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Winner of the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize Jessica Lee Richardson’s debut collection It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides teems with double magicfamilies of spiders, monsters in triplicate, and panels of bleacher-sitting grandfathers (who live in a diaphragm!) cohabitate with a starker, more familiar kind of strange in a hyper real and living tapestry of teenage porn stars, lovelorn factory workers, and art world auctioneers. From a woman who awakes from a short kidnapping with an unquenchable need for risk to a concrete boat ride gone off the rails, from Los Angeles to the Bronx, from the Midwest to North Korea, these stories explore the absurd in real spaces and the real in absurd spaces, seeking a way into something else entirely. Here, environments participate in agency, and voice compels movement forward, through, and in. Richly patterned language refuses singularity and the finger trap of the binary, seeking permeability in its reflection, a soft net to catch collective echoes. The collection begins and ends with stories that literalize descent and ascent, bookending the mirrored shape of the book’s arrangement as a vision of an inverted arc. The shape of story is literalized. We slide down from a mountaintop all the way to the inside of a womb and back, slipping on slopes unmarked by signs, catching stunning glimpses along the way. The journey along the track of desire might be frightening if it weren’t for all the water, if it weren’t for the bounce of the ride.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Jessica Lee Richardson was born in New Jersey, began her career as a performer living in Brooklyn, and earned her MFA in 2013 from the University of Alabama. Her writing has appeared in the Indiana Review, Caketrain, and Joyland, and has been recognized with awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum.
Read an Excerpt
It had Been Planned and there were Guides
By Jessica Lee Richardson
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2015 Jessica Lee Richardson
All rights reserved.
call me silk
They come in a truck. They are a man and a woman, but really they are just the man. I don't wish to describe him. The truck has a commercial bed, closed white box, and it's from within it that the couple do all of their smiling and offering of warm drinks. I'll describe the woman. She has a wonderful smile. That's not a specific description is it? She has shoulder length brown hair, curly. Her mouth wags out wide and shoots joy teeth into crow's feet like blankets. How's that? She nods a lot, reassuringly, with the smile. The man, here I am doing it, it's hard not to picture him. I don't want to give you this problem. But have you ever seen the drawings of the strange man that thousands of people all claim to have dreamed? It's scary to look at him because he has a face that lives at the edges of dream. Which is to say that while all of the components of his face are familiar, the arrangement is not. The guy in the truck is like that. Except much cozier looking than the man thousands of people have dreamed.
I don't know the names of the familiar man and woman. You'd think I'd have gotten them. I was too busy feeling safe in the back of a truck, with this couple that looked like aging parents, that by the looks of it have an infant grandchild somewhere with toes to tickle. I guess I still wanted parents. Or to be tickled.
The man was bald and a nodder too, though his smile was thinner than the woman's. I felt lighthearted in their presence. Except that's not right because it's just a term. My heart literally felt light, airy, but the impression of this full floating heart was dead serious and my limbs grew heavy as magnets while my lungs soared. It was clear this couple was up to something. They offered me tea just because I peeked into their truck. They were so constant with the smiling.
In my naïveté I thought it was Christianity they were up to. One of the weirder kinds, maybe, the rapturous. So I was naturally hesitant about the free tea. The air feeling I had propelled me into the truck, though, and they offered me a cushion. They had cushions lying around. The kind tied to the backs of kitchen chairs, except no kitchen chairs. Just the nod-smiling and a nearly imperceptible encroaching. They came closer and closer to me, physically, as we talked. They never mentioned anything religious, but everything about them continued to imply it. I started trying to back away and that's when I had no choice about the tea despite my right hand raised in protest. I was suddenly sipping it because the man was suddenly holding my head back and pressing the mug into my mouth. I didn't spit the tepid tea water in his face. He was breathing on my neck and his old man cheeks smelled like cheese. His pupils had taken on a much less paternal, much more concentrated gaze. My chest still felt like it had broken into a feathery dream, though. I was in some sort of chest-based heaven, so I began to feel like the tea was important, like these people maybe had something better than Christianity inside them. Like they knew something more than me, something that elevated the air around them, the people. I sipped.
