SPENCER WILKINS: We People
Sand Journal July 4th, 2019 I love being smothered. * Noon crack. I drive Big Blue, a Volvo covered in curb-rash, from Bath to Bowdoin College. Gabe, mymain Maine depressed white boy, sits shotgun queuing JPEGMAFIA. I park in the student lot designated for summer student housing. Views from the ﬁshbowl, friendgroups ﬂock—proud and partly nude—around Subarus covered in stickers from Sugarloaf, Bowdoin Alpine Skiing, and Bernie 2016. Sweating on Big Blue’s black seats, we decide to wait outdoors. Eleven minutes late, the door to Apartment E opens, and I hear the rhythmically paused voices ofLuis and María. They’ve dated nine months and lived together two. Luis takes slow wide steps, balancing a cooler. María snorts and kicks him in the shin. I pop the trunk;heatwaves leak out of Big Blue’s carpeted mouth. Tiny, it barely holds thirty-ﬁve whiskey bottles. We fourcram our backpacks and beach towels in the back. Luis hoists the cooler back up their third-ﬂoor walk-up. * A teenage girl sticks her hand through my window, her hair a homemade buzzcut, I put ten dollars inher palm, and park Big Blue four blocks away from Old Orchard Beach. Passing pasty and pink parties;dehydrated, holding light beer in swim truck pockets or between pairs of breasts. They woo without talking,assembling beer bongs.
The four of us ﬁnd an open spot of sand and spread out. María rubs sunscreen on Luis’s back, Gabereads Oliver Sacks, and I journal on my cellphone shirtless; weeks of military push-ups sheared hills on mybiceps. Luis hands me a reusable water bottle. “It’s tequila, Sprite, and mango juice.” I sip, people watchingwhere the sand slips into the swash zone. Fathers spin waterproof footballs besides University of Southern Maine students with thick necks.Pre-pubescent girls kick foaming waves as portly men hover too close. Luis and María go to the water,wading deep enough that only their heads bob above the sea. I leave needing more eyes. Gabe follows. On the pier, I rip a piece of hot funnel cake and plunk it in Gabe’s mouth, sucking powdered sugar off my ﬁngers. We idle past low-lit restaurants blasting A/C and AC/DC. There’s a line spanning a quarter-mile of the boardwalk, curious we join. Nearing the front, I see the line leads to a door guarded by a man.He wears a faux alligator belt, and the right side of his body is considerably wrinkled. At the front, theman slurs; his breath of tar and popcorn, “Fi’ty cents.” He pushes open the door to a bathroom.
* “Are you sure, we’re far enough?” I twirl a joint above a BIC lighter’s ﬂame. “We’re good,” I reassure Gabe, not fully believing myself. We stand in knee-high buckthorns, ﬁfty feet behind a pirate-themed mini-golf hut. We alternate keef-laced puﬀs until we fail to promptly pass. The sun is a fading blodplättar. A chill skims the saltwater; women put plaid shirts over theirswimsuits; men hold icy Bud Lights by their ﬁngertips; children retrieve Roman candles from backseats. We text Luis and María. It’s time for the Heritage Day ﬁreworks in Bath. Big Blue speeds north on I-95. The sun is gone, yet we don’t hear any popping through the openwindows. In an internet dead zone, Gabe tunes the radio. Bohemian Rhapsody cuts through pink noise. Weharmonize; holding an imaginary microphone to each other’s mouths. Brian May’s pedaled guitar andFreddie Mercury’s piano crossfade to a disk jockey’s mentholated vocal, reading copy for discount charcoal. Smells of burning magnesium ﬁll the air whistling through Big Blue. Then, a giant plume ﬂowersabove Exit 63. I make a violent right turn to the car’s applause. Guiding Big Blue down dark storm-washed backroads, using the largest exploding lights as our northstar. I screech to a stop on a triple-parked road straddled by wet lawns. White families share beach towels,lying on their backs. Our foursome gathers on the stone steps slightly separated from the town folk. Luisleans into my ear and whispers, “They’re thinking, who are these fricking e-thnics.” I snort and slap myknee; Luis kisses María on top of her head, and I tussle Gabe’s hair. We lean on each other like uprootedtrees. Watching superheated balls of powder paint the sky.
* Plum Journal July 4th, 2020 At a Traveler’s Inn miles from campus, spritzing sanitizer in my palms, bent on my ﬁrst adderallpills since ﬁnals. The antiseptic spray smells like plastic-jug vodka, unlike the lavender scent of my middleschool Purrell dispensers, where I pumped eﬀervescent foam mountains and inhaled. Deep breathes, upand up ﬁfteen ﬂights of steps, climbing my vertical school. Down, down, down to play foursquare on the street. I was king whenTeddy jumped from the eleventh ﬂoor. The ﬁrst report called it a fall. Clumsy Teddy. His body slamming against a car hood is the loudest sound I’ve heard: not waking to cannon ﬁre, not twenty-thousand people rapping with Kanye West; Teddy was louder.
