Eclipsed

It occurred to him, not much after the fact, that he could still just drink the poison. A few blue robes still stood around him, waiting patiently for the cool liquid to begin to burn. Most of the room was kneeling, though, and coughing up a pink froth that specked their crisp, white, Adidas tennis sneakers. A few had expired.

Around the room the adage held, the one that goes something like you’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how infrequently they do. Everyone around him was somewhat too preoccupied with their own demise to notice that his cup still brimmed with the chalky purple liquid and that he had no trouble breathing.

He admitted to himself that he was moved by the toast. “We’re the vanguard of the Rapture!” Gene preached. “”The brave few who have looked beyond ourselves to see a cruel and twisted world, where evil men trod unscathed across the unborn skulls of the righteous!” It was a bit dramatic, perhaps, but then of course it was a suicide pact. The host could be forgiven his attention to aesthetics.

The darkness came at 11:24, or it was supposed to, and at any rate by 11:26 on Gene’s watch the last sliver of sunlight was snuffed out and the windows went finally dark. It seemed odd, to him, that they should be inside of doors for a cosmically catalyzed death accord; he would have liked to have seen the Coriolis and feel the sudden cool stillness sweep across their Nebraska compound and hear the birds go silent and the crickets stop and stand awed beneath improbable daytime constellations, but nonetheless at 11:26 when the darkness finally came, all manners of slurping and gulping were followed by the hollow tapping of empty styrofoam cups striking the cracked linoleum floor.

Then, for a moment, it was quiet.

The wailing and breast beating began shortly thereafter as the true believers prepared themselves for ascendancy and no more than two or three reluctant saints induced vomiting in a last minute change of heart.

In school, as the tide of hormones swelled to consume the children there, he had seen every effort to fit in and be a part of the main. He recalled that that desperate brand of tribalism carried on past schoolyard taunts and became a fixture in the cul-du-sac. The glistening rows of leased SUVs surrounding the shabby doublewide trailer were testament to that. And he was not immune. Even in that room he felt the frantic affection of the commune, though it still struck him as queer that a person would drink a cocktail of sodium pentathol, potassium cyanide, and grape soda just to join a club.

Totality is fleeting, at their latitude it lasted a mere minute and thirty-four seconds. They had weighed themselves that morning and mixed their pungent potions to act on each of them in 80 seconds, to allow for a moment to swallow and depart together through the darkness. They had fasted since lunch the day before, and as he looked around the room it seemed that Gene’s math was more or less correct. No one else was standing; a very few still gasped for air amid the folding chairs and littered cups when the far side of the sun peaked out again from behind the moon.

He missed it, he supposed. His friends had left without him. For a moment he thought that if he tried that he could still catch up, a straggler toward a new frontier. But he hadn’t eaten since yesterday and his stomach growled. The small disposable coffee cup suddenly felt very heavy in his hand.

He set his cup carefully on the folding card table in the center of the room, walked to the door through a maze of stilling bodies, and stepped out into the midday dawn.

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Books for the Dark Ages: fall book recommendations

Winter is coming.

But it’s not here yet, and it won’t be here for a while. It’ll be dark like 20 hours a day soon, and the snow won’t fly for a little while longer, and the new season of Game of Thrones apparently doesn’t air until like July. Pretty much we’re doomed.

What are you going to do? We’re eeking toward that time of year when everything is exciting and wonderful because it’ll be ski season soon, but when it’s actually just cold and dark and kind of miserable because it’s not ski season yet. We’ve got a little bit of time until that happens, though, and while everything is dark and mysterious and before your friends and loved ones try to send you to an early grave with like 8-10 holiday parties a week, I propose that you read a book.

A BOOK!?

Yes. A paper one. With pages. None of those Kindle things. Isn’t that a Kardashian, anyway?

And so to get you started, here’s a few fall book recommendations that should get you through ’til the snow flies.

Fall book recommendations.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – B. Traven – Good ‘ol dang ‘ol adventure story with just enough socialist indignation to really resonate with a generation of millennials. A few down-and-out strangers in the 1920s skip town to search for a lost and cursed Aztec gold mine. Warning – there is a morale to this story.

The Immortal Irishman – Timothy Egan – Irish Republican indignation? Old timey frontier antics?  Mysterious deaths of famous people? He had me at “indignation.” The story of an Irish revolutionary and Montana’s first Governor, this one is a biography that reads more like fiction.

Trinity – Leon Uris – If The Immortal Irishman left your indignation cup just half full, then slip on some sheepwool slippers, pour yourself a Jameson (bring the bottle, this book is long), and crack into Trinity. If Jack London wrote the Bible and set it in 19th century Dublin, you might get something like this.

