Locust House Variations, a Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, Life is the Meatgrinder that Sucks in All Things
Note: This is the text from the collaborative record I did with Planet B. For context, Life is the Meatgrinder that Sucks in All Things is the prequel to Locust House, which is the prequel to Who Are the Mystery Girls?, all of which focus upon the character Agnes McCanty. It takes place two days before the 9/11 attacks.
Meatgrinder is meant to be heard rather than read, but you can read it below and listen along right here.
Life is the Meatgrinder that Sucks in All Things
(Collaboration with Planet B)
by Adam Gnade
And now it’s Golden Hill—dusk in the neighborhood, the sun setting over the Spanish tile rooftops and tar shingles and palm trees—a brick-orange glow on the darkening sidewalks and the rolling blacktop hill-streets.
In the windows of JayCee’s Market you would see piñatas and ropes of garlic cloves and green and white soccer jerseys mounted on tan pegboard. You would stand at the glass and see the shapes of people moving inside, and above them tubes of fluorescent lighting tapering from shop front to shop back.
And they are buying jicama, cabbage, dry pinto beans, limes, cilantro, CocaCola in glass bottles, bags of white rice, onions, tomatoes, boxes of sugar cookies, Crisco, Saltine crackers and Ritz.
Outside, the yellow streetlights blinking on and Curt Santiago Reiter walking past JayCee’s then Panchita’s Bakery—alone and hulking, hooded, shuffling with three bags of weed in his sweatshirt pocket.
Further up C Street, Joey Carr and Ben Frank ride bicycles—coasting now through a pack of kids kicking a soccer ball in the street, and the kids part around them, and Ben Frank says hello and they ride past.
Ben Frank rides ahead with his arms out like a plane and Joey pedals standing up until they ride side by side with the wind and the sun on their faces—coasting again—talking about the party and who’s in town for it and who won’t be there. They talk about Pokez fajitas and the Che, May’s new rabbit and Antioch Arrow. Joey makes a joke about the Gaslamp. Ben Frank quotes Jean Genet and brings up the quality of light.
At the Broadway/25th intersection they split off in a T shape as seen from above—Joey to meet up with Curt at Avalon. Ben Frank to catch a ride to Fashion Valley to shoplift fishing reels to take back to Returns—the last grab in a weekend of stealing easels and cases of wine, frozen pizzas and books on Norse gods before he heads back to muggy, loud, gun-packing Chicago, that night showing up to the party on the hill above Gelato wearing an ill-fitted private school uniform covered in glued-on plastic jewels and aquarium gems, a replica pirate sword tucked into his belt. It‘s a Sunday night party at the end of summer and everybody‘s out back drinking jug wine by the fire-pit talking about him and Davy Ramos crashing Davy’s dad’s Chevy Nova through a front-yard fence in South Park, and Ben Frank says, “We just spilled out onto the lawn and lay there on the grass laughing, and Davy … he had a can of beer from the car and he cracked it open and set it on my chest and said, ‘You earned this.’”
This was before. Before we learned to hate America. Before we lost grip on the dream. Before we saw the holes in the story we grew up with. Before it was tough to find work. Before it got harder to get through the day. Before paranoia. Before doubt. Before anxiety. Before compromise. Before we turned on each other. Before now. Where it’s a new killing every day until we’re blind to it. Where we’re all so spread apart. Where love is stress. Work is stress. Family is stress. This was before.
September 9th, 2001.
Two days before the attacks.
Agnes McCanty, seven months before the death of Michael the Bear, running past the Landmark Theater in Hillcrest with Gabby Martinez—holding hands and laughing. It‘s a busy night on 5th Avenue and traffic is stopped for blocks and they hear music from crowded bars and cars idling and the sound of their sneakers slapping (then scuffing) the pavement as they lurch to a stop outside Off the Record.
As seen from inside the store: Agnes and Gabby stand at the shopfront window, talking soundlessly, out of breath, bent over, laughing, before running off, smiling, goony, delirious …
Davy Ramos, standing in the vinyl section, watching as they disappear from view, happy to see them but to be unseen, then thumbing through the LPs, stopping to pull a Bastard Noise album from the crate, turning it over in his hands to read the back.
Now, outside, Agnes and Gabby running again, rounding the corner onto Robinson Street, and above them a plane flying west to Lindbergh Field—cutting through the dark sky and the silver clouds, this one just lights flickering and a distant whine of engines as seen from the ground, while inside the plane, the cabin rocks in a jostle of turbulence and the people grab their arm-rests with stomachs tightening into fists and hearts beating fast.
Somewhere in the back of the cabin a baby cries out and the lights flicker off for the smallest brief moment.
The mothers, the fathers, the pilot and his crew, a chef and his troubled brother, an actor in first class, a magazine spread on his lap and the ice in his cocktail shaking, toddlers holding toys and looking to their mothers for reassurance, an Olympic hopeful from Iowa City cow-eyed in blue sweats, a girl and her cat sitting below the seat in its carrier in a drugged sleep dreaming of a stone path, a little league baseball team in uniform, a Charleston lawyer gone to seed willing the plane to crash, willing it nose first into the earth, “Take us,” he thinks, “damn our lives, into the earth, let it stab into the flatness and be gone.”
