Lynn Coady's most recent books are The Antagonist and the collection Hellgoing, which won the 2013 $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. "Clear Skies" was the very first story published on Joyland in 2008 and is included in Hellgoing.
People were laughing, afterwards. They laughed during, too, before anyone knew what was going on or what might happen. The thing to do upon landing was tell the story and make jokes. When Sara was up there, seconds after the boom, she imagined doing it. She’d even rehearsed it a bit for future audiences.
I was so scared. I thought an engine had exploded. I thought: well, this is it.
At the airport, Terry was carrying a copy of Sara’s book for identification purposes. She saw him from a distance, peering down at the author’s photo every time a new arrival emerged through the sliding doors. His eyes went from her face on the book, to her face in real life, and still they passed right by her. She had to come and tap him on the shoulder.
“It’s me,” she said, pointing to the book. It was her first book. The person in the photograph was nineteen years old. Sara’s tap had surprised him and he gave her an instinctive, hostile look. “What a tiny airport!” she added.
“Oh!” yelled Terry, grabbing her hand. He asked how her flight had been.
“The plane was struck by lightning,” Sara said. She told her little story for him, watched his blue eyes widen. It was a good way to kick things off.
They had to wait for Herb, the fiction guy, before making their way to the monastery, but his flight was not due for another twenty minutes. Sara went to the bathroom as Terry studied the back of Herb’s book, which was stamped with a gilded reminder of his nomination for a national book award the previous year.
Everywhere she went in the airport, there were posters—on practically every wall. It was almost ridiculous, the number of posters. She saw such posters in her grocery store, and the post office. But here it was the same poster over and over again, the same pudgy, uncute face.
“What’s with all the posters?” she asked Terry.
He jumped again at the sound of her voice. I will get a little bell to wear around the retreat, Sara decided.
“Oh,” he said, looking around. “Marie.” As if the girl in the posters were related to him or something, a colleague maybe. “She’s been gone a month now. Everyone’s desperate. Sad,” he added.
“But why—” Sara didn’t know how to ask the question without sounding callous. “I mean—there’s only one missing kid in the entire province?”
Terry shrugged. He was supposedly a playwright, but Sara had never seen any of his work. “It’s one of those things—mysterious. You know, her parents are still together, so it’s not like one of them nabbed her. Just disappeared out of the blue.”
Sara felt what she knew was a prissy twinge of annoyance, because the phrase was inappropriate. You didn’t disappear out of the blue. You appeared out of it, suddenly, like a holy bolt of lightning.
It was a year in the world where people seemed to be dying explosively or else disappearing without so much as a bleat. She wanted to leave it behind, which was why she’d said yes to the retreat. She’d liked the sound of it: a prairie retreat. The brochure Terry sent her showed photographs like abstract paintings: one thick, vertical band of brilliant green topped by a second, thicker, band of glaring blue. Your view, the brochure promised.
On TV there was nothing but explosions anymore. In her city, in the past year, an abrupt slew of people had blanked from existence as if culled by hungry aliens. Pictures of people who had recently failed to exist were always on the front page of the paper. It was not like she ever bought the paper—front page after front page accosted her whenever she walked up and down the street. There was no avoiding anything.
She had a brother in Duncan who, like her, was no longer in the family. They argued on the phone. James always seemed to think it was natural and okay for he himself to have left, but scandalous and obscene for her. Plus, he didn’t mind the bombs. “It’s about time they started bombing something,” he opined. He called Sara a hippie, since he couldn’t convincingly use words like harlot and jezebel now that they were equally damned.
They rolled along the landscape in Terry’s big white van. It was just like the abstract painting in the brochure, only endless and on every side. Just when she was starting to feel panicky about it, hills appeared on either side of the highway, and then they were descending into a picturesque—there was no other word for it—valley. Terry gestured to one of the hills, and she and Herb looked. A crucifix loomed; a sprawling, one-storey building crouched behind it as if for protection.
“There it is,” said Terry.
“Oh no,” said Sara.
Herb was sitting in the front seat. He had talked all the way from the airport, which would have bothered her if he wasn’t so likeable and engaging. A publisher’s dream—that’s the kind of writer Herb was. Now he turned and flashed his teeth at her.
“Everything all right?”
