My wife once met a writer of great renown at a dinner given by her employer, a federal agency whose principal task, at that time, was to provide families displaced by the recent natural disaster with manufactured homes set down, when possible, on the very sites where their flood-damaged homes had once been located. This writer was, in the way of these things, being honored for his recent novel telling the story of the struggles of one such family, a family that had lost everything, a considerable wealth of keepsakes and memories, none of which could be replaced or repaired. Ultimately, though, because this was a book brought out by one of the big American publishing houses, the family was less affected by the loss of their possessions than by the loss of their beloved Oscar, a schnauzer mix thought to have been swept away by the floodwaters but in fact found, months later, in a shelter many miles down the coast, thanks to the after-hours efforts of a volunteer who had started a program to provide so-called "companion therapy"—dogs and cats on loan—to people who suffered from fatal degenerative diseases. Critics complained the dog had actually been identified through a chip implanted just under the skin of his left flank—the volunteer was superfluous—but who read reviews anymore? My wife, in any case, did not know any of this when she sat down next to the writer. She saw, she later told me, her name on the cardboard triangle in front of the plate next to a man, already seated, who, perhaps because he had neglected to shave, looked uncannily like a certain presidential advisor who had recently been in the news, an infamous man in fact, one my wife had expressed disgust for on any number of occasions, and, secure in her distaste for this man—who, after all, would not have been out of place at such a gathering—she had approached the whole affair as yet another night to somehow get through. So disheartened was she, she said, thinking he was really the adviser, that she made any excuse to leave the table during dinner and did not speak to or even acknowledge the writer until after he had been recognized from the dais for his "contributions"—this was the word the speaker used—to the relief efforts and my wife had finally realized her mistake. She said the man had talked of two subjects only—the recent finding that 63% of the manufactured homes being used contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde and a recently televised awards ceremony, where, she told me he had said, not a single deserving film had won, not even in the less-celebrated categories, such as sound mixing, or live action short film. This the writer had emphasized: Not even in sound mixing, a relatively insignificant category, had the powers-that-be deigned to allow a deserving film to be recognized. It was kitsch, she told me he'd said, pure kitsch that won, as it always did in this country. Though she had found this conversation quite extraordinary in the presidential adviser and had even once or twice thought of going back on her resolve not to engage him in conversation, when the woman on stage had held up his book and pronounced his name and the man had half-risen and waved vaguely at the spaces between tables, my wife told me, she'd felt mostly just disappointed. She congratulated him on his success and mentioned that her husband—meaning me—was a writer, too, but had little else to say to this man. Later, after we had disagreed about which restaurant to go to, my wife wrapped her fingers around my forearm and told me that, now that she had thought about it, she really couldn't understand why she'd had that change of heart when she'd found out the man was a writer.
Our neighbor, my wife and I had once agreed, was a nice enough person. We had not, until then, noticed the blue light on his porch. Maybe it was that we’d always walked in the opposite direction in the evenings? Now, it was as plain as day. His wife drives a Prius, we told each other; how bad could he really be? But then we started seeing things we had not seen before: Next to the chair on the deck where he smoked in the mornings and afternoons, there was a cheap disposable lighter, wrapped in the flag. My wife said there might have been a cross on it, too, though I don’t know how she could have seen such a thing so far away. The cardboard box left in a corner of the backyard—and long ago filled with leaves and other debris—had, we now saw, once held goods from the national chain of big box stores that had recently sued the federal government for requiring them to cover birth control for their employees, rather than, as we’d thought, the national chain of big box stores that had recently announced its policy of allowing customers and employees to use the bathroom of their choice. He had, my wife said she’d seen one day, the eagle, globe, and anchor tattooed on his upper bicep, though we agreed he didn’t really seem the type. The widescreen TV filling the front window, which we’d always assumed had been playing the cable news channel typically shown in airports and doctor’s offices, now definitely seemed to be playing the cable news channel typically shown in sports bars and chain restaurants. We talked about what we’d heard, what we’d seen. I thought, my wife told me, when he said they were good at landscaping he’d meant the company, but now I’m not so sure. I told my wife I remembered saying something dismissive about the so-called controversy over the national coffee chain’s decision to use plain red cups in place of more traditionally holiday-themed cups, and that I remembered our neighbor hadn’t responded, and that really, that had been, as best as I could recall, the last time we’d talked, just before the election. When we saw our neighbor on the news, then, it was not as much of a surprise as it would once have been, though it was still a surprise to see him in the small group of red-capped men holding semi-automatic rifles outside the local library, protesting the protest going on at the park across the street where the unarmed schizophrenic had been shot by police the day before. The reporter was asking the man to our neighbor’s left what he and the other men were doing and the man was replying, Keeping America safe from these animals. I heard later from a friend, a library assistant, that storytime had had to be cancelled that day, and that parents had complained about the security at the library. I don’t like the thought of that being next door, my wife told me from her spot on the couch, meaning, I guessed, the rifle. I switched the channel to the crime scene investigation show’s newest spin-off and we both went back to staring at our devices.
Gabriel Blackwell is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Madeleine E. (Outpost19, 2016). His fictions and essays have appeared in previous issues of Puerto del Sol, as well as in Conjunctions, Tin House, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is the editor of The Collagist.