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The bar would be cramped on any other night, but tonight there sit only a few students, refugees floating upon wooden detritus in the aftermath of exam shipwreck. I sit down with a group of three Germans who claim to study law and later on, two Americans from Sacramento. They paint their lives in vivid colors and broad strokes, and I listen, nursing a Tom Collins. The conversation floats toward the future and films and far-out imaginings.
Above me, the speakers leak a lullaby of nineties grunge songs—all the tunes you might have listened to in middle school in order to feel superior and dangerous—and I’m rocking my head lightly as my skull flushes out. Become Mr. Lighthead.
Three drinks later, the bar is a tilt-a-whirl of colors and faces. I must hold each new name on my tongue like a secret, whispering over and over these incantations so that tomorrow I might remember the right words. Though students crowd inside, there still remain many places where one can sit down.
This student bar, not a flashy place by any stretch of the imagination, no special light show or dramatic flair: a few cheap bottles of spirits, a lazy bartender consumed with playing cards and taking shots, nostalgic music floating through the air like midday church bells, beers priced far lower than what one might call cheap, viola, a student bar where many twenty-something’s living in close vicinity might squeeze together into a small space. A final space where closing time becomes a joke, where consciousness becomes a myth, and I become a cartoon awash in an ocean of conversation bubbles.
I am consumed too often by boredom, residing now in a great yawning giant’s gut. Like the pit of an apricot, I snuggle into layers of fatty flesh, content for now to be inert. To be the eight ball untouched. To be the husk of not what once was, but rather of what will soon be: a harbinger of action, a foreshadowing of a grandiose scheme that has yet to unfold. The problem, of course, is that inaction becomes the norm. I live with a status quo of zero, the only expectation a complete lack of expectation. As if to do nothing at all should be considerably commendable, as if the dice in the air should remain forever aloft and never land on a single number, no choice made, no fate achieved. Just the constancy of incomplete longing, the nagging feeling that you live on the edge, teetering against gravity’s lust, while remaining too perfectly poised on that strange, motionless precipice.
I want nothing more than to plummet or back away, to crash-land or soar into clouds, to make up my mind already. But I’m too comfortable at the crossroads. I have made a home for myself at every fork in the road, as if one could live forever without ever truly growing up. That’s the name we give indecision: Neverland. A place we’re not really supposed to visit, only in dreams perhaps, and yet here I have built an entire civilization upon this terra forma of adolescence, molded for myself the culture of indecision. We even have our own music, which is the crescendo of any symphony that must sustain fermata forever, a build-up without sufficient conclusion. We have too our own dance, which is the moment one leaps into the air and never lands. We have too our own language, full of umms and errs and ahhs without proper words, speech that signifies nothing more than a lack of meaning.
That’s what it means to be bored, no? To lack meaning, perhaps. To be perpetually on the threshold of creating a meaning for oneself. To fail again and again in that foolish endeavor.
I ride the bus in and out of town, stopping at any cafe or bar to briefly read White Teeth or work on the new novel, but still I have no yet begun. Not yet. Begun something, I don’t know, not in any tangible way. All of this feels like a dream, and it may be when every person is a stranger. No one exists except for me, everyone else an actor or actress in the background of a silent film. I have long prided myself on this tenuous characteristic of being “out-going,” but I discover this applies only in easy circles. My domain resides in the classroom, the poetry slam, the independent coffee house, not the random bustling avenue where everyone seems to possess direction save for I. Beyond that, each interaction is a cipher: going to the bank, ordering a doener, buying a bus ticket.
You know that feeling one receives in a new places that you do not belong, that the notion of belonging might merely be a mispronouncing of “be longing,” that rather we perpetually long to be something more, some place better, some new party with new faces. We sit on a bench and feel jealous we do not sit on some other bench. We are birds envious of fish, living bodies envious of ghosts. Perhaps that’s the condition of living, to be forever misplaced, we passing tourists of the living experienced. Here quite by accident.
I sit now in the center of the old city on a bright, cool day high upon a grand stone wall overlooking a narrow street where bikes and buses speed past storefronts. Perhaps my mind is still trapped back home, a billion anxieties floating to the surface: a book, friends, parties I cannot attend. While here I am in an odd limbo: two weeks ahead with no set plans, no classes. And so the question arises– to travel, to stay, to meet students, to write– who knows? I am a ship without sails, bouyed by the sea, hoping to land on some beautiful beach, not shipwrecked but harbored by some anchor without a name.
