NEA Literature Fellowships

Sean Bernard

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "California"

Summer evenings we gather in newly restored craftsmans, extended ranch houses, post-and-lintels built in the sixties, these are our homes, we have money and mortgage now, children who swim in carefully fenced backyard pools, we grill chicken and fish, corn on cob. We sip wine and eat cheese and grapes and speak of life and weather, sometimes we bring out the guitar, strum a few chords and laugh, waiting for the air to cool, the sun to set, the kids to bed down.

Then we look at each other, wondering if it's time, if we're ready. Always, we are.

We go with slick refilled glasses of wine into the living room, we sit on sofas and chairs, on the floor like children. The lights dim. A screen is pulled. Tape flaps, a fan whirs, a soundtrack clears its throat, and we watch film from an old projector. The projector reminds us of moments we've seen in movies, a nostalgia for a time we never knew.

None of the clips we watch have made the Internet. At work, when we vaguely mention their existence to colleagues, we draw blank stares. No one else knows of them. The clips pull us here -- partially -- because they are so rare, they are private, only ours. And it's also that our lives are so ordinary, we're not disappointed in this exactly, just cheerfully resigned.

The clips are something else entirely, new, unexpected. Nothing about them has been explained. They are mailed to us intermittently. No return address. We recognize people in them we don't know personally. We feel they are moving us somewhere, propelling to a climax we cannot guess. And we sit forward in our seats, hungrily, waiting for the next clip to begin.


The footage is especially grainy in #4, the sound cluttered, immediately we hear the whine of the diesel VW Westphalia. The public television show host is on the road again, we see, precisely what the voiceover says as the clip begins, The public television host is on the road again, ho-hum, always on the road, hum of engine, hum of road, rectilinear agricultural fields, irrigation canals, mountains, deserts, etc., etc., look at him, the host, so solemn, so distracted.

The camera zooms in on his face. His chin and jaw are strong. His white flat-top seems gray in the footage. There are wrinkles deep around his eyes, like an old surfer from quieter days.

He stares out a window, chin on fist. The voice says, The host ruminates over a recurrent nightmare: empty deserts, the vast central valley with nothing but oil derricks and bones and him standing alone in denim shorts and boots and a white muslin shirt, sunglasses missing and microphone in hand, but not a soul to speak to. It's a nightmare a mind could get lost in.

On the screen, audibly, the host sighs.

What could it all mean? asks the voice. Does emptiness forespeak of great miseries?

The host laughs shortly, ha!, and turns from the window. He looks directly at the camera, at us, and it is this moment that always disarms us -- that he knows he's being filmed.

He smiles. What does he see? Who is behind the hand-held camera? Why is he smiling?

The camera pulls away as he looks down and taps his hiking-booted feet against the bus's floorboards. The host smiles, the voice exclaims, Floorboards, he thinks! Such an antiquated word! Were cars truly once fitted with floorboards, actual pieces of wood that somehow did not cause fires? combustion? is there an auto museum in this state with an auto museum docent who can say if once cars had floorboards do auto museums have docents? attendants? a pit crew? there is the Internet of course, but we don't use the Internet, we use real people, That Is Who I Am, thinks the host happily, He Who Speaks to Folks, this is how we learn about the world thinks the host how we experience life here in the western Americas, here on the road, and yes! there is indeed one of course the auto museum on museum row in downtown Los Angeles, what a fool,

The film flaps, the clip is over.

Early on we choose favorites, usually the purer ones lacking voice-over. #10 for example is amusing, behind-the-scenes, the host and his cameraman in a bright studio, sitting at an older PC, editing segments from their television show. They speak in the monosyllables of men who know each other well. "Too long." "Yep." "Cut here?" "Cut here." "Chatty Cathy, isn't he?" "They all are." #5, too, is enjoyable, the host standing outside an office building (in Studio City, we all agree, though we're only guessing) paying for a delivery of gyros. "Are the fries in there?" he asks in his soft drawl. "I gotta have my fries, delivery man!" He laughs and clearly tips well -- the delivery man thanks him twice. The office door shuts, the clip ends, warm, light-hearted.

The majority of us prefer #6. It is long and simply shows the host making coffee. He seems aware of the camera but not distracted. He glances up, nods at us, doesn't speak. He is deliberate: he opens his refrigerator, removes a bottle of water, pours it into an electric kettle, flips a switch. He opens his freezer, removes four bags. He smells each, shutting his eyes tenderly with each sniff. He lingers over one bag, nods. Measures three scoops into a black grinder. Seals and returns the bags to the freezer. He presses a button and grinds the coffee. The kettle begins to steam. He flips a switch. The steam recedes. Onto the counter he sets a coffee mug fitted in what looks like a wet-suit; on this, he sets a perfectly fitted filter. Spoons grounds into the filter. Last he pours the steaming water slowly, incrementally, everything precise, just so.

He removes the filter, blows steam from the lip, sips, smiles. And so the clip ends.

We laugh over the phone, over email, over text -- simultaneously we've realized that we've each been reconsidering our coffee habits, how much we tip, our interactions with coworkers.

After the laughter dies down, we start to wonder if this is no accident.

Sean Bernard studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Arizona and as a graduate at both Oregon State and Iowa. For six years, he's been a faculty member at the University of La Verne. His work has appeared in journals such as Santa Monica Review, Parcel, Copper Nickel, and CutBank, and in 2010, he won the Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange Award. His first novel is currently being shopped, and he's thickly into a new work.

Photo by Genevieve Kaplan

Author's Statement

I'm vain about my youth: I've always prided myself on my achievements at very early ages. I learned to ride a bike at a mere eight years old. I drove an automobile by the time I was seventeen. I finished two masters programs by year twenty-six, tripped into a tenure-track position by twenty-nine. I even kissed a girl when I was barely sixteen.

I'm vain, too, about my writing. I've always been certain I'll write books and stories that will be timeless in the cute way we think art is timeless (mine will be the words scratched on the cave wall, delighting future Werner Herzogs). In fact I've always known deep in my bones that my works-in-progress were readymade literary classics. That they've often been of poor stuff hasn't shaken me. Onto the next story!

But, and crap, I'm thirty-four. Hair whitens and/or thins. Until the last year or two, my artistic talent had been actualized into a palmful of stories published in (admirable yet) obscure journals. Meager vanities. Even my joints ache cold mornings and, lately, doubt creeps into my evenings.

Then, lovely, this fellowship. Carry on, it says, and gratefully I will.