Sunday, March 29, 2009

6. Madison in Portland

What am I reading? It Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies. Almost as compelling as the reviews said it w be. I knew it was a marriage meltdown book and expected a sack of confession, but have been surprised at how engaging the story really is. I find the narrator, who identifies herself as a WASP and natters on for pages about Maine, china patterns and William Morris wallpaper, so personally irritating that she's become an almost perfect anti-heroine. I am at the point, heavily foreshadowed, where the poet husband is about to dump her for the French chick. Also need to mention The Chysalids by John Wyndham-where has this guy been all my life? Next week, a Harry Turtledove novel. My first. I'm notorious for not finishing bad science fiction (don't ask me how much PKD I've read). I have hope for the Turtledove-great premise and fantastic cover.

I haven't posted any Madison for two weeks thanks to a wave of paranoia about intellectual property on a couple of writers' sites. Yes, the paranoid ones have a point. No, I'm not going to change my methods. Why? I received two more agent rejections last week. One was from TriadaUSA that arrived two hours after submission. The other was from The Writers House. Both were very polite and I have to say, their promptness places them well ahead of the curve.

Anyway a couple of "good" rejections reminds me that I can't guard my work from the world. My critique group, Yola writers, met yesterday to show their usual fine work. They kicked my ass over chapter twelve. My new marketing scheme is to glide along on their coattails.

Below is part of chapter six. It ends when they reach a check point manned by some ZZ Top-looking dudes. It needs some work from my other persona, editor me. I'll post the rest as I feel it.
Chapter Six

Tierney seemed to know, if not the layout of this exclusionary unit, at least what was likely to be found in one. He drove to a loading area in another building and backed the truck into the dock. Inside was a black cave with ceilings that rose the entire height of the building. Tierney scuffled off into the darkness while I stood in the last square of light peering after him.

"What if there are more dead in there?"

"Then don't come in."

"What if there are more crazy people?"

"Use your staple remover."

I heard dragging sounds on the cement floor and the tuneless sound of Tierney whistling. A minute later he came back with a cardboard box and dropped it.

"There are, I think, two more of these. Load this in the truck while I get them."

I peeled back the soft, dusty cardboard. Inside were cans and cans of food. Pears, beans, corn. All ten years old. "We're can't eat this stuff. It's poison."

He came back with another box. "This is how your friend managed to survive for so long."

"I don't think that's all she ate."

"I know how to check cans, Madison. We'll be okay." We loaded the boxes in the back of the truck and drew a tarp over everything. By then it was late afternoon, the light slanting from the west. I didn't want to camp anywhere near the exclusionary unit, so I was relieved when Tierney started the truck.

We drove for another hour, mostly on roads that ran close to the highway until wrecks and trees forced us back to the highway again.

"We'll be going east from here," said Tierney. First words he'd spoken since Canterbury.

"I thought we were going to Portland."

"We're in Portland."

He drove onto an overpass. Since the bridge in Oregon City, he'd avoided them. We'd seen so many collapsed and broken spans since then, roads that went nowhere. I braced my feet on the floor, expecting at any second to have the pavement drop out from under to me. To my surprise, Tierney pulled over and parked between a three-car pile up and a jack-knifed truck, at the highest point in the overpass.

I got out and walked to the railing. The wind was sharp and metal groaned all around us. I saw five deer wandering along a parking lot across the concrete canyon, nibbling on new grass that swelled out of the buckled pavement. Old buildings peeked out of vine-covered mounds.

"I could use some firewood."

"Up here?" I sighed. There was grass and a few weeds growing in the cracks of the overpass, but all the trees were down there, on the ground. I hoped he didn't want to burn bones.

Tierney was hauling stuff out of the truck. He seemed unconcerned that I would try to run off again, and about that he was correct. I kicked a piece of plastic as I walked, part of some car I couldn't identify, and wondered why I didn't try harder to get away.

I went toward the far end of the overpass, following the decline to a greater concentration of wrecked cars. As the road turned west, I realized the overpass fed into a second highway below. I leaned over the railing and looked down. Below me was another car canyon, choked and congested with wrecks, stretching into the sunset. In the fading light, everything I saw looked black and every vehicle appeared to be partially sunk in the asphalt. Their bumpers floated on the road surface and their car doors hung open like oars in still, black water. To my right, a black train had tumbled off its tracks to hang above the highway on a concrete guard rail. Beyond that, canyon walls of burnt tree snags poked through a fury of new growth. Further down the canyon, great buildings crumbled and gaped, birds flying in and out of their broken windows.