In the rearview mirror, Terry glanced and squinted. He was thinking—Ten days with this person, morning noon and night—and so she laughed.
“I forgot about the god thing,” she explained. “The crucifix up there.” She grimaced and shuddered comically for them. Terry and Herb both knew about Sara—how she had made her name. She had been briefly famous, as a teenager. They laughed and nodded.
The first morning of the retreat, her toilet backed up. It was the worst thing that could happen. She had used it, was the problem. She had used it right after breakfast.
She flushed the thing as many times as she dared before slinking to Terry’s office. At the grim look on her face, he jerked himself to his feet and pulled the door shut—expecting maybe news of an unwanted grope from Herb, a veiled threat from a born-again student.
“No, no, nothing like that.” Sara assured him. Cringing, she explained.
“We’ll just call in the maintenance man,” Terry told her, managing to wink and look jolly.
I shit, she had basically walked up to Terry and announced. Hello, strange man. There is something I’d like you to know about me and here it is. Sara floundered at the thought of the maintenance man. Would she have to encounter this maintenance man at any point? Look him in the eye afterward?
“I don’t know what you were planning on doing this morning,” said Terry. “The groups don’t meet until after lunch. You could go for a little walk maybe, while he’s working.”
Sara had been planning on having a shower—she hadn’t bothered when she arrived the night before. Her hair was pulled back tight and neat so that none of its greasy strands would be noted.
She went for a walk. She went to see the labyrinth. Last night Terry told them how much visitors enjoyed walking the labyrinth, and she and Herb and Betty, the poet, and Marguerite, the children’s writer, were welcome to do the same. It helped the students move forward with their writing, he said. Helped them to commit, to let go of whatever might be holding them back. They carried some object into the labyrinth with them which was meant to represent their problem, their block. They meditated as they walked and once they got to the middle, left the object there on the makeshift pedestal. Sara had walked straight through the labyrinth, stepping over its stone borders, to examine the pile of crap left on the pedestal, while everyone else remained outside, as if in respect. There were pebbles and sticks and small birds feathers—but also single earrings, grocery receipts and a tube of lipgloss.
Now she circled the labyrinth, feeling resentful of it, the way she felt resentful of the crucifix. Last night she had said that she didn’t know much about Catholicism, but a labyrinth seemed, to her, sort of pagan for a monastery. She understood ritual was a big deal in the Catholic church—on the plane, she had seen rosaries appear from pockets and purses after the boom, and people closed their eyes, fingered the rosaries bead by bead, and appeared to be chanting mindlessly. Still it seemed wrong to her, like Terry had led them through the bush to a golden calf.
Marguerite the children’s writer contradicted her. She told Sara about the Catholic labyrinths at Chartes and Amiens, and how old they were, and Sara felt, as she often felt, the limits of her education. Still, she also felt like she was right and Marguerite was wrong. It was how she was raised. Christian or pagan, she wanted to say—pick one. It was like the photo in the brochure—a single slash of sky above a single slash of land.
When she returned to her room, a man was crouched over her toilet, cursing. She smoothed her hair and left without disturbing him.
At lunch, the instructors sat together shyly, having not had time to bond with their group-members as yet, which it was clear they were expected to do. It seemed to Sara that Marguerite and Betty had the wrong jobs. Marguerite the children’s’ writer was serious, highly educated and dressed in prim, grayish woolies despite the fact that it was August. She looked, in short, like a poet. Betty was twenty-eight and wore a black mini-dress and a clattery sequence of bangles on either wrist. You could see the children's writers yearned for Betty. Whereas the poets—many of whom had ten years or more on their mentor—raised eyebrows at each other every time the cafeteria shook with Betty’s overloud laughter. This happened so much that Sara started to worry about Betty. Betty laughed at everything she—Betty—or anyone else for that matter, said. It seemed compulsive after a while.
They spoke about the missing girl, Marie. Marguerite and Terry both lived in the province, and it seemed residents of the province could think of little else—just as people in Sara’s city were preoccupied by the same phenomena, only in greater numbers. Here it was only Marie at the centre of the mystery. The mystery was Marie herself. In Sara’s city the mystery was Absence—here Absence was Marie.
“Disappeared out of the blue,” said Terry again. Betty laughed. Sara wondered if she had picked up on Terry’s mistaken usage and was being indiscreet.
