Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Writing: A Graduate Reading

Rob Note: I graduated June 16 with an MFA in fiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University. The night before I did a reading from my thesis. This is that reading, as a video file and as text. The slides features photos of places and people that inspired me along the way. Special thanks to my lovely wife Brenda for her help in getting the reading down to the requisite ten minutes.

The text of the reading is after the jump.

Good Evening,
I offer thanks to all of my teachers, from Mrs. Hickey who encouraged me to write poetry in the second grade, to Craig Childs and Katie Towler, to Merle and Pat Drown, to my parents, to my wife Brenda Noiseux and our son Devin, to my peers in the program, and to all the students I’ve worked with over the past six years. You all helped me write this.
My thesis is a literary science-fiction novel set thirty-odd years in our future. Entitled “Leaving Home,” it is the story of three teenagers – Ben, Audi and Julie -- sentenced to life on a dying planet.   
Tonight I will read a section from Julie’s story. She’s running away from home to become a roady, one of thousands of nomads who live on America’s abandoned roadways and parking lots. In this world, if you’re not a roady, you’re a ‘burban –- an eccentric throwback to the American Dream of picket fences and community — or a cube, someone who has moved to the city and lives primarily online, in the Introverse.
Here are two things you need to know understand this passage.
1)  ‘Burban kids and nearly everyone in the cities spend their lives in Corners, a virtual reality where they work, play, and go to school. They interact via skins, avatars that represent them in the Introverse while their bodies remain outside.
2) When kids turn fifteen they’re old enough to get an e-mplant, a text-messaging device that’s installed in the palms of their hands.
Here’s Julie:

