One morning Mari bought Dave a trumpet, and this was one of the most confusing and terrifying things that had ever happened to him.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” he said.
“Learn to play it,” said Mari.
“I’m too old!”
Had he mentioned anything to anyone about wanting to play the trumpet? Where had it come from all of a sudden?
“I saw it in the music store window,” she said. “I thought of you.”
“You thought of me?” he said angrily. He yanked his jacket off its hook and put it on.
“Watch this,” she said.
Mari rubbed the mouthpiece on her pant leg and then stuck it into the trumpet and played a few notes. “That was a B flat scale.”
“Who taught you that?”
“Oh, I’ve had some musical training,” she said, “though I honestly don’t remember anyone teaching me that. I just happen to know it.”
“God! I can’t spend one more second in this madhouse. I’m gone!”
Dave kicked the screen door open and set off walking down the street, but Mari was right behind him, pursuing him, the trumpet in her hand.
“I thought it might help you,” she said as she caught up with him.
“Help me with what?”
“Oh, you know. I thought it might stretch you out a little. Open you up.”
“Open me up? Do you honestly want me to open up?”
“Maybe a little, Dave.”
“Then why are you telling me to shut up all the time, Mari?” He laughed. “Why are you always telling me I talk too much?”
“You talk too much to me, is what I mean.”
“Who else am I supposed to talk to?”
He walked as fast as he could but she kept pace with him.
“You’re sucking me dry these last few months,” she said quietly.
“Do you plan on following me all over creation with that thing?”
“Whatever it takes!”
They cut straight through the center of town. People who knew them said hello, but they ignored them. They had no time for anyone else. Not a single second. Without the slightest of nods, they passed right through them. They crossed the river and advanced through the other side of town, and when finally they came to the last house they didn’t hesitate – they walked out into the world.
“I might have known something like this would happen,” Mari said, and she handed Dave a bottle of water and a box of crackers.
“Where did you get these?”
“Oh, whenever I leave home I take enough food and water for three days,” she said.
Now Dave saw that she had her hiking backpack on. “That’s the difference between you and me,” he said, laughing.
“Yeah, you’d walk straight into these muddy green fields like they were somehow your birthright, like the world owed you a hot supper when all it owes anyone – and I hope you already know this – is one unpredictable death.”
“What catastrophe are you planning for exactly?”
“I’m ready for anything.”
And that was true. She was.
The road took them into the mountains. It was the old road, perhaps even an ancient road, a single narrow causeway with a strip of tufty grass growing down the center of it. Hardly anyone used it anymore. Mostly just angry couples storming out of town. The occasional dog. Foxes. Drunken lunatics. Men and women on horses. Ghosts. Archery enthusiasts searching for unbroken space. At one point they rounded a corner and came upon a wizened yokel playing a fiddle. He was sitting on a log, tapping his foot with the music. He winked and grinned at them over the fiddle which was the same color as his teeth. They passed him by, and his music faded behind them like part of a dream. But it lingered in their heads. With each step they got farther from home and closer to the sky. It was starting to get dark.
“The trumpet is a beautiful instrument,” said Mari.
“I never said it wasn’t.”
“Oh, but you would, you would. You could argue about anything, Dave.”
“Well I won’t argue about how much I argue. Not now. Not way the hell out here with all these trees.”
Halting suddenly she said, “Who else have I ever had to argue with about the Richter Scale or Absolute Zero? Wasn’t it you who told me my blue coat was black?”
“Do you honestly expect me to remember things like that?”
“You’d argue with me over the color of my jacket and later deny it. You know you would!”
“Give me some more of those crackers!”
She passed him the box.
“I have to pee,” said Mari slyly. “You mind holding this?”
She passed him the trumpet, and so Dave stood at the side of the road eating crackers and holding the trumpet while Mari squatted in a thicket and peed.
“I feel like a Judgment Day angel over here,” he said. “One blast out of this horn and our souls will fly straight out of our mouths.”
“Try it, man,” said Mari’s voice from within the thicket. “See what happens.”
Why not? He swished some water around his mouth to wash the crackers out of his teeth and then he pressed the mouthpiece to his lips and blew. Nothing. His lips jammed together and his ears squeaked and popped from the force of his lungs. For a second he thought he’d gone deaf.
“You need to build up the muscles in your face,” she said. “It’s not easy.”
“I never thought it would be.”
“If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”
“People enjoy doing easy things,” agreed Dave.
“Well I don’t!” Mari stood up and buttoned her pants. Then she surprised him by saying, “I think this would be a good spot to set up camp, don’t you?” She indicated a clearing beside the road. “Yes, this is where we sleep tonight.”
Dave went over and swept away the pine needles and scraped out a fire pit with a tiny shovel she’d had in her backpack while Mari built a ring of rocks around it and filled it with kindling. In no time she had a fire going. As a child she’d gone every year to some sort of survivalist training camp with her brother, Jimmy. Both she and Jimmy were always trying to inveigle Dave into the wilderness. He never gave in. Sometimes they went mountain-climbing together while Dave stayed home and read the newspaper and did crossword puzzles and watched movies – sad, depressing movies which were too weird to watch with Mari. She had no patience for Dave’s movies. She would stand right up in the middle and start cooking, which infuriated him, so now he watched them alone.
