Joyland

New York |

MEANWHILE

by Sasha Fletcher

edited by Rebekah Bergman

Catherine comes home to her parents asking ‘How was school today?’ and Catherine she says ‘Today we discussed bears.’

‘Bears?’ says her parents.

‘Bears’ says Catherine.

‘Why in the world would you talk about bears? There aren’t any bears here in the desert. What sort of nonsense is that?’

Catherine says ‘Well we had to come here from somewhere.’

‘What in the hell are you talking about?’

And Catherine, their much-beloved daughter, says ‘Well, I mean just that like a hundred years ago a bunch of people came from over from England and decided that this country was going to be theirs now, and they drove out those who were already here because they wanted to make a home here instead.’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’

‘I just mean that it’d be like if we came home and someone else was in our home and said that they wanted this to be their home and then killed us if we said otherwise.’

‘But honey’ says her parents ‘What does that have to do with bears?’

‘I guess just that although bears aren’t native to this desert, we aren’t native to this land, let alone this desert, and so just who are we to say that one day bears won’t come around and bite our heads off with their sturdy jaws while our hearts conduct our blood around the concert halls of our bodies as though that would do anything at all?’

Down the road, Abe sits down to eat with his parents. His parents are exhausted. They’re bone tired. Their bones are whatever’s past tired. Whatever’s past tired is just dead. Their bones are actually dead in their bodies, and they’re sitting there, as Abe tells them about his day, says some shit about bears dancing, standing up, arms out and wrapped around their partner, supporting themselves by force of will, with mouths like traps and jaws like traps that snap down upon a skull, eyes small and black and barely peering out, about how in old English and one of the Scandinavians their names were bera and bjørn, both meaning Brown and how that’ll tell you a lot about what some people were thinking as regards bears, and their bones just died, his parents, right there, right when he said as regards, like as though that was a totally normal thing for a kid to say. Past their newly dead bones is a part of them that wonders if Abe knows how much they love him. Because of course he does. Right? Of course he knows just how much he means to them. He has to. Right? Right?

Down the road another family coughs and coughs and coughs and coughs and coughs and coughs and coughs until their ribs take on the shape of that which slams against them and their handkerchiefs blossom and bloom in ways I’ll leave it up to you to imagine.

Next door’s Sarah. Sarah spends her nights telling stories to herself about the princess of America. In these stories the princess of America changes. I mean she’s anyone or everyone, I mean it’s more about an idea than an act, is what Sarah’s learned maybe about America. In one story the princess of America builds a railroad, and in another she builds a house, and in another she’s shot in the head by a gang of boys terrified of everything and in another there’s a great speckled bird. At the foot of Sarah’s bed is a great speckled bird.

‘What’re you doing there?’ Sarah asks.

‘Go back to sleep’ says the great speckled bird.

Meanwhile it’s warm tonight, so across the street to the left they’ve kept the windows open, what curtains there are blow all on their own, as if maybe by trying hard enough they could conjure up a cool breeze or some other change of scenery. Out the window is nothing, is the town and its sounds amidst the desert, that beautiful void. Johnny sleeps in an approximation of satisfaction. Through the window crawls a man, who whistles a signal, waking Johnny.

‘Shit’ says the man from one end of a dream.

‘Did you bring it?’ asks Johnny, from the other end of another.

‘I’m in the wrong room’ he says.

‘You’re in the wrong dream’ says Johnny.

‘So this is a dream?’ he asks.

‘Do you have a map in your pocket?’ asks Johnny.

‘What? No.’

‘Check again.’

‘I don’t’ he says, hands exactly where they were when he crawled in here.

‘If you had a map, you’d be in the right dream. So either you’re in the wrong dream, or you’re here to fuck me in the ass and then kill me.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what guys who crawl into kids rooms in the middle of the night do, right?’

‘Maybe I was here to take you on an adventure. I don’t know. Shit. I was asleep once. I was. And when I opened my eyes I was below deck on a boat, and someone was calling my name, and I climbed a small ladder up to the deck, and there was nobody there, and I looked out on the water, and it looked like it would never end. Like it just kept going and going and going and going. Like there was a point in the distance and either you fell off that point, or it just continued on, forever.’