The Monkey Wrench Gang – Edward Abbey – This book opens with two characters cutting down billboards with a chainsaw, and the hijinx just keep going from there. If you’re feeling any indignation about Bernie not getting a fair shake, or the North Dakota Access Pipeline, or you’re just generally angry at The Man, here’s a great place to find some inspiration. Jeep week is right around the corner!

Alpine Ski Tours of the Canadian Rockies – Chic Scott – Because ski season is almost here, after all, and we can’t just be angry all the time.

Hot Water – PG Wodehouse – Light-hearted, hilarious. Best to read it with an English accent.

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – Here’s one that you might not quite know what to make of the whole time you’re in it, and then one day you realize it’s your favorite book. An homage to self-righteous, over-educated under-achievers everywhere.

Don Quixote – Miguel Cervantes – The first novel. No, really. It’s more than 400 years old, but it is absolutely modern in its concerns and its relevancy. You really owe it to yourself to know more about Don Quixote than that he jousted with windmills. Just make sure you get a good translation.

The Italian Grill – Mario Batali – It’s dark out. It’s cold. It’s actually a great time to fire up the grill. Batali’s recipes here take a long time (frequently days), so it’s a great thing to kind of work on a little bit during the week and then reap the rewards on the weekend. Summer cookouts are fine, but there’s nothing better than grilling under a crisp winter night. Batali himself has had some little ethical issues (like widespread, systematic wage theft in his restaurants), so feel free to get this one at the library or find a pirated copy online.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky – Nancy Horan – Buy this book. Buy one for yourself. Then buy one for your girlfriend/boyfriend/regular friends. Buy one for each roommate. Then for each member of your family all the way through third cousins. Hardcover is preferred. It’s the life and history of the man who brought us Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island and Kidnapped, packaged as a riveting novel. Probably you should buy a spare.

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 – Hunter S. Thompson – This is an election year, the media has pretty much blown it, and we’ve got one of the craziest candidates in centuries. This is an election cycle that deserves Hunter S. Thompson.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace – You will laugh. You will cry. Carrying this book around is the perfect complement to your Warby Parker glasses and Gitanes cigarettes. The magnum opus of a deeply troubled, profoundly insightful man, you’ll get out of this one what you put into it. You will not get through this a few pages at a time before bed; I recommend leaving the country for someplace without electricity for a month and just, like, living between the pages, man.

The Nix – Nathan Hill – Is it disrespectful to call The Nix diet Infinite Jest? I don’t know. I do know that it’s got a similar style, similar feel, and also that it’s way, way more user friendly. You still get the fragmented narrative, the semi-cynical insights to the world around us, but you can probably read this one at home.

Don’t forget to support your local bookseller, and holler if there’s anything I’m missing.

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Case Study on Balance

Charles Novotny is in a bit of a pickle. He is sitting at a cubicle desk, a few feet back from his computer. His tie is loosened and Rorschach-esque dabs of perspiration are growing under his arms and at the back of his collar. A photograph of two young children rests on a shelf above his monitor and is obscured by smoke from the two-stroke engines flying around his head.

He is wearing a freshly pressed pair of Dockers khakis (with a little bit of spandex in them) and a few drops of bar oil have fallen and left stains. He does not notice. He is focused intently on juggling four running chainsaws and three live kittens. They appear to be tabbys.

A teenage boy of about sixteen pushes a mail cart through the office. One of the wheels squeaks, but Charles does not notice. He is wearing earmuffs; the motors are very loud. The boy behind the mail cart stops at Charles’ desk and pauses for a moment. He furls his brow before reaching into the cart to produce another chainsaw. He flicks the choke and pulls it to start. He and Charles make eye contact, and the boy tosses the saw with one and a half backward flips so that it blends seamlessly into the seated man’s rotation. Charles Novotny is now juggling five running chainsaws and three small tabbys.

The boy moves on with the mail cart. The wheel still squeaks.

The ease with which Charles Novotny keeps the saws and kittens in flight is hypnotizing. His eyes are cast upward and  do not blink. He does not move his head. Muscle memory and his periphery track the saws and cats that fly through the air.

And these are not small, top handled arborist’s saws. We’re talking, like, full on Stihl 661s. Each time he catches one and tosses it aloft again, the 20″ bar swings toward him, and he extends his arm fully to ensure that the blade does not land on his shoulder and sever his arm. Vibrations from the engines have numbed his hands, and his arms ache. It is not yet eleven in the morning.

He catches and throws one or two running chainsaws for every kitten. To use the same strength and force he needs to keep the saws in the air when it comes time to catch a small cat would certainly crush the animal. Yet each tabby looks calm. One is sleeping.

There is no display of stress aside from the sweat.

