The Occasional Triumphant

The tuba steps unsteadily forward for a solo

Category: Uncategorized

First, There Is a Mountain

This story first appeared in SLAB literary journal, issue 12, released in April 2017. Copies are eight bucks and you should buy several.

There was suddenly no air in the room. Sarah looked down at her daughter, looking back at her from her pillow, but the girl she had been looking at just a moment before had changed. Child… Sarah thought to herself, but found nothing following it.

“Well, Mommy? How?”

Where there had been her daughter lying in that bed, there was now an unwelcome inspector. And not an unexpected one. Sarah closed her eyes a moment. The girl was still there under the covers, waiting, when she returned.

“Your father died in an avalanche, little girl.”

The girl’s sleepy eyelids opened and her eyebrows leapt up to her forehead.

“An avalanche!” It came out as an awed affirmation rather than a question, like the news was a long-held suspicion. “Where was it?”

Sarah nearly had to restrain the child from jumping from under the covers. She noted the time, kissed her daughter’s forehead, turned off the lights and shut the door behind her. It wasn’t until she was all the way down the hall that the blood rushing in her ears subsided enough that she heard the cries of protest behind her.

 

The couch, the girl’s dresser, the kitchen cabinets, the garden shed…all places Sarah spent the following week pulling her daughter from the top of. This is absolutely not what I meant she thought, over and over. So the following Friday at bedtime, it was more out of exasperation when she said “Claire, I’m ready to tell you about your father.” The girl sat up in bed and Sarah drew a deep breath. “He worked as a park ranger on Mount Washington, you know the one.”

Claire instinctively looked out the window, even though it was dark. On clear days, the peak was framed there in the distance. She knew the one.

“It was winter,” Sarah said, “and some hikers got stuck on the mountain and your father went up to rescue them.”

“How did they get stuck?” Claire asked.

“Well, it was very cold, and one of them–there were four in all–hurt his leg. So they had to huddle together in a small tent and radio for help getting down the mountain. And your dad went to help them.” Sarah put her palms on her lap and leaned in, taking a breath.

“Were they on the mountain for days and days?” The girl had now drawn her knees to her chest and was rocking back and forth on her feet.

“Not days, no. They were there until nightfall, when your father got to them.” Sarah realized she had been gazing somewhere past the bookshelf and the wall and looked into her daughter’s face. Claire looked back, her little eyebrows disappearing into her bangs. “They couldn’t build a fire up there. It’s so high up in the sky that there isn’t enough air to start a fire, so they were very, very cold. Your father started to help the hurt hiker down the trail, but there was all this heavy snow on the cliffs above them and it…” She refocused her gaze; the girl was motionless, mouth open, watching. “It just fell. On top of them. It was an avalanche. One hiker survived.”

“Was it the hurt one?”

“What?”

“The one who got out? Was he the one that was hurt?” The girl’s question broke Sarah’s meditative calm and she stuttered out a no.

“I don’t remember the name of the man who survived,” she said. She stood and though the girl continued asking questions–When did it happen? Was it in the newspaper? Is that man still alive?–Sarah could only reply that it was bedtime, turn out the light, and close the door.

 

The next day Claire clomped off to the school bus in her winter boots, green pants, and a khaki shirt despite her mother’s protests. As they argued their way to the front door and out onto the lawn, Claire announced that she was a mountain ranger and stomped to the sidewalk, her classmates watching her, watching Sarah, shocked still in her robe on the front walk.

At school, Claire told her friends about the avalanche. She pointed south toward the mountain and everyone craned their necks around to look, only to see hallways and fluorescent lights. She put her arms in the air, recounting the terrible cold night the hikers spent in a tent, and the snow that fell on them. She ran in place, the laces of her boots clacking on the tile floor, as she said that her father ran down the mountain, trying to save these hikers from the flood of snow and rock and trees and ice. And Claire leaned in close and hushed her voice, saying that only one man got out alive.

“My daddy died a hero!” Claire said, and her friends fell about stamping their feet and clapping their hands.

“But it didn’t work,” said a voice, “almost everyone died.” The gaggle of children swiveled around to see who said that. It was an older boy, one of the fifth graders. “Your dad didn’t hardly save anybody.”

