Fidelity Is Not an Insurance Company You Can Ignore

I bottled cold shower water, drink
a glass each time I think of you.

I melted a pair of brass knuckles,
put the cooled slivers into capsules;
this keeps your hands sheathed.

When you bring monogamy
to a chop shop, you get my
mono ag. You don’t know
how to put it back together
once the good parts are sold.

I want you to be the reason
I’m sore in the morning.
I’ll practice hard until you are.

 

J. Bradley is the author of the novella Bodies Made of Smoke (HOUSEFIRE Publishing, 2011). He is a contributing writer to Specter Magazine, the Interviews Editor of PANK Magazine, and lives at iheartfailure.net.

Syntagm

We are fifteen when we create our first language. It is a cipher, a tongue we make by altering our first language, which we did not create. Old words, new meanings. Things that appeal to adolescent poets, adolescent boys—long-haired flannel kids in corners who take more meaning from things like song lyrics than they should. Than is fair to the songs. Anthems and punctuations for the roil of being. Young.

In our first language, things come to mean otherwise. When we say Are you guys ready?, which means, primarily, “. . . to do something,” we are saying, now, (especially now) We are all for one, which is a thing long-haired adolescents among the post oaks and greenbrier in the undeveloped acreage against Veterans’ Park, twenty feet above the creek bottom, fists and rope-swings, around illicit sleepover campfires, and the rites of our first secret society, and over film canisters of pilfered loose-leaf tobacco curling smoke in pilfered fathers’ pipes, and thoughts like small secrets of the girls we don’t speak to, say to each other. It is a thing we say to each other. We create our first language from our first language, altering it into something that appeals to us. And now we mean “Are you guys ready?”

This is how we parse our thoughts. On things like how right the Romantics were, how right the landscapes and energies and expressions of self in creek beds, geodes, and mountainsides. Like what it is to be landscapes ourselves, which is a better thing to be than adolescents in used cars, west of Dallas, in a place without project housing, bars, or even public transportation. Like how much sense this (or that) song makes. Like how things are going to go down.

We are fifteen when we create this first language, which we call “No”—the collision of our names, the letters we share. We are cheating, of course, using a word from our first language to name our first language. This is important. It is important to us that our first language means something to someone beyond us. Even though we will not share it, are forbidden to share it, with anyone else. N and O are the only letters to appear in each of our names, but only in the ones we create. Danno’s name is really Daniel, and it would share an E with Owen. Thompson is my last name, the one we use—Alan, which is my first name, would share an A with Daniel. No is what we want, because it is the real name of all things we have to say.

We say other things as well:  Later, which is now. I know, which is My honor, my life. We mean things adolescently, which is the greatest way to mean them. The potential way to mean them.

She is part one of three: Love, Honor, and Truth—the three things we mean most, in that perfect order. We will only mean this now while she is only potential. When she becomes real, for each of us, all three things become just that one.

But not now. Or rather, only now, if one translates in reverse.

All of this is important, of course. For we create a second language. We are men then, and nothing means anything.

 

 

“We need a word for this,” I say.

“Something that won’t change,” Owen says, “doesn’t mean change.”

Danno doesn’t like this cigarette business. The tobacco pipes at least come from our books: elf-land wizards, and poets strolling moors, and soldiers carrying swords, which is a fight we like. A fight we would have a chance in, when intelligence (and not simply bullets) has something to do with it. We tell ourselves. This is what we think. Pipe smoking is people thinking.

Still, Danno buys cigarettes for me and Owen because his father is in the same group as the man who owns the gas station and convenience store near the park. A Mythopoetic Men’s Movement group. On occasion, Danno and his father and the man from the convenience store gather with other men, other sons, to channel themselves through ritual drumming. Through “talking drums,” or sound boxes they make in their garages with wood glue and jig saws. They plumb archetypes by sharing classical mythology, and they read poetry by people like Robert Bly. They know about things like role stress, which Danno and his father have both encountered, individually, in therapy. I won’t know what they are talking about until graduate school.

