Depth and Immediacy: Savannah Schroll Guz on Jim Meirose’ Crossing the Trestle

Crossing the Trestle, Jim Meirose, Burning River Press, 2010

In 2006, Jim Meirose wrote the short novel, Claire, which charts the adventures of a corpse fallen from an ill-fated aircraft transporting it to final burial. The book was lauded for its bizarre nature, unconventional narrative, and dark revelations about family and human nature. With Crossing the Trestle, published by Cleveland-based Burning River Press in late 2010, Meirose’s gaze is retrospective, but no less pleasingly eccentric.

The trestle the title refers to is one over which Meirose’s father regularly traveled to retrieve his hunting dogs, Righty and Lefty, who repeatedly escaped the fence designed to keep them in. In the book’s introduction, Meirose describes this ritual, which, to a child’s eyes, seemed relentless and futile. Now, Meirose explains, he recognizes his father’s practice as serving some deeper need for personal freedom, for time to himself as he walked the suspended railroad track, a dog under each arm.

In the slender, rectangular softcover, Meirose offers three stories, which could be described as two portraits and a self-portrait. However, they are not conspicuous renderings, where each intended homage is evident. Instead, Meirose depicts the people he has loved and lost by exploring the environments, ambitions, and overshadowing preoccupations that define them. And perhaps these stories are also portraits of relationships, limbed with a kind of philosophical profundity.

The shortest work, at two pages, is “Summer: The Trestle,” which describes the rocky-damp of his father’s final resting place, the moist gulley under the railroad bridge where the man’s ashes are spread. The trestle’s significance, explained in the books’ introduction, is also the environment that Meirose says his mind goes to while writing. The fact that the author finds comfort and creative energy along the same trestle that nourished his father’s need for space and liberty suggests an uncanny hereditary magnetism.

The story is conversational, told in the second-person, as if Meirose were a few steps ahead of us on the dramatically sloping bank. He shows us the details of his environment, pointing out where the feathery remains of his father have become part of the landscape he so revered. The seeming impulsiveness of his description, the fast rush of verbal approximations, reveals the immediacy of feeling the place elicits. He writes:

There’s a spot down there you need to get to and you slide or half-fall down the slope to a gravel platform under the trestle by the water. There’s a shore of rocks and pebbles and there’s weeds in the water, there’s the stretch of water to the other side of the bank once more rising, though it’s all heavy with brush there and nowhere to stand.

Where “Summer: The Trestle” refers to Meirose’s father, “Boy and the Mother Machine” makes reference to his mother and more specifically, his mother’s real life absence (something he notes but does not elaborate on in the introduction). Here, the mother’s absence becomes a kind of overriding presence. The main character, known only as “The Boy”, is no child, but a balding adult confined to a mental institution. Through a homemade apparatus, he believes his mother is able to communicate with him. He is surrounded by a janitor, Sherm, and roommate, Griff, whose principal concern is money. What, Griff asks, will happen when the money runs out? It is very likely that both The Boy and Griff will be expelled to an outside world that does not welcome them and which they cannot navigate alone.

Several motifs recur in the story. Of course, there is that of the channeled (or internally projected) mother, to whom The Boy looks for guidance and comfort. Second, there is an impending storm outside the asylum. Third is the damp warmth created by the janitor’s mopping, which elicits the recurring phrase “dark, wet” that appears accompanied by various associations with depth or fragrance. Fourth is Griff’s scar, along which he nervously and repeatedly runs a long-nailed finger. The scar is mentioned no less than five times on one page alone. And finally, there is the repetition of the word “loonies,” which the janitor, Sherm, uses as a mantra to separate himself from the inmates with whom he has more in common than he would like to admit.

If all the dots described above are connected, one might find the story’s pulsing heart: the asylum is the surrogate womb that protects the inmates from the chaotic nature of the outside world, which has deeply and irreparably scarred each of them, either physically or emotionally or both. Yet, it is a poor maternal substitute, offering the protection and restrictions of a mother but not a mother’s nourishing warmth. And therefore, The Boy builds The Machine to fill the inevitable deficiencies that exist within the asylum walls. Again, absence becomes presence, even if the presence is only illusory.

The final story, “Stellazine and the Mudpies” resonates with Flannery O’Connor. The title character is a lovable misanthrope, an aging woman, not friendless but ecstatically cynical, who is stuck inside a dilapidated gas station off an interstate that facilitates the high-speed disregard of what her store offers (although it should be mentioned that Stellazine gets quite a few customers over the course of the story). The woman creates a physical manifestation of her disdain in the form of small tarts apparently filled with mud, which she sells to the unwitting and easily persuaded.

The pies, it seems, are an experiment in psychology. Some customers buy out of pity or good intentions, having been told they are homemade. Others purchase the pies because of an inherently submissive nature, repeating an outcome that has likely recurred, in various ways, throughout much of their lives.
Yet, the pies are also philosophical. As Meirose indicates in the introduction, the story is a reflection his own position as writer, as a purveyor of sometimes unpleasant or unpopular truths. Meirose writes: “And if the thing she leaves with them ends up giving them a bad taste in their mouth, as a mudpie would, so much the better, as it is thus ensured it will never be forgotten; it helps her, and me, to live forever in a way, whether we realize it or not…” And there is no better way to describe the writer’s position: here are the unwitting philosophers and disinclined educators, who–also like alchemists—through the use of nouns and verbs turn triumph, frustration, and regret into implicit theories on the inexplicable mechanisms of the universe.