Dennis Humphrey

The Alarming Prevalence of Quicksand

Your daughter walks into the family room, iPod buds in her ears, her eyes on the text message on her cell phone. You think if she had any other sense with which to communicate, she’d have an electronic device plugged into that one too. Then you realize her pheromones are doing just that with every boy who comes into her vicinity without any technological aids at all. You find it comforting that there’s still at least that much of the biological in the machine, even if you are uneasy about the messages.

The music and the text message enter through her senses and skitter across the surface of her consciousness like long legged flies upon the stream. Yeats’ fly is a symbol of the creative mind moving on the silence of pure concentration. The fly you picture is the opposite—pop music and misspelled fragments of uninspired minutia skating on the soundless deep unknown that lies beneath her immediate attention. LOL. LMAO. IMHO. PBB. You wonder what that fly sees looking down, what swims below the surface tension. Perhaps the fly sees only its own refection. Perhaps you do too.

Her name is Savannah. You think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You picture spotted great cats chasing striped herbivores across sub-tropical grasslands, sleek in the relentless sun. She thinks of some young celebrity whose existence is unknown to you and whose butt is bigger than hers. She wishes her butt were as big as that celebrity Savannah’s, even though the boy she never told you she had kissed gave her an A+ for her butt. The other boys agreed. You found out about the kiss through the grapevine, but she told you about the A+ herself, thinking you would take her side. She wishes she were tanner, bigger some places, smaller in others. She wants braces on her straight teeth. She has not even lost all her baby teeth yet, but she wants to whiten them. She gets up two hours before the time to catch the school bus to straighten her straight hair and apply layers of makeup to her unblemished face. On weekends she sleeps until noon.

She updates her Facebook status with her cell phone. She does that constantly. It’s like she has no battery back-up; she must stay plugged in all the time, or she’ll cease to function. She’s uploaded hundreds of pictures of herself to her page. You wonder how many predators cruise her profile every day. You ask her if she’s thought about it from that perspective. She doesn’t know what the fuss is about.

“You always say things like that,” she says. “Everybody does it.”

She always says things like that.

She has so many digital photos of herself on the family computer hard drive, one thumb drive won’t back them up anymore. You wonder whatever became of that man with the foreign accent, the one who texted and called her no matter how much she told him to leave her alone. You remember taking the phone from her and telling him you’d call the cops. You never did.

She wants you to read Twilight.

“It’s the best,” she says.

Teenage vampire love stories. You told her six months ago you’d read it just as soon as she reads Wuthering Heights. You still have not read Twilight.

“You never listen to my opinions,” she says.

You notice she deals in absolutes. Always. Never. She thinks Heathcliff and Catherine are boring. Her English teacher, the same one who suggested she read Twilight, agrees. You wonder what your taxes are paying for. You tell her Emily Brontë shows you can write a Gothic love story without putting a single ghost or vampire anywhere but in the characters’ and readers’ imaginations using subtle suggestion, but then you think that may be the problem with these kids today. All of their imaginations are blank media, waiting for input. They need their storytellers to put the vampires in there for them. And those vampires have to be more graphic every year. You think it’s like drug users who have to use more and more and more to achieve the same high. You ask her if she’d even know a real monster if she saw one.

“What are you talking about?” she says.

That’s the problem, you think. Real monsters don’t look like monsters at all. You ask her what she thinks about the Ted Bundy murders.

“The what?” she says.

The monster who hangs the puppy from the gate of Thrushcross Grange is not scary enough anymore. Now, in the vein of real monsters, there is Saw I, II, III, IV and V. Serial murder heroes on film. Sadism. Mutilation. Now that’s entertainment.

Tonight she wants a ride to the church where she attends the youth group. She doesn’t ask; she announces it matter-of-factly, as though a ride to a church twenty minutes away is her inalienable right. You ask her what she thinks about The Sermon on the Mount.

“Sermon on the what?” she says. “Last Sunday’s was on the wickedness of worrying. Something about lilies and birds.”

You tell her you don’t want to drive her twenty minutes away past several closer churches and then drive the twenty minutes back only to have to go back and get her after church.

“You’re ruining my fucking life!” she says.

You tell her to watch her language.

“You’re cussing. Why can’t I?”

You’ve been told she acts like you. You can’t see it. You’ve been told this more than once.

She gets a text and says, “Gregor can pick me up on his way.”

You think of Kafka. You wonder if this is the same boy who gave her the A+, but you know his family. They’re good people, so you think maybe it’s okay. Besides, they’re going to church, for Christ’s sake. You tell her she can go, and you regret it immediately. You regret it even more after she leaves. You count the twenty minutes. The sixty minutes of the service. Twenty more for the return trip. You tell yourself they wouldn’t necessarily leave as soon as the service ended. Some services are longer than others. You remember your own teenage years. Backseats and back roads. Cigarettes and cheap cherry vodka. You try to remember: which of the boys in her grade did you hear was a pothead? You wonder what else that boy might be into. She doesn’t answer her cell phone or the text you just sent her. She always does this. You tell yourself she’s never going to ride with that boy again.

