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READ LOCAL First: Stephen Carter

Carter-mug-smSUNDAY BLOG READ is your glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers. Each month, 15 Bytes offers works-in-progress and / or recently published work by some of the state’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir.

Today, 15 Bytes features Salt Lake City-based essayist, comics writer and editor Stephen Carter who here provides a work-in-progress, an essay.

Sunday Blog Read continues to accrue a distinguished group of established and emerging Utah writers for your review and enjoyment.

So curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy the work of Stephen Carter!


Last Song

By Stephen Carter

My grandmother was Google before Google. Newspapers and magazines poured into her house, and each day she sat in her recliner to trawl their headlines. Every few pages she’d find something that interested her, liberate it with a flash of scissors, write a subject line in red ink at the top, and slip it alphabetically into a brown accordion folder.

As a teenager, I came in every week or so to tackle the pile. The articles were to be distributed to the dozen or so filing cabinets that loomed throughout Grandma’s wood-floored, dust-anointed, paper-breeding house. The articles layered in their guts possessed archaeological significance; Grandma was the keeper of newsprint, the scavenger of Ann Landers, the distributor of Time. I often saw these files go out to various relatives or friends who needed information on a particular topic. I even received a few to help me on a school report or merit badge.

Then my grandmother died, leaving this several-ton legacy behind: the towering residue of an omnivorous life. Those filing cabinets now haunted her house: metal-clad zombies of information; tombstones: curated and regimented; gravities of knowledge.

Everyone was given a chance to go through the cabinets just in case they’d find something useful or memorable. But soon enough, these tank-drawered sarcophagi were pried open, scooped out, left slack-jawed and barren: their meticulous square guts crammed into garbage bags and hauled out to trucks.

When my grandmother died, we did not lay her body out in the parlor. We did not put her on ice and sit up with her all night. We did not make a coffin, lay her inside, and carry her to the cemetery. No, we drained her to the corners, dis-articulated her limb by limb, bagged her up, and checked to see if DI wanted the bones.

I preserved one relic of my grandmother’s body; a sliver of the true Virginia. It reads: “Stupid People.” That’s right, my grandmother compiled a file of Darwin Award winners before there was a Darwin Award.

This is what happens when we die. We are dismantled. Our gathered bodies atomized, our offices bequeathed, our houses revised by strangers, our stories turned into recipes: mixed and mixed again until their taste evaporates.

There is no way around this. Scholarships cannot save us. Books become humus. Synapses realign. Children sing new songs.

If I died today, what would become of my body? My children are not interested in my music, or my wife in my movies. The CDs would lay impaled on their spindles; my DVDs would huddle in the top of my closet until my wife finally packed them off to the library donation counter. My books would become grist for thrift store mills. My children would wear out my t-shirts and throw my cheese in the garbage. What would remain of me but a sleeping Google profile; email accounts slowly bloating with spam; a Facebook account lying in Lenin-like state; books falling deeper and deeper into the chasm of Amazon sales ranks.

And eventually the sun will explode. The earth will be consumed. Nothing will remain or come to pass from any action of mine. Ever. But even if it did, why should I care? Of what benefit would it be? It will end the same way: with the darkening of my eyes, with the cessation of my limbs, with the close of my story.

Sometimes I jump forward in time and lay with myself on a laboring deathbed, or in a mauled car, or face down on a piece of carpet. As my life seeps from me, I look at what I’m thinking: the images bubbling up one last time, the tiny plays in their final performance; the trees falling in an empty forest.

I hold a red-haired girl in my arms as we ride on a darkened school bus from Cedar City to Spanish Fork. I kiss her. I kiss her again.

Eight years later on Thanksgiving Day we curl up on a hospital couch and fall asleep, her belly like a medicine ball, straining against her robe. This child will come with an umbilical cord around his neck; the next child only with the encouragement of forceps, the third of her own free will and choice.

I’m riding bikes with my six-year-old son down an asphalt trail. We’re here because he rides, because he must move, because the street, because McDonald’s. My round-headed son with his direct eyes and querying voice.

I’m swimming with him in the university pool. He holds onto the hems of my shorts as I tug him along, scanning the quiet blue depths through his snorkel mask.

I’m sitting next to my second son, both of us in white jumpsuits, as he commandeers the talk his grandmother is giving on baptism, adding his own two bits until he has taken over almost completely.

I’m watching him laugh at jokes around a campfire, falling deeper and deeper into this pathological breathing cycle, until he makes almost no sound at all: at one with the hysteria of the universe.

I watch my toddler daughter consider the ticklish path of a pill bug as it eyelashes its way across her hand: her thunderous fearlessness; her cataclysmic absorption; her rapt lips.

I watch her careen with four-year-old abandon off the end of a diving board and disappear for the space of a breath. The lifeguard jumps from his chair. Her head breaks the water’s surface and she glides to the pool’s edge. The world is a place for flying.

A few days before he goes into the hospital to start chemotherapy, I place my hands on my father’s head, as he placed his on mine so many times before. I channel a love larger than both of us into his struggling body.

These memories are fire. They warm my breath and light my eyes. They move my body and power my voice. But these fires were stolen from the gods. This paper I translate them to can barely intimate a flicker of this furnace, a glimmer of this heat, a ghost of this hidden conflagration.

Death will come and quench these fires. Perhaps not even ashes will remain. All will be lost.

But this is the very reason they burn so bright. Life is because death. Light is because dark. Song is because silence.


Copyright, Stephen Carter, 2015
iplates2coversm (1)Stephen Carter is the editor of Sunstone (, a horror author, a comic book author, and a personal essayist. His graphic novel iPlates: Prophets, Priests, Rebels, and Kings (co-authored with Jett Atwood) received the 2014 Association for Mormon Letters Award for Comics.


Past featured writers in 15 Bytes’ Sunday Blog Read: Katharine Coles, Michael McLane, Darrell Spencer, Larry Menlove, Christopher Bigelow, Shanan Ballam, Steve Proskauer, April Wilder, Calvin Haul, Lance Larsen, Joel Long, Lynn Kilpatrick, Phyllis Barber, David Hawkins, Nancy Takacs, Mike Dorrell, Susan Elizabeth Howe, Star Coulbrooke, Brad Roghaar, Jerry Vanleperen, Maximilian Werner, Markay Brown, Natalie Young, Michael Sowder, and Danielle Beazer Dubrasky , Kevin Holdsworth and Jacqueline Osherow.

1 reply »

  1. I so appreciated Stephen’s essay, Last Song, about ashis grandmother, and was moved by it as well.

    John Updike said that when an old person dies, it’s like a small library burning down. This concept is captured poignently. You can almost taste the truth of his eloquently written memories of her. I wish I had known her.

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