The Spill

Elliot Gallion

1.

When asked by the President to fulfill the duty implicit in her honored position, Gilda Sopht—the nation’s poet laureate—remained silent: so memorably in the past had she marshaled the nation’s people through times both trivial and tragic with unwavering selfless grace and virtuous certitude, but in the aftermath of the Spill she memorably declined.

The President publicly expressed his disappointment with Gilda’s silence, but took no action political or punitive; privately, he was hurt, having wrongly presumed far too much in their few meals and walks together at her home in a storied region of the country. His reputation, like Gilda’s, did not gain much from her lack of verse.

The populace, or at least its vocal elements, responded mostly with indignant vitriol, emboldened and invigorated by the fuel of a fresh outrage. She was of an “advanced age,” they patronized; she was laureate “in name only,” they reasoned; her work had “fallen off,” they claimed; she was “out of touch,” they echoed; she wasn’t even “the real story,” they dismissed. Who Gilda thought she was exactly to deny her President the verses he demanded was one consensus: the opposite asked where it was exactly the President got off demanding anything from anyone.

The Literary Scene had once-upon-a-time been her community of choice, but she’d long since excised herself from its daunting and dubious grasp. Those she left behind—all the many Poets, Fictionists and Non-Fictionists—were predictably divided on the subject of her Post-Spill refusal to versify: opposing camps formed quietly; friendships professional and personal became strained or lost; public fallings-out became guaranteed fodder for the gossip of the less successful. Endorsements were made; outrages voiced.

“The field is full of shit-flinging fiends,” a famous-but-past-his-prime fictionist once told a friend, “and they don’t even throw their own shit. They steal it,” he later added when asked about what he’d once told his friend.

It became a standard question during interviews, asked by journalists hoping to both report on and provoke disagreement: “I’m sure you’ve been asked hundreds of times, but I’m going to ask you again, because we’re all interested in your thoughts on the subject as a writer, an intellectual—and even though you’re less than half her age and come out of an entirely different if not contrary literary generation you must have some thoughts on Gilda’s refusal, and since we have you here—what was your reaction to her failure to poetically act? Was it a indeed a refusal?—a failure, perhaps?—how would you characterize it for all those despairing millions in our viewing audience?”

Answers would be given, perspectives readily proffered. The less-concerned-with-their-reputation Pro-Gildas were quick to defend both her actions and her absence: they referenced her early and groundbreaking work as an important member of the Valley of Commerce poetical movement and praised her efforts to endow in the souls of her many students a deep and unrivaled and ceaseless passion for the craft of which she’d spent her life in ardent pursuit. But why, then, the Anti-Gildas would ask—why did she deny the nation she hoped to improve the one semi-rigid dictum it unequivocally expected her to follow? And hadn’t she disavowed her participation in the Valley of Commerce movement as merely coincidental? And it was true, was it not, that she’d on many occasions decried the teaching of craft and finally abandoned the practice in her advancing age? Both sides would predictably recant in the face of the opposition’s self-righteous-and-brutal-lynch-mob logic, struck dumb by the discovery that their personal truths, so seemingly self-evident and legitimate and just, were not universally acknowledged as being universally acknowledged. Instead they shared the shock of that discovery.

Of all the many theories proposed to account for Gilda’s silent refusal of the President’s request that she deliver newly-written poetic verse to deliver the nation from its earliest Post-Spill despair, the most troubling held that she—once a groundbreaking presence, a consummate teacher, a great friend to many a chosen few, the voice of a country’s movement through time’s triumphs, failures and aspirations—well, shucks: maybe she just quite simply had nothing to say.

But how could that be? A short six months after the fact several high-ranking thinkers proclaimed the Spill to be the “single, greatest fuel” available to the nation’s writers in their pursuit since the last big tragedy, the one before the other one; the Spill was, as one public intellectual put it, “simply begging” to be written about. No less than eight of the most successful books of fiction published in the first few calendar years after the Spill took it on as a vehicle for meaning. A number of well-respected scholars quickly forged a Coalition of Academic Inquiry and soon identified a strange extant schism: of those eight highly-successful books of fiction, only three were authored by writers of pre-Spill note. The remaining five came from the poised pen of brand-spankin’-new-never-before-heard-from kids. One digital critic wrote: “The works of our elder literary statesmen are not works of negative energy or unimpressive sophistication, nor are they representative of the individual writer’s worst offering, but any reader will feel a certain lack, as though these writers’ insights are simply insufficient for our needs in this uncommonly awful time.”

