EDITOR’S NOTE BY CARISSA HALSTON
I first read Dolan Morgan’s work in late 2010. He’d submitted a story for the first print issue of the journal I run, apt, and it was a crowning jewel on our inaugural annual. The story was funny and touching, surreal and sad — qualities I would come to recognize as trademarks of his work. Not long after the issue hit the shelves, I was asked in an interview: among my contemporaries, whose work did I like to read? I named Morgan, and described his writing as charming satire aimed right for my heart.
A couple years later, when I first read the manuscript for his collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down, I was again struck by Morgan’s charm, but I realized my assessment of him as a satirist was rather limiting. Satire requires a target, and while his targets range from capitalism to sex (which is to say, targets worthy indeed), Morgan renders them with a disarming affection. His approach, specifically the evidence of his fondness for his subject matter, allows him to surpass the role of satirist, and to more fully occupy the role of benevolent absurdist.
That combination of benevolence and absurdism brings me to “Nueé Ardente,” a story about a man waylaid while traveling by train to see his errant sister. As the delay persists, he becomes more interested in the unfamiliar landscape and his fellow passengers than continuing his journey. In the resultant purgatory, the protagonist comes to recognize that he will age even as his fantasies remain young, to accept that the only way to hold himself responsible for his actions is to leave himself no other choice, and to realize that he both resents and resembles his sister. But despite every drawback, we retain hope. Morgan has depicted disorder and disarray humanely, as characters we need not fear encountering.
That’s When the Knives Come Down just came out. I’m so proud to have had a hand in its publication, not just because it’s funny and touching and surreal and sad — though it is all of those things — but because it goes beyond buzz words. As grand and irrational and crazed as the stories are, Morgan’s collection, and “Nueé Ardente” in particular, reveal the ways people retain their humanity, in all its selfish and haunting glory.
Co-founding Editor, Aforementioned Productions
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Dolan Morgan, recommended by Aforementioned Press
On the train ride north, I see an explosion in the distance. Black smoke rises into the afternoon sky, and I watch it out the window as the train speeds through tiny, blue-collar towns. The tower of smoke is like a building, a distant skyscraper that curves without care. The mountains beneath it seem almost uninhabited, covered in a thick rug of frosted pines. What’s happening over there, I wonder. A forest fire? An industrial accident? A dormant volcano that has suddenly awoken? The landscape is unfazed. Still, I imagine all the mountains bursting open like bottles of cheap champagne — pop, pop, pop — covering the northern New York countryside with molten rock, washing over small towns with magma and steam, trailing smoke across the Eastern seaboard. The whole area will come to a stop once the 60 mph pyroclastic wave rolls down the hillsides and into town, I think. Like Pompeii, everyone will be halted in their tracks — and no matter what they were doing, be it humiliating or heroic or mundane, it will all be frozen here in the upstate territories like an enormous carbon photograph stretching the length of the Catskills. Soon it might become a sort of solemn tourist attraction like that of the World Trade Center or Pearl Harbor. People will come to witness tragedy firsthand, to see everything as it was “that terrible day.” After a while, the shock and sadness of it all will most likely wear off, as if tragedy were just a perfume or cologne or bug spray you applied at the right moment, and people will come unabashed to look at all the privacies left behind and unguarded. No one will pay attention to its enormity, of course, or at least only pay it lip service, but everyone will string along their families to be voyeurs of the dead, standing their children in front of copulating corpses and taking photographs to be hung on the wall at home. At any given time, I realize, I probably would rather not have a volcanic plume rush over me and immortalize whatever it was I was doing at the moment. There are very few points in my life that I would choose to showcase as a tourist attraction, simply because most of the time I look like an idiot. Right now, for example: I’m slumped against the train window, my cheek stretched against the glass like putty. I probably resemble a puffer fish as it’s prepared by a chef to be eaten: confused and asphyxiated.
