JEFF LANDON lives with his family in Richmond, Virginia. He has published stories online and print in Mississippi Review, Quick Fiction, Crazyhorse, Another Chicago Magazine, FRiGG, Barrelhouse, Smokelong Quarterly, Phoebe, and many other places. This fall, a novella, Emily Avenue is forthcoming from Fast Forward Press, and a chapbook of short fiction, Truck Dance, from Matter Press.
Summer school. We gathered in the parking lot, underachievers, fuckups, future prisoners, sexually insane, sexually inept, gearheads, metalheads, potheads, and towheads. We clumped in mumbling knots, smoking, always smoking. Levis or cut-off Levis, Mexican blouses, patchouli, Old Spice, polo shirts, Converse or flip-flops. French inhaled Marlboros, Salems, Larks, or Kools. Hair was important. We wore it long, unless we were Southern Baptists or football players, long and pulled back into sloppy ponytails, or swirling shags, David Cassidy hair. Glassy-eyed, we leaned into our parents’ cars with cigarettes and Pop Tart breath. We were, collectively, a terrible, terrible disappointment, and, worse, now sex and love had swooped down to consume us, to shape and ruin us. Eight million love songs, stored in our spongy and developing brains, left only the tiniest of spaces for history and algebra. Like most of my friends, except that idiot Bo, I did exactly enough to slip by with a low B average. My homework was Amy Brown. Her house, a white brick rancher, faced James Monroe Park, where we gathered nightly, at twilight, to get high, and I’d sit in a swing, still, and study the light in Amy’s room, the curtains drawn. At home, I’d write songs for Amy on my shitty Sears guitar, songs that I would never play outside my room. Wretched songs.
But Amy loved Harry Austin, a junior, with a car. Henry treated her badly, cheated on her, everybody knew, with Beth Solomon, who was only using Harry to make Blake McKay jealous, but that didn’t work because rumor speculated that Blake was secretly in love with Robert Frost — the only openly gay teenager in Arcadia Springs. But Robert had a boyfriend, he said, an older guy in the music business, in D.C.
Sometimes, already, it felt like this huge dance, with something soft and slow playing on the speakers, say, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, something with a soft ache to it, and we were all dancing, in our socks on the gym floor, but everyone looked glum, because everyone wanted to dance with someone else, so while we danced, we held our partners at arms length, and with stupid, constant longing looked over slumped shoulders in the dimly lit gym at the people we believed could save us, could fall into our arms and change our lives and maybe then we’d be happier. That’s how it felt, for me, every time I looked at Amy Brown’s lighted window. I was a virgin, still, but I’d kissed a few girls, touched exactly three breasts, and almost unbuckled Sally Hienrich’s jeans—but she sobered up and said, I don’t like you that way. But I already knew that. She loved Frank Hubbard, the lifeguard at our pool.
Summer school. Geometry class. Eight weeks. I sat beside Henry and scribbled down the formulas into my notebook. Mrs. Greer taught the class. I’d heard parents’ gossip about the scandalous way her husband left her for a dental assistant in Lynchburg. Mrs. Greer never talked about her personal life, only math, and she loved math. At lunch, she always ate with Dr. Shanahan, the biology teacher, and total dick. They sat close. Sometimes he would say something and Mrs. Greer would make a laughing sound and shut her eyes and cup one hand over Dr. Shanahan’s hand and hold it there for a few seconds too long.
Everyone is leaving now. It’s late. Six of us stand on the back porch under the slatted roof; close enough to touch but not quite touching. Dad shuts the door, and for a few quiet seconds we look at everything except each other—stars, flip-flops, even the door, a normal door in need of new paint. We say the usual things—thanks for the meal, it was fun, we should do this more often—and we mean every word. In the spaces between our words, I can hear night birds and some humming sound. Maybe it’s electricity, the light bulb over our head, or maybe it’s faraway traffic. I don’t know.
It’s time to go. In the morning, my sister’s boyfriend, Casey, is going away to college, in Arizona. Now, he shakes hands with both my parents like a junior congressman. Ella dips her head against his shoulder, and burrows her nose into his neck. He pulls off his baseball cap and rubs his new short haircut. Ella looks up and catches me staring at her, but she’s not annoyed. We regard each other, right there on our father’s porch. This is our family; what’s left of us. My brother, Henry, died last year—car wreck.
Casey didn’t drive tonight because he sold his car for college money, so Ella goes, “C’mon, Cowboy, I’ll walk you home.” They twine their bodies together and walk down our twisty sidewalk and into the night. From the porch, our parents call out: “Good luck, study, floss.”