Poetry—once insulated and commercially unviable—saw a bona fide resurgence of credibility and fashion in the wake of the Spill, and suddenly became a medium of widespread cultural expression, due almost entirely to the emergence of new voices. The first such breakthrough followed the publication of a poem entitled “Please Clean Up Your Mess Mister Man” by the now ubiquitously famous Mandy “Lo Mein” Williamson, whose renown as a young poet provided her an easy path to digital media-based pop-demagoguery at the ripe age of only twelve. The poem began: “Please clean up your mess, Mister Man/We wanna play like Peter Pan/Daddy says you can’t let your stuff just sit there/’cause it just it just it just ain’t fair.”

Williamson was joined in her success by the public-spaces-only poet Uni Verse, whose single-stanza experimental poems were over a tenuous period of Post-Spill months found in the quiet corners of municipal parks and on cardboard signposts stuck hard into the gregarious green earth of common-ground enclaves; as the demand for his work steadily grew, Uni Verse failed to sustain his previous level of output, and tragically died surrounded by a crowd of over three thousand fans in Post-Fun Poetry’s first notorious death-by-trampling.

Then there was the sex offender Jonathan Lee Lawrence, whose child-like evocations of a pastoral existence via the traditional forms of Japanese haiku became immensely popular with post-Feminist women; Lawrence had famously served multiple prison terms for a variety of sex crimes, during which he was for ced to compose many of the haikus of his later fame only in his mind, his pen-and-paper privileges having been revoked due to an undiagnosed compulsion which bid him to create “connect-the-dot” games, complete with vertices and coordinates, the connection of which per his instructions would typically reveal pornographic images of children engaged in acts of extreme perversion; Lawrence eventually faded into peaceful obscurity after selling his work’s exclusive-and-much-sought copyrights to the Pedophiles Engaging Negative Image Society, whose national advertising campaigns made use of Lawrence’s innocent five-line-and-seventeen-syllable compositions.

Bridging the distance between high art and popular entertainment were the epic open-verse works of former Supreme Court Justice Nancy Bartholomew, whose re-working of such famous political melodramas as A Man for All Seasons and Twelve Angry Men and Inherit the Wind were later adapted into popular films and stage musicals, earning Judge Bartholomew a unique place in the history of the nation’s bar. And of course there were the members of the 14th Precinct Municipal Fire Brigade and their so-called “heat of the moment” method, for which they would enter a burning building, become sufficiently frightened then yell improvised verse mid-rescue into their radio headsets for the benefit of an on-loan court reporter perched fingers-at-the-ready not fifty feet from the flames.

Poetry and Fiction drew much from the Spill in the way of discovery, refinement and delivery, and those once-new voices have since been deemed the first most important curators of the nation’s Post-Fun Consciousness; the size of their cultural footprint raised many questions as to Gilda’s artistic place in relation to the Spill.

Theories of her abject wordlessness were not yet widely believed.

2.

As forces within the government began the preliminary stages of the Post-Spill Clean-Up and the nation prepared itself for embarkation into a new epoch in its ongoing history, there echoed a definite silence from the Literary Scene’s practitioners of Non-Fiction.

Non-Fiction’s Journalism apparatus, in particular, struggled to address those facts relevant to telling the story of the Spill. Efforts to objectively observe events as they happened then pass on or tell about or report on those events in a factual, cogent and professional manner were met with the particularly violent variety of scorn and derision that often issues from the mouths and minds of angry readers: headlines like SPILL IS TRAGEDY OF NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PROPORTIONS or SPILL VILLAINS ABSENT FROM SCENE prompted uncommonly harsh responses from various spheres of influence, including the President himself, who minced fewer onions than usual in his repudiation of Journalism’s “insensitive” and “rash” reporting; but the President had, since the Spill, shared an antagonistic relationship with the print media establishment, and so his repudiations were interpreted as actions of “political opportunism”.

In response to that hullabaloo, Journalism’s regional self-regulatory boards—those Arthurian roundtables of like-minded editors-in-chief poised to lovingly preserve the journalistic tradition—convened under circumstances of unprecedented crisis. The resulting Mays’ Code, named for a friendless editor-in-chief, dictated a set of rules which permitted Journalism’s regional self-regulatory boards to unilaterally mandate the exact language through which the Spill could be reported: words like “tragedy,” “disaster,” “horror” and the Big C’s—“cataclysm,” “catastrophe” and “calamity”—as well as “awful,” “terrible,” “appalling,” “outrageous” and all their cousins, and of course words like “plastic” and “toy,” were quickly struck from language databases, and henceforth omitted from printed news reportage.

