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The International Writers Magazine
: FIRST CHAPTERS

Stateside-, a novel extract
by Jeff Hunt
Part One
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much?
Have you reckoned the earth much?
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

1
Refrain from a monster
The boy, the boy stole my book. Poor forgotten monster, poor veteran.
In Northern California, I follow the barely teenaged boy conducting his science experiment. My experiment! Up and away in the hills surrounding his hometown of Monterrey (and mine I suppose if I have one) he goes planting a red and white plastic fishing cork in each creek, river and tributary. Each of these round plastic bobbers he first pries apart to insert a small inexpensive radio transmitter, the kind used to track animals, then clicks the two halves back together. I can’t help but shudder with excitement, remembering my own run at this.
He got the idea for this science experiment, copied it from me, the idea for it gotten from my old journal he stole. That pilfered ledger reported its own findings, which might have made the experiment seem done and not worth repeating; but as it turns out in science and song, the second time, the confirmation, the chorus, is everything.

It was my notes in the margins made during nights and days while carrying out said experiment the first time, that have gone a long a way in fueling the boy’s bicycling and walking treks into the hills. The journal plainly charts my poor forgotten monster wanderings through these hills, making legible its watery arteries and veins that drain to the flatland and then the bay. The boy finds his way to the same drop off points in this circulatory system. Old times!
Sometimes these deliveries call for overnight trips. His dad, a reservist called overseas, (I saw this too, as I do everything around here) had first taken him backpacking when he was nine, four years ago now flicking on a starry light switch for him as they camped, showing him the wilderness could be his room. For this sweet vision I give him space in these woods, including myself in the memory, pretending I was involved.

My journal explains to him some of the mystery of how parts compose a whole. He learns quick enough: Standing down along the banks of a rushing creek, he hears only one section at a time, like the river is a book broken into chapters. The bend ahead and behind blocks the sound from other sections both past and future. But from above the creek, up on a hill, he can hear the many sections at once, the river in whole. I watch from a woodsy hiding place.
Oh my eyes! They’re (the gnats) after the water in my eyes. They need a drink. (Slap slap) Well, they can’t have it, I said, walking defiantly eyes shut a few hesitant steps later into a low-hanging tree branch. Shit and pistols! Poison oak! My eyes! Now I am one angry monster. I am in the foulest mood.
Hot and bother. I find I can’t go out during the day so much anymore. The sun, who I once thought was so generous, is just too much for me now. Besides, it’s best I’m not seen. I’m a freak, I’m horrible.
Back in my cave it’s dark now. It pleases my hurting eyes. But I remember that sun like a first love, how many things are there like that in this world? How many things give without payment, or any coercion? It’s still the most generous thing I’ve seen, the sun.
So let’s see. . . where to start. . . How about with me? That’s easiest. The rumor of ‘me’ has been traveling their grapevine in the town below. It’s been piggybacking on different townspeople’s gossip, up to a window, a phone, a private conversation where it jumps off like a virus to a new host. People catch wind of me, in the news, oh yes, I sometimes come that close and look in the windows of the town below and into their familial happiness. I see what they think of me. I see in the glowing fires they gather around that I am notorious, not loved, not welcome at their fire. But don’t shut your doors to me yet.
These eyes. What vision I have left I spend overlooking the town, sprawled out on a hill-cradled edge resting my head. I saw a wedding reception recently down below on a favorite splotch of grass (I’ve never been married, and jealously imagined drowning the bridegroom, then saw them pull my man out of the water, and felt pretty bad about it.)
I see the worker in the fields below like a dung beetle, like Sisyphus rolling a boulder. In town the surgeon at work (nothing could be done for his patient). Bells ringing for church. A low-budget connoisseur tasting screw-cap wine. A mechanic offering an estimate. The kid-world: The under-aged ‘mayor’ filling in at war time, the boy playing town mayor much too seriously (scaring his family with how deep in character he plays). But look below at him now, taking one moment to be a boy without the mayor, flying an ingenious kite camera that showed up on his door like a mysterious present with a card signed M.

