“Meriwether Lewis’ Skull Fragments” — novel excerpt

I stop just over the Tennessee state line to grab a pop and fill the gas tank. While I’m screwing the gas cap back on, this older guy asks if I might be heading in a westerly direction. His words, not mine.

“Because if you have extra space in that van,” he says, “I wonder if you’d consider giving an old man a ride to whatever spot best suits you. I’d be happy for one with plumbing and a place to get a sandwich, but I’m not picky.”

1. Hands: Pale and clean, very well manicured.

2. Hair: Short, gray, receding.

3. Eyes: Same color blue as my favorite hair conditioner.

He looks harmless enough—beige pants, light blue shirt, small maroon suitcase—but I’ve had two guns pointed at me in the past few weeks and I’m wary over the possibility of a third. At the same time, company in the van would be welcome.

“If you want me to empty my pockets that’s fine,” he says. “I’m leaving North Carolina for Iowa and real weather. I need to get back where I can understand folks when they talk to me.”

I don’t tell him he’s got a bit of a southern accent himself, but I decide to let him ride along because:

1. I don’t want to let a jerk like Wayne make me paranoid.

2. When the older guy opens his bag his shirts and underwear look clean.

3. He says his daughters don’t know he’s doing this.

I tell him not to worry since I need frequent breaks from my own kid. He buys me a pop and we’re back on the road before he can introduce himself as Silas. I introduce Silas to Aaron Burr’s foot, which I brought along for company. I’ve been talking to Aaron intermittently, but having a live person in the van is particularly nice. Silas holds the foot on his lap while he tells me about moving to North Carolina forty years ago to sell vacuum cleaners.

“The kids were young and I needed to make money,” he says, “more than I was earning in Iowa. Now my daughters are grown and intent on keeping me in the south. They don’t remember Iowa, so I can’t expect them to understand why I need to go home.”

“Are you gonna give your kids a call?” I ask.

“When I get to Iowa,” Silas says. “I need to be far enough away so they don’t send the police. They’ve been trying to put me in one of those assisted living homes.” He shakes his head. “My folks are buried in Iowa and I still have family near Ames. Cousins. I’ll find a nice apartment in some old people’s complex.”

Silas can’t be more than ten years older than me, maybe seventy-three or seventy-four. His hands are steady around his Styrofoam coffee cup and he can hold a decent conversation. Not a real assisted living candidate if you ask me, but I wonder if his kids are the sort who’d alert the media. “North Carolina Daughters Search for Father Heading West.”

I tell Silas I’m from Ohio and on my way to see Meriwether Lewis’s skull fragments at a canoe rental shop near Memphis. I show him the spot on my left hand where my index finger used to be and explain how the table saw accident got me interested in relics. When I glance at Silas to gauge his reaction he doesn’t seem to think I’m too crazy, so I say I’m heading north through Missouri when I’m done in Tennessee.

“You’re welcome to come along if you don’t mind the stops,” I say.

Silas says he’d just as well do that as it saves him the trouble of finding another ride. He pulls a manicure file out of his pocket and starts working on his nails, explains it’s an old habit from his days as a vacuum cleaner salesman. When you work door to door you have to look neat and clean and together.

“Some of those afternoons got real muggy,” he says. “It’s awful when you’re in a suit hauling vacuum cleaners around. But my wife liked warm weather. She passed away a few years back. I left most of my things and her things in the apartment. Didn’t want to be weighed down.” He blows on his nails, then keeps filing. “Were you ever married?”

“Was,” I say. “Not one of your happily-ever-afters.”

“Sorry to hear,” he says.

I shrug. “He wasn’t a prize.” Pause. “Do you ever feel like your wife is around? Just saying hello?”

“Sometimes I smell honeysuckle,” he says. “This body powder she used. I hated it. She put on too much and almost suffocated me in bed. But from time to time I get a little whiff of that scent. I’ve never been a religious man, but it makes me think, you know?”

