The Long Walk North

by Bill Cotter, recommended by Electric Literature


Every time I turn on the evening news lately some kid’s being rescued from icy waters. A boy in the Bronx River, a girl in Middletown, New Jersey, two teens in icy Little Neck Bay in Queens. The firefighters arrive, wearing waterproof, insulated suits. One carries a ladder, another a rope tied to stretcher, and each time the reckless, hypothermic child is saved.

But what’s always missing in the coverage is most fascinating part of the story: how these kids got on the ice in the first place. There are a hundred ways it might have happened, a double-dare, a death wish, a youthful sense of invincibility, plain stupidity. Whatever the way, the true story — and by that I mean the human story — is in the arrival, not the rescue. One is psychology and character and the other is procedure and circumstance.

In Bill Cotter’s “The Long Walk North,” Theo tries to tell the story of how his friend got on the ice. He begins, “It didn’t surprise anybody much that David Tremaine had finally gone and done what he always said he wanted to do […] he walked north, with only a change of clothes, a Gore-Tex parka, and five hundred bucks, until he could walk no further, until he took his last step a mile south of Gift Lake in Alberta, where he sat down in the ice and wind, wrote a note to Nadine, and froze to death.”

There is no rescue in “The Long Walk North.” Because unlike the evening newscasters, Bill Cotter knows which part of the story to tell: the setting out, the part you can never quite get a handle on, the part with all the questions, the lead up, the messy bits, the posturing and the promises and the too-little-to-lates.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading



The Long Walk North

by Bill Cotter, recommended by Electric Literature

Original Fiction

It didn’t surprise anybody much that David Tremaine had finally gone and done what he always said he wanted to do, the thing he talked about, even way back in high school when we were on the basketball team together and he hadn’t gotten really sick yet, and even after that, when mania got hold of him and threw him naked and sleepless up on freeway medians or got him drunk on gasoline or sat him down at internet poker tables to drain his dad’s credit cards; even when he was stable, full of lithium carbonate and living on a couch in the den of his parents’ house in Lake Havasu City, collecting their mail and feeding their Corgi and keeping the dahlia garden alive while Holt and Marian Tremaine were in Rockport for the summer (where David was not allowed — in Rockport people talked), and, surprise, he did it: he walked north, with only a change of clothes, a Gore-Tex parka, and five hundred bucks, until he could walk no further, until he took his last step a mile south of Gift Lake in Alberta, where he sat down in the ice and wind, wrote a note to Nadine, and froze to death. The walk had taken him six and a half months.

David used to come out to Vegas and stay with me so he didn’t have to pay for a hotel room — he wanted every penny for poker — and on most visits he was normal, but one time I remember he was way up high, manic as they come, talking so fast I didn’t see how he could breathe, ropy, skinny-guy muscles standing out under his shirt, drops of sweat running down his forehead and dripping off his eyelashes, and even now I can’t think of him any other way but cross-legged on my bed, poking my chest with a forefinger that felt like the handle of a wrench, commanding me to understand why pot-limit Omaha 8 was the best form of the game, why it was all right to stare at an eclipse, why his brother George had killed himself, why he never would. I loaned him my old shitbox Chevette while he was here that time so he could drive downtown and play at Binion’s, knowing that that was probably a bad idea, and it turned out I was right, because he didn’t come back. I never reported the car stolen — I didn’t want David to get in any trouble, he had enough to worry about. It wasn’t till four months later that I saw him again, in Havasu (I was there to see my mother), sitting by himself in a crowded coffee shop, secretly drawing ballpoint portraits of girls sitting at nearby tables, and I said Whassup or something, but he didn’t recognize me at first, maybe the sun was in his eyes, maybe because I’d lost a few pounds, maybe because Pete was with me at the time and I was physically transformed by anger — Pete and I were feuding about the reappearance in his life of an old lover I knew Pete still had feelings for — but David eventually figured me out and stood up and gave me a hug, a broad, real hug that felt good and whole, saying, I was missing you, Theo. There’s probably some big German compound word for how I felt — gleeful that Pete had seen the hug and David’s enthusiasm in giving it, sad that nothing would ever come of it, jealous that Pete got a hug, too, even though they’d never met. We sat for a while, David drew our portraits, chattered about some girl, talked about walking north like always; normal. The car never came up. I didn’t care. We left, me and Pete, silent on the drive home.

