It’s been awhile. More than a year ago, I wrote a short story. At least I thought it was a short story. The story is called The Jump. It’s somewhat hard to believe it has been 15 months since I first wrote that piece. Ever since, the story has intrigued me and mystified me. A few months later, I wrote and posted The President’s Men, chapter two in what I envision could be a novel.
What follows is the third chapter.
The last couple of months I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I’m not really sure why I’ve stuck with it, but I have. Today I finished the sixth book of the seven book series. Towards the end, King inserts himself as a character into the tale and as he’s conversing with Roland and Eddie, he says this about why he stopped writing a particular story:
I don’t know, one day you just start having less fun while you’re sitting there, tapping the keys. Seeing less clearly. Getting less of a buzz from telling yourself the story. And then, to make things worse, you get a new idea, one that’s all bright and shiny, fresh off the showroom floor, not a scratch on her. Completely unfucked-up by you, at least as of yet. And … well …
I know how he feels. The months in between the writing of these three chapters have been all about not getting much of a buzz from telling myself the story. It’s odd. I’m excited about this piece, as I am about most of my unfinished novels (of which I now think I need more than one hand to count). I’m really excited about the possibilities with each of them. But I get no buzz from telling myself the story. And if I get no buzz, how can I expect the reader to get that buzz?
And then there’s the fear that the story that needs to be told, wants to be told, will be fucked up by yours truly. So, why bother writing. My internal editor pretty hates everything I write these days.
The problem with The Jump is that I know how it will end, but there’s a lot of dark space between here and then. I’m not sure how I will get to the end. Except that it will be a road trip. That uncertainty is great fuel for a hypercritical Internal Editor.
The other problem is that I just could not figure out how to write this chapter without fucking it up. I had an idea to go here or go there or zig zag between here and there. Or just blow the whole thing up and come up with something completely different.
In the end, I decided to go with what I had done up to this point. I filled in some details, tried to organize the thing. It needs editing. But here it is. Chapter 3 of The Jump. And I at least know how I’ll start Chapter 4. Wish me luck and let me know what you think.
Before we left Omaha, I took Nicole back to our parents’ home and down to the basement. “This is why I think he’s out there somewhere.” I pointed out the backpacks. Piled up, along with canned goods, sleeping bags, and everything else he had stored away. Some of it I had no idea how he managed to get, but I was glad he did.
“He showed me this just before Mom disappeared.” I stopped and put my arm around Nicole. “There were four backpacks then. You see, there are only three now.”
Nicole pulled away and began to twist a strand of her hair around a finger. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know for sure. Until now.”
“Did he tell you where he was going to go?”
“No. I don’t even know if he knew he was going to leave.” I knelt down and started putting stuff into one of the packs. “And he made it sound like we’d leave together. That this was going to be for all of us to get out of here if we needed to.” I stopped packing and turned back to Nicole. “I don’t know, maybe … what Mom did changed all that. Maybe …” I couldn’t really go any further. I was so far out of my depth. “Help me pack up.”
One of the things he left behind for us, that I had no idea how he had it, was a gun. I stowed it at the bottom of my pack. With a box of bullets. Besides that and everything else we could fit into the packs, I had a bag of other stuff that wasn’t going to make it far.
We crossed the river into Council Bluffs on Council Bluffs Memorial Overcrossing. At the middle of the bridge, I started to empty the bag. Over the side and into the river, went an old Jack-in-the-Box. A fish bowl and a ping pong ball. Nicole had the painting of the poker-playing dogs under an arm, wrapped in old newspaper. She leaned against the railing, wriggled out of her backpack. I did the same. We picked up the painting, each holding an end.
“Two.” I started to laugh. Nicole giggled in a way that reminded me of her as a little girl. It almost stopped my momentum as we swung the painting back and forth.
We flung the painting out and over the railing and leaned over to watch its splash. I hurried back to the bag and picked out the stack of magazines with the Old Man on the cover. I split the stack in two. “Here,” I said, thrusting half into Nicole’s hands. We each tossed them into the air one at a time, watching the pages flutter as they dropped.
There was the copy of The Da Vinci Code. Over the side. The amount of back room and dark corner psychoanalyzing that had gone into the Old Man’s reading of that book could have filled a library.