Claire later wouldn’t be able to say what happened next, but the gaggle watched her charge at the older boy, jump at his chest and knock him down. She kicked him with her big winter boots. They were both crying. The scene was cut mercifully short by a teacher rushing out into the hall, yanking the sobbing girl off of the boy and pulling her back into the classroom, slamming the door behind them.

 

Trees slipped past the early-morning moon and blurred through Claire’s passenger window as she leaned her forehead against the tempered glass. Fog crept from where her temple touched pane, taming the bright light, still playing at nighttime in the five AM sky. Sarah normally listened to the radio on her way to the hospital, but she was shuttling her daughter along with her, the first of three days’ suspension. She was waiting for an answer. Claire sighed, fogging the window more.

“Was daddy a hero?” Claire asked, almost whispering.

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“But was he?” The girl turned from the window for the first time in the drive. Her bangs stuck to her forehead and Sarah had to bite her lip to keep a serious face. She flexed her fingers, opening her palms against the steering wheel, straightened her arms and rolled her shoulders back. Her joints popped and cracked. She opened her mouth and closed it again.

“He would have loved to hear you say that he was. He loved you a lot.” That seemed to satisfy the girl for the moment, and she settled back in her seat, turning her face toward the moon.

“Is that why you had the fight?” Sarah asked.

“That boy was mean about daddy,” Claire said quietly.

Sarah watched the road. There was more to it than that, but she knew that there also wasn’t.

 

 

Claire woke up with her forehead against the window. Her mother was quietly listening to the news as she drove them home. Claire stretched her shoulders back against the seat and pressed her cheek into one collarbone then the other, pressed her feet into the floorboard and arched her back off of the seat. She felt like a little girl again for a moment, waking up in Mommy’s car. She was glad her mom had turned down her offer to drive.

“What did you think of the service?” Sarah asked. Claire watched the road ahead and let her eyes focus.

“It really bothered me, but it doesn’t matter.”

“No, it does. What bothered you?” Sarah glanced at the young woman next to her, blinking into the early evening.

“I just hate sermons at funerals, you know?” She yawned and looked at her mother. “They take me out of the moment.”

Forest and field slid between them and the evening sun, and Sarah caught glimpses of last daylight illuminating Claire’s eyes, their hazel burst gold for a few seconds between trees.

“You didn’t think the sermon was comforting?” Sarah finally asked.

“I didn’t,” Claire said. “I was looking at the pictures next to the casket, I was thinking about her, and I was really sad. And I wanted to be sad because I love her and she’s gone and I need to grieve. And then the priest started in on that thing about science not being able to explain why there are two sexes…”

“Yeah, I don’t know what that was about.”

“And from then on, whatever cathartic moment I was hoping for was gone and I was like having an argument with him in my head,” Claire shook her hands in front of her as if rattling a snow globe.

“Well you know,” Sarah said, cocking her head toward her window, “the service wasn’t really for you, it wasn’t for right or wrong…”

“I know,” Claire smiled. She looked at the radio and the parking tag hanging from the rearview. “I mean, it’s the first step in the grieving process. I don’t need a lot of complicated musings. I hate stories. I don’t want to hear them.”

Sarah focused on the miles ahead, flexed her palms against the steering wheel. She couldn’t possibly mean that, she thought. She opened her mouth and closed it again. She let it sit there between them.

“Mom, how long did it take you to get over dad?” Sarah exhaled every breath she had in her, let her shoulders fall towards her chest.

“I don’t know…”
“Mom, we never talk about this and I want to talk about it,” Claire insisted. She set her gaze on her mother and did not move.

“It…” Sarah breathed in. “A surprisingly short amount of time. I’m not really comfortable with how little time it took. But I was so removed from his death.” Claire put her chin in her hand. She knew there was probably more to it than that, but also that there wasn’t. She watched a deer appear at the roadside, meet her eyes for a moment, and then bound back into the woods. She thought about the photos and the casket and closed her eyes against an opening, a widening inside her stomach. The road washed under the car’s tires; Claire heard snow and rock and trees and ice rushing around her. She placed her mother there in her stomach and braced her from the avalanche. She placed a palm on her mom’s leg.

