Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

What You Might Find

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

What you might see online is a photograph from the Oregon Coast. Three large sea stacks jutting out of a turbulent ocean below a vast blue sky or set off by a sunset. You might think, How lucky! You might envy me. But it’s been four days since I’ve talked to anyone I know, nine since I’ve seen a friend in person, and two since I’ve spoken to another human at all. No one knows where I am or where to find me. No one is looking.

This stretch of coast, 80 miles from Portland, is my beachcombing dream, and I’ve traveled here to search for rocks. I’ve rented a hillside cottage above the beach that affords a partial ocean view and a quiet place to rest between rockhounding sessions, and I came armed with a Friday night jigsaw puzzle, Saturday night novel, quick meals, and a favorite treat for dessert. In the car I’ve packed bright green wellies, a geode pick I probably won’t use, and the special bags I reserve for collecting rocks.

In the before times—before the pandemic, estrangement, and deaths, before grief and isolation took over—my husband and I used to drive our dog here for day trips. Dog ran free and dipped her skinny legs into the ocean, stalking waves or letting the water chase her. Husband sat on drier ground and watched the world pass. I rolled up my pant legs and waded the tide in search of treasure.

Oceanside in winter feels like one dopamine hit after another, an amazing natural Easter egg hunt. The beach stretches for miles to the south, though at low tide you might choose to head north through a narrow headlands passage toward the aptly named tunnel beach. Wherever you choose to look, the key is to find a gravel bed, most commonly exposed by winter storms, and scan the dark rocks for standouts in color and texture until you spot milky white agates, deep orange carnelian, or colorful jaspers in browns, red, and green. When you hit the right spot, you’ll rarely step one foot without spotting an agate or five, no matter how many people are looking too. I walk along repeating my mantra, where there’s one there’s many, and singing a made-up song to remind me to pay attention—don’t turn your back on the ocean, don’t turn your back to the sea.

All over the earth, geology flaunts itself if you know how to look. But Oregon makes it easy. Evidence of its messy volcanic past is everywhere, from towering headlands of sharp-edged columnar basalt to rounded pillow basalt shaped by lava oozing through the ocean floor and cooled by surrounding water. I want to understand the science of it all, but it feels like magic no matter how much I study. It’s enough to know that Oceanside’s sea stacks rose out of the water around 14 million years ago. The agates I’m here to find are probably older than that. I can’t tell you definitively how they formed, because even geologists argue about it. The best explanation I’ve read says that minerals such as silica filled vesicles in other rocks and then crystallized under steady low pressure. Eventually the surrounding rock eroded, leaving the agate behind.

Beach rocks have no real monetary value, but I love them anyway. I stack pebble-sized agates in glass bottles around the house. Larger ones get displayed in bowls. The rocks remain unpolished (I don’t own a tumbler), except for a few that received a shine directly from the beach. Often I find agates in process, still stuck inside their host rock, and carry them home because I like their becoming. Agates or jaspers float around my backpack and car and more are scattered across my office, bathroom, and kitchen windowsill. I never tire of looking at them or for them.

On days when isolation consumes me, I might pull out a rock to examine or an entire dish to sort through. Though I’ve grown accustomed to being alone 24/7, I still hate it. Involuntary solitude feels like punishment, but it’s hard to discuss without sounding pathetic or causing a cringe. People fear loneliness is catching, I think, and don’t want it to happen to them. When I do see friends or acquaintances, mostly via computer, we talk about the pandemic at least part of the time. Some of us feel punch drunk. We can’t envision our futures. We’re the ones who lost mothers or jobs or who have health problems that keep us isolated while we watch the world dine out, fly, or fight for no indoor masks. We feel in survival mode and then start counting backwards to realize we’ve been here a long time, even before the pandemic, each year harder than the last and the 2020s a long, unyielding tunnel.