“Well—the weather has improved at least,” remarked Marguerite.
Betty laughed, and then asked, “Sorry—was that a joke?”
Marguerite didn’t smile, but rolled her eyes in a gesture, perhaps, of self-depreciation. They didn’t know each other well enough to determine if Marguerite was rolling her eyes at Betty or not.
“No, I mean no more cloud cover,” Marguerite explained. “Clear skies. It makes searching easier.”
Sara glanced up, confused. “Why?” she said before she had time to think and stop herself. “Do they think she’s up there somewhere?”
Betty laughed, vibrating the water in Sara’s glass. At a table nearby, the poets drew themselves together.
“First of all,” she said to her group after lunch. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. You guys could just as well have applied to Herb’s group. There is no difference between fiction and memoir as far as I’m concerned.”
Nobody wanted to contradict her so early in the meeting, but she could see the skepticism behind their eyes. They were smiling at her but they were formulating objections, she could tell.
“I mean, okay, what—right off the bat—what would you say is the difference between the two forms?”
Everyone knew, but no one wanted to say something so obvious. Also because it was clear Sara was planning to contradict the person who did. She waited them out until finally a woman her own age named Alison spoke.
“One’s true, one’s made-up,” Alison sighed.
“True, false; good, bad; black, white,” Sara shot back—keyed-up on nervous adrenalin and feeling as if she was barely making sense. “No. It’s an imaginary distinction.”
“But,” the only man in the room leaned forward, brow pinching. He was in an awkward position already, and knew it. Even sitting down, he hulked over the women.
“But,” the man repeated. His name was Mac. “Surely there are differences.”
“No, there are no differences,” Sara insisted. She didn’t know why she was being so adamant—of course there were differences. Maybe it had to do with establishing authority—forcing them to agree to a patent untruth right off the bat. Two plus two is five, repeat after me.
“Even,” persisted Mac, “attitudinally speaking. Attitudinally, wouldn’t you have to take a completely different approach to writing a work of fiction than you would a personal memoir?”
Mac ducked his head and raised his eyes to her then. A gesture of deference that was almost dog-like.
Sara pretended to think about it but really she was trying to calm her nerves.
“But you are talking about,” she said, “the kind of differences that exists between any two projects. I write. . .I want to write, say, a whimsical story from the point of view of a dog. The next day, I want to write some kind of—I don’t know—something weighty. Something from the point of view of a, of a rape victim or something.”
Everyone was suddenly watching her with their mouths shut. She glared back at them.
“There will always be attitudinal differences—from one story to the next is what I’m saying,” she continued, the jolt of annoyance having cleared her head. “My point is, they’re all still going to be stories, no matter what category we choose to put them in—fiction or non.”
Sara sat back in her chair, satisfied she had finally said something teacherly, and ready to suggest a coffee break. But when she glanced at her watch she saw they had only been together in the meeting room for ten minutes or so. She suggested one anyway.
The last time she spoke with her brother James, he explained to her why it didn’t matter that people were disappearing from the street. He said it was part of God’s plan.
I don’t think it’s part of God’s plan, she replied.
Well what would you know about God’s plan, said James. This is how they talked to each other. There were no particularly nuanced arguments, no fine points to be made.
What do you know about God’s plan, Sara jeered back at him.
More than you, James answered. James had a blackboard in his apartment, Sara imagined, like a football coach would have. There was a line drawn down the middle in chalk. On one side of the blackboard was written Big Jim and on the other side, Stupid Hippie. And every time James came back with a zinger like “more than you,” a mark went under Big Jim and then he sat back, satisfied, licking the chalk from his fingers.
It’s God’s plan, Sara exclaimed like she was starting to understand. I get it, I get it, the women are the chosen ones! It’s been them all along! They’ve been called! They’ve left us all behind!
James sighed his disgust. You pretend, he said, to be stupid, and say stupid things when you know the truth as well as I do. I’ve never understood why you do that. It doesn’t make you seem smart, if that’s what you think.
They’re whores, said Sara. She stood and carried the phone with her to look out the window at her pansies.
God is cleansing us of them.
Just like the bombs. On the heathen cities. Right?
But all women on the outside are whores. Sara was babbling again, almost gleeful. Yes? Right? And everyone outside Eden are heathen. So why aren’t we all disappearing? Why isn’t the city burning around me? Where is the angry hand, reaching down to smite?
