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Author bio | Spanish translation

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Excerpt from Pummeled by the Light
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Clementine Sump was high.
A long climb up, a longer drop down. The sun was summer bright. A warm breeze swept her long uncertain blonde hair from her face; she could practically see to the other end of town. There was her former high school, go Bobcats go, the disloyalty still simmering inside her. The smiley face on the water tower, defaced with the spray-painted fangs of some forgotten dare. And the fairgrounds, scene of several romantic humiliations. A flat, flat thing, this Blessed Heights. She twisted around until her hair blew back where it belonged, banishing the town from sight.
"It’s much too windy," she called down to her father, the facilitator. " Maybe we should try again tomorrow."
"Don’t worry about the wind, pumpkin. We have to do this today. Tomorrow is Saturday. I need to go to the office in the morning, and then in the afternoon is the barbecue of the year. This is it, Clem dear. Now or never. Let’s be a brave girl. Remember the first time you went swimming? It was scary to jump in, wasn’t it? Well, this is just a little tiny bit higher, that’s all."
Clementine looked down and gulped.
"Believe me, dear heart, I’ll be with you every foot of the way down. I’ll feel your pain."
"You will?"
"Sure I will," said the dad. "Look, all the other girls in the neighborhood have done it long ago. You don’t want to be left out again, do you?"
"Suni Smith has not, to mention only one."
"Suni’s parents are atheists."
Clementine began shaking, her legs wobbling like a drunken mailman, toes still a solid inch from the edge. "I don’t want to die," she said in a small voice.
"That wouldn’t make much sense now, would it? I would never in a billion years put you in a situation where you would have worse than a seventy-thirty chance of survival."
"Tha...thank you."
"Now, jump."
"I can’t!"
"Sure you can," the dad said with confidence. "Just relax and let it happen. Take the next step, girl. It’s a big one, but you’ll make me so proud of you. And just think of how high you’ll be able to hold your head at the party tomorrow. Between this and your accordion, you’ll be as close to the center of attention as someone like you will ever get."
Clementine sunk to her knees, straddling the peak, hugging the rough shingles, fingers trying to claw their way through to the insulation, head as low as it would go.
She heard a long sigh from below, then the dad said, "Look, honey, maybe you’re just self-conscious about doing it around me. You were that way when your mother was potty training you, too. How about if I go in the house and read the paper and maybe when I get done you will have taken care of it?"
He left without waiting for an answer. Clementine felt the frustration in his voice. She wanted to please him, she really did, but either she was a slow learner or maybe she was just too squeamish. Regaining her equilibrium, she eased her way back from the peak and slid to a more central station on the roof, waiting for the dad to bring the ladder.
From here she had a fine vantage point of Mr. NDE’s expansive backyard, site of tomorrow’s party. There was a big white tent and the temporary band shell, draped with bunting. I’ll be up there in a matter of hours, she thought nervously. She wished she hadn’t volunteered to help with the entertainment. Her hands began sweating as she fingered the air, humming the notes.
The gardener, under the close supervision of Mrs. NDE, was planting a semi-circle of miniature saguaro cacti near the stage. They wouldn’t last beyond September in this northern clime. But it fit the style of the house, this former rambler transmutated into a mission-style hacienda complex back when Bob Fist transmorgified into Mr. NDE and the socialus habitus of Blessed Heights transformed forever.
Clementine had heard from his son Zeus that the man himself was on tour somewhere out west, she wasn’t sure if he meant Granite Falls or Mullholland Falls, and would arrive just in time for the party, making a dramatic, transcendental entrance. She held a modest crush on Zeus, although she generally steered clear of him due to her feelings of inadequacy. What do you say to someone who’s been to the place he has? It was darn intimidating. School and friends and current events and the weather and even the world itself must seem like so much baby talk.
Of course, this little problem could be easily solved. She and Zeus would have loads to gab about if only she would allow herself to be guided by the dad, take the plunge and embrace the universe.
While this universe-embracing talk was severely enlightening, if it meant standing on the peak of the roof, with the wind blowing the hair out of her eyes, and the lawn looming, green and terrible...
"Dad, can I come down now?" She clomped her sneakered foot on the roof for emphasis.
The dad reappeared and glumly propped up the ladder against the gutter. Clementine climbed down while he steadied it for her.
"I tried, dad, I really tried," she said when her toes found the blessed ground. "I don’t want to be a bad girl. I want you to be proud of me. I guess I’m just afraid of heights. Maybe we could think of something else, something not quite so...high."
"You did your best, honey. That’s all any parent can ask of their child."
"I don’t have to go to the party," Clementine said, helping the dad tote the ladder back into the garage. "You could tell them I got sick. I am feeling pretty nauseous in my stomach vicinity at the moment. Maybe it will develop into something life-threatening by tomorrow."
