Category Archives: Fiction
[Short Fiction] Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Just start at the beginning please. Don’t leave anything out.
Pawpaw used to say, the ocean’s about the closest a human being gets to Heaven. ‘Cept the ocean killed his brother back in 1953—this was when Pawpaw and Great-Uncle Hank boozed around France post-war, picking up women and pissin’ into the Seine. Two weeks after Pawpaw met Memaw, they went for a small cruise in her daddy’s boat off the coast of Mallorca, and Hank stayed up deck while my grandparents did the nasty down below; soon, a storm comes and knocks his ass clean into the water, his arms flailing for help. But course Pawpaw’s flailing himself—if you heard him tell the story, you’d be cringin’ more than this—and Hank drowns beneath the vicious waves.
But Pawpaw still swore a love of the sea, could wax poetic about how the current of beauty pulls you under. When I was just six or seven, that’s when it happened—swear this is a true story. Back then, Pawpaw brought us to Myrtle Beach from Sumter on the first vacation we ever had—and I saw them for the first time. The mermaids.
No, real live mermaids. With fins and gills and everything.
And not like that redhead chick from Disney, I mean savage fuckin‘ mermaids. That’s why you came here, right, to ask about the storm of 1989? Well, I was there, just a child at the time. Wasn’t cleanin’ no place, tell you that. Wasn’t moppin’ up blood or vomit from the floor of this club after the high school seniors go home. This was the time of Hugo, ask anyone. For years after, all anyone could talk about was how that storm wrecked the shoreline, but some of us, we know the truth. The true truth about the mermaids and the sea turtles?
Hell yea, they rode in on these big-ass sea turtles. Swear on Jesus Christ, the bible, and Memaw’s grave. Now let me get on with the story: daddy and mama didn’t own no TV, so we thought we was supposed to have a nice, fine weekend. Rode up in the back of Pawpaw’s truck for about two hours, me and my brother hanging out the side of the bed with our arms waving. Loved the feeling of wind in my face, ‘cept the whole ride lasted too long. Daddy and Mama couldn’t come, so it was just us boys and our grandparents.
When we get to Myrtle, we post up in a hotel right on the shore. The Sandy Kingdom, this regal place. Memaw said the place reminded her of the Palace of Versailles, only The Sandy Kingdom was better because it had a water park. We got two big king-size beds, a refrigerator, and a window from which you could see the ocean. Pawpaw opened his arms wide and gestured to the water.
“Look, boys, he said. Just as beautiful as I remember.” Said it just like that. Told you I had a hell of a memory, I can recall it perfectly. “Just as beautiful as I remember,” that’s the exact words that fell from his lips.
Only when I peeked under his arm out the window, I didn’t think the ocean looked too pretty. Cloaked in gray-sky like some old antique smothered by dust, the tar-black ocean whipped the shore violently. The beach stood nearly empty, the wind whipping up belts of sand. “Dang, guess people don’t come round late summer,” Pawpaw said. “Guess we’ve got this whole place to ourselves.
My brother was around the age he started to play with himself and think about girls in a sense that didn’t involve them having cooties. You know: little hairs on his giblets and his voice doing that thing where it goes up and down, breaking like a ceramic plate. I didn’t like so much the idea of sleeping in the same bed as him, for obvious reasons.
“Grab your trunks, boys,” Pawpaw said. “We’re going down to the beach.”
Memaw decided to stay upstairs and read. “I just enjoy looking at it,” she said.
We changed into our trunks and headed down with Pawpaw to the beach, walking barefoot cross the parking lot. Once we got to the ocean, the sand lashed us something fierce. “Damn, that wind’s strong,” Pawpaw said. “Must be sandy season, and that’s why no one’s here at the beach.”
Not a damn soul in sight, not for miles in either direction. My brother Lincoln barged toward the waves that crashed huge and swallowed chunks of sand like some hungry beast. Plastic shopping bags, empty aluminum beer cans, and torn bits of net swirled in the dark water before us, carried by the crests of breaking foam. The entire beach, littered with trash; we couldn’t figure out why. Till I saw Lincoln go in that water. Soon as he leapt into an oncoming wave, something threw him back out. Something with scaly hands.
I screamed. Pawpaw came round to tell me, there’s nothing to worry about. Lincoln seemed to think he got pushed back by water, didn’t see no hands. But I saw ‘em, and they would too. Pretty soon, I realize all this trash, the ocean’s spitting the trash back onto the beach. Cigarette butts, glass bottles, and fishing hooks. Even a pair of lady’s underwear, the kind with a little string that sits in the butt-crack.
See, you wanted a story about beach conservation, well, this story’s just right for you. They sent you to the right man, oh boy. Because see, that’s what the mermaids wanted. To save the ocean. That’s why they came onto land that wretched day.