Yet I’m breathing and fairly cognizant. In an hour, the train will pull into Binghamton, where my sister will meet me at the station. She’ll be driving some beater that needs a screw driver shoved in the ignition to get it started, rust about to eat through the axles, and one window made of plastic garbage bags duct-taped gingerly to the frame. We’ll zip along dirt roads for an hour until we reach her trailer on the top of a hill where we will eat hot dogs with her children, surrounded by jars of everything from pickled cabbage to pickled nuts. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but I know what to expect. And the years passed aren’t because of a falling out or any kind of drama at all; simply, we’ve been busy — or I have — or just as much, we’ve never been close enough to warrant the expensive commute between NYC and the Canadian border. She’s much older than me, a decade at least, and I sometimes have trouble seeing myself in her. She has said to our mother that we are oil and water, nothing alike and not worth comparing. It might be all we agree on, in fact. Really, everything else is so foreign to me, just as I imagine my life must be to her. The city, the noise, the fast pace — it’s nothing like what she has sought and found. And how she came to living out here in the backwoods of America, in the middle of nowhere? I can’t understand it. What does she find out here all alone? Maybe the cold: the area is known for its harsh winters — sometimes more than eight to ten feet of snowfall — which, unbelievably, leaves people even more removed than they already are from each other. I suppose, though, if you come for the isolation, then the winter snowdrifts aren’t all bad. Luckily for me, it’s November and that isn’t winter in my book. The train speeds onward, now curving around a lake and giving me a better view of the smoke. It appears that there might be another cloud rising, but I can’t tell if it’s just another part of the first. I haven’t heard any other explosions, but we are a great deal farther off by now as well.
The sound of the train rushing along the steel tracks is suddenly audible as a woman whom I had seen earlier boarding the train drags her bags through my car and into the next. I recognize her as someone I may have known or been associated with, if only slightly, maybe an old college classmate or subway rider. I know her, I think. Still, she is familiar, just as much, as the type of girl that exists as a ghost in my head, the woman who seems like some perfect ideal — but whose parts are strewn across the bodies of millions of women, some limbs and smiles here, some eyes or clothes over here, and attitudes and laughs over there. The platform woman’s snarly, sharp-toothed smile is a smile taken straight from the ghost’s blueprint. Her eyes and legs seem familiar too, as if they were somewhere inside me once, like a type of blood? No, that isn’t right, I think, but more as if I had already held them, looked into them. Dumbly, I am reminded of the women I’ve slept with, the women I’ve loved, rarely the same, as the train slows, pulling into another station along the way.
It must be a real small town, or at least a part of town that’s well removed, because there is nothing but field out my window and, in the distance, some hills. Somewhere in the field, I believe I see the traces of a lake underneath the layer of snow that has accumulated. It has fallen quickly, I note, taking out some unfinished work and laying it across the dining car table. This should get me through the next forty-five minutes, just about enough to hold me over until Binghamton. In another twenty minutes, though, we are still at the station and I’m pretty much done. I consider going over my work again or maybe asking someone what the holdup is, but instead I decide on trudging to the end of a book that I’ve been reading. After that, I’ll make some inquiries. I glance quickly at the smoke that seems now to be marked by red streaks? I can’t tell through the falling snow. The book ends badly and I put it back in my bag. Getting up from my seat, I feel achy all over. I stretch, lifting my arms into the air, and yawn. There are very few passengers in the dining car with me: a woman and her child a few booths ahead and an older man with a laptop closer to the back. Earlier, the child had stood up briefly and gawked out the window at the smoke. Minutes later, she was nibbling at her sleeve and playing some kind of game with her fingers.
I make my way toward the front of the train in search of an attendant or an operator or a conductor. Out the window, I try to get a glimpse of the station, but realize my car must be fairly far back because I don’t see the station at all. Where had I gotten onto the train, which car? I can’t remember. Here, passengers must have to get out from the first four or five cars, as is common at these smaller stops. I don’t find any authorities, though, just people sitting around, half asleep or reading the paper. I head back to my car, and from there, I move toward the back of the train. As I do so, I come to accept the fact that we aren’t at a station, really, but are in fact just sitting here, essentially in the middle of nowhere so far as I’m concerned. Now, I don’t have any appointments, my sister probably doesn’t even have a job, and — in general — time is not an issue for me, but I’m interested in getting some answers about what’s stopping us, if only to pass the time now that my book is finished. And who knows, I think, perhaps I will catch a glimpse of that ghost woman from the platform again. Yet, the only person I can find is the man minding the other food car at the far end of the train. He doesn’t have much to reveal. He says, “It all feels like a routine stop.” Can he tell by the way the engine rumbles beneath us? Can he sense something in the way we pulled to a stop? Do stops that aren’t routine bring a special feeling of unease, a tension in the air or thickness? I don’t ask him any of these things, but instead buy a two-dollar water. He assures me that we’ll probably be moving shortly.
