Tag Archives: fiction

Fiction excerpt: ‘The World Drops Beneath You’

Tool belt

An excerpt of my short story “The World Drops Beneath You,” published in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). Get the anthology on Amazon to read the story in its entirety, or read it on Medium.

The World Drops Beneath You

© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

The red lights of the television tower pulsed on and off in the distance, a constellation of dying stars lined up single file, like good soldiers, to wink out in unison. Jake stared at the glowing embers and drifted along the edge of sleep as his father drove through the early-morning dark. His mind snapped to attention when Pop turned up the radio for news of the war: Nixon had announced he was bringing home 25,000 troops over the next year. A momentary tingle of hope raised goose bumps on Jake’s arms and the back of his neck, but he realized a heartbeat later that the decision wouldn’t affect the draft notice folded in his back pocket.

Riding to and from work each day, Jake had silently rehearsed how to tell Pop that his lottery number had come up. But when the time came to say the words, his throat grew thick, and he choked on the bitterness he felt at having invited the war into his life by dropping out of school. Words were useless now. They couldn’t stop the chaos that seeped nightly from the television like poison gas—riots and political assassinations erupting across the nation, the latest wave of troop replacements disappearing into a jungle no one had heard of until it arrived in their living rooms.

As Pop drove, the darkness slipped away imperceptibly, leaving traces in the corners and shadows of things, spies behind enemy lines. He turned the pickup in at the job site, and the headlights picked out three men drinking from Thermos cups at the concrete base of the tower. Pop and Jake usually arrived fifteen minutes early to drink coffee, but it was already five-thirty.

“Couldn’t get Shorty out of bed?” Stony said as they stepped out of the truck.

“You can see the boy needs his beauty rest,” Pop said.

Wally, the boss, tapped his watch with his shortened right index finger. “All right, let’s get up there.”  The finger had been sliced off at the knuckle twenty years earlier. When Jake was a kid, Wally had made him laugh by inserting it into his nostril so it appeared to be planted three inches deep.

They cinched on their tool belts, and Pop turned to Jake. “I want you to go up top this morning and install the brackets for the co-ax cable.” He opened a box to check that they were the right size, and handed it to Jake.

“Did you get the elevator running again?” Pop asked Wally.

“Yeah, but you’ve got to control it from the ground,” Wally said. “The wiring’s crossed, and I couldn’t get the damn thing straightened out. We need the electrician out here.”

It was July 20 and already hot at sunrise. The men were working on a Sunday because a series of spring tornadoes had damaged the crane and knocked out the electric power for more than a week, putting them behind. They had less than a month to finish the tower, which rose nearly 2,000 feet above the High Plains to transmit the signal for the ABC affiliate in Amarillo.

Jake started to sweat—he had never been all the way to the top. The men had finished installing the elevator two days ago, and no longer had to climb the ladder hand over hand for 180 stories. It took Pop and Wally, the most experienced of the crew, half an hour to climb it wearing their tools. The elevator’s steel mesh cage ascended the tower in two or three minutes, but only two men could fit inside it.

“You want to ride on top?” Pop asked.

“I don’t think so.” Jake had seen Stony and Gilvin ride on the elevator roof several times. They were the youngest of the crew except for Jake, and were given the shit jobs.

“It’s safe,” Pop said.

Jake glanced inside the elevator at the loose wires sticking out of the control box and said nothing.

“Hell, he’s scared,” Stony said. “Me and Gilvin will do it.” They climbed onto the roof, and Jake carried the box into the elevator cage underneath them. Wally stepped in beside Jake.

Pop stayed on the ground to run the controls. He lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth, and the one on Wally’s belt squawked, “You got me?”

“We got you.”

“Let’s go.” Pop punched a button and the elevator lurched, rising slowly at first, then faster through the center of the alternating red and white sections. Jake’s stomach tightened as the world dropped beneath him. Seen from below, the guy-wires tethered to massive concrete footings were taut, inch-thick cables that cut a straight line from ground to tower. But from above, Jake could see that the cables in fact drooped in tremendous arcs, the tensile force that held the tower in place unequal to gravity’s ghastly power. The sight gave Jake a sick feeling. The laws of physics, so straightforward on the ground, were warped and unreliable at this height. He reached behind him and secretly inserted his fingertips through the steel mesh, gripping it to steady himself.

The rush of the elevator cooled the sweat on his forehead. A thick morning haze permitted him to look directly at the sun, deliciously pink like a scoop of neon ice cream sizzling and melting along the bottom where it sat on the horizon. Wally spoke into the walkie-talkie and stepped out of the cage when the elevator stopped. He lowered himself into a sitting position on the beam, his legs dangling on either side.

Jake’s stomach swam as he followed. He set the box on the small elevator platform and stuffed as many brackets as he could fit into his tool belt. He tightly gripped the steel next to him with his right hand before stepping cautiously off the platform onto the I-beam, which was about two feet wide. Showing Jake what to do, Wally marked the steel with chalk, drilled four holes, and quickly attached one of the brackets with metal screws. He finished in a couple of minutes and handed the drill to Jake.

“We need one every ten feet,” he said. “Just work your way down. Go ahead and do one, and I’ll watch you.”

Jake attached the drill to his belt and stepped down the ladder to a spot he judged to be about ten feet. He was sweating profusely, soaking his T-shirt as he worked the tape measure.