‘You aren’t here to take me on any kind of adventure, are you?’ asks Johnny.

‘No’ says the guy. His shoulders hang low, and he looks as though he really sincerely regrets this. ‘No’ he says ‘I’m not here for that at all.’

Meanwhile a father says to his child ‘Amelia, Daughter, I have got some news.’

‘Lay it on me old man’ says Amelia.

‘I ain’t that old’ says he.

‘You’re a billion years closer to death than I am.’

‘A billion?’

‘I mean, give or take. I’m like 9. With the ways in which I look up to and at you, you’ve got to expect things to telescope in one direction or another.’

‘Shit’ says he.

‘Tell me about it’ says Amelia.

‘Well ... I ... You see, your mother and I ... So. I’m moving across the street. You’ll stay here with your mother one week, and with me the next. We’ll have dinner on weekends in a table in the middle of the street between the houses. It’ll be as close as we can get to how anyone’d like this to be probably.’

Amelia, his daughter, says ‘Why?’ and he says ‘Well’ and she says ‘No, I mean. I get it.’ He says ‘Really?’ and she says ‘No’ and ‘Where’s Mom?’ and he says ‘Your mother’s upstairs, crying.’ He says ‘Nobody said this would be easy.’ She says ‘What do you mean by ‘this’?’ and he opens his arms wide, gesturing to the whole wide world around them, and says ‘Well, this’ and she says ‘You just pointed to everything’ and he says ‘Yes.’ He says ‘I guess I never grew into the sort of man your mother hoped I’d be?, and she never grew into the sort of woman who I guess I’d hope’d be OK with that?, and we all I guess grew a bit sideways maybe. Or didn’t. Or just ...’ She says ‘You still love each other, right?’ He says ‘Yes ma’am.’ And she says ‘You still love me, right?’ and he says ‘We surely do.’ And she says ‘So what’s the problem?’ And he says ‘Amelia, darlin child o mine, light of my life, one day we all need to confront the possibility that love is not enough.’

And Amelia says ‘Bullshit.’

He says ‘If only this were true,’ real quiet like.

She says ‘Bullshit.’ She says ‘Fuck you.’

He gets up.

He says ‘I’ll keep a lantern lit for every second that I love you.’

He says ‘I’m so sorry.’

He says ‘Will you please give me a kiss goodnight.’

He says ‘Please.’

‘Please’ he says.

He just stands there, waiting, forever.

When he gets home he lights a lantern on the porch. It never goes out.

Meanwhile two kids named Sally and Michael string up tin cans between their houses and pull them taut to whisper the sort of things they can’t trust to the birds.

Sally says ‘What about telling her the truth’ and Michael says ‘The truth is that she hasn’t looked at me in years,’ he says ‘The truth is I’m more of an idea than a boy at this point.’

Sally says ‘My mother, she’ll knit you a sweater if you even shiver.’

She says ‘She’ll bake you a cake just for having been born.’

She says ‘She’d set herself on fire if it would show me what love means.’

She says ‘You’re better than an idea’ she says ‘You’re a boy.’ She thinks for a second, for several seconds, for longer than Michael can stand, and she says ‘You should promise me something.’

He says ‘I promise.’

She says ‘Yeah but what?’

Michael says ‘I promise that we’ll get married, and we’ll have a family, and we’ll do it far away from here whenever we’re good and ready and we’ll write people letters about our lives and post them the old fashioned way, by nailing the notes to their hearts while they sleep, and we’ll see the ocean, and we’ll taste the rain’ and she says ‘How will the rain taste?’ and she’s breathless right now and he says ‘How do you think the rain’ll taste?’ and she says ‘Wet, and like hope, and also fear’ and he tells her ‘It’ll taste like that, and it’ll taste like it smells, and it’ll smell like the promise of a new life, and who knows what that entails, but it’s something, right? Right?’ and she says ‘I love you’ and he says ‘I love you’ and then they scream it. They scream ‘I LOVE YOU’ like a battle cry. Like it’s the last thing you’ll ever hear.

