An extract from Megan Bradbury’s second novel, WEST (a work in progress).
They throw their bags into the trunk and take to the road in the early morning. They drive through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Battery, the Holland Tunnel. They come out in the greyness of New Jersey.
An hour in, they stop for gas. Rae browses the magazine aisle. The glamorous women on the covers make her nauseous, but then everything does.
……….They look like aliens, Rae says.
……….Anna pulls a fish face. She juts her hip up, ass out.
……….Rae picks up another magazine.
……….This is me, she says.
……….A pregnant woman is framed against a bright window, back arched, bump thrust, she dangles a slice of pizza above her open mouth.
……….The feature headline reads: Weird Cravings!
……….It’s weird to want pizza? Anna says.
……….In women’s magazines, all problems have solutions. If you’re fat, get slim. If you’re depressed, get happy.
……….Anna buys Cheetos and a slushy.
……….For the wife? the clerk nods towards Rae.
……….Rae curls her lip. The man has a sunburnt nose and dead eyes.
……….She’s watching her weight, Anna says.
Rae is enjoying herself. She rides in the car like a queen, relaxed with the seat cranked back, balancing a small word processing device called a Traveler on her baby bump. The Traveler will keep her writing safe until they have access to the internet, and then it will synch her words in the cloud.
Rae watches a YouTube video of a retired man traveling across America. He goes to Gettysburg, Fort Sumter, the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon. He films calm, glass-surfaced lakes, hovering birds of prey, waterfalls. The segments of the films are titled in Comic Sans. Scenes fade in and out to a soundtrack of classic rock. When he gets to Native American holy ground, this changes to panpipes. He films the traffic rushing past him.
……….Sometimes it feels like I’m going nowhere, he says. Which is okay with me.
……….What are you watching? Jack says.
……….Nothing, Rae says.
……….She’s watching those videos again, Anna says.
……….Jin, get her looking at this shit, Jack says, passing the video camera back.
She watches films of protest sites, remembering the angry voices, the spit and crackle of open fires. Sunsets. Oh, the sunsets. Rae went everywhere with her mother. The camps frightened her. She didn’t like the country. They drove to protest camps, rallies, city halls. Her mother was beautiful. She campaigned for clean water and land rights.
The people in the cars they are passing seem contented. A man wearing sunglasses taps the steering wheel. A woman wearing a beanie hat swigs from a paper cup. And Rae lies back.
The hiker speaks into the camera.
……….California Hill in Nebraska is the first major incline for those heading west and marks the journey from South Platte to North Platte. The views here are spectacular, as you can see. Rolling prairie, as it would have looked then. Just the same.
Rae puts her Traveler down. She has gone through her list of baby names. She has completed her Kegals. She reaches behind for Anna’s hand. Anna is asleep. Jack puts on Bruce Springsteen.
……….His country, amirite? he says.
……….The gas stations and the industrial sites are nothing to her, but they must mean something to Springsteen.
The Chimney Rock monolith is 96 metres high, the hiker says. It could be seen by the emigrants from three days away. Pioneers climbed its steep slopes to carve their names into the rock, for once they had seen this majesty, they wanted to be remembered.
The road gives way to industry, stacks, the high cranes of defunct factories.
Rae loves abandoned places. Towns that were left behind when they were no longer useful. Left when they had fulfilled their purpose, or never reached their potential, or reached it and then lost it.
Rae went walking once with her mother in the desert. Everyone said they shouldn’t go. Temperatures were rocketing for Spring. Rae sensed a terrible force in the sky. Exposure. She wore her mother’s wide-brimmed straw hat. Scrubland, dry land, rock land. Eventually, a map was unfolded. Her mother’s face was fixed in concentration. The freckles across her nose shone out. Rae tried to move closer, but it was too hot for embraces. Rae realised: I’m not here at all. Before she knew what was happening, Rae was lifted from her mother’s arms. She tried to reclaim the sensation of being held. How long had she lain asleep on her mother before the ranger came? Had her mother been pleased?
The hiker sleeps wherever he can. His tent, which is small, can fit within pockets of land, ditches and the unused fields, and riverbanks. He doesn’t bother anybody. He uses the evening light to read the maps and the guides of the places he will be going to the following day. If he were camping by this creek bed in the winter, the ground would be flooded, but as it is the height of summer the ground is dry and there is a feeling of the land suspended in hiatus. He is always ready for a voice to shout, Get the hell off! Move on! But no one ever comes.
……….How much further? Jin is asking.