She was leaning forward, grinning hard, as if James were there in the apartment with her. But if James were there, she knew she’d never talk like this.
He waited an insolent moment before answering.
I left—and you know I left—because I didn’t believe all that bullshit. I’m not a fanatic.
Shriek. She could almost hear the chalk against the board.
Mac came up to her at the book table, where Sara was noting which of her books Terry had ordered to sell at the retreat. There were about twenty copies of her teenage memoir stacked there, and he had used it as a display copy too—Escaping Eden—the book that was to represent her as an author. Tucked behind the stack of the memoirs were five copies of her second novel, and no copies of her first or her collection of stories.
She was standing there thinking that talking to her brother James was like talking to God. Maybe this was the reason she still stayed in contact with James, despite the futility of their conversations—the acid frustration it provoked. It was like talking to God—pointless, maddening and compulsive. James didn’t makes sense—he didn’t have to make sense. He didn’t bow to the logic of Man. James's wisdom was his unfathomable own—undreamt of in her philosophy. James was what James was.
“I loved it,” Mac told her.
She swiveled and blinked. He smiled and reached to tap the stack of Edens with a hirsute finger.
“It’s the reason I came here. I hope you don’t—I mean I think you’re a brilliant memoirist.”
“Thanks,” she said. They stared together at the pile of books. “Did you think I was going to be nineteen?”
“What?” said Mac.
“Everybody thinks I’m going to be nineteen. Because I was nineteen when I published the book, and it was such a big deal. Oh my god, she’s nineteen! And they still make a big deal of it on the cover—see?” She picked up one of the copies, which was the newest edition, and showed him. She held the photo of the nineteen-year-old up beside her face.
Mac laughed a little. “I didn’t think you’d be nineteen. But I did—you know, I read the book and I thought—I want to learn from the person who wrote this book. I want to tell my story with the same kind of honesty.”
“I don’t even remember writing it,” Sara told him.
Betty and Herb were to read at the beginning of the retreat, and she and Marguerite were to read at the end. Herb, charismatic and engaging, was also a wonderful reader, but his prize-winning book was about a middle-aged male university professor having a torrid, forbidden affair with one of his undergraduate female students. Sara had read somewhere that the “twist” in Herb’s novel, the thing that elevated it from hackneyed smut, was the fact that even though the sexual relationship starts out fueled by nothing but goatish lust (with the typical mid-life crisis and dash of misogyny thrown in), it unexpectedly evolves into a profound and tender love. Not even love affair, but love. The couple take up arms, philosophically speaking, against their numerous inquisitors instead of slinking away and apart as anyone would have expected. On the contrary, they vigorously defend their love, repudiating shame and defying censure—be it official or otherwise. The review Sara read claimed this aspect of the novel was what made it startling and brave. What made it brilliant, the reviewer added, was that, for most of the novel, the reader found herself taking the part of the inquisitors, feeling the very same contempt and moral outrage, only to be ambushed and chastened by the sudden purity of the love story.
For this particular reading, however, Herb eschewed the love story altogether in favour of the sex scenes. He strung them together, flipping from one marked page to the next so that the descriptions of the professor and student’s couplings were relentless and all seemed to blur into one endless, gross encounter. Sara wondered if Herb was just getting a kick out of reading these words aloud in a monastery, out of the fact that celibate holymen slept and studied only a few feet away. Maybe he imagined his resonant, stage-actor’s voice carrying all the way into their wing, slipping like a tongue into hairy Franciscan ears.
She pictured her brother James sitting in the back with his Chevron cap perched on the crown of his head, lips obliterated under his moustache, and meaty arms folded.
Betty got up to read next. She wore a somewhat more revealing but less stretchy minidress than the one she’d been wearing all day, with long satin gloves and big crucifix earrings. She made some prefatory, self-depreciating jokes about herself and shrieked laughter into the microphone.
“This is a poem about my mother,” she told everyone a moment later, wiping her eyes. She read the title—a sad, solemn title—and laughed again like it was a private, uproarious joke.
