Archipelago

by Griffin Reister Johnson

We’ll open cold, on a tight shot of a dewy glass of the local beer gripped between two spidery hands, no rings, a pale bump on the side of the right middle finger, bloodless white rinds at the base of each nail. A local band is playing over the speakers, although to their credit if the mix were better they’d pass for the Stranglers. The hands tighten nervously on the wet glass. They seem worried. Why? It might seem futile to look for an explanation in such a tight shot, but there’s narrative economy here, and considered closely the details of the frame will furnish us with some clues. The beer is local. The band is also local. The bump on the right middle finger, it’s easy to tell, is the type formed by constant exposure to a pen. That kind of exposure might not be common in a place where the local sound is throwback pub rock, and so we can assume the bump is not local. What about the hands themselves? Well, now we’ve come up against the limits of the tight shot. The hands tighten decisively and lift the beer, leaving the frame empty but for a wet circle on the wood, and let’s match on action.

We cut to a medium-close. For the time being the head of the subject is mostly obscured by the beer, and the depth of field is shallow, so the few figures in the background are oily smears that don’t give us much new information. Still, we have enough to proceed. Anywhere that plays throwback pub rock must be a denim-and-leather kind of place, but the subject wears a green cotton blouse with no sleeves. There’s a leather-looking jacket draped over the chair next to her, but it has the sheen of plastic. Two damning pieces of evidence. So our initial decision is that she’s a foreigner, but let’s look back over the details. That bump on her finger has not one but two preconditions: its owner must write a lot, yes, but she must also have poor form, a slovenly enough grip on the pen that it irritates the side of her finger. Which is to say she must not have had much training in the handwriting she does so often. Is she an autodidact, then? Maybe she’s not a prissy foreigner but a returned exile, acclimatized to the outside world but always bearing on her middle finger the mark of her homeland. So is she a native? Possibly. Is she passing for a native?

She puts down the beer now, and we can see her face. A fading tan and crow’s feet forming at the corners of her eyes, hair cut short, corners of the mouth turned down like she thinks she might have left the oven on. The eyes themselves cloudy and unfocused. She rests her chin on her bumped middle finger, the index finger perpendicular along her cheek, in a conspicuously pensive pose that she rethinks. She takes another swig of beer to cover for her mistake, a big one, but surely people are starting to notice. Let’s rack focus: behind her, at one table, men are sitting. We assume she’s been seeing them out of the corner of her eye all night. They’re sitting far apart, crew cuts and fur-lined leather, and looking at her with the performed calm of men who are determined to appear unthreatened. One of them leans over to another and says something we can’t hear. We rack back to the table. The woman stands up and grabs her jacket, leaving an empty glass for the bartender to swab.

She’s at the bar, pulling small bills from a wallet. The bartender has a combover and a fat grey cigar of a mustache, and he cocks his head at her.

“I know you from somewhere,” he says. “Right? Help me out.”

She hands him the bills. “I used to live here when I was a kid.”

“I guess you weren’t in here very much,” he says.

“It’s my first time.”

He smiles. There are tufts of hair in his ears. Her smile back is cursory, not as big as his.

“I’m sure I’ll be a regular soon,” she says.

“Hope so,” he says. “Drive safe.”

She slings her jacket over her shoulder and walks to the door, her hands thrust into the pockets of her jeans, and as she goes we see the bar in wide, and we see how she sticks out, how hopeless it is to think she could ever be a regular. The bar is a murky swamp of black beer, brown wood, yellow fur, with a greasy amber light and nothing but the occasional blue of denim to set it off. Through it the vivid green cotton of her blouse floats like a ghost. She has one hand in the pocket of her jeans, one finger hooked on the collar of the jacket, and as she passes heads turn, not the way they’d turn for a pretty girl but the way they’d turn for a horse thief.

There’s a roaring sound in the air outside, a static hiss. By way of ellipsis we have a quick associational montage: we see the two warm lanterns at either side of the bar’s front door, pairs of headlights progressing solemnly down the dark highway, and an extreme wide of a harbor blooming with light, flanked by two dark cliffs, like something out of Whistler. Single lights move up and down the cliffs in slow, straight lines. Colored lights for port and starboard move back and forth in the water. The lights of the harbor move inland, back and back in a long curve, and taper off.

