Welcome to our Independence Day issue of READ LOCAL First, our monthly celebration of Utah-related poets and writers. Today, we proudly introduce Jeremy Spencer Rees.
Rees, a Texas native, recently finished his undergraduate degree in Utah. In the final year of his undergrad he was awarded second place in the Utah Original Writing Competition for his story collection, This Will Be on the Exam. His fiction has appeared in Cleaning Up Glitter.
He now lives and writes in Seattle.
The Only Truth in the World
I can remember my father mentioning God exactly twice in my life. The first instance came just after going fishing early one spring morning. We were quiet driving back from the lake. The sun was well up on the other side of the mountains by then, but as tight to the east wall of the valley as we were we hadn’t seen it yet. As my father drove I was captivated by the view of the canyon. The staircase cliffs of its south wall were narrowly catching their first rays which outlined them brightly. The air above the peak to the north was filled with the early morning light, silhouetting the formation. Rays split through the canyon, and from the hill we drove down we could see trees’ leaves catching them. As we paused at an intersection my father joined me in taking it in.
“If there is a god, there it is.”
I didn’t respond to this. When my parents had married they were both devout Christians, and my mother still took me to church each Sunday. The two seemed to avoid talking about religion with each other, at least when I was around, and I followed suit. I never asked my father about his loss of faith, and my mother would only say that some people suffer more than they deserve but that my father was a good man.
My other memory of him saying anything about God was on a camping trip we’d gone on with his brother and this uncle’s son. My uncle Rick was rarely mentioned during my childhood, at least to me, but I knew who he was. My father’s best friend growing up, even the best man at his wedding. But then something happened, and for years he didn’t speak to anyone in the family. Even legally changed his last name. Whenever my parents talked about it there was always a hole between these two halves of the story, hurried skipping-overs. “One thing led to another.” “He somehow got certain ideas about how the family felt about him.” I was too young then to wonder about the details hiding behind these generalities.
But it was the summer before I entered high school that I met him. In early July my father had come home from work seeming unsettled and had said to my mother, “I got a call from Rick today.”
She hadn’t known who he was referring to, he was such a non-character in our lives. “Rick who?” Then, realizing, “Oh, your brother? Really?”
They hadn’t talked about the conversation, at least not right then. It was the next week that they told my younger sisters and me that Rick was hoping to reconnect with the family. “You may remember he has a son just a year older than you,” my father told me. “Rick wants the four of us to go camping together next week. Apparently it has to coincide with the new moon. And he’s moving out of state in a few weeks, so we don’t have much time.”
I wasn’t really one for camping, and when I did go it was with friends, not my dad. But I was interested to meet this broken branch from the family tree, and a few days before the trip my mother pulled me aside and made clear to me how much restoring this relationship meant to my father, so I wouldn’t dare coming up with an excuse to skip even if I’d wanted to.
Rick and his son, Tyler, lived at the south end of the valley, and we were heading out that direction for the night, so my father and I met them at their house where we all piled into Rick’s truck, a decade-old ‘88 Ford. I suppose I should have realized that they lived nearby when we planned the camping trip, but it wasn’t until we arrived at their house that I felt how strange itwas that this absent uncle had been living less than an hour away all along. My uncle Rick had gone camping at the place before, so he did the driving.
Rick spoke almost exclusively, maybe forcefully, to me and my father during the drive. He learned for the first time that my sisters existed. Rick hadn’t had any more kids himself. He asked my father all about his wife and career, offering short, token answers to the reflected questions. He seemed to pride himself on the details he remembered from so long ago. “How’s your mother-in-law doing? I remember she had something— Her kidneys or something were—”
“Oh. Well.” A drumbeat on the steering wheel substituted for a response. When he turned the conversation on me I felt backed into my seat by how excitedly he interrogated me. He needed to know everything about me, as if it would be on the exam. When I mentioned the trombone, he asked, “Are you gonna join the school’s band?”
