The Last Green Frontier by Ariel Beller

‘The Last Green Frontier’

by Ariel Beller

 

In Missouri, in the Current River, the eels nibbled at my feet.  It was breeding season and they hovered against the flow in ankle deep water.  Later I got stoned with her father by the campfire and was frightened of myself.  At night we slept in our tents on the stones by the river and everything was wrong.  Someone had killed a turtle.

Like so many other things in my life, this travelling thing with a girl was something I had dared myself to do.  It needed to be done, considering where we’d come from, and this is how consequence bites your head off.  After those three days on the river my point of view turned over into a handful of negative but concrete beliefs.  I’d decided the final answer was, you’re not compatible with this system and, these ideas of yours to break the barrier have become a sad joke.

Once we hit Illinois I began to have the same dream every night.  A stone Buddha would hover before me, the volume of thousands of voices would go from murmur to clamour, and the Buddha would implode into a thousand glassy pieces which fell away from eachother like water.  The sound, a dull pop, would stick in my brain like a hook.  When we started heading west the dream stopped.  It was replaced by a series of refrains.  You are completely, irreversibly, on your own.  Where do you go from such a deserted place.  You go nowhere.  You’ve been misinformed.  Though once you had a location, a time, an idea, you’re stuck precisely where you are.  This is no place at all.

 

When Matt said he’d come to New Orleans with the rest of us I thought: Good, now he can see it too.  He’ll see why I don’t speak nearly as often as I used to.  When Zane said he’d come I wasn’t surprised.  Zane was I like I used to be.  He didn’t care where he lived or who wasted his time.

One month earlier I’d arrived with a girl named Molly in a blue beaten four-door Pontiac.  We came without notice.  I’d called Matt from Illinois, pretending to be in New Orleans.  I wanted to make sure, if only from the tone of his voice, that it would be life as usual when we got there.  Four days later we knocked on his door.  And he laughed.

It was June and we sat down on his couch.  He barely noticed Molly.  He told us how he’d been gardening, mowing lawns mostly.  His back ached and he could run a business five times better than his fat old fool of a boss.  We listened with ears muted by a thousand miles of highway.  He agreed we could stay there a couple months.  He said he’d buy me a drink and Molly wanted to see some of the city before sundown.  We walked to the Commodore.

We were in the backroom playing pool when I began to notice how Matt and Molly interacted.  They were passionate, these two, Jewish, and they liked their metaphysics.  They were digging into a conversational argument on human behaviour, when I became almost entirely blocked up.  I could hear, see, feel, but nothing registered.  Nothing moved me from my point of reference which was no reference at all.  Everything I said felt wrong.  The way I moved felt wrong, or at least, open to debate.  No one seemed to notice.  And I needed another drink.  They gave me cash for another round.  When I came back I sat their drinks in front of them and went to my seat.  I hated myself like this.  Useless, dependent, lost.

‘Hey Knave!’

‘Yeah.’

‘We got an idea but we need your help.’

‘Oh yeah how’s that.’

‘You still have your tent.’

‘It’s in Molly’s car.’

‘Zane doesn’t know you’re here yet so I think we should play a trick on him.’

‘Like what.’

‘I don’t know exactly but I think we should take advantage of the fact he has no idea you’re here.’

‘What about the tent?’

‘It’s just an idea but what if he came home and found the tent pitched in the living room.  You and Molly would be naked inside and you’d be fucking.  He’d come in the door after work and see a tent in his living room and hear people fucking inside and I’d be sitting on the couch watching T.V.  What do you think?  Molly likes the idea.  She says she’ll fuck for a joke.’  I eyed Molly.  I knew damn well she wouldn’t mind.  I thought the idea was pretty stupid myself.  It was one of Matt’s random acts of perversion.  And Molly was hot, eccentric, she drove men crazy in those days.

‘All right then.  Why not.  But we’ll have to get back soon I think.  What time does he get off work?’

‘About now but he always goes to a bar.  He never gets back until around midnight.’         ‘Let’s get one more drink here,’ said Molly.  ‘Then we’ll go back and set up the tent.’

