“Meriwether Lewis’ Skull Fragments” — first appeared in North American Review

 I stop just over the Tennessee state line to grab a pop and fill the tank, and while I’m screwing the gas cap back on this guy with close-cut gray hair 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 that picky.”

 He looks harmless enough–beige pants, light blue shirt, small maroon suitcase.

 “If you want me to empty my pockets that’s fine,” he says. “I’m leaving Carolina for Iowa and real weather. Sick of the heat and the accent down here. Need to get back where I can understand people.”

 I don’t tell him he’s got a bit of a southern accent himself, decide to let him ride along because when he opens his bag his shirts and underwear look clean, and because I’m getting kind of tired of my own company.

 He pays for my gas and my pop and we’re on the road before he can introduce himself as Silas, tell me about moving to North Carolina forty years ago to sell vacuum cleaners. His daughters don’t know he’s leaving.

 “We moved when the kids were young and I needed to make money,” he says, “more than I was earning in Iowa. But now they’re intent on keeping me in the south.”

 I tell Silas my daughter Lisbeth has turned into the overprotective mother I never was, worries about me driving the van alone, but any time someone tells you not to do something it becomes more attractive.

 “You gonna give your kids a call?” I ask because I’ve been phoning Lisbeth every other day to assure her I’m still alive.

 “I’ll call when I get to Iowa,” Silas says. “Need to be far enough away so they don’t send the police after me. They’ve been trying to put me in one of those assisted living homes.” He shakes his head. “My folks are buried in Iowa. I have cousins near Ames. I’ll find an apartment there 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, 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 the basics–I’m from Ohio, used to be a hairdresser, and I’m going to see Meriwether Lewis’s skull fragments at a canoe rental shop near Memphis. I quit the salon before my boss could fire me—we had differences—but after a month of “retirement” I was restless, a little depressed. My friend Deanna took this trip all over Europe after she retired, visited museums and castles and pieces of saints in cathedrals. She claimed her hay fever was cured after she touched Saint Bernadine’s knucklebone in some tiny chapel in France. I knew I had to get out of town but didn’t have money to fly to Europe, so I’m looking at pieces of famous Americans–Paul Revere’s thumb, Washington’s finger, Aaron Burr’s foot.

 I glance at Silas to gauge his reaction. He’s nodding and blinking, doesn’t seem to think I’m too crazy. He’s good to have in the van. Stops me from getting choked up at intervals.

 “I’m heading to Iowa next,” I say. “You’re welcome to come if you don’t mind stops.”

 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, says 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. “Awful when you’re in a suit hauling vacuum cleaners around. But my wife liked warm weather. She passed away a few years back. Left most of my things and her things in the apartment. Didn’t want to be weighed down.” He blows his nails, 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.”

 Silas and I don’t talk much the rest of the way, but he has a habit of reading road signs under his breath. The noise is comfortable. Keeps me from crying, like I said. It’s been happening over the past couple days. Strange. I’m not a weepy person, but from time to time I have to pull over and get a tissue. I get this heavy feeling. Like I’m drifting. Aimless. Have to remind myself there’s a reason for my trip. Pilgrimage.

 Being on the road gives me too much time to think about the day I left my job, a morning that was normal until my boss asked if I’d join her for coffee in the break room. Never should have let her get me alone. That’s when she brought up retirement. She’d been trying to get rid of me for a while, said I was getting “sloppy” and she was worried about customer satisfaction. I said we had plenty of customers who asked for me. The boss and I hadn’t gotten along well since she’d bought the shop six years ago–I was the oldest hairdresser, kind of loud, had my own way of doing things. She wanted me to suggest “younger” cuts and color washes to my clients, more expensive treatments, but I wasn’t going to try and convince anyone to change her hair if she didn’t want to. My boss said we shouldn’t get known as an old-lady salon. I told her there was nothing wrong with old ladies.

 “I’m just saying you should seriously consider retirement,” she said. “You’re put in forty years. Don’t you think it’s time for a break?”

 I managed to not cry or throw coffee at her, but I knew she’d make it so I wouldn’t want to stay much longer. My boss was that sort of determined.

 I spent three blurry days in my room crying. Now I’m not even sure if they happened. Like I said I’m not like that, don’t break up. Maybe it was someone else who was so despondent. Don’t know what I’ll do when I get back to Ohio, but I have some savings, could run a salon out of my kitchen because I’ve done it before. I’m too much like my barber dad. He refused to stop working until his hands got too arthritic to cut hair.