But the dad would not entertain any optimism. He seemed beyond consolation. He took a hammer from the dirty pegboard and hammered. Clementine let him be. She had learned from the mom that when the hammer came out, it was time to go in. So Clementine retreated to the house and practiced the accordion until bedtime.
The lightning was a smile in the darkness, a second chance. Clementine woke up, disoriented, sweating. The sheets felt like a straitjacket. She kicked them away and sat up. What time was it? Two-thirteen. Rain hammered the windowpane. The big oak tree in the backyard swayed and shook and shimmied.
Woo, woo, woo, said the sirens.
"Come on, kid!" the dad howled from the doorway, his black rain slicker hurriedly pulled over his striped pajamas. "We have to get a move on! Don’t you hear the sirens?"
"Uhh, yeah ," Clementine said sleepily. She tumbled out of bed and followed him down the hallway and through the kitchen. He yanked open the basement door, grabbed an umbrella and led the way to the garage.
"The storm’s a doozy," the dad said, as he backed the car out into the flooded street. "Biggest one of the year, I bet. Boy, look at that lightning."
"It’s so dark," Clementine said, wiping at the fogged window with the sleeve of her nightshirt. "I don’t think I could see a tornado even if it was right over our heads."
When they reached Heaveland Park a block away, the dad swung open Clementine’s door, thrust the umbrella at her and said, "Good luck, dear. Remember: hold it high!"
Clementine, still groggy from slumber, trod without enthusiasm to the highest knoll in the park. Struggling to hold her ground in the gale, she wrestled with the red umbrella as it flipped and twisted this way and that, finally forcing it open with her foot. She timidly lifted it above her head.
Thunder split her eardrums. That was close, she thought. She raised the umbrella higher.
As she did, the downpour suddenly transitioned into a sprinkle, and the wind and sirens wound down. Clementine carefully peeked over the edge of the crumpled umbrella at the sky. White and blue clouds skirted the stars. Shredded pale green leaves pasted the ball fields. It was quiet, but not too quiet. Somewhere, in Apple Creek or Rancho Uberalles, the sky was violent and a girl or boy was laughing, but there was no joy in Blessed Heights tonight...Clementine glanced at the car, where the dad was looking pretty crumpled, too.
And boy, she sure got an earful when she sloshed through the mud back to the wagon.
"Don’t you have any sense?" the dad snapped at Clementine as she dripped on the ivory leatherette interior.
"It wasn’t my fault," she said. "The rain just stopped. It was weird."
"If you wouldn’t have dawdled, young lady, you might have caught the end of the storm."
"I’m sorry," she said, yawning. "I guess I’m not entirely awake."
"Do you have any idea how much this means to me, how much it means to us as a family?" asked the dad. "I’ll tell you what it means. If the Mitzner Agency, through the efforts of your dear old dad, lands Bob Fist , Mr. Near-Death Experience, Mr. Nine Months on the New Jersey Times Bestseller List, it would mean big bucks for us, personally. Our standard of living would go through the roof."
The roof, thought Clementine.
"The problem is, dearest, is that as neighbors we have the proximity, but nothing to get our foot in the door. We don’t have anything to talk about, no common bond. Bob’s been to death’s door and has returned to talk about it. He’s a special person. "
Clementine knew it was true.
"Now think what would happen at the party tomorrow," said the dad, "if I were to snag Mr. Fist’s elbow by the punch bowl and say, ‘You know, Bob, my daughter was recently embraced by the light. Yes, my little girl is sure growing up. Say, as often as you’ve visited death’s door, have you ever thought about protecting your family in case next time the Being of Light decides your work on this plane of existence is finished?’ Now that’s what I call a foot in the door. That’s a helluva foot in the door."
"Maybe I’ll catch pneumonia," Clementine said hopefully.
"Lightning would have been perfect," the dad said softly, temper cooled, as he drove them back home. "Mr. Fist has been struck by lightning seven times, and each time his near-death experience was more profound than the last. The Being of Light revealed the future of the world to him. Each revelation was contained in a small paper sack similar to the ones you take to school only instead of a ham sandwich and a oatmeal cookie he found important revelations about the future of our world the Earth. Of the three hundred and forty-one revelations found in those three hundred and forty-one paper sacks, one hundred and twelve have already come true."
"Wow," Clementine said.
"I wasn’t expecting anything like that from you," said the dad. "I would have settled for a tunnel experience, or even just a little life review. That was my near-death wish for you. I honestly believe I’m not that demanding as a parent."
Clementine twisted the sleeve of her nightshirt, sending a stream of rainwater to the floor mat.
"You should see the policy I’ve been cooking up, just for him," the dad said. "It’s really a boilerplate whole-life policy with a near-death experience clause tacked on at the end. But it’s a thing of beauty."
Clementine believed it in her heart.
She felt bad. She wanted to be a model child. If she had been a few years younger, locked in an adolescent naivete, she might have gone over the edge to please. She had come close, and maybe under different circumstances, given the right push, she would still come through for the good of the family.

1998 David Prill

Author bio | Spanish translation

This electronic version of the excerpt from the forthcoming  novel Pummeled by the Light is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author. Book ordering for David Prill's novels available through Amazon   (See BR review of  Second Coming Attraction.)

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