* Dark clouds blot the sun. Crows tuck their heads in plumage, perching atop a storage warehouse. I squeeze sanitizer gel into my hands and pull my mask from my chin. Exit Big Blue. I lift the door to my storage unit. I see a rip in a garbage bag, exposing a corkboard thumbtacked with photobooth slides. There I am, tongue out, hair blond, arms around Luis and Gabe. I lift the board and hoist a crate of LPs: Helen Merrill with Strings, Open Mike Eagle’s Dark Comedy, Malibu by Anderson Paak. Hidden beneath is a sand-colored journal dated 5/11/19-10/11/19.
* Driving through Bath, a hazy half-sun disappears behind ﬂat homes with garages. Three cousinspopcorn on a trampoline. Barbeque smoke melds with sheets of stratus clouds. Smells of propane and bisonslip through my one slightest cracked window. Parents drink from plastic cups, maxing out egg-sizedspeakers. Someone—who sounds like Eddie Vedder, sings over three power chords. Picket signs outside homes oﬀer wood carving lessons and fresh-cut ﬂowers. Heritage Day ﬁreworks are canceled. Fog smothers the city of ships, it’s far too occluded to pepper the sky in powder. Yet, I hear ﬁrecrackers snap and ground spinners ﬁzz. Not a raven in the street-wide cemetery. They must be well fed. * Holding a headful of adderall, pacing twenty-square feet of motel carpet, grinding my cavity-pocked teeth. I took four times my prescribed dosage, throwing a grapple at someeuphoria. I’m sweaty and horny and a coﬀee away from a stroke. I run an alcohol wipe over a televisionremote and click on.
A man wearing a ribboned straw hat screams behind three competitive eaters. With 2:02 minutes remaining, Joey Chestnut eats his one-thousandth career hot dog. Buzzer. The barker stamps his feet, shouting, “Seventy-ﬁve hot dogs and buns! A new world record! Seventy-ﬁve hot dogs, seven-ﬁve!” Chestnut is the only person to top seventy-hot dogs in ten minutes. He smiles purpled-face, slinging histhirteenth title belt over his shoulder.
I reach in my backpack removing: a brown McDonald’s bag, a Ziplock ﬁlled with adderall, a campus map bisected by the River Lee, and ﬁnally, the sand journal. Begin I do, to read memories in last year’s hand. I love being smothered. Thawing from some ice cave, delicate and preserved, what words were when wewet the bun.
A few good words with Spencer
BVS: Let’s talk about genre and form—do you think of “We People” as fiction, prose poetry, experimental, or something else entirely? What drew you to using the form (journal entries)? How do you play with form and genre in your work?
SW: I’ve been playing with the term acidulous essay for “We People”. Acidulous refers to that lovely sour tang created by the fermentation process. This is a piece of writing that sat long enough to transform. “We People” started as two real journal entries and grew into an essay. Journals and essay may look like twins but they’re not; there are leagues of sea water between the journals of Sylvia Plath and “Ariel”. Little of the original “We People” journal entries remain in this piece, but the tone of my initial observations lives on in the essay.
Form and genre should inform each other. The journal is a suitable form for “We People” because it’s such a visual essay. The sheer difference between what I saw on July 4th, 2019 and July 4th, 2020 amplifies the stark polarity of these moments.
BVS: We just wrapped up Black History/Black Futures Month, but that doesn’t mean that we stop talking, reveling, and thinking about Black genius. What is something you learned, read, watched or listened to in February that you hope to take with you through the rest of the year?
SW: I rediscovered what may be my favorite musician interview, Earl Sweatshirt on NPR’s Microphone Check “I’m Grown”. This was such a holy tome when I started making art. It’s never overt, but Thebe touches on lots of obstacles that come with being a Black creator in this country. He discusses commodity and art, prostration and creation, and snipping your social fabric for material. Earl drops so many gems. I’d recommend this interview for anyone trying to replenish their creative juices.
BVS: Give me your top five food and book pairings (ex: The Color Purple and ice-cold stone fruit).
SW: 1. Descent, Lauren Russell and lemon bars
2. Apple Trees at Olema, Robert Hass and buttermilk pancakes just crispy and kissed by grade a golden maple syrup, and soon after, middle-school-frenched by grade a golden maple syrup
3. Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe and straight gin
4. The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh and inarizushi—just how obachan makes—with pickled carrots tucked in the sweet tofu pouch
5. Hits and Misses, Simon Rich and sour cotton candy
Spencer Wilkins is a writer, sound engineer, and visual artist raised in Tokyo and New Jersey. He wrote the stage play, WALDO, which ran at Pickard Theater in Brunswick, ME. His essays and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Southeast Review, Essay Daily, and The Foundationalist. He has been awarded the Bowdoin Nonfiction Prize, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, and was named a Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholar. Wilkins is an active MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, Nonfiction Writing Program.