“The Plot” is a pun that pays off at the end of Trey Sager’s terrific new story “The Plot,” which is notable, yes, for its plotlessness. Instead of a plot, the author rather brilliantly substitutes a couple of backstories that keep weaving into the text and a set of motifs that he juggles like colored balls before the reader. There is even a sex scene; it’s in a dream. “The Plot” is thus an anti-story of sorts that depends on structure and the strength of the author’s wit and writing skills to capture the reader’s interest. And wit and writing skills Sager has in abundance as well as a poetic sensibility that makes the words into images on the page. I love the way the dead birds that collect outside the windows of the protagonist’s house turn into letters. And the way the poet is described as “an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language.” Also the lush word “passerine,” which means, yes, what it means but passes over the story like a dead hand. The poet is a passerine and the word sounds like melancholy itself. Trey Sager is the fiction editor at Fence; you can read a terrific interview with him on the subject of his novel Fires of Siberia.
At the end of his life, Ronald Reagan raked his lawn each day, and at night the Secret Service dumped the leaves back onto the grass. Guy wondered if whatever degrading plot the future had in store was already upon him and, like the Gipper, he was simply oblivious to it. But he was only fifty-three. Surely there was more time for him to disappear into his lawn. He sat in front of a half-eaten English muffin and a damask-patterned mug of coffee, both of which looked abandoned, as if part of a crime scene. A Sunday abduction. No, a murder, he speculated, picturing himself prone on the living room rug, his assailiant’s skin under his fingernails, his fish eyes open and staring at the carpet fibers and dust particles he could no longer see. He felt unhappy to be dead. Then he heard a knock at the door.
He thought it might be the mailman. Everyone else would be at church or at home, playing with their round, overemphasized children. He was friends with the mailman. They’d met at the grocery store shortly after Guy moved to town, standing in line with a young girl singing “escargot, my car go.” The mailman lifted his eyebrow as an invitation to deride her, but Guy opted for a joke about snails. Occasionally Guy brought Dickel whiskey to the tracks and the two of them passed the sweetened gasoline back and forth, taking tolls on their mutual emptiness. The more the mailman drank, the more he acted like a thirteen-year-old girl.
It could’ve been a bird at the door, Guy speculated. They were often slamming into the back bay window, beckoned by the reflection of the pines and, for someone who isn’t fully paying attention, the sound of a fist clapping against a wooden door resembles a bird thunking against a house. Guy hated the birds more than he felt sorry for them. He was a poet, and spent his time laboring over which words to pair, an indecisive shopper in the dead mall of language. But the birds were ever oncoming. One was always on the verge of cracking its sunflower seed–colored beak and feathered skull on the glass. At a party a woman asked him what’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when it hits your windshield. Its asshole, she laughed. The birds (he looked them up) were passerines.
Of course Susan came to mind, as she often did, but it would not be her either. He’d last seen her a month ago when she came to collect her toothbrush, a package of aromatherapy candles from Target, a few Sade CDs, and an unwashed yellow summer dress. She’d called out of the blue. “I want my things,” she said. Guy lamented the idea, that words came from the blue. The sky. He worked hard to find his. Susan was happy to retrieve her belongings, though she did not expect the toothbrush. She took it in her hand the way a policeman handles a piece of evidence.
Once, Guy dreamed that he and Susan were at a bus station in Los Angeles, and she wanted a package of Razzles. Somehow she slipped inside the vending machine. “I want you to buy me,” she flirted through the glass. Guy checked his wallet but it was empty, and Susan slinked to the bottom of the machine, pretending that she’d been purchased, hiding behind the flap. “Come on, buy me,” she repeated. “Guy, buy me.” A woman whistled behind him. Guy turned around. She was wearing a chinchilla coat and cheap pink scuffs, and although she was not very attractive and wore too much makeup, Guy reached under her skirt and his middle finger whished inside her. She slipped a dollar bill into his other hand and pushed him away. Guy hurried to insert the dollar into the machine, but when he turned back the woman in the chinchilla coat was gone.
“You want to hear a joke?”