‘Jesus.’ I said.

I took their cash and went to the front for another round.  I stood there waiting when I saw Zane out of the corner of my eye.  I stood stock still but I knew I’d been spotted.  He walked up to me, stared at the side of my head until he was satisfied, and went toward the bathrooms.  Matt and Molly were creeping toward me as he disappeared down the hall.

‘Did he see you?’

‘Of course he fucking saw me.’

‘Damn.’

 

A few days later I found a job at Old Town Pizza.  A day after that Molly found a job at the Long Island Pizzeria.  We were set for food.  Zane was a busboy at an uptown restaurant, out of all of us he made the best money.  He came home nearly every night with two half cases of beer, one a fancy brand, one a drinking brand.

The apartment was five rooms and L shaped.  The kitchen at one end, then Zane’s room, then the living room at the corner, then me and Molly’s room, then Matt’s room.  This was where I’d lived a year ago, but in Matt’s room, at the end of the L.  This was a place I hadn’t missed too much.  Molly and I had walked the town together in search of work.  We looked at the people who seemed to squirm as they shuffled forward, though some of them seemed to march.

‘This town is full of fear.’ I said.

‘I agree,’ she said.

 

One night, after the beer was gone and the boys slept in their perspective parts of the L, we talked about the town some more.

‘…What are these people so afraid of?’

She was from a rural community in Illinois, and she really wanted to know.

‘I don’t know.  Portland is a bit lost.  It’s like the invisible city.  It’s desperate for its own culture like, say, San Fran or Seattle: you say these names and a world come to mind.  You say Portland and what do you get.  Nothing.  You get a high concentration of art colleges in a city with no recognizable culture’

‘What’s – that – what… to do with it.’

One of her giggling fits.  She also had the hiccups.

‘Too many bitter hypersensitive kids under the illusion they can change the world with their wit, too many in a state of exalted impotence.  This is the last green frontier man, the final outpost of the occident.  Where do you go when there’s no where else to go?  You go inward.  And if you’re new at going inward you fuck it up.  The entire Pacific Northwest is full of people who are fucked from the inside out,’

I was full of myself and ready to go on, but she was kissing my neck.

The next few weeks went by without much deviation.  Everyone worked full time.  It was inevitably the four of us sitting around the same living room talking about what happened to us that day, or later talking about what happened to us five, ten years ago, or before time began.

One night the painkillers went around.  Matt had got them off a lawn mower.  I’d taken more than my share and sat in a numb daze, a part of the background.  Everyone was in a great state of babble when I went to the bathroom.  I sat on the bowl and let it all slip out and I wondered.  This shit coming out of me is the sum of all I’ve ingested.  I wiped and pulled up my pants but I didn’t flush it away.  I looked at it – two perfect logs of soft shit.  Their very shape formed by what I eat to stay alive.

‘Matt!  MATT!’ I yelled to the other room.  He opened the door thinking I was having trouble.

‘What’s up, Knave?’

‘Matt.  Check this out.’  I reached into the bowl and grabbed the healthiest, largest piece of shit and squeezed it in my fist.

‘Oh my god, what the fuck are you doing.’

‘I don’t know but look at it.’

‘That’s amazing.’

‘I know.’

But all of this was done during the extension of the dream.  I woke up the next morning with dirty fingernails and wondered why.

 

<>

 

The summer was at its height and I could feel it….. humming.  I walked around the apartment in a state of sweltering vibration.  I was prone to periods of quiet panic.  To look out the window was confusion.  And these symptoms gained a certain permanence.  I resigned my head to a lonely state because it could hardly explain itself.  I stayed up later than everyone else.  I sat on the couch in the living room and talked to myself.

‘This isn’t for you, this isn’t for you.  What is for you then?  I don’t know.  I thought I knew, I thought I knew.’  It occurred to me that I often rhymed when I talked to myself.  I stood up and snuck into our bedroom.  She was dead asleep on her side facing the wall.  I brought the covers up and pushed myself against her.

‘I’d love to wake up one morning with you inside me.’

