A short excerpt from Foozler Runs, a novel by Stephen Poleskie, published by Onager Editions
YELLOW STREAKS OF sunlight mark the end of the snow, a condition which happens gradually between Washington, DC and Fredericksburg, Virginia. The grand white tablecloth that had covered the land becomes threadbare, and the rust-colored earth reveals itself through the ragged holes. The painted tin roofs on the old farmhouses now show their true colors of black, or brown, or orange.
Johnny drives along. He is finding it interesting to be out and about once again. In recent years he tended to hibernate in the winter, rarely leaving the trailer. He spent most of his time in front of the kerosene stove they used for heating studying the ever-elusive flame. Or, he applied himself fastidiously to the cleaning of rooms, which he did with great importance and ceremony, much to the distress of his wife who had just finished cleaning the same spaces. Foozler did not reprimand his wife when he found hidden, missed, balls of dust. His cleaning was conceptual, and had a deeper, symbolic meaning, a function which often drove him to spasms of delight.
Now free of the snow, Johnny Foozler slows his pace. We notice for the first time Johnny’s ardent interest in the landscape, the passion of an artist and a golfer wrapped up into one. A silent laughter transforms Johnny’s face as he drives along having vivid conversations with himself, tickling his imagination.
“Now there’s a beautiful tree,” he says to himself, pointing out the window. “If I were an artist, I would come back here in the summer and paint it.” And a little farther down the road: “There are some mighty fine fields. If I had the money I would buy them and make a nice golf course there.”
Yet while he passes through it, and makes plans for it, the countryside, indeed the world in general, seems to Johnny indefinably far away, separated from him by an incalculable gap in his mind.
Foozler drives along with lazy indifference at exactly the speed limit, ignoring the tailgaters, as well as the drivers that blaze past, glaring and honking their horns. He has nowhere to go, and no time in particular when he must be there. He has written to his son that he is coming, but purposely not given a specific date for his arrival. Foozler, absentmindedly, has even grown remote from practical matters. Although it is well past one o’clock, Johnny has not had anything to eat since early this morning when Marie served him his going away breakfast at George’s. She started work at 6:00. He didn’t have to pay, and promised to stop on the way back. The sign says there is food and fuel at this exit. Johnny turns off the Interstate.
The “food” is a Burger Baron, perhaps a bit lower priced than a Burger King, John reasons. He drives up to the takeout window and orders a fish sandwich and French fries.
* * *
from Sconto Walaa
THE NEXT YEAR the Eagles' number one receiver had demanded too much money when his contract was up for renewal so was sent packing. Whitman was moved up to the regular squad. He rode the bench and covered kickoffs, until the third game, when the former number two receiver, now number one, broke his ankle. Given his chance Walt made the most of it, even making a spectacular catch in the last seconds of the home game against the Eagles hated rivals the New York Giants. He hadn’t scored the game winning touchdown, but Walt Whitman’s grab had set up the three yard run that did.
About midseason some local sports pundit, remembering a famous writer with the same name who had lived just across the river in Camden, New Jersey had given our Walt Whitman the tag “The Poet.” Sconto now got to fume at headlines that read: The Poet snags six balls as Eagles trounce Skins. Wala did get to shout at his television set, and cheer, even spilling his beer, when The Poet had his bell rung and was driven off the field on a golf cart in the final game of the season. The Eagles made the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Poet, however, was suffering from a concussion and did not play. The Eagles were blown away in the first game, and the TV announcers kept speculating how much the offense missed Walt Whitman, with the camera frequently panning to him standing next to the player’s bench wearing mufti, his face a blank expression, as if he was attending a séance or some such thing.
Maybe it was the crack on the head, but Walt Whitman now believed he was a poet, or perhaps it was the tidy advance a “book producer” agent had garnered for him from a big-name publisher. Walter, who had to repeat the Freshman Writing Seminar at Wilbender College twice, sat down at this computer, which he had previously used mainly for viewing porn and playing video games, and, pecking away with two fingers and the help of a ghostwriter, shortly came away with a collection of poems he called Eagle Claws. This could kindly be described as free-verse doggerel about the joys of playing wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles football team.
