Donald didn’t answer, Pete said, “A hundred dollars. Gone. Just like that. I worked for that money, Donald.”

“I know, I know,” Donald said.

“You don’t know! How could you? You get money by holding out your hand.”

“I work too,” Donald said.

“You work too. Don’t kid yourself, brother.”

Donald leaned toward Pete, about to say something, but Pete cut him off again.

“You’re not the only one on the payroll, Donald. I don’t think you understand that. I have a family.”

“Pete, I’ll pay you back.”

“Like hell you will. A hundred dollars!” Pete hit the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. “Just because you think I hurt some goofball’s feelings. Jesus, Donald.”

“That’s not the reason,” Donald said. “And I didn’t just give him the money.”

“What do you call it, then? What do you call what you did?”

“I invested it. I wanted a share, Pete.” When Pete looked over at him Donald nodded and said again, “I wanted a share.”

Pete said, “I take it you’re referring to the gold mine in Peru.”

“Yes,” Donald said.

“You believe that such a gold mine exists?”

Donald looked at Pete, and Pete could see him just beginning to catch on. “You’ll believe anything,” Pete said. “Won’t you? You really will believe anything at all.”

“I’m sorry,” Donald said, and turned away.

Pete drove on between the trees and considered the truth of what he had just said—that Donald would believe anything at all. And it came to him that it would be just like this unfair life for Donald to come out ahead in the end, by believing in some outrageous promise that would turn out to be true and that he, Pete, would reject out of hand because he was too wised up to listen to anybody’s pitch anymore except for laughs. What a joke. What a joke if there really was a blessing to be had, and the blessing didn’t come to the one who deserved it, the one who did all the work, but to the other.

And as if this had already happened Pete felt a shadow move upon him, darkening his thoughts. After a time he said, “I can see where all this is going, Donald.”

“I’ll pay you back,” Donald said.

“No,” Pete said. “You won’t pay me back. You can’t. You don’t know how. All you’ve ever done is take. All your life.”

Donald shook his head.

“I see exactly where this is going,” Pete went on. “You can’t work, you can’t take care of yourself, you believe anything anyone tells you. I’m stuck with you, aren’t I?” He looked over at Donald. “I’ve got you on my hands for good.”

Donald pressed his fingers against the dashboard as if to brace himself. “I’ll get out,” he said.

Pete kept driving.

“Let me out,” Donald said. “I mean it, Pete.”

“Do you?”

Donald hesitated. “Yes,” he said.

“Be sure,” Pete told him. “This is it. This is for keeps.”

“I mean it.”

“All right. You made the choice.” Pete braked the car sharply and swung it to the shoulder of the road. He turned off the engine and got out. Trees loomed on both sides, shutting out the sky. The air was cold and musty. Pete took Donald’s duffel bag from the back seat and set it down behind the car. He stood there, facing Donald in the red glow of the taillights. “It’s better this way,” Pete said.

Donald just looked at him.

“Better for you,” Pete said.

Donald hugged himself. He was shaking. “You don’t have to say all that,” he told Pete. “I don’t blame you.”

“Blame me? What the hell are you talking about? Blame me for what?”

“For anything,” Donald said.

“I want to know what you mean by blame me.”

“Nothing. Nothing, Pete. You’d better get going. God bless you.”

“That’s it,” Pete said. He dropped to one knee, searching the packed dirt with his hands. He didn’t know what he was looking for, his hands would know when they found it.

Donald touched Pete’s shoulder. “You’d better go,” he said.

Somewhere in the trees Pete heard a branch snap. He stood up. He looked at Donald, then went back to the car and drove away. He drove fast, hunched over the wheel, conscious of the way he was hunched and the shallowness of his breathing, refusing to look in the mirror above his head until there was nothing behind him but darkness.

Then he said, “A hundred dollars,” as if there were someone to hear.

The trees gave way to fields. Metal fences ran beside the road, plastered with windblown scraps of paper. Tule fog hung above the ditches, spilling into the road, dimming the ghostly halogen lights that burned in the yards of the farms Pete passed. The fog left beads of water rolling up the windshield.

Pete rummaged among his cassettes. He found Pachelbel’s Canon and pushed it into the tape deck. When the violins began to play he leaned back and assumed an attentive expression as if he were really listening to them. He smiled to himself like a man at liberty to enjoy music, a man who has finished his work and settled his debts, done all things meet and due.

And in this way, smiling, nodding to the music, he went another mile or so and pretended that he was not already slowing down, that he was not going to turn back, that he would be able to drive on like this, alone, and have the right answer when his wife stood before him in the doorway of his home and asked, Where is he? Where is your brother?

TOBIAS WOLFF

Tobias Wolff lives in Northern California and teaches at Stanford University. He has received the Rea Award for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Books b

y Tobias Wolff

Our Story Begins

Old School

The Night in Question

In Pharaoh’s Army

This Boy’s Life

Back in the World

The Barracks Thief

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs

BOOKS BY TOBIAS WOLFF

BACK IN THE WORLD

Here are ten pungent and wonderfully skewed stories of exhilarating grace and lucidity. A gentle, ineffectual priest finds himself stranded in a Vegas hotel room with a hysterical, sunburned stranger. A show-biz hopeful undergoes a dubious audition in a hearse speeding across the California desert. As Tobias Wolff moves among these unfortunates, he observes with a compassionate eye the disparity between their realities and their dreams.

Fiction/Short Stories/978-0-679-76796-1

IN PHARAOH’S ARMY

In In Pharaoh’s Army Tobias Wolff gives us a precisely and sometimes pitilessly remembered account of his young manhood—a young manhood that became entangled in the tragic adventure that was Vietnam. Traversing an arc that leads from paratroopers’ jump school to the carnage of the Tet offensive, Wolff re-creates a war where survival depends less on skill than it does on blind luck and the ability to look inoffensive. The Americans are pitiable in their innocence and terrifying in their capacity for uncomprehending destruction. The allies are malicious practical jokers. And a successful mission is one that nets Wolff a stolen color television set—the better to watch Bonanza on Thanksgiving Day.

Memoir/978-0-679-76023-8

THE NIGHT IN QUESTION

A young reporter writes an obituary only to be fired when its subject walks into his office, very much alive. A soldier in Vietnam goads his lieutenant into sending him on increasingly dangerous missions. An impecunious mother and son go window-shopping for a domesticity that is forever beyond their grasp. Seamless, ironic, dizzying in their emotional aptness, these fifteen stories deliver small, exquisite shocks that leave us feeling invigorated and intensely alive.

Fiction/Short Stories/978-0-679-78155-4




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