My mother is the next to leave. She lives in an apartment behind the Mick-or-Mack grocery store. Angie and I walk her to her car. She hugs both of us. She says, “Lewis, be sweet to your sister. She’s hurting right now.”
“I know,” I tell her. My brother died. We’re all hurting around here.
Standing beside Angie, I wave another goodbye. My mother beeps her horn two times and then she’s gone.
I follow Angie inside, back into our living room. She wants to watch the Channel 38 Creature Double Feature—old, terrible horror movies. I pad to the kitchen to gather potato chips, Diet Sprite, Twizzlers.
In the living room, Angie’s sitting on the couch with her long legs crossed at the ankle. She’s wearing one of my father’s fishing caps and pointing at the monster on the TV screen.
“It’s sort of a creature from the Black Lagoon deal,” she says. “This guy doesn’t appear to have a head. That’s why he’s sad.”
I plop down beside her.
“I smell sort of gross,” I admit.
“It’s okay,” says Angie. “I always smell gross after tennis.”
For a few minutes, we watch the movie and eat Twizzlers. The monster leaves the swamp at night, and returns with runaway children that he finds downtown. He doesn’t eat them or anything. He keeps them in a giant cage near a stream, and feeds them raw fish and pineapples. They grow stronger and sadder, in the cage.
I can hear my father in the kitchen, fixing his late night snack of chocolate milk and banana chunks dipped into peanut butter.
Return from the Deep, that’s the name of the movie. It’s pretty lame, and I’m sleepy. For a few odd seconds, the monster on TV turns into a monster in my dream, but in my dream we’re good friends, just moseying all over town, terrifying the locals and eating grape Popsicles.
I’m not really paying attention to the movie. I’m thinking, almost dreaming, about those summer nights—it wasn’t that long ago—when my brother, Henry, would sleep in our backyard. Before I’d go to sleep, I’d always open my window and call out his name. I was eleven; Henry was fifteen.
On certain nights, Ella would be at her window at the same time, and we’d all say goodnight to each other at the same time.
I like to remember us—the smaller versions of Ella and me–our sunburned noses pressed against separate screen windows, and our big, worshiped brother outside in his tent. We couldn’t see each other, but I know our lives were knotted forever on those nights, our voices calling out to each other in the early dark.
Henry’s gone and we’re still here, and tonight I’m watching the late night creature double feature with Angie, my girlfriend. I’ve actually lived long enough to call someone that: Girlfriend.
“Thanks for coming over tonight,” I tell Angie, sleepily. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad, too,” Angie says.
Angie cradles my head with her hands. She kisses me quickly and firmly on the top of my head, and I can’t explain how perfect that feels. Her fingers shape my hair into place, and I can feel her entire body tense when the monster appears from the fog. I sit up and we loop our arms around each other. We hold on until at last, the monster sinks into a pit of quicksand, and the cage door swings open, and the children run screaming out of the woods and into the arms of the sorrowful people who love them.
Originally published in InkPot
Dan couldn’t sleep. This marked the fifth consecutive night of a new and terrible strain of insomnia. He patted his wife’s stomach—it was tight and bouncy like a bongo drum and he liked the thumping sound it made in that dark room, but in the middle of his solo she turned over and pulled most of the blanket and all of the sheets with her.
Dan listened to the twin whirrs of the ceiling fan and humidifier. He stood up and walked to the kitchen and fixed a cold cheese sandwich with a glass of buttermilk on the side. His cat, Shep, sniffed a lemon rind on the blue kitchen floor.
“Good old Shep,” Dan said.
He couldn’t sleep and it was summer, so he pulled on tiger-print pajamas, tucked his feet into brand new sneakers, and walked outside. It was two in the morning and his neighborhood was asleep, all the lights off, all the dogs pulled inside except for the trashy dogs on tie-ins.
Dan walked to the park. He used to drink every night, but last year, after a series of poor decisions, he stopped. It wasn’t easy. He missed it every night, and he filled the void with sugar and crunchy snacks.
A mangy dog in a poorly constucted doghouse growled low at Dan.
“Somebody must hate you very much to keep you outdoors,” Dan told the dog.
A low fog had settled over the park. It looked like a gigantic above-ground pool. Dan draped his robe over a batting cage and looked at the foggy diamond. He used to play, second base, and he remembered how if felt to hit a slashing line drive up the middle, to turn the pivot on the double play. He thought about things like this all the time.