Pete never mentioned David after that, so I knew he’d been affected by him, his presence. It wasn’t long before Pete and I finally said so long motherfucker to each other, a transition from not-single to single whose climax was an ugly fight in the hallway of the apartment building, fists and everything, I got a kick in the balls, Pete got arrested, I moved out in less than three hours, to Nadine’s. Thank god for Nadine and all the little sisters of the world.

The following week I got a call from Holt Tremaine. He told me that a friend of a friend of his who worked at the DMV had looked up the license plate of a Chevrolet of uncertain provenance that David had come home with one day months ago, and that it just so happened that it belonged to me, that he was sorry, could I come get the car? Nadine gave me a ride out to Havasu to pick it up, but she wouldn’t come inside the Tremaines’ with me, saying she’d never liked them, ever since junior high school when they came to a bake sale and bought tons of shit from every kid but her, but I was pretty sure she didn’t come in mainly because she’d always been mortally shy around David and probably had a crush on him like everybody else, so I went in on my own, but David wasn’t there. Turns out they’d put him in Rawson-Neal in Vegas to get his meds stabilized, his 34th hospitalization according to Holt, a figure he cited while digging obscenely through his pockets for the ignition key to my car. I asked them if they thought David might like a visitor, and they said, matter-of-factly, as if warning me of sharks in shallow waters, Better wait, he’ll probably be restrained and isolated for a few days. They just stood there and smiled. I left. I tried to visit David at Rawson-Neal a week later, but he’d been discharged.

After the Peter breakup, Nadine tolerated me in her little house in Henderson for a couple months while I moped and half-assedly looked around for an apartment and a job I could stand. One evening she brought home a boy, some wannabe gangbanger, crude tattoos on his neck and a broken tooth, maybe he was the real deal, what did I know. Nadine made dinner for all three of us, Western omelets and chorizo and margaritas, while Ricky and I sat at the little kitchen table, nothing to say to each other, neither of us even trying, listening to Nadine chatter in the high, quaky way she does when she’s nervous and excited at the same time, and when it came time to eat, Nadine sat down with us, but Ricky picked up his plate and drink, said, Where’s your room, and walked off in the direction Nadine pointed. She and I sat there, Nadine staring at her omelet, grinning like a little kid on the first day of summer, saying nothing, and a venomous part of me kept her there for several minutes, not imparting approval for her to get up and go join him, until finally I stood and said I was going in the TV room to watch Arrested Development and finish eating, and, not to worry, that I had a date, too, and would be out of the house in less than an hour. She probably knew I was lying, but I don’t think either of us cared. She went in her room to be with her boy, and I sat down to watch TV, but realized that I did not ever want to hear my sister moan, so I picked up my shoes and walked out to the car, barefoot, not wanting to spend a second longer in that little house, filled as it was with youthful sexual presence.