“Auditions are next week. I might not do it, though. I don’t like marching.”
“Well I’d recommend sticking with it. I never did band myself, but my son stopped a few years ago and regretted it.” Always “my son”, and pausing like he forgot the name. Tyler, across from me in the back seat, remained silent. “You need those extracurriculars, you know. Mostly for the social aspect, is what I mean, but I guess for getting into college, too. Scholarships and all. Have you got your eye on a major yet?”
I nodded. “Accounting.”
“Ah, chip off the old block. I think my son’s got a business club at his school. Isn’t there one, son?”
“Hm, thought you told me there was. Well anyway, you oughta see if they’ve got one at yours. Sure to meet a good group of kids.”
“Hey Rick, you know your engine light’s on?” my father asked from shotgun.
“I know, I know, Ol.” I had never heard my dad’s name, Oliver, abbreviated before meeting Rick. “My mechanic says it’s fine, just a wiring problem with the light itself.” Seeing my dad’s suspicious side-eye persist, he added, “Oh, come on, I’m serious. I’m just not gonna pay two hundred bucks to get a single light fixed. This thing runs fine.”
“If you’re sure,” my father said, not sounding very convinced.
“It’s my problem, not yours, anyway, huh?”
As we passed the final town along the highway, with a half hour left before our destination, I saw why the road was called the loneliest in the country. It ran as a straight line up to the horizon, not another car in sight, the broad swaths of desert on either side entirely untouched by mankind. The land was home to only short desert brush poking up at intervals, and even these grew thin and then disappeared as we approached the lakebed off the highway. Only the sun hovering over the horizon kept us company, and that too left us within an hour of our arrival.
There was no real campsite. If there had been any specific cue indicating the place where Rick had veered sharply off the highway, it was invisible to me. After putting some distance between us and the highway, Rick stopped the truck and said, “This is it.” There was no brush here. The ground was salty and cracked where our feet fell. In spring the lake would cover this area too, but now it was only a puddle we could spot just under the horizon to the south.
My father and I had brought a tent contrary to Rick’s instructions, just in case, but we didn’t set it up. There was nothing out here to be protected from. We laid a tarp down and unrolled our four sleeping bags over it. We ate our dinner out of a cooler, seated on the truck’s lowered tailgate. The salty desert floor stretched out before us. The highway was out of sight. You would wonder why on earth anyone would want to camp there until the sun went down and the night sky revealed itself to us.
There was no light pollution here or even a moon to light the sky, leaving the stars’ brilliance unadulterated. The desert sky held no clouds to get in the way, and the lack of anything taller than two feet for miles around allowed the lights to stretch cleanly down to the horizon in every direction. As they appeared, our quartet’s conversation faded away, and we all craned our necks in silence for what may as well have been eternity.
Tyler and I had gotten restless hanging around the truck and were stretching our legs with a walk toward the lake, or what remained of it this time of year. We had been able to locate it by where the dark of the earth opened up to mirror the lights above. In the dim red light of the lamp by the truck we could narrowly see Rick setting up his telescope for some photography, shrinking away behind us. We hadn’t brought a flashlight. The ground was smooth enough that we didn’t need to watch our step, and the stars gave enough light anyway.
We reached the edge of the lake and had double the night sky with the mirror before us. It spread wider than a few football fields, but given how smooth both the ground and the water’s surface were I couldn’t imagine it was more than a few inches deep at any point. The universalinstinct of all boys by a body of water drew our eyes to the ground, searching for rocks to skip. Of course there were none.
We had walked in silence, and after a bit of time here by the water we both turned to speak at the same moment, but each stopped for the other after releasing just a syllable.
“You go first,” Tyler said.
I dismissed the comment I was going to make with a wave of my hand. “No, you.”
“I was just gonna ask if you remember my family at all. From when we were younger.” I felt this was quite the opener for having essentially only met Tyler that afternoon, but the nature of our meeting each other made me feel it was okay to skip the social fluff for reasons that disappeared if you looked too close at them.