The road workers. A baptism. The country people on the fringe of town recycling their possessions endlessly, while the city folk go get a new one. (Few in the city know how to use their hands except to reach for the wallet and pay the, in this case, surprisingly cunning lower class.) At night my eyes fall through bedroom window curtains on people sleeping side by side (this I envy most).
Shame and agony are my only changes of clothes. That’s all that’s in my wardrobe. One moment I’m wandering these hills with my face turned up to the impressionistic zoo clouds, and then the hounds of hell and despair are on me. It’s true, that I am a Veteran, but of what war doesn’t matter anymore. I try to make up for it.
And I do well! I admit everything to myself about how I feel towards the people below, in the newspapers I come across and with my own eyes. Every boy who breaks a law I go up to the judge with him to be tried. Every patient gasping their last breath I hope for the nurse. I walk past a beggar and I sit shame-faced too, my hat outstretched begging. I work with the firemen to rescue the house and all in it, and when they find me singed I thank them hoarsely, them raising a beam to free me.
Moments that make my heart jump to my throat, make me leap against the cage of myself! The townspeople have no idea how big I can get, when I get like this and everything tying me down lets go. My elbows start resting in the gaps of valleys when I sprawl out reading the great big book of the world. My life is over. . . but I can still feel it, my potential.

Monster I might be, but I don’t live in a callous shell with horns and hair. I’m wrapped in a special blanket instead, wonder-terrible. The atmosphere’s electricity, my blood, my thought and memories flow through this wonder cape draped over me. Instant conductors take their tickets and lead them instantly through me: My wind-swift thoughts. Excited warmed blood zooming at intervals for my heart. My skin a sail that notifies me in a breeze, in the season, and gives me shelter. It’s permeable, allowing the world in, but still giving me room. Not a monumental castle, but a nomad’s tent.
I use it in my everywhere backyard. I am a local. On the outside down below, along the coast highway passing town my feet know the dimples in the pavement like Braille. The patterns the sounds of the Monterrey patrol cars make on their nightly rounds of emergencies, disturbing the peace as they keep it. Alleyway enemies meeting, oaths muttered, someone falls. The throwing back of noise off the churches and schools. Sometimes a small runaway leaves it all behind and comes up into these parts. Hearing a small boy or girl impetuously trying their luck somewhere else, from out of sight I shoosh them back to town with a few elementary growls.

In these woods by day, someone from town walking through with binoculars is hilarious to me. Ah look, they say, pulling out a book, it’s a . . . blue-jay! Well, yes, I want to say, grabbing them by the lapels to mess them up (covering my eyes against the sun and their birding costume). Knowing a bird’s name implies a certain ability to understand it. But have you ever looked into the eyes of even the most common bird? There’s more there than all the print you’ve ever read. Looking truthfully into the doleful eye of just one will shame the silliness of importance out of you.
Some days I consider living with the animals, actually turning to them, knocking on the door of their kingdom to ask for asylum. I stand and look at them so long. They never sweat and whine about their leader. No one is caught up in the mania of owning things. They don’t lie awake in the dark and cry for their problems. They don’t kill each other over their interpretation of God.
‘Has mankind been murderous on you?’ I want to ask. ‘I’m sorry if they have, I know what that’s like.’ But my voice sounds so that the critters run when I speak. That’s because it’s rare. I mean rare that I use my voice. So it comes out harsh.
It shocks me sometimes too. On occasion I shout to reinforce my ferocity, and my own voice makes me duck down like something is going to swoop in on me from the sky. I’ve gone too far I realize, haha, and stand up to dust off. But the lack of talking makes my words flow whenever I perceive the slightest audience. And sometimes I’m not sure if I never stop talking, and only come in and out as a listener. That’s loneliness for you.

Sigh-ence. I see the people in town below are coming this way, torches and all like a scene from Frankenstein. They wonder if I’m real, because in the town below they believe in reality. The townspeople believe if a neighbor can vouch for your monster sighting, so that monster is and was, and now they’re coming like a pack of vouchers. A thing like me, if it can’t be seen, it doesn’t exist. Everyone is a scientist in this way. Sigh-ence.
Science! I’ve thought in fits of quiet lunacy as they’ve passed me on the highway so many times, never even noticing me and my long lifetime walk under my magic cape. But now they’re hunting me when I’m almost no good anymore. Long live science! The science of reality and facts are useful, but they don’t have anything to do with where I live, poor forgotten monster, veteran. The facts are just on the way to where I live. I pull my cape about me muttering, and sure it has holes, but that doesn’t mean the magic leaks out.

