There’s a writer, Brady Udall, I figure a ton of people already love or at least have heard about. He’s good. He’s from out West here—northern Arizona, southern Utah—and in his first book, Letting Loose the Hounds, there’s a story called “Vernon” I won’t go into very much except to tell you about one detail: this dead guy’s giant woodpile. It’s enormous. Almost Cascade-Mountain-sized. Anyway, it’s hard to overlook, and yet it disappears into the background of the larger story about three 21-year-old friends. A story’s landscape can do that, fade away a little, since it’s the characters’ actions or inactions that tend to interest us the most.
The thing is, though, this woodpile is more than a part of the setting. Yes, it’s a hang-out spot for them, a vantage point from which to see their town, the pine woods, the surrounding mountains, and maybe even the sheriff’s wife (we’re told she’s got quite a body) who is rumored to do her yard work in the nude. And yes, it’s there to give the narrator a chance to imagine epic endings—lighting a fire so big you can see it from Mars, or maybe making a misstep so the three of them get avalanched. But it’s also a symbol calling out, “Less ant, more grasshopper.” Why split and pile up so much wood you can’t burn it all in one lifetime? And remember that the guy who did this is already dead.
Though that’s too simple, of course. Take Sam: He’s an honors student, and also has some important job as a liaison on campus. He’s wearing a suit and tie and a backpack when I see him. We say, “Hey,” and I ask, “How’s it going?” and he says, “Fine. Just looking for a hole to crawl into for a couple hours to study.” Good for him. What am I doing? I’m walking around, taking a break in the middle of writing this. Good for me. I’m the point guard of the Grasshoppers, at least for now. And it’s not as if I’m unconflicted about it. I’ve got drafts of freshman essays all over my desk that aren’t going to fix themselves. I got one—one!—done before I moved them aside and started writing this instead.
I also don’t own an umbrella. There isn’t much point in Utah. I had one once in the old days in Tacoma, but it broke—sideways March winds about 40 miles an hour, 40-degree rain blasts driven and determined, umbrellas held shoulder high like nylon shields ’til they flipped, inverted, turned inside-out and rib-snapped. I never replaced it. It rained, and I got wet, like this was a deal we’d worked out together, a deal that suited the rain and me just fine.
I don’t know enough about neurons to explain it, but thinking of the rain just now reminds me of The Day of the Quail. They took over the neighborhood. There must have been 60—I finally just stopped counting, that’s how many—going by in this surprising line… a group of grown-ups leading the way, then dozens of these jellybean chicks skittering behind.
Right down the middle of my street. Then left around the corner.
I would have liked it even more if there’d been rain to go along with this—Ah-ha, that’s the connection—but never mind. It was cool. I told my neighbor Mike about it a couple minutes later, and he took off and started knocking on doors, gathered a group to go catch up and see them. He even stopped traffic on 900 East so all those quail could get safely to the park. He likes birds. And everyone was happy. They were glad they’d stopped whatever they were doing, glad that they’d slowed down.
You know who wasn’t, who didn’t want to?—the people in all those cars.
Or maybe their cars were in charge of the driving, and they didn’t think they had time to pull over, turn off their engines for a while, and have a look.
Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.