“Oh. No, I don’t think I do,” I said. “Although my parents say we had met when we were real young. Like, toddlers I guess. Do you remember the family?”
“Just a very vague memory of a family reunion. I can picture the cabin we rented from just one angle, a glimpse of Grandpa playing checkers with one of the uncles. One night falling asleep watching Superman with some of the cousins. Hell, maybe you were one of them.”
I furrowed my brow but couldn’t find the memory. “Maybe, can’t remember.” In the next moment’s silence I wondered whether it would be okay to ask for the side of the story Tyler’d heard behind Rick’s estrangement, but he began talking before I could decide.
“You know, it might’ve actually been a reunion on my mom’s side anyway.”
“Ah,” I nodded. “You’ve still been in touch with them?”
“Yeah, they all live out in Washington, so we only see them maybe every other year, but they’re great.”
“That’s good.” This point seemed an easy one to segue from into Rick’s falling out with my father’s family, but I decided to lighten the conversation before I could make the mistake of letting the question out. “So, your dad mentioned you’re a Nuggets fan?”
We laughed and then bonded a while over the suffering the team caused its followers. “My dad says they’re just an exercise in character building. ‘Loyalty is a virtue’ and all.” This conversation took place entirely beside the ghost of the lake, our hands in pockets and feet remaining fixed to the ground, having nowhere to go. As the conversation fell away back into silence, I noticed for the first time how much the air had cooled since the sun’s setting. The drop wasn’t quite enough to shiver over, just enough to be sharp against your skin and keep you entirely awake, which I was grateful for. It was how the lights overhead deserved to be seen. I craned my neck and had just found Cassiopeia’s W when Tyler remarked, “Man, fuck this place.”
I turned a startled face to him. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t tell me you aren’t bored out of your mind. I’m sorry this is your first impression of my dad. He’s got this weird obsession with this place, but I don’t get it. Why come out here camping at a lake without any lake, nowhere to hike, not so much as a single tree to climb or rock to throw or animal to protect your food from. Nothing.”
The strength of his feeling on the matter made me not want to make a defense on the basis of the place’s beauty, so I remarked, distancing myself, “Well, he’s got that telescope. Need to be out here for that.”
“I mean, sure, but he doesn’t need to drag us along, too, or much less to stay out here until morning. Like,” he gestured upward, “they’re nice and all, but give me ten, maybe fifteen minutes and I think I’ve had my fill.”
I only nodded, not wanting to push back any more, then said after a moment, “Wanna head back to the truck? I’m getting hungry again.”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
Rick stood in the bed of the truck aiming his telescope when we returned. It was clearly an impressive telescope, as large around as a thin man, weighing nearly fifty pounds with the camera attached. The automated mount followed objects across the sky for long exposures. The whole setup had cost four figures. It was wired to Rick’s Micron laptop, and he was calibrating the scope to the sky from there.
He had been into astrophotography for a few years now. After he started his camera taking a twenty-minute exposure of a moon of Mars, Rick gathered us around the laptop and walked us through his album of photos with pride. A few galaxies I’d never heard the names of, nebulae, most of the planets. Even on the laptop’s dim, pixelated screen, the shots were impressive. “They’ll only get better with this new CCD camera I just got,” Rick assured us.
Seeing the details of the photos multiplied the wonder we felt as we lay awake on our sleeping bags. It was an hour later, and Rick was taking a third shot at the same moon—he needed one shot with each of three different color filters, he explained—when Tyler asked, “You guys think there’s any life out there?”
After a pensively quiet moment I said, “I’d bet there is. If only because of probability, you know, mathematically. Given the enormity of it all. I don’t know about intelligent life, but some microorganisms, maybe plants, sure.”
“To me,” my father said, “the interesting part of that question is the implication that there’s something momentous separating life from non-life. If it’s all just burning hydrogen and rocks smashing into each other, or if there is some of what we decided to call ‘life’, what difference does it make? It’s still the universe doing its thing, moving forward. Happening.”