“I met a boy,” she said.

“Claire?”

“On the mountain. I was hiking last week and he was there.” Claire’s face disappeared further into her hair.

“What’s his name?” Sarah drew the vowel out to a tease and stuck her elbow into her young woman’s side. Claire said that his name is Steven.

“And you met Steve on a mountain?” Sarah asked.

“It’s Steven, and yeah, you know the one.”

“Well,” Sarah smiled, “I’m just going to hang on to that N until I meet him.”

“I told him about dad,” Claire said after a pause. “I tried not to but we were right there.” Her mother put her hand on her shoulder and asked what Steve had said

about that.

“He said dad died a hero.”

Sarah grimaced a sympathetic smile, turned her headlights on and let the night fold over both of them.

 

 

When Claire woke up there was beeping and the hushed whine of oxygen flowing through tubes. She felt heavy and hewn to the bed and when she tried to speak, whispers could barely escape her drought-dry mouth.

“What is she saying?”

“She’s saying ‘Hold my hand.’” Steven leaned back in the chair by his wife’s bedside, slackened his neck, examined the ceiling. His mother-in-law stood next to him, watching Claire’s eyelids ripple as her eyes rolled around underneath. “Hold my hand,” Steven and Claire repeated as he reached for the call button.

 

“Steven threw up in the helicopter,” Claire cracked quietly from under morphine.

“Oh, come on!” her husband mock-protested, “No scrap of dignity in this?”

“Nope,” she smiled.

Sarah watched the two laughing in the face of four broken ribs, a recently inflated lung, seven other fractures in the legs and arms. The doctor had said it was a wonder her daughter’s spine had made it out of the fall intact. Claire’s wheezing chuckle died down and Sarah mentioned that they had been on the news.

“Yeah,” Steven chimed. “Channel 7 covered the rescue live.” If she could have moved her arms, Claire would have covered her face in her hands. Instead she lay still and dipped back under the painkillers in her blood, like sliding into a warm bath. She thought to tell Steven to call his parents, ask how her little girl was, bring the phone to her ear, let them whisper between the two of them, secrets about mountains and boys and eagles and ancient trees; mother and daughter, etching sense into injury. Claire opened her mouth, closed it, and was asleep.

Sarah and Steven watched their young woman like a setting sun and side by side they were alone.

“I’m sorry this happened to you two,” Sarah said.

“Thank you” he said. “Seeing her slip off that ledge and disappear was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced.” Sarah looked straight ahead, trying not to picture it, not to picture Mount Washington and its craggy sides casting a long shadow over her home forever. “You would have been proud of how calm she was. Her father would have been proud of her.” Sarah stiffened. “Are you sure you don’t want to sit?”

“I’m fine,” Sarah said. An image appeared in her mind: her daughter in winter boots, green pants, khaki shirt, calmly ascending the summit of a mountain, and there finding her father. He extends his hand to her, his crisp ranger uniform fit to his tall muscular frame, and with a handsome smile he meets her for the first time. Sarah drew a breath and the image changed to her daughter as she tumbles down a rocky grade, her limbs flail and her body breaks and Sarah shook herself back to the present and focused her eyes on her girl’s sleeping face.

There was a dull buzz in Steven’s pocket. He answered his phone with a hushed hello and stepped out of the room, turning around in the doorway to say his parents were on their way with his daughter and he’d be back in an hour. Sarah watched him go, phone to his ear, down the hallway and around a corner. The low fuzz of instruments retook the room. Sarah sat at the end of Claire’s bed, put her palms on her lap and leaned in, taking a breath.

“Mom?”

“Yes, Claire,” she replied, automatically, cheer entering her voice a moment too late. “I’m here!”

“Mommy!” The girl wriggled the few exposed fingers she had at the end of the cast and Sarah took them in hers and cleared her throat.

“Claire, I have something to tell you.” The breathing apparatus huffed and the girl blinked her eyes. “There was no avalanche.” Her daughter’s brow furrowed, but she continued before the girl could speak. “Your father did not die on Mount Washington, he didn’t die in an avalanche.”

