Miles Klee’s debut novel, Ivyland, takes place in a crumbling, violent, post-urban New Jersey. Published by OR Books, the novel’s been getting praise for its dark vision of a burned-out world where drug companies rule, nature is reclaiming what it can, and locals like Hecuba—the bus driver in this excerpt—can only look on in weary disbelief as the past disappears.
One hangover-blasted Wednesday, Hecuba dreamt she was asleep at the wheel, lead-foot subconscious running her route. Eventually she admitted to herself this was no dream and hooked an instinctual right to avoid entering at 60 mph a drive-through ATM tube that would’ve shaved the top off her jitney. Squealing onto Maple Ave, a treeless one-way street, she bore down on an SUV headed in the opposite direction, swerved, popped her last hubcap off into spinning shine on the air as a pothole’s grace note flickered underneath, and sneezed.
It was a bus of the undead she piloted, seniors being the only passengers with a life expectancy not drastically shortened by her driving, and she circled the urban prairie of Ivyland four times daily, like a clump of hair that flirts with the shower drain. Courseless though she seemed, Hecuba did have a navigational approach: she drove toward the colorful, trying to outpace unsaturated hues that pervaded Jersey’s suburbscape to the point of conspiracy, this dumbly guillotine-blade sky. Her cargo didn’t care, content simply to stay in motion.
“Pardon me, miss, but the rec center is in the other direction,” one zombie had the gall to pipe up. “Worked there, actually. Thirty-two years. There when they put in the new wing, supervised it. My grandkid—little angel—she’s got a piano recital, and since it’s the next stop, and normally you never stop there, not that I’m criticizing—”
“Shut up now, please,” Hecuba said when she could take no more. She puked discreetly enough out her window, tried to blame Tequila Tuesday. Lenny Marx, who owned Viking Putt MiniGolf on Route 22 and kicked his dog as though he needed a creature to pity, never failed to goad her into it. Tequila Tuesday at Sipwell’s was his Sabbath, his booth a shrine. Afterwards, they’d usually screw. But Hecuba hadn’t held out hope on that front a few Tuesdays back when Lenny’d won two hundo on a scratch ticket and vowed to drink it. He’d fade into brainless neon fuzz, reemerging with a smile and twin shot glasses of amber venom. At last call he’d rushed the bar while Hecuba coasted on a perfect fog.
The glitchy jukebox played some albums too loud, and Lenny had memorized which, so when a Celine Dion single suddenly cut the din, Hecuba’s suspect list was one name long. Lenny, across the room, held a handsome leer up to frail light.
“What faggot put this on?” this grease stain missing an eyebrow roared. Lenny jabbed a thumb at the backs of two planetoids disguised as Collars. You were my voice when I couldn’t speak, Celine oozed.
“You,” eyebrow yelled at the neckless duo, who turned away from a South Jerz girl they’d been feeding umbrella drinks. One pointed at both his platinum blonde sideburns, like: me?
“Yeah, you. Are a fucking. Faggot.”
Flesh hit flesh, toppled tables broke glass. Lenny settled next to Hecuba as the carnage erupted, scratching her shoulder with his stubble.
The jukebox yowled, I’m everything I am.
“Not that you needed a reason,” she began.
“Jumped me in line. Manners are all we’ve got.” He drowned his grin in beer as a guy who’d been tossed once already that night sprayed the brawlers with a fire extinguisher, filling the bar with a nasty white smog. Hecuba threw back her head and laughed so hard that a Sipwell’s lifer dozing in the next booth, eyes still closed, asked if she was gonna be okay.
Recalling the bloody tooth that splashed in Lenny’s mug shortly after, she laughed again, meaning to suffocate on arrival the uninvited image: opened pink-and-white box. On her toilet, days after the fact. Leering the pretty way Lenny did.