We were silent. The comment kind of took the fun out of the hypothetical. I brought it back by asking, “And you, Rick?”
Rick was sitting in the truck’s bed with a thermos of coffee. He said, “I’d guess there’s something out there.” He stared pensively at his coffee. “I guess I’ve never told you this story, Ol. It happened after, well—”
A nod. “But I don’t want to bore you with all the details or get you thinking I’ve turned into some downright whackjob.” Even as he said this he leaned forward in his seat with the way some people have of really occupying a space, the body language equivalent of clearing one’s throat. Lying on our sleeping pads, Tyler turned to me and rolled his eyes. Not this again. “I had a strange experience when I was younger. I’m not going to say it was definitely aliens or anything, but—
“Well, I was in grad school at the time. It was the middle of the week, I was up studying in my room. I finish that up, get into my pajamas, go to the kitchen to get a drink. The time was 11:20. All the lights were off. I could always navigate the place in the dark just fine, and I keptthem off whenever I was just passing through. I remember the living room window’s blinds were open.
“Anyway as I’m heading to the kitchen, this bright blue light from behind me kind of… pulses and then fades away real quick. Like this.” He traced the light’s intensity in the air with his hand. Moving up slowly and rapidly dropping.
Tyler jumped in, “It was just a car outside, Dad. Isn’t that long exposure done yet?”
“Let everyone decide that for themselves, son. Of course I realized that might’ve been what the light was—the blinds were open and all—but that just couldn’t sit right with me. Something about the light’s angle or feel. It couldn’t’ve been that.
“But I shrug it off and go into the kitchen. I open the fridge and the light doesn’t come on. Now, this townhouse was old—it felt like every other day we were flipping circuit breakers—so I didn’t think much of it. But I go over to our furnace room and open up the box to see every one of the place’s breakers were tripped.”
My father began to say something, but Rick raised his hands defensively. “And I know, I know, you can explain that away, too. But like I said, I’m not positive it was anything—” Quivering fingers in the air stood in for an adjective. “I’m just observing. And that’s not all, either. I get some water and head back to my bathroom to brush my teeth. Now a few of the neighbors’ dogs had started barking, and by the time I finish brushing my teeth every dog for blocks around is barking and whining and howling something awful. Not just their usual chattin’ with each other. You’d think every one of them had a murderer in their backyard. But I finish brushing my teeth and check my watch as I’m going to get back in bed, and it’s now 12:47, an hour and a half later than when I’d stopped studying. I would swear up and down it’d only been a few minutes. All that time just disappeared.”
Rick paused and spat onto the ground beside the truck. “And, well, that was it, really. I lay in bed for who knows how long that night, unable to sleep. Just listening to the dogs carry on for hours. The barking kept waking Tyler up and Donna, too. None of us could hardly fall asleep until it felt like the sun would be up any minute. And of course, I know none of that even counts as evidence of, you know, anything non-human. But damned if I’ve seen anything like it since.”
A silence fell on our group. I don’t remember how it ended or whether it didn’t end at all and we all drifted to sleep. But I know Rick’s telescope and camera and collection of photos were different now. From then on something gray and borderless hung over my mind whenever I thought of him out there in the desert, obsessively taking his deep, long looks into the sky.
My father woke us all up in the morning. We had a no-cook breakfast and packed our things back up before the sun was well off the ground. The drive back to the valley was pleasant, the reverent silence of the stargazing replaced with amiable conversation.
At Rick’s place my father and I moved our things to our car. We said goodbye—so simply that I all but forgot there had been a fifteen-year grudge between these two—and continued our drive back home. We rode in silence. I was more asleep than awake, and when my father spoke I came back and was surprised to see we were already nearly home. He had asked, “Son, how do you really feel about God?”
I told him.
“I’m glad,” he said, and the matter was dropped there.
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