Nov 132010

A deeply shocking and poignant “What it’s like living here” from Court Merrigan in Torrington, Wyoming. Neither a former student, nor a VCFA graduate (he doesn’t have an MFA), Court is just a writer and a human being who joined the conversation and became part of the NC community. DG wishes there were more like him, more nominal outsiders who join the blog just because they like writing and a supportive camaraderie. We’re not a closed shop. This text reminds dg of something Tomaso Landolfi once wrote: “…is not this a world in which incredible things take place and, I would say, only incredible things?”


by Court Merrigan


Four extra bedtime stories for your daughter, five.  She grows fidgety and irritated, wants to be left alone to sleep.  Once she would have stayed up all night with you.  Now she’s three and those days are gone.  You trudge upstairs.  Your wife is in bed.  She goes to bed early nowadays.  It’s too early for you.  Time to get yourself occupied.

Two weeks it’s been.  Two weeks of closing your eyes to see Todd.

1.5 miles up Laramie Peak Trail

At first Todd looked like he was taking a nap, or had just leaned against the warm rock on that perfect seventy-degree day, looking across Friend Creek through a golden-leafed bough of aspens to the sheer mountain slabs across the rift valley.  I thought he was on the lookout for mountain goats.  He really wanted to see a mountain goat, kept on asking if we thought we’d spot one.

“Well, this is about where we expected to catch up with him,” my father said.

Irritated, I thought that he ought to be further along than this, that he was going to start talking about the goddamn mountain goats again – all he wanted out of Wyoming, it seemed – and at his trudging pace, it would be hours before we got back to the trailhead.  He was semi-retired and at his leisure, but I had a pregnant wife and a kid to get back to.

Then I noticed the odd angle of his neck, the wrist twisted behind his back, legs folded in an Asian posture he could not possibly have adopted at sixty years of age.  I began to run.  His face was slack jawed, sunglasses askew, lips a pale violet.  When I knelt and touched his face a skein of spit dribbled onto his new denim shirt, so new you could see the store creases, smell the store shelf.

The study

You’d like to pace the floorboards but your wife says they creak like a platoon is drilling on them so you don’t.  You check the New Yorker fiction section, hoping for the usual narcotic effect; instead you discover Brad Watson’s “Visitation.”  (It’s fantastic and you read it three times in a row.)

You work on this essay a while.  (Douglas asked you to write one before this happened and then, after it did, advised you to write it anyway.)  You scan Huskerpedia and the New York Times and Facebook and Sports Illustrated.  And some writerly blogs, like this one, and the Pattaya Daily News, for a jolt from old haunts.  Then you have a couple more bourbons.

These things don’t seem trivial, pointless.  No.  They seem marvelously portentous, rituals to which I must fastidiously attend, the very fiber and substance of life.  They wear you out with their sheer weight, and though it is not very late, you are very tired.

You creep down to bed.  Hoping you are tired enough to fall asleep as soon as your head creases the pillow so you won’t see those violet blue lips and taste those damp lips and¾–and then you are wide awake again.  This is how you end up with hands upon your wife’s belly.  With all the kicking the baby is doing she isn’t sleeping much, either.  In the next room our daughter tosses and rustles her bedclothes, sighing as if in sympathy.

“Feel that?” your wife says.

“Yes,” you say.

Your son is hiccupping.  Little harrumphs that ripple your wife’s slick taut skin.  He does this a lot.  The doctor says it is a good sign.

Laramie Peak Trail – 3 mile marker

Todd exhibited a few signs early on. Struggling to the three-mile marker, he was sweating hard and tottering along the switchbacks.  I figured he was out of shape.  It’s not an easy trail – more than six miles to the top and 2500 feet up.  Plenty of folks wouldn’t have made it even as far as he did.  We took a break and took in the valleys and ranges, the meadows and patches of aspen and a big canvas hunting camp tent in a clearing below.

More signs: he was wearing that brand-new denim shirt, along with neatly pressed Wranglers and black sneakers.  Earlier that morning I saw him glancing over my heavy hiking boots, as I suppose he must have seen me eyeing the sneakers.

