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Summer 2010

Dutcher's Notch

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Dale Peck

One day in the second half of my twenties I decided to become afraid. I remember the day if not the date: it was the afternoon I wrote “Rolling Back the Stone,” a series of autobiographical prose poems in which I finally confronted—head-on, I mean, rather than obliquely, as I had in everything else I’d written—the legacy of my childhood. Abusive fathers, victimized mothers, and cowering, watchful children had dominated my stories to such a degree that I felt I’d never write about anything but family violence unless I managed to exorcise them—by which I mean exorcise my father, the omphalos around whom all those other characters orbited, and from whose gravity they could never escape. I’d made several attempts at the piece before, all of them abortive, but that day the words came in a Plathlike blood jet. I wrote feverishly all morning and afternoon, automatically it seemed. Even now I remember more the act of watching the words fill up the pages than the thoughts that produced them, and as I wrote I felt a childhood sadness moving through me, the sadness any writer feels when he revisits old wounds. But that emotion was tempered by, on the one hand, a sense of exhilaration at what I knew to be good work and, on the other, a feeling of transgression at my betrayal of my father’s name. But above all I felt fear. My father had always defended the things he considered his own with threatened and real violence. As a child I had alternately been shielded by and a target of his ferocity, but on that afternoon I knew I was removing myself once and for all from the lee of his wrath. My father might or might not hurt me, but he would never protect me again.

What frightened me that day was the expectation of my father’s reaction. I feared two things: one, anachronistically, was his fists, ten years and fifteen hundred miles removed; the other, also a fantasy but a fantasy of the future, was his death. I feared my words would kill him. The fears, like the essay I was writing, gathered momentum with narrative urgency. They demanded a release that, the longer delayed, necessitated an ever-greater climax. In the essay that climax was the four-page section entitled “The Safety of Objects,” a manual biography of my father that measured his life through the things he’d touched with his hands and ended with his simultaneous deification and dethroning. The metaphor was Christian but the sentiment was Greek: I was Zeus toppling and imprisoning my Titan progenitor. The idea was no less maudlin than it was inescapable, and, aesthetically, it stands as a marker of both my ambitions for and the limitations of my writing up to that point, if not my imagination itself. But writing stops when you put the pen down; the imagination doesn’t. After I’d finished I set off for the gym as I always did, my thoughts racing, my pulse too. I knew that the things I’d just written would hurt my father terribly, would destroy, perhaps permanently this time, the relationship we’d been slowly but steadily repairing ever since my first fictionalized stabs at him in Martin and John. Without a pen in my hand to channel that wild energy outward it batted about inside me, desperate for release.

There was a time in my early twenties when phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs appeared in my head, lingering for a few minutes, a few hours at most, and if I didn’t scratch them down on something they disappeared. I built my first and second novels out of and around folders full of such fragments, but at some point during The Law of Enclosures this habit left as mysteriously as it came. Thereafter it was “ideas” that came to me, vague and unconnected to narrative or character, as opposed to what I’d had before, which had also been vague, but only in the sense that they were unconnected to any kind of idea. To give you an example: my second novel was pulled like a fisherman’s net towards its last line, written years before I began the novel itself: “Oh Beatrice, oh Beatrice. There’s God.” My first novel crystallized when, halfway through the draft, I scribbled the phrase “Every fiction is always related to some fact” on, I think, a napkin from my university cafeteria. The obvious (and reductive) metafictional meaning of the sentence went unnoted by me at the time; the words were, rather, the simplest evocation of my young character’s habit of writing tragic stories based on the equally painful events of his own childhood and adolescence, and it was from that sentence that the entire novel’s structure depended.

This is a diversion, but a necessary one. What I am trying to suggest is that these two habits—composition, and the independent invention of sentences—acted as some kind of relief for my imagination, and that in their absence my thoughts continued to build in me (I’m back on the sidewalk again, on the way to the gym) until I was nearly shivering with fear. Consciously, all my attention was still directed outward, at the future, at my father, so that when the attack came it took me by surprise. I was crossing Second Avenue at 7th Street when my left side spasmed with pain. My vision tunneled and blurred, I stumbled and nearly fell. I righted myself, continued to walk toward the gym. I told myself that what it felt like had just happened couldn’t have happened: I was twenty-seven years old, a vegetarian who did vigorous cardiovascular exercise four or five times a week, tooled up and down Manhattan on my bicycle every day, I was still walking. But as I walked the pain continued to grow in my left side, that arm began to tingle, my breath came in ragged gasps and spots danced in front of my eyes. By the time I’d covered the last three blocks to the gym I was drenched in sweat and convinced that somehow, despite my youth and diet and exercise and the fact that I was still walking swiftly, I had had a heart attack. I begged the desk attendant at the gym to call an ambulance. She gave me a chair and a glass of water and tried to calm me down; but a minute or two after I arrived a friend showed up and took me by cab to St. Vincent’s emergency room. The doctor on duty took one look at me and told me I was fine, but I insisted the pain was real. It must have been a slow day: she led me to a curtained bed and hooked me to an EKG. The machine confirmed her diagnosis. My blood pressure was normal, my heart bumped along at ninety-five beats per minute—mildly elevated, but not even what you’d get from a brisk walk.