“A guy breaks up with his longtime girlfriend and moves across town. He’s carrying a chair to the front door when he notices a snail on the welcome mat. He brings the chair inside and on his way out, he picks up the snail and chucks it onto the lawn. He finishes moving everything inside and settles in nicely. A year passes. One Sunday afternoon, the man is at home. He hears a knock at the door, so he puts down his bag of potato chips and gets up and opens the door. To his surprise, there’s no one there. But then a voice says, ‘Hey, what’d you do that for?’ He looks down at the ground and sees the snail staring at him from the edge of the welcome mat.”
More than once Guy fantasized about standing outside the back bay window, knocking the birds down with a rake. But he hated that the birds died so it didn’t make sense. Anger offered only a sideways path. Early on he wanted the dead birds to transform somehow into the letters or even the words of a new poem, as his karmic reward for enduring their deaths. He tried to write about that idea in a poem, but it turned into a drawing of a deer wearing an army helmet. Eventually Guy decided the birds were killing themselves on purpose. They knew the glass was glass and, like so much on Earth, their lives had nothing to do with him.
He once considered tossing the dead ones into his neighbor’s pool. What else could he do other than imagine them. It was difficult to watch them convulse on the mulch as their broken necks communicated death. Susan said his poems were like cut flowers in a vase, and that she wanted to have sex with the flowers. But you can’t have sex with flowers, she complained, because they’re too delicate. What about a bird of paradise, he asked. After she left him, the mailman brought over whiskey and the two drank in silence, looking at the constellations from his back lawn. Guy convinced the mailman to drive drunk to the supermarket. They bought a giant can of red Kool-Aid powder and, after a few more whiskeys, they dumped the Kool-Aid into the neighbor’s pool so that in the morning it’d look like blood.
What had gone wrong with Susan was the same thing that always went wrong. She loved his books, loved the idea of them, of being with a poet, she thought he was special, and he was special, but special in the way a salamander’s asshole is special. He had interesting secret thoughts, he once imagined straightening her pubic hair with a flat iron, but he could not share those thoughts with her, or in his poems, and she grew bored with her safety. It seemed that a salamander needs its asshole to be interesting.
His poems were full of fruit on crooked tables, a spray of young forsythia, the weary baker walking home to a family saga. He’d made a living off his work, won the Walt Whitman prize and published every year in the New Yorker. Like a telescope he revealed the world in constellations, but Guy did not love the stars. He was the kind of telescope that wanted to spy on his neighbors having sex. Not his new neighbors, of course—the ones he’d abandoned in Los Angeles, they were attractive. But he’d sickened of their enthusiasm, so many charlatans declaring themselves poets, like chocolate chip cookie bakers telling Julia Childs they cook.
If everything is possible, can something be impossible? Guy had discovered the question as a child and felt proud for coming up with it. Some kids got good at baseball, while Guy relished articulation. He hated sports. He thought them uncomplicated symbols of sexual processes, golf the crudest of all. “Get in the hole,” the crowd shouted, like an audience cheering on sperm. You could practically see the flagella in the tracer paths of Titleists. Each competition whittled down the field to a single winner. Unless there was a tie, which they say is like kissing your sister. Always a ball trying to penetrate a goal, usually a circle or a net. Once on television he came across a basketball player dancing at center court after a game, and the man bellowed toward the rafters, tears mixing with sweat on his face. “Nothing is impossible!” he screamed.
Barefoot and in chinos, no shirt, corrugated hair on his lower arms and across his chest, much more than what was on his head, Guy found himself outside. He continued down the street, passing the homes of people he knew the last names of: the Riggs, the Lyons, the Lims, the Carters, the Hardens and the Agbayanos. Their houses were stanzas in a sestina called “Eggshell.” The Carters were right next door, the ones with the aboveground pool. Their son practiced free throws well into the night and everyone knew it would amount to nothing. A few homes down Mrs. Harden had a flower garden, and there she was, crouched on all fours, transferring mums from clay pots into the rich soil. Guy wondered if it had been her at the door. Mrs. Harden sensed someone and turned. She put down her spade, then clapped her garden gloves together and said his name.