Shannon was an artist and told me she’d become a roady out of choice, not necessity like Max. The result was about the same, considering the heap she’d rolled up in.
The rust-pocked station wagon had to be twenty-five years old and barely had any automatics at all. It couldn’t even drive itself on the highway!
Shannon showed me how to fasten my seatbelt, and we were off in a cloud of exhaust that smelled like french fries. “I mostly take back roads,” she said. “Juniper doesn’t like the highways much.”
She patted the dashboard of the car. “Juniper. She used to be my grandmother’s.”
I nodded like I knew what she was talking about.
 “I’m glad you’re really a girl,” Shannon said after a few miles. “You never know what you’re going to get in Corners.”
Shannon looked exactly like the skin she wore when I met her, right down to the long ratty hair and the slightly-too-close-together eyes.
“It can be hard to tell out here, too,” I said.  “How many times have you made this trip?”
“Made it as far as Montana once, but I ran out of money. You?”
“I’ve never really been out of New Hampshire. Boston a couple of times.”
 “I’m glad you’re a girl, too,” I said. “The last time I did this didn’t go so well.”
She glanced at me. “Was it a guy?”
Max. I nodded.
“He succeed?”
“Good. That’s not something you need in your head.”
We spent that night parked inside a wasteland formerly known as the Annette State Forest. Some Japanese bug killed a lot of the trees early in the century, and pollution took care of the rest. There were about twenty-five other roadies camped there, most from a battered schoolbus with the words “Live Free or Die” stenciled on the side. We sat around a campfire swapping stories and listening to a couple of guys play guitar until we got tired.
“You take the back,” Shannon said, as we headed to her car. “I’ll wake you up in about four hours and we’ll switch.”
Shannon snored in the front seat for four hours, then she snored in the back for three more. I resolved to get earplugs before too many nights passed.
The parking lot cleared early, and we joined the small convoy heading west.  We were in the middle, with the school bus about a mile back and two young guys in a hydrogen compact taking the lead.  Every so often Shannon used her fone to check in with the other drivers.
“The guys in front are keeping a look out for the police,” she said, glancing at me. Without automatics, she couldn’t afford to take her eyes away from the road for long. “If they see any, we’ll duck and cover for a couple of hours.”
If the cops came from the back, the bus driver would sound the alarm and block the road.
It’s not that we were carrying anything illegal — well, technically, I was probably illegal at this point — but cops like to hassle roadies. It’s like they think roadies are less human than people who live in houses. Fortunately, there weren’t many cops out here.
Shannon shaded the dashboard clock with her hand so she could see the green numbers there. “We’ll drive for another three hours. Then we’ll park until nightfall. That will give me a chance to give you a driving lesson.” She rolled her head from side to side to stretch her neck. “I like driving, but it gets old after a few hours.”
I couldn’t imagine that. Driving meant freedom. How could freedom ever get boring?
Shannon rolled her shoulders a few times, then blew my mind. “What’s so bad at home that you need to run away?”
I studied the scenery outside my window to keep from freaking out. “Why is that any of your business?”
“Last I checked driving a runaway around is against the law.”
“That’s assuming you know what the hell you’re talking about.”
She laughed. “It’s hard to miss. Look at you. Nice clothes, e-mplant — and there’s no way you’re seventeen.”
I’d told Shannon my parents had kicked me out when I finished school. Apparently it was an easier lie to keep up in Corners.  “You going to turn me in?”
She shook her head. “What are you, fourteen?
“Same age I left. I ran off from a foster home.” She took a breath that stalled in the middle, like it hurt. “I tried to live with my grandmother, but she didn’t want me. Then she died, and I got Juniper, here.” She smiled and patted the dash. “I guess Gran gave me a home after all.”
She drove in silence for a couple of minutes. “Where are you going?”
Shannon’s fone cut off my answer. She peered at the screen and dropped it into her lap. She put both hands on the steering wheel. “Cops,” she said. “Two drones coming up behind us.”
The battered station wagon shook and rattled when Shannon asked it for more speed, but with a lurch and a whine it agreed. The view outside the windows didn’t exactly become a blur, but it started going by at a better clip.
Shannon’s fone squealed again.
“Can you get that?” she said. “I don’t want to take my hands off the wheel.”
I snatched up her fone and looked at the message flashing on the screen. “It’s the bus driver. He says they stalled them.”
“Hot damn!” she said and smacked the dash. “Do you have a sleeve?”
I looked at my arms in confusion.
“We have to cut off the signal from your e-mplant. Look in the glove compartment. There’s one in there.”
I popped open the glove compartment and half of Shannon’s life fell out on my feet. I sorted through the mess until I realized the thing I needed was still in the compartment.
“Hurry up,” Shannon said. “Put it on!”
The sleeve looked and felt like a black silk glove. I slid it over my left hand and my e-mplant pulsed twice.
“You’re off network now,” Shannon said. “I don’t know if the cops are looking, but they can’t use your e-mplant to find you.” The road ahead ended in a rotary. “Pick an exit.”
I picked the second exit, which took us onto a street that looked like it used to be a major retail strip. The stores and restaurants along the roadway were shuttered and gray.
“We couldn’t have planned this any better,” Shannon said. She sped through a dead traffic light and took the next right into a parking lot. “And still better.” She steered toward a small cluster of vehicles. “I’ll be right back.”
She locked the doors behind her, and I watched as she approached a group of people gathered around a barrel fire. I decided to be helpful by picking up the mess on the floor.  A flashlight. Little bottles of shampoo. A toothbrush still in the wrapper. An old fone.
I stuffed nearly everything back in the glove compartment, but kept out a picture, printed out on old-style paper. It was Shannon, grinning like a fool and holding hands with a woman about the same age. Shannon’s hair was the same, but she looked younger. The other woman was shorter, almost tiny, and pretty. She was wearing a sleeve like the one I had on.
Shannon flung open the car door, making me jump. She dropped into the car seat. “We’re all set. These guys are scouting for a roadtown. They don’t care if we stay here tonight.”
She must have seen something in my face, because she looked down and saw the picture in my hand. She took it from me and spent a few silent seconds looking at the faces.
“That’s Kelly,” she said. Her voice sounded rough, like she had to clear her throat. “She was my girlfriend a couple years ago.”
“Did you break up?”
 “She killed herself.” Shannon slid the photo into the glove compartment and shut it carefully. “Let’s introduce you to the neighbors.”
The roadies were all old people, refugees from Florida. They made us dinner and kept us up late with tales of “how it used to be.” Shannon and I gave up the fight around midnight and left them to tend the fire and swap stories. It was my turn to start the night in the front seat, and I waited to hear Shannon start to snore. The long silence seemed to vibrate in my ears. Then I heard Shannon roll over and sigh. “That’s Kelly’s sleeve you’re wearing,” she said. “She was a runaway, too.”
I didn’t say anything, but suddenly the sleeve felt like it was crawling. Shannon seemed to feel it, too, and gave a dry little laugh. “Don’t worry, she wasn’t wearing it when she died. She took it off and put it in the glove compartment as soon as she turned eighteen.”
I looked at the sleeve. “Why did she kill herself?”
The resulting silence was even louder than the first, and I took in a deep breath to fuel an apology. Shannon cut me off before I could push any of it out. “There were a lot of reasons, I guess.”
I shifted in the seat, so I could see into the darkness behind me.
“Kelly wanted to have kids, but neither of us could. Too much mercury. Then the colony mission started getting press and she decided it meant we were being left here to die.” Shannon sighed. “She had some bad times. I’m a couple of years older, but some days she seemed ancient. It was like she couldn’t get clean.” I couldn’t tell whether the noise Shannon made was a cough or a laugh. “She left a note. Said she wanted a reboot. A do-over.”
“I like boys, you know.”
Shannon barked another laugh. “Relax. I didn’t offer you a ride looking for a replacement girlfriend. You’re too young and not my type.”
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until I let it out. Shannon laughed again, loud in the darkness of the car, but short. “She was looking for something out here and didn’t find it. It happens a lot. Some people give up and go to the city. Some —.” I heard her roll over. “Some don’t.”

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