fiction

The Town Lies Awake Together


I spent most of June through late September taking the air in South America that year. It was the only time in history that I could see news from home in newspapers I could get ahold of in Havana. I always joke that it was a sign I am never meant to escape the gossips of Harkins.

In late August, my friend Chris tells me, the hive was absolutely swarming with activity that, without a context, would have been accountable only as madness. The sweltering heat of the muggy late summer was at complete odds with the bustle and near elation that comes upon a small town anticipating the start of a murder trial.

He said that Arlington Pew looked as disturbingly put together as he ever had, both in demeanor and attire. There has been a long running gag among the local fellas and the better renditions of it involve a fire breaking out in the middle of the night and neighbors rousing Arlington Pew only to find him answering the door fully pressed, dressed, and eager to entertain anyone in distress. I’d bet most every man ’round town has chuckled at that at some point in the past, only on account of it probably being close to the truth. I would also guess that many, like myself, felt a little close at the collar thinking about that joke retrospectively.

It’s true that Pew was not much of a pal to any fella and, for the most part, he seemed more eager for women’s or mixed company. I don’t know that anyone would have believed he had an enemy in the world, though most could only shake there heads to themselves if they considered him long enough.

Well, the way Chris tells it is as good as any I could gather from the reporter’s accounts I read, and the murmur and hum at the outset must have been audible three streets over, if anyone had stayed that far away to hear it.

They say it took Judge Hewlett more than a few wraps of his formidable gavel to get the crowds shuffled into some sort of order, and then there were the additional guards brought in who were still trying to get the doors closed and the halls outside reasonably emptied.

Murders always seem to fascinate men. Sometimes it seems from boredom with living they find excitement in considering those who are no longer doing it and the people who made their decisions for them. Sometimes it seems the grizzly nature of a murder keeps people interested. Other times perhaps the sheer weight of the hate or malice hanging upon the perpetrator is the draw.

In this case, I hold firmly that it was none of these. It was the first murder in Logan County in twelve years, and the first in Harkins in nearly six decades. It was not boredom or grotesqueness or a sheerly violent heart that drew the majority of the local crowds to the house of fair weights to hear the proceedings. It was, I believe, that every local man and woman wanted to ask Arlington Pew a simple question.

“Why? Why, mister Pew, did you decide to kill the boy Harry Clark in the middle of the ladies shoes department in broad daylight? Why did you kill a broke, young optimist when you were always so irritatingly polite and cordial to every difficult customer that regularly took the time to tread all over you?” No one had dared voice it, yet everyone needed to know.

“Order!” or something along those official lines Judge Hewlett called for; his additional guard made sure that he got what he wanted.

“How do you plead?” was the natural progression of these things.

“Not guilty, you’re Honor.” Slowly rising and slowly speaking, the thin man with thin arms had thin fingers splayed out with their ten tips across the oak tabletop.  His confidence bordered on elegance. The people of Harkins were awed.

“We plead not guilty on account of such immense emotional distress as to lead my client Mr. Pew’s into a temporary and recurring insanity. We intended to provide documented evidence of a recurring psychological condition rendering my client without his normal capacity for reason.” Mr. big-name-throughout-the-southern-states, Mr. happy-to-take-the-courtroom-as-his-own-playground, Mr. Timothy Grauers, lanky defendant in the most sensational cases, appeared only too pleased to have the judge cut him off here and remind him that his widely-reputed eloquence aught not take him off into various directions ahead of prescribed schedule.

“Ah-hem!” Mr. Pew, who had fallen completely out of most of the present minds as merely a blurry, peripheral speck at the far end of Mr. Grauers’s table, suddenly came sharply back into focus. The room deadened.

“I think we can wrap this up quite succinctly. I must say my wardrobe and hygiene have suffered greatly in the hands of the jail house facilities these past few days and I feel it my duty therefore to clear this whole business up immediately. The boy was shot, unfortunately, because of the sweat.”

Every ear remained at full attention.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Pew?” Even Judge Hewlett was unusually cordial in his puzzlement. “The sweat?”

