take me there
winner of the 2019 breakwater fiction prize
"This compelling narrative comprises distinct yet not entirely independent points of view that divide the composition; the tightness of the prose and the careful management of time enable the writer to achieve a certain complexity of internal and overall form. This story, whose layers range from the concrete to the abstract, is a suspenseful and meaningful one in which the cosmic and the intimate collide."
In the Hill Country of Texas, up on the Edwards Plateau, just west of Lampasas, near a bend in the Colorado River, lay the pastures and outbuildings of a farm that had been passed from one generation to the next since the decimation of the buffalo herds in the 1870s. Into that line of succession, Ed Jonathan planned to throw a monkey wrench. As the eldest son, he understood that the farm was his birthright. But it was 1961. The Russians had put a dog into space. The United States had countered with a chimpanzee. Men would be next. The original seven astronauts had been chosen for the U.S. program. Now a lot of things had to be figured out, and Ed was good at figuring things out; he was reminded of that every day by a certain teacher at his high school, a teacher whose patriotism took the form of lust for winning the space race. He implored Ed – and that was surely the right word, implore, in light of this teacher’s persistent fixation on the scholarly attributes of a singular teenager in a godforsaken Texas schoolroom.
To his teacher’s imploring, Ed was natively susceptible. It seemed to him that he was indeed born to blast men into space and bring them safely back. And so he had set his sights, not on the auction barn just up the road, but on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory some 1,300 miles westward at the farthest edge of California. But first things first – right now he was a senior at Lampasas High School, and he was running a small business with his brother Don. Don didn’t want the farm either. The business was their way out; make their own money, pay their own way, plot their own futures. They baled hay in the summer, stacked it in the loft of the family barn, and then delivered it to customers throughout the school year. Two boys with a purpose, a plan, an approach, a timeline, and a schedule.
In the spring of 1961, Ed and Don were in the delivery phase of their business year – transporting the hay in their barn to the pastures of nearby customers. To watch them work their delivery routine was like observing the perfect time-and-motion study. Don would back the truck into the barn while Ed climbed into the loft, where he would drop bales onto the truck bed with the timing of a metronome. His brother would re-stack the bales with the precision of a stonemason. When the truck was full, Don would call out, “Load.” He’d jump off the back of the truck and head back to the driver’s seat. Ed would walk to the far end of the barn and swing down from a cross-timber, the ladder being too slow, and meet his brother at the gate. Ed would open the gate, Don would drive through, Ed would shut the gate and jump up into the passenger seat, and Don would drive while Ed did his trigonometry homework. Every day, right on schedule.
There came a day that started out like any other – except for one thing. As Ed was climbing the ladder to the hayloft, two words popped into his head: Beryl’s hand. Where had that come from? He hadn’t thought about her all this time. Not since the breakup, must have been, what, eight, nine months ago. It was something she used to say, Beryl’s hand, talking about herself in the third person, when they were alone, and he took her hand in his. Her response was to see her hand through his eyes, and admire it as he did. “Beryl’s hand,” she would whisper. To a lesser degree, there was also Beryl’s neck and Beryl’s knee. But there wasn’t a Beryl’s anything else. Their intimacy had been like a time-and-motion study of getting to first base and staying there.
It might have been different had they lived in the same town, gone to the same school. Actually, the distance between them, as the crow flies, was not that great, but she was on the other side of that bend in the river. No direct way to drive there. A phone call was Long Distance, with each call and its duration spelled out on the family phone bill. It was a blessing, though, that they had found each other – given that both were virtually un-dateable at their own schools because they made people feel unworthy. In each other, they saw the same … seriousness – that would be the catchall word. It wasn’t about the big game or the big dance or what to wear to them. It was about … something else … out there, somewhere, not here.
Those hands. Beryl’s hands. Why that, now? It was unusual for an uninvited thought to find its way into Ed’s serious mind, so it stood out, was worth examining, at some point, whenever he might have the time to scrutinize off-purpose whimseys. Not this moment, as he stepped into the hayloft. With no wasted motion, he hefted bales, dropped them down to the truck, where Don efficiently stacked them. In no time at all, Don was hollering “Load,” jumping out of the truck bed, climbing into the cab, starting the engine, not looking back. Ed walked to the other end of the barn where he would swing from the cross-timber to the barnyard below, every step a carbon copy of the exact steps he’d taken yesterday and all the days before. Could have done the whole thing blindfolded. But about three steps in, he noticed something on the hay-strewn floor of the loft where he was walking. Something that didn’t belong there. Looked like an index card. Appeared to be a drawing on it. He slowed his pace. Looked to be a drawing of a hand – actually a palm, because, you know, who can draw fingers?