But that was a different girl.  Molly began to cry.  She began to cry hysterically and fitfully and her sadness and confusion were so pure, so unconcerned with me that I thought she must still be dreaming.  I pulled myself out and said I’m sorry… shhhh, I’m sorry… shhhh.  I’m so sorry.  I held her as she cried herself back to wherever she came from.  She never turned around.  The next morning I remembered what she told me about her brother.  I never told her I remembered.  We never talked about that night.  Not specifically.

 

<>

 

Daren and Nadia were on off junkies.  It took them awhile to figure out I was in town.  When the word reached them, on a Saturday, they came over that night.  It’s funny when I think about it.  Six months ago I’d run off with some girl they barely knew.  And here I was with another one.  Both Daren and Nadia had made criticising my girlfriends one of their favourite past-times, Nadia on the pretence of being helpful and more experienced, Daren on the pretence of nothing much.  When this was all over Molly wouldn’t fair too well.  Molly was a small town girl, an ex cheerleader.  Against the girl I’d left with, Wombat, they could never find much to say.  They had difficulty understanding what she said, and, mostly, they were afraid of her.

‘Well, Knave, are you glad to be back?’ Daren said.

‘I guess so.’

‘What do you mean you guess so?  We’re the only friends you have in this world.’  Daren fished crumbles out of a large bag of marijuana and stuffed them into a glass pipe.

‘You know what Knave?  You’re a pompous little bastard.’

And the whole room laughed.  Everyone always laughed at what Daren said.  Two hours later he had everyone terribly stoned.  I’d been watching Matt for a while.  He was getting wild eyes.  Something in the way of cosmic boredom was flittering inside.  I wasn’t surprised when I saw him jump from his seat.  He had the standing lamp in his hand.  Everyone was babbling on, paying him no attention, when he cracked it over his knee.  The noise made everyone look up.  He took the butt end and jammed it into the wall above Daren’s head and everyone was suddenly standing.  Daren shook the plaster out of his hair.  It had made a wonderful noise.  Zane suspected it had pierced clear though into the bathroom and went to check.  He shook the pole from the other side and the lamp base meandered in its hole.  Matt took the rest of the pole and made a gouge at the same wall.  Everyone was on the verge of dance.  He made a second great lunge and it went through and Zane gave a delightful squeal.  Everyone filed into the bathroom to see the damage but Zane wasn’t there.  Two black metal poles dangled like antennae above the small porcelain sink.  The five of us were cramped in there, admiring the destruction, when Zane appeared in the doorway.  Look what I got he said.  He had a heavy sack full of red cherries.

 

The next morning we were evicted.  Much more had gone on that night.  The cherries were spattered all over the same wall, part of our nightlong attempt at an original and finally rather violent looking mural.  A mutilated plastic doll smiled and twirled, attached to one of the poles by a piece of string.  Daren had thrown an electric fan out the window and I followed with a glass light fixture that had bothered me for the last few weeks.  It was funny – I heard the glass spatter four stories down, and leaning on the windowsill, listening to the echo, I saw a passer by, a young man, smile, like he knew we were having fun.  There was a knock on the door, and everyone’s eyes met in dead silence.  We scurried to put the lights out.  Molly, Matt, and I hurried into Matt’s part of the L and the rest snuck into the kitchen.  When nothing happened after five minutes I stood up and said,

‘We need to get out of here – now.’

But no one seemed to be in such a hurry.  I found my keys, laced my shoes and went to the kitchen.

‘Zane, what are you doing?  Don’t you know what’s going on?  We need to leave.’

Zane was leaned up against the stove eating sunflower seeds.

‘I’m not leaving.’ he said.

I shoved two bottles of beer in my pockets and knocked on the bathroom door.

‘Molly, what are you doing.’

‘I’m taking a pee.’

‘We need to leave.’

‘Why?’

I took the stairs.  Creeping and quiet I went out the side door and saw two empty police cruisers parked on the curb.  The radios were sputtering.  I walked toward the Plaid Pantry and thought about hanging around the phone booth, maybe call the home number to see what was going on.  Instead I walked toward the Park Blocks.  No one would bother me there.  I found a stone bench behind some hedges and opened a bottle.