There was suddenly no air in the room. Claire’s fingers held tight. Mother and daughter sat suspended, the hours held for them to return. Novels of conversation passed between their eyes; arguments, fights, forgetting and retelling. Claire searched her mother’s face for answers while Sarah tried to draw forgiveness from her girl’s furrowed brow.

“He left,” Sarah finally said, and it took Claire a moment to piece this to what had come before. “You were three and he left us. When you were four I heard from his brother that he fell in a river and drowned. I hadn’t heard from him in over a year.” The words hung on the hiss of machinery. Claire’s fingers somehow tightened. There were tears on her face. Sarah reached and swept them away. “You and I were alone in the world and you…you stayed so happy in spite of not having a dad that I didn’t want to crush that with the truth. So I made up this bigger tragedy–a heroic tragedy. And that was so much easier for you to carry than the truth would have been.”

Claire felt the rumble of snow and rocks and trees and ice around her, felt a familiar widening in her stomach and inside it stretched her arms against the tumbling mountain. She saw her mother step calmly from the billowing white to whisper in her ear, There has never been this. This will always be with you. As best as the morphine would allow, she arranged her face around sympathetic eyes. Sarah smiled and said she was glad she understood.

“I know you hate stories,” she said.

I don’t hate stories, Claire said in a flutter of her eyes and a crook of her neck.

“I am so so sorry this happened to you, little girl.”

I love you, too, Mom, Claire said in the curls of her fingers, in the lines of her face.

 

Steven returned with his parents, with his and Claire’s little girl. The child tip-toed as quietly as she could to the edge of her mother’s bed and put her arms up. Steven lifted her to Claire’s feet and she slid beside her mother’s hip to a chorus of carefuls, and rested her arm, outstretched, under her head. Claire smiled at the girl there, felt her impatient warmth wedged between her body and the bedrail, felt her shoes toeing at the cast on her leg.

“Mommy, why did you fall off the mountain?”

Claire smiled wider and swallowed the pain of a laugh. She wiggled her fingers and the girl wrapped her hand around them.

“Well you see, your grandpa was a mountain ranger.”

Myke Johns: Selected Works

Capone On Ponce: The Importance of a Good Lie, And Other Truths of Southern Storytelling,

Essay in The Bitter Southerner, July 2014

This multimedia story is an expansion of a radio feature I wrote for WABE. That radio story won a 2014 Georgia Association of Broadcasters award for Best Short Form Feature, and revisiting it for the then still-young Bitter Southerner felt like a natural next step. This is a good example of how stories lead to other stories — I started writing about a gangster and wound up with an article about the changing face of Atlanta. Funny how that happens.

 

GrantMullinsKhasheeRaheem_byMykeJohns_041415 (1)

Atlanta’s Homeless Men Finding Peace In Art Class

Feature story on WABE Atlanta, 90.1 FM, May 2015

The pitch for this story was originally along the lines of hey, we’ve got this art exhibit opening we’d like to talk about, and I’m very glad we chose to go a little further. The morning I spent with these men and women was incredibly humbling and I went away from those interviews feeling like I had a very fragile bird in my hands, and I had to be careful not to hurt it or let it get away. The work Central OAC is doing it crucial and I hope that I represented them and the people they serve with respect.

 

Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage Theatre Recounts Their Worst Scene Ever

Feature story on WABE Atlanta, 90.1 FM, July 2016

This is a story about falling on your face, finding redemption, and Genghis Khan. This is not just one my favorite stories I’ve done, but one of my favorite stories I’ve learned about Atlanta, full stop. The nature of the work I do is that I’m a cheerleader, an advocate for the voices and talents in Atlanta. So getting to tell a story about abject failure and the learning that happens after it was a real treat.

 

Artwork by Chelsea Raflo

Indoor Fireworks

Fiction in Creative Loafing Atlanta, January 2013

This story placed third in Creative Loafing‘s annual fiction contest. The prompt for this story was “the meaning of life.” So of course I wrote about a sentient house that falls in love with its owners. And the thing about falling in love is that sooner or later, you’re going to get your heart broken…

Our Greatest Challenge Is Change

The only change we have to change is change itself

“Reversal of Man” by Make Blackout Poetry

This rambling essay about breakups, The Pixies, and the dangers of settling into adulthood was written for and performed live at the launch party for Make Blackout Poetry‘s book, “Hidden Messages of Hope,” out on Deer Bear Wolf Press.