Ed’s mind saw patterns and made connections. Instantly, he made the linkage between that random thought on the ladder, Beryl’s hand, and the fact that this index card was waiting for him up here, apparently tucked between some hay bales, and now released onto the path he walked every morning. How did that work? A whisper of disconnected thought in the present is tied to an actual event awaiting you in the future. Like a premonition.
He flipped the card over and saw the word STALWART, in big puffy letters, cloud-like, with each letter slightly overlapping the next one. So it was from her. Stalwart was her word for him. Not her favorite word, by a long shot. Didn’t like the way it looked, or the way it sounded. But its meaning was so, so true of Ed. He was stalwartness in the flesh. So she went with the meaning of the word, not the aesthetics. That’s the way her mind worked. Aesthetics were fine, but not at the cost of functionality.
Another way her mind worked was to break things down into their constituent parts. Inside that word “stalwart,” she detected the names “Al” and “Art.” Sometimes she would call him those names. Didn’t like either of them, but they were no worse than “Ed.” Sometimes she called him “LW”, taking the middle two letters of stalwart. She’d say it stood for “Lucky Woman,” which she considered herself to be, when he was holding her hand. She also saw the word “war” in the second syllable, and “wart,” but she didn’t let her mind go there. All this was the essence of Beryl – pick something for what it means, not just how it looks or sounds, and then break it apart as many ways as you can, work with the good ways, minimize the bad ones. Know that, and you pretty much knew Beryl.
Ed slipped the card into his hip pocket. So she had been there, in his barn, among his bales of hay. But when? Last summer, when they broke up? Or yesterday? But no time to ponder that. This little spate of reflection was over almost as soon as it started. See the card, see the drawing, pick it up, turn it over, make the connection between the shred of a thought on the way into the barn and the wisp of a sighting on the way out. Count to five – that’s how long it took. But it was enough to throw him slightly off-stride along a path that, after all these years, he traversed chiefly by muscle memory.
Count to three, and he was at his jumping off place. The left foot, the launch foot, ever so slightly short of its customary point of departure, the musculature of his left leg, at the last possible moment, goosing an extra ounce of push to compensate for the extra distance, a little too much of a correction, as it would turn out. Overshooting his target by a trifle, making no material difference in the way his hands grasped the timber, from which he would hang less than a heartbeat before making a gymnast-like dismount to the barnyard just beyond the concrete floor of the barn. If you’d watched him do this a thousand times, you would not have noticed anything out of place.
And it wouldn’t have made any difference, were it not for a wood screw with a broad flat head that at some point in the last hundred years had been driven into the cross-timber just below the spot where Ed’s right hand would grip and slide into a dismount. A wood screw in that location hardly made sense. That it wasn’t driven all the way in made even less sense. It didn’t stick out far enough to cause a problem, really, unless a ring happened to hook it as a hand was sliding by in, for example, a gymnast-like dismount.
On the third finger of Ed’s right hand was a ring. Beryl’s hands had made it two years ago in her room at home late at night. It wasn’t like he’d wear it for the rest of his life or anything, but he wasn’t ready to take it off just yet. When the ring caught on the broad flat head of the protruding screw, it wasn’t going to give and neither was the screw. Nor the wooden timber. What gave was the finger, snapping just below the first knuckle, and then the flesh, fileting off the bones as the ring slid down the crippled finger and off. That however, was not the main problem.
The main problem was a little matter of momentum, as Ed’s torso continued to rotate outward toward the barnyard while his right hand, waiting for the metacarpal bone to snap, was slightly delayed, causing him to lead with his head when the hand finally broke free. And now he was a body hurtling through space, accelerating at 32 feet per second squared and rotating outward, captured by the gravitational pull of planet earth. Very much like the dynamics he would be working with someday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
If he had merely tripped and tumbled out of the hayloft, he might have tucked his head, rolled his shoulder, taken a survivable blow. But he didn’t trip and fall. In the midst of a dismount that generated both outward and downward motion, his hand got stuck, but the combination of outward and downward vectors continued. Which put his body in a state of rotation. His head was now like the last third-grader in a game of crack the whip. More than the fall itself, it was the whiplashed skull against the raised lip of the concrete floor that foretold it would be up to others to bring men safely home from the moon. Not that he had time to think about that. The book on Ed Jonathan was closed, his last incarnate thought recorded. Beryl’s hand.
