July 5, 2020
All writers have their obsessions; subjects they cannot leave alone. Like many, I am fixated on some big ones—love, gender, God, and death—though these sound more serious than I take them. On a smaller scale, it's birds and monsters―especially monsters of the deep. You know they're down there.
I am not a fan of realism; I find speculation more rewarding. Even my essays fall under that umbrella; I was recently delighted to learn that “speculative nonfiction” is a legitimate literary form. My first novel, Thirty Years of Immortality, is cheerfully unrealistic. It concerns the misfortunes of a community that has become immortal, and suggests that if religions had holy daughters as well as holy sons, we might not be so wigged out about death. A second, Men in Skirts, is an irreverent tale of love, spiritual pilgrimage, and the gender continuum. Graveyard Verse, a work in progress, concerns an old woman who is plotting to murder her husband; a young woman who befriends a cemetery's guardian spirit; and a handsome, slightly wonky neighbor who is preoccupied by the question of lake monsters. While these novels are not yet published in this reality, I am confident they enjoy wide readership in a future universe—it's only a matter of time before we catch up to it.
As is true of many writers, I can't function without solitude and routine. My writing space is a shed, separated from the house by two enormous fir trees, a woodshed, and an ancient lilac bush. The shed is guarded by a gargoyle called the Door Hound, whose job is to ward off intruders. Anyone daring enough to take on the Door Hound will find me inside, either writing or moodling, mornings from nine 'til noon.
“More of a Bowerbird,” Phoebe Journal (winner, 2016 nonfiction contest).
“An Open Letter to My Dad, Post-Cremation, Concerning His Missing Gold Teeth,” McSweeney's Internet Tendency, June 2018.
“We at Old Birds Welcome Messages from God, even if Unverifiable,” Fourth Genre (runner-up, 2018. Steinberg Essay Prize). Selected for the forthcoming Pushcart Prize XLV Anthology.
“A Class on How to Fall Down,” The Writer, November 2019.
Thirty Years of Immortality
The day Helen Ish arrived was an ordinary one for May. A punky gray sky dripped upon the hats and the bare heads of Mosby, but not on a single umbrella. Mosby did not use umbrellas, believing them best reserved for visitors―perhaps from the desert―who did not know rain.
She had lived in the desert for many years, but even so, when Helen pulled over to the curb on Main Street and got out of her truck, she didn’t reach for an umbrella either, but stepped out into the rain with her head uncovered, as if she belonged here.
Across Huckleberry Street in the Safeway parking lot, two hatless women, heedless of the drizzle, stood chatting behind an '89 Buick while a skinny young man loaded groceries from a cart into the trunk. One of the women wore a track suit and a flamboyant pile of hair atop her head in a shade of pink more often seen in petunias. The other was thinner and droopier and appeared tired. The two women glanced across the street at Helen idly as she emerged from her truck. Their eyes widened. Their mouths hung open mid-sentence.
"Oh, boy," said the pink-haired woman.
The young man loading groceries slammed the trunk and looked up. His name was Ollie Meakes, and the flamboyant and droopy women were his Aunt Bev and his mother, respectively. Ollie was surprised by the note of anxiety in Aunt Bev's voice. His aunt was often witty or dry or even brittle, but Ollie had never known her to sound fearful. He followed her stare to a woman across the street who was just climbing down from the driver's seat of a pick-up truck to stand on the sidewalk. The woman was amazingly petite, Ollie thought, like a grown up only smaller. She slammed the truck door and looked around her coolly. She bent over to touch her toes. Her ass rose up and a thick brown braid fell down over her shoulder. Ollie had never seen such a perfectly round ass before. The stranger was small and compact and seemed wonderfully flexible. Ollie was enchanted.
She straightened up. Whoever she was, she wore impenetrable sunglasses, though the day was gloomy. Ollie's Aunt Bev and his mother exchanged looks. "Helen Ish?" mouthed Ollie's mother.
Attached to the pickup by tow hitch was a boat. The boat had a certain cartoonish charm, like Popeye’s boat, maybe. Ollie's mother leaned into Aunt Bev. "It can't be her," she said. "She wouldn't have a boat."