So I was sitting on a dune minding my own business, trying to rub the sharp grains of sand from my eyes, and Lincoln yells, “Someone’s coming!” Sure-nuff, there’s this pair of men riding up in a golf cart. Only it ain’t a golf cart but instead some kinda military vehicle, you know, like the ones from M.A.S.H. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? I miss that damn show. I recall, when we first got our TV, it was on some channel, and I kept getting all excited; only my Daddy says, M.A.S.H. went off the air years ago. Anyways, these men were driving toward us and screaming. I couldn’t hear what words they were saying, cause they was far off, but it sounded pretty bad.
“Looks like they want us off the beach,” Pawpaw said. “Best listen. Come on, boys.”
By this time, I was feeling pretty weird bout the whole thing: we ain’t ever been able to afford any fancy hotel room before or no vacation to the beach. But here we were, mid-September, at Myrtle Beach. All the kids at school, they used to say, I go to Myrtle Beach every Spring and every Summer. But family never got to go until the weekend of the hurricane.
We walked across the parking lot, and the two men climbed out the Jeep. They ran up to us and started yelling. “Get out of here?” “What the hell you think you’re doing here?” Stuff like that.
Pawpaw puts his palms on both our shoulders and looks the men square in their faces, says, “These here my grand-kids, and I’m showing them the beach.”
“Sir, you can’t be here right now. You know there’s a storm coming.”
Pawpaw pointed to them clouds black as death and said, “Them clouds ain’t nothing? Let me tell you about the clouds they used to use in trenches. Them Nazis… ” He trailed off. Pawpaw liked to claim he was in the Second World War, but he was only an ambulance driver working in Italy.
“Sir, it doesn’t matter what you think. You ain’t heard of this hurricane? Hugo’s supposed to blow this whole city away, and you wanna bring kids here. You got to get in your car and get out.” One of the military men began waving his arms wildly.
Then I saw the strangest thing. The waves began to break, split apart like the Red Sea at the hand of Moses. Two walls of water blast up into the air real tall-like, and then I saw ‘em. The beastly creatures stood on their tails and slithered up the beach like humanoid serpents. Straight biblical beasts, them mermaids were.
Yes, mermaids only. No mer-men or nothing. Just mer-maids, and you could tell they was women cause they had—well you know, women’s parts. Blue nipples on their pale-gray skin, first time I ever saw a breast. Their faces were wicked, jagged teeth like skinning knives jutting from their crooked jaws. Their eyes green like granny smiths. They wore white-green hair long down their backs, braided together thick and intricate. And halfway down, their skin became scales; they became fish with these pronged fins that stuck out underneath them as they slid like slugs up the beach. And they chanted something, foreign words. Afterwards, I swore it was Russians—they must have been communist infiltrators sent by Gorbachev cause he was sore bout the wall that was gonna fall—but Lincoln said their words sounded more like one of them Arab languages.
Anyways, they were chanting or singing. Kinda like in church, a prayer with rhythm. In their hands, they held these long tridents. Like them fancy salad forks you see at Olive Garden, only bigger and pointier.
You writing all this down? It’s important.
So these mermaids came up onto the beach with their weapons and their fishy-bodies, and suddenly they stopped. One was in front, she was the leader, obviously. She moved forward alone toward the two men.
The one man who was mean to Pawpaw screamed into his walkie-talkie, “They’re here. The combatants have touched ground. I repeat, they have touched—”
Suddenly, this screech comes right out the Queen Mermaid’s wicked mouth. And then we hear something, not out loud but in our heads. Like she’s speaking straight to our minds.
This is your final warning, humans. Make amends now. Promise us you will discontinue your campaign of destruction, and we will allow you to live.
But the military men only leapt into the Jeep and began driving away. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of helicoptors overheard and the smack-smack-smack, tap-rapta-tap of bullets. The words from the Mermaid Queen made me shudder, but the gunfire got me running too. I sprinted toward the Sandy Kingdom hotel with Pawpaw in tow, Lincoln a few lengths ahead of us.
Once inside, we stormed the stairs to the third floor and found Memaw. She sat in bed with a book above her face. “Look, Marguerite, we’ve got to leave.”
“But I’m only getting to the good part.”
The entire building shook, wind slapping the walls of the hotel. Rain sprayed from above in trembling blasts. Have you ever got your friends to shove you in a foot locker and roll you down a steep hill? Like that.
We peered over the edge of the balcony. The beach swarmed with mermaids now, the one we saw earlier merely a vanguard. Now a bonafide army of the slippery creatures stood ashore locked in mortal combat with human soldiers. The mermaids moved fast, knocking guns from hands with swift smacks from their tridents. Some blasted lightning from the tips of their weapons, siezing men with electricity. Men tended to remain far from the water, because waves continued to lash forward and drag the men beneath the depths.
The wind picked up. The rain chattered against the window harder. We moved away, backing against the door. We could not go outside, not with the sky damning each building. I crawled forward and could see the expanse of the beach shredded by the destructive storm, the waves of mermaids descending upon shore. We could sea the turtles now too, huge terrapins stomping up the beach like tanks. You ever see that movie Finding Nemo, came out a few years ago, and there’s a turtle in it? Well, nothing like that. They had legs large as tree stumps, spikes rising from their concrete-thick shells.