Betty did something to her voice for the reading—Sara had heard other poets do it too. Sometimes it seemed stagy and contrived and other times, depending on the poet, it worked well. With Betty it seemed natural. She changed her timbre substantially—the entire personality of her voice changed. It was low and meditative. There wasn’t any laughter. It was the speaking-voice of Betty’s mind.
Sara looked out the window and saw how the sunset was painting the valley. Her eyes turned on like taps. She tried to get it under control. This happened at the movies sometimes—even during the previews. The music would swell, a camera would zoom in on a face and it was as if someone had reached beneath her ribs and flicked a switch. It didn’t matter what was going on, necessarily. The content wasn’t the problem. It was a thing that happened outside of words.
Afterwards the polite thing to do was discuss the readings with Betty and Herb respectively.
“I cried,” she told Betty, who looked startled, and then laughed. Sara laughed with her, feeling relief. This was the same sort of phenomenon as my plane was hit by lightning, the same sort of ritual. You speak it in defiance. It was freeing the same way blasphemy was freeing.
When they weren’t having group meetings, they had private meetings, one-on-one. Individually, she found them all to be splendid people, and wanted to assure them that the fact they had any proficiency at all was wonderful and they shouldn’t get so tied up in knots about it because they also had jobs and houses and licenses to drive cars which made them like gods as far as Sara was concerned.
She and Mac conducted their meeting walking into town to buy alcohol and bottled water. It was coming toward the end of the week and people had started to sit outside and drink in the evenings, prompting Terry to bring his guitar out of his office and play Gordon Lightfoot songs.
Mac told her about his memoir as they walked the gash of road through the endless fields on either side. The sky felt like something they could disappear into. She made sure to walk in the middle of the road, like a child avoiding cracks in the sidewalk.
“This landscape is crazy!” Sara interrupted Mac at one point.
“Different from where you grew up,” said Mac. Not a question. He figured he knew everything about her. He was, she had determined a few days ago, constantly angling to discuss Eden.
“I’ve never been to the Kooteneys,” he continued. “I love how you describe them in the book. The mountains and trees. . .the clouds against the mountains. . . 'yet another barrier.' It was great how. . .I mean you said everything but the word ‘prison,’ right?”
“God-made dungeon,” said Sara. She thought she was saying it spontaneously, but the moment she did, realized she had quoted the nineteen-year-old.
“Oh that’s right, that’s right,” said Mac. “You did say dungeon. But that sense of claustrophobia—it came across so well. None of that here, eh?” He gestured to the sky. Here you could gesture to the sky simply by raising your arms a few inches. “Nothing holding you back.”
Sara was concerned because Mac was modeling his book too closely on her own. His story wasn’t even really his, but his grandfather’s, who had been a leader in the Winnipeg general strike. He had done endless research. He had, as he put it, “reams” of material.
She decided to tackle the subject head on, to talk about Eden as much as Mac craved in order to dissuade him, to show how him wrong-headed it was. He wouldn’t be able to write his own book until he fell out of love with hers.
“Do you see why this approach can’t work?” she demanded as they walked. Walking made it easier to be honest, they didn’t have to look at each other. The crunch of gravel filled in the conversational gaps. “The two books have nothing in common.”
“But it’s more the attitude of your book I’m trying to get at—”
“This attitude thing again—”
“The tone is internal, Mac. The tone is the inside of a teenage girl’s head. Do you think I had to go to the library and research that?”
“But how did you. . .like that thing with the trees and the mountains and the clouds against the mountains—one barrier after another. Crafting those kinds of metaphors. That’s the sort of thing I’m after.”
“They weren’t metaphors,” said Sara. “That was how things looked, through my eyeballs, and so I wrote it down.”
Crunch gravel, crunch gravel. Mac was casting a shadow over her. He is so big, thought Sara. He could kill me.
“I thought you didn’t remember writing it,” said Mac, smiling at the approaching town.
Somebody had bought a newspaper and it lay splayed across one of the tables in the main hall. There was news from her city, and news from overseas—all the news she didn’t want. She was thinking about throwing it away when Herb wandered in from the cafeteria, noticed Sara hovering, and asked if she was reading it.
“No,” said Sara. “No one should be reading it.”
“It’s sad,” said Herb, settling into a chair. “But we have to live in this world, don’t we, retreat or no? We can’t close our eyes to these things, much as we want to. That’s what writers do. We face up.”
