Read a Story About Spying on Your Coworkers from Greg Jackson's 'Prodigals'
"Summer 1984" is a story about a gun and one young woman's sticky summer spent spying on coworkers from Jackson's impressive debut, out today.
Greg Jackson. Photo by Shelton Walsmith/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Greg Jackson debuted July 2014 in the New Yorker with a story called "Wagner in the Desert." Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, immediately singled it out for praise, describing the story as "the best fiction debut they've published in years."
This caused considerable jealousy. I am speaking of myself, but as I sort of casually tried to find a friend to interview Greg, I found out it had struck other writers like me the same way. Which was really a shame, because the story is incredibly good. What is particularly good about it is the way Greg has of articulating things that I perceive, but am hardly conscious of, and don't really have the words for. I was a little embarrassed when I finally read his work—early on, during the blinding heat of his debut, I kind of couldn't manage to do it. But later, when his collection showed up in the VICE mail, and I didn't know who he was or what it was, I read, and I was completely blown away. He's a great writer, a rare talent, and a gift to our (or my, whatever) screwy, lazy generation.
—Amie Barrodale, fiction editor
There is a gun in Act I. I have put it there. I am one and a half when this happens, when Michaela's story takes place, an age at which the literature tells me the child's personality has begun to emerge, a sense of independence, and the imagination too. When children first pretend to be people they are not, characters from books and movies, and when they may begin to mimic their caretaking on dolls. Because I am a boy-child I have no dolls. Many years later I am fascinated by the claim that "violence is essentially the form of the quest for identity." I leave the conclusions to you. At one and a half, my parents tell me, I was curious, baffled, intent. I liked car rides, the quiet displacements beyond the glass. The simple magic of vision, the reality of space. I liked going home.
Michaela's Story (as told by her)
I signed on with DH for a second summer because it was a sure thing and I needed the money if I was going to Nicaragua. All summer my dreams would be dark coiled things sprung from a wilderness I didn't, or hadn't yet taken the time to, understand. I was back from college, living at my mom's, trying to get through Paulo Freire. I was reading too much news. Central America had become an obsession with me. I couldn't get enough. I read articles on breaks at work, bought magazines and dailies on my nightly walks. There wasn't much else to do. Tatiana—the youngest of my sisters after me—had finally done what Kiki, Viola, and Erin had all done, which was leave. She wanted to go to the far side of the continent and ride motorcycles through Redwood forests with guys named Bruce, it turned out. So that left me. I was glad DH took me on. Tatiana and I had set a record the summer before, painting four dorm rooms in a day, and I guess that was résumé and interview.
I worked with Mellie wallpapering the first week. Mellie was 23. She put me in mind of a tomboy who had grown up a lot prettier than anyone expected and I'm not sure she understood her effect on people. A lot of what she told me had to do with her boyfriend Judson and their sex life, a semipublic affair stimulated by some exhibitionist hankering. Mellie could be racist too, but these failings aside, and I certainly counted Judson a failing, she was my favorite on the crew. I granted her a good soul that had come under a bad influence, which was probably granting her too much, but I liked her so that's what happened.
A Mellie vignette: Sometimes we'll be out, and Judson'll tell me to go wait for him in the stall. Just get ready and wait. A few minutes later he'll come in. I'll be turned away, but I'll know it's him by how he's breathing. I'll feel his eyes on me. It's the most exciting thing, Michaela, that moment, right before anything happens. She'll have stopped working, the seam roller in her hand hovering at her shoulder. Her gaze will drift to the window, like out there somewhere is her real life... I'll feel him looking, and sometimes my heart just catches it's beating so hard. Do you know what that's like, just surrendering like that?
Show me again how to get the bubbles out without it creasing, I might say, just to say something. And Mellie would give me a look like my big sisters used to and say, Ah, you're too young to understand.
But that didn't seem to me to be the problem. I kept imagining the poor person trapped in the stall next to theirs, listening to the bullish exhaust of Judson's appetite. Clearly that was part of what thrilled them, though, the possibility of being discovered, overheard, seen. I was back to painting the next week, anyway, and that was the end of Mellie's stories. I had to work with Bobby, but otherwise I preferred painting, which was mindless and voiding. We'd been contracted to do the sports facilities that summer, the basketball complex, the door frames, chairs, and the mascot logo at center court. Don't let that idiot near it, DH told me, meaning Bobby, meaning the logo. So for a few days it was just me and that mischievous grinning face, eye to eye.
