A man once spent two years with a bag over his head. The cloth was translucent and porous. The man could breathe, but not always well. He could see, but his vision was cloudy. He could speak but his voice was muffled. So he decided not to speak much. Most of the time he slept and dreamed of the time the bag was not there. Upon waking he always believed it was gone. Then the minutes would pass and he would feel the familiar constriction around his neck and the tickle of the fabric on his muffled ears and the heat of his own breath. Often he went back to bed.
In the third year the cloth thinned. The shapes he could perceive through the mesh of the bag were clearer. Faces became easier to recognize. His nose unblocked, and he could catch hints of scents more interesting than stale fabric. The man had always loved country music and kept up with its trends. When the bag had been tight music was too distant to apprehend. Now that it fell looser across his face he returned to the radio. The man even ordered a few compact discs, which came by post. He peeled off the plastic wrap and ran his thumb across the sharp corners of the cardboard. Then he set the albums aside.
His father had advice. Working with wood might help relieve the fatigue of the bag. For two years when the bag was taut against his lips and nostrils, he kept planks by the side of his bed. Sometimes he moved them around. More often they reminded him of what was gone. His thoughts turned to the time just before the bag fell over his head: the conversation with his father about the plans he’d had and his work at the Office to which he’d been elected. Over a turkey dinner, the man had shared his civic vision with his skeptical father. The room shrunk to fit the two of them only. Later the air went out of the world like a bicycle tire with a slow leak. Everything was flat. Shortly afterward the bag descended and there he was.
In the fourth year, the man, whose name was Kyle, began to work with wood regularly. He sawed cables, sanded them down, polished them, formed joints, fitted pieces together. Kyle listened to country music while he worked: John Moreland, Ashley Monroe, and especially Clint Weller, his very favorite. Those strong strummed chords felt like wood in his palm of his hand. To the hiss and crackle of vinyl he mounted cords on the lathe, turned them, planed them, swept up the ribbons of wood on the floor. As a boy his father had taught him how to make tongues and grooves and rabbets. Lessons from childhood returned to him. By now Kyle wasn’t even sure if the bag was still on his head. Sometimes it sat wet on his brow in tatters, like an old mop. Sometimes he couldn’t feel it at all.
Once he finished making the podium, he set it by the side of the bed. There it would serve as an inspiration. Kyle had always preferred to write while standing up. He wrote longhand, without the assistance of a computer. In school a teacher had shown Kyle a picture of Thomas Jefferson, at a podium, quill in hand, composing the Declaration of Independence. It gave Kyle a fixed impression of the manner in which public discourse must be manufactured — by a man who comported himself with gravity, an evident sense of purpose, and total concentration on the task. Later Kyle was told that Jefferson had owned and raped slaves. It was Victor who’d broken the bad news. Kyle had researched it and stood up in front of the class and delivered a report on it. He’d gotten an A, but Kyle always got an A. Although he internalized the words of the report, his initial impression of Jefferson, and the Founders, somehow survived the encounter with what he’d learned. Years later, Kyle still hadn’t riddled that out.
About one thing Kyle’s father had been right: working with words was worse than working with wood. Wood was fixed and definite. Words kept slipping about. Yet Kyle had faith that his father did not. He felt the same way now that he did before he became lost in the bag: if he could strike upon the right phrases, in the right sequence, with the proper balance of dignity and pith, and deliver it with conviction, with grace, with empathy, he’d carry the day and change attitudes on the matters of import to his community. Words could move earth and clean streets and light lamps. But they had to be the right ones. The price of misfiring was grave.
And so Kyle struggled, night after night. He knew what must be done. A bike lane needed to be threaded through the retail blocks in the neighborhood. Stores on the strip had to harmonize their signage for better legibility. The transit system had to be extended: they needed an additional bus stop, another bicycle share station. The sewer lines had to be fixed. The entire district could be made friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. The vacant parcel of land north of the main intersection needed to be purchased and converted into a park. The monument to the battle with its Confederate flag had to be taken down. It would not be easy to convince people. But when Kyle had been in the swing, he’d been persuasive. Those who’d voted for him had commended him for his passion. He thought again of Victor, and his turn away from responsibility, and his father, and his dismissal of political action. It all ends up the same, nothing changes, don’t bother.
For months he worked on the speech, re-arranging sentences and sharpening syntax, honing arguments, standing always at the desk he’d built, scribbling on a pad of yellow lined paper with a felt tip pen that never felt like a quill, in the evening, to the sound of the car radios playing hip-hop on the street, while Clint Weller spun on his turntable, arguing, arguing, always worrying about the imaginary man, making all the logic airtight, spackling the seams in the reasoning and smoothing out the cadences, searching for the perfect turn of phrase to elucidate his position to the uninitiated, watching the moonlight as it crossed his small room. Soon enough he would haul the podium to the perfect place, and the comeback would ensue.
