My friend said she'd paint the story I was telling her and call it "The Conference." She'd paint it in the manner of Peter Doig, because that's how it sounded. I felt flattered, but later I had to look him up. He's important and talented. He has a film club. He lives on a warm island but paints snow. His wiki says: "Peter Doig's work captures moments of tranquility, which contrast with uneasy oneiric elements." I was glad I had my dictionary nearby. I thought oneiric might mean masturbatory. I can look up a word faster than my computer can. But that's just because I live in the old dial-up woods.
As the postage stamps of Doig's paintings trickled in, I saw they looked like Frost poems, but in second person. I do know whose woods this painting will be set in. They are my neighbor's. His house is in Rhode Island; he'll have roughly a hundred miles to go before he sleeps, since he only has a shed and several flower beds here. My previous neighbors once came to my door to tell me to stay off that land. I lied to them and made them stand in the rain as they laid the law. They had a smashed minivan and a trailer full of hay bales on the property.
After they put the land on the market, I laid stepping stones across a little stream there, so I could trespass more easily. This is the setting of the yet-to-be-painted "The Conference." I never did tell my new neighbor I'd made the little bridge and the trails before he bought the property. My neighbor has since made two more bridges right there. The first one was terrible. Store-bought fence posts were dug into the mud and the whole thing swayed like lianas bridging a jungle chasm. I helped him make the second one, which is prettier, but even less functional — it's an ankle-wrenching balance beam made of bundled poles, and in the winter only one ski fits on it.
When I was setting this scene for my painter friend, when it was still just a story and not yet a painting, I described how myself, my neighbor, and Jack met at this bridge on a buggy day in July and how we three knew these woods better than anyone on earth. She knows what I look like, so I described the other two. Jack is a trim three-year-old with black tiger stripes. He is fixed, even though he is mostly feral. My neighbor is of retirement age, circumcised, and evenly tanned. When I first met him, he was weed-whacking in the nude. He put on running shorts and said he was a nudist. I said I'd noticed.
The afternoon of "The Conference," which until now was just a memory and not a painting nor an essay, I helped my bare-assed abutter carry sapling poles he'd cut to the stream to build his second bridge.The long pole I carried flexed as I followed my neighbor. I quietly chanted, "goose, goose, goose," as it bounced in my hand. This was because I was looking at my neighbor's naked behind. I was wearing boots and pants and long sleeves and a hat and lots of DEET. I had a long knife and a Leatherman tool on my belt. The ticks, deerflies, blackflies, and mosquitoes are ferocious there in the wet, laurel-tangled woods. While we worked together at the stream, I could tell he was wearing plenty of bug dope too. I wondered if nudists would wear invisible clothes.
Nearly-feral Jack has survived fishers, coyotes, bobcats, heavy winters, and probably Lyme disease. A few times he has abandoned his brutalizations of chipmunks to join me as I passed him in the woods, and we hiked together happily — though he tends to flop over on his side and roll when he's feeling emotional and that slows us down. One time I carried him half-a-mile back from a beaver pond and he resented it. I thought I'd been rescuing him, but, really, I'd been rude. Jack gets around; he lives off of these woods. I see his prints often in the mud on that bridged stream's banks; I've seen the fox's prints as it followed Jack, who was stalking voles along a snowy stone wall.
There at the bridge, my neighbor and I were conferring about property lines, while I was resolutely not mentioning his nakedness. He granted that, though this was his property, it was also my territory, and I was free to ignore his No Trespassing signs, as long as I didn't take anything. That was when Jack walked up the stream. I waved and greeted him. My neighbor briefly panicked. Jack, as he tends to do, hiked straight up me and perched on my shoulder. I introduced the two of them. Jack, I'm sure, has little sense of ownership, but knows the territory better than the nudist arriviste and myself, the semi-native, ever will. This will be the uneasy oneiric subject of "The Conference," though I imagine my friend might change some details.
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Corwin Ericson is an MFA graduate of UMass Amherst and the former managing editor of the Massachusetts Review. His fiction has appeared in Harper's, the Believer, jubilat, and Fence. Swell is his first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Corwin Ericson is the author of Swell