Some of the participants heard what Herb was saying and inched closer. Sara had noticed this on several occasions—Herb wandering into the main hall with a cup of coffee, initiating a conversation, waxing casually profound on the subject of writing until he had gathered a tiny, devout clan around his chair.
“War,” said Herb, scanning the front page. “Are you telling me you haven’t considered writing something about the war—if you haven’t written something already?”
“I refuse,” said Sara, feeling the perverse adamancy descend again. She had written a handful of terrible poems only a few months ago.
Herb’s talking about the war, someone called nearby.
“Oh Sara, don’t,” said Herb, as if she were hurting him. “Don’t refuse. Don’t turn your back. If writers refuse to discuss these issues, where does that leave us?”
“You cheapen it,” said Sara. “You cheapen it when you give it words. The more you talk about it, the more commonplace and mundane it becomes until we’re all going, oh yeah, the war, war—war war war. It’s just war.” Sara felt itchy all of a sudden, wanting to scratch herself like a monkey. “We work in a pretty cheap medium, really.”
Betty was walking past. She caught what Sara had said and laughed explosively.
“Let’s all stop writing!” exclaimed Betty, not slowing down on her way to wherever she was going.
“Yes,” said Sara, “Let’s stop.” She turned around and saw Terry, who smiled and gestured to her.
I’m being called to the principal’s office, thought Sara. But that wasn’t something so much in her experience as it was the rest of the world’s—the outside world’s. To her it was just an expression—one of the many exotic, puzzling expressions she heard after leaving the family, like pushing the envelope and don’t be hatin’. Growing up behind the mountains, Sara was only ever called into her father’s office. Her father’s office was wherever he happened to be.
She sat across from Terry, who had nice blue eyes, laugh-lines and played Gordon Lightfoot songs on his guitar. Plus, he was no more than six years older than her. Plus, she had done nothing wrong and was being ridiculous because she was sweating and closed-mouth panting the way she had done on the plane.
“How are things?” said Terry.
And it was also like her shrink’s office, when the province decided she had to see a shrink before she could be declared an independent minor. How are things, that was how the meetings started. Sara’s shrink had been a woman, however. One of the social workers had insisted on it—Sara found that out later, poring over her own files for the memoir. She had lied to Mac about that—she had conducted research on herself.
“Things are great, Terry.”
“Week’s gone okay?”
“It’s been great, yeah. Wonderful group.”
“Mm-hmm?” his eyebrows went up. “Any stars this year?”
There were no stars, but Sara threw out Alison’s name to make Terry happy.
They smiled at each other, Sara relaxing a little. Maybe Terry was holding these impromptu, individual meetings with all the instructors.
“I wanted to ask you,” said Terry, “if everything’s okay in your bathroom.”
Sara sat for a moment.
“With your toilet and everything,” Terry prompted.
She burst into laughter like Betty.
“Oh, my gosh! Yes! I’m sorry, Terry, I should have mentioned—” Terry started to shake his head rapidly and wave his hands—“Yes the maintenance guy had it fixed by the end of the day, no problem, no problem at all.”
“Because,” said Terry. “I was going to say, we could always switch your room, if you’re having any problems.”
Sara shook her head back at him. “Oh god, no, it’s fine, it’s been fine all week.”
Terry didn’t seem to be absorbing her reassurances. He pressed his lips together and inhaled through his nose.
“So the shower and everything is—“
“Shower, sink, toilet,” recited Sara. “Everything’s great.”
Terry blinked his fine blue eyes at her.
“I mean,” said Sara. She thought for a moment about the shower. “I can’t quite remember if—” She tried to imagine the taps, the nozzle. Tried to conjure up a picture in her mind.
Suddenly her hands darted to her scalp. She looked down at her palms like they had come away bloody.
She’d been to these retreats before, both as a mentor and mentee—to use Terry’s jargon—and there was always at least one person in attendance who was the person everybody talked about. Once it had been a young instructor who systematically slept with every female member of his group and then went on to infiltrate the others—it was like he had a checklist. Once it was a fiction student who refused to talk to any of the other participants and just sat staring at them with his eyes slitted like a cat’s and his fingers forming a steeple whenever everyone came together for meetings or mealtimes. It got so no one was able to eat in his presence. Once it was a woman who was believed to be shrieking every night in her sleep, until someone reported that she wasn’t sleeping at all—she was making these noises wide awake.