Bev whispered back. "She's afraid of water."
Ollie did not attend to this part of the conversation. Though he often felt younger than he was, Ollie was actually older than he looked, and had in any case long harbored a vigorous physical regard for girls and more recently for women. He gazed across the parking lot at the stranger and could not remember ever seeing a female so well-contained and proportional. He felt he could stand here all day and take her in. And maybe because his aunt and mother had recoiled from her, he felt that she was in some way significant―a harbinger of.... a harbinger of something. He was just taking a vivid step or two down a path into a lovely fantasy of this stranger unbuckling her belt and hooking her thumbs in her waistband when the woman herself broke into his reverie by suddenly turning her head and glancing in his direction. The glance shocked him. He felt skewered; frightened. And naked himself. Like he’d forgotten to put on his pants.
"It's her, alright," hissed Aunt Bev. She crossed her arms over her stomach protectively and then uncrossed them to pull the hood of her running shell up over her hair.
Ollie's mother blinked anxiously. "Oh, Lord," she said. "Helen Ish."
Ollie heard the name and shivered. He was too young to have known her personally, or to ever have laid eyes on her, but he'd heard the stories. Everyone knew about Helen Ish.
The miracle of immortality had arrived in 1981 or thereabouts ― hard to pin down exactly, of course, for who can predict the exact day and hour of a body's passing, or name the time a death might have occurred, had Divinity (or something) not intervened? Older citizens recalled that funerals had once been commonplace, following the normal, expected passings of elderly uncles and grandmas. They remembered the reclusive Mrs. Nyugen, who had died alone in her little house near the ballfield, whose body wasn't found right away and stank up the east side memorably in the high heat of August, 1975.
But the miracle had come to Mosby. Death seemed to have simply wandered off. Funerals grew rare, confined mainly to pets and window-killed sparrows and the smaller farm animals. Even the river drownings dwindled to one every year or so, then one every other year, and if someone did manage to lose themselves in the river, the gals at Goodwin's Memorial Home were forced to hold a service without the benefit of a body, for when the Little Calapoosie took a meal, she did not regurgitate.
Mosby used to call its immortal citizens, collectively, the elders or old folks or oldies, but as the years passed they had evolved a repetoire of less respectful tags, variously the drifters, the lodgers, the yo-yos, the floaters―the latter occasioning juvenile snickers and scatalogical jokes―or even the undead, depending on the audience and sometimes on age or quantities of alcohol consumed. They were mainly quite old, the drifters were, or if still youngish then riddled with diseases like cancer or emphysema. Their bodies lingered on, confined to second-hand hospital beds or propped up in recliners watching Judge Judy, while their souls piped up at Bev Campbell's Monday night séances and complained of bland food. It was the restive, discontented souls of the drifters who kept the town on edge. They slipped out of their sleeping or comatose bodies. They wandered the streets, moaned in the alleys, bobbed along on the surface of the river like rubber ducks, and left their ghostly butt prints on the docks.
In addition to Ollie Meakes and his aunt Bev Campbell and his mother, quite a number of other people saw Helen that first day from the vantage of the Safeway parking lot, among them a pair of poachers dumping bags of ice into a cooler and a young mother about to leave her baby strapped in the carseat while she ran into the store for a box of wine and a package of disposable diapers. Quite a few people saw Helen get out of her truck. They stared at her for a moment before the anxiety took over and the awful feeling of nakedness kicked in; before the poachers decided to just go shoot at tin cans instead and the mother changed her mind about leaving the baby in the car. Witnesses observed the stranger and realized that she was indeed Helen Ish. But even the most observant among them failed to notice that Helen was trailed by an apparition.
Now, Helen herself had once been known in the town of Mosby as a keen, an unnervingly keen―even a scarily keen―observer. But she didn’t notice the apparition either, though it followed her every move, like a shadow.
Her audience looked on, fixated and alert, as Helen Ish stood in the drizzle at the intersection of Huckleberry and Main. Helen herself watched, evidently perplexed, as a tiny old man in an oversized Pendleton shirt and a wheelchair, clearly intent on crossing Main Street, attempted to navigate his chair over the edge of the curb.