Silas and I reach the canoe rental place around five-thirty in the afternoon. It’s a little shack fifty miles from Memphis with a rack of beat-up metal canoes out front and a pickup with more canoes on a trailer. We get out of the van, stretch our legs, creak into the store. The guy behind the counter has long gray-brown hair and a round face that looks too young for him to be going silver. His brown eyes are slanted and he’s got big calloused hands that probably lift canoes in and out of the water a lot. In front of the register there’s a display with chips and candy. Silas buys some pretzels and I buy a chocolate bar, explain we’re here to see the skull pieces.

 The gray-haired guy points to the wall, a small wooden frame. 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. “Not 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 before. Meriwether had to be a soldier and a journalist and a naturalist and diplomat. He was a really brilliant guy.”

 Silas shifts his weight from his toes to his heels, makes the floorboards creak, makes me realize how close he’s standing to me and 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 early 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, spent another winter beside the Pacific coast, and reached St. Louis again in September after over two years of travel, which including 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 break another piece off my melting candy bar, 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 gas stations and not hitting any wildlife that skitters in front of my van. During the past couple days, though, when I needed to stop and collect myself by the side of the road, I’ve wished I could’ve seen the land without pavement and telephone poles. It’d be beautiful and scary as hell, but many beautiful things are.

 “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. When he got home, Jefferson made him the governor of Louisiana territory. Stupid idea. Lewis hated politicians and sitting behind desks. You’d think Jefferson would’ve known better. Besides, managing the whole Louisiana territory was a hell of a job. Lewis started drinking more. Took laudanum to get to sleep.”

 I stuff the rest of the melted candy bar in my mouth. Too sweet. I pick another one from the rack and lay a few coins on the counter. I’ve never been one for wine or hard liquor, and beer just doesn’t taste good to me after the second can, so when I tried getting drunk after I “retired” from the salon, it didn’t work well. I soothed myself with chocolate instead. It became a reason to keep going. I must continue with life so that I can eat more chocolate. Stupid, but it got me through.

 The counter guy says Lewis lost a lot of money on land speculation. He went broke. Washington wasn’t sending enough funds to pay the 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 turned out to be a spy for Spain.

 “Meriwether got depressive streaks,” says the counter guy. “Tried to kill himself by jumping in the Mississippi River. He 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, wiping his eyes again.

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

 “I’m fine,” he says.

 Silas glances at me and crumples his pretzel bag.

 I unwrap my second candy bar. Derry reminds me of this insurance agent I dated three years ago. He told awful stories about claims he heard for car accidents and house fires and little kid injuries, got so choked up I wondered if he shouldn’t have been an insurance agent. People who do that work need to be kind and distanced. My boyfriend walked around his apartment with hunched shoulders, carrying the weight of those problems. Derry is like that, too, stoops lower as he talks, like he can feel the whole emotional burden of being the Louisiana Territory governor.

 Lewis set out for Washington because he had to defend himself, prove he was doing a good job, and ask for more cash to support the territory. It was autumn, 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. She said Meriwether drank lot, and in the night she heard him pacing and ranting. Then a gunshot. He called from the main room, asked her to come finish him off, but she didn’t leave her bedroom. 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. “They figure Lewis was hell bent on getting to Washington and wouldn’t have killed himself, and Wilkinson had him murdered because he thought Lewis had found more evidence to support treason charges against him. Other people say Meriwether committed suicide. His temperament had always been changeable. He was only thirty-five, but in paintings he looks older than that. Something in his eyes, I think.”

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

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

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

 “He was a smart and brave guy, and a troubled guy. Nobody argues about 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 lean forward across the counter and hug Derry, touch his shoulder, but I’m worried that his sadness will flow into my fingers and weigh down my hand and Lord knows that’s the last thing I need. I have to fight the urge to get a third chocolate bar now that I’ve finished the first two. My boss sent me chocolates as a retirement gift. They sat on the coffee table for three weeks before I threw them away and bought four big candy bars from the kid next door who’s always selling them for marching band.

 “The guy who did the autopsy wasn’t the most upstanding sort,” says Derry, “took a few skull fragments as souvenirs, but he swore there was some sort of curse on the bones. Everyone who’s owned them got real 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.” He points to the walls of the small shop that are covered with framed remembrances—black and white prints of portraits of Lewis, a copy of his obituary, a map of the expedition, newspaper articles with headlines about the two-hundred-year anniversary of the trip and questions about Meriwether’s death.

