Summer Writing Retreat Submission: James Bernsen

Overlooking the Sull Ross Campus in Alpine, TX
Overlooking the Sull Ross Campus in Alpine, TX

James Aalan Bernsen attended the “Something Novel” class at the 2009 Summer Writing Retreat in Alpine. He is working on a novel in between his work as a public relations consultant. A veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, James has a blog on his deployment at www.aalan94.blogspot.com

Bottlecap Alley

by James Aalan Bernsen

Andy Mitchell was chronically out of touch with his universe. It was a strange state to be in, but it seemed his lot in life. He missed the universe and it passed by him unseen. It probably happened somewhere after he turned off onto a back road near Navasota, Texas.

Being chronically out of touch with your universe creates some interesting, if not problematic, effects on driving. Road signs, for example, vanish in the blur that is the outside. Towns too, disappear. All the people and all the problems of the world cease to be when you’re out there, alone and free, driving down a winding country road – narrow and pale, the color of faded jeans.

But some forces in the universe transcend all dimensions, explode through all existent reality, and cut like knives into the heart of our being, forcing themselves ungraciously onto our troubled souls. Forces like time, physics and the sleek, black Ford of a Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper, like the one who had just pulled out behind Andy.

But let us go back before all that, to the fleeting moment in the life of Andy Mitchell when he could look deep inside the well that is his soul and still, with any honesty, say that it was a pretty good day.

Andy had never in his life been early to a college class. Until today. Walking into his 9 a.m. logic class, he found a seat in the back and nervously observed those around him for a sign. He was in uncharted waters, among a strange and mysterious culture of punctual people. His eyes were the eagle eyes of an anthropologist. Scanning for clues. “What are their behavior patterns, their customs, their rules?”

He took out his notebook and scribbled. “Day 1,” he wrote. “The monkeys feign ignorance of my presence. But I know they are watching me. They have not seen me before, and are judging me. They avoid eye contact, and so do I, for I have read that such intimate behavior can be very threatening in their society, and must at first be refused.”

He watched for a while longer. Mostly, he decided, punctual people just sat there. They just did it for a lot longer than late people. He wrote: “Day 2: The beasts still do not acknowledge me. With slow, languid motions, they groom themselves…” He wrote this while watching a girl brush her hair. A few rows down, a man picked up a Fig Newton.

“…pausing now and then to feast from the towering fig trees.” He wondered to himself if fig trees towered. He had never seen one before that he could recall, and he somewhat doubted it. “The spreading, branching, fig trees…”

He crumpled the paper, flipped his notebook to a fresh page and began sketching. It was a project he had been commissioned to do, and it was giving him innumerable headaches. He was designing a triumphal arch. Exactly what type of triumph he was commemorating, he wasn’t quite clear on, but in this Brave New World, where God was dead and had been replaced by Frank Lloyd Wright, you just didn’t get too many chances to do triumphal arches, gothic cathedrals or baroque palaces. Especially if you were a fifth-year senior architecture major at Texas A&M taking classes where about the only excitement was designing kitchens and bathrooms or holding philosophical debates on the relative value of simulated wood versus Formica. So Andy took his arches where he could get them.

An hour later, Andy awakened to the sound of shuffling feet and clanking swivel-top desks. He regained consciousness to find a large cable of drool connecting him to the desktop. For a moment, he sat there observing it in wonder as it glistened in the light. As drool goes, this was first-rate, a thing of beauty. Not just aesthetically, mind you, but in length and tensile strength. It seemed to defy all existing conceptions of the physics of saliva.

Unfortunately, the young blonde girl who sat next to him didn’t see it that way. She was waiting for him to close his desk top so she could get by, and as she passed, she gave him a look of disdain. Andy shifted his body so she could get by and started to get up apologetically.

She was beautiful. Her name was Jennifer Miller, or she had murdered Jennifer Miller and stolen her notebook. Hers was the kind of beauty that you could forgive the possibility that she might be a murderer. But now she was gone, disappearing down the aisle in her knee-high boots, the latest in a long line of women who had disappeared from the life of Andy Mitchell. Sure, he had forgotten most of them as quickly has he had fallen for them. But then, they hadn’t all worn knee-high boots.

For a moment, he sat there crestfallen, then with a shrug, put her out of his mind. If a woman can’t see the beauty in a little drool, especially a strand of drool so mind-boggling that was at least worth an hour episode of Nova, well then screw her. There’s just something wrong with her brain.

As he swung open the glass doors of the building, the warm air greeted him with a bear hug. As the cryogenic deep freeze of the classroom began to work its way out of his bones, he regained his faculties and shook off his weariness. He threw on his San Antonio Spurs ball cap and walked across brick sidewalks so wide you would have thought a Saturn V rocket was coming through any time on its giant gurney.

Finally, he thought, it was going to be a good day. Of course, his universe would soon prove him wrong.

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