He’s right too. After I get to my seat, get through about half of that bottle of water and idly peruse the transit safety pamphlets for a bit, the train does get moving — backwards. We are headed back toward the smoke, I think, and I envision all the trains across the country suddenly moving toward this central point and then rising upward with the plume. In fact, however, we only go about thirty feet before we stop again. Outside, the snow is fairly heavy, and in here the air is beginning to feel a bit stale, stuffy. I loosen my tie, unbutton my shirt a bit. Over the intercom, a man reports, “Due to a combination of a minor mechanical failure and inclement weather, the train cannot progress on its own. We are waiting for another engine to bring us the rest of the way, which should be here shortly.” The intercom clicks off. I think about the train being lugged along slowly through the woods and decide it best to call my sister, let her know that I’ll be late — not that I actually expected her to be on time, though. Actually, I debate whether or not I should say anything; maybe we would even get to the station at the same time if she doesn’t know I’ll be pulling in late. I think better of it though, take out my cell phone, and see that there’s no service. Of course not — we’re in the middle of nowhere. You don’t need a cell phone out here. There’s no one to call. I think about making phone calls to trees, to hills and rocks, or them calling me — long distance in the middle of the night, in need of money, sex, or drugs. My sister never calls my mother, really, or only very rarely. It is her special talent to be busy on birthdays, working on Christmas, sick on anniversaries. Another of her talents is lying.
In the same way that I often feel unnecessarily close to my family, or at least uncommonly, my sister is unprecedentedly absent and apart. It occurs to me that I don’t love her. Outside the window, I see a group of people walking into the field. One of them is the girl from the platform. I debate in my mind whether or not she is really someone I’ve ever met. I can only catch glimpses of her through the people mingling about — is she even my age? Or is she younger? As for that — how old is my ghost, my blueprint? Does she age? Or will she always stay the same, even as I grow older? Outside, the plume of smoke seems graceful almost to the point of motionlessness. It is hard to conceive of being farther from an imaginary woman who solely exists, or doesn’t, only in pieces and parts. In a moment, a train operator comes breezing through the car and tells us to take a breather outside if we’d like. Feeling cramped and stifled, I take him up on the offer. Who knows how long we’ll really be here, I think. Best to take the carrots as they’re given. I toss on my coat and gloves and head toward the end of the car. The door is open and a set of metal stairs has been lowered to make it easier to get out. A woman and her child follow after me. Outside, people smoke cigarettes alone. It’s apparent that no one on this train knows each other really, save for a few here and there. The snow is about six inches deep, and many of us have made our way underneath one of the few trees in the field, a large elm where some of the grass still shows.
In the distance the smoke still billows without any sign of stopping. I notice that, in fact, the black cloud is mingling with the grey ones above us. Somewhere nearby someone has a stove going, the familiar smell of burning wood wafting through the field. Through a train window, back in my car, I see the conductor talking with the older man who had been using the laptop. They seem to be arguing over something. The older man, shaking his head, gathers up his briefcase, puts on an old fedora and walks out into the snow with his jacket over his arm, annoyed or defeated. Despite the snow, it isn’t very cold. The woman’s child is running about without its jacket on. The kid is filthy, too, I notice. Had it been that filthy before? It must have been, I reason, because we’ve only been out here a few minutes and there’s nothing but fresh, white snow. I remember, when I was younger, my sister wiping dirt from my face with a thumb wetted with her own saliva. She does the same thing now for her own kids when the mood strikes her. Sometimes I see her wiping next to nothing away with her filthy thumbs as if out of nervous habit. It must be a type of new itch that parents get, just a feeling, something you have to respond to, rubbing your child’s face. The only way to explain the careful attention of her thumbs — in light of so much neglect and anger — is to call it genetic. I imagine the volcanic wave freezing her like that, one thumb stretching her daughter’s cheek into a pained grimace. Families would love that one, I think, would flock to it for the photo op.