Sometimes I find myself measuring intervals. How long since my mother died, when I last used my voice, how many days till I’ll next interact. My husband is lonely, too, a neighborhood away in his own apartment, but he won’t spend time with me. He’s meeting people online and ready to move on from three decades together. I read about an Italian woman who died two years ago but was just found at home, mummified, seated in a chair. If I died inside my house, I estimate it would take four to six days for someone to notice, longer on a week when I have no appointments or work deadlines. Human time and geologic time vary so drastically they’re impossible to compare. Somehow, though, knowing the ground beneath our feet moves in constant super slow motion, shifting maybe four inches a year, comforts me. It’s a good reminder of our smallness, how one human’s lifespan marks a blip in time.

But in the human realm I still want more. I can’t help it. I read and search online, trying to find a common denominator for all the lonely, isolated people in the world. Trauma? Personality? ADHD? Bad luck? If I can fit the pieces together, maybe I can find my way out. It’s not that I have nobody, and I know I’m not alone in my aloneness. In ten houses on my street, four of us live solo. People smarter than me have dedicated their lives to this research; some are working on an anti-loneliness pill. But there’s only so much a person can do to save themselves. The ultimate cure requires other humans’ presence. Without inner circle people there’s no mirror, no sounding board, no reciprocation of shared pain or joy.

Combing the beach gives me a break. Waves rolling up on shore don’t drown my thoughts but keep them company, and intense focus on the rocks feels meditative. Overnight high tide will wipe clean where I now stand. What’s here today might be here tomorrow but pushed farther up on shore or rearranged in a way that makes it new. The beach remains a beach but who knows where an individual rock or grain of sand will land? The overwhelming temporariness of everything seems right. One day even the sea stacks will crumble or get subsumed into the next big continent. If humans are here when that happens, I hope some lucky person finds a perfect, billion-year-old rock to carry with them and show off to a favorite companion.

 

— By Amy Souza, 2022

Book Shame

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

(as published in Hunger Mountain)

My first job at age 15 was at my uncle’s retail store, Moby Dick Marine Specialties, on the cobblestone streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Dubbed “The Whaling City,” New Bedford is a complicated mix of a place next door to my hometown of Dartmouth. Today its downtown is a national historic park, but when I was a kid it’s where I went to work, catering to tourists who wanted to buy sharks’ teeth, brass lamps, and woven Nantucket baskets. A block away is The Whaling Museum, where my friends and I were disruptive during class trips. Further down is the Seamen’s Bethel—an early 19th century building with a name that makes any middle schooler giggle and where at least one of my cousins got married.

You can’t step far in New Bedford without the past smacking you in the face—whaling captains’ grand homes topped with widow’s walks, historical markers noting this important date or another. I’ve eaten at the now-defunct Call Me Ishmael’s. I’ve ridden on boats through New Bedford harbor, past the breakwater, through Buzzard’s Bay to Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands. The sea is an old friend. New Bedford itself is ingrained in me in a way I cannot explain. My childhood home had scrimshawed whale’s teeth and a harpoon as decoration. Yet never have I read beyond the first sentence of Herman Melville’s tome that gave my uncle’s shop its name.

First blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Dartmouth Public Schools. The AP English students had to read Moby Dick, but the rest of us slugs only had to watch the movie. (And even that I don’t remember—maybe I skipped school or stayed home sick that day.) Part of me thinks it’s shameful that the powers that be didn’t even try to get us to read the book. A larger part of me thanks them.

Let’s face it: Moby Dick is long. Rumor has it, there are footnotes. I’m a lazy reader, and long passages of description bore me. Grapes of Wrath nearly killed the teen-aged me. I cursed, moaned, and foot-stomped my way through the Joads’ cross-country trek, and to this day no one can convince me that book isn’t as dry as the Dust Bowl. Imagine if I’d tried to make it through Melville’s ocean, hundreds of pages longer. I’d have drowned for sure. Or, more likely, turned to the teacher-forbidden, black-and-yellow savior that, if discovered, would have earned me a bad grade and a scowl.

