Chapter 3: The Phone That Never Rings
“If God lived on Earth, people would break His windows.”
2 January 2012: The Present
The breakthrough comes when Lilly has the idea to snork Jim’s webcam that he uses to Skype home and duck tapes it into the back corner of the freight elevator and sets it to record on a laptop that she leaves up in the lights so that she can see what the scientist does to make the elevator descend past where she’s been led to believe it reaches its descent limit, and it turns out that all he does is stand there, which she does but is too scared to actually leave the elevator today, and she’s a little pissed that her initial plan of hiding in the elevator, which she had and then immediately dismissed a month ago exactly, would have accidentally worked, it turns out.
30 May 1431: The Present
In between when the torch is lit and when the fire from it is applied to the logs underneath her, Joan is able to remember a great many things which have happened and also it seems is able to remember things that haven’t happened yet, which she didn’t think would feel like remembering, even though it turns out it does.
Her regrets low in number as to seem to be zero if she was put on the spot and forced to answer quickly, but given ample time to think she’d say, if pressed, that not knowing God face to face, and instead being content to merely listen, would be the big one, she reckons. She’s read of Moses’ burn and would abide both that and the discomfort, although now it’s kind of a moot point anyway.
Her proudest moment doesn’t involve any of her groundbreaking (in terms of both eschewing traditional gender roles and also strategic theory) military exploits, but is instead the leap that she took from the Vermandios tower into the soft ground of a recently dried-out moat in an escape attempt which surely would have succeeded had the force of the fall also not trapped her in the mud from the waist down. She’d wriggled there in the night for a while until she was found.
Her holy communication existing in her internal and wholly private hierarchy of accomplishments above any contributions to large-scale group pugilism.
She remembers for instance that she became a saint in 1920, and she suspects this memory is some kind of a gift from on high, some kind of perhaps mental anesthetic.
She will be burned in a way unlike the way Moses was burned, though the principal characters are similar.
The man holding the torch has eyes that don’t seem to see anything around him, or else a face that just doesn’t register what his eyes see, and so he applies the torch fire, and will in the future be unable to remember this moment right now, the moment of torch-fire application, he will be unable to remember anything between this moment and a moment that came a few weeks before this moment, when a prominent political figure offered him a spot in what he referred to as the world’s premier society of gentlemen. There are several blank weeks in Mr. Geoffrey Therage’s life, and upon his waking he will say that he doesn’t know what he’s done during that time, but he fears damnation for it.
Joan burns, burns, is burned again.
8 February 1989: The Present
One of the things that makes little axioms of eternal truth so utterly infuriating is the fact that they are generally true, and manage to condense truth into insipid little asides where truth should be something unattainable to justify the general human aversion to it.
One of those axioms that you don’t here that A. Atom Severe might endeavor to enter into the canon is “when you’re at an avant-garde performance art theatre-with-an-“r”-“e”-type setting, and someone shoots to murder the lead actor, it will be a while before the audience knows that it isn’t part of the performance, the fact that he’s been murdered, especially since it’s a one-man show.”
10 September 1864: The Present.
Someone who the fellow Booth can’t see is addressing him inside a building that doesn’t allow much in, ambient light-wise.
“Let me ask you a question,” is what the voice says.
“Actually two questions: how committed to this are you, and how committed to this are you willing to be?”
“Very to the first, and even more to the second, sir.”
“Do you know who I am?”
“The leader of the Knights of the Gold-“
“No, but to you know who I am?”
“I do not.”
“That will change.”
This is the last conversation that the fellow Booth remembers before he is inside a barn that is on fire and expending one hundred percent of his mental energy towards finding the absolute quickest way the hell out of it. It’s like he fell down and got up all full of nothing and stayed that way until April of the next year.
He’d be shocked to know that he killed the sitting prez, but let’s be clear: he’d be shocked in a very happy kind of way.
And so in this moment, right after he said “alright,” in a manner that wasn’t exactly free of wary, concerned inflection, like he was saying it but not because he especially wanted to say it, but because he thought that it was what he was supposed to say. Which it was, but right after the last syllable leaves his mouth, the fellow whose job had been to pretend to be other people became what might as well have been a completely different person than the Booth who entered the poorly lit barn that the Knights of the Golden Circle have their meetings in.
If he were aware of his surroundings in any way, he’d realize that there is no one else in the barn aside from himself and the figure hidden by the lack of much ambient light, and he’d realize that he can see pretty much everything else in the barn at least a little bit, but this bloke who’s supposedly calling the shots is completely shrouded in some kind of darkness, that seems like it even goes beyond absence of light, like it’s the absence of even the idea of light, which in not so many words it is.
