catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 22 :: 2009.11.13 — 2009.11.26


Clutching Dust and Stars

Chapter Two: Extinction is Forever

This is the second chapter of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read the first chapter here), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.  Enjoy!

Years ago, one of his college friends had told him that he had the Midas touch, but in reverse: he touched gold and it turned to shit. Imagine just bumping into her like that. And then botching it up. He hadn’t wanted her to see him with the wheelchair. Standing, even with a cane, would have been better. And he hadn’t planned on seeing her from within a burrito. He should have just let that kid pick it up. So there he was with two strikes against him when she walked in. Not only was he an invalid, he was also a slob.

Why did he care? It’s not like he wanted to get back together with her. He’d like to be friends again, of course, if he moved back up here. Certainly in the span of minutes that they had been in the restaurant together he had wondered whether he could get her in bed, and he had imagined being with her again, but that didn’t necessarily mean much. He wasn’t sure whether she was far enough in his past that these thoughts were the same ones that accompanied introduction to any new girl, or whether they were something residual, left over from the time before.

He was driving south on I-5 now, heading home, replaying the scene in his mind. All day as he had been looking at apartments he had been imagining different ways in which they might happen to cross paths. He’d be stopped at a red light, would randomly turn his head and see her in the car beside him and she’d jump out and smother him with kisses. Or he’d see her down the street as he was looking at an apartment and would call out to her. She’d recognize him and come running over. And smother him with kisses.

He hadn’t really expected it to happen, and especially not as it had. He hadn’t even been sure that she still lived in town. Then, seeing all the familiar places in Bellingham had resurrected thoughts. Today she had haunted him like a poltergeist, knocking memories from their shelves and thumping noisily up old staircases in his brain.

But when he heard her voice he had forgotten all the clever things he thought he would say and spent most of the conversation smiling like an idiot and saying nothing. Two years was a long time. Where do you start?

And her response was characteristically vague. How did she feel about the possibility of him moving back? He wished that she had been visibly excited to see him. He couldn’t really blame her-he wasn’t even sure how he felt about seeing her. It had been long enough that it was a kind of curiosity, seeing her in front of him, but there was a mixture of emotion that hadn’t had time to separate into parts, some rising to the surface and some sinking down. The first thought, always, was that she had broken up with him, and that hurt. But he also remembered laughter, and something closer to love than anything he’d had since.

Maybe he should have asked her if he could come to the coffee house with her. That was the first place he remembered seeing her.


He had been on the staff of the student newspaper at the time. It was a Wednesday night and he had come there seeking a corner to work in alone as he tried to finish his story for the next issue, due the next day. He was on the second floor balcony, looking down on the performers in the main room. His article was spread out on the table in front of him and the table lamp cast a hard light on the papers, spotlighting the fact that he was getting nowhere.

Nat had just started working at the coffee house, and though she spent most of her time behind the counter, she occasionally made the rounds with a cloth to wipe tables or stepped outside for a cigarette on her break. Watching her soak up a spilled cappuccino from the table next to his, his first thought about her was that she looked easy. She was wearing a tight black V-neck T-shirt that accentuated her breasts-perky things and not large, but enough to captivate the imagination. No bra. Her hair was short on the sides and back with some length on top, dirty blond.

To his credit-at least he thought so-the impression that formed over the next weeks and months was that she didn’t need to be easy. She had a magnetism about her, something that drew him in. He was always wanting more of her-in all manners of the phrase.

He remembered how he’d go for weeks without seeing that slight gap between her front teeth. It was always in hiding and came out in little glimpses as she talked. It was a special treat when she laughed hard and her whole rack of teeth opened up with this gaping void front and center, unabashedly imperfect. If she was laughing hard, her nostrils would flare and she would hold her nose inside her fist as though to control it while she snorted. He was often tempted to tear her hand away and stare at her with all of her defenses down.


He swerved back into his lane, coming up out of his thoughts like a whale for air, jolted by a flash of bright headlights. The rain was coming down heavily and the sun was obscured by clouds. Dark trees brooded on either side of the road, harboring secrets or conspiring against the highway which cut so flippantly through them. It seemed wilder than usual, with lush vegetation on both sides. It was nice to be reminded that the world was not completely concrete.

He found himself thinking of home and was surprised that a landscape thick with trees could remind him of home: a tire swing and a wide open space. Home was non-existent now, or rather, the space that was once home now existed underneath a strip mall, having been paved over three years ago. He didn’t see how another fast food restaurant could be worth more than a tire swing, but he wasn’t completely impartial. He remembered being outraged when his parents had told him about the sale of the land. His father was getting old, but Rob had never considered the possibility that he might leave the farm in any way other than stiff and in a pine box.