Meanwhile every day this one father splits firewood and Jonothon, he doesn’t see his father for 4 years, until the firewood is all split and stacked into piles like cairns. Jonothon asks his mother what has been going on these past 4 years and she tells him ‘Preparedness,’ like that was any sort of answer worth giving, while next door Stella writes out Dear Mom and Dad I’m no good, and my heart is rotten, and loving me will ruin you, and the only thing it’ll ever teach you is how to waste your love, and then, by loving me, your whole concept of love’ll grow rotten, and you’ll hate each other forever, and your hearts’ll grow mealy like a dead pumpkin, and will shrivel up, and what ghosts you’ve carved inside yourselves, they’ll collapse to the ground, and will never fly, and will never float, and they won’t touch the ceiling, ever, they’ll just lay there on the ground, flat, with no life, because that’s what loving me will get you.

Meanwhile there’s Ben and his dad. Come and see!

‘I look at you’ says Ben’s dad to Ben, ‘And I see everything that I could’ve been. And I wanna choke it. And I wanna bury it in the fucking ground. Because my whole life, my whole life has amounted to some misbegotten idea that someone far dumber than me had aspired to, and I never had the sense to get free of it. And I see you. And I see the potential in you. And I wanna, I wanna just snuff it out. I swear to God I love you so much I just can’t even breathe, and I don’t know what to do anymore.’

Down the road a family stands around with their mouths open because of not knowing what else to do anymore with their bodies as their mother’s lily-white hands dangle at the end of her wrists at the end of her arms inside the sleeves of her dress that hung from her body where she had hanged herself from the ceiling, itself under the roof which was under the sky and the stars and the whole entirety of the world itself, her face looking as though she had finally hurt too much to keep going, and as her brain flooded with things few of us will ever understand, she had a vision of her pain leaving her body, and her mouth looked as though she had, for an instant, smiled, and then seen her pain take the shape of her own body and heart and mind and worm its hurt inside her family assembled below her, who she could see, because she was a ghost, and her child thought all of this, told the story of all of this in their child head about the ways in which pain is like a hijacked train that will run through our lives in ways we either can or cannot control.

There are many definitive books on pain, thinks Chuck, as though pain was a thing anyone could ever define well enough to make any sense of.

This is something I don’t know what to do about, thinks Chuck, whose eyes are welling up uncontrollably with tears, as their father places his too-heavy hands around his children and ushers them out into the night with a blanket, wrapping them all up together in a tent of his arms, and humming a song whose words are many and varied, urging their hearts onwards in one way or another. There are all kinds of memories that come flooding in to the family, along with feelings, which in this case take the form of physical reactions, of emotions lodging themselves in parts of the body where they cannot help but feel them, where they can no longer pretend about the world as it is laid before them and they slept like that under the stars in the tent of their father’s arms, not one of them sleeping, but all of them holding their eyes closed, to let everyone know that they could sleep, they could all sleep, they could all be OK, whether this was real or not. It’s just a story they’re telling right now. These are all just stories we’re telling.

Across the road a family returns with an empty sack the size of a child that they drag behind them, having given up on cradling it, their eyes telling more stories than anyone cares to hear, the concept of a river is a thing far beyond them, left behind with their child whose lungs are all full up with dirt. Later in the night their house is consumed by a sudden and spontaneous fire. The crows gather to watch, and a soft, high voice crawls out their beaks, and if anyone was listening over the roar of the flames and the shattering of the glass and the cracking of the wood and the spitting of the nails into what, into the night, into the street, then they would have heard, over and over WILL YOU BE SORRY FOR THE THINGS YOU’VE DONE WILL YOU BE SORRY WILL YOU BE SORRY FOR THE THINGS YOU’VE DONE I’VE LOVED YOU I’VE LOVED I’VE and then the birds got caught up in the flames, what words left in their bellies went up in the fire, out into the night, where the stars wanted nothing to do with them.

In the night all the families tuck their children in for the night and tell them stories that are instantly forgotten. These stories form boats and the boats carry the children down a river into a town called SLEEP, and that’s it, that’s that, that’s how the story ends right now.

Excerpted from the manuscript "Bandits."