“Do birds ever kill themselves on your windows?” he asked her.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Are you well?” she asked.
“No, lately I’m not myself,” he confessed.
“Maybe my mums will inspire you,” Mrs. Harden smiled.
Quietly he watched her scoop the dirt and deposit a bright yellow mum into the earth. He remembered an art installation he’d once seen in Los Angeles. There was a giant representation of a forest, about forty square feet, inside a gallery. When he walked into the room, he heard something squeaking, a machine with an A-B-A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. Soon he discovered the source of the sound was a man made out of plastic having sex with a tree. The man wore a suit, with his trousers at his ankles, and his face was solemn yet ambivalent. Guy thought it was a lurid variation on the myth of Apollo and Daphne, but after watching Mrs. Harden in her garden, he was no longer sure.
“Maybe,” he replied.
“What do you think of my hair?” she asked Guy, her eyes stuttering upon his chest.
A flock of Canada geese passed overhead, honking and honking, a southward bound V.
“I should probably go,” he said.
“Nice to see you.”
Shortly after collecting her toothbrush, Susan had sent a letter in the mail. The stationery smelled like jojoba. Sometimes he took the note from the drawer and breathed it in. All she’d written on the perfumed page was “Thank you.” Guy drove through her neighborhood once or twice. He wanted to write a poem with her looking out the window, forlorn, unemployed, smoking again, terrified. A mirror, in other words. But Susan was never home.
The mailman had announced early on that he did not like poetry. He didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings. At the town lake, they sometimes fished from a rust-trimmed canoe. What a way to pass the time, the mailman said. One afternoon his friend pulled up a small porgy, nothing worth keeping, and he flashed Guy a wolfish grin. He swung the rod in the air, whipping the fish back and forth, then slammed the porgy onto the side of the canoe. Don’t do that, Guy pleaded. The fish bled through its silver scales while suffocating outside the water. Guy had childhood friends who’d strapped fireworks to toads and poured gasoline down the holes of anthills. He wanted to tuck a large metal hook into the mailman’s mouth and swing him into the sun where he would be annihilated in flames. The mailman ripped the fish off the hook and tossed it into the water, where it lilted down, a feather in the breeze.
On his front lawn, three passerines pecked at the grass. Guy went to the front door and rang the bell. No one had been outside. No one would be inside. He waited, regarding the birds with a mild suspicion. They kept their heads down, snapping at insects and hidden grubs. Soon Guy wandered to the back, where he stumbled across a rake and a shovel leaned against the house. He’d once read that John Hinckley was allowed to visit his mother from time to time, and that he roamed the grounds of the mental hospital feeding stray cats. That Ronald Reagan was something else, the pundits often said, but no one knew what. Guy grabbed the shovel and went to the center of the lawn, where he slid the blade into the ground. The earth was surprisingly soft. If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?
Guy worked for hours. The passerines watched him as if he were a different kind of glass. They disappeared at sunset. Crickets replaced the birds, along with a half-hearted moon, which, as the night wore on, faded behind a thick prison of clouds. All the while Guy shoveled dirt from the hole. He dug through the night, and only stopped when the light returned, a mystical pre-dawn that illuminated brush strokes of pine trees and houses and aboveground pools, all cast upon the window that was really the Earth.
The hole, a six-foot pocket, was narrow but deep enough to stand in. Guy slid into it, leaving his arms at his sides, his eyes level with the edge, a gun in its holster. He tiptoed in a small circle, taking in his surroundings, the world of living pine trees and all the rotting houses mocking him with their false precedents. Soon one would become the other. The rising sun would flash across the back bay window, summoning the passerines. They would fly, they would flee one world for another, and each desperate bird would break its neck on the glass. Each would become a word in Guy’s poem, the same word. New life born from death, as if that were possible.
Trey Sager is the author of Fires of Siberia, a romance novel loosely inspired by Tea Party champion Michele Bachmann, published by Badlands Unlimited. He’s also written two chapbooks with Ugly Duckling Presse (O New York and Dear Failures), and is a fiction editor at Fence magazine.