Despite these efforts the nation’s readers could not be appeased, and the aggregate sales of newspapers and magazines fell to such extremes that one formerly nationally-distributed newspaper—a big one—was rumored to have had, at one low point during the Clean-Up, fewer subscribers than employees. Eventually a consensus was formed within the large community of Journalism, from the regional self-regulatory boards at the top to dingy corner offices in once-swanky metropolitan palaces at the bottom: in writing about the Spill and its interrelated happenings, those once-adequate-and-standard presuppositions of integrity and seriousness were plainly impossible to maintain. The paradigm, it seemed, had become a host of frightening synonyms for “impotent”—and though it had survived decades of mirthful condemnation and claims of obsolescent decline and ultimate irrelevance, when faced with the Spill and the Clean-Up the mechanism called Journalism finally failed.

The question behavioral scientists and cultural critics longed to ask and to answer in the fallout of the Death of Journalism was why it was, exactly, that Fiction and Poetry continued their patterns of commercial success in the Post-Spill, Mid-Clean-Up nation, whereas Journalism had not. One linguist determined that, having been so repeatedly forced to confront the truth, the nation’s people had developed an intrinsic aversion to any direct language-based representation of the Spill, leading other linguists to wonder if the interpretive space which language demands facilitated, in the minds of Post-Spill individuals, the irrational inflammation of the signified “Spill” beyond its more modest word(s)-based signifier, “the Spill”—the equivalent of reading the word “tree” and seeing in one’s panicked mind an old redwood filled with the dangling corpses of post-execution rapists or teeming with colonies of outsized-insects pincers a-clicking—or, assuming the word “tree” was stigmatized to the point of synonymy with “the worst thing imaginable,” the word “tree” would signify “the worst thing imaginable,” the signified “worst thing imaginable” being, on some level, unique for every individual and therefore an untreatable evocation; given the Spill’s nigh-omniscient presence in the lives of Post-Spill individuals, the likelihood of that achieved synonymy with “the worst thing imaginable” was very likely.

Further non-theoretical, event-based evidence of the aversion’s existence occurred on a highway in New Hampshire, where a group of like-minded citizens stuck in heavy traffic collectively left their vehicles, trudged up a grassy highway-adjacent knoll and set to violently destroying with rocks and dirt a large-scale corporate-sponsored digital sign that indicated, with bright green digits, the exact number of days, hours and minutes since the Spill, forcing the alleged vandals and their fellow gridlocked highway travelers to contemplate the Spill’s minute-by-minute protraction, thereby increasing the terrible ease with which they could gauge the trajectory of their lives by the number of days, hours and minutes ticking silently upward—a reminder that so many days, hours and minutes had passed since they’d been drinking coffee in their kitchen or taking their children to school or reading a book they’d loved but never finished or recovering from the death of a family member or the loss of a job or the rejection of a lover and heard the first bits of news about some as-yet unnamed thing in some distant place that was both close to and far from them, and suddenly all tragedies were amplified, all successes undermined—and after hours of interrogation by authorities it was determined the entire group of like-minded citizens had acted out of a rare form of collective hysterical sadness, and so were not legally accountable, as it were, for their destructive actions. The story of this destruction—though it wasn’t called “destruction”—was reviewed by Journalism’s still-functioning regional self-regulatory boards and declared “too emotionally toxic” for print publication.

Not long thereafter certain Elder personages on the outskirts Literary Scene—many of whom have since died—began to whisper amongst themselves in quiet protest against what in their wisdom had become a shallow, callow and rude Literary Scene corrupted by factions of trans-genre writers: the most notorious of these meetings took place in the storm shelter of a rural home in a storied region of the country, by candlelight, over homemade biscuits, with a radio-broadcast classical orchestra in the corner playing out a static symphony. It was here that the Theory was first expressed. The underlying premise was derived from the Elders’ observation of a strange correlation between the two major Spill-related events and the twice-subsequent silence of a language-based voice: the Spill had struck dumb Gilda Sopht, the nation’s poet laureate, and the Clean-Up all-but-directly coincided with the Death of Journalism. The Theory, then, told that in an “uncommonly awful time” cultural voices were not ensured their survival.

In the interest of public health and safety, the Theory was never published, but the apoca-prophetic musings of these Elder literary minds nevertheless inexplicably permeated the Literary Scene. A panic spread among poets and fictionists frightened by the prospect of sudden-onset abject wordlessness.

Around this same time, classified governmental documents discussing something called the “End of Fun” were leaked by upper-level diplomats. Their belief in the nation’s Post-Spill prospects had depreciated: many later committed suicide.

3.