Todd was one of my father’s business associates. We had never met before.  I gathered he’d been a successful banker back east, in Pittsburgh and Chicago.  He had been in Wyoming not quite a year.  He always had wanted to get out West, to climb mountains, snowshoe deep woods, hunt elk.  This was the day he was supposed to start.

He smiled gamely for the picture he insisted my father take.  Later the deputy told us he already had a gray pallor in those shots.  You try very hard to remember this.  You cannot.  Probably it is something only a trained eye can detect.

My father said, “It’s not a marathon.  You did good for your first time.  Just stay at your comfort level.”

Though of course Todd had already stepped well beyond that.  He would never see the trailhead or the highway home or his investment portfolio or anyone he loved again.  He made a show of consideration, although we all knew what he would say.

“Well,” he said, “I might just head back.”

I found the trees just over his head fascinating.  Hard to look a man in the face when he is quitting.  It could be that’s why I didn’t notice his pallor.

“Sure,” said my father.  “No problem.  I think we’ll go on to the top, though.  Catch you on the way down.  If you don’t mind.”

“No, no,” said Todd.  “Don’t mind a bit.  Take some pictures up top for me.”

My father and I huffed hard for the peak.  Snapped some shots while editorializing on the futility of trying to pixelate a hundred mile Wyoming horizon.  Well, it would give Todd something to shoot for.  We ate some sardines and cookies and headed back down.  Not a quarter mile from where we would find him, we paused at another gorgeous little bend in Friend Creek where the curling yellow leaves milled on the waters like a congregation awaiting a preacher.  The sky a solid azure, not a puff of breeze.

“What a day,” I said.

“He’s lucky to be on the mountain on a day like this,” my father said.

A few minutes later we saw him.


Sleepless in a gauze of milky moonlight, crinkling your nose at that sour smell that lingers in the back of your throat, you gently push bedcovers aside, trying not to wake your finally-snoring wife.  You cross the cold floor to the bathroom where quietly, very quietly, you spit into the sink.  Spit until your mouth is dry.  Nightmares would be better, you think.

Maybe you should go back to the study, try to write some more.  You are still trying for three hours a day, or at least three hours of pen twirling.  This, also, seems very important.  One minute you are on the trail, joking about how the bear only catches the slowest runner.

The next you’re a slab of meat.

1.5 miles up

The sheriff’s deputy told me that we could have been in a hospital lobby and not been able to help Todd.  He never felt a thing.

I don’t quite believe that.  A splinter of Catholic superstition still lodged in my brain, that comforting doctrine that a man will be granted the thunderclap of an instant between this life and the next to make peace with the Almighty, to be forgiven and do penance and save his soul.  I don’t know if this is actual Church doctrine.  This bit of dogma stems from a far more potent source: my father.  He told me this when was very small, small enough that I believe it still, whether I want to or not.

What did Todd think about in his thunderclap?  Was he happy he finally made it out West, happy to die in the scent of Wyoming pines, cool Wyoming rock between his shoulder blades?  Or angry to be dying so unutterably alone in an alien wilderness?  Regretful?  Satisfied?  Something else, something unutterable?

He had no pulse by the time we got there.  His wrists were cold.  Still, I had to try.  So I’ve been taught.  We laid him out and I ripped open his shirt, traced his sternum with a fingertip, winced as his ribs cracked beneath my compressing palms.  Leaned in too fast to his mouth, cracked my teeth on his.  (Now, you endlessly run tongue over your front teeth, feeling for chips).  His lips were like shucked oysters left out too long, frosted in cold spit.  I blew.  His lungs filled, then flapped empty with a sour fetid smell.  I thought I heard coughing, or muttering.  But it was nothing.  Lips to lips again.  I had to try.  That miasma entangled in my nostrils, cold saliva on my tongue.

Later when I ran down the trail for help, sparks exploding at the back of my eyeballs, I had to halt to spit.  I had to do it even though all I could muster was a few minute flecks.  Like you flinch at an onrushing projectile or swat a bee from your face.  Spit and run, spit and run.