“The sweat, your honor, yes. The sweat. It is common, albeit very unbecoming for some people to perspire in this season of the year. Some of you, due to your line of work or hygiene have greater tendencies than others. While I can accommodate this unfortunate tendency in its necessary place, I believe we can all agree that our illustrious McCavinaugh’s, the crowning jewel of this town’s society, is no place to come in such a state, let alone the ladies department. The disruption for the lady patrons, and Miss Trideux especially, was beyond consolation. The necessary action became apparent. It is a case of self-defense, your Honor. It is a case of defense of the class that is the ‘Lady.'”

Silence continued. The people looked to the judge like children, their eyes pleading for his authority to somehow make sense of this. His brow was furrowed, lip bitten in an almost nervous tell that none ever had or likely ever will see in his courtroom again. He stared deeply into the left rear or the ceiling for some minutes.

“Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning at ten am.” He finally muttered over a weak-wristed gavel knock.

The people filed out silently and orderly, as oppositely composed from their entrance as if they had been choreographed into a funeral procession. Barely a whisper rose. The defense council sat strewn out along the oak table glancing longways and in annoyance at his subject, who sat with folded hands and gazing up high above the judge’s stand. A halo was the only thing missing from the tailored picture of serenity.

Although I always promise him that I believe him wholeheartedly, Chris still swears hard at every retelling that not a soul spoke a word as the crowds dispersed across the lawn and the town square. He says he didn’t really hear many people speaking much in public for almost a week after that day, and when they did start back up he never heard anyone mention the trial again. It continued on in the same courtroom, with the same judge, jury, law men, and guards, but the crowd was gone. Only a handful of non-local gawkers and a myriad of significantly less-cramped newspaper men attended the ensuing battle, which was far shorter and less extravagant than Mr. Grauers intended. Both the local papers stopped covering the story before the case really took off, even though most of the big nationals ran a little front page blurb when the verdict came out. The insanity plea held up too easily for Mr. Grauers’ taste so that he was barely even necessary, and twenty years at Mooreston Sanitarium was the prescribed medication for Arlington Pew. I have heard rumor that his health has greatly deteriorated there and his doctors do not expected much in terms of his mental reform or life expectancy.

I learned quickly upon my return not to make mention of the events that transpired in my absence with just about anyone but Chris. McCavinaugh’s found a far less enthusiastic shoe salesman and apart from that the town tries its hardest to feel no change, to not accept the events of that August.

Occasionally I will have some writer friend from the city stop over in town and, from the comfort and safety of a cloud of pipe smoke in the den, Chris and I will recount for them the incident in the context of its local rejection. It is always hard to decide which is more complicated.

When I lie awake in the night, as I often do, I wonder if the whole town lies awake together, penitent and tormented by the immense secret which the whole world knows. We ride out the darkness to another dawn’s promise, another rest from the question.

– M. Landers, March 2014

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Masanobu Fukuoka and Wendell Berry: Finding Non-Fiction That Changes You For The Better


So I’m beginning to think that I may have lied to you.

About a week ago I made a big point of the fact that I basically hate non-fiction reading. The assertion was that I am bored by non-biographical information in long form. While I’m still not ready claim that I can easily finish a full book of non-fiction, I am realizing that the claim may make it sound like I don’t enjoy learning about reality, when in actuality I love a lot of broader types of information in smaller doses.

Natural Farming is one subject that I have been interested in for a few years and, more recently, permaculture. My interest in permaculture was sparked when my friend’s wife (who is also, interestingly enough, a friend of mine) took the course about this time last year and told us all about the huge wealths of information involved. This interest has recently blossomed upon finding that the Permaculture Design Course is offered online for free! Through this training I found out about Masanobu Fukuoka, and I am actually attempting to read two of his non-fiction books. Gasp!

Fukuoka reminds me of Wendell Berry, and that is not just because Berry did the foreword 0f his first English-language book. Berry is a farmer, essayist, poet, and novelist from Kentucky (my homeland) who has been championing natural causes, local culture and small farming for half a century. I have been a long-time fan of his breath-taking prose and poetry, and his essays are written so that every sentence expresses a grave wisdom that most others could take paragraphs to attempt without accomplishing. He has been farming his Kentucky hillsides for about half a century now.

I have found that Fukuoka is also a champion of the overlapping between the arts and nature.