I had heard of panic attacks before, but had no clear idea what they were. “Sudden panic”—of course—but how that manifested itself physically was unknown to me. In fact I had had a panic attack two years before, when I’d been unable to board a flight to London, but I didn’t recognize it as such until years later, and aside from that incident I don’t think I’d ever actually panicked. I am—or, rather, I was—an equanimical personality; an Italian roommate used to say, hysterically, that I was cold, like a fish. The day after the attack I was back at the gym, joking with the desk attendant; what had happened twenty-four hours before was at such a remove I didn’t feel threatened by it; the idea that it might happen again didn’t even occur to me.

But it did happen again, a little over a year later, when I was preparing to fly from Boston to San Francisco for the Law of Enclosures book tour. Before that, there had been a palpable increase in my level of anxiety around flying, which has made me nervous since I was a child; and there had been, also, a disconnect in regard to The Law of Enclosures and the effect it would have on my family and my relationship with it. The single chapter “Rolling Back the Stone” had by then expanded to five, the four additional ones devoted to my mother and each of my three stepmothers, and though I glibly assured agent, editors, and friends that I was aware my one-sided revelations were liable to have a devastating effect on my family—it was, almost universally, the first thing readers asked about—I never went the extra step and gave the nebulous “devastating effect” a concrete form in my imagination. There was no character to which I could attribute the words, no invented personality to simultaneously give them meaning and deflect attention from me. Whatever happened it would be my fault alone, and, drunk with a kind of disembodied omnipotence—I could control everyone but myself—I lurched uneasily toward publication.

The day before my flight to San Francisco I’d taken the train to Boston for a reading. The selection I’d chosen was “Rolling Back the Stone,” and as I read I felt the panic build in me; by the end of the reading I was gripping the podium for balance and trying desperately to ignore the stitch in my left side. But the next day, reeling for eight hours through Logan Airport on several Valium—I have a vague image of myself shuffling about like a sedated lunatic, clutching my duffel bag to my chest like a big teddy-bear—I knew I’d turned a corner. I had become a different kind of person. I had become afraid. I could feel fear spreading through my world like the echoes of a scream. If you imagine a scream as a ragged-edged hurricane, then where I was was the eye. Terror, violence raged all around me, would rage around me from then on, and it seemed to me that the best I could do was move about within the nucleus, try always to keep myself inside its magic circle of stasis. As I skipped first one and then the second and then finally the third and last flight to San Francisco, I pleaded on the telephone with my agent, editors, publicist, and roommate to understand: it wasn’t, ultimately, the thought of a plane crash that kept me from checking my bag, strapping myself in, ordering a numbing cocktail. It was the scream that seemed to grow louder and louder in my ears the closer I ventured to the edge of my circle. At one point—this was the third flight, my last chance—I even managed to get on the plane, walk down the aisle with my duffel bag still clutched dumbly in both arms. A sympathetic ticket agent who’d been monitoring my plight all day walked with me; she was just about to put my bag in the overhead compartment when the walls of the cabin collapsed on me. I’m not sure if I knocked her to the floor when I turned and ran back down the aisle, but if I didn’t it was only her own quick reflexes that kept her upright. I smashed past her and then past a flight attendant, ran all the way up the gangway and didn’t stop until I was safely in the lounge.

I felt at that moment like a soldier who knows the war is lost even though the battles will go on. Indeed, I flew to San Francisco the next morning (Atavan saw me through the crucial moment), made it to LA, DC, Miami, back to New York; I flew to London; I flew back to New York. But I knew I was playing a waiting game, and not very well. The fear began to set on me anywhere, any time: not just at airports but on the street, in movie theaters and restaurants, in front of the television, in bed at night. I call it “the fear” to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill anxieties and moments of actual crisis. This fear felt completely different. A six-month stint in therapy (and Prozac) helped for a while. My psychiatrist taught me the technique of charting a panic attack, which, like ocean waves, has an inevitable pattern of peaks and shallows. The peaks and shallows themselves rise in intensity, but they also taper off, eventually fade away; and if you can hold on to that thought through each peak, when you are convinced that an artery is going to burst in your heart or your brain, that the plane is going to go down, the bridge collapse beneath the weight of your taxi, the piece of chicken loop itself around your epiglottis and pull it closed over the esophagus like a stopper in a drain—then you can eventually ride the waves of panic back to shore.