The coach stopped by one day to see how we were making out. It was pretty decent of him, I thought, given his status in our town, which compared favorably to the Messiah. He had a growth on his head. It caught me off guard, and for a second I thought it was a trick of the light, but then I looked again, without really meaning to but also shamelessly, and there it was, wan and hideous, like a tree fungus. He flinched. His hand leapt to his head and he brushed his hair back.
Let's hope this heat breaks, he said.
Oh! I said, which wasn't what I meant to say.
Our work began early and ended in the late afternoon. Every day at four we trickled into the basement room by the lockers: me, Mellie, Bobby, Carl, Radar, Stan, Ellen S., and Ellen V. Because we couldn't leave until everyone was there, we sat around chitchatting, changing our shoes, and watching Bobby pick the callouses on his feet. Most days I rode home with Carl, but when luck turned against me I was stuck with Radar and Stan.
They were cousins of some sort, that's what they said, but if they shared anything it was an omission, I thought, the absence of a trait necessary to the composition of a full human. They are missing the chromosome on which God placed love, Carl once said, seeming to pluck the idiotic phrase from the ticker tape homily of his mind. Radar was short and round, Stan tall and gaunt; together they made a backcountry Laurel and Hardy. When I rode with them, always in the back, they seemed to forget I was there and told stories that might've even made Mellie blush.
So down to the motel, Radar said on the Tuesday after a long weekend, me and Derek are out drinking beers by the pool. And there's this girl, she wants to go swimming. She's maybe 11 or 12, I don't know, and the thing is, and you can see where this is going, she doesn't have a suit. Well so the mother says, Ah, you don't need none, just go in. And Derek and me's looking at each other like, Did we just hear right? We've maybe had a few at this point. The girl's stripping, Derek's cracking. And thing is, she like... likes it, you can tell. She's, like, showing off. Stan hit a fist against the door frame. What's the mother thinking? Fuck, said Radar, for all I know they're nudists. His voice took on a sudden, sober conviction. I'll tell you this though, boy, she gave us a show. Bet you saw a pink little button, Stan said. Shit, said Radar. Size of my pinkie.
It amazed me in those days how quickly my presence, my very existence, seemed to disappear from people's minds. I got to the point of daydreaming so deeply, dreams empty of any content, that I began to think myself some astral walker, present but on a different plane, and when people spoke to me it often took me long seconds before I could remember how to speak. And yet, even as I entered states of attention so total and immediate as to purge my mind of thought, I found I could later recall what had taken place around me, indexed with emotions like the colors on file tabs. And what I felt recalling Radar and Stan, with the benefit of some distance, was not disgust, though they were gross, but the tragic smallness of what they needed and still could not get, the smallness of their need next to the need that drove others not so very far away, the people whose stories I read daily in the news, to martyrdom and murder in conflicts that stretched into other lifetimes. I don't mean Radar and Stan were pathetic. I mean I couldn't reconcile the scales. And I knew nothing of sex then. I'm still mystified by its true nature, whether it is an itch to scratch, an exercise in power, in pleasure, a form of togetherness, of renewal, an act of reckless hope, slavery, or freedom. Maybe it is all of these, maybe none. All I feel confident saying, I suppose, is that you act differently when there are eyes on you. You undress differently observed.
My mother worked odd hours at the furniture factory and was never around when I got home. So after checking on Mad Max, the screech owl that flew freely in our house that summer, and sometimes picking a cicada for him from the pear tree out front, I set out into the endless summer evening, cutting through the developments next door, that creeping mold of selfsame houses and curving roads, crossed guardrails and culverts, dirt lots and light-industrial blight, past baseball fields where kids called to each other in the hot low sun and the dust rising from the infield was gold powder, all the way to the rutted path that traced our little river, a river of rocks that summer, which I would follow until it turned off into the nicer part of town.
It was there, in one of the cafes, among the antique shops and sycamores that I first saw her. She was a woman of some dignified middle age, in an elegant sleeveless dress the color of the sky before, or maybe after, a storm. She had short hair, silver earrings, a cup of tea before her, and a piece of white cake she was eating slowly. Looking back I don't know whether it was her appearance that made me glance at what she was reading or what she was reading that sensitized me to the air of loneliness, or incongruity, that had settled around her. It was a magazine article I'd read a few days before on El Mozote, about which great controversy raged. It was enough, anyway, for me to take note and recognize her a week later, in front of a house, trimming sundrops and coral bells in gray gloves. That was early evening. The sun coursed down like a river, washing over her and the house's weathered brick, all the way to the rhododendrons in the back, which stood guard at the border where her yard abutted a small park with a pond.
