The following is from Gabriel Bump’s The New Naturals. Bump received his MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His debut novel, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020 and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Fiction, the Heartland Booksellers Award for Fiction, and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award. He teaches at the UNC Chapel Hill.
She walked into the office, head up, suitcase and briefcase in either hand, swinging them in defiance. She sat in her cubicle, laid her head on the keyboard. After a few moments, a voice over her shoulder. Matteo. Half-awake, voice still weak and scratched.
“It’s your day off,” Matteo said.
Matteo noticed her suitcase, rolled his head around his thick neck, patted his thick stomach, arched his weak back.
Sojourner noticed Matteo notice her suitcase. They both contemplated the suitcase.
“I’m behind on a story,” Sojourner said.
“What are you going to do?” Matteo asked.
“I have family in Chicago,” Sojourner said. “I have family in Boston.”
“I meant the story,” Matteo said.
“Just calling leads,” Sojourner said, hid her face.
Matteo patted Sojourner on the shoulder, headed back to his office, stopped, turned around.
“If you’re going to leave,” Matteo said, “give us a heads-up.” Sojourner looked around, checked to see if other people heard. In the corner, the sports reporters were yelling about Black quarterbacks and white receivers, how the whole culture had turned upside down overnight. The other reporters were shushed, typing, whispering into their phones, texting, tweet- ing. In a glass room, the columnists took turns raising their hands, writing notes on a long whiteboard.
Sojourner took out her notebook, turned on her computer. With the lead fiasco behind her, the job had returned to boring, slow. Sometimes, of course, a city council member was caught using taxpayer money for a three-day New Year’s Eve bacchanal.
Once, a former school board president fathered biracial children with an El Salvadorian refugee, a teenager with little English and a mature mind, cunning. Her name was Esther. Sojourner interviewed Esther. She had a sixteen-year-old’s body and face—arrogant, not confident; insecure. Her mind, however—her mind. She spoke like an oracle, an ancient soothsayer. She understood broken hearts and despair and love’s joys better than Sojourner, or anyone Sojourner knew.
She spoke in wonderful parables. She compared love to mol- ten rock, shifting and rocking the earth’s crust. She asked Sojourner about her present life, her past life, her future life, her loves. On a walk down a dirt road, during a final inter- view, she asked if Sojourner was happy, fulfilled. Of course not, Sojourner said.
“Are you even trying?” Esther asked.
“I don’t think so,” Sojourner said, stopped walking. “I don’t know.”
“That little bird,” Esther said.
A sparrow hopped in their path, pecked at the dirt. “What is the bird saying?” Esther said. “Listen.”
Sojourner listened to the chirps, listened to a gust pass through, a car on a different road, somewhere she couldn’t see, driving too fast.
“I can’t hear the bird,” Sojourner said. “Try and listen to the bird,” Esther said.
Sojourner went home confused, wrote a profile, won awards.
Most days, she sat in twice-a-week city council meetings that were too long and too filled with conceited people com- plaining about their lawns and college students fucking on their lawns, reciprocating oral sex in their greenhouses, vom- iting on their sidewalks, denting their car hoods with their fucking.
This week’s meeting promised the same.
St. Patrick’s Day and Spring Break were coming in two weeks.
After what had happened last year, Sojourner was assigned to report on the town’s preparations for the siege. Off the record, the town’s police chief told Sojourner he wanted to coordinate tactical drone strikes on Frat Row, raze the horn- dog bastards. On the record, transcribed in her notebook, the police chief said they would work with student council to ensure peaceful crowd control. Off the record, the police chief couldn’t understand it—this wasn’t the March on Washington; this was drunk teenagers wandering around like sex-crazed zombies. Didn’t these fuckers have homework? Tests? Hobbies? What ever happened to fishing?
Last year, for reasons still unclear, the students had turned into animals. Some people blamed the planetary cycle, Jupiter rising. Some people blamed Republicans, this Repressive Era making young people ache for expression, freedom. Some peo- ple blamed cocaine. More than a few blamed rap music and these young rappers acting like fools in public for social media follow- ers: Everyone wanted to get famous doing stupid shit on camera. Last year, around noon, Friday before Spring Break, a con- cerned citizen called in about a group of students sitting on a front porch, drinking beer, yelling, playing music too loud. That was the first call, a tame one, one that was handled by one squad car pulling up and telling the kids to take it inside—to quit acting like jackasses. From eyewitness accounts and the official reports, the students went inside, turned their music down, turned their music off at a reasonable hour, woke up early the next morning, went to their front lawn, cleaned up the empty beer cans and pizza boxes.
Sojourner opened a document on her computer, pulled out her notepad, cracked her fingers, started copying notes.
Then she stopped.
She popped into Matteo’s office, tapped her head against the metal doorframe, waited for him to look up from a paper stack covered in red scribbles. She knocked her head again, coughed, tapped her chest.
“A second,” Matteo said without looking up.
“I need some air,” Sojourner said.
“Air is everywhere,” Matteo said.
“I’m serious,” Sojourner said.
“What am I?” Matteo asked.
“I’m going for a walk,” Sojourner said.
“It’s your day off,” Matteo said.
Here, Matteo looked up.