There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to

write poetry or compose a song.

— Masanobu Fukuoka

I’m going to do my best to finish these Fukuoka books and eventually begin to impliment the techniques of permaculture in our lifestyle.

With the recent tragic death of the great artist Philip Seymour Hoffman, I am left somberly wondering if perhaps his life and full career may have been twice as long and three times as artistically-fulfilling if he were able to find a different way to live, a different atomosphere in which to foster his creative inclinations. A terrible tragedy, linked back to a lifestyle, developed in the same atmosphere that made the artist great.

I am starting to find the answer to my own ask-the-reader question; I am finding that non-fiction and fiction alike can be powerful resources for good change, if we let it change our actions.

The Empty Plinth


There are three women with whom I share my deepest secrets.

The first is my wife. She is my lover and my co-laborer. She helped to make my babies and she nurtures them so that I have no worries when I am not near them, for the warmth between them warms me from afar. We march through life gently, arm-in-arm, and are not swayed; head-long, we step into the unknown and terrible future. She is the tree which Silverstein asked to give, for “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

The second woman lives above the water with her daughter, in the midst of the rose garden. She is Galatea at play, full of mirth and triviality. She is a vision in the sun, distracted most by the summer joy which distracts all together and without offence; we smile upon the Blinding Light as one. She and her child, Metharme, belong among the bees and the roses and the splashings of fish in the pond. Her company is sweet upon a summer lawn, and the days seem an eternity stood still in her hazy presence.

The third woman is downcast, standing among holly and thorns. She stands uncovered, naked and abandoned in the recesses. She weeps gently, though I know not why, hands cast about, her very frame ever on the verge of despair. She speaks not her sorrow, but on her bench I find my place when all the world faces downward; when the winter’s wind rips me I find solace in my sorrow at her side. She is the beacon for the hopeless, and when I lose my own I find refuge at her side, tucked away within the dark depth.

I visited the downcast woman and I noticed in the darkness something I had never seen before. Far back in the depths of her holly home there stood, decayed, a plinth with no owner. Fighting against the needle leaves and unwealding branches I made my way closer, though little closer was I able to come. No sign of the owner, no rubble or dust remained. And suddenly I knew for what, for whom, she despaired.

Be he marble or be he stone, he was gone and it did not matter. Their is no form a man can take which assures he will remain.

The Hands Books Must Endure


Library books.

Library books come and library books go.

First to the New Releases shelving out front for six months or so, then on to the regular section for a few years or decades. Eventually, once a book has stopped circulating for a good while, it’s pulled to make way for more old New Releases. Depending on its luck in retaining its original shape, it might migrate to another library’s shelf or it might get donated.

Through all this, any desirable title is also constantly passing between many, many hands. Clammy, chubby hands, sun-tanning hands, and rigid, knobbly old hands with forbidding, precise nails. Chocolatey junior hands and fidgety hands with dangling bangles and too many rings.

Some of these hands, many of them, belong to various library staff. Librarians, circulation specialists, and shelving staff. Often the books overhear bits of their conversations, much like this one.

“Our school has like zero budget for theatre. We don’t even have a real stage!” said someone with soft, cucumber-lotioned hands.

“Where I went to high school, back in Indiana, they had great arts programs. The principle’s wife was into the theatre big time, so that stuff got top priority. I was only ever in one play. A version of The Producers they put on, we put on, my junior year. It was okay, I guess.” someone with thin, freshly painted nails and a Fibonacci spiral tattoo at the base of their right thumb was placing three books at once on a cart as they spoke. “I never liked the old one. The film version I mean, the original.”

“Well, you know what movie I thought was sooo boring?” asked cucumber hands, holding up a DVD example of where things were headed. “Schindler’s List! Nothing happens in the entire movie!” Cucumber hands tossed the DVD down and stacked 5 more behind it.

“Yeah, it’s so depressing and all you see throughout the entire movie is these crowds of starving, dying people. Even the ending, when Liam Neeson has been a jerk the whole movie but somehow saved this little portion out of all these people, and they’re showing the families that came from those people. Still depressing. The people still look morbid. It could have been written so much better.” This was stated as fact by the Fibonacci spiral.