They still lived nearby, but in town in Bonney Lake, and he didn’t think their farm habits translated to the new location. His father had remained active on the farm until the day he sold it. Now he wandered around the tiny house listlessly, his meaty fingers hanging by his sides half flexed, prepared to grab anything that might materialize in the hall: a tractor in need of repair, a cow heavy with milk.

And his mother, who had kept the same house for thirty-six years had to adjust not only to a new house, but to this old man wandering around inside of it. Last time Rob had been over, his father had walked back and forth to the store three times. The first trip was for carrots, and half an hour later he went to buy peppermints. A few minutes after returning he discovered that the cashier had given him an extra dime back, so he wanted to return it to her. His mother had confided in him while his father was fetching peppermints that having Dad around all day was difficult. This house was smaller, so the housework didn’t take as long, and she felt like she was being lazy if she sat down with a crossword puzzle or talked on the telephone while he hovered behind her. And they had a dishwasher now, which took even the warm familiarity of soapy water from her. She had tried to do the dishes in the sink for the first few weeks after they had moved in and Dad would grumble behind her the whole time. After a week or so, he had finally reached over and pulled the plug out of the sink as she filled it.

“You don’t need to do this. Use the dishwasher-we paid good money for it.”

He wondered if Dad ever kicked himself for selling the old place. He remembered the conversation. He had been in school yet, just before graduation.

Once his father had determined that Rob wasn’t going to be coming back to take over the farming, he had to decide whether to hire someone to help him or just sell it off, because it was getting to be too much for him. He had decided to sell.

“There’s no sense working myself into the ground so some man I never knew can take the farm.”

“You’re really going to sell it?”

“Do you want to come take over?”

“I told you Dad, I’m going to be a journalist. I just don’t feel farming the way you do.”

“Then I’m really going to sell.”

“No you’re not. Farming’s in your blood. You can’t just quit like that.”

“Well, I can’t do it alone anymore. I’m getting older. I figure I might as well spend a little more time in my last days with Mom.”

So now he had more time to spend with Mom.

Thinking about home and seeing Bellingham again made him wonder where all his energy had gone. He had been full of it while in high school, intent on getting away from there. And university had been a great petri dish for ideas and emotion-all his ambition was swabbed into the dish and cultivated at just the right temperature, with just the right amount of light.

And the energy began to grow, to build up inside. But somehow it had evaporated completely-or maybe it leaked out somehow. He pictured a handful of newly graduated students looking helpless in the middle of a city, leaking in their pants.

His thoughts had become more localized: they tended to be about what his next meal would be or how to pitch a certain boring story and make it seem exciting. Besides, TV commercials and soundbites don’t raise the same issues as a political science class.

He knew this and still found himself absorbing candy culture regularly. It was so easy not to think. Animals aren’t the only things endangered by modern life: genuine thoughts and ideas are poached by advertisements and the media, their tusks hacked off and their bodies left lying in the sun. It’s difficult to think when your head is full of rotting flesh.

His first experience with journalism was an internship at a local Bellingham newspaper, exposing him to a little bit of everything but not enough of anything. He told himself that this was small town; the big city was bound to be more like he imagined: a renegade reporter tracking down secret stories, interviewing important people, causing a ruckus. This was what he had been following, if not in those words, when he packed up and moved down to Seattle. He still maintained that he had been following something, not running from someone.

So there was some shock when the realization came that it wasn’t going to be as he had imagined. The stories and the people were not nearly as important as they thought. There was generally no ruckus-at least for him. It was just before the WTO protests last year that he ended up in the hospital with a shattered leg, excusing him from all the excitement. If he had believed in signs from above, he would have taken that as an indication that he was in the wrong field.

Either way, his career hadn’t turned out as planned, and he was starting to think of himself as disillusioned. Now he had some decisions to make. He had been toying for a while with the idea of a career change. He was planning to use the money from the insurance settlement after the accident to finance life for a short time while he made up his mind about who he wanted to be and what he wanted to do.

He wasn’t quite sure when the idea to return to Bellingham had entered his mind. The idea had come and gone a few times, but last week he had felt again a strong urge to leave Seattle behind him, and Bellingham was an attractive option.

Yesterday the shower head fell off and as he stood under the blunt stream of water holding his foot, he felt a growing revulsion of this apartment, this city, his life in general. If the farm had still been around, he might have even considered moving back there. Bellingham was the last place where he had been happy for any length of time, and even though he knew it was not logical, he decided he was going to drive up and look at apartments, just to see what was available. He spent the two-hour drive convincing himself that he really could do this, just pick up and move out. Start fresh.