After riding the U-Bahn from Stuttgart airport into the main train station (often named the Hauptbahnhof), we wonder through the train station searching for our correct train which we will ride into Heilbronn. A small bird hops on the platform, a black bird, which I find strange to see underground. Element of air trapped under Earth. When we ascend to the above metro station, a dozen or more birds flit past my head. After navigating the station, which is under construction, my Opa and I must dash down the length of the platform to catch the train before it leaves.
Once onboard, we may relax. With my bags stacked next to me in a seat, I press face to glass and watch sunlight paint Stuttgart. We pass through a series of tunnels, each decorated with crude graffiti. If you pay attention, one notices similar tags appearing again on the sides of buildings later. We pass through the city, a corridor of banks, tall buildings, and beer gardens. Then into the suburbs. The houses in Germany appear very similar in form and style, their red roofs slanted and shingled. Very Old World feel, these houses which appear in sparser patches as we inch out of Stuttgart.
Soon the train glides through the countryside. One sees stretches of pasture, geometrically parceled along the ridges of each sloping knoll. Like an extremely well-played game of Tetris, these agricultural tapestries stitch together into the scene of rural Germany. Later on, as we Heilbronn draws closer, we pass the stratified vineyards. The Romans rose the grape vines on various platforms to trap heat in various areas, and the Germans have adopted this step design. Like shelves built into each hillside.
We drive now through my mother’s childhood hometown. Named Laufen. There’s a tunnel there my mother once told me about during a trip to Germany five years ago. They nickname this place The Suicide Tunnel, for when trains burst into the light, they cannot see whether a person stands next to a track, making it easy for an individual to throw oneself in front of the train. I remember years ago I found this place incredibly morbid, a place famous for its suicides. A place made holy through death. But now, an older version of myself reconsiders. Not so strange to find a place disturbing or special, for any place could become this place if a person dies in that place. There is a housing complex back home where a friend died, and still I cannot easily pass this neighborhood without a strange shiver.
Any house may become haunted. Any train track may become doomed. Any graveyard can be made holy for the family and friends of those whom are there interred.
Check out this guest blog I wrote for PRA Publishing’s Poetry Matters project. Keep your eyes peeled for similar posts about the adventures of a first-time novelist.
Originally posted on CSRA Poetry Matters Blog:
Book Store Fantasies: On the Anticipation and Anxiety of Publishing My First Book—A Guest Post by Derek Berry
I press fingertips to book spines, dragging my palms against each title as I amble down the fiction aisle. The air inside the bookstore breathes Arctic chill, but among these paper lives, I don’t notice the cold. My fingers spark with ecstatic anticipation, and my chest burns like a furnace with pride. In less than a year, PRA will publish my first young adult novel. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, a story about teenagers grappling with the aftermath of a hate crime while struggling to navigate the end of their high school careers, will appear in print alongside these other books.
Each time I return to the bookstore—a place a block away from where I live that sells new and used books, hosts readings, and employs friendly…
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[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.
“Martin had a dream. Martin had a dream. Kendrick had a dream.”- Backseat Freestyles/ good kid, m.A.A.d city
- Kendrick Lamar floats above cityscape,
alight with flaming angel wings.
Flying or falling, he cannot tell. He
wakes in a stupor, his eyes bright as forgotten Heavens.
- Kendrick Lamar unzips his pants, and
the Eifel Tower springs from between the zippers.
He proceeds to fuck the world for 72 hours.
- Kendrick Lamar stands naked in front of his class.
He is in high school chemistry class, and his Eifel
Tower is now just a normal phallus. Someone
laughs. Someone shouts, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe!”
- A giant eagle with the face of
School Boy Q chases Kendrick Lamar
through the desert, his legs thin as chopsticks.
As he pushes harder, the Eagle draws closer,
his claws familiar as Compton.
- Kendrick Lamar misses a flight to Berlin,
for he lies in a box,
a cedar box buried six feet under the ground, his body
contorting with rage and fear. His head banging
against the top of the box
as he wonders whether he might escape.
He will not escape, not until he wakes
in mid-afternoon, his bed wet
with hangover sweat,
his back still dripping as if he just climbed from a pool full of liquor,
as if only just yesterday
he woke for the first time.