The question was, The governor is weak and everyone knows it. How do they know? The girl in the second row from the windows, third desk back, was writing fervently, ferociously. Hunched over her desk, nose inches from the paper, writing small and fast, due to the limits of space and time. Fiercely, that would be the word. A test-taker with an athleticism in the marshalling of desire, preparation, concentration, competitiveness and physical resources. Everyone would know the governor was weak, she was explaining, because of the seventh constitution of the State of Texas, written in 1876, which relegated the governor’s office to little more than a ceremonial post. So every Texas governor for the past 85 years has been weak, through no fault of his own. The question itself, of course, had not mentioned Texas. That was assumed, per usual in The Lone Star State – like, if someone started a rumor about a pastor who had a thing for the wives of his deacons, it was understood that it was happening somewhere in Texas … Dallas, probably, given the subject matter. Wouldn’t be a pastor in Ohio, for example, because, you know, who cares?
Writing feverishly, the girl in the second row didn’t notice what everyone else saw immediately: a girl from the office – that’s what it was called, just “the office,” as in “this is your last warning Bobby Daryl; one more and you’re going straight to the office…” This girl from the office had just entered the classroom carrying a note. Proudly, she walked, striding briskly with an unmistakable smirk on her face. In any other class period, she would be one of the test-takers, but this was her office period, and she could stop a test cold. Mr. Hahn, the teacher in this classroom, was no pushover. He’d been known to read a note, wad it up and throw it in the trash while the messenger girl waited to be dismissed. And so this was high drama for most of the test-takers: the full-of-herself note-carrier facing off with the master of all he surveyed. What a surprise when Mr. Hahn read the note, thanked the girl from the office, and walked tenderly toward the girl in the second row, who was still writing fanatically about the constitution of 1876. She flinched when Mr. Hahn broke her concentration, and froze when he told her to write the time at the top of her test, gather all her belongings, and go immediately to the office, where the principal would like a word with her.
At this point, no one was answering the test questions. Not only because of what was happening, but also because of who it was happening to: the perfect one, Miss Sky’s-the-Limit, Most Likely to Succeed, Valedictorian of the Donald High School Class of ’61, Beryl Fraley. The entire class watched spellbound as Beryl gathered her things and started walking through the empty hallways on a direct path to the office. Her mind was rushing through the possibilities – it had the feeling of death, but … there was only her and her mom; she was alive and well, and her mom was the invincible one. What else could it be?
Could it be about all the hubbub last week? When the principal walked into a National Honor Society meeting over which Beryl was presiding. At the end, he pulled her aside and said he had a proposition for her – except it didn’t exactly sound like a proposition; sounded like a fait accompli. It went like this: Technically, she was First in her Class, given that she had made all-A’s every semester all four years of high school. But the boy just a few decimal points behind her had only made one B, in the 9th grade, at a different school, mind you, not here, and it was in PE, which was laughable considering he was now the star pitcher on Donald High School’s district championship baseball team. Knocked out by a B in PE? Seeing him on the ballfield, you’d have to say that the education of his physicality had been first-rate. So, come on, would you seriously deny him the top rank because of a questionable call in a meaningless class at some other school way back in the 9th grade? Surely Beryl could see that “graduated First in his Class” on his transcript would mean a lot more to his future than it would to hers. If they just flip-flopped 1 and 2 in the class rankings, it wasn’t even that big of a deal. She would still be ranked higher than everyone else.
The principal had figured there was another reason Beryl might see it his way: this guy, this manufactured valedictorian, was her current boyfriend. True, a boyfriend of convenience – just for this, their senior year, but not to be confused with her first love, with whom she had broken up over the summer. Even so, they’d had some good times, and fooled around a little, and she did want him to be happy and successful. She was trying to see the positives of gifting her top ranking to him, and she did her best to put a good face on it when she got home and told her mom.
Her mother did not see any positives, none at all. “What do they mean,” she stormed, “that technically you’re Number One? Class rank is about grades on the transcript. Are grades a technicality? Hey I got it, why don’t they just rank all the boys, 1 through whatever. On graduation day, call the boys up one by one, according to their rank. Then say, ‘and also, some girls,’ and just have all the girls stand as a group. And curtsy.”
