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Portland, OR

Jason Gurley is an author and designer from Portland, Oregon.

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Scenes from a work in progress

Jason Gurley

A few days ago, while ostensibly working on some edits to a larger project, I got distracted by a shiny object, and started working on what I thought would be a very short, very fast story. I figured four thousand words, maybe five, and then I'd be done. 

It's been six days now, and the story is twelve thousand words long, and showing no real signs of stopping yet. It's also a bit... weird. I honestly don't know what to call this story. It might be a horror story, but it might be something far bigger than that. 

Here's a short excerpt from the rough draft–emphasis on "rough"–for you:


“World’s upside down. Look, the roots are growing up into the sky.”

The seriousness with which Wade described the tree on the Fowler land stuck with me for years after. He was joking, of course, the way he tended to do, but in that laconic way that belonged to him alone among our tangle of friends. I hadn’t thought about him in years, or the tree that he’d been pointing at, the one that stood leafless and twisted in the middle of the otherwise carefully-kept lawn, isolated like a sculpture, looking like the petrified nervous system of some long-dead titan. He was right, of course, about the general weirdness of the tree. It was almost otherworldly, like something transported whole from Middle-earth. The things that tree must have seen, you might think when looking upon it. 

I remembered all of this, in a sudden cold rush when my father, tired and searching for anything to talk about on the phone, said, “Oh—you probably didn’t hear about the old Fowler place.”

Just those words conjured a memory so immediate, so precise, that I was almost there again, twelve years old and standing on the street-side of the white fence that framed the strange property. 

“What’s that?” I asked him. 

“Damn thing went and burned down all itself. Old wood, I reckon. Squatters, maybe.”

He pronounced it squarters, the way my mother said warshing machine.

“Nobody was hurt?” I said, but only because that was the proper thing to ask.

“Not that they found. Damn near took out an acre of woods next to Mrs. Rushland’s rent trailer, though.”

I said, “I’m glad nobody was hurt,” and the rest of his words blurred into static, because those words—the old Fowler place—didn’t just trigger an old memory of Wade and weird, twisted trees. 

They brought back a memory that had spent the last thirty years at the bottom of a brackish swamp, where memories weren’t supposed to come back from, ever. 

•     •     •

“World’s upside down. Look, the roots are growing up into the sky.”

Nobody paid any attention to Wade, but I shot him a sideways glance. 

“So—what?” I said. “The sky’s really the dirt?”

Wade shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe there’s two skies. Maybe the dirt”—he stomped one dirty tennis shoe on the gravel shoulder of the road beneath us—“isn’t all that deep. Maybe it’s like a belt, and there’s sky underneath just like there’s sky above. Except maybe we’re on the beneath side.”

“You’re fucking weird, Wade,” Dustin said.

Wade shrugged again. I didn’t come to his defense. He was, to be fair, fucking weird.

“I’m going over,” I said. 

“I don’t think you should,” Wade said. 

I hitched up my jeans and got ready to vault over the white fence rail, but Dustin agreed with Wade. “Man, the landscape guy’s just over by the shed. He’ll see you for sure.”

“What do I care?” I argued. “And he’s not a goddamn landscape guy. He’s just a shithead with a lawnmower. Besides, I want to go swimming. It’s too shitting hot.” I turned and pointed a finger at Wade. “And don’t tell me your mama thinks I swear too much.”

“I wasn’t saying nothing.”

“He was about to,” Dustin said. “But he’s right, we should come back when the lawn guy’s gone.” 

I was adamant, though. “When he’s gone, it’ll be seven, maybe eight. It’ll start cooling down. I want to swim now. It’s like ninety-ninety-nine fucking degrees.”

Dustin sighed, then turned to Wade. “It’s hot, man,” he said.

Wade turned and looked up the street, then down it. The only cars were far away, milling along Woodburn Boulevard. Not more than a few came down Brentland Street during the day, just in the morning and again at night, when everybody’s parents went off to work and left their no-good kids home all day to fuck with the neighbors’ swimming pools. Or fuck in them, if you happened to know someone who hadn’t tried it and gotten chlorine burns on their crotch parts. Everybody learned it sooner or later. Except the three of us. We were twelve. Horny as owls, talked a good game, even Wade, who sometimes surprised the shit out of us, but at the end of the day we all went home and beat off to torn-out pages of a Playboy we’d found in damp old backpack in the gully. 

“Fine,” Wade said. “But not here. Be smart about it, at least.”

