Student Spotlight: Elliot Northlake

Interview

What do you write?

I write character-driven fiction. I don’t know if there’s a term for stories about unhappy people trying to not be so unhappy, but that’s basically my bread and butter.

 

Is there an author or artist who has most profoundly influenced your work?

My current work has definitely been influenced most by Jonathan Franzen. His prose is so complex and funny, making it such a joy to read these long, dense, novels he insists on writing. I try to be a little more colloquial than he is, but still have that complexity in my characters that he does so well.

 

Why did you choose Stonecoast?

I applied to schools mostly based on their location. I’d never been to Maine, so I figured, why not Maine?

 

What is your favorite Stonecoast memory?

Summer 2017 was my first residency at Stonecoast, and I was super nervous about the entire experience. I was going to a place I’d never been with people I hadn’t met doing things I’d never done before. I can’t place exactly where or when this was, but my favorite memory was when I realized I was with people who were all so passionate about the same things I was, and that I had made the right choice in attending.

 

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I’d love to teach and publish, but another dream of mine is to be a guy who gets sent to cover weird or little-known events, sort of like the nonfiction pieces David Foster Wallace wrote about the Illinois State Fair or his experience on a cruise ship. I’d love to be paid to go down to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida and write about that. Seems fun and scary.

 

If you could have written one book, story, or poem that already exists, which would you choose?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I like to read the first and last paragraph of the book to motivate and inspire myself. It’s just good stuff, man.

 

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The following is a work of fiction exclusively for Stonecoast Review.

 

The Tallest Building in Florida

Tallahassee wasn’t much to look at, and nobody knew that more than Jackie Thompson.

Her dad had only been a one-term Governor due to the undiagnosed heart condition that killed him a year and a half into his tenure, but one of Jackie’s favorite memories was when they’d have lunch on the top floor of the capitol building. It wasn’t a place people typically ate, but security would shut it down once a week during the summer so they could have grilled cheese sandwiches at the top of the tallest building in Florida. The security part wasn’t true, of course, but Jackie liked to hear him say it. Listening to her dad speak on those days was similar to listening to Christmas music at the shopping mall. You’d get sick of it after a while, then you’d realize how much you missed it when it came back the next year. Looking out the windows on those brilliant summer afternoons, Jackie felt like she was waiting for a magnificent future to roll in over the horizon .Now, as an adult, she wondered if it that future had come and gone.

Jackie stood in the same spot she’d once spilled tomato soup on her Street Sharks T-shirt and admired the view. That is, she admired as much as she could. Jackie walked along the windows of the room, finding nothing of worth among the trees and people until she’d nearly completed her circle. Her eyes fell on Florida State University, where most of her friends had attended. Its red brick buildings spread through the trees in all sorts of different directions, like the earth had split open and bled through the forest. She’d chosen to attend college in central Illinois, a state equally flat and starved for attention.

Jackie was back in town to celebrate a branch of the Leon County Public Library being named after her dad. The Michael P. Thompson Public Library. The unveiling had been uneventful, bordering on disappointing. Her dad didn’t read much, and when he did, it was always nonfiction. Whether or not this was the truth—or just something he did to attempt to appear charming—Michael P. Thompson claimed he didn’t read fiction because he didn’t like being lied to. If it wasn’t real, what business did he have spending his time on it?

Jackie folded her jean jacket over her arms and walked back toward her boyfriend. Shane was afraid of heights, and had chosen to remain close to the center of the room, rereading the literature on the Old Capitol.

“Hey,” Jackie said. “I’m ready to get on outta here.”

Shane looked up and let out a sharp sigh. “Thank god.” His voice was deep as the Grand Canyon. “I didn’t want to say anything, but this has been awful for me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. Thank you,” she said, while flattening out his eyebrows. He had a face like a Muppet, all blocky features and bright red cheeks.

“Fifteen years is a long time,” he said.

“I guess.”

“It is. If I go a week without talking to my dad, I feel like garbage. So, if I were you, I mean…god.” He stopped talking, and frowned like he just stepped in dog shit. “Sorry, that’s rude to say.”

Jackie shrugged. “It’s fine.” She turned away from him and walked toward the elevator. She was afraid he could read her face too well.

