Fiction

Blue TV Show

by Geoff Schutt

The TV was a little old black-and-white, but it still worked fine. She wanted a color — not a color TV, but a single color for the black-and-white. She went to the hardware store looking for those colored party lights. The hardware store had them on clearance. People were switching to the newer light bulbs, the ones that save energy and last forever. Well, she thought, I don’t need forever. She tried to remember how many light bulbs it would take. Her preference was green, but there were only two green lights left, not enough — not even close. There were plenty of blue light bulbs. Blue would be okay. Blue would work. Yes, it would be fine. The more she thought about it, turning the black-and-white TV to blue was even better than green. She needed green light for the distance, for later. Green light was the ending. Green light was like the end of Gatsby’s pier.  Green light was all F. Scott Fitzgerald and filled with glamor and tragedy. This was the middle. This could be blue. There is still some glamor in blue, she thought.  Or tragedy.  Maybe one or the other, but probably not both, this being the middle.  She wasn’t sure and she didn’t really care.  Either one would be fine.

 

Eleanor removed all of the regular light bulbs, and replaced them. She put the regular light bulbs in the trash. She folded up the plastic garbage bag and began to crush the old lights, stepping on them. The shards were breaking through. One of the shards went right through her shoe. She cut herself, but it didn’t really hurt.  She didn’t even care if she was bleeding.

She cleaned up the mess. Her father wouldn’t be home for hours. She didn’t want forever, but she did want now.

She turned the station from something to nothing. To those tiny white dots, the white noise white dots, except now they were blue. She had a blue TV, and all she could think of was to watch the tiny dots — these magnificent tiny blue dots.

*

Eleanor showered herself in the blue light. She bathed in it. She turned up the volume on her blue TV. Tiny blue dots can make a lot of noise. You don’t think about the noise the dots make, really, but they do. She danced a while, in front of the TV, to the noisy dots, like they were a band playing her favorite song, right now. And when she was tired, from all of the excitement — and this was exciting to her — though ask her why and she wouldn’t be able to tell you — she sat down, legs crossed. She was breathing hard and deep.

She saw there was a world in those tiny blue dots. She saw everything — her world at least. She saw her father. She saw herself. It wasn’t so much fun seeing herself.

*

I think I forgot to rinse some of the old colors from my hair, she thinks. There’s too much lather. There’s not enough blue on me. Look at my arms. The blue is reflecting off how white I am, how pale I am. I have alabaster blue skin, isn’t that funny? (No, it’s not.)

*

If I can see the world, I can see anything, can’t I? It doesn’t have to be my own life. It can be a stranger’s life. I can make my own TV show. I’ll call it Blue TV Show, to go with my blue TV.

But at first it was her world.

I can see my mother. I’m not sure I want to see her. She looks so lost — see that? I like her looking lost, she thought. This is something to write a postcard about: Wish you were here, but I guess you are, aren’t you?

You’re not here anymore, can’t you see that? (screaming at the blue TV)

*

Eleanor knew what she was missing. Refreshments. Snacks. Popcorn. Chips. Or maybe just a drink. She made herself a vodka drink. There wasn’t any orange juice left, just grapefruit. Her lips puckered when she sipped her vodka drink. It was a strong drink, but she could handle her liquor. She always could.  From the age of whatever, when she was even younger than she was now, when nobody was looking because they were fucking drinking so much and it was easy to drink right along with them – even though she had to pretend she was not alone.  They drank theirs, and she drank hers.  And nobody was the wiser now, were they?  Nope.

*

I am watching you, she says to the tiny dots on the blue TV. What game shall we play next? I’m sick of my world. My world makes me want to vomit.

Okay. Okay.

She drank, and she drank some more. The blue light was making her dizzy. Her blue alabaster skin was goose bumped. She was cold.

She put her face very close to the screen, but was careful not to touch it. There was purity in this blue TV. You cannot buy purity. It happens or it’s part of you, but you cannot go to the store and buy purity when it’s gone.

I can see you, so won’t you come out and play? What are you afraid of — me? I’m harmless.

(I am lonely though, she thinks.)

(Eleanor hopes her father screams when he gets home. She has no more screaming left inside her own body, and she needs his screaming to make her feel whole again. She remembers her foot, cut from the broken glass from the light bulbs.  She still doesn’t feel any pain, and the dried blood, well, it’s blue, so it must not be real blood.  Real blood is not blue.  She must be faking it.  She made it all up.  It didn’t happen.)

*

Okay. So here’s how it goes. Are you with me? I put you and you over to the left. That would be stage right —right? And I put you in the middle. And you — I don’t have a place for you yet. What’s your name? What kind of experience do you have? Do you have a resume? I’m sorry, but you can go backstage for now. Off camera. Get yourself a soda pop. You just go to the side, where I can’t see you.

You, there in the middle — you leave as well.

I just want the other two of you. Have a conversation. Just start talking already, will you?

*

There is a man. There is a woman.

The man says, I can see the moon from here. Look — it’s so close we can touch it! The woman says, I don’t like the moon. I prefer the stars. The man says, Well, we all want to be stars don’t we? But the moon — now look at that. It’s really something tonight.

The woman says, It’s blue. It’s too bright, she says. I can’t see my stars, she says.

You’re a damned fool, the man says. You want to see something else when something grand and glorious is right in front of you. You want to see something that isn’t there.

Well don’t we all? the woman says.

*

Yes! Yes! Eleanor is saying.

Eleanor is saying, in a whisper — I want to see what isn’t there.

The vodka drink has made her all emotional. I want to see what I can’t see. What’s hiding, I mean.  Because it must be hiding.

She moves back from the TV, her head spinning.

Won’t you just tell me a story? she is thinking. You can lie if you want to. It doesn’t have to be true. Just tell me a story.  You can even scream the story if you want to – yes, you in the spotlight. I’m talking your direction. Don’t move from the spotlight.  I mean you, yes.

I want to listen to what I can’t hear, and I want to see what is invisible.  I want to see what’s really in the blue.  I really wish you were here.

(an excerpt from the novel, The Girl Behind The Glass)

 

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About Geoff Schutt:

 

“Blue TV Show” is an excerpt from Geoff Schutt’s first novel, The Girl Behind The Glass.  Schutt’s short fiction has been published widely since the 1990s, including Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly (Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review, The Heartlands Today, Modern Short Stories and The Laurel Review, among others.

In addition to his fiction, Schutt has also received artist grants for his performance art – in particular, for his interactive storytelling, which involves the audience in the finished piece.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, he has lived in recent years in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Asheville, North Carolina, and currently writes full time in the Washington D.C. area.

Geoff Schutt is represented by James McGinniss at McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.

His blog, which chronicles the process of writing of The Girl Behind The Glass, is located at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

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Fiction

How I Developed Theoretical Thinking

by Geoff Schutt

 

Air the texture of cotton is difficult to breathe.  I made it outside before the walls caved in and what I noticed first was my incredible inability to breathe.  The cotton balls, I mean.  I stumbled forward, lurching onto the grass, and then there were these godawful people, running toward me from all directions I swear, as if I were turning to dust instead of my house and everything I owned.  But it wasn’t my house anyway, I was only renting, and you have to figure that something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later.  You just can’t rent to college kids, not a fire trap like that house.  Kids are going to throw parties, that’s an understood.  They’ll smoke their cigarettes and let the ashes fall like rain wherever.  These college kids have a complete disregard for personal property, as well as personal safety.  You know how long cigarette ashes can smolder, for hours and hours.  I decided as I lay there on the grass, my body smoking like my precious belongings, I decided to tell the rental agency everything.  It’s those damned college kids again.  You go talk to them.  You go get their story because it’ll be a good one, I’m sure.  But don’t you forget about my deposit, all $800 of it, plus this month’s rent (it’s only the third and I should not have to pay for days I can’t use because my house doesn’t exist anymore).   I hate dark colors, and you know how dark burnt stuff looks.  Give me some pastels and a new place to live.  I won’t press charges.  But let’s get our responsibilities clear.

I shut my eyes and soon I was racing away in the back of some emergency vehicle.  I tried to lift my head but somebody rudely pushed me back.  I’m a country person, really.  I was born to live outdoors.  See what you get for putting me into a house?

That sorry episode was two years before Isis, the goddess. I’d grown tremendously in these two years.  I started wearing black and developed an aversion to pastels.  And I began to develop theoretical thinking.  I developed a theory, for example, that we’re all related in some way, that events which happen to us are also related.  I know this must sound like a familiar theory, but that just goes to prove its point.  That everything going on is meant to be and nothing or nobody has much control over anything. Sometimes my thoughts are so clear I think it would be in my best interest to compose advertising jingles.

Isis and I met in line at the IGA.  She had a bag of oranges and a gallon of distilled water.  I had a six pack of cheap beer and a bag of corn chips.  She had the straightest, blackest hair I had ever seen.  Her face was ghost-white and her lips were, I swear, just as red as red M & Ms, which is the reason we met, not because of the corn chips or oranges, but because I was staring at her face and at the candy rack and in that second you think you’re between sanity and something else, I picked up a package of M & Ms, tore it open and sprinkled a few of the chocolates into my palm, holding up my hand.  She told me her name and she invited me home with her.

“Not many people know this,” she said, “but I have powers.” And that’s when she told me she was a goddess, and I should treat her as such.

We sat on the porch that night and I popped the tabs on the cans of beers, lined them right up along the ledge, one after the next.  She opened her jug of distilled water and began splashing it on her face as she held her head back.  “I must have pure water to wash with,” she said.  She peeled one of her oranges and we swung back and forth on her porch swing.  We watched as the neighbors’ houses went quiet and dark.

Isis took care of the rent.  She let me walk the city while she worked, and when she returned home just before dark, we would enjoy a nice meal together on the porch, like a couple of newlyweds.  I was welcome to stay as many days as I wished, even months, she said, under the one condition she made very clear, that I was to eat my meals with her on the porch in the evening.  During the day, I was free to do as I pleased.  I asked her what she did during the day and she answered, “I sell insurance to people who don’t believe in gods.  I give them faith in a system.”  She smiled.  “Even a goddess needs a day job,” she said.

After a month, I decided to find myself a vocation of my own.  And it came to me like a revelation, my vocation: I would rewrite books and make them even better.  Theoretically speaking (of course), if people become famous for writing the books in the first place, imagine how famous I would become for rewriting them.  Of course, I would focus on best-sellers.  And I wanted my rewrites to be pure in their creation, so I decided to use old-fashioned pen and paper.  But I was missing a best-seller, so I took a road trip to the library.