A train attendant appears in the doorway of another car. He makes his way toward a larger group of passengers huddled under another tree. Whatever he is telling them gets a strong reaction. Someone actually stomps their foot. I feel for the attendant, who seems to be simply delivering a message, and think maybe these people, who are now looking almost threatening, should lay off him a bit. The attendant shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, puts his hands up defensively, and then points in our direction. He reboards the train, leaving the people under the tree looking stunned. Will it be a longer wait perhaps? Probably very long by the looks of things. Great, I think. The train starts to move forward a bit, perhaps adjusting position for the new engine headed our way.
It seems to be picking up speed rather quickly, though, I think, and a few people are actually running after the train, trying to jump on while it gains speed. The conductors and attendants raise the stairs and close the doors quickly though, and the passengers can only run alongside it waving their hands. The train keeps going, some crew members looking blankly out the windows at us, and then it pulls around the bend. I am surprisingly thankful that none of them wave.
It doesn’t appear to be coming back. No one says anything. There’s not much to say. Some people from the other tree make their way toward my group. Once they arrive, the talking bursts out suddenly from almost everyone, a chorus of “What’s happening?” and “Where’s the train going?” and “What about our luggage?” and “What did they say over there?” A man who had run alongside the train speaks up, tells us that the conductor claimed the train had become too dangerous for passengers. A leak of some sort, gas, and that we couldn’t stay on the train any longer. The other engine would be here shortly, and our old train had to move in order to make room for it. There was only one set of tracks, I realize. We could pick up our luggage in Binghamton. The explanation makes just enough sense to keep us from acting out against the train company. Not that there is much we could do out here besides kick the railway ties a bit. Still, the conductor’s explanation, although unnerving and unsettling and unsatisfying, is not totally ridiculous. If there really was a gas leak, maybe it was best that the train leave us here out of harm’s way. What if it exploded? We were only feet from the tracks and would be blown to bits or torn apart by flying steel. Perhaps something similar had caused the smoke in the distance? Perhaps other people had been left in the snow as well. In any event, there isn’t much else we could do but accept it.
Now, all told, there are about twenty of us here, and a pretty pitiful lot at that. Not a group you’d want to have your back in a pit fight. I spot a man pulling out a cigarette and sidle up to him for a light. I don’t need one, really, but I feel like talking. He wears an old, tweed golfer’s cap and a long beige overcoat. He’s amiable enough, but not very talkative — and we stand about smoking for a bit before anyone says much of anything. Eventually though, he remarks, “I can just about see our luggage.”
I try to imagine it myself — being carted off the train and ushered to a special area of the station. “Do you think they’ll have a lot of paperwork to fill out when we go to get it back?” Puffing his cigarette, he grunts, “No, you’re not listening.” He points off toward some trees up the way. “I can just about see our luggage. My glasses are in my suitcase, though, so it’s a little tough, but I believe those’re our bags right over there.” I strain my eyes against the glare of the snow, but it appears he might be right. At least, there is a pile of suitcases and bags stacked up pell-mell just over a little hill. Whether or not they are ours is yet to be seen though. “My name’s Dan,” he says to me, offering a hand. He’s got a good shake, I think as I offer my name in exchange. Without discussion, we stomp out our cigarettes and start walking toward the baggage over the hill.
“You noticed that smoke?” I ask, our backs to the plume.
“What do you think?”
He’s right — of course he noticed it. “Yeah, well, you never know.”
“That’s true,” he says. “I guess you don’t. Still, I’ve seen the thing. It’s huge and reminds me of a wrestler.” He sparks up another cigarette. “What of it?”
“That’s it in a nutshell, really. What of it? I don’t know.”