Once a month, my father and I go on Boy Scout camp outs, which isn’t the same thing.

This convenience store man sells cigarettes to Danno, but not to us. He is like that. Danno is like that.

We are in a copse of honey locust trees, back behind Danno’s housing development, in undeveloped acreage, which we call home. It hasn’t been developed because it is private property, and not for sale. We are trespassing.

Danno thinks of one of these trees, the crook-backed one, as a totem—a self he can control, a stronger self. One immune and apart from all of this. It is the oldest tree in the copse, the one that had taken lightning to half its limbs. We all call it Danno.

Danno leans.

“We’ll call this ‘now.’”

Which, of course, in reverse, means later.

And this is what he means. Now. Now means then. Nothing happened to us today. School is over for the week. We will be playing Dungeons & Dragons and going for hamburgers and drinking soda all night. But that hasn’t happened yet. There weren’t any fights today. There isn’t any homework. We haven’t talked to any of our girls. The ones, specifically, among all of them whom we can’t talk to. Like I said: Love, Honor, and Truth. There are rules to this, and it is easier to follow them than to risk fucking things up.

Owen is doing just fine. Danno can’t know what this means now, but he will know it later.

Which is exactly the point. We will always need now to mean exactly this. Later, now will mean so much more, once we know what a terrible thing it will be to capture this moment—what terrible meanings will happen to it because we are isolating it from all other moments. Making it vulnerable to all the meanings that will happen to it as all the first-language nows keep meaning (are forced to mean) now.

We do this to ourselves.

 

 

They were in Phoenix, which is where their father lived. Visiting.

“I was with him,” Danno’s sister said, tiny through my phone.

“What?” I asked.

“On the couch, watching T.V.,” she said.

By themselves. Danno’s father wasn’t even in the room with them, because it was late. Which defeated the purpose.

“What?”

My wife walked into the dining room, where I was sit-standing. Walking and not. I thought of Danno’s old house, so close to home. The sun room was nothing but windows, and that’s where the talking drums and the sound boxes were kept, alongside fossil souvenirs from Galveston Bay. Hiking sticks, and the converted aquariums where the ball pythons lived.

“What?” she asked.

“So I called the ambulance right away,” Danno’s sister said.

“Wait.”

I wondered if there were a sun room in this new house. This Phoenix house. Danno’s father and step-mother had moved there while Danno and I shared a duplex, in college. Home no longer existed for him, in either language.

“Okay,” I said, “what? I mean, which side?”

“The left,” she said. “It’s too soon.”

“What caused it?”

“A blood clot in his leg, through a tiny hole in his heart.”

Primarily, stroke means movement. Energy put (somehow) to use.

Danno leaned, having taken his brain’s electro-chemical lightning to half his limbs. He had grown this clot in the meat of his thigh, with each Friday-night hamburger—later, with each Wednesday night beer. He had nested it and warmed it and taught it the sound of his voice, while we walked and hiked and learned to sail. He had given himself to it in the stress of his first marriage, in the anti-depressants and internet dating services that followed. Danno was a clot of blood, and he had helped my wife and I pack up our everythings and move them nineteen hours away, when we took new jobs, one year ago.

“Is he?”

She was crying now. “They’re concerned because it happened where the personality is.”

“What. Can I talk to him?”

There were rules to this, a rite—a recreation of older times, preserving community knowledge, asking questions with idiotic answers, unnecessary answers. The questions were the point. Where? Which room? Phone number? Getting the story straight to tell it twenty times, getting closer with each phone call to making this normal.

There had to be a reason why I didn’t ask these things.

“No.”

I hadn’t spoken to Owen since my wedding. We made a point of texting each other our new numbers each time we moved, so we wouldn’t have to.

 

 

It is important, at this point, that we believe in God. Because, later, in college, we won’t. For precisely this reason, because I am soon to disbelieve, it is very important that I make Danno and Owen believe.