The curbs of Mosby had once been engineered with the usual ramps at intersections for bikes and strollers and the alter-abled, but the town council had eventually decided it best, given all the suicide attempts, to slow folks down a bit, and had hired the Boyd brothers to fill the ramps in. If the feds caught them at it the town might be fined, but they had to do something about all the drifters trying to cross Main Street and toss themselves into the drink. It was unnerving.
The man in the wheelchair peered at the curb uncertainly. Helen did the same. Various onlookers held their breath. Helen Ish was not remembered as a nice person or a helpful one. What if she'd softened?
The man in the chair was Ned Avery, 117 years old, still alive and sort of well. Generally, in a situation of this kind, someone ― his caregiver or a helpful bystander―would hurry after him, seize the handles of his chair, say something soothing like, "Now, Mr. Avery," and wheel him home, where he would be given sedatives in his soup and bundled off to bed.
But no one dared approach Helen Ish. She might notice something―something private―and having seen, she might name the thing she saw. Out loud. She'd been a rude, frightening child. "Why do you keep your stuffed bear with you, in your backpack?" she'd been heard to ask once, at age six, of a mortified twelve-year-old boy. "You smoke other people's butts," she'd declared to her fourth grade teacher, who'd been telling everyone she'd kicked the habit. Mosby was convinced that Helen Ish could read minds. They hated this, of course. Here they were, doing their best, trying to do a hard thing or a right one, and there was little Helen Ish, looking at them with her god-awful eyes and pointing out―so unkindly!―the private ways in which they had failed.
She could see, was the feeling. Even with her dark glasses on. She could see right through you.
The onlookers of Mosby watched with alarm and morbid fascination as Helen approached Mr. Avery.
"The river," Mr. Avery said, querulously.
"What?" Helen said.
In response, Mr. Avery raised a trembling hand and pointed across Main Street, downhill. Helen followed his pointing finger with her eyes. Visible in the gap between an abandoned shingle warehouse and a clump of red alder, the Little Calapoosie River slipped past, dull and steely under the rainy sky, just as wet as ever. She turned back to the old man.
"You want to cross the street?"
Mr. Avery nodded. His soul, barely contained by his ancient body, could not believe its luck. "The river," he said.
Helen Ish must have softened after all, for no one heard her mention out loud Mr. Avery's verbal abuse of his housemates, his former gambling, or his lack of adequate hygiene. She merely took hold of the wheelchair and levered it down the curb. The man was all bones and flannel; he carried no weight to speak of. He tilted and his arm flopped over the side. Helen pushed him upright and tucked his arm into his lap. Cars slowed to a halt while Helen trundled Mr. Avery across Main to the other side. Following his gestures, she left the man in Huckleberry Street, right in the middle of the road, where its gentle slope steepened rather abruptly downhill toward the Little Calapoosie.
"You sure this is okay?"
He nodded vigorously, gave himself a push, and began to roll.
"Um," Helen said as he picked up speed.
But he waved her away. "The river!" he said gleefully and Helen wondered what the river could possibly have going for it, to give the man such delight. She turned away with a shudder. Helen Ish was no fan of water.
When it had first manifested, thirty-some years ago, Mosby had been inclined to regard immortality as a gift, possibly from God. Since then, certain people―Ollie's mother, for example ― continued to wonder what they'd done to earn such a blessing, though at this, Aunt Bev rolled her eyes and said, "Christ, Molly. Nobody's as good as you."
Early on, arguments had ensued over the question of divine intervention. That the hand of God had touched them brooked no argument in some minds; others thought there might be something in the water. But surely, argued the divine intervention crowd, a miracle so pronounced as immortality implied a better-than-average goodness on the part of Mosby, a superior state of enlightenment, or at least a notably earnest effort.
This did seem an excellent explanation. Everybody liked it. Who wants to argue with their own enlightenment? The humble were pleased to think they'd put in such a good effort as to draw the notice of God and the rational could find no hard facts against the theory. Besides, the more ardently one rejects a deity or afterlife, the less one appreciates death.
