Nonfiction

The Disorder of Things


In silence, in the dark, the water laps over the grey rocks worn smooth and sleek, and the wind whispers through the needles of the tall pines. The quiet ripples over the entire island, across the wispy grass, through the thick ferns, up over the dump and the junkyard, fingering its way into tangles of trees. It spreads across acres of blueberry fields and gathers in the blackberry bushes thick with nettles and thorns. The quiet drifts down onto the road like a ribbon of fog.

* * *

There wasn’t a newspaper so it wasn’t reported, and the record from the state of Maine is brief:

Sept. 10, 1977

01:45 AM,

Vehicles: 1,

Persons: 2,

Fatalities: 1,

Drunken drivers: 1

Sometimes I imagine standing next to him in the dark. The blood is sticky on my boots, there is a silence reaching across us like the sky, and all of the fences and all of the walls that keep things neat and tidy have toppled over. I can see us from above: two figures in the halo of light from the town’s only streetlamp in the middle of the black and roiling Atlantic Ocean.

His name was Joe. He was 22. Her name was Rose. She too was young. I was 15.

The next day, I stood in the kitchen listening to my friend Kelly, twirling the telephone cord around my finger, leaning against the wall. I looked out across the wide open field on the other side of the road. I said nothing. There was nothing to say.

* * *

Death isn’t a quaint mystery with ineffable questions. It is an aggressive assault on the order of things.

* * *

By Israel Sundseth

By Israel Sundseth

I had already started to drink. There was the first Colt 45 when I was 13, and the delicious jolt of pure havoc. There was rum and coke. Jack Daniels. Gin and tonics. Screwdrivers. Kelly and I would set out in the evening walking down-island, hitchhiking to the Narrows, or the Town Beach, or even just to the turn-around at Billy’s Lane. If we were lucky, we’d find Joe or Kenny. They were both in their 20s and had vans. We’d pile in the back and drive long loops up and down the island’s 13 miles. Sometimes, several cars would just park together and beers would be handed out. Leonard, the town cop, would drive by and wave.

I loved drinking. I loved the expansiveness, the sense that nothing mattered alongside the sense that only this mattered. This moment. This now. Not past. Not future. Not death. Not order. Only now. One night, we punched windowpanes with our fists, the thin glass shattering in speckles of light. Another night, Sue got into the back of Joe’s van with nothing on under her winter coat. And yet another, Joe pulled up behind the Inn and ordered White Russians to go for Kelly and me. We drank them in the dark, driving along East Side Drive, savoring the sweetness.

By August of that summer, the summer of the accident, my parents had decided to send me to a boarding school two hours away. They wanted me in a better school they said. I didn’t want to go but I did. I was achingly lonely. I sat alone in the back of the auditorium one evening, watching Peter Brooks’ haunting film of King Lear, and when Goneril smashes her head on a rock, I began to fathom the effort it takes to understand. I didn’t understand Goneril’s act. But I understood that Brooks knew something about it.

* * *

I had expected something so much more of the world, a sense of care and order and the security of knowing. But there is nothing more and yet there’s everything. 

* * *

Sometimes I imagine Rose in her car. I imagine the old car hunkering on after hitting Joe, and Rose, drunk, still clutching the wheel and still sorting center from periphery, figure from ground, still baffled by the speed of the forward flow of things, the trembling light bouncing, the dent folded into the fender.

If you kept going—and you had to keep going—you always came back.

The car would veer right at the fork in the road like it knew where it was heading, and soon she would be nosing through the pitch black of the trees and up the hill at Addenbrook’s field where the moonlight makes shadows across the expanse of grass. She would pass Joe’s brother’s house, flinching like she’d been slapped, then the crooked old graveyard where the broken gate swings down like a mangled arm. The car would swing up around the north end of the island heading straight back south now, Rose mesmerized by the light and the rush of everything coming straight toward her, a train in a black tunnel. She would pass the fork in the road again, now on her left. The car would slow as she traced the gentle curve, and she would see—again—the store’s faded sign, the streetlight, and the body in the middle of the road. Joe was there on the pavement and no matter which way she went, she would always be right back here. The road was a loop after all, contained by the edges of the island. If you kept going—and you had to keep going—you always came back. She had no say in it at all.

The ferry crew had been hustled out of bed, and Joe was taken across the bay to the mainland and declared dead in Camden. But it was a formality. He was dead long before they got there.

The next morning, Joe’s father tried to blast the road clean with the town’s fire hose. We drove by, the spray hitting the car.

Rose left the island, disappearing into years of silence. Joe’s van sat for a while outside his sister’s house, and then it, too, disappeared.

“Poor Rose,” my mother said and never spoke of it again. No one did.

* * *

And we continue to circle the island, driving slowly up north around Turtle Head, and back south down island, over the pavement once soaked in blood, through the Narrows, and finally looping back around at the Town Beach. The tide flows in, and then out. The wind blows. The edges hold together, the silence is muted and soft, and our stories fade in time.

By Israel Sundseth Holly Willis teaches in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She writes frequently about experimental film, video and new media, and explores experimental nonfiction forms.