Unpublished, Selected Excerpts.
Our car rumbled over the steel grating of an old bridge crossing into Catskill country. The wind picked up a bit as we reached the midway of the bridge, scattering Janey’s long brown hair across the backseat. The top down, feeling the wind flow around us, cloudless sky, air pure, a sweet taste like the kind you inhale atop high mountains where the clouds skim just above your eyes. We took the quiet state roads out of the city, first along the Hudson River, heading through what was left of Poughkeepsie, then through the gentle rises and falls of a backwoods road into the Catskills. Along that road surrounded by the tall pines of the forest, I noticed Janey’s mood evolve, away from despair and uncertainty, what I surely endured that day as we left behind everything we once adored, for another life with many unknowns. She seemed careless, joy seething from her like a child. I was far from that state at that time, my knuckles white on the steering wheel.
I didn’t know what we’d find in Pennsylvania, some atrocious shack where Maggie would have to tiptoe around rusty nails jutting from the floorboards. I imagined, especially when most of the people in those fading communities in the valleys of the Appalachian mountains had finally surrendered to the realities of a new world, well before the change, what they remembered from when they were young, the last remnants of glory I experienced when I was a young man growing up there, would never return. My hometown, near where we were searching for a new home, had withered away long ago. They couldn’t keep up in an age that came to anoint technology as the new God, while they remained stuck in time, of what once was and never will be again.
Maggie held the warm bowl limply; her lip glistened, her skin like melted wax, her fever intensifying. Near the fire we sat, the warmth of the food comforting our hands and the taste, our hearts; the fire warming our feet and I suppose our souls too, deriving any pleasure we could, the house terribly frigid and all of us with it, constantly feeling that chill, even if we were close to the fire, knowing it was ever present, forever with us, especially our child who shivered and moaned even as the fireplace crackled and threw waves of heat on us.
It was in these moments that we began to come to grips with the unreality, and merge with it, as much as it was plausible to unify with chaos, though not without its traps, its tragedies....its moments in which you wished you did not exist. The wind howled, pelt of the snow on the land, on the windows, shaking.
—You done eating sweetie? Janey asked.
Our child stared at the fire, lost in a place I dared not fathom. I ran my fingers through her lumpy hair. We hadn’t showered; the pipes froze and stayed that way.
Now how long I cannot remember, but long enough for me to still feel the pain, so despondent to our words, she moved her head up and down, up and down, up and down as though she had prearranged the movement, as though she were a ghoul. Janey took her bowl and went into the kitchen. She didn’t notice it was pulled from her, hands still cupped as though the bowl rested in them, so lost in a chasm of grief whose depths I tried to refuse to feel. I brought her between my legs, placed her head against my chest, her hair moldy, all of us decaying. Her fever warming my chest....dear god, oh dear, oh dear god....why have you forsaken me. Then, then...I cried quietly to myself, attempting to disguise the depth of my agony from them. But, quickly, I could not prevent it, the flood of restrained emotions released; I lost myself, I broke, pulled into her deepening ocean of torment, swelling the hurt and disgust I held in my heart for all of us, even myself.
Janey’s shadow crossed us. I did not turn to look at her. She would see my exasperation, my tears. I could hear her lean against a wall, swish of the cloth of her skirt from her legs crossing, the release of annoyed breath, the sigh, knowing I was failing, not a stoic who locked his emotions in a box and threw away the key, utterly failing to keep myself together, which would be our undoing. I watched the flames move, trying to keep my thoughts on nothing but the flames, but the flames, while Maggie drifted to sleep in my arms.
Wisps of snow pushed by the gusts spun inside the car. Janey put up the window, sealing themselves inside, leaving me alone in the silent awe and pain of wonder and brooding. I wiped the snow and wet from my eyes, the school towering above me, its long shadow stretched across the lifeless land. Ghosts, many of the kids I knew likely perished, residing only in the fleeting memories of the few who remembered them. The gust, the snow, powerful, spiraling around me, but I didn’t see it or feel it. Instead, I heard the school bell, saw the gaggle of students, the giggling groups, and the loners on the edges stream inside those shut, rust-laced doors, Catholic school girls and their plaid skirts swaying in the wind, the principal standing near where I stood in this brutality....on a warm spring day, yelling at the girls to pull down their skirts, the ever-present yellow stain rimmed around his pressed collar. And us, some stoned, some not, telling us firmly, like a principal would, to put on our ties and don’t rue the moment; now’s your only chance to succeed or perish where they ain’t much breath for success, in these places, in these towns; inside, locker doors slamming, the squeaks and squeals of sneakers on the red and blue checkered tiled floor as we ran to class before the sound of the bell.