 

 

One sign of my age is my continued devotion to dead media, and I’m not talking about print. Worse: CDs. I know. I KNOW. “Just use your phone;” shut up. There is currently a stack of stuff piling up on top of my stereo, threatening to topple at any moment. This stack just happens to have my copy of The Pixies’ Doolittle that I bought in high school. It still has the slip of paper in the booklet where I wrote out the album sequence that I prefer, which puts “Monkey Gone To Heaven” at the END where it SHOULD BE. I mean, you can’t have that kind of ephemera with a bunch of mp3s, but I didn’t come here to talk about mp3s, I came here to talk about a breakup. Fucking of course that’s why I’m here.

 

So my freshman year — this is 1996 — I made understudy in the school’s big musical production of “The Robber Bridegroom.” Understudy makes it sound like I was in any way prepared to step into a role — I was not. Mostly I hung around backstage and helped move setpieces around. I’m pretty sure I was on the crew but someone told me I was an understudy because high school theatre students are super dramatic and they didn’t want me to, you know, DO something. We go away for a weekend to this theatre conference like hours away, I don’t remember where, and my girlfriend of like…three years? Yeah, she breaks up with me in the back of our director’s mini van ON THE WAY THERE. To a weekend where we’re gonna be in close quarters, where she will also be making out with MY BEST FRIEND. GODDAMNIT LISA. GODDAMNIT BRIAN. (I gotta stop using their real names when I tell this story). Jesus. I didn’t DO anything, I just kinda wandered around shell-shocked for two days until some adult herded me back into a car and drove us back home…but not before stopping at a mall so this pack of hormonal teenagers could fuck around for like an hour and grab some Sbarro’s.

I miss Sbarro’s. Do they still have those? I haven’t been to a mall in a while.

I wandered into a Camelot Music and started flipping through the racks of CDs filed under “P.” I’d had the Pixies in my “to buy” list for a while since I’d read all those interviews where Kurt Cobain talked about Black Francis and how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just a Pixies ripoff, but this was the mid-90s and there was no Spotify, no YouTube, and I was a shrimpy high schooler who had just had his fucking heart torn out of his concave chest — I hadn’t discovered college radio I think is what I’m trying to say. So yeah, I brought Doolittle up to the register and I was like…twenty cents short. The guy there scanned something, knocked like a buck off the price and sent me on my way. God bless bored suburban music store clerks.

So I suffered through another hour of breakup hell and got home and laid down in my darkened bedroom and put the album on… and I mean, y’all know how it goes, right? Kim Deal’s bass thumps in and makes way for Joey Santiago’s surprisingly pop-friendly screeching guitar and David Lovering’s expert drumming. And then Frank Black comes in SCREAMING and I was fifteen, I’d just had my very soul stomped on by another fifteen year old — how humiliating is that? Like, if your soul gets destroyed, it should be at the hands of a demon or an evil wizard, not someone who just got their learner’s permit for Christ’s sake. I was going to be alone forever, I figured, but at that precise moment — the moment I heard GOT ME A MOVIE, I WANT YOU TO KNOW — absolutely none of that mattered because I was TERRIFIED. Oh my god! This guy’s screaming about slicing up eyeballs and then shouting in some foreign language and the guy CAN’T SING but he can SCREAM like I’ve never heard anyone scream. It’s not angry, it sounds completely unhinged. IT IS AMAZING. Cut to a montage of me never shutting up about the Pixies to my disinterested friends, playing out over the Peel Session version of “Letter To Memphis.”

 

Okay, so that was twenty years ago. So why am I still up here bitching about a breakup that I went through in high school? One reason is that I’ve been married for ten years, so I don’t have a lot of hilarious breakup stories like a lot of my younger friends do.

