Fiction Issue: ‘What time is it now where you are?’ by Colum McCann
He had agreed to write a short story set in and around New Year’s Eve, but he found himself a little adrift, struggling. For a few weeks in late summer he cast about, chased ideas and paragraphs, left a few hanging, found himself abandoning them.
He wondered how he would push into the territory of New Year’s Eve — create a series of fireworks perhaps, or allow snow to slowly scatter across the face of a windowpane?
All the stories he wrote walked themselves into the dark.
One morning in late August he landed on the idea that there could be something military about it. He could find himself, say, in a barracks on New Year’s Eve in Afghanistan, the simple notion of a soldier — let’s say a young woman, a Marine, slightly exhausted by war, sitting on the edge of a valley, in the cold, surrounded by sandbags, in the vast clock-tick quiet, looking eastward, under a steel mesh of stars, all silence, not even the thrup of machine-gun fire in the distance, the grim perimeter of her reality set against the possibility of what might be happening at home, in South Carolina, let’s say a relentless suburb of no great distinction, a Legoland, a house gone slightly sour with the years, a broken gray drainpipe hanging down, with a boy in the driveway, in a striped shirt and torn jeans, and a bicycle laying forlorn at his feet, her brother perhaps, maybe even her son.
Looking out into the Afghan night — although it would be better to be specific, and she could be facing the gothic dark of the Korengal Valley, even the ridge over Loi Kolay village — she would draw herself into the savagery found at the outpost of every war, the impossible solitude of the ridge, several layers of dark pressing down on the already dark mountains, an area where even the stunted trees might seem as if they want to step off the cliffs and hurtle themselves to the floor, the darkness made more visible by the layer of frost covering everything, the sandbags, the steel rebars, the machine gun, a Browning M-57, the impossible stretch of distance, the enormity of black sky, and everything so cold that the young Marine, let’s call her Sally, wears a balaclava over her face, under her helmet, and the weather so vicious that the tips of Sally’s eyelashes have frozen and her lungs feel thick with ice and when she looks through the small gap in the sandbags, out into the fierce dark, her teeth chatter so much she is afraid she might chip them, a personal dread since Sally is neither long nor tall, as the song goes, but hip-heavy and small-breasted and unpretty in her own eyes, and 26 years old and feeling every single day of it, but proud of her strong white teeth, so that when she takes the upper lip of the balaclava and stretches it over her front teeth, the fabric tastes hard and rough and synthetic against her tongue.
Unlikely of course, but he knows a few Marines and he has heard their stories, and he is aware that reality so often trumps invention, so he creates Sally alone in her rocky outpost — let’s say that a New Year’s Eve party is taking place in the village barracks below, and Sally has agreed to give her fellow Marines a break, that she will take the post alone for an hour while midnight tips over, while the ball drops distantly, because everyone in Sally’s unit knows that Sally is decent, Sally is cool, Sally knows the score, and, let’s be honest, Sally likes her privacy, and she has been given special access to a satellite phone that she can use at the stroke of midnight, since who wants to be alone on New Year’s Eve in this hellhole without a way to at least call home and say — and what is Sally going to say?
(He has, he must admit, no idea yet.)
What he does know is that the sense of cold seclusion is important: not only because it is a New Year’s Eve story, but because it freezes Sally in her cube of human loneliness, like most of us, at the unfolding of a year, looking backward and forward, both. Not only that, but the reader must begin to feel the cold that claws Sally up there on the 308-meter ridge: so much so that she, or he, almost inhabits the very trees that want to step off the cliff. We should feel our own eyelashes freeze, and clench our jaws to stop our own chattering, because, like Sally, we have something we must see, or understand, or at least imagine into existence, far away, and we, too, have a distant hope that Sally will say something into her satellite phone, perhaps not a resolution, but at least a resolve.
(Though he still has little idea of what exactly she might say, she is beginning to web herself in complexity, which he’s grateful for, he hunkers down for three or four days, in early September, in his apartment in New York, though he can still somehow feel the cold seeping in from the Afghan hills, and he wants now to capture the essence of what it feels like to be far from home, to be in two or three places all at once, and the simple notion that what we really need on New Year’s Eve is a sense of return, whether to his own original Dublin, or to Sally’s Charleston, or to his New York, or Sally’s birthplace, which is, let’s say, Ohio.)
This he now knows: Sally is 26, she’s from Toledo, she lives in the South, she is a Marine, she perches in her camouflage 1,010 feet high, in the debilitating cold, wearing a balaclava, looking out at the Afghan dark on the eve of the year, about to dial a loved one on a satellite phone at her side. (Once, a year ago precisely, there were three space heaters in the lookout, but they leaked out light so that a sniper took out another Marine simply by lining up the shot in the center of the heaters, a perfect mathematical triangulation, an incident Sally was aware of when she volunteered to take the outpost, adding a sense of dread to the story, though he does not want to kill Sally off, certainly not yet — what sort of New Year’s story might that be?)
What Sally sees, or what he imagines Sally can see: The boy lays his bicycle down in the driveway, somewhere suburban, on the outskirts of Charleston. It is midafternoon in mid-America, 91 / 2hours behind Afghanistan. He is a tall thin handsome boy. Let’s say it is her son (the longing must be immense, and the potential for tragedy acutely real). He is all of 14 years old, tricky of course since Sally was earlier established as 26 years old — is he really her son, is that possible? The boy lifts the corrugated garage door, his heart thumping in his blue and white striped shirt, and he hears a shout from inside the house, his mother (let’s name her Kimberlee) trilling out to him (let’s name him Joel) to say: Quick, Joel, your Mom’s about to call. And Joel is late, he knows he’s late, and he’s old enough now — almost 15 in fact — to have a sweetheart and to know some things about the complexities of love. He has spent an afternoon with her down there near the school bleachers on Lancaster Street. He has pledged himself to her, he will be with her later tonight when the real clock (the American clock) strikes midnight, but first he must talk to his second mother in Afghanistan from the kitchen of his first mother’s house.
