Jeff Landon

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.

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Algebra

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.

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Electricity

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 

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Starfish

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

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Interview with Jeff Landon

Meg Pokrass


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.