Our ideas have to be realizations—they can’t be self-generated. They have to come from divine order—a greater sense of how things should be. We learned Transcendentalism in our sophomore lit classes, and it is right. There is a here that we are missing, but so much less than everyone else. We find it in our favorite songs and at home and around the gaming table. There is no point in talking to our girls if they don’t get this. This was why, of course, we don’t talk to them.

This is as close as Danno gets to believing, so I convinced him to follow me to church. His father doesn’t mind, though he disbelieves. Owen goes because he does everything I tell him to. I’ve been taught nothing but panic for my friends’ immortal souls.

Our Sunday School class is specifically for high school boys. We learn, from our teacher who has done mission work in five countries, that women are not supposed to teach religion. She tells us that the Bible tells us so. This is chivalric, and we are fucked here by Honor and Truth.

I look at Danno, and he writes I know on his notepad.

Perhaps this is the beginning. We each write a poem about this, and they each appear in our school’s literary magazine. We are on staff this semester. Two of our three girls are also.

Owen’s is not.

By the time we reach our third year of college, we will have had the conversation that God is, in fact, the universe. That suns and orbiting planets and plasmoid dark matter are god’s atomic structure. Perhaps, then, we are simply clots of tissue in God’s great thigh. We know, after all, that we are cast in his image, that he gave himself to us.

We are getting somewhere, on our way to appropriate late-twenty-something ideas about faith and being nothing. We are becoming energy put to good use. Strokes, ourselves.

We will discuss God’s great thigh while we smoke pot in our living room, which will be done up with fishing nets, dress forms, fencing foils, and the other emblems that we feel identify us as un-serious romantic individuals. By this point, Danno will have taught me how to play the sound box.

 

 

Eventually, she becomes real. We begin to talk. Owen and I each learn that it had all, really, always been about sex. Danno isn’t dating anyone.

My parents are out of town this weekend, so after we swim, after we are in those next-step swim suits, we get ready for this. For the first time. She and I, finally. Before my phone rings.

“There’s no one here with him,” her mother says. Owen’s girlfriend’s mother.

“What?” I say.

“I think—he’s panicking.”

This is not about Owen’s mortal soul.

“Wait.”

“Could you come over here?” she asks.

“Have they been fighting?”

“Yes—not really. Owen chased him around the driveway. The police would rather not arrest him.”

“What?” my girlfriend asks. She is ready, too.

He is a friend from junior high school. High school, too, but not as much. This has been coming on the side—a thing born of long afternoons while Owen was working with us. On the literary magazine. His girlfriend was left without options.

“Owen ran into the street,” her mother says, “but the cars wouldn’t hit him. They just swerved, or stopped.”

Luckily, Owen has been coming with us to church, because I told him to. For this reason, the staff at the Thousand Oaks center are willing to admit him after hours. Because it is a religiously funded institution. I wait with Danno and Owen’s mother in the waiting room while they process Owen in another room. I fall asleep in an arm chair, still in my swim suit.

We gave him a machete, that Christmas, because it was the closest thing to a sword we could find. We found a store in the mall that engraved it with “My honor, my life” in a font called “German Gothic.”

He is not allowed to keep this.

 

 

When can you talk to him?” my wife asked.

It was two days before his sister thought to call me again. There had to have been a reason why I didn’t ask for the number the first time.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you need to go there?”

We couldn’t afford a plane ticket to Phoenix. One month later, we would be back in Dallas, to participate in two weddings—friends from graduate school. This is what we did now: attend weddings.

After her, Owen impregnated a different girl. He married her. While Danno and I were in college, Owen moved to Texarkana to manage a seafood restaurant.

“I can see him in Dallas.”

This is what was happening now. This is what we didn’t realize.

“Do you know that he’s been going to church,” I said.

“What?”

“Because this girl, she goes.”

“Wait. Maybe he’s alone.”

Alone didn’t mean anything.

We had ceased to believe in college.

“The only thing worse would be if he had died.”