 “When it’s slow here and there aren’t many people around,” says Derry, “I think about how he must’ve felt. Try to slip myself into him. Those emotions.”

 Silas stops rocking back and forth on his heels. “It’s not good for people to do that,” he says. “To feel bad if they don’t have to.”

 “But I want to,” says Derry. “I don’t mind it. It’s really something when I stop. When I get out of his head. I feel so light. Have this sense of rising.”

 “It’s not good to do that,” Silas says a bit more loudly.

 “It’s like a drug almost,” says Derry. His eyes glaze like he might be sinking into that space. Silas steps forward and I think he’s going to grab Derry, shake him, but I lunge between them quick.

 “Hey,” I say loudly, press back hard on Silas’s chest, touch Derry gently with my fingertips. “Can I touch the case?”

 Derry lets me step behind the counter. I don’t feel anything when my hand is on the wood–it’s smooth and cool like I’d expect. Disappointing.

 “I’m two years younger than Meriwether when he died,” says Derry. “Sometimes I wonder if he thought he’d come back alive from that trip.”

 When I backed my van out of my driveway in Ohio, I didn’t know if I’d be coming back. Still not sure. There’s a freedom and a burden to that sort of uncertainty. Next month I could be doing haircuts in my kitchen, or I could be doing haircuts for middle-aged paunchy men at some truck stop. I belong nowhere. The slate is disturbingly clean.

 Silas crosses his arms, walks behind the counter to stand beside me and squint at the wooden frame. He says, “When I die, people are going to say, ‘Well he lived a good life.’ I did, so I can’t complain. But when my wife died, that’s what people said. ‘She lived a good life.’ I wanted to punch them. There are some folks who get old or hurt a lot and want to move on, but she wasn’t ready.” He shakes his head. “Thirty-five years old is a crying shame.”

 Derry toes the floor for a moment, excuses himself to go outside and make sure the canoes are securely locked to their metal stand.

 My ex-husband died when he was fifty-five, too young even though he chain-smoked and was overweight. His death made me worried, since I was going to be that old in a year and didn’t feel capable of dying. That’s the strange thing about age. In your mind you’re never much older. I’m not sure how my body has become sixty-three without any input from me. Most days I don’t feel over thirty. But after I “retired,” I felt eighty for a week. Weary. Sometimes I still have to coax myself young. Did Meriwether feel like that? What was he was thinking during that trip when he wasn’t writing anything in his journal? Did anyone realize something just wasn’t right?

 “You think that boy has something wrong with him?” says Silas. It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking about Derry.

 “I don’t know,” I say. “He’s spent a lot of time trying to figure out what depression would feel like.” Derry’s got a look in his eye not unlike Meriwether’s, something in his gaze that makes him seem old, probably because he’s been too successful at tracing Meriwether’s thoughts.

 “Might as well be happy if you don’t have a good reason to be sad,” Silas says.

 “Some people want to empathize,” I say. Derry scares me at the same time I admire him for trying to understand someone else that deeply. Most people couldn’t give a shit.

 “Foolish to waste your energy,” says Silas. “There’s plenty of time to be sad for good reasons.”

 “Identifying is a good reason,” I say.

 “Stupid,” Silas says again.

 “Would you be quiet for a moment?” I say.

 Silas steps back, raises his eyebrows.

 I lower my voice. “The poor guy is outside.”

 “Sorry.” Silas leans against the counter, slides his hands in his pockets, tilts his head at me. I pace a few short steps from one side of the store to the other, stop to peer at the map of the expedition Derry has hanging on one wall. He’s on a mission to relive history. Kind of like Civil War reenactors who sleep in the rain, eat bad food, and pretend to shoot each other so they can lie motionless in the mud for a few hours longer. The point isn’t to dwell on happy stuff. It’s to be another person.

 I’ve tried. I wanted to understand my boss when she said we needed to expand our clientele. I wanted to understand her worries about rent and utilities and paying off her business loan, about being labeled an “old lady” salon, about competing with the five other salons in town, about belligerent longtime employees who have their own way of doing things.

 It didn’t work. Just made me dent the bathroom wall with a curling iron.

 Derry shuffles back inside from securing the canoes. It’s around seven. He asks if we’re hungry, says there’s a really good fish and chips place down the road that’s owned by a London transplant who fell in love with Tennessee. Silas and I follow Derry’s pickup for about fifteen miles to this little whitewashed shed with a counter and two fryers and no tables inside. We buy three newspaper cones of fried fish and French fries, sit in the back of Derry’s pickup to eat. The fish is good and heavy, sits in my stomach and makes me feel like I’ll be full forever.