They took the elevator back down to a more comfortable level. The interior of the building was all Old Government—like how people said Old Hollywood—and was exactly the same as she remembered. Maybe a hallway turned left when she remembered it turning right, but otherwise it was identical. It was like she’d woken up in a buried time capsule. Yet it was all new to Shane. He didn’t grow up the only child of a somewhat-high-profile public official—and he certainly didn’t grow up minus one parent—so he was eager to soak it all in. He was a nice enough guy, but she’d planned on cutting him loose after graduation and taking him to the farm upstate where he’d roam the fields with all her other ex-boyfriends. She had that Groucho Marx condition, the one where she didn’t want to be a part of any club that would accept her. Relationships were fun to Jackie only at the beginning. The hunt. Everything after was a letdown.

But there Shane had been, walking by her side through the courtyard toward Monroe Street. Jackie had tried as hard as she could to keep the whole thing causal. She wouldn’t speak to him for days. One time they ran into each other at a Starbucks, and she greeted him like an old coworker whose name she couldn’t remember. Surely, she thought, he must think things are going okay at best.

At a party, he introduced her as his girlfriend, and, in a paralyzing panic, she didn’t correct him. She blinked, and suddenly he’d met her mother and stepdad, gone to her graduation, and found a place to stay in town. Jackie had told both Shane and her mother that the other was old-fashioned. Shane and her mother, both wanting to do nothing more than to make Jackie happy, rushed to voice how okay they were with Shane booking a hotel room fifteen minutes from Jackie’s childhood bedroom.

Back in the car, Jackie turned on the AC and tossed her purse into the backseat. “I’m going to take you back to your hotel, if that’s cool.”

Shane buckled his seatbelt. “Yeah, that’s fine. I just, uh…”

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said, while flicking almond crumbs off the seat. “It feels like we aren’t spending any time together.”

“We spent all day together.”

“I know.”

“I’m tired,” she said.

He let a few seconds slide by before admitting defeat. “I get it.”

Shane seemed to understand every thought and feeling that Jackie expressed, except for her exceptionally strong and increasingly difficult to hide desire for him to just get the hell out of her life. Jackie knew she hadn’t been clear enough, and, upon further introspection, supposed that for a time she had wanted Shane around. He was nice to waiters, he brushed crumbs into his hand instead of onto the floor, and once, without any prodding from Jackie, cleaned her bathroom, even washing the bathmat. Bathroom cleaning was generally considered to be a thoughtful and thankless act of kindness, but it produced a fury in Jackie so red hot the fire alarm practically went off.

“Shane, I don’t see my mom all the time. I see you every day. Can you let me have some time without you? Please?”

“Okay.”

She knew there was a fat sentence crammed into that “okay,” but she refused to engage with Shane. She was ready to be done with him. Jackie pulled into a parking spot near Shane’s first-floor room. She didn’t turn the car off. He pulled the door handle and stuck one leg out. He looked back at Jackie and opened his mouth, breathed in, then said nothing.

“Okay, well, I’ll call you later,” she said, hoping to get away with it.

He sighed. “Do you even want to date me? I mean, you just…god, you look miserable.”

Well, now it was unavoidable. “I don’t want to have this conversation again,” she said.

“See, the fact that we have done this more than once is kinda fucked up. Jackie, I love you. Don’t you love me?”

Definitely not, but she would say anything to get him out of the car. “Yes,” she said. Not even a second later, she realized how self-inflicted their relationship was.

Shane stared directly out the window. “How come it doesn’t feel like it?”

“Just get out of the car,” she said. “I want you to leave.”

“Jackie.”

“I want to see my mom.”

Shane sniffed and wiped his nose before slamming the door behind him. Jackie watched him sulk through the automatic doors. She felt nothing. As far as she was concerned, Shane was a modern art piece she just didn’t understand.

#

Jackie’s mother Vikki was in the living room watching a documentary about the 2008 Summer Olympics. Pat, Vikki’s second husband and Jackie’s occasional father figure, sat next to her playing mahjong on an iPad. Her parents showed no desire to do anything beyond the bare minimum of suburban existence. Jackie felt that maybe life here had stopped when she was nine years old, give or take a few details, and that she’d grown up while everyone else stayed the same. A curse had been placed on Tallahassee, and Jackie was the only one unaffected.
Vikki turned around at the sound of Jackie’s heavy boots and dramatically flailed her arms in all sorts of directions before hoisting herself off the couch and into Jackie’s personal space.