“I know,” she said.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

 

Danno leans. The stream below it is two inches closer per year, as the tree bows under its dead weight, aging. We have each carved a sigil of a bird into the collapsing bark. Our seals, with which we sign our letters and make things official.

“You know they’ll make fun of us,” he says.

One of these birds is not real.

“Whatever,” Owen says. “they won’t know.”

I am supposed to be the smart one. “Of course. But secretly—I mean, come on—do you think they’d rather have poets and D&D geeks, or office monkeys with tie-jobs?”

We are talking about her, and we plan to meet all three of her at once—a convergence of two groups. We are only half-kidding when we talk about how crazy it would be if they simply came hiking down the creek bed, with rules of their own.

The plan is universal. We’ll be neighbors, after college—or as close as will be manageable.

Danno shoves Owen as he launches from the creek-shore, fists rope-swing tight. “Yours is going to be the ugly one!”

 

 

He wants to talk to you,” Danno’s sister said.

“Can he?”

“He wants to.”

The name of his hospital is Thunderbird, in Phoenix. I was warned that this was most important to him. For now, this was his everything.

I heard him grunting on the other end of the line.

“Hey, asshole,” I said. I was the one who could make him laugh.

He made a sound like a bird calling. A thunderbird.

“What?”

My wife’s hand was soft against the back of my neck.

He choked. Made the sound again.

We are men, when we create our second language. I cannot transcribe it, via three-letter alphabetic keypads, into a text-message for Owen. There is a sound, from our past, that makes sense of this. We made the sound once, fifteen years earlier, calling to each other in code, through the trees. I will text it from our past selves to our present selves tonight. Starting with Owen. Because it will be easier.

I am not sure we are finished. Danno and I. When I hang up the phone. So I call out, just in case. One bird to another. SONARing space-time with sounds that don’t exist.

 

 

Darin Bradley is the author of Noise (Ballantine/Spectra, 2010). His fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he has taught courses on writing and literature at several universities. He keeps a website at www.darinbradley.com.

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Matt Bell

Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, a collection of fiction published by Keyhole Press in 2010, and Cataclysm Baby, a novella forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press in 2012, as well as three chapbooks, Wolf Parts, The Collectors, and How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Unsaid, and American Short Fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in anthologies such as Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.

He works as an editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist. He teaches writing at the University of Michigan.

MMR: How They Were Found is a collection of 13 stories, with a subtle, organic progression between one story and the next. Albeit tangentially, there is usually something that ties them together—a knife, a birth, an inventory of life. Yet each story also interplays with the title—How They Were Found—in vastly different ways. In the first story, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” the relation to the title is one of wry humor from an obsessive romantic; but as we progress, the characters are ‘found’ in increasingly more complicated situations. Did you have this intent, the dynamic nature between title and stories, in mind when selecting these pieces? Or did the title ‘make itself known’ only at the end?

MB: The title came out of the very end of the process: I’d written all of the stories before I ever tried to collect them or order them. It was a difficult book to title in some way, and it actually ended up coming from a title that was given to two parts of The Collectors, which were previously published at Wigleaf, under the title:  “How They Were Found and Who They Were That Found Them.” That seemed to fit the obsessions of the book in a variety of different ways that I found pleasing; and that, as you pointed out, grew more complex as the book went on.

MMR: When reading these stories, I was amazed at how fluently and convincingly you transition between such varied voices. In particular, I was surprised by how accurately and movingly you conveyed women. In “His Last Great Gift” and “Her Ennead,” you capture a range of emotions that I thought were purely feminine—the hope and uncertainty, strength and weakness, of birth and labor; the altruistic submissiveness required for comforting another. Were you raised among many sisters? Was it your wife Jessica who taught you so well? How is it that you came to know the feminine mystique so intimately?

