This summer, I traveled across the country, from Atlanta to Omaha to Yosemite and San Francisco and up the Pacific coast. I had this sort of ache in me for a moment, a need I couldn't pinpoint. I wasn't sure if it was unhappiness at where I was or just uncertainty about where I was headed. Part of going on this trip was the hope that these sorts of trips open up everything for you, that they change you. But, that's an unfair expectation. I think this story arises, partly, out of that feeling.
Typically, my stories are heavily influenced by mythologies, real or created. The sun cult thing here crept in and it felt like a real thing to me and sort of the emotional center of the story. I had a terrible sunburn while on that trip—I was working on a goat farm for a week in Groveland, CA, and had applied my own sun screen to my back and got blisters everywhere—and that is part of this story. Also, driving through Nevada, you realize and feel a sort of loneliness that blooms beyond what you already feel, so that's in here, too. I had all these notes from the trip—observations I'd made and things I'd seen that I hoped would work in future stories—and it's odd how much of those notes are about empty country, miles and miles of openness that somehow feel claustrophobic.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta. He co-founded Jellyfish Highway Press, founded and manages Sundog Lit, and edits for both Cartridge Lit—a lit mag for work inspired by video games—and New South Journal. He's at work on a full-length short story collection and a smaller book of stories about haunted men from U.S. history. He tweets @jdaugherty1081.
Permalink: Anywhere in the World If You Don't Want to
Ray had gone to the dog fight because there wasn't anywhere else to go. He stood next to a fire in a barrel and heard men holler, two dogs going at it and not a thing was said that he wanted to hear. The child that was supposed to be his was a myth, a story he was told in order to believe in something.
A too-young woman walked over, her long dress with an inch of wet dirt on the bottom. “This isn't a real nice thing to be a part of,” the woman said. Her name was Charleen.
“I don't suppose you got one good suggestion or another,” Ray said. He was starting to run clean out of places to run to. In Nebraska, a woman waited on him to give her another reason why not. He didn't tell her that he just didn't have goodness in him. He didn't want to ruin a thing for life. He knew he was wrong.
A dog whimpered, then silence. Ray closed his eyes, shook his head. One man yelled and the rest of them cheered.
“We could go somewhere,” Charleen said. “We could go and try to find something not so lonely.”
Ray looked to the clear night sky and all the stars. His hands clasped together, his right foot making a circle in the dirt. “Out here, you see all these stars and we got names for every one,” he said, leaving out the part where it all zooms forward, names for constellations, for whole entire skies.
At the bar, Charleen told Ray how she'd escaped a cult as a teenager. She was raised there and her mother and father were there and they all farmed and the leader slept with the teenage daughters. They worshiped the sun. Believed it was the creator.
Ray did not ask what she believed in now. His hand dangled on his left knee. He hoped she might take it, that he might feel some other warmth other than his own.
“Thing was,” Charleen said, “it wasn't the craziness that drove me away. I mean, I knew it was all insane, but it was all I knew. I left because everyone was so in love—with the leader, with each other, with the goddamn sun. And, I just felt empty, hollow. Everyone had all this love and I didn't know where to find mine.”
“So you set out in the world to find it,” Ray said.
“You know what we did in the cult when we were feeling sad or questioned the love of creator?” Charleen asked. “We'd go out into the desert and take off our clothes and let the sun burn us. That way we'd feel it in our skin, would not be able to forget. Our leader always said, sometimes you got to hurt to know where the love comes from.”
Later, at the mirror in his hotel room, Ray cycled through the postcards from all the places he had run away to, all the postcards he'd meant to send, each one farther and farther away from Nebraska, the newest from Arches National Park, where he found himself now: a dry riverbed, parched and dusty, and a sign in front of it, reading: Do not enter when flooding.
They returned to the dog fights the next night because all the people they knew were there. Nothing had started, but everyone was drinking and telling stories. The men got more drunk and more electric until one man said they may as well begin and another left to get a dog. One of the men Ray knew stood to get his fighter. Ray, drunk and unsure, stood, put two fingers to the man's chest. “Ain't a reason in the world to do this,” Ray said.
“You can go anywhere in the world if you don't want to be here,” the man said. He flicked his cigarette into the dark.
“That don't stop it from happening,” Ray said. Another man approached with a barking dog trying to come off of his leash. Ray walked toward the man, saying, stop, stop, stop, and he tried to push the man first and then tried to grab the leash. The man pushed Ray and he fell to the dirt. Ray got up and tackled the man and the two wrestled in the dirt as the dog ran off into the night.
In the commotion, Ray did not notice that the cigarette had caught the grass on fire. Charleen yelled for the men to stop and the fire spread through the dry grass. Two men took bottles of beer out of the cooler and dumped the water and ice on the flames, but could not douse it all. Charleen wiped the blood from Ray's lip and asked what they were going to do and all the men and women gathered as they talked on how to stop the fire. He stepped closer to the flames and they spread higher -, and he got close enough to feel the bite of them, his hands out over it, taking in the heat, but far enough from the reach of the burn.
by Justin Lawrence Daugherty