I guess they probably did have something elevating and I guess it was some sort of drug. It did not resemble any drug experience I've ever known. I've taken some drugs, who hasn't? In this case "drug" is an oversimplification and maybe always is.
The man did not know more than me. I was not elevated, in fact, I went down when I swallowed, and when I did, I was in a swimming pool. The man was with me in the pool, in the exact same position as he was in the truck, pulling my head back, pressing into me. His dick was hard, I could feel it against me. It was smothering me, more so than a simple body could, this dick and man. I felt like my own bones were shrinking and squishing the rest of me into a space I didn't fit in. All of me raging against my frame. It tasted like chlorine, this death I was sure was upon me. Like cum with a hint of old man face.
Then it was over. I woke up beside where the truck had been and the truck was gone. Clearly the couple was gone too. I guess it could have been roofies. That's the logical explanation. I had been unconscious but had emerged with a sliver of swimming pool dreaming. I was shaken, but felt otherwise unchanged. I was wrong, though, about being unchanged.
It could have been coincidence, but coincidence has its limits. However strange coincidence can be, it isn't perfect. This is a story of perfection.
After I woke by the truck, I started taking risks. Not normal risks. Insane risks. I took my first one that same night. I'll tell you about it in a second. I want to explain that these risks I take don't ever kill me. I keep upping the danger levels, mainly because I can't help it, but partly to test that theory. I continually do not die. I'm sure I can die, like any living thing, but I seem unable to die while taking these risks. Another strange thing about the risks is that I always wind up in a swimming pool. There will not be a detectable swimming pool anywhere near the risk that's gotten inside me. That's how it is, by the way, the risk gets inside me. I don't know why I want to enact this frightful idea, I only feel that I'll die if I don't. But no matter how far from swimming pools the risk is, I wind up in one at the completion. Within mere hours, I'm always in a pool I did not seek out.
Explain this to me. Please.
The first one, okay, the first pool on that first night, I did seek out. I didn't make the connection. I just got the inclination that I must jump from the top of a house. I left the dirt by the side of the now non-existent truck and found the tallest house I could. I climbed it from the outside. I didn't want to break my legs, so when I saw the pool in the back yard beyond the turret, I aimed for it. The splash woke the family, but I was too busy enjoying the cold blue eternity-in-a-moment feeling. I didn't notice them staring. So I got fished out and had to explain. I really couldn't, either, I mostly just shivered and apologized dumbly, shaking my head.
I had a lot of explaining to do in those first months. Most people decided I was crazy and you probably will too. It's easy to call people like me crazy. Most people like easy. So I'll spare you detail and give you a montage. I exhausted building climbing and leaping pretty quickly and used all of my savings on extreme sports expeditions. I tried hang gliding, skydiving, base-jumping, many kinds of boarding — sand, snow, wave. You can imagine how weird it was to wind up in a pool on snowy mountain peaks, but I'm telling you, pools are everywhere. They snuck snaking around the globe at some point in architectural history. I grew restless with each sport, ridding myself of more and more gear, footholds be damned. I jumped face down, tried wing suits, graduated to paragliding. I chose the highest, rockiest descents I could find. You may have read profiles on me because I couldn't help but attract attention, maybe because I'm a girl, though I wasn't the only girl doing the adrenaline thing. Still, someone was always tattling about my lack of precaution to the publications that crop up around fear hunger.
As a side note, I once got involved with a group of extreme ironers. They climb high peaks with an ironing board and when they get to the top, iron a shirt. I don't count the hilltop ironing as a part of the set of absurd missions that overtook me after meeting the couple in the truck, but I laughed a lot that day. I wasn't beyond humor despite how seriously I seemed to take myself.
I also wasn't much interested in the communities that surround these "aggro" sports. But you have to wiggle into them at first to hop rides and get a feel for terrains. I soon ran out of money, but stopped in resort towns and bartended for more funds. Sometimes I sold pot. I refused offers to advertise because it seemed to sterilize an activity of its danger to have the Budweiser logo streaming across your kitewing.