I had no history of spying on people, no buried desire in this direction, I think, and I did not, even much later, consider my curiosity a violation, although it was in its way. I did not—here was the thing—I never associated what I was doing with the sort of furtive spying you saw in movies and on TV, which grew out of some disorder or perversion and went by the name of peeping. I simply fell into the habit of passing through the small park on my nightly walk and, when it was dark and I could do so unobserved, slipping through the bushes into her backyard.
When the lights were on I could see into the house. Sometimes I saw her in an armchair reading, music playing at low volume, or else in the kitchen preparing a meal, a strung apron around her waist, steam rising from steel pots. The house looked like she might be expecting a dignitary at any minute. There was a mantel clock above the fireplace, long pretty curtains gathered neatly at the windows. I don't know what I hoped to discover. Possibly I was just bored and this opportunity had fallen in my lap. Someone seemingly as alone as me, and yet completely different. Or maybe I convinced myself that the secret of the massacre lived in this house, whatever that might have meant.
I didn't drink then, I already found the world confusing enough, but Bobby drank, and as June wound into July he began showing up to work drunk and then drinking on the job. It meant I had to work harder to keep us on pace, and laboring amid oil and epoxy fumes I got terrible headaches. Head rushes swept over me, leaving my vision abuzz and scattered in prismatic blocks. At times I had to lie down to let the nausea pass.
DH found me like this one day, on my back in the bleachers. Michaela, he said, you're a good painter: You're fast and you're precise. But if I catch you lying down on the job again, I'll fire you without a second thought. I couldn't respond; the moment had come and gone too fast. Woo- ee, Bobby said when DH had left. Look who ain't long for the world!
I tried to talk about it with Carl on the ride home that afternoon. In a fair world, Carl philosophized, I'd say rat out the drunk. But we don't live in a fair world, and it's probably worse to be thought a snitch. I just don't see why I care, I said. Carl smiled. It's all for naught, he said. You know what that means? I blinked at him so that I didn't hurt him. Who didn't know what all for naught meant? He said it all the time, anyway, like a ludicrous mantra. In his thick accent it sounded like he was saying it's often hot—which was true, it was.
But it wasn't all for naught, not for me anyway. I needed the money so I could leave, like my sisters had, so I could fly to Nicaragua, or El Salvador, and begin what I imagined to be my life. I had already told college I wouldn't be back in the fall and part of me doubted I ever would. College was fine. It was just fine.
When I got home from my walks, I often found my mother on the sofa, watching reruns and drinking Stroh's. Sometimes Max would be perched on her head and turn his eyes on me, fixed in their dead-ahead regard. Something was wrong with him, I'd say a broken wing if that didn't sound so stupidly symbolic, but his summer in our house, anyway, was a convalescence.
One night my mother asked me to come over and sit down, and before I knew it she'd cut a lock of my hair with a pair of scissors. For Max, she said, who needed the roughage for his digestion. You could have asked, I said. And what's wrong with your hair? You don't want Max eating dye, she said aghast. She cut a raw steak into small pieces and wrapped them in my hair. See how much he likes it, she said. He seemed to like it the exact amount he liked everything.
In those moments when our eyes met, I thought I saw my mother's wobble, unable to fixate or lock, as though steady gaze and the picture of the world it offered were a thing she'd given up, a thing taken from her or traded away, and in those moments I had the urge to flee and to never come back. I sometimes thought I heard goats bleating out back, before I remembered that we no longer kept goats, that it had been my father's idea to keep goats, before he left us and left us the goats, the asshole. I didn't intend to forgive him, even as I forgave my sisters, wordlessly, without a second thought, knowing that in their shoes I would have done the same. You save yourself first.
My only companionship that summer was my college friend, Linda. She was a camp counselor in New Hampshire, a thousand miles away, and for the first half of the summer we wrote each other diligently. Having nothing to report myself, I told stories from work. The Dynamic Duo, I wrote, which was the name I'd given Radar and Stan, recently hatched a plan to knock over a convenience store called Binny's. Now Binny's is possibly the saddest convenience store on earth. I don't know whether they accept or have ever seen paper currency, but well, the boys, they're like Sonny Wortzik and Sal when they get plotting (remember when we saw that at the Nugget?). They think it's a cinch because it's all stoned teenagers working there over the summer, but what about me? What do they think I'm going to say to the cops? If I die under mysterious circumstances please show them this letter.
