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
“Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom. Janine did not know why this thought filled her with such a sweet, vast melancholy that it closed her eyes. She knew that this kingdom had been eternally promised her and yet that it would never be hers, never again, except in this fleeting moment perhaps when she opened her eyes again on the suddenly motionless sky and on its waves of steady light, while the voices rising from the Arab town suddenly fell silent. It seemed to her that the world’s course had just stopped and that, from that moment on, no one would ever age any more or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended–except in her heart, where, at the same moment, someone was weeping with affliction and wonder.”
Each semester I teach a dozen or so stories to my fiction classes. I always keep a few of my favorites, teach them again and again. But I throw a handful of new stories in each semester. It’s a strange struggle to find stories that I love and that I think will resonate with students. Sometimes, what I think will resonate, falls flat. And often, those stories that I think will be a tough sell, really hit home. I’ve been combing through some books looking for the right stuff. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
- “Going” by Amy Hempel
- “Boys” by Rick Moody
- “We Make Mud” by Peter Markus
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
- “Good for Your Soul” by Tim Gautreaux
- “Kansas” by Stephen Dobyns
- “North Country” by Roxanne Gay
- “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver
- “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander
- “Safari” by Jennifer Egan
- “The City in the Light of Moths” by Tim Horvath
- “Murke’s Collected Silences” by Heinrich Boll
- “The Last Speaker of the Language” by Carol Anshaw
- “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” by Shani Boianjiu
- “Clear Over Target, the Whole Town in Flames” by Fiona Maazel
- “Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek
I know, I know. I’m not finished with the old writing project. The novel is coming along. I hope to be done with a good revised draft in a week or so. But I’m tired of working on the novel and can’t wait to get back to some short stories. I do well with strange self imposed guidelines and deadlines and when I found this little box of month-by-month journals, a project popped into my head. One story per month this year. Each story has to fit into the journal for its month. Here’s a photo of the notebooks and the first page in this months story. Stay tuned for updates.
I have new stories (or old stories newly published, for the first time) appearing in Limestone and Nimrod. Both very nice journals full of good fiction, poetry, and other artistic hullaballoo. I’m in Nimrod with my good friend Hayden Saunier, a very fine poet.
Both of the stories are stories I worked on for years. I’m happy to see them both in print and grateful to the fine staffs of these magazines for selecting them and taking the time to make their respective journals look so darn good.
Here is part one of my latest story. Thanks for listening and passing along my work to your friends.
I’m enjoying reading my story “Purple Jesus” so I decided to read another section. This one is a little longer, and near the middle, I find a mistake and sort of stumble over it a bit, but forge ahead. I suspect I’ll read a bit each day. This part ends at about a third of the way through. So much left to happen! Enjoy.
The revisions for “Purple Jesus” are finished (aside from a few small changes, obviously) and I’ve moved on to story number two, “Houses for the Dead.” It’s surprising to me that the two stories can be so vastly unequal in the amount of revision they seem to require. “PJ” required weeks of work and whole sections are new. Even though I felt confident in the story’s structure, it needed serious wrangling to make it work. At one point, I switched point-of-view and retold the first few pages in third person. Although the switch was unsuccessful, it did allow me to see the story unfold without the limitations of first person. When it became apparent that third person wasn’t the right POV, I went back to first, but started over, with new knowledge of how to approach the narrator. I have to be careful in first person to work against solipsism and to focus on the image and the action. Less thinkin’ and more observin’. “PJ” feels very personal to me, although it is not at all autobiographical.
I wouldn’t have thought “Houses for the Dead” would feel personal, but in rereading it, I’m struck by how much of my world is there even though it isn’t autobiographical either.
Perhaps it is autobiographical. Perhaps they both are. I suppose all fiction is of the author, even as we invent and rearrange. “Houses of the Dead” isn’t my story, but it is full of my stories, if that makes any sense.
“Houses” is also in need of much, much less revision. It’s already in its third phase, so maybe this is one of those stories that comes from the creative state/dream in a more complete form. It needs work, too, but nothing like the teardown and rebuilding of “PJ.”
“Houses” is a ghost story, sort of. It’s full of ghosts, at least. It has a cool little dude as a main character. Timothy. I like him a lot. He has a big heart. Today, I think I’ll wrap up his revision and maybe post a little reading of the story tomorrow.