Kyle had graduated second in his class. Victor was the pace dog and there was never any question of catching him. It never irritated Kyle that Victor didn’t work hard for his grades. Instead he was proud to be buddies with the cleverest kid in the school — a white kid, too, one of the few. They talked every day. Kyle’s father always looked at Victor with suspicion, especially when his boy sweated each night to get all the answers so correct. Kyle worried that his father was simply prejudiced. He would have allowed Victor to copy his homework. But Victor never needed to copy.
They were two of the few college bound seniors in the school and felt no small pity for the others left behind. At the commencement ceremony Victor had fussed with his tassel and talked to Kyle nonstop. Each classmate in turn was subject to a withering critique. This one was destined to scrub the floors of the school, that one would end up carrying mail, that other one would try to be a singer but fail and plunge into alcohol abuse and die awfully. He tossed off these judgments like a child pops candy into his mouth. To Kyle it all seemed likely. This performance — its even, confident tone, the sneers and eye-rolls, the clever matching of hopeful faces with horrid ends — was for Kyle’s ears only. If the other graduates had heard Victor’s assessments, there would be blood on his gown and the grass.
“So how about me?,” Kyle asked, delighted. “Am I gonna be mayor or what?”
Victor placed his long fingers on his chin. Then he pushed back on his plastic chair and let it balance on the back two legs. In the distance the band struck up the processional tunelessly. It was hot on the football field.
“Hmm. Look, man, don’t take this the wrong way.”
“I can’t say why so don’t ask me why. At some point in the next few years, I see you sinking into a major depression.”
“A major — what? Why?”
“Like I said, I can’t say why. I just see a major period of depression in your future.”
But it’s not so bad, said Victor. It wouldn’t be forever. Eventually you’ll pull out of it. Something would come at you fast and hit you hard. But there was no history of depression in his family, Kyle protested, wouldn’t there have to be a hereditary component? No. No. Not in this case. Victor shook his head slowly, catching the sun on each lens of his thick glasses. Then he forgot about Kyle and turned his attention back to the rest of the graduating class and continued hanging fates.
It didn’t seem serious. This was just Victor blowing smoke as he often did. But a cloud had passed over the sky and as Kyle was handed his diploma it felt heavy, like a lead bar. That night he lay in bed and watched the moon. What had Victor meant? Had he noticed something? He would have to call Victor tomorrow and ask him to explain. But Kyle did not call tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Victor did not call either. Soon the whole summer had gone by and Kyle was swept up in preparations for college and he had stopped thinking about Victor. Almost. Sometimes in the quiet of the dormitory after dark or in the corner of an empty classroom, Kyle would hear an echo of Victor’s voice. Then the clock would tick and the light would change and the prophecy would be dispelled. Kyle made new friends and did not wonder how Victor was doing or whether he was still using words to wound. Only when he arrived home from campus for Thanksgiving did he learn from his father that Victor had turned down his scholarship. He had not gone to college at all. Instead he’d taken a job as a bar back at the Bluebird Cafe. Kyle was surprised. Victor didn’t even like country music.
Kyle fought off sleep as he crouched over the podium he’d made. Thick black lines slashed through phrases, arrows assigned clauses to sentences at the far reaches of the page, themes redirected, carets and arrows and punctuation jammed between lines, letters pattered in the margins like rain on a metal roof. He felt himself nearing his goal. Each edit further clarified his meaning. He had returned to the work he’d done before the bag. Back then he had gone to the district office to draft policy. Now he worked alone. Kyle had not left the block in many years. If possible he did not leave his house. There was so much to do.
A crackle and a scratch, and silence blanketed the room. The Clint Weller LP had ended. It was time to flip the side. Once they’d run into each other at a ribbon cutting for a park. Kyle had won election in the district by a firm plurality. He was the coming man. Weller’s last albums had stiffed. He took the stage resentfully, spat out a few songs, pawed at his beard, stuffed his guitar back in its case. Don’t usually sing in parks, he said to the thin crowd, but if you ain’t appearing you’re disappearing. Kyle smiled from the side and nodded without thinking. At the gazebo they’d shaken hands. Weller had held on a fraction of a second too long, and in that fraction Kyle recognized the desperation of a man slipping into the darkness of obscurity. A politician needs to learn to read handshakes, and communicate through touch. Kyle tightened his grip, and the pressure said: I will remember you. Your music matters to me. What you have tried so hard to articulate is not lost. You may be swallowed by time but the echoes will reverberate.