……….Rae looks down.
……….You’re the navigator, Rae, Jack says.
(The hand-painted tiles she collected, lined along the kitchen windowsill; the backs of her shoes crushed under cracked, white heels; long white curly hairs caught in the couch cushions; the gentle coughing way she cleared her throat.)
……….Forty-five minutes, Rae says. If we don’t stop anywhere.
……….We’re gonna stop, Jin says. I mean, Why else are we here?
The cars pass the hiker at top speed, shiny machines, over the brows of the ground swells, as he calls them, like ocean swells, himself adrift – no wonder they called their wagons ocean schooners, he says. The track, established by the paths the emigrants took, has developed into highways.
When her mother was dying in the hospice, Rae tried to embrace her, but when she tried to touch her, her mother fought and spat.
……….Look at the crop duster – did you get that, Jin? Anna says. Over there, beside the water tower.
……….I’ve got it, Jin says.
Rae’s father used to take her to historical re-enactments. Cowboys leapt off buildings. Shot one another. After the applause died down, the dead men leapt back up and bowed.
……….They always get a second chance, her mother said.
……….I think we should be in it, Jin says. I mean, not riding a tractor or nothing, but there should be links. Shouldn’t we be in it, Jack? There’s plenty we could do.
After her mother lost consciousness, Rae climbed into bed with her and fell asleep.
……….I want to find the railway, Jin says. Walk along it. You hear me, Rae? Look on the map and see if you can find the tracks.
Rae’s father has a strong, chiseled jaw, like a cowboy.
……….Sure, sure. Tracks, she says.
In Westmoreland he is interviewed by a journalist in a café. He is pleased that someone will read about this trip. Who knows who else is listening? Most people don’t ask him anything. It would be different if he had a wagon instead of a baby carriage.
At a diner, customers file in and take their seats at Formica tables. Shoes squeak on the polished floor, the worn linoleum, red and cream. The ceiling fans are going.
……….Rae holds up her Traveler and clears her throat.
……….She reads, When the mineral wealth ran out, the pioneers moved further west.
……….Here we go, Anna says.
……….Things don’t last, Rae says.
……….What a bummer, Anna says.
……….Hear me out, Rae says.
……….Places rejuvenate, she reads. Underground reserves can support new growth.
They pass over the state line into Pennsylvania.
They pass an out-of-town, part-constructed shopping mall. It’s a wide open-mouthed box waiting to be closed. The ground is being scraped clean, marked out – the parking lot – where cars will go.
Field. Barn. Concrete plant. Billboard. Truck stop. Sky.
It is the subtext of these places that counts. They are escaping their home, which has been flooded. The pioneers struck out for home, but to find a new one they had to live without one.
Undulating Kansas. The hiker walks up the hills and finds the breeze. In valleys, he perspires. He says, you can go from hell to heaven within a few seconds. In these parts there’s not much in between.
Laura Ingalls lived in many different homes. She liked being out on the lonely prairie. But when other families came to live there, Pa decided it was too crowded and made them all move further west. Population tames the wild. A family is the same, for as soon as you enter it, you change it.
The cool morning on the top of the plateau leaves him giddy and amused. He lets the buggy loose to ride down the stony decline of its own free will.
Rae’s mother hated living in the suburbs, so when they left California for Oregon, she found her and Rae an old ranch house in the scrubland. Rae played with make-believe horses. She ran them in the paddocks, trained them on a longe line. The sky was too dark, too starry. Emptiness, Rae discovered, is loud. Against all hopes, her mother was the same as she had been in California but just roamed a bigger house. She planted a garden. Filled the potholes in the track with stones. Fixed the roof. Patched up the barn. At night, she sat alone in the kitchen writing in her diary. During snowstorms they camped out in the living room. They shared a mattress, a blanket, but in the cold morning her mother was always elsewhere.
In the wild, you must first build a shelter. You must build a temporary home quickly. You will be able to refine it later, build a better home. If you are building out there on the prairie you must use whatever materials you can find. If there are trees, you cut them down and use them. If there are no trees you must dig up the ground, use the sod. Pile up dirt against the house to plug the gaps and winter there.
They pass through a rainstorm.
Out in the sunshine again, Anna tells of the time she got lost in Prospect Park, walked so far she thought she was somewhere else.
He rests at Alcove Springs. Coming here this late, the waterfall has all but dried up. The spring is cold and refreshing. He reads the initials of the pioneers who carved them while they rested and waited for the waters of the Blue River to recede. No evidence of that river at this moment, in the middle of the summer months. The Donner Party stopped here on its way west. The hiker always mentions them as if he really believes he too could get lost and die. But time has passed, and things are different now. It is 2012.
