issue 30: May-June 2002 

 | author bio

Autumn Leaves
James Sallis


The call I never expected would actually come came at 4:32 one Tuesday morning. I hung up and went to the closet for my bag. It had been in there, packed, for well over six years. Karyn sat propped in bed watching, eyes huge. She knew what this meant, and not to ask more. "I'll call when I can," I said. After a moment, the space between us growing ever larger all the while, she nodded. Half an hour later I was in a military helicopter thwacking its way out of the city over rivers and inlets and down the coastline. There were four of us aboard. The pilot had a scrubbed, pink, midwestern look about him. You could have impaled olives on his brush cut.
      "So you're one of the doctors."
      I wasn't, I was a nurse with some very special training who with the phone's first ring had gone from being one among thousands of faceless health-care workers -- in my case, taking care of terminal cancer patients, children mostly -- to Authority. But those who trained us down in Virginia taught us that people were happier thinking what they wanted to think and it was to our advantage to let them do so, so I nodded.
      Outside Washington we joined a dozen or so others and enplaned for the long haul. Boxed chicken lunches and sacks of little bottles of booze were passed around. Cans of beer in a full-size refrigerator and fresh-brewed coffee in an urn half as large waited our beck and call, we were told. A few had brought books: Forensics for the General Practitioner, Getting Along with Heart Disease, a Tom Clancy thriller, a novel whose bright white teeth and drops of blood looked as though they might slide off the slick cover into the reader's lap at any moment. The rest of us sat staring into space, minds as full as expressions were empty. I found some back corner of my brain providing words for the music playing quietly over the sound system.

Since you went away, the days grow long....

      Our training was as specific as it was thorough. Four, five doctors in the whole country might be able to identify, say, bubonic plague if they saw it. But every last one of us would immediately recognize signs and symptoms of anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, Ebola and half a dozen others. Incubation times, vectors, previous outbreaks or occurrences, possible vaccines and treatments were engraved in the very folds of our brains. We came on the scene, it got handed over to us, baby, bath water and all. Local police and officials, medical personnel, military -- everyone deferred.
      I'd been in New Orleans a couple of times before, once back around century's end with Karyn for the Jazz Festival, once during training. The country's sole remaining leprosarium was in Louisiana, and instructors brought us down to see things firsthand. The city had always looked ancient, blasted, and at first there seemed little difference: abandoned, half-gutted buildings, heaps of trash, mattresses and dead animals at curbside. Then you realized almost no one was on the streets.
      Military trucks carted us in from the city's outskirts along water's edge to Camp Alpha. Off to each side all the way, close by and in the middle distance, black smoke rose from fires. The few civilian vehicles we encountered pulled off the road to let us pass. The city had become a patchwork of camps, this the largest of them, acre upon acre of tents, lean-tos and sheds running over the low wall right up to Lake Ponchartrain and back onto what had long been the city's dearest real estate. Officials had set up HQ in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was bone white, a thing of curves, and looked like a huge ship, complete with foredeck, gone aground among trees. Autodidact James K. Feibleman, a millionaire without formal training or degree who'd become head of Tulane's philosophy department, had lived here, as had writer wife Shirley Ann Grau and writer son Peter. Tulane's campus, meanwhile, along with that of Loyola and adjoining Audubon Park with its hundred-year-old water oaks, had become another sprawling tent city.
      Briefing took place in what was once the kitchen of Feibleman's home. Dozens of folding chairs had butts holding them down. The rest of us spilled out, sitting, standing, propped against walls, through sliding doors onto the patio as Dr. Fachid Ramadan, all four-feet-six of him, bustled to the room's front, by the monolith of the refrigerator's stainless-steel door.
      "We do not know what it is," he said without preamble, eyes large as globes behind thick eyeglasses, "though of course we are hoping all of you will be able to help us with this." His phrases had an intrinsic rhythm to them, a quiet rise and fall, as though he were reading poetry. "This could scarcely be more confusing, more difficult to get a handle on. Yes -- as I know many of you are about to ask -- at this point we are assuming a seeding. Undifferentiated flulike symptoms at first. Slow gather, sudden crash. By the time you admit that you and loved ones are sick, it is too late." He went on to detail our small fund of actual information, providing a long, intricate list of possible signs and symptoms, a checklist of similarities and divergence from disease processes with which we were all familiar. Poorly spelled and unchecked in the rush, copies of the lists floated onto a projector screen behind him as he spoke.
      I held up my hand:
      "We do not know. Not airborne -- we are fairly certain of this. Direct contact, bodily fluids. Insects have yet to be ruled out. A handful of cases may be traceable to rodents. Squirrels, nutria."
      "Staff?" I asked.
      "None yet. But we barely have our feet in the door. I was on site in Malaysia, was fetched by Air Force officials and flown here. This was forty-six hours ago. I have been a stranger to pillows since. We have no idea what the incubation period might be."
      First rule: Expect the worst.
      And we did -- though ultimately expectation and imagination proved as unequal to the challenge as did our knowledge.
      Having gone through the program together and been for the duration propinquitous friends, despite a dozen or so dinners and wine-soft evenings in the mix, Sara Freedman and I had little reason ever to anticipate seeing one another again. Now we walked along the river's slow curve carrying kebobs bought from street vendors where Café du Monde used to be and a bottle of Chilean Merlot. Carrying lots of things. And talking with a freedom and absolute lack of self-consciousness I thought left behind forever, shed skin of adolescence, telling one another secrets, fears.
      "Not a good idea under the circumstances," I remarked when Sara dangled feet, sandals and all, in the water. But when she pointed out that every day we were smack among the actual as opposed to the theoretical, I relented, feeling foolish.
      "This river used to be filled with boats," I said. "Coming in from the Gulf, heading up to Natchez and Memphis and St. Louis. For three hundred years."
      No boats now. Only trash, dead fish, bloated human bodies. They floated, careened spinning from bank to bank, lazily, as though in a dream.
      "Things change."
      "I don't think the word change covers what's happening now."
      "Maybe nothing does."
      It was fall -- have I mentioned that? Leaves gone crimson and gold on the trees even this far south. I hungered for New England autumns, feet shuffling through layers of ankle-deep leaves. Our bodies have those same changes as voids within them, waiting.
      "I've thought of you, you know," Sara said. "Often, and fondly."
      I passed her a kebob. A chunk of cucumber. Levered out the cork and poured wine into plastic cups. We sat without speaking. At water's edge, a line of ants methodically dismembered a sphinx moth's body and carried it off. Two others, one pushing, one pulling, steadily moved along a chunk of celery easily twenty times their size. Stew for dinner?
      Maybe it was their time now.
      We'd lost a dozen or more the night before. Toward dawn I was awakened by one of the nurses, knowing as I opened my eyes that it wasn't yet daylight, knowing little else. I'd been asleep just under two hours, she told me, and she was sorry, but the boy was having trouble breathing. The boy was nineteen. We'd watched other members of his department go down one by one, till he was the only one remaining, de facto sheriff. Terror in his eyes. Just past dawn, the terror passed as he joined the others.
      Later that night, both sleepless, Sara and I wandered at the same time into the kitchen. Without speaking she turned and leaned across the counter. I pulled down her shorts just far enough, ground into her soundlessly from behind as she watched our single shadow on the wall, but could not stay hard. Around us everywhere the cries and moans of those in our care.
      Two months later I'd fly out by copter, hauled above and across the dead city by the machine's brute force, New Orleans now like nothing so much as the still, crumbling husk of an insect. I'd remember how, as I came here on the plane, Autumn Leaves was playing: Since you went away... In memory, in the weeks I had left, Sara's face would look up at me again and again as she struggled for breath, and again and again I'd place a hand on hers. I never called Karyn. She was gone by the time I got back. Gone like Sara.
      That morning in the copter I would remember an old song by Woodie Guthrie, something I'd not thought of in twenty years. Field workers had been brought in from Mexico and, their job done, put on a plane to be sent back. But the plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon.