The library was just five blocks away, which is about how far anywhere is in a small town.  But five blocks in a small town seems like six or seven miles, because distance is only relative of course.  A person from a big city would think this to be just a hop or a skip, but to a small-towner, you almost always have to drive the five blocks. Nevertheless, I preferred to walk.  In fact, I took frequent walks, from one edge of the town to the other.  I even fashioned myself a walking stick and used this to lean on when I grew tired.  The funny thing that happened when I grew tired and leaned on my walking stick was that cars would stop and I would be offered a ride, even if I looked peaceful as could be leaning on my stick.  These kinds of good-natured people drove me absolutely nuts.  They didn’t understand I needed to walk.  Fact was, I needed to walk up a good story to tell Isis when she arrived home for dinner because she always had a story to tell me.  In this small way, I could feel like her equal.  Crazy thinking, I know.  Not theoretical at all.

I made it to the library without too many stops to rest.  I found a book with a bright glow-in-the-dark cover.  I turned the book one way and then upside-down, because it was a glow-in-the-dark hologram.  A crowd of bloody headless people were racing toward me, which was frightening but realistic, I thought, with all of the crime we have in the world.  This one, I thought, will do just fine.  But when I got the book home and sat down to write, I realized I was doing this all wrong.  I had to innovate, because nobody likes a copycat unless he brings something new to the equation, however small.  So I went back out, to the local version of Wal-Mart, which was called Happy-Mart.  I had to look for a while, but I found myself a dusty tape recorder on one of the top shelves and blank cassette tapes too, which were just about as old-fashioned as pen and paper.

Here was my system, once I got started.  I opened up to a page, somewhere close to the middle, or near enough at least that I could put the book open on my lap without the pages flapping shut.  I read the passage to myself and then closed my eyes.  I tried to get inside the head of the character, like really right into his mind.  When I was ready, I turned on the tape recorder and began to recite.  And even as they streamed from my lips, I knew my words were beautiful, and that this was more beautiful than anything I ever before had attempted to accomplish.

I was making headway, but the work was exhausting.  I worked on my first best-seller for a couple of weeks.  I tried to condense it to fit on one 90-minute cassette tape.  I realized the short attention spans many people had, and besides, I was not trying to create art.  I am not a god.  I’m only human.  I wanted to be entertaining.  That would be reward enough, a real kick, you know, to be able to bring a smile to somebody’s face.

When I completed my book, I played the tape for Isis. She listened very politely, which I took to mean she was interested and entertained, for the full 90 minutes.  When the tape was at the end, I asked her for her opinion.

“It’s good,” she said, “but it’s so familiar.”

We went into the bedroom and Isis stared at me, a complete body stare – up and down, slowly.  “You are different now,” she said. And so I was.  I felt almost, well – superhuman.

The following day, I took my cassette tape to the local newspaper and asked to speak with the books editor, who happened to be a sports reporter as well.  I handed him my tape and asked him to please listen and consider it for a review in the books section, which was always in the Sunday edition.

“What do I do with this again?” he said, turning the tape over in his hands.

“Everybody loves a best-seller,” I said.

For three straight Sundays I went nervously to the drugstore to buy myself a newspaper and for three straight Sundays I was disappointed.  The books section had tiny capsule reviews of books I never heard of, but which, I assume, were more great books worthy to be rewritten someday.

On the Monday following the third Sunday, I returned to the newspaper and asked to see the reporter to find out what was going on with my best-seller.  The receptionist wouldn’t allow me to see him, or perhaps he was busy.  Point being, there was nothing more I could do about it.  My welcome in this town was drawing to a close, this much was fairly obvious.  You can use up towns the same way you can use of people.  There was Isis, of course, and after dinner, I tried talking with her.

“I’ve been thinking,” I said.

“Yes?” she said.

“My heart is heavy,” I said.  “Nothing seems to be working.”  I knew I was being vague, but I also remembered as I said the words that Isis was a goddess and therefore probably needed less to go on than mere mortals.

“Oh, nothing ever works out,” she said quietly.  “That’s the myth.  The fun is in the trying.  You keep trying to reach some level of perfection, realizing the entire time it’s useless.”

I just stared at her as she sucked on an orange.

“Let me tell you a secret,” she said.  “Do you want to know what my real name is?”

I shook my head, because I did not, but she told me anyway.

“Rhonda,” she said.

“Rhonda?” I said.

I had something to tell her, too, of course. It had been on my mind for some time.

“Two years ago,” I said, “my house burned down.”  I stopped and had to start again.  “It wasn’t exactly my house.  I was renting.  And I didn’t exactly have the entire house to myself.  I lived upstairs and these college students lived downstairs.  You know the kind, parties and girls every night.  They drove me crazy.  I didn’t want to hear their voices and their laughter and I certainly didn’t want to have to listen to their music, which you can imagine was quite horrible.”  I reached for the single can of beer still sitting on the ledge.

“This was before I started taking walks, before I could be clear-headed about things.  I had to sit by myself in my living room while the walls closed in around me.  I kept praying for morning, because they were quiet then, from dawn until noon, my only moments of rest.”

I went on:  “One night I made a deal with myself.  I told myself if those college kids were going to keep being so noisy, I was going to have to do something.  I know that doesn’t sound like making a deal with myself, but that was my thinking, my cloudy thinking.  I decided I’d cut a hole in the floor.  It’d be a little round hole, right above the stereo, and when they played their music I could pour something sticky down there and kill the damn thing.  Without music, they’d have to leave.  But I would drip the sticky stuff slowly, so they’d think it was a leak or something and not from me and the hole I cut in the floor.  If they got smart and moved the stereo – or used a different stereo, I’d make a new hole, and I would just keep on making holes until all of the stereos were dead.  Persistence drives a man like me and it kills a college student.  We have these different mentalities, see?

“My problem was, how to make the hole.  I couldn’t very well use a saw, or even a large carving knife.  It’d be hard work and if I messed up, they’d be on to me in a second.  College kids don’t listen to reason either, and they would be quick to act, I’m sure.  So for days, every morning while they slept, I took a miniature torch I made from a kebob skewer with a rag tied around the tip.  I lit the rag and pointed this at the floor and began to burn a hole, little bit by little bit.  When the torch went out, I’d stop.  I didn’t want to draw attention.  At night, it would be the same old thing.  I bought some earplugs, you know, but earplugs don’t drown out college students when they invite girls over and play their awful music.

“I reached my breaking point on a Friday night.  There was nothing more I could do.  I tried covering my head in pillows.  I even tried stomping my feet on the floor to get their attention so they’d notice I was having a fit, but I swear to you they were even louder just to spite me.  I decided right then I couldn’t wait another day to finish the hole.  I had to kill that stereo dead.  That stereo was like the devil.  I didn’t even care how large or obvious the hole would be.  I needed relief.  So I went to the closet and found my old baseball bat and I wrapped a couple of T-shirts around it and sprayed on some lighter fluid and struck a match.  The flames shot up faster than I expected it to, and I dropped the bat onto the floor.  I didn’t mean to drop it, of course, and I couldn’t move at first.  The flames were spreading everywhere.  I tried opening a window to let in some fresh air, but that just made it worse.  There was black smoke, and I could not breathe.

“There was soon banging on my door and lots of commotion, but I still wanted that stereo.  I had to see it destroyed.  But the air was soon too thick and I closed my eyes and made a dash for it.  I don’t remember getting down the stairs or outside, just the feeling of running and of being outside.  People were running at me from all directions.  I fell to my knees and I passed out.”

I waited for Isis to react.  But she did not react.  She actually sat waiting, I think, waiting as if there was more to the story.  Her eyes were bigger, suddenly, than I remembered them being, and in fact, her face, once the face of a goddess with those radiant red M & M lips, was now decidedly, well, average.

She said finally, “It was a nice story, but it’s been a long day and I’m tired.”  She stood.  “You really have changed, haven’t you?” she said.

“I have not changed,” I insisted.

“I wanted a simple man.  I didn’t ask for much.”

“I am a simple man.”

“Our life together has become complicated.”

“How?” I said.

“You wanted to believe in a goddess.  Now you believe I’m human.”

“You told me your real name,” I said.  It was, after all, her fault.

But she was right about one thing, because the law of theoretical thinking as I know it goes like this.  You never know how close you are to losing everything.  I stepped off the porch and began to walk.  I couldn’t help recalling, however, Isis in that first pure moment, in the checkout line, her gallon of distilled water and her bag of oranges.  But I did not wish to become a romantic, and I did not turn to look back.

 

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Biographical Note:

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel, which is represented by James McGinniss of James McGinniss Literary Associates, New York City.   More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

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Fiction

I Am Not Family Entertainment

by Geoff Schutt

(an excerpt from the novel, The Girl Behind The Glass)

 

Eleanor says: I am not family entertainment. I watched my mother leave. I watched my father act like everything was normal. I waited for something big to happen and nothing did. When I was little, my father told me fairytales. When I was little, my mother taught me how to be a good actor, how to pretend I didn’t feel what I really did, no matter what the situation. I miss pretending. I miss the fairytales.

Eleanor says: Today, earlier today, I took a walk, as far as I could go. I went way past anything that looked familiar. I am really surprised I’m back here to tell you this, because I should still be lost. I walked so far I thought I would end up in China or something like that — somewhere across the world, and nobody would speak the same language I spoke but we’d smile and we’d nod our heads and we wouldn’t be rude or anything like that. We would grow to understand each other without talking. We would learn to communicate without our voices. I was hoping I would walk this far, past the fairytales and past the pretending, because at some point along my walk, I stopped missing them. Just like that. It was kind of amazing, or a revelation. The fairytales and the pretending — I stopped missing everything old. And that’s maybe when I had the real revelation, that I was serious about this. I mean, I wanted everything new, everything I could not understand, everything I would never be able to fully understand and yet — well, I could still be part of something without understanding it fully, you know? I think that’s possible, at least. Don’t you?

Eleanor says: I walked until my feet were sore. I walked until I had blisters. I walked until I was so thirsty I thought I was going to fall over, and then, when they found me, anyone at all, they’d just shake their head and say, Well, I guess she was so thirsty she just fell over. Too bad, they’d say, because there’s this park right around the corner, with drinking fountains and swing sets and lots of grass and people just hanging out enjoying themselves and some of them even playing the guitar and singing songs and any one of these people would have been happy to help her, if only she didn’t have to fall over from thirst so soon. Pity.

