Good to be back at the workbench serving up another edition of eschorama newsletter. If this is your first time visiting, I hope you will sign up for a free email subscription:
In Issue 15, I thought I would share some new fiction. I have no idea what part of my brain this story comes from. It originated last summer as a fragmented sketch, just a paragraph of free-writing, playing around with setting and imagery. It seemed that the muse was calling for a story, so write one I did. A couple of notes on the setting: I’ve never been to Lake Powell or the rainbow bridge or Navaho Mountain or Venice, Italy. Also, to my knowledge, this story has absolutely nothing to do with the Baroque period. I just like the title! Onward to the story….
Memories of the Baroque Period
In pontoon boats, the tourists leave Page, Arizona and head up Lake Powell, past slot canyons, buttes and far off mesas. To the east rises Navajo Mountain, like a benevolent yet all powerful god. They dock the boat and walk across the planks to the shore, then snake through a narrow canyon, rounding bends deeper into what is feeling like a rock cathedral. Then they see it. Behold the rainbow rock bridge, gateway to the Navajo holy realms. Although no tongue is there to give voice to sacredness, they feel it. A hush descends on warm beams of sunshine.
For reasons he can't fathom, he suddenly thinks of Baroque architecture. Perhaps because it is so antithetical to this place, worn by time into smoothness and raw, energetic grandeur. This is nothing like Venice, he thinks, with its ornaments and opulence, the walls with slotted windows, the domes and spires arising from the mist. This is nothing like that. Then he sees there could be some fundamental connection between the places. Rainbow bridge and Navaho Mountain seem haunted by ghosts of a nation mostly missing in action, lost to time. And parts of Venice linger too, forgotten by all, like the ghosts who haunt the asylum on Poveglia island, where shadows linger over the plague pits, and dark, nameless fish lurk in forbidden canals.
Can memory be written into a place? Until Lake Powell and the rainbow bridge, he wasn't sure. Now he thinks maybe so. The atmosphere is at once thick with longing for history, yet utterly barren and forgetful, as if the clear sky and air have no need for paltry sediments of time past. Something tangible is here, persisting, but the language can't be deciphered.
Do the tourists notice any of these things? He watches them holding their phones at arm's length, not always sure if they are putting themselves in front of the landscape, or pointing the eye outward to the horizon where no people can be detected. Others lather themselves in sun block. Each of them is having a fresh-minted "Lake Powell experience." They wrap these layered set pieces around their bodies like shawls and sombreros. It seems to him that it is impossible to have an unadulterated experience of any place. You come into it wearing expectations and trade your time and money for manufactured experiences of place. The tighter the fit between fabrication and expectation, the more secure your hold on reality feels. Except for the inconvenient truth that one’s personal reality tends to founder on the shoals of bigger realities.
They are back on the boat now, and the excursion makes the return trip to Page. Next up on the itinerary is Glen Canyon dam. He has no need for the concrete arch cavity holding the Colorado back from its natural flow. It bars the Grand Canyon from the floods it needs to build sandbars and islands, and the too cold water coming out the penstocks makes life too difficult for native fish downstream. No, he'd prefer to think of this stark desert landscape set against the blue plane as something natural. But for the dam, they wouldn't be on this boat. It holds the lake that frees them from the responsibility of thinking deeply. Just float along and admire the scenery, and rest assured that engineers know best.
Is this why he leaps off the side of the boat? He jumps feet first and bobs to the surface. The water is very cold, refreshing at first, now terrifyingly cold, until his body temperature adapts to the shock of immersion. His limbs are treading water. He does not regret the gesture. The water is at once harsh and silky. His fear of sinking gone, he paddles along not too far from the boat.
The tourists are panicking, yelling man overboard! Here comes the life preserver. He's waving them away, but they think he's waving in desperation. Save him! a man shrieks. Others have their phones out, hoping to capture something tragic and viral. The boat verges closer. He figures he should accept the life preserver and let them feel good about saving him. The smart phone cameras take in the scene, until it is clear that there isn't as much excitement to be shared with the world as they had hoped for. They pocket their phones with an air of disappointment.
Back on deck, he apologizes and makes up a story about leaning over the edge of the boat and losing balance. He thanks them for their rescue efforts. A towel is offered to him. He throws it over his shoulders, knowing the sun will bake the cold away in mere minutes. Soon, he is left alone, sitting on a padded bench that squeaks when his ass squirms.
An old man with overly tanned arms walks past and leans into him, whispering, that was no accident, mister. I saw you jump. He doesn't know how to reply. The old man stands back and flexes his chest muscles. Don't worry, I won't tell nobody. But if you want to off yourself, the least you could do is do it in private. No need to make a spectacle of yourself, you know. People pay a lotta money for vacations on Lake Powell. Why would you want to ruin it for them?
After dinner, from the hotel balcony, he watches the sun set behind the striated rocks. When the last sliver of the disc slides behind, an awful sensation rumbles through him, something he feels was shared by the boating party but denied. He thinks of the sediment massing, trapped behind the dam, how you can't see it from the water's surface. Maybe this is where memories of place are sunk. It seems to him like the guilt he used to feel as a child. He suddenly recalls the eraser he stole from a classmate in second grade and never confessed to, how he cheated on spelling tests with regularity. How he lied to his mother constantly about not smoking cigarettes or pot, or driving drunk, or having premarital sex. These and other sediments have accumulated behind the concrete dam wall. He figures all the tourists on the boat would feel similar siltation effects, if they allowed themselves half a minute to reflect upon it.
What is he even doing here? It was supposed to be a getaway, a last chance to reboot his life. He crossed country on a motorcycle to get there. No one who loves him knows he's here. They assume he is in Boulder for the week, but he took a left turn in Kansas, crossed the grasslands of Oklahoma into New Mexico, traced the remnants of roadside America along old Route 66, then headed into Arizona and Navaho country. Boulder could wait. He didn't realize he was looking for something when he came here, and he certainly hasn't found it.
After the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, maybe now he's ready to finish the week in the front range. The tourists won't be sorry to see him go, after today. He puts his feet up and laughs about the old man who thought he was trying to drown himself. Was his mood that transparent? At least the sunset sky is pretty, despite the hydro electric power lines fanning out into the empty desert around him. The colors and vastness dwarf the buzzing world of men and machines. That much is a relief.
He goes outside and walks to the shoreline. The water is quiet and calm. He remembers the story about when the pandemic hit last spring and Venice was shut down, how the canal water cleared up, and you could see fish and dolphins swimming below the bridge of sighs. Had they always been there but couldn't be seen under the murk, or did the cleaner water and lack of people give them permission to go where they always intended to be? Then somebody told him it was all a myth, the online video fake. How could he know for sure? He's never been to Venice, or Poveglia Island. His knowledge of the place comes from Google maps and coffee table books about the Baroque period and the travel channel. He wonders how deep the canals in Venice are, and how deep Lake Powell goes. For the brief moments he swam in the lake, it had felt almost bottomless. He wonders if he will ever get to visit Italy. Time is slipping away into depths that won't include him.
Tomorrow he will follow the river upstream into Utah and Colorado, cross the continental divide and make it to Boulder after a long, hard ride. He'll turn on his phone for the first time this week and check-in with his family, who no doubt are worrying about him. He wonders whether sleep will come fitfully again and what dreams will visit him. Will he sink or swim in them? Maybe once he’s back on the bike, the high country air will clear his mind for a change.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. Interpretations are welcome! Send along an email or leave a comment.
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Till next time, be well.