So even when the so-called leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle steps forward, the darkness follows him or maybe more accurately, the light stays away from him.
And so even when he steps further forward, till he’s very nearly face to face on top of face with the fellow Booth, registering not a thing at this point, the pocket of darkness or rather the pocket of the absence of light follows him and continues to keep him shrouded or enveloped in it, and what he says is “welcome to Chernabog, my friend.” Which if he could hear or respond, the fellow Booth might reply to the effects of what is Chernabog and why isn’t it the Knights of the Golden Circle?
Though of course he can’t respond, and his next voluntary response to external stimuli will be “you’ll never take me alive.”
5 August 2021: The Present
And so even when Felix walks into his hated HH this morning, several hours after he’s supposed to be there and several hours also before the first customers tend to show up. This is Felix’s favorite part of the day, the part of the day when he doesn’t have to talk to anyone at all, and often times he’ll stand behind the cash register even during the lunch rush thinking “stay out. You stay out,” as loudly as he can at anyone who comes near the saloon-style doors that some nerd thought would give the place a pleasing atmosphere or some such hooey.
So when the Christ bag is still in the spot off to the side where customers who have called ahead pick up the food that called ahead for, Felix is irritated but has no one to direct it to. He looks at Squatch (who is here before Felix everyday and stays later) who shakes his head, communicating to Felix in no uncertain terms that the bag stays.
“When it starts to stink, it’s gone,” is Felix’s response, but it is halfhearted because he knows better than to in any way irritate Squatch, and he also doubts that Squatch understands.
And so then also when some elderly fellow with what looks like an ancient walking stick comes in and just stares at Felix for a few minutes and then leaves, he’s not only confused but also doubly annoyed and with no one to vent his annoyance in their direction.
Right before he leaves, the man says “I have something very important to tell you, but not right now,” directed at Felix, but Felix barely hears it over how annoyed he is that someone is in Hamburger Purgatory ahead of schedule.
The next person to come into the restaurant does so some 3 hours later, at a reasonable lunchtime, and is wearing the collar of a preacher, and so Felix assumes that there’s a chance that the bag’s for him, and so he kind of does an awkward thing with his eyes where he looks back and forth between the bag and the clergyman, between the bag and the clergyman, and the clergyman is deciding what to order but Felix interprets the raised eyes of his decision-making to some kind of prayer, for guidance or else for thanks, guidance or thanks with regard to the burger in the bag, and Felix chimes in by making a thumb-motion towards the bag and saying “why would he order more than one burger when we could just give him one and then he’d break it in half a bunch of times or whatever.” Felix would be unable to communicate capital H’s verbally, but he doesn’t think that way.
The clergyman’s response to that is to say nothing but instead to narrow his eyes at Felix, indicating non-verbally that he doesn’t care for that joke, and then he indicates it verbally as well.
Felix meaning well, and operating under the assumption that the Christ bag is the clergyman’s, which it becomes abundantly clear that it isn’t, when he (the clergyman) leaves.
 Which is McMurdo janitor colloquial slang for “borrow secretly but with full intention to return.”
 70 (!) feet
 “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” “Take it one day at a time,” all the variations of “it’s not how hard you’re hit/fall down…” etc.
 Whoever is responsible for the business model of opening the old HH for breakfast but never actually serving breakfast food is, in Felix’s mind, the highest order of asshat, but since he knows of no one ranking higher than him within the organization, nor does he know of any other Hamburger Heaven, he does not voice his concerns out loud for fear that he is actually the one responsible. But if he’s in charge, who does all the tax-type stuff? Is something that Felix routinely wonders.
 See above f/n.
Note: the post below this one, where Sara Loewen talks about hardship and triumph and difficult emotional things, is of actual value to you and should be read. This is the second chapter of a crappy NaNoWrimo, which may ultimately serve some purpose, but is almost devoid of any real worth by itself. Skip this, read Sara. SKIP THIS< R
Chapter 2: An Unfamiliar Ceiling
“The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown”
1 January 2012: The Present
McMurdo Station is on Ross Island, Antarctica, which is claimed by New Zealand but the base itself is run by the U.S., is a sequence of facts that confuses Lilly Earlyon. She also did not learn about the Austral summer until later in life than she thinks she’d want to admit to someone she didn’t know very well, in casual conversation, and so she in her head, when presented with the idea of Antarctica in January (like most Northern hemisphere residents) was certainly not thinking of the warmest it ever gets here. Which is what it is, in fact. That’s the reason they only bring on the Janitorial crew from September to March, and send them back for when the real cold comes in.
