The below is an excerpt (the first, short chapter, and then two chapters from the middle of the book) from my forthcoming addition to Ig Publishing's new Bookmarked Series.
"The Bookmarked series focuses on a famous work of literature that left a powerful impression on an author (hence the name, Bookmarked—a book that left its mark). Each book in the series is a no-holds barred personal narrative detailing how a particular novel influenced an author on their journey to becoming a writer, as well as the myriad directions in which that journey has taken them."
I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw Stand By Me. I guess that would have made it 1990. As the narrator, Gordie Lachance, says about the first time he saw a dead human being, as voiceover at the beginning of the movie: “a long time ago… but only if you measure terms in years,” where it was slightly tweaked from the first chapter of “The Body,” the novella the movie is based on: “a long time ago… although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me.”
It’s the movie I have seen the most—the greatest number of times overall, the most regularly over the last twenty-five years. The movie I can (and do) most easily and frequently quote, the movie I most often reference, both in my writing and in life. It was formative, and feels legitimately important to me and my life, though whether that is because of the movie itself: the actors, the soundtrack, the cinematography; or it’s core story, based on Stephen King’s novella; or just because of the moment in my own life that I saw it, I’m not sure. I will admit that that uncertainty might be part of the magic. At least a small part of me fears what might happen when applying analysis to something held so close to the heart, by asking either too many questions, or maybe just the right questions. As King himself writes in that same first chapter of “The Body”:
The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think.
“The Body” excerpts Gordie’s “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan,” and then there are a few chapters of the boys more or less just hanging out. Walking the tracks, telling one another stories. They find a spot to camp out for the night, and in the middle of the night, they hear noises, leading to them taking turns staying awake and keeping watch, armed with Chris’s gun he’d “hawked” from his dad’s bureau. The next morning is possibly my favorite moment of the book and movie.
Gordie, the first to wake, walks a couple dozen feet from his sleeping friends to piss, and then keeps going to the railroad tracks, and sits down by himself. “In no hurry to wake others,” he tells us. “At that precise moment the new day felt too good to share.”
On the surface, “The Body” is about these four boys going to see a dead body, but of course the dead body doesn’t even really matter. The book is really about their friendship, their interactions on the way to see a dead body. But there in the middle of that journey, Gordie pauses to hold onto a moment for just himself.
The sun rises, the noise of crickets begins to drop, birds begin to twitter. Morning happens and it’s all Gordie’s to enjoy alone.
After sitting there for he-doesn’t-know-how-long, just as he is about to get up, he looks to his right and sees a deer. “My heart went up into my throat,” he describes. He describes what it felt like to notice her, he describes the deer herself. “She looked serenely at me…”
And then, “What I was seeing was some sort of gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling.”
They watch each other, until finally she turns, wanders off. That’s it. Gordie returns to his friends, all now awake. “It was on the tip of my tongue to tell them about the deer, but I ended up not doing it,” he tells us. “That was one thing I kept to myself. I’ve never spoken or written of it until just now, today.”
In the grand scheme of the story, it barely means much, if anything at all. But it’s lingered in my memory of each viewing and reading, it stands out every time I rewatch or reread.
Something as simple as a morning by one’s self being “too good to share” feels almost like a wiser observation than I expect from the story. Though of course Gordie is the observant one. It feels unimportant to the story, but important on its own terms for its honesty. And that honesty feels heightened by the confession that he has “never spoken or written of it.” Until the just now of the story we are reading. If he’s telling us now, but has never spoken of it before, there now feels an added layer of confession to “The Body,” of honesty. We’re being told something new, we’re being allowed in.
One chapter of the novel I am currently trying to finish, a chapter from the POV of the teacher who teaches “The Body” and shows Stand By Me in class, begins, because I can’t get away from the construction, “I was twenty-four going on twenty-five the first time I saw a buffalo.” Twenty-four going on twenty-five because I thought I myself was twenty-four going on twenty-five, and the chapter started as something of a free-write, a reflection on buffalo and Stand By Me before I had started this book-length reflection on the same, and one of the ways novels work is that they consume everything around you, so I pulled this freewrite into novel manuscript, gave it to the wife of one of the two brothers who the novel mostly centers around, and let her age be my age.
That said, like my “when I first saw Stand By Me” claim, I’m less than certain of my own assertion here. The first time I remember seeing a buffalo. The first time I saw a buffalo and it meant something. The character in my novel was twenty-four because I thought I myself was twenty-four, but if I trace my timeline backwards to figure out my age, that’s not the case.