It was that one-two combination—the Literary Scene’s Elder members’ Theory about soon-to-be-silenced cultural voices and the leaking of classified documents concerning the as-yet publicly unacknowledged End of Fun—that inspired the efforts of one Arin Joy, a well-regarded ex-journalist-turned-Post-Spill-fictionist, whose simultaneous crippling fear and giddy anticipation of the impending death of another cultural voice inspired him to join literary forces with a dozen fellow journalists-cum-Post-Spill-fictionists to collect, in a single 136-page volume, excerpts from what Joy called “aborted accounts”: pieces of literary non-fiction and long-form journalism about the Spill and the Clean-Up, including personal narratives, omniscient experiential essays, in-depth reportage and yellow-as-a-pissed-coward muckraking investigative pieces—all of which had been started but not finished, discovered but not refined: drafts trapped forever in the naked rough to die a lonely death-by-abandonment. The volume was called Joy and Friends: Voices in the Wilderness.

The aim, as Joy wrote in his foreword to the collection, was as follows:

Journalism, my first love, has died…and though my new lover, she the creature known as Fiction, has been a wonderful mate these Post-Spill years…I carry with me, like any widower, a memory of my first mistress…No man can overcome such a loss, and perhaps he shouldn’t…What remains for me are these fragments…hastily written and frustrating beyond reason, barely together and poorly strung, I admit…but they are all I have of my old lover who took so much and to whom I gave so willingly of myself. Shall I let her finally wither in the black plastic trunk beneath by writing terminal? Nay, I say…let her live, and let her memory join us in the future, however it may unfold. She is a comfort and a guiding light…And that is why my friends and I have pulled from our archives these half-written bits, these aborted accounts of what we saw and how we felt. Let our humanity keep us together, and let death be conquered by life. Join us in our remembrances, and fear not what you find (A. Joy, “Foreword”, Joy and Friends, ed. A. Joy, pp. i-vii).

Most of the excerpts in the collection were those written-and-abandoned by Literary Non-Fictionists, whose domain is certainly fact-based but far from straightforward journalistic reportage, often featuring a gussied-up vocabulary and high-pretense figurative devices and complex storytelling structures (merely hinted at in the collection, given the “aborted” nature of each excerpt); the reason for this predominance was more a function of Joy’s famously disreputable social and literary circle than any deliberate editorial choice. The following passage—written-and-abandoned by Leopold Fante, the diabetic Non-Fictionist who lost his legs both anatomical and creative in the years between the Spill and the Clean-Up and entered a life-ending coma just before the End of Fun’s declaration, and about whom an obsession with location was often observed—is an example of the collection’s more literary offerings.

The city of Soberton lays in the low-level Missouri River flood plain of Eastern Missouri, a densely-populated area that other Missourians quite-rightly call “town,” as in: “Let’s go into town and…” That sentence is most often finished with either “do some shopping” or “get some dinner”. Soberton, a county West of St. Louis, is home to the world’s longest commercial strip mall, and has more per-square-mile restaurants than anywhere else in the nation…Traveling over the highway to Soberton one sees the impressive length of the shopping center, which runs parallel to the Missouri River, like the highway. Until the mid-1960s it was all farmland owned by families whose grandfathers had traveled West to start anew, and though it’s mere local affectation, the exit and overpass where you leave the highway to do your shopping and eating is called “Boone’s Crossing,” a reference to the rugged, bear-killing pioneer of our frontier mythology. Upon seeing the stores and restaurants from afar, one doubts the trading posts or merchant’s markets were ever so sprawling…The exit at Boone’s Crossing delivers you to the main drag, Soberton Airport Road: a Los Angeles-worthy boulevard surrounded on both sides by a dense jungle of crowded franchises, a never-ending desert of black asphalt parking lots, a Rome-worthy sewage architecture and the sound of overhead airplanes, mostly single-prop leisure crafts and short-run private jets dropping for a landing at the nearby single-strip airport…keep going (and going) and hang another left, at the intersection, onto a road the name of which has, by now, become universally recognized…famously the subject of an accidental pun uttered during an early Presidential address to the nation…(‘The Spill is just another accident on our nation’s long road, but we shall pass it by’)…Long Road is of the two-lane variety, once the main thoroughfare of Gumbo Flats, Soberton’s municipal forbear, and as unassuming as small county roads come. Now it’s a transitional road, and frequently stutters, full of stalled rush hour traffic, mostly due to a bottleneck railroad crossing adjacent to a small local cemetery…no more than sixty headstones, all recently cleaned and restored…and a sign that, even now, demands privacy upon threat of a trespassing charge. Up a gravel drive that disappears into dense woods one can see the home of the cemetery’s overseer who, on that fateful morning, witnessed the beginning of a tragedy that outweighs the passing of every resident guest at his roadside graveyard…trespassing is now the least of his problems, and no doubt commonplace. Past the cemetery a mere eighty yards around a bend, at the intersection of Wildhorse Creek Road and Long, three lanes converge: traffic from the West moves over a small bridge overgrown with low-hanging trees that rise up from the creek below, a brown and narrow tributary to nowhere; from the East comes Long Road carrying travelers from the highway and the stores and restaurants still catching their breath; then there’s the traffic moving East down Wildhorse Creek Road’s long, slow decline…an Ozark hill diving into the Missouri River Valley…The decline is deceptively steep, as has been reported…most traffic accidents occur there when the driver coming down the hill fails to realize the closeness of red-lighted traffic, and plows into the unsuspecting car ahead. In spite of the natural longing for so simple an explanation as that which blames the landscape, such hopes are empty. Long Road is a normal road, and easily driven. (L. Fante, “Our Long Road,” Joy and Friends: Voices in the Wilderness, ed. Arin Joy, pp. 53-57)

