Zac Smith, baby.
What is an ordinary day? With our days increasingly under analysis, it’s a reasonable question. Everything is Totally Fine arrives at an opportune time. Zac Smith’s stories are permeated with seemingly mundane events, actions familiar to the everyday, the stuff that makes up life. And life is strange. What do we feel when we think of ordinary days? Nostalgia? Longing? Resentment? Relief? As Zac Smith sat down to write these stories, maybe he had some of these in mind, or perhaps he wanted to forget about them. His ordinary days gave rise to a collection of stories, something he didn’t know he was doing at first. It’s this sense of serendipity, arbitrariness, and absurdity that trails his words. With that in mind, here is Zac Smith’s ordinary day.
Rebecca Gransden: What happens when you get up in the morning?
Zac Smith: Currently I wake up around 5:45 to do chicken chores and let out one or both of my dogs. The chicken chores involve cleaning and refilling their water thing, unlocking the door to the henhouse, and cleaning the poop out from where they sleep. Usually I try to go back to bed for a little bit after this, but sometimes my toddler wakes up and I can’t go back to bed.
RG: What happens after that?
ZS: I cook breakfast and brew coffee. Breakfasts I cook include: scrambled eggs and toast, omelets and toast, egg sandwiches with tempeh bacon and avocado, biscuits and veggie sausage gravy, scrambled tofu with peppers and onions, savory oatmeal bowls, and oatmeal with banana and pecans. I think my mornings are pretty normal.
RG: What happens at lunchtime?
ZS: I cook lunch and we eat lunch. Lunches I cook include: hummus sandwiches, mac and cheese with lima beans and bbq tofu, black beans and rice with fried plantains, some kind of grain or pasta salad(s), shitty fajitas with tofu, quesadillas, and avocado toast with feta. Sometimes my kid helps me cook - today we made a vegetable soup with dumplings. Then, when work allows, I hang out with my kid while my wife gets some alone time to work or rest. We usually read books together or play with magnetic building tiles or toy animals.
RG: What happens in your afternoons?
ZS: Things I like to do in the afternoons that aren’t “going to work” include taking my toddler to a playground, going for walks or hikes, playing at home with my toddler (e.g. building an obstacle course), and cooking with my toddler (e.g. baking cookies). Sometimes in the evening I take time to play my guitar alone. More recently we’ve been checking for chicken eggs in the afternoons, as well.
RG: Do you travel to and from anywhere? What is that journey like?
ZS: I have been working from home since February 2020. For a long time the only places we would go were nature areas. Last fall, I started taking my toddler to places like coffee shops or small/outdoor stores/markets. Usually, on Sundays, we spend the morning driving ~20 minutes out to a nature area, then a coffee shop, then a small market. I’m laughing at myself saying I do the same things in different ways and places. We’ve only recently done some longer trips, because of the pandemic - we spent the day in Portland, ME to see some family and a few days in Upstate New York to see old friends. My kid seems to enjoy road trips and our friends were supportive of spending a lot of time in parks and playgrounds just hanging out. But most of what we do around our home is like a 2-10 minute drive.
RG: How long did it take to write the book?
ZS: The oldest piece in the book was originally written in mid-2018, and the most recent story was written in May 2021. The earliest ones weren’t written with the idea of including them in a book, and then when it all started taking shape, I rewrote them in various ways to make them better fit the tone or to include self-referential (self=book) content. When working on it as a book, I wanted not to have too many of the pieces previously published online, since I think that in general the only people who will read it have also read one or more stories by me online, and I want them to feel like it wasn’t a waste of money to buy the book. In terms of getting the book published, there were/are only a few presses I really liked and felt like sending it to: Soft Skull, Tyrant, Future Tense, House of Vlad, and Muumuu House. I received kind and personalized rejections from Yuka at Soft Skull (who’s now at Graywolf) and Kevin at Future Tense, was ignored by Giancarlo (which was fine/expected, based on what I know about how he responded to book pitches; he was nice and supportive when I originally reached out to him), and accepted by House of Vlad. I didn’t have any expectation about publishing it via Muumuu House since I assume Tao gets a lot of unsolicited book pitches and he hadn’t published a book via Muumuu House in ten years, but we had been emailing about stuff/writing and then he offered to publish it, which surprised and excited me. I felt bad about pulling it from House of Vlad but Brian seemed ok with it and hadn’t started working on editing it really by then, so it felt like I hadn’t wasted too much of his time. Muumuu House is/was consistently one of my favorite places and I admire Tao’s editorial vision, and he has been very excited about and supportive of the book.
RG: I’d love to know how you chose to compile the collection—the order of the pieces, the selection of segments, etc. It’s a cohesive collection. Were the individual pieces conceived as part of a larger work, or did that take shape over time?