His underarms are wetted through and his shirt is stuck to his back. Each vertibra is visible through the cheap microfiber cloth. A droplet has formed on his nose and is hanging from between his nostrils. He twitches his face and the droplet falls to the tile floor below his chair. His eyes do not move.

The phone rings. He does not answer it because doing so would mean dropping a saw or a tabby. There is a pause before the phone in the next cubicle rings. The woman there answers it. She steps into Charles Novotny’s small office with another saw. She chokes it, rips the cord, and it putters to life. She opens the choke and gives it some throttle and it roars. She throws it to him and he catches it. A pool of sweat is forming around his chair.

It is three in the afternoon. One of the saws sputters and when it comes through its next rotation the engine has run out of gas. He throws it again and the next time it comes through he sets it next to his chair without breaking the stride. By four pm two more saws run through their fuel and are sitting askew in a pile. He is now juggling two running saws and three kittens.

The lights in the office begin to go out. The first one darkens at 4:57. Precisely at 5 most of the lights darken. Charles Novotny is still juggling three cats and a saw.

It is nearly 7pm when the last saw goes quiet. He lays it in the pile of the others and gently catches the kittens. He tucks one into each pocket of his coat, shuts off the light, and locks the door as he leaves.

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The End of the Story

Things Left Behind originally ran in Camas Magazine. You can find the beginning right here.

They stood on the porch and waited for the van that the boy in the yellow shirt had said would come. She had no car and so they waited on the porch. The boy asked, Momma can I feed the horses if we’re leaving? The horses were still in the pen and had not been moved even though up the canyon orangeblack embers rolled down the steep grassy slope and caught fire anew. Not now she said, there’s time for that when we come back.

She liked the horses, too. A boy she knew as a child had a palomino that they sometimes rode. He would bring it to the pole fence behind the school so that she could climb onto the timbers and reach over its back with her leg. It wore no saddle and she sat behind the boy, arms wrapped tightly around his bony waist. He held them on the horse with his bare heels tucked tightly around the cream and butterscotch ribs of the beast and her voice made a funny thumping sound with every canter step. Her hair sometimes would blow into her face and stick in her eyes and mouth, but she was afraid to let go of the boy to brush it away.

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She wondered what happened to that boy and if he’d become a man or stayed a boy like the mottled, sad-eyed drinkers that stared too long when she went to town. The smoke was thicker now. It burned her eyes and she couldn’t see much past the green painted cattle guard just up the road. A warm wind blew across the porch and the low roar of the fire up the valley was woven in the breeze with the idling diesels of fire trucks and trembling aspen.

They waited forty minutes and the van still had not come. They played Eye Spy and Twenty Questions to pass the time so that the boy would not be scared. It seemed to the boy strange that he was told to hurry, but now they waited playing games. They were a child’s games and he was tired of them soon, but agreed to another to distract his mother so that she was not afraid. The wind came down the canyon like an open oven door. Wait here she said and moved the cast iron sprinkler to the other side of the roof.

Woodsmoke choked the canyon now and the sun, still high but late in the day, burned through and took a bloodred hue. Red sky at night, she said quietly so the boy would not hear. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. She found no joy in a bloodred nighttime sky and she had winced at her father yelling poetry at the cows through a barbed wire fenceline while her mother cut onions for a stew and didn’t notice the color of the evening at all. It had been her mother’s home and after she passed was just a house.

The bus came. It was short, with only room for twelve passengers and a bag or two apiece. Another boy in a yellow shirt sat behind the wheel, soft blond bristles poking through a smudge of black soot above his lip where perhaps he had wiped his running nose. Come along, he said, in a bureaucratic calm that fell to pieces when the screams began.

What’s that Momma, the boy asked, and she pushed him gently onto the bus. I don’t know, she said, and thought that she had never lied to him before and never would again. She helped him to a seat and through the screaming fought to keep her hands still on his shoulder. Wait here, she said to the boy behind the wheel. I’ll only be a minute. We need to go he said but she walked to the house with terse steps and didn’t look back at him or slow.

The horses that the boy liked to feed stayed fenced in a five acre parcel with only a few trees by the far edge back by the hill and young alder along the fence. One of those partitioned hobby spreads that pop up when the old die and the young come home again to settle their affairs. Embers from the fire rolled down the hill and touched off the tall grass. The fire spread in an arrowhead shape through the pasture and pushed the horses to the corner until they pranced to stay above the flames around their feet.

The chestnut color of the horse’s breast was not so different from the wood stock of the rifle in the basement. She felt its worn, smooth butt against her cheek and looked through the kitchen window and along the faded blue barrel with both eyes open, like her grandmother had shown her. You can see everything that way, the old woman had said, guiding the girl through the motions of shooting the skinny coyotes that slinked just beyond the March lamplight during calving. You lose sight when you close an eye. .