The collection’s excerpts of Literary Non-Fiction tended more toward the modifier “Literary” than the noun “Non-Fiction,” like Fante’s, and were therefore all-the-more distant from the collection’s unambiguous, ice-cold factual accounts, the kind that were known before their eradication to inflict emotional distress and, in some cases, physical harm.

After the collection’s publication, Joy and his co-conspirators undertook a series of reader surveys, and determined most of the nation’s readers were unwilling to subject themselves to such pain. The reader surveys also revealed that of all the pieces in Joy and Friends, the remnants of an article abandoned by the former big-time West Coast newspaper writer Breanna Christie, currently a resident of an institution for the criminally insane in upstate New York, contained the most facts, and was therefore the most-avoided and least-read. Christie began writing the article as an assignment soon after the Spill and endeavored for several weeks past her deadline to make it fit her own high journalistic standards, but was finally told, by the same editor who’d assigned her the story, to “get ‘em up and move ‘em on” to greener and less-distressing pastures. According to Christie’s former editor, the headline allocated to Christie’s article, had she finished it, would have read JLB TOYS RESPONSIBLE FOR SPILL, with the sub-headline TRAGIC DISASTER OF CATASTROPHIC PROPORTIONS.

by Breanna Christie

The driver of an eighteen-wheel semi truck carrying an oversized shipment of toys lost control of his vehicle yesterday morning, resulting in the spillage of over 15,000 toy units onto Long Road in Soberton, MO.

According to Soberton police, Mr. Bill Shrubbe, 54, was found dead in the wreckage. It took authorities several hours to find his body amidst the spilled toys.

The shipment of Tea Party Rex Dolls—a dinosaur toy for young girls—was headed to a JLB Toy Store in the nearby shopping center. JLB is based in the U.K. but its flagship store is located in Soberton.

According to the testimony given by Mr. Lewis Fee, the overseer of a cemetery on Long Road, the truck being driven by Shrubbe “just didn’t stop” as it approached the intersection, and “tried to right it’s course” before slamming into a guard-rail and turning over.

“Then the toys came spilling out,” Fee said.

By the time authorities arrived at the scene, the spill had already spread over both lanes of Long Road, and showed no sign of stopping. Police representatives said they have never before been faced with a circumstance of “spilled toys,” but are fairly certain it is the worst such disaster in history.

JLB CEO Anthony Wayward has so far not officially commented on the spill.

The Tea Party Rex Dolls are the highest-selling toys for girls between the age of 4-10, and used in “make-believe” tea parties. According to the JLB Toys website, the Tea Party Rex Dolls are very similar to the very popular Racer Rex Action Figures.

An anonymous source at the flagship store in Soberton said, “The kids love these toys. They can’t imagine the world without them.” (B. Christie, “JLB TOYS RESPONSIBLE FOR SPILL,” Joy and Friends: Voices in the Wilderness, ed. Arin Joy, pp. 21-22)

As emotionally disturbing or physically painful as Christie’s unfinished article may have been, the final selection in Joy and Friends was, by all accounts, the most controversial. It came from the writing desk of none other than Omar Savides, the fringe radical who, though never convicted, was widely believed to be the perpetrator of a series of low-level residential bombings: unlawful-though-never-proven actions that earned him the nickname “The Paper Boy Bomber.” Savides had been a magazine editor infamous for taking heavy editorial risks, like permitting bad grammar in favor of opulent prose, but saw his employment terminated after the rumors of his political extremism were proven true; he later pursued Fiction to minimal success and founded an organization called the Anti-Clean-Up Society (one of many) that published little-read bi-monthly pamphlets featuring Savides’ own semi-unique brand of high-energy, low-brow rambunctious musings, the aim of which was to both titillate and outrage.

