He stood with his sister against the wall. He’d come all this way but it hadn’t helped. Now it was dawn, hot and bright. Steam rose up from the asphalt, thick as mist. Once, their father had taken them to a place called the Flume. He couldn’t remember where it was. It was a long hike up a cold trail and they couldn’t see more than twenty or thirty feet in any direction. The sound of water came from all around: rushing, streaming, pouring, dripping, plopping. They walked up through the center of a canyon to a place where a giant rock was supposed to have once rested in between the two opposing walls. One day, their father told them, a storm came that brought so much water down the canyon that the boulder—as big as three school buses end to end—had been washed away. He’d said it with an air of awe, whispered it so that they had to lean in close to him, like he was telling them about the birth of a god. They never found the boulder, their father said. Some people think it broke up into a thousand smaller stones, but I think it fell into a different canyon all together and is waiting for someone to rediscover it. When their father was little, his own father had taken him to the site of the St. Francis Dam disaster. They climbed the walls of the San Francisquito Canyon searching for pieces of concrete left after twelve billion gallons of water broke free and raced to the ocean. Some witnesses described the water as a wall, but while he was climbing through the canyon, it had been impossible to imagine anything so tall, so quick, and so deadly. The air that day had been dry and the landscape baked a deep golden brown. Think of all the stone and brick and mud and straw and wood and pitch and steal and mortar and gypsum and horsehair plaster that have been used in service of the wall. And inside: the lathe, the insulation, the bones, the dust, the dead insects curled into their exoskeleton, the acorns, the artifacts, the newspapers and spoons and shoes and jewelry and toys. The joint compound, the primer, the paint, the pictures, the frames, the photos, the black-light posters, the tapestries, the windows. The doors! Think of all the doors! He’d gone through how many doorways in his life? Fifty doorways each day? A hundred? How many steps? He loved his sister, certainly, that’s why he was here. He had cried for her, worked for her freedom. And yet still they are doomed. He considered each doorway. The men had not even offered his sister or himself a final request. Would he have asked for a cigarette? He’d not smoked in fifteen years. Their hands were behind their backs, pressed into the wall. He longed to hold his sister’s hand. He thought about entering and exiting. His sister’s breathing was calm. Like her, he had declined a blindfold. Whatever came, they’d see it coming.
We have failed our children.
We must show our children strength in adversity.
We have failed the earth.
We must fight for our planet.
We have failed our LGBTQ community.
We must tell our gay men, our lesbian women, our trans brothers&sisters, that we will not stop fighting for them.
We have failed our women, our minorities, our immigrants.
We must honor the sacrifices made in the long, long arc of the moral universe as it bend slowly towards justice. We must continue what those who came before us started. We must not falter.
We have underestimated the power of fear and ignorance and hate.
We must extend love in all directions.
We have failed as educators.
We must educate.
We have elected a bully.
We must not be bullied.
There is no hope, only despair.
Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.
I’ve been sitting in the dark, waiting, waiting beneath the window with the cracked pane in the lower left square, flies on the windowsill dead from the cold. Isn’t it funny how you can walk out of a room on a cold morning and then the sun hits the window just a bit and warms the glass and then there are full grown flies just crawling everywhere. Minny says they are hiding in the hollow where the sash weights hang, just waiting for the warm air, but Mr. Capshaw says it’s eggs hatching. Anyway you won’t ever see it because it only happens when there’s no one watching. Mr. Capshaw says that if you look at something, it changes the way that something acts. Isn’t that strange? I thought it was strange as heck. I can’t remember how he said it exactly, I mean his exact words were all scientific. He said that observation affects the observed. Minny shook her head. We sit at that front desk, the one with the broken eye-wash sink with tape over the faucet. She looked at her pencil and it didn’t move and she said to Mr. Capshaw, I just looked at my pencil and it didn’t do anything different. Mr. Capshaw said, How you do you know it didn’t? Minny looked up at him and shook her head. Later, in Mrs. Simmons classroom, she stood over by the globe and spun it around but I didn’t know what she was looking for. I’ve been up in the attic waiting for someone to turn on the lights. There are the boxes from before we moved, still taped shut: Barry’s books, Barry’s clothes, Barry’s knick-knacks. A box of spices. Plates. Towels. Linens. All of the stuff we never opened up. I stared at the flies for a time. I stared out the crack in the window, first I closed my left eye. Then the right. With my left eye, I could see the big tree at the end of the driveway. With my right, I could see the dirt patch where I imagine Barry’s car parked. I almost can’t remember the car now. It had that long sloping back window. I could lay across the back of the seat when we were driving and close my eyes and it was like we was flying. Then when I look with both eyes, I could only see the crack in the glass. Then I started looking at the light. I started thinking that if I looked at it long enough, I could make it turn on. Please, I keep saying in my head, please, please, please.