It’s strange that I grew up around so much history yet remain so ignorant of my town’s past. For instance, I traveled Slocum Road—a main Dartmouth thoroughfare—nearly every day of my life without knowing (or wondering) a thing about its namesake, Joshua Slocum. Not until two years ago did my curiosity pique, when I stumbled upon a Smithsonian exhibit that featured Dartmouth and New Bedford and displayed Slocum’s manuscript for Sailing Alone Around the World.

Now that book sits alongside a used paperback version of Moby Dick, awaiting my attention. I’m weighing whether or not to pack the two into the subset of belongings coming with me on a year’s adventure to the Pacific Northwest. It seems fitting to bring them, don’t you think?

As much as I love books, reading poses difficulties for me, in part because I am easily bored and distracted. But once I begin a book, I hate to stop, even if it’s awful, even if I struggle with the language, subject matter, or story line. I like to see a narrative through to the end. If I don’t, or can’t, it feels like a failure on my part, not the author’s.

I’ve still not tackled Moby Dick and I’m not sure if I should try. I’ve gone this long without reading it; will my life change appreciably if I check it off of my list?

This Is All I Know

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012


Published in Stumptown Underground, Science: Fact and Fiction, 2012

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there. In sight of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, a craft landed. Just descended from the sky and planted itself on the Mall.

It landed cleanly, without the dust kick-up you’d expect, and quickly, as if it had appeared out of nowhere, something supernatural, which perhaps it was.

People stopped and stared (who wouldn’t), some immediately ran away. We live a bit in denial in this city, as though the world weren’t out to get us. We’re not stupid, just hopeful.

Because it was school vacation week, the Mall teemed with out-of-towners, easily spotted by their “Washington DC” shirts and caps purchased from vendors lining the avenues. Children pointed at the craft and a few tried to venture nearer—curiosity their greatest asset—but parental arms held them close.

Was it some sort of trick? A hologram fashioned by creative scientific minds toiling away in a nearby building? Or perhaps the second coming of the messiah. (A natural thought, being so close to Easter.) Other than to say it was oblong and gray and no bigger than a large SUV, it is nearly impossible to describe the craft’s features, as if details had been erased from memory.

The spring air held a hint of winter’s cool and the smell of raw dirt mixed with the odor of strangers. The carousel continued to turn. The craft had arrived with such stealth that not everyone had noticed. Soon, however, a larger crowd began to form. Where were the police? The authorities to guide us? Without them, how long would it take to find a leader among us?

The throng formed a semi-circle around what appeared to be the craft’s front and stood twenty deep. Like at a rock concert, it became a living thing, the lines of bodies rearranging forward, sideways, back.

But it held itself in place, not getting any closer than a hundred feet, as though contained by a physical barrier.

From the back a male voice yelled, “Come out, you motherfuckers!” And another, “Al Quaeda pussies! Show your face.”

This agitated the crowd. People jabbed at each other. A couple standing next to me—the man perching a small boy atop his shoulders—exchanged a nervous glance. “We thought this was a show,” the woman said to no one in particular. Then they pushed their way out, avoiding the vast openness between them and the craft, their chorus of “Excuse Me’s” fading as they left.

Did anyone think leaving the Mall would save them? Surely this craft had powers no one understood. The truth, when it comes, hits hard and fast: We are none of
us safe.

People were growing angry. Somewhere to the right a woman screamed. A fistfight broke out to the left, who knows over what. Then three men pushed their way roughly to the front and stepped into the forbidden empty space. Silence swept
over us all.

The men, two tall one stocky, all muscular and crew-cut, were former or current Marines no doubt. One wore flimsy running shorts. Earlier they’d been playing Frisbee by the Air and Space Museum; tourists and joggers walked wide to avoid their errant discs. Now they approached the craft in what looked like a planned triangular formation—one forward, the others some feet behind. They did not appear to have weapons, making it  difficult to determine if their act was one of bravery or idiocy.

The lead man—the stocky one—marched to the craft, hesitated for a slight slice of time, then reached out and knocked on the door twice with the back of his hand. The sound was metal on metal. He must have been wearing a ring. The craft was solid—did I mention that? No windows to peer through, no peep holes visible. The lead man took one step back, prepared for an answer or to be shot, flanked by his comrades in martial-arts ready stances.