ZS: I’m glad it reads as cohesive. The book was originally going to be much shorter and published online as part of a collaborative project with Giacomo Pope, but then we didn’t feel confident we’d get more people to contribute like we wanted, so we took our respective collections and reworked them for books—his poems mostly ended up in his Chainsaw Poems & Other Poems and mine became Everything is Totally Fine. The original working title was Everything is Totally Fucked and Giacomo claims to have proposed that title as a joke based on what I wanted to write, when describing it to him, and then I just used it unironically. That seed was something like seven stories, and when I decided to make a book out of it, I started writing more specifically to fill it out and let the themes/ideas naturally develop from there. It went through a few drafts where I would try to flesh it out with previously-written-but-unedited stories, print to line edit everything, then categorize the stories based on certain things about them, and then figure out which categories made sense and thus which stories should be cut. I think this was an effective process and helped me feel like I wasn’t including any stories that wouldn’t make sense in the full book context. Also, around this time, Mike Andrelczyk would send writing prompts consisting of 3-4 unrelated photographs in a group chat we’re in together, and I would try to write something really quickly based on those, and then later I scrolled through the group chat to edit and add them in. There are probably close to 20 stories that I wrote for the book which aren’t in the final version, which seems like a good number relative to the size of the final collection.
In terms of sequencing, I realized I had about 2x as many first-person stories as third-person stories, so I divided the book into thirds, with the middle section being the third-person stories. Once I decided to do that, it helped guide me in terms of writing additional stories and experimenting with ways in which the narration is framed or “revealed,” which was fun for me, and it helped the sequencing. For sequencing in general, I tried to make sure I didn’t have many stories that were overly similar right next to each other, and to break up lengths a little bit. The last third I think has the longest pieces and is less cohesive, while the first section has some of the shortest pieces and is more thematically cohesive, which I think is funny in terms of naming the sections and maybe gives a little bit of an arc to the collection.
I want to note, too, that around when I started sending the book out to places, I traded manuscripts with Crow Jonah Norlander and he gave me some good suggestions in terms of copyedits but also a desire to see a certain type of story in a certain place, so I reworked an older piece for that because it seemed like a good idea, and he gave me some insight on some of the categories of story and that helped me when later writing more stories. I also got very nice and similar feedback from Graham Irvin, who gave some good suggestions specifically about doing call-backs or making certain stories more referential to being in a collection, which I thought was good, and I tried to do sometimes in a way that made me laugh. Alan Good provided copyedits and suggestions for ten stories in exchange for sending him some vinyl records, which was fun, and I recommend hiring him for copyediting. When finalizing the book, Tao recommended replacing four stories and asked me to write new ones for him to look at, so I sent him a mix of things I wrote over some two-week period and things that I had originally cut from earlier drafts, and then we finalized everything. We’ve finished the copyedits and are waiting on potential blurbs before finishing the cover and printing them, as of August 5, 2021.
RG: When do you eat in your day? Your book features foodstuffs—pizza, yogurt, cookies—in sometimes antagonistic scenarios. Is this coincidental, or are you in a secret war with food?
ZS: I think about food a lot and eat a lot of food, partly because I do all the cooking in my family, and partly because of how eating/going out to eat was a big part of my family dynamic as a child. I like that you thought of the food being in antagonistic scenarios in my book - I think my relationship with food is unhealthy, in general. But I also think food is funny. Most food seems really dumb, but I also like food and have a lot of both good and bad memories associated with food. And I usually feel really interested when I read stories where people eat food - what they eat, how much they eat, when they eat it, etc.
RG: If you stay in one place in your day, what is that place like and what is your opinion of it?
ZS: I spend most of my time at home. I like where I live. It feels open and airy and we have a nice yard now to do things in, like raise chickens and garden and run around. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet and we are close to nature, although I feel like I don’t take advantage of nature as much as I’d like to. I spend a lot of time in our small office doing work for my job. I think I would enjoy never looking at a computer again.
RG: Is there anywhere in your day you make a special effort to travel to just to write? Do you have a routine when it comes to your writing? Does having a routine, or lack of one, influence your writing?
Where do you usually write?
ZS: I haven’t really prioritized writing lately, so no, I don’t think so. Usually I do my best writing on a laptop in a place that’s not my office, like sitting on my bed. I don’t have a routine. I’m unsure how this affects my writing. I think maybe having a lack of routine means I take long breaks between projects and so my writing is demarcated into periods or larger ideas, instead of a continuous flow of writing.
RG: Do you relax? If so, what does that look like?
ZS: I feel like I am often trying to relax because of some baseline level of anxiety. I usually try to relax by lying down on a couch, bed, or hammock. I enjoy taking naps in my bed whenever possible. I think I might simply be a lazy person who doesn’t want to do anything. I think I also relax by quietly doing chores.
RG: How is your evening and/or night?