That is to say, there was always an odd-person out at these things, always a weirdo.
She was clean for the reading with Marguerite, having sat under the shower for twenty shame-soaked minutes after talking to Terry. It hadn’t turned on immediately. She was just thinking she would have to march her filthy-headed way back down the hall to his office when the nozzle hacked up a few squirts of tobacco brown and finally silver jets began to spray out.
How could she have gone five days without taking a shower? She wondered if something had happened when she was up on the plane—if some fundamental part of her brain containing the instinct to bathe had been fried by the lightning jolt. The flight attendant told them the bolt had come out of nowhere—there’d been no indication of lightning anywhere in the sky before it hit. But what happens sometimes, he explained, is that the plane causes the lightning to occur. It flies through a charged cloud and the lightning actually originates from the plane.
“It came from us,” said the flight attendant into his little intercom.
Marguerite got up and read a poem about Marie. She was nowhere near the poet Betty was, and read like she was reciting from a grocery list. Plus, the poem was bleak. It was clear Marguerite wasn’t kidding herself when it came to Marie’s likely fate. There was a line about the winter fields screaming up at the sky that made Sara wince. One person noisily swallowed a sob and Terry stared at Marguerite, the fatherly cheer gone out of his eyes.
“Um,” said Marguerite when she was finished. Behind her glasses she had a sweet, round face with a bow mouth like a fifties’ starlet. “I’m sorry if that was unexpected, I know poetry isn’t my forte.”
“It was wonderful,” said Betty and started clapping. A couple of people in Betty’s group made noises of agreement, and picked up the applause. Marguerite looked around, gathered up her pages, and left the podium, which was awkward because she was expected to read for another fifteen minutes or so.
Sara was in the middle of a glass of wine, so took it to the podium with her after Terry’s listless introduction. It was up to her to salvage the mood, which was fine. Sara was good at readings. She had a standard twenty minutes of all the most compelling bits from her short story collection, tightly arranged and well rehearsed. She knew just which phrases to punch, precisely how long to make her pauses for maximum comedic effect. It was the same little song-and-dance she’d been putting on for quite some time in the hope of getting people more interested in her fiction.
She held up the book and was happy to disappear behind it for a while. She was better at reading than she was at talking—or even writing, she sometimes thought. Everyone laughed at the spots where she knew they would laugh, and clapped with apparent sincerity when she was done. She shut her book and drained her wine, smiling.
“What about questions for Sara?” called Terry. Mac’s big hand poked up like a gopher’s nervous head.
“I would really appreciate,” said Mac, “a quick reading from Escaping Eden.”
“Yeah!” said Betty, clapping, clattering her bangles.
It was Marguerite’s fault for finishing early—leaving Sara all this extra time. “I don’t have a copy with me,” she protested. But Terry was already on his feet and at the book table.
“It would mean a lot to me,” said Mac.
She took the copy from Terry, opened it up to the front page and started plowing through the first paragraph. This, she remembered, was how she used to do readings when she was starting out. It never occurred to her to comb through the book, picking out the best-written sections. In Sara’s opinion, there were no particularly well-written sections in Escaping Eden. People liked it because it was about teenage girls and sex and God and suffering. It was, in other words, a soap opera.
She read the words like they were someone else’s—stumbling, missing key inflections, having to go back and start entire sentences again. The book started at the end of the story—a fairly conventional structure, suggested by her editor—with the night of Sara’s escape. The rest of the chapters would fill in the background of her grotesque upbringing. When the book was released, she remembered, no one could believe such a community still existed. People were appalled—that is, they purported to be appalled, even though Sara remembered how gawkers from Creston and other nearby places used to cruise the village daily wearing faces of delight. She had said this in interviews.
Back then, she told everybody everything—every shameful detail. She couldn’t have shut up if she tried. And people believed her, they heard her, they were every bit angry as she was. She was soaring on outrage, the energy of having it released, as if she’d been flung from a slingshot.
She remembered the feeling of swooping across the country like a giant, avenging eagle. It was a dumb, obvious image, but that’s how she remembered feeling—she’d grown up watching eagles, making personal gods of them. She didn’t know enough back then to reject them as hackneyed. She wrote about eagles in the diary that became her book—their lizard eyes and pitiless heads. But her editor told Sara to take the eagles out. It was overused, amateurish symbolism, the editor said.