Eleanor says: I think there comes a time when you realize that you can’t walk from one end of the world to the other. You can fly there, but that would just be cheating. Those people who walk around the world, those adventurer types or the people trying to make money for their causes and everything, they’re not the same either. The average person, as in me, well, I can’t walk far enough past what’s familiar, even if it’s not my particular, specific familiar, close as it might seem. I still speak the same language you know, is what I am saying I guess. But I am not family entertainment. I am not the lost girl somebody found who didn’t fall over from thirst but kept going, blisters on her feet and everything.

Eleanor says: But the thing is, that did not happen. I wasn’t found by the people who look for strangers like me. They want to spread their good karma, these people. They say, pass it on, we just want to pass it on, but they try so damn hard to pass it on, I think the good karma gets diluted along the way. Really — you can’t spend your days waiting for some lost and tired and thirsty girl to walk into your neighborhood. You can’t. That would be just wrong — waiting to be good, when you don’t have to wait to be good, I mean. You just might hit the jackpot, you good karma hunters. You just might find that she actually wants to tell you all about her family. But you would be the first person to say, this girl is not family entertainment. You would be the first person to say, is there something I can do? Yes. You would be the first person to say, is there anything you need, right now, because even though it’s out of my way and I’m on this tight schedule, you know, I want to help you. I want to be here for you. Yes, you would say this in your own words of course. That’s good karma. Good karma happens when it is not convenient, and you can quote me on this. Go ahead — quote me.

Eleanor says: Well, I walked back. I sat on the front steps. I waited for my father to come home from work. I looked a mess, I’m sure of it. But because I was sitting on our own front steps, I suppose it all seemed so normal. My father didn’t see what a mess I was because he was used to seeing me one way, and that’s the way he always saw me. The funny thing was, I smiled back. I smiled, but I said to him, I am not family entertainment, and he stood there for a second or two — you know, thinking about what just I said, this sort of nonsense, really — along with whatever other thoughts he had going around in his head — and then he finally ended up not saying a word, but he held out his hand.  I started crying. I just could not stop crying. I just could not stop myself from holding up my hand, reaching for him, wanting to feel his fingers, wanting to be right where I was, which was home.

 

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Biographical Note:

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel, which is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.   More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

Art by Mel Blossom

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Fiction

The Princess of Pittsburgh: a fairy tale of sorts

by Geoff Schutt

 

1.

The Princess of Pittsburgh said the snowflakes reminded her of sparks from a campfire. We were in the kitchen, sitting on folding chairs in front of a folding table, looking out the window, trying to see the full moon, but there were too many clouds, at least when we started watching. What we expected and what actually happened are two different things, and it’s at times like this that you learn something about yourself, or are completely astounded by something, or perhaps, at the very least, are caught by surprise. It had been her birthday, and now this, an early March winter storm – a surprise in itself. And this as well: I wrote her a fairy tale of sorts. She always made a point of telling me, almost like a dare, that I would never be able to write her something that could make her cry, and I responded, I don’t want false tears anyway.  And honestly, this was not a magician’s attempt at tears, and I am not even sure why I speak of it now, except that fairy tales either have that implausible happy ending, or a twist that places you on your own shaky moral ground, admit it or not.  I gave her the pages, which were on the table, along with the wine, and I said, “This is you.  This is us.”  I said, “What I mean is – this is you, as a character, as the Princess of Pittsburgh.”

We looked out the window as the clouds gently released the snowflakes, which fell one by one, like soldiers marching in line, and then, closer to the house, closer to the window, swirled up, caught in the soft breeze and illuminated by a motion-detecting security light installed after crackheads broke into our basement and stole all the copper pipe they could tear from the ceiling and walls. We were out of town when that happened, but coming home to a broken window and knowing that people had been inside our house was at the least, unnerving, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel violated, as many people say after a break-in – perhaps because we were pretty sure the crackheads didn’t go upstairs.  All of the houses on the block had been hit.  We were nobody special.

2.

Little known among the general public outside of the boundaries that existed on maps, Pittsburgh had once been a sovereign nation, stuck right in the middle of the United States and surrounded by the original colonies. It was a peaceful nation, and very quiet, which is probably why it didn’t get much notice from those people who write the history books, either.  In fact, most of the world, and indeed the rest of the United States, looked upon this tiny nation as a city, and one of their own, and therefore, a city such as other cities that existed throughout the land.  Indeed, at one point in time, when the population was still living there, Pittsburgh was in the top 10 of U.S. cities (yes, it was actually counted as a U.S. city, even with its sovereign status).  It was its own melting pot of immigrants, who were willing to work in the coal mines and for the steel mills and at any dirty job they could get.  There was this sense in those days that within the boundaries of the United States of America (no matter what you decided to call Pittsburgh, city or nation), the streets were paved with gold, and anybody could rise up with nothing in his pockets and become rich. It was about the work, first and foremost – that same quality that made Pittsburgh such a quiet nation, because its citizens went about their lives wishing big, but working even harder.

This is what Horatio Alger would have you believe: “Pluck and luck.” Andy Warhol proved it true, with a lot of pluck, and at least a little bit of luck, coming from this place called Pittsburgh, but then leaving it all behind.  Andy Warhol wanted to be part of the United States, not the nation of Pittsburgh. And I wanted to write words that would change the course of two lives. Even fairy tale nations have agendas that can clash with reality.  I guess that’s what I’m saying.

3.

The security light came on at regular intervals, whether there was motion or not. A few of the snowflakes sought refuge on the window. It was cold enough that the individual flakes froze where they landed, or rather, where the breeze tossed them. Others just fluttered about, with perhaps an inch or so worth of space between them. I don’t know if every snowflake is different, or unique like people say, but the intervals of space that separated them was consistent. There was a kind of symmetry to it. The snowflakes that landed pressed against the window were like refugees, trying to get away from somewhere, and to somewhere. As long as they held to the window, they were absolutely breathtaking. But I knew eventually they would melt and dissolve as though they were never there at all.

I don’t know what the goal of a snowflake is, but if it’s to land on the ground and become part of something larger than itself, well then, these few on the window were out of that league. But perhaps they just wanted to survive, and on their own, and not to become bigger than themselves in combination with others, and instead to survive as testaments of originality.  The snowflakes that hung on the window were doing so for dear life, whether or not they knew it.

We sat and watched them. These were brilliant white sparks, as the Princess of Pittsburgh had said – more like wood burned and flaked white, the flames from the fire pushing these specks back into the air, and not the breeze at all.

*
The wine made us warm, and it was indeed warm, inside, where we were, sitting on our folding chairs in the kitchen. The Princess of Pittsburgh was telling me all about the moon we still couldn’t see in the clouds, and I listened to her words with a kind of wonder.

And she was reading the fairy tale: “It always snowed like this in Pittsburgh, but we liked the snow and wished it snowed even more. We wanted the ground to be covered with snow. We wanted the streets to be piled six or eight feet under with snow, so that every home might be protected by millions and millions of snowflakes.”

She sipped her wine and continued. “One night we lost the moon completely and it never did return, but the snow was all that we were interested in anyway, and we wanted more, as much as the skies could give us. There was no moon, and after some time, there was no sun either. It  was dark all the time, except that people had electricity, and bright lights of their own, and we could make our own sunlight. Or you could say we were making our own moonlight. The hour on the clock defined our light.”

Her voice filled me drunk, far beyond the wine.

“This is a secret,” she said. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I sometimes went outside in disguise.  I wore rags of clothes so nobody would recognize me. But none of the other children would play with me, because children can see through rags.  Children know.  They always know. I was a princess. If we played together and I got hurt, it would be on their shoulders. They told their parents, so their parents kept the children indoors, even after we lost the moon and the sun and could make day or night any time we liked.  People stopped watching clocks entirely. But one time it snowed harder and longer than before. That was when the parents let go of their little ones, and doors opened, and out into the snow came the children to play, and I was so happy to see people my own age. But very quickly, they disappeared – all of the children. The snow was too tall. It consumed them. It was a dozen feet deep by then. It was still snowing. And at that instant, my raggedy clothes began to work.  Snow blindness, I guess you could say. I was the same age as the children were. Not only the same age, but also I looked like them, or maybe they looked like me. In the beginning, when the storm started, the children had gone into the streets and made their own paths, as if they were in the middle of a dense forest and had to claw our way through the growth. The problem was, the new snowflakes covered their tracks, and the paths they were making, there was no way to find them, so what began as something beautiful turned into something quite horrible. They were lost. And then I was just as lost as the other children, even though I was a princess.  I had no idea where my own castle was.”

4.

When she read aloud like this, it seemed like nothing I had written, but something of hers, something from deep inside of her. I’m not sure how this transference took place, but it had.  My fairy tale about the Princess of Pittsburgh had her leaving her kingdom, because she didn’t want to be locked up anymore, or be so unlike everyone else, or have the responsibility of watching over an entire city, which was, of course, the sovereign nation of Pittsburgh.

Of course, there’s always a scary part in any fairy tale.

The scary part in this story was a mixture of truth and fiction. My fiction – her truth. It was from a long time ago, and it wasn’t even from the fairy tale, but something instead remembered from when she was a little girl herself and a day she walked away from her house and got lost, and after a while felt the world closing in on her, so she went up to stranger’s homes and rang the doorbells, hoping that she had forgotten what her own house looked like, and one of her parents would answer. Anything is possible when you’re still a kid. You might think you know the color of your house, and your neighbor’s house, and what your street looks like, but suddenly, that can become confused, as if life is playing a horrible trick on you.

At each house, when someone would answer the door, she would look up and not recognize the face, but she still would ask the question: “Is my mommy home?” Or, “Is my daddy home?”

She was so very good at hiding her growing fear that the people who opened their doors simply shook their heads. It was as if it were a joke, somehow, this little girl ringing the doorbell, her eyes so wonderfully round and wide and not blinking. She went from one house to the next, and from one street to another. She might have been going in a circle, or walking farther away from home, or coming back closer – she had no idea. She just knew she had to keep walking, because she didn’t want to be scared on the outside, like she was on the inside.

Eventually, one of the houses she stopped at belonged to people who knew her parents. They made a phone call, and it was as though she was never lost in the first place, but an explorer.

5.

In the fairy tale, the snow had come down so suddenly – there was panic – but only at first.  Some bright soul had come upon a clever solution.

