JM Whalen

Posted on July 16, 2012


Fort Stark, New Hampshire

Boy on a Hill

Noah stands overlooking a 19th-century naval base that has never been used in battle. The color of the aging concrete varies along the expansive walls. The highest structure, fenced and signed, is as white as the sky behind it. Closer to the center of the fort the concrete matches the dead grass on the surrounding embankment. In other places it’s dark grey like the rocks by the water. The color is harder to name by the cannon mounts; it’s darker than parchment, but lighter than beeswax.

Scribbles of mortar cling to the walls like toddlers’ graffiti in a nursery. They remind Noah of when he first moved into town, when his dad was excited and motivated and let Noah help mud the cracking walls of the family’s ‘new’ home. The house has been settling into the soft coastal earth for nearly as long as this fort has. These days Noah muds the cracks alone, but he still does it with his fingers, like his dad did. Every time makes him remember doing it as a child, solemnly, studying his father’s sense of privilege.

He flexes his fingers and breathes through the loose knit of his mittens—they were not warm enough to protect his knuckles on the moped-ride here. His 1972 Puch Maxi, which his cousin, Cam, helped him airbrush azure, is hidden behind a hill. Noah didn’t hide it because he’s doing something wrong, just because the cops are known for being ‘bored’ here. Plus, he took pride in muscling it up a hill and into the brush. Having mostly fixed it up himself, it felt good to feel the small engine persevere against the incline.

Noah has a mind for devices. He wouldn’t know his way around more than one cylinder, and even then he’s mostly just familiar with the one he’s got. But he taught himself how to repair it online, and knows every component. He takes off his black framed glasses, stretches a t-shirt out from under his pea coat, and wipes off the condensation.

The geometry of this place appeals to his need for control: the rectangular windows and their grimaces of upright bars; the circular cannon mounts and steam tunnels; the linear galvanized handrails that rust at the joints and the end-caps, where the coating has been burned off by welding torches.

Fort Stark was built for an unrealized contingency, yet it feels inevitable. And it’s crumbling feels inevitable, too. All said, it is nice to look at. The place simply exists.

That’s how beauty’s supposed to be, Noah considers: available to every one, only sensed by the perceptive. You don’t need money to know beauty. Cam says beauty is the first perception money dulls—before friendship, even. Noah’s mind flits about, but he remains calm. He breathes the cold air and feels deeply grateful for his life and his ‘destiny,’ that being whatever God has in mind for him. We all have roles.

He looks back toward the dirt parking area: his model hasn’t arrived yet. Noah did get here earlier than he was supposed to. His beige corduroy pants and coal-black coat camouflage with the wan brush and shadows taking over the fort. He wonders if she’ll easily see him and takes a step higher on the hill.

Raising the Nikon SLR that took him two years to afford, he adjusts his iso and aperture to accommodate the pale sky. He turns his gaze across the ocean to the Isle of Shoals, barely visible through the thick, wispy air. The coldness makes his lungs feel raw, but he ignores the discomfort.

December Rendezvous

Noah scans the water for whales or seals, but sees none. They live here, but are rarely observed. He did see two baby seals last summer.

They were lying dead in dry sand at the beach, carcasses too hairy and twisted to clearly belong to one species or another. Only the spine and ribs were visible, and at first he wasn’t sure—it made his feel sick to wrestle the first one away from his lab, Matty. He shudders and turns back toward parking lot. He is used to this kind of waiting without knowing; he and his girlfriend always meet in secret.

She isn’t allowed to date yet, but soon her parents will give her the respect she deserves. She’s is in the top ten at their high school, she’s won ‘most fashionable’ in the yearbook twice in a row, and she’s the lead costume designer for every stage production. Her parents attend the shows and take pictures.

But they see it as a hobby: a predictable one, in fact, as they own a laundromat and dry cleaners’. They are proud that their daughter sews well. But so she should—in China, before they had children, her parents were tailors. When she applied to NYU’s design school early decision, they even made her apply to the business school, too, just in case she should change her mind.

Noah respects her more than he respects himself. She gives him hope. Noah’s cousin, Cam, tells him that Chinese don’t like Blacks, but Noah doesn’t even bother wondering. Cam just says that shit to try and rile him up. Once she’s 18, she says, her parents will loosen up about dating for sure.

She arrives in her dad’s ‘midnight blue’ Volkswagen, which he bought last year, barely used. Noah becomes aware of the way he is standing, the way his head is cocked, and the way he is holding his camera. He tries to look natural as she gets out of her car. She sees him and waves.

He’s familiar with the clothes she’s wearing, but the outfit is new. She put it together special for today, at his request, to help him with his portfolio for applying to internships.