They will land safe. They will go home safe. Tuesday morning they will watch the news, and feel grateful as they cry.
The first time Agnes flew was after the death of her mother and her father’s imprisonment.
All of this is forgotten: That she felt safe and comfortable and lucky, sitting in the big seat next to the window with blue sky and crumbled white clouds, surrounded by steel, waited on by a woman with lovely green eyes and the darkest red hair.
And now it’s late-night on the Mission Beach boardwalk, Agnes sits on the seawall under the streetlight at the end of Zanzibar Court, the ocean black and the sand dull gray-white under the moon, the breeze kicking up from offshore, bringing with it the smell of salt and kelp. Gabby inside a town-house off-street by the strandway, drinking beer with two of her classmates and cramming for a geography test she’ll never take.
The classmates are in a white reggae band called Coastal Vibration.
Agnes decided against hanging out.
“I’m gonna … I’m just gonna chill on the boardwalk,” she told Gabby at the front door of the apartment. Inside the smell of weed and the sound of the Cardiff Reefers so loud it made Agnes nauseous.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”
“Agnes. You alright?”
“Yeah, I’m cool, Gabby. I’ll just be out there. Right out there. It’s all good. Come find me.”
Agnes, your passion is blood and guts. Your passion is bands in a wild squall like worlds ending. You want the oscillating storm and a windmill of cavalry swords. When your band has practice downstairs at the E Street house where your drummer lives, you scream, eyes-closed, and clutch the mic, leaning forward, one arm braced behind your back and straining, your guitar hanging low on its strap, untouched, feeding back; you want Celebration and the Gems of Masochism and the hottest daggers at dawn, the perfect knife cut, precise. You shout: “Give me skulls!/Give me smashed cop cars!/Give me friends like loyal dogs, vigilant/and the same for me/I’ll be ever ready!”
After practice, you and Sara Norton pack Lorna’s bass amp in the backseat of her Jetta and you sit on the trunk with your pocket notebook and you write: “Give me the world where no one dies/the carnage on record/but the kindness of life.”
You shut the book with a clap and say, “This is for the album,” as Sara opens the driver‘s door to climb in, but soon your plans will screech to a halt.
Every morning you wake up for school or work and your stomach is sick. You see violet light through plastic blinds and, if nightmares kept you up, you think of your dead mother, your father in prison forever.
When your mother left, you entered the dead world. You had horrible thoughts. You shut your eyes and the things you saw were overwhelming.
Sometimes in the morning your defenses will fall away and the awful thoughts come back to you. You try to push them off but they stick inside you like a barbed stinger and they fester. They expand and they bloat with your water in them. They thrive in you. They flourish in the dark places you run from.
By afternoon, you will believe in the living world again—you will resolve to fight and your love and spirit will be a thundering horse, an axe in the hand of someone kind but righteous, a safe spot atop the battlements from which to watch the siege.
Agnes, we think we’re alone in this and we’re wrong. You are not alone, but friends are hard to find, while the dreamkillers stand right outside your door. Agnes, your enemies are always louder than your friends, but that doesn’t mean they matter more. Don’t let the shrieks of horror drown out the kind voices, but like Gabby says, “It’s just sometimes when the shit-storm howls we need a reminder.” Even if you fail you always look for love. You search for the love of friends, the love of family—and to build a new family because yours is mostly gone.
At dawn on Monday morning you stand on your porch before work—the fog drifting past the row of apartments across the street—6:30am, awake before the world, and there goes Ben Frank and Davy Ramos walking arm-in-arm at the end of the street—laughing, smoking cigarettes—still drunk from the night before. Their clothes are wet and filthy and Davy has yellow vomit stains on his white t-shirt and Ben Frank is dragging his pirate sword along the white picket fence and you’ve never seen them happier. You love them. You know they won’t always be there and you think of that and then your heart breaks.
Your heart breaks, but you’re happy.
I’m happy, you tell yourself and it’s surprising.
I’m surprised to be happy.
Why is it a surprise?
Because I’m not like this often.
You go inside and call in sick.
The adventures of Agnes McCanty before the death of Michael the Bear drove a stake in her plans: Quit your job because your boss looks at you with eyes that race across your body. Drop out of school and wake up when you want. Sleep under Crystal Pier and live off of cast-out scraps. Bootleg Davy’s AmeriPass and go see the country before it’s a stripmall. Sit up all night listening to the rain drumming down in abandoned barns and grain silos. Pace in empty lots on the outskirts of East Coast cities feeling like the last person on earth (but unsinkable). See the redrock buttes of Monument Valley. See drizzly woods with mist creeping through them from the side of the road hitchhiking. Wander Texas desert in search of skulls. See, we plan and we plot and our dreams stack up before us like stairs we can climb, but then the stairs disappear, and we’re tumbling down.
Agnes sitting in the sand in an oversized black Bauhaus t-shirt she took from Steven’s apartment. It’s noon and hot and she and Gabby Martinez are at the secret beach in front of the Marine Room restaurant—Gabby knee-deep in the water in her black swimsuit, walking back to shore after a dip to cool off.