What I never mastered was the other half of the stopgap treatment she taught me, which is the control of one’s thoughts—the elimination of what addiction-support groups call stinkin’ thinkin’. When turbulence rattles the ice in your glass, don’t waste time reminding yourself that it’s normal for a jet to fall one or two hundred feet: think about something else. Tomorrow’s reading. Your bad Sunday Times review. Bunny rabbits. But I’m a novelist: it’s my nature to spin out thoughts, ideas, images, not truncate them. It’s this trait that allowed me to turn “Oh Beatrice, oh Beatrice. There’s God” into The Law of Enclosures. To deny it would be a lie; to attempt to change it would mean changing who I am, and implicit in this construction—if elaborated, I mean, if spun out like the fear fantasy that it is—is the idea that if I manage to still the thoughts that strike terror in my heart (my stomach constricts with the sickening loss of altitude, I hear the screams of my fellow passengers as the plane noses down, when the fuselage rips apart I can feel my eardrums burst, my cheeks hollow out and then ripple back as the shrieking wind batters them into the hollows of my skull, and then the awful minute of waiting for the end), I will kill also the thoughts that turned “Every fiction is always related to some fact” into Martin and John. I will lose the fact to which the fiction is related like a partner at the opposite end of a seesaw, and without my weight to complement it, it will sit on the ground, dejected—rejected—and alone.

I tell myself this during panic attacks. It’s my cross to bear, I tell myself, the burden of an artistic temperament—which is also what I told my therapist when I ended our relationship. I tried therapy, twice, but I stopped when I realized that therapy doesn’t trade on fine distinctions. It works like paint, covering one thing with another. It’s not that I believe eliminating my irrational fears with a rational program of dialogue and drugs will also eliminate my ability to write, but it does seem obvious that the fear grew out of the writing, and it is there it must return. Though distinct, my fear and my writing come from the same source, and in protecting the latter I was also protecting the former: instead of talking about my fears, I talked about my childhood, tossing in the occasional dream for good measure. The details were compelling enough, to my therapist if not to me, but at the risk of sounding glib I’ll just say that these are issues I dealt with a long time ago.


I am afraid of airplanes. I am afraid of boats. I am afraid of automobiles, especially as a passenger and especially at night. I am afraid of heights, and elevators, and cliff faces. I am afraid of any seat in a theater more than one away from an aisle. I am afraid of the dark, and of snapping twigs in a forest. I am afraid of murky water, of depth, currents, sharks. I am afraid of snakes. I am afraid of dogs. I am afraid of teenaged boys who travel in groups. I am afraid of anyone at any time with a gun. I am afraid of my heart and the million and one blood vessels that connect it to every part of my body, I am afraid of my freckles and pimples and glands, swollen or otherwise, and I am afraid of my brain. I monitor every scrape for signs of gangrene, and believe that every wheezing breath, whether induced by exercise or panic, is a sign of my weakness, if not of body then of mind: if I don’t die then I will kill myself, over and over and over again. There are moments when I forget to be afraid, and when I remember those moments later, I am afraid of them most of all.

As I write this I sit on a moss- and fern-covered boulder in a place called Dutcher’s Notch, which is nothing more than a crossroads on the side of a mountain on the eastern edge of the Catskills. A sign tells me I have hiked 2.4 miles; I am 2.6 miles from the peak. Twice during the ascent, an easy climb along a series of runoff streambeds, some wet, some dry, I had to stop to let my heart slow down. Just in case. Better safe than sorry. At least I have my cell phone. Two times while I’ve sat here an animal large enough to break twigs has broken twigs somewhere behind me, and I have stood up and looked for bears, which are said to be making a comeback in the Catskills. But the largest things I’ve seen are chipmunks, flies, and mosquitoes—one of which, according to a report on NPR, might be carrying West Nile virus, which produces encephalitis-like symptoms in the afflicted. I imagine that: my brain swelling until the cage of the skull chokes it. It’s easy to imagine; I do it every day. But there aren’t that many mosquitoes up here, and besides, I was bitten several times last night. From the welts on both ankles, I see that I’ve been scratching them while writing this, and when I walk back down the mountain I imagine I’ll continue to scratch at them, and I’ll scratch at this too, begin revising it even before I type it into my computer. But I won’t fiddle with the little flower I am going to pick for my boyfriend. I am looking at it now. It’s surrounded by clover but it’s not a clover blossom: it’s the size of a buttercup, white, with an inner diadem of purple veins, and with any luck—if it doesn’t get crushed in my pocket and if I don’t get mauled by bears or have a heart attack on the way down—when I give it to Paul it will be then exactly as it is when I pick it. I haven’t picked it yet. I’m waiting until I finish this. You can only pick a flower once; it dies then and there. Everything else you do with it—leis and bouquets and arrangements in vases—is done on time. What I mean is, it’s not life. Not afterwards. Not anymore. But maybe it’s art.

Dale Peck's tenth book, Shift, is out this August. He has been writing for The Threepenny Review since 1998, and his story "Dues," from the Fall 2003 issue, was selected for an O. Henry Award.

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