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‘The Arrest,’ by Jonathan Lethem: An Excerpt

1. Frost Heaves

The road is laid on by the land’s dictation. A horse path once and again, it isn’t smoothed or straightened, routered through the hills. It climbs and collapses, adopts their shape. Here, you might not see something coming until it is upon you. Should there be word of a thing traveling furiously, fair enough. Be patient. What wends toward your town gets there when it will.

Do the hairs on your neck rise? Take a look. Much exists unseen. For instance, the crows in the canopy—you hear them, but can’t pick them out. Mostly, you’ll want to look where you’re going, watch your step, on the irregular, undermined asphalt. A scattering of—is it acorns? Buckshot shells? Not those, not anymore. Scat, perhaps. At the road edge, the low walls, piles of cleared fieldstone. The deer are back, or never were gone. A question of where your eye lands.

Beyond these towns, the road slaloms south, deep and crooked from the mainland, into the peninsula, then across two causeways, now derelict. Vein through the meat of the old land, the road finds its finish on the main street of the fishing enclave on the southernmost of the two islands dangling from the peninsula’s tip, into the Atlantic. A lobster town, its piers were for a half century partly overtaken by galleries and restaurants, a stand selling ice cream loaded in chocolate-dipped cones. Anyone might have gone there, just once, and complained about tourists. It’s a fishing village again. Two hours by horse or bicycle to the quarry towns.

[ Return to the review of “The Arrest.” ]

Too far to go. Forget those lobstermen, who rarely appear. It’s the others, those on horseback, calling themselves the Cordon, who are essential to anticipate, defer to, avoid. They guard the south and west perimeters, the ways out by land. To escape this peninsula now, there’s only the sea. Not your thing. Stay with the road.

The rusted yellow highway warning sign reading frost heaves presents a syntactic puzzle. A verb itself frozen. Was there one particular heave, a buckling in an otherwise smooth surface, that once dictated placement of the warning at this spot? The whole roadway surface is heaves now. Someone with a bullet to spare, long ago, shot the metal sign. Forever a surprise the bullet passed through, didn’t get stuck.

Maybe Frost is in fact a person, that poet we studied in high school. Frost heaves into the mind. His road diverged, ours doesn’t. Though, really, isn’t any road you could follow in either of two directions divergent enough to begin with?

2. The Lake of Tiredness

Journeyman was on the road this day, north out from the village, to do one of his two regular jobs. Making rounds, by foot, because his bicycle needed repair. He wasn’t a horseman, though he could ride one in a pinch, he imagined. Had done it once or twice at summer camp, in the Poconos. It wasn’t as though much he’d learned in the first part of his life had turned out to be applicable in this, the second. This life wasn’t the one he thought he’d be living.

It was Journeyman’s job to visit the man who lived at the Lake of Tiredness. To bring the man food and other supplies, like candles and hand-spun dental floss. Though really it had proven easy enough just to leave packages at the top of the road; the prisoner would pace up and retrieve them. Prisoner of sorts. There was nothing keeping the man from continuing beyond that point, the juncture where the path to his lakeside cabin joined the peninsula’s main thoroughfare. Nothing besides a kind of agreement between the man and the town, that he should be exiled or retired there. The man, whose name was Jerome Kormentz, was quite elderly. Where would he go? The road to the Lake of Tiredness was long overgrown, sprung grasses concealing the old gravel tire beds from the center and sides, an entirely successful combover. In the shade of dense foliage the air was cool and dry, on a hot bright day, outstanding in every way. Journeyman would remember this later. Some of the crows had followed him from the main road. Or maybe it was other crows. He wasn’t that dedicated a watcher of crows.

The path widened to a clearing. A lawn that had once long ago been diligently mowed now rippled with the same grasses that infilled the gravel beds, and voluntary saplings that would, if left untended, reclaim this land as woods. Everything here wanted to be woods. As a city child visiting New England he’d once taken the pastures, rimmed by dense trees, as a natural formation. A pleasing alternation of the dense and spare, the shadowed and sunlit. Now he’d come to understand that every cleared place in Maine recorded a massive human undertaking, likely by some eighteenth- or nineteenth-century farmer and his neighbors. A quiet war with the growth, once won, now mostly lost again.