“Well, I did a lot of wrestling in my high school days. College too, though I wasn’t as serious. I always thought I’d get more disciplined in university, but I was totally wrong.” He pats his belly, a paunch really. “I got this instead. Earned it just as much as someone might earn a medal.” He laughs at the thought of flesh as a prize. “But in high school, I was a pro. Top form. And I had a rule: wait for them to make the first move. There’s too many options otherwise. Worked every time.”
Peering quickly over my shoulder at the black cloud, I notice it’s gotten a bit bigger.
Dan seems to be finished talking. I mull over his anecdote a bit. “So… are you saying we wait till a tower of smoke ‘makes a move’?” It’s the best I can come up with.
“In so many words, sure.”
“What kind of ‘move’ are you expecting smoke to make?”
“You never really know until it happens with these things.” He puffs his cigarette resolutely. “Works every time, though.” He tries to blow a smoke ring, but fails. I don’t mention it — we’re just coming up on the luggage. The pile actually stretches up around the bend, thinning as it gets farther away. Lightly dusted in snow, the bags look lonely but somehow not out of place, like a peculiar but natural bed of rock. Sure enough, there’s my case and my bag underneath a large camping pack. Dan scoops one up as well, opens it and removes a set of glasses. Slipping them on, he says, “Much better,” and rubs his nose, leaving a dark streak. How did our luggage get so dirty so quickly, I wonder. Heading back to the others, we don’t say anything. Everyone goes into an uproar over the luggage, all sorts of shouts and worries and theories being tossed about, but no one mentions the smoke. A few men volunteer to go grab all the luggage and manage to do it in just two trips, remarkably. After a wave of frantic cell phone checking futilely rises and then breaks, we all wait patiently under the tree, getting colder. The woman rubs her child’s face with her thumb. She examines her fingers and then stands up: “It’s ash,” she says to no one in particular. I put my palm out and catch a few flakes of snow in my hand. I rub my fingers together, leaving a dark powder on the tips.
Eventually, the snow slows, but the ashes don’t, and soon it is only soot falling and blanketing the ground. It gets darker, colder. There is no sign of a train coming anytime soon, and at first, people talk to each other, but eventually we become quiet as if to save energy, and we just stand there silently next to our luggage. Occasionally, someone coughs. A younger man has the smart but depressing idea of making a fire. He gathers a crew of people to find dry kindling, wood. Soon there are a few fires going, everyone standing around one or the other to stay warm. Dan and I are at different fires. The woman from the platform is around the one closest to the tracks. At mine, the man next to me, an older guy, holds something out to everyone that he has caught in his hand. “Look,” he says. It’s a small piece of a document, burnt away down to the corner, but it is emblazoned with a corporate letterhead, a company’s name. None of us have heard of it before, but we can all imagine the type of building it must have come from.
While we wait, we take to examining the larger pieces of material that float down from the sky. They come in groups of similar things, like flocks of birds or schools of fish. We catch pieces of newspapers, mail, high school essays, town hall records, family photographs. It’s too dark to see the billowing smoke now, but we see a glow on the horizon, constant and red. I wonder if this is the first move — or if, when it does come, we will even recognize it. It’s possible that a first move has actually been made long ago and that we have missed it entirely. I take a peek at Dan across the field and wonder what his countermoves looked like in his high school days. I never wrestled, but I think I’m not unlike him. I’m not an initiator. I avoid conflict. Meanwhile, my sister gravitates toward it as if by magic. She exposed her children to the worst people she could find. Something drew her to locking her kids in their room to “play” while she watched television, drank, had sex for money. A magic gravity. Dan’s methods attract me, though, because they relieve responsibility. As together as I might seem — job, bills, education, all taken care of — I do avoid responsibility out of habit. I have only achieved it by trapping myself into it, by leaving myself no choice. I am reminded suddenly of a car accident I was in years ago. It was snowing then, too, like the ash falling here in the field. I remember realizing I had lost control of the car, and the serenity that followed. There was nothing to do but wait for the eighteen wheeler headed toward me to make the move. If I could, I’d live my whole life like that, I think.