I drove to the Mirage. I waited in line behind the tourists checking in, watching the tropical fish wiggle in the narrow, twenty-by-thirty-foot aquarium that served as a backdrop to the front desk. I got a nonsmoking room, but it still smelled like smoke. I went downstairs and sat at the lowest-limit poker table I could find, a $2-$4 Hold’em game. I lost half my stake pretty quick but managed to stay about even for a couple hours after that. The dealer was pushing me my first decent pot when I heard the sound of clapping: a single person’s slow, deliberate applause, sharp, loud pops that elbowed aside the incessant ding and whistle of the slots and drove right to the eardrums. It got everyone’s attention, though at first no one could tell where it was coming from. Then I saw, up in the raised, roped-off area in the corner of the poker room, where the $40-$80 and higher games were run, a wild-haired young man, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, his arms tanned to the burnt reddish-brown of a transient, watching and clapping as the dealer pushed a pile of black chips his way. His opponent, a middle-aged Korean woman with a hot-flash fan, stood up and began to walk away just as two men came over, they looked comically like Secret Service guys, dark suits, RayBans, wires curling from their ears that disappeared into their shirt collars. They stood behind David and waited while he built towers out of his chips, childlike, concentrating on balance and distribution and aligning the stripes on the edges. A woman came over with a stack of banknotes and some paperwork in hand and cashed him out. David stuffed the wads of cash in all four pockets of his jeans. Then one security guy leaned down and said something in David’s ear. David closed his eyes. He made a hard fist of one hand. Then he stood and turned to strike the big man, but he grabbed David’s wrist before he could let the punch fly. David violently yanked his arm away, causing the goon to lurch. The second guard grabbed David’s hair and other wrist, wrenching his arm up behind his back. The men virtually carried him out of the poker room, his forearm jammed up against a shoulder blade, David smiling, laughing at the two musclefucks. I stuffed my chips into my pockets as fast as I could and jogged after them, saying I’m with him, let him go, he’s not well, I’ll take care of him, but the big bastards ignored me and threw David out of a rarely used exit that led to the parking garage, where he landed face first, cutting his forehead and cheekbone badly enough that I had to give him my shirt to stanch the blood. In the car David pulled out all his money, fifty-two grand, waved it around, hooting and shouting and bleeding, then reached over, stuck a finger inside the hip of my jeans, pulled on the material enough to make a gap between it and my skin, and tucked ten thousand dollars inside. The stack of hundreds was warm and moist from blood. He said, Let’s drive out to Mustang Ranch, man, let’s do it, I could fuck all night, but when I told him I was tired, and that I had a room at the Mirage, he asked me if I had brought my laptop and did I have a credit card he could use, could I sneak him back into the hotel, that he wanted to play poker online in my room. I desperately wanted to tell him yes, but the truth was I could not — I didn’t have my laptop, my cards were maxed, and I didn’t think I could sneak him in looking like he did. David threw my bloody shirt in my face, climbed out of the car and ran back into the casino. I didn’t stay. I drove around, out toward the low hills surrounding the city till dawn, then went back to Nadine’s and parked behind her little Corolla. I didn’t go in the house. I fell asleep in the back seat, waking around one when it got too hot to breathe. Nadine’s car was gone.

I found work as an accountant for a firm that manufactured air conditioner filters, and moved into a small house just a few blocks from Nadine. I kept the blood-smeared ten thousand in an empty chicory coffee can on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I called the Tremaines now and then, but no one ever answered or returned my calls. It had always been that way, though.

Nadine and Ricky were arrested for drugs after getting pulled over in her little Corolla driving from L.A. to Vegas, a serious arrest, too, they’d had enough coke on them to be classified as traffickers. Some unknown put up both their bonds, which was scarier to me than the arrest, it meant that there were some big people pushing the chips around out there. Nadine told me she hadn’t known the drugs were in the car — they were attached to the underside of the chassis like a limpet mine — and I believed her, I knew she wouldn’t do anything like that, she worked as a pit boss for chrissake, never in trouble in her life. Her lawyer urged her to plead guilty and hope for the best, but she was sentenced to a year in jail. She served every minute of it.

While she was inside I watched her house and fed her fish and watered and mowed, and with the ten grand I paid her bills and mortgage, it was enough to cover more than seven months’ worth. When she got out, I drove her home where she wandered around the house, looked in all the rooms, fed her fish, then sat me down at the little kitchen table while she cleaned out the refrigerator. As she sat on the floor, a bottle of Fantastic and a roll of paper towels at her knee, she told me she’d taken art classes in jail. She told me that whenever anyone finished a picture the teacher stuck it up on the cinderblock walls so everyone could see, and one day about two months ago she saw a big piece of white paper taped up next to hers, covered in little drawings, portraits of other prisoners, dozens of them covering the whole sheet. It was signed David Tremaine. Nadine told me that at the bottom of the paper she’d written Hi David Love Nadine Staples in black wax pastel, and sometime later she noticed he’d written on her drawing of a carousel horse Nadine I love you, but that was as far as the correspondence got because a guard saw it and changed the rules so the teacher couldn’t tape up pictures anymore, fearing gangs could communicate that way, even though every third person in the whole jail had a fucking cell phone.

Nadine finished cleaning the freezer, emptied out the old ice cubes, ran the kitchen tap, waiting for the stagnant, brownish water in the pipes to empty out, and fresh, clear water to replace it, refilled the trays, and stuck them back in the freezer. She closed it and gave me a big smile. It wasn’t the same smile as before. She wasn’t the same person.

I didn’t see much of her for several months after that. I had found someone new, Harry, we met in the earphones aisle of Target, him a divorced Beacon Hill heir with three kids and fifteen years of deep analysis behind him, and me, from the desert, working for a living, loath to head-shrinkers, not even a pet to tether me, and we would joke about how we were so different, that one day we’d have to break up because of it. Then, coming up on a year together, the joke dissipated, eroded to slivers from overuse, no longer necessary as a talisman against its own prophesy. That was when Nadine called.