Thinking about that now, on her way to see the principal, Beryl got worked up more than she had the first time around. The little voice in her head picked up where her mom had left off: “Have any of my teachers ever said ‘technically, you made 100 on this test’? No, they haven’t. And all those 100s added up to A’s on report cards and all those report cards added up to Number 1 in the class. What do they want to take away from me now?”
Her ginned-up bravado was promptly extinguished when she entered the sanctity of the office. It was the looks on the faces. A guidance counselor, two secretaries, the assistant principal, and incongruently, the band director, in suspended animation, staring at her. Busy people, normally, but not now. Finally, one of them found the wherewithal to speak: “The principal is waiting…”
Principal? Waiting? The principal never waited for you; you waited for him. It was well known that the worst part about a meeting with the principal was the wait in the hard straight-backed chair while everyone shuffled past you avoiding eye contact. For her, today, no waiting. Go right in, they said. She found him standing at the window, looking out. He turned and beheld her. And that was the word, beheld. Not the way he looked when he wanted to take something away from you and give it to somebody else. Not like when he was explaining how something that would be wasted on you would be fabulously useful to another person. Finally, he spoke.
“It’s Ed Jonathan,” he said. “He fell this morning and hit his head. He didn’t suffer. His people thought you would want to know…”
Ed Jonathan. Her first love. From the summer after the 8th grade until last Fourth of July, when they’d broken up, on good terms, citing reasons logically thought through. She heard her books hit the floor. She felt the principal grabbing her. Why would he do that? Why would his arms be around her? Then she realized he was holding her up. Her knees were weak and her legs were trembling. Then everything was trembling. The principal was guiding her to the chair that the boys leaned over to take their swats.
Her peripheral vision narrowed until she could only see what was directly in front of her, as if looking through a tunnel. The principal’s voice was coming from a fog bank somewhere to her left. A few details penetrated and stuck: mainly, something about a ring and a screw and a flip and a fall and concrete and massive trauma.
What? A ring? There was only one ring she knew of – the one she had made with her own hands. They were going into the 9th grade then – why was he still wearing that? But wait, the principal was still talking. Something about a card – an index card – with a drawing of a hand, and the word stalwart. In Ed’s hip pocket. Questions were being asked, over in Lampasas. So technically his people thought she would want to know – but judgmentally they wondered if she had something to do with it?
She wasn’t sure how long she stayed in the principal’s office. On her way out, she brushed aside all signs of concern and kept walking. Didn’t know what period it was, couldn’t figure out what class she should be in, didn’t try very hard to work it out. Just walked out the front door of the school and headed home. Let herself in and went to her room. Sat down at the clean, organized desk where she had traced her hand, minus the fingers, on a card – many months ago; why would it just now be showing up? It was here that the ring had been pounded into existence by her more-determined-than-artistic hands. Started with a coin, a quarter, and beat its edges with a heavy kitchen spoon until they flattened out to the width of a silver ring, and then drilled out the center. Only worn by him. Why was he still wearing it? Why wasn’t it in a sock inside another sock in the pocket of a sophomore letter jacket at the bottom of a cedar chest, like the bracelet he made for her? The ring that killed him. The card that was in his pocket.
Her room was not the consoling space she’d hoped for. The entire house seemed to be averting its gaze. Unduly quiet, but more than that, it seemed … empty. With a drabness, a dullness, an all-around vacantness that felt like a cold shoulder to her distress. This deletion of Ed. He was always supposed to be out there, somewhere, her silent partner in a beyondness – beyond this place, beyond these people, beyond this time. That, in her mind, had been the whole point of their relationship, which she understood as a crossing of two paths, an incidental overlap, not a conjoining of fates. Those early high school years had worked out nicely; now it was all about what was next. As clear as he was about heading for California, she was equally clear that she was not. Nevertheless, there would always be a connection between the two of them. Proximity, similarity and continuation – that’s how she had broken the relationship down. Proximity is how they got started, but it would be ending soon. Similarity had been confirmed, by their shared sense of beyondness. Continuation was a matter of faith – that both would be forever inspired by the other’s example. Now that faith had not even survived high school, and in its place, a crushing despondence. Where to turn? Her mom, called away on a family emergency last night. Her friends, still at school. Maybe, walk back to school, wait in Tanner’s car.
