“Heartbreakers,” an excerpt from THE INSIDES by Jeremy P. Bushnell
When Ollie was twenty-three years old, she loved her life.
She was living then in the Hudson Valley, working on Donald’s farm: long hours, every day, under the sun. It was difficult work, exhausting—hard on her joints, her wrists and her knees and her back—but she loved it.
She loved pulling carrots out of black soil.
She loved manning the table at the farmers’ market on Sundays, passing food along to people who would just appreciate it, openly. People would just give her money and take the food she’d grown and they would smile happily at her in a way that was totally honest. Appreciation without guile; intention without calculation. It was her favorite way for people to look at her.
She loved the long August evenings. She loved sitting at the picnic table, eating fried potatoes, drinking vodka lemonade, watching Donald practice archery in the yard, holding her boy close in her lap.
She didn’t love the mosquitoes, but she did love killing them, loved the little splotch of blood left behind on her arm after she’d smash them midfeed. Her blood. Mine, she would think.
She loved the sweat and the dirt and she loved falling into bed exhausted and entering a sleep so solid that no dream could get inside it.
Basically, she loved the work. This was not a surprise: she’d always believed that work would be satisfying. For a long time she believed this on faith alone, a dumb faith that was nourished by just about exactly nothing in her childhood. Not watching her mom nod out on a bare mattress in a crumbling room in some squat. Not watching NYPD eviction task forces hit her dad in the lower abdomen with a plastic truncheon. Not being moved around from one Child Welfare Administration group home to another. Not, at age thirteen, fucking a grown-up who had nothing more to offer her than a way to get out of the rain.
But then she met the street magicians, the gutter witches and warlocks who found her in Tompkins Square Park, who invited her into their temporary encampments, erected in whatever empty lot or abandoned building they could find that week. In those spaces they would tend tiny shrines and salt-fires. These were the people who confirmed for her that work was worth doing.
Not work like jobs; they didn’t do jobs. Of the dozen or so that she trained with, there were maybe like two who had ever held a job for longer than a week. Work, for them, was a thing that they called the Great Work, and they were dead serious about it. She could never get any two of them to agree on what the Great Work was, exactly, beyond that it involved emancipation of the will.
Magic, she remembers them saying, is about applying will. Basically using your will to bend the universe. They taught her how to try it, and she tried it, and for a while nothing happened, and she began to suspect that it was all a bunch of bullshit.
But then, at age nineteen, almost exactly one year into these studies, she met Donald, an NYU grad student who had started appearing and reappearing at the edge of their world, describing himself as a quote-unquote participant observer. He claimed to be writing something about the anthropology of transient punks.
She didn’t realize that he was the thing she was asking for, not at first. The first detail she noticed about him was his soft little belly, which she wanted to pierce, as though she were a flint arrowhead. She’d spent all nineteen years of her life thus far developing contempt for soft people and their reek of easy living. And when she first met him, she thought his project was contemptible: the first time he explained it to her, he referred to the crusties as the voluntary homeless and she laughed in his face and walked off, wouldn’t even look at him for the rest of the day. But he kept coming back. He kept coming back, kept observing, kept participating. He stayed through the summer and through the fall but it wasn’t until winter that she really decided he was a serious person, because winter was when it got to be really tough to spend all day stamping around in the streets and the subway stations with no particular place to go. Nobody would do that voluntarily, she believed, unless they were a serious person, and this was how she came to believe that his project was, in its own way, a legitimate form of work, a legitimate expression of his will. This was how she came to respect him. And that was what made it OK to go home with him, when he invited her, to spend the night in his two-room apartment rather than in a homeless shelter or huddled over a steam vent.
He was willing to give her distance when she was sick of him, and that was what made it OK to talk to him when she wasn’t. Importantly, he was the first person who she could talk to about family. About what it was like to have been taken away from her family at age nine. About missing her mom and dad even though they were drug abusers and fuckups and really did neglect her and really did leave her in harm’s way. About wanting to have a family again one day, a real family. This was something she couldn’t talk to the street magicians about, not really. If she would bring it up with them they would say what do you need a family for, you’ve got us. And there was some truth to that: they served as a family to her in many ways; they cared for her, they treated her with kindness—they took responsibility for her, which was more than she could say for her own parents, more than she could say for any of the foster placements that CWA arranged for her. Inherently she knew, though, that this was not enough, that a roaming band of like-minded souls is not a family. Any time she’d say this to the street magicians, though, they’d shout her down or laugh her off, which honestly she thought helped to prove her point as much as anything. But Donald listened, and he talked about his own family, about how money had fucked it up, about how he wanted to build something different for his own kids, when the time came. And somewhere in those conversations she found herself thinking: This. This is the guy. She found herself with a goal toward which she could apply her will.
She hadn’t really needed to use magic to make it happen, or not much, anyway. A couple of candles, a circle made from spices she’d pinched from a market, kid stuff, nothing advanced. She wasn’t bending the universe so much as she was nudging it in the direction that it wanted to go anyway. They spent a year together, just the two of them, from one winter to the next, and during that year Donald’s project stalled, which was maybe OK, because during that year they were busy drinking and talking and fucking and fighting. Growing comfortable together. And she was deciding that she wanted to have the boy.
The boy, she thinks at herself now, thirty-three years old, lying fetal in her bed in her muggy Bronx apartment, the stink of meat still all over her. She feels a bitter anger at herself for using those words, for reducing him to an abstraction. She demands that she think his name. She thinks his name: Jesse.
She demands that she look at the photos that she keeps in the cigar box, in the bedside table’s lone drawer. She does not look at the photos.
The point is: another nudge and there he was, the boy—Jesse—just as she’d imagined him.
On Jesse’s first birthday, around a cake—the first birthday of anyone’s she’d ever celebrated with a cake—she had the idea that she wanted Donald to give up on the stalled dissertation, that she wanted the three of them to leave the city. On Jesse’s first birthday she decided that she wanted to make a life on the tiny parcel of farmland that Donald’s family owned but had practically forgotten about, that she wanted to take its attendant ring of deteriorating buildings and make them into her home, to take Donald and Jesse and make them into her family. For real for real for real. She wanted it, and she arranged it, and the universe provided, with infinite bounty. The universe provided her with carrots and picnic tables and goats and alpaca and pigs and the skills to slaughter. All hail. Twenty-three years old—just barely an adult—and her Great Work was complete. Twenty-three years old, and she was happy.
She was happy, so she quit using magic, and she concentrated instead on the farm, and raising Jesse, and loving Donald, and she told herself that she could be happy this way, doing this, for a long time. And she wasn’t wrong.
Excerpted from The Insides, available now from Melville House.
Jeremy P. Bushnell is the author of two novels, The Weirdness and The Insides, both available from Melville House. He teaches writing at Northeastern University in Boston, and lives in Dedham, Massachusetts.