He pointed, and we followed his finger to the overgrown woods on the house’s west and north sides. The fence ran in a nice, straight line along the property’s perimeter, but as it came into contact with the woods, it got drunk and began to weave and buckle into the trees. Eventually, it succumbed, and vanished into a growth of fir trees that sprawled onto the back half of the property like sand from a torn ballast bag. 

Dustin clapped Wade on his skinny shoulder. “That’s why we bring you along, man.”

I grinned. “Let’s go swimming, yeah?”

“Yeah, okay,” Wade said.

•     •     •

The old Fowler house was legend in our neighborhood in Channelton, but nobody could tell you quite why. There were countless stories about the old place: it was haunted; the old man who lived there was a pedophile; a whole family had been killed there years ago. It didn’t matter which one you believed, or if you believed any of them. They all seemed plausible when you saw the property, and the old Colonial house that rested heavily in the middle of it. 

Bill Fowler had built the place in the ‘60s, was the general consensus, back when nobody knew what he was up to. Built the whole place in the woods, and then when he was done, buzzed the trees off of the land and put up the fence. My father liked to tell the story of how the whole town thought Fowler was stupid for not cutting the trees down first. That was the punchline of the story, when you got right down to it. Locals just got a kick out of mocking someone who did something for their own reasons, especially if those reasons were obscure. And Bill Fowler, as the stories all go, was nothing if not obscure. 

But he was a perfectly ordinary man. He didn’t keep to himself. He worked in the county recorder’s office, took his wife dancing at the veterans’ hall, bought beers for the guys at the bar after work on Fridays. Kept one pair of boots for Sunday church, wore out the others working in the yard on Saturdays. For awhile he’d kept horses on the property, though Dad said they spooked easy, and more than once he’d come home from the refinery to see Mr. Fowler’s mare trotting down the asphalt street, shins bloodied up from busting down the stall gate again. He’d lead the horse home, then help Mr. Fowler fix the gate up. 

For me, the stories started with my father. After those evenings, or any other evening when he had cause to visit Bill, my father would come home sweating a little more than usual. Mom would tell him he looked a little peaked, and get him an iced tea and park him in the porch swing, and Dad would struggle to catch his breath a little, like he’d been out for a long run, and then he’d drink his tea down and say almost nothing about what was on his mind. I’d hear him mutter about it to Mom later, though, in the quiet of our little brick house. “I just always get the heebies out there,” he would say. I don’t remember what Mom ever said back. “Heebies” was a very amusing word to me, but when I heard my father say it, it felt different. 

Bill Fowler died the same year I was born, 1977, and the old place went up for sale soon after. The sign grew moss and fell over a few times before someone moved in. One day, my father told me later, the sign was just gone, and there was a charcoal-colored Ford Cortina parked amongst the weeds of the gravel driveway.

•     •     •

We could see the car from the shadows of the woods. It never seemed to move, from what any of us could tell. Maybe it never had since 1977. But the gravel driveway was kept orderly and neat, the weeds cleared and the packed-down rocks perfectly parallel to the fenceline, and the car never seemed to radiate that familiar, stale glow of abandonment that we were all used to noticing when a car sat too long on a neighbor’s front lawn. 

“I don’t see anybody now,” Dustin said. 

“The groundskeeper is over there,” Wade said, pointing again. “Tending the azaleas.”

“He’s just a guy with a lawnmower,” I repeated, but halfheartedly this time. 

The lawn guy was good, I had to concede. The property had the greenest grass on the block, and even in the places where ivy gathered densely around the grounds, it seemed almost intentional, like the guy meant for it to do exactly what it was doing. The only curiosity was the dead tree, ringed at the base with thorny brambles and shiny black rocks. It didn’t match the trellis on the side of the house, with its creeping vines and yellow, fat blossoms. It didn’t match the hedges on the east lawn, the ones that flanked the old barn. 

“I don’t see the swimming pool,” I said. 

“It’s back there,” Dustin said. “My brother said he and Gina snuck back there last month and did it in the shallow end. He said it was the best pool in the neighborhood.”

“Maybe your brother’s full of shit.”

“Maybe you’re full of shit,” Dustin retorted. 

“Guys,” Wade said. 

The groundskeeper had packed up his tools and was carrying them towards his pickup truck, parked just behind the gray Ford Cortina. 

“I think he’s finished,” Wade said.

“I just want to get in the water,” I complained. “It’s still hot, even in here.”

And it was. The woods were dense and dark, the strongest trees blotting out the light so that the weaker ones dried up and fell against each other and crumbled into rotten piles of dust. The floor of the forest was orange with dead pine needles, and I could barely see the sky through the thicket of branches above. 