Dan sprinted onto the all-dirt infield and when he reached first base, he raised his arms over his head.
“Yea, Dan,” he said, out of breath. “You’re the man, Dan!”
Someone was laughing at him, a young woman with a baby. They were sitting on the bench in the dugout. The baby wore a T‑shirt with some sort of dinosaur on it; the young woman looked like trouble. She looked like someone who would steal the money off a collection plate.
“Are you drunk, or just a dumb ass?” she asked.
The baby was in a tight little outfit that made the baby look like a starfish. The girl smoked a cigarette. She needed a haircut and probably a good bath. She, too, wore a T‑shirt. One of those rap stars.
Dan sat on the opposite end of the bench.
“I can’t sleep,” he said. “I stopped drinking.”
“That’s good,” said the girl. “My boyfriend hits me when he drinks.”
“You should leave him,” Dan said.
“Well, I would,” said the girl. “Except, here’s the thing, I’m a fucking idiot.”
The baby wah-wahed and Dan gave it a look and mouthed: Stop that! The baby tried to move its little arms. That baby would make a good Frisbee, Dan thought. A bus moved almost silently down Carlton Avenue. The bus was lit an eerie shade of blue on the inside.
“Can I hold your baby,” Dan asked the girl.
“You can have it for five dollars,” said the girl. She handed over the baby to Dan. “I’m kidding,“she said. “It’s my sister’s.”
“Our kids are in college now.” Dan sniffed the baby’s head—talcum powder and something fruity, strained pears maybe. “They don’t call much, but we don’t call them, either.”
“I don’t even love him,” said the girl. “I have to buy ugly makeup to cover up bruises.”
Dan returned the baby to the girl. His hands felt clammy and baby-drenched. He sniffed his palms—they smelled like a pet store.
“Why are you up?” he asked the girl.
“Bad night,” said the girl. “Waiting it out.”
Dan reached into his pajama pocket for a lozenge. He had lived an easy life, if there was such a thing. At any rate, he had lived in a world where men didn’t sock women in the jaw, and where babies didn’t roam city parks in the middle of the night.
“I was born here,” he told the girl. “I should’ve left.”
“I’m going back to school,” said the girl. “My sister doesn’t believe me, but I am.”
Dan wanted to do something to make the girl feel better. He wanted to touch her elbow or at least buy her a shirt that fit.
“Do you like ice cream?” he asked the girl.
“Everybody likes ice cream,” she said, smirking a little bit.
“I have six gallons at home,” Dan said. “You can change your baby there.”
The girl stood and hiked the baby up to her shoulder.
“You’re not crazy, right?” she said.
“If loving ice cream is crazy, then yes I am,” said Dan. “Do you like dogs?”
“I guess,” said the girl.
“I loathe dogs,” said Dan. “You have choosen B. You are—incorrect.”
Dan retrieved his robe and slid into it. There were no stars or moons or airplanes. When the girl walked, she whistled through her nose. The baby’s arms pointed to the places in the sky where the stars should have been.
Halfway back to his apartment, they passed a man standing on his front porch, dribbling a basketball. Dan nodded to the man, and the man nodded back.
Back inside his apartment, the girl and the baby made themselves comfortable in the high-ladder chairs his wife had picked out.
“We have peach, rocky road, and several brands of sherbet,” Dan said, his head poked into the deep freezer.
“Peach,” said the girl.
“You have chosen peach,” Dan said. “Congratulations.”
He sat in the chair facing the girl and the baby. Shep the cat looked at the baby, and went back to sleep. Dan filled his spoon with enormous lumps of ice cream. The girl’s bangs swished around like windshied wipers. Under her left eye, in this light, the skin looked puffy and almost purple. She wiped a fingertip of ice cream over the baby’s nose. Through the open windows: church bells, a car starting, someone on a skate board, going somewhere else.
Originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly
Interview with Jeff Landon
Q: Your novella “Emily Avenue” — tell us about it, it is coming out in the fall…how long is it, how long are the chapters, what’s it about?
A: Well, I won a contest. Fast Forward Press was looking for a flash fiction novel, and I had a failed novel (this has happened before) going on, so I blew it up, kept about forty pages, and then added sixty, then tinkered with the whole mess, and ended up with this. The chapters are mostly really short, one-two pages. I enjoyed that form, very much. I do see the limitations, though, in terms of getting more deeply into the narrative, but it also forced me to really focus on the actual story, and to cut out the stuff that was trying too hard, and even, barely, to have a plot…barely. Oh, and it’s about two brothers. One of them accidentally kills someone, and then he leaves town. The other brother stays in town, and turns into “the brother of that guy who killed that guy.” It’s all fiction. I never killed anyone, I’m proud to say and please excuse my bragging.