They pull up outside a barn. Anna gets out of the car and sets up the camera. She tells Rae to walk through the stubby field. Rae picks her way over the jagged stalks and bumpy ground. She can’t see her feet when she looks down. There is only the baby. It is sleeping. Her short strides. Her waddle. Left, right, left.
She stops in the middle of the field. The sun is sinking. It’s beautiful here. Being forced to walk so slowly is cruel when you have so far to go. Her mother always walked with purpose, two steps ahead of everyone.
They each take turns standing in the field. They stay there a long time to capture the changing light, its darkening, the sun going down. And then Jack records the sound of feet walking. He will multiply the track to make it sound like hundreds, thousands. He also records the silence.
Their film will accumulate like a patchwork. A scrap here, a rag there. They will stitch it together. This country is a quilt. State borders divide a natural thing unnaturally. We don’t live within a straight-edged box. You only know of these divisions by looking at a map. The Appalachian and Rocky Mountains draw obvious lines. When you live on an island you are aware of its edges. There are also boroughs and neighborhoods within that. There won’t be any borders for a while.
Rae passes the Cheetos around, the pretzels, the potato chips. They sing along.
Later, Bruce Springsteen returned to New Jersey so that his kids could have a real life. Real life to him meant a house in a place where you already had history.
Over time he collects the trails, that is, the Oregon and California trail and the Pony Express trail – they all follow the same route. The Santa Fe trail has already departed but he can follow these along.
They go first to Youngstown. Youngstown, Ohio was once a thriving steel mill town. Lacking the economic diversity of other cities, once the steel mills closed Youngstown fell into a depression. Mills have now returned to the city. They have brought jobs, an identity, but it’s not the same. As a recovering city with many social problems, it will likely contain visual metaphors useful for their film.
They bounce over potholes. The boarded-up windows of the houses are closed eyes. All around them is redaction.
The Steel Company insisted they were a family. If you work in the mill, you’re part of the mill; you should be entitled to its profits. Steel’s profit wasn’t big enough. Steel upped and left. Steel is a stern parent.
The men who lost their jobs changed overnight. They mowed their lawns in their pyjamas. Started drinking. Stopped speaking to their wives. A job makes a man feel respected. Noise and activity are company. The sound of a family is louder than that of a mill.
When Rae’s father lost his job at the university, he didn’t leave the house for months. It is terrible to lose a job. When he did get jobs, he couldn’t keep them. He took long trips into the country. He began new projects. Hair-brained ideas. He would study history, he said. Or walk the Oregon Trail.
……….When you were born, Rae’s mother said. Your father couldn’t even look at you.
The lawns of Youngstown are empty and browning. Rae’s once had a mother and father. She rolls the window down, and fans her fingers out in the breeze. A breeze is bad for wildfires. Rae’s yard in California had a sprinkler system. Keeping the lawn wet reduces the risk from wildfires. But drawing water from other places leaves those places dry.
If a community is built around one purpose, a town around a mill, a family around a father, and you take that mill or father out –
It is said the city must now think of itself as smaller. It is not Chicago or Pittsburgh.
They drive to the Vallourec Star Steel Plant. Jin films flat, not wanting context. Cherry pickers and dirty loaders hold arms aloft. The sun reflects off white walls. They pass a stacked pyramid of pipes. The pipes are used to transport oil and gas.
When Rae’s father lost his job, he refused to work in the factory where his father had worked. He said the place was a corral. He would not be kept on a longe line.
The umbilical cord is a pipeline. It pumps nutrients to the baby like a pipe transfers oil. If either break, there is seepage, pollutants, disaster.
Pregnancy is a journey and has a timeline.
If an emotion has a beginning, then it must also have an end.
You can no longer walk over the bridge that crosses the Missouri River, the hiker says. The hiker hires a cab to take him across. On the other side, he takes everything out and assembles it again.
They approach a house. They park on the curb. A woman is standing on the front lawn with a clipboard. There is a painter half-way up a ladder. A man is constructing a white picket fence. A woman is attending to the flower borders.
Every night, her mother wrote in her diary at the kitchen table. The dates and borders of the days were printed in black and were angular in style, whereas her writing was looped, frenzied, and small. They were five-year diaries. Each new volume was an oppressive sight, binding her for an accursed length of time.