The men waited. The crowd waited. And still no police. No helicopters overhead, not even from the TV news. Just slightly distant jet planes on their way to and from National, tour buses and taxis battling it out on 14th Street. And a few hundred people in the middle of the Mall staring at something we couldn’t explain.

And then it was gone. No puff of smoke. No rocket launcher. Just gone, and the three Marines gone with it. A Houdini act. A fancy disappearance. A stunned crowd. And somewhere in the distance a siren growing louder.

Four Mile Run

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

After the storm, the floodgates opened and poured out a brown murky rush. It flew down its usual path, bucking up against concrete banks, topped with detritus picked up along the way: mile after mile of cigarette butts and beer cans, takeout containers and Slurpee cups, mysterious paper objects and every so often a novelty—a baby’s rattle, a dog’s collar, what looked to be an artificial limb.

Bouncing along, this river of remnants assumed a life of its own. Viewed from above, taken in as a whole, the thing mesmerized with its contrasting colors and changing composition. The way it moved made it appear sentient.

One could accept it, too, as evidence of our existence. No animal but man could create such an artifact. One could feel proud, if one were so inclined.

.

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© 2012 Amy Souza. Copying or republishing anything you see here without express and written permission from the author or artist is strictly prohibited.

Herbert and The Shoeshine Boy

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

With the brushing and the rubbing and the moving from foot to foot, the shoeshine boy loses his place in history. But his customer…

It was a warm day, or maybe cool, on the cusp of spring or fall, circa olden times. The man, let’s settle on Herbert, decides to stop on his way to or from work so his wingtips shine. He wants to impress a new boss or his father or the girl he loves who’s playing coy. His heart swells with ambition or lust, but he is a simple man of simple means and a shine is all he can afford. He feels certain, though, that he will or won’t attain the greatness he does or does not deserve. He’s not quite as destitute as the boy at his feet, although perhaps it is true that he’s more so.

His hair—brown or blonde or auburn—is cut in the style of the day. Short, crisp. Made to sit neatly under a hat. He wishes his hair to be tousled. When he run his fingers through it he imagines the touch of the girl who will soon love him.

Once, as a boy, he’d overheard his mother and sister, Carol, two days before Carol’s wedding, talking in the kitchen, not even in whispers. (They mustn’t have known he was there, figured him to be out delivering papers or shooting marbles or doing what young boys do.) He liked the sound of the women’s voices when they spoke to each other, so different than when they talked to him (like a child!) or his father (like an idiot). To each other they spoke in tones both confident and free, though certainly young Herbert couldn’t have expressed it as such or did and was ridiculed.

His father no longer lived with them, or maybe so. The man had beaten his children or loved them, perhaps both. The house, in the family for three generations or two, was always alive with sounds and smells. Or it might have been quiet, still, Hector a lonely child with Carol, years his senior, his only sibling. Mother resented her time spent in the kitchen, sulked about it or relished her role as nurturer, inviting neighborhood children in to play while she baked mincemeat pies and sweet, airy breads.

On that day when Herbert played eavesdropper, he listened first to the lilt of their voices until, like toffee to teeth or flies to paper, the words and their meaning stuck and Herbert felt his face flush.

“It can be enjoyed,” his mother was saying. “But it’s like your grandmother told me: Expect nothing from this life and you will sometimes be pleasantly surprised to receive something.”

“But what does it feel like?” Carol asked, and their mother released a world weary sigh.

The room fell silent, awaiting an answer, and the boy slipped out of the house undetected or his mother heard a rustling in the parlor and whooped young Herbert’s behind. The whole scene remains with him, or went missing that afternoon.

Now an adult, Herbert lives in the city, a small one or large, maybe medium-sized, the city where he grew up or close anyway or thousands of miles from home. He enjoys this new life or curses it every day upon waking. He takes pleasure in small things like a buttered croissant first thing or pines only for what he cannot have: a house on the water or a beautiful bride or a job in which he orders other men around or works diligently on important projects and is praised for his attention to detail and insightful, well-written reports.