Linda began most of her notes by telling me how crazy and hilarious my life at home was; then she'd tell me about sailboats capsizing on the lake, taking ticks off campers with blown-out matches, girls getting their periods for the first time, convinced they were diseased or dying, campers who got so homesick their parents had to come get them. Homesick? I thought, like love, this referred to an emotion I lacked the sensitivity to pick up. Late at night, Linda said, she and the other counselors snuck out to meet up with their counterparts from the boys' camp nearby. I may have done a certain something with Hot Josh, she wrote. Aaaah! I feel crazy! I skimmed for a couple of pages until Josh's name stopped appearing. I didn't know this Linda. Foucault had died and she hadn't even mentioned it.
As much as Linda described it I failed to understand what camp really was. I kept thinking, You do what all day? sure I'd missed something. It wasn't envy I felt. I felt the way I did when I read about Buddhist monks walking barefoot on hot coals. I felt: Why?
On breaks at work, while the others smoked, I skimmed the papers looking for news from the south. People were killing one another here in the US too—at McDonald's, in San Diego, in Alaska. That was different, I thought. That was despair. They wanted to kill. To kill intransitively. That was how the AIDS virus killed, science had just told us, so long as you agreed it wasn't punishment from God, believed it followed the thoughtless compulsion of its biology or chemistry or whatever clockwork urged it on, like the freak tornado swarm that had swept through just east of here while I was at school, killing dozens and wreaking its fantastic havoc. People still spoke of the tornadoes in low tones like fate were listening. Violence of this sort unnerved me. It didn't believe in the world.
At work Bobby sometimes asked me to tell him again what it was I was studying in college.
History, I said. Latin American history.
You, he'd say, shaking his head. You I do not understand.
But the truth was, if there was a truth, that thin strip of umbilical land between Mexico and Colombia turned out to be the only thing that could hold my attention: Nicaraguan land reform, Panzós and the Spanish Embassy fire, Rigoberta Menchú's memoir, the assassination of Archbishop Romero. I read article after article on the unfolding revolutionary chaos, the power seizures and coups, the juntas, the leftist turns against the juntas, the brave stands taken by peasants and clergy. That spring in São Paulo, a million and a half had gathered in the Anhangabaú Valley demanding democratic elections. And though the vote had failed, things seemed to be changing, the impulse spreading—the impulse to change everything, to take every mistake and inevitability that went by the name of life—as in, that's life —and erase it, like footprints in the sand, or to cut it off like chains binding us to the past. I had no real clue what I would do if I made it to Nicaragua or El Salvador, but I knew that I would never forgive myself if I failed to see what was happening firsthand. If I failed in whatever small way to participate. History still existed there and it had dried up here at home. I don't think I put things to myself in those terms then, but I sensed a fissure in me that would otherwise never heal.
I thought about the reality of these distant countries as I gazed into the woman's house, the soft lit world beyond the panes. I imagined the woman's husband returning from the revolutionary tropics, from some grim mission attending to American "interests," as they're always called, coming back to this snow-globe world and giving in to the delusion that the two worlds did not exist in one continuous reality, separated only by permeable space. Maybe he was the dignitary she was always expecting. Or maybe the house was just her way of curating that delusion.
Of course I didn't know the first thing about her husband—whether he was alive, where he was, what he did, if he existed at all. I knew only that she wore a ring, a silver band, and the name she spoke the one time I heard her speak might have been anyone's—her husband's, a child's, God's. Probably not God's, but you never know. It was a July night full of plant heat. The day had been suffocating too and crowns of vapor fringed the lights set to burn in the dark. The woman had her windows cracked and when the phone rang the sound passed out into the yard like the trilling of Max's birdsong. She disappeared and I went around to the other side of the house where, standing on the metal lip of a window well, with my hands on the sash, I found her again, a silhouette across the unlit room.
