by Dan Bevacqua, recommended by Adam Wilson
EDITOR’S NOTE BY ADAM WILSON
My first impression of Dan Bevacqua was that he seemed like the type of guy who might smash a bottle over my head in a bar fight. Let me preface that statement: Bevacqua’s one of the kindest, most standup people I’ve ever met. A true mensch if you’ll pardon my yiddish, the kind of guy you can call in a crisis at three in the morning who won’t ask questions but will arrive in his pickup truck with a pack of American Spirits and help you deal with your shit. He’s also one of the best young writers in America, a true and singular talent, combining Carver-esque atmospherics with the black comic impulse of Thomas Bernhard, Don Delillo’s ear for American absurdity, and characters that might have been written by Flannery O’Connor if she’d grown up in rural Vermont at the turn of the millennium.
I guess what I mean is that Bevacqua has a certain energy, a certain edge. Think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, a live wire whose life force comes from the delicate balance between the containment and expression of ecstatic, but possibly aggressive force. Example: once Bevacqua and I were in a bar having a perfectly pleasant conversation about literature when, quite calmly, and entirely unprovoked, Bevacqua turned around and swung wildly at the bouncer. I mention this anecdote not to embarrass Dan, nor to cloak him in macho mystique, but rather to say something about his fiction, and particularly his masterful, and exceptionally moving story “Late Shift.” Which is that, like Dan himself, even the most seemingly mundane, domestic scenes in Bevacqua’s work are charged with the imminent threat of explosive violence. It is this lurking violence that gives his work its tension, but it is also what allows for the moments of strange grace, like the story’s indelible final image, when, if only momentarily, the bubbles stop bubbling and an unexpected tenderness emerges.
Not much happens in “Late Shift.” A guy goes to see his brother. They move some machinery. They don’t say much. He goes to see his mom, a seamstress whose career took a turn when she was contracted by S+M types to sew leather dog collars and chaps. They don’t say much. He and his brother bring the machinery over to a neighbor’s place. Our narrator mercy kills a dying dog with stoic resolve. He doesn’t tell anyone. He goes to work.
These events are given weight by a recent tragedy that our narrator is unable to directly acknowledge, but which is ever present in his darkly lyrical descriptions, like the dawn that “edges over the tree line like poison gas, orange and seeping,” or the boy in an electric wheelchair doing loops in a snowy parking lot, “carving out infinity.” This is Bevacqua at his best, exquisite sentences that turn the quotidian eerily transcendent.
At the end of Grace Paley’s story “A Conversation With My Father,” a dying father complains that his daughter won’t look tragedy in the face. Bevacqua’s characters have not only looked it in the face, but live lives defined by looking it in the face at every possible instant. Still, they survive. Worse for wear, but they survive.
Author of What’s Important is Feeling
by Dan Bevacqua, recommended by Adam Wilson
I steal home in the morning to find my younger brother on his knees. Pike’s fingers are jammed into something that looks like an engine. There’s newspaper covering the floor, and he wipes the grease off his hands before eyeballing me.
“Fuck you doing here?” he says. He’s got a plug in his mouth that makes his face look deformed. We possess a history, one where I used to lock him up inside things: old dryers, closets, the trunk of my car.
“Help me with this.”
I grab one end of the machine — it’s heavy — and we put it on the coffee table. I look at my brother, and see a worm circling his eye, a tired old blackness, like he’s been up for days, and has yet to think of sleep. I guess we aren’t meant to talk about it. This happens around here. You run into some guy you used to play with as a kid and suddenly he’s thirty and he can’t string together more than two words in a row.
Pike walks to the front window, and yanks our mother’s yellowed lace curtains apart. Packed snow covers the road. There’s three feet of snow over everything, and seven-foot-high drifts piled up from the DPW plows. The town gets out here after a storm, but that takes half the day, and sometimes the plow gets stuck at the turn around, and they have to call in another truck with chains just to pull them back down the mountain. A full moon is still out and the stars remain close. Dawn edges over the tree line like poison gas, orange and seeping.