 “Lots of times I’ll come out here for dinner if I’ve had a bad day,” Derry says. “Usually some asshole giving me grief for not picking him and his family up on time from their canoe trip.” He shakes his head. “It’s the wilderness. Why complain about having to spend a bit more time in it? I tell them when I’m going to pick them up, and it’s not like they have to speed paddle down the river. What’s the fucking rush to get back to the freeway?” He pauses. “Sorry. Hope you folks aren’t offended.”

 “Heard worse from other salesmen,” says Silas.

 “And other hairdressers,” I say.

 We walk out on a pier nearby to watch the sunset. It’s a pretty spot but stinks of fish. I notice some of the trees have brown leaves like they’ve got a disease, and under the lap of the river I hear the steady whoosh of cars. We sit with our legs hanging off the edge, dangling over the water a few feet below. Derry seems to relax. I worry that asking for the Lewis story made him stressed, but he couldn’t stop talking.

 “This place is near that tavern,” Derry says. “It’s maybe a fifteen-minute drive. Sometimes I think he’s still around. Still sad. Like death didn’t relieve him of anything.”

 I glance over to Derry. He’s staring out over the river, unfocused, haunted, but proud to be haunted. I wonder how Lewis feels to be conjured up again and again by a guy who owns a piece of his head. It’s like a séance that doesn’t stop. If I were Lewis I’d be pissed about the whole thing.

 Maybe it’s because Derry mentioned Meriweather again, or maybe it’s the humidity, but in the twilight the air is thick, almost hard to breathe, and I feel the weight of that uselessness, the sadness that comes over me when I’m driving and realize I lost my job, two hundred odd customers, and forty years’ worth of a good reputation…

 The wooden boards on the pier groan, creak, and there is a heavy splash in the water below and river water droplets land on my legs. At first I think Derry jumped–maybe there really was something wrong with him–but Silas isn’t beside me anymore. I can’t make him out in the water even thought it’s just four feet down, not very far, but I don’t know if he can swim, or much of anything about him other than he wanted to get to Iowa, but when he was talking about sadness, about his wife, he sounded so angry it made me wonder if he’d felt that black weight after she died, sorrow I can only imagine because even I was a little sad when my ex died and I was divorced for God’s sake. Maybe he was going to Iowa to die but decided a river in Tennessee would do–

 A second splash. Derry’s not beside me anymore. I’m on this pier alone in the growing dark and when will those boys surface–fuck fuck fuck—there is only the rustle of dead leaves and the stink of fish and the sadness, inexplicable, intensifies, flows up my feet to my legs and my stomach and breasts and arms and head, I’m too heavy to move, too heavy to slide off the pier, but in that twilight space between night and day it’s tempting to lean forward just a little–

 “Hey, whew, that felt nice.” Silas is on the bank to my left, followed by Derry.

 “Evening swims are good for you,” says Derry.

 My arms shake. The sun has set. For the moment, the air doesn’t feel as dense as before. Newly freed, I trudge back across the pier that has a few more lose boards than I thought it did when we walked out.

 “You’re dripping,” I say because I can’t manage more than what’s obvious. “And smelly.” They’ve soaked up the fish odor of the river.

 “Just water,” says Silas with a smile. “We’ll shake off a bit before we go.”

 I pace back out to the end of the pier.

 Some of the best hairdressers I’ve known, ladies who were really creative and really patient, have scared me a couple times. One of them said hair was her salvation—gave her a focus, kept sadness at bay. She worried me, but I wanted to know what sorts of thoughts she needed to hide from, kind of like I’m curious about what Meriweather Lewis would say in therapy, if he could he have gotten on drug treatment and found a better job and prevented that bullet. But even now, with all those therapies, there are people who choose bullets.

 Great people are not always happy people, even though we feel like greatness should make them happy. When Lewis tried to drown himself, it was just another guy thinking I’m useless. A failure. His death doesn’t make sense, but we want it to fit into some neat slot because history is supposed to have chapters and headings and subheadings. Even wars have multiple causes and beginnings and endings and review questions and things make sense, which is I guess why they don’t tell you about stuff like this.

 Beside the truck Denny and Silas are both damp and happy and reek of dead fish. With their hair all wet like that I can tell they both need haircuts, figure I’ll offer one to Silas later tonight. I try to catch the scent of clean, of water, under other river odors. If I concentrate, I can tell it’s there.