I want to explain, it wasn't that I lost my fear. I've stood at the top of Angel Falls with nothing but a piece of ripstop polyester and some string between me and falling into water moving at 9.8 meters per second, barreling into the rock of its midsection with a force great enough to chop off my limbs, seeing only through the fish eye lens of vertigo a height so high it's a skewed painting screaming with wind. Yes, I was trembling from head to foot. Some of the guys I was with didn't tremble like that. There is a way to lose fear, and I believe I understand how it's done. But I didn't want to lose my fear. I wanted to shake like that. Inside of that shake, if I closed my eyes, was the air chest, was a dream I never wake up from. Not the dream of the man. The dream I made with the materials at hand, my life.
There comes a point where you can no longer top yourself, though. Beyond committing suicide, there is no higher place to go, no faster, no fewer safety nets. People try. They combine features of multiple sports, like those parkour guys with the spring shoes. But combinations are a recipe for restlessness. The peak has been reached and frustration is the only result thereafter. I've seen it. The dudes that go that route wind up dead, and not even a glorious death, because it happens during some boneheaded inferior thrill. I never had the option to go down that path. My motivations sprung up from within, unavoidable as sucking on oxygen, and they were always scarier and scarier. But they changed course suddenly, so I must have peaked at Meru.
I wasn't the first to jump the Himalayan peak, but record setting never had anything to do with it for me. The pool that ended that day was obviously in the hotel, as it was for many of my escapades, but I never meant to wind up in any of them beyond the first. After Meru I got off on the wrong floor and of course it was the pool and of course I wanted to avoid it, but was pulled to peer into the water like my eyes were suction cups. And I kid you not, a little spindly kid with a pointy face pushed me into the deep end in my clothes. The same thing happened that always happens. I can't get out. I am under and under until I am fished. Blanketed and having to nod a lot and apologize and swear I wasn't trying to commit suicide in your hotel. After that, I had a brief flirtation with entering war zones. Then my obsessions quickly switched to love.
There is a point in love where you can slip the silk, as I call it. You are holding onto the silk, and then you loosen your grip and fall backwards in the romantic equivalent of one of those startling dreams that wake you with a hypnic jerk and a tummy flip. Sure, people do this every day, but there are some deep descents.
First I met Bob. He was a free soloist. I was still tooling around in adventure sports because I didn't know yet that my body had chosen new hurdles for me and in between impulse was practice for impulse. We did Yosemite together once I got in shape enough. It bored me, to be honest. I'm not making light of how dangerous it is to climb straight rock walls thousands of feet with nothing but your fingers and toes and severe exhaustion. It just wasn't my thing. I was longing to go back to Somalia to munch on rooti and dance with the Sufi in between insurrections. But watching him and his sexy command of the uncommandable was irresistible and I slipped the silk. Literally, first, on a practice climb with ropes. I fell. He took the opportunity to fuck me while we dangled, laughing, in a part of the chimney crevasse obscured from tourist view. It was all very sweet. At first. It took me three more loves to figure out that I was into some extreme loving now, physical danger having nothing on emotional danger.
What I had to do next was subjugate myself, further and further into the great pearl of power hiding at the dead center of utter humiliation. Fun stuff.
Bob's distant, slow retreat was a bunny butt compared to what was to come later. It was the classic scenario. Young sexy alpha gets bored once he knows he's won female's affection. You've heard this one. Chances are you've lived it from one side or the other, at one strata or another. I started baking and sticking sweet notes in his backpack. He started going to bars more, staying out later, taking over an hour to cum on the rare occasions we had sex. Ouch. Oh, that first slip slices. I didn't see it coming. I still had pride. I didn't understand the sickness.
We're going down now, are you ready? Hold onto your rope.
Next I loved a Dick whose name wasn't Dick. He was just an intellectual. I'm sure not all intellectuals are like this, but this one had a squint of disdain like a spike in his eye. Pointed at me, usually, when I spoke. We met at a party. We stood by a window and smoked cigarettes while I chewed olives. I was interesting to him because of my unique set of experiences. He was interesting to me because of his darting sparkler brain. But I should have understood by the way he referenced philosophers after my every sentence, comparing my last jump to prescriptions made by a man made mad by a horse, that he was seeing through me. Or rather, I was a bit of data to add to a nest of connections he needed to constantly plug together to feel validated. The story is boring, it adds up to this: enough squints pile over squints and it begins to smart. A laser aimed at your identity like it's a mole. A banana slicer separating the mush of your most precious truths. A father insisting you are a child. I loved him anyway. I loved even the small nervous boy inside of him, demanding he try to win at everything, even a glance. He often disappeared for months at a time not calling. Finally he told me I have bad genes because my grandmother is crazy, which she isn't, and disappeared for good.