Two shots rang out and the writhing in the burning grass came to rest. A pause. A third and a fourth shot came to quell the screaming, the second shimmering chestnut mare knelt and fell. The woman stood for a moment in the woody pinesmoke and listened to the fire speak out from up the valley. Low clouds of brown smoke and glowing ash wafted through the open window. She laid the rifle on a leather ottoman next to the worn leather-bound album and walked slowly back to the waiting boy.

Special Edition Fiction: Things Left Behind

The day the fire started it was one of those hot August afternoons where the creosote sweats black from the railroad timbers and the raptors that hunt along the fencelines don’t flap their wings but every once in a while. Up the road a pair of swaybacked drafthorses browsed over brittle grass and dodged the sun beneath the few alders that lined their fence. Get your things, she told the boy, and he went to his room to fill a bag with his folded clothes and dinosaur books and the rock he found in the river with the stripes of purple in it. Just one bag, they’ll be here soon and we’ll have to go.

Upstairs, the boy looked around the room. The errant things of boyhood were scattered around or pasted to the walls. Grass-stained blue jeans poked from under a hastily made bed. Faded posters of the World Series hung askew above piles of brokeback National Geographics. A mason jar sat on the dresser, half-filled with gifts of square shaped coins and a small elephant carved of ivory. A .30-30 shell all turquoise with corrosion and a bone-handled folding knife.

The boy reached into the jar and removed the heavy, pale-colored knife. He opened the two blades and pressed them, first one, then the other, against the meaty part of his palm. They had been honed to thin strips of rusted steel from two lifetimes of sharpening but were dull now and didn’t break the skin. He placed it next to the jar.

He walked down the stairs, setting his feet carefully on the edges of certain steps. He knew which ones squeaked in the middle and tried to move silently even though now the woman waited for him downstairs and he wasn’t sneaking anywhere. The last three steps creaked no matter where the boy stepped on them so he leapt, with one hand on the wall and the other on the banister, and set himself softly on the floor. Be careful, she said, and hurry.

She took a thick, worn book from the shelf and held the soft leather backing between her hands. The family album, she heard her mother’s voice, is the only thing you go into a burning house for. Between its covers were old photos of grandparents she didn’t know and sunburned summers at the lake. Birth certificates and death certificates and a wedding photo of her parents that was mostly all yellow now. She didn’t open the book but tucked it under her arm and with her other hand held the boy’s. He looked like he would cry. He didn’t and when she squeezed his hand he squeezed back. Don’t cry, Momma, he said.

That morning before the fire started and they had to leave it had been cool and dew beaded on the yellow grass behind their timber house. She made pancakes for the boy because it was a Saturday and the school bus wouldn’t come to the end of the gravel driveway and open the door and take him away. The huckleberries were gone but she had a bag of them in the freezer and she put them in his pancakes the way he liked.

She had gone outside and wetted the garden with a hose so that the sun would not scorch the palegreen leaves of the butter lettuce heads. The boy had ridden his bicycle up and down the gravel road and fed carrots and potatoes to the horses that lived near them. He liked to feed them vegetables from the garden and she scolded him but not so harshly that he didn’t still sometimes sneak through the gate and pull up a turnip or a carrot. They were chestnut colored with tufts of blond around their feet and very tall, but they seemed to like the boy and were gentle when he fed them.

When the sky turned dark it was still warm but the wind was blowing and the boy went home and left his bike in the yard. She scolded him about leaving his bike out in the rain and he said, I’m sorry Momma and moved it to the shed where it would stay dry and not rust later. She said it’s ok but when lightning struck from the storm and the wisps of smoke crept down the valley and in through the kitchen window she said they would leave the bike in the shed and hope it didn’t burn. She turned the sprinkler from the garden to the roof of the house and the smoke from the fire came more thickly and it tickled the boy’s throat.

After the smoke wafted down the valley and through the open window she answered a knocking on the door and it was another boy who looked not a lot older than her own. He wore heavy leather boots, green trousers, and a dirty yellow shirt. He told her that they would have to leave their home and that he would do his best to help. It was her mother’s home she said and now it’s just a house. The boy in the yellow shirt said yes ma’am and tried very hard to look solemn but couldn’t help the way the corners of his mouth curled like in a smile. She wasn’t even sure she saw a smile as much as sensed that it was there, the movement of his lips was so small. It was the kind of smirk that young men get when there’s a story to survive. They know it comes with heartbreak but sorrow in the telling will make them more a man, they think. She couldn’t hate him for hoping for disaster and thanked him and he left.

Get your things, she told the boy. Just one bag, they’ll be here soon and we’ll have to go.

Things Left Behind originally ran in Camas Magazine. You can find the rest of the story in the Winter 2015 edition.

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