She was standing in a small interior hall, partly obscured by the door frame and turned away from me so that I couldn't see her face. Light from the kitchen washed dimly into the hallway. I couldn't make out her words at first, only what sounded like distress in them. An old distress, I thought, nothing unexpected. An unscabbed wound. I strained to hear, pressed against the mullions, then the window lurched in my hands, opened under an upward pressure, and I heard her say, Gabriel. Gabriel. A pause. Hold on. Hello? she said in a loud, timorous voice. I held still, my head ducked out of sight, waiting, letting the very faintest breath escape me while my heart drummed mercilessly in my chest. In the silence the static of the crickets rose up, so loud I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed it before. The sound was deafening. It seemed to pulse. I thought I heard the insects humming in the fluid skin above the pond. Then I heard her say, Nothing, I guess. Two dozen? Too many. What about— Well, how does it run? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. She laughed. Karen? No!
A few days later I got a letter from Linda telling me how madly in love with Josh she was. He's thin, but he's strong too, she wrote. Sometimes, when the stars are out and everything's quiet, I rest my head on his chest. I listen to his heartbeat and the frogs by the lake, and I think I'm hearing God. I think, This must be what people mean by God: that the universe is listening, that you're listening to it. I know it sounds ridiculous but that's what I think. I think: God is everywhere... Oh, Michaela, what's happening to me? I almost let my girls retrieve their arrows before everyone was done shooting. Someone could have been shot! I'm distracted all the time. I cry for no reason. I think about marrying Josh.
The letter was eight pages long. I didn't read the whole thing. I concluded that Linda had gone insane and put the letter back in its envelope. I considered writing Return to Sender and dropping it in a mailbox, or possibly burning it, but in the end I just lost it.
At work Bobby said, What do you think it's like to kill someone? That depends, I said. OK, said Bobby. There's lots of ways to kill someone, I said. You could choke someone to death, look right in their eyes. You could be one shooter in a firing squad. You could get the order to drop a bomb. You could give the order to drop a bomb. You could kill someone by accident... I'm talking about face-to-face, gun to the head, Bam! Bobby said. One second they're alive, next second they're dead. I looked at Bobby. He was covered in sweat. Actually, I don't want to talk about this, I said.
I didn't realize how much I didn't until I got to the women's room and found I was shaking. I felt sick, like a summer flu had exploded inside me. I opened the window. The air was even hotter outside, as sickly moist as dog's breath. The sun fell through the window like scalding water on my skin.
Fucking, cocksucking, Mellie muttered, banging through the door. When she saw me she stopped for a second. Hey, she said, you know that fucking asshole Randall, the supplier? Fucking spook's joking around with Radar and Stan, looks me up and down, takes his sweet time, and I'm like, Take a fucking picture, why don't you? And he says—I don't even fucking know—some slimy shit, and Radar and Stan and him are all cracking up. I swear Judson would kill that—
I had my hand up. The heat, the shouting—it was too much. Part of me maybe had a crush on Mellie, but just then I could have smashed her head through the porcelain sink. I thought I saw the tragedy of her life in that one instant stretching off like a highway that ends in a hopeless desert. I was feverish the rest of the day. I drank water and imagined it was paint I was pouring into me. An unabsorbable plastic substance embalming me from the inside out. When I went to the bathroom for the fourth time Bobby winked at me and said, Time of the month?
When our shift ended at four o'clock and we'd gathered in our circle I was ready to come apart. You don't look so good, Carl said. You look, as the saying goes, like death. I feel cold, I said, though I was sweating profusely. I feel terrible actually. I felt cold inside my bones.
That's funny, Bobby said, addressing no one in particular. I was just thinking how it's going to be a wonderful day. He was smiling up at the ceiling like he'd finally lost his mind. I was just thinking how everything's coming together. How it's going to be a... a magical, wonderful day! We were all staring at him. He laughed and started coughing. I don't know when we saw the revolver in his hand, but we must all have seen it pretty fast. You could feel something change in the room, the air come alive with what may, in fact, have been a kind of magic. It was air in which things could now begin and end. There were recesses in the space around us. The space itself becoming more capacious. I briefly thought about dancing, there was so much space! The past disappeared. Maybe it's truer to say it flowed into the present, lingered on around us longer than it should have, until it became self-aware and consumed itself like burning paper on the air.
I feel, Bobby strained to find the right words, just a tremendous sense of hope.