At the bottom, the cabin on the shore, a dock extended a brief distance into the water. The Lake of Tiredness was actually a large pond, this had been explained to him once. A matter of outflow and inflow, or lack thereof.

Kormentz came up from the house. Kormentz did this every time, though there was no schedule to the visits, offering a hearty greeting: arms outthrust, hairy-knobbed wrists exposed from his kimono, extending for a handclasp. Charging uphill despite the fact that he was old and his visitor was, if not young, younger. Middle-aged. And despite the fact they’d then turn and descend together to the cabin.

When he saw Jerome Kormentz’s face, Journeyman had to adjust to how old Kormentz had gotten, though he’d known him only five years. The effect wore off quickly. Journeyman would later reflect on how he’d rehearsed this perception this particular day, with Kormentz, because he was to apply it just hours later to a different person, one he’d had no notion of ever seeing again.

3. Time Averaging

That was Journeyman’s name for it: Time Averaging. It wasn’t a complicated idea. A thing that happens when you first lay eyes on someone you’ve known a long time, but whom you only see intermittently. A thing you do to their faces, with your mind. Time Averaging could also happen if you knew a child, or a teenager—if they were your nephew or niece, say.

It worked like this: You saw them. They appeared shockingly old. Or in the case of the child, startlingly grown. You found time to wonder: Where did the time go? Am I old, too? Were they managing the same confusion, even as they smiled and said how great you look? Then you’d fix them in your mind, using Time Averaging. Your mind held a cache of earlier versions, and you’d merge them to make the person continuous with the earlier rendition. You located their beauty and unspoiledness, and smoothed it up into the picture. If the person was truly elderly, like Jerome Kormentz, you’d recuperate them, to a degree. If a teenager, you’d find the younger child still lurking in their face.

The persons for whom we perform the most remarkable acts of Time Averaging, Journeyman tended to think, were lovers, former and present. Of course. Lovers and siblings. In his present life, he found himself Time Averaging his sister nearly every day, despite the briefness of the intervals.

If you’d told Journeyman, before the Arrest, that he’d come to a life in which he saw his sister nearly every day, he’d have been bewildered at the suggestion.

Time Averaging wasn’t a difficult operation, in Journeyman’s view. In fact, it was impossible not to perform it. Journeyman supposed it was also a thing done to oneself in the mirror, though this seemed to cheapen the theory. He wasn’t interested in mirrors, these days. The striking thing wasn’t the Time Averaging itself, but the existence of the tiny interval in which it hadn’t yet occurred. That moment where we see things as they are.

Journeyman suspected we also did this to the world. It must be the case.

[ Return to the review of “The Arrest.” ]

4. The Pillow Book of Jerome Kormentz

Journeyman was of average height, but Kormentz made him feel tall. Kormentz had always reminded Journeyman of a fish-person, his eyes goggled, his perpetually smiling lips pursed, lower lip a valentine, his thin hair streamed almost invisibly back to cover his scalp. As Kormentz aged, this impression deepened, despite the effect of the Time Averaging. Maybe someday the resemblance would climax and he’d leap into the Lake of Tiredness, shiver into goldfish form, and vanish. Kormentz’s mystical bent made it seem possible.

“Good morning, Sandy!” Journeyman’s given name was Alexander Duplessis. Mostly these days he was called Sandy. His family nickname, it had been propagated locally by his sister, before he could intervene.

“Hello, Jerome.”

“Storyteller, tell me a story.” A standard provocation from Kormentz.

“I’m not your storyteller or anyone’s, Jerome.”

“No, you’re the butcher, now. Did you bring me a lean chop? A portion of somebody’s beloved lamb, named Freckle or Daisy?” He scurried alongside Journeyman as they moved toward his deck.

“I brought you some pig. Good enough for soup.”

“But what’s the pig’s name? A he- or a she-pig? Did you slaughter her yourself? Have you grown more accustomed to it? You know how I’m starved for names, Sandy. Something for my brain-soup. I can live without the people if you’ll just give me the names. Then I’ll invent the people for myself.”