“The parents realized that they could find their children. The answer was easy. They just had to make the lights outside their houses brighter, bright enough to melt the snow, and that’s exactly what they did. First it was one house, and then like dominoes, each of the houses in succession. The snow began to melt, from twenty feet tall to ten feet tall to six feet tall, to five feet, to four feet, and eventually, the melted snow evaporated completely. Every child was located and reunited with his or her parents. And then something else, too. The lights from the houses burned holes in the sky. Small holes at first, but they multiplied, and then the sun and the moon reappeared. It was a day the people would talk about for years to come, adding bits of story here and there, but always with the same ending – that no child was lost. It was more than just a small miracle.”

I listened as she read my words: “But once a princess, always a princess, and the Princess of Pittsburgh indeed disappeared, even after the moon and sun returned. Because there wasn’t a need for her anymore. The children had been lost and then found. In finding the children, the parents also rediscovered what was with them all along, that the sun and moon had never left them. She wasn’t missed, the Princess of Pittsburgh. In times of trouble, she would’ve been missed, but there was no trouble left. Pittsburgh was not separated from other cities any longer. It was indeed just one city among other cities, and the sovereign nation of Pittsburgh disappeared from all of the maps.  The people began to leave and become part of other cities. Some of the people who lived in other cities moved to Pittsburgh. Soon enough, people forgot there had been any separation of state and nation. Once that happened, the Princess of Pittsburgh, she ceased to exist. Except, she still did exist, and she was trying to find her way back to her castle and it wasn’t there anymore. I wonder what a princess does without a castle?  Perhaps it was the belief of the people in their sovereign nation that also created the castle, and their own monarchy.  So she wandered about, looking for what she had lost, for the rest of her days.”

Not all fairy tales end on a happy note.  This was one of those.  At least, it was unhappy for the princess.  But it nagged at me.  The Princess of Pittsburgh deserved better.

I wondered the same thing. I thought, the Princess of Pittsburgh wanders around long enough until – until what? The monarchy itself was finished: over and done with.  In my wondering, as I was writing the fairy tale, I came up with something slightly magical, much as the people had discovered when they melted all of the snow. And I wrote down my new ending, a happier ending.  I wrote this even as we sat in our chairs, with the snow falling outside.  I wrote it slowly – printed it, actually.  I wanted to be legible.

“For parents who could not have children of their own, the girl, the former Princess of Pittsburgh, she was a blessing to them. She went from family to family until she was able to settle on just one. And she grew up to be a beautiful woman, with men often referring to her as a princess, but this was because of her beauty and not her birthright. Even her new father, on her wedding day, whispered into her ear, ‘You are the measure of all that your mother and I could have ever imagined.  You will always be our princess.’”

6.

Some quiet, a little more wine, the snowflakes, and then moonlight, as the clouds separated and gave us quite the show. It was an extraordinary menu. But within this was a moment of starkness, just one question said with blunt force — and enough that I had to close my ears after hearing it, just to fully comprehend what she was saying. Imagine that — closing your ears, just so you can listen.

It was a statement, and one that came from nowhere.  But it was stated just the same. “I promise I won’t ever leave you,” she said,  leaning against me, and it was at that moment the moon came into its most powerful view. It pretty much drowned out the security light and its glow came right through the window and covered our faces, and I swear that I could see a face on that moon, and a face with a single teardrop. There might have been Swiss cheese up there too, I don’t know. I saw the tear, though. I wondered why something so full and bright and powerful would be crying, even if only one tear.  For what? I wondered, for what? She was still winning, because it was the moon.  It wasn’t her own moist eyes, I expected her to say.  Did she even have moist eyes, I could not see, except she blinked and turned her face, toward the window, away from the pages.

And maybe it was all me.  I’m sure part of it was.  What I mean is – I wasn’t sure where her words came from exactly, nor could I control where my next words came from, which I did know exactly.

I said to her, she who was my Princess of Pittsburgh: “I think you already have left me.”

I could not begin to explain the intricacies of this. It just wasn’t the time.  We were still in the middle of my fairy tale.  Or the late winter storm.  Or her birthday.  The simple celebration, and a gift I could afford, but also, a gift I worked hard at.

But it was a sad truth, and no fault intended by my words.  But she had been leaving me in small ways, in small manners of ways, for a number of years by then.  This was long past drifting apart. I tried to calm myself, thinking, such is the way with princess, and one must know this going in. The pedestal you place her on is always too high. The expectations are too many, even if you think the pedestal is at ground level, that you can see her eye to eye, face to face.

Okay, I had to say it, and I did say it: “You never once have fought for me.”  And she said, “What?”  And I said, “You talk about marriage being hard work and all of those good words, but how come I am the only one fighting here?  I fight for you.  I have fought for you.  I am always fighting for you, and you can’t see it.”

I said:  “But you are a princess.  And now, I understand everything.  I wrote it all down, and now I understand.  You don’t fight because you don’t know how.  Princesses don’t fight.  It’s a fact.  In fairy tales, or in real life. They leave that to others.”

*
This – this was true.  That we really were content then, when we lived in Pittsburgh. And yet, you can’t live on contentment forever, and you can’t live like robots going through your days and nights. You can’t settle for being content, because it’s no different than running in place. It’s no different, let’s say, then someone seeing right through you, as though you did not exist, or never existed in the first place the way you thought you had.  As though you are invisible.  And perhaps in writing about a princess who wanted to be invisible just to be able to fit into a family of her own, I was in fact writing about myself, except in the wanting to be visible – the wanting to be seen and heard and felt.

*
Understand something.  The way I did this night.  My understanding. That those crackheads who stole the copper pipe from our basement had done us a favor, though I wasn’t really able to appreciate this until much later. You have to look at it like this. The crackheads might have broken into our home and stole from us, but they could not introduce true fear into our hearts. They did not violate the sanctity of us. The favor they did us was all about being able to put things into perspective – even the perspective of broken hearts.

Breaking into a home, well, that’s a happening of the moment. It passes. And that if you believe in the Princess of Pittsburgh, for example, you also need to believe in how much in love we were that night, a respite from the stagnant contentment, but still, and in retrospect, a happening of the moment, and that’s all.  A memory of what used to be us, in the early days, long before this night – when a fairy tale and some wine and some snow outside could make it seem like what we felt in our hearts was going to last forever. People make marriages on stuff like this, and people live out their entire lives on even less.  The tears on her face when she finally turned again to look me square in the eyes, they were real tears, yes, but they fit the fairy tale and that’s different from the life we had built together.  If I ever loved her more than right then, however, I cannot say.

 

*****************************************************************************

Biographical Note:

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at WorkThe Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel, which is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.  More about Geoff Schutt, as well as about his debut novel featuring the character of Eleanor, is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

DSC_0049

photo by Dan Griffin

Standard
Poetry

Present Tense

by Geoff Schutt

 

It wasn’t that long ago
that we would have pounded our fists
on the ground
and just shouted (not screamed),
trying to wake up something.

We would have pounded our fists
just to let us see (for ourselves),
just to let us open our eyes,
even,
to just
listen to the shouting (not screaming),
the sound of our own voices
trying to wake up
something we
could not understand why —
it was not happening.

(How difficult
it is
to listen.)

It wasn’t so long ago
on New Year’s Eve
the only thing that mattered
was a kiss from you
on my lips
to welcome the hope
of something new,
beyond our expectations.

We marked the New Year
(each year)
on the calendar,
even though it was
already marked.
We wanted exclamation!

But this year
we waited too many days
for our new calendar.
The one for the New Year.

The old calendar just wouldn’t do
because it was leading up
to an end,
and not a beginning.
And we always had a new calendar
for the New Year,
that we placed over
the old dates,
like
saying Goodbye & Hello
at the same moment.

I suppose that’s how time works:
Goodbyes & Hellos
pass in the night,
and one says to the other:
“No, you first, really.”

Time can be really polite
or time can just forget about it,
if you know what I’m saying.

This year’s calendar
came half-off (smart shoppers, we are,
we consoled ourselves)
during the after-Christmas sale
at Barnes & Noble.

I remember the calendar
I wanted,
and the one you chose instead:
the calendar of faraway places,
because here isn’t
far enough distant
to capture all of our dreams
you said
without
opening your mouth.

I wanted the calendar
with the recycled photos
of the horses.
Each month another pretty horse:
a gelding
a colt
a filly
a mare.
I wanted the recycled photos
because beauty isn’t supposed to change.

Just as I wanted your kiss on New Year’s Eve
and you weren’t —
how should
I say this —
listening.

*
My dreams are like those faraway places
in the calendar you liked
at the after-Christmas sale,
this is true.
Places we might never visit
but places
we
can
keep
as
close
as
the
refrigerator door,
marking down
every doctor’s appointment
and wedding
and birthday, always
looking ahead.

Can you hear any of this?

It wasn’t so long ago
that we would have pounded
our fists
on the ground
against the wall
even
perhaps
against ourselves
just to feel something,
as in,
the time when
calendars
never lose dates
in fact never go out of date,
and certainly are never last year’s dates,
and best of all
are never, ever in need
of replacing.

Why else would Barnes & Noble
have calendars still on sale
(even at bargain prices)
with months already lived?
Like November.
Like December.

Dates on these calendars —
dates like New Year’s Eve, I mean,
are
as right now
two weeks into January
as they were three weeks ago.

I mean, are as right now
as a kiss
on the lips
on New Year’s Eve
and
right now
is
you
next to me.

I know you have to be listening, so

Please keep
pounding
your fists
even as you
grow tired.
Please
do this for me:

Let me know that
the kiss
hasn’t happened yet,
that I’m not too late.
That this is still,
all of it —
present tense.

 

*****************************************************************************

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at WorkThe Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel.  He is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.  For more of Geoff Schutt’s work, see his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

Standard
Fiction

On the phone and breathing, just breathing

by Geoff Schutt

 

Eleanor makes a phone call to nobody she knows. This is a number that somehow works. She makes it up from a combination of lucky numbers on the back of today’s fortune cookie. The fortune reads Seek Peace. The person Eleanor doesn’t know answers after three rings. “Hello?” Eleanor is quiet. She is more interested in the numbers, and that collected they are able to make contact with somebody – anybody, actually. “Hello?” These numbers really must be lucky, she thinks. I can talk to anybody in the world. I can say anything to anybody who answers.

Hello?”