“It’s fucking creepy in here,” I added. “Almost as creepy as that fucking house.”

“The car is what creeps me out,” Dustin said. “You know that car doesn’t even come from here?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, Ford doesn’t even make that car,” Dustin said. “It’s like a phantom car. It’s not supposed to even exist. Think about it. You ever seen a Ford like that in the school parking lot? At the grocery store? Nobody else drives it because it’s not real. That’s got to be why it never moves, man.”

“It’s a Ford Cortina,” Wade interrupted. “They make it for England, man. It’s a Ford, it’s just not an American car.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” I asked. “Ford is American.”

“They have overseas markets, too,” Wade said. 

Dustin looked at me. “Fucking weirdo.”

I nodded. “Wade, you talk like you aren’t made for here.”

The groundskeeper finished loading up the truck, and we all turned our attention back to the driveway at the sound of his rusted door slamming shut. The man had just tossed something into the passenger seat, and walked around the pickup as if he was about to climb in and drive off. Then we heard another slam, a fainter one. 

“Oh, shit,” Dustin said. “The old man.”


 
 
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The Movement Omnibus

Jason Gurley

While I haven't yet written The Travelers, the third and final book in my Movement series, I have started imagining what an omnibus edition of the entire series might look like. I haven't settled on a name – The Runaways almost surely will not be it – but I'm considering this cover for the omnibus, which I made last night before going to bed. (It would be more impressive had I made it after going to bed.)

As lovely as the title The Runaways looks there, I'm probably going to change it to something that doesn't preserve the pattern established by the three individual novels, which are called The Settlers, The Colonists, and The Travelers. There's just no single good word that sums up everything about the people who populate this world: I've considered refugees, emigrants, migrants, deserters, fugitives, nomads... and fifty other similar words. None quite works for me. So this edition may end up with a title that breaks the standard the individual books created. I think that's okay. The individual book titles will represent 'acts' in the omnibus edition. 

There's one more change I may make when the entire series is complete. I wrote the books absent any quotation marks around dialogue. It was a creative decision, one that I personally like very much, and that many readers enjoyed, too. But it's also been the greatest point of contention for a wide audience of readers. So for the omnibus edition, I may be reversing my prior creative decision. 

We'll see. First I have to write the final book!


 
 
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On the nature of instruction: Remembering Manual

Jason Gurley

Here's a major throwback:. In 2002, I was invited to join sixteen other bloggers and authors in an anthology project called MANUAL, as in RTFM, as in Read the Fucking Manual. The book was a collection of stories built around the simplest theme: 'how to' lessons. There was a story called "How to Keep Your Distance," another called "How to Show Your Work," another called "How to Unsuccessfully Woo Your Roommate's Future Husband". These were short stories, or nonfiction pieces, or poems. My favorite was a short little piece called "How to Take the Train." Even then, I preferred melancholy to almost anything else. 

My contribution is an embarrassing little humor piece that, I think, bears little resemblance to any of my current work. It's called "How to Start a Dialogue with a Complete Stranger." I was running a little blog experiment called The Dialogue Project at the time, which was a series of blog posts written entirely as conversations between unidentified strangers. These were hilarious to me, and probably completely unintelligible to readers. "How to Start a Dialogue" is not much different from those strange pieces, and its crude humor reflects some of my reading and movie consumption habits of the time. If you read it, try not to imagine that I was already one year into the writing of Eleanor. You will not be able to resolve the two versions of myself that these two writings will present to you.

In any case, MANUAL has been kept online for the last twelve years by Josh Allen, who runs the web curiosity Fireland. The anthology was downloaded some 40,000 times in its first week of availability, which I think very few of us expected, and none of us had any idea how to monetize, so we gave it away for free. There was a brief mention of the project in Wired, but that was about it. 

In the years since, plenty of things have changed for the authors involved in this project. Many still write. Kevin Guilfoile has published a few very good novels. Rosecrans Baldwin reviews books on NPR, and writes his own novels and memoirs, and edits The Morning News as well. Heather Armstrong's Dooce blew up and became a very high-profile blog. Paul Ford also writes books, and does too many other things to name. Josh, he of the generous twelve years of web archival, wrote a fascinating novel himself, every chapter written, in a sense, in public, and catalogued online. I've lost track of most of these people; most I knew only lightly, as connections of other connections of mine. I read most of their web sites for years, and now I still read one or two, though many of them have long since vanished. Sadly, one terrific writer in the collection passed away a few years after MANUAL was published. I'm still connected to, I think, two of them, via social media tools that didn't exist for us back then. 

