Locust House Variations, a Weekly Fiction Column by Adam Gnade, Voicemails from the Great Satan

Note: this is the text from a tape I did on Three One G, a collaboration between myself (words) and Demetrius Francisco Antuña (music). It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you just read the text without the audio recording, so throw in the tape (or go to the streaming service of your choice), and follow along with me…

Voicemails from the Great Satan by Adam Gnade with musical accompaniment by Demetrius Francisco Antuña

Radio towers at night and the vacant gas stations. The cemetery road with rows of old graves, arched and cross-topped in the darkness.

Midwest trash charms.

Pancake shack talisman.

Driving through backstreets caught somewhere between rundown suburb and trailerpark; and it’s AM car radio late-night and fear gnawing. “You are unsafe,” they tell us. “You should be worried.” “You have reason to be alarmed.”

In one of her new country songs Agnes McCanty sings, “We all need someone to catch us when we fall, but these days I catch myself falling alone.”

Agnes told Rilee Boone over the phone, “I can’t afford to shop elsewhere, but I stopped goin’ to Walmart because I always saw the worst in people.”

Agnes told Rilee about the woman hitting her child by the wall of macaroni and cheese boxes—the cheery blue and yellow, the branded packages from kids’ movies, wagon wheel noodle shapes to make it more fun.

Hot rod night where did you go? When did the innocence end? Walmart parking lots are sullen. Idling dually trucks with bumper stickers about making America something it never was to begin with. The fight Rilee’s cousin Ray saw by the old RV on the edge of the lot. The big man hitting that short man’s face into the asphalt and afterward his teeth lay in cracked pieces in the pool of blood around his face like some holy radiance.

We’ve got troubles.

We are troubled.

We’ve got worries.

This is a worried song.

Driving home to the farm with my plastic bags of groceries on the seat next to me I think of Rilee and Agnes off in their separate chunks of rural land. Just like them I want to be free and easy but it’s not easy to be free and it’s not free to be easy. On the lawn as I pass—an old 40 bottle and I wish it was full on the seat next to me. I think of lying in the hot bath back on the farm with it and drinkin’ it. Hot water, cold beer, numb my anxiety, forget, forget, forget…

I pass the county jail and the courthouse. I pass pawn shops, gun stores, used car lots with triangle flags, endless fast food, the gauntlet of shit. A man on the talk radio show says, “I love this country, but sometimes I ask myself how did we get here?”

Drop into the darkness.

Fall from the light.

Drop into the darkness.

Fall from the light.

Drop into the darkness.

Fall from the light.

We’ve got troubles.

We are troubled.

We’ve got worries.

This is a worried song.

This is a worried song.

Agnes moved to the country after the inauguration. She lives in her van on three acres of woodland Karl Boone bought when he sold his Halloween store. She can’t find a job but unemployment pays for groceries. The rest she gets playing old country covers in local bars. She sings the hits she grew up with, the songs Michael the Bear would listen to on Sunday afternoons in North Park. She sings, “The last thing I wanted … the first thing this morning … was to have you walk out on me.”

After she lost custody of her kid, Agnes quit drinking. Or she tries not to drink. She writes her daughter postcards and talks about ill-attended shows and people talking while she sings. She sips a flask of Beam and reads western novels in the back of the van and gets lost in the stories to forget about her life. Agnes, how do we live through tonight? How do we make it through the day? What is it that works for everyone else? Country music, religion, TV, pills, whiskey. Agnes, don’t give up. Don’t settle. Don’t drop into the darkness. Don’t fall from the light.

And now it’s IRS letters. Debt collectors calling. Battles with the insurance company. Unease. Lingering dread after the panic attack has passed. Turn off the radio; you’re getting fatalistic again. I drive past a car wash with yellow police tape barring the entrance and three patrol cars with lights spinning. I think of the gunshots I heard last night while lying in bed unable to sleep. I think of strip-mining. Friends stuck in bad places. I think about hearing loss. Painful distances. Trains I should be on.

Agnes says her head is a magician’s box shit disappears into. When it’s inside it’s eaten alive in the darkness. It’s wolves hunting the rabbit in pitch black and the rabbit never sees the wolves, but he can feel their teeth for a hot three seconds as he’s ripped in four directions. America, you broke our heart. It was a thunderclap. November. Division. Ruination. And now they tear you from limb to limb and we do nothing. They march with torches and they eat your guts in steaming fistfuls. We’ve learned to laugh it off. We say, “Fuck it” and get stupid-drunk on a weeknight. We ignore the flies we can’t slap away, but they crawl on our face and they will lay eggs in our eyes. We accept this. We accept slumlords. Racists. Big lots. Scorched earth. Title loan shops. A million cops and a hundred robbers. Voicemails from the Great Satan.

I’m thinking of the Ghost Ship on the news and how we waited to hear who was safe. The video of the fires burning that night. This is a story of my generation.

How many of us live far away from the people we love?

How many of us fight to pay rent?

How many apply to jobs for months and hear nothing?

How many of us are feuding?

Agnes, you had a breakdown after the election and this is what you saw: You saw ten thousand skeletons marching over a black hill, the red sky full of smoke. Behind them a great black wall stretching into the distance. You saw a dozen girls’ bodies rotting in a basement and you knew one of them was yours. You saw a vision of the future—your brilliant friends starving to death in Section 8 housing when they’re old because this country doesn’t want them.