David had been released from jail, and the first thing he did was turn up on Nadine’s doorstep, a box of melting chocolates in one hand and a colored-pencil drawing of a whole carousel of carousel horses, so dynamic and layered, she told me, that she imagined it in motion, the horses bobbing, the tinny music playing, the carnival barker shouting offstage, the evening and its jewels of light a curtain around it all. Nadine let him in. Following a few weeks of “exquisite normal,” as she put it, an entirely out-of-character use of language for her, David told her that he felt great, that the meds had done their job but now he didn’t need them anymore, and so he quit taking them. He unofficially moved in.

One morning early her cell phone rang. It was Ricky calling from prison, and she answered it, David right there in bed with her, so she got up and went into the TV room to talk, but he followed her and crouched down behind the couch to listen. The volume must have been turned up on the phone because David could hear both ends of the conversation, some of which was of a sexual nature, and when she hung up, David sprung out from behind the couch, startling her, screaming at her about her infidelities, how long had they been going on, and Nadine told him she had no plans to ever see Ricky again, especially since she and David had gotten together, but it still upset him so much he locked himself in the hallway bathroom with a utility knife, and wouldn’t come out for hours. It finally ended bloodlessly, but after that David was irrationally possessive of Nadine, and jealous of anyone she spent time with, going so far as to follow her to work at Harrah’s — she was a waitress now, no longer a pit boss, being an ex-con ruined that career — watching her at a distance, pretending to play the slots. She didn’t know this until he confronted her while she was on her way to the bathroom at lunchtime one day. He told her he’d seen the craps player she’d been flirting with, and Nadine told him she hadn’t been flirting, he was a good client with a lot of money, and it was her job to be extra nice to him, and David said, Exactly how nice do you have to be? then followed her into the bathroom and began to sob leaning up against her stall door. Incredibly, no one called security on him, and Nadine took him home, missing the last half of her shift, and getting into no little trouble for it, too. After that she talked to casino security to make sure they never let David in again.

One night he accused her of having the police and the FBI and Homeland Security watching his every move, he knew this because there were cameras everywhere, plus they wouldn’t let him into Harrah’s to see his own girlfriend. Nadine denied this, and he struck her in the chest with a hard, closed fist. The next time he tried to hit her, she put her arm up to defend herself, and the punch, delivered with hypermanic force, broke it clean in two, so that her forearm bent in the middle like a carpenter’s square. That’s when David ran out into the night and Nadine called me.

After the emergency room set her arm, she came to stay with Harry and me. David started sneaking into our yard in the middle of the night, either begging through the front door to talk to Nadine, or hissing my name, calling me a slanderer and a fag and a rat, saying that he knew what I was really doing and that it wasn’t going to work. Nadine didn’t want to call the cops, saying David was just sick, that he never would have hurt her if he’d been on his meds, and I actually felt the same way, plus an arrest would send him back to jail, so Harry sat alone in his desire to sic the LVPD on him, and it took both me and Nadine to convince him not to.

Nadine stayed with us while David rampaged, committing assaults with telephone calls and emails and sometimes a double-fisted hammering at the front door. Before long she had been with us for more than a month, never leaving, even once, somehow having wrangled a leave of absence from work. The night David threw a coil of garden hose through our bedroom window was the night Harry moved out. The incident convinced Nadine and me that our safety trumped David’s freedom, so we called the cops, but David had disappeared. He came back a few nights later, wearing nothing but cutoff jeans and a six-week beard, broke through the back door, and dragged Nadine out into the yard by her good arm. This time the neighbors called the police, and the short of it was that David went back to jail to finish out his sentence, with six months tacked on. Nadine never told me what his original crime had been.

In Nadine’s absence, David had covered every available surface of the inside of her house, including the ceilings, the lampshades, the inside walls of the refrigerator, every sheet and blanket, and the bowl of the toilet, with portraits of Nadine done in red and blue Sharpie, all the same pose, all from her high-school yearbook picture, a 4” x 6” color print she kept in a frame on top of her dresser, or used to. The floors were littered with spent pens, like shell casings. Her fish were dead.