Lilly has a variety of nicknames, one of which is Early Time, another of which is Early-to-bed, which is a holdover from high school begat by another girl who thought Lilly had slept with her (other girl’s) boyfriend of several years. Lilly had, but it was more an issue of this other girl being an unbelievable bitch and the boyfriend being trapped in what he called “all but an arranged marriage” but who turned out as well to be something of an unbelievable bitch himself.
The Earl of Canterbury is her favorite, and so naturally no one ever calls her that, but that is what she named the spider that she keeps as a pet. There are no animals at McMurdo station, but the janitorial crew is also in charge of the distribution of lettuce-heads when they arrive, and from time to time some of the smaller varietals of arachnids end up aboard somehow and are kept as secret pets, at least for a while.
Lilly’s swiffering the good old freight elevator right now, which is caked generally with some kind of very cold snow/mud mixture, and is caked with that mixture right now, but has also seen it’s share of projectile vomit on Thursdays when the janitors go to the bar, and which also descends past the basement onto a level that the janitor’s aren’t allowed on, is the rumor, so what Lilly is also doing is pressing random combinations of buttons in a methodical attempt that she’s been keeping up since November 2011 to uncover the secret, if indeed there is a secret.
Lilly’s always wondered about a set of twins, born a few seconds apart, but one born on 31 December and one born on 1 January, if it’s ever happened and what it would be like, because like she’s seen twins lord minutes or an hour over each other, but they were always born on the same day, so what if one twin could lord a different day and a different numerical year over the other, how would that affect their upbringing?
The good old Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center freight elevator, which has a name by one of the other janitors, who calls it Bessie, and won’t refer to it as anything else.
Lilly pressing buttons with the end of her Swiffer-brand mop-like device, so that if anyone asks she can say with a clear conscience that she just bumped it with the end of her swiffer. The Janitors fill out weekly cleaning schedules in a procedure that ends up looking a lot like a pro sports league draft, with all the janitors taking turns picking what they want to clean until the duties are spread out, and Lilly’s been using at least one of her top three picks on the Crary freight elevator since 29 October 2011. She has yet to get it to descend past the Crary basement, which feeds into the loading dock which has a thick cement floor, which Lilly is under the impression would make a wonderful ceiling for something secret and dangerous and affiliated with the secret, dangerous parts of the U.S. government.
Lilly’s suspicions all but confirmed on 16 December 2011 when she saw through a second story window a decently long-term researcher who has yet to produce anything in the way of findings enter the freight elevator at the loading dock level, and so she responded by hitting the button to make the elevator open on the floor she was on, and not only did it take a while for the elevator to get there, but additionally the fellow wasn’t on it, and some other people were.
Lilly’s resolve unshaken even though three months of meticulous combination button pushing (there are only three buttons) has returned only that one pseudo-discovery.
At night, she looks out of her window and sometimes sees lights where there aren’t supposed to be any lights.
3 August 2021: The Present
The reason that Felix calls it Hamburger Purgatory instead of Hamburger Heaven is that it’s kind of a private joke to himself that he’s rationalized with the facts that certainly the burgers are better than what you’d get at, say, the old golden arches, but aren’t really the kinds of things that you’d want to pay anyone anything substantial for. And anyway you should be suspicious of anything that only takes a few minutes to cook, is what Felix has always thought.
Felix will appear busy whenever the phone rings for a call-in order, for the reasons that then Squatch will be the one to answer it, and he doesn’t speak English very well, and then maybe the caller will give up, and that’ll be one or two less people that Felix has to interact with that day, and also because Felix doesn’t like to use phones with cords.
Squatch is called Squatch because he hasn’t had a haircut in about six years and from a distance looks like he’s around nine feet tall.
During the winter Felix calls Squatch “Yeti,” but the way he says it sounds more like “Yeh-tay!”
“It’s the Yeh-tay!” Felix will yell.
“Yes,” will be the response of the Yeti, but it will sound more like “chase.”
And so anyway the phone rings and Felix ducks down and gets both of his hands on plastic sleeves of drink tops and then holds them up and looks at Squatch like “you expect me to answer the phone too?” and then Squatch gets it and Felix goes to refill the drink top station and when he comes back he’s handed a bag from the kitchen that has what feels like a few burgers in it and taped to it where they tape the name of the person who placed the order is a receipt with “Christ” on it.
