I wanted to get in a (relative… for me) long bike ride today. I took my commuter bike and loaded it up with my Kindle, my camera, notebooks and pens, plus some extra water. My idea was to ride a bit, rest and read and then ride some more. I put together a route that wound through Garland, back across town to the Pearl Cup coffeehouse, then back home.
Nick is home and he rode with me east into Garland, then as we cut our way back he turned off and took the Owens Trail home. I was feeling a little off and decided I was getting overheated. It’s the first day over 90 – which soon won’t be very hot, but I haven’t acclimated to it yet – plus it’s very humid. So I hung out in a shade structure next to the athletic fields – drank some water and read a short story. Within a few minutes I felt a lot better.
I enjoyed talking sports with some guys that showed up with a truck full of coolers and grills that were setting up for an all-African soccer tournament later in the day. I took off, dropped down into the Spring Creek Natural Area and then under the highway to the Canyon Creek neighborhood.
The Pearl Cup has finally put a sign up and built a bike rack in front. Their mocha coffee had some nice latte art and plenty of caffeine and sugar. It was cool inside and I settled in with my Kindle to rest a bit.
A couple nights ago I finished a novel that I had found recommended in an article about the best books of this century – The True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey. It was a very well written, interesting book… and I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t speak to me in any personal way. Now that it is finished, I’m working on a huge collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories I carry on my Kindle – eleven new ones and more than two dozen classic stories from a forty year period. It’s called High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories 1966-2006.
Her writing resonates with me. As I read her harrowing, dark short fiction, my mind fills with ideas that I will have to write out. I fill pages in my Moleskine with short story ideas. Her writing shares with me the desire to explore the too-thin membrane between our illusion-filled world and the horrific void beyond.
So I drank my coffee drink and a dozen glasses of iced water, read some stories, and wrote some pages. Then I took off, riding back to the thick creekbottom woods of the Spring Creek Natural Area, did a lap of the loop trail, and plopped down on a favorite bench to crank through another story.
It happened to be a well-known story that I was familiar with – had read a couple times before. It was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (read it here for yourself). I hesitate to call it one of my favorite short stories… though I have to call it that – because there is no other word that fits. It is simply too disturbing to embrace fully. But it is a work of genius.
Though nothing explicitly bad happens in the tale – there is no doubt that the world has ended for poor Connie. So much in the story is ambiguous and subtly horrific. I was reading slowly, carefully, and paying complete attention to the words splashed across the Eink display. In the corner of my eye I saw a jogger going by… then he stopped and I heard a loud “Oh!”
I looked up.
“Don’t you see it?”
“There, right there.”
I looked carefully where he was pointing, on the concrete trail right in front of where he was standing. There it was, a snake. A big snake.
I stood up and we looked at it carefully (from a safe distance).
“I think it’s a bullsnake,” I said.
“Here, I’ll Wikipedia it,” the jogger said, pulling out his iPhone. “It looks like the right pattern.”
I have seen bullsnakes before. In seventh grade we had one in biology class. I have no real fear of snakes that I have seen (as opposed to snakes I haven’t seen, which scare me) so I would rush my work and play with the snake. One day I wasn’t paying close enough attention and the thing managed to slip through my collar at the back of my neck, slithering under my shirt and winding around my chest. A friend of mind jumped behind me and managed to grab the tip of its tail – then pull the thing out.
Another day, I moved my hand into its aquarium cage too fast and the bull snake reared back and struck at me. It was harmless, but it scared me – I was a lot more careful after that.
Today, the jogger and I watched the snake crawl through the clearing and across the trail. If I moved too close it would rear like it was going to strike and I’d jump back. It was slender but at least six feet long – reaching pretty much across the concrete trail. The jogger finally decided to move on.
I sat down and started reading again, keeping one eye on the snake as it slowly moved toward the thick woods. A family came across the bridge and saw the snake. The father, riding an expensive, fully suspended mountain bike stopped, and then went after his small son – who was on a little bike with training wheels and went straight for the snake. He had no fear.
The mother followed along behind, walking a small dog. She veered way off the path, walking the dog through the thick knee-high scrub and weeds to stay far away from the snake. So she was afraid of the snake she saw, and then exposed herself to the snakes (that are undoubtedly there) that she couldn’t see.
Finally the snake reached the woods and disappeared in an instant. I finished the story – somehow the presence of the snake added to the darkness and terrible foreboding of the story. The snakes are there, whether you know it or not – sometimes they come out… and remind you of what is waiting, hidden, behind the membrane of illusion.