Eleanor always has words, but sometimes she wants to keep the words to herself, especially the good words, like saving them for a rainy day. She doesn’t want to use up the good words on just anybody she found in the numbers on the back of the fortune from inside a cookie.

I can talk to anybody in the world! 

It’s a revelation.

I can say anything to anybody who answers! 

This makes saving the good words even more important. Essential, in fact, that she doesn’t speak.

Hello?”

It is perhaps amazing that the person she has called is still on the line. Anybody else would have hung up. Anybody else would have said more than just “Hello?” As in, who is this, who are you, why are you calling me, please don’t call me again, I know who you are, I have your number and I’m going to give it to the police and now you’re in big trouble. As in, now I’ve got you, you crank caller, you beast, you child molester, you criminal. As in, you’ve been calling me day and night, using different phones to be sure, but I know it’s you, the same person. I know who you are. I know. And I’m going to get you.

(Or, perhaps, I need you?)

Hello?”

Eleanor thinks about using enough of her good saved-up words to make a sentence. Just one sentence, that’s all. Eleanor thinks about saying something, anything really, not even with the good words but with insignificant words, words that are like passersby, words that are less than small talk words.

Eleanor thinks, I’m on the phone and breathing, just breathing. She can hear the other person breathing too. Breathing means you don’t need to talk. Breathing is really the same thing as listening. Save the good words until tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, or next month, or next year. Save the lucky numbers in case you want (in case you need) to breathe again. And then listen.

 

***************************************************************************** 

 

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.   More about Geoff Schutt (and the character named Eleanor) is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

Art by Ernest Williamson

 

Standard
Fiction

One Of The Contestants Was Screaming

by Geoff Schutt

 

For his eighteenth birthday, Jay’s parents gave him a pair of binoculars.  Jay could not tell his parents the real reason he’d wanted the binoculars so bad, that he needed binoculars so he could watch Nina Pickett dance in the morning before her window.  There wasn’t anything perverted about this.  Nina knew Jay was watching and she actually encouraged him.  But he had to see her in close up, so the binoculars were very necessary.

Jay’s routine, even on days when he had to go to work at the Mr. Sirloin Restaurant:  five a.m., wake up, gargle with Listerine, brush his teeth.  The sun rose closer to six during the summer but the birds began singing at five-fifteen.  While he waited for dawn, he drank coffee he brewed in a personal-sized coffee maker in his bedroom.  Then he drove to Nina’s street, parked across from her house, and waited.  She must have been waiting for him, too, because she always seemed to know exactly when he arrived.

Today he had the binoculars and he also had his first mail copy of Variety (it cost him a fortune to subscribe).  He sat on the hood of his Oldsmobile, leaned back against the windshield and held up the copy of Variety so he was sure Nina could see it.  The binoculars rested on his chest.

Nina’s father worked for the post office.  He already left for work.  Nina’s parents were divorced.  Her mother lived somewhere else.  Nina didn’t talk about her mother.  Her mother was like a no-no subject.

Jay tried bringing Nina directly into his thoughts.  He didn’t feel quite so inhibited thinking the things he might not be able to say to her given the opportunity.  He could be brave, and daring, and explicit.

Nina, he thought, I’m watching you, Nina.

Sometimes he imagined she even answered him, in a soft, sexy whisper.

Nina, he thought, did you think something just then?

 

Jay talked to Nina’s neighbors.  For one thing, he didn’t want them getting suspicious about him parking his car so early in the morning like he was camping out in front of the Pickett house.  Which was exactly what he was doing, of course.  He assured the neighbors he wasn’t in the habit of loitering, but he and Nina were in love and wasn’t young love such a terrific thing?  He told the neighbors that in no way did he wish to cause a disturbance.  Which was why he was being so open about it.  They smiled and told him it was okay.  They thought it was cute, Jay looking up at Nina like Romeo to Juliet.

Jay’s routine:  eight a.m., pack up the thermos of coffee he brought with him (he could never get enough coffee), climb off the hood of the Oldsmobile and either drive to work at the Mr. Sirloin or drive home if he had the day off to eat breakfast with his parents.

 

Nina Pickett was a star.  Already.  She was the lead in Mame and Annie Get Your Gun.  They were only high school productions but she still managed to get herself noticed, even though this was Toledo and not the most exciting place in the world.

They didn’t go to the same high school.  They met because Nina was for two weeks a waitress at the Mr. Sirloin.  She quit when the hours interfered with her rehearsal schedule.

School was out, graduation all taken care of, and the summer, their last summer of freedom upon them, and Jay wasn’t going to allow his best chance for Nina’s affections to slip by.  He was going to win her once and for all.  He wanted to marry her, though she knew nothing of this.

Jay went to Nina’s high school and read old issues of her high school newspaper.  He took copious notes.  For example, during Nina’s freshman year, she had six mentions in the paper.  Sophomore year, she had fourteen mentions and one longer feature story.  What a celebrity she was!  Everybody’s most-likely-to-do-anything-she-set-her-mind-to. And everyone’s most-likely-to-achieve-her-dreams-and-become-rich-and-famous.  When she was a junior, there were three features stories and twenty-four assorted mentions.  Senior year she had forty-one mentions and four features.  It was like the school newspaper was in fact the Nina Pickett Gazette.

Jay had some fireworks for the Fourth of July.  He asked Nina’s neighbors for permission to shoot off a couple of bottle rockets in the street.  He assured them he had calculated the velocity and arc of a bottle rocket shot off in an enclosed space (bounded by the curb on either side).  He insisted that given certain wind conditions he could shoot the rocket straight up and straight down it would come.  On the dime.

He watched Nina’s window until she was fixing her hair.  He lined the bottle rockets (there were actually four of them) three feet apart in the middle of the street.  He waited for Nina to turn her head.  He expected her to lean on the window sill for a better look but if she knew what he was about to do she didn’t show it.

The first rocket flew right over Nina’s house.  The second rocket followed the path of the first, but the third hobbled a hundred feet into the air, then came down.  Almost to the dime.  The fourth bottle rocket hit Nina’s roof, then bounced back into the street.

The neighbors were standing in their front doors, watching.  They wore slippers and robes and held cups of coffee in their hands.  When the first rocket shot up, they put down their coffee and clapped their hands.

Mrs. Rubin, who lived directly across from the Picketts, invited Jay inside for coffeecake and orange juice.

 

During the twelve to one rush at the Mr. Sirloin, Jay worked the front line.  He was a cook.  He served up sandwiches and salads.  He prepared each plate as a piece of art.  He arranged the garnish into funny animal shapes.  He was best with the giraffe.  He formed the romaine lettuce and parsley into a body and long neck, put a strawberry on top for the head, used a paring knife to make tiny eyes into the fruit.  He pushed the plate onto the pass shelf and made small talk with the waitresses.  Only found in the wild, he said.

He carved his name in a chunk of melon.  Personally prepared by #10.  The assistant manager came into the kitchen a few minutes later holding the slice of melon with his bare hands.  He demanded to know who #10 was.

 

Based on his research into high school newspaper mentions of Nina, Jay drafted a list of girls who knew Nina Pickett.  Mostly, these were girls who were in the same productions as she was.  He took out a phone book and matched up the last names. (He disregarded girls with the common last names, like “Smith” or “Jones,” since he didn’t want to have to call up thirty households to get the right girl.)

Nina had received a full scholarship from the Ohio University Theatre Department. Jay telephoned the girls and said he was working on the Ohio University summer newspaper. He would like to ask several questions about Nina, their new prized student.  He said Nina had given him their names as friends who might have something important to say.

 

He could not find the doorbell to the first girl’s place.  She had invited him over.  What she had to say, she said, could not be spoken over the phone.  So Jay banged on the front door for some time.  He heard noises inside but nobody came to answer the door.  He walked around to the side of the house and started knocking on the windows.  After one complete circle of the house, he tried the front door again.  This time, the girl – who was the only person home – answered.  She had straight black hair.  Her face was pink, like a baby’s skin.  She wore violet lipstick and had rather large fake curly eyelashes.  It was almost as if, Jay thought, as if she had made herself up for one of the plays she was in with Nina.  That would be the kick, wouldn’t it!

They sat in front of a large screen TV in the basement.  Jay had out his yellow legal pad.  His pen was in the ready position.

“Tell me about Nina,” he said.  “What you find striking about her.  Also, what you think most people might not know about her.  Tell me about the hidden Nina.”

The girl didn’t answer.  She used the remote to turn on the television.  There was The Price is Right.  Bob Barker’s head was huge on the large screen TV.

“Take my hands,” the girl said finally, and Jay held her hands.  “You really want me to tell you something about Nina Pickett?”  Jay nodded his head.  “Do you want the truth, or do you want something that will sound nice in the newspaper?”

Jay said the truth, of course.

“The truth,” the girl sighed.  She kept glancing at the TV.  One of the contestants was jumping up and down, was screaming, her arms clapping wildly in the air.  The next thing, the contestant was up hugging Bob Barker, who seemed rather amused by the attention.

“The truth, please,” Jay said.

“The truth is, everybody is going to know Nina Pickett’s name someday.”

“But what about the real Nina,” Jay said.  “I don’t mean the professional Nina.  As a person, what is she like?  The personal Nina Pickett, I mean.”

The girl smiled and leaned over, kissing Jay on the cheek.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“You’re cute,” she said.  “You reporters are always so cute.”

 

Mrs. Rubin wore a robe made of white terry cloth with tiny round cigarette burn holes along the right sleeve.  The reason for the holes, she explained, was a habit from her days as a child, was the way in which she clutched herself while sleeping, especially during nightmares, her left hand tight around her right arm.  She would awaken just as soon as she felt the cigarette burning through.  At least there weren’t any fires this way.  God knows what would happen if she didn’t wear the robe.  She was laughing.

Jay told Mrs. Rubin he planned a block party for the neighborhood.  Well, for Mrs. Rubin’s street in particular, he said.  For Nina Pickett’s street.  He had worked up invitations and everything.  All the neighbors would have to do was show up, really.  Show up with a covered dish is all.  Jay handed Mrs. Rubin an extra invitation for the Picketts.

“It’ll be a potluck,” he said.  “We’ll have tables set up in the street.  If each house provides on table and four chairs, we’ll be just fine.”

Mrs. Rubin poured him a mug of hot tea.

“You are so sweet to do this for us,” she said.  “You certainly have our street in your blood.”  She put her fingers beneath his chin and lifted up slightly, had her face barely half an inch from his.

