by Samuel Geiger
So many of these roads are just the in betweens. What a pity we don't revere cornfields as we do the black sky. Roy struggles to light his cigarette against the wind of the open window. The van slows on the hills, pulls through shadows under summer lit trees. Here, scattered farms. What buildings there were now feed the grain. Roy asks if a place is still a place if you're just passing through. I say, we're all gonna die, idiot.
Fields of soy, the truest green. We putter over a pathetic summit: a vista of farmland, dense forest. So flat: in the Midwest, the sky plumps like grandmothers. We rush into the scenery, Roy's phone says this all used to be Bybee. We pass an intersection, houses stand crumbling on two corners. We drive further down the road to see a dirt path lead uphill. Roy laughs, oh, of course. He muscles the van off road and we rock up the uneven path; come to a clearing, we get out of the car. Roy pulls a blunt from behind his ear to play it around his slender fingers. We amble. He replaces the stick behind his other ear; in the sun, we've both become pink. Downhill, we walk towards a cropping of trees. A taut band of black elastic hugs a little green box to a thick trunk. Roy drags the blunt and tells me, that's a camera. He turns and hikes back to the car. If Bybee is supposed to be uninhabited, who's watching us?
Trim yellowed grass along a long road. On the left, open field; open sun. On the right, the railroad runs parallel. I wonder if Roy's lost before I realize that that would mean we're both lost. Flocks of crows roost on barren trees. Miles away, vultures. Empty towns have their own kind of quantum presence; there was once a time when each of these stalks of corn could have been a person, standing. Roy sees the memorial plaque. We pull into the driveway; the train tracks disappear on either side: to the right, Chicago, to the left, whatever remains. Off the highway, there is wind. Roy and I go to read the plaque. Here, there was once a train station and a large general store. People would come, drink on the porch. People would gather to smoke cigarettes and watch the stars come in. Roy scrambles up the ditch and hops onto the train tracks, the boy's got some broad shoulders. He turns and says, well, I'm off to Chicago. I watch as he begins to walk north, shards of glass flash in the dirt. I hike up to the tracks, too; I bend, remove an iron spike out of the wood. Roy turns to me, far away. The spike has rusted for as long as it’s been stuck in the tracks, heavy. Of that life, only under thunderous metal and passersby. Roy returns, I say, welcome home. He lights another cigarette; we lean against the trunk of his car and listen to locusts.
Roy smiles as we pull into Bernadotte. No ghosts here: there are people, a cafe named after the dead town, a park aside a murky river. Downstream, a rusted bridge has collapsed into the water. Our hands brush, the sun is beginning to set. Along the riverbank, dead fish dry in the sun.
In a cornfield near Abingdon, Il
The wind licks all the leaves. Loud droning, crickets nearby. I wonder for how many years this field has yielded corn, out here in the in between, rows and rows and rows and us, we sit erect, mock the corn. I tell Roy that this might be the center. He opens his mouth as if to say something and oh, isn't it strange, the gravitational pull of empty spaces.
Madeline closes her eyes and dips back. The sun cuts light on her breasts, emerging out of the surface of the water like apples. She tells me that, floating, she will never be lonely.
My body slips below and lower, the increasing pressure indents my flesh like a swaddling blanket. Green lake, surrounded by forest; under me, a black hand of algae, above, six kicking legs, three asses suspended like young leaves falling, ferocious light sneaking past the surface. Swimming in a between world, like lifted up on wire for so long; down, seaweed licks my ankle. Mouth bursts open, the plant grabs at my shoulders, he shaking and me yelling, drifting in a passing current. No fear of the water leaking in, only afraid of being left behind curled fetal in a broad green palm. My arms drive me to the surface again.
A car emerges from the trees, up the gravel path. Two friends step out, they are lovers; through branches, I see them kiss. Victor carries with him a sagging plastic bag; they've arrived with fresh fruit! They saunter down to the dock. Under their weight, the wood bobs in the water. Victor reaches into his bag, Hey! he yells. Hello! I yell, wave. He removes a fat apple, winds up, launches the fruit to the sky. Morgan laughs. I say, Wow! It crashes next to my head, swallowed by the lake, reappears behind me. I palm the fruit, bring it to my lips, bite into it as if I were trying to tell it something.
Sanna paints our faces. She drags her brush under our eyes, along our lips before she blows our faces dry. Sanna projects on us, we’re like movie screens, like secrets shared in color. Earlier, in Sanna’s car, we catch hands. As we chew through the browning cornfields, she looks distant, caught between a threatening palm and the light raining down. Sometimes, it feels like you're breathing and there’s the world; other times it feels like the world’s breathing and there’s you. Madeline sheds tears, wet images muddy along the curve of her nose.
We move to the dock, we peel off our clothes. On the opposite shore, branches spread out from their trunks, fold like fingers and twist, bend unto one another. In the canopy, birds pick at berries. Madeline says, I hope you guys don't mind a little nudity. When we laugh, our naked bodies show it: all bulging muscle and moving fat.