Greased by large sums of publisher’s money, distinguished literary critics for major newspapers and magazines, who normally ignored first books of poetry, indeed any book of poetry, spit all over themselves slathering Eagle Claws with praise. Walt Whitman appeared on all the talk shows, including Oprah, and for nine weeks the book hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
* * *
from Vigilia's Tempest
MUCH TO JOHN'S ALARM, the hole in the clouds above him was threatening to close up before he got there. Huge white hands seemed to grab at the Jungmann from all sides. The throttle was already against the stop. John carefully leaned the fuel mixture, coaxing the last bit of power from his gasping engine. The biplane was rocking up and down, struggling with the downdrafts coming off the clouds. The sky around John grew darker. He raised his tinted goggles, and hunched lower under the windscreen. John could feel the temperature dropping. It was becoming very cold in the open cockpit. Lifting his head back up, John encountered total blindness. He was completely wrapped in the cloud vapors.
The buffeting from the freezing wind forced John Vigilia to duck his head back down inside the cockpit. His eyes fell on the vertical speed indicator. John was startled to discover that the Bücker was climbing at 3000 feet-per-minute, more than three times its normal rate. The biplane was in an updraft. It had been sucked up into the air mass, not an ordinary cloud, but a building cumulonimbus, a developing thunderstorm.
Words memorized from his pilot’s meteorology text flashed in John’s mind: The cumulonimbus cloud marks an area of most turbulent air, with probable hail and torrential rain. The sensible pilot never attempts to fly through such a cloud, but always goes around it.
The textbook had become a reality. The Jungmann was being drawn up into an immense, luminous dome, the damp white insides of which revealed streaks of its own heavenly geography. The aircraft raced upward in air that was becoming difficult to breathe. John peered over the side at the cloud, which was growing darker, a green twilight, almost as if he and his airplane were under water. Rain, mixed with hail, began to beat on the taut fabric covering the wings and fuselage. He was locked in the first stages of a thunderstorm. Until that moment John had not been quite sure of what he was encountering, and so had not known what to fear. With the realization of his situation came terror—a panic that dulled John’s responses and slowed his reactions.
Although his hands gripped the control stick, John Vigilia was not flying the airplane. In the violent air the Jungmann had taken on a life of its own, climbing and diving, while all the time being forced upward. The severe turbulence inside a storm cloud was lethal. An airplane, even an aerobatic one like the Bücker, could become overstressed and eventually come apart. He had to slow the airspeed down.
With his left hand, numb from the cold and trembling with fright, John pulled back the throttle. There was no response. His eyes flashed to the tachometer, where the needle rested on zero. It took John but an instant to realize that the carburetor’s intake must have iced over. The engine was dead. Looking out the side caused John’s stomach to tighten further. The pounding rain was turning to ice—it was as if summer had for some reason hibernated at this altitude. The ice was adhering to the wings and struts, not only adding weight to the airplane, but also destroying the airfoil, decreasing the lift just when it was needed most. This condition increased the speed at which the aircraft stalled, which at high altitudes was not that far below its cruise speed in level flight. John checked his altimeter; the gauge showed the incorrect altitude of 666 feet, the pitot tube was frozen. The Jungmann’s airspeed indicator, which shared the same tube, would be inaccurate also.
Fighting his fear, John hunkered down under the now completely frosted-over windscreen. The covering of ice did not matter, as John had no outside visibility anywhere. He had to regain control of the aircraft, to fly it by what few instruments that still functioned before it went into a spin. It was cold, extremely cold. John’s body was shaking. The attitude indicator showed the aircraft to be in a sixty degree left bank. Tilting the control stick cautiously to the right, John tried to level the wings. The gauge showed no response. The venturi too was frozen over. He felt the airplane beginning to shake, the subtle buffet that came just before a stall which, without the pilot being in control, could turn into a spin. A spin in these clouds would tighten up before he could stop it, and take John Vigilia, in his confusion and helplessness, all the way back to surface of the lake—and below.
