The apocalypse was quiet. It had a way about it, a certain charm. It could be called graceful. It was taking a long time.
People prepared for an apocalypse that they could take up arms against, bunker down with. People hoarded filtered water, canned corn, dry milk, batteries. They published books on how to get things done in the new post-world, a world that they always imagined as being much like our own, only missing one or two key things. They might imagine, for example, that survivors would reemerge onto a planet stripped of all vegetable and plant life. First, the animals would grow vicious and then starve. It would be important to hoard as many of these animals as possible, pack them in salt and hide them away to keep. You’d want to have a supply of emergency seed to grow in a secure location, maybe using sterilized soil that you had already hoarded. Then you’d want to gather a crew. One muscle man with a heart of gold, a scientist type, an engineer, a child, and somebody that you thought maybe you could love, if you survived long enough to love them.
- Guernica: Are you inspired by the particularly lowdown stuff that goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant? The prose in this book surges with the bawdier stories.
- Merritt Tierce: It’s just an inverse relationship. You have to rise to it or else it’s just gross. Why read about it if it’s not beautiful in some way? Why write about it?
My father committed his when he was twenty-eight, just three months after I was born. And a grisly one it was too. The victim was some shook-looking fossil of a pensioner shuffling out of eleven o’clock mass in Carrigallen, which is where we called home until after the trial. It’s a tiny backward kip of a place, lashed to the side of a cliff just north of Glinsk, on the tip of the Erris peninsula, that the wind slices through no matter what kind of a day it is on the other side of the sign:
Failte Chuig an… / Abandon all hope ye who enter…
There’d be no need to go out of your way to bypass it even, because no road—main, bog, botharin or otherwise—will take you within an ass’s roar of the boundary, unless you really have a mind to get there. The “Grieving Corner,” my mother used to call it, and she’d be deadly serious, knowing full well the reasons why. She was by no means the only one either. You would want to be at least three towns over before you’d chance taking the piss out of the town and its murderous rumors, whispers that hung like mustard gas over every square inch of the place. Even then there’d be few enough takers. As it stands, there isn’t a guidebook in print that’ll make reference to it, I’ll put money on that right now, even from where I am.
But there was a time when it wasn’t the worst, I suppose.
Image by David Shrigley, Unfinished Letter , Steel. 500mm x 400mm x 2mm.
"Whenever I complained of a sore throat as a child, my father would press his fingers gently behind my jawbone, checking for swollen lymph nodes. “I think you’re going to be okay,” he would say upon completing his examination. This was his verdict, too, when I called him from college, miserably ill with what he identified as “probably influenza.” I asked him if there was anything I could do and he suggested, to my disappointment, drinking plenty of fluids. Then he recommended his grandmother’s prescription for a bad cold—buttered toast dipped in warm milk. He described the way the butter floated on the surface of the milk and how comforting he found his grandmother’s care. I wanted to know if there was some sort of medicine I could take, but what I needed, my father understood, was comfort. As an adult, I still never cease to feel a little surprise when a doctor reaches behind my jawbone to check for swollen nodes. I associate the tenderness of that gesture with my father’s care."
Medicine and Its Metaphors by Eula Biss - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
In our new issue: this essay on medicine and paternalism by Eula Biss, an interview with Lawrence Wright, poetry guest-edited by Nick Flynn, and more! Image by Donald Urquhart.
I don’t remember when I started digging—maybe when I was about eleven years old, just after my family moved from Fresno, California, and into the farmlands and cattle-range land beyond the San Joaquin River—but I remember standing in one of the partially excavated holes and pausing to watch a slow-moving flock of vultures pass over to the sun-burned foothills at the base of the high sierras, Yosemite, Ansel Adams country. Those dark birds rode the cycling thermals in silence, now and then shifting their stiff wings to bank and turn, the way vultures do, heavy and awkward, articulating an invisible column of air rising through the troposphere and into the blue ether above.
