Saugus Falls, an excerpt, by Chad A. Clark
A few months ago, I began writing what I thought was going to be a short story. As I got into it, however, I realized that this was likely going to end up being a full novel. For posterity and maybe to motivate myself, I am sharing the first chapter with you now, in all it’s rough-draftiness-glory. I’ve done very little to this, keeping it pretty close to how it sprang out of my mind. I’ve given it a quick read to make it (hopefully) not completely embarrassing. Still, it’s a project that I’ve been intrigued to see what direction it’s going in. Check it out, I hope you enjoy it. It will be some time before this project sees the light of day but it’s from here that it begins.
Nolan picked up the battered Zippo from the gravel. He took note of his fingers trembling as he wiped the greasy leavings of blood from the tarnished metal. The thing was frail-looking, despite the breadth of time and destruction that it had borne witness to. He wondered at how many fire-fights it had gone through, tucked away in his grandfather’s uniform as he struggled to find warmth in the Ardennes Forest. A battered landscape long since given itself up to the cold of empty death.
Now the thing was no better than a token for drunk rednecks to go bare-knuckles over in the parking lot of a bar that looked like it only served as the last stop before the end of the line. He hawked up the gunk in his throat and spit, feeling something dislodge in the process and watched detachedly as a tooth skittered off towards the sewer. Considering how much the side of his face still burned from where the guy had put the pool que, one tooth was probably getting off easy.
Maybe it was time to call it quits on this town. Put boots to that dusty Iowa road and depart for yet one more point B. It was a bit far to the next town but he could always get a good start now, thumbing his way for the rest. Someone would be willing to pick him up and toss him a ride. Even if it was in the flatbed of a pickup that wheezed and groaned, like it was on the verge of giving up the ghosts. He just had to be patient and put himself in the right position to catch a ride.
Nolan slung his bag over his shoulder and began walking up highway 27, aiming to the east this time. It seemed like the closer he got to Nebraska, the more likely he was to end up getting into some kind of trouble. So the east it was, shambling off into the vast expanse of flat farmland and towns that maybe hadn’t heard his name.
It was after ten miles that he gave a thought to the room he had been renting in Dolores Sanderson’s house. She would likely blow a gasket when she found out that he had skipped town but this was exactly why he always paid his rent in advance. It was also why he never left anything behind in the room. The only things in his life that mattered were in the backpack he carried with him.
Pausing, he crouched by the road to dig into the backpack. He produced the Walkman and chose a mixed tape, easing the headphones over his ears as he looked up into the expanse of stars, now set upon by the heightened volume of his music.
To hell with that town. He didn’t need it. He didn’t need any town. That was the advantage of his lifestyle. He might not have anyone there to live his life with him but at least he didn’t have to count on anyone and he had the freedom to go where he wanted, whenever he wanted.
He didn’t know how long it had been but the tape had flipped over to the B side when he heard the sound of gravel crunching behind him and turned to see that a battered Coupe Deville that had clearly gone a long time since it had even seen better days.
The dome light popped on as he opened the passenger door, Steely Dan wafting out at him along with a heavy scent of cheap tobacco in the air. The woman behind the driver’s seat looked to be in her fifties, glasses that likely needed to be cleaned a few days ago. He glanced over the paperbacks she had strewn across the front seat. She was already scooping them up and hurling them into the back to add to the even larger pile back there. He shrugged on the inside. It was better than finding the car full of empty beer cans, he supposed.
“Hey,” she said as she leaned forward to turn down the stereo. “Bad time of night to be out walking alone, along the road like this. I’m only going as far as Saugus Falls, but I can take you that far if you want.”
Nolan smiled and un-shouldered his bag. “Appreciate it,” he said as he stepped in, dropping the bag into his lap as he did so.
“You want?” she asked, holding out a mostly empty package of Parliaments. Nolan shook his head and waved off the gesture. He already felt like hacking up a lung from the impact the air in the car had on his lungs. Pretending to clear his throat, he did the best he could to suppress the urge, not wanting to offend his host before they had even driven a mile.
“I’m Melody,” she said as she pulled back out onto the road.
“What’s your story, Nolan? The hell you doing out here on your own like this?”
“I came from Dawson,” he said, jerking a thumb vaguely over his shoulder.
“Let’s just say we had a disagreement.”
“A disagreement with who?”
“All of them.”
She cackled a laugh and shook her head. “Fair enough. I don’t make it out to those parts much, myself. Pretty much the only thing worth anything there is the post office and we’ve already got one of those.”
“You aren’t missing anything.”
“So where are you headed? I can’t imagine you were on your way to Saugus Falls.”
“No, that just happened to be in my path tonight. I don’t know if I even know really where I’m going. All I know for sure is that I haven’t found it.”
“What do you do?”
He shook his head fractionally, always bracing himself when he got this question. “I’m a writer.”
“Really? Anything I might have—”
“Probably not.” He winced at the sensation of cutting her off and glanced over at her, feeling his cheeks going warm. “Sorry. I just get that question a lot. I write long form poetry, mostly. That’s the other question I get a lot. Basically it means that I have about enough money from day to day to be out walking along the side of the road like you just found me doing.”
“A dark and mysterious stranger rolls into town, freshly departed from one place that’s ruined to him and ready to do the same to another?”
Nolan smiled. “Sure. I like the way that sounds. How am I going to like Saugus Falls?”
Against the lights from the dash, he could must make out the outline of Melody shrugging. “Wish I could say that our town is like a little Mecca in in all this empty space but the fact is you’re probably going to end up butting heads against the same kind of people as you did back there.”
Nolan smiled again, this time more sad than before, flexing his hand at the sharp pain that flared from his bruised knuckles. “Yeah. I suppose I was kind of expecting that answer.”
“You got a place to stay?”
“I couldn’t possibly—”
She put a hand out. “I was just asking became you’re going to be dropping into town in the middle of the night and that tends to attract attention.”
“Nothing I can do about that, I suppose. Is there a hotel in town? Or a boarding house or something? Might be better to camp out under an overpass or something and walk in during the—”
“Christ on a pony, would you stop? Look, I’ve got a camper in my driveway. You can sleep in that tonight, okay? Then you need to figure out something else in the morning. Unless you’re planning on just marching on for greener pastures.”
“No, I’ll get a sense of the place first. And thank you. I wasn’t expecting that at all. You’re very—”
“I know. Just do me a favor and wash up the bed sheets in the morning.”
Nolan nodded and looked out over the dark landscape around them, seeing the faintest flicker of lightning to the south, over Des Moines. As a kid he had always imagined alien spacecraft hovering over the planet, firing their destructive energy weapons in an effort to end civilization.
“Are you really a poet?”
He looked back at her. “You want me to recite a haiku for you?”
He sensed her smirk, even in the dark. “No. Look, I run a little coffee shop in town. Don’t ask me how the thing manages to stay afloat every year. I guess because I get customers from all over the area. But if you want, you could maybe do a reading, introduce yourself to the town maybe a little better than you’ve had the chance before.”
All Nolan could think was that he wasn’t likely to be treated much better from the rednecks in these towns if they knew he was a poet. Still, he did appreciate the gesture. “Sure,” he said. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
“Have you been published?”
“I have one chapbook that I’ve published. It’s pretty hard to come by but I have a few copies in my bag.”
“Well maybe we can get some more run off and see what kind of a crowd we can turn out for you.”
He settled back into the seat and looked out over the landscape. Faint flashes of light illuminated the fields and lines of trees in the middle distance. His eyes slid shut and he allowed himself to sleep.
It was in this way that he crossed the border, into Saugus Falls and to the end of things as he had always known.