ZS: My evenings usually involve putting my toddler to bed, locking up the chickens, and going to bed. The bedtime thing can be very stressful, but it’s also very nice and, I think, grounding/connecting. When I do bedtime, I usually end up singing 4-5 indie rock songs while holding my kid’s hand and lying in bed. After, sometimes, I watch a movie with my wife, or drive out to do chores, like going to a hardware store that’s ~20 minutes away. At night I usually read in bed.
RG: Does boredom influence your writing?
ZS: I think so. I think I started writing to alleviate boredom. I’m unsure how frequently I experience boredom, now, because of technology and my daily responsibilities. I want to be bored more. I think some of the stories in my book are about boredom and anxiety, though. I try to make an effort to pay attention to what’s happening around me when I am in public so I can see things that I could write about, which I think means I try to not preventatively stave off boredom when I’m in public, but I’m not very good at it.
RG: Have you noticed if you are more likely to have ideas for your writing at a particular time or place? Is there a type of circumstance that is conducive to bringing on ideas?
Do any ideas arrive in dreams?
ZS: I’m not sure. I think maybe I think of stories most often while walking my dogs. I think I’ve dreamt about story ideas before but they usually don’t make any sense when I think about them later. One time, recently, I was falling asleep and thought of a good story idea, so I got out of bed to write it and email it to myself, but it didn’t end up in the book.
Everything Is Totally Fine is due out from Muumuu House on January 18, 2022, and is available for preorder.
Usually, when my week was shitty, I liked to order Thai food... I was the only one in the family who liked Thai food, which meant I didn’t get to order it much... But since I was getting divorced and living alone in a shitty apartment, I got to order it as much as I wanted... I was getting into it in a big way, basically... Since most weeks were shitty, I ordered Thai food most weekends... And I never got sick of it... Thai food is varied and complex... It can be very exciting, but also comforting... A perfect cuisine... I like Thai basil, which is a special kind of basil... I like the other flavors, too, but you know what I mean... Thai basil is especially good... So basically, in most ways, Thai food is perfect, is how I feel... And most of my weeks were shitty... So I wanted something perfect to level things out... I ordered Thai food to celebrate my shitty week, basically... I called it “celebrating” my shitty week because I thought that if I called it “celebrating” my shitty week, it’d feel good, like my week wasn’t actually shitty for shitty reasons, but just that I had accomplished something by getting through it—whatever it was—that made the week shitty... And the “celebration” thing usually worked... It made me feel like I had accomplished something by having a shitty week... Plus my cat came back... That was actually good... I liked my cat... That deserved an actual celebration, I thought, looking at the online menu system... And Thai food is good for a celebration... And that milk tea with the little tapioca balls is good for a celebration... Most people call it bubble tea and I liked it a lot... I liked the bubbles... I liked the tea... The whole fuckin’ she-bang, you know... The whole tea-ball game... Heh... So I ordered some bubble tea to go with my celebratory noodles and soup and those fried tofu things... I went all out, basically... I even ordered it for delivery instead of takeout... Oh yeah... Since I was really celebrating, I was really celebrating, you know... I was kicking back in a big fucking way... I told my cat to hold onto his ass, you know, because we were about to go nuts... And then it arrived and I laid out the food on my table... A little of this, a little of that... I put on some music... I gave my cat one of the triangle tofu things and he was like oh yeah, daddy... But I was most looking forward to the bubble tea to get things going... The fireworks that signified the start of the celebration... The bubble tea from that Thai place comes in a plastic cup with a plastic film/lid on top... You have to jab this special, thick straw that comes with it into the film/lid on top... And you suck up the bubbles and milk tea through the big fat straw... It’s, like, the best part of the celebration... The pop of the straw through the film/lid, I mean... It’s like a starting pistol or some shit... Like, ready, set, go motherfucker... So when I heard that pop, I was pretty excited... Like, basically, peak excitement... I was ready... I was set... I was going... To suck up those little bubbles... That first suck was the cherry on top of the firework sundae to celebrate another shitty week crossed off the calendar or whatever... I opened up the paper bag that everything had come in, you know, looking to get that special, fat straw... Rifling around, you know, getting good and excited... But I’m sure by now you’ve guessed that this is where we find out there was no straw... And you’re guessing right... (There was no straw)... So I thought, Shit... Basically, I was like, My celebration is ruined... I had the bubble tea... But no way to drink it... It’s like... Shit, man... I was so fucking down about it... I’m sure you can think of something to compare it to... It was like a Twilight Zone kind of twist... I had all this bubble tea but no way to drink it... It sucked (heh)... Everything was starting to suck... But I didn’t want it to suck... And I didn’t want my food to get cold... And time was running out... The suck was starting to creep in... That creep-suck... So I started eating, just to get the party going... I figured I could come up with something... I figured I could get the bubble tea popping off just right if I was calm and patient... I wanted it to be a good night in spite of the flaws and challenges, you know... I wanted to drink and enjoy my bubble tea, of course, but there was the food, too... I ate some, you know... But I was distracted... I mean, I was actually pretty pissed off... I was getting stressed out... Chewing and slurping and feeling real upset, basically... I thought about calling back the Thai place but that was stupid... They weren’t gonna send a guy back out to my shitty apartment just