(And though she is his “second” mother, and he has only known her four years, he has scrawled an ink tattoo inside his wrist, K & S).
Joel hurries through the house, slings his jacket across the kitchen table, yanks up a chair, glances at Kimberlee, and says, while he stares at gaps in the hardwood floor: “What time is it now, where she is?”
Sally sits in the dark, wearing a watch strapped to the outside of her wrist, over her fireproof gloves, waiting for countdown.
He wants desperately to create gunfire across the Afghan hills, or to see a streak of light that is not just a metaphor — an RPG perhaps, or the zip of a bullet into one of the sandbags — to force a tracer line across the reader’s brain, to ignite alternative fireworks on the eve of the year, and to increase the intensity of the possible heartbreak.
But the simple fact is that the Afghan night remains quiet, no matter what he imagines, not even the howl of a stray dog, or the faint hint of voices in the outpost.
At two minutes to midnight Sally drops the balaclava from between her teeth and leans across to pick up the satellite phone. (He has an inkling now of what she might say to her son, or rather Kimberlee’s son.) Sally clicks on the flashlight on the front of her helmet, thumbs the phone on. The front face lights up. She has been given a code. She takes off her gloves to dial the exact numbers precisely.
It is midnight in Afghanistan and early afternoon in South Carolina.
He is writing this (almost) last part now in France, where he is on book tour. The middle of September and deadline is looming. Some things he knows for sure: Sally will not die, she will simply pick up the phone, she will dial through, she will call her lover and her lover’s son, and she will say: “Happy New Year,” and life will go on, since this is what all our New Year’s Eves are about, our connections, our bonds, no matter how inconsequential.
Inside the kitchen on North Murray Avenue, Kimberlee stands at the counter, with her hands webbed wide, waiting for the call. Spread out in front of her is the prospect of a feast — chopped peppers, onions, a half-pound of oysters, a cup of cooked shrimp, tomatoes, sprigs of thyme, lemon, lime, olive oil, salt, three cloves of garlic for the bouillabaisse she has planned.
Kimberlee has placed a second wine glass at the end of the table. She is 38 years old, tall, slim, pretty, a university professor. She aches for the call. She has not talked to Sally in a week, since just after Christmas, when they argued about the length of Sally’s tour. The call itself is a distant memory. Kimberlee listens to the white wine gurgle against the side of the glass. This to her is the essence of the season: the nostalgia, the loneliness, the beauty.
It’s late September, and he is seriously deadlined now, but he is struck by the notion that the story is endless. He could stay with Kimberlee, or he could return to Afghanistan, or he could slide into the past, or he could follow Joel down to the bleachers with his sweetheart later tonight (let’s call her Tracey), or he could descend the hill to where the other Marines are having their party, or he could follow the path of a satellite, or he could summon in the snow to swirl across the night.
He is in Normandy by the sea. The waves ribbon and buckle on the shores of Etretat.
He cannot get this phrase out of his mind: the living and the dead.
How is it that a particle of a voice gets transmitted down a telephone line? How is it that Sally summons up a simple phrase, and the muscles in her throat contract? How is it that Kimberlee hears a sound and already her hand is moving through space to reach for the white kitchen telephone? How is it that Joel feels a pang of desire for Tracey? (What exactly will those bleachers look like at midnight?) (And who, by the way, is Joel’s father?) (And what is it that Kimberlee teaches in university?) (Did she meet Sally in a college campus?) (What might Sally have been studying?) How is it that a voice travels halfway around the world? Does it go through underwater cables, does it bounce off satellites? How does a quark transmit itself to another quark? How many seconds of delay are there between Kimberlee’s voice and Sally’s? Could a bullet travel that distance without them knowing? Could there be a death at the end of this story? (Are there even any female engagement teams in the Korengal Valley?) (Is there such a thing as a Browning M-57?) How private is the phone call? Who might be listening in? Can we create a brand-new character so late on, let’s say an agent in Kabul, a malevolent little slice of censorship, eavesdropping in on Sally? Can we see him there, with his headphones, his heartlessness, his bitterness, his rancor?
And what about his own childhood New Year’s Eves in Dublin? Could he disappear back to them? What was that song his father used to sing? What about those days when he used to run out into the Clonkeen Road at midnight, banging saucepans to ring in the New Year? What about that sense of promise which the Januarys used to bring to his boyhood?
But more important — and perhaps most important — what happens to Sally when she gets through on the telephone? What sort of feeling will bullet through her blood when she hears Kimberlee’s voice? What great desire might arc between them? What sort of silence might hollow itself down the telephone line? What will happen if they argue once again? Will Sally describe the bunker where she sits? Will she try to articulate the darkness? Will those fine teeth chatter in the cold? Will Kimberlee open up immediately and make her young lover laugh? Will the white wine disappear from the glass? Will she talk about the bouillabaisse? Will she use the word love? What will Joel’s first words be to Sally? Will he tell her about Tracey? Will he tell her that he will go down to the bleachers tonight? Will Joel’s father (let’s call him Paul, living up north, in a college in New Hampshire) ever hear any of this? How many years has he been estranged from Kimberlee? Has Sally ever met him? How long will the phone call eventually last? What happens if the satellite suddenly fails?
Where will his own children be this New Year’s Eve?
How do we go back to the very simplicity of the original notion? How do we sit with Sally in her lonely outpost? How do we look out into the dark?
(And who, anyway, was that dead Marine?)
The phone rings.