Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from Julia Stoops’s Parts Per Million


Heh. This is very cool. Five lanes and no cars—just lots of people. Franky zooms in on the barricade. He never would have participated like this before. Something illegal like an unpermitted takeover of a bridge.

Halfway across, we stop and look over the railing. Below us the Willamette is dark and wide. “Salmon swim up every year,” I say to Franky, for the sake of saying something to Franky. He’s been so quiet, since.

“That’s cool,” he says. The camera is off and cupped in his big hand. “But this river’s never going to be the same.”

We look south, past the Morrison and the Hawthorne bridges, toward the marina in front of the condos where they think she went in. The sun has set, and down there the water is darker. At least, it’s where they pulled her out. The strap of the pink coat snagged. Half hidden under hanging foliage. No one saw, no one heard.

We start walking again. I call Fetz back. Weird how I want him nearby. A woman walking next to us yells, “We’re liberating the bridge!”

“You hear that Fetz?” I say into the phone. “We’re liberating the bridge.”

Fetzer snorts. “What’s it going to do now that it’s free?”

Franky films people flying past on bicycles. “Become a park, maybe,” I say. “Hey, community ownership of public spaces, man. It’s so wide and the view is so great, it would be a cool place to hang out if there was grass and trees and—Oh, wow!” I grab Franky’s sleeve and point over the railing. Right away he’s filming the people climbing the fence below.

I yell, “Fetz, the fence between the esplanade and I-5 is breached! People are climbing it. Wow. They’re spreading out across the interstate. Dude, the freeway is stopping. It’s, wow, it’s stopped.”

Fetzer goes “Hah!”

“Wow. There’s a chain of people sitting down across all the lanes. Facing the cars. And traffic’s backing up for miles.”

I-5. A river of gas consumption from Mexico to Canada, and here it’s stopped like a finger on a guitar string. Put a finger on the string and it plays a different note.

We should do this more often.

* * *

Back on Second the crowd is bigger. And there’s Nelse and Fetz outside the Salvation Army and we’re all hugging. The low clouds are lit up brown by the streetlights. Everywhere it’s faces flashing by, bobbing dots from candles, folks sitting in the intersection. And a girl seems to be hanging on to my arm.

“Heyyy,” she says. I’m flipping the mental Rolodex but nothing’s coming. “It’s Emma,” she says, then murmurs, “Maryville,” near my ear.

“Course,” I say, and there’s greetings all around. She spreads her arms wide. “Isn’t this beautiful?”

“Yeah!” yells a guy nearby, and he pumps his fist. “All power to the Burnside Free State!”

Emma tugs at me. “You guys should come meet Kashan.”

“Kashan?” says Fetzer, but Emma just pulls us through the crowd. Why do girls like to pull us through crowds?

A big old guy is sitting on a blanket with Brian. Brian says, “Dudes!”

It’s good to sit down. On a blanket, in the middle of Burnside Street, surrounded by singing and drumming and candles.

Turns out the old guy is Kashan. After the introductions, Fetzer says, “Jen and Franky saw people stopping I-5. And I heard Critical Mass stopped traffic on I-405.”

Kashan is wearing a long heavy coat and an old-fashioned brimmed hat. He sits cross legged with his hands cupping his knees. “What is critical mass?” he asks, with an accent.

“A cyclist group,” says Nelson in an uber-respectful voice. “They do alternative transportation advocacy work.”

“So they stop the vehicles,” says Kashan, and he waves his hand like you don’t see people do here. “It is a gesture.”

I’m about to say, It’s awesome, but Nelson looks down at the blanket. “Yeah. Just a gesture.”

“Don’t give the police your name, okay?” says a woman as she walks past. “Jail solidarity.”

Nelson leans toward Kashan and asks quietly, “Where are you from?”

“I am Iraqi,” says Kashan.

Whoa. Instant goose bumps.

“This must be extremely hard for you,” says Nelson.

Kashan stares out at the crowd. “Saddam was hard. This is also hard.”

“Mr. Kashan,” I say. First Iraqi I’ve ever met and on the day my country invades his. How fucked up is that? “I don’t even know what to say. This is the worst shit my government can do to your people.”

And I don’t have a minidisk recorder, either, dammit. The jail solidarity woman is still walking around saying, “They can’t hold you without due process.” Nearby someone starts singing in Spanish.

Kashan looks at me with eyes even shinier and sadder than Nelson’s. “Maybe not the worst,” he says. “Under Saddam, my brothers—” He grimaces and draws a finger across his throat.

Goose bumps again.

“Mr. Kashan,” I say, “would you be willing to be interviewed? We do a radio pro—”

“I see the people with the signs: ‘Not my government, not my war.’ I understand it is not American people’s fault.”

Nelson shakes his head. “Yes. And no.” His voice gets breathy. “We can’t abdicate responsibility. America supported Saddam. Then this war. We didn’t do enough to stop it.”

Brian and Emma shake heads in unison. It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.

“What can you do?” says Kashan, and he lifts his shoulders, his hands, like he’s emoting to the back row. “When it is not a true democracy?”

Nelson breathes in hard. He looks up at the brown sky. Then his eyes close and his mouth opens and he starts sobbing. For the first time since. He covers his face with his hands. His wedding ring glints in the streetlight. The noise he’s making is cutting me up. Brian is on his knees, his hands butterflying around Nelson. Kashan shifts away a few inches.

Fetzer pulls himself up, says to Nelson, “Let’s get you out of here.”

It’s like Nelson’s trying to cough out something huge. Me and Franky coax him up. He touches Kashan’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he gasps at Kashan. “I am so sorry.”

Kashan looks kind of disgusted. “Don’t waste your energy this way.”

All around us is drumming. Dancing. Candles. An older woman behind us says to her friend, “That’s bullshit. They keep you longer if you don’t give your name.”

“Thanks for sharing your blanket,” says Franky. “I, uh, hope the rest of your family is okay.”

There’s tears in Brian’s eyes. Kashan just stares out at the crowd.

Fetz and I each take one of Nelson’s arms and lead him away. Nelson’s bandage is dirty, even in the dark. The edge is wet. We’re leaving. We’re taking Nelson back to Kate’s. The drums are tireless. We stopped I-5. We stopped I-405. We stopped downtown. We stopped the Burnside Bridge. Put your finger on the string and it plays a different note. If enough people put their finger on the string, everything around them changes.

“I have to stay,” I blurt out.

We all shuffle to a halt. Fetzer rolls his eyes. “Figured you would.”

Nelson’s crying is quieter.

I say, “One of us should stay, right? It’s only a gesture, but what else have we got?” I hand Franky my wallet. “Rachel Corrie stood up to a fucking bulldozer. Least I can do is help keep this one stupid bridge closed.”

“Funeral’s at nine o’clock tomorrow,” says Fetzer. He points a finger at me. “Don’t get arrested.”


Original art by Gabriel Liston.


Excerpted from Parts Per Million by Julia Stoops (Forest Avenue Press, April 10, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Julia Stoops. Reprinted with permission, courtesy of Forest Avenue Press.

Julia Stoops was born in Samoa to New Zealand parents, and grew up in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Washington, DC. She has lived in Portland, Oregon, since 1994. She has received Oregon Arts Commission fellowships for visual arts and literature, and was a resident at the Ucross Foundation in 2016. More from this author →