I dive in: when I pull up from the water, I feel the sun reflecting off the faces of the waving people on the dock like a firm slap in the ass.
Madeline dives in: when she pulls up from the water, she breathes in and she can't stop screaming.
In 1982, Brenda awoke unable to peel off the sheets. Quadriplegia, I imagine how this is just an extension of the life in waiting. I do not know how long she waited on that morning for someone to come draw her from her bed. I didn’t ask if she screamed. Doctors plied her open a week later in a live autopsy, more time in a bed that doesn’t feel right because she doesn’t feel anything.
I met Connie at work. We talked about motorcycles, she told me about the rides she took. When Connie would short her cigarettes, she hid them behind her ear, often would forget they were there, sometimes would carry a short behind both ears and a third long, white Crown in her mouth. Connie tells me that, on her and her mother’s farm property, a goat still roams the grounds, despite her sick mother having moved into town years ago. I ask where the house is. Out that way, she makes a wide gesture south, The roof’s caving in, the fields’ve turned to shit but at least the goat’s loyal.
Connie tells me that now her mother stays mostly in bed in her room in her townhouse where fluid pours from her leg.
When she wakes in her sore bed and cannot feel chill, it is March and Illinois is stuck in a winter that wouldn’t end until April. Snow drops out of the sky, slow against the window. Brenda reasons with the doctors, says something is stuck inside of her and since 1982, the men in coats have taken from her.
They remove a lung, muscle tissue, nerves and skin; they assemble from the pieces ripped away. Connie drives Brenda to physical therapy in her first white pick up and though the skin that remains leaks and bleeds and bruises and maps by so many scars, she walks again.
At work one day, Connie brings me a book of poems her mother wrote. I read them all on that afternoon, as soon as I clocked out. Life passes like the falling of night; the body is the only thing warm enough in a blizzard; the house in which Connie and her other children grew up will soon be swallowed by corn. Brenda doesn’t believe in her own mortality.
Another morning, another list of places on her body with which she has again lost contact. In order to do it again, drag her feet along the floor, experience life in motion, Brenda begins to save money for what she calls the stand-up machine, the new plan to walk. In 1984, the vasculitis begins, liquid streaming out of her like a dam broke. Brenda's knees buckle. She spends the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Connie tells me that Brenda’s the type of person to show you her bed sores. At this point, I don’t think I understand the reason to live. In her writing, Brenda insists that loving someone is a cosmic event and I think I agree. Despite her life past, despite her head having already collected the only pieces that still move, Brenda laughs, tells me the past is as real as you want it to be. I hope that this is indeed a way to live.
She tells me that her body’s always been trying to die. In a hospital bed before they were such needed, Brenda lies on her back, crying and screaming; giving birth to her second child. She tells me that the pain of the body’s expulsion is so dense, that she feels that her entire life orbits around those four experiences. On the bed, the first time they plan to make crater her body, to open a hole not because her body is killing her but because her body is killing someone else. Inside her, the baby turns blue, just seventeen and the poor girl already knows the untrustworthiness of her own body.
Doctors barking like dogs, unbelievable shrieking and a big window filled with slow, solemn snow, ironic in that this is the worst way to count the minutes but true in that during moments of such calamity, warmth flows from silence.
The chord tightens around the neck of the infant girl, her tiny head blue and bluer and out in the hallways all the nurses clack high heels on tile and this baby is going to die, doctors say, Brenda, this baby might die and Brenda only expels her breath, feels her body strong and slim as it was back then, she expels her breath and thinks of the way the children grow up and how already her first daughter’s lips spill all of the kind words that she will never have time to say.
The doctors still yelling, Brenda almost brought to convulsions: 'she's dying, she's dying!' before they take the knife to her stomach; no anaesthetic, seventeen and opened for the first time, 'she's fucking dying!' Piercing and slicing, searching for the beating heart inside of her, skin of her belly and then her womb and then the blue baby, 'here she is, here she is!' A flash of the gasping child, wet, and then Brenda’s heart stops, the baby’s heart stops, the pair of them stray, waiting around.
That’s all there is, a flash of the blue baby, heart stalling, and Brenda’s in a coma for eleven days. Closes her eyes, the baby’s heart replies, thump thump.
Your dad's head looked like a fat, white egg and he passed that trait to you, his only son and child. Do you remember the time when you were coming in from the beach up in Michigan, walking towards those A-frames, those shitty A-frames you always talk about? You got up to the deck, the old wooden planks spanking against your adolescent feet, and your Nani, your dad's mom, sunning herself in a reclining lawn chair, greeted you like she always did. She lay her novel, Forbidden Fruit, against her chest to talk again about what children, 'What children!' you will have, someday, someday. She talked and talked until you got so thirsty that you bent to get a drink of water from the hose underneath the A/C exhaust box but you folded too quick and you smacked your head hard on its sharp corner, the hit reverberating and humming, the metallic sound of which, you thought wrongly, was born out of your own head. You stumbled around, your balance confused. "Nani!" you say, a viscous red crowning atop your head, "Nani, I'm bleeding!" you yell, right before you hit the ground. You fell over and pounded the battered wood of the deck and your vision blurred but you could feel the noodles and floaties that were standing up against the wall fall over you in rainbows and rainbows of foam and inflated plastic. Your head opened up like an egg and wet all over that nice wooden deck when a baby started wailing on the beach. Your dad came out: fat and clueless and standing next to your body collapsed beneath the life preservers and looking around wondering what to do because there is no mother and so he just scooped you up like a bruised apple. He plucked you up off the ground, not tenderly, not gently, but he heaved you up and carried you, your limbs lanky and dangling, your insides leaking, emptying without even having been full in the first place. After falling asleep that night, you dreamed of rotting.