Q: You write quite a lot about the teenage time of life, please talk about why that time and writing about that time, specifically, interests you.
A: I probably, definitely, write too often about teenage life. But, man, it’s such a huge, exciting, terrible, funny, dramatic, self-interested time of life. Everything feels enormous. It’s mostly terrible, though–terrible food, terrible sex, terrible driving skills, terrible hair. Still, to me, a lunchroom in a high school will always be a million times more intriguing than, say, a faculty meeting. Kidding, I love faculty meetings!
Still, things like your first love–even though it rarely turns out to be deserving of the title–are life changing, one way or another. It’s crazy.
Q: Your characters are lovable, there really aren’t any ill-intentioned people in your stories — characters make mistakes in life but they are kind, if that is the right word. If you can or will talk about this in terms of your world-view if it applies.
A: Well, yeah. I like the idea that there is no life without kindness. That’s for sure not an original thought, but the first time I heard it, it seeped inside–the saying, not the kindness. People are going to screw up, be selfish, make mistakes large and tiny, but if you keep trying to live a life where kindness is the guiding principle, you’ll be, at least, better.
Q: Parents and kids in your stories tend to have complex strained and unique friendships that are not traditional parent/child authoritarian type of thing.. that is interesting also. Can you comment on this in your work?
A: Times have changed, so much. (Some) People who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s are looser than our parents were. We’re less strict. We’re more like pals. There are absolutely disadvantages to this. For instance, I’ve missed out on the opportunity to really wallop my kids, but overall, well, I don’t know if it’s good or bad. The old guys at the barbershop, for sure, will tell you, for hours, about how terrible it is, but I’m not sure. Fear kind of sucks. Kids are going to be afraid of so many things anyway, why add the burden of fearing the parents? But, having said that, I know a loose, goofy parent-child relationship doesn’t work for ever child, or parent. And I do insist that my children call me Mr. Landon at all times. OK, kidding. I let them call me Mr. Jeff Landon.
Q: Are you more likely to read poetry or fiction before writing stories?
A: Poetry, definitely. Mostly because poetry offers an economy of language and imagery. I prefer narrative poetry, and there are fiction writers who are also wonderful poets. Denis Johnson, James Welch, David Huddle and Charlie Smith come to mind…and, yes, they are, indeed, all men, but I’m a fan of Malena Morling, Kim Addonizio, Dannye Romine Powell, Sharon Olds, and Dorianne Laux. Women, each and every one. James Wright is probably my favorite. David Berman writes wonderful poems and songs. I’m leaving off so many names. Lists are evil.
Q: Why is working with a small press uniquely good for a writer in your opinion? What does that allow an author to explore?
A: Indie presses are more open to different styles, and the way the world seems to be working, short story writers, more and more, need small presses. Some of the indie press books are also beautiful, too. There’s huge care given to the books. They value, over everything else, the work itself. It’s all pretty great.
Q: Your stories tend toward melancholy, and then, thank god, humor — they are full of this feeling of looking back at what was magical or feels magical later, and like music very powerfully evocative and mournful and sometimes they are downright funny as hell. You write both of these feelings into stories so well. Are you drawn toward the melancholy in writing/music/art?
A: Thanks, and, sure, I think people who write are essentially lonely people. Well, maybe not, like, James Patterson. He seems pretty happy, but I know, for me, the power of stories is that they take you, the essentially lonely person, into another world, where you meet other lonely people, and then you get to say Hi, and maybe share a melon of some type. I don’t think melancholy people are better than other people, or that writers feel life more deeply. We just feel it, differently. I think lots of writers love music, from an early age, because music speaks to people like us in a way that’s completely personal, profound, and also, in some odd way, destructive. It’s like if you listen to a million love songs, and read The Great Gatsby a few times, Real Life is going to feel…lacking. You go, hey, where’s my dance on the lush lawn by the bay with the stars reflected and music playing from up the hill? Instead, it’s a tall-boy Bud and horseshoes–but that’s OK, too.
I love stories that combine the funny and the sad, sometimes on the same page. It’s probably part of a world view. It’s probably something that hits you when you five-years-old, in a sandbox, this feeling of, oh, life is so terrible and so lovely, like this sandwich, that I dropped … in this sand.