She opened her backpack and took out some cheese.
“Take this,” she said. “Eat it in memory of me.”
“This is my body,” said Dave, “this is my cheese body.” Mari laughed. It was an old joke between them.
Dave cut the cheese into slices with Mari’s knife while she fried some sardines in a small frying pan with a collapsible handle. She had a little container full of sardines, all of them lying there neatly in a row with their eyes wide open, staring out at them, their tiny silver scales glinting purple and green in the twilight. If they had fallen into a pond they probably would have blinked and swum away.
“I saw this coming,” said Mari. “How I saw it coming.”
“Wow, I guess you really did!”
She lay the sardines in the hot pan one by one and they began to sizzle and darken. “Don’t worry,” she said, “they’re fresh. I got them off the fish truck this morning.”
“Do I look worried?”
“You look … quizzical.”
“I do not look fucking quizzical!”
She snorted. “You do from where I’m standing.”
When they had finished eating, Mari picked up the trumpet and played the B flat scale again, then she performed a sad little tune Dave thought he recognized. She was the type of person who could teach herself almost anything in no time at all.
“That was nice,” he said.
“Well I’m glad you liked it.”
“It’s starting to get a little cold, though. Aren’t you cold?”
“Well I brought our sleeping bags along but I didn’t have a chance to grab the tent. You’re always in such a rush when you’re angry.”
“I wasn’t angry.”
“You were fuming, Dave. You were spitting at me.”
“OK, so maybe I was a little bit agitated. OK.”
He got up and tossed some more wood on the fire and they spent the night watching the stars and teaching each other how to play the trumpet. Between songs they told each other secrets they’d almost forgotten they had.
In the morning they had pancakes with the blueberries Mari had foraged while Dave was still asleep. Afterward they washed their hands and faces in a stream and brushed their teeth. Dave liked brushing his teeth, it was something he had always liked doing for some reason, and he liked it even more sitting beside this stream. They rinsed their plates and forks and scrubbed the frying pan, then they broke camp and set out along the road.
“If we pick up our pace, we can have lunch at the summit,” she said.
“It’ll be a late lunch then.”
“I’ve got some strawberries we can tide ourselves over with on the way.”
“You think of everything!” said Dave, laughing.
It was a warm, clear morning and the sun shone on the trumpet, sending sharp little glints of light into the trees, piercing the leaves. As they neared the top of the mountain, patches of snow began to appear in the shadows behind rocks. They marched up to the huge cairn that marked the summit and sat down at the foot of it.
“Jesus, I’m wrecked,” said Dave. “Trudging up mountainsides really takes it out of you, doesn’t it?”
Mari held the trumpet up to him and said, “You know, I think we have a knack for this thing.” She opened the spit valve and blew a spray of spit onto the rocks. “When we get home we’ll sign up for lessons.”
“I don’t much feel like learning anything new right now. Not at this stage in life.”
“You can’t just stand still, Dave. You’ll die.”
“I said you’ll die.”
“What do you mean I’ll die?”
“I mean you will cease to be alive.”
“Ah, don’t you worry about me. When it’s time for all that, I’ll just wander off and lie down somewhere.” He laughed, knowing how stupid he sounded. It had always been Dave’s curse to know – or at least suspect, which was worse – how stupid he sounded. “I’ll just go ahead and get rid of myself. Save you the hassle.”
“Ah, you. You. I’ve never met anyone like you,” she said sadly.
“People usually mean that as a compliment.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t know.”
“Oh, all right! Pass me that godforsaken horn.”
He stood on the cairn and blasted the trumpet.
“Why are you angry at me?” said Mari.
“I’m not angry at you.”
“Yes you are.”
“No I’m not!”
They stood on the cairn with the wind whipping around them. In the distance they saw their town, a hazy little blot on the landscape. It was still and quiet. Everybody was down there. Their friends, their neighbors. Their cat. Mari looked at Dave and said three or four words – there were tears on her cheeks, torn from her eyes by the wind – but the wind came up even harder just then and he never heard what they were.
They had lunch on the mountain, sheltering from the wind behind the cairn, then they packed everything up and descended. It was harder on your feet going down, Dave complained. His shoes rubbed against his heels, burning and tickling them. His toes got jammed up and sore. But as usual they made good time.
They stopped for a rest at their old campsite. Already it looked like something dead, another strange impossibility. It was hard to believe they had slept there and woken up there only a few hours earlier. There was a white splotch of toothpaste on a leaf near the stream. Dave remembered spitting it there. That was his spit on that leaf.
Mari said, “Follow me,” and she turned onto a narrow track which Dave hadn’t noticed as they had made their way up the mountain. It led into the forest, and it was as if Mari had just thought it up, creating a fresh avenue through the trees with her mind. If anyone were capable of something like that, Dave thought, it was Mari.