To our left, a pirate-themed mini-golf course, its astro-turf uprooted and thrown like a green-brown pawl against the face of One-Eyed Jack’s ceramic statue. Further down, a rollercoaster rusting against the relentless rain, its train bending under the power of sky’s rebellion. To our right, bright-neon signs crashing upon black pavement. Mermaids crawling up the light poles, wrapping their tails around street signs and breaking their stands like fragile toothpicks. They skewered car tires with tridents, overturning vending machines and spilling pinball machines from the arcade, which rode out like life rafts on the rising tide. As the mermaids overpowered the military men with lightning and brute ferocity, they advanced along the street. And the ocean followed them.
We watched as the entire city became Heaven.
Well, that’s it? That can’t be it. How’d you get out?
Oh, you believe me now, huh? Well, for awhile, the bottom floor of the hotel was flooded. We survived on provisions of snacks from vending machines upstairs. Pawpaw bust them open with can of corn we found. We stepped outside after the storm, and the whole city was wasted. Everything devastated in the mermaid’s wake. I seen tornadoes tear through trailer parks before, but nothing like this, nothing like how the rage of sea and sky could scorch a city so good, you wouldn’t recognize its fondest sites.
The amusement rides, broken and bent. The boardwalk crippled, boards ripped up, dock collapsed into the water. I remember seeing this stand, one of those fair-type places where you could shoot targets and win prizes. The whole thing sunk into mud, fluffy bears staring from the wreckage with gouged-out eyes.
Entire buildings collapsed, became a mess of concrete and sadness. Some houses got pushed off their foundations, even the ones raised up on wooden stilts. Church steeples toppled. You ever build a Lego-castle as a kid, a huge castle out of multi-colored blocks that gets taller than you, and then you take the whole structure and toss it to the ground, maybe from some height like the couch or kitchen table, and all the parts explode, blocks sliding across the floors? And you can’t recognize that magnificent castle you built? Like that.
Except there was one thing I guess people never tell about Hurricane Hugo, and that’s this. All the debris lying around the city, it all didn’t come from the buildings. Some came from the ocean. Piles of rotting, sea-soaked garbage. Just stacked in the streets like bodies from a war. Like a calling card or symbol. Or a warning.
When Cassandra exited the bathroom stall, she stood for a solid minute puzzled at the absence of mirrors. Someone had come into the high school bathroom, the unit located in the Andre Hall, and removed each and every mirror from its place. Silver fasteners remained, framing unpainted yellow squares above the dirty sinks. In place of each mirror read the message: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.
Well, that’s awfully nice, Cassandra thought. She did not feel very beautiful: she had woken late, tied her hair in a bun, and forgotten to put on make-up. Though she appreciated the message, she regretted that she could not fix her eye shadow which always gooped in the early afternoon. An impulse overtook her to remove her compact from her purse, just to check, but she did not. I am beautiful, she thought, of course I am. Imbued with confidence, she strode out of the bathroom, her head held high.
Screams erupted from each of the passerby’s who saw her. Unfortunately, she had not noticed the massive spider crawling across her face and biting her cheek with poisonous results.
“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. ” -Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Sucker punch my heart break
burst open my cocoon too soon,
rainstorm my rib cage,
and wrinkle my veins.
Rearrange the furniture in my head.
You must be a landmine, blasting apart
in order to put yourself back together.
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.
Corn. Rice. Apple. Hemp. Soybeans.
The seeds from some of America’s greatest agricultural movements, sitting on the shelf next to my bed. When I awoke from hallucinatory nightmares, in which I tumbled endlessly beneath the sea’s surface, I fumbled with the bottles, but didn’t screw open the cap tops. Instead, I shook the seeds inside and prayed these would be my salvation. But if the smugglers had crashed their ship near Charleston, then there would be no one to buy the seeds.
When the storm died three days later, we assessed the damage: half the containers we’d set out to catch water had been tipped over or blown into the marsh. Ethan waded into the muck to collect empty tin cans and plastic pitchers that were now full of mud. We poured the containers into ten-gallon jugs we had collected months ago, from where we could draw water for cooking, drinking, and on occasion, bathing.
In the aftermath of rain, mosquitoes clung to my legs until I walked pocked with red all over, sores itching with needling wrath. The heat swamped my lungs, and even as I breathed, I felt as if gulping mouthfuls of salty water. Still the dreams haunted me, even while awake, of drowning, of drowning in that city of ghosts.
We lugged the battered dinghy from the shore and cleaned its hull before paddling with haste back into the Charleston bay. “Down here, this is where you found the ship?” I could see already its bulking black shadow as I zipped up my wetsuit; Ethan would not go diving again, if he couldn’t keep tied to the boat. “Keep watch of that winch. We don’t want a repeat of the other day.”
