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How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us

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It’s nearly April, which means there’s just over a month left before the end of term, which means that Bilbo Baggins has, for all intents and purposes, entirely given up on being well-rested. It’s a sacrifice in the most literal sense of the word. Rest is, after good food, quite possibly his favourite thing. After that would be books, and sweaters. Not that he keeps a list or anything. At least, not on paper. Considering that upstate New York doesn’t actually see spring until May, it is, currently, still sweater weather, which is perhaps the only redeeming thing about the weather in this town. It’s Sunday and Bilbo fully intends to not leave his apartment, so the sweater of the day is an old one, burgundy, a cardigan worn thin at the ribbed cuffs and missing half its buttons. Every time he sits down to fix it, he manages to convince himself that the hole in the left sleeve is perfect for his thumb, and that buttons are over-rated, and he has a stereotype to uphold, one that allows for—requires—his perpetually unruly hair and his tortoise-framed glasses.

            He should be reading, something French about theories of the spectator, but this week has been longer than it had any right to be, so he makes a cup of tea instead, and waters his plants, and contemplates a nap. He’s nearly asleep at his desk when his phone goes off. It’s Thorin, of course, texting instead of calling even though Bilbo’s told him at least seven times that his texting grammar is atrocious. It’s gotten to the point where Bilbo is convinced Thorin does it only to annoy him. This time, though, it’s relatively innocuous.

           “Dinner 7,” Thorin has asked. Well, strictly speaking, he hasn’t asked, he’s stated, because there’s the grammar thing again, with the lack of a question mark or even a courteous comma.

           Bilbo should stay in, should do his reading, but the idea of having Sunday dinner with Thorin Oakenshield of all people is still such a new one, still slightly alarming, and Bilbo’s long-neglected, ill-advised New Year’s Resolution was to be more reckless (his official wording was “adventurous” but it’s been pointed out to him that the sentiment is the same), so he makes himself text back, “Yes, all right. Where?”

           It’s half an hour before Thorin replies again and Bilbo has a book in his lap that he isn’t really reading, just staring at the words on the page and thinking that there’s something intriguing about the use of white space, which could possibly be a paper topic. Instead of examining spatial structures in texts, he could examine spatial structure of text. It is, perhaps, one of the more obviously nerdy thoughts he’s had lately. “Bring dessert” is Thorin’s reply, which means dinner at Thorin’s. Bilbo sighs. It’s not that he dislikes being at Thorin’s. The place is comfortable, if a bit cluttered. He has a mudroom and a couch and a sprawling kitchen table, and there are trees in the backyard and the kind of natural light Bilbo’s apartment only gets for a few hours each afternoon, when he’s usually in class. It’s just that Thorin lives just outside of North Campus, up by the lake, more than half an hour’s walk. Bilbo’s bicycle is leaning against his stove, waiting patiently to see some use, but a week after he moved here he had to admit that his legs, and his lungs, were not up to the challenge of riding up the hill.

           “Fine,” he texts back. He hasn’t even set the phone down when Thorin replies again.

           “Don’t sigh, know you are. Will fetch you.”

           Fetch. The man’s been spending too much time with his dog. But Bilbo smiles, because it’s an unusually attentive gesture from Thorin, who is typically about as obtuse as a rock where other people’s moods are concerned.

           Thorin drives a rusted Volvo station wagon and hates it. It’s the car that everyone has, or close enough to it. It only has a cassette deck, and the heater’s broken, and it gets stuck at least once a winter and has to be pushed back up the hill to Thorin’s place. He says he wants a motorbike, something sleek and fast and, as Bilbo has repeatedly pointed out, utterly useless eight months of the year.

           There’s also the fact that Bilbo is terrified of motorbikes, and would in no way, shape, or form ever allow himself to be coerced onto one. Not even by Thorin, who can be disarmingly charming when he wants to be.

           Bilbo still has a few hours before he can expect Thorin, and he hasn’t entirely lost control of his life—positive reinforcement, he’s been told, works wonders, even when one is doing it to oneself—so he tucks his feet underneath him and picks his book back up. Fifty pages, he tells himself, and then he’ll bake something. As incentives go, it’s a good one. By the time Thorin arrives, not bothering to get out of the car and walk down the hazardous steps to Bilbo’s front door because his car makes such a racket that it’s instantly recognisable, Bilbo has conquered Rancière and made banana muffins with cream cheese frosting, which he knows Thorin will mock mercilessly before eating half the batch.

           “You smell like fruit,” Thorin says to Bilbo as he reaches across to open the passenger door—the handle outside sticks.