The following is the final paragraph of Savides’ essay as it appeared in the Arin Joy’s collection:

We’ve all heard the rumors. They’re scary. The government isn’t telling us what’s happening. And neither is JLB. At the risk of sounding like what my critics accuse me of being we have to consider the possibility that these rumblings are true, and if they are, or if they’re not, we need to be prepared. I want to ask a question. It is a question, I submit, that each thoughtful being in the nation has asked itself. There have been small circles, mostly along the wrongly-ignored-and-criminally-marginalized cultural fringe, many of whom I am proud to call friends and comrades, who upon fear of painful death have defiantly asked the question publicly. The President, the insipid head of our tiresome government, would blandly fight to his own boring death to ensure this vital question never reached the trembling lips of an on-air television news stooge, never became the subject of a smirk-worthy bit perpetrated by the only outlet for what used to be called “real news” we currently, unfortunately, painfully, against-our-will possess: our satirists, they-who-have-betrayed-our-trust-with-their-influence. The question is this: is it possible we’re overreacting? Is it possible, as the rumors suggest, that the Spill isn’t really as important as we’ve made it? Could it be, as none have said, that Gilda’s refusal to guide us with verse was the only guidance she saw fit to give? (O. Savides, “You Have to Ask,” Joy and Friends: Voices in the Wilderness, ed. Arin Joy, pp. 120-136)

Savides was, of course, an incendiary personality, and his affiliations were enough to deter most readers, especially those with strong beliefs of their own; furthermore, the piece itself—though never publicly acknowledged by any government authority—was rumored to be a full-length work of Post-Spill, Post-Clean-Up Nonfiction, complete with a stated purpose, the development of that purpose through example and anecdote and finally the inklings of a conclusion: what many would have called a literary miracle.

For that reason, the Savides piece contributed most directly to the scene-wide decision to first cancel any further printings of the volume, second remove it from booksellers, libraries and databases, and third undergo a nationwide campaign the chief purpose of which was to convince readers who’d physically purchased the collection to relinquish their copies in exchange for any number of alternative bestselling Post-Spill fictions: particularly those that used the Spill as a metaphor, and thus robbed it of any direct, meaningful significance. Joy and his co-conspirators—those still living—launched a short-lived anti-Scene campaign to keep their collection on bookshelves, but to their dismay and defeat an estimated 97% of the existing copies of Joy and Friends: Voices in the Wilderness were quickly returned by their owners to the original sellers, then burned to unforgiving oblivion. Some months later, Arin Joy was found dead in an alleyway in San Antonio, his clothing ragged, flesh hanging loose, boyish good looks turned a two-week jaundiced yellow by rainwater and decay: illegal substances and the requisite paraphernalia were found near his body. His death was declared an overdose. His name faded from the headlines. His fabled collection dissolved in forgotten flames.

Then, at long last, on the cloud-covered, drizzly morning of a day now ten years past the President, solemn in face and demure in motion, approached the lectern at a small liberal arts university in the Southeast and, into a microphone, admitted, his voice shaking, his sincerity above question—that the rumors were true: the Spill had, like a medieval blood-letting, drained something vital from the nation as a whole. He, the President, declared, with pointed diction—his legacy decomposing with each successive utterance, the nation’s dreams popping, aspirations dying—that the nation, per his judgment and that of his advisors, had entered a new epoch in its history: one devoid of that wonderful idea once-but-no-longer-referred-to as “fun”.

4.

The President’s declaration of the End of Fun did not inspire mass protest or violent demonstration, even from the most extreme of fringe elements. This was contrary to the President’s assumption, shared by his advisors and most law-enforcement and intelligence arms, that such a statement would inspire a long-running internal conflict. The air was ripe with discontent, certainly, but no more than usual.

The nation, having suffered the burden of chaos in the wake of the Spill—a time of great change and cultural upheaval—seemed to settle: calm and unprovoked. There began a period of quiet contemplation. High-ranking thinkers attempted to formulate theories to explain the quiet, but their efforts were abandoned: even they possessed little desire for an answer. Meanwhile, the culture, including the Literary Scene, was silent. Poets and Fictionists, once swollen with Post-Spill Inspiration, appeared starved and weary with Post-Fun Malaise; their work addressed irrelevant subjects and lacked cohesion; they were boring like old things are boring when old things are boring. Those Poets and Fictionists who in their heyday had been hailed as wunderkind gatekeepers of something once so rich and so new seemed ready to return to a time more simple: each infrequent attempt at new-fangled innovation of form or content failed, and was uninteresting in its failure. The television news industry stopped giving up-to-date accounts of events and instead filled airtime with re-runs of “breaking news” stories—an anthology of “thrilling” and “you gotta see this” reports representing “all the best news”—but even they were ignored, eventually. Motion pictures of a certain kind were abandoned without lament or fanfare, replaced by reels of bright colors and loud sounds played in continuous, repeating loops and endured for no better reason than momentary distraction; but they, too, were only temporarily consumed.