Ivyland was smug as she blew through its crowded vacancies, past gutted beauty parlors; the offices of injury lawyers Oppenheimer & Glove, which used to be a car dealership run by local ad loony Unami “Uzi” Cloudfoot, and with its dorsal-finned red roof seemed an overturned sailboat; strip malls offering party favors in bulk and used vacuums, while brass-knuckled guys sold powerful Adderade cocktails in forever damp back lots. The scenery singing you got a little too used to this. Remembering to take a shortcut, she cursed—did adapting to a swamp mean you were unfit to leave? She knew the wonky light on Fairfield stayed red for six and a half suicidal minutes, that the dead-ending maze of McMansions up past Floods Hill was so like those assholes’ sense of humor, and that JFK Junior High let out at exactly 3:13, would-be gangstas and goths, seeds that might never break the surface, tumbling out in knee-length white T-shirts and clip-on nose rings and re-stitched backpacks. Kids she used to bus to school, who threw crap at her jitney when she slowed down to see if any might recognize her.
She had two children of her own—adults, technically—the elder a daughter who’d eloped with a geneticist given to dressing like Elvis. He actually dreamed of cloning the man, wore a ring set with his synthetically duplicated DNA, was once sued by the licensing company that owned The King’s image, had been rebuked at Graceland countless times for you-don’t-want-to-know what kind of reconnaissance, and hoped to snag the bio-copyrights to some less untouchable celebrities, probably a comedian. Hecuba identified parts of the obsession both pathetic and charming.
The son, DH, had been living under her roof for twenty-eight consecutive years, discounting a short window of foster care and various weeklong benders that stranded him in Atlantic City jails, the Filthydelphia sprawl, and once even the Pine Barrens (sand from the Jersey Dunes collected in the corner of each eye), rarely with an inkling of how he’d arrived. Hecuba pictured him sleepwalking up and down the Turnpike for days at a stretch. Lenny casually sparked these episodes with a game of crass allusion to the long-disappeared father, who’d worked a job in South Woodbane’s septic quarter apparently too humiliating to describe. Lenny was given to claiming that anyone with a son like this would be a fool not to ditch, whether they came home smelling like shit or no. Then a wink at Hecuba. DH, by contrast, was committed to a fantasy he’d perfected out after seeing a special report in sixth grade: poisoning by tainted spinach. A senseless tragedy. No one’s fault.
DH’s boggling and childish insistence on this point unnerved Lenny, who occasionally feared karmic payback for the hazing, and what would be more poetic than death by toxic vegetable? Any gut-ache was cause for alarm, and as he woke on Wednesday, one pale shade of consciousness dissolving into the next, gut was where the first ache bloomed. He recognized the mangy green of Viking Putt’s sixteenth hole, the mead-toting valkyrie statue, both of which reinforced the worry. What’d he eaten? That suspicious gyro. What’d he drunk?
Lenny rolled onto his back and stared at the underside of Nidhogg, an apocalyptic beast set free from the Underworld, jagged head raised in a mute roar of celebration. Or maybe pain: a child-size golf club dangled from the dragon’s eye, jammed in a hole where it’d been used to whack through the brittle plastic. Thing wasn’t worth fixing, Lenny concluded. Neither was the Viking Putt itself, with its garbage-filled water hazards and defaced mythology factoid signs, sandwiched between Fong Friday’s—always on the health inspector’s shit list, never shut down—and a guitar store where kids loitered inside wishing they could buy something while Sal lurked in his dusty back office wishing the same.
Lenny blamed kids; he always did. Blackout as he’d been, there was no way he’d scaled Nidhogg’s spine, hadn’t done so since the Wall Street riots a few years back, when he’d sat on the dragon’s head with Hecuba, sipping Beam, and with ancient binoculars watched the cracked ash-globe of downtown Manhattan smoldering across the river. Above gray wake, the atmosphere pulsed blue and clean and indifferently bright. Easier than ever to believe the skyline was a mural. Someone had put a thumb to wet paint, pulling detail into a monstrously beautiful smear.
Seamless segue from ambient dread to ambient disaster. You didn’t want the dust settle and prove the wound. He recalled DH that night when he’d gone to check on Hecuba again, complaining how school wasn’t even dismissed early and that their geometry teacher made them turn off the news, plowing ahead with a lesson on vectors. Mainly the way kids dealt with it, Lenny guessed, was pretending they always knew it would happen.
Miles Klee reads tonight at Housing Works.