He’s traveled these city streets safely for many years or has been mugged in an alleyway at night while drunk or completely sober, just out to clear his head.

But Herbert loves it here, longs for a small town, aches to venture west like a modern day gold rusher. He reads the paper, pays no attention to the news, rallies for causes, remains in the shadows. People love him or hate him; he has many friends, spends too much time alone, is held in high regard or overlooked by everyone.

Or we turn the page of the picture book and dream of Herbert at night, coloring into his black-and-white life.

The Dark That Haunts Us

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Inspired by Mary Cook’s art

Settling into an uneasy sleep, Anita prayed for a night empty of dreams. No uncontrollable free-fall. No sense of impending doom seeping into her from all sides. No scowling clown’s melted eyes, and no freight train rushing fast while she tried to extricate one tennis-shoe-clad foot. Her heart couldn’t handle many more scenes like this, but the alternative—keeping herself awake with cup after cup of instant black coffee—no longer appealed. Her stomach now churned every time she opened the cupboard and saw the jar.

Who knows why we dream? The scientists have theories, but only our Maker can say for sure and he’s not talking. He keeps so much to himself. Secretive, furtive. Anita knew men like that all too well.

The priest reminded Anita that God was not a man, that attributing human frailty to him was tantamount to blasphemy.

But he made us in his image, Anita argued. Mustn’t that mean in some fundamental way, he is like us?

Not in any way we can comprehend, the priest responded.

The big black hole of not knowing had haunted Anita for as long as she could remember. Her siblings teased that she was a perpetual two-year-old, always wanting to know why.

Let it go, Anita. Have some fun. (Maria, the eldest.)

Work, kids, dishes, and at the end of the day, the husband. Who has time to worry about God, little sister? (Jacqueline, the middle girl.)

You know what I think, Nita. God is for pussies. (Her twin brother, Rafael.)

Still, Anita persisted. Why were we here? Why did some people have everything while others starved? Why pray if it brought nothing in return?

To that last question, the priest had a solid answer: If you’re praying only to ask God for something, then you’re not praying from a pure heart. Prayer is not a commercial transaction, Anita. It’s not a tit for tat. You don’t strive to be a good person so God will reward you. Being a good person must be enough.

Last Sunday walking toward the subway, Anita turned a corner and saw an obese woman, pants down, sitting in a puddle of her own urine at the bottom of a concrete stairway. Bags of belongings surrounded her. A thin black man glared up the stairs at Anita.

What? You think it’s funny a lady’s got to go to the bathroom? You think she’s not allowed to go when she’s got to go?

A young white family—man with a baby harnessed to his chest, woman pushing a stroller—approached the square of sidewalk that the angry man commanded.

He shouted at them: You got a problem with this? You got a fucking problem?

Meanwhile, the obese woman struggled to extricate herself from the wet stain spreading out around her. She might have been crying or perhaps just sweating. The humid day compressed Anita’s lungs. The woman’s exposed flesh rolled in caramel-colored waves from belly button to kneecaps. Her hair drooped like a wilting flower’s petals and clung to the sides of her face. Her feet were bare. Slivers of sandals sat two steps below her, askew, marked with dirty indentations of soles and toes.

In the distance, a siren. Anita hurried down the stairs, putting as much distance between herself and the yelling man as possible. She turned back to see the white couple had crossed the near-deserted street. The man, still shouting, had stepped into the roadway, threatening to follow them yet also clearly tethered to the woman on the stairs, who continued to whimper and try to raise herself. She’d need a team of men, Anita thought, or a machine with belts that could wrap around her heft. One thin man would not be able to lift her, no matter how passionate.

Even as Anita walked away, part of her remained with the woman, struggling to right herself. Stuck in a humiliating position she did not want to be in. Wondering how she got there and if she’d ever be delivered someplace else. She’d call the police from the subway station. Surely they’d come. No use calling for God. He was nowhere to be found.

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