           “Yes, well, hello to you too, and you did ask for dessert.” Bilbo fits neatly in Thorin’s car, with its narrow seats and lack of leg-room. He isn’t small, just compact. Thorin, on the other hand, has his seat back as far as it can go and still looks hunched over the steering wheel, window open and one arm hanging out despite the forty-degree weather, tangled hair brushing the car roof. The B-52’s are relentlessly cheerful out of the Volvo’s tinny speakers, which is weird even for Thorin, who has possibly the most eclectic musical taste of anyone Bilbo’s ever met. Thorin just huffs and says that Bilbo needs to get out more, and really, that’s a fair point. So that argument never gets very far.

           “I was expecting chocolate. Get out.”

           Bilbo buckles his seat-belt and looks calmly at Thorin, who is a master at keeping a straight face. Though, it must be said, Thorin’s idea of a “straight face” always defaults to something just the angry side of neutral. They hold each other’s gaze for a minute and then Thorin shakes his head and starts to drive. Out of the corner of his eyes, Bilbo can make out the barest hint of a smirk.

           “You don’t even like chocolate,” Bilbo says as Thorin executes a tight turn-around on Bilbo’s narrow, slanted street and coaxes the Volvo back up the hill. “I was being considerate. Which is more than I can say for some people.”

           “Some people being the ones who drive to your apartment to fetch you, so you don’t have to walk.”

           “Yes, those people. Precisely.”

           “Completely inconsiderate.”

           Bilbo is still new to this. If it was a scene in a novel he was writing on, he’d say that the characters were bantering. But Thorin’s not a bantering type, and Bilbo knows full well that he lost most of his own social graces exactly eight months and seventeen days ago. So they can’t be bantering, which still leaves a couple of options, none of which Bilbo wants to dwell on. He finds himself wishing sometimes that he had some sort of a map for all this, to help him work out what he was meant to be doing. The closest thing he has is the English department’s course catalogue and time-to-degree chart, tacked to the wall beside his desk. Somehow, though, he’s made it through the better part of his first year as a literature Ph.D. candidate. No one is more surprised than he. Thorin, in a way that makes Bilbo’s chest feel a little tight if he lets himself think about it too long, has the nerve to act as though he’s not surprised at all.

           With a cold west wind blowing his hair out of his eyes and the pipe-smoke smell of the Volvo’s upholstery in his nose, Bilbo almost believes it.

 

---

 

It’s August when Bilbo moves in, the day sticky-hot in a way he was promised it wouldn’t be. His uncle—who isn’t technically his uncle but more of a family friend, though “friend” isn’t quite the right word to use either, for someone who used to turn up unannounced and unshaven at Bilbo’s parents’ doorstep, stay for long enough to do his laundry and drink all their red wine, and then whisk himself off again—has made the drive with him. “Uncle” is more a term of convenience, and not one Bilbo would ever say to the man’s face. He’s some kind of archaeologist, though Bilbo’s never really understood exactly what it is he does. He gets written up in history journals and museum studies reports, and it’s generally acknowledged that the man is eccentric but brilliant so everyone more or less lets him do what he wants. His not-uncle was the one who suggested Bilbo apply here. Thought the upstate air would do him good. Bilbo doesn’t agree—misses his green, rolling hills some 300 miles to the south, misses the family home with its front door painted green and its warmly lit library and three distinct pantries, the home he can no longer afford to keep—but the program is a good one, both academically and financially, and Gandalf’s advice came at a time when Bilbo wasn’t really capable of making his own decisions, so it was as good an option as any and a great deal better than most.

           “Well then, Bilbo,” Gandalf says, clambering with some difficulty out of their borrowed van and straightening up to his full, intimidating height. “I told you I would get you here, and so I have. I’m afraid, however, that I will not be staying very long. Something has . . . come up.”

           How something could have come up in the last five and a half hours on the road, when neither of them has a cell-phone, is a mystery to Bilbo. But he’s no longer surprised by Gandalf’s haphazard comings and goings so he nods and accepts the help, carrying boxes and suitcases down the uneven steps from street-level to his apartment. The house is a towering Victorian, more specifically in the Queen Anne style; Bilbo knows this because he has read up on the local architecture, thinking that if he had to move so far north, at least he would be in an area with interesting houses. The shutters are crooked and the paint’s peeling a little, and the porch creaks when they step up to the front door.  The landlord is some former colleague of Gandalf’s whom Bilbo has never met, but the keys are waiting for them in the mailbox, a gesture at once unsafe and encouraging.