to give me a straw... And I didn’t want that to happen... The delivery driver would feel like shit... And I’d feel like shit... I ate my tofu triangle things, but instead of thinking about how good they tasted, I was still thinking about the missing straw... Like, instead of thinking, Yummy yummy, I just thought, Fuck this, fuck this... Just that, over and over... Or sometimes I thought, Fucking straw... All the triangles were gone and I hadn’t even enjoyed them... I still didn’t have a plan... But I wanted to persevere... I wanted to win... That felt good, thinking about it in terms of winning... Because at that moment, I was losing... And I’ll admit that I considered giving up... But then I decided, No, you know what, fuck that, I’m gonna win... I had to figure out how to drink the bubble tea without the thick straw... It was simply a have to kind of situation... I thought about how stupid I had been... I had been too dependent on the random whims and mistakes of other people... I was never really in control, basically... Maybe even my entire life, just pissing my pants and hoping for someone to come and change me... (I’m not sure that makes any sense, but, whatever)... So I thought about it while I started eating my pad see ewe, you know, those fat noodles with the Thai basil in it... I was in planning mode... I needed some ideas... So my first thought was that I could use a normal (skinny) straw and a spoon... Root beer float style... The old suck and scoop, you know... Yeah, that seemed good... I walked over to the Takeout Condiments and Other Bullshit drawer... There were a couple (skinny) straws in there because you never know... And there I was, in search of a straw... So, it’s like, maybe I did know, you know... I felt good about my Takeout Condiments and Other Bullshit drawer, basically... My friend Big Bruiser Dope Boy turned me onto this kind of drawer, but that’s not really relevant to the story... Then I opened my normal silverware drawer and got a good spoon... One of the small spoons that fit nicely in my mouth... You know the kind... Like a teaspoon, I guess... A good spoon for the old suck and scoop lifestyle... I went back and ripped off the plastic film/lid of the bubble tea all the way off... It felt like I was about to do some real raw dog shit to this bubble tea... I didn’t like seeing the tea that way, you know... But I had to persevere... I stuck the straw in and readied the spoon... I sucked up some tea... The old suck part of the suck and scoop... And it tasted great... I was like, Oh yeah, good tea, just missing one thing: some motherfucking bubbles... So I scooped up some of the motherfuckers (bubbles)... Moving onto the scoop part of the old suck and scoop, now... But there was ice in the cup... I hadn’t really planned on that... The ice was small, but still large, kind of... They crowded out the bubbles... So I had a spoonful of bubbles and ice cubes... Not ideal... Not good to be honest... I tried to slurp up a bubble with my lips with the tea still in my mouth... You know, trying to get the balance right... But I accidentally slurped up some of the ice, too... And like, oh man, the ice just ruined it all... Tea, bubbles, and ice?... No thank you... It sucked... Like, I didn’t want to crunch the cubes while trying to enjoy those little squishy motherfuckers and milky tea... So I tried spitting out the ice but it was hard to do... Try to imagine it, you know, juggling all that shit in your mouth... So the tea dribbled out of my mouth... And there was still some ice in there... Total opposite of the goal... Just full-on failure... But I figured I just had to power through, crunch up the ice in my mouth... I crunched away, man... And it was a bad experience overall... I didn’t like it very much at all... So I had to try something else... I ate some pad see ewe noodles and thought about it again... I figured I could suck up some tea with the skinny straw, but then use the straw to latch onto one of the bubbles, like, use the suction to pick up one bubble at a time... I remembered doing that shit with, like, uh... No idea, actually... But I knew I could do it... And then somehow leverage the bubble into my mouth... I thought, Alright, yeah... That seemed possible... So I sucked up some tea... I cornered one of the bubbles with my straw... I sucked on the straw... The suction worked... I was like, nice, hell yeah... I took the straw out of my mouth and put my finger over the hole... I lifted the straw... I was getting somewhere... But all the bubbles, like, it was weird... They all stuck together... It was insane... Like as soon as one bubble left the tea, it turned into a bubble magnet... All these other bubbles were along for the ride... And, all together like that, the bubble frenzy got too heavy, I guess... And the suction through the straw couldn’t hold them all up... They all plopped back into the tea... I was like, What the fuck... Maybe it was a fluke... So I tried it again... You know, suck, slurp, suck, grab, lift... Come on, man... But then... Plop... And I thought, God fucking dammit... It just wasn’t working... I ate some more pad see ewe... I just chewed it all up without thinking about the Thai basil, the skinny little caramelized onions, the little bits of egg... I was just thinking about the tea and the bubbles and the way that physics kept fucking me over... I was just chewing and scheming, basically... I had to get the bubbles individually... That was clear to me... The root beer float approach seemed good for that, but then there was the ice problem... So, yeah, there it is, I had to get rid of the ice... So I went and got a bowl... I poured the tea and bubbles and ice into the bowl, soup style... Fuck the straw, you know... Just go at it with the spoon... Bubble tea soup, basically... But that fucking ice was still causing problems... I scooped out a cube with my teaspoon... And it was pretty difficult... Surprisingly difficult, actually... But I got one out, you know, because I was persevering... I had removed one, but it was only one of many... One of, like, thirty little ice cubes... I went for some more but they danced away from my spoon... I thought, Little piece of shit ice cubes... It was obvious that it was gonna take forever... One cube at a time was just, ugh... I needed a better approach... So I decided to get the ice out with my fingers... Yeah, I know, but I figured