The second justification for his environmental nomenclature being that he’s never felt like he needs to be at the ol’ HH one single more day, but he can’t for the life of him think of a way out.
6 February 1989: The Present
The idea came to Atom while he was attending a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and half falling asleep, and the last thing he heard was the name Lazar Wolf, and then he had a dream that became his idea that became the novel he’s working on. He calls it “Breaking God’s Windows” and what it actually is is a post-apocalyptic vision of “Fiddler,” taking place in something like the year 5000, which he hasn’t exactly worked out yet, but it’s post-nuclear, which he is sure of, and also post-alien invasion, which are these kinds of Lycanthropic humanoids with very red eyes led by some kind of stock-merciless villain patriach character named Laser Wolf, and music’s been outlawed as of like 2K years prior, so human ears can’t process sound anymore, and music’s been outlawed for the specific purpose that the aliens eardrums are too sensitive. And so in what would be modern day Scotland this beautiful woman finds this relic fiddle and discovers that somehow she can play it and can process music without adverse side-effects, and not only that but she can kind of aim it, and she start leading this rebellion.
Among the work’s major problems are over description of the heroine’s body and how physically stunning she is on top of general storyline inconstancies, along with the glaring oversight that the heroine’s main love interest (the heroine is named Moira) is inexplicably able to also process and hear and appreciate the beauty of music and the fact that the sex scenes are amazingly overwrought and awkwardly led into in the storyline, not to mention the fact that they’re ubiquitous and serve no greater plot purpose. Atom really just comes of as a horn-dog with an imagination, or who at least had one really vivid dream, once.
There’s some overuse of pretty poorly thought out metaphor as well.
4 August 2021
Felix Sand has never once been on time for work, and he’s never gotten in trouble for it, which leads him to believe that he’s in charge, which he acts like, certainly. So when he sees the “Christ” bag still sitting there after a day and it hasn’t been picked up, he’s really surprised when Squatch grabs his arm and the bag out of his hand, and not only won’t let him throw it away but is careful to make sure that it’s back in the exact spot it was in.
 Lilly likes to imagine one of them leaping into the crate and checking it out, then shouting “follow me! Follow me to freedom!” and a hopeless crew of rag-tag spiders, probably one is the brains, probably another is the brawn, probably a young couple with child, maybe one who isn’t as strong as the brawn but is quicker, and a better fighter. They endure the journey as long as they can, one by one dying, as they all knew they would, but the reward of a better life for few outweighed the risk to the many. Until the leader with his dying breath hides the newborn in a head of lettuce for someone, anyone to find, that anyone becoming Lilly, that spider the world’s only hope. She keeps it in a jar. They must have been running from something.
 Short for sasquatch.
 The eyes were the main idea going in, actually.
 And it’s not like it’s left ambiguous for artistic purposes, it’s just never even touched on the fact that this guy (who is named Adam, which would give friends of Atom pause, if he had any) can, after two thousand years of sans-tune earth and breeding and however slight evolution of the human eardrum, is emotionally equipped to just one day hear traditional Celtic fiddle tunes, which are staggeringly beautiful even for people who’ve been listening to them for decades, let alone people who have never done so. His first spoken line after hearing Moira just rip out some fast-paced fiddling is “wow,” just “wow,” which would infuriate any reasonable reader, or at least it should.
Note: This post originally appeared on 49 Writers on Dec. 13 and is re-published here with permission from Sara and from 49 Writers.
Sara Loewen photo
Truman Capote said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the yard and shot it.” Maybe that’s a little dramatic. John Steinbeck said, “The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them, forgotten in its truest sense.
I got a taste of that “little sorrow” when I turned in my MFA thesis this year. It wasn’t even a book yet, just a book-length collection of essays, and still, hitting send felt kind of awful. It meant the end of mentor comments, summer residencies, school-imposed deadlines, the end of a nurturing community that had given me a glimpse into the writing life. Sure, I felt celebratory for a couple of hours. I left the library and took a long shower--my first in days. Standing in the shower, I wondered how these years had gone so fast. How I would justify babysitting expenses without MFA deadlines. Having turned in the final submission of writing I’d worked on for three years, I was suddenly free to think about how I hadn’t exercised in three years, or cleaned the house thoroughly, or thought about whether we lived in the right town, or what, exactly, I hoped to use my MFA degree for. Was I hoping to be a writer or a teacher? Was it possible to do both well? By the time my hair was dry, I was depressed.
