In Provo, Utah, like in most of the rest of the country, they were comfortable with clogged arteries and carcinogens and car accidents, relative poverty in the shadow of familiar corporations, military ear-marked taxes, capital driven health care. They were afraid of foreign-born terrorists, oil-country insurgents, immigrants, global consortiums in the shadows. Those people knew that climate change was just another way of taking about the flood. It was not longevity or even quality of life that interested them, but some ideas of freedom. This was about six months after the inauguration, and the air of celebration was still palpable.
I had somehow learned that Stacey Byers lived there, and I had a few hours to kill. Stacey and I had been friends in an almost other life. I’d hang out with him and his brother, Jimmy, who was a year below us in school. Jimmy could get people to laugh, but looking back from later, many of us might have come to recognize in him a sadness kept at bay by noise like that. Eventually, hung himself by jumper cables in the family garage. He had tied the ends together and put the loop around his throat and let his knees go loose. All he had to do if he changed his mind was stand up. But he did not change his mind, and you might find something to admire in that.
That was in a little town on the parries of Montana. Everything started for me there. Relatively speaking, in terms of time and space, it won’t end that far from there, either, even though I have, in my ways, moved on and know that I will never return all the way. For many of those of us born into such places, the ending will come or already has in that precise location. If you have been raised a town like that, where there might be thirty people in your high school class, you know stories like the one about Jimmy. That’s how people who lived there tended to die. We hung and gassed ourselves in garages. We stepped through thin ice and were forever lost in pale blue lakes the bottoms of which nobody had yet confirmed. We had accidents in cars we drove while under some kind of influence. We grew so fat and sad that our hearts could not take the sting of a single bee. We played Russian roulette with real guns and real bullets. We were killed by angry lovers or whilst trying to kill lovers at whom we had become angry. If we made it long enough to have children, they would discover and die by opiates. Cleaning the scenes of those deaths, we ourselves might die by single grains of fentanyl ingested through our fingertips. We ran off into all manner of walls, fell into all kinds of wells; we grew more bored and blue and in love with every shade of numb, until the difference between life and death was negligible. We were, you might say, doomed, one way or another, but I don’t know if anybody can be more doomed than anybody else.
At a high school talent show, Jimmy had shown up in a full tuxedo. It was his father’s, too big, the way it was between most of us and our fathers. He sauntered across the stage, flipped out his coat tails, sat on the piano bench, and then faced the crowd. He nodded to us out there in the dark of the high school gym. He raised both his arms and let them hover for a few seconds in silence before he slammed them down on the keys of the piano. He stood up, solemn faced, bowed deeply, straightened, and exited the stage before anybody could think to laugh or clap or call him to task. It was a prank, a disappearing act, a revelation of his heart.
Stacey was in a sad little house of peeling paint, the mountains and a temple through the kitchen window. He had a German flag circa WWII on the wall above his two-chair kitchen table. His hair was choppy, his eyes watery, his posture forced. He made you want to look in a mirror and see what bad things had happened to you.
“Where all are you going?” he asked.
“Just back again.”
He nodded vaguely. Maybe seeing me he remembered all of our history. Maybe he was caused to think of his brother, and his brother’s death. My father had died about a year before Jimmy, and maybe Stacey thought about that too, and maybe he remembered why I wasn’t there for either of those services, why those events were only stories I had been told, happenings that would never be as whole to me as they were to others. I had run away from my home, from that town, into a series of mistakes and the kind of small, undramatic tragedies you can’t even brag about that might be said to still be accumulating into the shape of my life. Stacey had gotten away, too, just a little less far than I had, but such an escape didn’t seem to be serving him, either. It wasn’t long before he was talking about America and the enemies to all its beautiful promise. His voice was melancholy and certain. He talked of Arab countries where people had been at war since they were whipped up out of the dust, where they thrived only on cycles of violence, overthrow, chaos. Humanity, he said, could not develop in such people. He showed me a framed and autographed picture of the President purchased from an advert on a radio program to which he tuned every afternoon to learn about the state of the American project. Gazing at it, he was at ease. The world, he believed, or our part of it, was approaching a time of order.
Then he wanted me to go with him to the basement, and so I did. There he had more Nazi paraphernalia. He talked about illegal immigrants, the wall to keep them out, about ghetto bred armies, about African warlords, about cop killers and the fundamental failure of liberalism, about American mosques where the seeds of Armageddon were being sewn, beheadings, rapes, the brainwashing of children until they had no brain left at all. He pointed to a work table. There was a spiral bound book that had the appearance of something somebody would put together at copy shop with the words “MY AMERICA” on the cover. Beside it were a few cuts of pipe and several boxes with things I didn’t want to look at in them.
“Why do you have all of this?” I asked, stupidly.
He looked at my sympathetically, and then he looked at his things.
There were tins of nails. Plastic cartons of chemical. Diagrams. Maps. It was hard to believe that maybe what he’d collected there could be brought together in such a way as to destroy the things people build and to destroy people themselves. Stacey was standing there with his bad skin and his liquid eyes. He hadn’t belonged to something for a long time, most of his life, maybe, but now he did, and still, he looked beaten and alone.
