Pushcart XL: Perry Janes, “Night Movers” from Glimmer Train #90

The month my stepbrother Tony died in a ball of gas-lit flame, the Sarychev Peak Volcano erupted in Russia and changed the Michigan sunset. It was all over the news: particles blown into the atmosphere and diffusing across the continents. The way they interfered with the refraction of light over the Mississippi, the Chattanooga, the Detroit River. It turned the sky true lavender, no pinks or reds or blues.
… The way I saw it, I opened each night with the show of what the day had offered. Red meant the day had been a mild one. Orange, the city had run itself hot, and overflowed. Those stripey motherfuckers that looked like a stack of multicolored pancakes, filled with pinks and all the rest, meant the day had been a tired one.
But that lavender had me stumped.

Pluck a guitar string; play a note on a piano; tap a spoon on a crystal goblet: the sound will continue long after the initial strike. In contrast, the sound of a smack on a pillow ends immediately. Musical instruments are designed for resonance. Some materials, like crystal, have a natural resonance that others, such as cloth, lack.

One definition of resonance: “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.” Note the two components: reverberations of the original sound off nearby objects, and additional sound generated as those nearby objects are themselves put into motion by the original sound. For some astonishing effects of sound resonance, take a look at science Youtuber Brusspup’s demonstrations with salt and water. Powerful stuff, resonance.

It’s a word I tend to use a lot (at least six times in reference to different stories throughout this blog) as a kind of shorthand for something that touched me in a lot of ways. Multiple overtones and harmonics, rather than a one-note story. I’m not sure this story resonates with me, but it sure resonates with itself, creating layers upon layers of interwoven imagery from a variety of surfaces and neighboring objects, things as diverse as the raped and abandoned city of Detroit, a death not yet fully mourned, and ashes from a Russian volcano. All of that resonance comes together in, obviously enough, a massive schoolyard bell mysteriously out of context.

Zeke hasn’t been working for Tye as a night mover for very long, only a month or so since his brother’s death. I’m not familiar with night movers. Apparently it’s a thing the foreclosed and evicted do at the last minute, though I’m not sure what moving out in the middle of the night buys them; how much more evicted can they get? The point is that these evictions are so routine, businesses have set up to accommodate them. I’m reminded of the Michael Moore film Roger and Me showing a similar string of evictions from Flint homes.

The insidious poverty and despair is another harmonic running through the piece. ” Tye was part of a new migration of suburbanites to Detroit, enamored with the idea of rebuilding what was left behind.” The more cynical among us might wonder if all that leaving behind was engineered, or at least not seriously resisted, for the express purpose of rebuilding at bargain rates. The catastrophe we glibly refer to as stalled socioeconomic mobility resonates through Zeke’s brother’s death, as well as through the job Zeke uses to tame his insomnia.

Emptiness is a vacuum; absence is a memory.

I’m enchanted by that difference – if it even is a difference. Perhaps it’s meant to be a recapitulation, but I see emptiness and absence as very distinct things. Emptiness is a base condition. Absence is the result of something that was there, but is no more. Like a brother. Or a city.

The plot of the story covers one night, one moving job. I’m quite taken with Zeke’s observation about evictees always leaving a photograph behind. Ashes spread around the globe, perhaps. A presence to resist the absence. And in this home, a strange discovery: a huge schoolyard bell, tipped on its side, far to heavy for two men to move.

Then I realized that the bell was humming. Note so low it almost went unnoticed. The ringing peaked and quieted like my echo talking back.

Resonance. The ashes from Russia, the bell from a schoolyard, the diaspora of the poor, a haunting death. And now, the literal resonance of this bell, emitting sub-aural tones. That’s pretty impressive story construction, all those elements, none of which feels emphasized, but all of which create an ominous roar.

In checking out the author, as I tend to do when I encounter someone for the first time, I discovered that Janes (who, forgive the stereotypes, looks far more like the president of his high school computer club than a weaver of darkly perceptive resonance) has made a short film titled “Zug”. That surprised me, since the quote just above reminded of Jamaal May’s poem, “The Hum of Zug Island”, which I encountered in last year’s Pushcart. Zug Island outside Detroit has achieved some notoriety for its subliminal hum. I also note the story was recommended for Pushcart by Timothy Hedges, whose tense piece about a Detroit bus appeared in the 2013 Pushcart. All the writer’s horses and all the writer’s men can’t seem to put Detroit back together again. And again I must wonder if that’s because someone wants it that way. Privatized schools, privatized prisons: are privatized cities the next step? Or do I need to get a tin foil hat?

I see this is the final piece in this year’s Pushcart. An interesting choice: a final note that continues to sound after the book is closed. Powerful stuff, resonance.

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