“My sweet girl,” she said between kisses. “How was your day?”

It seemed ridiculous to complain about being loved by your mother, but Jackie had a serious problem with the way her mom spoke to her. Jackie often felt like a beloved and attention-stuffed dog, in that she had no real way of expressing whether she wanted the kisses or not.

“It was fine. Went to the top of the capitol building,” Jackie said.

“Oh, great. Did Shane like it? Is he here?”

Jackie hesitated for a moment. “No, mom. He wasn’t feeling well. He doesn’t like heights. Made his stomach feel weird or something.”

Pat, displaying his talent for always being around but not quite being there, said, “Tell him to look toward the horizon.”

“No, honey,” Vikki said. “That’s for seasickness. That’ll help him not lose it on a boat.”

“The horizon is the same in a building as on a boat. Same rules apply.”

“Pat, how could the same rules possibly apply? The building isn’t moving.”

“Buildings are always moving. They’re designed to sway.”

Pat and Vikki’s conversations reminded Jackie of going bowling. The ball would roll down the lane, hit the pins, roll back up, hit the pins again. It was the same until it was over. Then, a week later—same time, same place—the game would pick up again. Jackie didn’t really care for sitting in front of the television all night. Her mom would say that they were enjoying a healthy dose of quality time, and anything they did together should be cherished—even watching a documentary about the 2008 Summer Olympics. But Jackie would have none of that tonight, or ever for that matter. Knowing it would make her mom unhappy, Jackie decided to leave.

“I think I’m gonna head out,” Jackie said.

Vikki shot her head back and looked at Jackie as if she’d just be slapped. “You just got home.”

“I know.”

“Stay for dinner. C’mon. Are you serious?”

“Mom.”

“I mean, Jackie, how often do I get to see you?”

“We see each other a lot.”

“You move a thousand miles away, and every time you come home, all you want to do is go back.”

“That’s not true,” Jackie said, her hand rubbing her eyes. “I just love you so much. You know? And I feel like you never want to be around me.”

It always ended the same. Jackie would succumb to the suffocating guilt and sit crossed-legged on the couch next to her mom all night. Pat would eventually leave the room and head to bed without saying anything. An hour after Pat went to bed, Vikki would complain that Pat was always leaving, and how much it pissed her off. Jackie would stay up as late as Vikki in order to maximize the quality time her mother craved so much. They’d barely talk, but it would be enough for Vikki. This time around, Jackie decided she’d had just about enough of the routine.

“I’m sorry. I just think I wanna visit dad.” Visiting dad was the pothole that always broke Vikki down.

“Of course, of course, yes, of course,” Vikki said. Her head hung low and her hands raised up in defeat.

Jackie had no intention of visiting her dad’s grave. She got in her car and headed toward I-10. She had made a show of going to the cemetery with her mother, crying, doing the whole grieving-kid thing. This lasted a year or so before Vikki stopped going. Before she went to college, Jackie had put a bouquet down on her dad’s grave, realizing she didn’t have a single memory of him ever receiving flowers, let alone expressing any desire for them. Then it occurred to her that she couldn’t remember the last thing she’d said to him. His body had surely crumbled into a pile of dust, bones, and fragments of his favorite navy-blue suit. Finding no ounce of comfort in conversing with thin air, Jackie hadn’t been to see her dad since.

Avoiding his tombstone led her down Old Bainbridge Road, where the newly minted Michael P. Thompson Public Library had opened its doors the day before. Jackie parked in the lot, which was empty except for one Volvo station wagon. She got out of the car and leaned against the driver’s side door. Jackie always envisioned libraries as grand cathedrals, houses of great knowledge, temples of worship that commanded attention. The Michael P. Thompson Library was in a strip mall sandwiched between a Subway and an abandoned David’s Bridal.

An older woman stepped out of the library doors and locked them behind her. She fiddled with her keys while glancing over at Jackie. Finally, as she passed Jackie and the car, she said, “The branch is closed for the day.”

Jackie smiled. “No. I’m just here to see it. That was my dad.” She pointed at the beige lettering above the doors. “Michael P. Thompson.”

The woman turned back to look at the sign, the same way she might have turned if Jackie had pointed out that the grass was green. “Huh,” she said. Then she got into her car and drove out of the parking lot.

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Elliot Northlake was born and raised in Orlando, Florida. He now lives in Chicago.