“Where’s mom?” I say.
“Fuck you think she is?”
Mom’s in her workroom, guiding a strip of black latex under the needle of her sewing machine. There’s a black Lycra full-head mask with a zipper for a mouth next to her on the table.
“Son,” she says.
I walked in on her once trying on a mask, checking its fit, and every so often that image cracks into my brain like a door swung wide open. This is what the Internet is capable of. The business started last year, when some Florida bondage swingers emailed her out of nowhere, having found mom’s seamstress blog. Could she work with leather? they wondered. How did she feel about dog collars? Seatless chaps?
Mom powers down her sewing.
“There must be something you can do,” she says. “But no. You never lay a hand. That’s the one thing.”
I say nothing.
“Did you talk with your brother?” mom says.
“Just now,” I say.
“You should talk with your brother.”
“I did,” I say. “I just told you I did.”
“You two don’t talk enough,” she says.
Pike knocks on the doorframe. Turns out the engine is a generator. He whirs his truck in reverse back up the drive, and we walk the generator through the mudroom door. I stand on the steps banging my gloves together until Pike asks if I need an engraved invitation.
We head to Trumbull’s. His house is a half-mile down, and sits back a quarter-mile into the woods. You drive past a dozen empty cages he keep the dogs in until mid-November, after which he boards them in an old chicken coop he’s got rigged for electric. Twice a year, the main fuse blows. Soon as one dog hears the truck they all start going, piling out the low rubber door — labs, spaniels, setters, mutts you couldn’t determine without a DNA swab — all howling and barking and yipping at the truck until Pike bangs open his door and they get a whiff of him. Then they’re quiet, leaping up onto my brother, tails wagging, tongues out — though quite a few bare their teeth at me, snarl, and growl. Their wet breath fogs the air. Their noses steam.
“Bunch a dummies,” Trumbull says. He’s got a blue thermal on. A red wool cap lays slanted and loose on his head. It looks like he’s wearing his dead wife’s house shoes, but the light’s bad. The old man goes to a pile of planks in the drive. They’re from his own barn, and I wonder if Trumbull has taken to prying off those he needs, or if he just walks around it, scavenging what the wind’s blown off. Bending over is a real production.
“Hey!” Pike shouts at a brown mutt set to squat near his tire.
We walk around the shit to bring the generator in. Pike primes it, yanks the cord, and puts a cage over it so the dogs won’t get burned. He goes in the main house to check the wood stove situation, and I’m alone. The coop is freezing, colder than outside even. There’s straw against the walls, and open carriers, and from out of one comes a whine I can hear over the generator. In the carrier curls a spaniel, and she’s got herself wrapped around three pups blue as ice, their eyelids frozen shut. When I stick my hand in for her to smell she snarls at me. By the door hangs a pair of fireman’s gloves, and I put those on over my own, even though it turns out for nothing. Once my hands are around her she stops moving, goes limp like a sleeping baby. She’s bled too much, and I can smell the rot. I grab her around the neck. There are things you feel like you should do as if someone were watching you, and then there is a thing like this, where you have to do it because you owe the world, and if you don’t do it some other judgment will come down upon you. And after it’s over you can’t speak of it, or that would mean to break the pact you’ve made.
I trek back the quarter-mile through the deep snow of the field to Trumbull’s door. Pike’s stacked the loose barn wood in a pile by the stove. The fire’s going, and I warm by it.
“Still down there at the school?” Trumbull asks.
I tell him sure, nights. I push a broom around. I wax some.
“That’s a good job,” he says, like there is such a thing.
He does have his wife’s shoes on. They’re green, and they’ve got little red dazzlers on them that are supposed to look like rubies, and — hell, maybe shine just like rubies would, I don’t know. Him and Pike drink from tin cups. Trumbull offers, but I see where the day would end up, and I don’t like the idea.