      Who are these friends who are falling like dry leaves?
      The radio says they're just deportees.
      We're all itinerants, shipped in, trucked away once the work's done. Dry leaves. Autumn leaves. Everything leaves. Everything leaves, everything changes. Treasure the margins while they last, treasure everything that sinks into the blur, treasure it all.
      Treasure it all.

© 2002 James Sallis

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author bio

James SallisJames Sallis is the author of the popular Lew Griffin detective novels (The Long-Legged Fly, Moth, Black Hornet, Eye of the Cricket, Bluebottle and Ghost of a Flea - see TBR review) as well as more than a hundred short stories, poems and essays. He has also written and edited a number of musicological studies and works of criticism, including The Guitar Players, Difficult Lives, a study of noir writers, and most recently, Chester Himes: A Life, cited by The Times as a notable book of the year. He has worked as a creative writing teacher, respiratory therapist, musician, music teacher, screenwriter, periodical editor, book reviewer and translator, winning acclaim for his 1993 version of Raymond Queneau’s Saint Glinglin. He currently lives with his wife Karyn in Phoenix, Arizona. [See The James Sallis Web Pages.]


tbr 30           may - june  2002

James SallisMarian KeyesDennis CooperJason StarrScott HeimNick HornbyCormac McCarthy

Short Fiction James Sallis Autumn Leaves
Marian Keyes Soulmates
Dennis Cooper
My Loose Thread (excerpt)
pick from back issues
Jason Starr Bianca's Wallet
Scott Heim In Awe
Interview Nick Hornby
Quiz Cormac McCarthy Quiz
SneakPreview Dennis Cooper My Loose Thread
Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives
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