The International Writers Magazine: FIRST CHAPTERS
Stateside-, a novel extract
by Jeff Hunt
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much?
Have you reckoned the earth much?
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
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 cant 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 boys 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! Theyre (the gnats) after the water in my eyes. They
need a drink. (Slap slap) Well, they cant 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 cant 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, its best Im not seen. Im a freak, Im
Back in my cave its 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?
Its still the most generous thing Ive seen, the sun.
So lets see. . . where to start. . . How about with me? Thats
easiest. The rumor of me has been traveling their grapevine
in the town below. Its been piggybacking on different townspeoples
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 dont shut your doors to
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 (Ive 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. Thats all thats
in my wardrobe. One moment Im wandering these hills with my face
turned up to the impressionistic zoo clouds, and then the hounds of
hell and despair are on me. Its true, that I am a Veteran, but
of what war doesnt 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
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
Monster I might be, but I dont live in a callous shell with horns
and hair. Im wrapped in a special blanket instead, wonder-terrible.
The atmospheres 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. Its
permeable, allowing the world in, but still giving me room. Not a monumental
castle, but a nomads 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
In these woods by day, someone from town walking through with binoculars
is hilarious to me. Ah look, they say, pulling out a book, its
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 birds name implies a certain ability to understand
it. But have you ever looked into the eyes of even the most common bird?
Theres more there than all the print youve 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 dont lie
awake in the dark and cry for their problems. They dont kill each
other over their interpretation of God.
Has mankind been murderous on you? I want to ask. Im
sorry if they have, I know what thats like. But my voice
sounds so that the critters run when I speak. Thats because its
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. Ive 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 Im not sure if
I never stop talking, and only come in and out as a listener. Thats
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 Im 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 theyre coming like a pack of vouchers. A thing
like me, if it cant be seen, it doesnt exist. Everyone is
a scientist in this way. Sigh-ence.
Science! Ive thought in fits of quiet lunacy as theyve passed
me on the highway so many times, never even noticing me and my long
lifetime walk under my magic cape. But now theyre hunting me when
Im almost no good anymore. Long live science! The science of reality
and facts are useful, but they dont 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 doesnt 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, theyre cheap plastic
stranded snow-globes that have scenery inside.
One cork floats by looking from a miserable point of view, a monster.
I cant believe thats 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 dont know if were in love or just in cahoots.
I think were 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. Ive felt you talking to me since Ive been gone.
No one else understands, but we cant be apart. Its 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 whats wrong. These last
years . . . other people would have been happy with their life but I
wasnt. For a long time I havent cared what I got for Christmas,
or my birthday. The only thing Ive 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.
Im swooning! Poor forgotten monster pretending Im involved,
like someone rushing up proudly after having witnessed a wreck. And
so last, we see Mattie Dunleavys parents house from the
creek with its 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.
Its 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 wont skip ahead. Ill forget what I know (Poof! Ive
already forgotten) and well climb higher for a better look, a
better listen. Before we get to the reunion here in Northern California,
in Monterrey, well 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
Review of Jeff Hunts novel
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