Here & There

John Carr Walker

Here, in the central San Joaquin Valley of California, my father grows raisins. He cuts an imposing figure: six-feet tall with thin limbs and thick glasses that magnify the size and power of his eyes. He does everything—can do anything—quickly and well.

 

There, I build and populate a solar system of planets and space stations, with silver ships ferrying in the black between them. Picture the corridors of Doctor Who; picture Star Wars-like catwalks that bridge deep canyons of blinking lights; imagine the blaring klaxons and laser fire of every space emergency, ever—the action and intrigue is nonstop inside my head. I pretend to be a kind of super-man, the ultimate solution to the problem, whatever it is. I call myself…John. John can fix a hyperdrive, karate an alien, negotiate a ceasefire. People can rely on John.

 

I like to play behind my father's shop, between the irrigation pump and firewood stack, exposed only to the sun, without even a window in the wall to spy on me. I crave solitude. Invisibility. I like to walk around in circles while imagining myself light years away. I imagine myself there so often that my steps trample ruts in the dirt here.

 

Once, my father leads me behind his shop and points at the paths I’ve worn in the ground. In his eyes the paths go nowhere. What is it you do back here? he asks. I can't explain. There, I’m accomplished and always busy. Here, I do nothing but waste time.

 

My father gives me a job: rid the vineyards of nightshade, a poisonous weed that grows wild in the rows—every row—of our hundred-acre vineyard. I’m to walk each middle with a shovel, a distance of about seventy-five miles, digging up the weeds—every weed—by the root. So I walk the first middle carrying my shovel. Small, hairy spiders flee before my steps. Pyrite flakes pepper the sandy soil with gold. Here, at the back of the vineyard, young vines wear cowlings made of milk cartons as protection from ground squirrels and jackrabbits—their thin trunks and lighter leaves cast shorter shadows than full-grown vines.

 

I find my first nightshade growing on the berm between vines. I stick the shovel blade in the dirt and drive it down with my heel then haul back on the handle, which groans inside the metal neck. Finally the roots come out along with a shovelful of loose soil. I leave the weed in the middle to desiccate and then do my best to smooth over the hole it left. The fill settles lower than the ground around it, like a trap on some hostile planet.

 

Here’s another, smaller nightshade. I grip the stem near the ground and pull, using my legs as if lifting a heavy object. The stem is dry to the touch. Smooth. In the way a surface that gives off no reflection seems smooth. The taproot, sewn into the soil by hundreds of thread-like laterals, breaks off underground, like a tick burrowed in the earth. Like the sarlacc in Return of the Jedi

 

Here, I can’t decide which is worse: leaving the root or making a hole to dig it out. There, I'm focused and capable. Explosions burst around my ship yet my hands are sure and quick on the controls. I waste not a moment jumping into the blurry starlit tunnel of light speed. Classic John. I wish I could be more like him, the hero I pretend to be far, far away.

 

My father is waiting when I come out of the vineyard, eyes projecting fury on his glasses. He leads me down a middle I've already completed. There, he says, pointing at a weed I missed. All I can do is look away. He leads me down a different middle. Points. There, he says, snarling. Another missed weed. There, there, there. A weed, a weed, a weed. I’ve failed him. Fucked up seeing. He must have known I would. I did. 

 

My father removes his glasses. Holds them out to me. Do you need these? he asks. Offering me his eyes. Demanding I stay here, forever.

John Carr Walker’s critically acclaimed story collection, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number, Eclectica, Nailed, Gravel, Hippocampus, and other journals. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was a Fishtrap Fellow in 2012, and is the founder and editor of Trachodon. A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.