Fiction Fiction Issue

Whitmore, 1969

Back from Vietnam, seeking salvation in Bob Dylan
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In the morning we drove into the North Country, sharing a joint, the windows down, the air rushing all around us. The copper ridges flattened out and the woods dappled with sunshine. Neither of us had been this far north before. I looked off into the underbrush, scanning for wolves and bears, emissaries of the Arctic. We didn’t play any music; my brother drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and smiled at the dash.

He said, “That woman last night was Miya. She’s a half-blood Cheyenne Indian.”

I waited for more, but this was all he said on the subject of the hooker in our motel room.

Sometime in the middle of the afternoon we came upon Hibbing. I expected the town to be something from a Bob Dylan song. I expected an indolent settlement of barefoot girls and roadhouses, repentant men sitting at bus stops, worn bandstands in municipal parks. In reality, Hibbing was a collection of wide, clean streets and cropped lawns. We saw a post office, a library, several banks, a drugstore. Some of the buildings showed vestiges of iron-mining money—the stately stone and brickwork façades of the high school and the Androy Hotel. We drove down Howard Street. My brother brought out the receipt with Tracy Thatch’s address on it. Other addresses were listed beneath hers.

“A buddy of mine from ’Nam gave me some addresses. He makes the pilgrimage once a year from Buffalo, New York.”

The pilgrimage? I was still high from the joint, and this word annoyed me; it suddenly cheapened the deep and imagined connection I had to Bob Dylan.

We pulled down Seventh Avenue East and parked in front of a modest two-story house at the corner of 25th Street.

“This is the house where Robert lived from the time he was seven,” Whitmore said, squinting at his list and then up at the house.

“Robert,” I repeated.

Whitmore ignored me.

I stared at the house, trying to feel some gravity. It was boxy with a nearly flat roof; it had a squat and fortified appearance. We both looked out at the house for several long moments.

“Looks like it’s got a basement,” Whitmore said.

“Yeah.”

“I wonder where his bedroom was,” Whitmore said, biting his lip in speculation. “I’m going to say that his bedroom was upstairs and that he had his bed pushed all the way against the window.”

“And he used to watch the stars and listen to Woody Guthrie albums,” I offered.

“Yes. And he kept a notebook and a flashlight under his pillow.”

“Because he didn’t know when a song would keep him awake at night.”

Whitmore smiled. “You have to wonder when it happened, you know? When Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan.”

“When he changed his name?”

“No. I mean when the boy became Bob Dylan. Some events change us. They make us become something different, and the change can happen in the span of a single day. One night Robert Zimmerman went to sleep, and he woke up as Bob Dylan.” Whitmore looked down the street and then back at the house. “If we go to the library we can see Robert’s senior class picture from 1959. They keep that particular yearbook in a safe.”

“Are you serious?”

“People keep stealing it, and they’re running out of copies.”

I nodded, part of an imagined conspiracy.

We drove over to East Fifth Avenue and parked in front of the library. We went inside and found a librarian in a chlorine-blue dress. Her name was Miss Spalding, and she took us down to the basement where the yearbook was kept in a locked filing cabinet. Miss Spalding lay the yearbook out on a reading table and opened it to the relevant section. Then she left us alone with the book. The page corners were slightly dog-eared, and the glossy surface was smudged with the whorls of previous fingerprints. Robert Zimmerman was wearing a jacket and tie. His hair was slicked back in what appeared to be a ducktail cut, and he had a wry and affable expression on his face.

“He’s not looking at the camera,” Whitmore said.

It was true. Robert’s eyes rested slightly to the left of the camera. We both stared down at the photo, trying to infer some larger meaning from the direction of his gaze.

“This was before he set off for Greenwich Village. In this photo, he doesn’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but he has a sense of things. People who refuse to look at the camera know that something better is waiting.”

I allowed my brother his speculation. We stood there a long while, staring down at this seventeen-year-old kid’s photo, looking for an indelible mark, something that singled him out. This was not only because we were on the philosophical tide of a joint, but also because it was the end of a long, strange decade and we each wondered whether we could still be favored by some invisible kindness, some watershed talent. Miss Spalding returned and interrupted our reverie with the closing of the book. “We’re getting ready to close for the day.”

I looked at my watch; it was almost four o’clock.

“We should go eat lunch,” I said to Whitmore.

He nodded, still dazed and infatuated with Robert Zimmerman’s high school photo. We went outside and walked in search of food.

On the main drag, everything was closed. We had forgotten about the moon landing until we noticed a sign in the drugstore window that read Closed Early to Watch Astronauts. We plodded down the street, the only people in sight, hungry and less high by the minute. Hibbing had become a ghost town; I imagined people huddled around their TV sets with popcorn and soda. Eventually we came upon an appliance store that, although closed, displayed twelve televisions tuned to Walter Cronkite. We pressed our faces to the glass, pulled in by Walter’s grave and judicial face. Mostly we heard a dull buzz, but now and then we made out the faint narration of the astronauts. I can’t say how long we stood there, watching the near-silent montage of the first moon landing. But I remember seeing the suggestion of a tear in Walter Cronkite’s eye, and the footage of Armstrong climbing down the ladder, delicately, like a man climbing into an icy pool of water. Then I remember the slow, first footstep, and Buzz Aldrin coming down, and the two of them taking photographs and jumping across the white, lunar terrain. It was like some spectral beach scene—two men frolicking on some strange and distant shore. I remember thinking that they too had been boys marked for history, that they too had probably slept in beds pushed up against the window to allow the onrush of stars. When they planted the American flag—a swath of fabric surrounded by gray-white dunes and a rushing darkness—I heard my brother say in a tone of perfect melancholy, “Now they’ve gone and put that up there.”

For almost forty years, this comment has stayed with me. Somehow, it seemed to contain everything that he’d seen so far in his life and who he was becoming. I turned to look at my brother, his face somber, just inches from the window. A cloud of his breath was on the glass. He was utterly mysterious to me—nothing but vapors and smoke. I knew we would never be friends, that life would pull us into parallel streams. I would go to college, and he would move to New York; he would become a bartender, an itinerant neighborhood poker player, and call me at three in the morning for money. I would stay in Indianapolis, become a lawyer, marry the first woman to fall in love with me. He would stay single, in and out of troubled love. He would retain his propensity for crying—tearing up during movies and when certain songs played on the radio. His hair would stay short. His friends would call him Whit. My brother and I would go years without seeing each other. We would have a reunion at a Bob Dylan concert in 1995 and the night would end badly, with him punching me in the stomach. Four years later, at the age of fifty-three, he would die in a Brooklyn efficiency with a cat and no stove. At his funeral I would cry for the first time since grade school.

I want to say that all this seemed to be contained there in the plate glass of that appliance-store window in Hibbing, Minnesota, a little after five on a July afternoon. Not the facts, but the sense of things unraveling. I want to say that a man’s life can run aground in a matter of seconds, but he may not know it for years. I’ve asked myself countless times whether Whitmore’s life had taken its turn when his San Francisco girlfriend opened the bottle of sleeping tablets, or when the guy from Ohio fell from the helicopter in Vietnam, or when the woman in braids spat at him in the Los Angeles airport, but I have no way of knowing. Maybe when he saw those two men standing on the moon, or this country’s flag, slightly stiff and unyielding, amid the lunar void. I remember that we stood at the window for an impossibly long time. I was staring at the enigma of my brother’s face, and he refused to look at me. Finally, I turned back to the wall of televisions, pressed my hands against the glass, and watched Neil Armstrong take a telephone call from the president.

Dominic Smith’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, published in February, is a current selection of Barnes & Nobel’s Discover Great New Writers.
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