“Yeah,” I say, though I don’t feel like elaborating on the slightly smoky smell in the van.

Silas and I don’t talk much the rest of the way, but he has a habit of reading road signs under his breath, which reminds me of how Dad muttered to Cump. The noise is comfortable. Having Silas in the van stops me from getting choked up about Amelia moving to Florida and my kid repeating my marriage problems and whether my ability to do a good haircut is fading. If I dwell too much, I get that kind of sadness where I resent waking up in the morning. I don’t want to die necessarily, just not be in the world.


Silas and I reach the canoe rental place around five-thirty in the afternoon. It’s this little shack fifty miles from Memphis with a rack of beat-up metal canoes out front. Parked in the gravel drive is a pickup hitched to a canoe-towing trailer. We get out of the van, stretch our legs, and creak into the store. The guy behind the counter gives us a little wave.

1. Hands: Big and calloused, like he lifts canoes in and out of the water a lot.

2. Hair: Long, gray-brown, and pulled back in a ponytail. His face is round and looks too young for him to be going silver.

3. Eyes: Brown, a little slanted.

In front of the register there’s a display with chips and candy. Silas buys pretzels and I buy a chocolate bar. We explain we’re here to see the skull pieces. The counter guy points to a small wooden frame on the wall. Mounted on a black cardboard background are four little beige-colored shards that look like they could’ve come from a clay pot. The brass plaque on the frame reads Bone Fragments of Meriwether Lewis.

“It was the first thing I bought after I won the lottery,” says the counter guy. “It wasn’t a huge payout. Twenty thousand. Enough.”

I unwrap the top of my candy bar. “Why not buy a car instead?”

“I liked the idea of that expedition,” says the counter guy. “People exploring places only a few white folks had seen. And when I was in grade school I had a friend who was part Choctaw, so I’ve always wanted to know about that side, too. My friend was raised by her grandma who was really nice, but still mad about all that shitty stuff.” He spreads his arms to encompass the part of white American history that involves killing Indians, taking their land, and leaving the remaining ones dirt poor.

Silas shifts his weight from his toes to his heels and makes the floorboards creak. I realize how close he’s standing to me, how I can feel the slight heat from his body. I break a piece off my candy bar. There’s peanut butter inside. I peer at the skull fragments and try to imagine them as part of somebody’s body, but they still look like pottery. The candy bar softens in my hand. Warm day.

The counter guy says Meriwether joined the army when he was twenty and became Thomas Jefferson’s secretary a few years later. It was Jefferson’s idea to send Meriwether out on the expedition. Lewis invited Clark to be co-leader, both of them in charge of thirty-some guys. They started out in May of 1804, ventured up the Missouri River from a camp near St. Louis, wintered in North Dakota, crossed the Rocky Mountains in late summer, and spent another winter beside the Pacific coast. The group reached St. Louis again the following September after over two years of travel, which included a few court martials, one attempted mutiny, a death from appendicitis, and Lewis getting shot in the leg by a member of the expedition who had bad eyesight and mistook him for an elk.

“When you think about it, it’s amazing more people didn’t die,” says the counter guy. “And the one death wasn’t even because of a bear or a mountain lion. Just an appendix.”

I bite another piece off my melting candy bar and glance at the skull fragments. They’re the color of toffee. Lewis evaded poisonous snakes, collected plant samples, tried not to fall down mountains, and attempted to make friends with a bunch of different groups of Native Americans who had good reason not to trust strangers with guns. Two hundred years later, I worry about finding cheap gas and not hitting wildlife that skitters in front of my van.

“Lewis kept a journal,” says the counter guy, “but he’d stop writing for weeks at a time. Later people figured it was due to his depression.”

I stop eating my candy bar. Hadn’t known Meriwether was depressed. I don’t know if I have real depression myself, but I don’t feel good and it makes me want to get out of town. Did Meriwether go on that expedition because of sadness? Because he wanted to forget his life at home? Because he needed to see something unfamiliar? There’s no better escape than charting a few thousand miles of wilderness.

