Inventive, complex and humane -
Why Visit America by Matthew Baker
A nation isn't land. A nation is people. Equal parts speculative and satirical, the stories in Why Visit America by Matthew Baker portray a world within touching distance of our own. This is an America riven by dilemmas confronting so many of us, turned on its head by one of the most innovative voices of the moment. These parallel-universe stories create a composite portrait of our true nature and a dark reflection of the world we live in.
Here you can read an extract taken from the beginning of the title story Why Visit America
Why Visit America
THE ORIGINS OF THIS GREAT NATION
There wasn’t anything special about us. We were just an average town. Porch swings, wading pools, split-rail fences, pumpjacks bobbing for oil on the horizon. Meetings at town hall were well attended, sure, but we weren’t some hotbed of insurgents. We didn’t subscribe to any one brand of politics. We couldn’t even be plotted onto your basic left-right binary. Our town had everything: pro-lifers who supported gay marriage, pro-choicers who opposed gay marriage, climate-change deniers who owned solar panels, universal-healthcare campaigners who preferred private insurance, creationists with degrees in biology and geology, internet pirates whose views were unique to say the least, loyal conservatives, staunch liberals, moderates, radicals, and ornery retirees whose only real issue was guns. And yet that winter we found ourselves united by a common sentiment.We were fed up with our country.The executives were busy making donations that funded the campaigns of the politicians, the politicians were busy passing laws that protected the interests of the executives, and pretty much nothing else seemed to be getting done. We were anti-government, we were anti-corporate, but mostly we were normal people who couldn’t afford to buy an election and had come to understand that our votes didn’t mean shit. Hell, the executives were stepping down to take government appointments and the politicians were stepping down to take corporate positions so fast that we couldn’t even keep track of who was which anymore, if there was any difference. There were libertarians among us who had been pushing for our town to secede for years now, but not until that winter, watching legal forms of graft being flaunted across the country like never before, did our town seriously begin to consider the proposition. The matter soon came to dominate our meetings. We knew that from a certain perspective seceding could be viewed as an act of treason, might mean arrest, might mean imprisonment, might even mean execution. And the debate at that final town hall meeting was appropriately heated. Most of us wavered back and forth, unsure which way we would vote until the very second that those slips of paper got passed around. Several of us were so nervous that we felt faint. Ultimately, however, the decision was unanimous. We would rather face handcuffs, jail, even a hanging, than spend another goddamned second living in that broke-down country. We’d voted to secede.
And so, on that day of January Thirteenth in the year of mmxviiI, we did. After the vote had been tallied, we sent notice of our secession to both local and global media outlets, along with the sheriff of Real County, the governor of Texas, and the president of the United States. As dusk fell across our streets, we filed out of the town hall, gathered around the poles in our yards, and took down Old Glory. We tucked the flags into our garbage cans, and then we sat in our houses, radios off, televisions off, computers off, sobered by what we had done. The initial thrill had faded. Now, exhausted, we felt only fear. Holding hands with our spouses and our children and our parents and our neighbors, we waited for the repercussions, for the arrival of the humvees and the helicopters and the tanks and the bombers, for our rebellion to be crushed by a show of force. But nothing happened. Nobody came. Nobody cared. At dawn, those of us who hadn’t been able to sleep looked around and realized that our community was still standing. We were free.
Our town had been called Plainfield. Although we had liked the name well enough for a town, we were concerned the name wouldn’t seem stately enough for a nation. And while we didn’t regret seceding, we weren’t ashamed of our origins either. In fact, we felt a great deal of nostalgia for our homeland. So, in memory of our former country, that was what we decided to name our new nation: America.
HOME OF THE TRAITOR
Though the vote to secede was unanimous, there had in fact been three abstentions: Alex Cruz, Tony Osin, and Sam Holliday, who had all been absent from that final town hall meeting. A group of us drove around that next morning to deliver the news about the secession. Alex, who lives in a motor home with flat tires behind the house where his grandparents raised him, is apolitical, an unemployed millennial, and absorbed the news with an expression of utter indifference before returning to a social media app. Tony, who works as a potter in the woodshed behind the house that his children bought for him, is apolitical, a proud alcoholic, and greeted the news with disinterest after being assured that the price of vodka wouldn’t be affected. We knew better than to expect such a composed reaction from Sam Holliday, which was why we put off visiting him until last. A Viet- nam vet who had dragged his wounded sergeant to safety through a muddy rainforest infested with vipers and cobras after being shot in his shoulder, who in his youth had attained the distinguished rank of Eagle Scout by constructing trail markers for canyons in a state park, and who later had worked for the federal government for decades as a bespectacled physician at Veterans Affairs, Sam loved the United States dearly, and had made clear at various town hall meetings in the past that he considered the proposal to secede a foolish enterprise. As we pulled into his driveway, he stepped out onto the porch in a denim shirt and a bolo tie with a shotgun in hand, a grizzled old widower with such rugged good looks that admittedly most of us were infatuated with him. The weather that morning was cool, only thirteen degrees centigrade, and some of us shivered, wishing we had brought jackets, but he looked perfectly comfortable with the temperature, standing strong and proud on the porch. Sam was a local hero, the most admired figure in our community, and we’d always imagined that if we ever actually seceded he’d be the one to lead the new nation, yet the more convinced we’d become that seceding was necessary, the more adamantly opposed he’d been to the very notion. A United States flag was waving on the pole in his yard.
Those of us there were led by Belle Clanton, a fiery libertarian who’d spearheaded the campaign to secede, whose voice that morning held a tremor of insecurity.
[Exchange as recorded in the journal of Ward Hernandez, barkeeper]
Sam spat in the dirt and then said, “What brings y’all out here?” “Just wanted to let you know that we seceded,” Belle said.
Sam gave us a squint.
“You can’t,” Sam said.
“We did,” Belle said.
The tension in the air was remarkable.
“We notified the county, the state, and the federal government.
Nobody made any attempt to stop us from seceding. Nobody even tried telling us that seceding isn’t allowed,” Belle said.
Sam sneered and said, “Because nobody is taking you seriously. You can’t just secede by saying you’ve seceded. This land is still under the jurisdiction of the United States. You’re still going to have to obey the traffic laws. You’re still going to have to follow the health code. You’re still going to have to pay taxes.”
“I didn’t even pay taxes to that country when we were citizens of it,” Belle said.
“Same,” Clint said.
“We’re going to need you to take down that flag,” Belle said. Sam stared at us as if trying to gauge how many of us he could
shoot before we would shoot him.
“Ward’s had a Mexican flag flying at his place for years, and ain’t
nobody ever bothered him about it,” Sam said.
We had to admit he had a point there. He watched spitefully as we drove back toward the road. The United States flag was still waving on the pole. Even after everything that’s transpired in our nation since, visitors can still see that same flag flying in the yard when touring the home of Sam Holliday
Matthew Baker is the author of the story collection Hybrid Creatures. His stories have appeared in the Paris Review, American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature and Conjunctions, and in anthologies including Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission and the MacDowell Colony, among many others, he has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review. Born in Michigan, he currently lives in New York City.