Getting Away


Steven Utley


There were soft-bodied creatures in endless variety and profusion on the bottom, and tentacled shellfish, odd orange scorpions, trilobites, grotesque wrigglers that looked like armored centipedes, an occasional fish, all grim mouth and dull eyes peering out of bone-rimmed sockets. There were clumps of pallid plants with segmented stems, rising like columns from the mud to support the rippling, translucent ceiling of the pond. Beyond the ceiling was a fuzzy-edged sun.

Devonian dreams. I woke up and went under again, and this time there were blue glacial cliffs on the horizon. Much closer, there was the stench of tar and decaying flesh. The setting sun made molten silver of the rain water standing on the surfaces of the tar pools. Irregular lumps lay in some of the pools. Here and there could be seen a curved tusk, a not unrecognizably decomposed forepaw with long, hooked claws, the only partially consumed hump of a half-submerged bison. Condors and jackals were everywhere, and I was with them.

Pleistocene images. I woke up and got out of bed. It was my day to fix breakfast.

This is my one real luxury, you understand--this Journal, these precious sheets of paper. I indulged myself last week and paid through the nose for a hardbound book of blank pages. Two hundred sheets of paper, four hundred sides on which to record my every vagrant thought. Paper for which I have no nobler purpose in mind than Dear Diarying.

Welcome to page 2 of The Book of Bruce Holt, who'll probably be dead before he gets close to page 400.

"Why always dinosaurs and things like that?" asks Carol, the woman with whom I have been living. "And why always poems about 'the moment of extinction,' as you put it here?"

I am munching my toast and sipping my tepid soyva. Carol is leaning against the kitchenette's disposal unit, fanning herself with the carbon slate I use for first drafts and notes.

"That's what I see," I tell her. "Dinosaurs and things like that. That's what comes to me."

"It's all so damned depressing. You're getting that way in your stories, too."

"It's a natural reaction against the pap I write for television."

"That pap keeps food on the table."

I make a short, sharp chuckling noise--I am not so old that I do not remember real bread, real coffee--and force down the last of my breakfast, then fish in my shirt pocket for a cigarette. That last remark of Carol's has gotten to me, since it's true. My stories are fitful sellers. Too depressing for most people. Television keeps me going, and television wants optimism. Or, at the very least, sheer escapism. Old Jack Woodford's formula for commercial fiction is a timeless one. Boy Meets Girl, Girl Gets Boy Into Pickle, Boy Gets Pickle Into Girl.

"I'm going downtown today," I say after a while. "Do you want me to pick up anything for you?"

Carol shakes her head slowly. "I can't think of anything. I may try to get into the commissary while you're out. I could make dinner tonight."

"It's my day to cook."

"It'll give me something to do." "Finished reading your book?"

She uses her fingernail to trace a line across the bottom of the carbon slate. "I don't care for it much. Camus depresses me the same way you do."

"Always nice to hear that I've made it into Camus' league." I take my first long puff on the cigarette and wonder what in hell they've begun using to cut the tobacco. "Come on, Carol, what would you prefer that I wrote poems about? Babbling brooks and blue skies? None left, in the event it's escaped your notice."

"Don't be nasty, Bruce. And there aren't any dinosaurs left, either, so touché to you."

I let the matter drop, because the power is suddenly uncoiling in the back of my skull, and I'm sliding away from her, into the first available mind: some woman named Sharon Kraft, who lives in the heart of the Nashville Metroplex, in an apartment even smaller than ours. It's extremely cold in Sharon Kraft's room, and the single dirty window is frosted over on the outside. I, sweltering in August heat, have gone to her at the height of some recent winter.

I didn't know Sharon Kraft before this moment, didn't know of her, and all I get from her during the four or five seconds that I'm in her is the usual stuff, flashes about food and money. Couched in leaden anxiety.

Carol slaps the carbon slate down on the table before me. "Don't do that when I'm talking to you!"

I snap out of it, rescue the slate from the toast crumbs, mutter an apology.

"You're always retreating from me like that!" Carol goes on, her voice rising up the scale. "That's all you ever use it for, isn't it? Things get touchy, and you go flying away into your little world for the duration."

I am trying not to let her irritation infect me. It's too hot for arguments. I offer her a drag off my cigarette. She shakes her head vehemently.

"Look," I say, forcing myself to speak calmly, soothingly, "I didn't ask for it. It just happened. I'm stuck with it, Carol."

"Stuck with it? You make it sound like a clubfoot!"

"Carol, honey, I have to get along with it the best I can."

"Then why don't you use it to make things better for us?"

"What do you want me to do? Go back and find out where Captain Kidd buried his loot?"

"I don't care what you do, but do something."

Carol has begun pacing back and forth in the kitchenette, three steps that way, three steps back. When she realizes that I'm not going to say another word, that I have no intention of scrapping with her, she stalks out of the kitchenette and wanders in a loose circle around the apartment's main room, touching the spines of my little library of tattered paperbounds, glaring at the chipped plastic chessmen (still locked in last week's Mexican stand-off). And I sit trying to think of something to say which might restore me to her good graces.

But the rent is due next week, and my check from the studio is late, and she's bored and feels useless because she can't find a job, and I am convenient to blame, because I have the power. I have the extra Something that roost people don't have. I have the gift. And it isn't doing us any good. And so...

And so I give up and carefully snuff out the cigarette in a clay ashtray, than deposit the tobacco from the butt in a Mason jar half-filled with previous savings. The best I can do is stay out of Carol's way for a while.

Still, I can't help being a little annoyed. We've been through this before, and you'd think that by now Carol would have accepted my limitations. How many times do I have to tell her that I can't make the extra Something do anything?

It comes. It goes. I have no control over it, none at all. Time snatches me out of my own head and takes me where it will. I can never say where I'm liable to end up, and, once there, I can't do anything except observe the goings-on through the eyes, ears and/or other sensory organs of whatever creature makes itself available to me. Watching trilobites through the eyes of (I presume) lungfish isn't going to make me rich.

Oh, but I tried. I did try.

About the Author
Steve Utley first broke into print in the seventh grade with a poem about Hannibal (the Carthaginian general, not Samuel L. Clemens's hometown), but it wasn't until his freshman year of high school, when he discovered Mars — the Mars of science fiction's two great romantics, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury — that he somehow understood that he, too, must grow up to be a Writer, or at least a rich and famous person. This desire eventually led him to Texas (from Tennessee of all places), where he fell in with other young writers, including Lisa Tuttle, Howard Waldrop, and Bruce Sterling. Although his heart remains in Austin, family matters have brought him back to the environs of Nashville, smack on the buckle of the Bible Belt. He leads a quiet life, surrounded by his books, his cats and his dangerously inbred neighbors.

His work as a Writer (not quite so rich or famous) has been gathered in three collections: This Impatient Ape, Career Moves of The Gods and Ghost Seas (1997 Ticonderoga Publications). A new volume, The Beasts of Love, is forthcoming from Wheatland Press and gathers 31 stories published between 1973 and 1997, plus a swell introduction by Lisa Tuttle.

Getting Away © Steve Utley
About the Artist
Erin Merlino is an art student at Texas State University in San Marcos. She's working towards a BFA in Studio Art, with a specialization in drawing. A selection of her work can be viewed online here and she can be reached via email at

Artwork © Erin Merlino