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Parts Unknown: A Novel

Sour Inside


My husband, Bill Argus, always said that he took pictures just to catch the struggle between light and dark that was always in play, but it was obvious to me that he wanted to freeze moments in time. It was his big weakness. He couldn't hang on to his moments, or didn't want to, which was one reason he fled to the desert when he was still a young man and gave himself over to a life of photography and routine and extreme conditions.

At least until I came along. I softened things up for him quite a bit. Moved into his old hacienda outside Oasis, California, and married him a little while after that. Wedded bliss way out there with the rattlers and jackrabbits.

Most people hang on to their key moments by staying close to the people who helped make them, but Bill wasn't able to do that. He had left all those people behind. He still had some things in his head concerning them, but as the years went on -- forty of them by the time he was ready to go back -- those things had become confused or merged or fogged with the constant reinterpretations he'd indulged in. It was hard to tell what was true and what was imaginary anymore, and there were no pictures from home he could consult to help verify the record one way or the other. He often had to wonder, Did I dream that? Was she that beautiful? Was my old man as cold as I want to say he was?

Naturally, I was no help to him there. I had to take his word for it when he told me stories of growing up in Pianto, a little cow town in Northern California, the life of a cowman's son. His father had a cow ranch, never bigger than a hundred head, a wife, two boys, Bill and Cameron.

This was so long ago that I wasn't even born yet, and I'm looking at forty.

It was around the time of our ninth anniversary that Bill told me he had a new project in mind. He had turned sixty-three not long before, and his chest had been getting these aches that were finally proved to be nothing but acid reflux disorder. Bill didn't know what they were at first, these pains, thought his mortality was starting to claw at him from the inside, but in the throes of one of these attacks he got the idea to go back to Pianto and take some pictures. For a new book.

If you're a fan of Bill's, you know he hadn't put out a book of his black-and-whites since '82 or so, and that one didn't sell. He'd been a perennial calendar man after that, like a cut-rate Ansel Adams of the desert, but his pictures tended to depress people and even the calendars didn't move all that well. Bill liked the desert because it offered a lot of variations of the light and dark Slug-A-Thon that he was so fond of, and because he believed that the whole world would likely be a desert one day anyway.

But seriously, the idea of Bill Argus putting out a new book at the age of sixty-three was nothing less than pie in the sky. I knew immediately that if I agreed to go with him, I'd be indulging a late midlife crisis and possibly setting him back a few notches when things up there in Pianto proved not to match up to his mental pictures. On top of which, there could be problems.

For instance, he still had a kid up there.

A kid. The kid would be a little older than me by now.

Well, here is where I should say that Bill and I have a strange kind of simpatico, because my father left me when I was three years old, and Bill ran from his boy too. And Bill, like my daddy (I'm looking at forty and I still call him "daddy"!), never looked back, never contacted the boy or the ex-wife—except to bring the divorce to fruition -- never mentioned them in his interviews in Aperture or the little bios that accompanied gallery shows. In fact, like my daddy, Bill had no reliable idea that they were even still alive, just as they didn't know, now that he wasn't famous anymore, whether he was alive or dead.

He didn't know whether they cared either.


- - -

There was one moment that Bill could pinpoint when he made the significant choice to remain invisible. That was in 1977, when he got word from his younger brother, Cameron, that both parents had died in a car accident and maybe it was time for Bill to come back home. This was during the height of Bill's fame, such as it was, and he was torn. He didn't think he could face his son and wife, yet he felt like he ought to be there to acknowledge his parents, even though his old man had always been a colossal bastard. Mom was an innocent, though. He felt like he owed her something. And Cameron too.

He kept Cam's letter taped to his darkroom wall. Imagine, a blunt letter to bring news like that! Had Cameron lost his mind? In tight little handwriting, red ink, it said, among other particulars, "Mom and Dad were hit by a train. You missed the funeral but the reading of the will ought to be worth the trip."

It reeked of cynical intent. Scared the shit out of Bill. Both parents dead in one bloody miscalculation, and he couldn't decide what to do. Cam needed him, it sounded like, yet it could also be a trap. How can you trust a brother you haven't seen in more than fifteen years?

Excerpted from Parts Unknown © Copyright 2004 by Kevin Brennan. Reprinted with permission by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Parts Unknown: A Novel
by by Kevin Brennan

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060012773
  • ISBN-13: 9780060012779