The 750 Project: Lag Time (Revisited)
September 14, 2017 § 7 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. Steven Church took his very brief essay “Lag Time” and doubled it in size. The result is below, followed by Steven’s reflection on the process.)
by Steven Church
It doesn’t thunderstorm in the Central Valley of California. Not like the apocalyptic storms from my memories of home, where my father still lives. We’d watch those storms roll in from the southwest and they’d settle in and sit over our town of Lawrence, Kansas, their whole weight pressing down on us, often dumping rain for days on end. I remember driving once through a hailstorm, and the insanity of ice stones the size of golf balls, pounding onto the roof, sounded like the end of the world.
I still listen for thunderstorms at night here in Fresno when the sky half-promises, hoping for something big, but they rarely deliver the noise I need to take me back. They rarely cause me to question reality and memory. But the locals still latch onto them, often asking, “Did you hear that thunderstorm last night?” to which I’ll often answer, “That wasn’t a thunderstorm,” with the same incredulous disdain that Crocodile Dundee used in his iconic line, “That’s not a knife.” If I could, I’d conjure up a Kansas blade and say, “THAT’s a thunderstorm.” But every now and then, grey-blue clouds pregnant with electricity will drift through our valley, dropping their tendrils of lightning, and I’ll think again of lag time and loss. As I write this, it is almost May 16, an anniversary my family doesn’t celebrate; and here in the Valley we are perched on wayward edge of spring, still clinging to the last wet and cool remnants, before we tip irrevocably into the relentless heat of summer–that time where weather ceases to exist here and is replaced instead with the weight of air measured in pollution counts and particulate matter.
My father used to say: If you count the time it takes between the flash of a lightning bolt and its noise–If you time the lag, Dad would say, you can tell how close you are to the lightning. My brother and I often lingered in the pre-storm with him, standing in the front yard during tornado weather, watching a green-soup sky boiling with clouds, pulsing and churning like an ocean overhead. We’d stand there with our neighbors, dwelling in the pause between cause and effect. All of us gazing at our potential demise, counting intervals between what was and what will be. And if there is an objective measure of a “split second” it would have to be close to the time between the flash of intimate lightning and the sound of its ear-stunning crack, a noise that tingles up from your toes, and ripples through your belly—a sound the body hears before the ears, a sound that shakes your foundations; or maybe it is similar to that time I sat on the porch swing at the lake where I lived in college, and heard the lodge dinner bell ring itself, the clapper vibrating like an ear-bone, a split second after a flash and lightning strike to the metal tower; or the time between a blue racquetball’s jump off the wall and the sound of its impact; or the gap between when your ear hears a noise in the house at night and the second your brain registers it as normal and safe (the sound of a dog’s dreaming whimpers, the metal rattle of the refrigerator) or something different, maybe dangerous (the wheezing croup cough of your baby, the jiggling of your front doorknob, or just a simple phone call in the middle of the night); or perhaps a split second is a more subjective measurement, the kind of tiny gap where I lose myself again and again in memory. A split second is perhaps a divide, a liminal space where physics and family overlap. It’s how long it takes for everything to change, how long it takes to remember what is missing. It’s the time it takes for one world to end and another to begin. Untethered by time, longing for storms, I want to drop this loss into the hundreds of miles of distance between my father and me, as if it will fall and keep falling until it disappears or dissipates into the void. But the loss never leaves. It is always there between us. I wish I could let go of the ringing, the jiggle of the doorknob, the hand on my shoulder, waking me up; wish I could forget that rip in my father’s voice over the telephone twenty-five years ago, and that interminable pause after the words rolled out, It’s Matt. Your brother. There was an accident, and just before the crack of the plastic phone settling into its cradle, because in that lag, that brief second between what he said and the impact of what it meant—your brother is gone–it was possible that things would always sound the same between us.
Steven Church’s Thoughts:
It’s perhaps interesting to note that the original version of “Lag Time” began as one segment in a much longer braided essay titled “Ultrasonic,” that focused on racquetball, blue noise, physical transcendence, escape, and worries over the health of our unborn child. It was an outlier, a segment that pulled the reader out of the main focus of the essay. I hadn’t, at that point, mentioned my younger brother’s death, and so it was a clear case of a “darling” that needed to be killed. Except that it didn’t want to die. It wanted to LIVE! And to exist on the Brevity site. And to grow up from a little 411 word essay into a ‘big ol’ 800-something word essay. It was interesting to try and revisit the essay and to expand it without compromising the economy of the piece. Mostly I tried for some added clarity, but without telling the reader everything; and clearly I’ve tried to focus more on weather and thunderstorms early on. I’ve had a couple of readers tell me they didn’t know that my brother had died after they read the piece, and I realized that it’s not totally clear that’s the case. I guess I wanted to “fix” that with revision as well.
Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals and the forthcoming collection of essays I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood. He also edited the forthcoming anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and he Coordinates the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.