When I dove, I sank quickly toward the shipping vessel. Nearing the end of the month, the smugglers docked in the marsh and leapt onto our isles. We haggled near the shore over copper wires, glass Coke bottles, unopened cans of green beans, steel plumbing pipes, and other valuables. We didn’t want money, only supplies: tools, fresh food, fresh water, and medicine. This was what I dove after: medicine. They kept bottles of pills in a cabinet inside the captain’s cabin.
Their ship’s three masts rested against the concrete wall, the middle and highest splintered into shards that now floated around me, spears of wood threatening impalement. Fifty feet long, the boat laid on its side, probably smashed against the jutting portion of the wall when the terrible storm came. I hovered above the wreckage, trying to remember the layout of rooms, of compartments. A few foam safety rings rested suspended above the ships’ deck, still bound to iron rungs in the wood. Snaking through the grappling ropes, I found the lower deck, where a door lead to the main cabin.
Once I reached for the door, I tugged and found it locked– or at least sealed closed by the immense underwater pressure. Crash. I elbowed the window, slivers of glass rising peacefully past my face like throwing knives sailing at me in slow-motion. A great surge pulled me against the window, my body smashing the window frame apart as I tumbled into the cabin, sea water crashing in after me. I fumbled with my oxygen mask, breathing deeply as water filled the cabin to the top, and then I drifted confused among the wreckage.
The medicine cabinet. I tore it open, and orange pill bottles spilled out. Aspirin and stronger opiate painkillers. Suppositories in a massive mason jar. Sleep-aids. Ritalin and other forms of speed. Allergy medicine. Locked in a metal box, I found sealed capsules of even more powerful medicines– surgical opiates and anti-psychotics. A few unmarked vials and a clean, sealed syringe.
When I reached the surface, lugging my cloth bag of medicines, I tossed them aboard the boat. “Don’t open any. We can sell these.”
“You sure we can’t use them?”
“Use them? What, you have allergies? Or do you just want to pass out from drugs? Look, help me up.” He hefted me from the water, and I collapsed on the floor, shaking off water and breathing heavily. “If we can find someone to buy these– and the seeds? We’ll be set for life. We can buy our own boat, a huge cruise ship if we want. Or we can hike out into the mountains, purchase a mansion on a hill. We won’t have to live on a forsaken island in a swamp.”
Ethan nodded slowly. “But– but– right, maybe you’re right.” He smiled, but grimaced at the same time. “Sure, we’ll be rich. But if the smugglers were at the bottom of the sea, who do we take these things to? Who would buy them?”
“Who would buy seeds?” I considered this. “The farmers in the cities might. They plant engineered crops, things invented in laboratories, but how long as it been since– since someone saw real seeds? Actual seeds?”
Ethan shrugged. “We have to travel to the city, then. Atlanta? It’s close enough.” I nodded frantically, and then we embraced. I gathered the medicines and puts them in a cooler we strapped to the back of our boat. We would be rich, I knew it: we would survive.
After two hours, Ethan collapsed against the side of the boat, dropping his oar over his lap. “I can’t– just keep going. Where are we? Do you know?”
I glanced left and right, peering through the thick trees surrounding the marsh. “I don’t know. I’m just trying to find– some land or something.”
Once we realized we had almost destroyed Earth, the federal government passed stringent laws to drastically lower carbon emissions. Personal vehicles were outlawed, though no one could afford the gasoline to run them. Most of the country’s population traveled via magnetized railways, zipping east and west across the continent, but no rails reached south along the east coast, unless you traveled deep into Georgia. Near Atlanta.
“We just have to– have to find a highway. It’s say on this map– here–” I unfolded the map and tried to flatten it against the boat’s dashboard, and the breeze ruffled it from beneath. “Come, here. There’s a– if we can find this highway seventeen, we can–” A gust of wind bloomed beneath the map and levitated it above our heads, then the map crumpled into a ball and splashed into the swamp. “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
We floated aimlessly for another hour, before pulling the boat ashore. Our feet sank up to our ankles in rich, black soil, but I kicked it against a tree trunk as he laid the boat to rest. We hiked through the muck, pushing vines from our path, when we stumbled across the black asphalt. “We start here, try to find someone with a mode of transportation. Use the seeds to pay people, or the medicine.” We carried our bounty in a duffel bag with our clothes. Night fell, and I laid out thin blankets I’d taken from our house. Then we fell asleep underneath the stars, the sky’s muggy breath pressing against our cold necks.
I clawed through the water, sinking only ten feet beneath the surface before crawling back up from air. Gasp. A wave sprayed my face with stinging flecks of water. “Ethan!” No sign of a head bobbing above the surface, only a black expanse constantly displaced. “Ethan, where are you?” But he couldn’t hear me, even if he swam twenty feet away, because the wind howled, the waves crashed against each other like war chariots, and my mouth filled again and again with salty water. “Ethan!”