You pad to your bedside, crawl in, listen to your wife breathe, strain to hear your daughter do the same.  When you hear nothing you get up and go over, heart tattooing your ribcage.  Her mouth is slack in sleep, her hands splayed above her head.  You put a finger beneath her little nose, feel the steady thrum of breath.

You crawl into bed beside her, prop your head on an orange stuffed monkey.  She flops an arm over your neck and her breath washes over your face, sweet and milky.  It will not still nor sour for a long time, a very long time.  You close your eyes.  You are asleep before you know it.

—Court Merrigan

  23 Responses to “What it’s like living here — from Court Merrigan in Torrington, Wyoming”

  1. Stunning. A bracing read!

  2. This was the first thing I read this morning, and it remained with me all day–the motif of breath in particular, and spit, the haunting power of these visceral details.

  3. One of the truly strange things about this piece is that “Tod” is German for “death.” This has been eating away at the back of my mind. The piece is horrifying on a literal level, and ineffably sad. But if Tod=Death, then there is a dark symbolic resonance, a happenstance, yes, but one of those moments of Jungian something or other.

  4. Wonderful and unsettling! I love the disconcerting shifts back and forth from second to first person narrative.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. I’d like to especially thank Douglas for encouraging me to write the essay even when, after it first happened, I didn’t think I could, or should, write about it.

    As dg knows from earlier drafts, “Todd” is a pseudonym. I don’t put much stock in Jungian happenstances, but I thought I had selected Todd because it is a common enough name. I’d totally forgotten the German word, even though I studied German for a number of years (albeit years ago). I am pleased that it added extra resonance to the piece, even if it was – apparently – done by accident.

  6. Beautifully written, Court. I especially like how you use the two points of view to weave together the two narratives: the event and its aftermath. And the photos that accompany your piece heighten the differences between the two: wide sweeping views of the austere (and unforgiving?) landscape and then intimate, interior scenes of your home.

    • Thanks, Natalia. The landscape here is unforgiving, yes, even to those who know it well and have made a life on it. It’s one of the things I find endlessly fascinating about the place and one of the reasons I returned.

  7. I want to die like that, thunderclap. I like your stories. There were some nice pictures too.

  8. Difficult, isn’t it, to write about a recent or ongoing tragic situation? In reading your notes about writing this piece, I sensed your reticence. I remember writing about my mother’s unexpected decline when I was living far away and unable to be with her. (She died while I was far away, in fact, and it was a horrible time.) As I wrote, back then, I felt like I was exploiting something, or taking advantage of something. But in fact, the writing itself was life-saving for me. And this piece reminds me of that time. As readers, we experience something of “Todd’s” death through your experience. For my own part, I find the words helpful. I imagine that day, and his last moments. I wouldn’t have learned anything from Todd’s life without your having recorded it. If I compliment you on your writing, you’ll perhaps feel self-conscious. But what you’ve written is very moving, and I do thank you for deciding to share it.

    • Thank you very much. It was strange, writing about this while it was still so fresh. But I think it allows you to capture some essence of it that the passage of time doesn’t.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I believe the choice of name was utterly if unconsciously intentional. Anyway this will haunt me all day, the way the Tod’s death of and your own growing (and hiccuping) domestic life are interwoven.

  10. Court, fascinating. I read this, let it sink in, then read it again. It pulled me back and forth from the adrenaline race of events in Wyoming and the sanctuary of home as well as your world as a writer. Doing CPR something one never forgets.

  11. …Doing CPR “is” something one never forgets. Thanks again, Court.

    (Thanks to NC for making it so easy to comment, unlike many other blogs.)

  12. Thanks, Jeanette, for your kind words.

  13. Mr Merrigan, my loved one died without me able to see his last moment, it is a blessing not a curse to have have seen Tod in his final moments. God have chosen you for a reason . Wish you and your family the best.. Heart warming story from the heart .. Thanks

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