I could corral all the cubes together and then scoop them out with my hand... A man’s hands, you know, they can do a lot of things... Beautiful instruments, basically... My hands could do almost anything... I put my fingers into the tea soup... And, you know, it didn’t feel great... Like, my dirty fingers just sloshing around in my tea... But I got most of the ice cubes out... Which was progress... It was what I wanted, you know... And then I figured I could finally go back to eating it like soup... No more straw, just full-on spoon time... But the fucking bubbles... I don’t know what it was about them, but every time I tried to scoop a few out, every bubble would stick into the bubble mass again... It was that fucking magnet shit all over again... I couldn’t separate them at all... And the tea was getting warmer because all the ice was gone... And it wasn’t really appetizing anymore, like, knowing I had fingered it all up... Thinking back on my beautiful man hands and all the dumb shit we had done together before eating... Thinking back on when the last time I washed them was... So I was feeling really defeated, basically... And the more I thought about it, I was getting more and more grossed out by the room-temperature, dirty-ass bubble tea soup I had made... So you know what... And it hurts to say this... But I just gave up... I dumped the whole fucking mess into sink... And like, you know, frosting on the cake kinda shit, the bubble mass clogged the sink hole... And I was, like, ugh, just, so fucking, ugh... So, you know, I stuck my fingers in and plucked out the gooey mass... I was feeling pretty grossed out and sad... I put the gooey mass into the garbage... I washed my hands... I sat down at the table... I looked at the rest of my pad see ewe... And this hurts to say, too, but I didn’t feel like eating it anymore... It didn’t look like food anymore... It just looked like garbage... Like, I mean, I had this epiphany, I guess... In less than a minute, probably, all this food would just be sitting in the trashcan along with the gooey ball mess and the egg shells and coffee grounds and broken glass and whatever else was in there from earlier in the week... And I was stuck with this thought about how food turns into garbage, just really ruminating on it... Thinking, like, Man, there’s almost no difference... I reasoned that maybe there was no difference... Food, garbage, food, garbage... I was looking at my food, but also looking at garbage... That’s all it was... And I thought about what a celebration was supposed to be... I thought about how maybe celebrations are a time when we distract ourselves from recognizing that everything around us is either made of garbage or slowly turning into garbage... And this celebration had failed... I saw everything for what it was: garbage, garbage, garbage... And I even felt myself decomposing... My skin flaking off... My blood turning cold and gooey... My bones buckling under the weight... I was garbage, too... What are people but walking corpses, I thought... What are corpses but special garbage, I thought... I looked at all the garbage on the table... I looked at my place in the world, my place as human, as corpse, as garbage... My place in the giant landfill... And then I realized that everything was normal... This was just how everything always is... I just hadn’t been paying attention... So I cleaned it all up... I put the garbage into the garbage... I rinsed the dishes... I took a long, sad shit... I washed my hands... I fed my cat... I went to bed... I was so fucking depressed... And I had to prepare for the next week... I thought about the week coming up... All the shit I’d have to get through just to make it to the next celebration... I thought maybe I’d try pizza... Or maybe just some Arby’s or something... I didn’t fucking know... I just wanted it all to end.
I went golfing. I hit the ball. It landed in the hole (=hole in one). I walked 227 yards to the green place where the hole was that the ball went in. I looked in the... the golf hole, the hole where the ball goes, where mine went. But I didn't see my ball. It was dark in the ball hole. I lay down on the green stuff around the ball hole, on my stomach, and put my face up to the hole. I thought maybe it was just really deep or something and I could reach in up to my elbow and get it. I remembered that was a thing some places, ball holes that were like a foot and a half deep for some reason. Someone was telling me about that once, at like a party in college maybe. I remember he leaned back and arced his hand up and then down in front of him with his eyes wide in a look of concentration, like he was reaching into a deep ball hole for his ball. I was thinking about his eyes when I saw a pair of eyes looking up at me from the golf hole. They seemed like a man's eyes, like a human man, not a racoon or anything, so, like, there was a guy was under the green zone, looking up at me through the ball hole. I could hear him breathing. We were really close to each other. It felt good but I was confused. I thought it was all dirt and rocks underneath the green stuff but I guessed I didn’t really have any good reason to believe that. I imagined a series of intricate tunnels, like, what's that stuff...with the railings... like outside of buildings under construction, or in space ships, like in tv shows... like, rails and platforms and stuff.. made of metal... I don’t know, that stuff, lots of it, like a facility under the green stuff, with guys walking around. I thought about him walking on these like sci-fi pathway things under the golf course, and thought, like, maybe the ball holes were vents, or something. It seemed really complex and I felt tired. He said something but I couldn't really hear. It sounded like "front edges", or something, but that didn't make any sense. I said, "What," and he said it again at the same volume. I was confused. I thought, Runt cages? Brunt ledges? I said "what" again, but he just sighed and slid this, like, little shutter or something over the bottom of the ball hole. The hole looked normal then, like small and normal. I wasn't sure whether to worry about my ball or not, if it was ok to leave it there, with the guy or whatever. I thought it was probably ok because I had other balls with me in my briefcase. I stood up and I realized the green zone was really wet. My shirt was completely soaked through.