“This is from a movie,” she said.  “If the man looked into someone’s eyes, he could tell if there was reincarnation involved.  The face of the deceased would be etched into the pupils.  For instance, you aren’t the second coming of Bobby McCabe, are you?  Bobby used to live on this street but he drowned at the quarry when most of us were young enough to have kids of our own at home.  We still talk about Bobby.”  Her expression grew dark.  “Hmmm,” she said, peering deep into Jay’s eyes.

Jay jerked back.  “What’s wrong?” he screamed. “What do you see?”

Mrs. Rubin took a sip of tea.  “So I guess you’re not Bobby.”

Jay settled down.  They drank more tea.  They were on their third mugs.

“Some pretty strange things are happening to me,” Jay said freely, his body warm from the tea.

“How many memories do you want to keep?” Mrs. Rubin said.

“I don’t understand.”

“If responsibility gives your life meaning, no one’s holding you back.”

“You mean Nina, don’t you?” he said.

“You’re young,” Mrs. Rubin said.  She smiled.

“Yes, I am.”

“Would it make you feel better to be on the couch?” she asked.

She arranged the pillows on the daybed in the living room and made it comfortable for Jay to stretch out, although his legs were too long and hung over the sides, bent at the knees.

“Would you like to be hypnotized?” Mrs. Rubin said.

Jay tried to imagine Mrs. Rubin’s voice as the voice of God.

She was stroking his arm between the wrist and his elbow.  “We’re going back,” she said, “way back – to your childhood.  Past your childhood, past your birth.  We’re traveling back into time itself.”

Jay’s eyes were open.  He was suddenly sitting up.

“What do you feel?” Mrs. Rubin said.  “What is frightening you so?”

But Jay kept quiet.  How could he tell Mrs. Rubin he was afraid of losing Nina?

He had practiced his big speech to Nina:

Firstly, I’m eighteen years old and I’m ready to be in love with you (as if she didn’t already know).  Secondly, I love children if you do. Thirdly, growing old with you would be like never growing old, would be like heaven on earth.  No.  Thirdly revised, on our fiftieth wedding anniversary, we’ll go somewhere like Antarctica, because our love will keep us warm.  It’ll be all we’ll need.

Then, on his knees, out with the ring.

I love you Nina.  My heart aches for you.  You are a shining star in the sky.  Your eyes are bright emeralds.  Your skin is so soft, like silk.  Your kisses are like cotton candy and your smile is radiant like the sun.

Mrs. Rubin said, “It works better on TV,” as she helped him from the daybed.

 

That night, Jay had a nightmare.  His voice was not his own.  He was screaming.  He couldn’t stop his screaming.  He watched himself with horror.  The next morning, his father screamed while reading the sports section.  Later that day, at the Mr. Sirloin, a customer screamed as a cockroach raced across her plate.

 

The block party was a grand success.  Mrs. Rubin had hooked Jay up with the Henry boy, Ralph, who had his own band.  The musicians were set up on the Henry front lawn.  Mrs. Rubin said she thought Ralph knew a couple of Sinatra songs.  Ralph was the lead singer.

The card tables were piled high with potato and macaroni salads, casseroles, Jell-O desserts and cakes and cookies.  Three gas grills were side by side cooking up hamburgers and hotdogs.  Coolers were set at the end of the driveways.

Nina Pickett’s father walked out.  Jay met him at his curb and offered him a beer.

“I plan to marry your daughter,” Jay said.

“I like cookouts,” Mr. Pickett said.  “They remind me of summer.”

“It is summer,” Jay said.

“Well, yes, of course it is.”  Mr. Pickett glanced around.  “My Nina doesn’t go for this kind of thing.  Nina likes extravagant things.”

 

At eleven o’clock, the neighbors gathered on Mrs. Rubin’s lawn.  Mrs. Rubin took Jay by the arm.  “We’ve been so happy since you took an interest in our neighborhood,” she said.  And she handed Jay a box wrapped with red speckled paper, with a red ribbon tied on top.  Inside was a silver tray with his name engraved along with the name of the street and the date.  Jay couldn’t help but get all teary-eyed.  He wiped his cheeks.  He could barely thank them, he was so choked up.

But at the same time, he looked up to Nina’s window and wondered why she hadn’t made an appearance.  This was like torture.

The neighbors applauded and Jay had his hand shaken and his back slapped.  The party was finished.

The tables were packed up, the grills and coolers taken inside, the trash collected.  Jay sat on the curb.  Except for the moon and a streetlamp half a block down, Nina Pickett’s bedroom light was the only light in the sky.  He watched her window for more than an hour.

He didn’t know how late it was, but finally Nina stepped from her house, into the night air.  She was wearing a blue and white summer dress.  She seemed for a moment like a ghostly apparition, except her arms were at her sides and she did not look in the least way menacing.  More like haunting, Jay thought.  Yes, haunting was a good word.

They sat facing one another on the Rubin lawn.

“I love a good performance,” Nina said.

She had a paperback book with her.  She rubbed Jay’s knuckles, then pressed the book into his fingers.  “My father still reads to me.  He says it’s one of his small pleasures,” she said.  “This is by Somerset Maugham.  It’s about a man who leaves behind everything he has so he can go to Tahiti and paint.  His art is his life.  Everything else is only the inspiration.  The funny part is that practically no one trusts his judgment.  He is really alone in the world.”

Jay nodded.  He loved to hear Nina talk.  She could go ahead and talk all night, if she wanted to.  Her voice was so smooth and beautiful, like music.

“This man does have this one friend and this friend believes in him completely,” Nina went on.  “This is the kind of friend who will cut off his own ear because he loves a woman.  She is the only thing he can possibly love. This woman does not love him, but he is devoted to her because he knows no other way.  And I don’t believe that he is sad that she does not love him.  His love is strong enough for them both.”

Jay softly kissed each of Nina’s hands, then started on the fingers, one at a time.

“I love you,” he told her.

And Nina answered him back:  “I love you.”  She said, “I’m not like the girl in the story, you know.  Because I love you.”

 

(excerpt from a novel in progress)

****************************************************************************

 

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area.  His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.   More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

 

Standard
Fiction

The Most Popular Kids in School

 

by Geoff Schutt

 

Eleanor wanted to do good but every time she tried to do good, something happened and it ended up she was like screaming for attention or help or who knows what.  But she screamed inside where nobody could hear her.  Oh she tried to do good, yes she tried.  Like when school resumed after Christmas break.  In an instant, this turned into a bad year for the school.  It suddenly would be remembered as the year the popular kids were killed in the car crash.  It happened on the way to a New Year’s Eve party.  Everybody was in shock.  These weren’t kids nobody talked to.  They were the most popular kids in school.

 

Eleanor’s new best friend after Christmas break was H.P.  H.P.’s real name was Helen (her middle name was Penelope).  She wore black jeans, black socks and black high tops.  She wore a blood red sweatshirt along with a red beaded necklace and red boomerang earrings.  Her fingernails were painted red and her lips black.  This was how H.P. looked every day.  This was her look, and Eleanor thought H.P.’s look was beautiful.  She thought H.P. was beautiful.

Eleanor and H.P. were in filmmaking together.  This was one of the few classes that mixed the social groups.  Eleanor was a phase four (the highest phase) student in the honors classes, on track for college, while H.P. was phase three, which meant she might go to college or she might not, and nobody cared much either way, sort of the same way people feel about a middle child.  That’s what H.P. told Eleanor, at least.

H.P. said it was dangerous for her to be friends with Eleanor.  This was crossing the barriers.  You have to be careful to not cross the lines, H.P. said.  But they were friends in spite of their differences.  Eleanor wasn’t sure exactly why H.P. liked her, but she knew why she liked H.P.  She liked H.P. because H.P. was a rebel and she actually did and said what she felt.  It had become more and more difficult for Eleanor to do and say what she felt, especially the more she tried to do good.  When she was little, she was more daring.  Maybe her psychiatrist was right.  Maybe she was just going to explode one day.  Maybe he was right about this one thing.

 

Their assignment was to make a short film that they would show at the end of the quarter.  There was a tradition at Great Falls High School.  The filmmaking class was so popular and students got into making their movies so much that at the end of the quarter, there was Premiere Night for parents to come watch the creations projected on the big screen in the auditorium.  It was usually a popular event among students not in the class as well, because a lot of them ended up starring in the movies.

 

Everybody wants to be famous, H.P. said.  H.P. said why not make a movie about the popular kids rising up to heaven.   On the way to heaven, they would offer last messages to their friends and families.  H.P. had actually been friends with one of the popular kids, Theresa Depinet.  They double-dated once the year before.  H.P. said she didn’t wear as much black then.  They went out with college boys.  They went up to the lake.  One of the boys had sex with Theresa, but afterwards nobody was the wiser and when Theresa died, she had this kind of angelic aura about her.  H.P. said Theresa would have liked it that everybody thought she was a virgin when she died.

 

Mr. Selby, the filmmaking teacher, told the students about irony, and how to build dramatic tension, and how the filmmaker could really play with the audience’s mind if he or she was good enough.

Cool! said H.P.

Cool! Eleanor agreed.  (She though H.P. was one of the best friends she’d ever had.)

H.P. asked Mr. Selby, What about violence?  How do you explain all the violence in movies?

Mr. Selby seemed taken aback by the question.  He smiled and blinked his eyes and Eleanor could see he was absorbing H.P.’s words and trying to figure out her motivation in asking the question.  For example, was she being sarcastic or was it a serious scholarly question.  Eleanor watched his jaw and began to count inside her head.  It was only seconds but already seemed like a terribly long time, since Mr. Selby was quite the talker when he taught.  And sure enough, he moved his lower jaw from one side to the next and Eleanor was thinking, this is it, this is when he talks, when H.P. spoke again.  Mr. Selby simply watched her in amazement.

Playing with people’s heads makes the violence necessary, doesn’t it? H.P. said.

 

H.P. squeezed Eleanor’s arm on the way out of class.  Eleanor glanced at Mr. Selby, who was leaned over his desk, tapping his fingers and staring back with such intensity it made Eleanor turn away.  She knew it wasn’t her he was staring at but H.P.  The two of them did not get along.  It only made Eleanor like H.P. even better.  H.P. didn’t care what Mr. Selby thought, and that was so wonderful, and H.P. liked Eleanor, which was also wonderful.

