"Ad Astra Per Aspera," by William Black

William Black

William Black

William Black teaches creative writing at the Johns Hopkins University. His fiction and critical essays have appeared in The Sun, Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, Boulevard, World Literature Today, and elsewhere.


When Kansas drinks too much she speaks in monkey. The first time you encounter it, it will make you fall out of your chair from laughing. She does not know that you can’t understand her, so she goes on talking like a toddler imitating adults, full of the expressions and gestures we use when we’re telling each other barroom stories, but the sounds she makes are not words at all. They are garbled and bleat-like and sometimes screeching. The first time I saw it for myself, Big Ralph slapped me on the shoulder and pointed toward Kansas with his chin, and there she was, her back to us, enthralling slack-jawed locals with strings of nonsense sentences spoken emphatically, one knee bent, her arms spread wide, damn nearly Al Jolson over there. Then she finished and waited until her listeners lost their fragile composure and doubled over, as Big Ralph and I did, in painful hard laughter—until Kansas, believing her point had been made, pivoted and aimed across the room at Webb, her bearded mountain of a boyfriend, and cried out something you thought you could only hear in the jungle.

Poor Webb—he shook his head and his shoulders slumped. His night was ruined.

The next day we woke up sore from the workouts that laughing had given our abdominal muscles. At work Big Ralph stretched for something up high and let out a groan and, wincing, pressed his hand against his oblique as though he had gotten a sudden side stitch. Kansas, watching him, went white. She said, “Oh God. I was talking monkey last night, wasn’t I?”

By now, however, none of this craziness makes me laugh. When I see it start I put down my beer and begin the long process of convincing Kansas to get the hell out of whatever bar we have claimed and go on home with Webb. Sooner or later we manage to get her to the truck and buckled into her seat. Webb thanks me and fires the ignition and pulls out of the lot. And then, watching them drive away, a black strangeness opens up in my chest.


We are an itinerant crew—me and Webb and Kansas and Big Ralph and six or seven others, depending—sent by the Kestle Drilling Company from Texas to Ohio to Louisiana to Oklahoma to Pennsylvania to drill into deep layers of shale and release the gas trapped inside. We arrive after the platform has been built and the tall drilling scaffold constructed. We meet onsite with the engineers and discuss the rock formations we need to penetrate, and their depth. Then our job is to drill the wellbore into the shale that is sometimes two miles below the surface, lower the steel casings into wellbore, and reinforce those casings with a thick wall of concrete, at which point we are ready to begin fracturing the shale. From drilling to fracturing takes four or five months, and then we are onto our next assignment, while the gas we found is pumped out for another twenty or as long as forty years.

Our presence, when we arrive in a new place, causes a stir. Protesters march through town, carrying signs. They shout obscenities as we drive by in our Kestle trucks. We are instructed to ignore them, and for the most part we do, though Kansas has been known to flip a flying bird when she has heard enough.

I hear they sometimes protest us even when we are gone, but in this part of Pennsylvania, where we are now, you would think they’d know better. Their economy, when they had one, was built on stuff brought up from the earth. Now the towns are desolate, half empty and quiet but for us and a handful of passing cars and the wind. You would think they might see us as their last best hope of recapturing bygone days of prosperity. But that is not the case. Even here we do best to keep to ourselves.


Webb and Kansas got together right when we arrived in Oklahoma. Kansas, named by her father, who has a child’s wide-eyed love for all things Kansan, was working a road crew. She held the traffic sign at the southern end of a construction site along Route 31. Every morning she stopped our little convoy on its way to the drilling platform, and every morning Webb would try to flirt with her through his rolled-down window. Finally she consented to go out with him, and a couple of nights later we saw them together at the local bar we had claimed as our own, and that was it. From then on we rarely saw Webb except at work, almost always looking pale and worn out with sleepless, red-rimmed eyes, but he was able to keep up, and we were happy for him. A carefree thing with one of the local girls is good for morale, and it helps to keep us from wearing on each other’s nerves, as much as we are stuck with one another, town after town after town. Once in a while they came out with us, Kansas and Webb.I wasn’t with them the first time the crew saw Kansas talking monkey, but for days afterward they could hardly finish telling the story from laughing so hard. Even Webb, who had seen it for the first time himself, had tears streaming down his cheeks. Especially then, no one thought much of this budding romance, but Webb was in love, and after the monkey talk, he figured, there could not be many secrets left to discover. He believed more than he ever had that this was the girl for him, and who will doubt his judgment?

