Locust House Variations, A Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, “October Story, Part 3 of 5”

I don’t believe in superstitions, but I do all the superstitious shit. I wish on trucks carrying loads of hay and I don’t walk under ladders or chance breaking mirrors. When I see a penny sitting tails-up, I toss it a few feet away. (If I find it again, and it’s heads-up, then it’s fine to take.) Superstitions have an undeniable sway over a lot of us. Rationality should dictate otherwise, but I can’t help following the rules.

One of the reasons I’m in California is to write something new. I won’t say much about the actual thing because I have always felt it’s bad luck to talk about a project in-progress. Do I believe in bad luck? No. Omens? I don’t. But when omens come like they have lately, they hit me hard enough to shock me into something approaching belief. I don’t “believe” but they force me to look at how the supernatural can (at least appear to) seep its way into the natural.

First omen came last week. For this new thing I’m working on, I’ve been traveling to all the places in the story and writing those scenes on-location. Being there makes all the difference—being under that particular piece of sky in order to write about it accurately. Seeing the colors, hearing the wind in the trees.

Feeling the weather on each day is important too (and here’s where it gets a little weird: I’m writing in tandem with the calendar. For instance, I wrote about October 2nd from years ago on October 2nd of this year, same with the 3rd, the 4th, the 5th). Seeing the place that I need to know in order to write about it helps in ways I can’t quantify. It helps in practical, descriptive ways, but it also helps in ways that exist in a hard-to-know place between intuitive knowledge and feeling. Which is to say—knowing without having to think about it as well as feeling a thing so deeply it becomes a part of you. It’s like method acting—you live in the story as you work and you become your characters. You walk in their shoes, feel their pain, their joy, their troubles. It’s a way of writing a version of the truth while writing from your imagination. Telling the truth while telling lies.

So, earlier in the week, driving up the 8 to the place I was planning to write about that day, I put on an X record and played it over my phone. As I drove the car I’d borrowed that morning, I had the sudden realization that I needed to make this record part of the story—that it would be a record the characters would listen to throughout the narrative, the album’s lyrics as a theme weaving in and out of the storyline, the characters’ love for X an important part of their friendship.

Just as I turned off the freeway and took the exit to my writing location, I saw spray-painted in big black letters under the overpass: “JOHN DOE.”

John Doe is the bassist and co-singer of X.

My first thought was, “Well, I guess I’m on the right path,” and then the cynical me came stomping in and was like, “Shut up you spiritual fucking baby.” The cynical me said, “You stupid magic hippy. There are no right paths other than the ones that lead from point a to point b. Paths are practical, not metaphysical. Go fuck yourself with a crystal.”

The second omen came the next day. When I’m on tour I walk around the neighborhoods I’m in as often as I can. I walk endlessly, without direction other than to see something new, to witness life happening in ways I couldn’t at home. You pluck yourself up out of your safety zone and you drop down into a new place, alone and anonymous. It’s healthy, and if you write about America, it’s important to know how America is—how it smells, how it feels, how it’s changing, and to keep that knowledge as current as you can.

Walking the streets, I began to hash out a plan how in this new thing I would bury a subtle theme and storyline based upon the ancient Celtic poem La Morte Arthur. I worked through the details as I walked—which of my characters would represent which of the poem’s characters, how the titular “death” would figure in. An outline began to form. It came fast, but I knew I’d need a copy of the book soon if I were to work in the details as I wrote it.

I turned the corner and took an alley. From the alley I was back on the streets walking in the shade of a row of palm trees. At the end of the block, I saw one of those wooden community yard libraries people put outside their homes. Whenever I see one, I always take a look, even though most of the time it’s shit. This one was no different—get-rich-quick and fad diet guides, fucking Nicholas Sparks, fucking Dan Brown, books about being the boss, books about being a good Christian.

Behind all that was where the second omen came in.

Pulling aside the first row of books, I found a second row at the back of the box with one of the books I’d written sitting right next to a copy of La Morte Arthur.

For a second, the Twilight Zone song played in my head.

I was like, “What the fucking fuck is going on?”

But it’s all bullshit, right?

Omens, signs, fate, destiny?

I don’t believe in any of it, just like I don’t believe in ghosts or bigfoot or god. Still, those two moments of weird synchronicity gave me motivation to work for many hours at a time, to write more each day than I ever have, and to do so with strident, unflagging fervor. It felt meant-to-be. Of course, it wasn’t. But sometimes there’s as much power in feeling as there is in believing.

Yesterday, after having finished my first draft, I spent an hour driving through the hills above Oceanside with Tommy McMann who designs my books. Coming around a bend, Tommy and I saw a big white shape blocking the road. As we got closer, we realized it was a boat lying on its side. Closer still, we saw that it had slipped from the trailer carrying it, then slid grinding horribly down the road, leaving ruts white with its own paint carved in the black asphalt, before coming to rest in our path. Just a few minutes earlier and it would have pulverized Tommy’s little red car. We would’ve been pulp. Or we might’ve veered left to dodge it and dropped plunging over the edge into the canyon below.

Is that an omen? Does skipping out on an awful (yet kind of amazing) death give you good fortune? I don’t know, and I believe so steadfastly against that sort of stuff I can’t force myself to care enough to speculate. What I know is this—it’s a sunny, mild Friday in October. Outside the crows are cawing in the palm trees. Last night I could hear waves breaking on the shore through the window of the room I slept in—rolling in like a sigh, crashing softly with a sound like kishhh … kishhh … kishhh.

I’m alive.

I’m doing fine.

I should say, “for now” because I don’t want to jinx myself.

For now, I’m both of those good things, and that’s all the luck or magic or fortune I need. One day we will be as dead as all those who came before—dead as the countless others who walked these same streets, drove these freeways and hills, those who sat in parking lots and saw magical graffiti under overpasses and hoped to do good things and stay alive as long as possible, all those believers and disbelievers and those who wanted more than anything to find some reason to believe.

Adam Gnade