Sara hadn’t read this bit in well over a decade, and found herself becoming fascinated, despite her clumsy reading, by what was happening in the pages—how the girl just climbed out of bed one night and left under cover of darkness. Where, Sara wondered, did she find the strength? She’d been told all her life she didn’t have any—why didn’t she believe it? She moved through the night without a doubt in her mind, jumped into one stranger’s car and then the next. How did she get so sure of herself? Why wasn’t she afraid? How could she be so certain she was right and they were wrong?
Afterwards, Betty unveiled a bottle of gin and bag of limes. Everyone had one more workshop left, but it wouldn’t be until tomorrow afternoon and they were all too psychically exhausted to prepare. They acknowledged this to each other before starting to drink. The final workshop, everyone agreed once Terry was out of earshot, would be a hungover formality.
“I never imagined this would be such a wringer,” said Alison, who looked like she might start crying for about the seventh time that week. “I thought—you know—it will be a nice little break, I’ll learn some tricks. I wrangled PD money out of my company and everything—they’re going to want to see results.” Alison laughed like Betty—a desperate bray. “I can’t very well come back and tell them, well, my copy hasn’t really improved, but I spent ten days, you know, marinating in despair.”
“Marinating,” someone murmured. “That’s good, I like that.”
“Thanks for doing that,” Mac said to Sara at one point, looking ashamed of himself.
Marguerite was sitting drinking red wine beside a couple of poets who were engrossed in conversation with each other. Sara came and sat beside her.
“Ah!” she said as a way of announcing herself.
Marguerite looked up, glasses like a shield. “I enjoyed your reading very much,” she recited.
“Yours too,” said Sara.
“I think it was a mistake,” said Marguerite.
“Oh, it’s all a mistake,” said Sara, waving a hand. She was flying on the dregs of her pre-reading adrenalin.
“I’m just tired of the weirdness around it,” said Marguerite. “All those posters, the fixation. I just want people to let her go, to quit messing with her.”
“Like a balloon pushing at the sky,” said Sara, surprising herself. She had produced a quote from Marguerite’s poem.
“Ugh,” said Marguerite. “I’m just not a poet. But what do you do when you’re not a poet?”
“No, it’s a good image,” said Sara. “It’s a simple, childhood image.”
Marguerite’s bow mouth puckered slightly. “Surrender Dorothy,” she said. “We need something like that, some announcement. Written in the sky so everyone can see it. Surrender Marie, everybody. Give her up. It’s time.”
“It’s time they started bombing something,” quoted Sara after a moment.
Once, she used to put herself to sleep like this:
There is no family. There is no Eden. There are no mountains. There is no Heaven. There is no Earth. There are no people. There are no places. There are no names.
It was the names line that worked best, that brought her to the next level, caused her body to feel as if it had gently pulled itself into fragments, which now were drifting in opposite directions. The next level went:
There is space. There is only space. Black, empty, infinite, all. There is I. I am space. Black and empty. I am all. Stretching, infinite, everything. I am everything. I am all. I am space.
She woke in that darkness with a boom and a flash. People screamed and cursed convulsively, craned their bodies toward the windows. A distant alarm went off, low but insistent. Sweat blossomed from her pores, blotting against her clothes There was laughter. It was still dark. Sara fell out of bed. Smoke filled the cabin. No it didn’t. It seemed to—the seats and heads and stewardesses before her eyes went fuzzy. She couldn’t smell the smoke. She bashed her hand against the corner of her desk. Something fell off the wall which had to be a picture of Christ, because that was the only thing they had on the walls. This is the nightmare, said Sara to herself. This is the thing that people say is like a nightmare.
There was a boom and a flash as she jerked open the door. One Easter, as a child, she woke in terrified, ecstatic tears after dreaming of the crucifixion all night long. She was Simon Peter and Jesus had flung himself into her arms. He was afraid; he didn’t want to go. The social worker hadn’t been able to hide her disgust. The Exit signs glowed red. Sara moved through the red dark, trying to remember which room it was, the hallway crammed with smoke and panicked voices. She went from one door to the next, grasping and then releasing doorknobs, moving down the hall, in search of him.