 

The other three popular kids who died were Jeff Nealy, the football star, Judy Minus, the cheerleader, and Whitney Colman, the soccer player. H.P. already had the parts cast.  Rodney Crandall, the druggie, would play Jeff Nealy.  The Thai twins, who had proper Thai names but everybody called them JoJo and Sandy, would play Judy and Whitney, and H.P. herself would play Theresa.  It was all against type.  Which was sort of like irony, H.P. said.  Just like Mr. Selby said.

 

Eleanor was going to direct and handle the camera. She had an old camcorder at home.  She wanted to film this on videotape.  She didn’t want it to be all glossy and polished like it might be if they used the school’s fancy equipment. Glossy and polished was the last thing this particular story needed.  Mr. Selby told Eleanor this would be fine, as long as the project itself was completed.  He actually seemed pleased that Eleanor wanted to try something different, even if it was using outdated technology.

 

H.P. said it was going to be fucking incredible, this movie, and when Rodney Crandall died of a drug overdose someday, HBO would snap up the rights and H.P. and Eleanor would be rich.  On top of getting a guaranteed “A” in the class, of course.

They began filming at an abandoned house on the edge of town.  The house had been empty for almost two years, but lots of kids partied there, H.P. included.  H.P. kept trying to get Eleanor to go with her and party at the house but Eleanor was anxious about who else might be there.  But now that they were making a movie, it didn’t matter.  Eleanor had an excuse.  When she had a reason to be somewhere, she felt herself come alive.  She wasn’t so introverted.

They were in the attic.  Eleanor sat Indian-style, her elbows holding up the camera.  H.P. remarked that Eleanor was becoming quite the filmmaker.

Eleanor told JoJo to begin whenever she was ready, to just improvise something, anything.  Just remember you’re Judy the cheerleader and you’re dead and you’re on your way to heaven.  But when JoJo started, she pretended she was going into convulsions like an epileptic, and Eleanor had to stop filming.

What are you doing? she asked JoJo.  JoJo said she didn’t know how a cheerleader was supposed to act on the way to heaven, except maybe give a cheer.  Except if she was dead, she couldn’t give a normal cheer, right?

H.P. came over all disgusted like.  This isn’t working, Eleanor, she said.

It will work just fine, Eleanor said.

Well, let me be Theresa.  Film my scene now, okay?  H.P. said.  She glared at JoJo, who merely shrugged her shoulders.

Rodney was in the corner of the attic smoking a joint with Sandy.  The smoke was drifting toward the camera.

Like clouds! Rodney exclaimed.  On the way to heaven!

Sandy couldn’t stop giggling.

Eleanor zoomed in on H.P.’s face.

My name is Theresa, H.P. said.  Everyone in my family thought I would grow up to be someone perfect.  They said I would have a good job and a good husband and a couple of good kids, who would also grow up to be perfect.  Perfection runs in my family.

She said, I had sex and I liked it and I would have had sex again and I would have gotten pregnant and I would have gotten an abortion, maybe two abortions by the time I finished high school.  And after all of this I wouldn’t be able to have children anymore and I would not be able to attract a good husband and I would have to work at whatever I could get just to keep on living.

H.P. smiled:  It’s the goddamned awful fucking truth!  I swear it on a stack of Bibles!

Eleanor lowered the camera.  She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  She couldn’t even speak, she was so in shock.

H.P. was yelling at her.  I’m not finished! H.P. was saying.  Keep shooting, Eleanor! she was yelling.

So Eleanor put the camcorder on her shoulder and refocused on H.P.  She would’ve probably done anything H.P. asked her to right now.

H.P. lifted off her top and said plainly, Look at me now, look at what I’ve become.

Then she stood up.  It was over.

Rodney was clapping his hands.  He was telling H.P. she looked just like Ellen Barkin in that really ancient Dennis Quaid movie, the one about New Orleans, The Big Easy, he said.  Rodney’s older brother had a copy of that movie and he just lusted and lusted over Ellen Barkin, except that by now, she was probably like 90 years old or something and all wrinkled.  Rodney said this to his older brother and his older brother gave him a black eye.

 

The next day, H.P. began dressing differently and nobody but Eleanor seemed to notice.  H.P. started acting differently too.  She was dressing and acting like Theresa Depinet.  And suddenly she and Eleanor were not talking like they used to.  There was this gap between them.

Mr. Selby asked for progress reports.  He wanted to see some of the rough video.  Doesn’t matter how much you’ve shot or edited, he said, just matters that you’ve got something.

Eleanor handed in a video of the cast at the beach.  It was cold and there was snow on the ground.  They had driven up to Lake Erie.  Eleanor filmed for about ten minutes.  She had them get into their swimsuits and splash around.  She had JoJo and Sandy act as if they were drowning.  All this to prove to Mr. Selby that they were working on something.  Eleanor didn’t want anyone to know about the real movie.

The more H.P. was becoming Theresa Depinet, the more Eleanor was taking control.  As Theresa Depinet, H.P. was hanging around Rodney.  She liked dangerous, stupid boys.  They were becoming quite the item.

Everyone watched everyone else’s rough videos.  Mr. Selby said no one could copyright an idea, so they were welcome to steal from each other if they saw a particular camera angle they liked.  With such a small amount of film, they shouldn’t be able to get the complete plot anyway.  But it was obvious that Bryan and Ed were making a cops and robbers movie and Greg and Nanette, who were going together, were filming a love story. They even wrote a song for it. The song was so sappy, it was kind of good, Eleanor thought.

*

Eleanor sneaked into the gym after school.  She thought they probably had fifteen minutes if they were lucky enough before some custodian kicked them out.  It was JoJo’s second try at being Judy Minus.  Eleanor had the idea to have Sandy as Whitney Colman the soccer star kick the ball so it hit Judy on the sidelines as she was doing a cheer.  The ball would symbolize death, which was coming for her.  As JoJo fell to the ground, she would say something profound.  But when the soccer ball hit JoJo in the legs and she fell she screamed to Eleanor that this was real, turn off the camera!

Eleanor was not to be dissuaded.  She zoomed in and got the perfect anguished, pained expression on JoJo’s face as she sat on the ground holding her leg and rocking.

Sandy came from nowhere and put her hand over the lens.  Please, Eleanor, she said.

Fine, Eleanor said.  She was so pissed.  She was supposed to be the director and yell “Cut,” not one of the actors.

JoJo was crying.

 

*

Eleanor was telling H.P. her ideas about their movie.  She started getting really excited, talking about freedom of expression and non-censorship and pushing the limits, but H.P, was oddly quiet.

Finally, H.P. said, You’re not from Great Falls, are you Eleanor?

Eleanor didn’t know what this had to do with anything.  No, she said.  We moved from Toledo after my mother left.

Well, H.P. said, if you were from Great Falls, if you were really from here, I mean, you’d know what it comes down to.

What does it come down to? Eleanor said.  I don’t understand.

We know we probably will never leave, H.P. said. It’s part of who we are. It’s in our blood or something. If we go away to college and don’t come back, we never come back.  If we stay, we stay. It’s like all or none.  It’s about limits. There are limits on everything, even us.

Eleanor was shaking her head.  No, she said.

I think I’m staying, H.P. said.  She was avoiding Eleanor’s eyes.  She was looking off into the distance.  I think I love Rodney.  I think Rodney loves me.

H.P. – Eleanor said.

Wait, H.P. said, let me finish.  This movie was a stupid idea to begin with.  I mean, it’s not like I’m going to college and never coming back, you know?  I’m staying, Eleanor, or else I’m coming back to stay.

It’s just a movie, Eleanor said.

No, H.P. said.  No it’s not.  It’s not just a movie.

So what are you saying? Eleanor said.

She had no idea why H.P. was turning into somebody else. She wasn’t even being Theresa Depinet now.  She was somebody else Eleanor didn’t recognize.

Eleanor, you’re not even listening to me, H.P. said, and she got up and walked away.  But she stopped, and they looked at each other.  H.P. said, Eleanor, finish the movie if you want, but count me out.  Count Rodney out too.  Okay?

No, Eleanor was saying, like over and over, like No no no no no no.  After H.P. was gone she was still saying it.  It didn’t make a difference how much she was saying it.  It was those stupid popular kids.  It was this place.  It was Great Falls. And it was like she wanted to do something good again and she found herself screaming inside instead.

Well, she would do it without them.  Without any of them.  She didn’t need them.

 

*

There were two weeks to Premiere Night.  Eleanor talked with Jeff Nealy’s parents on the telephone.  She lied and said she was on the yearbook staff.  They were planning a special page to honor Jeff and the others, she said.  What they need was a good picture of Jeff.  What they wanted to use was not a school picture but something informal, candid, something that showed Jeff being natural.  Jeff’s mother said it wouldn’t be a problem.  She thanked Eleanor and said she appreciated everything Jeff’s fellow students were doing.  She said she knew how much Jeff liked everybody, and she was glad so many kids liked Jeff, too.

Eleanor called Judy Minus’ parents, and Whitney Colman’s parents, and Theresa Depinet’s parents.  All of them said basically the same thing. Yes, they’d be happy to help. Eleanor rode her bike to their houses to pick up the pictures.  But before she left their houses, the parents invited her inside and told her stories.  Mostly, the stories were about small things – those kinds of memories that happen quite by accident but the memories that end up meaning the most.  These weren’t memories about who was Homecoming King or who was the best cheerleader or who had the most friends and was most likely to succeed based entirely on that.  There were random acts of kindness nobody would have thought of from one of the popular kids.  There were hopes and dreams.  There were even insecurities.  Some of the insecurities were so familiar, Eleanor found herself wiping a tear from her face.

 

Back home, Eleanor went to the garage.  She turned on the light, which was just a light bulb hanging from a wire.  She placed the pictures on the ground. Each set of parents had given her several photographs to choose from.

Eleanor pushed the light bulb so it was swinging in wide arcs back and forth.  She was standing on a stepstool and pointing the camera from above at the pictures under the slicing spotlight.  Here was Theresa standing beside a horse at summer camp.  Here was Jeff in his football uniform after a game, his face all sweaty and dirty, but with a huge smile.  Here was Whitney in shorts and a t-shirt, soccer ball at her feet.  Here was Judy, next to her brother.  Judy’s brother’s name was Tim.  He was a senior.  The thing about Tim was, he could make people laugh when they didn’t feel like laughing.  He was always going around telling jokes, even to strangers in the hall.  He told a joke once to Eleanor.  In the picture, Tim’s arm was around Judy’s waist.  They looked like anybody’s brother or sister during the good times.  It was a tender photograph, and just looking at it made Eleanor sad.