Turning my head, thrashing through the water, I searched for anything. A sign. Where was the boat? I spotted it rising on the crest of a wave that had pushed it three hundred feet in the opposite direction. I furiously swam for the boat, wind-milling my arms, pushing through the black though the tide sucked me away from underneath. Another wave washed over my head, and I spun, clutching for something, anything. Climbing for air, reaching for the thin, drizzling light. But I couldn’t find the surface, I felt so disoriented, like someone had hung by upside down by my toes and beat me like a piñata.
A hand clasped around mine.
The city rose up to swallow me, and through the ruins under the sea, I could imagine the city as it once had been. There, that strip had been an old market, where tourists bustled past each other to buy straw-woven baskets. A great grass square I passed on my days off, before a saw sliced off my hand. Young people, still delusional with visions of grandeur, rested without anxiety beneath the warm sun, rocking in hammocks, or sunbathing on beach towels.
There– there had been some sort of old prison there, a dark creepy place they said was haunted. Always stories about haunting, though in a way the city had become just another ghost story.
Floating high above, I could see everything. The whole history splayed out, the myths of a thousand ghosts floating in an underwater dream. The green glare of the past pulsated to the surface, the houses rebuilding themselves, then crumbling. In my dream, I could see the birth and death of a city, and it seemed now, like the life of any person, nothing significant.
He slapped my face with the back of his hand, then pressed his clammy hands to my throat. Still, I spewed water as I lay on my side, the sea escaping from my strained lungs. “You’re alive. I thought you might be dead.”
I opened my eyes, staring at the side of our boat, as Ethan leaned over me, checking my vitals like I had taught him. “Where were you? You– the rope.”
“I’m right here now. I’m fine. I’m fine. You cranked the winch too fast, and the rope caught on a rusty nail down there, snapped the rope clean in two. Took me long enough to find the boat. Then there you were floating face-down in the ocean, I thought you were dead. You were dead, nearly.”
“But I’m not. Where are we?”
“We’ll need to paddle back to the island.” Ethan stood, shaking the salt water from his pants legs. The boat had flooded, and as Ethan rowed us in the right direction, I found a bucket to toss the water from our interior, though the rain made it impossible to keep dry. The rain died down by the time we reached our island, bumping against the marshy silt and hopping onto the shallow green platform surrounding our house.
“I need to show you something,” Ethan said, covering his eyes with one hand as he scanned the waves. “No one’s around. The smugglers– I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“What do you mean? How would you know?”
“I saw them. I mean, I saw their ship. They must have tried sailing into Charleston, but they crashed against the wall. Their whole vessel lies at the base of that wall.” He reached into his cloth bag and dumped a pile of gold jewelry on the table, chain necklaces and sparkling engagement rings. Then a rusted can of what must have been petroleum.
“Holy– you took it all?”
“Not all of it. There was a lot. They lost everything down there, at the bottom of the sea. But I found something even more important.” He reached into his pocket and removed orange medicine capsules, the kind they used to give out at pharmacies before people learned to print their medication for cheap at home. “That’s no Advil in there. Those are seeds.”
I picked up the capsule and studied it warily, reading a sticker label that had been hastily written on: Corn.
By the looks of this blog Word Salad, I either died or was captured by Russian spies, but I am still alive and kicking, only with considerably less free time than I would like to have. Generally, the little I do have I contribute to professional projects rather than penning funny, sad, and weird columns for this blog. My output, however, has been tremendous, and I want to share with you some answers to the question posed in the title.
I have been churning out thousands of words a week, no doubt. One class I have enrolled in this semester requires at least one, sometimes 3, papers each week, as well as a book a week. Even for such a prodigious reader and writer as me, this class has taken a toll on me. It has also, however, taught me a lot and made me think about elements of politics I have never before considered. The semester is winding down (or rather accelerating toward the brick wall Dead End named Finals), and I am looking forward to a summer of fun, excitement, and scholarly activities (SIKE!, says the nineties teenager).
Two writing projects currently are still in the works. After months of sending query letters, I have received interesting critical feedback on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Firstly, not many people feel comfortable reading about the Ku Klux Klan, even a comical modern version of it, and after extensive research, I have decided that I too find it distasteful. I expected to find a group of confused southerners emphasizing southern heritage, but mostly the organization is still quite racist (no surprise there). This couple with other problems have spurred me to begin working on other projects while seriously editing the book.
I ain’t no stranger to editing– most of a book’s life is spent in the dreaded editing stage, in my experience. Certainly, I won’t give up on the story, because it’s a story I find compelling: teenagers discovering themselves while encountering the pitfalls of adulthood in a small southern town. It’s a juiced-up, funny-as-hell, exaggerated version of my own experience and the experience of many of my friends. I spent nearly three or four months away from the manuscript and have now returned to engage in editing, and I’ll share some of my favorite passages:
“I had electric veins and ionic eyeballs. Like my heart was hooked up to a car battery, except the energy kept flowing the wrong way.”
” Some of the cities we lived in were actually less like modest hamlets and more true-to-the-core, redneck Nowhere’s. Towns where orthodontists went bankrupt on account of there being only so many teeth per capita.
The sorts of towns where no one had ever heard of smart phones or the Democratic Party or anal sex.”