 

You know who else has kind of a hilarious break up story? The Pixies. Yeah, so after Doolittle, the band started smoking WAY too much pot and went from being a demented surf rock band to… a surf rock band on Bossanova, which is still a damn fine record. But they were young, they had egos, and the rifts were forming between them. By the time Frank Black wrote Trompe Le Monde — which is barely a Pixies record, it’s more like Black’s first solo album featuring members of his band who all hated each other. Each member recorded their parts separately, they were never in the studio at the same time, and you can feel it in the music. It doesn’t hang together in the way Surfer Rosa did. It doesn’t sound like a band. It sounds like a project.

 

In 1993, Frank Black’s doing a radio interview with the BBC and he announces that the Pixies are dead. A fact that he has neglected to share with his bandmates. He later broke the news to the VIA FAX. That’s kinda funny, right? Or at least, very 1990s of him. I wonder if there was a cover letter.

 

One reason to look back is to assess where we are now. For instance, in 1996 if you had told me that just a couple decades later I would be ignoring a Pixies reunion complete with new albums…and would instead be waaaaaaaaay more into a solo album by that woman from Destiny’s Child, I would have laughed Right. Into. Your. Face.

 

My breakup with Lisa sucked. But I moved on. There were other girlfriends who destroyed me in unique new ways. And now, 35 year old me is virtually unrecognizable to my judgemental and very earnest 15 year old self and That’s Fine. I have a career I like, I’m married to a woman who makes things with her hands, I have a beautiful son, I have stacks of CDs piling up everywhere, my hair is starting to go grey, I’m gaining weight, I don’t go out as much anymore…I have found consistency in this swirling world of fluxus and chaos.

 

It’s the thing a million romantic comedy moms have told romantic comedy sons — find someone nice. Settle down.

 

So I’m going to take a quick break from talking about the Pixies to rave at you about another, far more unpleasant band. They’re called Plebeian Grandstand, they’re from Toulouse, France. They are ostensibly a combination of hardcore and black metal, but what they sound like is a brutal nightmare. Drums that sound like arms and necks breaking, a singer…”singer,” who is like an unrelenting font of hideous screams, a guitarist whose only goal in life, seemingly, is to kill absolutely everyone. There are no traditional song structures and songs tumble through riffs and breakdowns like Godzilla wantonly destroying one building, then that one, and maybe these three at once now.

I love them.

 

I love them so much. They are one of my favorite bands. And they were on tour! In the States, like this month. And they passed through Nashville and I was like, YES. I’m driving to Nashville and I’m going to sweat and scream along with my favorite band and I’ll probably sleep in a rest area parking lot on the way home, but it’ll be awesome and then I didn’t go because I don’t know, I was tired or something that day.

 

I mean, I used to drive home from the 40 Watt at like 4 in the morning swerving all over the road because who gives a damn about “tomorrow?” My wife and I once BOUGHT A FUCKING CAR so that we could get up to Washington DC to see The Dismemberment Plan tear the roof off the 9:30 Club when they reunited in 2011. We absolutely should not have done that but it was amazing! But now…the longer you stay settled, the more you view flux as a threat rather than something you can power through and sleep off.

 

There’s this great song on Doolittle. In the middle of this crazyass album full of wailing guitars and banshee screams, there’s this song called “Hey.” It slows shit down. It’s got this jangly do-wop guitar part and a walking bass line, it’s practically a Motown song compared to the rest of the album, only Frank Black is still yelping about whores and babies breaking. It’s fucking mad and it culminates with this lament:

 

We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained. We’re chained.

 

It’s as if the pathos in his voice alone could set him free. Not all of our songs need to sound the same. And the ones that stand out can be the ones that deliver us.

 

As humans, there is a part of us that resists change. Even fears it. But we do it all the time. All through my 20s, I think I moved to a new house or apartment or town nearly every year. I quit jobs, I dropped classes, I willingly threw my life into chaos and it was fine. It was even a little fun. And it got me here.

 

In steadfast adulthood, there is a danger of calcifying. You stick to your routine until your routine is all you have and you’re just a lone bassist, in a studio with your bandmates in your headphones and nowhere to be seen, making music you hate because it’s just kind of what you do now. You’re chained.

 

Our greatest challenge is change, not in beating it back, but inviting it in. Letting it remind us that our lives require dynamics — that loud-quiet-loud that makes albums like Doolittle so exciting and…a little terrifying…and vital. I want you to know.