MB: I do have two younger sisters, and of course I’ve spent a lot of time with Jessica, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that these qualities come from anyone in specific. Mostly I never think of writing women characters any different than I do of writing men: I don’t think the differences between the genders are so extreme as to require a different approach. For instance, while “Her Ennead” is obviously centered around a woman’s fears of pregnancy, I wrote it out of my fear of the future, fear of loss—I don’t have to be a woman or a parent to know what it’s like to be afraid of a coming change, of losing what I’m sworn to protect, or of hurting the ones I’d love even though I’d do anything to keep from hurting them. It’s those kinds of emotions that I went to for those characters, and really, they’re part of me as a man as much as they are any conception of what I think it would be like to be a woman.

MMR: “Dredge,” one that made my skin crawl and my heart ache, features a protagonist, Punter, who seems to be a combination of Norman Bates and the main character from Slingblade. The tension is severe, and the main character—despite all logic or events—is somehow still emotionally compelling and innocent. Then, in “Hold On to Your Vacuum,” you use metaphor to turn our all-too-human struggle inside out.  The effect creates a disturbing dark comedy of self-reflection.  In “Wolf Parts” and especially in “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” you use a postmodern approach rather than conventional narrative. You’ve been published in over 70 literary magazines and included in best-of anthologies of mystery and fantasy. Do you love to experiment with form and style? Do you have a favorite, or does the story itself determine which form it will take?

MB: I grew up as a reader of mostly genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, so elements of that definitely still pervade my fiction, which accounts for at least some of the range. For the most part, I rarely start with an idea for the structure of a story (with, perhaps, obvious excepts like “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” which was form first and content second. Mostly I start writing without any idea at all of what I’m going to be writing about, and then things take off once I find the voice: I mostly just try to expand a story one sentence at a time in the first draft, seeing where the voice is taking me. So for the most part, all these different forms and genres in the book came out of the voice I found, and what that voice had to say. It’s a fun way to write, because I get to experience the thing first as a new story being told, uncovered as it unfolds.

MMR: There are two stories, “The Receiving Tower” and “His Last Great Gift,” that were so provoking and complex that I’d like you to unpack them a bit more. In “The Receiving Tower” you paint a grey dystopia marked by forgetting; where soldiers can no longer distinguish between who leads and who follows, nor tell whether their memories are their own. Is this a commentary on life? The slow death of memory as the prerequisite for living? Or was this a reflection of war, of the endless sacrifices that ultimately remake a person in war’s image?  Where the only escape or comfort is in death? Or what?

MB: One of the themes I didn’t realize I had running through my stories from this period until after I started to collect them is that my characters often take on roles to start the story: They become a detective, or a parent, or a cartographer, and that somehow their fulfillment or failure of this role is what makes the story go. In Maon’s case, his fading memories means that in his role as the protector of the men in the tower he has to constantly make decisions from an unstable understanding of the situation: It was interesting to see how he’d react at each stage of the story, based on what information was and was not available to him, while keeping his essential character—his goodness and concern for the men—fairly static. And I think out of that emerged some of the themes you’ve mentioned, which hopefully have enough ambiguity to them to make them morally useful to the reader.

MMR: “His Last Great Gift” is epic; it felt like a Steampunk nativity tale of the Electric Messiah. An Old-West world inhabited by the spirits of our forefathers, the Electricizers; a Priest tasked with building the New Motor—an engine that will run on the energy of this new Messiah. This world-building and the Priest’s human struggles are magnificent, but I was surprised by the character of Maud Trenton. She, this New Mary, was so inspired; so unexpectedly holy. With her you untangle the great difference between religious hubris and real spirituality, and through her thoughts and words we see a huge love for and reverence of the divine. Is this true? Can you speak to your motivations and inspiration for this story?