What you have heard is true. He was born in a cone of sunlight, or perhaps it was a streetlamp, his birth beneath the skirt of stars, or perhaps there was no light and the cone of sunlight or lamplight has been invented for the sake of remembering, for the sake of memory. His father was present, either way, that big man with the frayed belt, whether it was daylight or night, brightly lit or dim, and he was carrying a camera, some boxy thing that he held near his waist and studied, chin bent to chest. Or maybe it was his mother we remember, the mother that stood with her camera on the balcony overlooking the runway, the planes buzzing down one after another in a haze of dust on that dry day, leaning into the railing, thinking, maybe this plane, or maybe the next, holding her camera at the ready, a Kodak Instamatic, eye glowing behind the viewfinder. And the light is different when we tell it this way too, perhaps not a bright cone nor a dark night, but something in between, a mist, the sky an undulating gray cloth, a scrim of mercury. Today the truth is not with the mother, today the story is not hers. We’re telling it this way: there is the father and his Hassleblad, there is his father waiting near the terminal in his overcoat, hiding his bulk, tucked into an alcove, waiting for his son to arrive in a cone of light or darkness or rain. Today our truth is this: the father, the camera, the rain, steam rising from the asphalt. Today our truth is light, mostly, and rain, light and rain, here and there, puddles like silver trays dotting the tarmac. The actual story changes. Do you think we do not notice? Do you think we care? We have our last story, our last memory, our last remembrance. There is no other way to say this. We’ve forgotten everything, or do not know what we had, or never had anything to begin with. We can remember our names, certainly, and our children and our jobs and the movies we’ve seen and the loss of our virginity and the fire that took half the city and the bombs and the cold nights that came later and the heat of the fevers that left us shaking, but those stories, those memories, are loose, untied, untethered, unattended, without tendency, ghost-memories barely present, absent the cone of light or the skirt of stars or the mist that drives us to our knees. We have his father. We have his mother. We circle now, waiting for morning, when we begin again.
they said don’t leave us but who could look where he was looking and not leave, that’s what he asked himself as he was pulling away the brick, the first brick, down on his knees in the basement near the cistern, pulling away the brick and sliding down in the hole, or falling into the hole, stretching thin and just zipping down there, blasting into that dark fire, that dark fire, like an electric flare he’s pulled, zipped or zapped, like a hand reaches up and grabs him and pulls him thin, pulls at that one thread until all of him unravels and he’s just a longer sort of thread, and he’s gone, and who would he understand a thing like that anyway? Who would miss him now that May was gone? He’d go over to the Waterson’s where Frank is surely on the porch watching the finches, old Frank who wouldn’t remember his own name if Dave or Doris or one of the others didn’t say, Now Frank, or Here you go Frank, or How about a grilled cheese? Once, when Billy himself was a child, way back at the beginning of the thread, he’d gone to the Waterson’s to see Dave and there was Frank passed out on his stomach in the middle of the living room floor, ass hanging out for all the world to see, and Dave said, Ignore him, he’s so gross, and he’d never been able to see Frank the same again, even after Frank was on the wagon and sang in the church choir in a red robe. His voice carried through the whole church, a deep and lovely bass, and even though he never could shake the image of Frank lying dead drunk and buck-naked, he was sorry that he was so far gone that he couldn’t join the choir when they sang for May, Amazing Grace, it was nice, sure, but Frank Waterson’s big bass voice clear and sober as a judge ringing out, you couldn’t just replace that, and May would have enjoyed it so, and then he was home, eating tray after tray of casseroles and lasagna and deli-platters and hiding in his room drinking cans of Coors and then hiking down to the overpass and wishing for something awful to happen and then he was down in the basement looking at the old cistern and he saw the bricks move, just one at first, just the one, and the light coming from behind the bricks and it only made sense that something else was happening on the other side of the bricks and the field stones and the soil and the sediment and the layers of shale and granite and iron and all that pressure so far down, it only made sense that he’d see the opening when he was down on his knees, that’s how you found your way he remembered as he reached out, tugged on the brick, that’s the only righteous path, to be on your knees, looking in the right direction, and then he pulled the brick free and he was a long string zipping down into the core, either filling up the world or being filled with the world, he couldn’t tell which, and he was light, a particle, a wave, radio, x-ray, gamma, ultra-violet, transverse, longitudnal, electromagnetic, mechanical, a string, a thread, oh May, oh, he was gone
The night is brisk, our breath freezing in front of us as we walk the meadow path. The dark trees rise up like mountains at the edge of our property. When May was a child, she thought the trees were a wilderness. She could walk forever in there and not see anything. It was only later that she found the road and later still that she crossed over and went down the path on the other side that lead to the industrial park and then over the Veteran’s Park and to 95 where the traffic was constant. It only took fifteen minutes to walk through the woods and come up to Parsons and then only five minutes to walk to the overpass where the cars never stopped. By then, she says, I couldn’t get lost in those woods to save my life and I don’t even think about going in there these days because of the teenagers. Me and her just stay on the meadow path. If I listen, she says, I can hear 95. Now I can hear the helicopter tours all day, too. And then there’s someone always running a lawn-mower or leaf-blower or jackhammer or compressor or a siren wailing nearby. There’s not a stitch of silence. Off to the south, we can see the lights from town. There’s a bridge that has a blinking red light and the radio tower at WERH that has two flashing white lights. Just to the left of the tower is a little house that used to belong to May’s aunt, a feisty little woman who refused to sell her property when they put in the station and the tower and the mini-strip mall that never seems to keep any store longer than a few months. May says that the radio tower made her aunt sick. The last time she saw her, they were taking her out on a stretcher. May’s mother was holding her aunt’s hand. She says she can’t remember any sound from that night. The ambulance lights were flashing, but there was no sound. She says it has something to do with the radio tower, but I don’t know what to say to that.