This had to be Portland, or what was left of it.

I walked back to camp empty-handed to find Tierney bent over a wisp of flame he had coaxed from a pile of twigs and dried grass. He added a chair leg.

"What happened to the city?" I asked.

"Fire-bombed." Tierney put another leg on the fire. I wondered where he'd gotten chair parts, and why the wood hadn't burned along with everything else.

"Who did it?"

"We did." He sat on an old tire and opened a tin of beans. I was hungry in spite of the fact that the food was half my age and probably chock full of poison. He nestled the tin in the fire. "It used to be a beautiful place."

"I don't know who you mean by we. I had nothing to do with that."

No response from Tierney. He opened another tin.

"So, where are we going?"

"East for a while."

"Any place specific, or are we just wandering aimlessly?"

"You ask a lot of questions."

"That's because you don't say anything." I got up and walked to the trailer of the jack-knifed truck. Inside I saw a jumble of dark shapes. As my eyes adjusted, I realized it was furniture. Okay good, one mystery solved. I climbed up on the deck, sucked in my breath and walked into the darkness far enough to grab a couple of chairs. I threw them off the back where they splintered on impact.

I gathered the pieces and carried them back to the fire.

"Thanks." Tierney added a leg and went back to stirring the first can of beans with the lone spoon we'd taken from the farm house days ago.

I sat down on the nearest tire. "What were you Before, Tierney?"

"Why do you want to know?"

"Are you kidding me? Can't I know something about you?" I felt a stray raindrop on my forehead and looked up. The clouds had come almost within touching distance. Another drop splatted on my head. "I can't eat in the rain!"

I stomped off to a car that I'd picked out earlier-no bodies or bones-and locked myself in. By the time I was hungry enough to eat poisoned canned food, the rain was coming down in buckets and Tierney had taken the cans into the truck. I spent the night huddled under coats in the back seat, hungry, listening to the rain and smelling mouse piss. I hoped I wasn't lying in a puddle of it, although I wondered if on some level it wasn't justice for my bad temper. Tierney wasn't a bad guy and he didn't ask to be saddled with the kid who shot Pinkus.

Toward dawn, the rain slacked off and I remembered I'd left my new boots in the back of the truck. They'd be soaked. I almost felt like crying.

When it was fully light, I put on my coats and got out of the car. The pavement was wet with oily rainbows. The ubiquitous (a word worth remembering) odor of burning rubber seemed to be stronger today. Probably from the city.

Tierney had built up the fire with more chair parts and sat next to it reading a book. He grunted something at me and handed me a can of pears, barely looking up from his reading. I sat on a wet tire and watched his eyes flicking across the page. The grizzle on his cheeks never seemed to grow, and he never shaved. I pondered the problem of men's facial hair. All the men of a certain age had full beards, but not this guy. Maybe it was a product of his beat life, where there were no frills, not even a decent beard.

"What is that?"

"A book." He unrolled the pages he held, holding the soft cover up for me to read. Mickey Spillane. A man in a hat held a flaming gun on a woman in a skin tight red dress. She had notably big boobs. Not likely I would have come across a big boob book like that in Dad's library, but it didn't surprise me that Tierney had one.

"I thought you read smart books."

"This is a smart book. You should try it."

"It's good you're improving your mind, Tierney. Maybe you won't have to be a migrant all your life."

"So I can be a useless know-it-all like you?"

"I'm not. . ." I paused to consider. "A know it all."

"You're a migrant too. Don't kid yourself. There's nothing else out here."

He went back to his book. After eating, I went to find a place to pee. Micturate, I reminded myself, micturate. I might be the only person for a hundred miles who knew the word so I better use it. After that, I took my new boots from the back of the truck, shucked out the laces and propped them before the fire with their tongues hanging out to dry.

When he finished reading, Tierney hauled all the stuff out of the truck. He filled the gas tank from the bottles of fuel he found yesterday, unbolted the gun from the mount and removed the ammo. He laid the gun on its side in the back of the truck, wrapped in a blue plastic tarp.

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