I tried to convince Nadine to sell and move into a new place, that she could live with me while she house-hunted, but she wanted to stay. We repainted, but ghosts of the drawings worked their way up through the coats of eggshell white. Nadine said she wanted to paint everything black so nothing would show through, but I told her those ghosts would still be there, so we wound up sanding and scraping the whole interior, big flakes of white paint with red and blue streaks on them fluttering to the floor to be swept up and thrown away. We threw out everything, too, including the refrigerator, TV, and furniture. Nadine started over. It took two months. Harry called once, early on, advising me that movers would be coming to collect his stuff. I wasn’t heartbroken. At least not about Harry.

David, we found out later, was released from jail to the custody of his parents in Havasu, who started to reward him with cash every time he took his meds, something I’ll bet they wished they’d thought of years ago, because it worked — David stayed stable. He never called me or Nadine, but he sent one or two letters to her, with APOLOGY INSIDE written on the envelope in blue Sharpie. I never found out if Nadine read them.

It was Pete, of all people, who issued the last David report.

Pete sent me a terse email saying that he had something of mine, a jacket, my letterman’s jacket from high-school basketball, did I want him to mail it back to me. Plus he wanted to send me a check, he said he owed me $85 for some dinner I had no memory of, that he didn’t want to have any debt hanging over his head. My first inclination was to write back and tell him to take a deep breath and fuck himself, but instead I responded with my address and a cool thank you. I also asked how he was, and the response was a thousand-word cataract of personal history, interspersed with guilt, accusation, apology, provocation, and insatiable repine. And confession: he told me that even before our memorable breakup he had begun to pursue David, “accidentally” running into him at the coffee shop again, talking about the walk north, would he ever really do it, asking to be taught poker, staking David for higher-limit games, going over to David’s house, where he made friends with his mother Marian, and stayed on good terms with her, even after David put an end to his friendship with Pete following his clumsy pass at him in the back of a gypsy on the way back from a bad night at a $20-$40 game at the MGM Grand. David gently pushed him away, saying he had a feeling this was coming, and that he was sorry it had, because he really valued their friendship, but that it would have to end, because this sort of thing never works out, you can’t have lust in a friendship, especially one-sided lust. Pete and Marian continued to email and Facebook and meet for the occasional coffee, and it was at their last meeting that Marian told him that David had left them a note a couple days earlier saying he had started his walk north, that all would be well, he would take his meds the whole time. Holt had talked Marian out of filing a missing persons report, saying that David was an adult and could take care of himself, especially if he was medicated. Pete told me that this all happened more than six months before. He finished his email with an anemic Take care. I didn’t write him back. The next day an article in the Review-Journal reported that David had been found in Canada by a hunter.

On a cool, breezy Saturday Nadine had me over for lunch. I was sitting at her little kitchen table — she’d replaced the one David had ruined with the exact same model — reading business emails on my phone while she cooked grilled cheeses on white bread and served them with Ruffles and beer, when a knock came at the door. We both froze. She wasn’t expecting anybody, and nobody she knew simply dropped by. We looked at each other. I read in her eyes, and I know she read in mine, that it could only be Ricky. I was afraid of Ricky.

But it wasn’t him. It was Holt Tremaine.

“Sorry to bother you on a Saturday,” he said, his hands busy in both front pockets of his slacks, the cuffs of his sports jacket bunching up. “I found your address on the internet, you know, and I wanted to deliver something, from David, he had it on him… on his person… when they found him, and I think it’s for you.”

Holt reached into an inside jacket pocket and found a dirty, water-stained envelope that read NADINE in dull pencil. He handed it to her, then jammed his hand back in his front pocket. “It’s not in very good shape. Hello, Theo.”

I said Hello back. Holt Tremaine left.

Nadine folded the letter in half and put it in a kitchen drawer, the one next to the stove that held notepads and matchboxes and screwdrivers and the like. She sat down with me at the table. The grilled cheeses had cooled. The chips were all fragments, the end of the bag. I wondered if Nadine would open the letter, after I’d gone home, would she cry when she read it, would she refold it carefully and tuck it in a book she’d never read, would she burn it in the sink, was it a love letter, a defense, an apology, a memory, a manifesto, was it a mere travelogue, or a drawing, a landscape in pencil of his last view, was it unfinished, did it freeze when he licked the envelope shut, was there anything in there about me.

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