 

Monday and Tuesday, other kids were bugging her about the movie.  Everyone wanted to hear it from her – what was her movie really about?  What was she trying to prove, anyway? People were getting the idea that Eleanor was really going to slam the popular kids, was going to slander their names, was going to try to present them as frauds somehow.  You can’t be popular and show weakness, after all, and Eleanor was going straight for the jugular.  She was going to make the popular kids bleed to death, right there on the screen, so they’d die all over again in a bloody mess that everyone would have to witness.

Eleanor didn’t know why everybody was saying these things, of course.  Nobody knew what was in her movie.  It was probably H.P.  Now in class, H.P. sat with Rodney.  They didn’t talk to Eleanor, or else Eleanor didn’t talk to them.  Same difference.  She was hurt and they didn’t seem to be hurt.  It wasn’t fair.

 

She skipped school Wednesday and Thursday. Premiere Night was Friday.

 

The principal, Mr. Gladdis, called Eleanor’s house on Thursday and left a long message on the machine.  He wanted to see the movie before Premiere Night.  Otherwise, he said, she wouldn’t be allowed to show it.  He sounded all patronizing when he said he knew Eleanor would show good judgment and he was sure everything was fine.  But she should let him see the film ahead of time.  He was quite adamant on this.  Mr. Gladdis called back two more times, but Eleanor just let him speak to the machine.  Then she erased the messages.

 

Eleanor decided she would have to skip school Friday as well.  She couldn’t take any chances.  She was trying to be brave about the whole thing.  And yes, it was true that in the beginning she wanted to be daring and bold and maybe even shocking.  It was different after she talked with the popular kids’ parents. She would have never cared so much if they had lived, and that was the truth.  Eleanor also knew enough that their parents had probably been all cocky when their children were alive, but now that they were gone, they just missed them so much.

 

*

The door to the auditorium was unlocked at six.  Great Falls High School was the only public high school in the county.  (There was also a much smaller Catholic high school.) Great Falls High School had fifteen hundred students.  The auditorium had eight hundred seats and every one of those seats was filled by six-ten.  There was an overflow crowd outside.  The screening didn’t start until seven, and Eleanor showed up shortly before seven.  She watched the crowd of people gathered outside the auditorium from a safe distance, from the baseball field across the street.

At seven-fifteen, she decided to make her way inside, even though she would still have to get through the people hanging around the door.  She tried to be nonchalant about her entrance and she walked with her eyes toward the ground and her video held snugly against her body.  But somebody recognized her.  Somebody said her name and then they were all looking at her.  She didn’t want to look back at them.  She kept her eyes down and tried to push through them to the door.  They wouldn’t let her.  They were crowding around her and then she lost her balance and the video went flying.  She was on her hands and knees trying to get it back but the people were stepping on it.  They were crushing it!

 

Eleanor looked at them. She wanted to get a good, good look at these people.  But their faces all seemed blank to her.  The most popular kids in school were never coming home – but just the same, and this was a fact of life that Eleanor was just learning, they were never, ever going to leave home, either. The most popular kids in school were even more popular now. Someday, there would be a monument built in their honor. Someday, somebody might even make another movie about their lives. Eleanor had grown to like the popular kids – as human beings, not for being popular.  She had really grown to like them, after talking to their parents, after feeling the grief up close. But now she hated them all over again.  Now she screamed out loud – for the first time, she was screaming out loud, and this felt so good!  She screamed until everybody gave her breathing room, until they gave her space.  And then she kept on screaming until she wept.

 

(excerpt from a novel in progress)

 

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Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others.  He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area.  His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City.   More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

 

Art by Sheila Lanham

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Fiction

Final Draft in Reverse

by Geoff Schutt

 

Final draft: I have yet to hit my groove.

Draft number eight: I am aware of my surroundings, and this frightens me. But I welcome enlightenment through the fear.

Draft number seven: Sometimes I think too much. I don’t try to think too much.  I just do.

Sixth draft: Contemplation is not a waste of time. You can never think too much.

Fifth draft: I watch the planes fly over from my bedroom window during the day, and I listen to the trains at night. It seems everybody is going somewhere but me. But I can hear them going places, and this is inspiring.

Middle draft, between the fourth and fifth: Some days, I put too much weight on myself. I know I need to get from “there” to “here.”  I feel like I’m letting everyone else down, but then I get that this is ego talking. Nobody much cares about what it takes for ME to get from there to here. I care about it, of course, but it really doesn’t matter much to anybody else. What counts is the “there” and the “here.” Or maybe I’m doing it all backward.

Fourth draft: I know what I am capable of, and I am frustrated by that.

Third draft, somewhere after the middle: When I think I’m close, I must prevent myself from stopping, at any cost. When I’m close, I cannot allow myself to sleep. Eating makes me sleepy. I cannot allow myself to eat. I cannot allow anything to get in my way. I need to keep up the momentum.  Nothing will get in my way.  I will make sure of that.

Middle draft: I spend (a lot of) time waiting. Sometimes I wait because I know that the time is not right. Sometimes I wait because I know that I am not right (for the time). Mostly, I wait, confident in the timing — the time will be right, and I will be ready when the time is right. I cannot die today. There is too much work to be done. I cannot die while there is so much work to be done. This is important to realize.

Second draft: I have so much to say, but it’s trapped, and the thing is, I am not convinced that it has not been me doing the trapping all along. I need to dig deeper. I need the rawness. I need to make my knuckles bleed from the digging. I need to taste my own blood to know how real I am.

Draft shortly after the first: I feel destined, but that’s a really cocky thing to say, isn’t it?

First draft: I have yet to hit my groove.

 

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Biographical Note:

Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

a poem geoff schutt_Paiting Aurora Caro Eng detail from DANZA NOCTURNA

Paiting: Aurora Caro Eng – detail from DANZA NOCTURNA

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Fiction

Uncle Harry

by Geoff Schutt

 

The second week in May and garbage day and Eleanor leaves the house to take a walk. There, on the ground, meant for the garbage but somehow having escaped, is a greeting card. A Christmas card, actually. “For a Dear Niece at Christmas,” reads the outside, and inside, “May this happy Christmas season, Bring special joy to you, To a brighter every day, dear Niece, Straight through the New Year, too!” It is signed, simply, “Uncle Harry.” Not “Love, Uncle Harry,” but “Uncle Harry.”

The front of the card pictures a young girl, perhaps the age Eleanor was when her mother left, or a little younger, but close enough. The girl is wearing a red jacket, covering a light blue dress, and she has a matching hat on her head, wider than her body, with little sparkles of diamonds. She holds a gift in one hand, and a flower in the other. It looks like a leaf from a poinsettia. But it might be a rose.

Eleanor tries to wipe the dirt from the card. It’s still moist from a morning rain.

She turns it over, looking for the marking — where the price would be. There is an imprint on the back that reads, “Art Guild of Williamsburg 10X592.”

The card could have been 50 years old. Or it might have only been a year old.

It certainly is at least five-plus months old, Eleanor thinks, and tossed out with the trash, but not quite making the trash, either.

*
Eleanor took this as a sign. She took lots of things as signs, but this was something bigger. This was something quite extraordinary in fact, finding a thrown-away Christmas card in the middle of May. She didn’t have an Uncle Harry, and if she did have a long lost Uncle Harry, if in another world, this card might have been meant for her – she wondered why he didn’t sign the card with some measure of “Love.” It all seemed so impersonal.

And it was so past tense.

And this wasn’t Christmas in July. This was disappointment in May.

Here was a card from an uncle to his niece. Perhaps a gift had accompanied the card. Maybe there was money. (Money is so easy to give – much easier than love. Even writing out the word “love.”)

Didn’t really matter, Eleanor thought. Did not really matter at all. Uncle Harry was a lousy guy. He was a jerk. He was everybody’s uncle they did not want to invite over for the holidays. He was an alcoholic. He was a gambler. He was a child molester.

You did not want to sit next to Uncle Harry at Christmas dinner, that’s for sure.

Or else – he didn’t know any better. Maybe he didn’t know how. The emotions part, Eleanor thought. Maybe he kept his emotions deep inside, but if he did keep his emotions inside, why even send the card in the first place? It seemed a waste of time. A waste of a Christmas card.

*
Eleanor hated the niece. She did at first, anyway. But the niece was beginning to seem familiar. Maybe the niece was a selfish young girl who didn’t care for Christmas at all. Maybe Uncle Harry had included a twenty dollar bill and all the niece could think was how to spend the money. Forget the card. Forget Uncle Harry until next year, or her birthday, or whatever.

Or maybe not.

“For a Dear Niece,” and you look so happy, but now you’ve been tossed out, and you’re not even good enough for the garbage, Eleanor thought. You land in the street and I find you.

Hello Dear Niece, my name is Eleanor. I suppose you’re good enough for me, Eleanor thought. You’re good enough for me to pick you up, and to brush the day’s scum off of you, and to hold you in my hands as if you are some girl deserving of that special joy, and to something brighter every day, whatever that meant. Through the New Year at the very least. Well, Eleanor, was thinking now, and quite loud in her own head she was thinking this. The New Year is long past. And so is Christmas. You understand? she was thinking. Christmas is over, and there is no New Year!

It’s the second week of May.

*
Present tense always seems to sneak up on her. Eleanor feels flushed. She thinks, But I wish — I wish — . God, no …. Her eyes are tearing up. I wish I had an Uncle Harry, and if he didn’t sign “Love” on his Christmas card to me, I’d make him say it. I would. I really would make him say it.

Even if he was a child molester, I’d make him say it. I would shake him by the shoulders. I would scream at him until he said it.

*
Eleanor turns to look at the houses. The card could have come from anywhere. “Do you hear me, Uncle Harry?” she cries out. “Do you hear me? I’m looking for you.”

And after all of this, she cannot let the card go. It would be too easy to let it fall right back to the ground, where she found it. Leave it for next garbage day. Or somebody will pick it up before garbage day. Or some animal or bird will use the card for a nest.

“Uncle Harry,” Eleanor says, but very softly, “I will always love you. It doesn’t even matter if you already have a niece. I will be your other niece. We can share you, Uncle Harry.”

 

an excerpt from a novel-in-progress

 

 

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Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area. His novel-length work, including the novel from which this story is excerpted, is represented by James McGinniss of James McGinniss Literary Associates, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com

Art by Mel Blossom

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