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.
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.
now just cloud
now just white
what is gone
dish soap on
a totem rising through
enough jokes, please
love is service
I am a worthy
you home, a slice
through your heel,
hands flat as skillets,
All you have to do is list the words in order, and then divide the second and third word by the first word and everything unfolds with precision. There are only a few basic formulas needed to understand even the most complicated literature. Place the quotient of the first division in the brackets with the square root of the verbs. Pardon? Well, yes, the past, present, and future tenses each have a corresponding ratio, which can make them a little tricky, but it’s no more difficult than learning how to operate your average coffeemaker. Speaking of coffee, do I smell a pot brewing as we speak? Would you mind so terribly if I asked for a cup? Tutorials often sap my strength and I am saved by the mystical properties of the caffeine molecule. Milk only, please. Sweetened coffee sickens me. No, thank you, I ate before I got here. Maybe next time. Homemade, you say? Well, maybe one. Then you must align your figures using Persipicoles’ legendary Corrective Modifier Algorithm. Prepositions are easy but if you miss a single one the structure of your analysis will be unsound. My this cookie is tasty. Old family recipe? Thank your mother for me, please? I don’t think I’ve had a tastier treat in years. And the coffee is certainly hot! My own little cup of the sun. We’ll just set that off to the side for now. You’re really supposed to learn such things in elementary school. How did you miss it? You never discussed the Bozwell’s Grand Unification Theory of Metaphor, Allegory, and Symbolism? How are you supposed to understand even the simplest of texts? See Spot? See Spot run? Run, Spot, run! It’s really language at its most basic level. You’ve never studied Feesley’s Polymorphic Analytical Model of Super-Compressed Lower-case Alliteration nor Murky’s Theory of Associative Symbolic Chiaroscuro in Writs and Decrees (1502-1567)? Have you never read Schilling’s Basic Course in Pre-Cerebral Plotting and Nascent Thematology? This is where No Child Left Behind gets us as a country. One step above the literacy of an amphibian. Do you think I might have another cookie? I need time to think. I’ve never encountered a student as bereft of the most fundamental tools one needs to understand literature—or even conversational English! Ah, thank-you. I grow more famished with every word. I suppose I can lay out the formulas and show you the relevant passages, but you must promise to commit to the work or our efforts will be for naught. It will not be an easy task for you! You shall be challenged, young Kevin, more than you have ever been challenged before. Most, if not all, of the neural pathways we use for these delicate matters have long been assigned to other duties. You’re how old? Fourteen? À la recherche du temps perdu! It’s like asking you to begin learning a foreign language! Imagine not having Latin at your disposal until age fourteen! Pardon? Please, no more Phillip. I cannot bear it. I shall merely pretend that you are fluent in Latin and if you cannot follow my occasional digression in that most nobel of tongues, I shall turn a blind eye to your confusion. A tutor can be asked to contend with only so much. When your mother called the service and requested assistance, I had no idea what I would be stepping into. She said only that you needed help with a paper. What was the book? Oh, yes, The Old Man and the Sea. A short book with a relatively complex formula. Hemingway could be tricky when he wasn’t being pedantic. Your mother told me that you’d really enjoyed the book, but hadn’t done very well on the essay. She said that you declined to accept, let alone elucidate, any of the commonly associated symbols integrated into the text? Is that correct? You suppose so? It’s a yes or no question, Kevin. She told me that you didn’t see Christ in the story at all. She told me that you saw no Hell in the blazing sun over the poor man in the boat? She said that you claimed the fish was but a fish and the old man but an old man and the boat but a boat and sea nothing at all but a sea among many great seas? Is all of this correct? She said you found the novella to be a simple story of an old man beset by old age and physical frailty who confronts the final failure in a lifetime beset with failure, and that he, Hemingway, gave the old man his small share of glory for merely persevering as all men must? This is true as well? My dear boy, it’s clear that the public schools of our great country have failed you in the most devastating fashion. I do not know if I am a man made of the right stuff to halt, let alone reverse the tragic chain of systemic bankruptcy that lead to your C+ grade in Mrs. Hockler’s Freshman English Course, but I am bound by the tutor’s code and my own personal ethos to attempt to be your unerring guide. To work our way through Hemingway, we’ll need Portman’s Calculations By Which the One and Two Syllable Word May Be Transmuted. Then maybe—maybe I say!—we might advance to Lillian Perocci’s Theorem On Textual Compression. I fear that we shall work through this night and many more as well, but I shall not waver in my dedication. Young man, we will get you your B, but such a letter grade will require many, many more cookies.
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?