“Boredom: our natural state, our default. For our entire teen lives in Lickskillet, boredom was true evil, our archenemies, the Darth Vader to our Luke Skywalker. We the free rebels fighting for sacred liberty from this, our mortal enemy we called “boredom.”
We tried everything to absolve ourselves from this carnal sin. Most drank heavily, even idiotically. Which was the best way to drink, with the high possibility of death. Most of the boys drank beer, challenging each other to gulp down more until all had passed out. Girls preferred liquor, mixed or straight. And then everyone, roaring drunk, would smash boredom against the walls. Would take off our boredom’s clothes or pass out on boredom’s lawn.”
Another project I have been vigorously working on (in the months Lickskillet lay dormant in my mind) is The Choke Artist, a story about bare-knuckle fighting, illegal immigration, obese hand models, Alabama lesbians, drug kingpins, murder, Walt Whitman, and time travel. Perhaps when I feel more comfortable with Lickskillet, I’ll post more information about this fascinating, bizarre work.
Essays, novels, and late-night scribbling have accounted for much of my weekly word count, but I have also re-delved into poetry. Last Wednesday, I came away from a school poetry slam, snagging first place. I won an incredibly awesome pen (made with wood from Ireland and GOLD), and it’s probably the best writing utensil I have ever owned in my life. Perhaps I’ll post a picture up next week with a video of me performing the winning poems?
Now you know “Where the Hell” I went and what I’ve been doing. Check in again soon for further shenanigans.
My mother’s agent crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, placing the manuscript delicately on the coffee table. “Georgina, it’s not even finished.” Mum nodded, folding her hands over her knee. “And– the murder scene at the end, it rings disturbingly similar to the finale in Black Tears, you know where the killer tries to drown Detective Knaus in a swimming pool. In this, you have the main character drowning in a Jacuzzi, and maybe there’s a fine distinction, but– look Georgina.”
Mum burped out a quick apology which faltered once it left her lips. “Angelina, please, look, I can tidy up the script. I’ll change the scene even. She’ll drown in the sea or a bathtub or a dunk tank at the carnival. I just can’t stop writing Catherine Knaus novels, Angie.”
“Yes, well, you can’t write them. Not anymore. You killed Knaus off in the final book, and didn’t I tell you not to? You could still be writing her character now. But no, you wanted to go for shock value. End of the series, hero has to end. And now where are you? Writing a bland replica of the same character with a different name. Georgie, I can’t even use this– it’s, it’s… it’s fine, but your comeback must be strong, soaring, magnificent. Not– this.” She tapped the manuscript and smiled with bared teeth. “Honestly? Rhonda Flame? That doesn’t belong in a Georgina Snyder novel; if you were writing erotica, though…”
I crept another step down, peering through the banister at where they sat below me. My father entered the room, brandishing a slightly taller stack of paper than my mother. “Angie, you want some tea? Nice to see you again after–”
“No tea, thanks. Your wife and I were just discussing–”
“You know who else finished a manuscript, Angie?”
Angie the editor shifted her glasses and waited a beat. “Am I supposed to guess?” Another moment of that silence adults share when social constructs fall apart. “You?”
“Me, yes me. As you’re my wife’s agent, I was hoping you’d take a look.”
“We’ve talked about this,” mum said, pushing my father’s manuscript back toward him, away from her own on the coffee table as if one might infect another. I imagined all the sheets of paper spilling onto the floor, and when you rearranged the pieces, you got a literary journey of discovery and scandal intermixed with grungy noir gore.
“It’s a tale of a broken middle-aged man, in an existential clash with himself. He’s a writer, though he has not written anything for years– oh, the crisis, it’s sort of a metaphor for writer’s block, you see. He begins looking to make his life more interesting, takes up gambling, then begins an affair…”
“Mr. Snyder, I appreciate–”
“Better not be a fucking autobiography,” my mum muttered, finishing her wine in a grand, gulping swig.
“Mr. Snyder,” Angelina continued, “I think your writing is superb, but the idea of the book is hardly marketable. There’s nothing distinct that sets it apart, you understand?”
“Bet his wife catches him shagging one of his students on his office, and all she wanted to do was surprise him on his birthday.”
“He’s not a professor, Georgina. He’s a writer.”
“Listen, both of you. I really need to be leaving.” Angelina smiled again, her teeth on vicious display, taking steps toward the door. “Georgie, we signed a contract. At least finish something, change the hot tub scene, and– my boss wants to see it by next month.”
“Next month. The fourteenth then?”
“The first would be better, Georgie. They’re awfully particular about those contracts, and I mean, maybe after Catherine Knaus died, that was a sign. That your, well at least your career in crime novels–”
“My career?” My mother stood up, though clumsily, knocking her empty wine glass onto the floor as she crossed to Angelina. “Angie, Christmas is coming up, and we can’t even–” she lowered her voice “avoid presents. We’re going to have to pick and choose. Honestly, if Michael keeps breaking windows– January 1st will be too early. Can’t it wait until at least the second or third? You’ll be too hung-over– I mean, knackered– to read it.”