The seasonal jobs came back to town aboard a gleaming, diesel caravan. We all stepped up to carry water and dirt and to do all the other things that would be asked. Brought our resumes, our lunch boxes, our good gloves. Someone was going to see us, buy our labor for a week or month—see something useful in the junk, like Giacomo did as a dropout teen, buying a rusted-out chainsaw to bond with mom and get it running again. And just like that ideation, we’d take off for somewhere else full of better promises. This we knew, believed, felt, etc.
Giacomo had his old hat, the lucky one he first fucked in. He used it to wave down men and women in their shiny white trucks. I spat in the dirt. Same difference, same result. Whatever happens is inevitable. Giacomo never believed in fate. We got picked up, taken to tryouts. Giacomo wanted to swear so bad when he saw all the if-onlys and why-nots pass us to hit the exit ramp last minute. We were heading further out than everyone else. What sun would beat us down then, way out there, we wondered.
They grouped us out, saw favorites quick. Barked like big dogs except we all knew what kinds of barks meant what and how and when and how much. He pushed the crates and I held the hoses. We both considered it best. I heard him try to angle in around the edges, get some networking in, as people liked to say, get some human decency out there in the good spring heat. Sweat in his eyes made him squint like a little bird, one of those no-feather ones, just skin and slime. I tried counting to ignore my present self and state—rocks, steps, crates, yards of hose and stacks of coil, counting everything and anything just to pass through the tautly pulled time we floated in. We heard buzzing off in the distance, something making sawdust, or something like it.
Giacomo huffed and chattered behind his crates. Hush up, waste your breath on better things, I thought. Push your crates to make the bosses feel the things your words can’t make them feel. They are in their own way illiterate like us, like mom, like everyone else who would care about any of this, but the language of cost and control is better to know than the language of push and carry. I imagined horses cutting down trees because of something Giacomo said years ago.
His hat lay twisted on his head, beguiling, wringing laughs when he passed the foremen and their kids. He didn’t see them chortle over the tall crates, though, or maybe just over his old stubborn spirit. He breathed in our stinking huffs of exertion and sighed out hope. I liked Giacomo and didn’t want to see him spoilt anew. We were small moons in orbit of something pretty which harbors life. We were not the show. I wanted to push him back, somehow put legs on the crates, watch him dance and distract himself to keep them lined up, dunk us into the irrigation trough, rise up laughing like a couple years ago when we thought it best to rinse off the sawdust.
We talked scrapes and cuts before sleeping in the grove under the stars out there by the end of the highway. We talked about distraction, old technology. I was bored and thus unclear, hoping to chisel out some new thing by vagueness, bring our thoughts into a new space, maybe knock him back down off his prideful course, back down to me, where I was. Giacomo was never as down as I even though he slept in the deepest hole on the worksite. Something about initiative, action, teamwork, sacrifice, leadership. I ate my bad food in silence while he buzzed on about these foreign words he found somewhere, something about coffee. I thought then and continue to think that work is work, is the same thing as last year, next year, the very beginning times, the very end times. I considered the stars pretty enough where we lay out in the gravel, but he had thoughts of strange rooms out in the grassy hills with windows as big as our tar-paper ceiling where one could somehow see even more stars, though I didn’t ask for detail.
We worked as hard as needed, but Giacomo caught heat stroke before catching any attention. His mom said to keep your head down and she said it literally, although Giacomo somehow thought he could improve the way deep channels wind through the earth. I don’t think they make a saw big enough for that.
I saw him lay in the shade while the owner’s son wandered through the stacks and stores trying to devise new things to array and bundle up and sell. It was bad timing, caught recovering in the dirt, hat over face. The boss boy ripped it off and tossed him out. Where to? We held our breaths and worries so no one would think us human. We pretended to be delicate machines in the industrious frontier instead, things just brought in to wring together pretty bundles or rip apart nature. Giacomo got canned, hat in hand, just like he was when we climbed aboard that promiseful truck. Canned is a euphemism for the gorier details of our rumpled-up contracts, as you might imagine.