when everyone flew out of our small midwestern town for the summer, i remained behind among scattered few, left out of context. i wrapped my weed in passages torn from a gideon bible, watched the corn grow. beginning of july, it got tall for that time of year; wasn't until september that they razed it. i used to go to the graveyard after work to write letters to far flung friends, never ended up sending a single one; barely wrote any anyway, instead just watched the sun collapse into the rail-yard. half in a hashdaze, i rarely thought of anyone but a man who, in april, i thought i would love forever and how under such pressure again and again the body chooses to bend around another. i worked as a painter, spent days brushing over small stains on the walls of dormitories and academic buildings. a few other stranded students worked together with the school's cafeteria ladies. we didn't talk too much but on our three daily breaks, the students filtered away from the ladies. we spoke, a new puzzle to solve, and on the hottest days, we climbed to the astronomy deck, smoked pot on the roof, the old kings burning away; even surveying out from up so high, we never saw where the town ended. at night, we got drunk and laid on grass asking hit me hit me hit me and on weekends, we'd drive out to the prairie, to the river. swimming, we would dip our ears beneath the water, close our eyes to float away on our own, birds diving under clouds. i remember once we all stared at hawks turning in the air, a vision so holy that we couldn't bring ourselves to crawl out of the water until long after they flew past and it was cold and we were shivering, the stars rolling in. we scampered up the wooden ladder onto the dock and all of us were too afraid to touch any skin. then came the day my apartment's lease was up, i packed and stored my things, vacuumed the carpet and this was work. that night, the full moon on its way, i dosed eight seeds and lowered into a hammock, thought if i tried i could find god but the only thing i found was how badly i need him. no god, just a crater shaped by how incredible it is to watch your lover's long limbs flash descend branches in a tree, to sit on a yellow porch with your closest friend talking and talking and smoking cigarettes until your teeth hurt, to emerge from the water again. middle of september, everyone flocked back. the corn finally fell and i went walking through the fields: in the flat land, the tallest thing around for miles and miles.
What's your China story?
China has always seemed like something of a dream. I'm sure we all say that, you know, like we can see Guilin peering through the smog. I study Mandarin at Peking University where we aren't allowed to speak English during the week. I've had some difficulty with this, partly learning to speak Chinese and partly learning to not speak if I have no way to say something. I don't remember, however, this much fearing being inarticulate as a kid. I love it here, have you had the duck yet?
What's your life story in less than 10 words?
Played videogames for so long blood condensed along my brow
A metaphor to encapsulate what China is to you, in your life?
The other day I went to the gym and I waited for 25 minutes to get on a god damn treadmill. Can you believe that? It's just that busy, there are that many people here, I guess. I finally hopped on the treadmill and just thought that it seemed so much like what our descendants are going to have to deal with. China felt like more than the future then; to me, China is the ship on which we will all one day have to leave the planet to find a new terrestrial home and for those thousands of years with no dirt underfoot we're all gonna have to wait a half hour before we can get on the treadmill.
Your writing history?
I always wanted to be a writer, I've always loved books. Never felt compelled to write my own stuff though until The Picture of Dorian Gray blew my head off. Then a couple of years later I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and I learned about what isn't important, namely, ya know, most things and so here I am arguing with myself about why Facebook wants me to run my cursor along it.
What are your common/recurrent themes in your writing?
Moon, wind, temperature, men I've loved, boys that made me sad, what I'm doing to myself, why I'm doing whatever it is I'm doing to myself, water, friends sweet like fresh fruit, what it is to be a person now that you know all about me and I could easily find out all about you, incense, climbing trees, Illinois, missing my brothers. They're varied.
What happened in your childhood that inspired this?
Childhood happened, the suburbs happened, it's hard for me to talk about specific events in childhood because I can't see them as separate from myself, the person writing. Go to Illinois, I've never seen for so long in the flatland.
Any notable projects you are working on lately, or hope to start soon?
I'm working on two or three different long form poems and a novella right now. It's hard to live in China and not constantly obsess over what time means. That's what I'm writing about now. The novella is about time in the way that its passage in our external lives does necessitate its passage in our internal lives as well despite my own hesitations and doubts, its about the alien way light manipulates the smog surrounding the advertisements that glow, its about auspicious red.
Advice for other writers?
Write, dude, poetry's a trap and you're not trapping anything if you're not writing.