Once, a few years ago, I got in touch with as many of my fellow contributors as possible and raised the possibility of a second volume of stories. Only a couple, as I recall, were interested in the prospect; the rest were busy, or no longer interested, or hadn't had as idyllic an experience as my own. A second volume never materialized, and these days, I wouldn't propose it again. I am, however, enormously pleased to see that this little artifact of the past is still there, still as prettily designed as ever, still as moving and funny and sharply-written as I remember.

MANUAL is still available, and free to read, at Fireland


 
 
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Eleanor teaser trailer

Jason Gurley

My good friend Mark Nguyen created a teaser trailer for Eleanor! 

One of these days, I hope, Mark and I will collaborate on a novel. I don't know anybody with as many good story ideas as he has. We've started a few, but we're basically waiting for the magical day when neither of us is overwhelmingly busy. (So look for this novel when we're senior citizens.)

Isn't this the coolest trailer ever?


 
 
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It's thunder and it's lightning

Jason Gurley

A couple of years ago Felicia and I went to a Jimmy Eat World concert in San Luis Obispo. (It was at the VFW, I think. Did Jimmy Eat World ever play big shows during their heyday? The San Luis Obispo VFW was a tiny, wouldn't-expect-to-see-a-concert-here kind of place.) 

The opening act that night was a Scottish indie rock group called We Were Promised Jetpacks. I liked their name, but dreaded actually listening to them. I have a long history of disliking the opening bands at shows I've been to. But they were really good, much better than the headliner show after (though I confess I was never a Jimmy Eat World fan, at least not until they popped up on Yo Gabba Gabba, singing a song on the backs of cats and dogs). 

Anyway, all that to say this: Felicia found out that We Were Promised Jetpacks is coming to Portland this November. We may try to plan a rare date night to go catch the show. I'm surprisingly excited about this. 

I haven't listened to music quite like theirs before. My favorite artists are terrific writers. I like to listen to music where the lyrics are so finely spun that they take my breath away a little. Josh Ritter turns some impressive imagery out in his songs, for example, often in a waterfall rush of words that I really love (and Felicia really, really doesn't). So does Patty Griffin, or Kathleen Edwards, or Ben Gibbard. At first glance, the Jetpacks boys might seem like an ordinary college rock band. But there are some really gorgeous bursts of language in their songs – spare, tight, quivering. That's all it takes to make me fall in love with an artist's work. 

This is one of the things that I do love about Portland (even as, I confess, I'm struggling to figure out how I quite fit into this city): wonderful musical acts come through here. With Squish at home, Felicia and I haven't managed to catch as many shows as we'd like, but we have seen Patty Griffin and Josh Ritter, and Felicia's caught a few shows with friends. I'm hoping that Kathleen Edwards swings through one of these days – I've seen her a few times, but it's been several years now. 

We miss San Luis Obispo more than either of us expected, I think. It was beautiful there, even on its hottest days, and we had friends there that we miss. Squish doesn't remember it; she was less than a year old when we moved north. During my own adult life, I've never lived anyplace longer than the eight years that I spent in Morro Bay and SLO. Felicia was there for eleven years. Listening to Jetpacks now conjures memories of not only seeing them play the VFW, but of cranking their melancholy, crunchy guitars up while tearing down the 101, the top off of the Jeep, doors off, spectacular sunsets and warm breezes. Most of my life I've been homesick, but it's always been for Anchorage and the Alaskan winters that I loved so much as a child. Now that we're here in Oregon, which we dreamed of moving to for years, we find ourselves missing California's central coast. Go figure. We miss weekend trips to Santa Barbara, breakfasts at Tupelo Junction, strolling down Higuera on warm afternoons. We miss the dozen little shops we'd visit every so often, and pulling on our boots and going country dancing at the Grad, or quiet little dinners in Los Osos, where the owner knew our name and always came out to greet us. We'll figure Portland out eventually, I'm sure. Powell's Books and great concert events are a start. 

To make this entire rambling post worth your while, here's Jimmy Eat World, singing on the backs of house pets:

That totally did it for you, didn't it? I thought it might. 

Off-topic – as if this entire post hasn't been one long exercise in wandering topics – but tomorrow I'm having my remaining two wisdom teeth surgically extracted from my skull. 2014 is not only the year of Eleanor and a great new job, it's the year of dental Disneyland. If any ill-advised, groggy blog posts appear tomorrow, you'll know why. 


 
 
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