MB: “His Last Great Gift” is based loosely on the life of John Murray Spears, a nineteenth-century spiritualist minister and medium, who did build his New Motor in the years before the Civil War. I’ve taken an immense amount of liberties with the story—only his character (and those of the Founding Fathers) are based on real people, and even then only loosely—but I was very much drawn to his writings from that time. He was part of a movement characterized by a sort of spiritual American exceptionalism that I think dates back to the founding of the American colonies, and continues today: There’s a sense in his work that America is the shining city on the hill, and that we’re somehow meant to be an example or a guiding light for the rest of the world. He really did seem to believe that his work, including the New Motor, would kick off an age of enlightenment in America that would result in a better, more just society, and it’s that belief—and the bizarreness of the New Motor and the New Mary—that obsessed me. I first starting thinking about writing about him about a year before I did, and it took a long time to find the voice to make it go. And then I got lucky again with the emergence of Maud Trenton: She’s one of my favorite characters in the book too, and I didn’t know anything about her until she first showed up in Spears’s office, and then started to take charge of the scenes she was in. Definitely one of those incredibly lucky occurrences that comes from sitting in the chair and working carefully.

As far as my own beliefs: I was raised Catholic, was extremely devout for two decades or so, and am an atheist now. But when you believe in something so strongly, it never fully leaves you. I’m an ex-Catholic in a way that is perhaps most like being an expatriate: I may have moved away and renounced my citizenship, but I haven’t lost my old accent just yet.

MMR: “The Collectors,” is a chapbook-length story based on the real lives of the Collyer brothers who lived in Manhattan and died as a result of their hoarding and isolation in 1947. Since then, there have been several attempts to tell their livesby playwrights, through film, even E. L. Doctorow’s speculative fiction. But what makes your rendition so unique, and has earned you such praise throughout the literary world, is your art. You tell this story of two hoarders in a way that actually mimics their living conditions—the details and tangents around and within them; you recreate an entire world within their home, which both shielded and then killed them. Your narrator is powerless to stop it, and powerless to look away. A tale of obsession told by the obsessed. What was it that made you want to recreate this tale? Was it the brothers themselves, their tortured lives? How long did it take you to find your way around their story? And did you edit or change anything in its telling from your original publication?  

MB: I can honestly say I hadn’t seen any of the other takes on the Collyers before I published mine, although certainly I was aware of some of them while doing research. (But not E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley—that came out six months or so after “The Collectors” appeared as a chapbook.) I first read about them the summer before, in a book I found while visiting my mother: It was actually a daily devotional kind of book she had lying around, and they were an example of what happens to people who don’t learn how to let go of things. But that little summary of their life intrigued me, and I started thinking about them quite a bit: It’s really a fantastic tragedy, and all the elements of a good story are sort of pre-existing in the truth. At the time, I was writing a novel draft, so couldn’t stop to focus on a new piece of writing, but I decided I’d write a little bit about them every day, as a warm-up exercise. So after a couple months, I had sixty sections of their story, without any real shape to the manuscript or idea of how to put it together. I spent another couple of months tinkering and revising and trying to find my way toward what eventually became “The Collectors,” with the major new addition being the development of that first-person narrator, obsessed and also uncomfortable with his obsession.

It did change somewhat between the chapbook version and the book in How They Were Found, but in mostly sentence-level ways—a collection shouldn’t just be a gathered pile of recently published work, but should cohere as a book in some way, and that required revisions of all the stories, to make them come together as a whole in a more satisfying way.

MMR: Lastly, we understand that you are two-parts writer, one-part editor and teacher, and another three-parts avid reader. Time must be a rare commodity for you. What projects are you working on now that you’d like to share?

MB: I am involved in The Collagist, and with Dzanc as a whole—I’ve worked full-time there since last July, and remain incredibly excited to be a part of the company. We’ve got some great books coming out right now—the next two are amazing collections by Peter Markus (We Make Mud) and Pamela Ryder (A Tendency to Be Gone), which I can’t recommend enough. As for my own writing, my second book, a novella titled Cataclysm Baby, will be out in April 2012 from Mud Luscious Press, and I’ve just finished the final draft of a novel, which will hopefully follow sometime in the next couple of years.

Thank you so much for your time, and your great questions. It’s been a pleasure to answer them.

MMR: Thank you, Matt. The pleasure was all ours.