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December 11, 2017 | Fiction

For All My Strangers

Keegan Lester

For All My Strangers photo

We were listening to the bombing over the radio while my mother drove me to confirmation class that night.  The radio said We as if America was a bunch of siblings who once shared a bed together. The radio says We so someone could play the bombing over the radio and no one’s feelings would get hurtThe radio says all Americans are We now, no matter what our differences once were.  

The radio says we are fighting terrorism in a place called Afghanistan. The radio says We will get them for what they did. The radio says were dropping bombs like thunder, and I took offense to that because thunder is what happens before rain and rain’s sacred to me.

The radio says weve started dropping bombs over cities in countries far, far away, named Pakistan and Iraq, to fight a cell of terrorists in anther country named Afghanistan and it made me wonder of all the things we do to others whose home we can’t imagine in the soft ochre of our heads.


It was October then, and my first year of high school and everything was changing.

The palm trees were slouching. First to the east and then the west.  It must have been the Santa Ana winds blowing hard from the other side of the desert, wind that starts as a breath and a gust and dirt and sand from somewhere out near Joshua Tree, and built up and built up and built up into a fist. The fist of wind then turned into a pair of fists carrying everything in it’s wind arms until it reached the Pacific.

It brought with it heat and breath and sand and punching the ocean, it painted white caps and bent palm trees. Watching all those bending palm trees bend I had to keep reminding myself that the bombing broadcasting over the radio was not the thing moving the trees outside.

Every few minutes I said to myself Wind.  Wind.  Its wind. The howling fists of wind continued slamming against the car windows and palm trees.  Were safe inside the car I kept reminding myself. I kept saying Wind is the thing making the other things outside move.


My mother and I were silent the whole drive to the house where the confirmation meeting would be held, listening to the broadcast, listening to the bombs falling on a place that then neither of us knew yet how to properly imagine.  A place existing in our minds as a place that could have been swapped for any place that wasn't America. 

Walking into the confirmation meeting the front door more ebbed open that night than was pulled by any human, as if conjured by invisible strings connected to an unseen force, the way the moon tugs on the oceans with its gravity. Tugging on the door, on me, I could feel the strings pulling me into the living room where every time I’d been inside before we’d talked Jesus. That night I felt the television before I saw it.  I felt the television before I even got my shoes off at the doormat.  I could feel the others circling the television. I couldn’t help but notice things.   I wasn’t greeted at the door by cookies nor the smile nor the pearls of the mother who had taken it upon herself to prepare us for our spiritual journey. I was greeted by the gravity pulling at the strings that were all around us.

In the living room Raul was sitting on the carpet leaning against an ottoman, his fist pumping at the television, making a gesture as if he just scored a touchdown. Laura wasn’t crying.  She wasn't smiling either. Her mouth made the mountain shape that mouths make when at rest.  The abundance of lipstick on Julie’s mouth, its slight smudge just beyond her lips, made her mouth look like an open wound. 

I couldn’t keep from noticing  all of it.  Like Julie’s crying.  It wasn't the sad kind of crying. It’s more the crying my grandfather talked about once.


My grandfather grew up real poor in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Like he had to pull his father out of bars each night in order to keep him from spending all the rent money poor. Because of that, my grandfather will not sit in a bar, but it’s never kept him from drinking at home.  When we drive around South Park, sometimes he points out all the different places he moved in and out of. “I lived in the white one on the corner of Greene St, and that yella’ one over there and that one.” His sister liked football and basketball and thus decided the life of a nun was for her and I’ve never once seen her drink anything in my life but the blood of Christ.

They lived the longest in a small house beneath a bridge on Petro St., next to some sort of factory with their father and a brother and their mother.  Their mother was an Irish woman who loved God, bingo and the parlay.

My dad, like me, loved his grandmother very much.   When he was still young and she was beginning to have trouble moving around he would take her numbers down to the bar for her, like a good grandson.

“Hey Joe, what you up to?” a bartender would say to my seven or eight year old father, on his way home from mass. 

“Just playing some numbers for grandma.”

“Ah, how she doin'?  You need any cigarettes to go with that?”

“Nah, just the numbers today.”

“Alright boy, see you in a bit.”


Nothing changes in Morgantown and like everything else, that bar is still there on the same street corner in South Park and you can still play the numbers if you want.  Sometimes I’ll grab a sheet of them and wonder who my great-grandmother from Cork was.

Needless to say, my grandfather never went on vacations as a child. My grandfather can’t swim and he’d never once seen the ocean neither.  He’s still afraid of water and won’t get close to it.


About seventeen years after he started walking, he started a family of his own. He worked on the tipple of a coal mine washing windows, a job he got because a friend of a friend knew he needed one.  But he wasn’t much good at it and after a few years of doing some more odd jobs inside and outside a coal mine, he started selling life insurance.