“Take you all day to do one,” Stony said, amused, from atop the elevator.

Jake avoided looking at the ground while he measured ten feet and marked the holes. He clamped his legs to the beam and held on with his left hand while drilling with his right, barely gaining the leverage he needed to pierce the steel. He took a socket wrench from his tool belt but fumbled it, made a swipe for it and missed, almost losing his balance. Wally cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Headache!” The wrench clanged twice against the steel as it fell, then, seconds later, a third time. The tiny dot on the ground that was Pop dove for cover under his pickup truck. . . .

Read the rest of “The World Drops Beneath You” in the anthology Stories from Texas College Students (2016, Lamar University Press). The book is available at Amazon.com. The full story is also available at Medium© 2016 Sonny Bohanan

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Sonny Bohanan is a writer and editor in Fort Worth, Texas. Read his writing portfolio or follow him on Twitter. He was an editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the American Literary Review.

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UNT’s Visiting Writers Series opens with Matt Bell

Michigan writer Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Michigan writer Matt Bell, first up in the 2013-2014 Visiting Writers Series, came to the University of North Texas on Tuesday.

It was a warm, humid night, the first of October, and Corey Marks, the school’s creative writing director, ushered in the new season by praising the 180 or so students for having found their way to the Business Leadership Building. It was off the beaten path for these mostly English majors, but it was good that they should venture outside the lately unairconditioned warrens of the Auditorium Building to see where their teachers’ raises went.

It is good that the university should have such a space to show off to visitors – a glass and brick structure of terrifically tall ceilings flooded with natural light, its cantilevered roof supported by pivoting buttresses, a central atrium surrounded by high-def lecture halls, offices, a stock trading room, storefronts – so that Mr. Bell did not have to remove his tweed jacket or mop his brow while reading from his just-published debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

I got the idea that Mr. Bell is used to a little sweat on his brow. His writing, like his subjects, is dirtbound, subterranean, dark with blood and loss. He opened with Jack Gilbert’s poem Hunger, which begins, “Digging into the apple/with my thumbs./Scraping out the clogged nails/and digging deeper.”

The imagery is in the novel, too, in an underground maze or “deep house” that the narrator’s wife sang into being and where she displays the myriad things that her husband has forgotten. One room contains the wedding rings that had failed to bind the couple. “How I wished it had been different, that I had not walked away when I thought it would be easy to return,” he laments.

In his calculus, childbirth is apocalyptic; the passage in which the husband eats his stillborn son, the “fingerling” of his wife’s miscarriage, has haunted me since the moment I read it last week. Mr. Bell concurred in our Twitter exchange the day after his reading. “I found him haunting too, from the first time he showed up,” he wrote.

If you say the name of the novel aloud, the stacked prepositional phrases give you an idea of the cadence of Mr. Bell’s writing. The staccato rhythms seem more poem than prose, and they match his voice, a resonant timbre that held each line ending for a beat.

In his short story “Her Aeneid,” a mother-to-be imagines the baby in her womb as a changeling, “a string of potentialities” that evolves from a tumor-sized fetus to become, successively, a stone; a thunderstorm, a hurricane, tsunami; a bird, and then a bird of prey; a knife, a dagger, a broadsword, “dark and terrible.”

At last, the young one arrives, and the mother learns what all parents learn. The child is a stranger, a vortex of need.

“Some days,” the story ends, “no matter what she says, her baby cries, and cries, and cries.”

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Why I write fiction

Since leaving the newspaper business in late 2008, I’ve started writing fiction. But, lacking publication deadlines, I’ve never really finished anything to my satisfaction. No point in time marked it as “complete, move on.”

I started grad school in September 2013, at the University of North Texas, to learn how to write fiction and to write on deadline again, the only way I know how. But, more importantly, to be among folks who brood on reality, as I do, and try to create from it a world that makes some sense. After more than twenty years of writing newspaper stories and fifty years of living, I am convinced that there are no meanings except the ones we fashion for ourselves. And that is why I write fiction.

In May 1992, when I was a news reporter, a five-year-old girl named Shawnlee Perry disappeared while playing outside her house in Earth, Texas. I drove the two hours from Amarillo to Earth the next day and met with Shawnlee’s parents, who told me with breaking hearts and tears in their eyes about their daughter – her favorite foods, her favorite movies and songs, the cute, funny things she had said and done in her young life. That day I also knocked on the doors of many neighbors, but there was a fog of fear over the neighborhood and only one would speak to me.

I watched as the anguish and guilt of Shawnlee’s parents tore the couple apart. Three months after her disappearance, a farmer, mowing his field about five miles from Shawnlee’s house, found her decomposed body. Her panties had been turned inside out, and she had several broken bones.

A neighbor named Eddie Rowton, who “helped”  search parties look for Shawnlee after her disappearance, was convicted of kidnapping and beating the young girl to death, and a jury sentenced him to die. After killing Shawnlee, Rowton also beat and raped a New Mexico woman, and he was convicted of that crime as well. He spent two years on death row before he died in prison, complaining of chest pains, in 2001 at age 48.

Even twenty years later, I have no trouble recalling the details of the case from memory. I do, however, have trouble making sense of the crime. What drove Mr. Rowton to hurt and destroy those around him? Why did the Perrys let their daughter play alone outside? Why did the two men who claim to have witnessed the crime not stop it?

Only through fiction can I find the answers, which are hidden.

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