You go outside to look up and down the street for approaching cars. You hear tree frogs peeping and croaking in the dark to attract mates. No cicadas. You think it is too early yet for them to begin dragging themselves from the boggy spring ground, leaving the husks of their larval skins on the trunks of trees as they emerge to emit the loudest mating call in the insect world. The rising, falling drone was the background music of summer nights down through your childhood. You remember how your parents were. Your mother envisioned an alarming prevalence of quicksand in every patch of woods you wanted to explore. The world beyond the hedge was a Johnny Weissmuller movie; explorers stepped on innocent-looking patches of sand, and moments later, nothing remained but a pith helmet resting on the ground. Your father insisted that packs of wild dogs, once pets or hunting dogs, now feral, roamed the countryside. They had been known to devour children lost in the woods at night. Somehow the image of man-eating poodles and beagles never affected you the same way it did your father. It was at least slightly more plausible than his equally fervent belief that bands of Satan worshipers met in the woods at night in small clearings around blackened circles of stones. He’d seen the circles himself while out hunting. He was at a loss to account for the great number of empty beer cans strewn about the same clearings. You laugh and crush your cigarette out on the brick front steps on your way back inside, putting the butt in your pocket for later disposal so your daughter won’t see it.

“Those things are going to kill you,” Savannah always says when she catches you with one.

You try to preoccupy yourself with something else, anything else. You pick up the novel you’ve been reading, the third you’ve read recently with settings in Pakistan or Afghanistan or some-other-stan. They’re trendy. Exotic. The protagonist is hiding from someone. Terrorists? The government? A father bent on restoring his family’s honor? Man-eating poodles? You read the same page three times and you still don’t know what’s happening. You put the book down.

TV is no better. One of those crazy survival show hosts extracts himself from quicksand and then eats some bugs. A goose stepping documentary compares the Nazi and Baath parties. A man in a ski mask lurks in a made-for-TV movie about a stalker who killed some actress years ago. The local news has a story of an amber alert. You stop on that one as a grainy picture of a girl Savannah’s age comes up on screen. Not her. Some girl from the other side of the state.

“Be on the lookout,” they say. The news anchor grins and segues to a commercial break.

You turn off the TV.

Nothing works. You remember when Savannah was a little girl. She learned to ride a bike in a single day. No training wheels for her. She must have fallen fifty times. By the end of the day, she was riding down the sidewalk, no hands, arms stretched upward in triumph, long hair trailing, shouting to the sky. Always in such a rush. Go, go, go. That same week you had the first nightmare about bicycles, a twisted frame in the road, one wheel spinning slowly enough to count the spokes. One. Two. Three. You couldn’t stop thinking about the boy from your hometown, the boy who was hit by a dump truck while he was riding his bike. He lived through the accident, but his brain was damaged, the part of the brain that controls moral decision making, conscience, compassion. When you were grown, you heard that same boy was on death row. He’d been convicted of abducting, raping, and strangling his own twelve year-old niece. After he was caught he had shown no remorse. You wonder now if he thought his niece’s ass was an A+.

After the first nightmare about bicycles you made little Savannah wear a bicycle helmet. Disney princesses in pink and lavender.

“The other kids will laugh at me,” she said, stamping her little foot.

You know perfectly well as soon as she was out of sight, the helmet came off. Just like her seatbelt when she left with that boy. You’ve been told she acts like you. You can’t see it. You’ve been told this more than once.

Then, unwilled, you remember the time you were in grad school, and a murder occurred in your apartment complex, so close you could literally have thrown a rock from your front step and hit the apartment where it happened. You had to walk around the yellow police tape to get to class. In the wind it twisted like a yellow ribbon, bowed out between the points where it was tied to orange and white sawhorses. A woman had been bound and then killed with one of her own kitchen knives in the same room with her toddler. You wonder what kind of monster would do such a thing. You can’t remember if she was stabbed or if her throat was cut. Maybe it was both. The authorities are circumspect about such things. The media used the term “brutal slaying.” They always say things like that. Like it’s scripted. Canned dialog for the sake of expediency. You wonder what kind of monster would do such a thing.

You send another text message. Usually you refuse to use texting abbreviations, but your fingers are slow enough already. You think, even if she replies, even if she’s okay, this will not end. Not tonight. Not next week. Not ever. You think, even if she’s not okay, this will not end. Not tonight. Not next week. Not ever.

You hear the dogs outside. You remember Savannah always beats on her bedroom window when the dogs bark at night. She thinks it will shut them up. It never works. You swear one night you’ll hear the sound of breaking glass. You think how badly that would cut her hands. Blood and glass and barking dogs. But now, the dogs aren’t barking. They’re howling. They do that only when there are sirens in the area.

When the phone rings, you nearly drop it, as monsters of every kind crowd the corners of your mind. Crouching, never letting you rest. Always thirsty.


Dennis J. Humphrey is Chair of the English and Fine Arts Division at Arkansas State University—Beebe, and has a PhD in English with Creative Writing emphasis from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His short fiction has appeared in storySouth, Southern Hum, Clapboard House, Prick of the Spindle, and BloodLotus.