The Adopt-a-Railroad program didn’t seem like such a bad idea at first. Mr. Ralph, the art teacher, championed it. So much trash collects along the tracks, with the constant whoosh of the locomotives sucking it in and huffing it back out. Why not get the kids out of the classroom and into the world? Life’s dirty, boys and girls.

“And look at the precedents,” Mr. Ralph said to the PTA. “Adopt-a-Highway, Adopt-a-Beach, Adopt-a-Tree, Adopt-a-Grandparent, Adopt-a-Cemetery. This stuff’s gold on a college résumé.”

Mr. Ralph had consulted the train schedule. There was a perfect window during fourth period. Parents and teachers agreed to give it a try. After all, summer break was around the corner, and everyone was getting antsy for the end.

Everett Zurn had grown accustomed to his station at Strand High. He wasn’t an athlete or an anarchist. He had never given the counselor any reason to include his name on the “At Risk” list. He came from a modest family: his mother cashiered at the Handi-Mart, and his father worked two-week stints in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The boy was often left alone, but he did not mind it. He was not smart and was not stupid, did not really try or rebel—just another of the vast minority of through-the-crack slippers.

Jason Ockert

Jason Ockert is the author of Rabbit Punches and the forthcoming short story collection Neighbors of Nothing. His stories have appeared in several journals and anthologies including New Stories from the South and Best American Mystery Stories. This year he is a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award in short fiction. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JO: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to discuss the story. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I initially wanted to write a collection of connected stories that revolved, loosely, around a train conductor locomoting across the country—passing into and out of communities—and each story would focus on individual dramas left behind the caboose. That concept vaporized. Instead, while my son and I were inventing shapes out of clouds one day, I started thinking about cloudscapes. I like that word, cloudscapes, and I discovered that there are artists out there dedicated to depicting them. So I began the story with my head in the clouds.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JO: Getting Everett right. I find it wonderfully appealing to try and occupy the headspace of an angry young man. Of course, he is much more than just angry. He is also invisible, and that made him difficult to pin down. I kept inserting him into scenes that ended up feeling disingenuous. Once Everett led me to the road kill, his companion, I started to get a clue.
WA: One could argue that “Still Life” is one of those rare stories with two focal characters, two answers to the question, “Whose story is this?” When you began the story, did you conceive of it as having two focal characters, or did you see one of them—Everett or Mr. Ralph—as being more important?
JO: I like to take disparate characters, clack them together, and see what sparks. Part of the joy comes in the surprise of discovering undetected similarities. The characters themselves rise up out of the landscape. First, I decided where I wanted “Still Life” to take place. Then, once I got my bearings, I tried to figure out who lived there. I needed both of these characters to carry the weight of the piece.
WA: It’s also not that common to read a story that includes a talking dead deer. Can you discuss the role of absurdism in your work?
JO: It’s true; there are not a lot of stories with reanimated and conversant buck carcasses. I have often wistfully wished that I could be a misanthrope. The trouble is that I tend to like people too much. And while I would love to identify with the absurdists, because they are so cool, the characters in my stories often grapple with purposelessness but end up striving to make some meaningful gesture, some real connection, however futile. I believe there is meaning to be found along the fringe, in the gutter, rotting in the scruff. In the end, to my chagrin, I slant optimist.
WA: Everett’s self-portrait functions nicely as both a plot device and as a metaphor for the difficulty he and his teacher have in “seeing” each other. Did you know what a crucial role the self-portrait would play when you set out to write the story, or did you discover it along the way?
JO: I discovered the import of the self-portrait in one of the many drafts I wrote. These characters are at different stages in their artistic development. Mr. Ralph has veered away from “the scene” and landed in the classroom, where he talks about painting or else creates surface-level work to impress Millie. Everett doesn’t see himself as an artist at all. He just has the urge to capture images on paper in order to make sense of the world around him and what’s brewing inside his head. The self-portrait assignment triggers a confrontation between artists.
WA: The two central characters in “Still Life” are both outsiders, albeit in different ways. Are you drawn to stories about outsiders?
JO: Yes. I like downtrodden protagonists. Nikolai Gogol’s Akaky Akakyevich, from “The Overcoat,” has a habit of walking under a window just as someone is dumping trash out onto the street. Padgett Powell’s man in “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” gets clipped in the head by a mirror on a truck pulling a horse trailer and wakes up with a head wound with horseshit in it. And Jeffrey, in George Saunders’s “The 400-Pound CEO” is, well, uncomfortable in his big body. I tend to root for these folks, and I rejoice when they find a modicum of redemption.
WA: Are there any autobiographical elements in this story? How important is the autobiographical impulse in your work?
JO: My father used to work in a mine. Sometimes I talk to myself. Other than that, not much. What’s most me is the heart, I hope. This probably doesn’t answer the question directly, but I believe I write for a future version of myself who might need a shoulder to lean on that can be found only in the mystery of the already-written story. When I’m down and out, down the line, maybe I can turn to what I’ve done to get well.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JO: The first draft took me three months. Over the course of two years, I tried to wrestle it into the shape it’s in now.
WA: What are you working on now?
JO: I recently completed a novel about the loneliness of aging, work, and parasitic, brain-eating wasps. Now I’m working on a book about recovery, tourism, sharks, and magic.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JO: When asked why he read biology for pleasure, Barry Hannah said, “Awe and wonder for the savage and beautiful life around me. I’m drop-jawed like an idiot, and delighted. Unknown and hidden, ambitious tissue. I tell my students it’s living tissue we are wanting on the page. The rest is nonsense.” Though I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Hannah, I learned much from him.