Here, for the first time in weeks, I felt clear, unperturbed, sane.  The night was cool and the stars were alive.  It took me a while to realize the sound of police sirens in the distance was almost constant.  When one faded out another took its place.  A young couple scrolled across the path in front of me.  He tried, gently, to put his arm around her shoulder.  She squirmed away in disgust.  I drank my beer and wondered how everyone was doing back at the apartment.

London, 2004-2013

 

Did you like the story? Opinions? Praise? Please leave a comment below

Hampstead Heath

Bio:

Ariel David Beller was born in Portland, Oregon in 1976.  He moved to London in 2001.  Previous work has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, YAWP!, Hangman, Tears in the Fence, The Wolf, etc.  He received the Michael Donaghy Memorial Prize in 2006.

 

DSCN6165-001
Photo by Susie Sweetland

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11 Responses to The Last Green Frontier by Ariel Beller

  1. N. Benson

    The Last Green Frontier was written by 37 year old American, Ariel David Beller, who has lived in London for 12 years. It is not clear whether Beller intends this work to be short story, an essay or an excerpt of a longer piece, but in absence of information, I have assumed he intended a complete and distinct short story.

    The story comprises of a number of episodes and reflections from the life of “Knave” over several months of travel and work in the USA. It is written in the first person and in autobiographical style. According to the end-note, the story was written over a 9 year period in London. This type of snippet is more often provided to describe far longer works, as an expression of the amount of research, time and effort which has been spent. In this case, it is perhaps provided for the reader to get an idea of just how difficult the author has found the process of transferring his thoughts (and perhaps his personal experiences?) into under 3,000 words of narrative.

    Beller’s protagonist comes across as a rather pained and pathetic character, with almost every second paragraph being dedicated to further establishing how lost, lonely, misunderstood and sad Knave is. I found it difficult to empathise (thankfully), but also to sympathise, as there is a distinct lack of context or plot in this rather disjointed series of descriptions and dialogue. One does not feel drawn in to the narrative, and neither does one always wish to stay and observe.

    Beller introduces several promising characters, but none are well developed, and together the cast comes across as a rather self-indulgent, uninspiring group. This feels like a disservice to the characters, but their role does seem to be primarily about reinforcing Knaves’ view of the world and himself. In a short space Beller has excelled in making Knave both repugnant and appealing, and if there were more chapters, they would be readable, simply to find out whether Knave is completely trapped in a spiral of self-pity, or whether there really is a reason for him to believe his dreams, analogies and interactions have any deeper meaning or interest to those around him.

    As a writer, Beller produces some very promising and elegant sentences, “It was breeding season and they hovered against the flow in ankle deep water” and “We listened with ears muted by a thousand miles of highway.” More often however, the metaphors are vague and laboured. A paragraph describing Knave’s dream is probably painstakingly put together, but like so much of this story, it seems to lead nowhere interesting and is not original enough to merit a stand-alone position.

    Beller uses strong imagery (faeces), the promise of debauchery (sex in a tent, with an audience) and indications of abuse (incest) to pepper his story, and while individually they are of mild interest, they get lost in the bitty nature of this tale, and ultimately feel naively placed.

    Midway in the story Knave makes a small speech, seemingly unusual for someone so self-confessedly “blocked up” and for whom “Everything I said felt wrong”. This is the fulcrum of the story, and the part which I confess I read 8 or 9 times, as it ‘unblocked’ the story for me and gave me clearer sense of what the author is trying to say. Typically, a short story should be easy to grasp first time round, but in this case I recommend that you read The Last Green Frontier at least 5 times. For me, upon the final readings, I stopped finding the protagonist a self-pitying, narcissist bore who really needs to stop blaming others for his own delusional and deficient life and get a grip. I saw him finally as I believe Beller intended: an average nobody, slowly being driven insane by his belief that he is somehow relegated below his true potential in life for deep, metaphysical, and essentially unfair reasons known only to him. As such, Knave is a subtle parody of today’s disenfranchised western youth: too unmotivated to make a real effort to succeed, but too comfortable with welfare, sympathy and goodwill to be forced to get organised.