What is there to say about that harbor? Maybe if we looked at it long enough—say we had some installed familiarity—we might recognize that the single lights on the cliffs are funicular cars that scoot up and down the high cliffs every fifteen minutes, until midnight on weekdays and 2 AM on weekends, with molded plastic seats in bright sterile colors. We might recognize that the lights in the harbor fit into two categories—rickety pleasure craft with names like Arleen 4, and sleek, short-keeled ferries on which cruises liners, too deep for the shallow harbor, send tourists ashore. We might even recognize that the tapering off of the lights on the far slope isn’t as bad as it used to be, that there were more houses, even some Victorians from as early as 1886, before the market fell apart and spidery pines started to grow through their roofs. Maybe there wasn’t enough money to preserve the Victorians because the tourists, eager to snap a few pictures from the top of the funicular lines, were just as eager to get back to the ship, and didn’t even usually stop for so much as lunch.

We could conjecture that. For now, though, we’ll just cut back to a profile of our horse thief, crow’s feet deeper in the low-key light. She wears a taut, sad expression, but discards it in a moment and sits down in her car, lights a cigarette, looks briefly back out at the harbor, and shuts the door.

She smokes, the cigarette snug between her long fingers, the smoke orange in the dome light and somehow incongruous against her green blouse. She looks like the kind of woman who, when she was younger, never looked like she’d take up smoking. We note that her fingernails are a reassuring white, not an addict’s yellow. Maybe she only smokes when she needs to shake off a taut, sad expression.

We see her driving in extreme wide. The highway is in a a state of disrepair. Not just weeds but actual small trees sway at the edges of the broad cracks. Deco sunbursts on the rusted overpass bridges. She comes to a school and stops again.

The school is long, two stories, with a geometric clock tower at one end and a row of modular classrooms in the back. The modulars look new and low-budget. The main building, in a long pan, is handsome and lean, with a cantilevered roof and a bank of dull windows. If it were well-maintained, it would look like the type of place where men with bald spots would teach the Great Books to the children of typists, but it’s not well-maintained.

The car rumbles while the horse thief finishes her cigarette and watches the dark school. Cold blue light hoods her eyes. There are noises in the parking lot, and after a long pause she pulls the car around.

In wide, we see two boys, hoodies, cigarettes, baggy shorts, cocked baseball caps of a non-local baseball team, perched on the mossy curb of the school. Maybe there aren’t any local baseball teams, although it seems like the kind of place where there once were. The car pulls around into the parking lot and they stand, alarmed. A window rolls down.

“We don’t need anything,” says one of the boys.

“What?” asks our hero.

“I don’t know who you’re here for, but we don’t need any,” says the other boy. “Sorry.”

She looks from boy to boy for a moment, brows furrowed.

“That’s not what I meant,” she says. “I’m just looking at the school.”

“Alright,” says one of the boys. “Here, here’s the school. Thanks.”

“I went to high school here,” she says. That seems to shut them up for a second. “Just seeing how things developed.”

“You went here?”

“About 15 years ago. Before they put in those modulars.” She leans farther out the window. “Does Mr. Hobart still teach here?”

“He retired last year,” says one of the boys. “His daughter’s assistant principal, though.”

“Leeann?” she asks.

“Yeah,” says a boy, finishing his cigarette and dropping it into a grassy crack. “She’s a real cunt.”

“She always said she wanted to be a TV producer,” she says.

“Well, she’s a cunt now,” says a boy, and they both laugh.

“Have a good night,” she says. “Hope you make it home okay.”

She rolls up her window and her car pulls away from the curb. We can assume that the other boy will soon drop his cigarette into the same crack and grind his feet above it reflexively, though he knows it’s beyond reach down there. If we were given to paranoia we could further fantasize that one of them might say, “Fucking narc.” Either way, they’ll soon turn and walk off around the school, skirting the modulars instinctively, since those are where the AP classes are. They’ll cut through the woods, pine and maple with an understory of slimy leaves, hop a shredded wire fence, and emerge into the new developments that, just five years ago, before real estate around the harbor collapsed and everyone moved away, could have been woods. Tamarack and birch, deer and coyotes. Unclear where they went when they put in the long smooth road.

Say the boys come to a fork in the road and say a curt goodbye, each one taking a different arc, both walking in the middle of the street because it makes them feel like they’re in control, and nobody drives at night in the suburbs anyway.

One of them, say, comes home to find his door locked, climbs the trellis, and lays in bed with his shoes on, plucking out “Shady Lane” on an Ibanez, with the window open because he likes listening to the sound of the falls on summer nights. The other comes home to find his door locked and picks up the key from the inside lip of the urn. Beneath his brother’s door he might see a warm rind of light, and when he gets into bed he might hear the desultory noise of sex from his brother’s room. He might look at a magazine full of pictures of jet skis he can’t afford. Probably this is an average weekend night for both of them: skate around, listen to the falls, smoke cigarettes at the school parking lot. Fifteen years ago they’d have had a car. They’d have had many friends with long hair. On weekends they’d drive up to a flooded quarry in the cliffs and swim naked, their clothes swung from the pines. Now they have lawns, Leeann Hobart, who is a cunt, old vinyl copies of Brighten the Corners, and not a single jet ski.