The first time he could afford to take a vacation, he took his family, Jimmy, Bigs (my dad), Pat and my grandma, and packed them up tight in their station wagon and flew off in the middle of the night to Myrtle Beach which is where everyone in West Virginia that can go on vacation goes for vacation.

They say “We’re going to the beach,” or “We’re going on vacation,” and they mean Myrtle.

There was the usual fighting that happens between three young boys about distance: distance between locations, distance between the others’ hands from their bodies, the distance between their person and the stars, the distance between facts and what they could prove with their bodies.  And with wives, another kind of distance. Really all people ever argue about is distance. And after hours of this, his three boys and my grandmother fell flat asleep.


The scatters of small towns along the highway looked to my grandfather like stars in distant galaxies where entire histories could be written and rewritten in the time it took to pass a town’s highway exit. Each highway exit a door to a new and unknown life.

He was sure someone was falling in love with someone else each time he passed a new town.  He was sure someone was on the brink of dying, and another person about to be born. He was sure someone was waking up, and the moonlight was piercing through the window on the naked body of a lover next to them in the bed they were sharing.   He was sure that the naked sleeping body in the moonlight revealed something to the other who was awake, like him, who could not sleep because at night people forget how to stop worrying.   There was always too much to worry about. Too much to hide. Too much to do to waste on sleep. That night he was sure some of the lovers in their beds had someone else waiting for them at home.

With each cluster of light, a town or burg he passed a highway exit was an entrance to a foreign country, with endless possibility and endless narrative.

It reminded him of listening to AM radio when he was a boy, catching signals from Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the beautiful narratives actors were hired to play out, but you couldn’t see nothing cause it was on the radio and often he remarked how when he’d close his eyes and listen to all these beautiful narratives, all these beautiful people resembled people he knew.  He cries when he tells me about such things.  The narratives always looked either like Morgantown or the Old West to him, because that’s all there was in the map of his brain. It was all he knew how to imagine then.  And these radio broadcasts were the only time he got to spend being young.

And that night the sky pealed its blacks back. It turned to maroons and then into peaches and then to streaks of red.

He pulled off to the side of the road, as the others slept. He snuck out of the car as quiet as he could.  He waded himself out onto an unmarked beach and sat. He sat there weeping for fifteen minutes. These were first time Ive ever seen ocean tears.

He was the Atlantic.  He was a busted levee.  And the Atlantic smelled nothing like the sea-salt taffy he chewed on as a child.  The sand he blanketed himself in was nothing like the sand on the banks of the Monongahela River and creek beds he’d grown up in, like Decker’s Creek which was always flooding and always leaving sand in places it shouldn’t be, and smelling like sulfur, because the waterways were shared with coal barges and coal mines and with trains whistling at night taking their loads of coal to Pittsburgh.

This was different.

The sounds of the ocean reminded him of the radio broadcasts from his youth, where a producer replicated sounds in a studio and BANG BANG, which was really just two pots, might have stood in for thunder or a gun shot or a bar fight between two cowboys in the Old West.  The cacophony of sound from the radio broadcasts transported him far, far away.  Far from the place he lived, far from his alcoholic father he’d drag home from bars to save rent money, far from the doom of a small life lived in his small town and a life he would certainly be forced into living.  Far from the coal barges and the coal trains whistling and the factory machinery bustling as he tried to sleep in his bed at night.

The Atlantic Ocean had it’s own sound.  It was powerful.  And there wasn’t a pot in the whole world that could translate it.  And after crying a bit, he rolled up his pant legs and walked toward the ocean, not into it as he was afraid of becoming ocean himself. He let the ocean’s fingertips come to him. He let the water touch his toes, and thought no one talks about this foamy stuff after the water goes back into the ocean from which it came.  I wonder why no one talks about what the ocean leaves behind.  Then he turned around and walked back to the car.  He did not bother to wake his wife nor kids. This was for him. This beach, this entire ocean, all of these tears were for him.


Scotch makes his eyes twinkle. They twinkle when he’s been drinking and telling stories, the way I like to imagine the night sky twinkled above him that night, twinkling like all the towns and burgs from the side of the highway as he came up with narratives to help explain all of this that he was seeing for the first time, how none of it was Morgantown, nor Fairmont, nor Thomas nor Charleston nor nothing in West Virginia.  It was a new map.  And I wonder what California must have looked like to my father the first time he saw it, when he left and decided to make a home.  I like to think of both of their eyes twinkling.

I like to think about my grandfather’s eyes having something in common with all these foreign places as he drove on and on through the night, while his children were still young and slept and had no understanding yet of the cruelty of the world.


Julie’s tears were like that.

Like what ever she’s watching on the television screen is hers and only hers. Like no one else in the living room exists. Frank’s cheering. “Serves those fuckers right,” Mark whispers to Matt.

It was a time in US history wherein no matter what you said, if you whispered it, just by lowering your voice you were absolved from the weight of what you said. This is how we were taught to be patriots, in our living rooms.  In that living room in southern California it was clear to everyone but me who the enemy was.