I dug the ditch he lay in then, and I laid the soil thereafter. It was only natural that I not feel the need to test his boots, swap our hats, turn his pockets—I knew how they fit and what they held. This showed promise to someone, they mistook my sadness for integrity or some other obscure thing they considered good. They gave me a bundle of his things, including a book that seemed impossible to read. I flipped through it and saw things we had together, neatly lined up in little lines.
The company asked me if I had anyone or anything to keep me back in town instead of going elsewhere for more work and more money. I told them no, tamping the dirt with the company’s spade. I told them to take me away.
Emo Phillips stands on a train. He thinks about all the fucked-up people he knows and wonders if people think he’s as fucked-up as he thinks other people are. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and thanks everyone for riding the train. Emo Phillips feels like he has never been thanked for riding public transportation.
“Hey, am I fucked-up?” Emo Phillips asks.
“What,” says Dan Brown. Dan Brown is looking at an advertisement for furniture. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and apologizes for the slow pace of the train. Emo Phillips takes off his mittens. The advertisements for furniture are very sexually explicit–in one advertisement, there is a picture of two men having passionate sex on top of a dresser–and Dan Brown feels incredibly unloved. He doesn’t want to be on the train anymore.
“Like, am I weird, I guess,” Emo Phillips says. “Like, is there stuff weird about me. To people”
“Yeah, dude, uh…I guess. Or not,” says Don Brown (easier to type than Dan Brown). The furniture advertisement seems really fucked up. “But yeah, probably.” He imagines himself making love on top of a dresser for a photoshoot. He imagines himself being paid $7,000 in twenty-dollar bills for the photoshoot. He imagines not telling his lover about the photoshoot and using some of the money to buy a new dresser because of how good it was to be fucked on that kind of dresser during the photoshoot.
The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and suggests that more people should get off at the next stop so the train can go faster, because of the weight of the people. Almost everyone on the train checks to see what the next stop is.
“What?” asks Emo Philips (one l, spell check seems cool with this). He is looking at the advertisement. The man penetrating the other man in the advertisement has an Emo Philips tattoo on his right shoulder. The man being penetrated has his head flat on top of the dresser, looking away from the camera.
Emo Philips feels worried. He remembers that the furniture store from the advertisement is at the next stop.
don brown (no caps) clarifies that he doesn’t know what Emo is asking. They are lovers, and they are on the train, and The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom (copy pasting this now) and begins to cry into the microphone thing, pleading for everyone to leave.
Every day I went outside to find new bugs. I found bugs on the ground. I found bugs on the street. I found bugs in the garbage. I found bugs on a dead skunk on the road. I found bugs writhing around the inside of a tree that had split in half during a windstorm, in the middle of the night there was this incredible cracking sound, like thunder, but there was no rain, it was just the tree snapping in half and then it crashed onto the ground. The inside of it was a network of narrow passages and wavy, warped wood, all the way through, like a tall, dense sponge. I imagined that it had been filled with bugs for weeks, maybe months, maybe over a year, the bugs slowly burrowing through it, setting up colonies—a colony of ants, a colony of beetles, a colony of wasps, a colony of aphids, a colony of termites—and moving around, digging into the wood, boring holes in the bark, scooping out the wood and replacing it with mush and larvae and piles of their own dead. And finally the windstorm came and it was enough to bend the tree so much that it buckled under the weight of itself, the bugs only having colonized so far high so that the bulk of the rot and hollowed-out wood was near the bottom, right at head height, so the rest of the top of the tree with all of its branches just got too heavy, the wind pushed it and that was it. The bugs were still writhing around inside. I could see the chambers they had eaten out of it in profile. I could see the bugs that had been split in half when the tree buckled, their sticky, mangled bodies lay smeared onto the tops of the serrated striations of the inside of the tree. It was like they were crawling around inside the mouth of some terrible monster that had rows and rows and blunt, wooden teeth and finally it snapped shut to eat them. Most of the ants that had been split in half were still twitching, and all the other ants ignored them. The ants that were split in half were still mostly alive, just like the tree—split in half but still alive. They must have been like that, split in half and twitching, for hours, since the tree had snapped. And I saw the chamber with the queen in it and all the larvae she had produced, piles of terrible little half-bodies in the hollowed-out nooks of the tree, and a beetle was also in the chamber, picking up the larvae and snapping them in half and eating them, and there were ants trying to tug at its legs and the legs of the other beetle that was crawling into the chamber, now that it was all exposed and open. I could just reach in and grab all of them, the queen ant, the larvae, the beetles, the ants tugging at their legs, scoop it all out in one hand. I thought about the time I was a little kid in my grandparent's backyard in California and I was sent out to clean up the overripe avocados all over the ground under the trees while my grandparents cooked dinner for everyone. My parents were coming to pick me up after the three weeks I had stayed there, and we were going to have a big dinner in the backyard and my