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.
The wind howled and pushed against the glass of the windows. The world outside was pitch-black with faint starlight. I lit a cigarette and asked myself how I could change to keep loving her.
Two years after we moved, I started graduate school and finally made some friends, but it was hard to spend time with them. I had to lie: I shut my arm in the door. I tripped on a rug and hit my face on the table. I don’t know where that bruise came from. I think I did it in my sleep. I think I’m anemic. I just bruise so easily.
Once, Caleb said to me, “You probably wish that someone would figure out where those bruises are coming from. You probably wish someone knew, so that things could change.” He said it with such sadness.
ENDNOTE #4: VISUAL/CULTURE
In this installment of ENDNOTE we bring you a reading list loosely curated along the lines of creativity, class, race, and visual culture. Featuring: questions of agency surrounding the political selfie, the dangers of “do what you love,” Ciara and object fetish, the racist origin of film, and at The Toast, a coffee break with every TV show’s favorite anonymous dead girl.
1. Selfie Control, Jenna Brager, The New Inquiry
Writes Brager: “The specter of the unintentional object, particularly an object of action—the lens of a camera, a blurred hand in motion, the barrel of a gun—in conflict or atrocity photography carries the viewer’s gaze into the margins of the photograph and outside it. Who is acting in the margins? Whose gaze do we occupy?”
2. In the Name of Love, Miya Tokumitsu, Jacobin
"Do what you love" has long been the motto of America’s burgeoning, plaintively long-suffering "creative class." But how responsible is this philosophy? Tokumitsu argues it does more harm than good, especially as it falls across class divides.
3. You Are My Ducati, Andrew Durbin, Triple Canopy
"Since first listening to Ciara’s “Ride,” her 2010 chart-topper about the reversal of expectation, gender trouble loosened in the declaration that her man is her Ducati, the mobilizing object parked in the garage that begs you, slick with rain, to take him for a spin, I’ve become obsessed with the Italian motorcycle company."
4. Teaching the Camera To See My Skin, Syreeta McFadden, Buzzfeed
This essay ought to be required reading for any consumer of mass visual culture. McFadden discusses the racist origins of Kodak film and explores new ways of photographic representation with a lyrical, compassionate hand familiar with the shutter and exposure.
5. Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break, Helen McClory, The Toast
The eeriest thing I’ve read lately. “She peels back the plastic and gets out of the water, a little clumsy with her limbs not moving right and her blue-black blood slow shot through them. She hasn’t even opened her eyes yet, they’ve been closed that long she has to pry them with thick fingers, prop them open a while, practice her blinks.”
Have any compelling, charged, or otherwise fascinating reads? Send them to us and they might end up in ENDNOTE.
—Larissa Pham, Tumblr ed.
I had never, in my whole life, been able to understand love as a sickness. Love should not destroy our dignity. Beautiful feelings should not make us hang our heads and burn our eyes with tears. When I suggested that she get rid of their pictures and letters to help her forget, she refused, saying, “I can’t shred two years of my life.”