So Mosby agreed upon the explanation that as a town they were better than average, and that God (or something) had smiled upon them.
Of course, explanations are like boyfriends. Anyone can have one, but that doesn't mean you've got a good one.
In the 90s, thinking to boost the local economy, Mosby began to advertise its miracle on longevity websites. Dozens of death-averse strangers moved into the valley, bought land, and stirred up a minor building boom. But the new people soon realized that they wouldn’t be living longer in their new homes, they would only be dying longer, and since this wasn’t what the longevity movement had in mind, they all moved away again, leaving empty houses behind.
Years passed and immortal drifters accumulated. If any tried to hasten their own end by leaving the valley―an obvious solution ― most did not succeed. Those who did were said to have "gone for a drive," but surprisingly few went this route, so to speak. They were either too feeble to drive or couldn't find the car keys. Walking out was equally unlikely―they were frail or ancient or both, and could no more walk several uphill miles out of the valley than fly to the moon. But the river was very near. Just down the hill.
Regularly, one or another of the old bodies arose from their beds at the urging of their own souls, crept out patio doors or the more navigable bedroom windows, teetered and tottered or wheeled themselves frantically downhill toward the river, were easily caught and herded home again.
You'd think, under the circumstances, that the weary caregivers―the daughters and grandsons, the husbands and nieces―would simply let their loved ones go take their final swim, if they wanted it so badly. But Mosby disagreed. Mosby was horrified by the notion. Mosby believed that to deliberately take a dip in the Little Calapoosie was an act of flagrant, naked, bare-faced suicide and to stand by and allow it no better than murder.
If, against this conviction―if by luck or good planning or faster than average tottering―one of the drifters made it into the river, they were nearly as often fished out again by the Calapoosie Valley Search and Rescue, shivering and water-logged but just as alive as when they went in. Still, the river had been known to work, and the drifters clung to it as to their salvation―as the only way out. They did not find immortality a blessing at all.
And so, the dens and spare bedrooms and converted garages of the valley were largely occupied by elderly mothers or terminal siblings, by cancerous spouses or by the sleepy, creaky, cranky old bodies of grandparents, great-grandparents, and increasingly by great-greats. The youngish and the reasonably healthy despaired.
And tried all the harder to be good, for it had lately been dawning on Mosby that the lack of proper death might be a punishment of some kind, and only goodness would save them.
Mr. Avery's wheelchair careened down Huckleberry Street, barely missed the dead-end barrier, sailed over the lip of the riverbank, hit a rock, and sent Mr. Avery flying. He landed face down in gloppy mud at the river's edge among horsetail rush and sedges. One imagines his soul, anxiously following behind: Will we make it, will we make it, oh my word, here we go, oh dear. And then, deeply relieved: Oh, thank God. The mud does it. The mud does the trick. At Bev Campbell's next séance, that formerly querulous voice, now sounding remarkably stout, would deliver one last message: The mud does the trick.
And then that one voice―Mr. Avery's voice―would fall, at last, silent.
Having kindly or possibly cruelly but in any case ignorantly helped Mr. Avery to cross the street, Helen Ish disappeared into the Safeway. Several witnesses to her shocking act―among them Ollie Meakes's Aunt Bev―whipped out their phones. Some called Mr. Avery's great-granddaughter, who had a total of four elderly relatives under her care and was currently sleeping off her breakfast of an energy drink and vodka, which she had lately been leaning on as a remedy for exhaustion and depression. She claimed it kept "the juices flowing." Bev, well aware of Mr. Avery's great-grandaughter's habit, was among those who wisely dialed 911 instead.
Once the coast was clear of Helen Ish, Ollie and his aunt and mother and a half dozen other bystanders all attempted pursuit of Mr. Avery's wheelchair themselves. Ollie was the youngest and fastest of the pursurers, but he wasn't fast enough. Soon Deputy Birch's patrol car was seen turning down Huckleberry Street toward the river. She arrived at the scene to find a crowd gathering on the riverbank at the bottom of the hill. The crowd made way but did not disperse. It had been a long time since anyone had seen a body.