Funding for that park had since been slashed. Its restoration was an essential component in the revitalization of the neighborhood. No. The restoration of the money earmarked for the park was mandatory in a neighborhood starved for greenspace. Too many words, too awkward, no poetry. Tighten it up. Parks were the lifeblood of civic culture. Cliche, stale. His father would have discarded this wood by now. Too many knots.
Kyle flipped the record and turned to the section of the speech about the economic benefits of bicycle lanes. The old conundrum returned to him for the thousandth time: the district needed to be improved, but if property values spiked too quickly, residents would be priced out of their own homes. It was a delicate balance — a long and cautious shimmy up an arrow rising diagonally from the x axis. Often it was better to wait rather than act. The moment to move would present itself. The path up the mountain could be found, one long and even and without pitfalls, but not without a thorough beating of the bushes. Any other road would be treacherous. Kyle struggled to translate these requirements into the language of the layman. Phrases clanged together and made a racket. Both ends secured, the paragraph held steady as Kyle planed away adjectives and adverbs. Once he finished he stepped back to survey his work and found it rickety, unable to support his weight.
There was a ring on the bell. It was nine o’ clock at night. Kyle pulled open the shade and looked down at the hairless circle of his father’s crown. The old man waited on the mat outside. He carried a sack of groceries. His father had walked the nine blocks from the store with the groceries in his arms. During the time when the bag had been tight, this had happened often. Sometimes he did not even come upstairs: he would let himself in and leave the food on the table and then walk home. Now it was mostly habit. Now when his father came, they would always talk a little. Never about politics or civics – instead he spoke about the cedar and hickory forests, walking on trails through the old growth and tending to the saplings, the long cords of wood gathered from the mill, hardwood and underbrush in Standing Stone: the real Tennessee.
He meant to be therapeutic. But Kyle never heard his father speak about the forest without feeling the bag constrict a little around his throat.
They stood around the table now, a rough slab of wood between them. His father chattered, Kyle listened. Upstairs the record reached the end of its side and with a hiss the needle disengaged from the vinyl.
“He’s doing a show you know. Next week.”
“Couldn’t be pop. Clint Weller hasn’t done a show in years.”
But he was, his father insisted, he’d seen the posters on the block. You wouldn’t know, you never go out. Opry Country Classics it was, he’s the headliner’s guest at the Ryman. Probably do a couple of songs and scram, you know how it goes.
“You should maybe buy a ticket. Might be good for you.”
“Oh, maybe I would but I have so much to do.” He had to get the speech right. If he was going to hone it to perfection, which the gravity of the issues demanded he do, he couldn’t afford to indulge himself. Well, said his father. You always know what is best.
The whole thing seemed improbable. The last he had heard of Clint Weller, he’d picked up and left town. The Weller catalog had closed. He’d been claimed by the same weakening force that comes for all artists eventually. The grip slackens and the vision blurs. The man Kyle had seen at the grey local park was in no position to play the Ryman stage and would never be again. And a walk to the ticket office – there was a daunting proposition. Kyle would have to cross through the district and encounter his former constituents. All the conversations would be humiliating. No, when he came back, he had to have a speech: he would armor himself with words and become bulletproof.
That night Kyle thought of Victor and wondered if his childhood pal ever thought of him. Had he followed the story of his friend in the news: the young flash, his upward path mysteriously interrupted, his position suddenly resigned? Kyle wondered if he’d have done the same if their positions were reversed, or if he’d be one of those people who scoured the social networks for reports of old acquaintances if he didn’t know what had become of him. Because Kyle did know what had happened to Victor. Victor was now a very successful video director. He shot clips for some of the most famous artists in country music. Contacts he’d made while toting beer to the bar at the Bluebird Café were instrumental in his rise. He had been making career moves after all.
Kyle recalled the last days before the bag had made it impossible for him to reach the office: the struggle out of bed with weights slung over his shoulders, the odd tastelessness of food and coffee, the funny looks on the faces of passersby, the strained communication between his mind and his legs. The rudeness of direct sunlight. He worked as hard as he could until he could not. Then he went home to rest and never returned. Kyle sent his resignation by post. Letters arrived but the bag was so thick that he couldn’t read them. Calls came in but the cloth was so thick he could not hear them. Eventually the calls and the letters stopped. It became very quiet in the small room.