John could hear the thin air being breathed in and out of his nostrils, fast and hard like a piston. All the winds of the world were being sucked through his brain. John sat there resigned to the fact that he had never been as important in his life as he hoped to be. This final spin would be the ultimate consequence of his all too many failures. He was considering the possibility of bailing out, abandoning the foundering airplane, as he had abandoned so many other things in his life when they appeared not to be going as planned. Then, as if the forces of nature were intent on denying John Vigilia the innate fulfillment of his tragic destiny, the clouds began to part, and the Jungmann bounced free of the mist and out into the brilliant sunshine.
from The Third Candidate
FOR OVER SIX MONTHS now there have not been any of those sensational stories in the media speculating on his whereabouts, or the varied reasons for his disappearance. If you recall, John S______ went missing on the very night he won election to the United States Congress. Despite the massive search that was conducted for him, not a trace of what may have happened to John has ever been found, or if it has it has not been revealed to the public.
I was, according to the New York City police, the last person to see John before he vanished. Although I was interviewed by their detectives, who dragged me out of my workplace on the next day and treated me with suspicion, no one has been in touch with me since then. My reluctance to tell what I believe to be the full truth behind John S______’s bizarre story could possibly be attributed to my bewilderment at what I have learned. Or should I more accurately say my fear, and a shade of helplessness, at what might happen to me because of what I now know.
I have transcribed most of the material you are about to read from text I found saved on a computer flash drive apparently left behind by John himself. Although I do appear as a character in the story, near the very end, I was by and large only an incidental bystander. No accumulation of words can adequately convey my wonder at what has supposedly happened. All that I can do is to begin, straightforwardly, and hope to communicate my message, without the reader thinking I have winked my eye. The time these events take place in is the recent past, or perhaps in the near future.
John S______ was born and grew up in a small, former coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, a forlorn place of fallen-down collieries, culm banks, abandoned strip mines, boarded over storefronts, and empty houses. His hometown, by coincidence, lay in the same valley that held the birthplace of John’s boyhood hero; a Hollywood film star recently deceased. This actor fraught, or perhaps blessed, with an extremely hard face, had achieved great fame, and fortune, from his portrayal of tough-talking bad guys in grade B Western movies. John had been not so much impressed by the actor’s reputation as by his origin, having paid little attention to the man’s career until he learned where the cowboy actor hailed from. This knowledge had given John hope that he too might someday act his way out of this depressed, and lackluster area that he lived in.
“So what’s so big about playing a cattle rustler in a movie?”
“But Dad, the man was born in this valley . . . who else from around here has ever amounted to anything?”
“There are a lot of important people that were born in this very town.”
“What about your Uncle Eddie. . . .”
“What about him?”
“He was a bomber pilot in the war.”
“And got shot down . . . and taken prisoner.”
“But he escaped.”
“Then came home only to spend the rest of his life driving a school bus.”
“So he’s got his name on a memorial in front of the town firehouse, doesn’t he? That’s pretty famous . . . at least for around here.”
This conversation with his father was as John wrote it down. Just why he included it in his notes I am not exactly sure. He did not record that his father ever wrote him anything, like a letter perhaps. Of course, John lived at home for the first twenty-six years of his life, so his father would have had no need to write him. But they did not correspond when John lived in New York City either, or at least John never mentioned any letters in the material I later found.
Throughout most of his school years, planning to follow in his actor hero’s footsteps, John applied himself rather casually to his studies. Instead, he devoted his time and energy to the stage. By the age of nine, he had set up a theater in the basement of his parent’s home, where young John starred in plays he had written, produced, and directed. Unfortunately, this venue was quickly shut down by his parents when they discovered he had convinced a young girl from his third grade class to dance naked for one of his productions.