“The contract, though, states that our agency will represent you for the entire Catherine Knaus series, and after that ended, we gave you two years.”
“I can have it in a month. Two weeks from now, no problem. All I need is– some space, some coffee, a little inspiration.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re all in high spirits then. Send it to me in an e-mail, Georgie. Talk to you soon.”
“But you were going to read my manuscript,” my father shouted as Angelina slipped out the door, then half-sprinted down the walk through our garden. “Well, bugger that slag with a buttered broom handle. Georgina?”
“Don’t talk to me, Richard.”
I leaned in close, trying to read their nuances, their motions, their faces. “What the hell are you doing?”
Nearly tumbled down the steps when I leapt up, my heart rocketing into my throat. “Aggie, just headed downstairs for a cup of tea.”
“Have you been in my room?”
“No, of course not. Why? Is something– um, missing?”
She cocked an eyebrow, licked her lips, then replied. “No, nothing’s missing. Just my notebooks fell over, and I know you’re a nosy little brat who likes to snoop around in other people’s things.”
“Maybe it was Michael, looking for inspiration for his Great American Novel.”
“Fucking idiot. I’m pretty sure only Americans are allowed to write those.” I nodded empathetically, then slipped away before she realized the horror on my face. The ring, she knew it was missing.
While reaching my arm down the air vent, the screws rolling against my knees, I wondered how I would formulate this scene in the final draft of my memoir. Would I write the scene dramatic, my breathing heavy, my fingers scrambled to find the lost ring, my eyes shifting constantly to the clock that hinted at my impending doom? Maybe not so suspenseful. Maybe more comedic.
Halfway through, my hand would get stuck and I would hear my sister begin her ascent up the stairs. At the moment, she shopped for Christmas presents with my parents while Michael sat upstairs doing whatever Michael usually did, probably writing another rip-off Stephen King novel.
As I thought about a comedy of errors, a series of mishaps in the story like a 3 Stooges cartoon but more literary, I feared my hand might actually get stuck. As if how I fictionalized the event might preemptively affect the actual event. Like a blooper, but from real life.
People in the audience at a play— they laugh politely at the gaffs but laugh the hardest when you lynch your lines, when you forget a word, when your wig tumbles off, powder clouding the air. Laughing at something that’s supposed to be funny, that only makes you a conformist. It’s the fuck-ups that really make people cackle.
I withdrew my hand and wiped the black, grainy smudge from my fingertips. When first contemplating the lost ring, I considered telling my parents, but then Agatha would know I lost the ring. Also, we had moved beyond tattle-tale-ing on each other because it meant the snitch too would face punishment. We knew so much about each other, we could never blame each other directly, only indirectly, like two hostile nations pointing nukes at the others’ capitals, knowing once we set off the explosives, we insured our mutual destruction.
Dropping the vent back over the hole, I began to tighten the screw when I heard omeone creeping down the hallway. I faced the door, my hands shaking, and then I dropped and crawled underneath Agatha’s bed. I imagined that in the fictional version of the moment, I might feel like a character in a horror movie, breathing slowly as the serial killer stalks around the bed. The door opened, and dirty sneakers trod across the room before halting next to Agatha’s book case.
After some strain, the person sat down on her bed, and I could hear pages flapping. The sneakers smelled like dirt and mashed potatoes, a hairy ankle sticking out. “What are you doing?”
As I clambered from under the bed, Michael fumbled with Agatha’s notebook to return it to its hiding place. “Shit, Neil. You scared me.”
“You’re reading Agatha’s journals? Trying to steal ideas?”
“I’m just– what are you doing in her room?”
“I’m just– I– uh– so she keeps the notebooks behind the other books on the book shelf.”
Michael nodded. “She’s smart. Turns ‘em sideways so they lie flat against the back of the book case, and they don’t stick out. But I found them this time. Have you read this stuff?”
“I think she’s pretty good, actually. Might be the best writer in the family. I mean, at least she’s honest.”
“Honest? She’s hormonal. Dad’s the best writer.”
Michael screwed up his face. “He only writes reviews. Anyways, dad’s not all that smart.”
He only said that, I suspected, because dad refused to read his newest project. Dad had tried to read previous novels by Michael, but then Michael never finished them, and my father grew frustrated with this until he refused to not comment on any more of Michael’s unfinished manuscripts.
Being brutally criticized, my brother could probably withstand that but what broke his heart and his resolve was being ignored. As if his work had grown so insignificantly droll, my father could not devote time to criticize its quality.
The front door opened, and Michael and I retreated from Agatha’s lair to stand in Michael’s room. On the desk stood a stack of clean notebooks, a row of mechanical pencils filled with graphite sticks. “You’re planning to write a lot?”
“I have been writing a lot.”
“And what is it this time? Like, a story about dragons or is this another Philip K. Dick rip-off.”