My college girlfriend and I broke up more or less on New Year’s 2002. I remember that year because I only lived in Oakland for six months, where we lived in a house together when 9/11 happened. We broke up, I moved to southern California, I lived there for a year, and then I moved back to Seattle. So now we’re in early 2003, I’m chatting with a girl online who lives in “the state shaped like a mitten,” then we’re talking on the phone, and then she flies to Seattle to visit me, and then flies out again, and then I fly to Michigan and it’s the first time I’ve been east of Las Vegas, and then we trade off visiting one another for over a year, and then it’s mid-2004 and my roommate joins the Air Force Reserve and I store a lot of my shit in my parents’ much-bigger, moved-into-after-I’d-left-the-house house, sell or throw away a bunch, and pack the rest, as many of my necessities as I can fit into my Ford Escort, and hit the road. I drive south, camping my way from Seattle to Los Angeles, because it seemed appealing, it seemed something a twenty-six-year-old should do. I climbed over rocks and played in tidepools down the Oregon coast, I camped in the Redwoods and ate a “lumberjack-style” meal in Samoa, CA, slept in my tent in campgrounds, slept in my car in church parking lots, saw friends in Oakland and Sacramento and the Valley, and then cut east to Vegas, where I met the girl I was en route to moving to Michigan for and with. We moved from nowhere Michigan to Ann Arbor, and lived in a small apartment by the mall, with her eight-year-old daughter, and every other weekend or so, her daughter’s eleven-year-old half-sister. And the next summer, the four of us took a family road trip across the country, from Ann Arbor to Tacoma, to visit my parents. Along the way we stopped at the Spam Museum in Minnesota and the Corn Palace in South Dakota. We visited Mount Rushmore, and also a nearby alpine slide and some caves, we went to a rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, we went to Wall Drug. We camped in both the Badlands and Yellowstone.
The Badlands are unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, beautiful and like you’re on the moon or another planet. And though Old Faithful in Yellowstone is cool, it’s a little anticlimactic, but the rest of the park is as awe-inspiring as one would imagine. But what I remember about both are the buffalo. If I’d seen one before, I didn’t remember. If I’d seen one before, it had probably been in a zoo, not out in the wild. Not roaming in a herd in the same landscape as me, not crossing the road and making everyone trying to drive through the park have to stop and wait, not looking so close and at once both menacing and sensitive, both massive and gentle. I remember just staring, feeling like I could watch them all day. Right now, writing this, recalling and picturing the memory, I’m feeling choked up. I’m remembering that moment in my life, and also this scene in the otherwise relatively forgettable Into the Wonder where Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams stand on a car surrounded by buffalo, and because it is a Terrance Malick movie, it is beautiful, and because they are buffalo, it feels perfect.
I didn’t make the connection at the time, but every time I’ve watched Stand By Me since, every time I’ve reread “The Body,” I think of that roadtrip, and watching those buffalo, when I get to the part where Gordie watches the deer. “I was about to get up when I looked to my right and saw a deer standing in the railroad bed not ten yards from me,” adult Gordie, by way of Stephen King, writes. “My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it… I didn’t move. I couldn’t have moved if I had wanted to… What I was seeing was some sort of gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling… We looked at each other for a long time . . . I think it was a long time.”
That sounds and feels right.
I remember my own version of Gordie’s moment watching the deer because it seemed like, as he put it, “I was seeing some sort of gift.” I remember it because, like “The Body” represented Gordie’s coming of age, the road trip represented one of my own. Only a few paragraphs ago, I said I “moved across the country for a girl,” but of course I should probably say “for a woman.” “Girl” feels diminutive and even a little wrong, but if I say woman, that extrapolates out to thinking of myself as a man, and I don’t think I really was yet. Not when I’d moved to Michigan, although maybe by the time of the roadtrip. I was driving across the country with a family of my own, not my parents’, from my new home to my old. Buffalo would become not just my animal, but ours. Years later, we’d break up, and to “win me back,” she drove to Buffalo, NY to get a tattoo of a cave drawing of a buffalo. A couple years after that, we’d get married in Frankfort, KY, at the Buffalo Trace distillery, and another couple years after that, I would get my own buffalo tattoo, just the word—“buffalo”—over my heart.
That drive across the country feels like the beginning of all that. The moment of transition, where there becomes a distinct before and after. When I first saw a buffalo. I feel like I was a kid, becoming an adult. I was twenty-seven. Going on twenty-eight.