“I got work,” Pike says, and we go. A cloud mass has come through. It’s part two of the storm, and big, wet flakes arrive, pushed aside by the wiper blades. Back at the house, mom’s got her door shut, Pike’s long gone, and I can only stand five minutes of the television before I’m off too, back down the mountain to town.
She’s kept her word. All their stuff’s gone from the rental. Most of the drawers were hers, and the whole closet, and for the first time since I put the money down the place feels big, and not like it’s about to cinch up all around me, cutting off the air. There’s just some toys in his room, packed in a box labeled DISHWARE. The box sits half open in the middle of the floor, as if at any moment he’ll crawl over, and pull himself up by the flap, clutching everything out until it’s empty, and then turn the damn thing over on himself to sit in the dark the way he likes, not wanting to be found.
He gets HIDE, but not SEEK. If you flip the bathroom light on him while he’s laid down in the clawfoot, he’ll shout, “No! No! No!” until the light’s back off and the door’s shut tight. I wonder if people truly grow up, or if they just get bigger, and crazier, and what the difference is? There’s always one parent who gets most of the blame, and I guess I’ll be that. All I did was grab him, and he fell, but I can’t quite recall, and she says otherwise — like she’s a saint. My father hit me with a bat once. I still cranked up the morphine when it was time. I still buried him.
I drive to her work in the late afternoon. The snow keeps coming, but the good of it is done. Rain mixes in now. If I don’t hit the fluid, the windshield ices, and I can’t see across the road to where she glides behind the window, desk to copier, copier to desk. That guy Gene talks with her more than I’d like. I’ve made a silent bargain with her. She needs more than I can give, and I let her think that I don’t know this about her, and that I’m a fool. She’s happiest this way, believing she has secrets.
It’s a hundred percent night when Gene steps out, always the first to leave, I know. He sees my car in the gas station lot, and gets some kind of Friday courage going to cross the road my way. He’s under a black umbrella, a tine or two ripped through, and halfway to me when I roll down the window, and shout, “Go home, Gene. Get in your car, and go.” Gene does what he is told.
Normally, I’ll have a drink before I head to work, but today I make it so I don’t have time. The truth is I’m early. From my car, I watch the school lot being plowed. I drink coffee from a giant polyurethane cup. The storm’s moved east, and in its wake the temperature has gone up so that you might not need a hat. Whoever it is that forgets and leaves the field lights on has done it again. Through the rearview, I watch it gleam. There’s a thin layer of ice, and beneath that the heavier snow. All lit up, you could walk across the field, hike over the embankment, and go along the river’s edge to nowhere.
The plow has done enough. A dark blue van pulls into the lot, and sits idling twenty yards across from me. I see kids, of course, if they’re doing afterschool stuff, sports, plays, whatever strange programs they keep the good ones busy with until it’s time for home and dinner, but these don’t normally say hello, which is just as well, since I wouldn’t have any idea what to talk with them about. What these particular children don’t know frightens me. I’m scared for them, and their whole long lives. I prefer the unluckiest, those kids who get loaded onto smaller buses last, hydraulic-lifts set down, their aides like day-mothers locking wheels into place. An earlier shift means we sometimes cross paths. I know a few of the aides, they’re women I graduated with, and maybe it’s the hellos they offer that gets the kids to notice me, but I think it’s something else. The kids aren’t sweet, or child-like, really. Their bodies twist. They’re pale, and have no words. But they see me. They have eyes, some, and the ones who do moan and shriek as I come near, not because they’re worried, or afraid, but just to say hello, and to be looked at by me, and be spoken to. They sense we come from the same place down inside the world, is the thing, and that I know that, and that I know we’re all human, too, if that makes any sense, and despite everything.
If I go back to those meetings like she wants, I’ll hear talk of gratitude, and sooner or later some idiot will stand up, and jabber on about how he’s happy he’s got legs, because he saw a girl on the news without any, and he’ll say how grateful to God he feels being able to walk from his car to the church and back, and all of that. But that isn’t being grateful. It’s nothing to do with what you have or haven’t got. It’s what you are.