“Here’s a story,” Journeyman said. “Ed Waltz got a tractor to move a few dozen yards across his field, using human waste mixed with the used oil from Mike Raritan’s deep fryer. He thinks that might be the recipe.” The people of the Cordon had functional motorcycles. Nobody knew the secret of their fuel, except that their rides smelled like shithouses.

“Ed and Mike, that’s a start. How about Sarah and Jennifer and Penny? How about Susan? What can you tell me about Susan? Has anyone new moved into the yurt?”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. If it’s the Susan I’m thinking of, she’s one of those who left.”

“Pity.”

“Here’s what I have for you.” Journeyman unslung his backpack, a relic of the before. It read telluride film festival 2020 on the straps, though faded almost to illegibility. He’d gotten it as a freebie. There’d been a backpack like it, each full of Criterion Blu-rays and other swag, waiting in each guest’s hotel room. Had others been subsequently stained, as this one had, by rinsings in the blood of fresh-slaughtered ducks and sheep, or by lard-smeared mason jars of new-rendered pig parts, such as Journeyman unloaded now? He also fished out a rubber-banded bundle of carrots—he retrieved the rubber band for future use—and some loose spring onions and garlic scapes.

“There’s a good soup to be had here,” he said. “Especially if you’ve been gathering mushrooms.”

“There’s a book I need you to find for me, Sandy.”

“What book?”

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Ancient Japanese text, tenth or eleventh century, I think.”

“Pillow Book?” Journeyman didn’t like the sound of it. “Like that Doris Day movie, what’s it called? Oh, Pillow Talk.”

“Sandy, you’re a philistine. It’s one of the classic early literary texts. The author was a lady at the emperor’s court. She recorded her impressions toward the end of her life, with no expectation of publication. Or perhaps she had one sly eye on posterity. Years ago I memorized great swaths of it—alas, all gone now. I do recall it was broken into these marvelous categorical lists, like ‘Things that should be large,’ or ‘Things that give a pathetic impression,’ or ‘Things that make one nervous.’”

Jerome Kormentz aloft on one of his jags: this was a thing that made Journeyman nervous. It made him feel answerable, even if there was no one else around. He was bothered by Kormentz’s constant invocation of “Eastern” stuff. It was with Eastern stuff that Kormentz had beguiled the two teenage girls at Spodosol Ridge Farm. The actions that had led, eventually, to this cozy exile. Journeyman himself had a kind of tone deafness when it came to Eastern stuff, or at least to the Eastern stuff spouted by Westerners who fancied themselves enlightened. He did pine for sushi restaurants, and for Wong Karwai movies, and older Japanese samurai movies, by Kurosawa and Kobayashi. Some of these remained shelved, tantalizingly, at the town library, where he supposed he’d go soon, to try to find Kormentz his Pillow Book. Not that any of the local tinkerers had time or inclination to spare for rigging up a prototype bicycle-powered or human-waste-fueled DVD or Blu-ray player.

“I’m writing my own version,” he added into Journeyman’s silence. “The Pillow Book of Jerome Kormentz. It has the same odds of lasting as Sei Shōnagon’s, but you never know.”

“Does it rhyme?”

“No,” Kormentz said. “Why do you ask that?”

“Aren’t most things that last really some kind of song? Like The Odyssey? And they shot that Chuck Berry number out into space.” Talk with Kormentz often plumbed regions of bizarre fact Journeyman had no idea remained relocatable within him. “Never mind. What’s your Pillow Book about?”

“Read Sei Shōnagon’s before you bring it to me and you’ll understand. Just the purest impressions of life as it is lived, without apology.”

It was clear where this led. “I’ll take a look,” Journeyman said, sourly. He’d unpacked the last of the vegetables now, and the mason jar of goat milk yogurt his sister always set aside for Kormentz. Nothing kept him. Other days he might linger to talk, but not today.

“I was always a loving person,” Kormentz blithered. “Everyone knew that. I believed it was sweet and kind, a light I was spreading at the Farm. I love women, Sandy. I made them feel irresistible. Everyone knew I did a little touching, a hand at the small of the back—”

Journeyman had heard it before: the small of the back. Kormentz still luxuriated in his moment of disaster. This had been the cause, as much as his crime, of his removal to the Lake of Tiredness—the fact that he couldn’t quit talking about it.

[ Return to the review of “The Arrest.” ]

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