And I dug, blade by blade, shoveling my way through scratchy sandy loam and down into the hardpan. I dug until the foxholes measured roughly chest-high for a grown man. I improvised overhead cover to protect against indirect fire, the metallic trajectories of mortar rounds and artillery shells. Wooden sector stakes marked the left and right limits for each soldier. A shelf carved into the back wall for binoculars, map, compass, maybe a cup of coffee in the winter. Grenade sumps and earthen berms to shield the defenders from small-arms fire. Each hole big enough to hold a casket. Each fighting position based on the dimensions I’d found in Dad’s infantry field manuals. And as I worked through the morning and deeper into the earth, I wore his old National Guard uniform, with black combat boots laced up tight. My green rucksack loaded with leftover C-rats, as well as a P-38 can opener, collapsible dinnerware, candles, matches, a coiled length of nylon cordage, an emergency survival kit waterproofed in plastic, a mummy bag for inclement weather, Penthouse magazines from 1976 and Soldier of Fortune.
Back at Northwestern, I was fortunate enough to meet the excellent writer Dan Chaon, who came and talked to our writing class. I remember turning in a story to him that was way too long, some twenty-two-page mess about a lady who had a huge starfish and could see the future. I think the character was abducted by these two brothers—I don’t know, I’ve repressed the rest of it.
But Dan was so kind to me about this story, and he told me I should be reading Kelly Link, George Saunders, Kevin Brockmeier. He alerted me to these contemporary writers who were writing weird, inventive stuff. They were New Wave Fabulists, he said.
And I owe them a huge debt; I went on to become a blood-sworn fan of those writers. I felt a sort of tail-wagging joy, you know, reading these story collections. A recognition. It was like Dan rode through town and handed me a literary family tree.
The TV was loud enough that I hadn’t heard the back door open. I looked up at a creaking sound from the stairs. Valerie was slowly rising with each step, the top of her head the first thing to come into view, then her face, her face. Her face had a look that I understood before I fully realized I was understanding it.
She was clearly still drunk, maybe stoned, her eyes even glassier than they usually were after a night out, her smile sliding from side to side. “Hey,” she said softly. It was a lovely sound, that “Hey,” a sweet sound, and I believed it, though I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was believing. “I’ll take care of Zach,” she said. “You go back to bed.”
I followed her as she stumbled into our bedroom and pulled off her heels, then set her phone in the bottom drawer of the dresser next to her bed, where she always put it. I watched her catch herself when she leaned over; she nearly fell into the drawer.
She walked back into the library, tripping a bit over a pile of laundry and laughing lightly, the sort of laugh a person makes in private, an embarrassed laugh, though I was watching. I think she’d forgotten I was there.
She pulled another beanbag chair next to the one Zach was sitting in and dragged an afghan from the ottoman. She covered herself and Zach and leaned in close to him. As I watched from the doorway, she fell asleep.
I felt something thick in my throat. I watched her sleep, watched Zach put his hand on her cheek absently, without knowing it, his eyes still glued to the TV. I stared at his hand there, on her cheek, her face, and I knew.
I lay down in bed to try to go back to sleep, but I knew there wasn’t much chance of that. It was her face. We had a name for it in college, the “just fucked face,” the look of sex an hour after the fact, a face framed by disheveled hair, a face recovering from the physics of pleasure, a face still a little baffled by the effects of booze, a face before regret, before the random snapshots of memory begin to cohere into a picture of a long night of drinking, a night of gradually loosening resolve, the slow lubricants of beer and bourbon and pot.
The Cuckold by James Harms - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.
Image by Laura Plageman, Vista, 2008
"For many years I had thought about my father’s suicide, about his various possible suicides. I had become so used to the idea that I wondered if the rest of the world carried around the same mental images, imbued with an identical insistence. Sometimes I imagined I was in the courtyard of an indeterminate house, sitting in a hammock or on a sofa. I would hear a shot and run inside to find him, the warrior of the pen and the word, stretched out over a table, his desk. Other times, the image was of a house I walked into after being out all day, and seeing his dead body sitting on the sofa in the living room, sometimes with no visible injury, while other times blood trickled from his temple and seeped into his shirt."
My favorite photo of Caleb and me is a self-portrait taken on a beach at Ecola State Park on the Oregon Coast. We had hiked down a steep trail, stopping to lunch on smoked salmon and bagels, and ended up on a beach. The tide was low, and sand dollars dotted the shore. We scooped them up like prizes. We ran into the surf. We hugged. In the photo, we are both smiling, our heads pressed together.
When I look at that photo now, I wonder, “Where are those people? Where did they go?”
Just to the right of us was a cave. I had wanted to go in it, but the tide was coming in, and I was afraid of getting trapped and drowning.