Things were different now. But as his senses returned to him, Kyle could more fully apprehend the depth of his disgrace. The world beyond the bag had been meaningless to him. Now that it was in focus, it seemed more than likely that people were angry with him. He had let his neighborhood down. Yes, the clearer his vision became, the more determined he was to return with a perfect speech: a speech that would set everything straight, and erase the time of incapacity. People had short memories. If he could prove his competence, he’d be able to resume his work on behalf of the public. They’d forget his betrayal.
It was not enough, however, to deliver a flawless speech. He also had to pick the proper context for its delivery. In the downtime between redrafts, Kyle considered his options. It might be for the best if he did not begin in his district, where grudges might be lingering under the mud. Instead he found himself intrigued by the Seigenthaler bridge. There he would stand with the skyline behind him, at the podium he’d made, as the Cumberland flowed beneath their feet, on a span closed to car traffic, thronged with people who’d come to hear his message. The Seigenthaler bridge was not in any one area or another: it was a conduit between areas, a stitch in the city. It was ideal.
The dangerous part would be the nine blocks to the supermarket and the B-station. It would be then that he might run into an old constituent and be forced to talk. Courage was what it took. He could be courageous and scope it out. He would leave at twilight. Once on the bicycle he’d be safe. He could sit tall on the seat and pedal. Kyle still knew how to look at a person and convince him that he was heard. He hadn’t lost that skill. He could do it as he rode by. Kyle would proceed to the Seigenthaler bridge and find the ideal spot for the podium and mark it with chalk. He’d get an idea of how to stand, where his voice would resonate, which array of girders would best frame him as he talked. Then he’d proceed to the Ryman for the Clint Weller comeback concert.
So it was with a mixture of relief and surprise that Kyle discovered that there was a bike share station on his very block. When had this been put it? It must have been done recently. Kyle had not heard the trucks. A teenaged kid wiggled the front tire of a bicycle from the dock. That was safe: he was surely too young to have cared much about Kyle’s last election. He wouldn’t remember who Kyle was. Kyle smiled at him as he slipped his coins into the tower. The kid didn’t smile back.
The streets were full of people: some hurrying home from work, keys jangling, car doors slamming, screen doors to porches swinging open, dogs in yards running circles around their masters, children wild out of school on a hot September evening. Kyle recognized nobody. Pleased he was to see more white faces on the street than there’d ever been in his memory: integration had always been one of his goals. But it was, he had to admit, unnerving to be awash in strangers. At the corner store where the proprietor had always supported him, he peered inside the open door as he cycled on. The owner wasn’t behind the desk. Instead there was a woman he’d never seen.
More surprises waited for Kyle on the next block. A wand had been waved and a gas station was now a bank. A new four story development straddled an intersection that Kyle knew for its seediness. The large sign that hung over the great sliding glass doors had been designed in the same style as the Indian restaurant across the street. The retailers must have decided to harmonize their frontage — just as Kyle had always imagined they should. But Kyle had done no work on that proposal. Nobody had.
Kyle turned the corner and was greeted by a broad bike lane that ran straight through the retail strip. It was exactly as he’d always envisioned it. Without knowing what he was doing, he began to accelerate, huffing up the hill, passing businesses that made no impression other than newness. At the top of the hill, there it was: a little emerald of a park, streetlit and fountain-filled, topsoil laid in strips and the low moon visible through the branches of newly planted trees. Even the Civil War monument was gone. A statue of Charles Spurgeon Johnson stood in its place. So there it was: every single action item in Kyle’s comeback speech had already been completed.
He felt a moral responsibility to be elated. Kyle tried it on and found it did not fit. Instead he snapped into a blue fury. Surely they’d done it all wrong. They’d failed to account for the steep rise in property values; people had surely been driven from their homes. But Kyle saw no evidence of devastation around him. On the contrary: the city thrived. Further he had to admit that it had all been done exactly as he would have suggested if he’d ever delivered his speech. That was the truly galling thing – months of work and careful craftsmanship, all ruined, worthless now, no matter how he put his arguments. If only he’d spoken up a year ago, or two years ago! But then he didn’t know when all of this had been done.
And his father – why hadn’t he said anything? But he had been insensitive as always to the changes around him, head down over his lathe, thinking only of the craft before him. Or was he mocking his son? But no, that couldn’t be. Kyle’s indignation was his own. All this that he saw – he’d had invented it, all of it, in his head. The city had had the audacity to move without him. Now his authorship could never be established. He hadn’t even wasted himself: he’d been drained, tapped, and poured into another receptacle. Bastards and ingrates! Burn it all up. Burn it up!, their inane little improvements, their marginal concessions to social responsibility, their stupid ugly frontage, the feeble efforts of a pathetic, second-rate town. He had contempt for it all. May it all fail miserably, may Nashville become a slum, a blight on the bend of the Cumberland.