    Beller’s other work, mainly to be found in La Reata Review (a magazine he edits) is awash with similar themes. While an occasional flash of good writing displays his true talent, his introspective world view is not always engaging. The Last Green Frontier shows an author who can construct a sentence, but sadly this work is not very readable or enjoyable on the first attempt. From my naïve perspective (17 years old, all spent in England) a short story’s strength is in compelling imagery, perfectly constructed to hold the reader’s interest for a few pages. Not easy to do well. Knave left me hovering on the frontier of another person’s jumbled thought, frustrated. He may be “full of himself”, but I am not yet ready to go along with him.

    This brief review has been written as part of a 3 hour timed exercise to fulfil the requirements for my High School A-Level English Literature examination. Each student was randomly assigned a relatively new work, which has not yet been extensively reviewed.

  2. Green

    Several comments: The story is fine (IMHO), but the review by Benson is really excellent! The analysis is sound but the actual act of review itself is super meritorious. I found myself looking at the story from different angles and seeing new content. the author may not be pleased but that is the risk all authors take when seek publishing. I reckon it’s great that the work in these little, off-beat websites get reviewed. I read a lot of stuff online and in print equivalents, but hardley ever, ever see any comments except for friends and family writing 3 or 4 words of praise. If I got reviewed by N. Benson (who is only 17 ?!) I’m sure I’d appreciate it after getting over the initial shock ! And I don’t doubt that he/she would think I am pretty average too. How would I feel? In the end all writers publish because they think they can write well and what they have to say is interesting to others. Most, at least occasionally, dream of making money and fame from writing no matter what they claim. Most un-paid and un-celebrated writers never get objective or critical feedback- I guess folks just ain’t famous enough to warrant the time and effort! But it’s a good thing and helps to improve and sharpen work. Not getting published is not the same as getting actual, well thought out constructive criticism. Hope Ariel David Beller appreciates it for what it is. And hats-off to this student for writing something so coherent and entertaining, and I salute the teacher who set the task. Any thoughts from the editor or the author or other readers? thegreenperson

  3. N. Benson

    Thank you “thegreenperson”. I feel obliged to respond to some of your points, as I’d like to try and clarify my approach.

    We worked a great deal this year to improve our reviewing skills, but even so, it is difficult to be balanced and objective. We were encouraged to review using the five classic elements as a framework: character, setting, plot, conflict and theme. I find it useful to use these to look at the technical attributes of a story. However, I am usually swayed greatly by more subjective elements, such as: does it flow? ; does it connect? ; does it feel original? ; do I enjoy it?

    My teacher fed back that I did not separate enough the technical elements of the story, from my overall enjoyment of the story. I should have written more about Ariel Beller’s technique. I am struggling with this, because what is the point of good technique if the product is not enjoyable (to me)?

    Last year, we read a lot of realist literature, especially from the early American tradition- Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Henry James etc. I understand that those writers started traditions which influenced today’s realist writers a great deal, especially the use of extensive natural speech, reproduction of internal thought processes, detailed focus on the characters, and often a focus on difficult lives and internal conflicts. I love many of the works of the above writers, however I believe that this tradition attracts a certain type of contemporary writer who find the realist tradition a good outlet to define, express (and justify?) their own lives. On realist literature, Howell once said that is should be “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”, and he encouraged common men to write about their common lives, believing that even average men had the ability to express their lives in literature. I agree, but it is not easy to make your own life interesting to others, especially in the short story format. Looking through other sources of modern realist literature (mainly online), I found lots of very downbeat, sad folks writing very miserable tales. Personally, I don’t relish other peoples’ despair, but it can be a humbling and fascinating insight into the depressed or lonely mind. However, too often, I believe, the authors become self-indulgent and obsessive about their own experiences, forgetting that the average and common reader need setting and plot, otherwise it can all be a bit tragic and “woe is me”. Perhaps this is one of the products of today’s free online publishing culture? That is my personal opinion, but I believe my teacher when she says that our tastes and appreciation will change dramatically the more we read.