In the classroom, the chalk dust that you watched when you were bored, watched it sag languidly in the air as it drifted off the teacher’s chalk. And when the teacher droned, I always thought they droned, I looked outside the windows of the school at the town, Carbondale, sleeping quietly out there, that small, lifeless hamlet that would never see glory again, the roots of that state well grown and clutching the earth well before I was a boy, and me yearning, because of what I saw out that window, to leave, to flee, to run, as soon as I was able, as fast as I could. I’d tell myself, in my secret thoughts that I could never share with others because they’d never understand....bigger and better things ahead for you Michael Joad, even though I couldn’t define those dreams; but then, well....as a teenage boy.... all you wanted to do was escape the school prison, the dronings and meanderings of calculus and the Hittites ....and head to the woods where you’d skinny dip with those girls in the short skirts, where they’d slip them off their hips and let them warm on the rocks by the falls. Just memory now, remembrance of things past, one day to die with me.
—You, a meek rasp, behind, shaking me from the past.
My memory of new moments, of things past, began to die, to fade, with her that morning, as with feeling, as with touch. I existed, nothing more, nothing less and I yearned to melt away and so I did. Seared in my mind are a few images, painful, reflections, memories, some conjurings, I’m not so sure...in the year or so...after her death. We tend to bond to the horrific instead of the good. But at some point, there was nothing bad or good to grasp, to remember, a void, and better to stay in that listless, inertial....to die, or lie, in its soft quilt, its warm embrace, than to writhe and search for something to grasp, something to feel, caress, adore. I suppose my mind, myself, to save me knew better, that many new memories would destroy me, or at least I convinced myself of that. Lies, fictions, nothingness, is better than Truth, especially these Truths. But reflection, yes, in the brief lucid calm when the storms pass, though only a few days, as sum, spread over a year, maybe longer. I don’t know. I never will. These lines took time. All these lines, took time.
Time that I have no conception of. The nights, the nights, the nights, all was night.
So here I sit, I stay, for how long I don’t really know anymore swimming in the shallower pool of mind’s past, draining, every day it seems, wondering how we...I....got here, what I may have done wrong...who is we....who is I....These pages help me, my best, my only attempt at putting together the past, as I felt it leaving me.
....Maybe it will be of use to me one day when things turn around, when I decide on what to do next or where to go, even though I don’t completely know where to go or who to seek or for what reason. I am confused, confused...help me.
Imprisoned in myself, raging, raging, drifting away, fighting the closing of my coffin’s lid, my life no longer a life worth to be lived. All I have is these pages to bring me comfort, to remember, remember her, remember the child, remember....myself, me....that thing, profound sadness, me. What was I without them, without anything, without life. Nothing. There is no be, just breath, just exist.... don’t know how long I’ve been here. I think what I have written is right, I think, drawn from my empty ocean. I can’t tell you how long I have been writing this.....I know there isn’t much more to say. What can you say...you know you’re fading.... Lucid, my mind like moths circling the flickering light, out and gone, pulses, energy, knowing, feeling that any moment the switch will be turned off.
His father’s clock stopped at three minutes before midnight, years of darkness, firelight, glimmers of sun, heat by flame. Time dissolved, meaningless, many days, many nights, alone. The only time he kept now was when he tapped his foot on the knotty wood floor of the cabin, to remember, through the beat, the music, the little that stayed with him and to drown out the voices, come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say, just like children sleepin', we could dream this night away.
He sat in his father’s creaky, metal swivel chair near a table that was cobbled together with materials he recovered during his bored and hunger driven forays into the forest surrounding the cabin, into the towns and villages that seemed to be empty of all being. He dug his trembling fingers into his trembling arms that were crossed over his wife’s red-and-black checkered sweater, his arms rapping against his chest, all of which was a sad attempt to stymie the shivering that made his entire body shudder. His ribs hurt from the shivering, his bones ached from it.
His lips, red and ridden with splits; his beard, pepperings of gray, pepperings of white, with lumpy chaotic strands that dropped well below his shoulders; his skin pale, sickly, blue veins bulging around his eyes that were sunken; bits of skin shown where it was not swamped by his furry mange; blades of hair shooting from his eyebrows, caked in dirt; the sprouts of hair jutting from his face like cat’s whiskers, some stiff and long and curled. He looked like a deranged, wicked gnome from an ancient war-torn land, a troll of Carthage, a hermit of Constantinople. Dirty, clumpy hair crowned his head and streamed like a lion’s mane, as large and wide and puffy, to his shoulders. He used a hunting knife to cut it, even his beard, not caring about the blood on the knife from his kills, morsels of fat and muscle still stuck on the blade, sometimes wet, the warm and crusted blood of vermin, whatever he could trap with his contraptions and cages, animals smeared in his beard, in his hair.
Joad thought about looking at himself in the tiny, cracked mirror his father hung on the wall years ago, but his appearance, even a mere glance, confused and disgusted him. He did not know what he saw; he did not really know himself. What he saw when he happened to catch a glimpse of himself in that mirror was a creature alien to him, flesh that he did not seem merged with, eyes that did not reveal the workings that lie behind them.
