Gar

Peter Vilbig Click to read more...

Peter Vilbig is a writer and teacher in Brooklyn, New York. Recently, his short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Drunken Boat, Fleeting, and Saranac Review. Prior work appeared in the Horizon Review, The Linnet’s Wings, and Tin House, among other publications. He is currently at work on a collection of novellas.

Have you ever had a ‘pauletate’?

No.

Do you know what an ‘armournte’ is?

No.

If you were given a bag of wool what would you do with it?

Bury it out by a river, or throw it into the treetops on a lonely hillside.

Why lonely?

I don’t know. I didn’t make it lonely.

Have you ever walked on a lonely hillside?

I think so.

Was light filtering through the trees?

I was standing there on the muddy bank. A little pond, un étang boueux, and the pinpricks of starlight reflecting in the water.

And so the haphazard starlight was in the trees?

If you want to say that. Some of them were fishing for freshwater gar. Night fishing. They would pull these terrible ancient monsters, two-feet long, out of the water, and their teeth, I remember this, they trained a flashlight to show their dinosaur mouths, and then they would cut their heads off with a hatchet. They said they were trash fish.

Were the trees beautiful?

The trees were stoic before the death of the gars. Everybody was pretty drunk. I didn’t think I was drunk. But I had that felt-packed feeling. I was interested in everything around me but unable to reach it. This is how I remember drunkenness.

Have you ever been to or do you know of a state or country called ‘Monbaica’?

No. It all happened thirty years ago. It wasn’t really much of a hillside. It was Central
Texas. My girlfriend and I were in the process of breaking up, but we didn’t know it. No drama. She was smoking pot with some of the others. I was by the pond watching the gars get pulled out of the water. The hill behind us lay a little to the left. I think we were both twenty years old.

Have you ever seen a horse riding on a boxcar?

Maybe in a movie. I remember the starlight pinpricking the surface of the lake. I thought I was seeing something that would matter. My girlfriend is dead now. It was years later. She had married. I had married. All that. Some kind of asthmatic attack. People think of breaking up in a certain way—of being together and breaking up. But the real breakup comes with life, and can come at any time. That may sound trite, but there’s an attachment to life you feel in a relationship, and then there’s the attachment to life itself, and they’re analogous in certain ways, though in the most critical way, of course, different. When I think about it now, I wonder if I wasn’t more aware of our impending breakup than I realized.

Have you ever held a salamander?

The salamander may experience the warmth of your hand as discomfort. Look, maybe I was worried she was flirting with somebody when she was smoking pot. Not that I remember who they were. Just some people. Like I said, no drama. We weren’t exactly shooting the blindfold off the Zeitgeist back then. Our relationship was genuinely inconsequential. I moved to New York that fall. She was supposed to join me. I think we both knew it wasn’t going to happen. Who we were just wouldn’t fit inside the attractions that had pinned us together in the first place.

Then calamity is the touchstone …

No. Not at all. New York unveiled the advanced field for the failure I craved, and she wanted the kind of life you can have on an open prairie—fields and sunsets and wildflowers.
All that. All very easy to mock—though of the two of us I’m quite sure mine was the life that added up to the lesser integer. This is all embarrassing to relate. Yet when I learned of her death (a friend called to tell me) I found myself falling down subway steps. I mean that almost literally. I began sneaking into this abandoned station—I won’t say where because they’d block it off and then there’d be one less place where people could go when they feel like falling down steps. Actually the line hadn’t operated in decades. I’ll only mention that there was crushed stone and concrete blocks and shafts of light slicing through the air vents and this incredibly fine dust everywhere. All that cold spring, I’d slip away and just sit there. Getting in wasn’t easy.

Have you ever seen people dancing in a field and then they’d smile and their teeth would be covered with dust?

I doubt it. There was a grate, a narrow crawlspace—fortunately I’m very thin, and I was able to dangle by my arms before dropping to the actual platform. I panicked the first time because I thought I was trapped. But then I found a forklift pallet and turned it on end, and that’s how I could get out. Often I’d scrape myself a bit, and I’d hide the scrapes from my wife. There were cables snaking around and cable spools. The tracks were covered in dank trash. The support columns were deeply rusted. You had to be careful not to get caught in the wires or trip on the concrete blocks, but some of the old carvings were there, several affixed to the wall and others lying on the platform, Corinthian type carvings and some faces of what I took to be sea gods, so you had the feeling you were in the ruins of some ancient Rome but one that had been submerged like Atlantis, the feeling of being underwater, and then I’d find a concrete block and just sit.

Have you ever held your hand in very cold water till it ached?

Yes. Somebody else was down there only once. He came out of the tunnel, which means he’d likely been wandering through tracks and tunnels for miles. He rested for a few minutes on the opposite platform, an average looking guy in a blue work shirt and canvas pants, then he continued down the track. I don’t think he saw me. Otherwise I was alone, and I felt my mind was blank, but I doubt that was true. I kept looking at this one carving in particular of a sea god or maybe it was Odysseus.

Ramanunni has a story about Manubam Bibi, the saint or demigod who drowned in order to save a group of fishermen from drowning. Do you know it?

Someone sent me an email on it. I think the fishermen dug her grave and then used their own clothing to cover her body.

What does it mean?

The desire to give harbor or safety. Or maybe the story shows how tenderness is the only thing between us and the harshness of death. The carving lay on its side on the platform floor, the face cracked in half, and I would sit on my concrete block for hours, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. I think sometimes tears came to my eyes. I’ve still not told my wife what I was doing when I snuck away. And what was I doing? Was I even thinking of her? I mean my former girlfriend. Was this grieving? And yet why did it feel like emptiness? Was I responding to some general proposition of death, or the loss of youth? But she was there too, along with the grief, if I can call it that, in undeniable specificity, the actual her, whom I had touched, and we had touched, and loved, swam in a flooded lake once, climbed a bowl of sand to a limestone ledge in the desert, been hit by hail running to our separate cars after some function, seen lights in the distance on odd tangled lakeshores here and there in different counties, and yet she whom I had seen only once in the intervening thirty years, at a party, again in Central Texas, where consequential people had gathered to drink wine and congratulate themselves was also not there. Not there. (And what were they congratulating themselves for? For making it through? For burning their youth up but not themselves? For having waited it out till the blessings of heaven showered upon them?) Anyway, I wish I could get across just how it was that night by the little étang boueux when I went to take a piss, walking up the hill into the trees, and there I stood, ‘the blank face of nature’ before me, the piss rolling or streaming out of me, the deep and silent woods, the dusty dry heat but with some cooling feeling in the leaves of the trees, and like you said, I guess starlight, though what I remember was the dark and the stillness and the ‘blank face.’

Do you understand the meaning of the word ‘creciundular’?

No. I sometimes wonder what I was really thinking then.

What are the odds that the biblical Burning Bush was a creosote bush?

I would say not good.

If a motorcar is a vehicle with a motor, what is a motor aspen?

A motorized tree cart?

A cart before the hearse?

A hearse off course on a motor course?

As sung by Jasper Johns?

When I came down the hill that night I heard shouts and laughter in the distance. I remember that.

You may leave if you’ve answered all the questions.

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Discussion

2 Responses to Gar

  1. Angela Himsel says:

    This is an eerie, intelligent, very human, unexpected, mordantly funny and incredibly engaging story. More!

  2. dianna morton says:

    gloriously reckless and tight at the same time– I love this piece and thank you for having the courage to dig into the experience of being alive and the mastery of saying it like this.

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