“Stacey,” I said. But there was nothing else to offer, and I gave myself over to the relief of helplessness.
When I was sixteen, Stacey bought an unreliable Suzuki Samurai that had been totaled out in a flood and rebuilt. He and Jimmy came and picked me up. We drove across the plains and into the foothills and camped on something like a beach below the reservoir. We built a fire, from which Jimmy took burning branches and beat them on the hard-packed sand, so the sparks came running off and were blown along the beach like little swirling galaxies burning out of existence. The following morning in the orange light of the tent walls, a strange sensation from the real world had infused itself into my dreams until I woke from them and became gradually aware that something was crawling beneath my back. Then I realized it was the earth itself, and then I realized it was water moving over the earth. I guess we all had the epiphany at about the same time, for we all three sat up and looked at each other. Jimmy pulled back the flap. They were releasing water from the reservoir, and it was filling in around us. Then we pulled on our shoes and rushed out into the water and yanked the tent stakes and waded out of the muck with the tent weighted down by all our stuff between us. Stacey smiled as we high stepped it to dry land. Then he squatted down and laughed at the joke the world had played on us. The sun came down through his hair. He was kind of beautiful, the way we are before our minds are really made up about anything.
And Jimmy, Jimmy who would kneel his weight into jumper cables until he was dead, he was watching his brother and looking to me and then out across the water like everything was a miracle, the water and the laughter, all things in between. The mountains were out there. We’d be looking at them all our lives. The Samurai, which might not start, did start. What you didn’t know about the workings of the universe did not matter.
In Provo, I shook Stacey’s hand, felt the human meat of him, maybe more, the slither of his pulse for a second. As I drove away, I saw people lined up with signs outside a pork processing plant. I got out and stood amongst them. They gathered around a truck that had come to a stop before the gates leading into that grim place, and they rushed forward to offer the animals squirts of water and pieces of fruit. The eyes of the pigs through those slots in the metal were so human you could cry. The eyes on those people were so like the eyes of the pigs in those trucks it should break your heart. You could feel the terror and the awful end to terror coming out from behind the walls. The gates got open. The truck went on. With all of this, you have to decide how far you would go to stop it and where that stopping it would stop. I knew I should probably say something to someone. Stacey had harm in his heart. But everybody does.
I was in Provo with a friend. He was moving there to live with his brother and put his life together again. We’d worked as counselors out of the same complex, but he wasn’t making it, not financially or otherwise. He’d not been healed himself. None of us had. We’d come out in a Buick loaded down with his things, and then we were going back in his brother’s truck. I’d help my friend load the bed of that truck up with the remainder of his things so he could drive back to Provo for the last time. There was a woman with us, somebody we’d bumped into in a bar a few months back, and she’d become a companion. He liked her, and she liked me. We hung around together in that loosely packed little clump people tend to make of each other. He’d taken this drive over and over already. In better times, when both he and his brother had lived in our city, they owned, he said, crotch rockets and would wake up early some mornings and race all the way to Provo and back, bringing the receipt for gas from a specific station at the edge of the small city as proof, just for something to do. He said it usually took six hours. I had tried to do the math, but my effort failed.
We drove back in the late night. We’d brought this blow-up mattress in case we decided to stay on his brother’s floor, and I inflated that and laid it in the bed of the truck. He was my friend, but I had no illusions about keeping in touch. I knew this was the end for the woman and me, too. We were just doing this last thing together. It was a gift to be able to recognize when that was happening, or maybe the gift was in being able to contrive its happening. What we used to call the beer can window was open, and I could hear them talking in the cab of the truck, the radio voices underlying their indistinct conversation. If you lifted your head the wind whipped around it, like the chaos into which everything is lost. But below the rim of the truck bed, you had your little bubble of magic stillness. It was warm, and I lay there for awhile, and then I began to masturbate. I didn’t think of the woman. I thought of some woman I had never met. She was sweet and right, and she could wake me up or calm me down, whatever I needed. But then she faded and there was nothing. I finished anyway. There stars were splayed out there, and I had the glorious misconception that I had come them. It didn’t last a long time. Then a sadness seeped into the bed of that truck, the same sadness that swept into whatever place I was when I came, that filled in around whoever I was with and whatever it was we had done, the sadness that is always there when you quiet all the way down and face even just a small part of the universe. The stars still looked like my responsibility, and I thought if I could just take them back inside, take everything back inside, take me myself inside, like the cartoon vacuum that eventually sucks itself up, I would be all right, everything would be good.
J Eric Miller is a professor creative writing at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His short story collection, Animal Rights and Pornography was published by Soft Skull Press and has since been translated and published in France, Russia, and Turkey. His novel Decomposition has been translated and published in France, Spain, and Italy; a cinematic version is in pre-production with Fatcat Films. His short stories have appeared in various journals, including: Clementine Unbound; LitBreak; decomP, Semaphore, Starry Night Review, The Scarlet Leaf Review, eFiction, Pindelyboyz, Clean Sheets, Manera, Burning Word, Ink Pot, and Outsider Ink. One of them, “Invisible Fish”, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.