Tanner McBride, the boyfriend for now and potential usurper of her class rank, probable valedictorian-by-decree, first-by-fiat; also her accomplice in the making of fond memories in which that car had played a part. And so she took a deep breath and shook herself all over, like a dog coming out of a creek. Looked in the mirror, tried on a smile, made a few adjustments to her hair, and walked herself back to school, where they would be in 6th period. After that, baseball practice for Tanner. It never crossed her mind that Ed’s death would travel like wildfire through the school. She imagined a school day that would be winding itself down according to its habitual rhythms – for everyone except her.
The car was parked in its usual spot, farther from the school, closer to the athletic complex, away from the commotion of a student body set free when the last bell rang. She got in on the driver’s side, just for the hell of it. Looked across to where she ought to be sitting, on the passenger side, and … that spot on the floorboard! From over here, so much scarier. She turns sideways and rests her back against the inside of the door, swinging her legs across the length of the front seat. Can’t take her eyes off that spot. Remembering, now, the first time she realized that it actually wasn’t a stain of some kind — it was, shit!, a hole that opened all the way to the pavement below the moving car. That was the street, passing beneath her feet! Turns out the undercarriage had rusted out long ago, but the rubber floor pad had stayed intact until her right foot eventually started to wear through it. Not until now, looking over from the driver’s seat, did she realize how big the hole had grown.
She could get killed, riding over there. A gravel truck, pulling in front of them, overfilled, tiny hard pebbles spilling from the back of it, a perfect trajectory, a perfect bounce, perfect timing, a one-in-a-billion chance of skipping twice off the pavement and then somehow, miraculously, finding the opening between her feet and rising to strike her smack between the eyebrows and ending her life in an instant. Nothing but a pea-sized bruise to commemorate the kill-shot, her boyfriend driving on thinking she had just suddenly dozed off from all the late-night studying.
She’s had these thoughts before, like a crazy obsession. And so she always rides with one foot situated protectively between her and the hole. But it’s not so crazy now. How is a pebble bouncing through a tiny hole any different from a ring on a finger lining up perfectly with a screw in a timber? And who is she to exclude herself from such randomness on the very day that Ed was eliminated by it? And that family matter that her mom was responding to? An uncle, over in Austin, unaccounted for in the aftermath of a flashflood. She imagines an evil force stalking her, taking out others as it narrows its target. Maybe it can’t find her because she’s been blocking the path between her and the bouncing pebbles. Maybe she should unblock the hole, give the evil force a clear shot, now, today, before any other innocent lives are taken.
In this state, she doesn’t hear the last bell ring, doesn’t notice the students surging out of the school and back into the town at large, doesn’t realize that baseball practice has begun and is now ending. She looks toward the fieldhouse, where the baseball boys are streaming out and walking in her direction. She studies them for traces of introspection or empathy or a hint of anything that doesn’t have a score attached to it. Nope. Laughter. Ridicule. Pushing, shoving. Cussing. “Hey, watch it, asshole.” “You watch it, prick.” Laugh. Poke. It all stops when the first of them notices her sitting in Tanner’s car. They walk by silently, respectfully, some of them nodding in her direction and then looking away. Maybe they know something.
She doesn’t expect to see Tanner in these clumps of camaraderie. He will be the last one out, paying more attention to the clouds in the sky than the jockeying of too many alpha male adolescents in one place. The parking lot has emptied by the time Tanner saunters into view. Beryl steps out of his car and walks to meet him. Falls in step with him. Takes his hand in hers. They walk silently to his car. He opens the door on his side and she slides in, scoots to the middle of the seat. Making no move to start the engine, he turns to her.
“How are you?”
“I don’t want to go home. Is there anyone at your house?”
“No, everybody’s gone until late tonight.”
“Take me there.”
He’s not aware that she always rides with one foot blocking the hole. So it’s unremarkable to him now, that both of her legs are curled up beside her on the seat. Her head is turned so there’s a straight shot from the spot of pavement visible beneath them to the space between her eyebrows.
On her face, a look of surrender, accommodation, no intent to control or manage…
Whatever comes next.
"Take Me There" is the first chapter of a working manuscript entitled The Beyondness of it All.
William Seyle lives in Evanston Illinois and is an active member of the writing community at the Writer’s Studio, University of Chicago Graham School, where he is an avid student of the instructor Susan Hubbard. He believes that everything he has achieved professionally is rooted in the way of thinking instilled by his high school English teachers, Elsa Jean Albritton, Janet Atsinger and Claire Rogers. He is a founding partner of the Evanston-based consulting firm, sr4 Partners, where he heads up the articulation practice.