Her father preferred to write on a computer. This could have been because the words, when typed, did not look like his own, or because he could delete them easily, just disappear.
The street signs in this neighborhood are faded. The words are coming off.
On their journey there will be opportunities to see the marks the pioneers made, their signatures in rock, for example.
They watch the workers for a while.
……….Is this the kind of thing? Jack says.
……….Rae hands him the camera.
In Nebraska the farmers use an automated sprinkler system that takes a day and a half to rotate around a cornfield.
The woman who is overseeing the work shows them around the house. She explains that her charity fixes up houses to sell onto residents at a reduced price; they want to repopulate the city. Paint is going onto the walls. The kitchen counters are being installed. Skirting boards measured. Floors polished. Splash back tiles are being stuck to the wall. There is the smell of varnish and of paint. Rae imagines a kitchen with clean countertops and new cupboards where the packets of cereal will go. The summer mornings, up before the lark and already a neighbor mowing a lawn, brushing down the fold-out chairs. Play games on the floor of the den. In wintertime, snow piles. Let the dog bluster through the drifts. Repair the damage. Fix the roofs and repair the windows. Install heat systems and change radiators. Replace the electrics. Install air conditioning units. It starts with a fresh coat of paint, and with the hanging of curtains, with the laying of carpets and with the asphalting of the driveway.
……….A corner TV shows the delayed Presidential Inauguration. What might now be different with a man in charge who speaks of love?
The city, this city, has the noise of birds and the noise of air and space, and the branches creek, and down the street there is a pond with a waterfall, their guide, Diane, says. And would this have been the case when the mill was open?
Rae doesn’t know.
She links arms with Anna. They walk down the newly asphalted driveway. It is cold now. The wind has caught up. It comes with a sense of time, how it has changed. But we all change, Rae thinks.
When the coal trains pass, they’re so long I don’t think they’re ever gonna stop, the hiker says.
Rae and Anna have lost Jack and Jin. There is only the quiet street.
……….Hey Diane, Anna calls from the sidewalk. Do you know where the boys are?
……….Diane points north
The gravesite of the dead emigrant on the side of the road has a fence around it because the headstone keeps getting stolen, the hiker says.
They find Jack and Jin swimming in a pool beneath a small waterfall. Rae and Anna sit on the bank.
……….Jack and Jin wave.
……….Anna gives them the finger.
……….Schmucks, Anna says.
……….The boys beckon Rae and Anna in. Rae looks up at the sky. The light is coming over peach and pale. It gives her a funny feeling. Anna throws stones at them. Then everything she can: rocks, sticks, grass. The boys scramble up the bank. Their dicks are small and white.
The day’s filming concludes with a slow drive through the neighborhood. They film out the windows of the car at the houses, the lick of paint houses, the mossed and soiled houses.
Rae finds an urban planner on YouTube who says that the word they were always looking for in the past was ‘growth’. But this can’t happen in a depopulated city. These days, it’s all about scaling back.
……….Anna says, Growth is all about erections. The future lies in the vagina. A vagina is about connections for a woman’s body is made up of connections, her clitoris connected to her pubic bone and to the nerve endings and muscles in her anus, which connects to her digestive system. Understand that an orgasm in a woman will also aid digestion and release endorphins. The world will finally change when it realizes this.
……….Jin looks up from his laptop.
……….Labia is not there to conceal, Anna continues. It is part of the pleasure zone, as are all areas that are home to glands, for example, a woman’s underarms or throat.
……….Jin mimics sickness.
……….Anna throws a candy wrapper at him. She throws a pen, a shoe. She slaps him.
The pioneers were advised to pick their guide wisely. Someone who was well informed and yet who could also act as a mediator, someone who would intervene in conflicts if they arose.
The hiker finds a patch of woods to pitch his tent and laments the passing over of bi-planes spraying fungicide over the crops. It can’t be dangerous, can it? he says. It can’t be harmful to me? But everything he has seen so far does not allow him to sleep well or easy. He should wash but there is no stream in which to do so and anyway a stream would be contaminated too. The trees. The silhouette of their branches against the dying light.
Rae’s father was a sensitive man. He carried great sadness within him, but it was Rae’s mother who developed cancer. It was Rae’s mother who died.
Everywhere is drought, even in July, the leaves are crumbling apart, even beside the riverbank.
When Bruce Springsteen performed in Youngstown to promote The Ghost of Tom Joad it was to a sell-out crowd. For weeks, it was all anyone talked about, how this great man had come to their city to sing about them.