In the wet sand between her feet, Agnes writes her mother’s name with a piece of kelp then rakes it away with the black-painted nails of her left hand.
The memories of her are fading—Agnes lying in bed while her mother reads from a book about bears. A dinner table in a darkened room with the adults passing plates and drinking red wine from tall glasses and talking.
Her mother standing in a doorway flooded with sunlight—the phone pressed to her cheek, tall and slim, laughing, twisting the cord in her fingers.
Her mother, the only daughter of a failed Argentine cattle baron and his ghostly Swiss wife. Her father, second generation Irish, doomed to repeat his own father’s violence.
Agnes remembers everything after her mother’s death but not much before. It was there once, but it’s going away. Soon it will be gone.
She looks up—pale brow furrowed, squinting.
The sky above the sea is the cleanest hot blue. Her skin is death white.
Gabby, dripping seawater, sits on her towel next to Agnes. The day is quiet except for the wind from offshore and the sound of the small waves and the buzzing of a single-engine plane towing a banner behind it. Agnes squints to read the sign. Something about Buy Coppertone sunscreen and Agnes thinks of baby oil, the smell of coconut. She thinks of heat, iron, wet neoprene, pyrite, creosote, the smell of drying kelp—sulfurous but not unpleasant. Last Friday she sat in marine biology class and wrote down words as the teacher said them. She remembers them now: dimethylsulfide, bromophenol, brevibacterium. Her mother: Rebecca. Her father: Andrew.
Gabby asks to bum a smoke.
Agnes pulls two cigarettes from her pack. She lights one for Gabby and hands it to her without speaking. She lights the second and holds it between two fingers, but staring out to sea she forgets to smoke.
What do you want to say to the world before you’re gone? What are the memories you’ll leave with the people you loved? If you fail were all your affirmations the hopes of a failure? Does a lack of success discredit your plans and ideas and beliefs?
In youth we swagger and we plot and we stand on the edge of a greatness we’ve dreamed to be real, but all of that will change. The news of the attacks will change you. Grief will change you. You will lose a job you found without trying and you won’t find another for two or three years.
You will be unemployable and you will live in the path of a devastator. You will sell all your records to pay your phone bill and the credit agents will call you all day. Everything that once came easy will soon be hard. You will go days without laughing and you will stop making jokes and your tricks will quit working.
Back from the beach and mariachi music on the stereo of a parked car outside the apartment complex across the street, the apartment‘s white-board staircases and stepdown laundry room, and inside a row of washers, the clothes and suds turning in their portholes and the smell of dryer sheets in the air. An old woman sitting in a folding chair next to her laundry basket looking at a telenovela magazine, but thinking of her dead husband just three years gone. She sees him opening the front door, home after a month at sea with his pack slung over one shoulder, and their children running from their rooms to meet him, as he drops his pack to the floor and squats down, his arms held out …
And now sundown in Golden Hill. You will walk sweating in the evening heat with your messenger bag full of stolen oranges to Davy’s place and sit cross-legged on the hardwood floors and drink ice tea from a trucker’s cup while May Stimpson gives him a haircut, and then you’re next. May and Ben Frank and Joey Carr and Davy Ramos will drink red wine from a fast food cup while the scissors snip and his hair falls in wet locks on the floorboards and on his bare shoulders.
After that, May will take pictures in the kitchen with a Polaroid camera. Davy (shirtless, black hair slicked back) will look like a Golden Gloves boxer from old Brooklyn and you will look like a dancer in a Paris cabaret after the First World War.
Agnes, with your long hair cut chin-length you will look like the sweetest bruiser and a bruiser will survive the blood and guts, you tell yourself.
Blood and guts, dead mother. Blood and guts, awful boss. Lifeless drunk boyfriend, blood and guts. Your towed car, blood and guts. Blood and guts, your punished father.
Agnes, you can be a captain of pain and give the world your darkness like a flood of bats gushing out from your mouth.
You can decide to change.
You can be unbroken in the temp agency line. You can quit smoking and stay up all night with Gabby, laughing until you cry.
You can stop seeing Steven and move back in with Michael the Bear, who loves you more than anyone.
Because life is blood and guts, Agnes. Life is muscle and bone. Life is the great leveling plane, but life is that hill of wildflowers you saw on the car ride to Solvang with your sweet cousin Miki.
Life is love.
It’s blue-black marbled night sky over the sea at Mars Beach with your closest friends, and you’re sober and they’re drunk and getting high, but your heart swells; you love them regardless.
Life is a plane crashed nose-down into the hot earth. Life is fading dreams and forced compromise.
Life is a hand to pull you up in the pit. It’s the easy days after a long winter illness. It’s the record that saved you when all you wanted to do was sleep.
Life is love.
To live is to dance vaudeville in an awful shit-show. To live is to know ruin and to seek shelter in ruins. To live is to believe in love (and to search for it) while all signs point to tragedy.
Life is love.
Life is the meatgrinder that sucks in all things. Life is the beginning of death. Life is blood and guts.