“Did I ever tell you guys about Ester?” cucumber hands blurted out, dropping a book onto a cart at the realization of had a great and necessary story to share.

“So in the eighth grade my class went to the holocaust museum in DC. You know?”

“Yeah, I went once” said someone wearing a thick tungsten thumb ring.

“So I got this girl Ester, and that’s my name, and she’s the only one that survived in my entire class!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” said the Fibonacci spiral slowly.

The tungsten and Fibonacci spiral laughed together as cucumber hands hurried on.

“So when you go there they give everyone a little profile, like of someone who was actually in Auschwitz or wherever. And it tells you the name and age and about their life and stuff. Then at the end you find out if they survived the war. Well, I got a girl named Ester who was 13, and I was 13 then. So it was really weird that I got someone with my name and who was my age, right? Then we go through the whole museum and see all this crazy stuff. Just unbelievable, like horrible stuff. Everyone kept saying they wouldn’t eat lunch afterward, but I don’t think anyone actually didn’t. We went to some food court. So we get to the end of the tour and my Ester is the only person in my entire class, like thirty-something kids, who survives! Everyone else’s person died in the camps, but Ester lived! And she had my name and was my age! Isn’t that crazy?” Cucumber hands finished with a book lifted up in each hand, begging for response.

“Well, I guess. I mean, I’m sure they reuse those profiles like every day, and almost everyone who was in a camp died. But yeah, that must have been a pretty wild coincidence, huh?” the tungsten reasoned.

“It was!” Cucumber hands rested in the validation.

“I would love to go to Europe! I would want to visit one of those camps.” said Fibonacci spiral thoughtfully.

“I want to go to every single one of them! I want to go to Auschwitz and Darchow or whatever and all the rest. I don’t even want to do the tours they have. I just want to go in and be silent and just be there.” Cucumber hands’ hurried speech ended in a moment of silence.

“I went to Buchenwald, when I spent a semester in France. I went to Germany for a few days with choir friends and we did the tour there.” said the tungsten. “After the tour, we were walking up these stairs and this man and this woman were coming down toward us, and I kinda had to brush up against them. I looked at the guy and it was Josh Brolin.”

“Really?!” Cucumber hands savored and thoroughly enjoyed this twist.

“Yeah. We just kinda looked at each other for a second and I didn’t want to say like ‘Hey, you’re Josh Brolin!’ because we were in Buchenwald. But it was him. The only time I’ve ever run into someone famous, and it was halfway across the world in a concentration camp.” The tungsten had been holding on to a single title throughout the telling of this tale and, as if awoken from a daze, set back to sorting.

“Have you read this?” Fibonacci spiral held up a well-exercised paperback.

“1984? Yeah, of course! I liked it but I really love Fahrenheit!” the tungsten replied.

“Ugh, I did not like Fahrenheit 451! And you know what book I hated? Lord Of The Flies!” Cucumber hands moved hastily at their work just pondering the name.

“Whether you like it or not doesn’t matter with literature. It’s not about enjoying it, it’s about what it means.” responded the tungsten sagely.

“I thought you were going to say The Lord Of The Rings, and I was going to be like ‘we can’t be friends anymore!'” said Fibonacci spiral.

“I haven’t read that. The movies were pretty good. Way too long though and really drawn out. Anyway, I hated Lord Of The Flies because someone told me that they eat a kid in it before I read it. So then I read it, and they don’t, and I was so annoyed. I think maybe they eat someone in the movie version.” cucumber hands continued.

“No, they talk about eating someone but then a wild pig runs by and they finally catch that instead.” corrected the tungsten.

“Were they gonna eat that fat kid with the glasses? Piggy, right?” asked cucumber hands.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably right.” said the tungsten.

“So yeah, see? I kept on thinking they were gonna finally eat this kid, and they never do! Then he dies anyways, which pretty much had to happen either way. Any anyway, I definitely liked Jack better than that main kid, the one who is always trying to be nice to piggy even though he’s an idiot. Jack is a survivor, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes. That’s the point, I think. He would have killed to survive, and I respect that. Doing whatever it takes to survive. Survival is all that mattered.”

And with that thought, cucumber hands placed the last book on the last cart.