Nicole reached into the bag and pulled out the last item. It was a box of Lego’s. Sponge-Bob themed. Just like the ones he got for his grandson for Christmas one year. “Shall you or shall I?” Nicole asked, a mischievous gleam in her eye.
I knew what she was thinking. “Both?”
Nicole opened the box and one by one we threw the Lego bricks into the Missouri River. As we did, we sang the Sponge Bob theme song. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Old Man Weston!!!!” we shouted.
We didn’t care who saw or what might happen. My sister and me had made a decision and we were giddy with the freedom of the thing.
There really wasn’t anything to worry about. The bridge was more or less abandoned. There was a time when it was known as the Gerald R. Ford Expressway, a four-lane river crossing carrying heavy traffic between Council Bluffs and Omaha along the 480 Interstate. That was then. After he was elected President and what he did to the people of Council Bluffs, the Old Man directed that the bridge be closed to automobile traffic and renamed to honor “the patriotic citizens of Council Bluffs.”
* * * * *
“What happened?” Nicole asked.
“You didn’t pay much attention in history class, did you?”
She laughed. “I barely went.”
I knew that.
“You haven’t heard the stories?”
And I knew that too. There were people who wanted to know the truth, who sought out the videos and old articles and the tales that were passed from one to another in dark corners bathed with the smell of fear. And there were those who didn’t, who seemed just fine with the way things were in the Old Man’s America.
When President Weston got a jack-in-the-box toy for his grandson, they raced out and got one of their own and happily turned the crank over and over until Jack was all worn out. Nicole was one of those for a long time. It almost drew her to The Jump. Like a sheep.
I was in the former group, desperately searching for how things used to be and wondering how I could resist. But I was just one unmotivated 26-year-old punk who drifted from job to job who did nothing with those stories except search for more.
There was the official story, taught in school every year. The videos that were shown on TV every now and then, typically aired along with an annual speech from the Old Man. Every speech began the same way. “Citizens and patriots. We were a people who had turned from our principles and our God. We had forgotten who we were. But, glory be to our Lord, we have turned away from greed and hate.” There would also come a moment where he would pause, take off his glasses, and stare into the camera, his eyes dark little spots of coal. “Don’t ever forget what we could become.” The screen would fill with pictures of the citizens of Council Bluffs at war with each other and in the shadowy corners of the scenes splashed across the screen, groups of men in red blazers.
There were other things that got passed around in the shadows. Bootleg things. Pictures of the bodies. Scattered on the streets. Some of them burned beyond recognition. Others hanging from light poles. Pictures of buildings on fire. Cars exploding. People running, their faces to the camera, rigid in fright.
And one time, a guy I knew gave me a videotape and told me I should watch it. I did in my parents’ basement where they had an old video player tucked away. The video was a collection of clips spliced together. Shaky footage from the phones people used to walk around with. They showed the President’s Men. Not barely visible in the shadows like in the official version we had to watch each year. No. They were front and center. Slaughtering people, destroying anything and everything in their wake.
The Old Man destroyed Council Bluffs. Not him personally. But he did it nonetheless. At the time, people still called him by his name. The President. Or President Weston. Or “that fuckin’ Weston.” This is what I’ve heard, in whispered conversations, that there was a time when people could say what they thought. Around the water cooler, at the corner coffee shop, on news talk shows. They could be critical of their leaders. He wasn’t the Old Man. Yet. And that was kind of the point of his Council Bluffs and all that came after it.
Twenty years later, the rubble spoke just as loudly as those images. For years, we could see the destruction across the rolling waters that was the Missouri River. It was a wholly different experience to walk through the empty city.
Nicole and I were walking down Broadway, one of the main roads that bisected Council Bluffs. All around us were bombed buildings and the rusted hulks of cars long ago abandoned. The city looked devastated as though war had come to its residents. Which it had.
I motioned to Nicole to stop. We slung our backpacks off and sat on the curb. Across the street was a fire station. It’s rolling doors were gone. The flag on its pole was just a tatter or two, although the rope still wiggled in the wind and the clasp occasionally struck the pole, sending out an irregular chime that marked nothing.
“A few months after he was elected, the Old Man sent a secret letter to the Mayor,” I began. “It didn’t stay secret for long though.”