Shrugging, Michael moved the notebooks into his drawer. “I’m working on my magnum opus. My bestseller.”
“You can’t just decide it’s a bestseller before it’s even started.”
“But it’s all about the dramatic inner lives of a group of writers, on whom the nation recognizes.”
“You mean mom? What are you writing?”
Michael took a deep breath and sat down on the chair. “Oh, well, a memoir.”
The door opened, and Agatha dropped her shopping bags in the hallway before storming in. “What were you two doing in my room?”
“But we weren’t–”
“My notebooks were on the bed, you little snoops. You don’t have to be so damned jealous that I can write poetry and you can’t. Michael, stop being so desperate.”
I cut in, “He was probably just collecting research for his memoir.”
“What a joke. Michael, please go throw yourself out of a library window.”
Michael’s face grew red. “Shut up, Agatha. You’re not even good anyway. The only reason anyone likes you is because you starting seeing that Greg guy.”
“Greg? Michael, you’re–”
“Oh, you know, just the guy you talk on the phone with every night, that boy you write poems about. He’s four years older than you, and I mean, it’s not a coincidence you’re featured in his magazine.”
“You’re a nosy little creep.”
I looked between them. “You’re dating someone?”
Mum walked in. “Dating who?”
“Greg,” said Michael. “He must be an American, and he wrote that article about Agatha, and now she thinks she’s hot shit. But she’s not. Once I publish my memoir, everyone will know.”
“You can’t publish a memoir,” said mum. “You’re not even an adult yet. You don’t know anything about life.”
Shaking my head, I looked to Agatha. “Did he give you the ring?”
“Right? Agatha, what’s going on?”
“How do you– you lost the fucking ring, didn’t you? Mum, he lost my damned engagement ring.”
Mum turned dead white, pressing her hand against the door and gasping dramatically like they do in the movies. “Engaged? Who are you engaged to?”
“Greg, probably,” said Michael, retreating to his bed.
“I didn’t to lose it. I just held that card, and then– it fell out.”
“You’re getting married and you haven’t told us. You’re not even an adult yet, Agatha.”
Michael smirked at this. “Yeah, Agatha, you’re not even–”
She lunged for me, toppling me to the floor as she clawed at my face. “You little snarky bastard. You lost the ring. I was going to give it back to him but now you lost it. And he’ll hate me. Even more than when I told him no.”
“You told him no? Agatha, what?” Mum looked even more horrified, clutching her blouse.
Everything that was happening, I could not help but imagine how awesome it could play out in my memoir. How Agatha had turned violent over her passionate secrets, how my mother felt so scandalized.
Mum called up my dad, and with Agatha, they drifted to the kitchen to discuss Agatha’s engagement ring. I sat upstairs, relieved they had forgotten to ground me for snooping in her room, and Michael began writing in his notebook.
“I don’t know why you’re trying. I think I’ve already got the memoir market for this family cornered.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m working on one too, I meant. No offense.”
Michael shrugged. “They’re probably different anyways.”
I chewed on my cheek and walked from the room. “We’re just different people. How different could they be?”
In my room, I began to write, but I found it hard to concentrate once dad started yelling. Something about how Agatha didn’t deserve to be off in California if she were just hooking up with indie magazine editors. Somehow, I could not write the truth, so I wrote something else: a story about a boy in a family of writers.
The father, a children’s book illustrator. The mother, a redundant poet. His older brother, a budding literary novelist. And a little sister, who had decided she wanted to be a doctor instead.
Every story we tell is a memoir disguised as fiction. The characters we write, they’re just derivatives of ourselves, expressions of who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. We’re obscuring the truth in fiction.
We live anecdotal lives. Everything we can do becomes just another story to tell our parents or friends or spouses when we get home from school or work or Pilates. As humans, we love stories. In the case of lying about who you are, come full-loaded with anecdotes. Stories make you believable—that’s why Hitler promoted the publication of anti-Semitist children’s books.
This is just my version of a children’s book, starring me. Everyone wants to write a memoir, to cash in on their stories, so why can’t I?
The truth, when it’s unwrapped, when it’s raw, burns our skin with embarrassment. We recognize too much of ourselves in the truth, things we could not say out loud printed onto a page. We’re so afraid of sharing our secrets, we make ourselves into a breathing sarcophagus. We write our confessions on bathroom walls, trying to find salvation in anonymity. And we only end up alone.
The day after Christmas, Angie visited to pick up the manuscript for the first adventure of Rhonda Flame, the protagonist of a true-crime-inspired erotica series. Angie agreed to read dad’s manuscript too, maybe out of starch politeness.
Agatha found the ring by fishing down the air vent with a campfire skewer. We celebrated by sealing the ring in an envelope and mailing it back to California, back to Greg, who I felt slightly sorry for. Then again, if we were an American magazine editor, he probably deserved better than Agatha. If he had made that mistake, she’d be even more of a crazy, psycho bitch. Not that her foulness bothered me– it made good fodder for a memoir, that memoir I still needed to start writing.