Persian blue, darted wool coat; dark grey hat; deep red lipstick; grey clutch. Her hands are stubbornly bare, and her pointed fingernails are shined. On her legs she wears black leggings and loose grey ankle warmers, and on her feet she wears navy blue, rounded-toe Roger Vivier flats with black and silver buckles. The hat she made herself; the ankle warmers she knit; the coat she bought oversized at a vintage store and hemmed; the hat she sewed; the shoes, among her only designer belongings, took her three birthdays to accumulate the money for.

Snowflakes fatten in the air—more slight ones have already been falling, but Noah hadn’t noticed them. He subconsciously attributes these new, pretty ones to her arrival, and he wishes the ground were cold enough to bear them; they’ll melt imminently. He doesn’t own a telescopic lens, so he takes a few practice shots of trees until she gets closer. He switches his camera to black and white to take advantage of the hazy snow and sky, and he motions for her to meet him by the water.

Today she is more beautiful than usual. He watches her step over the rocks along the shore and is filled with a sense of pride. He struggles to remember some Chinese she’s recently taught him.

“Ni hao! Ni hen piao liang! Wo ai ni!” He says to himself. But he can tell it sounds stupid, and he probably won’t say any of it to her. Still, it sounds a little less stupid every time, and he hopes to learn more eventually.

Dreaming by the Water

After a kiss, they decide to take picture right away; the cold is getting worse and the snowflakes are falling in clumps.

The shoals are no longer visible through the mild flurry. He had hoped to use them as a background for a couple shots, but settles on the nearer spit of marsh directly across Newcastle harbor. Soon it is obscured, too, and he must rely solely on the fort itself.

He asks his model to pose extra still, and lowers his shutter speed to let the snowflakes blur around her. She looks frail and uncertain against the stark concrete. Soon she not only looks frail but persecuted, afraid.

“What will you do if taking pictures doesn’t work out, Noah?” Her agitation is apparent and Noah lowers his camera. They are not quite face-to-face, and Noah isn’t sure if he should step forward to talk less awkwardly. He doesn’t.

“I don’t understand, of course it’ll work out. When I was a kid, my dad started grinding parts at the Shipyard with nothing but a GED, and look where he is now—grinding parts at the Shipyard, with nothing but a GED. You and I have more than that, and we can use our talent to get somewhere.”

“But what if it doesn’t work out?” she repeats. “You should have applied to college, Noah.”

Noah feels his face get hot and the snowflakes that brush his cheeks make it worse. What the fuck is she bringing this up now for? What the fuck does this have to do with anything right now? “You know I can’t afford college. And Jamie needs me.”

“What Jamie needs is for his dad to come back home and accept his responsibility.” It looks like she’s crying—Noah can’t tell if she is or not, and he wants to step forward to comfort her. But her words hold him back. “You don’t just get to do what you like doing and get famous for it, Noah.”

Noah has pictures in the high school publication, the local paper online, and a couple low-traffic blogs. “That’s exactly how it works, if you love it, and you’re good at it, and you bust your ass. Cam knows he has a responsibility. He’ll come get Jamie when he can, he just needs to get off the ground first.” Noah doesn’t mean to defend him, but he can’t help it. They grew up like brothers.

“He’ll bring Jamie out to LA as soon as he can afford to,” he continues. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get where you need to be. I’ll have to too, some day, why don’t you get that?”

“I get that your cousin has a shit-apartment and two walk-ons. I totally get that. But he’s not going anywhere, Noah, he’s just running away from here. I—”

Like he needs to hear that. Like he needs to be told what fucking tv shows his own cousin has been on. Noah can tell she doesn’t want to be angry any more than he does. She steps forward and reaches out to touch his shoulder and he steps backward without meaning to.

“I committed to Stern,” she says. Stern is NYU’s business school. “Well, I got in this morning, and it’s early commitment, so I’m going.”

“Early commitment? How could you commit early to Tisch and Stern?”

“I never applied to Tisch, Noah. It would have been selfish. My parents did everything they could to get me here, I’d better take advantage of it. I just don’t want them to have to work so hard anymore…”

They look at each other for a moment. Noah turns and sits down on the edge of the bunker. His girlfriend sits down next to him and takes his hand in both of hers, then buries it in her lap for warmth. She leans her head on his shoulder. Snow settles on their coats and his hair and her hat. He lets go of his camera to put his other hand in his pocket. The camera hangs heavy on its neck strap.

Sometimes it feels like a key to a better life. Others, just a raft to keep him from having to tread water. Occasionally, all it feels like is weight: a tool repaired stubbornly for an unrealized contingency. It had to exist, and eventually it will have to go away, like everything. He knows it’s a reach, he’s always known that. But isn’t a dream supposed to be a reach? Isn’t it good to reach? Is it?


JM Whalen is a recent college graduate and previously unpublished writer from New Hampshire, though he travels as much as he can. He spends a good deal of time studying Swahili, French and Spanish to facilitate his search for variety and surprise.

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