“The Mayor went on the news and read the letter.”
“What did it say?”
* * * * *
April 12, 2031
The Honorable Mayor James Schmidt
City of Council Bluffs
209 Pearl Street
Council Bluff, IA 51503
Considering you were one of my biggest supporters in my recent election, I wanted to give you a heads up about a decision I have made. As you know, our great country is sliding into an abyss. We are fractured and at war with each other. We seem to have lost our way. I intend now to take action to demonstrate to the citizens of America how much they need to unify and that they cannot do it alone.
In three days’ time, on April 15, I will use the powers vested in me as President of the United States to issue an executive order that all government services be withdrawn from Council Bluffs. At all levels of government. What I expect is that the American people will come to understand how much they need to get behind my policies — the ones you so wholeheartedly supported during the campaign. What I expect is that America will shortly see how much they need my leadership to steer a path forward. It is time that we unite behind my leadership, behind God, and show America what we can achieve as a united people.
I will expect you to assist in carrying this order out and upon issuing your own orders to your staff and to the residents of your fine city you will absent yourself from the scene. To do otherwise would not be good for your political career. To be utterly candid with you, I anticipate a few unplanned vacancies on the Supreme Court in the coming months. You may be just the person for one of those leather chairs.
I am sure I can count on your support. May God once again bless America.
President Alisdair Weston
* * * * *
I shuddered and kicked at some rocks, scattering them into the empty road. “President Weston was going to destroy Council Bluffs to save America. The mayor was the first victim. The morning after the newscast, Council Bluffs woke to his body hanging from a light pole in front of City Hall. By the end of the week, government offices were padlocked and boarded up, the police disbanded and shipped out of town.”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I’ve seen the videos. I listen.” I looked east and west down Broadway. I peered over both shoulders at the building behind us to see if there were any shadows lurking. “It got worse. A lot worse. The President’s Men made their first appearance. In their starched collars. Those damn Chuck Taylors on their feet.”
“Wh-what did they do?”
I held out my hand and swept it in front of us. “This.”
Council Bluffs was a desolated city whose inhabitants were set one against another, its buildings destroyed by bombs and fires, and where now it seemed that even though the bodies had long ago decomposed into dust scattered by the winds that howled through the city’s streets, it seemed as though the smell of death lingered on every street corner and on every door step. I could feel their presence in my spine and in my gut.
“My God,” Nicole whispered.
“Yeah. Maybe. But, you know, this was all part of Weston’s plan to turn himself into a God-like being. And it worked. The Old Man. Pfffft. I’d like to see him hanging from a light pole some day.”
“There’s nobody here, Nicole. This city is a wasteland. Empty.” I got up and began to sling my pack onto my back. “The sooner we get through it, the better.”
One of the remaining street signs told us we were walking down West Broadway, the numbered streets crossing us counting down. 25th. 19th. 12th. And on and on until the numbers ended and more and more streets, empty of everything, stretched out in the distance.
* * * * *
We walked long that day. In hours, if not in miles. New to lugging packs with 50 pounds of supplies and gear and suffering from the heat of summer, we only made it so far. Out past where Broadway turned into Kanesville Road. Just before it crossed under the Weston Interstate, the one that crossed the nation from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco to Maryland and the Atlantic Ocean, we stopped for the day. We were past the desolation and into the countryside. In every direction, the dried brown of the Iowa prairie stretched as far as the eye could see.
Before we turned our backs on Omaha and Council Bluffs for the last time, I turned and looked back. “Dad had a brother.”
“He did? I don’t remember meeting him.”
“Yeah.” I blinked into the setting sun. I couldn’t help myself. I wiped at my eyes. “He lived in Council Bluffs.”
“Oooh.” Nicole reached out and put her arm around me and rested her head on my shoulder. We remained that way for a few more minutes. The sun was nearing the horizon. Blue was shifting to yellow and orange. I took a deep breath and slipped out of her embrace.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, turning my back on the destruction and looking towards the vastness of the fields that spread out in all other directions. “Let’s see if we can find Dad in all of this.” That night, I opened the atlas. It said Rand McNally on the front. The date on the inside said it was published in 1989. Nicole and me found the pages for Iowa and scanned them trying to figure out the best path forward. We went to sleep without a clue.