Geopolitically the world was of a demure countenance; international legislative bodies ceased to convene; diplomacy was without cause; agreements waxed and waned absent of purpose. Economies grew passive and sluggish. Science preoccupied itself with itself. Education was either abandoned or embraced the way an obsolescent farmer overworks or burns his fallow fields. Holidays became redundant. Most professionals sought their way out. Rather than risking the possibility of abject wordlessness, many Fictionists and Poets put down their pens in favor of a pre-emptive and self-imposed silence: a refusal.

For a short period of long years, there was little to discuss. There was no dominant feeling. The End of Fun meant the inability to see beyond tragedy: an acute paralysis of the once-prevalent inclination to cross the river. It was a dark time, as time must always be for the blind.

Then: death!

At an early-morning hour, or at least much earlier than they had grown accustomed to rising, former television news anchors were rustled from their beds by telephone calls from producers with whom they hadn’t spoken for months (live anchors having been done away with), and with still-sleepy ears pressed to plastic receivers the oh-so-tired news anchors who’d had so little to do but hold tight to the ground heard their producer friends say there was an emergency and the old crew was assembling at the old office and driving non-stop to a rural town somewhere in the middle of the country. When the anchors asked why, they were told it didn’t matter and that it didn’t make any difference because it was a real story, after all—but since you asked someone important stopped existing, and there wasn’t any time to waste.

Hours later, as the rest of the nation along both coasts and in the middle climbed from empty beds to address the day, they were shocked to see and hear sights and sounds that weren’t already familiar—something new was happening, was it, you said?—and they were afflicted with a strange-but-familiar feeling that they didn’t remember but was most certainly excitement: an anticipation, the kind that focuses minds and strains stomachs but keeps the wayward vessel afloat. In their homes the nation’s people crowded around their televisions and listened and watched. In public places they stood and did the same, occasionally turning to look at one another with confused looks, a confusion not as much with what they were being told had happened but with the realization that it had been a very long time since they’d taken the time to look at one another with anything but anger or despair. News reports—live breaking news reports, they were!—came screaming across the sky with news of death!

Gilda Sopht—the nation’s poet laureate—was dead. She’d been found in her home in a storied region of the country: a victim of that same “advanced age” for which she had once been criticized. The cameras captured images of her body as it had been found: curled on a small bed on the floor and beneath heavy maroon blankets, her face calm and gray and settled in an expression of quiet release befitting a peaceful passing, and yet—there was, undeniably, as many of the nation’s people whispered, something else in her face, something like small inflections at the corners of her mouth curled upwards at both ends: a smile! Gilda Sopht, it was reported, had died silently, and with a smile.

Like the flood of some ancient or gestating text the culture erupted. Fictionists and Poets sent words to one another, asking what they or others believed had happened and what they were feeling, and if those were the same, or different, and if different: why? Speculation, rumors, whispers among groups that gathered and dispersed, framed by freshly clean kitchens and low-lit living rooms and crowded banquet hall corners. Amidst all the talking there was a sound, too—soft but distinct—as pencils scratched across paper and fingers tapped at mechanical keyboards and word processors hummed a familiar tune—and then, finally: pages! And eyes, roaming the new pages in search of the reservoir of meaning in which they, the pages, had been conceived, however unconsciously, and lurked, somewhere between the lines, near the surface, but just perfectly hidden!

At the corner of two familiar streets a pair of newly-familiar Fictionists met to exchange manuscripts: each read the other’s before the day was over and exchanged further pages of notes and suggestions, both swollen with the pleasure of a common goal. By the morning following reports of Gilda’s death, one thousand copies of a single sheet of paper with the words LAUREATE FOUND DEAD printed across the top were placed at the corner of two familiar streets and subsequently found their way into the hands of one thousand different people, many of whom transformed the single sheet into a digital object and unceremoniously dropped it into the digital realm from no great height to a place where many more thousands of individuals throughout the nation could read what could only be described as a fact-based account of a real-life event. Within a week, a little-read-but-fashionable-to-read Eastern arts magazine published an issue filled with brand-spankin’-new-never-before-seen Poetry and Fiction; no submission, the editors announced, had been turned away.

Upo
n consulting with his advisors and amassing as much knowledge as possible on Gilda’s death, the former President—who had not been seen in public since his declaration of the End of Fun—emerged from his private home in the Pacific Northwest and offered a brief eulogy to the same poet laureate who, so many years before, had declined his request that she redeem the nation and its people through the power and guidance of her verse as they faced the dark horizon of an uncommonly awful epoch.

“History,” the president said, “is that through which we must pass, and cannot avoid, together.”