“Where are we going?” he said.
“Do you care?”
He followed her. The trumpet, strapped to her backpack, dazzled him over and over again.
They walked until nightfall, then he helped her build another fire pit. When the fire was going good, Mari scooped some water out of a stream and heated some vegetable soup. She saw Dave looking and said, “I promise you won’t get beaver fever.”
Dave nodded. He didn’t know what beaver fever was but he was relieved he wasn’t going to get it. He went on slicing the cheese and apples. After they ate they practiced their scales and Mari taught him how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and then The Yellow Rose of Texas, which he found difficult and exasperating.
“You catch on fast,” she said.
“I learn everything fast at first. Then I reach a point and don’t learn anymore. It’s so annoying!”
“You give up.”
“No. I just don’t progress. It becomes impossible, and I can’t go on with it.”
She placed her hand on his wrist and said, “You have to go on with it, Dave. You have to progress. There’s no other way to live this life.”
“I don’t have to go on with anything!”
“You are going to die,” she said.
“Oh, great. That again.”
Mari picked up the trumpet and played a tune so sweet and mournful Dave started to cry.
The next morning they marched all the way to the ocean. There was a small empty cottage on the shore, abandoned, taken over by animals like something out of a folktale, and without mentioning anything to anyone they started living in it. They hardly even said anything about it to each other – just waltzed on in and found themselves cleaning the place out. First they chased out the largest of the animals and swept their shit and feathers and refuse out the back door. Then they tore garlands of ancient cobwebs out of the corners and burned them in the fireplace. They forged a bed out of whatever was at hand – a pair of doors lain across blocks, some musty foam padding, their sleeping bags. It would do to keep them off the ground until they came up with something better.
They slept in front of the fire that first night and in the morning they twisted the legs off of ruined chairs and nailed them to salvageable chairs. In this way they concocted a dining set – four wobbly chairs and a three-legged table. The rest of it was firewood. Later that afternoon they had their first sit-down lunch in their new home. Afterward Dave found an old bicycle and an ancient bicycle pump in the shed, so he pumped up the tires and miraculously they stayed pumped up. He rode the bike round and round through the knee-high grass, flattening out a path. They combed the beach for firewood, rope, bottles. Dave found a wallet with nothing in it but sand. He shoved it into his back pocket. He wondered if someone had chucked it off the deck of a ship for some reason, or if it had been in the pocket of a drowning victim. Maybe it had belonged to a murder victim. Now it was in his back pocket. It was his and it hadn’t cost him anything.
There were mussels on the rocks and they boiled them with wild garlic for supper and they were delicious. There were cockles, periwinkles and whelks and around twenty kinds of seaweed. They discovered that limpets are good to eat, too. Not even Mari had known that. They re-hung the front door on its hinges and Mari replaced the broken windows with glass robbed from a neighboring wreck. They scrubbed the walls, leveled out the floor, and painted the door blue. The window frames they painted bright yellow.
“I wonder what our mailing address is,” said Mari.
“No one will ever find us here.”
She laughed. “That’s such a ‘you’ thing to say.”
Then she said, “I wish I had my surfboard.”
Mari got a job taking care of an old woman who lived in the first cottage up the coast, their only neighbor. It was lucky for them she’d had polio as a child and had no one to look after her. She’d never had children and her nieces and nephews were all gone, she said. Vanished. Didn’t know where. Gone to America. Or maybe they were dead. Who knew? She owned the cottage they were living in and hadn’t thought about the place in twenty-five years. Or even longer probably. “Take it!” she commanded. “I don’t give a crap about it. Nobody’s done anything over there in decades. Eons.”
“The roof’s still in good shape and the walls are sturdy,” said Mari.
“Wonderful! It’s yours. The roof and the walls. Live there!”
Mari became her helper, her confidant.
Dave became a fisherman. He worked on boats with the other fisherman and learned how to catch fish and do all the other things he needed to do in order to live there. It was hard at first but he got used to it, and eventually the other fishermen stopped laughing at him. His hands became the hands of a fisherman and his lips became those of a trumpet player.
Together Dave and Mari coaxed what they could out of the land. Mari knew all there was to know about growing your own food and the wonders of seaweed.
At night they played their trumpet.
They survived there – weeks, months, years, perched on the rim of the world.
The seasons changed. They got older. They got old.
They got very old.
One night, not long before she died, Mari stood in the doorway with the sun going down behind her. She stood straight. She was in very good shape for someone so old. Or at least she appeared to be. The inside of the house was dark, and the darkness was thick with Dave’s breath. He was sick. He was the one who was supposed to be dying. Not her.
Mari said, “We’ve spent our entire lives here, Dave.”
She didn’t sound happy or sad about it. She didn’t sound surprised either. She was only observing the truth for him in case he had missed it, which is what she had always done. All their lives.
But Dave hadn’t missed it. Not this time.
From the heated darkness, where he lay in his blanket, Dave whispered, “Thank you. Oh, thank you.”