As John’s performances in his high school plays displayed considerable potential, his drama teacher suggested he might try out with the local amateur theatrical group, who needed a young boy for a role in a play they were putting on. Dressed in what he considered his most sophisticated clothes, and wearing his Sunday shoes, John S______ walked the three miles to their theater in town to save bus fare. The summer heat did not dissuade him as he strode confidently over the War Hero’s Bridge, imagining how he would strut before his high school classmates when he announced he had been selected for a major role in a production by the regionally famous “Valley Players.”
“And so who is this handsome young fellow? And what does he want?
“My name is John S______, and I’m here to audition for a part in your next play.”
“And I’m Jake Hemlock, the director of this theater. . . .”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Hemlock.”
“I see you’re from the other side of the river. . . .”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“By the way you’re dressed.”
John’s face flushed. He heard a faint titter from the three other boys who were sitting there, apparently also waiting to read for the part.
“And the way you speak. . . .”
“The way I speak?”
More laughter came from the other boys, this time louder and not suppressed.
“Never mind them. Let’s start with you. Here’s the script. Turn to page 27, at the top, you are Guy, I’ll be your father, George.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Okay, then come over here and sit on my lap.”
“Sit on your lap? I’m a little old for that. . . .”
“Yes, but you’re playing a young boy, a bit younger than you must actually be, however, that will be all right . . . and you’re sitting on your father’s lap just talking to him.”
“Okay. . . .”
John began to read. Hemlock had his free hand on John’s knee, gently stroking it. He could feel a warm lump under his bottom side growing larger and harder. John jumped up.
“What’s the matter? You were doing fine. . . .”
“I don’t think I want a part in this play,” John announced. “I’m going home.”
What would John tell his friends about why he didn’t get a part in the play? On his way back across the bridge John thought about the reasons he could give. He had never told anyone he was coming to this audition. Or did he? Wait! That’s it; he said to himself suddenly coming up with an idea; he was too old. It wouldn’t even be untrue, John rationalized. The director had said the character was much younger than he was. At that young age John had not yet learned to lie.
Having barely achieved the minimum grade average in high school, John found the only institution of higher learning that would accept him was the nearby community college. Not that John S______ was dumb, or lazy, he had just been very preoccupied with theater. It was also a matter of money. His father, though never well off, was too proud to allow his son to, as he put it, “beg for financial aid.” He could afford to pay for his son’s education if the boy lived at home, and worked in an automobile repair shop after classes and on Saturdays.
Being around rough, working people made John suspect intellectuals. Devoting one’s life to abstract ideas seemed wasteful to him. He respected the men he worked with in the automobile shop for their practical knowledge and common sense even though they tended to curse and swear too much for his liking. Often the butt of his co-worker’s jokes because he was a “Joe-college,” John usually took his breaks, and ate his lunch from the paper bag he brought it in, sitting alone in a quiet corner of the paint shop.
Despite a total lack of interest in his studies, John managed to graduate from college within the allotted four years, albeit without distinction, but with a strong local reputation as an actor. He had starred in the college theater group’s plays, and even earned bit parts in a small summer stock theater in the nearby mountains that sometimes featured professional talent from New York.
After graduation, when no other employment prospects presented themselves, John’s father, who ran his own used car lot, offered him a job. This secretly had been the man’s plan all along. The father, also named John, hoped that his son would eventually take over the business when he became too old to manage it.
The elder John had opened his lot with money he received as a settlement from a mine accident that had cost him both his legs. Although he was now a cripple who got around in a wheelchair, he was happy he did not to have to go down into the pits anymore. But then there were few mines still in operation by that time, and he probably would have been out of work anyway. John’s father went to church regularly, and thanked God for his good fortune.
Unfortunately his used car lot was not one of the valley’s premier operations. It had the unenviable reputation of selling the shabbiest vehicles in the area, ratted out clunkers that other dealers at the automobile auctions would not even bother to place a bid on. A wash job was about all these cars got before being placed out for sale.
And so young John began what he hoped was his temporary life.
SO LIVE, THAT WHEN thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
William Cullen Bryant