I found myself in a pool. I greeted the clear weight now, the under and press of blue and bleach.
The next guy beat me up. This story makes me sound so un-feminist. I didn't understand until this abuser that these relationships were products of my old risk curse, which I'd assumed I had broken. I should have. I'd zoom in on these men in a bar, or at a bookstore (because now I'm reading philosophers too of course, linguists), or at a camp and I'd tunnel into them. My feet would walk me to them before my brain could interrupt. My affections would gather and swell my organs and blood from throat to vagina, filled to secretion like an untied water balloon. Swish I'd go. I didn't not leave the guy who beat me because I'm a battered woman type. I didn't leave him because everything inside me insisted itself upon the situation, wanted to pierce the membrane of it to get at what was behind. But probably no battered woman is a type. Maybe they all have risk curses, I don't know. He finally left me because I laughed through the blood bubbling through myteeth. He couldn't ever hurt me enough. He never even had to bring flowers of apology, I'd burrow under his armpits fetal, concussed with love. I will say to the women who are not, like me, on a quest for the scariest situation they can find, that the guy who beats you is not necessarily a big violent bruiser cussing at flies. He's hiding in crowds of perfectly nice seeming people. He may even be small and quiet, as mine was. Scary hides inside not scary. I miss him.
Something happens when the worst of the worst keep abandoning you. They are telling you — YOU are the worst of the worst, because even I, shitty as I am, can't bear YOU. They enjoy showing you the extent of your shittiness. But so do you. Or I, I should say I. I was enjoying the displays, a part of me was.
The first of my adventures had to do with inclines. The last of them had to do with declines. At the lowest place there is nothing to lose anymore. No accusation can swing by that hasn't already arrowed into your face. There's freedom in that. In freedom there's a way back up. Of course, I didn't know that yet, not fully. I was programmed somehow, perhaps by a cup of tea in a truck, to put myself on the line.
Each love was stronger in its envelopment. I'd buzz to the tips of my toes, drool with ecstasy for each successive bum with more intensity. I mean bum, literally. There was a sequence — addict, sociopath, suicidal. The latter was tough. I loved him with the feral warmth of a mother layered over with the clutch of lust. When he pilled himself into the great oblivion he blamed me in the note.
Finally, I fell blisteringly in love with a homeless man. It wasn't until then that I began to see the wisdom in these impulses of mine. Yes, the heartbreak was greater and greater. I couldn't even walk sometimes for the heaviness of so much longing stuffed in, the place for it to go all gone. The deafening pain of the blunt scoop of desire's sweet spoon. Here, eat, it says. But at some point you realize like old Thyestes that it's you there in the bowl. The child of you. I shuffled. I didn't tie my shoes. That's how I met Jarred. He saw my untied shoes and thought I was homeless too. I was close. I was staying on my brother's couch in downtown LA. He was the only family member left who still put up with me. It was hard to hold a job with all that pulsing and searing. Jarred asked if I had a cigarette. Of course I did. No gambler is without her pack of smokes. When my eyes met his, the feather plummet, the cool blue of recognition, the edges of his red eyes where they joined the lashes and the way they wouldn't look. I was mad for him. I'd wandered into the tent village, I noticed, as I looked for a slab of concrete where I could pull his body down and suck on it. Tents, even better. I put a tit in his mouth and pulled him in. He didn't protest. It's the way of the homeless, broken and slow, taking whatever comes. We came. We came and came and we shook the tent. He smelled terrible, like gas doused in vinegar and sharpened. I invited him back to my brother's place for a shower. It was how I was kicked out of any semblance of normalcy. Even family doesn't take to a homeless guy frying eggs in their kitchen.
Excerpted from It had Been Planned and there were Guides by Jessica Lee Richardson. Copyright © 2015 Jessica Lee Richardson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
call me silk,
all she had,
check and chase,
no, go, continued,
not the problem,
our acts together,
the best deal,
even the line,
the lips the teeth the tip of the tongue,