“When Meriwether returned from the expedition,” says the counter guy, “Jefferson made him governor of Louisiana territory. But Meriwether hated politicians and managing the whole Louisiana territory was a hell of a job. He drank a lot and took laudanum to get to sleep.”

I stuff the rest of the melted candy bar in my mouth. Too sweet. I choose another one from the rack and unwrap the top.

The counter guy says Lewis went broke. Washington wasn’t sending enough money to pay bills for its new territory. The local politicians hated Lewis. He worried about being accused of treason like Wilkinson, the last Louisiana governor who’d been a spy for Spain.

“Wilkinson had gotten together with Aaron Burr,” says the counter guy, “and people said they had some shady dealings going.”

So the man who was originally attached to the foot in my van probably knew the guy whose skull fragments are displayed in this canoe shop. Funny how things work out.

“Meriwether was really bad off,” says the counter guy. “He tried to kill himself by jumping in the Mississippi River, and was on suicide watch for a couple weeks because he wasn’t stable.” The counter guy’s voice gets hoarse. He wipes his eyes with his fingers.

“You okay?” I say.

“Did I say my name was Derry?” he says.

“No,” says Silas.

“It is,” he says. “Sorry I forgot to mention that.”

“You don’t have to keep telling the story,” I say.

“I’m fine,” he says.

Silas glances at me and crumples his chip bag.

Derry stoops lower as he talks, like he can feel the whole emotional burden of being the Louisiana Territory governor in 1805. He says Lewis set out for Washington because he had to defend himself, prove he was doing a good job as governor, and ask for more cash to support the territory.

It was autumn and crappy weather, so he stopped at this tavern along the way, which was really someone’s house that doubled as an inn for travelers. The man who owned the tavern wasn’t home, but his wife was. Meriwether drank lot, and in the night the wife heard him pacing and ranting. Then a gunshot. She later said Meriwether called to her from the main room, asked her to finish him off, but she was scared and didn’t leave her bedroom. A couple men traveling behind Meriwether found him in the morning, barely alive, with two bullet wounds and cuts all over his body.

“Some people think it was murder because there were only a couple witnesses,” says Derry, “the wife of the tavern keeper and another guy. They figure Meriwether was hell bent on getting to Washington, and Wilkinson had him killed because he thought Meriwether had found more evidence to support the treason charges against him. Others say Meriwether committed suicide. He was depressed and drinking and temperamental. Meriwether was only thirty-five, but his portraits look older than that. Something in his eyes, I think.”

The air in the store is thicker than before. Denser. Sadder. I’ve heard mediums claim they can bring other spirits into their bodies, channel voices and thoughts and personalities. This isn’t it exactly, but it’s the closest I’ve seen.

Silas clears his throat. “What do you think happened?”

Derry shrugs and peers over his shoulder at the skull fragments.

“He was a smart guy and a troubled guy. Nobody argues whether or not he tried to kill himself a couple times, just whether or not he succeeded in the end. Sometimes I imagine what that sadness must have been like. So awfully heavy.”

I want to hug Derry, but I’m worried his sadness will flow into my fingers and weigh down my hand. That’s the last thing I need. I fight the urge to get a third chocolate bar.

 “The guy who did the autopsy wasn’t that upstanding,” says Derry. “He took a few skull fragments as souvenirs, but he swore there was a curse on the bones. Everyone who’s owned them got bad headaches. I’d been getting migraines all my life so I figured it wouldn’t matter, but after I bought the little bone bits, my headaches cleared up. I got even more interested in Meriwether after that.”

The shop walls are covered with framed Meriwether memorabilia—black and white copies of Lewis’ portraits, a copy of his obituary, a map of the expedition, newspaper articles with headlines about the two-hundred-year anniversary of the trip, and articles raising questions about the nature of Meriwether’s death.