    Some of the other reviews conducted by my classmates were also published as comments. Only the very positive reviews got feedback from the authors. One of the reviews which could be construed as overall negative, received a rather nasty personal response. This was upsetting for my friend, but our teacher has informed us that most authors and artists (especially those who publish on line) are not used to getting feedback, and often take it very personally. You make this point in your comment above. We were also informed that reviewers have to have thick skin and to separate the personality from the product. On the latter point, I disagree, as both personality and product are so inextricably entangled. In retrospect, perhaps Ariel Beller’s story is purely autobiographical, and so how can I separate criticism of the style and content from criticism of the author himself? I did not mean it that way, if indeed it came across as a personal criticism. But if it is autobiographical and he places it in the public domain, he must be prepared to have people ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. Once again thanks for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the story and the review!

    N. Benson

    • Roadside

      Thank you for your excellent review. Perhaps you should consider reviewing a well known book from one of the authors listed under “Authors we like” on our submissions page (http://roadsidefiction.com/index.php/submissions/) and sending it to us. We would be glad to publish one of your very carefully thought out and well written pieces.

      I think that it is possible to dissect almost any piece of fiction but this must be done with care and with a sense of responsibility. ‘On the Road’ for example, by Jack Kerouac is in my opinion an important work, yet like almost everything that exists, it is flawed. A review could in theory reduce it to rubble but this may not be a service to future readers who may enjoy its uniqueness. Therefore the responsibility lies with the reviewer to reach a suitable compromise between praise and criticism.

      Again thank you for your useful and highly intelligent comments.

  4. Klassnik

    the cherries, the shit, the turtle, the eel, the sunflower seeds and the violent looking mural, etc, etc– I enjoyed this immensely. enjoyed it viscerally. and enjoyed it several times.

  5. N Benson

    Thank you “Roadside” for your kind and constructive comments. I totally agree with you about the reviewer’s responsibility, and your example of Kerouac is apt. I also love “On the road” and last year spent hours at the British Library, trying to read bits of the long original manuscript scroll. Reading the snippets gave me sore eyes and neck, but I appreciated even more his final work. It would seem churlish almost to criticise his technique or sentence structure or direction (for example), when the final product is so original, so entertaining, so beautiful and just so interesting. I understand your point completely, and I will try harder to balance my reviews and also see the wider picture.

    I am really thrilled that you think I could review a longer piece, and I am ready for the challenge. I looked through the list of authors and did some research on the ones I have not read at all- Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Mario Puzo and Brian O’Nolan/ Flann O’Brien. I think I will choose one of the latter two authors, as I am currently avoiding the ‘ancients’, knowing that I will probably have to read those in detail in the future. I will choose a book by O’Brien or Puzo and read over the summer.

    Thank you again for the opportunity, and once I have written something, I’d also value your critical feedback on my work.

  6. Jeffrey Hecker

    The fact that the painkillers origin is a lawnmower is not open to criticism. Thanks Roadside Fiction for posting these passages and thanks Ariel Beller for writing them.

  7. I’m quite happy for what I write to be used as an undergrad project, or anything for that matter. While perhaps not glowing the review itself is a decent piece of work. I certainly wasn’t writing like at the age of 17. Plus I rather liked some of the stuff it said. Cheers Mr. Benson.

  8. N. Benson

    Thank you Ariel Beller. I appreciate your comments on my work. I was feeling bad about the review not being balanced enough, and I have committed to improve my work. I look forward to reading your future work, although I will not be reviewing it!

    Thanks again. (Ms. N. Benson)

  9. Karen Brown

    This story is a breath of fresh air compared to all the stuffy BS I’ve been reading lately. But I can’t understand why such a juvenile review is getting so much attention on a platform that’s meant to be for writers, not amateur critics.

    • Roadside

      Interesting point! It’s great when you experience that relief – “a breath of fresh air” as you say. With all the great reading material around it’s a shame to ever read unsatisfying stories or novels but for some reason it happens to so many of us!

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