When he’d first interviewed Sojourner for the job, a few years ago, he knew she would leave at a bad time, abrupt, in a hurry. He didn’t think she would come in on a day off, car- rying a suitcase, looking adrift, beer still on her breath. He thought this day would come in a dramatic and loud whirl. He had imagined Sojourner upturning her cubicle, sending papers fluttering, stomping on these stupid and pointless sto- ries. Matteo understood how the small-town grind ate at a person. Once, decades ago, Matteo had interned for the Wall Street Journal. He talked fast, had thought his future con- tained corruption scandals and white-collar conspiracies. Somewhere in his twenties, he’d fallen in love, had children, moved to a small town, took the first job he could find. He’d learned to appreciate his rural and mundane cycle. He was happy. Matteo, however, wasn’t Sojourner. Sojourner needed to get the hell out of here, start over, she said. She needed a break to figure out what starting over looked like. Maybe she’d move to New York, hustle a job at a bigger publication. Maybe she’d join a nonprofit focused on clean water. She could get a doctorate in city planning. She needed time to think.
Matteo couldn’t look away. Sojourner looked back. Her lips trembled.
“Call when you land,” Matteo said.
Sojourner wanted to thank Matteo. At that moment, she didn’t know why. She couldn’t describe the urge toward gratitude. Years later, she would understand. It would come to her during quiet reflection. She wanted to thank Matteo for giving her permission, for looking at her and understating what Sojourner couldn’t, at the time, explain.
Matteo dropped his eyes again, waved for Sojourner to leave. He didn’t look up when she turned around, walked back to her desk, picked up her suitcase, her bag, left her notes, didn’t turn off her computer, headed for the front door. He didn’t look up when the door slammed.
She was leaving, yes. That was decided. Still, where?
She had friends; not many, not enough, no real good ones, a few minor enemies—nothing serious. She could make some calls. That could wait. She decided to walk.
She took her bags, headed downtown.
At an intersection, four blocks away from the office, Sojourner noticed soaring birds in loud groups overhead, coming home from Florida or Europe—maybe Africa, Argentina, India, or the Azores. Sojourner didn’t know this type of thing, didn’t bother asking anybody. She waited for the light to change, the birds to pass. She waited for the world to show her a sign. She thought the deer from this morning, maybe, had been a sign. No, she thought, that was meditation. That was different. That was a door opening, the universe telling her to set out, move on. Now, she was out. Now what? She waited for the light to change. More birds passed, stragglers fought against the unseen currents. A semitruck made a wide right, huffed, splashed her feet with curb water, moved slow down a narrow avenue.
Not a sign.
Sojourner did not acknowledge her wet feet. She squished across the intersection.
Over there, a park. She could sit under a chair and sleep, wait for a sign, go from there.
Rascal pushed into her mind. Fuck him, she thought. “I’m sorry,” Sojourner said out loud.
No, she thought, fuck him.
Sojourner found a water fountain between two benches, took a metallic chug, pushed Rascal out, smiled, a little, not enough to draw attention.
She drank the clean water. Bullshit, Sojourner thought. Injustice made Sojourner sweat. Once, another therapist, a Black man with thin glasses and a wide tie, warned Sojourner against projecting her unhappiness onto the world. Sojourner told the therapist about child slaves. Here. In America. Child slaves. What place is this? All this opportunity. All these jobs.
Money. Obscene money. Jay Leno with his garage filled with hundreds of cars. Jay Leno. Jay Fucking Leno. Child slaves. Not in Africa. Not in Asia. Not in a developing country still reel- ing from colonization’s strangling grasp. Not a dictatorship. America. Can you believe it? The therapist asked Sojourner to stop yelling, please sit down.
Sojourner drank more clean water, thought about child slaves. She sat on a bench. She looked out on the street.
She wondered how park benches felt in Marseille. How did morning traffic sound in Rome? Were there birds like this in London? Sparrows, maybe. Sojourner wasn’t sure. Sparrows were birds she knew. Sparrows hopped near the water fountain, chat- ted, argued, laughed. Sojourner thought about Esther, her impen- etrable insights. She wanted to call Esther. Inappropriate. She had to call someone. At some point, she had to get up and get going.
Rascal pushed his way into her ear, got stuck there. She heard him back home, curled up in bed, talking to his mother, crying to his mother, yelling into his pillow. She closed her eyes. She saw him in the meadow. She saw rain clouds coming over the tree line, fat with dramatic rain.
She opened her eyes, smiled her smile. She thought about utopia.
A place with safe drinking water, safe children, sane neigh- bors letting young people party. A place where people worked together for a common good, with purpose, with intention, where every day felt meaningful.
She didn’t need much. She didn’t need London, Rome, Marseille, Bangkok. She didn’t need butlers and chauffeurs.
She needed beautiful simplicity.
She thought about standing up, walking.
She needed a place to go. She pulled her phone from her jeans, scrolled through her contacts, waited for inspiration, tried to remember favors she was promised from girlfriends once in a similar situation.
That time Brando slept on Sojourner’s couch for three weeks, ate every apple in the fridge, didn’t wash dishes.
She didn’t need Rascal. She didn’t need her own home, her own bed. Sure, someday, she’d get those things, someday soon, once she got back on her feet. She continued to sit, started calling.
Brando answered after three rings. “He called,” Brando said first. “Who?” Sojourner asked.
“Are you serious?” Brando said. “Oh,” Sojourner said.
“He’s crying,” Brando said. “He says you’re crazy.” “Can I come over?” Sojourner said.
“He’s worried about your mind,” Brando said. “I’ll see you in fifteen,” Sojourner said.
“In the backyard,” Brando said. “Door’s open.”
Sojourner took her bags, sipped clean water, slapped her cheeks, headed out.
From The New Naturals by Gabriel Bump. Used with permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2023 by Gabriel Bump.