When we were readying to ship out, Webb decided he could not leave without her. He told me he would quit rather than leave her behind, but when he asked her, she said her father was back in Kansas, and locked up in prison in any event, so there was nothing holding her back, and she jumped at the chance to pack up her stuff and ride with us to Pennsylvania. She put in her application on the sly. Our boss was reluctant to hire her, as you can imagine, small as she is and hitched up to a guy long on our crew. But to know her is see she is as tough as anyone, and with or without Webb, we are glad she is among our number.


There is an engineer named Eddie Upton—a man as passionate about extracting gas and oil as any I have ever met. He sets the tone, I have heard roughnecks say. He is like a coach getting us fired up for the game. I think of him every time I hear the words “frack” or “fracking.” Eddie is an old oilman from Texas, but he looks like the people who protest us. He is lanky and walks in long, loping, hippie-ish strides. A gray-white beard has covered his face for forty years, and his hair, gathered in a ponytail, falls down between his shoulder blades. Speak the word “fracking” in his company, and you better duck: “Who’s the idiot who put that ‘K’ in there. It’s “fracturing,” for fuck’s sake. It’s a Texas roughneck saying ‘fracturing’—frac’in’. Spell it with the apostrophes, fine. But not ever with a ‘K.’ There is no goddamn ‘K’ in fracturing.”


The monkey talk did not begin until Kansas met Webb, and it comes and goes unpredictably. Until last month, it happened only once since we’ve been here. Then, for the first time in the seven or eight months we have known her, it seemed something to take seriously, and I worried that she might come truly unglued. At work she was quiet and distracted. As often as not she sat apart from us, sometimes even from Webb, on her lunch break. More than once we turned away as Webb took her by the arm and gave her a serious talking to. When we pressed him, Webb told us she had been sullen at home, and drinking—not drinking at work, thank God, as that would have put us all at risk and been grounds for immediate dismissal. But almost as soon as they were back to their apartment she was nipping, and she rarely stopped before he dragged her half conscious to bed.

Then on a certain Saturday afternoon we had planned to take ourselves out to a swimming hole Big Ralph had discovered not far from one of our drill sites. This was October, but we’d had a week of Indian summer, and even if we had to wear shirts and shorts, we agreed, it would be worth it to steal a last swim before the cold bore down. A wind had come up overnight, however, and by Saturday morning the temperature had dropped, and I was having second thoughts. My apartment is in the same complex as Kansas and Webb’s, so I stopped by to see if they were still bent on braving it. But I arrived in the middle of a fight. Webb answered the door in his boxers and a t-shirt and his work boots. He was scratching his chin through his beard and making a tight-lipped face of near exasperation. In the background, Kansas’s voice was raised. She was speaking in a melodic kind of lilt, and at first I thought she might be singing. Then I feared it was the monkey talk.

“Bad time?” I asked.

“According to Kansas,” Webb said, “there is no such thing as a bad time.”

When I pointed to his boots he said, “I had to take myself for a little walk. Right then and there. No time to dress or even to think about it.”

Kansas was not speaking monkey, but she was a sheet and a half to the wind. Not so bad as to be drinking from the bottle yet, but she did have a Dixie cup half filled with vodka on the table in front of her, and she was talking out loud to her father, apparently, who was not there. She stopped her sing-song talking when she saw me come into the room. She hoisted her cup toward me and said, “You’re here to celebrate?”

“Celebrate what?” I asked.

“My father’s birthday,” Kansas said. “My father’s goddamned birthday.”

Webb closed his eyes and lifted his arms from his sides, martyred. He said in a kind of whisper, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t leave her here and I can’t take her to no swimming hole.”

“How about we take her somewhere else,” I said. When Webb looked at me questioningly, I said, “Anywhere where there’s not a bottle.”