For the first time I see it.  I see the television.  The swarming green blurs. I wonder what the green blurs are. I wonder what their movements are supposed to signify.

A Whoooooooosh of white flashes across the screen. The kind of white strobe of the fireworks I’d set off only a couple months ago when it was still July and the humidity and night still innocent and the world not yet changed, and somehow we were all more related to each other back then, back in the days when POP POP POP still sounded like July and POP like January.


There are no sounds coming from the television.  The blurs stop moving after the flashes.

My mouth is a lake of cotton. Cotton rubbing cotton. There is friction, but no sound. Just dry sensations tingling neck and spine.

That was the first time I’d seen anyone die. I was at a Catholic confirmation meeting in the late fall of 2001 and I just started high school at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, California and was 14 and the younger George Bush was president. 

And people all around me were celebrating.


I’d seen people get blown up in movies and video games. I’d alter-served 391 funerals. I’d seen pictures of Anne Frank and soldiers of Antietam and Gettysburg, their mouths agape, but they were never living to me. I never saw their movements before the pose that would eternalize their bodies in those pictures. Black and white never makes the images look like I could have shared a world with those in the images.

I can’t understand Laura’s mouth turning up into a smile. I sort of understand Raul’s fist pumping U-S-A U-S-A U-S-A, in some way, because I felt like I understood him.


Raul was adopted by rich white people. The kind of rich white people that shop for their children from magazines while sitting in first class on their way home from a vacation to an island off the coast of Central America where the Spanish name sounds right, but the translation makes one realize that it has no semblance to the place because it was a name given to people by their conquerors, by their colonizers.

More than anything, Raul wanted his parents.  Secondly, he wanted people to see him the way he saw himself, like them and also different, but also as American and also a human.  This is what I wanted people to see in me too, to see in West Virginia and in my family.


One time in middle school during science class  we watched a movie called “October Sky,” about a West Virginia boy named Homer Hickam who gets a scholarship to a college and wins a medal for learning to shoot rockets really well in high school, even though he had to quit high school and work in a coal mine for a spell because his father was injured and because he knew he wasn't big enough to play football and wasn't going to be able to get a scholarship as a water-boy, as none of the thousands of remarkable children born in coal camps in southern West Virginia would get football scholarships and would all eventually die in their dying coal camp, in or outside a coal mine that was dying too, he said Yeah, fuck it, lets try rocket science. I mean how hard can it be?

This the only movie in the history of movies with a kind portrayal of West Virginia, thus I’d seen it hundreds of times.


“Now this takes place in Western Virginia,” my science teacher said.

I raised my hand.

“Yes, Keegan.”

“No, it takes place in West Virginia.  You’re thinking of a different state.”

A student behind me snickered “She’s the teacher.  I think she’d know if West Virginia was a state or not.”


Worse than the stereotypes I’ve heard people utter about the place and about people from the place, often by people who call themselves liberal or conservative or progressive or what ever it was they thought fit to call themselves, was when someone spoke as if the place didn't exist. 

You can debate and argue a stereotype, but how do you explain the existence of a place to someone.  How do you tell someone that my grandmother exists. My grandfather exists.  My dad and my uncles and cousins, they exist too.  My heart exists.


And so I warn you now, as you read on, I am not the protagonist. I’m part villain and part lover, like you. I’m part murderer and part dreamer and part optimist. I’m also lost and stumbling but trying to find my way back, just like you too.   

I’m certain the night I watched bombs falling over Iraq and Pakistan, that as I was watching television there were children in those places that didn’t want to go to school the next day and some that did. I was certain someone in Afghanistan wanted to be an astronaut, and looked out at the sky the way Homer Hickam looked out into the sky over West Virginia and saw Sputnik, knowing they wanted to shoot rockets, knowing they wanted a chance to make a life.  I was certain it would be the kids in West Virginia, my family, my people, that would be tasked with going to Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan to fight, and they were.  It’s always the people from places in America that other American’s don’t want that get tasked with having to kill people in other places for Americans that don’t want to go, that want to call themselves patriots for hating strangers that I have more in common with than many Americans. I was certain that night that my people would be asked to kill strangers who just wanted to be in love, and wanted to go to school or play hooky from school or become astronauts, just like them.

I don’t know the names or ages of the deceased, and I’m sure I won’t ever. I’m sure that some of them were just getting born and others were falling in love.  Some were bad people and some were good. Some had to drag their fathers home down dark alleys because if they didn’t their fathers would spend the family’s rent money.  I was sure that someone was having their first kiss because the sky was falling. I was sure that as the sky fell, someone knew they would never be lovers with someone else and because the sky was falling, this kiss would have to be enough. And enough for the first time in history was enough. This because though their life precious, it was being taken from them. This kiss was the one thing they could share. And so in a room thousands of miles away, far from the flashes on the television screen, I thought about strangers kissing as bombs fell all about them.


image: Bryan Bowie