I have a new story in this wonderful new literary journal. Outlook Springs is published in Outlook Springs, NH, which may or may not exist. It’s the freshest literary journal on either side of the interdimensional rift. Want something fun to read? Go order one now!
I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Snay’s house. I’ve just finished cutting her grass. My shirt is soaked in sweat. I’m waiting for my mother to come pick me up. Her car should be coming down Fisher Street any minute. This is years before my dad dies so she still has that shitty green Ford wagon that burns oil and smokes for ten minutes every time she starts it. Later, with the insurance money, she buys a Pacer that she keeps until she dies and leaves it to my sister who drives it for two more years before it burns up on the highway while she’s driving to Lawrence to buy cocaine and when the police get there they arrest her for driving under the influence, her third strike, and she spends four years in state prison where she reads Audre Lourde and comes out clean and clear and with the help of a social worker goes right into college, gets a degree in Women’s Studies and then a job teaching underprivileged kids in a poor school district in Houston where she meets her partner Lucy. They’re finally able to marry in 2015 and I go down to Houston for the wedding and find out that my old friend Paul lives just a little way out, in Galveston, and he wants me to come over and sit on his deck that looks out over the Gulf and when I’m sitting there I’m reminded for some reason of the time my mother dropped me off at soccer practice and wanted to kiss me goodbye and I said, Mom, please, not in front of my friends. I got out of the Pacer and she sat there in the parking lot for a few minutes and then drove away. I start crying right there with the water lapping below the deck and Paul says, It’s the Gulf, man, she’s so pretty at this time of day, it’s not the first time she’s made somebody cry. Then my mother is driving down Fisher and the exhaust haze fills up the street behind her and all the rest is way far in the future and none of us suspects what’s coming.
Interested in reading my novel Apocalypse Nation? I’ve decided to post the novel in serial format on Medium. Click the image to find links to both the current and previous installments.
About fifteen years ago, the super agent Nat Sobel saw my first published story in Black Warrior Review and contacted me. The novel I had to show him at the time (because most agents aren’t interested in short story collections) was my first attempt, and not very good. He told me it was too slow and too artsy. I figured that was just my lot as a writer of fiction. I took my writing far too seriously.
Cut to fifteen years later. I queried Mr. Sobel again. I finally figured out how to write something I think a lot of people might be interested in reading–my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. It is neither slow nor artsy. It is solid, exciting, page turning, commercial fiction. He agreed to look at the first fifty pages. It turns out that his very nice and capable assistant Aida Wright was the one who read the pages. After nearly thirty days, she got back to me. It seems that for their purposes, I’d swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Far from being too artsy or slow, I moved things along too quickly (I disagree, of course) and too much happens (wrong again…just the right amount happens). Slow down, seemed to be her recommendation. Agents can drive you crazy.
I worked very hard to make this story “right” on the page. It is not too slow. You get to know the characters as they move through the story. I’m not giving up on the traditional path from agent to publisher–not quite yet–but I have begun thinking of other ways to get my work into the hands of people who like good adventure stories, people who like their stories with a good dose of undead. I may decide to offer the story on Amazon as a Kindle download. Maybe for free. Maybe for .99 cents. Andy Weir’s excellent realistic sci-fi novel The Martian went that route. He sold so many copies (35,000 at .99 cents each, in three months) that the publisher same calling. Now it’s a more traditional best-seller.
I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen to my novel, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone up for a good, exciting, scary read?