We agreed to a plan, and I fetched a Dixie cup from the kitchen, poured in some vodka, making a point of saying how the bottle was almost empty, and sat down next to Kansas. I distracted her while Webb dumped most of what was left, and we lured Kansas to the truck by taking the near empty bottle with us.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

It’s a surprise, we told her.

The drive was long and we were quiet and Kansas fell blissfully asleep, laid out across the narrow bench of the backseat. When we got back to their place, Webb cradled her in both arms and carried her off to bed. On top of being drunk, she must have been exhausted, the way Webb described her barely sleeping for about a week.

But she was not to stay down for long.

By the time I came back with burgers for supper, she was up and drinking again. She carried a flask-shaped pint of whiskey that she had been hiding from Webb, under the bathroom sink. Webb had gotten angry about it, and when I came to the door she was shouting back at him, “It’s my dad’s birthday! This is how we celebrate my dad’s fucking birthday!”

She had insisted that Webb take her out to the bar, but he refused. By now, however, she had worn him down. He said to me, “Let’s go then. Maybe she’ll drink herself to death.”

Not long after we arrived at the bar she fell right into her monkey speak. Webb turned his back to her as she got into people’s grills—locals folks’, strangers’, people who were not necessarily pleased that we were in their town to begin with. She wagged a finger an inch from some of their noses, serving up gibberish scoldings. With others she interrupted their conversations by throwing an arm around their shoulders and launching into an unfollowably senseless tale, cracking herself up, slapping their backs, laughing alcoholic breath in their faces.

Webb was rough with any of us who tried to intervene. “Let her work it out,” he said. And if we looked worried by that, he said, “I’ll take care of her. I promised I would always take care of her, and I will.”

Kansas’s knees went wobbly, and she stood unsteadily, alone, in the middle of the floor, a drink in one hand, the other hand curled into a loose fist, her pointer finger out and aimed at no one. She shouted angrily, then wept, then broke into sputtering laughter, then her speech dissolved into half-swallowed gurgling sounds.

“What we have here,” some wise-ass local shouted out, “ is a failure to communicate.”

The entire place laughed heartily, but then the bartender threatened to come out and take matters into his own hands. That is when Webb finally stepped forward and lifted her off her feet and threw her over his shoulder. The whiskey spilled out of her glass, then the glass dropped from her hand, but she kept speaking nonsense until the door swung closed behind them. Big Ralph and I followed, but Webb had timed it well. Kansas was passed out cold by the time they reached the truck, and Webb had no trouble getting her into the passenger seat and belting her in.

“Need help with anything?” I asked. But Webb said, “Nope. I’ll put on coffee and keep watch. But I’ll call you if I’m in need.”

“Do,” I said, and Webb drove off.


I am no Eddie Upton. I cannot explain how hydrocarbon gasses got trapped in the rock thousands of feet below us, as Eddie surely can, but I know that they did. I know that they are often found within deposits of oil or coal, which is why we are here in Pennsylvania’s anthracite country, and that for a long time, in fact, these gasses were burned off as an unwanted byproduct of the hard black stuff the miners were after. And I know that their sources are ancient. That is what gets me the most. Big Ralph calls the gas dinosaur farts and tells endless jokes about prehistoric Dutch ovens. His jokes annoy me. I want to take seriously the fact that unimaginable things took place before us, that the traces of those things, and of the beings that preceded us, remain. I hear what the protesters say, and it has happened that leaks contaminated rivers and water tables, however rare—and however preventable—such things are. I have seen the pictures of dead fish and the videos of tap water that flares when a flame is held to it. I confess that I sometimes worry about the children I can see from the apartments I live in. I know there are very real dangers, and yet I cannot help but want it to be beautiful, the ancient and hidden brought back into our lives, speaking to us from the most distant places. How can that not be beautiful? How can you not want to know what it has to say?