Or not so fresh. As he approached Bellingham, Natalie had been flittering in his mind like a butterfly, floating around the edges all day, never quite landing until he saw her. The last thing he had heard her say before today was goodbye. Not that it was an odd thing to say when someone was leaving, but she had said it rather firmly.

She had been going through some rough times toward the end of the trip. Her parents had divorced, for one thing. That’s hard to come home to. And she had gone through another crisis of faith-perhaps a crisis of non-faith-during their trip, or she had begun the journey at any rate. He didn’t think she had gotten to the other side yet. During all the time he had known her, she had never once acted as though her upbringing held any significance to her. Just the opposite: she had always been searching for meaning in any direction but backwards. For some reason the trip dismantled her and she brought everything back to the table to sort through from the beginning.

She went through various crises and emergencies more often, and he stood back at a healthy distance, waiting for the thing that she was obsessed with to change or die. It had always been her passion that attracted him, generally not the things that she had been passionate about. Maybe in the back of his mind, he’d always assumed that eventually all of these phases would come to an end and she’d be in the same place as him: passionately resigned to the fact that we can’t know anything but what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands.


He was a little worried that he had spent nearly the whole ride back thinking about her. He should have been thinking about the apartments he had seen, or calculating rent payments or something. She shouldn’t have this much power over him after two years.

His father would be disappointed. About a week after he had moved back to Seattle he had been very close to driving back up for a weekend. He had called his parents and in a rare moment of vulnerability, he had told his dad that he wanted to go back, to work it out, to at least talk to her. His father, in his gruff voice, had said, “Never buy back your old horse.”

He rolled his window down and turned the key for the gate. When he had descended into the parking lot underneath the apartments, he cut the engine and opened his door, but didn’t get out. The oil dripped methodically into the oil pan as he sat in his seat. During the first few weeks after he had moved here, he had sat down here occasionally and concentrated on all the physical sensations he experienced. It was always cool and dark, and during rain the pipes dripped puddles in the middle of the floor. There were not many distractions. No cars honking, no people yelling, not even any garbage being blown in the wind.

He could have done the same sitting in his living room, he supposed, but there was something about the air down here. It was cool on his skin and smelled moist; it made it easier to concentrate on sensation. He took a step away from his car and turned to the left, trying to count all of the things that had been affected by changing his location slightly: the direction of the sound of the oil dripping, the feel of the slight breeze on a new patch of skin, the perspective of the car on the other side of the lot. He imagined that this was something like how a baby must feel, all the senses feeding information to the brain and feeling new, unused.

The main lobby itself was always such a contrast from the parking garage: hot, stale air and bright lights. There was a large mirror inset into the ceiling and he was compelled to look up into it every time he wheeled himself underneath. It was like an antique mirror in a movie star’s dressing room, surrounded by light bulbs on all sides. The bare lights seemed twice as bright because the mirror reflected it all back. People kept stealing them, and as soon as they were gone, someone kept refilling the empty sockets, never learning a lesson.

His mailbox was nearly empty, housing only junk mail for a correspondence school and a telephone bill. He wheeled over to the elevator. He had made a vow never to ride this elevator again after he had walked in one day and found the floor slick with urine. Unfortunately he couldn’t get up the stairs in the chair so he had had to make a temporary concession.

The hallway always smelled of stale sweat; today it also had a hint of marijuana. Stains of various colors and intensities spotted the carpet, but the building seemed content in its real-world aesthetics, like a middle-aged woman who has stopped wearing make-up and has made peace with the size of her nose and the stubble in her armpits.

Apartment 201 was a little run-down, but mostly in that lived-in way which made it feel like home. The stink of the hallway stopped at the door, or by that time he had grown accustomed to it. He closed the door behind him and locked it out of habit. He had lived here nearly two years now, and it was frightening to think of all the crap he had accumulated. Inertia tempted him to just forget about moving anywhere and settle in for another year’s lease.

Maybe his dad would give him his inheritance early and he could just be a bum for the rest of his life. He was pretty sure his dad had made bank when he sold off all the farmland, though he never talked much about it. How could he not have? Land values had skyrocketed here in the last thirty-five years. Maybe he had millions coming to him when his parents kicked off-if his dad hadn’t written him out of the will when he didn’t come back to farm.

He picked up his cane, cracked a beer and moved out to the balcony, drinking deeply. He had the corner apartment, and so his deck wrapped around. It wasn’t much of a deck, and lichen had claimed the outer edge where the wood had been softened by moisture, but it was nice to be able to sit outside. There was always a slight smell of decay out here and he half expected the whole thing to come crashing down one of these days when he stepped out onto it. More insurance money, please. He slouched in a high-backed wicker chair that he had found beside the dumpster last month, listening to the cars go by and an occasional voice.