And like a lone animal, he roamed the snowy highlands, suffering through the brutal twists and turns of nature, to plant traps for wild game, the contraptions he pieced together and some that he found in the havoc of the abandoned barns on the outskirts of town. He’d stalk into town at night, afraid to be seen. In the cover of night, he never saw anyone, but he thought he heard gunshots spring from the shadows, the pitter patter pops of bullets, the unseen rustling in the gloom, when rummaging through the empty, ghostly homes that happened to survive and not be reduced to dust from the wind and ravages of the storms. He’d secret his way into them, glancing paranoid over his shoulder, the slightest noise disturbing his unsettled attention, taking as much as he could carry, as much as he could find, things valuable to his hopeless, wandering predicament, food when he was lucky, bullets for the wild game, traps and cages, spoons, fishing line, poles, paper.
He knelt beside the fire, still rocking the pages, listening to the wood crackle and pop, the shadows of the flames dancing around the room. He opened the stove’s door and watched the flames move, lost in a trance, the voices quieting, the warmth, the silence. His hand clutching the pages loosened without him noticing; their splatter on the floor freed him from the trance. He picked them up, ordered them precisely as they were ordered before, then inserted a skeleton key that he calmly snatched from his pocket into the lock of the trunk. He put the pages inside in neat stacked piles, just as they have always been placed inside the trunk, from left to right, columns pressed tightly together, all that was stored there, all that would ever be. He closed and locked it, then placed the key on a tiny nail he hammered into a crevice of the stove hidden underneath it.
Alone, the fire dying, feeling that tightness of fear and anxiety swell in his chest, he began writing, his hand steady, at ease on the paper, lost elsewhere, anywhere but here.
The clouds like smoke from fire.
A mist enveloped the lone man walking along a highway, the pavement broken and
splintered, the mist of ash and soot so thick that nothing seemed to exist beyond that hazy curtain that rippled and drifted around him. His body ached from the journey, the long, rocky jaunt through the woods down the mountain on the path he usually took into town to pillage for supplies and food and on this final trip he found rations stashed in a doghouse behind the ruins of a home that was ravaged by nature and the lost, the bones of those who might have lived there spread throughout its rooms.
The passing of weeks and dreams of light and night. Listening to them, the boy and the rough one, yet nary an interest in what they said, contending with his own bleak and the light that tried to pierce it, the still scattered pieces of who he was, flung and spread among the oceans of earth and he alone, in the dreams and awakenings, assembling a shape that would never become the form he was.
Hours had passed when the boy woke from his nightmare. To comfort himself and pass the dread of the dream from him, he picked a tune, a song of loss and heartbreak, whose writer would find no gem of siren amongst their tribulations. Joad tapped his foot to the beat. This one, he recalled, or thought he did, the music ferrying him to a fleeting departure from a journey that may bring the end of him. Snow pelted the windshield, slow squeal scrap of the blade on the icy glass.
The cold air tousling their hair, reddening their ears, as Moulin and Joad sung with the boy’s channeling of an extinct time, their ghosts alive, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters.” Squeal of the blade, streaks of soot, ash, “As I went a-walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway I saw below me that golden valley, This land was made for you and me.” The transport of song, beyond this great nothing they all tried to blind themselves to through those words because they had to, to survive, a place that was heavenly, so beautiful and free, yet then it was hell to those who lived in it, an inferno even for the singer who wrote the lines.
The emaciated warming their willowy, pale bodies on the dying flames that puttered inside another burning barrel, the warmth of the flame reaching them through their tattered clothes, disguised in the spinning sea of white, “When the sun came shining, and I was strolling / And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling, As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting.”
The firelight swaying in the shifting winds, huddled close, heads bowed, some with shaking hands clasped in prayer, staring at the sky, vainly searching for the heavens on the other side of that drape rolling in once again to menace their souls, another lashing, another cut, only a few more before they all would succumb.
For how long, no one could tell. And yet they still searched for something beyond those clouds, an eden, a sanctuary, anywhere but here where life was so cruel, Nobody living can ever stop me, As I go walking that freedom highway, Nobody living can ever make me turn back, This land was made for you and me.
The rustle of brittle leaves tumbling on the empty pond that once reflected the dreams and nightmares of the nation, where hope either thrived or perished. He thought he heard in the rustling of the leaves the whispers of those moments, a cacophony of voices crying for things that matter little now.
The leaves spinning and fanning and rolling away from him across the cracked concrete toward an obelisk, soot splashed, its narrowing tip piercing through the ashen clouds that slung low and drifted slow. Feeling, just feeling, that’s all he had, that he was on the path he should be on and having no conception of where the path should lead, he turned his back to the obelisk, from the pool, and returned through a field of tall yellow grass that brushed his achy knees, the grass so brittle and thin and dry that an ant tottering up its needle thin spine would topple it. Moulin’s car puttered nearby. He put down his window, squeaking as it dropped into the door, the accumulated tar and soot from the trip spreading on the seal.