It is not that I don’t trust Webb. He is, when push comes to shove, among the most stand-up people I have ever known, and his tenderness where Kansas is concerned is beyond measure. If I did not know that then, I surely do now. But I do remember nights before Kansas came into our lives—the wrestling matches on the monkey walk, the times he climbed to the top of the drill platform scaffolding, drunk, and shouted his named across the hills and woods so the land would know who he was. Besides, my apartment is thirty yards from his, and no matter how hard he protests to the contrary, it is easier to have company in a time like that than to not, I dropped by to check on him. He let me in without a word, and once I saw Kansas spilled like liquid on the couch, Webb said, “Coffee?”

“Why not.”

We sat a long time in the dark, listening to Kansas breathe—making sure, in fact, that she was breathing. When our coffee ran out, Webb made more, so we were heart-poundingly awake as the earth revolved and the stars moved across Webb’s uncurtained window. The sky had begun to brighten by the time Webb spoke. He said, in a slow and halting way that I took at first to be sleep-talking, “Her father.”

I took my cue from the pace of his speech. I said as slowly as he had spoken, “In Kansas, in prison.”

Webb said, “Shot two guys. Co-workers. Killed them. But that’s not the bad part. Not really.”

He leaned forward and set his coffee on the table, then leaned back into his seat and folded his hands over his stomach. Then he changed his mind and leaned forward and picked up his coffee again. He held it in both hands and said, “The bad part—” He considered how to put it. He said, “You know all those things your dad did with you—play catch, go fishing, camp out? Well her dad didn’t do those things with her. She did them with him.”

I did not understand. I didn’t say anything, I just waited, and in a moment Webb said, “He’s not right. From what Kansas says, he’s really not right. Whatever’s wrong with him makes him like a child, like a helpless little child. I guess he wasn’t always that way. The disease or whatever snuck up on him. When he was younger he could get a girlfriend and hold a job. He married Kansas’s mother—though she doesn’t talk about her much. She died when Kansas was young. And about that time her mother died, her father got not right and then started getting worse, to the point that he needed a small army of neighbor women to raise his daughter. To the point where he couldn’t hold down a decent job but just sat around all day watching TV in his State of Kansas ball cap and his sweatshirt that said To the Stars through Difficulties on it. That’s the state motto, if I remember it right.And he left everything up to her. Everything.”


I went home after sunup, undressed, and lay in bed, turning over what Webb had told me. I had already lost parts of his story, but others I could not shake. How by the time Kansas was nine or ten her father, the man whose birthday it was, was useless—unemployed, incapable, infantile. The pale blue cap with KANSAS written across it and the pale blue sweatshirt he wore, a set. The framed photographs of him as a boy that inspired Kansas to detour on her way home from school and buy a football so she could get him out of his sagging recliner for a game of catch. She bought Ugly Sticks and reels and lures and took him fishing in a creek that, it turned out, had no fish in it. She learned to cook his favorite dinners. She cleaned the house. She tucked her father into bed at night. “Her whole life,” Webb had told me, “since she was nine or ten years old, it was all about taking care of her father. Taking care of him and worrying about him like she was his mother.” She had taken the bus to a slaughterhouse a couple of towns over and asked the floor manager to give her father a job. He can’t do much, she told the manager, but he can certainly work the floor of a meat packing plant. “Or maybe it was the feed lot,” Webb said. He wasn’t certain that Kansas’s father was quick enough on his feet to work the packing end of the business. But either way the manager took pity and gave him the job. It was Kansas who took her father to the bus in the morning, who taught him the route, who skipped school to ride with him the first several times he made the trip. And it was Kansas who felt the awful weight of responsibility when her father determined that his boss, the floor manager who had hired him, was evil—possessed or just mean, who knows, but in any case evil—and walked off the floor one day, strode into the man’s office, and shot him dead. Another man, busy in the accounting office, heard the shots and came running. When he flew in, startling Kansas’s father, Kansas’s father turned and shot him in the chest, killing him too.

“That’s why he’s in the clink,” Webb said. “In a state joint for the criminally deranged, actually, and she cannot wrap her head around it, even now.”