His face gleams as he says this, says, I was watching that Sudden Impact movie the other night. Great film, great film. You know what Dirty Harry says? He says, Go ahead. Make... my... day. Just like that! Isn't that great? Bobby cocks the gun and points it at Stan. Make my day! He laughs. Stan stares at the floor, eyes like a drowsing drunk's. Or how 'bout you, bucko? Buddy, buddy, buddy, Bobby says, turning the gun on Carl. Go ahead. Make. My. Day. Carl's looking off to the side of Bobby. It's a strange look on his face like something almost funny's going on in the corner of the room; and I think I hear a kind of warbling sound come from him, but I'm not sure, and then it's my turn, anyway, Bobby's pointed the gun at me and asks me, or encourages me, to make his day, whatever really that means. I look at Bobby. I can't look down the barrel of the gun, so I look Bobby in the eye, and with a particular intensity, because part of me knows this may be the last thing I ever see. Bobby's face is round and red, glistening in the light. His thin hair rests damply on his forehead. There is a faint colorless fuzz in his pockmarks. It might as well be the first time I've looked at Bobby. And then it's very funny to me all of a sudden that someone like Bobby, on a day like this, a day that means nothing, can hold my life in his hand, in a tiny displacement of his finger: resting on the trigger; squeezed. But the thing I want to say now is that we are all people like Bobby, each day is crucial, meaningless. And I think of my father for the first time in years without hate and wonder if the news of his daughter's death will reach him, wherever he is, and if he'll care; and that's when I know I'll never see him again, even if I don't die this day, I'll never see him again, and I laugh to think my mother will cut the hair from my cadaver to feed Mad Max.
By the time I have every last one of these thoughts Bobby has moved on, to Radar and Mellie and Ellen S. and Ellen V. I don't feel sick anymore. Something else has risen up in me, and I think Bobby's right, it is going to be a wonderful day, what's left of it.
When he's done he opens the chamber and dumps out the bullets in his hand. We sit there, slow to move, as he wipes the gun with a chamois cloth, as he looks at the bullets in his hand, then at us, then back at the bullets, counting.
One of you would have lived, he says.
That August I flew south.
The gun does not go off. Michaela and I meet 30 years later. I am grown by then, having passed through the appropriate stages of development, or so I hope, having grown more fixed in myself, set in my ways, and more open to inhabiting another's life, I think—an irony which, like all ironies, must resolve somewhere in a deeper truth. Michaela tells me her story, gives me permission to use it, and I do, I write what you have read, something quite different from what Michaela told me, her name, of course, not being Michaela at all, which means "who is like God."
A meaningful detail? I don't know. Don't ask me to go on the record. I named her that; my attention went to other things. I liked the name, I kept it. What is my responsibility to any of this, a face pressed to the glass, peering in? A ghost, a spy. Let me be the trellis of vantage points, I might say, the lattice hidden everywhere in the leaves of another's story. Probably not the way it works, but what do I know.
In the summer of 1984 there are consolations ahead that Michaela can't know. Five years after Bobby points a gun in her face and says it always and only today that a thing begins or ends, the movement that began as Diretas Já succeeds in bringing democratic elections to Brazil; Joe Moakley, US representative from Massachusetts, the state to which I have just moved at the time, travels to El Salvador to investigate the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter; the history of evil is being disinterred, recorded, and the creeping vines of complicity will stretch from the fine verandas of San Salvador to the banks of the Potomac. There are setbacks too, of course. What comes to light, like everything so terrible and pointless, is destined for a living burial in summaries, figures, and paragraphs like this one. In the way our attention drifts. The acid bath of bald numbers is always the second death in which people, as individuals, melt away. But first the stories will be heard, the people will be seen, and this much alone will cost lives.
The harbor town where Michaela and I walk is protected from the sea. Still, it gets quite a lot of wind, waves too. It is winter, so—cold. Wind turbines turn across the bay. Lighthouses mark the points where land juts out. Some sweep through the night and some are just relics now. We pass the breakwater. Michaela is telling me a story, a funny story with bits in it that aren't so funny. We are passing friends in a moment, the sort that lasts a few months. It is odd, I think, how these intimacies happen, how we grow close in circumstances that promise only to abandon us, at first chance, to the estrangement where we began. Meanwhile Michaela might have been my big sister, and why not? I would have liked that, walking together like this, the wind off the ocean meeting us with its parcels of sea spray. And were I a child she might have told me, Once upon a time a ship full of people landed here. They were far from home, and they were full of hope. This is how you tell stories to children, of course. Once upon a time. Full of hope. It is not a lie, exactly. You take their hand, smile. And the eyes blinking in the forest? they ask. The thick woods chime with green light.
What about them? you say.
Prodigals by Greg Jackson is available in bookstores and online today. This excerpt appears by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.