Creative writing teacher Elise Blackwell asks, “What Defines a Successful Post-M.F.A. Career?” in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. She lists the many reasons people enter a writing program: to take a few years out of their lives to read and write, to earn a living in publishing or professional writing, to finish a novel or screenplay, to enter academe even though “There are full-time university teaching jobs available for less than 1 percent of graduating creative-writing program alumni.” Blackwell settles, in the end, on her own measure of success: “How many of our students are still making art--and making it well and ideally to the notice of others--10 years out?”
Portrait of the Artist as a Grad Student
Which is exactly what made hitting send so hard for me—the fear that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my ambition or writing life for the next ten years, let alone for the rest of my life. One valuable lesson of an MFA program is learning how much work writing is. Life rarely arranges itself into tidy sessions of writing time. During my first MFA residency, I was the only one in the dorms with a breast pump. The next year, the only one wearing maternity clothes. Many times, I worried that I’d entered the program at the wrong time in my life. I’m not sure there is ever a right time. Still, before being published, it is so much easier to say, “I’m an MFA student,” than to say, “I’m a writer.”
There was an interview in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner this fall with Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt. His career advice was to “pick something you love so much you would do it for free.” I think the unspoken assumption is that the money will follow. But when you’re a writer, you are often working for something close to free. It’s not always easy to feel confident about writing as a career choice. Sometimes we have to work jobs we don’t love and fit what we do love wherever we can.Last month a full-time English position opened in Kodiak. With benefits! I could replace the glasses I bought 8 years ago. We could all go to the dentist! For the past two years, I’ve been working as an adjunct and patching together part-time positions to supplement a series of slow commercial salmon seasons. We’re self-employed, and our health insurance costs nearly as much as our mortgage but covers only catastrophic accidents or illness. Benefits would be a really big deal.
I wanted the job, but I knew that taking on five new classes would leave little time for writing. I knew I’d be lesson planning in the shower, grading papers after the boys went to bed, answering student texts and emails on the weekend. I know how I teach, how easily I pour my time into planning classes and commenting on papers. Teaching is better than headlines and Hulu and Facebook and Gmail combined when it comes to stealing time.
All weekend, the little voice that Oprah is always urging us to listen to kept saying, “This is not the right time.” As I was trying to decide what to do about the job, things happened, things my friend Amy would call signs because Amy reads books about cosmic energy and trusting the universe. Like the night I got home from teaching and my four-year-old, Liam, was already asleep, looking angelic with rosy cheeks and arms thrown up over his head, and I realized I had seen him for a total of 25 minutes all day. Twenty-five minutes of cereal eating, pajama changing, teeth brushing, raincoat zipping before it was time to catch the preschool bus. His little brother, Luke, is two. I know now, how quickly Luke will be four, how easy it would be to miss this. And I know already how much I will miss this.
Other signs: the same day the babysitter gave her notice; my MFA manuscript arrived in the mailbox from the graduate office. Steve Jobs died, which should be completely unrelated except that I followed a link to one of his speeches on Youtube, the one where he says, “You have to trust in something. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life karma, whatever, because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
I decided to trust that body of work in the mailbox, to live without new glasses, to floss more often, to wait for a fulltime position when the boys are a little older. When I didn’t take the job, I apologized to the head of the English department who happens to be a lovely person. He said, “Hey, you can’t control when epiphanies hit. You’re a writer--you should know that.”
So when I learned this week that my first book is going to be published, it felt like confirmation of everything that I want to believe in the creative spirit, MFA programs, luck, mentors, hard work, Amy’s signs. Except the news came with the flu. And my husband’s flu became pneumonia and they found that his white blood cell count was so low our doctor put him into the hospital and told us to prepare for the possibility of Leukemia. Insurance kicks in after our $10,000 deductible, but of course my first thought was that I should have a fulltime job with health benefits. Meanwhile, friends and family rallied--helping with the boys, bringing food, walking our dog, texting encouragement--confirming that yes, we live in the right place.
On the way home from the hospital today, I mailed my contract. I was thinking about the way life changes, slowly or suddenly, with or without our permission. Over the last three years, my MFA classmates have moved, gotten married, changed jobs, adopted children, lost loved ones, given birth--and those are just the big things. Sometimes we sacrifice creative time to pay the bills, or to be a decent mother or father or spouse or friend. And then we get back to work, hoping for sorrows as small as a finished book, hoping for balance somewhere between life and writing.
Sara Loewen earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the UAA low-residency program in 2011. Her family spends the summer setnet fishing in Uyak Bay. In the winter she works at Kodiak College. Her essay collection will be published by the University of Alaska Press in spring 2013. Her husband is now home from the hospital and feeling better.
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