Since the day he was convicted he has sent Kansas one letter each week—written Wednesdays after lunch, when he was back in his cell. She has opened exactly one of those letters, the first one, and she has shown it to Webb, who says the handwriting is messy block letters and no better than a six-years-old’s and that what he says is barely comprehensible. There is Kansas’s name at the top—DEAR KANSAS—but from there, following the train of thought requires a strenuous effort, and then the sense of it disappears altogether, becoming nothing but gibberish. Combinations of letters that do not form words, sentences marked by periods that are only strings of sounds, a monkey language that cannot be translated. Webb told me that the letters continue to come, and Kansas wants them to. Every time we are sent on to another town, she sends her father’s caretakers the new address, and she waits for the letters to arrive, she looks for them every week, but she does not open them. She collects them in the stack with the other unopened envelopes, all bound by a rubber band, and there they sit on her nightstand.

“She’s afraid of them,” Webb said, and I thought I understood, but I was wrong. “She’s afraid of going crazy,” he said. “She’s afraid of ending up like her old man. This money talk she does, it didn’t happen until we got together, when she turned the same age her father was when he stared to lose it, and now she thinks her mind is unraveling exactly like his did.”

It was fully light by then, and Webb told me, “I’m sworn to secrecy about this stuff. I shouldn’t have told you.” He gave me a look that I understood as a warning, and then he got up from his chair and crossed to where Kansas slept on the couch. He knelt down beside her and brushed her hair from her eyes, and he stroked her cheek gently, gently. That is when I got up to leave.


This, above all else, is what gets my blood flowing:

Once the wellbore has been drilled and the casing laid and the concrete poured, the scaffolded drilling platform comes down, and we load the perforating gun into the casing. We guide it through the two-mile length of the well until it is precisely where we want it. You can watch a candy-colored version of the descent on the engineers’ computers, where the layers of rocks appear in red, pink, maroon, and so on, but even as its progress appears like a cartoon on the screen, you know that you are reaching into the earth’s deepest corners, tapping into secrets hidden an unfathomably long time ago.

When the geologists and engineers tell us that we have hit the right place, we detonate the explosives inside the perforating gun. The blast, though it is a tiny fraction of what the old coal miners here once set off, produces fissures that reach up and down the shale. They are tiny, considering how deep into the earth we had to go to make them—only a few inches in either direction—but they are enough. Then the tanker trucks pump a mixture of water, sand, and lubricant down the well, building up massive pressure, until the force of it spreads into the fissures and expands them. Tiny proppants—nothing but particles of sand—hold those fissures open, and the gas inside is released. After tens of millions of years, it is freed from the shale bed and makes its invisible way to the surface. At first the gas is not pure. Water and sand come back with it, and there is dust-sized debris from the fracturing, but that only lasts a little while, and then it comes up clean and invisible, this mysterious ancient stuff returning to us from the beginning of time, and I can hardly believe my luck.


Last night was the first time since her father’s birthday that Kansas slipped into monkey talk. The minute I saw it, I put down my beer and walked away from Big Ralph’s exasperating, hurtful jokes and went straight to where she was holding court at the bar. I reached her before Webb did, and I took her by the shoulders and turned her to face me—more forcefully that I had intended, to be honest about it, but I got her attention. I told her, “I think it’s time to head home.”

She spoke sounds that made no sense. Her eyes told me clearly, It is none of your damn business, but what her non-words were saying, I am sure, was more than that, even if her meaning was lost on me. In a moment Webb was there beside me, and together we were firm but patient, and it did not take long until Kansas was climbing into the passenger seat of Webb’s Kestle truck. Webb thanked me and fired the engine and eased out of the gravel parking lot.

I watched Webb turn off the main road and onto one crowded by bare November trees. I do not believe that Kansas is going crazy. What is inside her has to come out somehow, and this is how it has chosen to do so. Webb’s taillights glowed red and then disappeared behind the trees, glowed and disappeared, like flashlight signals, like Morse Code, until they were gone and Webb and Kansas were deep in the woods, where there were only the two of them and the hum of the truck on the road and Kansas’s secret. I can picture Kansas talking on and on in her nonsense speak, inflecting and gesturing and cracking herself up, while Webb keeps both hands on the wheel, trying to learn how to understand what comes out of her. He reminds himself to be patient and attentive, to allow her to let it come out in her own time, and to take it in bit by bit, without judgment, just as he follows what his headlights reveal, trusting them. And like this, they make their way through the dark.