Crossing the Line: An excerpt from the late Charles Bowden’s final book, 'Sonata'

He comes over the wall and lands in my life.

He's got the body of a convict who spent his time in the yard with the iron pile. He's forty, blond hair, blue eyes and winning smile. Sometimes the trouble comes from the bottle, but more often from the pipe.

He keeps writing poems about a place called Knife Street where life is a blade and anger. He's shown his poems down at the university and they've encouraged him but he doesn't believe them because he doesn't trust them because he doesn't see any scars on their bodies or hear the scars in their talk. His mom was Indian or part Indian, his dad a drunk and then gone. He married the rich girl, had the big house, stables, money. Once I helped him find the satellite image of the place and all he talked about were the trees—loblolly, ash and how he planted 'em all and how they'd grown so. Eventually, his hungers got the best of him and he hit her and did drugs and it all went to hell and he went to prison.

Things can be fine and then they are gone, just like that—house, woman, stables, the trees you planted.

I stand watching the creek rise. There is a crack and a forty-foot cottonwood tumbles to earth and this morning in the gray light that cottonwood figured on living forever. Two days later the water rose again, the toppled tree shuddered and began to move downstream. The water got higher and higher, the day-old fence put in after the last torrent vanished in the first fifteen minutes. And still the water keeps coming from canyons and hills. There is no safe bet by a creek. The water stays brown for days. The herons and kingfishers move until it clears. The watercress is scoured away.

He sits there sipping a beer and enjoyed a rolled smoke and looks up brightly, "They say I'm bipolar."

Then, he snorts and drains his beer.

He is very bright, borrows books from me, scorns television and sees the world through cracks in his head. He is climbing down a ladder. The busted marriage was not enough. Prison was not enough. When I first met him he had a flatbed truck with a bad starter, a chainsaw and a ladder. He also had tailor-made cigarettes then.

He took me once to see the truck—his landlord had impounded it and kept it in the yard for back rent. Before that he'd lost it for awhile for dead plates—they'd pulled him over and ran his name, found the outstandings, tossed him in and during the thirty days the truck was towed to a yard and he had to move heaven and earth to get it back. Christ, that story went on and on because it was such a damn good truck, he insisted and besides he couldn't get work unless he could haul the dead wood away and so that truck, that was life, well, maybe not exactly but without the truck there was no work, and without work the pipe stayed empty and without the pipe the woman vanished.

But then she did anyway now and then.

He'd bring her over at times. She worked as a practical nurse and had some heft and very quick eyes, the kind of eyes you knew would ask to use the bathroom and the kind of eyes you knew would open the medicine cabinet and would vacuum everything with the hint of an upper or downer.

Sometimes he'd get angry about her, how she took his drugs and stuff, and sometimes he'd get angry how she'd go off when he had no drugs and then he stopped, and would not say much about what she did when she went off and he had no drugs. Sometimes he'd bring her and her brother, a little ferret-faced guy who was very polite and seemed to scan every object to determine what was most portable.

They were all rungs on the ladder, things essential if he were to reach his destiny and he was sure of his destiny even if it had yet to be revealed to him.

He looms as he speaks, his huge arms and chest the armor over his busted life. He tries to be reasonable, he is in a chair, the walls are bookcases, he's got a free beer, he's smoking, for a brief while he's a regular guy, just leaning back and shooting the breeze but he can never hold that moment, never keep a grip on this calm, something always boils out of him, and anger at cops and people who look down on him and people with money who don't work as hard as he does and at the government that doesn't give a damn about him—he checks about rehab and finds he must wait months for a slot and for a man with a pipe that means never, never, never, and then he falls into a litany of broken dreams and bad cops.

He learns about trees in prison, this woman taught a class and that is how he got into tree trimming and he is an encyclopedia of tree diseases. He can't look at a tree on the place without telling me it is ailing and the only cure is for him to do some cutting on it. As time goes on and the truck goes and the ladders, also the bicycle and then there is only the chainsaw, he still keeps working, swinging from limb to limb in the tree like a great ape.

Then he is gone for a month or more.

He comes back and says he walked ten miles a day. The cell was eight feet long, he'd do about 659 laps to a mile, 6600 a day just to be sure of his ten miles and he did it every day, every single day, because that's how you do time and keep control and he's going to be clean now, he's going to go back to the Carolinas and I give him a few bucks and he's gone. He takes a bus to Amarillo. He gets off, looks out at the plains and wonders why he is there and so comes back. He finds a dog, the perfect friend. The woman is gone, the truck and all that gone, the pipe, the pipe seems to remain. He and the dog have a life. He walks out to the edge of town, waits with the dog for a ride. The cops bag him.

The dog goes to the pound and by the time he finally gets out of jail, well, the dog has been destroyed, best damn dog he ever knew.