An extreme wide shot on a pair of headlights down the highway, the roaring noise louder by the second. We’re rounding the bay now, the cliffs closing behind us, the lights getting weaker and thinner. In the distance we can start to see cruise ships and freighters anchored off in the dark, little tightropes of light strung on their decks, and stars coming out overhead. Little stands of pine cling to the side of the road, some of them hanging out over the ocean. The only headlights that pass are supply trucks coming up the coast. If we think clearly about it there are not many places they could be coming from, except, let’s imagine, a dock next to a geological research station set up to study the falls, the trucks running food waste to the dump and rock samples up to a lab in town for analysis. A station that might employ people who know the locale and have relevant degrees and qualifications.

There’s a slow pan, slowing to a stop, as the headlights slow to a stop beside a clearing on a cliff. The tide hisses on the beach below. The hinterland of this little rock outside the town, outside the rows of taupe houses, seems to contain nothing but a little pine forest. Maybe a few birches. Fast-growing opportunists, anyway, as if the forest had been cleared when there was money in the clearing and is starting now to creep back.

We watch from a low angle as the horse thief leaves her car and carefully digs the tip of a stick into the sand. The teeth of animals have scarred its surface. She steps up onto a little shelf of rock and looks down at the black and glassy ocean just a few feet below, then turns her head, away from the town with its lights and funiculars, away from the school and the highway and the bar, away from the cruise ships and speedboats, and out towards the falls. Let’s pan with her.

It is not clear at first what we are looking at. They seem to be a gray line on the horizon, between the black sea and the black sky, from which a fuzz of gray rises and disappears. As we hold on them in wide, though, we have a chance to pick out more detail; the gray is white foam, hundreds of feet of it, and the fuzz is a vast fume of vapor that rises up constantly. From horizon to horizon this scar of foam and steam, and these islands must be the only landmass to speak of along the whole length. Certainly the only one with anyone on it. They might, in fact, continue all the way out to the edge of the falls, the last few just rocks with stray pines clinging to them, with metal cables connecting them to each other. You can, if you want, climb down those cables and lean out with your head actually inside the vortex of spray as it rises up from the void. Some of the most expensive cruise packages include it as a bonus. More people do it every day. Some days, though, one of those rocks will succumb to erosion, calve off and tumble into nothingness, the lines twanging.

The fog and the noise rise up and blanket everything on these islands. Everybody who still lives here, everybody in the suburbs, on the cliffs, in camps in the woods. You can feel it in the air. You can hear it no matter where you go. Tonight those boys in the suburbs will switch off their lights, those men in the bar will walk out one by one, and as they fall asleep they’ll all hear the noise of the falls like the cosmic microwave background.

And you? What will you do? We’ll see you in wide as you drive the last six miles back to the barracks at the geologic station, set up to study these islands, to study at what rate the falls are contracting the edge of the world itself, because the edge of the world is where we are.

You’ll be in medium as you leave the car, as you walk in the door, as you lie in bed but can’t fall asleep because even here, among all these other sleeping bodies, in this cinderblock hut, even here you can hear the noise of the falls. And what keeps you up isn’t the noise, strictly speaking, but the constancy of it. The way that roaring continues beneath every one of your words and moods, not a montage but a long take, an unbroken stream of sound.

You remember things in snippets, with that noise in the background of each one. The roaring of the falls as you cry at The Land Before Time. As statues fall on television. As you bite your lip in an airport bathroom. But the instant you recorded and played it back in snatches, the instant you damaged its integrity, you were doomed. The instant you cut yourself off. You see it in terms of girls who borrow their grandfather’s boats. Of funicular drivers who still remember the old leather seats, of smiling bartenders, of boys playing Pavement songs with their shoes on in bed, of men who spend the night slumped in the cabs of their trucks. This is tragically wrong. There was a time when all this passed before you on one cyclorama. Now all that’s left is the details. You know the name of each atoll and bay and the water pours through them, no matter what.


Griffin Reister Johnson grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He lives in Ventura, California and works an organizer for the United Auto Workers. In 2019 he graduated from UCLA with an MFA in screenwriting. His writing has appeared in Entropy and The Cleveland Review of Books.