Just before he reached the Ryman Auditorium, Kyle, who had been pedaling frantically, recovered the composure that had always been his leadership style. Fury at the city would get him nowhere. There was no excuse for his anger: it was uncivil, counterproductive. That the goals he’d had for his neighborhood had been realized by others suggested to him that he was on the right track. Now he’d have to come up with some new ones, that was all. But all the same, he knew that those had been his ambitions, ones grounded in a specific upbringing and manner of seeing the world around him, and replacement concepts weren’t going to come to him. He’d aged past his activist opportunity. He was like a surfer who’d missed the wave, a strummer who couldn’t find the downstroke, and who the rest of the band had been compelled to drown out.
Clint Weller’s name was nowhere on the marquee. His father couldn’t even read signs right. Or it had been a fib from the start, a trick to get the boy out of the house and into the salubrity of moonlight. Well, it had backfired. And Kyle’s suspicions had been right all along: there was no next act in Weller’s run. He was, heretofore, that withered old husk that Kyle had seen in the weak park. The city had juiced him and tossed away the pulp. The night’s headliner had hit earlier this year with a song about the Tennessee woods; it hadn’t had much success outside the state, but in Music City, where the forest supplied guitars and drumsticks and the broad panels for recording studios, it had resonated. Victor shot the video. Yes, Victor would be in there, smiling sanctimoniously on those hundred-year-old wooden pews as he watched a show he felt far above, Victor, whose contempt for his peers had not stopped him from monetizing their fantasies, Victor who had laid the curse – and he was now sure it was a curse – on him long ago, and drowned his life, trapped him under the varnish of his own heavy thoughts.
He wanted to punch him in the face. He would punch him in the face. Hell, why not?, his career in politics was already over. Everyone knew it but him. There would be no comeback. Kyle may as well go down swinging. And there he waited by the stage door, for hours, fists balled, clinging to his rage with all ten fingers and holding it in place with his back molars, worrying it, cherishing it, making sure it didn’t slip. One by one the musicians and the dignitaries and the hangers-on filed out. But Victor did not file out. Victor had not been at the show.
Or maybe the years had dragged Victor to an unrecognizable place. It was possible. Kyle did not look a thing like he had on graduation day: gravity had torn it all down. He recognized his rage as a trick he’d played on himself: a vain attempt to jolt himself out of a torpor and into a cutting shape that might somehow inscribe its edge on the town. He was not a naturally negative person. Breath came pouring out of his belly. Exhausted, he mounted the Seigenthaler bridge and dismounted at the top.
How different, Kyle thought, a skyline looks from a distance than it does when you’re right in the middle of town. How hard it is to apprehend the dimensions of the city. Yet standing back and observing, as he now was, didn’t give him a truer impression of where he’d been, or where he was going. Instead it just looked like the tall trees of a forest — something that had grown on the southern bank of the Cumberland, like a stand of hardwood, and waited there, defiant, sneering at the saw blade. That public policy could impose any design on a thing so big and daunting seemed as absurd a conceit as the notion that man could govern the wilderness. But then as his father might have pointed out, all the woods in Tennessee, even his beloved Standing Stone, were managed by foresters. It was on them to ensure that trees were replenished. It took an awful lot of sweat to generate the impression that nothing ever changed.
“Excuse me, don’t I know you. Or of you. Didn’t you run for office?”
A young woman, roughly half his size and with a splash of blonde hair on her head, crossed over from the pedestrian path to address him. She held a bottle. She was coming from the concert, Kyle realized, and walking, a little wobbly from the booze, back to her home in the new developments on the East Side.
“Yes ma’am, I did. I ran, twice, and won twice. Although I did not serve out my final term.”
“Yeah, it was like you were everywhere and then you were nowhere. What happened to you?”
“I suppose I got lost in the city. I suppose I didn’t do the things I was elected to do. I suppose,” said Kyle, looking down at the river, “I really let you down.”
She smiled with her whole face and nudged him in the side with an elbow.
“Hell no,” said the woman, “I’m a Republican.”
He squeezed the foam rubber handlebars and stepped beyond the bicycle lane. Beneath him the Cumberland coarsed westward, away from the skyline and toward the big bowl in the middle of the nation. On the far bank, hundreds of lights blinked on, and off, and on, each one representing a single, discrete decision made by a person, a Tennesseean, a modest exertion of will. The moon dodged a few stars and slid over the top of the sky. And for the first time in a long, long time, Kyle laughed.