“We’re going to the next station,” a young woman says, having approached us from another fire. “We’re going to find out what the hell is going on.” Through some of the smoke above, the moon glows, visible every now and then in the empty patches. I eye the girl from the platform, hoping she’ll come over here to tell us something too. I’ve been waiting for the ghost to make the first move for a long time, and I’m not about to change it now. “If anyone wants to come, feel free. We don’t know how far it is, but we’ll probably run into something either way, even if it isn’t a station.” A few people join the effort. I debate in my mind whether or not to go. As those who are leaving gather by the tracks, I see the platform girl pick up her things. I decide to believe that it’s no longer up to me. With no reason to walk in any other direction, we walk along the tracks. Most of us get tired. While we are setting up places to sleep, there is another explosion, to the north. It is louder and closer than the first, but still distant. Soon, smoke is rising there too. In the morning, our fires have dimmed, so we spend some time rekindling them. Before we get going, someone reads a book, another a magazine. One woman knits. Others check cell phones, but not frantically.
“There hasn’t been a plane in hours, all morning really,” someone remarks. There is an airport in a city not too far from here, I remember. We keep reading, knitting, sitting. I check my phone. Once everyone is ready, we get walking again. My sister is no doubt worried by now, my mother too. And of course, I am worried about them. Yet, I find myself unable to feel much tension at all. It’s calm here walking by the tracks, very still. The trees are quiet, disturbed only by clumps of snow falling off the branches above. It is a beautiful November morning, almost cloudless. In fact, it appears as if the smoke in the south is starting to slow, to weaken, which somehow disappoints me, I note. I don’t really want it to end, I think. The best part of my day is usually riding the train to work. I hate waking up and I don’t like the job, but in between there? It’s nice. It’s all taken care of. It’s comforting to be here on the edge of everything, really. There’s nothing to worry about. We can keep going like this.
When we were younger, my sister and I used to sit by the window during hurricanes and watch, waiting for something to happen. It’s one of my few fond memories of her because she left for New York at such a young age — sixteen. We were both fascinated by disaster, I guess. I remember it being almost erotic, the same sense of danger surrounding my feelings for the hurricane that would later be a part of crushes and secret looks at pornography. My sister’s disasters were sexual, too: when she came back, she was pregnant. She didn’t stay long. When she left again, she took a train — this train, the one I had taken. Our mother dropped her off at the station, let her go back to the man that had gotten her pregnant. From outside, while they waited for it to leave, she traced the words I love you on the window. My sister followed my mother’s finger on the other side of the glass. It is these things that remind me she is a person, I think, as our group comes up not on the next station, but a train. It is motionless, silent and leaning slightly into the curve it wraps around, tilted gently to the left. It is our train, of course — what else could it be? No others had gone by. The doors are wide open, the cars empty. They are cold, too, as if they had been like this for hours. We grab food from the bar car and keep moving. There are no footprints to follow, any and all long since covered by the snow and ash.
By noon, we arrive at the station. It is small, the parking lot made for no more than ten cars. We have to climb the maintenance access stairs to get up onto the platform that leads to the station doors because the way around to the front is blocked by fences. Inside the station, the ticket booth is empty. No one is waiting in the seats. The power is out, the televisions blank. I sit down and look out the window at the New York wilderness. I remember the last time I visited my sister, when I helped her move from one trailer to the next. The next day, I remember finding her in the morning, drinking coffee by herself, staring out the window, smoking a cigarette.
“This is my favorite,” she said. “Just sitting here alone, looking.” I looked out the window then, too. There was nothing out there, nothing particularly beautiful. Some dirty snow, a tractor, some sheet metal. Mud and half a bush. Maybe she saw something out there I couldn’t. I wonder about all the things she’s never told anyone, and as I look out the window now, most everyone else bustling around in search of some kind of clue, I imagine my sister staring out her own window, alone in a train station parking lot or at home, waiting.
I think: let the wave come now, 60 mph and silent. The platform girl walks by and I stop her. “Will you sit down here next to me?” I ask. She looks at me strangely, but does. I would too if someone asked. Up close, though, I see she can’t be older than sixteen.
We don’t say anything and I look out the window. No, now, I think. Do it now.