Each day the defeated seem to grow in number. Nobody is counting, but still they are growing in number and each day they get more angry and they know they are defeated but they don't see themselves as a group, just a wound. They hide their wounds because being taken down is shameful, and they lie about their pain and they say things that make it sound like their lives are on the upswing and that they are part of the bigger thing that surrounds them, the people with jobs and good liquor and legal habits. They say that they're getting by and hey, let's have a beer, and everyone belongs to some vague middle and no one will admit that the undertow is taking them, the car will be repossessed, the rent is two months late, and all they want to do is drink and blot out what they see roaring toward them and he sits there and talks about poetry or projects or the diseases trees are prone to and he's going to get clean, get a truck and fire up the business of his life, thank you very much.

* * *

She's barely twenty. The mom is not right, something about her head, so she stays home and takes pills. The dad cuts meat in a market. The girl, she has a job with a big chain, she works the delicatessen, it pays $8.08 an hour and that doesn't pay for much, so she lives at home.

This she tells the cops as they make her stay in a room and give them what they want.

Do drugs?

Oh, no sir. I don't drink either, sir.

How did you get involved?

Well, I ran into this girl I knew at a party and she told me about it.

What was her name?

She just told me, that's all.

These calls on your phone? Is that her?

No, no, sir, that is someone else, someone who has nothing to do with it.

It goes on like that, page after page, the clock ticking, the questions repeating and repeating because the people with the good jobs and the pensions and paid vacations need meat to feed their habit and their habit is putting people in cages. The girl goes on about how she did the first run in December because Christmas was coming and she had no money for her family and they paid her $3,000 for driving the load seventy-five miles and looking innocent at the one checkpoint and then she did another and another and she quit because she had a new job that started in a week or two and this would pay her ten dollars an hour.

And they called and she said yes she would do it one more time and that time she got caught. Before she got to the checkpoint her boss calls on the phone and says, hey, don't break the speed limit the cops are waiting and so she is careful but still this cop pulls her over and says you were speeding and she knows she was not but still they take her to the room and the questions begin and they keep asking the same thing, like who is this person who keeps calling on the phone and she tries to tell them nothing, she really tries but they just keep asking.

She tries, she really tries.

But they are hard to beat. They have the law.


Later, I'm talking with the agent, the man who is appalled that the leader drove an old car with bald tires and appalled that in his house they found nothing but a sack of beans and a sack of potatoes.

I ask about the girl.

He says it can be terrible, that sometimes they put a gun to their head to make them drive.

There have to be lines, sharp, defined things, 30-foot walls, rolls of concertina wire, the saved and the damned, the country club and the others, the humans and the beasts, hard lines, race, class, and let us see that passport, stand over there, open your bag, do not get out of the vehicle, license please, you wait, lines, cages, laws, borders, rules, always rules and all of the rules are the same: we got the power and you don't. But the important thing is not the power, no, the important thing is the line that says us and them, that says you are the wrong color or you are the wrong species or you are not us and so the agents come and the walls and the guns and the laws and the mausoleums full of lawyers and judges, endless ways to put you down and if you complain put you out forever, and this can be done because you run drugs, leave old nylon rope and spent burlap bags along the creek, because you have no money and you are not going to have money because we won't pay you much and so you are the criminal and cross the line and go down or you are the illegals coming north or climbing out of a container in a port and here is what is wrong with you, you didn't pick the right parents and this will not be forgiven, and this is true of the Mexican or the Chinaman or the zone-tailed hawk or the lion padding softly down the creek in the night, eyes huge with hunger for the fresh blood of the deer. Nobody is forgiven who crosses the line and helps other bloods and says the other breeds of man and beast are their equals and their brothers and their sisters.

This is never forgiven.

So it is written in the books of law.

That is the moment, when you know you can never be forgiven, when you know they have made your heart illegal, that is the moment you cross the final line into freedom land and become one with trees dirt fangs musk high water and howls in the night and cease to have solutions and cease to think of issues and cease to listen to anything but the rustle of leaves, the songs in gray light of morning, the sap slowly gurgling to the canopy and the messages of mice and snakes on the dust of the earth, then you know what to do and who you are and realize there is no going back.

The time for meetings is over. There will be no big fix. There will only be yes or no. There will be the lesson of the hawk or the reprimands of the cops.

They are coming, walls or no walls. You must be on a side or be nothing at all and if you do not side with beasts and other bloods you belong to the world of triumph, a world that leads to death.

Eleven slaughtered, all from one family, and in this courtroom in the detention center the government argues that does not mean the defendant is in any danger if he's tossed back into the place that ate his father and uncles and aunts and cousins and grandmother, no, there is no evidence of any danger there, not a bit and as for the girl who made $8.08 an hour with the weekly total held down to 30 hours to keep the benefits in line and who ran a load 75 miles for $3,000 come Christmas time, well, she had a choice. For example, she could have gone to law school and become like the prosecutor piling charges on her head, or like the judge, she had a choice and she made her choice. Bailiff send in the next one.

Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2020