           Bilbo has rented the entire top floor, which sounded extravagant until he takes a step inside and realises that by “top floor” the landlord meant “attic.” He’s up in the eaves, sloped ceilings and all, and when Gandalf smacks his head on a rafter Bilbo smothers a laugh and thinks, for the first time, that it’s a good thing he’s not very tall. There’s a sky-light, though it’s in desperate need of washing, and a pair of awning windows looking out at the street and the cemetery across the road. It doesn’t feel cramped so much as comfortable. Bilbo likes it instantly, though he doesn’t say so. He trudges back down the stairs, fights with his desk chair and smacks himself in the shin as he drags it out of the van. He doesn’t have much furniture to speak of, just the chair and an old drafting table that belonged to his father, easy enough to take apart and pack into the van. A narrow futon mattress, no frame.

           His parents had been well-off. Nothing to advertise, no family estate or overseas investments or anything like that. Just a sprawling single-story home, built in stages as money came in from his father’s work. Built, for the most part, by his father himself. Bilbo’s father was a carpenter, his mother a clothing designer. Between the two of them, and some very important clients, the name of Baggins became quite well respected. Now that home, with its kerosene lamps and its velvet settees and its built-in bookshelves belongs to someone else, sold off to pay hospital bills and funeral fees, and Bilbo can never go back again. He doesn’t even want to. It’s not the same place it once was.

            Gandalf helped him move out, well before Bilbo was ready to leave but long after he had started getting calls from collection agencies. His not-uncle had turned up out of the blue with a borrowed van and a cask—an actual, oaken cask—of ale, barely a week after the funeral. He’d missed the actual funeral, which made Bilbo uncharacteristically angry. Made him want to slam the door in Gandalf’s face, leave him out there on the porch with his ale and his painfully, frustratingly kind smile. But Bilbo knew that, for all the man’s unreliability, Gandalf had honestly cared about his mother. So he let the old man in, let Gandalf pilfer the library and raid the pantry and drink most of the ale himself, and if Bilbo fell properly asleep, for the first time in weeks, to the sound of his snores, he wasn’t going to tell anyone.

           Colourful swearing brings Bilbo out of his memories as Gandalf drops the corner of a trunk of books squarely on his foot. “Here, wait, let me—” Bilbo picks his way across the room and helps Gandalf to tuck the trunk into a low corner.

            “Thank you, Bilbo. That is, I believe, the last of it.”

            “Yes.” Bilbo dusts his hands, rubs them absently on his pants. They look around his space, taking in the dust and the cobwebs, the empty floor space. “I suppose it is.”

            “In that case, I must be off.” Gandalf looks down at Bilbo. He nods twice, eyes gleaming. “You’re going to be just fine.” He grips Bilbo’s shoulders tightly, briefly, and then is gone.

            Bilbo hears the van start up, rumble off down the street, but doesn’t watch it go. Can’t. He sits down on his trunk, knocks his head against the sloping wall, and lets himself pretend that it’s just dust in his eyes.

 

It takes Bilbo longer to unpack than it really should. He keeps getting distracted, by the play of sunlight across the smooth wooden floorboards or the voices of his downstairs neighbours filtering up. He holds a box of photographs in his hands for a full ten minutes before tucking it back into his trunk and firmly shutting the lid. What he needs to do, now that his clothing is put away—pants and shirts in the narrow closet, sweaters in a dresser left by the previous tenant—and his books stacked neatly beside his futon, his ancient Micron laptop on his re-assembled desk, is find his way to a grocery store, pick up some food and cleaning supplies. Walk up to campus and figure out where he’s meant to be tomorrow. In other words, be an adult.

            He’s twenty-three years old. Technically, legally, that’s exactly what he is. In this new town where he knows precisely no one, he might—he thinks—be able to keep up the ruse. No one has to know who he, where he comes from. No one has any reason to doubt him.

            Which would be perfect, if only he could stop doubting himself.

            It takes several wrong turns and two different buses but Bilbo finds his way to a grocery store that is larger than any he’s seen in his entire life. He’s starving and wants to buy just about everything in sight, but he’s made a list and keeps to it, mindful that the only money in his bank account right now is on loan from Gandalf until the University gives him his stipend next month. The place is filled with people and Bilbo keeps having to side-step in the aisles, knocking things off shelves as distracted shoppers brush by. But the girl at the checkout lane smiles at him and he allowed himself a croissant, which he eats, crumb by crumb, while waiting for the bus to take him back to his street. So, all things considered, the first outing is a success. Six hours of floor-scrubbing and shower-bleaching and oven-cleaning later, Bilbo feels more accomplished than he has in weeks. Exhausted, and filthy, and still starving. But accomplished. That has to count for something.

            Doesn’t it?

            It’s nearly three in the morning before he manages to fall asleep, fidgeting in clean cotton sheets stretched over his thin futon, listening to the crickets loud outside the window.