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Excerpt: 'Man In The Woods'

Man in the Woods: Cover Detail

It might be for pity's sake -- for surely there must be pity for Will Claff somewhere along the cold curve of the universe -- but now and again a woman finds him compelling, and offers him a meal, a caress, a few extra dollars, and a place to stay, and lately that is the main thing keeping him alive. He is thousands of miles away from his home. His income, his job, his professional reputation are all long gone, and now he has been on the run for so long, living out of one suitcase, changing his name once in Minnesota, once in Highland Park, Illinois, and once again in Philadelphia, that it is becoming difficult to remember that just six months ago he had his own office, a closet full of suits, and a nice rental off Ventura Boulevard, which he shared with Madeline Powers, who, like Will, worked as an accoun­tant at Bank of America.

He used to think that women wouldn't pay you any attention unless you were dressed in decent clothes and had some money to spend, but it isn't true. He has been underestimating the kindness of women. Women are so nice, it could make you ashamed to be a man.

Here he was, running for his life, buying his shirts at the dollar store, his shoes at Payless, and getting his hair cut at the Quaker Corner Barber and Beauty College in Philadelphia. Will had a guardian angel there, too, in the form of Dinah Maloney, whom he met while she was jogging with her dog. Dinah, small and bony, with short russet hair, worried eyes, and nervous little hands, was thirty years old, ten years younger than Will, and she happened to take a breather on the same bench he was sitting on, and somewhere in the conversation, when she told him that she owned a catering service called Elkins Park Gourmet, he said, "You should call it Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah," and saw in her eyes something that gave him a little bump of courage. He invited her to coffee at a place with outdoor seating, and they sat there for an hour with her dog lashed to the leg of a chair. He told her the same story he had already worked a couple of times -- it might have been on Doris in Bakersfield, or Soo-Li in Colorado Springs, or Kirsten in Highland Park -- about how he had come to town for a job, only to find that the guy who had hired him had hung himself with his own belt the day before. A lot of women didn't believe this story, and some who did couldn't figure out how that would mean he had almost no money and needed a place to stay, but a small, saving percentage took the story at face value, or decided to trust the good feeling they had about him. Dinah has turned out to be one of those.

She was a spiky, truculent sort, wary of customers, suppliers, and competitors, but ready to make Will (she knew him as Robert) the first man ever to spend the night in her house, partly because he seemed to find her attractive and partly on the weight of her dog's apparent trust of him. ("Woody is my emotional barometer," she said.) She was a shy, basically solitary woman, an expert in the culinary arts, a baker, a woman who gave off the scent of butter and vanilla, an arranger of flowers, all of which led Will to assume in her an old-fashioned faithfulness. He saw only her plainness, her lack of makeup, her loose-fitting checkered pants, her perforated tan clogs, the dark circles under her eyes from the late hours working corporate dinners and Main Line birthday parties, and he assumed that she had a lonely woman's lack of resistance to anyone who would choose her. He had no idea that Dinah had another boyfriend, whom she had been seeing for six years, one of the mayor's assistants, a married man whose wife worked in Baltimore on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Will is grateful to be an American; he doubts there is anywhere else on earth where you can lose yourself like he needs to get lost, where you can just go from state to state, city to city, not like in cowboy times, but, still, no one has to know where you are. You can drive across a state line but it's only a line on the map and the tires of your car don't register the slightest bump. There's no guard, no gate, no border, no one asks you for an ID, because no one cares. First you are here, then you are there, until you're in Tarrytown, New York, and it's time for your afternoon jog. He's still trying to lose the belly fat acquired in the kitchen with Dinah.

The new apartment smells of emptiness, fresh paint, take-out coffee, and the dog, Woody, stolen from Dinah the day she finally came clean with him.

Will parts the blinds with two fingers and peeks out the window. The cars parked on his street are all familiar and he knows by now who owns each one. There's no one unusual walking the street, either. All very routine, all very familiar. He often reminds himself that the great danger is complacency, the way you can get so used to checking things over that the world becomes like wallpaper and you get too used to everything being nothing until one day when there actually is something unusual you don't even notice it. He goes over the compass points, north south east west. "The lion sleeps tonight," he sings, surprising himself. The sudden merriment excites the dog, a brown shepherd mutt, whose thick, graying tail thumps against the bare wooden floor. Will imagines the people in Mi Delicioso, the luncheonette downstairs, looking up from their yellow rice and chicken.

"Easy, Woody Woodpecker," he says. Will feels a rush of affection for the dog, and crouches in front of him, tugs the dog's ears roughly. Woody is large, but his ears look like they belong on a dog half his size. Considering the circumstances of Will's acquiring him, the dog has been a good sport about the whole thing. "You and me, Woody," Will says, taking the leash down from the nail next to the front door. The dog scrambles up, tail wagging, but with a cringing, uncertain quality to his excitement, squirming and bowing.

When the dog lived with Dinah Maloney in that dimly recalled paradise called Philadelphia, his life was markedly different. He had his own feather-filled bed on the floor and spent the coldest nights sleeping in his mistress's bed. Food was plentiful and there were frequent surprises -- especially when she came home from work with shopping bags full of leftovers from whatever party she had catered. The inchoate memories the dog holds of the food, and the woman and the smells of the old house, live within him as bewilderment, but his heart and mind have now reformed around the loss, just as he would compensate for an injured paw by changing his gait.

Will goes back to the window. It sometimes seems that he has been peeking out of windows his whole life, always afraid that someone or something was going to do a lot of harm to him, but everything that has led up to these past few months has been like a puppet show. The old fear was like an afternoon nap compared to what he feels now.

He yanks the cord to raise the blinds and they crookedly cooperate. He puts his hand to the glass. Cool November afternoon, gray as old bathwater. He misses the California sun and wishes he had soaked up more of it. Oh well. Best not to think of it. Self-pity dulls the senses.

Excerpted from Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer. Copyright 2010 by Scott Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Ecco.

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Scott Spencer