Midwestern Gothic by Barrett Swanson, The Believer Magazine, Feb/Mar 2018

So, not a short story, but a creative nonfiction essay that is thoughtful, disturbing, and illuminating all at once.

The author, Swanson, was in college when he friend, who went to a different college, was found dead in a river. The official reports were of an accidental drowning, but Swanson couldn’t help but wonder if something else might have happened. While he suppressed the conspiracy theory for the well being of his friend’s family, and for his own sanity, years later the smiley face murders theory comes to his knowledge.

The theory, or conspiracy theory depending on who you ask, posits a killer or network of killers across the United States that targets athletic, popular, and prominently (though not exclusively) white male college students. The symbol of the smiley face was found near or at least some hundreds of yards from many of the bodies found over the years, which some say proves a link. Swanson, for some years, believed–or at least entertained the idea concerning his friend–whose death was one of the possible smile face murders, as a spray painted smiley face was found near a bridge not extraordinarily far from where Swanson’s friend was found.

Swanson uses his friend’s death, in this piece, as a launch pad for a variety of issues, not least of which is the over-consumption of alcohol on, or near, college campuses–but also the willingness of Midwesterners to believe in conspiracy theories whether they are political, social, extraterrestrial, etc. But Swanson reels himself back from what could have been a dive into unsubstantiated flat earth theories with some cold facts near the end of the piece.

“Roughly 3,800 people drown each year in the US, and seventeen-to-twenty-four-years-olds constitute the most common age group, after unobserved children.

“Drowning on a weekend is 48 percent more likely than drowning during the workweek. Almost all the men [as well as Swanson’s friend] thought to be murdered by the Smiley Face Killers were found on a Saturday or Sunday.”

This piece is perhaps less about conspiracy theories and more about the willingness of white males in the U.S. to believe they are the target of some nefarious plot. It’s a story and account I’m thankful to Barrett Swanson for sharing and teaches readers about the struggles our country is going through right now.

Breath Again!

After the better part of a year in Seattle, I find myself back on Whidbey Island and finally able to catch my breath. That’s the strange thing. I feel as though, my 10 months in Seattle was a long held breath. My partner and I were constantly working. We were constantly clamoring for money to pay rent, pay bills, pay for car repairs, pay for a date just to treat ourselves.

Now, in the country side we finally have a moment to sit and take a breath without feeling as though we must get back to work or else…

Funny how that works. Cities offer so much. There are people, shops, events galore, and constant constant constant traffic. I enjoy cycling in the city, but I enjoy cycling in the country a lot more. I enjoy the social spaces of cities, but I found myself always searching for a neighborhood coffee shop that is readily available on Whidbey. When I came back to the island on the weekends now and then I’d release my held breath and feel as though everything had slowed down and I could be aware of my actions in a more meaningful way than when I was in the city.

Here I can drive anywhere without getting frustrated looking for parking. I don’t have to pay for parking. I can cycle to work and only have one or two cars pass me. Kyla and I can sit out on the deck and have a drink as the light wanes and we don’t hear sirens or the honking of cars.

When we visited LA we took a Lyft and the woman said she’d always wanted to live in a smaller town. Someplace not as crowded. But, she said, what would she do? Like, for money. And at that moment it dawned on me how lucky Kyla and I are with our work situation as freelance writers. Small towns, big cities, we can live anywhere and adjust our work load to how much money we MUST make.

There is no worry for us when we move, because one of our jobs always comes with us–and it’s commonly the most lucrative one as well. Sure, when Kyla is in school again she won’t want to spend the little free time she has writing more, but it’s always an option for us, while it’s not for others.

Though Kyla loves cities, we both acknowledge now that a smaller town is more in the offing for our preferred way of life–and that’s what we’re both trying to understand. Our way of life together.

9/11/15 Breeze

The breeze was like any other breeze, though it was a wind. It pushed her hair and her face, her white blouse whipped around her. Allison wondered, for a moment, how she’d come to be there. Thins had been so normal, so calm, so this is like every work day of your life.

She thought back to the day before. That had been similar. She drove Tyler to school, he had only been eight back then. His mop of sandy hair–he was going to grow up to be such a handsome young man–and after she’d dropped him off she was going to (his father would pick him up) and then Brent was there. Brent in a rather dusty suite. For some reason it was appropriate and as Tyler stood there in front of St. Mary’s and all the kids were streaming into the school, Brent walked right up to her. His suite was dark blue, but faded, and his pants khaki with a crease. She was still holding Tyler’s hand, his so small in hers. Brent had walked right to them, his left hand pulled something from his pants pocket. And that was when Allison realized what he was going to do and she realized that she would say yes. Up until that moment she hadn’t thought about it. But in the time it took for him to walk to her and then to kneel, she had done a lot of thinking.

Time was slower than anyone gave it credit for.

A breeze kicked up and tossed her hair back behind and out and around, just like the day before. The view beyond the tops of buildings was beautiful. The shimmer of the Hudson, the reflection of the morning sun. It was beautiful.

The breeze made a rushing in her ears. A strong whoosh. A scent of Aspen. Of cool snow and mountain air. A memory from her childhood. How many breezes like this did you get? No more than one. And most people probably less. And Allison had two.

She should think herself lucky, she told herself. She should feel as though her life was among–oh, maybe–the top five lives ever lived. Two moments she’d had of complete art. Not even Van Gogh could claim that, she guessed.

Below her people stared up and watched. Time for them moved as slow as for Allison. A homeless man in ragged, torn jeans–old Levi’s left over from his sober life–watched with dawning comprehension as she fell. He couldn’t tell it was a she. It was just a person. There was so spin to the decent, just a calm, pure plummet. His tongue found the open place where he missed a tooth. He’d lost it recently and couldn’t stop–like a boy picks a scab–even when it started bleeding again. When he looked back on the situation he wouldn’t recall much, not at first. It all happened so fast, he’d say. It all happened and I was high. Thought it was just bad dope, you know? Just bad stuff I picked up in the park and at any moment I’d wake up. But he never did. And Allison never did either.