grandparents didn't want anyone stepping on a mushy avocado. I picked up maybe twenty or thirty and threw them one by one over the fence and into the easement that butted up against the concrete drainage area, and sometimes I threw them hard enough so that they cleared the easement and I could hear them puck wetly onto the concrete. I picked up a small, leathery one from near the compost bin that was squishier than all the others and when I squeezed it, the skin split and bloomed open and a wad of maybe thirty red wrigglers poured out, I felt them pinch and squeeze between my fingers and gush out a hoary, stinking juice into my hand and down my wrist and arm. I threw the mass toward the fence, brown gunk and dripping, writhing worms exploding in the air like a plume, or spray, before smacking against the wood, the pit thumping dully, worms clinging wetly to the pine boards and then flopping down onto the grass. My hand smelled like the worm juice the entire dinner, night, and subsequent two-day car trip home, I would wash my hands, scrape bars of soap with my fingernails and let the soap stay there, then later soak my hand in hot, soapy water, but nothing helped, nothing got rid of the smell, every time I scratched my face or picked my nose or rubbed my eyes, I would smell it, the same sick, fetid smell of bile and rot. That was what I thought of when I saw the beetles and the larvae in the tree, I tried to conjure up the smell of it, but I couldn't remember exactly how it smelled anymore, all I could smell was pine sap, tacky and raw—some of the ants were stuck in the hardening sap, wiggling their antennae and mandibles in little tiny death throes. So I did, I put my hand in, scooped out as much as I could, the ants, the larvae, the beetles, the sap, the splinters. I felt it all as a mass, squeezed it, felt it gush and congeal, felt the beetles crawl out onto my hand through the mangled everything else. There are bugs everywhere. Everywhere there are bugs. It’s better if you go looking for them. It’s better if you go looking for them and find them first and know what will come when you squeeze.
Then you can squeeze.
Brad flipped his car after hitting a fire hydrant, right downtown, right on Fifth Street, right near our old apartment, the prefurnished one with the broken window and the red wall and the kitchen that had bookshelves instead of cabinets, he was driving, something happened, who knows, he hit the hydrant and the car went upward, upward, from the height of the hydrant and the height of the curb, and the car veered upward and over the hydrant, and the hydrant's base cracked under the weight and pressure of the car and the angle of it, and the cracked base gave way so that the water could come out, and it came out, one huge spray into the underbelly of the car and out into the street below while car ascended into the air itself, at an angle, fast and strange, twisting, up and around, the body of the hydrant lifted, dislodged, entirely broken free, the water coming out as a geyser, up and out, the body of the hydrant rolling away, or more tumbling away, bouncing under the force of the impact, the force of the water, the car's wheels spun and the engine roared freely, the tired no longer struggling against the friction of the road but against nothing, free air, spinning madly, the engine just bellowing as the car veered upward, the clanging of the hydrant as loud as the screaming of the engine and the roar of the water, all three a unified cacophony on Fifth Street near our old apartment, right in front of the convenience store where people would gather to smoke and scratch off lottery tickets and ask for change and sell weed and catch up with the other people who lived on the block or around the corner, and who we would sometimes buy forties with and scratch off lottery tickets and talk about what the other people on the block were doing, who they were with, where they had been and what they planned on doing, who was leaving town, alone, or leaving with someone else, people we knew or didn't know or had only heard about, or people who we saw buying beer but who never hung out, and right next to the laundromat where someone died once in the bathroom, then they closed off the whole place with police tape, and everyone was crowded around trying to see who it was, if it was anyone we thought it would be, anyone we expected to die in a bathroom, or who always hung out in the laundromat for whatever reason, but it was just some nobody that no one knew, it was right in front of that laundromat where he flipped the car, his foot still on the gas, the car in the air, the tires spinning, engine screaming, water spraying, hydrant rolling off, and when the car landed it was the loudest of everything, a real crashing down, the whole car coming down from the air with its full weight, just a huge crash, the windows crunching into a million tiny bits and the hood crumpling in and the engine letting up, finally, a big groan into nothing, but the water still spraying up and wide, less murky now that it was finished clearing out the old silty pipes in the neighborhood and pushing in fresh clean water, spraying all over the upside down car, all over the street, the curb, like the car, car half on the curb, half in the street, Brad pinned between the wheel and the seat and the roof of the car but able eventually to wrench himself out through the busted-out window, on his back, coming out like a baby covered in glass and blood and just staring at the water coming up and spraying out everywhere while the radio kept playing, louder than almost everything else except for the water spraying out and splashing down, louder than Brad muttering “shit, goddamn," over and over again, louder than him just muttering the same thing over and over again, wondering when the cops would come, whether anyone would call them, whether he would have to call them, wondering what would happen if they came, what would happen if they never came, all kinds of shit, over and over again, the same shit just over and over again in his head.