In bars you sing “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” You sing “Lungs.” You sing for the money, but you sing to find respite from the mistakes of your past—the missteps that keep you up at night.

None of us are sleeping.

This is a story of my generation.

The Davis Campbell elementary school is closed-up now and no one’s around for miles except the seven year old girl filling the jugs of water for her family at a drinking fountain as tall as her.

The sun sinks low over the hills and the pine trees and there is a silence vast and boundless and ancient.

The asphalt is cracked. The chain of the tether ball clanks against the pole like a bell tolling.

As she fills the last jug she hears the bike tires crunching on the gravel and looks up to see two boys pedaling toward her from across the old softball field, a cloud of dust kicking up behind them.

The smaller boy veers to the right, pedals standing up, and heads for the dark wall of the woods.

The taller boy keeps his course and when he gets closer she can see he’s her age.

“Friend or foe,” she says aloud, and under her breath. A question without a question mark.

She sets the water jug down at her feet, half-full. The rest are in the shopping cart with the size-eight basketball sneaker she found in the ruins of the cafeteria.

The boy stops in front of the fountain and climbs off his bike at a safe distance.

He’s dressed like her—patched-together clothing, hand-me-down rags. When he speaks it’s a language she doesn’t know but then the words find form. It’s the first anyone new has talked to her in as long as she can remember.

“Can I have some of your water?” A question without a question mark.

His eyes are deep set and blue—dark like a sea. The sun slips below the horizon and a shadow falls over the land. The silence expands. Grows. Thickens. She picks up the jug at her feet and holds it out to him and he walks closer.

They sat in the taco shop across from each other, holding hands over the table, talking. He wore an old Stetson cowboy hat and she had dream-catcher earrings and half of what they said was in Spanish. You could tell they were in love and you loved them for that. “Remember that when I ask you for money,” she told the man.

Hunch over on a set of steps by the old paint spattered scaffold and write that down. It’s your big day out in the city after weeks not leaving the farm. Describe a yard sale you passed earlier in Columbus Park. There are card-tables on the lawn with shoeboxes of silver and gold costume jewelry—the elfin green of paste-emerald, the dark glow of plastic rubies on a pendant, beautiful as cheap as they are. There’s a steam iron, old-fashioned, gleaming in the sun and you can tell it would be hot to the touch.

There are stuffed animals on one of the card-tables and your heart aches that they were cast off, but this is how our lives move forward. You think, “Maybe the next kid that gets them will need them more than the last,” and this is how we rebuild hope and this is a way to survive.

You hear the TV from inside the house and you smell pasta sauce cooking. You think of it bubbling in a pot, steaming the windows back home in San Diego, fifteen hundred miles away and a dozen years removed.

Homesick and beat-up by this year, you remember the ease of childhood. Quiet beach apartments, overcast skies in the fall, a storm blowing in from the sea. You think of a red candle flickering on the coffee-table in a dark living-room and it’s you on the floor playing marbles. You hold one up to the dimming light and you see the green iridescence of the cat’s eye swirled opaque with buttery yellow, a tiny air bubble in the glass.

Sitting on the steps in Kansas City, you tell the world, “Buy me a drink! Give me a place to stay.”

The world says, “Not now. I’m busy. Don’t you watch the news? I’m ending.”

In Albuquerque I slept in my clothes on the floor next to a painting as tall as me propped against the wall in an empty room. It was a black-haired girl’s face, tears frozen in place on her cheeks, her eyes hurt and desperate. I woke up with sun streaming through the window. It was noon. I was alive.

At Venice Beach a week later, Janey Marie and I walked out into the surf after sitting in the hot car all day and the waves crashed into us and we fell down or walked through them; we jumped as they hit us. We laughed and we shouted to each other over the roar of the sea and wind. Diving under a wave as it broke and rolled over me, I dug my arms through the charging water and kicked my feet and rose to the surface.

Sun, sky, air.

I took a breath and my heart beat hard in my chest and I stood waist deep—the water churning, my feet sinking into the sand, the currents pulling and pushing me—and the wind blew at my back and the sun burned my shoulders and there was salt in my eyes and I was alive.

I looked back to see the crowded beach and the boardwalk as a wall of tumbling whitewash hit me like a bus.

I was alive on Trash Island.

I was alive walking with you in the Mission—reunited, tired, rum-drunk, in love, holding hands.

I was alive in Seattle walking down the hill past traffic looking for Chinese food we could afford.

In Portland: a house party and Linny and Byron showed up and we drank vodka in the van and talked about home and friends not present.

I was alive in the salmon locks staring at the fish behind green glass, and I was alive floating on my back in Lake Washington with the clouds panning across the sky so far above.

I was alive in the Crystal Cove as we browsed glass cases of fossils and petrified wood and ancient clam shells.

I was alive in the airport staring at the sunny wall of windows and the planes on the tarmac and I didn’t know this, but things were ending. Not the world … no matter what you’ve been told … just things. In the terminal boarding the flight to KC, the sky above Seattle was pale blue and summer was ending. Summer was ending.

Summer was ending…

Cars crash into crowds of people.

People smash into bullets and debt and fists and love.

The earth zips around the sun as if chased by a dragon.

Days march forward like drunken soldiers.

Nights are long and haunted.

America is shot full of holes.

America is hunted by ghosts in the cornfield.

They tore you up like wild dogs and I was alive and I’m sorry.

This is a story of my generation.

I was alive.

Adam Gnade