Following Her Death and for several months Gilda was honored and remembered on a frequent basis. She was given dozens of posthumous tributes, all heartfelt, from all sectors a-brimming with the same sincerity and grace that had characterized her own life and body of work. The Literary Scene, as Gilda’s once-upon-a-time professional family, stood quietly by as the kind words came in, happy to sponsor each ceremony, more-than-willing to oversee the construction of memorial statues and the christenings of new buildings and the re-naming of old boulevards that would, from Her Death on, keep Gilda’s name and work forever alive. Volumes of her poetry filled bookshelves, only to be quickly bought.

Thinkers of the highest rank entered into a widespread critical re-appraisal and discovered that, in the years since her refusal to versify, especially, but perhaps all along—they’d been wrong, overcritical, oversensitive, misguided, led astray: there were to be found in her verse no fascist undertones, no cold admonitions or unfair biases, no dogmatic declarations. Gilda, they decided, had been right all along, and she was, as they’d always secretly thought—irrespective to what they wrote in journals or whispered in corners—the best and only practitioner of verse they had ever really needed.

As the nation and the literary scene were preoccupied with remembering, however, Gilda Sopht’s personal effects had to be gathered, gone through and inventoried per the instructions of her appointed executor: a single unknown figure who kept her mysterious distance and hired high-ranking attorneys as her legal handymen. It was she—the nameless executor—who was responsible for the installation of Gilda’s papers at a well-known university in the middle of the country. The university was chosen for two reasons: first for its elite status as an archive for many of the nation’s well-known voices, and second its location: Gilda Sopht’s papers are housed in a building that stands not thirty miles from where once the nation kept its lonely eyes, and where its government has plans to erect a memorial to commemorate the long-lasting and irrevocable effects of the Spill.

But even as plans for the archive were formulated, there were some lingering questions repeatedly voiced about Gilda’s final days and her many Post-Spill years spent out to pasture. She left no will. She died childless and alone. Her closest friends lived far away. All three of her well-known romantic affairs had long since passed. There were only two people, one living and one dead, who could offer any fact-based perspective or insight to answer the nation’s questions. The living person was, to no original credit on Gilda’s part, her gardener: an elderly and partially blind woman whose fingers, it was said, could barely make a fist for the pain they gave her, and who wept unattractively whenever a television camera was shoved in her face. The only other person capable of giving any sort of information as to Gilda’s Post-Spill years was, as it happened, Gilda herself, whose diaries, kept life-long, were known for their rigorous specificity and detail. Reports at the time, however, indicated that what would have been her final diary—encompassing all her life’s details Post-Spill, Post-Clean-Up and Post-Fun—simply did not exist, in defiance of the nation’s best hopes.

The faceless executor claimed the final diary found among Gilda’s effects took its readers only to a point in time three weeks before the Spill. That final diary was published under the title Before the Spill to mostly universal acclaim, but not without a few skeptical members of the Literary Scene calling its veracity as Gilda’s final diary into question. It was suggested that the publication of Gilda’s final diary was a calculated action designed to distract the nation and the Literary Scene from the possibility of a missing or suppressed diary, which would have presumably covered in great detail Gilda’s Post-Spill life, and therefore answered all the many questions that had in the wake of her refusal so captivated the Post-Spill nation.

Three weeks ago, a discovery was made at The Gilda Sopht Archive. The source of the discovery is an undergraduate student of English who has, since his discovery, taken it upon himself to investigate the nation’s history as it relates to the Spill, the Clean-Up, the End of Fun and Gilda Sopht. Whatever the merits of the undergraduate’s investigation—or his qualifications to have undertaken it absence of faculty guidance—the fact remains that he did not report his discovery to the university-appointed Archive Curator, nor did he follow browsing protocol in his many return visits to the Archive. The well-known university has publicly announced neither the undergraduate’s discovery nor their discovery of that discovery. The undergraduate has been threatened with not-insignificant charges that will adversely affect his academic future.

The undergraduate’s discovery consists of an untitled, single-stanza poem found in Gilda’s archived papers: specifically, between an old newspaper and a battered copy of Arin Joy’s heretical collection of aborted accounts. The university’s English faculty, with the assistance of two high-ranking thinkers, have determined that the poem exhibits stylistic inclinations of both form and content that are consistent with that of her previous and much-analyzed work, and is, at this point in the process, undeniably the work of Gilda Sopht. It is believed that the poem was never published and was, contrary to assumptions of her abject wordlessness, a work composed by Gilda sometime after the Spill. The English faculty and its consults have been debating for months the implications of this discovery and what purpose its release to the public would serve. They are certain it would raise unnecessary questions. Others agree, and point out that discussions of Gilda’s refusal have shortened over the years.

Elsewhere, a war is being fought; they say a child has been heard whistling.

About the Work

Elliot Gallion

Elliot Gallion will graduate from Stetson University in May 2011 with a degree in English. He lives in Gumbo Flats, MO.

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