Ha. I crawl past their forces to peek in a room. The teenaged boy in his room, Will, looks at his homemade control panel (not bad) nightly watching the red blips, noting their speed or lack of it. They meander west towards Monterrey, him (and me) and the ocean. Represented by the red blips, some of the corks get stuck draining down to the lowlands and the sea. Up in the hills these cheap beacons are abandoned in low water, hung in brush along a bank, or beached on a dry riverbed of gravel.
But not lost. Eventually some season shakes them loose. The bobber comes unstuck, or high water flooding rescues it from the doldrums and tries to make up for lost time, thundering down the stair-step canyons along with sediment and tumbling football-sized rocks. The red and white plastic bobber, until then the picture of forgotten-ness, is doused in a surplus of power, more carriage than it could have ever dreamed of.
All the while the boy Will is at the control panel like I once was, wondering when and where the cheap plastic time capsules will arrive at the finish. I remember the waiting. Like Christmas! Monster Christmas!
He marvels like I did at this life: At the great floods of action as well as the lulls, like the red and white plastic bobbers stubbornly clinging to some stopping point, or distressingly stranded, depending on his mood. The war is on for him too, but in the background overseas. The boy is stateside, not like I was, poor monster, poor veteran.

The boy Will looks up into the hills at the rain clouds. Then moves to his control panel, knowing movement is on the way and charting it. On his crude blinking panel, and in the hills, there are four stranded fishing corks left. When these markers come down, our story will be over. For us, monsters and whoever you are, they’re cheap plastic stranded snow-globes that have scenery inside.
One cork floats by looking from a miserable point of view, a monster. I can’t believe that’s me! Who put a mirror in front of me? Do I really look like that? Rotten trick, this experiment is out of control. I trail along, more frail than frightening, the cork hovering in front of my outstretched hand like the past. The monster that watches the boy that watches the corks, and we are bound together.
Another bobber will be stuck, bad luck, for several weeks having the view through a broken fence of a desperate international class of new neighbors next door in Monterrey. They have, like a migrating flock moving ahead of bad weather, come looking for political shelter. (We find them as out of place as a turbaned Indian hotel clerk in West Texas, but how were they to know where to go?)
Another cork being rained out of the hills is for the erstwhile Eduardo Aquifer, a young Mexican writer. Bless him he saves me. We follow his efforts to get along with a girl, a parallel with the war overseas: Call it the Afghan war and The Splitting of the Blankets. We look inside a cork and find this, a letter:
Mattie, I don’t know if we’re in love or just in cahoots. I think we’re like bad little kids that got sent to their rooms to be separated, but no one can stop us from writing each other illegal letters. I’ve felt you talking to me since I’ve been gone. No one else understands, but we can’t be apart. It’s just not as fun. These last years . . . my timer of not having seen you is absolutely going off, to the point that on account of the look on my face kind strangers occasionally ask me what’s wrong. These last years . . . other people would have been happy with their life but I wasn’t. For a long time I haven’t cared what I got for Christmas, or my birthday. The only thing I’ve ever really wanted was you. In Texas, in California, in Paris, France. The only thing I want is you. If not in this life then the next Mattie Dunleavy.
I’m swooning! Poor forgotten monster pretending I’m involved, like someone rushing up proudly after having witnessed a wreck. And so last, we see Mattie Dunleavy’s parent’s house from the creek with it’s multi-generational past and present. The Dunleavys living here in the hillside rural community of Monterrey along the northern California coast, their house separated from the ocean by the artichoke fields that surround them, the migrant laborers tending fields that peter out onto the beach where a stripe of sand dunes line the bay.

It’s at a party at the Dunleavy house where our story ends. At last! In the room we all come together: Eduardo, the Dunleavys, the Afghans, and me, the lowly monster.
The chart of the corks coming down seems to Will to ache for completion, and he skips ahead in my journal like someone going to the last page. But we won’t skip ahead. I’ll forget what I know (Poof! I’ve already forgotten) and we’ll climb higher for a better look, a better listen. Before we get to the reunion here in Northern California, in Monterrey, we’ll start with Eduardo. Bless him he saves me. We back up with him the way one of these beacons has been planted, setting him down in Los Francisco, the big city, to watch him make his way back to Monterrey. Filled with an unopened fortune, approaching where he started from slowly, we find him down south with noise and clutter and spectacular sights to make you forget all about Monterrey, about this rural destination, to induce the precious suspension of disbelief that makes the world livable, from Santa Claus to love to Heaven
.

© Jeff Hunt

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