I’m pulled from a fitful sleep as the three-year old makes what we call her “guinea pig noises,” quiet squeals that grow in volume as she thrashes in her blankets; my wife and I are used to it by now. She is ghostly on the baby monitor, my daughter – it still stuns me a little to write that word – her eyes a flashing and brilliant white in the horror-movie glare of the camera. I know she’s not really awake, but rather stuck somewhere in that half-lit place between sleeping and waking. At its height, she awoke five or six times a night; we’re now down to once a week or so.
A month before Covid effectively shut down our state, the Department of Human Services placed two sisters, aged 2 and 3, in our care, with the goal of lifelong guardianship and parenthood. The older kid had a grand total of about a week and a half in Head Start before schools across the state shut down. At forty-three years old, I went from being a guy who had worked very part-time in elementary school afterschool programs as a younger man to being a father of two toddlers in the blink of an eye. Just like that. These two beautiful little kids who have been winnowed through the brutalities of life in their few short years to land here, in this house, with me and my partner.
Bleary-eyed, I look at my phone on my bedside. 2:36 a.m. I get up and tiptoe into her room, careful not to wake her four-year old sister sleeping in the other bed. I tuck her back in and she murmurs wordlessly, her eyes already closing. It is simply the act of someone walking into the room that sends her back to sleep.
Someone coming to let her know that they heard her cries.
Meanwhile, yes, okay, the juxtaposition – my city is tear gas at night, roiling and off-yellow, the outlines of cops and federal agents rising ghostly through the fog of it.
My city is lines of federal agents in body armor and gasmasks, holding the line at a Justice Center that is festooned with graffiti after weeks and weeks of protests against police brutality, protests that began with the killing of George Floyd.
ACAB on the walls.
Stop killing us.
My city is a rubber bullet that leaves a bruise, that shears off skin.
My city is a police kettle, people packed in tighter and tighter among the clouds of CS gas and tightening flanks of riot cops until there’s nowhere to go.
My city is a fed sniper on the roof of the courthouse, rifle zeroed in, extra magazines on his hip.
My city is a 26-year old man shot in the head with an impact munition by a federal agent after he held up a boombox ala John Cusack in Say Anything. Fracturing his skull, fracturing the bones in his face, putting him in critical condition at Emanuel. For holding up a boombox from across the street. Cops just standing there, feds just standing there, this one fucking guy taking the time to draw down with his gun. Perfect shot. Boom.
My city is nameless federal agents, masked up, badgeless, graduated to pulling people off the street and throwing them into unmarked, non-government vehicles. This is happening.
My city is boarded the fuck up.
My city is positively writhing with law enforcement.
My city is the flashpoint, the petri dish where federal agencies will arrive in great numbers and kidnap troublesome people and assault others; my city is, it seems the litmus test of this bright new era of policing, the bloody, drawn out ripple effect of an administration and a people that equate brutality with strength.
Meanwhile, I wake up at 5:45 a.m. the next morning, if I can manage it, draw myself aching from bed. Feeling old. Ill-used. Coffee gets heated up, clothes get put on. Then I sit before the computer and open up the document and get to work. These few hours before the kids rise are mine, the only ones I will get until evening, at which time my ass will have been handed to me many times over, and I hoard these hours like gold, like the greatest treasure. The thing I tell myself again and again: No one’s making you be here. No one’s making you do this.
Writing, for me, has always been the smallest, quietest, bravest thing. A shout against the dark. A buoy.
No one – and I understand this, and I feel it, and I mean it as a liberation – cares about my writing as much as I do.
My books are small things in a large, vast world, and that’s okay.
It’s the act that matters. Sitting there and working. Crafting those small and quiet and brave things.
When I landed in art school at eighteen, I took an assessment test and discovered that my grasp of English was so nominal that I was placed in English 65.
My understanding of the most basic tenets of language just weren’t there, apparently. I’d been in the advanced creative writing class as a senior in high school and found my ignorance to be both humbling and jarring as hell. There was so much I didn’t know!
(There’s still so much I don’t know.)
I don’t know what a conjunction is. I don’t know the majority of the parts of speech. It will take me a moment to remember what an adverb is. My understanding of language is instinctual at best.
And yet, here we are. Three novels down, a short story collection out in six months. Imposter syndrome looming large every time I sit before the screen and get to work.
And the biggest failsafe, the biggest salve, is the understanding that no one gives much of a shit, really. The world is large and full of fast plains of wrongness, and a multitude of lives, and I do what I can to help people, but these few hours are mine and mine alone.
I write for the joy of it.
For the joy of navigating the whole messy, ugly process. The wretched first draft typed halfway in a panic, a panic that the momentum will vanish. Then the endless revisions, the quiet popcorning sound of fingers snapping on the keyboard when the writing’s going well, when I find myself occasionally unafraid. There’s no suffering here. I don’t have time for it. As a foster dad living in the mirrored funhouse that is quarantine in Covid Times, and as someone immersed in what truly feels like the twilight hours of American democracy, I’m very aware of the time I have that I can truly call mine, and what I want to do with it. Small and quiet and brave.
My home reverberates with children growing – the ache of it, the grand sense of loss of it all, the love and the slowly blooming joy. The hard-earned hearts, these little girls moving through this new world that has been endlessly cruel to them in the briefest blink of time. Their inability to speak of it. Their inability to put their ache and their hurt into words. The night-sounds as they wake, that grief of theirs nameless and burrowing into their dreams. And their return to sleep as I lift the blankets up to them and whisper, “It’s okay, I’m here. Let me tuck you in.”
My city reverberates with smoke and noise, with the sound of police over the loudspeaker declaring a riot yet again, the pum pum of flashbangs, the crack of batons, with the endless jeers of people who look at the blood on their computer screens and feel vindicated by it, who say, “You all had it coming.”
My nation reverberates with endless posturing and anguish. With sickness and a perversion of that sickness, as if your simple refutation of it might absolve you, might protect you. The body-clotted hallways of hospitals, restaurants brimming with customers whose servers take their orders wearing plastic faceplates, masks and gloves. American’s lethal individualism at war with biology.
And in the meantime, I sneak my few tiny hours like a mouse hoarding its morsels. Tucking them away. The world will take and take, by necessity. It’s how the world is made, how it props itself up. Meanwhile, the morning sun burns through the clouds and I type a sentence here and there, a paragraph. Mine, mine, mine. And if I’m very lucky, if I finish something, if the hours stack up well enough, I get to put those paragraphs into a bottle and send them out to sea and hope for the best.
Keith Rosson is the author of the novels The Mercy of the Tide and Smoke City. His short fiction has appeared in Cream City Review, PANK, Redivider, December, and more. An advocate of both public libraries and non-ironic adulation of the cassette tape, he can be found at keithrosson.com.
Rosson’s new novel Road Seven follows disgraced cryptozoologist Mark Sandoval—resolutely arrogant, covered head to foot in precise geometric scarring, and still marginally famous after Hollywood made an Oscar-winner based off his memoir years before—who has been strongly advised by his lawyer to leave the country following a drunken and potentially fatal hit and run. Road Seven will mark the third of Rosson’s novels to be published by Meerkat Press.