He wished he had thought to put on long sleeves, but to do so now would mean getting up and finding them. It was easier to endure the cold. A ceramic flowerpot lay on its side near his feet, its load of wet cigarette butts spilled. This grey time of year leading into winter always made him a little depressed. Everything was so dismal, as though the Fenris-wolf had finally caught up with the sun and devoured it. All these years of chasing it finally paid off. It must feel good.

If he didn’t move to Bellingham, maybe he could find a better place here. Maybe closer to Dave and Tad. A little further from Cindy. He polished off the beer, toying momentarily with the idea of picking up completely and moving somewhere sunny. California. New Mexico. Some Caribbean island. Thoughts like this came often during the hibernation of winter, and he had to push through them, live off the fat he had stored up during the gorgeous summers.

He set the empty bottle beside the chair and rubbed his eyes. He felt like he should either go to bed or do something to make the fact that he was leaving this place official, even if he didn’t know exactly where he was going. Something to thumb his nose at this apartment. Nyah nyah. Maybe write on the walls, or piss on the carpet, but he didn’t have the motivation and he was going to have to live here for a few more days at the least.

He was beginning to feel like a nomad, not because he had moved often-he hadn’t-but because he felt as if he was drifting through life. The feeling was strong lately, especially, since he had lost interest in writing and had no real goals anymore, leaving him without a place to plant his roots. Officially approaching his upper twenties, he had never imagined that he would be just as clueless about the future as he had been in high school.

He pulled himself up and limped into the living room. He dragged a box from beside the ancient television toward himself. It was labeled in black felt marker: Movies. He shuffled randomly through the cassettes, not really paying attention but wanting to feel like he was doing something.

Corrugated cardboard, bent where he had fallen on it, looking generally beat-up, labeled with black marker: people need boxes to organize their world. Back at Western, he had thought himself so smart for realizing that and he had plagiarized a theory from an introductory psychology class. Children learn to develop simple schemas into which they fit all their observations and make sense of everything around them. As they observe more and more, the schemas are refined, made more and more complex. So a schema built for a dog might start off as anything with four legs and a tail, but is gradually refined into smaller compartments to allow for other animals such as cats and ferrets.

His brilliant corollary was that people didn’t turn off this instinct once it was finished with its task. So they keep refining these boxes in their heads, making them smaller and smaller, one inside the other. It explained everything: racism, sexism, nationalism-whatever you wanted. And the theory extended beyond larger stereotypes; it worked on many levels. It also applied to individual relationships: once you think you know someone, you will try to understand them based on the box you have created for them.

He remembered how excited he had been after writing a few pages to describe the theory. Natalie read it, unimpressed and showing it.

“So, people make stereotypes? This is your theory?”

Her response had left him deflated, a cake that had been rising nicely until she had yanked open the door and peeked into the oven quickly, unenthusiastically. But really, she was mostly right. You put someone in a box, you fit them to a stereotype mould, you stick a label on them. And the people you have labels for have their own labels for other people, who have their own labels about you and pretty soon everybody is just covered in sticky tape. But it’s not really a horribly new discovery.

The trouble was, his mind had latched onto the thought and wouldn’t let go of it. He often found himself wondering what other people were writing on the label of the box he was being made to live in in their minds, or another person’s box. Who gives a shit? But he couldn’t help it.

Eventually he had decided there was no harm in doing internal inventories: what boxes he had stored in his brain, who and what were in them. The label on his own personal box changed depending on his mood-or he could jump from box to box at any rate. Natalie’s box had labels written and crossed-out all over it, replaced with a big question mark. He extrapolated what she might be like now based on past trends, as though she were a stock and he an investor. Her graph was sporadic, the kind that was always about to climb or plunge aggressively. The kind that required faith. He twisted open another beer as he entertained two possibilities based on projections from the last months before they broke up.

It was possible that she had continued the trend that she had been following the last time he had seen her-that she was still inching forward on the tips of her toes toward the faith she grew up with. Who knows, maybe she had dived in head first by now.

Another option: perhaps she had passed through that phase and maybe even a number of others in the meantime. Maybe she was an atheist or some shade of agnostic. That would be nice. He wished he wasn’t so curious about her, but part of the intrigue was the knowledge that it could easily be a third option: none of the above. That thought both attracted and repelled him.


He wasn’t getting very far with his packing. It had already been half an hour since he came in from the deck and all he had done was pull out a box of movies before sinking into the couch. He wanted to go to bed now, but he also wanted to complete some sort of groundbreaking, like digging a shovelful of dirt with a silver spade. He emptied his CD rack, packing them into the box on top of the VHS tapes. He found a marker in the kitchen and made an addendum to the label: + Music.

It was good enough to make it official: he was going to move out of this place, though he didn’t know where. It didn’t matter.

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