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Knoxville: Summer, 1915

On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of noting at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her:  and those who receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home:  but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

James Agee, “Summer, 1915”

… Like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It
had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver
and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had
come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the
newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was
falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills,
falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly
falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too,
upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael
Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and
headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly
through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their
last end, upon all the living and the dead.

James Joyce, “The Dead,” Dubliners

Why is it that words like these…

A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went
coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of
stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would
ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to
recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their
dull existence together and remember only their moments of
ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers.
Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched
all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her
then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so
dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be
your name?”

James Joyce, “The Dead,” Dubliners

A Walk

October 1, 2011 1 comment

It is overcast outside; the grey clouds are brooding over the sky and blanketing everyone under them.  The temperature has dropped in recent weeks—winter must be approaching—but it is perfect weather for a light jacket and jeans still.  Stephen and Jen walk down into the forested park over the red, yellow, and orange leaves that crunch with each step.

Stephen was always shy growing up, but his personality has transformed into a quiet, pensive manner that characterizes his relationships with everyone he knows.  He asks Jen, Are you glad this week’s over with?

Yeah.  It was far too long.  Stressed me out.  I need to relax this weekend.

They trek deeper into the forest.  He has never been more interested in the trees.  Poplars, beeches, firs; they all seem so unique to him now.  Each tree standing, surrounded by its family, solemnly content with its position.

He seeks the soul of these trees.  Stephen glances at Jen.  Have I ever told you how my father proposed to my mother?

She cannot help but smile.  He always loved when she smiled at him under her auburn hair.  Yes, of course you have.  But I love hearing it.

Well my father and mother always loved taking walks in this park by her house.  They are going through one Sunday and are coming to the wooden bench that they always rested at when they had been walking for a while.  My father tells my mother that he has something he wants to give her, and pops on a knee and asks her to marry him.  Of course, she said yes.

My father always told me, You’ll never forget that moment.  You put everything on the line and hope to God that she says yes.  And when she does, it’s the happiest day of your life.

They continue for a few minutes without saying much.  Stephen offers his jacket to Jen, and keeps his hands in his corduroy pockets after that.  She furtively steals glances at him, and he pretends not to notice.  She has her familiar smile on her face, and her pace has quickened.

Stephen remains quietly respectful of his towering examples.  But he cannot help but tear himself away from the leaves and sneak a glance himself to Jen.

They round an unfamiliar bend in the park.  Jen’s eyes grow big and her mouth parts slightly, but she quickly controls her reaction.

Stephen stops walking, and is a few steps behind Jen.  She looks back over her shoulder and asks why he stopped.

No reason, I was just watching the trees.

They continue their trek through the forest; and when they reach the clearing near his car, Jen walks watching the leaves fall to the ground; flashes of red, orange, yellow against an overcast sky.

The Wall

September 8, 2011 2 comments

I ready myself, easing my feet into the blocks.  My hands are positioned in their usual spot, just behind the white rubber line, flirting with the edges of my lane.  I keep my head down and stare at the black rubber track.  I don’t care what the other guys are doing; they are not important at this point.  The crowd isn’t important, and neither are the other, non-hurdling track and field athletes.  The seven of us are preparing for our baptism by fire in unique ways.  I lean forward over my shoulders and push both feet firmly into the metal block behind me.  I glance to my right.  Five of the others are each doing the same pre-race dance as I, but no dance is the same.  There is one man on my left; I’ve run against him before.  He’s good.  Very good.

I quickly look back down at my rubber.

Set!

I hear the gun explode behind me.  My feet push me towards the finish line.  Nine quick jabs at the rubber and my right leg instinctively lunges over the first hurdle.  Down comes my right foot with a painful reminder of gravity, and then left right left, right over the second hurdle.  My chest hugs my knee over this hurdle.  Excellent form.  Coach Thorton taught me well.  Right down, left right left, over the third hurdle.

It must be because it’s so beautiful outside.  I have never hurdled so well before.  The sun is shining beautifully behind me, and there is only the slightest breeze.  I hurdle my next two obstacles without difficulty; this wall across the track is no match for any of these competitors.

Down comes my right foot with a snap of my leg, left right, left.  Game speed.  This hesitation shouldn’t be here.  No fear.  It’s only plastic.  It falls if you clip it.

Hesitation.  It kills you in a race.  My eyes seize with shock at the inevitable.  Too slowly I pull my right leg up.  My foot is caught under the plastic, and the rest of me begins to pull forward without that firm foundation clutching the ground.  I am turned slightly in air by the hurdle, and I am crashing back to earth.

I must have hit my shoulder first.  That is what seems to be in the most pain.  Or maybe my wrists and palms.  It doesn’t matter.  All I need to do is get up and finish.  It is too beautiful for this debacle.  I must have heard the gasps when I clipped the sixth wall; a small sense of shame is creeping into me as I staggered back up to complete the race.  I take a step towards the seventh hurdle.  My other two steps were covered by my crash.  I sky over this hurdle.

The last three hurdles are handled with trepidation, fear.  But they too I conquer.  I refuse to let an inch-thick piece of plastic held by metal legs hold me down.

The Man

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

To my left first, then to my right, I looked for a friendly face.  There were none.  Nothing but long, drawn grins on nameless faces.  I never saw the first blow.  Nor the second.  They rained down, one after another, until I collapsed into a bloody heap on the ground.  I tried to gather some recognizable feature from the assailants, but they were tall empty shadows.  Sensing my helplessness I laid prone on the ground and drifted into unconsciousness.

I awoke.

The sun beamed threw my windows, and I sat up in bed, the same bed I had fallen asleep in not four hours ago.  Quickly I grabbed my face, moving from nose to eyes to cheeks to neck.  No bruising from what I could tell.

I darted from my bed across my laundry strewn across the floor into the bathroom to confirm this realization, and disprove my fear from the previous night.  How could it be that I was not a swollen Picasso of a man?  I stared at my reflection, still disbelieving my sight, and yet unsure of what to make of this.  I had felt the jabs.  I had felt my jaw unlock from its hinges and separate.  I could taste my blood building up in my mouth and running down my face.  How can I awake to a picture of health?

I slowly stepped into the shower.  Perhaps the hot cascade could rinse these doubts from my psyche.

I sat down at my table, prepared myself to eat some rice and drink some black tea, and as I ate stared out of my window at the groups and paths of people below me.

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