Because of those kids, I know what this van’s all about. The automatic door slides open. The boy’s in his chair behind the grate and roll bar. His head lolls with anticipation as the machine unfolds, and lowers him to ground. His father — I can just tell — comes around from the driver’s side, a tall, thin man whose hair is a premature gray. It’s just the two of them, and the father sets to work, toggling a knob so the lift sets the boy down even. There’s a problem though. The front gate of the boy’s rig won’t drawbridge, and he’s trapped for a moment on the platform. He looks caged. He starts to groan, and thrash his torso from side to side. The father puts a soft hand on him, and whispers, and just as suddenly as he began the boy goes quiet as the father bends down to check the gate.
As I walk by them, the father manuals a pin, and the boy wheels himself into the lot. He’s got the use of one finger taped to a joystick, I think, or he does it with the tube near his mouth. He can’t be more than eleven, which makes him a few grades shy of the kids at this school. I’ve never seen him before. The father stands up, and we look at one another through the security light. He’s got the kind, pinched eyes of a bookworm. His fleece looks pricey. I give the oversized key ring one big loop around my finger to let him know I belong.
“Hey,” I say softly.
“Hello,” he says back.
The boy’s doing loops in the still snowy lot, carving out infinity.
“All right, all right,” the father says. “Hold your horses. Wheel that bad boy over here.” He goes to the back of the van, and opens up the door there, and the last thing I see before I head into work is a long red metal box he’s setting to the ground, and the boy zipping over like he’s on a string.
Inside, I do the bathrooms first, because it’s best to get the bad news before the good. There is a projectile mess on the wall of the second floor boys’ room that I don’t investigate too closely, only plug my nose against, and hose down. The girls’ rooms are even worse, only more contained, and they use five times the amount of toilet paper as the boys. It is a normal night, like any other. I dump the trash into my cart. I sweep the classrooms. I mop the hallways extra careful because it’s the weekend, and I have to buff the wax. It’s the usual — the only difference being that when I leave and go home there won’t be anyone waiting. It will only be me, alone with my choices. They’re fewer now thanks to him, but no less difficult to make, although maybe that’s a lie. It’s always the same question, really. Always has been. The same question again and again and forever: this life right here, or another?
Head down, I buff the sixth grade wing, and make my way across the glass bridge to the seventh. The bridge is fifty feet long, suspended above a courtyard where the kids gather in the morning before school. Except for the floor, it is completely transparent, made out of several hundred square-foot windows. It’s wide enough for eight children to walk through shoulder to shoulder. It’s as tall as two men. On sunny days, light makes the bridge seem like a greenhouse, and it gives off a humid scent. I’ve watched rain so heavy it covered the glass like a clear blanket, and poured off the sides in great lariats to whip the asphalt below. Tonight, like most nights, the fluorescents are dimmed, and give off a buggy pulse. The air outside brings the last flutter of the last dying bit of snow. It is not much brighter here inside than in the dark out, and there is the feeling, as I raise my head from the machine, that there isn’t a difference between the two.
I look from the bridge to the still-lit field, and I see them. On top of the embankment, piled a story high with snow. I follow their tracks from the lot through the field, and I notice the rope beside the father. He’s wearing skis, and the boy’s chair is equipped the same too. I notice his wheels in a pile by the van, and look back to the embankment. The boy is in front, and the father directly behind, his hands gripped onto the sides of the chair. I can see the boy’s face screaming with excitement and want. The father is nervous, but smiling, a child himself now. I click off the buffer as if to wish them well. The father says a word, and then they rock once, twice, and on the third time they’re off, slow at first, but picking up speed as they go, faster and faster, and quickly now, all their weight with them as they zoom down the last of the embankment and enter the flat shining field, the pair of them shining too, father and son, together, and even faster now, faster and faster, as they race across the gleam.